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The Collectivist Transition by Jeff Stein

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Libertarian Labor Review #13

Summer 1992, pages 24-29

THE COLLECTIVIST TRANSITION



by Jeff Stein

Introduction: Anarchist economics began with Proudhon but
eventually developed into two schools of thought: anarcho-
syndicalism with its emphasis on mass production industries in an
urban environment, and anarchist-communism with its emphasis on
egalitarian distribution and small-scale communities. Both these
theories developed out of anarcho-collectivism, a radical economic
federalism developed by the libertarian elements of the (First)
International Workingmen's Association. Its principal advocates
were Michael Bakunin and James Guillaume, but the real credit for
the theory of collectivism should go to the workers belonging to
the International, who took the various socialist and trade union
economic ideas of the time and modified them in light of their own
experience.

The Limits of Proudhonian Economics

The collectivists shared a number of ideas with the followers
of Proudhon in the International, in particular the concepts of
workers self-management of industry and economic federalism. On the
other hand they saw a need to go beyond the sort of utopian
thinking that led the Proudhonists to believe capitalism might be
transformed by the growth of worker cooperatives and mutualist
credit. By the time the International was formed in 1864, worker
cooperatives had been experimented with for several decades and by
now were floundering. In the last years of his life, even Proudhon
was forced to admit the cooperative movement was not developing as
he had hoped:


Not many years later, in 1857, he severely criticized the
existing workers' associations; inspired by naive,
utopian illusions, they had paid the price of their lack
of experience. They had become narrow and exclusive, had
functioned as collective employers, and had been carried
away by hierarchical and managerial concepts. All the
abuses of capitalist companies "were exaggerated further
in these so-called brotherhoods." They had been torn by
discord, rivalry, defections, and betrayals. Once their
managers had learned the business concerned, they retired
to "set up as bourgeois employers on their own account."
In other instances, the members had insisted on dividing
up the resources. In 1848 several hundred workers'
associations had been set up; nine years later only
twenty remained. (Guerin, pp. 47-48)



These same observations were made by the members of the
International: "The English section reported on cooperatives.
Without denying the usefulness of cooperative organizations, it
indicated a dangerous tendency noticeable in a majority of such
bodies in England, which were beginning to develop into purely
commercial and capitalist institutions, thus creating the
opportunity for the birth of a new class--the working bourgeoisie."
(Maximoff, p. 47)

The small, isolated, under-capitalized worker cooperatives
could barely survive in competition with their better established
capitalist rivals. The few cooperatives that prospered, often
betrayed their working class supporters and began to operate as
though their facilities were their own private property, aided and
abetted by the laws and existing capitalist businesses. The
failings of the cooperatives had raised the thorny issue of how to
turn the socialization of the means of production from an ideal
into a practical reality. The solution suggested by the
collectivists was to expropriate the means of production from the
capitalists and for the workers' associations to own these
"collectively", no longer recognizing any individual ownership
rights to divide up and sell them. The third Congress of the
International accordingly passed a resolution that the main purpose
of the cooperatives must go beyond narrow self-interest. Instead
their purpose must be support the struggle "to wrench from the
hands of the capitalists the means of production and return them to
their rightful owners, the workers themselves." (Guillaume, p. 70)

As we have seen, in The Principle of Federation (1863),
Proudhon began to sketch the outlines of a sort of economic
federalism before he died. This did not, however, prevent his
mutualist followers from trying to defend his earlier ideas. At the
1869 Basel Congress of the International, a dispute arose over a
resolution calling for the collectivization of the land. The
Proudhonists held out for the right of small farmers to own land
privately, as long as they did not rent out the land for others to
work. Tolain, speaking for the mutualists, suggested the resolution
be changed to read, "The Congress declares that, to realize the
emancipation of the worker, it must transform the leases of
farmland...to contracts of sale: so that ownership, continually in
circulation, ceases to be abusive in itself; and consequently [by
ensuring the individual worker the right to the product of his
labors]...safeguards the liberty of the individual groups."
(Guillaume, p. 197)

Bakunin, speaking for the collectivists, disputed the notion
that private property, even in a limited form, was justified as a
means for safeguarding individual rights.


