Whether the twenty-first century will be the most radical of times or the most reactionary … will depend overwhelmingly upon the kind of social movement and program that social radicals create out of the theoretical, organizational, and political wealth that has accumulated during the past two centuries… The direction we select … may well determine the future of our species for centuries to come.
— Murray Bookchin, The Communalist Project (2002)
Originally posted by Eleanor Finley at ROAR Magazine
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, devastating images and memories of the First and Second World Wars flood our minds. Anti-rationalism, racialized violence, scapegoating, misogyny and homophobia have been unleashed from the margins of society and brought into the political mainstream.
Meanwhile, humanity itself runs in a life-or-death race against time. The once-unthinkable turmoil of climate change is now becoming reality, and no serious attempts are being undertaken by powerful actors and institutions to holistically and effectively mitigate the catastrophe. As the tenuous and paradoxical era of American republicanism comes to an end, nature’s experiment in such a creative, self-conscious creature as humanity reaches a perilous brink.
Precisely because these nightmares have become reality, now is the time to decisively face the task of creating a free and just political economic system. For the sake of humanity — indeed for the sake of all complex life on earth as we know it — we must countervail the fascism embodied today in nation-state capitalism and unravel a daunting complex of interlocking social, political, economic and ecological problems. But how?
As a solution to the present situation, a growing number of people in the world are proposing “communalism”: the usurpation of capitalism, the state, and social hierarchy by the way of town, village, and neighborhood assemblies and federations. Communalism is a living idea, one that builds upon a rich legacy of political history and social movements.
The commune from Rojava to the Zapatistas
The term communalism originated from the revolutionary Parisian uprising of 1871 and was later revived by the late-twentieth century political philosopher Murray Bookchin (1931-2006). Communalism is often used interchangeably with “municipalism”, “libertarian municipalism” (a term also developed by Bookchin) and “democratic confederalism” (coined more recently by the imprisoned Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan).
Although each of these terms attempt to describe direct, face-to-face democracy, communalism stresses its organic and lived dimensions. Face-to-face civic communities, historically called communes, are more than simply a structure or mode of management. Rather, they are social and ethical communities uniting diverse social and cultural groups. Communal life is a good in itself.
There are countless historical precedents that model communalism’s institutional and ethical principles. Small-scale and tribal-based communities provide many such examples. In North America, the Six Nations Haudenasanee (Iroquis) Confederacy governed the Great Leaks region by confederal direct democracy for over 800 years. In coastal Panama, the Kuna continue to manage an economically vibrant island archipelago. Prior to the devastation of colonization and slavery, the Igbo of the Niger Delta practiced a highly cosmopolitan form of communal management. More recently, in Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatista Movement have reinvented pre-Columbian assembly politics through hundreds of autonomous municipios and five regional capitals called caracoles (snails) whose spirals symbolize the joining of villages.
Communalist predecessors also emerge in large-scale urban communities. From classical Athens to the medieval Italian city-states, direct democracy has a home in the city. In 2015, the political movement Barcelona en Comú won the Barcelona city mayorship based on a vast, richly layered collective of neighborhood assemblies. Today, they are the largest party in the city-council, and continue to design platforms and policies through collective assembly processes. In Northern Syria, the Kurdish Freedom Movement has established democratic confederalism, a network of people’s assemblies and councils that govern alongside the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
These are just a few examples among countless political traditions that testify to “the great theoretical, organizational and political wealth” that is available to empower people against naked authoritarianism.
Power, administration and citizenship
The most fundamental institution of communalism is the civic assembly. Civic assemblies are regular communal gatherings open to all adults within a given municipality — such as a town, village or city borough — for the purpose of discussing, debating and making decisions about matters that concern the community as a whole.
In order to understand how civic assemblies function, one must understand the subtle, but crucial distinction between administration and decision-making power. Administration encompasses tasks and plans related to executing policy. The administration of a particular project may make minor decisions — such as what kind of stone to use for a bridge.
Power, on the other hand, refers to the ability to actually make policy and major decisions — whether or not to build a bridge. In communalism, power lies within this collective body, while smaller, mandated councils are delegated to execute them. Experts such as engineers, or public health practicioners play an important role in assemblies by informing citizens, but it is the collective body itself which is empowered to actually make decisions.
With clear distinctions between administration and power, the nature of individual leadership changes dramatically. Leaders cultivate dialogue and execute the will of the community. The Zapatistas expresses this is through the term cargo, meaning the charge or burden. Council membership execute the will of their community, leadership means “to obey and not to command, to represent and not to supplant…to move down and not upwards.”
