by S. Myers
In What Is Community? we defined community as – shared administration of shared resources. We illustrated this by the example of the agricultural village. While this was the predominant form of community that capitalism initially came into contact with – and subsequently broke up – it is not the only one, nor is it the original one. In the course of human history, institutions of community have gone through many permutations. The vestiges of community that still survive within our advanced capitalist society – what is left of the family, the church, civil society, etc.– are the degraded remnants of the myriad forms of community that arose in earlier epochs. In order to locate the community of workers within the context of world history, it will be helpful to sketch a history of the institution of community.
In the earliest forms of human society we find nothing but community. From the tribal arrangement of hunter-gatherers on up to the agricultural village, resources are held in common and administered by the group. However, at this stage the group is still quite small. Where its boundaries end so do feelings of common identity and humanity, along with the common cultural institutions that cement such feelings. For most of its existence the human race has consisted of such small communities, tied down to local territories, alienated from one another and connected only by small scale war or trade. 1
As the foraging mode of life gives way to agriculture and animal husbandry, human beings gradually become capable of producing more than what is needed for bare subsistence. These surpluses introduce the possibility of a new pattern of life. By capturing them a few cunning members of society may be freed from the burden of working to produce means of subsistence, and come to form a ruling class. This opportunity constitutes the basis for all forms of private property.
The introduction of private property sets in motion a revolutionary process which continues to this day. While at first private property might be nothing more than the appropriation of the surplus produce of the already-existing agricultural community, it eventually takes over and restructures the production process itself. As new forms of private property evolve, they come into conflict with and ultimately break up the old communities from which they originally sprang. Eventually, when the dissolution is so complete that it undermines the foundations of social existence, new forms of community step in and take the place of the old. It is thus possible to conceive human history as a constant, shifting tension between private and communal property.
As small tribal societies grow and fight among themselves for control of resources and surpluses, the process of war and conquest concentrates immense wealth into the hands of the victors, and in time large civilizations grow up. The concentrated wealth of civilization opens up the possibilities for whole new ways of life that were impossible under conditions of foraging or small-scale agriculture. Industry, technology, art, literature, and culture can flourish as never before – as can depravity.
In the ascending phases of ancient civilizations, the patriarchal family becomes the repository of community, and forms the basic unit of social organization. As a civilization advances in its life cycle the functions of community are increasingly taken up by the state, and individuals look to the state to serve the material and psychological needs that the community once did.
Finally, when they trade in the early pattern of productive agriculture for a new pattern of imperial exploitation, civilizations begin to completely break up old forms of community within and without, and thus seal their own doom. Human beings cannot long exist without community. Psychologically they become very sick. Witness the destructiveness and megalomania, the sadism, perversion and asociality of the ruling classes (and to a certain extent even the general populations) of civilizations in their phase of decay – i.e. in the phase where community has been all but destroyed by the imperialistic pattern.
With the decline of ancient civilizations, a new kind of community arises in the form of the ecumenical church. New humanistic religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam take root among the dispossessed and ultimately overtake the ancient world. Unlike the old tribal and state religions, which focused on local gods and spirits, the new ecumenical religions take a further step away from the primitive ties of blood and soil, and toward a universal brotherhood of man. But at this time the material conditions of production still favor private property over communal property. The new religions are eventually transformed from a revolutionary force into new state religions. Their communitarian aspects provide a counterweight of social cohesion against the destructive feuds of the middle ages.
Besides the church and the family, the middle ages give birth to a unique species of community in the form of the communal city. 2When the Roman Empire broke down, the imperial system of large land ownership broke apart into petty feuds. But the centers of commerce and industry that Rome left behind did not disappear. In medieval times these cities become bases of independent power for the industrial (i.e. non-agricultural) production and trade, of the power of the town against the country. They are in fact the incubators of the modern bourgeoisie.
In place of the defunct imperial system, the guild system of production comes into existence. These patriarchal forms of community serve to organize virtually all aspects of life in the medieval commune, and are sufficient to meet the meager demand of feudal society for handicrafts. Later on, when the capitalist system of production begins to replace this guild system that it grew out of, the guilds provide the inspiration for the institutions of civil society – associations, leagues, brotherhoods, unions, etc.
Eventually, when the capitalist system develops to the point that it gives the bourgeoisie decisive power over the landed aristocracy, the institutions of civil society give way to the bureaucratic organization of the modern state, and later still, the modern corporation. As capitalism develops further all human needs come to be met increasingly by these, and so all of social life comes to be ruled by them. The institutions of civil society lose their raison d’etre, as do the family and the church, and begin to disintegrate or be absorbed by the market and the state. The forms of community that fed the early capitalism no longer serve their purpose, and so they fall away. 3
Capitalism, by destroying all of the old conservative forms of community and privatizing everything, has laid the foundations for new revolutionary forms of community – for mature communism on a global scale, a new stage of social evolution for the human race. By building the community of workers we are setting ourselves to the task of building up the elements of communism within the disintegrating capitalist society, much like the early Christians within the Roman Empire. We are doing nothing less than nurturing seeds of a new life pattern that is destined to outgrow capitalism, and in the end overtake it.
This is not to lapse into utopianism. It is not as if the communities will simply ‘catch on’ and capitalism will wither away. In order to achieve communism, the working class will still need to fight at the point of production, and also make political demands. But the community of workers will provide the real foundation – in our time, the only foundation – for a renewed struggle to overthrow capitalism. 4
Unlike the downfall of Rome, the decline of capitalism actually creates objective conditions for world communistic revolution. And unlike the early Christians, the communists today possess the subjective consciousness to pull off such a revolution. In place of mystical intimations of the ‘kingdom of heaven’, we have a scientific theory of history and society. And in place of the communal poverty of the early Christians, we shall have a sophisticated community of workers that is capable of integrating all of the technological advantages that capitalism has given to the human race, but for the sake of the whole society and every individual member of it.
- Marxists refer to this state of existence as ‘primitive communism’. Cf. Frederick Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Anarchists, following Rousseau, tend to think of it as man’s natural state of lawlessness. Unlike Rousseau, they reject the idea that compromising this ‘natural liberty’ was a necessary evil for the advancement of humanity, but instead locate the source of all social ills in the abrogation of it. Cf. Ann Robertson (2003), The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict. [Link 1 (HTML), Link 2 (PDF)] ↩
- Peter Kropotkin devoted two chapters of his magnum opus Mutual Aid to the medieval city. For those who are unfamiliar with the communal institutions of these cities, these chapters are an enlightening and stimulating introduction to the subject from the pen of a true believer. They also illustrate the naive and backward-looking character of anarchist thought. It is immensely entertaining to witness this daring ‘revolutionist’, who famously criticized Bolshevik methods as a ‘return to the Middle Ages’, innocently eulogizing the medieval guilds in the same way liberals today pine after the welfare state, or religious conservatives sing odes the family. ↩
- Nineteenth-century bourgeois sociologists noted the difference between the communitarian institutions of traditional society and the impersonal market and bureaucratic institutions of capitalism, as well as the disintegrating effect of the latter on the former in their own time. Cf. Ferdinand Tonnies’ concepts of gemeinschaft (community) and gesellschaft (society), Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie, and Max Weber’s rationalization. ↩
- The relationship between the positive side of building of the community of workers, and the negative side of abolishing of capitalism will be worked out in detail in another essay. Here a short quote from Marx’s preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy will be instructive: “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.” In our conception, the community of workers constitutes the elements of the ‘new superior relations of production’ that have yet to ‘mature within the framework’ of global capitalist society, and without which any attempts to destroy capitalism are simply useless. ↩