What is communism - an anarchist explains

Communism: What's In A Word?

The terms socialism and communism appear in England around the 1820s as terms adopted by members of the cooperative movement who were sick of hearing their poli- tics referred to as "Owenism". Originally the two terms were undifferentiated but by the 1840s communism was used by revolutionaries to differentiate themselves from reformists such as J.S.Mill who had adopted socialism to cover an indigestible mess of reformisms.

By the 1870s the terms had moved from differentiating means to distinguishing ends. The Oxford English Dictionary notes in its sources:

"Forster Diary 11 May in T. W. Reid Life (1888) ... I learn that the great distinction between communism and socialism is that the latter believes in payment according to work done and the former does not".

It is this meaning of communism as opposed to socialism that evolved in the late nineteenth century that this article discusses. Of course its not that important to get hung up on a name; for many people the concise definition of communism being something to do with Marx and the USSR is the one they know. For us the name of the post-capitalist society we aim to help construct is a detail, what matters is the content of the ideas. Nonetheless for the purposes of this article we need to choose a name so we stick with the historical one.

This is an extract from an article discussing the historic development of the idea of communism, it can be found at http://struggle.ws/wsm/rbr/extra/communism.html


As long as society has been divided into the privileged and the exploited there has been resistance and that resistance has found voice and expression in the language of the oppressed seeking to define the road to their freedom. Communism, however is the product of the rise of capitalist society and the new conditions of oppression and new possibilities for freedom it brought. The introduction of capitalism involved the struggle for power of a new class excluded from the governance of pre-capitalist agrarian based society and the voice they found to express and direct that struggle was political economy. Communism then begins as the other new class, the proletariat or working class, seeks to find its voice and finding itself in contest with the emerging capitalist class is forced to take on, confront and subvert the voice of their opponent. Thus communism as a discourse begins as a response to political economy.

William Thompson

One of the first people to critically engage with political economy and attempt to turn it around to defend the improvement of the condition of the working class and rural poor was the scion of an Anglo-Irish landowning family from West Cork by the name of William Thompson. Born in 1775 in Cork, the young Thompson had been an enthusiastic supporter of the enlightenment, republicanism and the French Revolution. He later became a leading figure in the Co-operative movement, in radical opposition to Robert Owen.

In the 1820s, outraged by the use of political economy by a local "eminent speaker" to argue the supposed necessity and benefit of the absolute poverty of the "lower orders" Thompson set about an investigation into political economy which resulted in his "An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness" of 1824. As the lengthy title indicates his attention was, like the political economists, also focused on the effects of the distribution of wealth. However his yardstick for the outcome was the utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number" rather than the overall abstraction of the "wealth of the nation". He addressed (Political Economist) Bentham's three principles governing distribution - the right to security, the right to the produce of labour and the right to subsistence. The right to subsistence was the principle of distribution by need which, in Bentham's reasoning, had to be subordinate to the right to the produce of labour which recognised the priority of the producers' claim to the product of his or her own labour. Bentham over-ranked both with the right to security i.e. that the individual's right to his or her existing property had to be defended from arbitrary abstraction by society or all medium to long term incentives to economic activity would be nullified by the possibility of having any gains taken away in the future.

Thompson's first point of attack was to recognise that under the guise of the right to security Bentham and the utilitarians were in fact defending the existing property status quo without any interest into the legitimacy of how this division of ownership had come about. In Thompson's native West Cork it was easy to recognise that the monopoly of land by the Anglo-Irish protestant ascendancy had been brought about not through thrift, hard work and parsimonious virtue but by military force. Further Thompson exposed that exchanges between the dispossessed and property-monopolising classes could not be seen as free or equal in any way as the propertyless had to accept unfair wages for the sale of their labour under duress of starvation as the alternative. Thompson went on to analyse the process of exploitation of the wage labourer by their employers and how the lion's share of the product was appropriated by the latter as surplus value in an account later adopted by Marx.

