Anarchist Communism


This is the latest installment from the Anarchist Current, the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I continue my survey of the development of anarchist ideas. In this installment, I describe how the doctrine of anarchist communism arose from the debates within the anti-authoritarian sections of the International, following the split between the anarchists and the Marxists at the 1872 Hague Congress.

carlo cafiero

Carlo Cafiero

Anarchist Communism

It was from among the debates within the anti-authoritarian International that the doctrine of anarchist communism emerged in the 1870s. François Dumartheray published a pamphlet in February 1876 advocating anarchist communism, and Elisée Reclus spoke in favour of it at the March 1876 Lausanne Congress of the anti-authoritarian International. By the fall of 1876, the Italian Federation considered “the collective ownership of the products of labour to be the necessary complement of the [anarchist] collectivist” program of common ownership of the means of production (Nettlau: 139). Anarchist communism was debated at the September 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, with Paul Brousse and the Italian anarchist, Andrea Costa, arguing in favour, and the Spanish anarchists, Tomás González Morago and José García Viñas, defending the collectivist view, shared by Proudhon and Bakunin, that each person should be entitled to the full product of his or her labour.

At the October 1880 Congress of the Jura Federation, the delegates adopted an anarchist communist position, largely as the result of Cafiero’s speech, “Anarchy and Communism” (Volume One, Selection 32). Cafiero defined the communist principle as “from each and to each according to his will,” with everyone having the right to take what they will “without demanding from individuals more work than they would like to give.” With production being geared towards satisfying people’s wants and needs, instead of the financial demands of the military, the state and the wealthy few, there will be no “need to ask for more work than each wants to give, because there will be enough products for the morrow.”

Cafiero argued against the collectivist position on the basis that “individual distribution of products would re-establish not only inequality between men, but also inequality between different kinds of work,” with the less fortunate being relegated the “dirty work,” instead of it being “vocation and personal taste which would decide a man to devote himself to one form of activity rather than another.” Furthermore, with “the ever-increasing tendency of modern labour to make use of the labour of previous generations” embodied in the existing economic infrastructure, “how could we determine what is the share of the product of one and the share of the product of another? It is absolutely impossible.” With respect to goods which are not sufficiently abundant to permit everyone to take what they will, Cafiero suggested that such goods should be distributed “not according to merit but according to need,” much as they are in present-day families, with those in greater need, such as children and the elderly, being given the larger portions during periods of scarcity (Volume One, Selection 32).


Kropotkin further developed the theory of anarchist communism in a series of pamphlets and books, the best know and most influential being The Conquest of Bread (Volume One, Selection 33), and Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34). The Conquest of Bread helped persuade many anarchists, including former collectivists in Spain, anarcho-syndicalists (Volume One, Selections 58, 84, 95 & 114), and anarchists in Japan, China and Korea (Volume One, Selections 99, 106 & 108), to adopt an anarchist communist position, sometimes referred to, particularly in Spain, as “libertarian communism” (Volume One, Selection 124).

In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin set forth his vision of a decentralized anarchist communist society “of integrated, combined labour… where each worker works both in the field and in the workshop,” and each region “produces and itself consumes most of its own agricultural and manufactured produce.” At “the gates of your fields and gardens,” there will be a “countless variety of workshops and factories… required to satisfy the infinite diversity of tastes… in which human life is of more account than machinery and the making of extra profits… into which men, women and children will not be driven by hunger, but will be attracted by the desire of finding an activity suited to their tastes” (Volume One, Selection 34). This remarkably advanced conception of an ecologically sustainable society inspired many subsequent anarchists, including Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) in Germany (Volume One, Selection 111), and through him the kibbutz movement in Palestine (Buber, Volume Two, Selection 16, and Horrox, 2009), the anarchist communists in China (Volume One, Selection 99), the “pure” anarchists of Japan (Volume One, Selection 106), and the anarchist advocates of libertarian communism in Spain (Volume One, Selection 124).

communitas cover

Paul and Percival Goodman updated Kropotkin’s ideas in Communitas (1947), proposing not only the integration of the fields, factories and workshops, but also the home and the workplace, providing for decentralized, human-scale production designed “to give the most well-rounded employment to each person, in a diversified environment,” based on “small units with relative self-sufficiency, so that each community can enter into a larger whole with solidarity and independence of viewpoint” (Volume Two, Selection 17). In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) argued that “the anarchist concepts of a balanced community, a face-to-face democracy, a humanistic technology, and a decentralized society… are not only desirable, they are also necessary” to avoid ecological collapse and to support a libertarian society (Volume Two, Selection 48), a point made earlier by Ethel Mannin (Volume Two, Selection 14). Kropotkin continues to influence and inspire “green” anarchists, such as Graham Purchase, who advocates an anarchist form of bioregionalism (Volume Three, Selection 28), and Peter Marshall, with his “liberation ecology” (Volume Three, Selection 30).

There is another aspect of Kropotkin’s conception of anarchist communism that had far-reaching implications, and this is his vision of a free society which “seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects.” These “ever changing, ever modified associations” will “constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all” (Volume One, Selection 41). Some Italian anarchist communists, such as Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), argued for an even more fluid concept of voluntary association, opposing any attempts to create permanent organizations, whether an anarchist federation or a revolutionary trade union, arguing that any formal organization inevitably requires its members to “submit for the sake of discipline” and unity to “provisions, decisions, [and] measures… even though they may be contrary to their opinion and their interest” (Volume One, Selection 35).

As Davide Turcato points out (2009), the debate between “anti-organizationalists,” such as Galleani, and the “organizationalists,” such as Malatesta, “was a debate of great sophistication,” which developed many ideas which were to “become common currency in the sociological literature, particularly through the work of Robert Michels,” who recognized that “anarchists were the first to insist upon the hierarchical and oligarchic consequences of party organization.”

Most anarchist communists, including Kropotkin and Malatesta, believed that nonhierarchical organization is possible and desirable, although one must always be on guard against oligarchic and bureaucratic tendencies. In our day, Colin Ward (1924-2010), drawing explicitly on Kropotkin’s theory of voluntary association, has endeavoured to show that anarchist ideas regarding “autonomous groups, workers’ control, [and] the federal principle, add up to a coherent theory of social organization which is a valid and realistic alternative to the authoritarian, hierarchical institutional philosophy which we see in application all around us” (Volume Two, Selection 63).

Robert Graham



Additional References

Goodman, Paul & Percival. Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

Horrox, James. A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. San Francisco: AK Press, 2009.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Turcato, Davide. “Making Sense of Anarchism.” Introduction. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009.


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