Georges Fontenis – Libertarian Communism, A Social Doctrine

Libertarian Communism, A Social Doctrine


It was in the 19th Century, when capitalism was developing and the first great struggles of the working class were taking place – and to be more precise it was within the First International (1861 – 1871) – that a social doctrine appeared called ‘revolutionary socialism‘ (as opposed to reformist or statist legalist socialism). This was also known as ‘anti-authoritarian socialism‘ or ‘collectivism‘ and then later as ‘anarchism‘, ‘anarchist communism‘ or ‘libertarian communism‘.

This doctrine, or theory, appears as a reaction of the organised socialist workers. It is at all events linked to there being a progressively sharpening class struggle. It is an historical product which originates from certain conditions of history, from the development of class societies – and not through the idealist critique of a few specific thinkers.

The role of the founders of the doctrine, chiefly Bakunin, was to express the true aspirations of the masses, their reactions and their experiences, and not to artificially create a theory by relying on a purely ideal abstract analysis or on earlier theories. Bakunin – and with him James Guillaume, then Kropotkin, Reclus, J. Grave, Malatesta and so on – started out by looking at the situation of the workers associations and the peasant bodies, at how they organised and fought.

That anarchism originated in class struggles cannot be disputed.

How is it then that anarchism has very often been thought of as a philosophy, a morality or ethic independent of the class struggle, and so as a form of humanism detached from historical and social conditions?

We see several reasons for this. On the one hand, the first anarchist theoreticians sometimes sought to trust to the opinions of writers, economists and historians who had come before them (especially Proudhon, many of whose writings do undoubtedly express anarchist ideas).

The theoreticians who followed them have even sometimes found in writers like La Boetie, Spencer, Godwin, Stirner, etc. ideas which are analogous to anarchism – in the sense that they demonstrate an opposition to the forms of exploitative societies and to the principles of domination they discovered in them. But the theories of Godwin, Stirner, Tucker and the rest are simply observations on society – they don’t take account of History and the forces which determine it, or of the objective conditions which pose the problem of Revolution.

On the other hand, in all societies based on exploitation and domination there have always been individual or collective acts of revolt, sometimes with a communist and federalist or truly democratic content. As a result, anarchism has sometimes been thought of as the expression of peoples’ eternal struggle towards freedom and justice – a vague idea, insufficiently grounded in sociology or history, and one that tends to turn anarchism into a vague humanism based on abstract notions of ‘humanity‘ and ‘freedom‘. Bourgeois historians of the working class movement are always ready to mix up anarchist communism with individualist and idealist theories, and are to a great extent responsible for the confusion. These are the ones who have attempted to bring together Stirner and Bakunin.

By forgetting the conditions of anarchism’s birth, it has sometimes been reduced to a kind of ultraliberalism and lost its materialist, historical and revolutionary character.

But at any rate, even if revolts previous to the 19th Century and ideas of certain thinkers on the relations between individual people and human groups did prepare the way for anarchism, there was no anarchism and doctrine until Bakunin.

The works of Godwin for example express the existence of class society very well, even if they do so in an idealist and confused way. And the alienation of the individual by the group, the family, religion, the state, morality, etc. is certainly of a social nature, is certainly the expression of a society divided into castes or classes.

It can be said that attitudes, ideas and ways of acting of people we could call rebels, non-conformers, or anarchists in the vague sense of the term have always existed.

But the coherent formulation of an anarchist communist theory dates from the end of the 19th Century and is continued each day, perfecting itself and becoming more precise.

So anarchism could not be assimilated to a philosophy or to an abstract or individualist ethic.

It was born in and out of the social, and it had to wait for a given historic period and a given state of class antagonism for anarchist communist aspirations to show themselves clearly for the phenomenon or revolt to result in a coherent and complete revolutionary conception.

Since anarchism is not an abstract philosophy or ethic it cannot address itself to the abstract person, to the person in general. For anarchism there does not exist in our societies the human being full stop: there is the exploited person of the despoiled classes and there is the person of the privileged groups, of the dominant class. To speak to the person is to fall into the error or sophism of the liberals who speak to the ‘citizen‘ without taking into account the economic and social conditions of the citizens. And to speak to the person in general while, neglecting the fact that there are classes and there is a class struggle, while satisfying oneself with hollow rhetorical statements on Freedom and Justice – in a general sense and with capital letters – is to allow all the bourgeois philosophers who appear to be liberals but are in fact conservatives or reactionaries to infiltrate anarchism, to pervert it into a vague humanitarianism, to emasculate the doctrine, the organisation and the militants. There was a time, and to be honest this is still the case in some countries within certain groups, when anarchism degenerated into the tear-shedding of absolute pacifism or of a kind of sentimental Christianity. It had to react to this and now anarchism is taking up the attack on the old world with something other than woolley thoughts.

