Communalism and Communism

“Zapata” (1931) by David Alfaro Siqueiros. Oil on canvas, 53 1/4 in. × 41 5/8 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn. © 2019 ARS/SOMAAP. PHOTO BY LEE STALSWORTH.

Societies which engage in production for means of subsistence on a communal level, however that community is particularly defined, can most accurately be termed “communalist.” This communalism can encompass different forms of production and social relations, and typically has continuity within a dominant mode of production such as the tributary mode of production or even capitalism. That is not to say there is never an antagonistic relationship with the dominant mode of production, but that communalism is not simply overturned.

Historically, Marxists have referred to the purest form of communalism, where it is a mode of production and of life, as opposed to a social form alone, as “primitive communism.” This is society before the development of forms of private property or classes, where surplus product is used in common by the community rather than appropriated by the ruling classes.

Communalism as a mode of production in fact can not only encompass exchange, small-scale pre-capitalist commodity production, but can also have the early beginnings of a development of classes. Of course, the ascent of both of these represents the subversion of communalism as a dominant mode of production.

Communalism is closely related to so-called “natural economy.” That is, modes of production where not only do the producers own the means of production, but their production is necessarily in harmony, more or less, with the cycles of the ecology they exist within, as the primary logic of production is long-term communal subsistence. Thus, the economy seems “natural” in that there is not an antagonistic between this set of social relations and the ecology it situates itself within and is situated within.

The perception of a divorce between human society and nature comes where a logic of production becomes antagonistic with ecology. For example, capital’s pursuit of endless expansion in a finite world, with short-term realization of capital through the pursuit of as short of circuits as possible. Or, its divorce of the worker from the means of production and acquisition of means of subsistence, thus alienation from labor, product, and ecology. The lattermost now being viewed as “nature,” something defined as being distinct from, and typically antagonistic to, humanity, something which must be battled and tamed like a wild beast.

Communalist production for subsistence consumption typically holds a view of the “purpose” of production, and life broadly (the mode of production also a mode of life) as “labor for life.” This, as opposed to capitalistic “life for labor” associated with the logic of production for the accumulation of capital. With this principle of “labor for life,” the support of those unable to labor, such as the elderly or disabled, is more “common sense” to this mode of production. That is not to say that ableism is non-existent in communalist societies, but that it is nowhere near the core logic-associated issue that it is under capitalism.

The emergence of new dominant modes of production, as alluded to earlier, does not always lead to the decisive subsuming of communalism. What form the totality of the new society takes, and how, is particular to specific historic contexts and developments. In some cases, class society emerges from the communalist mode of production by its own internal developments. In others, by the imposition of outside invaders, operating in expansion on the internal logic of their own mode of production. Even in the latter case, the end of continuity of communalism is not necessarily guaranteed. As Marx says in the Grundrisse:

“In all cases of conquest, three things are possible. The conquering people subjugates the conquered under its own mode of production (e.g. the English in Ireland in this century, and partly in India); or it leaves the old mode intact and contents itself with a tribute (e.g. Turks and Romans); or a reciprocal interaction takes place whereby something new, a synthesis, arises (the Germanic conquests, in part). In all cases, the mode of production, whether that of the conquering people, that of the conquered, or that emerging from the fusion of both, is decisive for the new distribution which arises. Although the latter appears as a presupposition of the new period of production, it is thus itself in turn a product of production, not only of historical production generally, but of the specific historic mode of production.”

In the first possibility for conquest, the project of eliminating the conquered people’s mode of production, is still a struggle, a protracted process which is rarely “completed.” Even where it seems to be snuffed out, there is still the living memory of it in the masses of the people, and the continuity of superstructural characteristics of the old mode of production (i.e. culture, celebrations, spiritual practices, stories, motifs, family structures, etc). This holds for the eclipsing of communalism as a dominant mode of production by a new one. In many cases, especially where the shift emerges from within the particular communalist society rather than from invasion, this shift originates with slave labor.

Slave labor is not inherently antagonistic with the internal logic of most forms of the communalist mode of production. This brings us directly to one of the core limitations of the communalist mode of production, and its dissolution into a social form under a dominant mode of production. Communalism is limited to citizens of the commune, however that is defined, and not only does not avoid antagonisms with, appropriation of and from, and exploitation of non-citizens, but can even depend on it. Again we will refer to Marx’s Grundrisse:

“Membership in the commune remains the presupposition for the appropriation of land and soil, but, as a member of the commune, the individual is a private proprietor. He relates to his private property as land and soil, but at the same time as to his being as commune member; and his own sustenance as such is likewise the sustenance of the commune, and conversely etc.

