On Planning and Proudhon (plus new Kropotkin translation)

Happy new year! Let us hope that2018 is better than 2017, but also let us not hold our breath. First off, just before the holidays I finally posted my article “Proudhon’s constituted value and the myth of labour notes which appeared in Anarchist Studies this time last year. Second, there is a newly translated Kropotkin article at the end of this blog.

I submitted this article a few years back and have had to sit on it until it was published – to ensure that Anarchist Studies ran it. Also, I should note that I fixed two very minor typos that got into the printed version. Oh, and obviously the pdf version I have provided does not match the layout of the published version – so if you need to get page numbers, you will need to buy it.

This article as well as my review of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy are the fruit of an attempt to go through Marx’s book and critique it. This proved to be quite a bit of work, as Marx’s book is pretty poor. It can only be considered a classic if you have not read the two volumes it is meant to be a reply to. Also, Marx rarely gave page numbers – unsurprisingly, given that he made quotes up and was apt at selective quoting. So a misleading book – talking of which, I was flicking through David Harvey’s new book Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason and he spends a few pages repeating Marx’s nonsense on Proudhon and “labour notes.” He also adds that Proudhon would have been horrified by the notion of “the associated producers,” so showing how little he has actually read by Proudhon.

Suffice to say, if your notions of Proudhon are based on secondary sources – particularly Marx – then you do not really have a grasp of his ideas. And if that is the case, please refrain from wittering on about things you have no knowledge of – instead read his work.

My long critique of Marx’s diatribe remains unfinished (although I blogged extracts in the past, for example the appendix on Engels’ equally misleading On the Housing Question). I would like to complete it, but first I should get agreement from a publisher. Given what I’m about to discuss, I should mention that this critique (and so the review and article) came from a desire a few years back to finally work out what Proudhon mean by “Constituted Value” for, like many others (not least, Kropotkin), I had assumed that this meant labour-notes.

Which caused me a problem. Before reading Proudhon I had assumed that he was a poor theorist – having read Marxists on him. After reading him, I knew that this was not true. He was clearly an excellent theorist with a good grasp of both reality and the key writers of his time. So why did he advocate “labour-notes”? Surely he was clever enough to recognise the problems in this given a market economy?

Let me quote Engels on this (from the 1885 preface to The Poverty of Philosophy):

“Labour, again, is taken uncritically in the form in which it occurs among the economists. And not even that. For, although there is a reference in a couple of words to differences in intensity of labour, labour is still put forward quite generally as something which ‘costs’, hence as something which measures value, quite irrespective of whether it is expended under normal average social conditions or not. Whether the producers take ten days, or only one, to make products which could be made in one day; whether they employ the best or the worst tools; whether they expend their labour time in the production of socially necessary articles and in the socially required quantity, or whether they make quite undesired articles or desired articles in quantities above or below demand – about all this there is not a word: labour is labour, the product of equal labour must be exchanged against the product of equal labour. Rodbertus, who is otherwise always ready, whether rightly or not, to adopt the national standpoint and to survey the relations of individual producers from the high watchtower of general social considerations, is anxious to avoid doing so here. And this, indeed, solely because from the very first line of his book he makes directly for the utopia of labour money, and because any investigation of labour seen from its property of creating value would be bound to put insuperable obstacles in his way. His instinct was here considerably stronger than his power of abstract thought which, by the by, is revealed in Rodbertus only by the most concrete absence of ideas.

“The transition to utopia is now made in the turn of a hand. The ‘measures’, which ensure exchange of commodities according to labour value as the invariable rule, cause no difficulty. The other utopians of this tendency, from Gray to Proudhon, rack their brains to invent social institutions which would achieve this aim. They attempt at least to solve the economic question in an economic way through the action of the owners themselves who exchange the commodities. For Rodbertus it is much easier. As a good Prussian he appeals to the state: a decree of the state authority orders the reform.”

Yet Proudhon does not invent “social institutions” to resolve the problems of pricing goods in labour-hours. System of Economic Contradictions does not contain much in the way of alternatives, they are mentioned in passing and relate to workers associations (“the organisation of labour,” or the “universal association” of earlier works) . Why? Simply because he was not advocating pricing by labour-notes! There is no need to worry about ensuring goods are being demanded, no need to worry about intensity of labour, no need to work out how to handle workers using more productive technics, and so on. For if products are being sold on the market for Francs then competition will act – not least in eventually driving down prices so that value becomes “constituted” (settled) at its labour-costs.

(If in doubt, please consult my article where I provide the necessary quotes by Proudhon on this – and much more, like showing how Marx mocks Proudhon for positions he himself will later expound in Capital. It is particularly amusing to read him mock Proudhon on what would become his own theory of exploitation over a decade later...).

Proudhon’s solution is hardly difficult to envision – he would abolish wage-labour by means of association, “the organisation of labour” as he put it in 1846 and the appropriate financial bodies (his Bank of the People comes later, but he clearly sees the need for banks in System of Economic Contradictions). Nothing too taxing in terms of envisioning there. Let us recall Kropotkin’s description of capitalism:

“The day when the labourer may till the ground without paying away half of what he produces, the day when the machines necessary to prepare the soil for rich harvests are at the free disposal of the cultivators, the day when the worker in the factory produces for the community and not the monopolist – that day will see the workers clothed and fed, and there will be no more Rothschilds or other exploiters.