It is to the robbed, the exploited, the proletariat, the worker and peasants that anarchism, as a social doctrine and revolutionary method, speaks – because only the exploited class, as a social force, can make the revolution.

Do we mean by this that the working class constitutes the messiah-class, that the exploited have a providential clear-sightedness, every good quality and no faults? That would be to fall into idolising the worker, into a new kind of metaphysics.

But the class that is exploited, alienated, conned and defrauded, the proletariat – taken in its broad sense and made up of both the working-class as properly defined (composed of manual workers who have a certain common psychology, a certain way of being and thinking) and other waged people such as clerical workers; or to put it another way the mass of individuals whose only function in production and in the political order is to carry out orders and so who are removed from control – this class alone can overthrow power and exploitation through its economic and social position. The producers alone can bring about workers control and what would the revolution be if it were not the transition to control by all the producers?

The proletarian class is therefore the revolutionary class above all, because the revolution it can bring about is a social and not just a political revolution – in setting itself free it frees all humanity; in breaking the power of the privileged class it abolishes classes.

Certainly nowadays there aren’t precise boundaries between the classes. It is during various episodes of the class struggle that division occurs. There are not precise boundaries but there are two poles – proletariat and bourgeoisie (capitalists, bureaucrats etc.); the middle classes are split in periods of crisis and move towards one pole or the other; they are unable to provide a solution by themselves as they have neither the revolutionary characteristics of the proletariat, nor real control of contemporary society like the bourgeoisie as properly defined. In strikes for example you may see that one section of the technicians (especially those who are specialists, those in the research departments for example) rejoins the working class while another (technicians who fill higher staff positions and most people in supervisory roles) moves away from the working-class, at least for a time. Trade Union practice has always relied on trial-and-error, on pragmatism, unionising certain sectors and not others according to their role and occupation. In any case, it is occupation and attitude that distinguish a class more than salary.

So there is the proletariat. There is its most determined, most active part, the working class as properly defined. There is also something wider than the proletariat and which includes other social strata that must be won over to action: this is the mass of the people, which comprises small peasants, poor artisans and so on as well as the proletariat.

It’s not a question of falling for some kind of proletarian mystique but of appreciating this specific fact: the proletariat, even though it is slow to seize awareness and despite its retreats and defeats, is ultimately the only real creator of Revolution.

Bakunin: ‘Understand that since the proletarian, the manual worker, the common labourer, is the historic representative of the worlds last slave-system, their emancipation is everyones emancipation, their triumph the final triumph of humanity…’

Certainly it happens that people belonging to privileged social groups break with their class, and with its ideology and its advantages, and come to anarchism. Their contribution is considerable but in some sense these people become proletarians.

For Bakunin again, the socialist revolutionaries, that is the anarchists, speak to ‘the working masses in both town and country, including all people of good will from the upper classes who, making a clean break with their past, would join them unreservedly and accept their programme in full.’

But for all that you can’t say that anarchism speaks to the abstract person, to the person in general, without taking into account their social status.

To deprive anarchism of its class character would be to condemn it to formlessness, to an emptiness of content, so that it would become an inconsistent philosophical pastime, a curiosity for intelligent bourgeois, an object of sympathy for people longing to have an ideal, a subject for academic discussion.

So we conclude: Anarchism is not a philosophy of the individual or of the human being in a general sense.

Anarchism is if you like a philosophy or an ethic but in a very specific, very concrete sense. It is so by the desires it represents, by the goals that it gets: as Bakunin says – ‘(The proletarians) triumph is humanity’s final triumph…’

Proletarian, class based in origin, it is only in its goals that it is universally human or, if you prefer, humanist.

It is a socialist doctrine, or to be more accurate the only true socialism or communism, the only theory and method capable of achieving a society without castes and classes, of bringing about freedom and equality.

Social anarchism or anarchist communism, or again libertarian communism, is a doctrine of social revolution which speaks to the proletariat whose desires it represents, whose true ideology it demonstrates – an ideology which the proletariat becomes aware of through its own experiences.

Part of: Manifesto of Libertarian Communism by Georges Fontenis

Next: The Problem of the Programme
Previous: Introduction

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