This is a brief text about Kropotkin’s idea of the Commune. I’m writing this because far too often I’ve read people talking about Kropotkin’s Commune who completely misunderstand it. I can not be sure but I think the crux of the misunderstanding lies in reading Kropotkin’s enthusiasm towards the medieval commune as an endorsement of it. In fact, and this is exactly what we’ll see in this post, Kropotkin opposed to the medieval commune what he called the Free Commune or the Communist Commune. Let’s begin.
A Short Introduction or, why is this subject important for Kropotkin and Anarchists
As I pointed out Kropotkin didn’t call for a return to the medieval Commune (and he also rejected the Paris Commune, see the appendix). He had two main reasons for this, one the Medieval Commune was in his mind founded on the same governmental principle it tried to evade second and it is linked to maintaining the government, these communes also kept in place private property and thus couldn’t revolutionize relations of domination towards free relations, the Medieval Commune soon found itself both exploiting the countryside and making compromises and alliances with their former lords.
In freeing itself from the lords, did the Commune of the middle ages free itself also from those rich merchants who, by the sale of merchandise and capital goods, had gained private wealth in the heart of the city? Not at all! Having demolished the towers of the overlord, the inhabitant of the town very soon saw within the Commune itself the citadels of the rich merchants who sought to subdue him being built, and the internal history of the Communes in the middle ages was that of bitter struggle between the rich and the poor, a struggle that ended inevitably with the king’s intervention. As a new aristocracy took shape in the very heart of the Commune, the people, having fallen into the same kind of servitude to the lord within the city as it had hitherto suffered to the lord outside, understood that it had nothing to defend in the Commune; its members deserted the walls they had built to gain their liberty and which the regime of individualism had turned into the ramparts of a new servitude. Having nothing to lose, the people let the rich merchants defend themselves, and these relations were usually limited to a treaty for the defence of urban rights against the lords, or perhaps a pact of solidarity for the mutual protection of the citizens of the communes on their distant journeys. And when real leagues were formed among the towns, as in Lombardy, Spain and Belgium, these leagues were too lacking inhomogeneity and too fragile because of the diversity of privileges, and soon broke up into isolated groups or succumbed under the attacks of the neighbouring states.
In making clear what Kropotkin thought was to be the Free Communist Commune I hope to first clear the distinction between communalists and anarchists and second to put an end to Marxists accusing anarchists of wanting to develop “decentralized states under another name”.
I. Kropotkin’s vision of the Free Commune as a structure
This might not be the best to start with as it can be a bit complex to understand without the other parts of Kropotkin’s reasoning, but talking about the structure is important because it will show quickly how mistaken people are about Kropotkin’s vision of the Free Commune.
If we admit, in fact, that a central government is absolutely useless to regulate the relations of Communes between each other, why do we grant the necessity to regulate the mutual relations of the groups that constitute the Commune? And if we concede to the free initiative of the communes the task of coming to an understanding between themselves on enterprises that concern several cities at once, how can we refuse this same initiative to the groups of which a Commune is composed? A government within the Commune has no more right to exist than a government over the Commune.
First point; Kropotkin didn’t think of the Commune as a territorial organisation, much less a government creating laws and organizing the life of people living in a specific territory. For Kropotkin the Commune if it is to take any structure, is to take that of organisations which do not have the legitimacy to rule (even by mandate) and do not either have a specific territory. They’re simply organised groups like you can have a communal council in district’s bakery so that the different people who bake bread can make decisions together about what kind of bread they want to bake. That’s pretty much it. Kropotkin has no imperative about majority/consensus democracy inside those structures because regardless, they shouldn’t be deciding for others anything.
But there is another thing to be considered. For the burgesses of the middle ages the Commune was an isolated State, clearly separated from others by its frontiers. For us, “Commune” no longer means a territorial agglomeration; it is rather a generic name, a synonym for the grouping of equals which knows neither frontiers nor walls. The social Commune will soon cease to be a clearly defined entity. Each group in the Commune will necessarily be drawn towards similar groups in other communes; they will come together and the links that federate them will be as solid as those that attach them to their fellow citizens, and in this way, there will emerge a Commune of interests whose members are scattered in a thousand towns and villages. Each individual will find the full satisfaction of his needs only by grouping with other individuals who have the same tastes but inhabit a hundred other communes.
So forget the way states are organized with national, regional and municipal levels, this is not what Kropotkin had in mind. Kropotkin’s Commune is not a smaller state, and the federation is not an alliance of these juxtaposed states. In Kropotkin’s mind anyone can organise at any point, with anyone, on whatever “level” they want, but regardless of the organisation’s “level” it can’t decide either for individuals or for other organisations. There is no “chain of command”, those Communes are similar to informal anarchist networks, but they’re just different in that they’re formal.
