Anarchist practice has fallen sharply in recent years, with few actions either at mass level or at the level of specific groups. As a result we see a revival of the issue of how to get closer to ‘communism’ or to building situations that not only express our ideas and ethical and cultural values but are also capable of satisfying our fundamental personal and collective need for freedom. In other words, there is a proposal to create points of reference that go beyond the classical division between the personal and the political.
This corresponds to a growing need within the whole movement against capital today, not just the anarchist one. As hopes of profound changes in the social structure vanished with the spreading of desistance from the struggle, the concern with not letting oneself be engulfed by increasing restructuring has become greater: ‘We must continue to struggle for our own essential needs, because in any case it is not the time to talk of great macroscopic changes.’
The problem is that these impulses end up taking two roads which, if examined closely, both lead to the same dead end in the same ghetto. The first, more direct, road is that of desistance: nothing can be done, the enemy is too powerful. We might as well just rely on spreading our ideas (which are superior anyway) and not insist on attack, which only leads to repression, creating more difficulties for the movement in its fundamental activity of propaganda and spreading anarchist theory. The second, more tortuous, road is that of an organisational proposal linked to the idea of community.
Many comrades talk of ‘community’, although not always as something confined to one geographical area or in order to satisfy (or try to satisfy) certain needs, even basic ones. It should mean a different way of seeing life, culture, novelty, diversity. ‘Community’ thus escapes the dangers of conservatism or of becoming a mere repetition of empty slogans.
But very little is said about this ‘community’ in terms of its structural or other arrangement that could give some idea of its ‘operative’ side. It is seen in terms of a sense of participation, an awareness of the specific contradictions of anarchism (in truth never clear), and the desire for freedom and equality, without the former being realised at the cost of the latter, or vice versa.
Why do we believe that this road is equal to the first, that of declared and open desistance? It is easily said. Because the revolutionary struggle is an organisational fact, here and now, not simply a ‘cultural revolution’ (by the use of this term I am not referring to Mao’s cultural revolution, which has nothing to do with us, and which was ‘cultural’ in name only). Because the clash between classes leaves no room for ‘margins’ or free spaces that can be reached through operations carried out within the somewhat polluted currents of philosophical thought. Because the revolutionary always pays in first person, so is aware he will also have to face ‘sacrifice’, i.e. the postponement of projects, delay in the satisfaction of needs. Because anyone who really decides to attack the power of the oppressors cannot reasonably think that the latter will leave them in peace with their ‘ideal’ tensions of freedom and equality. Because if they really want these places of ‘communitarian’ living to be at all tangible in practical terms (and not just a cerebral exercise), they must also give some sign of good will, i.e. pronounce themselves to be against violence, against expropriation, especially in the individual sense, and against active solidarity with those who are really struggling and facing death every day, either at the workplace or in the other places where opposing interests clash.
At this point the provocation needs to be put in these terms, or so it seems to me:
We can talk about the idea of ‘community’ and limit ourselves to that. Very well. Then we should be clear about it.
Or we can try to put the idea of community into practice. All right. In that case we should be more specific about communitarian structures, activities, limitations and possibilities.
As far as the second point is concerned, we have only a vague critique of self-managed attempts within capitalist situations today, which do not take the many other problems into account.
I must say when one finds oneself faced with a myriad of not always edifying historical examples, it is always best to take a step back from an idea, no matter how important, useful or pleasant the latter might be. And the problem of ‘community’ is undoubtedly of this kind.
Let us take a look at it. The idea of ‘community’ is not specific to anarchists. On the contrary it has been developed throughout philosophical thought (the academic codification of the ideas of the dominant class) in opposition to the concept of ‘society’.
Leaving aside the specific use that Plato, Fichte and Hegel made of the idea of ‘community’, one example that needs to be borne in mind is Marx and Engel’s analysis of the primitive community in which the history of humanity began. This was to become a final community where the history of the proletariat and the class struggle were to resolve themselves. Such philosophical determinism reaches its full tragi-comic expression in Stalin’s theories of ‘community’ that stand up well alongside the theories of the National Socialists, who were not just theoreticians but ‘almost’ architects of a ‘community of a sacred culture and people’ (by force, of course).
So far we are clearly within the area of a supra-national interpretation of the concept of ‘community’.
But another elaboration of this concept has been realised in the workshops of academia, one that comes closest to the ideas that are being discussed in the anarchist movement today. This sees ‘community’ not as a supranational entity, but as a particular link between individuals, in other words as a ‘social relation’. According to this way of seeing things, individual relations are brought about by common interest, creating interaction that serves to amalgamate the ‘community’.
This concept was first formulated by the German Romantic school, by a theoretician of religion (Schleiermacher) to be precise, in 1799, and his ideas are undoubtedly linked to his concept of ‘religion’ which means ‘to bound together’ or ‘tie together’.
Then in 1887 Tonnies, in a more detailed formulation, described community as a natural organism within a kind of collective will aimed at satisfying prevalently collective interests. In this organism, individual urges and interests atrophy to a maximum degree, while the cultural orientation tends to reach an almost sacred dimension. There is global solidarity between all members. Property is held in common. Power (at least as it is understood today) is absent.
The model presented by Tonnies for his analysis is that of European rural society, in the peasant villages. Kropotkin, for his part, drew on other realities (that of the Russian ‘mir’) and from other anthropological literature (in the English language), but had a fairly similar model in mind.
In my opinion the error lies in believing that it is natural to act in a way that is both specific to certain communitarian situations, and to the historical course of a communitarian feeling that existed among certain peoples before the disintegration of the social order. In other words it was thought that some communitarian institutions had survived destruction by the modern State and continue to exist in incomplete forms that are still visible today, such as the family (or extended family), neighbourhood groups, co-operatives, etc. This is all really quite naive. Less naive, but just as mistaken (therefore dangerous), is the point of view of those who say that community is a ‘union’ that is felt ‘subjectively’ by its members, whereas society is only understood through an objective arrangement.
None of this detracts from the feelings of solidarity, equality and the refusal of individual power and property that the exploited have been capable of realising in quite well-defined forms. Just as it does not detract from the concept of self-organisation, spontaneous creativity and projectuality of those who are against power.
What I want to question here is the validity and possible use of the concept of ‘community’, if only for the following reasons:
a) in the light of the history of this concept, we cannot consider community to indicate a value that is superior to that of society;
b) it follows that we cannot consider ‘community’ to be part of a cultural heritage of progress against reaction;
c) point b) is demonstrated by the fact that the fascist and reactionary movements also—in their own way—made reference to the concept of community;
d) it is not easy to free community from the aura of the sacred or the bearer-of-truth. This has a distorting effect on the undeniable solidarity that spreads within it, a solidarity that often extends acritically under a flag or slogan;
e) it would be far from easy to separate the concept of ‘community’ from its original rural and peasant base with all the implications that are now far off in time and certainly in contrast to a general situation of profound technological change.
It seems to me that we can wind up by simply saying that there is no need to have recourse to concepts such as ‘community’, which carry pollutants that are not easy to filtre out, in order to point to the effective capacity for self-organisation that the exploited possess.
When this concept is used to refer to a possible organisational form, deceiving oneself that it would overcome the limits and contradictions, dangers and traumas that revolutionary anarchist activity inevitably carries with it in a situation of profound social laceration such as the present, I must stress my disagreement.
[Original title: Mal di ‘Comunita’, ProvocAzione 5, May 1987. English translation by Jean Weir in collaboration with John Moore and Leigh Starcross, published in Dissonances, Elephant Editions, London]