Robert Graham continues his notable and tireless effort to make known and share defining texts in the political tradition of anarchism for english language readers.
On this occasion, we post his most recent entry, a selection from Jean Grave’s essay, Society on the Morrow of the Revolution. The value of the text, as Graham himself states in his introductory note, lies in the clarity with which Grave endeavours to define “anarchist communism” as rooted in two fundamental concerns: the organisation of human social life without hierarchy and exploitation and the autonomy of those who take upon themselves to create such a society, without pre-given models or forms, or to withdraw from it.
We also share this post because it continues to provide a possible lens through which to read contemporary social-political movements, such as, for example, the gilets jaunes of france.
Shawn Wilbur has recently posted a translation of Jean Grave’s1889 book, Society on the Morrow of the Revolution. The translation first appeared in the English anarchist paper, Freedom, in serial form in early 1890. It was said to be translated “from the French of JEHAN LE VAGRE” [John Vague – sounds like the member of a punk band]. I first saw reference to this translation in Rob Knowles’ book, Political Economy from Below: Economic Thought in Communitarian Anarchism, 1840-1914 (Routledge: London, 2004), a survey of anarchist economic theory. Grave was included as an exponent of anarchist communism. Here I reproduce the introductory chapter from Grave’s book. What I find noteworthy is the degree by which the theory of anarchist communism had been developed since its first articulation in the late 1870s by members of the anti-authoritarian International (people like Elisée Reclus, Carlo Cafiero, Errico Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin), and the general consensus that had emerged among most of the anarchist communists on a number of issues. First and foremost is the issue of organization that Grave highlights in his introductory remarks. Grave was not opposed to organization, but to authoritarian and hierarchical organization and all forms of representation – a position very similar to that of Malatesta and Kropotkin. Grave also emphasized, as they did, the need for means to be consistent with one’s ends, and that for them communism could only be a libertarian communism, freely accepted, not imposed by any group on society. I included extensive selections from anarchist communists in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Volume One focused on the originators of the doctrine, from Joseph Déjacque to the anarchists in the International, and their immediate successors – people like Jean Grave and Charlotte Wilson – and the anarchist communists in Latin America and Asia.
Society on the morrow of the revolution
I – Authority and organisation
Some Anarchists allow themselves to be led into confounding these two very different things. In their hatred of authority, they repel all organisation, knowing that the authoritarians disguise under this name the system of oppression which they desire to constitute. Others whilst avoiding falling into this error, go to the other extreme of extolling a thoroughly authoritarian form of organisation, which they style anarchist. There is, however, a fundamental difference to be made clear.
That which the authoritarians have baptised with the name of “organisation” is plainly enough a complete hierarchy, making laws, acting instead of and for all, or causing the mass to act, in the name of some sort of representation. Whereas what we understand by organisation is the agreement which is formed, because of their common interests, between individuals grouped for a certain work. Such are the mutual relations which result from the daily intercourse the members of a society are bound to have one with the other. But this organisation of ours has neither laws nor statutes nor regulations, to which every individual is forced to submit, under penalty of punishment. This organisation has no committee that represents it; the individuals are not attached to it by force, they remain free in their autonomy, free to abandon this organisation, at their own initiative, when they wish to substitute another for it.
We are far from having the pretentious idea of drawing a picture of what society will be in the future, far from having the presumption to wish to build a complete plan of organisation and put it forward as a principle. We merely wish to outline the main features and broad lines which ought to enlighten our propaganda, reply to objections which have been raised to the Anarchist idea, and demonstrate that a society is very well able to organise itself without either power or delegation if it is truly based on justice and social equality.
Yes, we believe that all individuals ought to be left free to seek for, and to group themselves according to, their tendencies and their affinities. To claim to establish a single method of organisation by which everybody will have to be controlled, and which will be established immediately after the Revolution, is utopian, considering the diversity of the temperaments and characters of individuals; and to wish already to prepare a frame, more or less narrow, in which society will be called upon to move, would be to play the part of doctrinaires and conservatives, since nothing assures us that the ideal which fascinates us today will respond tomorrow to our wants, and above all to the wants [of] the whole of society.
The powerlessness [and] sterility, with which the Socialist schools up to the present time have been stricken, is due precisely to the fact that in the society they wished to establish all was foreseen and regulated in advance, nothing was left to the initiative of individuals; consequently that which responded to the aspirations of some was objectionable to others, and thence the impossibility of creating anything durable.
We have to refute here the affirmation of the reactionaries, who pretend that if Anarchy was triumphant it would be a return to the savage state and the death of all society. Nothing is more false. We recognise that it is association alone which can permit man to employ the machinery which science and industry put at his service; we recognise that it is by associating their efforts that individuals will succeed in increasing their comfort and their freedom. We are, then, partisans of association, but, we repeat it, because we consider it as a means to the well-being of the individual, and not under the abstract form in which it is presented to us even now, which makes of it a sort of divinity by which those who ought to compose it are annihilated.