...the individual is a product of society, and without
society man is nothing. All productive labor is above all
social labor; "production is only possible through the
combination of the labor of past generations with the
present generation, there is not ever labor that can be
called individual labor." He [Bakunin] is thus a
supporter of collective property, not only of the soil,
but of all social wealth. As for the organization of
agricultural production, it is concluded by the
solidarization of the communes, as proposed by the
majority of the commission, all the more willingly that
this solidarization implies the organization of society
from the bottom upwards, while the proposition of the
minority presupposes a State [to guarantee and enforce
the terms of sale]. (Guillaume, p. 197)



To be fair to Proudhon and the mutualists, their waffling on
the issue of private property was not so much due to ambivalence
about collective ownership, as an example of the extremes they were
prepared to go to avoid a revolutionary confrontation. Mutualist
credit was intended to produce "a new economic arrangement" which
would somehow avoid the "shock" of violent confrontation with the
capitalists over their property rights. To the collectivists, who
were veterans of bitter labor strikes and insurrections, this was
hopelessly idealistic. Capitalism had not originated out of a
peaceful, democratic debate as to how to organize production to
ensure economic justice and well-being for all, but was the product
of centuries of fraud, theft, and State-sponsored violence.
Proudhon often ignored that these activities were as much a part of
the functioning of the existing economy as was the official market
side of capitalism. The State and the capitalists would not
disappear with a new set of rules, since they, more often than not,
did not play by their own rules.

Although Proudhon had discovered many of the contradictions
of capitalist economics, his non-confrontational solutions were
just too out of touch with reality. What the anarchists needed was
to base their economics less on moral arguments than on a
positivist materialism. As Bakunin put it:

...Proudhon remained an incorrigible idealist all his
life, swayed at one moment by the Bible and at the next
by Roman Law ...His great misfortune was that he never
studied natural science and adopted its methods....As a
thinker Marx is on the right path. He has set up the
principle that all religious, political and legal
developments in history are not the cause but the effect
of economic developments. Many others before him had a
hand in the unveiling of it and even expressed it in
part, but in the last resort credit is due to him for
having developed the idea scientifically and having made
it the basis of his whole scientific teaching. On the
other hand, Proudhon understood the idea of freedom
better than Marx. (Jackson, pp. 128-129)



Collectivism and Marxism

The criticism Bakunin made of Proudhon's idealism was perhaps
a kinder version of the same criticism Marx had made in The Poverty
of Philosophy. It is on the basis of such statements, as well as
his praise for Marx's Capital, that some argue that Bakunin shared
the economic views of Marx. In reality Bakunin and his fellow
collectivists differed with Marx on economic grounds as well as on
political matters. Bakunin did begin a translation of Capital into
Russian, but never completed it. Had his enthusiasm for the work
been as overwhelming as some claim, he would no doubt have finished
it and collected the remainder of the sum agreed upon by the
Russian publishing house (instead of getting expelled at the Hague
Congress of the International for allegedly threatening the
publisher in order to get out of the deal). A closer look at what
Bakunin thought about Capital reveals his real reason for admiring
the work:



...nothing, that I know of, contains an analysis so
profound, so luminous, so scientific, so decisive and if
I can express it thus, so merciless an expose of the
formation of bourgeois capital and the systematic and
cruel exploitation that capital continues exercising over
the work of the proletariat. The only defect of this
work...is that it has been written, in part, in a style
excessively metaphysical and abstract...which makes it
difficult to explain and nearly unapproachable for the
majority of workers. (Bakunin, p. 195)



Bakunin, more the revolutionary than the economist, admired
Capital as a great piece of revolutionary propaganda. Marx, drawing
his facts and figures out of British government documents and
parliamentary debates, had hoisted the capitalists by their own
petards. This does not mean he endorsed it verbatim. Bakunin had
earlier translated The Communist Manifesto into Russian and made no
bones about his disagreements with Marx and Engels over their
proposals for a centralized state socialist economy.



I am not a communist because communism concentrates and
absorbs all the powers of society into the state, because
it necessarily ends in the centralization of property in
the hands of the state...I want society and collective
property to be organized from the bottom upwards by means
of free association and not from the top downwards by
means of some form of authority...it is in this sense
that I am a collectivist. (quoted in Cahm, p. 36)



Rather than a State or a market determining the allocation of
resources and the distribution of products, the workers would
decide these things themselves by free agreements among the
associations. These agreements would be monitored by the communes,
and industrial federations to make sure that labor was not
exploited. Bakunin, however, recognized that any system of free
exchange of products still held the danger of monopoly and private
accumulation of wealth, particularly by the self-employed farmer or
artisan, who tried to pass on land or equipment to his children.
Thus he also called for the abolition of inheritance to prevent the
rise of a new working class bourgeoisie.