“No one will then have to sell his working power for a wage that only represents a fraction of what he produces.” (“Expropriation”, The Conquest of Bread)

So Kropotkin and Proudhon agree on abolishing wage-labour: selling “working power” to an owner, whether a landlord or a capitalist. They differ purely in how products are distributed. For Kropotkin, distribution should be free. For Proudhon, distribution should be by selling on the market. Both aim to end exploitation and both have the same socialisation of the means of production. The difference comes later. As Kropotkin put in it The Conquest of Bread:

“The mitigated individualism of the collectivist system [or Proudhon’s mutualism] certainly could not maintain itself alongside a partial communism – the socialisation of land and the instruments of production. A new form of property requires a new form of remuneration. A new method of production cannot exist side by side with the old forms of consumption, any more than it can adapt itself to the old forms of political organisation.”

There are good reasons to be critical of Proudhon’s support of the market (for products, not for labour-power). While confident that his system would end economic crises, he does not really prove it. Yes, ending the extra uncertainty caused by capitalists and landlords needing to secure a profit would help immensely to stabilising the market but it does not end the aggregate impact of independent producers causing gluts/scarcities (something he highlights himself in his chapter on value). Similarly, he does not address how market pressures can and do make producers act in ways they would prefer not to in order to survive (but, then, he probably considered that a good thing given his comments about the benefits of competition!). Nor do a person’s needs relate to their deeds – income related to labour is all fine and well if you are young and healthy… And market prices, while providing some information, hides a lot – and can provide misleading signals and, even when accurate, can provide a response which while individually rational is collectively bad – see sections I.1.3 and I.1.5 of An Anarchist FAQ for more discussion.

However, I am getting away from the topic. As Engels notes, many advocates of “labour-money” had to create “social institutions” to equate supply and demand. He mentions Gray, which is ironic because he – like Bray – was an advocate of central planning and was in no way a market socialist like Proudhon (as discussed in my article). Engels mocks Rodbertus for his comments as regards pricing by labour-notes:

“If Rodbertus has hitherto always had the misfortune to arrive too late with his new discoveries, this time at least he has the merit of one sort of originality: none of his rivals has dared to express the stupidity of the labour money utopia in this childishly naive, transparent, I might say truly Pomeranian, form. Since for every paper certificate a corresponding object of value has been delivered, and no object of value is supplied except in return for a corresponding paper certificate, the sum total of paper certificates must always be covered by the sum total of objects of value. The calculation works out without the smallest remainder, it is correct down to a second of labour time, and no governmental chief revenue office accountant, however many years of faithful service he may have behind him, could prove the slightest error in calculation. What more could one want?”

The irony is that Marx in his 1875 (but published in 1891) Critique of the Gotha Programme actually advocates issuing labour notes (as he does elsewhere). Indeed, of the two (Marx and Proudhon), it is the Marx who actually supports labour-notes! Also, I should note after attacking Bray in The Poverty of Philosophy for suggesting labour-notes as a transitory scheme needed before we reach communism, later the same year he writes an obviously transitory scheme (a state-capitalist one at that!) in the Communist Manifesto (which is published early in 1848). So the orthodox can use Marx to defend all sorts of positions, which is handy I suppose if you need to always base yourself on the holy texts…

Anyway, back to the point. Engels then notes that in a market economy issuing labour-notes is impossible because the producers have no notion of social demand when they create their goods and services. It is worth quoting in full:

“In present-day capitalist society each industrial capitalist produces off his own bat what, how and as much as he likes. The social demand, however, remains an unknown magnitude to him, both in regard to quality, the kind of objects required, and in regard to quantity. That which today cannot be supplied quickly enough, may tomorrow be offered far in excess of the demand. Nevertheless, demand is finally satisfied in one way or another, good or bad, and, taken as a whole, production is ultimately geared towards the objects required. How is this evening-out of the contradiction effected? By competition. And how does competition bring about this solution? Simply by depreciating below their labour value those commodities which by their kind or amount are useless for immediate social requirements, and by making the producers feel, through this roundabout means, that they have produced either absolutely useless articles or ostensibly useful articles in unusable, superfluous quantity. Two things follow from this:

“First, continual deviations of the prices of commodities from their values are the necessary condition in and through which the value of the commodities as such can come into existence. Only through the fluctuations of competition, and consequently of commodity prices, does the law of value of commodity production assert itself and the determination of the value of the commodity by the socially necessary labour time become a reality. That thereby the form of manifestation of value, the price, as a rule looks somewhat different from the value which it manifests, is a fate which value shares with most social relations. A king usually looks quite different from the monarchy which he represents. To desire, in a society of producers who exchange their commodities, to establish the determination of value by labour time, by forbidding competition to establish this determination of value through pressure on prices in the only way it can be established, is therefore merely to prove that, at least in this sphere, one has adopted the usual utopian disdain of economic laws.