The Commune will then feel the need to contract other alliances, to enter into other federations. Belonging to one group for the acquisition of food supplies, it will have to join a second group to obtain other goods, such as metals, and then a third and a fourth group for textiles and works of art. Take up an economic atlas of any country, and you will see that economic frontiers do not exist: the zones of production and exchange of various products interpenetrate each other, tangle with each other, impose themselves on each other. In the same way, the federations of Communes, if they were to follow their free development, would very soon start to mingle and intersect, and in this way form a network that would be compact, “one and indivisible,” in quite a different way from these statist groupings whose parts are no more than juxtaposed, like the rods bundled around the lictor’s axe.
The Commune of tomorrow will know that it cannot admit any higher authority; above it, there can only be the interests of the Federation, freely accepted by itself as well as the other communes. It will know that there can be no middle way: either the Commune will be absolutely free to adopt all the institutions it wishes and to make all the reforms and revolutions it finds necessary, or it will remain what it has been up to today, a mere branch of the State, restricted in all its movements, always on the point of entering into conflict with the State and sure of succumbing in the struggle that will follow. The Commune will know that it must break the State and replace it by the Federation, and it will act in that way. More than that, it will have the means to do so. Today it is not only small towns that raise the banner of communal insurrection, it is Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Cartagena, and soon all the great cities will unfurl the same flag. This will mean an essential difference from the Commune of the past.
II. Kropotkin’s vision of the Free Commune as revolutionary action
Now that we know what structure Kropotkin thought of when he talked about “The Free Commune”, we have to talk about a second, maybe more important point. This point is that The Free Commune is not supposed to be just a structure, in fact, it could be not a structure, in discussing the structure previously we were just discussing the form that Kropotkin viewed as a possibility, not a necessity. So then, what is the Commune?
The Commune is to but in bluntly, freedom. Freedom not in the liberal sense of “use and abuse” of property, but freedom in the anarchist sense, the abolition of all rule. And just as the first part related to the medieval commune maintaining the government structure, this second part relates to the medieval commune maintaining the economic structure. Opposed to this then Kropotkin sees the Commune as the social revolution which abolishes property. The Commune only exists insofar as property is abolished, which is similar for Kropotkin as the freedom of the people. And not only must it abolish property, but it must also abolish the relations of dominations and competition with the surrounding communes and the countryside to turn them into communist relations and mutual aid.
Make sure of victory first! As if there was any way of transforming society into a free commune without laying a hand on property! As if there could be any real way of defeating the enemy so long as the great mass of the people was not directly interested in the triumph of the revolution, in witnessing the arrival of material, moral and intellectual well-being for all! They sought to consolidate the Commune first of all while postponing the social revolution for later on, while the only effective way of proceeding was to consolidate the Commune by the social revolution!
On this point he is very clear, The Commune will not be The Commune if it is simply an organisation, much less if it is a governmental organisation. The Commune is the extent to which communism is achieved during the revolutionary period.
Certainly not. The Commune of the nineteenth century, strong of its experience will do better [than the medieval Commune]. It will be Commune more than just by name. It will not only be communalist, it will be communist; revolutionary in politics, it will also be in the question of production and exchange. It will not abolish the State to rebuild it, and many Communes will know to preach example, by abolishing representative government to safeguard their sovereignty from the randomness of elections.
Appendix, Kropotkin’s view of the Paris Commune
Here I will just collect Kropotkin quotes about the Paris Commune to show how his view was much more nuanced than simply wanting a collection of communes like that of 1870-71.
But in 1871 the people of Paris, which had overthrown so many governments, was only involved in its first attempt at revolt against the governmental system itself: it submitted to governmental fetichism and gave itself a government. We know the consequence. It sent its devoted sons to the Hotel-de-Ville. Indeed, immobilised there by fetters of red tape, forced to discuss when action was needed, and losing the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses, they saw themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre-the people-they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.
It was the same with the governmental principle. In proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle; but as this principle had only feebly penetrated people’s minds at this time, they stopped in mid-course, and in the heart of the Commune the people continued to declare themselves in favour of the old governmental principle by giving themselves a Communal Council copied from the old municipal councils.
What is worse is that France itself, which seemed to be opening new vistas, has continued to lapse into the same error. Disgusted by the sad experience of a constitutional monarchy, the people one day (in 1848) overthrew its government, but on the morrow it hastened to elect an assembly, merely changing its name and confiding to it the cares of government, which it would sell to a brigand who would provoke the invasion of the fair fields of France by foreign armies.
Twenty years later (1871) it would fall into the same error once again. Seeing the city of Paris free of the troops and authorities who had deserted it, the people did not set about experimenting with a fresh approach that would facilitate the establishment of a new economic regime. Happy at having subsumed the word Empire in the word Republic, and the latter in the word Commune, the people hastened to apply once again, in the heart of the Commune, the representative system and to falsify its new ideal by evolving the worm-eaten heritage of the past. It abdicated its own initiative into the hands of an assembly of people elected more or less at random, and it confided to them the responsibility for that complete reorganization of human relationships which alone could have given strength and life to the Commune.
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Kropotkin, The Commune (Ch. 10 in Words of a Rebel)
Kropotkin, The Paris Commune