The International debated the subject of inheritance at its
Basel Congress in 1869. Marx was opposed to the International
taking a position on the subject of inheritance on the grounds that
once the private ownership of the means of production had been
abolished (and expropriated by the workers' government), there
would be nothing left to inherit. Even worse, it implied the
International would support something other than the state
communism of Marx. As Eccarius, speaking for Marx, put it, "the
abolition of the right of inheritance can not be the point of
departure for the same social transformation: it would be too
absurd to require the abolition of the law of supply and demand
while continuing the state of conditions of exchange; it would be
a reactionary theory in practice. By treating the laws of
inheritance, we suppose necessarily that individual ownership of
the means of production would continue to exist." (Guillaume, p.
201)

Eccarius was half right. Bakunin and the other collectivists
intended that something other than the state ownership of the means
of production and central control would exist, but it would not
necessarily be capitalist ownership nor a market economy. The full
collectivization of the economy would not be carried out by a
single decree, but over a generation. Abolition of wage labor by
the collectivization of the capitalist employers would be the first
step, but the right of the self-employed, particularly the small
farmer, to their means of livelihood would be respected. To
recognize this right of possession to the tools needed for one's
own labor, however, was not to recognize an ownership right that
could be bought and sold or passed on to one's children. This was
the meaning behind the collectivist demand for the abolition of
inheritance.



If after having proclaimed the social liquidation, we
attempted to dispossess by decree millions of small
farmers, they would necessarily be thrown onto the side
of reaction, and in order for them to submit to the
revolution, it would be necessary to employ force against
them...It would be well then to leave them possessors in
fact of those small parcels of which they are
proprietors. But if you don't abolish the right of
inheritance what would happen? They would transfer their
holdings to their children...If, to the contrary, at the
same time that you would make the social liquidation...
you abolish the right of inheritance what would remain
with the peasants? Nothing but defacto possession, and
that possession... no longer sheltered by the protective
power of the state, would easily be transformed under the
pressure of events and of revolutionary forces. (Bakunin,
quoted by Guillaume, p. 203)



The Collectivist Economic Doctrine


Collectivism, unlike Proudhon's Mutualism or Marxism, was not
a well developed theory, the product of a single mind. Its
principal advocates were socialist revolutionaries and workers
caught up in the events of the time: the upheavals of 1848 which
occurred throughout Europe, the birth of the labor unions, and the
Paris Commune of 1871. As far as they could tell, a social
revolution was not an abstract goal looming far off in the
distance, but something that had to be prepared for right away.
Some sort of workable economic program had to be agreed upon by the
labor movement, which had broad appeal to the various socialist and
labor groupings that made up the International, without locking
everyone into something they might regret later. This explains why
collectivism often was so sketchy in details, and some of its
advocates disagreed among themselves over various points.

The closest thing to a "definitive" statement of collectivism
is an essay written by James Guillaume in 1874, "Ideas on Social
Organization" (see Dolgoff, pp. 356-379). Guillaume begins by
emphasizing that there can be no "blueprint" for social revolution,
since it must be left up to the workers themselves to decide how
best to organize themselves in their own areas. However, having
said that, he begins to make various suggestions about the
collectivist approach. First the system of wage labor will be
abolished by the workers "taking possession" of all capital and
tools of production, ie. the collectivization of property. The
self-employed and the owners of family businesses are to be left
alone to operate as they wish, but with this important exception:
"his former hired hands, if he had any, will become his partners
and share with him the products which their common labor extracts
from the land." (Dolgoff, p. 359)

The internal organization of the worker collectives, working
conditions, hours, distribution of responsibilities, and share of
income, etc., are to be left in the hands of their members: "Each
workshop, each factory, will organize itself into an association of
workers who will be free to administer production and organize
their work as they think best, provided that the rights of each
worker are safeguarded and the principles of equality and justice
are observed." (Dolgoff, p. 363, my emphasis)

However the fact that the collectivists were willing to
tolerate those groups which decided to distribute income according
to hours worked, does not mean the collectivists believed in the
principle, "to each according to their work." As Guillaume makes
clear, this is only justified (where it is practiced) as a
temporary expedient, to discourage over-consumption during the
transition period when capitalist conditions of scarcity will not
yet have been overcome.