“Secondly, competition, by bringing into operation the law of value of commodity production in a society of producers who exchange their commodities, precisely thereby brings about the only organisation and arrangement of social production which is possible in the circumstances. Only through the undervaluation or overvaluation of products is it forcibly brought home to the individual commodity producers what society requires or does not require and in what amounts. But it is precisely this sole regulator that the utopia advocated by Rodbertus among others wishes to abolish. And if we then ask what guarantee we have that necessary quantity and not more of each product will be produced, that we shall not go hungry in regard to corn and meat while we are choked in beet sugar and drowned in potato spirit, that we shall not lack trousers to cover our nakedness while trouser buttons flood us by the million – Rodbertus triumphantly shows us his splendid calculation, according to which the correct certificate has been handed out for every superfluous pound of sugar, for every unsold barrel of spirit, for every unusable trouser button, a calculation which ‘works out’ exactly, and according to which ‘all claims will be satisfied and the liquidation correctly brought about.’ And anyone who does not believe this can apply to governmental chief revenue office accountant X in Pomerania who has checked the calculation and found it correct, and who, as one who has never yet been caught lacking with the accounts, is thoroughly trustworthy.

“And now consider the naiveté with which Rodbertus would abolish industrial and commercial crises by means of his utopia. As soon as the production of commodities has assumed world market dimensions, the evening-out between the individual producers who produce for private account and the market for which they produce, which in respect of quantity and quality of demand is more or less unknown to them, is established by means of a storm on the world market, by a commercial crisis. If now competition is to be forbidden to make the individual producers aware, by a rise or fall in prices, how the world market stands, then they are completely blindfolded. To institute the production of commodities in such a fashion that the producers can no longer learn anything about the state of the market for which they are producing – that indeed is a cure for the crisis disease which could make Dr. Eisenbart envious of Rodbertus.”

Proudhon would not disagree, which was why he did not advocate the abolition of competition or the market (Marx proclaims in section I of his book that Proudhon advocated the end of competition and in section II that he did not). Indeed, he uses the expression “law of value” to describe the process by which competition works (needless to say, I’m sure that Engels, like most Marxists, thought Marx coined that particular term). I mention in a footnote Proudhon summarises this later in The Philosophy of Progress and here is the quote:

“The idea of value is elementary in economics: everyone knows what is meant by it. Nothing is less arbitrary than this idea; it is the comparative relation of products which, at each moment of social life, make up wealth. Value, in a word, indicates a proportion.

“Now, a proportion is something mathematical, exact, ideal, something which, by its high intelligibility, excludes caprice and fortune. There is then, on top of supply and demand, a law for comparison of values, therefore a rule of the evaluation of products.

“But that law or rule is a pure idea, of which it is impossible, at any moment, and for any object, to make the precise application, to have the exact and true standard. Products vary constantly in quantity and in quality; the capital in the production and its cost vary equally. The proportion does not remain the same for two instants in a row: a criterion or standard of values is thus impossible. The piece of money, five grams in weight, that we call the franc, is not a fixed unity of values: it is only a product like others, which with its weight of five grams at nine-tenths silver and one-tenth alloy, is worth sometimes more, sometimes less than the franc, without us ever being able to know exactly what is its difference from the standard franc.

“On what then does commerce rest, since it is proven that, lacking a standard of value, exchange is never equal, although the law of proportionality is rigorous? It is here that liberty comes to the rescue of reason, and compensates for the failures of certainty. Commerce rests on a convention, the principle of which is that the parties, after having sought fruitlessly the exact relations of the objects exchanged, come to an agreement to give an expression reputed to be exact, provided that it does not exceed the limits of a certain tolerance. That conventional expression is what we call the price.

“Thus, in the order of economic ideas, the truth is in the law, and not in the transactions. There is a certainty for the theory, but there is no criterion for practice. There would not even have been practice, and society would be impossible, if, in the absence of a criterion prior and superior to it, human liberty had not found a means to supply it by contract.” (“Second Letter”)

He also adds:

“It says that property, like the price of things, is originally the product of a contract, that that contract is determined by the necessity of labour, just as the convention which fixes the price of things is determined by the necessity of exchange; but that, just as with time and competition the price of each thing approaches more and more their true value, just as with time and credit property tends more and more to approach equality. Only, while the price of merchandise, or the just remuneration of the labourer, generally reaches its normal rate in a rather short period, property only arrives at its equilibrium after a much longer time: somewhat as if one compared the annual movement of the earth to the revolution of the equinoxes.” (“Second Letter”)

Proudhon in 1846 explicitly talks about how “Constituted Value” requires “oscillations” in supply and demand and competition in order to be determined. I should note that Bray – whom Marx compared to Proudhon to proclaim the latter’s unoriginality – recognised the need for planning to equate supply and demand. In other words, Marx’s “critique” of Bray in The Poverty of Philosophy simply restates what Bray actually advocated…

Engels’ critique of Rodbertus is of note because it clearly shows that the market provides information to producers. Without that information, the producers cannot make sensible decisions. As such, he seems to have predated von Mises and von Hayek and their arguments on the market by many decades. Likewise, Proudhon recognised the issue as regards State socialism and its abolition of the market (in the shape of Louis Blanc) in System of Economic Contradictions:

“How much does the tobacco sold by the administration cost? How much is it worth? You can answer the first of these questions: you only need to call at the first tobacco shop you see. But you can tell me nothing about the second, because you have no standard of comparison and are forbidden to verify by experiment the items of cost of administration, which it is consequently impossible to accept.” (Property is Theft!, 197)

It is funny seeing “Austrian” economists proclaiming their originality on the “calculation” issue in socialism… while echoing debates within socialism made decades before they put pen to paper! And best not ask them how well the capitalist corporation – that (increasingly large) island of central planning within the sea of markets – processes and utilises information…

Let us return to Engels. The issue is, of course, that while mocking Rodbertus for his, let us say, optimistic evaluation of the abilities of the Prussian State bureaucracy, where does that leave his and Marx’s “common plan”? He is well aware of the problem, but does he provide a solution?

