There was a vision, called “communism,” which was held by Kropotkin and other anarchist-communists in the 19th and early 20th century. Marx and Engels shared essentially the same goal. In the stateless, classless, society of communism, the means of production would be held in common (by the community), work would be carried out due to social motives rather than for wages, and consumer goods would be available to all according to their needs.
But during the Cold War, “communism” came to mean something entirely different. Great nations were ruled by self-named Communist Parties. Their economies were managed by totalitarian states, their powerless workers produced commodities sold on the internal and international market, and they worked for wages (that is, they sold their labor power as commodities to their bosses).
In that era, “Communists” were mostly people who supported those types of state-capitalist tyrannies. They included pro-Moscow Communist Parties, Maoists, other Stalinists, and most Trotskyists. They called themselves “Communists,” and so did most of their opponents. On the other hand, “anti-Communists” were not simply those who opposed such regimes but those who supported Western imperialism — a group ranging from liberals to deranged fascists. At the same time, the pro-Moscow types denounced libertarian socialists as “anti-Communist” as well as “anti-Soviet.” Some people took to calling themselves “anti-anti-Communists,” as a way of saying that they did not endorse the Communists but were against the McCarthyite witchhunt.
Now we are in a new period. The Soviet Union has collapsed, with its ruling Communist Party. True, such states still exist, with modifications, in China, Cuba, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, they inspire many people. But overall, the number and weight of Communist Parties have diminished.. In contrast, there has been an upswing in the number of people who identify with anarchism, with its mainstream in the anarchist-communist tradition. Other people remain impressed by Marx, but look to libertarian and humanistic interpretations of his work. How then shall we use the term “communism” today? Is its meaning the same as in earlier periods? I will review the history of the term and of its meanings.
While calling themselves “socialists,” the founders of the anarchist movement, Proudhon and Bakunin, denounced “communism.” A typical statement by Proudhon is that communism is a “dictatorial, authoritarian, doctrinaire system [which] starts from the axiom that the individual is subordinate…to the collectivity; the citizen belongs to the State …” (quoted in Buber, 1958; pp. 30–31). Bakunin wrote, “I detest communism because it is the negation of liberty….I am not a communist because communism… necessarily ends with the concentration of property in the hands of the state” (quoted in Leier, 2006; p. 191). Proudhon called himself a “mutualist;” Bakunin, a “collectivist.”
If we think of a monastery, or of an army (where the soldiers are all given their food, clothing, and shelter), it is easy to see how “communism” (of a sort) can be imagined as inconsistent with democracy, freedom, and equality. In his early writings, Marx denounced the program of “crude communism” in which “the community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by…the community as universal capitalist” (Marx, 1961; pp. 125–126). However, Marx and Engels did call themselves communists, a term they preferred to the vaguer “socialist,” although they used this also. (They especially disliked the term “social democratic,” used by the German Marxists.)
Marx’s concept of communism is most clearly explained in his “Critique of the Gotha Program.” Communism would be “the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production…” (Marx, 1974; p. 345). In “the first phase of communist society,” (p. 347) there will remain scarcity and the need for labor. “We are dealing here with a communist society…as it emerges from capitalist society…still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society…” (p. 346). In this lower phase of communism, Marx speculated, individuals would get certificates stating how much labor they had contributed (minus an amount taken for the common fund). Using their certificates, they can take means of consumption which used up the same amount of labor; this is not money because it cannot be accumulated. However, it is still a system of bourgeois rights and equality, in which equal units of labor are exchanged. Given that people have unequal abilities and unequal needs, this equality still results in a certain degree of inequality.
Marx trumpeted, “In a more advanced stage of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labor, and thereby the antithesis between intellectual and physical labor, have disappeared; when labor is no longer just a means of keeping alive but has itself become a vital need; when the all-around development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!” (p. 347)
(For reasons known only to himself, Lenin re-labeled Marx’s “first phase of communist society” as socialism, and the “more advanced stage of communist society” as communism. Most of the left has followed this confusing usage.)
Despite his rejection of the term communism, Bakunin also advocated a two-phase development of the post-revolution economy, according to his close friend James Guillame. Guillame wrote an essay in 1874, summarizing Bakunin’s views. “We should…be guided by the principle, From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. When, thanks to the progress of scientific industry and agriculture, production comes to outstrip consumption, and this will be attained some years after the Revolution, it will no longer be necessary to stingily dole out each worker’s share of goods. Everyone will draw what he needs from the abundant social reserve of commodities….In the meantime, each community will decide for itself during the transition period the method they deem best for the distribution of the products of associated labor.” (in Bakunin, 1980; p. 361–362) He mentions various alternate systems of remuneration for the transitional period; “…systems will be experimented with to see how they work out” (p. 361).
Today’s proposals for Parecon (“participatory economics”), in which workers are rewarded for the intensity and duration of their labor in a cooperative economy, would fit into Bakunin’s or Marx’s concept of a transitory, beginning, phase, of a free society. But unlike the Pareconists, Marx and Bakunin recognized that this was still limited. For both Marx and Bakunin, then, full communism requires a very high level of productivity and potential prosperity, a post-scarcity economy, when there is plenty of leisure time for people to participate in decision-making, at work and in the community, ending the distinction between order-givers and order-takers. However, neither Marx nor Bakunin described a social mechanism for moving from one phase to the other.
Kropotkin rejected the two-phase approach of the Marxists and the anarchist-collectivists. Instead he proposed that a revolutionary society should “transform itself immediately into a communist society,” (1975; p. 98), that is, should go immediately into what Marx had regarded as the “more advanced,” completed, phase of communism. Kropotkin and those who agreed with him called themselves “anarchist-communists” (or “communist anarchists”), although they continued to regard themselves as a part of the broader socialist movement.
It was not possible, Kropotkin argued, to organize an economy partially on capitalist principles and partly on communist principles. To award producers differentially by how much training they have had, or even by how hard they work, would recreate class divisions and the need for a state to oversee everything. Nor is it really possible to decide how much individuals have contributed to a complex, cooperative, system of production, in order to reward them according to their labor.
Instead, Kropotkin proposed that a large city, during a revolution, “could organize itself on the lines of free communism; the city guaranteeing to every inhabitant dwelling, food, and clothing…in exchange for…five hour’s work; and…all those things which would be considered as luxuries might be obtained by everyone if he joins for the other half of the day all sorts of free associations….” (p.p. 118–119) This would require the integration of agricultural with industrial work, and physical with mental labor. There remained an element of coercion in Kropotkin’s proposal. Presumably able-bodied adults who would not contribute five hours of work would not get the “guaranteed” minimum.
Anarchist-communism came to predominate among anarchists, so that it became rare to find an anarchist (except for the individualist anarchists) who did not accept communism, whatever other disagreements they may have had among themselves. Meanwhile the Marxists had long been calling themselves social-democrats. When World War I broke out, the main social democratic parties endorsed their capitalists’ war. Lenin called on the revolutionary wing of international social democracy to split from the traitors to socialism. As part of this, he advocated that his Bolshevik Party and similar parties call themselves Communist Parties, going back to Marx. Some of his followers complained that this would confuse the workers, making the Bolsheviks sound like the anarchist-communists. Lenin declared that it was more important to not be confused with the reformist social democrats. Lenin got his way (as he usually did in his party). The term “communist” had been taken back by the Marxists. With the example of the Russian revolution, most revolutionary-minded people turned to the Leninists; the anarchists became increasingly marginalized. The term “communist” became mostly the label for Leninists.