From here Thompson moved to posit a system of "free exchange" where equal access to land and the means of production was guaranteed to all, but distribution was governed by the right to the produce of labour taking precedence over the right to subsistence. As the anarchist historian Max Nettlau noted "[Thompson's] book, however, discloses his own evolution; having started with a demand for the full product of labour as well as the regulation of distribution, he ended up with his own conversion to communism, that is to unlimited distribution". That is, having proposed a system based on the right to the full product of labour he re-examined it compared to a system of equal distribution by the same utilitarian yardstick that he had used to dismiss the status quo and found, to his initial surprise that the system of "free exchange" was inferior to that of unlimited equal distribution. In examining the hypothetical system of "free exchange" he discovered its competitive nature - the term "competitive" in fact was first applied to describe capitalist exchange by him. The evils Thompson ascribed to the competitive system were not simply ethical or moral - that the system made each look upon his or her peers as rivals and means to an end - but also in terms of efficiency - that competition would encourage people to hide their innovations and discoveries and that market intelligence would also be kept secret thus causing waste and inefficiency.

What is Libertarian Communism?

It is time to stop the narrative of the historical emergences, eclipses and re-emergences of libertarian communism to examine, in the abstract, what it is. A libertarian communist society is not a pre- but a post-capitalist society. That is, it is a society that is economically dominated by social or cooperative production - i.e. there is an advanced division of labour with only a small minority of labour being engaged in basic food production and most labour is engaged in producing goods or services that are mostly consumed by others. As a corollary there is a high level of communication and general scientific and technological development. What distinguishes libertarian communism from capitalism is that the delivery or transmission of goods and services to their consumers is done to satisfy their needs and desires and not linked or restricted in any way to the consumers contribution to the production process. There is no money or wages and products are not exchanged either for money or for other products judged to be of equal value - whether that value be measured in labour time necessary for its production or some other hitherto undreamt of measure.

Stated baldly like that to those used to the workings and logics of capitalist society - and that is all of us these days - it seems at first sight an absurdity or at the very least an unworkable pipe-dream. To explain the existence of libertarian communists then, it is necessary to add the following proviso: Libertarian communists believe that private property (in the means of production), class society, money and the wage relation are all interrelated aspects of capitalist society and the attempt to change society by abolishing some of those aspects while retaining others - e.g. abolishing class society and private property while retaining money and the wage as socialism proposes - will only result in an unstable and violently contradictory mess that can only end in collapsing back into the relative stability of the capitalist dynamic unless it is taken forward to full communism. In other words libertarian communists believe that attempts to make a post-capitalist society by halves, such as socialism proposes, are doomed to end up being transitional stages not to communism but to capitalism - as in fact the historical experience of the 20th century has born out, at least as far as the project of Marxian state socialism is concerned. The libertarian communist critique of Leninism and all its unpalatable 57 different varieties is not just that it is not libertarian, but that it is not communist.

On that point we must emphasise that by using the term libertarian or anarchist communism we are signalling our opposition to the abuse of the word communism by the state socialists, not that we have chosen an alternative to authoritarian or state socialism because these latter phrases are contradictions in terms. The state relies on the wage relation to exercise any authority, indeed to even exist. Without paid enforcers the state cannot exercise power as the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic discovered when he stopped paying the wages of the riot police who were supposed to be repressing the demonstrations of other unpaid public sector workers on the streets of Belgrade.

In this sense communism is always libertarian or anarchist, as the abolition of the wage brings about the abolition of the relation of command which structures the organs of state power such as the police, army and bureaucracy.

Though the failings of state socialism have been amply exposed by recent history, we do need to re-examine the case of proposed libertarian socialism - a society where land and the means of production have been taken into common ownership but the products of labour are owned by their producers and exchanged for the products of others on the basis of equal value measured by labour time embodied in them. It is the contention of libertarian communists that such a system would make all producers into competitors with each other. The system of exchange valued by labour time introduces the "productivity paradox" - the longer you take to produce a given output the more of another's output you can exchange it for. Conversely the more efficient you are in producing your output, the less you get in exchange for it. The productivity paradox is that labour value incentivses inefficiency and disincentivses efficiency. This is why capitalism necessitates that the promotion of efficiency is specialised off as a management function over and against the interests of the productive workforce. The roots of class conflict in production are to be found in the productivity paradox arising directly out of exchange by labour time value itself.

