Political Economy from below - Economic Thought in Communitarian Anarchism, 1840 - 1914

By Quail, John | Anarchist Studies, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Political Economy from below - Economic Thought in Communitarian Anarchism, 1840 - 1914


Quail, John, Anarchist Studies


Political Economy from Below - Economic Thought in Communitarian Anarchism, 1840 - 1914, Rob Knowles London & New York: Routledge, 2004 ISBN: 0415949033, xiii and 432 pp, £60

Rob Knowles declares that his purpose in this book is 'to recover the economic ideas of European communitarian anarchists of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.' His starting point is, interestingly, that of an economist coming across references to anarchist economic ideas in recent ecological activist literature and searching back through the original literature to find the sources of the ideas.

The introduction gives a brief historical survey of the development of anarchism and makes a familiar protest at the hostile treatment of its ideas. The stream of anarchism which sees the community and individual as necessarily interdependent - i.e. 'communitarian' anarchism - is identified as the area of study, individualist anarchism of the Josiah Warren type being declared of marginal interest only. The second chapter surveys all too briefly the different schools of current economic thought and theories of the state. The intention is to illustrate the ideas of writers who might first help break the ideological hold of neo-classical economics and introduce real people and real social relations in place of its arid abstractions. Many of these - for example the Institutionalists or Neo Keynesians - are essentially statist in their assumptions, however. The work of the 'critical realism' school of Tony Lawson and others, and the work of Karl Polanyi, are emphasised as a means of showing respectively the open nature of an economy within which many agents and intentionalities are active and the social embeddedness of economic ideas. In other words 'the state' and 'the economy' are contingent social constructions and alternative arrangements are possible.

There then follow chapters forming the bulk of the book which set out the economic ideas of Proudhon, Herzen, Bakunin, Reclus, Kropotkin, Grave and Tolstoy. By far the greatest attention is paid to Proudhon, who is given four chapters and a hundred pages out of three hundred pages of text. The development of Proudhon's economic ideas is set in the context of his life and his wider proposals on society, education and the family. Material is used which is not available in English and the account is workmanlike and a good general summary of Proudhon's ideas as a whole. This is, however, almost forced on Knowles. Though he says that it is not his purpose to survey the whole range of ideas of his chosen writers, this becomes necessary, in effect, because anarchist economics cannot be separated from ideas on social structures and social and personal moralities - in Proudhon and indeed every other writer he considers.

The coverage given to Proudhon appears to result from the volume of his writings, its conceptual (or at least expressive) complexity, his penchant for system building and the sense that he was the first, capital A, Anarchist. His successors had to set their ideas out in relation to Proudhon's in a personal or posthumous dialogue. Knowles is good on the interaction between the writers he considers - Herzen, Bakunin and Tolstoy knew Proudhon, Rectus knew Herzen and Bakunin, Reclus and Kropotkin worked closely for many years with each other and with Grave. The stages of development of ideas also seems sensible with a chapter on Herzen and Bakunin taken together and another treating Reclus and Kropotkin together. Herzen and Bakunin were both promulgators of the example of the Russian mir or peasant commune as an ideal type of the communist principle carried out in practice, and dubious about those elements in Proudhon's systems which contained possible seeds of future government. (Bakunin claimed his anarchism was Proudhon's system 'enlarged, developed and freed of all its metaphysical, idealist and doctrinaire decoration.

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