Neno Vasco (1878-1920) was a Portuguese lawyer and anarchist active in the Brazilian anarchist movement from 1901 to 1911. He maintained a presence within the Brazilian movement after his return to Portugal through his writings in the Portuguese anarchist press. His posthumous publication, A Concepção Anarquista do Sindicalismo [The Anarchist Conception of Syndicalism] (Lisbon: A Batalha, 1920; republished 1984), was particularly influential in the Brazilian movement. It was through writings like these that the anarcho-syndicalist movements in Latin America remained committed to anarchist communism as their ultimate ideal (see Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume 1, Selections 58 & 95). Vasco answers the objection of some anarchists (such as Luigi Galleani, Volume 1, Selection 35) that anarcho-syndicalist organization is just a new form of government, as well as dealing with more common objections to anarchist communism. The following excerpts from Vasco’s book have been translated by Paul Sharkey. I have now set up a Neno Vasco page with a much lengthier excerpt in which Vasco criticizes Kropotkin’s more optimistic approach to anarchist communism and argues for a flexible approach to economic issues in order to prevent anarchist communism from becoming its own imposed dogma.
The revolution must of course socialize and make public services of every branch of production, transportation and distribution key to the operation of a modern society. And, for the organs that are to both manage and implement such services, we need look no farther than the respective associations of workers – local groups, these groups banding together at the local level to run the industries they operate, insofar as they operate them, in that locality (production, storage and delivery of basic goods and clothing; civil construction; urban transportation, power and cleaning services, health and educational services, etc.), with the local branches and unions uniting to run federal services, such as the railroads, shipping, aircraft, telegraphs and postal services, etc.
These producer groups will be able to devise various new formats (which may well be wholly unforeseen) tailored to the needs of the revolution and, as changes are made to factories, oversee major workforce redeployments; but if we want socialization to be effective and in fact to retain direct management of production and render it equally beneficial for all, they will not allow the imposition of any political superstructure, no matter how proletarian it may call itself.
At the same time, these economic organs will be political or administrative organs too; the basic economic unit will be the political unit, as the argument of the old, federalist International had it. Of course there will be delegation of labour; but the power to frame laws and have them enforced must be bestowed upon no one….
But – I hear someone object – what assurance does the public have against the de facto monopoly wielded by each of these associations? Who is there to stop the producer association from looking after its own corporate interests first and foremost, neglecting the needs and preferences of the consumer and foisting inferior and inadequate goods upon him?
Who? Why, the public itself, it being a producer also and furnishing the membership of all the producer associations. The public itself, master of the means of production and from which each of the producer groups receives its delegated service. Or would you rather a government, which, in forcing its own rules upon other people’s work, would be primarily looking out for itself and its followers and servants?
The real monopoly (and when we use that term we are not generally using it in the legal sense of lawfully-enshrined exclusive rights over manufacture and sale) is the de facto monopoly exercised by a tiny band of actual possessors of the means of production over the heads of a mainly proletarian public bereft of any of the instruments of production and of effective means of defence. On the other hand, the wage-earners working for that monopoly as mere instruments have not the slightest input into it, nor do they derive any benefit from it.
In the communist society, it is the actual managers-associated workers who make up the entirety of the public and their units are of equal standing, one with another.
Thus every association member who happens to ignore the public interest will soon discover, in his capacity as consumer, the dangerous implications of such short-sighted selfishness.
What is more, if he, in his capacity as a consumer, is dependent on other corporations, they are equally dependent on him in terms of production, given the extreme complexity of the modern labour in which he is engaged. The latter could not proceed without the contributions and good will of those who extract the raw materials for industry, those who carry out various transformations of it prior to the finishing of it, those who transport it, those who build the plant, those who supply the machinery and fuel, etc.
Once this interdependency and solidarity is outlined to him, the producer-consumer quickly catches on to the individual and social benefits of cooperation and the need to properly serve the public – the public being all the associated workers.
In most instances, anyway, the pressure of public opinion (a lot more homogeneous than it is today) brought to bear by men in the same circumstances would be enough, and that public opinion can be constantly stimulated and informed by freer and more enterprising minds. Even today, in spite of the range of antagonistic interests that bring forth a thousand schools of thought that counteract and neutralize one another, and in spite of the people’s weakness (the people being ingenuous in every respect) it is often the case that shifts in opinion achieve splendid successes without violence!
The ultimate and telling guarantee is the right enjoyed by all in a communist society to join any one of the producer associations and avail themselves of the instruments of labour in its care. Ultimately, but for the existence of that right backing up all the other defences available to the public, those defences would eventually lose their effectiveness – just as popular protests and movements today lose theirs once the oppressors become convinced that armed insurrection is a material impossibility.
Unless we want the means of production not to be socialized and authority not to be done away with, the trade union, the professional association of the future, must be open and not claim exclusive ownership of the means of production. Everybody who so desires should be free to switch jobs or indeed to set himself up as a sole producer. When, say, the local union has passed the optimum point and the size of the association is no longer of service in grappling with complexity and loses its appeal to the individual, those who are of that mind should be able to set up a separate federation or commune alongside it.
