Article reflecting on primitive communism, and discussing what a future communist society must comprise, if capitalism is to be permanently displaced.
Many different, competing, radical groups and tendencies, identify different incompatible societies as 'communist'. I don't want here to identify any 'need' or 'reasons' for forming a communist society. This article is merely an attempt to describe what communism must be.
Communism is the name given for a society based on a thoroughgoing community and a communal existence for its members. It is now possible, and has always been, to create small separate communities of a small number of people, which live in a communistic way. For instance it is possible to obtain a farm in rural Britain and work the land collectively, producing food, and perhaps wool and wood for the use of the members of the collective (in fact this is what some 'hippy' communes actually do). This way of life is certainly a form of communism, but an extremely limited and impoverished form. For a start, the more the collective rejects the products of capitalist society (eg machinery, metal tools, bricks, piping...) the more time they must give over to labour necessary for mere survival. The commune would also no doubt suffer from the personalities of its members, which would have been formed under capitalist conditions, but not altered in a communistic manner by collective class struggle. Worst of all in some ways, it is extremely unlikely that the community would last for any length of time, probably not more than a generation or so. The community would constantly be surrounded by a hostile society, which would encroach directly in the form of tax collectors, police, social workers and teachers. In addition it is almost inevitable that the commune would be at least peripherally involved in commodity production and trade with the outside world, perhaps selling eggs to raise money for taxes or tools. Nonetheless, this hypothetical community would be a form of communism.
As I said before this form of society was always possible. In fact the earliest forms of society were similar to this separatist commune. Of course the first societies were nomadic but this is in fact a relatively insignificant difference. What is determinant about a society is not its location but its social relations. That is why both early nomadic societies and the first sedentary societies are now termed primitive communist. Primitive societies obviously had the advantage that their members had communistic personalities, having known no other form of society. However the primitive communist societies had a similar problem to the modern commune in that they were surrounded by other human societies, which were regularly, if not always hostile. Take note that even Fredy Perlman who idealised primitive societies admitted that they at times traded and warred between each other. Marxists, following Engels, generally argue that the trading between societies gradually encroached on the social life of primitive community so that members traded amongst themselves. Wilhelm Reich argued instead that the physical conflicts between different societies resulted in the amalgamation of victor and vanquished in clan societies (thus destroying their unitary character). Fredy Perlman improbably assumed that primitive societies could withstand any amount of trading and warring between each other but were destroyed by the trade and warfare between them and civilisation. Of course any particular theory of history only interprets the world in one way or another. We now live in a world dominated and transformed by advanced capitalism. We need to work out what kind of society a revolution can now create which will permanently displace capitalism.
The rural commune is obviously a non starter. It can only be short lived and does not displace capitalism but coexists with it. What about a return to primitive society? I believe that any new primitive communism is also doomed. In a world of 5 billion people it is likely that a return to primitive communism would result in between 10 million and 100 million different societies (guessing at about 100 members in each). As primitive societies have no forms of very long distance communication or travel, each of these societies must be ignorant of almost all the others. As civilisation has vastly increased the human population, it is extremely likely that competition between neighbouring societies would be fiercer than in prehistoric times. In other words a return to primitive communism would result in much more trading and warfare than previously, and to make matters worse, this would be in the aftermath of civilisation, perhaps with many people still with largely capitalistic personalities, not to mention the legacy of weaponry and military technologies. It seems to me that it would be impossible that primitive communism could survive under these conditions. Most marxists would argue that the trade between societies would destroy them, Reichians would argue that the feuding between them would destroy them. Fredy Perlman believed that neither of these factors would be problems. However in his 'vision' of history he argues that primitive societies that had lasted for thousands of generations were relatively rapidly destroyed by the creation in just one place of just one civilised (ie hierarchical, mercantile, class) society. In a world of perhaps 100 000 000 societies, mostly warring and trading, how long would it take a post-civilised society to recreate the essentials of civilisation? Certainly not longer than a generation, probably less than a week.
Capitalist society is based on the division of humanity. The division into opposing classes, opposing genders, states, nations, competing enterprises and industries, competing sectors of the economy. Individuals are also divided against themselves in terms of alienation and the schizophrenic roles we must assume in modern society. Communism, the self-reproducing, post-capitalist society must destroy these divisions; this is why revolution aims to abolish classes and property, why it immediately destroys all existing states and the state as a social relation. It is why communists reject the aim of workers taking over enterprises for themselves and running them for their own benefit (an action which would end in worker managed capitalism). It is why revolutionaries reject as a model a federation of self-sufficient communes (which would hold a particular territory as property, denying it to others). Finally it is why revolutionaries must reject the aim of a return to primitive communism. Primitive communism is certainly the only form of communism which has lasted any length of time. It was in ancient times the best form of society that a revolution could have created (just as the federation of communes model was probably the best possibility before large scale industrialisation). But in modern times, perhaps for a century or so, it has been possible to create a global community, which uses some of the products of civilisation, in transport, communications and production, to unify humanity on a world scale. Such a society is the only way to destroy wage labour, commodity production and the state once and for all.
Originally printed in "Armchair". Taken from the Antagonism website.