A second critical distinction between professional-driven politics as usual and communalism is citizenship. By using the term “citizen”, communalists deliberately contradict the restrictive and emptied notion of citizenship invoked by modern-day nation-states. In communal societies, citizenship is conferred to every adult who lives within the municipality. Every adult who lives within the municipality is empowered to directly participate, vote and take a turn performing administrative roles. Rather, this radical idea of citizenship is based on residency and face-to-face relationships.
Civic assemblies are a living tradition that appear time and again throughout history. It is worth pausing here to consider the conceptual resources left to us by classical Athenian democracy. Admittedly, Athenian society was far from perfect. Like the rest of the Mediterranean world at that time, Athens was built upon the backs of slaves and domesticated women. Nonetheless, Athenian democracy to this day is the most well-documented example of direct, communal self-management:
Agora: The common public square or meetinghouse where the assembly gathers. The agora is home to our public selves, where we go to make decisions, raise problems, and engage in public discussion.
Ekklesia: The general assembly, a community of citizens.
Boule: The administrative body of 500 citizens that rotated once every year.
Polis: The city itself. But here again, the term refers not to mere materiality, but rather to a rich, multi-species and material community. The polis is an entity and character unto itself.
Paeida: Ongoing political and ethical education individuals undergo to achieve arete, virtue or excellence.
The key insight of classical Athenian democracy is that assembly politics are organic. Far more than a mere structure or set of mechanisms, communalism is a synergy of elements and institutions that lead to a particular kind of community and process. Yet assemblies alone do not exhaust communal politics. Just as communities are socially, ecologically and economically inter-dependent, a truly free and ethical society must engage in robust inter-community dialogue and association. Confederation allows autonomous communities to “scale up” for coordination across a regional level.
Confederation differs from representative democracy because it is based on recallable delegates rather than individually empowered representatives. Delegates cannot make decisions on behalf of a community. Rather, they bring proposals back down to the assembly. Charters articulate a confederacy’s ethical principles and define expectations for membership. In this way, communities have a basis to hold themselves and one another accountable. Without clear principles, basis of debate to actions based on principles of reason, humanism and justice.
In the Kurdish Freedom Movement of Rojava, Northern Syria, the Rojava Social Contract is based on “pillars” of feminism, ecology, moral economy and direct democracy. These principles resonate throughout the movement as a whole, tying together diverse organizations and communities on a shared basis of feminism, radical multi-culturalism and ecological stewardship.
A free society
There is no single blueprint for a municipal movement. Doubtlessly, however, the realization of such free political communities can only come about with fundamental changes in our social, cultural and economic fabric. The attitudes of racism and xenophobia, which have fueled the virulent rise of fascism today in places like the United States, must be combated by a radical humanism that celebrates ethnic, cultural and spiritual diversity. For millennia, sex and gender oppression have denigrated values and social forms attributed to women. These attitudes must be supplanted by a feminist ethic and sensibility of mutual care.
Nor can freedom cannot come about without economic stability. Capitalism along with all forms of economic exploitation must be abolished and replaced by systems of production and distribution for use and enjoyment rather than for profit and sale. The vast, concrete belts of “modern” industrial cities must be overhauled and rescaled into meaningful, livable and sustainable urban spaces. We must deal meaningfully with problems of urban development, gentrification and inequality embodied within urban space.
Just as individuals cannot be separated from the broader political community of which they are a part, human society cannot be separated from our context within the natural world. The cooperative, humanistic politics of communalism thus work hand in hand with a radical ecological sensibility that recognizes human beings a unique, self-conscious part of nature.
While managing our own needs and desires, we have the capacity to be outward-thinking and future-oriented. The Haudenasaunee (Iroquis) Confederacy calls this the “Seven Generations Principle.” According to the Seven Generations Principle, all political deliberations must be made on behalf of the present community — which includes animals and the broader ecological community — for the succeeding seven generations.
While even a brief sketch of all the social changes needed today far exceed the scope of a short essay, the many works of Murray Bookchin and other social ecologists provide rich discussions about the meaning of a directly democratic and ecological society. From the Green Movement, the Anti-Globalization Movement, Occupy Wall Street, to Chile and Spain’s Indignados Movements, communalist ideals have also played a growing role in social and political struggles throughout the world. It is a growing movement in its own right.
