Posts Tagged ‘Morelly’

Gracchus Babeuf and the Calls for a Welfare State in 18th Century France

January 21, 2023

Gracchus Babeuf was a French revolutionary, who tried to overthrow the Directory and establish a communist state during the French Revolution as the leader of the ‘Conspiracy of Equals’. He’s one of the founders of the European socialist and communist traditions. I’ve been reading Ian Birchall’s book on him and his legacy, The Spectre of Babeuf (Haymarket Books 2016), and it’s fascinating. Birchall discusses the influences on Babeuf, which included Morelly, the author of the Code de la Nature, which also advocated a communist system with a centrally planned economy, Nicolas Collignon, who wrote an 8 page pamphlet demanding the same, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Collignon’s ideal state, the citizens were to be provided with free food and clothing, high quality housing, schools and healthcare. Like the Tories, he also believed in competition, so doctors would be graded according to their performance. Those that cured the most would be consequently paid more and get promotion, while those who cured the least would be struck off. Even before he devised his own communist plans, he was already discussing the need for collective farms. What he meant by this is not collective farms in the soviet sense, but farms run cooperatively by their workers rather than a single farmer with employees. And he was also in favour of creating a welfare state. In a book he authored on correct taxation, he wrote

‘That a national fund for the subsistence of the poor should be established. That doctors, apothecaries and surgeons should be psif wages out of public funds so that they can administer assistance free of charge. That a system of national education be established out of which all citizens may take advantage. That magistrates be also paid wages out of public revenue, so that justice can be done free of charge.’ (p. 29).

Birchall also attacks the view promoted by Talmon in his The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy that Babeuf was an authoritarian who prefigured soviet tyranny. Talmon was an Israeli Conservative writing at the beginning of the Cold War. But Babeuf himself, although a revolutionary, was also keen to preserve and expand democracy. One of his suggestions was that there should be a set of elected officials charged with making sure that delegates to the national assembly were representing their constituents properly. If they weren’t, the people had the right to recall them.

Regarding industrial organisation, he believed that the citizens in each commune should be divided into classes, each class representing a different trade. The members of these classes would appoint governors, who would set the work and carry out the instructions of the municipal government. It’s very much a command economy, and utopian in that money would be abolished.

I can’t say I find Babeuf’s full-blown communist ideas attractive, for the reason I believe in a mixed a economy and the right of people to do what they wish outside of interference from either the authorities or other people. And I really don’t see how such a state could last long without a money economy. Some Russians looked forward to the establishment of such an economy at the beginning of the Russian Revolution when the economy began to break down and trading went back to barter in some areas until the Bolsheviks restored the economy. And there is clearly conflict between violent revolution and democracy. But I respect his calls for a welfare state. He was also an advocate of equality for women and an opponent of imperialism, which he felt corrupted extra-European peoples with European vices. This view is clearly based on the 17th century ideas of the Noble Savage, in which primitive peoples are seen as better and more morally advanced than civilised westerners.

Demands for a welfare state are as old as socialism itself. We cannot allow the British welfare state and NHS to be destroyed by the Tories and Blairite Labour under Starmer.

A Democratic Marxist Condemnation of the Soviet Regime

January 18, 2023

A few days ago I put up a post about the 18th century communist Morelly. He had some interesting ideas, although I made it clear that I am not a supporter of communism because of the tyranny, poor economic performance and poverty of the Soviet regime. One of the great commenters here remarked that describing the USSR as a tyranny probably wouldn’t go down very well with the Socialist Workers Party, now renamed the Socialist Party. I’m not sure, as the Socialist Workers were, in their day, a Trotskyite party, and therefore opposed to the communism of the USSR over the issue of Stalin’s dictatorship. The impression I had was that the Trotskyite parties wanted a communist society, but one where the workers themselves would hold power through soviets, rather than controlled by the communist bureaucracy.

As well as the Trotskyites, there were democratic Marxists in the west, who believed that socialism should be achieved democratically and rejected violent revolution and the dictatorship of the USSR. Karl Kautsky, an Austrian Marxist and one of the leaders of European Marxism, took this position. Another was the French Marxist, Lucien Laurat, who made the following scathing condemnation of the Soviet tyranny in Russia in his Marxism and Democracy, published by the Left Book Club in 1940.

‘In the fascist countries we can still observe the existence of capitalist characteristics, where as in Russia these characteristics have been radically destroyed as a result of the absolute seizure by the State of all the means of production and distribution. Although the Russian economic system has often been called “State capitalism”, and although the term “State slavery” employed by Karl Kautsky seems to us a more appropriate designation in our opinion, the present Russian regime is not slavery, or serfdom, or capitalism, but something of all three. It is related to slavery and serfdom by the absolute and total suppression of all freedom for the workers, who are tied by domestic passports to their places of residence, and often to their places of employment, like the feudal serf to the glebe. It is related to capitalism by the preservation of a great number of economic categories and legal forms. However, it is fundamentally different from any of these systems.

With more reason, and, of course, with all those reservations proper to such historical comparisons, we may rather compare the present Russian regime with the social and economic regime of the Incas, who dictatorially governed Peru before the discovery of America: an authoritatively controlled economic system strongly marked by numerous communist traits, but with a division of society into classes. No one can say how and toward what this curious social system might have developed had not a brutal and rapacious conqueror brought it to a sudden and premature end. It is quite certain, however, that on an infinitely larger scale, with an incomparably higher mass culture, and provided with all the achievements of twentieth-century science, our modern Incaism over what is called “one-sixth of the globe” reproduces from the social and and political point of view the most characteristic traits of Peruvian Incaism of four hundred years ago.

Just as the Russian State disposes absolutely over the material elements of the economic process, so it disposes dictatorially over the human element also. The workers are no longer free to sell their labour-power where they like and how they please. They no longer enjoy freedom of movement in the territory of the U.S.S.R. (domestic passports) The right to strike has been suppressed, and if the workers expressed even the slightest desire to oppose the methods of Stakhanovism, it would expose them to the severest punishments.

The Russian unions, strictly under the orders of the governing party, are merely organs charged with the execution in their own province of the political instructions of the Government. The instruments destined to defend the working class against the directive organism of the economic system have become instruments in the service of these organisms. The working class thus finds itself subjected to the discretionary power of a bureau-technocracy identical with the State apparatus.’ (Pp. 200-2).

There, and if you only listen to the Libertarians, you would think that only von Hayek believed that communism was slavery, although in his case he all meant all forms of socialism. Not that I think he had any hatred of right-wing dictatorship. He served in Dollfuss’ Austro-Fascist regime, which ended with the Nazi invasion and supported the various fascist dictatorships in South America. This, too me, shows how far Libertarians really believe in freedom.