The commune, although already a product of history here, not only in fact but also known as such, and therefore possessing an origin, is the presupposition of property in land and soil — i.e. of the relation of the working subject to the natural presuppositions of labour as belonging to him — but this belonging [is] mediated by his being a member of the state, by the being of the state — hence by a presupposition regarded as divine etc.”

From a later section:

“The fundamental condition of property resting on the clan system (into which the community originally resolves itself) — to be a member of the clan — makes the clan conquered by another clan propertyless and throws it among the inorganic conditions of the conqueror’s reproduction, to which the conquering community relates as its own. Slavery and serfdom are thus only further developments of the form of property resting on the clan system. They necessarily modify all of the latter’s forms.”

This slavery in communalism holds within it the seeds of antagonistic class society and “class” property. That is, the subsuming of the communalist mode of production. In fact, this revolution of property and class has typically taken the form of a patriarchal revolution. In most pre-private property gendered divisions of labor, the labor of men centers on appropriation (whether through hunting or raiding) and that of women centers on gathering, horticulture, and agriculture. Sedentarization and the development of agriculture has often been identified with patriarchy, but this is not necessarily true.

What is true is that where the labor division of men is empowered relative to women and non-men, patriarchy emerges. In most cases, this empowerment takes the form of the ownership of slaves and cattle as private property. This is associated with agricultural production, but in fact can exist in nomadic societies as well. The development of class society is thus first, in almost all histories, the development of the earliest form of patriarchy. Let us turn to Leslie Feinberg’s Lavender and Red:

“The policing of sexuality and gender expression — and the very existence of police as a repressive force — are rooted in the development of class society. Reactionary laws that narrowly defined the sexes, degraded the economic and social status of women, and justified state repression and harsh penalties for same-sex love and gender diversity were instituted around the world wherever patriarchal class rule overturned matrilineal pre-class societies.

In some societies the change was slow and gradual. Labor technique over centuries became more productive, leading to the accumulation of surplus. The struggle that ensued over control of this surplus resulted in the overturning of cooperative economic and social relations. In other cases, pre-class communal societies were conquered by the armies of patriarchal ruling classes. In those instances, matrilineal kinship lines were severed abruptly. In both instances, the new world order served the dictates of patriarchal private ownership of the new social wealth.”

With the dawn of class society, private property, and patriarchy comes the dusk of the communalist mode of production and of matrilineal societies. Where this occurs, the continuity of a communalist social form can, and often does, represent a continuity of matrilineal social practices, such as cults of women or non-men deities, pre-patriarchal community celebrations and practices, the power of women and non-men over medicine and spiritual affairs. It can also become internally subsumed by patriarchy, albeit not very decisively. This is a trend associated with the possibility of conquest outlined by Marx above, where the dominant social form and mode of life synthesizes with the old one.

With regards to this synthesis, communalism as a social form can and does have a long continuity outside of the communalist mode of production. It is in fact usually incorporated into the dominant modes of life it finds itself within. For example, tributary modes of production often hold within them quite strong continuities of communalism. The communities continue to produce communally, providing for their means of subsistence with common labor, while the ruling classes appropriate some part or all of their surplus above their means of subsistence.

The extent of autonomy which these communalist social forms have, of course, depends on the logic of the dominant mode of production and social form, as well as on the capacities and possibilities available to both. For example, when the feudal Spanish Empire colonized Mexico, it had to allow a great degree of autonomy for Indigenous peoples of necessity, as it did not have a capacity for centralized rule outside of Mexico City.

The key transformation pursued was the organization of Indigenous peoples in reducciónes, or towns, concentrating them into population centers in order to ensure ease of tribute collection and acculturation (primarily religious) into the new colonial society. These, of course, had strong continuity of communalism. Communal farms called ejidos were protected by the Crown and Church as a means of synthesizing Spanish rule with Indigenous societies and ensuring the stability of New Spain.

The emergence of capitalism represents the most decisive historic challenge to communalist modes of production and social forms. The process of primitive accumulation is the means by which the conditions of production for capitalism are produced and reproduced. It is not only a means for the appropriation of initial capital through expropriation of land, resources, and labor, but a means of the creation and reproduction of a class of wage laborers through the divorce of producers from means of production as a means of realizing capital.