In some communities remuneration will be in proportion to
hours worked; in others payment will be measured by both
the hours of work and the kind of work performed; still
other systems will be experimented with to see how they
work out. The problem of property having been resolved,
and there being no capitalists placing a tax on the labor
of the masses, the question of types of distribution and
remuneration become secondary. We should to the greatest
possible extent institute and 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...
(Dolgoff, p. 361)



Although collectivism promotes the greatest autonomy for the
worker associations, it should not be confused with a market
economy. The goods produced by the collectivized factories and
workshops are exchanged not according to highest price that can be
wrung from consumers, but according to their actual production
costs. The determination of these honest prices is to be by a "Bank
of Exchange" in each community (obviously an idea borrowed from
Proudhon).



...the [labor] value of the commodities having been
established in advance by a contractual agreement
between the regional cooperative federations [ie.
industrial unions] and the various communes, who will
also furnish statistics to the Banks of Exchange. The
Bank of Exchange will remit to the producers negotiable
vouchers representing the value of their products; these
vouchers will be accepted throughout the territory
included in the federation of communes. (Dolgoff, p. 366)
The Bank of Exchange ...[will] arrange to procure goods
which the commune is obliged to get from outside sources,
such as certain foodstuffs, fuels, manufactured products,
etc. These outside products will be featured side by side
with local goods...and all goods will be uniformly
priced. [Since similar goods all have the same average
labor value.] (Dolgoff, p. 367)



Although this scheme bears a strong resemblance to Proudhonian
"People's Banking," it should be noted that the Banks of Exchange,
along with a "Communal Statistical Commission," are intended to
have a planning function as well.


...each Bank of Exchange makes sure in advance that these
products are in demand [in order to risk] nothing by
immediately issuing payment vouchers to the producers.
(p. 367) ....By means of statistics gathered from all the
communes in a region, it will be possible to
scientifically balance production and consumption. In
line with these statistics, it will also be possible to
add more help in industries where production is
insufficient and reduce the number of men where there is
a surplus of production. (Dolgoff, p. 370)



As conditions permit, the exchange functions of the communal
banks are to be gradually replaced by the distribution of goods "in
accordance with the needs of the consumers." (p. 368) Until that
point is reached, the local community has the responsibility for
providing certain basic needs for everyone without regard for
production done by that particular individual. Among these
essential needs to be distributed freely are education, housing,
health, personal security and fire protection, disaster relief, and
food services. The worker collectives engaged in these essential
communal services will not be required to exchange them for their
"labor value," but "will receive from the commune vouchers enabling
them to acquire all commodities necessary for the decent
maintenance of their members." (Dolgoff, p. 365)

Therefore each "commune" is to provide a basic standard of
living for all its members during the transitional period leading
towards economic abundance. Those people desiring a higher income
will be given the right of access to the means of production in
order to produce goods both for themselves and for exchange. Each
worker collective, however, will not have to shift for itself but
will receive assistance from the communes, and local and regional
industry associations.



...social organization is completed, on the one hand by
the establishment of regional corporative federations
comprising all the groups of workers in the same
industry; and on the other by the establishment of a
federation of communes....The corporative federations
will unite all the workers in the same industry; they
will no longer unite to protect their wages and working
conditions against the onslaughts of their employers, but
primarily to guarantee mutual use of the tools of
production which are the property of each of these groups
and which will by a reciprocal contract become the
collective property of the whole corporative federation.
In this way, the federation of groups will be able to
exercise constant control over production, and regulate
the rate of production to meet the fluctuating consumer
needs of society....The statistics of production,
coordinated by the statistical bureaus of every
corporative federation, will permit the determination in
a rational manner of the hours of labor, the cost price
of products and their exchange value, and the quantities
in which these products should be produced to meet the
needs of consumers. (Dolgoff, pp. 376-377)