In short, no. All the problems he identifies with Rodbertus and his schemes somehow disappear when it comes to his version of socialism. He paints the creation of the plan as simple in the extreme in Anti-Duhring:

“From the moment when society enters into possession of the means of product and uses them in direct association for production, the labour of each individual, however varied its specifically useful character may be, becomes at the start and directly social labour. The quantity of social labour contained in a product need not then be established in a roundabout way; daily experience shows in a direct way how much of it is required on the average. Society can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam-engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality. It could therefore never occur to it still to express the quantities of labour put into the products, quantities which it will then know directly and in their absolute amounts, in a third product, in a measure which, besides, is only relative, fluctuating, inadequate, though formerly unavoidable for lack of a better one, rather than express them in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time. . . Hence, on the assumption that we made above, society will not assign values to products. It will not express the simple fact that the hundred square yards of cloth have required for their production, say, a thousand hours of labour in the oblique and meaningless way, stating that they have the value of a thousand hours of labour.”

No mention here of the difficulties associated with “labour” for which he berates Rodbertus for ignoring. No mention here of organisational skills needed to ensure all this equates for which he berates Rodbertus for ignoring. Nor is there any discussion on how people’s wants are determined and ranked. He sums up:

“It is true that even then it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour-powers. The useful effects of the various articles of consumption, compared with one another and with the quantities of labour required for their production, will in the end determine the plan. People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted ‘value’”

It would appear that the problems of the system of Rodbertus are caused purely by the producers being independent of each other. As no one tells them what to produce to meet the (predetermined) demand of their goods, chaos ensures. Under the system of Engels the producers are not independent and what they produce has been determined by the common plan, so no chaos.

Yet he does not address the obvious need to the central bodies to identify, collect, process and compare the information needed – for both production and consumption. This will all be managed “very simply.” As I have indicated in section H.6.2 of An Anarchist FAQ (and in my chapter of Bloodstained) the Bolsheviks found it anything but “very simple” when they sought to apply these notions during the Russian Revolution: the centralisation of the economy was associated with bureaucracy, red-tape, supplies piling-up (and wasting) side-by-side with scarcity. So Bolshevik ideology made a difficult situation worse by making the existing economic crisis worse. This is just one of many aspects of Bolshevik ideology which made things worse.

At one talk I gave, someone proclaimed that obviously the Bolsheviks would run into trouble due to the backwardness of the economy – they had few telephones, so what do you expect? Yet when Marx smugly gave his two sentence alternative to Proudhon and Bray, there were no telephones at all. Similarly, Ernest Mandel (noted Trotskyist and most famous Marxist economist of his generation – although Paul Mattick was unimpressed) proclaimed that we need not worry about von Mises because now we had computers. Except, of course, Marx and Engels, like Lenin, clearly thought that central planning was feasible in their lifetimes which were long before computers were invented or even postulated as a notion (and best ignore the awkward fact that the proletariat was a minority within the working class).

Appeals to “backwardness” do not cut it, I am afraid. Also, technology should be a means of aiding processes – socialism needs to be able to work without such technological aids, otherwise it is fragile. Not least, because what happens if the technology fails? Or it gets hacked? Or, worse, the technology has bugs in it which were not discovered in testing? And so on.

Oh, I guess we can just assume that any of this never happens… what is one more impossible or unlikely assumption between comrades? Indeed, if you list the assumptions needed for Central Planning you cannot help but notice how similar they are to the assumptions of neo-classical economics, not least Walrasian General Equilibrium. Which explains why, when Oskar Lange suggested replacing the (fictional) auctioneer of Walras with a (real) central planning body to do the needed tâtonnement – rising/lowering of prices to reach equilibrium – the economics profession declared his victory over von Mises and von Hayek. While I'm sure it is a feat of mathematics, it does not reflect reality and its assumptions pointless when not actively misleading.

(It could be argued that notions of central planning are, in part, a product of the use of money. After all, taxation allows money to be allocated to specific tasks and so it is an easy jump to thinking central allocation would produce social control. Yet Marx and Engels wanted to abolish money while keeping the illusion of simplicity. This may explain why many Marxists, and ex-Marxists like Michael Albert, prefer to keep money than dump the notion of a “common plan”).

In summary, I have indicated – via Engels – how the market’s divergence between price and value provides information which allows producers to meet demand. This is called “the law of value” by Proudhon – a term utilised by Marx and Marxists without acknowledgement – and which remains at the heart of his notion of “Constituted Value.” This is why he did not advocate labour-notes for he recognised the need of competition to constitute value – and drive down prices to labour-value. The abolition of property, the socialisation of the means of production, would end wage-labour as associated producers would exchange the products of their labour – and property needed to be socialised to stop workers associations from hiring new workers and so re-introducing wage-labour. Use would be divided – and so workers would control their labour and its product – but ownership would be undivided. This would end exploitation, for workers would not have to “share” the product of their labour with owners. So it is obvious how Proudhon laid the foundations for both collectivist and communist anarchism.