The system of competition of individual interests also produces the negative effects of people seeing each other as potential rivals rather than as allies and promoting their narrow sectional interests rather than the general good. Thus we have doctors who are paid to treat disease and unsurprisingly they spend little time on disease prevention.

But by far the greatest evil resulting from the system of individual competition - bellum omni contra omnes, the war of all against all - is the outcome that our most important social product, the society we live in, becomes an alien impersonal "other" that none of us control yet we are all controlled by. By competing all against all to maximise our little individual share of the social product to own, we lose the ownership of the society we live in. Libertarian communists believe that trading in the measly shares of the social product we own under capitalist relations and in return gaining the ownership and control over the direction of the whole society we make will result in a net gain for all both materially and in terms of freedom.

Fine words indeed, but it logically follows that if the trading in of individual ownership rights over the product of one's own labour in return for the common ownership of a post-capitalist society were to result in a net loss for all or most of humanity then libertarian communists would be shown to be mistaken and those who preach the capitalist gospel that the end of history has come and that the capitalist world is truly the best of all possible worlds would be proved right.

Up until recently this was seen by all sides as a question that could not be settled this side of a revolution - without making the experiment. However in the last few years new developments taking place even within current capitalist society have thrown this pre-conception into doubt.

Beyond the commune, de-centred anarchy

Before we re-engage with a historical narrative to examine these recent developments we need to examine some other aspects of the productive process, both as it has developed under capitalism and how it can be expected to further develop under post-capitalist relations.

The first tendency is the increasing de-territorialisation of production. By that we mean the increase of the number of fields of production that are not tied to a specific place. Food production via agriculture is territorial or tied to a specific place. The bit of land from which you harvest must also be the same bit of land you previously prepared and sowed. Consequently for those people and those periods of history where agricultural subsistence was the dominant mode of production, settled living in or by the territory of production was the norm for the greatest number. Those settled agricultural communities unified the spheres of production, consumption, reproduction and nearly all social interaction within a single space. This largely self-sufficient and potentially self-governing community is a social form that has existed for centuries throughout nearly all human cultures around the globe up until the last century or two of capitalist upheaval. As such it still had a powerful hold over the political imaginations of anarchists no less than the rest of the different progressive tendencies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Russian "Mir" influenced Kropotkin's vision of libertarian communism just as the Spanish, particularly Andalusian, "pueblo" influenced the vision of the CNT's Isaac Puentes.

But as the productivity levels and related division of labour increase a larger and larger percentage of the working population are pushed out of agriculture, out of the rural setting and into urban spaces. In the beginning some of these non-agricultural settlements were themselves based around territorially-specific sites of production - whether mines, fishing harbours or river crossing points. This last case points us towards an important feature - non-agricultural settlements necessarily imply the existence of flows of goods and people, if only in bringing to the urban spaces the food they cannot produce. In fact even prior to the development of urban spaces, agricultural settlements required interaction with marginal but indispensable itinerant populations to bring them goods impossible to produce locally and be the medium of communication of news and culture from afar. Despite the often deep divides of incomprehension and mutual suspicion between settled and itinerant communities and the tendency of the numerically superior former to discount or "forget" the latter from inclusion in the notion of "productive society", the two bodies are both mutually interdependent elements of the social whole despite the de-territorialised nature of the itinerant minorities contribution.

As industrialisation proceeded, the creation of large centralised mass workspaces with large immovable plant continued the appearance of territorially-specific production. At this stage the workforces of large mills or factories lived in their shadow and the workforce walked to work. Industrial disputes were neighbourhood affairs.