This freedom does not mean… mandatory variation or instability, any more than freedom in love means instability in one’s associations or any duty to flit from one affair to another. On the contrary, for the good of the individual, for the good of humanity, it is only proper that a sexual union should be lasting and it is very much in this interest and to that end that it should not be inspired by economic considerations, or any compulsion or motive other than genuine attraction; and that it should not be underpinned or prolonged by any bond other than mutual love, the love of the individual and shared inner feelings and a deep-seated appreciation of the educational advantages of home life.
That it should be voluntary is the best and most solid guarantee of the union and its affection.
In social life too, this is the only way of determining the worth and extent of liaisons, the only way of matching temperaments, the only way that producers have of directly administering things for themselves.
As for defending the public, the methods we have mentioned will certainly suffice: the force of public opinion in an egalitarian society and the interdependence of associations and individuals, whether as producers or as consumers. And we can rest assured that they will suffice all the more, the more certain and effective the right enjoyed by every single one of them to freely avail themselves of the means of production and ready access to the producer associations.
Such rights lie at the very heart of a communist society which, but for them, would degenerate into monopoly and authoritarianism.
But during the period of reconstruction, which is one we are mainly concerned with here, we will be dealing with the workers bequeathed to us by today’s society, workers ill-equipped for variety, sorry to say. Later, with a proper division of labour through the widespread and mighty assistance offered by machinery, with the eradication of parasitism and pointless labour, production of necessities will take up less and less time, leaving us with many leisure hours. Progress can be measured by the number of such hours. During them, the individual can look after his intellectual, moral, recreational, artistic needs and so on, or even secondary economic needs. Thus he will be able to switch between one occupation and another, and direct his activity down a thousand different avenues, marrying intellectual with manual labour. Here we have the ever-widening realm of fluid and flexible associations held together by all manner of affinities.
Even today we can see this natural division at work. Alongside the trade unions, which are not everything, but stand for the essential interests of life, there are like-minded groupings, countless more pliable associations concerned with society’s moral, intellectual, aesthetic and emotional life.
In the future, we imagine that the same division will persist: the trade unions, which are in any case open to all, will look after public services; other groups will look to the very important remainder of social life.
The very fact that the individual’s right of free access to the means of production is the very cornerstone of a libertarian society (one that is free in practice, rather than just in the letter of the law) not only is no impediment to association but is no barrier either to the establishment through voluntary pacts of norms that render exercise of that right feasible and easy, reconciling it with the public interest of which it is, in effect, the ultimate guarantor.
And the individual gladly abides by these freely accepted rules, which can always be amended in the light of the lessons of experience, because once his right is positively assured him, and not just asserted in theory, once he can actually exercise it, his chief concern is to see that work and society function smoothly, because of that very interdependence of interests that we have been examining.
– But what if we are talking, not about simple organizational norms, but of a concrete undertaking that does not admit of two simultaneous solutions? What if there are two opinions that cannot be reconciled? Which is to step aside? The minority view? Or should the venture proceed?
– In all likelihood, because of the need to hammer out agreement, the majority, bereft of any means of coercion, will make every concession and offer all sorts of assurances just to win the support and assistance of the minority, and the latter, not out of any obligation, but rather prompted by the very same need, will end up giving in to the greater number, especially since, faced with a choice between a fait accompli not quite entirely to our liking and nothing at all, the former is always the better option.
– But what if the majority’s plan were, in the eyes of its adversaries, a genuine calamity, an utter evil?
– To tell the truth, folly due to incompetence and public calamities for private profit are the stock-in-trade of governments today, pressing ahead stubbornly and frequently in the face of all warnings and counter-arguments – unless there is resistance coming from the government camp.
Let us hope that men who are free and equal, directly administering their own interests, will be more rational and far-seeing, and that when it comes to actual projects, these will be sorted out without such diametrically opposing disagreements between the experts and the interested parties.
Meanwhile, it is plain that the minority would always have the right to withhold its support and, in the event of this refusal not preventing the evil event, it would still have the consolation that it can await its revenge and wait for the mistake to be put right, if possible. At present, it does not even have that: so many vested oligarchic interests congeal around every mistake that a change of tack is rendered impossible…
– But ultimately, in practice, anarchists always abide by the law of majorities [?]…
– Sorry! It is not a matter of an imposed law, but rather of a rational expedient willingly embraced. Furthermore, what in democracies goes under the name of “majority rule” is in fact the rule of a tiny minority. Since there is delegation of power, no matter how genuine, honest and guarantee-girded the suffrage may be, the outcome, filtered through parties, regionalism and the contradictory interests of the thousand electoral and parliamentary subdivisions, is still, inescapably, law imposed by a minority.
– You speak of freedom in choice of trade. But what if vocations and individual wishes do not tally with society’s production needs? What if some services are short of manpower while other trades are over-manned? When there is not the allure of higher wages, nor the bosses’ authority to make cuts?
– Look into the reasons why there is a manpower shortage, improve the least sought-after jobs in terms of technique and hygiene or cut working hours. Later, the advancement of machinery, health and work organization will have an ongoing tendency to remove the differing degrees of difficulty, drudgery and healthiness separating the trades.
And if, in spite of all this, a crucial and irreplaceable service remains understaffed, there is still the option of all those concerned taking turns to help out.
As for work that no one is willing to perform, there will be nothing but for it to be done by all of the able-bodied, if it represents a genuine shared need.