Which brings me to Kropotkin and libertarian communism. Obviously, both communist and mutualist anarchism share a lot of common ground. Both oppose wage-labour and advocate workers control. Both recognise the need for socialisation of the means of production. Both recognise the need for economic federalism (Proudhon, as well as seeing the benefits of competition, was also well aware of its negative aspects and regularly pointed to the need for what he called “an agricultural-economic federation” in 1863). The difference is in distribution, with libertarian communism opposing all markets and arguing distribution should be based on need, not deed.

Surely the arguments sketched above apply to libertarian communism just as much as to Engels’ Marxist-communist vision?

The key difference between anarchist-communism and Marxist-communism is that the former is a decentralised (multi-centred) system while the later is a centralised. The “common plan” involves gathering all needs and all production options and then somehow processing them into a “common plan.” This would solve the problems he lists as regards Rodbertus – to his own satisfaction. Yet Engels simply shifts the problem back a stage – Rodbertus sought to (somehow) equate actually produced goods with labour-notes issued centrally. Engels seeks to predetermine centrally what these goods should be before they are produced. The problems he mocks Rodbertus for ignoring still exist – indeed, they are worse for decisions are not made by independent producers but by a central body.

For anarchist-communism, decisions are not being made centrally. So in terms of evaluating options to satisfy needs, the set of options to evaluate is drastically reduced for those making the decisions – on both sides, in terms of production and consumption. A group of people need something specific and based on these needs the number of technical solutions is limited. Given a set of requirements, the number of alternatives is very limited. Similarly, the numbers of those who produce these possible inputs are also limited. So going from millions of products and billions needs as in a centralised system, we reach a small subset of products for very specific needs.

There is a misnomer about capitalism (or markets) that seem to be assumed in Marxist literature, namely that capitalists simply “throw” goods onto the market (if memory serves, Lenin used that word often). This is not entirely true – capitalists do plan (or try to) and so they arrange contracts with other firms to provide inputs and take outputs (I will ignore externalities but obviously capitalists have an interest in imposing some outputs onto others – something price hides). This reduces uncertainty (as goes expanding the firm by integrating independent contractors into the firm) and so what is demanded and supplied is well-known in advance. But, of course, the future cannot be predicted (and this applies to the creators of “the common plan” as well, particularly when they are bureaucrats at the centre). Goods are “thrown” onto the market with some expectation that they will sell.

Of course, markets add to the uncertainty associated with (economic and other) life – and unexpected developments (such as a crisis or changes in the distribution of income or changes in taste/needs, etc.) can cause problems, leading to sales not being sufficient and so causing disruption (and so contributing to the creation or the deepening of crisis). I should note that this will affect even the best central planning, as industrial accidents happen (so disrupting supply chains) and people may change their minds (sometimes voluntarily sometimes not as when illness strikes) on what they want to consume – unless, of course, the “common plan” enforces the planned consumption on all, regardless. The future cannot be predicted, all we can do is assume and hope to mitigate uncertainty as best we can. And we should never forget that markets are rarely in equilibrium (unlike in neo-classical economics, when they always are) and as Simonde de Sismondi noted long ago:

“Let us beware of this dangerous theory of equilibrium which is supposed to be automatically established. A certain kind of equilibrium, it is true, is re-established in the long run, but it is after a frightful amount of suffering.” (New Principles of Political Economy, vol. 1, pp. 20-21)

However, this should not make us lose sight of the role of contracts to communicate information and secure the meeting of needs. This would be the case in libertarian communism, with individuals, co-operatives, syndicates and communes identifying their needs and directly seeking others to help meet them. In addition, there would be federations of both to help co-ordinate responses (at appropriate levels). In other words, there would be plans at various levels – from individual all the way to society-wide ones, but not a single “common plan” which would specify all demand and all supply beforehand (a somewhat difficult task, regardless of what Engels asserted). This also means that various bodies and forums would exist to communicate needs and the information prices provide in order to evaluate options (although it is important to stress that price dissolves key information into a general rating and hides or ignores other, important, information). As the evaluations are being made within a very specific context and not trying to compare a vast multitude of needs, products and processes (assuming you could identify, gather and process that data in the first place!), planning becomes possible – for there are a multitude of plans reflecting concrete needs and the evaluation of actual products and processes. In this situation, evaluation of alternatives becomes possible without money and markets.

I think George Barrett summarises it well in his excellent pamphlet The Anarchist Revolution:

“Let us imagine now that the great revolt of the workers has taken place, that their direct action has made them masters of the situation. Is it not easy to see that some man in a street that grew hungry would soon draw up a list of the loaves that were needed, and take it to the bakery where the strikers were in possession? Is there any difficulty in supposing that the necessary amount would then be baked according to this list? By this time the bakers would know what carts and delivery vans were needed to send the bread out to the people, and if they let the carters and vanmen know of this, would these not do their utmost to supply the vehicles, just as the bakers set to work to make the bread? If, as things settled down, more benches were needed on which to knead the bread, in just the same way is it not easy to see that the carpenters would supply them? If an intimation were given to the engineers that machinery were wanted, would they not see that this received their immediate attention? The engineers in their turn would apply to the draughtsmen for designs, and to the foundrymen for castings. In turn, again, the draughtsmen apply to the papermakers for paper, and to the workers in the pencil factories for pencils. The foundrymen, in the meantime, apply to the furnacemen, and these in their turn to the miners for more iron ore and coal. So the endless continuity goes on — a well-balanced interdependence of parts is guaranteed, because need is the motive force behind it all.

