A Short Introduction to Anarchist Communism
Ends & Means
The most important part of the working class tradition that we call anarchist communism is the refusal to make a distinction between ends and means. The organisations that we build while fighting capitalism will be the basis of anything that comes after the revolution. If those organisations do not embody the principles of the society that we want to see then that society will not come about. If we want a future where everyone contributes to the decisions that affect them, then we have to build organisations now in which this happens. The Anarchist Federation is one such organisation.
This is known as prefiguration and is one of the central ideas of anarchism. The idea is summed up by one important slogan: ‘Building the new society in the shell of the old’. What this means is that our struggle is not simply against capitalism. We also fight, as far as is possible, to live as we wish to right now, to build alternatives to capitalism right under its nose.
However, prefiguration has its limits. For many, building alternatives to capitalism in the here and now means one of two things: either a lifestyle or individualist response, or an attempt to create a dual power situation. Whilst the AF is often sympathetic to these approaches and doesn’t reject them completely, we do not believe that they can lead to revolution on their own. We also have some serious criticisms of both of them. But what are they?
The labels ‘lifestylist’ and ‘individualist’ are often used, frequently unfairly, as insults and so we have to be very careful when we use them. When we talk about ‘lifestyle’ politics we’re talking about a kind of politics that focuses in some way on ‘dropping out’ of capitalism, on getting ‘off the grid’ and living without relying on capitalist exploitation. This can mean many things. It can be something small-scale like living in squats and surviving by stealing from supermarkets or taking the perfectly good food that they throw out (‘skipping’ or ‘dumpster diving’). Or it can be something much larger like a project to communally farm a piece of land or establish a new community.
The reasons that people have for doing this kind of thing are very good ones. They see the harm that capitalism does every day and want no part of it. By stealing or taking what is thrown away they try to stop giving support back to the bosses that exploit us and others all over the world. More than this, often these kind of political lifestyle choices involve building and living in communities based on solidarity and mutual respect. Many involved in this kind of activity would argue that this is ‘building the new society in the shell of the old’.
Whilst we respect many of those who make these personal lifestyle choices, we reject this as a useful form of political action. The main reason for this is that it is not something that the majority of us can easily involve ourselves in. Significant debts, dependants, health problems or any number of other things that limit our freedom of action make it very difficult, if not impossible, to ‘drop out’. There is no possibility for building a lifestylist mass movement. Indeed, despite some claims to the contrary, lifestylism does not attempt to overthrow or destroy capitalism; it only attempts to wash its own hands clean of the blood.
This is, in fact, a huge political problem with lifestyle responses to capitalism. Often this form of politics leads to a kind of elitism and snobbery on the part of those living ‘political’ lifestyles. Ordinary people become ‘sheeple’, hopelessly brainwashed by their jobs and the media and as much part of the problem as those that own and run the economy. In its most extreme forms, such as primitivism, this leads to open calls for solutions that would lead to the extermination of the majority of the human race.
This kind of attitude is not an inevitable consequence of dropping out, but it is very common, and it is the result of an individualist way of looking at capitalism. Capitalism does not exploit us as individuals: it exploits us as classes or groups. We are exploited as workers, as professionals with some perks or temporary workers with none, as ‘consumers’ in the West or as disposable labourers in the global South. We are oppressed by institutional racism, misogyny, ableism, and in different ways based upon intersecting combinations of different oppressive forces.
If we respond to the damage that capitalism does to us as individuals then the only logical answer is to abstain. You live without a job, without shopping, without relying on the systems of exploitation that surround us. If this is impossible, then you minimise your impact. You get an ‘ethical’ job, buy ‘ethical’ products and reduce your contribution to exploitation that way. From here it’s only a short step to despising the those who aren’t as ‘enlightened’ as you, who keep capitalism going by ‘refusing’ to abstain.
However, if you respond to capitalism as member of a broader exploited class, then the logical response is collective. You can show solidarity with those in the same situation as you, fighting where you are for better conditions, and for more control over the conditions of your life. A collective response like this is always oppositional. It always has to fight capitalism rather than trying to go round it. It is, in potential, the beginning of a mass movement and the basis of a new society based on the recognition of our common interests.
In the end it is this collective direct action that the ruling class are afraid of, not people dropping out, and it is a self-organised mass movement ready to take collective direct action that we should be helping to build.
The other typical approach to prefigurative politics is trying to build dual power. This means trying to build organisations in the here and now that will eventually replace capitalism. There are a number of different approaches to dual power strategies.
Some see themselves as providing examples that can be taken up by others and perhaps eventually become state policy. They are rarely very confrontational about their ideas and see themselves as reformist rather than revolutionary (although often do seek the end of capitalism). Others hope to build entire alternative economies through cooperatives, credit unions, local trading systems, and the like. These structures, it is argued, could eventually reach the point where many people are in effect living outside the capitalist economy. Those in this tradition often, but not always, describe themselves as mutualists.
Some focus on building community or people’s assemblies to take local decisions and sometimes seek to take over local town halls and council chambers through elections. These groups often, but again not always, describe themselves as municipalist. Others focus on building revolutionary unions which will confront management in the workplace to get immediate gains. They will also just as importantly be run by direct democracy, giving workers experience of taking decisions and organising. These unions are then seen as able to take over industry in its entirety replacing capitalism as they do so. This is usually described as syndicalism.
All these approaches, and they often work in combination, see themselves as building a political and economic alternative to capitalism right under its nose. They argue that these alternatives are able to grow to the point where either capitalism withers away or there is a confrontation between the two systems which leads to revolution and the destruction of capitalism.
There are many positive things about these approaches. They encourage self organisation and direct action, while providing important lessons in collective working and experience of direct democracy for those involved. The AF does not reject any of these approaches out of hand and members often involve themselves in this kind of project.
However, there are important weaknesses in these approaches that limit their usefulness. These kinds of projects are highly vulnerable to attacks by the state. Laws can be passed that make most cooperatives illegal or at least very difficult to set up. Community assemblies can be denied resources, or even attacked directly by the police and the army. Those who pursue dual power strategies are often very over-optimistic about their ability to avoid repression. Capitalism and the state tend to attack any threat sooner rather than later.
It is not, however, direct attacks by the state that are the biggest problem with dual power strategies. The biggest problem is the risk of co-option. What this means is that movements and organisations which start out trying to provide an alternative are often ‘captured’ by capitalism, and end up helping to manage people’s exploitation rather than challenging it.
For example, cooperatives often become employers in their own right, with full cooperative members becoming managers and their new employees exploited workers like any others. Community groups are approached by local councils, given funding and access to some power and end up administering the council policies they set out to oppose. Housing co-ops become landlords. Credit unions become banks (building societies in the UK started out as community schemes). Syndicalist unions can crack down on wildcat strikes. Those who start out trying to build alternatives end up supporting the thing they hate.
Any potential alternative to capitalism in the here and now will have to interact with the things that it is trying to replace. A co-operative store will have to buy stock from capitalist suppliers. A community assembly will have to negotiate with the local council if it is to secure resources. Even syndicalist unions, a highly confrontational way of working, find themselves having to negotiate with managers.
This does not mean that we should reject completely all these ways of doing things. What it does mean, however, is that none of these are a road to revolution on their own. Instead of seeing these ways of working as a way of creating replacements for capitalism, we should see them as one way amongst others of creating a culture of resistance. It is this culture, and not any particular organisation, that it is important for us to build.