Communalism is not a hard and rigid ideology, but rather a coherent, unfolding body of ideas built upon a core set of principles and institutions. It is, by definition, a process — one that is open and adaptable to virtually infinite cultural, historical and ecological contexts. Indeed, communalism’s historical precedents in tribal democracy and town/village assemblies can be found in nearly every corner of the earth.
The era of professional-driven, state “politics” has come to an end. Only grassroots democracy at a global scale can successfully oppose the dystopian future ahead. All the necessary tools are at hand. A great wealth of resources have accumulated during humanity’s many struggles. With it — with communalism — we might remake the world upon humanity’s potential for reason, creativity and freedom.
I object to using the term “communal” in this way. See where the article says that “communalism” is synonymous with “confederal municipalism” and other Bookchin-originated terms. That is not the original definition of the term ” communal.” Bookchin and others using this term in this way have corrupted the term. Allen Butcher
The following about the use of the term “communalism” is quoted from, The Intentioneer’s Bible: Interwoven Stories of the Parallel Cultures of Plenty and Scarcity, by A. Allen Butcher, published May, 2016 as an ebook at Amazon.com
Book V: Chapter 7 – Anarchists versus Marxist Communism
Among the most notable anarchists, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-65) was a printer in a small French town who was the first to call his theories “anarchist.” He moved to Paris in 1838 and published, What is Property? in 1840, popularizing the phrase, “property is theft.” His 1846 publication, System of Economic Contradictions, was attacked by Karl Marx, after which Proudhon’s reputation as the founder of anarchism was assured. As Murray Bookchin explains, Proudhon’s anarchism envisioned a society of small craftsmen and collectively-owned industries exchanging their products without competition or profit. Proudhon went so far as to experiment with a “Mutual Credit Bank” which neither paid nor charged interest, similar to the work of the “first American anarchist” Josiah Warren. In Proudhon’s theory, municipalities would join in local and regional federations, with minimal or no delegation of power to a central government. (Bookchin, 1977, pp. 20-1; Dolgoff, p. 67)
This form of anarchist theory is similar to confederal or libertarian municipalism, advocated in the late 20th century by social ecologists and Left Greens inspired in part by Murray Bookchin.
Anarchist political thought has usually proposed that social cooperation beyond the local level should take place through voluntary federations of relatively autonomous individuals, productive enterprises, or communities. While classical anarchist theorists such as Proudhon and Bakunin called such a system “federalism,” Bookchin calls his variation on this theme “confederalism.” (Clark, p. 176)
Murray Bookchin’s theory evolved over the decades, to where in 2002 he wrote in the article, The Communalist Project, his view of “communalism” as being different from anarchism, communism, socialism, and syndicalism. Eirik Eiglad writes in his book, Social Ecology and Communalism, that Bookchin’s attempt was to “go beyond all the ideologies of the traditional Left” in using a term that Bookchin himself stated, “originated in the Paris Commune of 1871.” (Bookchin, 2002, p. 98; Eiglad, p. 15)
While it is true that the Commune of Paris used a municipalist structure for local self-government, inspired in part by Proudhonist anarchism, in English the term “communalism” means something different than “municipalism.” Although large communal societies may look like small towns, they are not what Bookchin means, nor what the Paris Commune was during its short life. “Communal” typically refers to the common ownership of property, while Bookchin’s reference to the Paris Commune defines the term “communalism” as meaning autonomous districts of a city using a federal or confederal structure for participatory urban governance. Bookchin’s focus is upon decision-making or governance with no particular ownership structure or economic system identified in his use of the term “communalism.”
The confusion comes in part from the fact that in 19th century France, town and city governments were called “communes,” meaning that they had local autonomy, while the French national government refused to grant autonomy and self-governance to the City of Paris, similar to how the U.S. Congress manages Washington D.C. Since in English the term “commune” means something very different than in French, Murray Bookchin’s use of the French meaning makes it difficult for contemporary English-speaking people to understand Bookchin’s and friends’ meaning when they use the term “communalism.”
Bookchin, Murray. (1977). The Spanish anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936. New York: Harper Colophon Books.
Bookchin, Murray. (2002, September 1). The communalist project. Harbinger: A social ecology journal. See: Institute for Social Ecology at social-ecology.org/wp/2002/09/harbinger-vol-3-no-1-the-communalist-project
Dolgoff, Sam. (1974) The anarchist collectives: Workers’ self-management in the Spanish Revolution 1936-1939. New York: Free Life Editions.