However as the continuing specialisation, sub-division and proliferation of the different strands of social production has progressed it has become more and more evident that an increasing amount of production is not territorially specific. That is, many workplaces can be moved more or less arbitrarily from one place to another. This de-territorialisation of production is particularly pronounced for those engaged in non-material production - i.e. the production of information and communicative work, an increasingly significant sector of social production. Communication is a necessary part of any social production process and as long as face-to-face communication was unrivalled, in terms of cost and effectiveness, the workplace had the irreplaceable role of the physical assembly point for that communication. Recently, with advances in telecommunications we have seen the emergence of the ultimately de-territorialised social production process - one that no longer has any "work-place" at all where the participants need to assemble.

One social sphere remains territorially specific for the majority settled population however - the domestic sphere, i.e. where we live. What has changed is that this domestic and reproductive sphere no longer maps directly onto a productive sphere. In a given urban neighbourhood the residents will typically be engaged in many diverse productive roles, attending many different workplaces or no static workplace at all. Similarly in the static workplaces the workers will be from many different neighbourhoods. Unlike the rural commune there is no longer a single unifying point of assembly where all matters affecting production, consumption and reproduction can be made directly by those directly affected by them. For people to take part in making the decisions that they are affected by they must enter into a number of different communicative assemblies, each with different sets of associates. This element of de-centring finally bids goodbye to the ideal of the "commune" as the basic social form with which to reconstruct society. The old federalist vision of an ordered tree-like structure of decision-making from the local to the global - albeit governed democratically from the bottom up, rather than autocratically from the top down - must now be replaced with a multiplicity of interconnected but distinct networks with no dominant centre. The commune is dead, long live the commune!

Free Software and Intellectual Property

We should now move away from the abstract back to the real-world historical developments that we mentioned earlier that have overturned assumptions about the possibility of making any practical tests of the effectiveness of production free of capitalist constraints this side of a revolution. In fact such a practical experience has already been underway for some years, not at the instigation of any pre-meditated anti-capitalist or revolutionary movement, but as a reaction to the actions of capitalist businesses in the field of software development. The rise of the free software and open source movements is a story in itself and one that is still very much in the process of being written. Indeed a number of books have already been turned out by media and academic commentators struggling to explain the phenomena and particularly to get to grips with the aspects of it that have most perplexed and disturbed the received truths of capitalist economics.

In short the free software movement is the product of thousands of software writers or hackers working collaboratively without pay to create whole systems of software that are owned not by the producers but the common property of all. In the space of little more than 10 years an entirely voluntary and unwaged network of producer consumers have collectively produced an operating system - GNU/Linux - that is not only comparable to, but in many aspects, superior to the flagship commercial product of global capitalism's most successful hi-tech company - Microsoft. Given the short space of the time the free software movement has taken for this achievement compared to the decades Microsoft has invested in its product and the fact that the unwaged hackers have done this work in their spare time, the case for the relative efficiency of unwaged, property-claim free production has already made a strong opening argument.

As you might expect the explanation for these novel results are related to specific characteristics of the object of production, i.e. computer software. To see what is different let's take a counter-example say a motor car. Conceptually we can divide the production of a car, into two different production processes. The first is the production of a design for the car the second is the production of a car from that design. In the world of mass production such as that of car production, the physical product - the actual car - dominates the design for that model of car. That is the cost of manufacturing the physical parts for each individual car is far more significant than the cost of the whole of the designer's wages. To the extent that it makes economic sense for a car company to hire an engineer to work for two years on shaving 5 pence off the production cost of a plastic moulding for a car sidelight (genuine example).

In complete contrast, with computer software the cost of creating an individual copy of a software product and distributing it to the user is so negligible in relation to the effort to produce the original design that we can say that the design or prototype is the product. This is important because it means the labour cost of producing software is basically unchanged whether the end product is distributed to 10, 1000 or 1,000,000 users. This has an important implication - it is impossible to exchange software for product of equal labour value. Consider a single hacker spends 30 days producing a given software utility, he then distributes it to 30 end users for the equivalent of an average days wage apiece. This has the appearance of exchange but consider what happens when the hacker then distributes the same software to another 30 users for the same terms, and then another 300, then to a further 300,000?