“Who bosses, who regulates all this? No one! It starts from below, not from above. Like an organism, this free society grows into being, from the simple unit up to the complex structure. The need for bread, hunger — or, in other words, the individual struggle to live, in its most simple and elementary form — is, as we have seen, sufficient to set the whole complex social machinery in motion. Society is the result of the individual struggle for existence; it is not, as many suppose, opposed to it.

“In the same way that each free individual has associated with his brothers to produce bread, machinery, and all that was necessary for life, driven by no other force than his desire for the full enjoyment of life, so each institution is free and self-contained, and co-operates and enters into agreements with others because by so doing it extends its own possibilities. There is no centralised State exploiting or dictating, but the complete structure is supported because each part is dependent on the whole. The bakers, as we have seen, need the carpenters and engineers, and these would be no use if they were not supplied by other workers, who in their turn are just as dependent on yet another branch. What folly if the engineers should presume to dictate to the bakers the conditions of their labour, and it would be equally without reason if a committee, styling itself the Government, should become boss of all these industries and begin to control their production and interchange, which must in the nature of things already be well adjusted and orderly. Those who control production in this manner are invariably those who enjoy the larger part of that which is produced; that is why the politicians try to insist upon the necessity of such control. Alas! that they should be so tamely followed by so many workers who have not yet cleared their minds of the old slavish instincts.”

I would add that as well as providing requests for products (X amount of good Y), various pieces of information would also be provided to help decision making. Some of this information would reflect that provided by prices (both “objective” ones, such as labour and resources used, and “subjective” ones, such as how much in demand relative to stocks it is) and that which prices hide or ignore (pollution, quality of work, etc.). Anyway, this is sketched in section I of An Anarchist FAQ so I will not repeat it here.

The great strength of Kropotkin is that he recognised the importance of local knowledge and local action, of the role of people of initiative. He recognised that central bodies would have a hard time gathering this information and knowledge, that the Jacobin and Marxist dream of centralised decision-making may work on paper but would never work in practice. As indicated above, Engels was very glib on how easy the creation of the “common plan” would be, while Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy spends all of about a (short) paragraph on it – and generalises from the example of two people and two products to a national economy of millions of both without batting an eye-lid. Kropotkin never makes the creation of socialism look as easy as Marx and Engels did.

I should also note here that Kropotkin did not consider communism to be the immediate outcome of a revolution – he indicated, repeatedly, we cannot expect the initial stages to be as communist as we would like or hope. His aim in The Conquest of Bread is to present an overview of what is needed while recognising that any real revolution would vary in what happens where. He explicitly rejects the idea of “overnight” revolutions in that book and states that different areas will progress at different rates and try different solutions. And he was right – on both counts. Real revolutions are messy and actual solutions will never be as ideal as we hope. Rather than become – like the ultra-left – so pure as to be impractical, Kropotkin saw the role of anarchists in shaping how revolutions and mass movements develop. He would not have dismissed workplace occupations which sold the product of their labour on the market as “self-managed capitalism” (a nonsensical description) but rather see that as a step in the right direction and work with them towards distribution according to need over time: an better “mistakes” like this than the centralised inertia and bureaucracy the Bolsheviks imposed.

So in terms of immediate communism, Kropotkin is much like that other communist-anarchist, his friend Errico Malatesta. While a more romantic writer than the ever-so-realistic Malatesta, when you look closely at Kropotkin’s writings he shares the same awareness of the issues and recognition that libertarian communism cannot be wished into existence. It will need to be built and so will be a product of social development. Nor should we forget that we will inherit a structure of industry which reflects capitalist priorities as well as class society and its distribution of income. That will take some time to adjust to priorities based on human values.

Saying that, Malatesta is still my favourite dead anarchist even if my appreciation of Kropotkin has grown over the years – particularly after reading or translating his articles for the anarchist press. He was a realistic revolutionary, even if he had a romantic turn of phrase at times.

All of which makes the article below of interest. It is the fifth and final part of a series, the second part of which I have previously blogged before. The translation is not perfect in that there are a couple of bits which I am not completely happy with, but these are minor and overall I am happy enough with it to publish it. Particularly as it is of note for Kropotkin’s stressing of the need for local knowledge, action and initiative and the how hopeless a central body would be to meet the diverse needs of both the class struggle now as well as any future socialist society. The latter, I should note, was raised by him in 1920 in the letter included in my last blog. He was proved right – unsurprisingly, because he had long recognised the limitations of central bodies and the importance of local, fragmented, dispersed knowledge – incorporating both in his politics: not only for the future but for current struggles.

Anyway, this is a subject about which much could be written. Yet we must never forget the importance of current struggles – for these will influence how any future revolution will develop. If you like, the transition period starts now! Hence the importance of the Kropotkin article below.

Until I blog again, be seeing you!

International Congresses and the Congress of London

V (end)

(Les Temps Nouveaux, 10 October 1896)

We have seen the past of international congresses. Now let us take a look at the future.