A Limited Form of Communism

In his essay, "Must We Apply Ourselves with an Examination of
the Ideal of a Future System?", Peter Kropotkin pointed out that
the anarcho-collectivism advocated by Bakunin, Guillaume, and the
anarchists in the First International, was actually a variety of
anarchist communism, but "in an altered and limited form" (Miller,
p. 59). The anarcho-collectivists felt that full communism, ie. the
free distribution of all goods and services, would have to wait
until the economy had been reorganized and the scarcity
artificially created by the capitalist market had been overcome.
Until then much of production would be according to the principle
of "to each workplace according to their product." This is not the
same as the state collectivists who argued for "to each worker
according to their work," and called for elaborate schemes of
income hierarchy. The worst that can be said about the anarcho-
collectivists, is that they were willing to tolerate income
differences at various workplaces for the sake of giving each
collective the autonomy to decide for themselves. This was,
however, not their ideal. Even for the transition period, the
anarcho-collectivist principle was income equality for all working
in the same collective.


Do not the manager's superior training and greater
responsibilities entitle him to more pay and privileges
than manual workers? Is not administrative work just as
necessary to production as is manual labor--if not more
so? Of course, production would be badly crippled, if not
altogether suspended, without efficient and intelligent
management. But from the standpoint of elementary justice
and even efficiency, the management of production need
not be exclusively monopolized by one or several
individuals. And the managers are not at all entitled to
more pay... (Bakunin, quoted in Dolgoff, p. 424)



A much more serious problem for collectivism is the inequality
which would inevitably arise between workers due to the exchange of
products. The collectivists sought to ameliorate this to a certain
extent by giving the investment arm of the communes, the Banks of
Exchange, a more activist role in economic planning, and by putting
an income floor under all workers by providing free housing, food,
and public services. However, this creates further possible sources
of inequality, since the communal service workers are supposed to
work in return for meeting all their needs regardless of their
productivity. Thus a possible source of conflict arises between a
communist service sector and an exchange-based production sector.
If the production goes well, the communal workers may resent the
higher incomes gained by the production workers. If production goes
poorly, the production workers may resent the income security of
the service workers.

For the collectivists these problems were seen as minor, if
recognized at all. Guillaume, for instance, assumed that the
material abundance developed during the transitional period would
bring about a blossoming of morality, which would soon make the
exchange economy irrelevant. Unfortunately, this begs the question,
since he did not bother to define what "abundance" is and how we
are to know when we have achieved it. We can safely predict that in
any future economy there is virtually no limit to human desires for
material goods, while there will always be limits to what society
and the ecology are able to provide without causing a breakdown.
"Abundance" means different things to different people.
The danger is that by leaving this point of development undefined,
those who may be the economic"winners" of the transitional period,
may be unwilling to make the next step.

The Collectivist Legacy

The main contribution of the collectivists to anarchist
economics was their attempt to anticipate many of the problems
which would be encountered during the revolutionary transition from
capitalism to stateless communism, and their emphasis on the need
for finding a balance between ultimate goals and day-to-day
realities. These methods contributed enormously to the early
successes of the 1936 revolution in Spain, where the anarchist
movement retained a strong collectivist tradition. The specific
proposals made by Guillaume and others, while useful as an example
of applying anarchist principles to existing conditions, have lost
most of their relevance. We do not live in 19th century europe nor
1930s Spain, but in a high-tech economy threatened by environmental
exhaustion. In most industries, technology has developed well
beyond the point needed for "abundance" in 19th century terms. This
makes the question of defining the minimum level of abundance all
the more important for modern anarchists, as well as the more
practical problem of how to go beyond a crude exchange economy
during the transition.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bakunin, M. Obras Completas, Volume III. Translated by
Santillan, Buenos Aires, 1926.

Cahm, Caroline. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary
Anarchism 1872 - 1886. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Dolgoff, Sam. Bakunin on Anarchism. Black Rose Books,
Montreal, 1980.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Guillaume, James. L'Internationale : Documents et Souvenirs
(1864 - 1878). Paris, 1905. 4 volumes.

Jackson,J. Marx, Proudhon and European Socialism. Collier, New
York, 1966.

Maximoff, G.P. Constructive Anarchism. Chicago, 1952.

Miller, Martin A. Selected Writings on Anarchism and
Revolution: P.A. Kropotkin. M.I.T. Press, 1970.

(I would like to thank Nan DiBello for her assistance with this
article.)
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