There is a further difference between the car and the piece of software. If a fault is found on a car and it is fixed all the other existing cars of that model would need to be fixed individually. With a piece of software however, any user who detects and or fixes a fault in their copy of that software can then share that fix or improvement with the entire community of users and developers of that software at virtually no cost. It is this multiplier effect that helps make the collaborative process of free software so productive. Every additional user is a potential adder of value (in the sense of utility) to the product and the communicative feedback between developers and users is an important part of the productive process.

There is a second barrier to incorporating software production into a scheme of labour valuation. That is the uncommodifiability of original or creative labour. By commodifiability we mean the ability to reduce a given buyable item to a level of interchangeability where a given volume is equal to any other given volume of the same thing. Potatoes are commodifiable, roughly speaking one five kilo bag of spuds can be swapped for another without any appreciable change in the outcome. The logic of much capitalist production is to reduce labour to commodifiability where the output of a given number of workers is comparable to that of the same number of another group of workers. However this process breaks down when the output relies centrally on individual original creativity. It is recognised that the productivity of the most gifted hackers is enough orders of magnitude beyond that of that of mediocre or averagely competent hackers that one gifted hacker can achieve in a few weeks what a large team of merely average coders would be unable to produce in months.

It is this possibility of excelling which forms part of the motivation for the core productive participants of the free software movement to participate. No less than climbing mountains or running marathons the achievment of doing something well is a motivation in itself, particularly in a society where our waged-work conditions often force us to do things in ways well below what we are capable of. There is a saying within the free software community that "people will do the jobs they are interested in". But by the same token the jobs people find interesting are often the ones that mobilise their individual strengths. Freed from the constraints of exchange, people are free to seek out the particularly lines of activity in which they can out-perform the "average socially necessary labour time" to the extent that such an estimate can even be made. Naturally if enough participants in a collective labour process manage to do this successfully, the whole process will be significantly more performant than any waged process.

If all the above features emerging from the relatively new field of software production and the even more recent phenomena of the free software movement were limited to that sphere alone then they would be an intriguing case but little more. However many of the special features of software - i.e. the relation between the single design or pattern and potentially unlimited replication and distribution at little or no cost - also apply to many other "intellectual" products such as cultural artifacts like books, music and films and the results of scientific and academic research now that computers and the internet have liberated them from the material media of paper, vinyl and celluloid. Indeed the whole area of products covered by so-called "Intellectual Property Rights" is equally difficult to reduce to a "just" exchange value. Further the proportion of overall economic activity involved in the production of these non-material products is ever growing to the extent of becoming the majority sector in the metropolitan hubs of the capitalist world.

This tendency will of course not automatically bring in its wake radical social change, but its counter-tendencies - the growth of exchange-free productive networks and the increasingly direct appropriation of consumer intellectual products like music, films, software and texts through free online sharing networks - will continue to make the struggle to defend capitalist Intellectual Property (IP) rights a contested battleground. In the struggle to extend and defend IP rights, both legally and practically, the champions of capitalism will be undermining the core justificatory ideology of exchange - that of labour value.

The role of libertarian communists is in many ways unchanged - to participate in the present dynamic of class struggles while advocating a future beyond capitalist relations. Today however, we have the advantage that post-capitalism exchange-free collaborative production processes are no longer hypotheses but reality. In contrast it is the theories of the orthodox "a-political" economist defenders of capitalist that people will never produce socially useful goods without the incentive of money that is shown to be an empty hypothesis - a false god.

by Paul Bowman

You can comment on the long version of this article at http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=1555

What is communism?
The complete article of which an extract appears in Red And Black Revolution No 10. "Of course its not that important to get hung up on a name, for many people the Concise definition of communism being something to do with Marx and the USSR is the one they know. For us the name of the post-capitalist society we aim to help construct is a detail, what matters is the content of the ideas."

This article is from Red & Black Revolution
(no 10, Autumn 2005)

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