Communism as a practical alternative

Unlike Marx, Engels produced texts much more directly discussing communism. The first were two speeches in his home town Elberfeld in 1845, where he was trying to persuade good German burghers that communism (as socialism was then more generally known) was a good idea. While in them he describes how resources could be rationalised by everyone living in collective homes (showing that, while later protesting against utopianism, in his younger days he wasn’t above a little bit of speculation). But they do show part of the practical bent of thinking about how things owned in common could encourage rationalisation and improvement of living conditions. As in this passage:

‘if you think about this, you will find that human society has an abundance of productive forces at its disposal which only await a rational organisation, regulated distribution, in order to go into operation to the greatest benefit for all. After this you will be able to judge how totally unfounded is the fear that, given a just distribution of social activity, individuals would have to bear such a load of labour as would make it impossible for them to engage in anything else. On the contrary, we can assume that given this kind of organisation, the present customary labour time of the individual will be reduced by half simply by making use of the labour which is either not used at all or used disadvantageously.’

The context here is Engels noting that the institution of communism would see the abolition of many occupations and jobs created by the capitalist mode of production, which would mean that people could be freed up to do more directly productive work, and unemployment as such could be abolished.

As he noted:

‘In communist society it will be easy to be informed about both production and consumption. Since we know how much, on the average, a person needs, it is easy to calculate how much is needed by a given number of individuals, and since production is no longer in the hands of private producers but in those of the community and its administrative bodies, it is a trifling matter to regulate production according to needs.’

This sounds very optimistic, but, as we shall see, he had some basis for this analysis. But note, here information is the key, and the information is knowing what the supply and the demand are, in advance, rather than discovering through the market place. In the first instance, he gives an extended example of getting a bale of cotton from the USA to Germany:

‘Such a complicated way of transport is out of the question in a rationally organised society. To keep to our example, just as one can easily know how much cotton or manufactured cotton goods an individual colony needs, it will be equally easy for the central authority to determine how much all the villages and townships in the country need. Once such statistics have been worked out — which can easily be done in a year or two — average annual consumption will only change in proportion to the increasing population; it is therefore easy at the appropriate time to determine in advance what amount of each particular article the people will need — the entire great amount will be ordered direct from the source of supply; it will then be possible to procure it directly, without middlemen, without more delay and unloading than is really required by the nature of the journey, that is, with a great saving of labour power; it will not be necessary to pay the speculators, the dealers large and small, their rake-off.’

Indeed, he noted the middlemen would then be available for productive work. This text does talk of a central authority, but in terms of seeing statistics and book keeping as the basis for organisation, it seems of a piece with Marx’s discussions. Note, also, the assumption of no economic growth separate from population growth.

If Engels seems a bit hand-wavy with his ‘this will be easy’ approach, it should be borne in mind that he wasn’t just talking from abstract ideas, but with practical examples before his eye. In 1845 he published an article with the title ‘Description of Recently Founded Communist Colonies Still in Existence’ in which he affirmed ‘communism, social existence and activity based on community of goods, is not only possible but has actually already been realised in many communities in America and in one place in England, with the greatest success’ and that ‘all communist colonies so far have become so enormously rich after ten or fifteen years that they have everything they can desire in greater abundance than they can consume.’ The accuracy or otherwise of these descriptions is not the point here but that they show how Engels saw the actual practical structure of a communist society.

He began with a description of the Shaker communities of America, noting their religious character is not essential to their communal organisation:

‘Each of these communities is a fine, well laid-out town, with dwelling houses, factories, workshops, assembly buildings and barns; they have flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, woods, vineyards, meadows and arable land in abundance; then, livestock of all kinds, horses and beef-cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, in excess of their needs, and of the very best breeds. Their granaries are always full of corn, their store-rooms full of clothing materials, so that an English traveller who visited them said he could not understand why these people still worked, when after all they possessed an abundance of everything; unless it was that they worked simply as a pastime, having nothing else to do. Amongst these people no one is obliged to work against his will, and no one seeks work in vain. They have no poor-houses and infirmaries, having not a single person poor and destitute, nor any abandoned widows and orphans; all their needs are met and they need fear no want.’

Note, again, the emphasis on abundance. This also relates to his observation that:

‘In their ten towns there is not a single gendarme or police officer, no judge, lawyer or soldier, no prison or penitentiary; and yet there is proper order in all their affairs. The laws of the land are not for them and as far as they are concerned could just as well be abolished and nobody would notice any difference for they are the most peaceable citizens and have never yielded a single criminal for the prisons.’

The laws hadn’t been abolished, but the conditions for their operation had been obviated. In terms of their practical organisation, Engels noted: ‘They enjoy (…) the most absolute community of goods and have no trade and no money among themselves.’ He quoted a traveller describing their society:

‘The board of trustees keeps all the books and accounts in a public office, and the books are open for all members to see, as often as they choose. […] each family has a separate domestic establishment and lives together in a large, handsome mansion; and all get every article required, and as much as they want from the common stores of the Society, and without any payment. A deacon is appointed to each family, whose business is to see that all are provided with every thing they want, and to anticipate their wants as far as possible.’


‘The property of the Society is vested in the board of trustees, which consists of three persons, oversees the whole establishment, directs labour and carries on transactions with neighbours. They have no power to buy or sell any land without the consent of the Society. There are of course also foremen and managers in each department of labour; however they have made it a rule that no commands are ever given by any one, but all are to be persuaded by kindness.’

(It should be added that the ‘families’ of the shakers were arbitrary divisions, as their beliefs forbade marriage).

Engels also discussed the Owenite colony of Harmony in Hampshire. The description is similar to the American colonies, but he notes:

‘…the members of the community were not the sole owners of the establishment, but were governed by the Directors of the Society of Socialists, to whom the establishment belongs, misunderstandings and dissatisfaction arose at intervals from this too. […] these directors are chosen annually by the congress, to which each local Society sends a member, and they have full, unrestricted powers within the Statutes of the Society, and are responsible to the congress. The community is thus governed by people who live outside it, and in these circumstances there cannot fail to be misunderstandings and irritations; but even if the experiment at Harmony were to fail in consequence of this and of financial problems, which however is not in the slightest degree in prospect, this would only be one further argument for community of goods, as these two difficulties have their cause only in the fact that the community has not yet been fully realised.’

This is an instructive observation when it comes to understanding Engels’ notions of communism: the community of goods must be self-organised.

Hence, in his speeches at Elberfeld, he suggested that the community of goods would come about in different ways in different countries, even proposing that colonies such as Harmony might be the way to communism in England, and that different routes might be applied in France and Germany; it would be a conscious and fundamentally democratic decision. Although these colonies came in for a serious kicking in the Communist Manifesto, the point remains that they did serve as focal examples for Engels’ understanding of how socialism could or would be run.


Next article: Town and country ⮞

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