Graham Purchase

Communal experimentalism

Many respected anarchist thinkers of the past, for example, Kropotkin and Reclus were appalled by their comrades/contemporaies attempt to create an anarchist or new society through the creation of small and isolated communist/communal experiments. An unfortunate practice with a long history and which shares characteristics or has parallels with monasticism, religious fanaticism/isolationism, colonialism and early communist experiments, rather than with modern anarchism as developed by workers during the first worker's international. Except those communal experiments based upon religious or authoritarian principles such ventures have never succeeded in lasting very long. The attempt to create economic self-sufficient 'utopian' communes in the wilderness, usually under difficult financial circumstances, by a very small number of people, mostly unacquaninted with agricultural/horticultural work, never succeeded in the 19th century--and the re-emergence of this infantile idea during the 'flower-power' era was a major reason for the failure of anarchism during its partial resurgence during the 1960's and 1970's (partial in that it was largely associated with pre-industrial/neo-primitivist perspectives propunded by university/hippy dropouts rather than workers and industrial issues). The reasons why such communist/commuanlist experiments fail are many and various, not least of which is that people get sick and tired of one another rather quickly. The fact that village life was never that easy nor economically viable, at least since the industrial revolution, makes the attempt to construct a new village founded upon untried and utopian principles from scratch virtual stupidity. More pertinently such self-indulgent activity has absolutely no relation to the economics of the real world and no impact upon the masses what so ever, and hence has no propaganda value. Besides it is not necessary to communalise everything, act as one big family and all eat around the same table. Housing co-operatives, community land trusts etc., can provide affordable housing and joint access to communal facilities without needing to foolishly attempt to create a communist utopia amongst a group of strangers bound only by an commitment to a usually ill-defined and probably unrealisable ideal. These issues are explored intelligently, and in some detail in a recently published pamphlet (available from the ASN) by Kropotkin, entitled Small Communal Experiments and Why They Fail.

Collectives and Support/propaganda Groups

As a noun a collective describes any social group whatsoever. As a political concept it is so indicise as to be practically worthless for the purpose of describing or analysing social phenomena. At the very least however we can say that a collective is a group or association rather that an individual or the state. However, this can describe anything from a large company to a group of children building a cubby house. Actually the most fruitful approach to the concept of collectivity is to point out that it is derived from the Latin _to pick_, thus collectivism denotes a state where people can pick or choose who they work with, and the way in which they work together. This is a very common form of organisation, a perfect example of a collective might be a group of people who happen to meet each other down the pub one Saturday night and get-it-together to play beach volley ball every Sunday thereafter. The point being that the way in which the group functions and comes together is a matter of choice rather than being imposed upon them. The word collective in anarchist thought specifically refers to an economic arrangement that lies between capitalism and anarchist communism. For example, the anarcho-communist idea of 'the big pile system' where people just take what they need from the common stock is perhaps too utopian to achieve right away. Thus, alternatively, it might be better to try this out with stuff that is plentiful whilst having some sort of formalised exchange system for less common items. The latter position was described as a collectivist or more realistic/practical programe rather than a communist position. Anarchists in the Spanish civil war used the term to describe a wide variety of economic experiments in villages and in factories/industries in Barcelona. The resurgence of interest in anarchism in the 1960's led to the word being misapplied by misguided hippies to describe what had previously been described as a 'propaganda group', sometimes, and sometimes not, centred around a prominent writer or activist, for example, the _Freedom Group_, the _Friends of Durruti Group_ or the _Miners Support Group_ Propaganda groups are many and various. The most common activities are running a bookshop/cafe/drop-in Centre, printing pamphlets, producing newspapers, running lecture series. A propaganda group is not an economic group upon which people gain their livelihood, but a voluntary, usually loss-making activity participated in during the members spare time (which people seem to have very little of these days). Anarchist propaganda groups, unlike most other political groupings have the added disadvantage of not having a party structure (and unfortunately these days attract people who eshew political and intellectual leadership). The point is though, that a propaganda group is not a collective, as it has no economic basis. A propaganda group is a group set up to persuade the general public to collectivise their communities and industries, it is not itself a collective. There are of course many collectives (outside the specifically historical anarchist use of the word) that do not have an economic basis, our group of beach volley ballers for example. Collective behaviour is very, very common, but only economic collectivism has any real political significance. To label a propaganda group a collective or the attempt to collectivise a loose assemblage of people undertaking propaganda activities upon a sporadic, and at best part-time basis, which provide them no economic reward, is at worst silly, and at best, hopelessly utopian and bound to fail. Obviously, what is needed is a party structure, not a propaganda group attempting the mega-utopian project of creating a communist utopia within the shell of their own propaganda group, in the absence of any economic link with the real world. However, in the absence of a party structure some organisation is required. As anarchism is still very much at the propaganda stage of its development, merely an idea-olgy rather than real-ity it is best to be rather modest in ones organisational aspirations. A group of 5 or 10 people (such as our volley ball group) can work very effectively with one another--without ever having a formal meeting--and simply relying upon a trusted network of people who respect each others areas of expertise and pool their efforts together with the minimum of fuss. Our miners support group during the British Miners Strike, the jura media project or the recent conferences staged in co-operation with jura media and Bob Gould are all examples, within my own experience, where something was collectively (in the broad non-economic sense) achieved without giving ourselves the fancy title 'collective' nor pretending that we could ever become some such thing. On the other hand, those propaganda groups who aspire to create their own communist utopia in the shell of their own propaganda group are alway racked by argument, dissension and open violence., and when their members fail to live up to communist-utopian ideals (upon which in the real world there is rarely any agreement in any case) they crash in smouldering compost of mutual criticism. Also in a small voluntary, non-economic organisation, people can always come and go as they please and have varying amounts of time (and they are usually economically better off by not participating), inevitably the effort by some or one or two is always greater than the rest and meetings are either poorly attended, boring or unnecessary for such small groupings.