Then if we do not wish to fall into the same errors and to meet with the same obstacles we ought to guard ourselves against believing that all men are cast in the same mould, and to recognise that what may agree very well with the disposition of one individual may very indifferently accord with the feelings of all. This, it may be said in passing, applies equally to association in the period of propaganda and to the future society. If we desire to make a revolution which will come up to our ideal, to prepare this revolution we ought at once to organise ourselves according to our principles, to accustom individuals to act [for] themselves, and to be careful not to introduce into our organisation the institutions that we attack in the existing society, lest we relapse into the same condition as before.
Anarchists ought to be more practical than those they fight against, they ought to learn from the mistakes which are made, so as to avoid them. We ought to appeal to all those who wish to destroy the present society, and, instead of losing our time in discussing the utility of such or such means, to group ourselves for the immediate application of the means we think best, without preoccupying ourselves with those who are not in favour of it; in the same way that those who are in favour of another means should group themselves to put in practice that other means.
After [all] what we all wish [for] is the destruction of the present society; and it is evident that experience will guide us as to the choice of means. We should do practical work, instead of wasting our time at committee meetings, which are mostly sterile, where each wishes to make his own idea prevail, which very often break up without anything being decided, and which almost always result in the creation of as many dissentient factions as there are ideas put forward – factions which, having become enemies, lose sight of the common enemy, the middle-class society, to war upon each other.
Another advantage resulting from this is that individuals habituating themselves to join the group which accords best with their own ideas, will accustom themselves to think and to act of their own accord, without any authority among them, without that discipline which consists in destroying the efforts of a group or of isolated individuals because the others are not of their opinion, Yet another advantage which results is that a revolution made on this basis could not be other than Anarchist, for individuals who had learned to act without any compulsion would not be silly enough to establish a power on the morrow of victory.
For some Socialists the ideal is to gather the workers in a party such as exists in Germany. The chiefs of this party on the day of the revolution would be carried into power, would thus form a new government who would decree the appropriation of machinery and property, would organise production, regulate consumption, and suppress – that goes without saying – those who were not of their opinion. We Anarchists believe that this is a dream.
Decrees to take possession after the struggle will be illusory; it is not by decrees that the appropriation of capital will be accomplished, but by facts at the time of the struggle, by the workers themselves, who will enter into possession of houses and workshops by driving away the present possessors, and by calling the disinherited and saying to them, “This belongs to nobody individually; it is not a property that can belong to the fast occupant, and by him be transmitted to his descendants. No, these houses are the product of past generations, the heritage of the present and future generations. Once unoccupied, they are at the free disposition of those who need them. This machinery is put at the free disposition of the producers who wish to use it, but cannot become individual property.”
Individuals will be so much the more unable to personally appropriate it, because they will not know what to do with machinery which they cannot utilise by means of wage-slaves. No one will be able to appropriate anything which he cannot work himself; and as the greater part of the present machinery can only be worked by the association of individual forces, it will be by this means that individuals will come to an understanding. Once the appropriation has been made, we see no necessity for it to be sanctioned by any authority whatsoever.
We cannot foresee the consequences of the struggle in which we are engaged. In the first place, do we know how long it will last [or] what will be the immediate result of a general overthrow of the existing institutions? what will be the immediate wants of the people on the morrow of the revolution! Certainly we do not.
We ought, then, not to waste our time in establishing in our imagination a society the wheels of which will all be prepared in advance, and which will be constructed, so to speak, like one of those boxes of play-things, all the pieces of which are numbered, and which, when placed together, start working directly [as] the mechanism is wound up. All that we can do from the theoretical point of view of Organisation will never be other than dreams, more or less complicated, which will invariably prove to be without basis when it is a question of putting them into practice.
We certainly have not this ridiculous pretention, but we ought to guard ourselves also from that other mistake common to many revolutionaries, who say: Let us occupy ourselves first of all with destroying, and afterwards we will see what we ought to construct… We certainly cannot say what the future society will be, but we ought to say what it will not be, or at least what we ought to prevent it from being.
We cannot say what will be the mode of Organisation of the producing and consuming groups; they alone can be judges of that; moreover, the same methods are not suitable to all. But we can very well say, for instance, what we would do personally if we were in a society in which all the individuals had the opportunity to act freely, what we must do now, in fact, the revolution being only the complement of evolution. We can tell how a society might evolve without the help of those famous ” commissions of statistics,” “labour-notes,” etc., etc., with which the Collectivists wish to gratify us; and we believe it is necessary to say this because it is in the nature of individuals not to wish to engage themselves to follow a certain course of action without knowing where it will take them, and besides, as we have already said, it is the end we ourselves propose to attain that ought to guide us in the employment of means of propaganda.