Marx describes the ramifications of this for pre-capitalist modes of production and social forms broadly, particularly communalism, in Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations:

“One of the prerequisites of wage labor, and one of the historic conditions for capital, is free labor and the exchange of free labor against money, in order to reproduce money and to convert it into values, in order to be consumed by money, not as use value for enjoyment, but as use value for money. Another prerequisite is the separation of free labor from the objective conditions of its realization — from the means and material of labor. This means above all that the workers must be separated from the land, which functions as his natural laboratory. This means the dissolution both of free petty landownership and of communal landed property, based on the oriental commune.

In both these forms, the relationship of the worker to the objective conditions of his labor is one of ownership: this is the natural unity of labor with its material prerequisites. Hence, the worker has an objective existence independent of his labor. The individual is related to himself as a proprietor, as master of the conditions of his reality. The same relation holds between one individual and the rest. Where this prerequisite derives from the community, the others are his co-owners, who are so many incarnations of the common property. Where it derives from the individual families which jointly constitute the community, they are independent owners co-existing with him, independent private proprietors.

The common property which formerly absorbed everything and embraced them all, then subsists as a special ager publicus [common land] separate from the numerous private owners. In both cases, individuals behave not as laborers but as owners — and as members of a community who also labor. The purpose of this labor is not the creation of value, although they may perform surplus labor in order to exchange it for foreign labor — i.e., for surplus products. Its purpose is the maintenance of the owner and his family as well as of the communal body as a whole. The establishment of the individual as a worker, stripped of all qualities except this one, is itself a product of history.”

Capitalism, the growth of a mode of production characterized by commodity production generalized and private ownership of the means of production, emerges bloodsoaked from its mutilation and slaughter of communalist social forms. In English terms, not only the Enclosure of the Commons in England, but very importantly the destruction of the communalist mode of production in Ireland, Scotland, and North America.

Further, the expropriation of the communalist indigenous from their homelands, their genocide, and the introduction of colonial, private property-based commodity production. Primitive accumulation (as Silvia Federici outlines in Caliban and the Witch) also ensures a subservient reproductive role of women to the commodity economy, their labor being devalued and men, bourgeois or wage-laborers, being empowered relative to this non-value producing (but reproductive) labor. Those outside of the logic of the patriarchal gender system are repressed. This revolution is one of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy.

Primitive accumulation is not a one-time event. Capitalism must continue to not extend itself, or in other words produce itself in new regions, but reproduce itself. It must continue to impose itself over communalist social forms, ensure the availability of wage laborers, and ensure consumption of commodity products. Not only this, but find outlets for its contradictions which create anxiety and pressure.

For example, the export of the industrial reserve army, those laborers who are made redundant, unemployable by the capitalist mode of production’s internal logic, as colonizers and settler-colonists. The creation of middle strata is represented by the creation of such colonizers as well as the co-optation of parts of the colonized.

Capitalism’s revolutionary overturn of communalist, and general pre-capitalist modes of production/social forms is not always a simple elimination. It also involves co-optation and integration. The distinguishing character of capitalist co-optation is that its need for endless expansion eventually undermines this. As it seeks to expand the scale of production, it consumes and transforms what were once pre-capitalist or communalist societies which it introduced commodity exchange to as an outlet to sell surplus products to. An example of this was French colonial, and then English colonial, relations with the Alonquian peoples. Rosa Luxemburg explains this contradiction in The Accumulation of Capital:

“The general result of the struggle between capitalism and simple commodity production is this: after substituting commodity economy for natural economy, capital takes the place of simple commodity economy. Non-capitalist organisations provide a fertile soil for capitalism; more strictly: capital feeds on the ruins of such organisations, and although this non-capitalist milieu is indispensable for accumulation, the latter proceeds at the cost of this medium nevertheless, by eating it up.

Historically, the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates. Thus capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist organisations, nor, on the other hand, can it tolerate their continued existence side by side with itself. Only the continuous and progressive disintegration of non-capitalist organisations makes accumulation of capital possible.”

As Immanuel Wallerstein, in Historical Capitalism, and Alain de Janvry, in The Agrarian Question and Reformism in Latin America, recognized, capital also depends on some degree of continuity of production of means of subsistence among its laborers for operation. Where there are semi-proletarians, usually former peasants, who both produce means of subsistence and must sell their labor-power to survive, the capitalists can buy their labor-power for less than the cost of their means of subsistence. They do not need to pay for the means of subsistence they produce themselves, only the part they must buy. Thus, a lower cost for the bourgeoisie, ensuring cheapness of, largely agricultural, goods, and their realization in consumption.