Clark, John. (1998). Municipal Dreams: A social ecological critique of Bookchin’s politics. In Andrew Light (Ed.), Social Ecology after Bookchin. New York: The Guilford Press.
Eiglad, Eirik. (2007). Social Ecology and Communalism. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
A. Allen Butcher
The School of Intentioneering
February 25, 2017
Until I finally looked them up I thought that the terms “communal” and “communalism” referred to the same thing, the common ownership of property, yet “communalism” actually means something very different.
To avoid confusing the terms as have I, keep in mind that “communalism” is a political system in which independent states comprise a nation which has very little or no central authority, having only powers granted to it by the independent states, which they can recind or modify at any time. And further, those independent states in the communalist system can have internal economic systems which emphasize either private property, or common property, or a mixture of both. They need not be strictly communal as the term would seem to suggest.
Essentially, “communal” is an economic term while “communalism” is a political or governance term.
It took me a decade to finally look these terms up at Dictionary.com, after I first learned that Murray Bookchin had used the term “communalism” in place of the term he devised of “confederal municipalism” to mean the same thing. Evidently, it took him a while to realize that there was already a term for the decentralist ideal which he advocated.
According to Dictionary.com the term “communalism” was first used to mean a decentralized nation of independent states in the early 1870s. So Bookchin did not make this up or change the definition, as I thought he had.
With this understanding I might now be able to get behind Bookchin’s concept of “communalism,” except that if I use this term in its correct meaning, other people are still going to confuse the term to mean “communal” in the same way as have I. Particularly those who wish to preserve the centralized nation-state.
So for me the term “communalism” is not the best way to convey the intended meaning of the decentralized, confederal political system. “Confederal” also means power-to-the-states as opposed to centralized “federalism.” Yet using the term “confederal” brings association with the slave-states’ Confederacy and the American Civil War, so that term is problematic as well.
Eleanor Finley’s ROAR magazine article, “Reason, Creativity and Freedom: the Communalist Model” (February 11, 2017) suggests that someone else who has been influenced by Murray Bookchin’s ideas also did not like the term “communalism,” coining for use in its place the term “democratic confederalism.” This term was created by the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, looking for a political system for his nationlesss ethnic group scattered through parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Yet there is that problematic term “confederal” again.
So what term can be used for conveying the intended meaning while avoiding misunderstanding and negative associations? The term “democracy” or “democratic” is an essential modifier for conveying the ideal of local self-determination and independence from centralization, so that word is needed. A noun that conveys the intended meaning of independence is “decentralism,” and so the term that I think best represents the desired meaning for the preferred political-economic system is then “democratic-decentralism.” I suppose that will get shortened to “dem-decism” or simply “D-D,” yet at least there should no longer be any confusion about what we are talking about as the best of all possible political systems.
Democratic-decentralism may actually be seen, eventually, as representing the ideals of both the radical left and right, showing that on the political scale of liberalism-to-conservatism, when you take the extremes far enough, they eventually curve around to come together in agreement. This shows the viability and efficacy of the political structures of “democratic-decentralism.”
What remains for clarification is just what a democratic-decentralist nation-state would look like. It certainly would not look like the current government of the United States of America. The first constitution written by the original thirteen American Colonies specified a confederal system, which was soon scrapped for the centralized Constitution that we know and (more-or-less) love. That was done for a reason, and it is hard to see America going back to confederalism, yet previously I could not envision America going where it is now headed under president number 45, so perhaps if the current conservative national administration continues the way it seems to be going, democratic-decentalism may become a national issue.
Hey, don’t forget the New England (USA) town meeting system of self-government, which is still practiced in every town in Vermont aside from larger cities. This is a much more recent example of Athenian direct, communal self-management, and it’s not based on the backs of slaves or domesticated women. Books about it at:
In fact, the First Vermont Republic banned slavery from the beginning in its original 1777 constitution, 88 years before the US 13th amendment banned slavery in 1865. The Second Vermont Republic has been trying to secede from the US since 2003. See: http://www.vermontindependent.org/
PS. No coincidence Murray Bookchin taught at Goddard College in Vermont. 🙂
Great discussion, thank you both for your views! I suggest you have a look at the P2PF wiki article on communalism and of course you are welcome to contribute 🙂
(P.S. Sorry for the late response, I had apparently notifications off :/ )