Taking socialism as a whole, let us first note that no party can encompass it in its entirety. To try to do this, to strive to make it happen, as the social-democrats do, is a waste of time; it is to betray the cause that you claim to defend.

We must first recognise – recognise with happiness – that the movement of ideas which has been named socialism has gone beyond the period when we could hope to bring it within the framework of a single party. A party can no longer encompass it as a whole. It is already a flood, that we cannot dam anymore.

Like human thought itself, like society, it has taken on a variety of aspects and nuances that respond to the thousand shades of the human spirit, to the thousand tendencies that emerge in a society that lives, that thinks, that develops.

This variety of aspects is its strength. It is this that allows it to be universalised, to penetrate all classes of society – to make inroads into the peasant-owner and the peasant in the municipality, the worker of the large factory and the worker of the small Parisian business, the thinker, the writer, the artist. It is this that allows them to be united, all, in the same aspiration for equality and freedom, through the socialisation, in one form or another, of social capital – the heritage of humanity – put at the service of all.

All great movements have had this characteristic of universality and variety. We are happy that socialism has finally reached this stage, that it has gone beyond the embryonic period of the party, that it has become so widespread to the point of permeating society. This is proof that it will no longer be smothered.

So trying to bring this vast movement into a single party, to put it under a single programme, as the social-democrats do, is a waste of time. We must recognise the variety: it is life itself.


This being given, recognised, proven – what can be the role of future international socialist Congresses?

It must be openly recognised that any attempt to impose a government, a general guardianship on this movement is as criminal as it was [in the First International], that it is still the papacy’s attempt to want to rule the world.

It is one thing to believe in the usefulness of a government within a party. It is, after all, only an error of judgement. But to believe that you can impose a ruler [gouverne] on to a movement that tends to become as universal as civilised society itself – that is simply criminal madness, worthy of the Catholic Church but unworthy of a socialist.

This is what should be, first of all, understood in the movement; what the authoritarian socialists themselves must be brought to recognise.


Indeed, take any nation – France, England, Germany, Russia, whatever! [–] and you try to give an account of this immense throng of interests, thoughts, aspirations, that a nation represents.

England is the country in which industry dominates, and where already half of the country’s workers are enlisted in large factories. It is immense, compared to the continent. But can it be said that the interests of the nation are summed up in the interests of these two or three million workers? That it would suffice to render them masters of their factories to solve the social question? That he who speaks in their name, and asks, on their behalf, the socialisation of the factories, speaks in the name of the working class of England? – And the workers of the soil? And the form of possession of the soil itself which, at bottom, takes precedence over all economic questions? And the trade that sustains more people than the soil itself in this country of merchants? And these millions of others who live from work in the thousand small industries that abound in England as elsewhere?

How much more complicated is the social question when you go to France, where half of the population exists on the products of the soil? In Germany, where two-thirds, if not more, are in the same situation? In Russia, where nine-tenths of the population are farmers? In Italy and Spain, which are somewhere in between Russia and France?

Well, do you represent those millions, scattered amongst the villages and hamlets, and the multitude of their interests, their conflicts, their mutual relations, their relationships to the thousand strings of the State – and the sincere man in his thought must recognise that there are thousands and thousands of interests about which socialism, as it is today, has not only never pondered, but did not even suspect.

Nobody – no individual in the world, not even a universal arch-genius – can speak in the name of those thousands and thousands of interests. Nobody except the totality of all those interested parties, speaking, and above all acting, themselves, learning [what] their interests [are] through their very action.

* * *

Since the current conditions of economic and political life do not meet the needs of society, we see a thousand movements arising and sprouting from all points in society which seek to demolish these conditions, vaguely inspired by this fundamental idea of socialism: “The wealth already produced and the means to produce new riches should belong to society – not to the individual.” Movements which seek, each in its own domain, the means of reaching this aim, and whose very goal is determined and defined as they work to achieve it.

* * *

Already today we see four or five groups of various movements taking shape.

We have the social-democratic movement, representing in our societies the Roman, Catholic, and later Jacobin tradition of the centralised, disciplined State, concentrating in its hands the political, economic and social life of nations. This tendency exists in society, it has its past, and in socialism – the reflection of society – it is represented by the more or less social democracy, with a thousand nuances of its own.

Then we have the anarchist movement, which has frankly affirmed itself as communist, and aims at the demolition of the State to substitute for it the direct free agreement of consumer and producer organisations, grouped to satisfy all the infinitely varied needs of human nature. It represents the popular tradition of societies.

In this same movement, we still have the group which, watchful about safeguarding the rights of the individual, [is] based mainly on individualism, making cheap points against socialisation (the primary basis, in our opinion, for the blossoming of individuality); a movement which still has its reason for being [raison d’être], to counterbalance the authoritarian tendencies of Communism.

Then we have an immense, a colossal trade union worker movement [mouvement ouvrier corporatif], which, by modest increases of wages and reductions in hours of work, has already done more, perhaps, than all the other movements to affirm the rights and respect of the man in the worker, and which does not aim at anything less than to drive the master out of the factory, the mine, the transport routes, by waging guerrilla warfare every day.

Then comes another large movement – very large in England – the co-operative movement, straying from its origins but tending nevertheless today to pour its current into the great socialist flood, which will eventually win. A movement that aims to eliminate that immense number of intermediaries who place themselves between the producer and the consumer, and tries to replace the boss by associated producers.