This is another form of co-optation, but again one undermined by expansion of capital in the hands of the agrarian bourgeoisie and the general expansion of the scale of capitalist production. Capital pulls the ground from beneath its own feet. It of necessity destroys itself. This is, however, not our focus here. The key point is both that communalist social forms have continuity in the capitalist world-system, and they can also be co-opted by it.

The defense of communalism and of the commons where they are viable is absolutely something to be taken up by revolutionary socialists. A very well-known and highly visible example of this struggle is that of the Zapatistas, in the early 20th century and contemporarily with the EZLN.

The original Zapatistas were largely Indigenous people struggling to defend ejidos, communal land holdings, against encroachment by the comprador bourgeois regime of Porfirio Diaz and later Francisco Madero, Victoriano Huerta, and the bourgeois regime of Venustiano Carranza and beyond.

The EZLN are again largely Indigenous, and formed out of a legacy of Marxist guerrillas fighting against the neoliberal Mexican state’s dissolution of communal land holdings and the neocolonial forces represented by the World Bank, IMF, and US. While there are certainly criticisms to be had of the EZLN, its struggle against capitalist imperialism and the destruction of the commons, and its defense of Indigenous communalist modes of life, is to be supported.

Historically, there have been many Marxists who have taken a crude unilinear understanding of historic development which has led them to support capitalist expropriation of communalist social forms as “forwarding the tide of history.” This is vulgar economic determinism. Communalism can be and has been a nexus of resistance and revolution against capitalism, “life for labor,” and capitalist patriarchy.

The defense and development of the commons and their independence from the capitalist mode of production is a struggle for breaking out of the capitalist system. This is a struggle we revolutionary socialists adopt as part of the struggle for socialism. It is, of course, a protracted struggle, and true separation from the world system cannot truly be successful without development of the forces of production and of the socialization of production.

The defense and development of the commons is not only of community gardens for production of means of subsistence, the promotion of community owned urban agriculture, the defense of public, common spaces against privatization and commodification, but importantly the defense and development by indigenous peoples of their own commons.

The breaking out of the capitalist system is not something that can be done by building dual power alone, as the limitations of wage-labor on outlays on commons as well as the repressive force of the state and bourgeoisie point to a need for revolutionary struggle operating from the springboard of communal development.

This struggle, of course, cannot be limited only to the restoration or preservation of communalism. It must be in pursuit of development. Earlier we have made reference to the limitations of communalism. We will now turn to Kwame Nkrumah’s African Socialism Revisited for an overview evaluation of the prospects of communalism as it relates to revolutionary socialism:

“To be sure, there is a connection between communalism and socialism. Socialism stands to communalism as capitalism stands to slavery. In socialism, the principles underlying communalism are given expression in modern circumstances. Thus, whereas communalism in a non-technical society can be laissez-faire, in a technical society where sophisticated means of production are at hand, the situation is different; for if the underlying principles of communalism are not given correlated expression, class cleavages will arise, which are connected with economic disparities and thereby with political inequalities;

Socialism, therefore, can be, and is, the defence of the principles of communalism in a modern setting; it is a form of social organisation that, guided by the principles underlying communalism, adopts procedures and measures made necessary by demographic and technological developments. Only under socialism can we reliably accumulate the capital we need for our development and also ensure that the gains of investment are applied for the general welfare.

Socialism is not spontaneous. It does not arise of itself. It has abiding principles according to which the major means of production and distribution ought to be socialised if exploitation of the many by the few is to be prevented; if, that is to say, egalitarianism in the economy is to be protected. Socialist countries in Africa may differ in this or that detail of their policies, but such differences themselves ought not to be arbitrary or subject to vagaries of taste. They must be scientifically explained, as necessities arising from differences in the particular circumstances of the countries themselves[…]

It is the elimination of fancifulness from socialist action that makes socialism scientific. To suppose that there are tribal, national, or racial socialisms is to abandon objectivity in favour of chauvinism.”

To merely demand the continuity of largely closed-circuit production, where most of the produce is consumed by the limited community of producers, represents an obstacle for the development of the forces of production. This, in turn, limits the scope of the mode of production, thus failing to challenge the issues Nkrumah identifies, the inherent limitation of communalism to the citizens of the community.

This is not to say that communalism is always chauvinistic, or that those defending their own communalism are somehow “reactionaries.” It is to say that communalism on its own is not enough.

