(From a chapter published in the AK Press book The Accumulation of Freedom)
Libertarian Communism, the Aspiration of Classes in Struggle
Class relationships stand at the core of global societies in our time. The interlocking web of capitalist and state power relations are embedded and reproduced as class exploitation at every level in communities. The abolition of class exploitation is the foundation of any future socialist economy, one which we hope would lead to a society where all people and communities would be able to develop autonomously to their full capacities. During every struggle for liberation and autonomy, class has stood in the way of further developing our human potential. Class has provided the bedrock for counter-revolutions and, even more threatening to liberation, has been capitalism’s ability to reproduce class relations even when the old actors, the capitalists, have fled the scene. New classes rise to take the place of the old ones, and the failure to do away with class altogether has led to some of the worst human tragedies, particularly in the former Soviet countries and various national liberation struggles.
Any group of people who seek to do away with class exploitation will run up against a problem. How is another form of economic activity possible? The easy answer is that capitalism is not eternal. Capitalism is realistically a marginal form of economic organization in human history, though one that spread from Western Europe a few centuries ago to become wholly dominant, and has left a path of carnage (human and environmental) in its wake. Still, we don’t want merely a different economy, but a better one, and hopefully one that transcends the problems of tyranny, inequity, waste, and deprivation.
Libertarian communism is one such possibility, though there needs to be a disclaimer. None of the so-called “communist countries” had any semblance of communism. All had class systems with workers and managers, with wage systems, and where the workers neither owned nor controlled their work and its products. Thus, those countries resembled capitalism more closely than a society based on the abolition of remuneration in the form of wages and democratic control. [i]
Likewise most people identified with communism today, only believed in communism after their own disclaimers. Marx, Lenin, and most of their followers made a distinction between higher and lower stages of communism, where we would pass from lower to higher communism as the revolution unfolded, the proletarian state withered away, and so on. Many Marxists thought of this lower stage as socialism. For this reason whenever mainstream Marxist theory attempted to address the question of post-revolutionary society, the emphasis was placed on the lower phase of communism. The lower phase, following Marx’s conception of a transition period, would bear some of the marks of the capitalist society which gave birth to it, including compulsion to work via a collectivist wage system— sometimes of labor vouchers, or at other times different wage schemes. For this reason, much of the Marxist communist economic literature isn’t actually communist, but focused on collectivist economics. The higher stage of communism is left to be determined by the post-revolutionary working class, except for a few exploratory remarks in Marx’s corpus.
Libertarian communist economics, however, have a few defining features:
- A commitment to a future economy based on the praxis of the revolutionary working class and popular classes.
- An economy based on the destruction of the wage system of labor, and a de-linking of the value of labor in production from the distribution of society’s wealth to its members.
- Collective control and management of the entire economy by the direct control of workers and community members united in a council system of direct democracy.
- The abolition of intermediary institutions of power governing the economy.
Libertarian communist economics’ assets are also some of its weaknesses, at least in regards to what is sometimes called prescriptive economics. Prescriptive economics attempts to lay out a vision, in our case, of a post-capitalist economic system based on some core values. Praxis is the concept of linking ideas and vision with concrete practices and struggles. Historically, it was the anarchist communists who generally took up the problem of the possibility of classless society, and even then only tempered by the necessary recognition of the leadership and innovation of everyday people to solve the problem concretely. The lack of materials on prescriptive economics can be traced in part to the strong commitment in anarchist and libertarian communist thought to the concept of praxis. Continue reading