Alternatively they tend to be dominated by utopian fanatics every ready to grumble about other's collective deficiencies. Moreover, propaganda groups never grow beyond a small size--there is no economic or party glue--to hold them together. The constant complaint by such groups that "we never seem to grow" is based upon the mistaken premise that small propaganda groups can ever grow beyond a certain size and whether it is desirable that they do so in any case. The purpose of a propaganda group is that it seeks to promote the growth of anarchist economic collectives in the real world and beyond a certain, quite small number of people, the growth of its own organisation is irrelevant. Propaganda groups should be judged by their effectiveness in producing propaganda, and more relevantly creating anarchist structures/awareness in the real economic world. The notion that individual propaganda groups can grow beyond a few people is silly, though of course a federation of them is another matter again, as this is the growth of a propaganda movement, the proliferation of propaganda groups (Federations have their own orgnisational problems which I'm not going into right now. Also the relationship of the propaganda group to a real collectived syndicate or commune, also creates problems when it becomes an intellectual vanguard or second force. The discussion surrounding the FAI/CNT relationship in Spanish revolution is instructive in this respect). Beyond this the type of activities open to small propaganda groups such as bookshops, newspapers etc., are typically not particularly suitable projects for the instantaneous creation of communist ideals. In the real world small newspapers typically require an editorial role, writers, printers, cartoonists, layout designers, money, dogsbody work, the resident computer wizz, time, a marketer, distributor, photographers etc.,--these skills and resources are not evenly distributed or interchangeable in the real world, and usually less so in the world of the propagation of revolutionary ideals. Moreover, the need for editorial supervision and the sectarian nature of newsprint mean that it is most unfavourable activity around which to develop an egalitarian collective.

In the real world small bookshops (becoming very rare now) are usually run as a small business by individual proprietors with a knowledge and talent for the book business. A book business is not run by ideologies but by taking informed risks and building up solid relationships with one's suppliers and buyers. This is achieved through consistency, efficiency, judgement and economic necessity. A group of people who are not economically dependant upon the business, involving themselves inconsistently and haphazardly, and who often have little or no knowledge of the book business (or any business for that matter) is very far from a good start. Unfortunately those concerned with running such ventures fail to realise that running a small book business is not an exercise in creating a collective utopia but in adequate returns and selling books. Even when such bookshops do succeed (for a while) the participants delude themselves that running a small book business slightly more democratically than usual is some sort of really amazing goal in itself, which it is not. Co-operatives, book clubs, mutualist associations or LETS can achieve this, without having any real political agenda/affiliations at all. But because people's income is dependant upon the success of the venture (ie., it is a real economic entity not a propaganda group) there is more likelihood that the correct solutions will be found--rather than spending ones time arguing about how things fall short of some ill-defined notion of collectivity--eventually leading to dissension, discord and economic failure. Beyond this the less politically charged or a-political nature of economic co-operatives also means that they are less susceptible to the silly ideological squabbles that beset most anarchist bookshops. Anarchist cafes, usually with a smaller and less intimidating range of anarchist propaganda, suffer from all of the above deficiencies but have the added problem that the general public treat it as a coffee shop, and treat those who serve on them very badly on occasions, leading those who work on them to get pissed of. It is one thing getting treated like shit when your earning some money its quite another when you're not. Anarchists have also attempted to get their propaganda across by involving themselves in so called 'community issues'. These issues are usually catered for by a host of other community groups and deflects effort away from all important agitation (from the point of view of any genuine revolutionary effort) in the industrial and economic sectors of society. Although the propaganda group (be it a bookshop, newspaper or show) is a vital element of any revolutionary strategy--anarchists are well advised not to mistakenly place their hopes that a propaganda group can be, of itself, anything more than it is, and that to do so, is at best self-indulgent navel-gazing and at worst a sad and destructive delusion. The major strategy of genuine revolutionaries in Australia has been the attempt to create industrial support groups, which is another type of propaganda activity involving the publication of industry specific newspapers and the giving of practical aid during industrial disputes. The main problem with this activity is that just when one has a 1 or 2 militant workers they tend to be sacked, minor battles are often won but this is mitigated by the constant loss of politicised workers. However there are occasions when propaganda of this kind can have more widespread results. The magazine Sparks and the propaganda/support group surrounding it, undoubtedly encouraged the development of anarchist and syndicalist thinking and activity amongst Melbourne tram workers in the 1990 dispute and lockout. (See Anarcho-Syndicalism in Practice: The Melbourne Tram Dispute and Lockout January-February 1990 available from the ASN) The fact that this industrial movement was ultimately unsuccessful does not detract from the fact that focused and consistent propaganda by a small group of committed activists can penetrate economically and politically important industrial sectors leading to the attempt of the workers to take control, and perhaps, ultimately achieve the collectivisation of their industries, by which time the workers will be doing it for themselves and the propaganda/support group will have long since disappeared. The left has a tendency to talk in terms of a propaganda group or party 'having' 'controling' etc., this or that union--leading to intellectual vanguardism external to workers own organisation. It is important to realise that a propaganda group is a means to an end and not an end in itself and the failure to appreciate this results in the re-emergence of partyism and governmentalism (or the propaganda group or intellectual leadership becomes a party or government in waiting) A development which is fatal to the development of an anarchist society.