Socialism is not merely the return of communalism. Perhaps it can be more accurately expressed as the process of developing universalized communalism, operating off of the development of the forces of production and associated expansion of the scale of production represented by capitalism. The realization of this project is the realization of communism.

Communism must transcend ethnic, communal limitations and the lack of development in the forces of production which communalism hold. Communism must also be the solution of the contradiction between socialized production and private appropriation and the anarchy of said social production represented by capitalism.

So, a revolutionary socialist ought to work toward development, not preservation. With regards to communalism, this is part of the struggle for the abolishment of the distinction between town and country, combatting extreme concentration of people and industrial production in town centers and underdevelopment of forces of production and population sparsity in the countryside. This is what socialism represents the process of, and communism the realization of.

We cannot but deal with the question of humanism in coming here. We have critiqued communalism’s limitations to the commune-citizen. But what of the relation to capitalism, and the era of development from capitalism to communism which we call socialism?

Humanism adopts for itself an ethic of struggling for the betterment of “all humanity.” It evaluates things relative to real or imaginary common interests of all humans in human society.

The appearance of a universal human society, truly universal appearance of it, historically could not exist before the development of the capitalist world-system. Capital, more decisively than previous modes of production, draws all societies across the world into its system, creating a truly common mutual dependency across all regional “scenes” of the mode of production. This is the process of socializing production, which must of necessity occur for the successful, efficient realization of capital, and continues to develop with capitalist development.

However, the “universal humanity,” the “universal human society” which bourgeois society and its thinkers posit to see is in reality just that, bourgeois society. It is not human society generalized, but a specific set of social relations. Yes, a set which more than any other interconnects all human beings, but is still not undifferentiated into a “universal humanity.”

Instead, humanity is still divided into classes, nations, and the imperialist relations of the global division of labor. Not only is what benefits one human in a particular place in the web of global social relations what benefits another, but is typically at the expense of another. In short, class antagonisms still exist.

Where class antagonisms exist, all evaluations of “beneficial” or “harmful” are relative to the perspective of a particular place in social relations, whether they identify themselves as such explicitly or not.

The dominant bourgeois class, as with ruling classes before them, tries to posit its own class interests as the common human interest. The increase of profits, the realization of capital, the perfection of consumption are all posited as being in the interests of everyone, but are really in the specific interest of the bourgeois.

Marxist humanism can often, realizing it or no, adopt this false “universalism.” It can condemn living socialist states from what is really the perspective of the bourgeoisie, decrying “totalitarianism” which is really only felt as totalitarian from the eyes of the bourgeois, who obviously feel the expropriation of their private property quite strongly.

One must not forget that all evaluations, moral in particular, are relative in this manner. Thus, it follows that to speak of a pursuit of such humanism in a society divided in classes is an incorrect line. The “common interest of universal humanity” cannot be spoken of except where class distinctions are concerned. The abolition of these distinctions is the project of the revolutionary proletariat. We revolutionary socialists must operate with such a “proletariat perspective” in our analysis and evaluations.

Socialism is the process of abolishing class distinctions, developing the forces of production, and perfecting the socialized appropriation of production. Thus, what we must speak of in the context of the struggle for dictatorship and socialism is what is in the interests of the revolutionary classes.

It is often argued that the abolition of capitalist imperialism and development of socialism is liberating to all segments of society, including the bourgeois. This is not true. It is not liberating to them as bourgeoisie, as it liquidates their place as bourgeoisie. When they have an eye to restoration of their status, it is not liberating. It is only liberating to them when they have been incorporated into the growing and universalizing laboring class as part of the process of abolishing class distinctions.

This also holds for white people. The “white race” is not equivalent to “European.” Whiteness represents a privilege of particular social relations, being favored in the divisions of labor of a society, even in the laboring classes. Workers in the white caste are on average offered better pay, better residencies, better education, greater mobility within the laboring class, higher representation in management, and greater mobility out of the laboring class through the accumulation of surplus income as capital.

The abolition of colonial-imperialist relations represents the abolition of whiteness, and the caste systems of race broadly. This means a loss of status for white people as white people. The same principle as regards the bourgeois, where socialist development represents liberation only where they have been incorporated into the revolutionary laboring stratum, holds here as well, albeit in a different form. We suggest referring to Marx and Engels’ writings on England and Ireland to better understand this question.

A “humanism” cannot be spoken of except in the context of communism. In a society where class distinctions, caste-colonial distinctions, the gendered division of labor, and the global division of labor have been abolished, where appropriation has successfully been socialized in a universal manner, what is good for one is truly good for all.

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