Then come all these movements of agreements between peasants which, under the name of syndicates, are created as soon as the law ceases to punish them as criminals; the varied and deep movements that forge links of direct agreement between farmers and which it would be absolutely necessary to bring back into the open and put in contact with the general flood of socialism. The movement of co-operation in small trades, which occurs mainly in Russia under the initiative of a few pioneers, comes to line up with the two previous ones.

Then come all these movement which, either in the form of consciousness objection [révolte consciente] as in France or religion as in Russia, strongly work in the popular masses to produce rebellion against the State in its two main manifestations – military service and taxation. Movements that can only be ignored if you want to remain absolutely ignorant of the immense role played by similar movements in the history of all popular uprisings in previous periods.

In addition, we are witnessing a profound communalist movement, the effects of which we have already seen in the uprisings of the communes in Paris, in the south [of France], in Spain. A movement which has deeply stirred minds, since 1871, in France and Spain and which, in England, has lately been given a strong push, not only in the direction of what they tend to call “municipal socialism,” but even more so in a whole body of ideas germinating in the working masses.

And finally, it is impossible to ignore the various movements that occur in the best elements of the bourgeoisie itself, and which result in either a whole series of more-or-less philanthropic institutions, that is to say by movements to manual labour, “to the people,” “to the land,” and so on, as well as by a tendency accentuated every day in literature, art and science, and which denotes that the bourgeoisie is already losing, in its best representatives, faith in its right to exploitation.

A host of other small movements should be mentioned – such the liberation of the individual from [hypocritical] morality, the emancipation of women, ethical movements, etc., etc. But, let us move on!

Finally there is all this throng of rebels, here individually, there in groups, who revolt against all social and political inequities, who sacrifice themselves to awaken the slumbering society and, by their actions, broach all [issues]: exploitation, servitude in all its aspects, hypocritical morality.

* * *

And they want all these movements, in which thousands of men and women are seeking, in one way or another, to directly transform society, moving with more or less efficiency towards the socialisation of wealth – they want all these varied movements to cease to exist and be epitomised in one mode of action: that of naming candidates to parliaments or municipalities!!

They want to absorb all these energies in electoral struggles – for what? That the deputies, who, themselves, do not do this work of direct transformation of morals, institutions and ideas, find – intuitively, I suppose – the means of bringing about all these transformations by means of laws?

They want those who prepare the social revolution in actions and concrete ideas to abandon this task to the makers of laws. As if it were enough to become a legislator to understand all that these millions of individuals learn in their daily struggles against authority, the boss, the priest, the policemen, the State [employed] teacher, the narrow selfishness of ignorance, laziness of mind!...

To hear such nonsense said and preached is almost enough to make you despair of a human nature that never seems to overcome this idea of saviours, of popes discovering the truth by intuition from above and producing a miracle!

* * *

Well, since it is certain that the personal contact of intellects and conflict stimulates minds, and that this contact is achieved better in Congresses than by the press, we do not need a Congress, we need a hundred, a thousand.

Many are already held. There is no lack of Congresses [–] regional and national, trade union [corporatifs], co-operative, although agricultural unions are still lacking, [those] concerning the work of the small trades, etc. But that is not all.

All these currents, necessarily, will be led to pour into socialism. The era requires it. Is this a reason, however, for waiting, with folded arms, for the Marxist “negation of the negation” to produce itself? On the contrary, it is necessary that in each of these congresses the voice of the socialist, especially the anarchist, should be heard. Let him speak there, not as a teacher who comes to lecture the children or to come to tell them that all their work is useless – but as a man who understands that all these currents have their reason for being; that without them the social revolution would be impossible; that they all bring their little stone to the reconstruction of society, which must be done locally and on the spot, by those same groups; that all must eventually be inspired by the idea of the century – as a man who understands this and who comes to bring them this inspiration.

The social-democrat cannot do that; he can only say to them: “Vote!” It must therefore be up to the anarchist to go there, to fight, to speak, where they hardly suspect the revolution to be carried out; to speak to them – not of the uselessness of the work, but of the new utility it would gain if this small current is poured into the great flood of social reconstruction. In addition, a compelling need is happening right now. The discussion of socialism, as a whole, was interrupted in 1870, and has never been resumed since. A whole flood of preposterous theories is circulating at this moment under the name of “scientific socialism,” and, under this cover, they are debating nonsense [énormités] that would have made poor Marx’s hair stand on end.

It is time for the discussion of socialism to resume, for a complete review of the goods circulating under the brand “patented S.G.D.G.” to be made – not only in the press, as our friends D. Nieuwenhuis and Tcherkesoff have undertaken, but in plain sight, in front of the socialists of the two worlds.

The newspaper, the pamphlet, the book prepares the ground. But it must also be done openly [avec éclat], in congresses, at large congresses – prepared by discussions in groups – to which would be invited all those who are keen to clarify ideas or to obtain information themselves.

It is obviously in this direction that it will be necessary to work.

Peter Kropotkin

[N.B. S.G.D.G. (“Sans Garantie Du Gouvernement”) was legally required to be stamped on French products with a legal patent between 1844 and 1868. Meaning “Without Guarantee of the Government,” it signified that the patent did not mean that the State guaranteed the proper functioning of the product.]


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