Semantical-Historical Paths of Communism and Commons

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search




"The story begins at Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondacks when, at a gathering of cultural workers for the commons and through no wish of their own, Peter and George Caffentzis were asked to speak about violence and the commons. Accordingly following dinner after what had been a chilly October day, they settled into armchairs by the fire and explained to the gathering that way back in the day (history) the commons was taken away by blood and fire and that, furthermore, as we all basically knew, it was still violently happening which ever way you happened to look. Indeed, this violent taking-away, or “expropriation,” was the beginning of proletarianization and thus of capitalism itself! George added that he thought that there was a difference between the commons and ‘the tradition of communism’ which began in the 1840s. Peter (that’s me) wasn’t so sure about that, thinking that it was earlier, and that in any case there was considerable overlap. He said something about Cincinnati and promised to get back to everyone. So, making good on that promise, here’s what I had in mind." (


From the conclusion:

"In the 1840s, then, ‘communism’ was the new name to express the revolutionary aspirations of proletarians . It pointed to the future, as in ‘historic tasks’. In contrast, the ‘commons’ belonged to the past, perhaps to the feudal era, when it was the last-ditch defense against extinction.

Now in the 21st century the semantics of the two terms seems to be reversed with communism belonging to the past of Stalinism, industrialization of agriculture, and militarism, while the commons belongs to an international debate about the planetary future of land, water, and subsistence for all. movements of the common people who have been enclosed and foreclosed but are beginning to disclose an alternative, open future.


In conclusion, various forms of commoning, some traditional and some not, provided the proletariat with means of survival in the struggle against capitalism. Commoning is a basis of proletarian class solidarity, and we can find this before, during, and after both the semantic and the political birth of communism." ((

Social and Etymological History of the Concept of 'Communism'

Peter Linebaugh:

"The communist tradition is said to have started with Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto published in 1848. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes the first English translation (Helen MacFarlane’s) of Marx and Engels of The Communist Manifesto. “It is not the abolition of property generally which distinguishes Communism; it is the abolition of Bourgeois property ... In this sense, indeed, the Communists might resume their whole Theory in that single expression – The abolition of private property.”

In March 1840 a conservative German newspaper wrote, “The Communists have in view nothing less than a leveling of society – substituting for the presently-existing order of things the absurd, immoral and impossible utopia of a community of goods.” In Lyons after the suppression of the revolt of 1834 a secret Society of Flowers survived which is sometimes called the first communist society. After the failure in 1839 of the revolt in Paris of August Blanqui another greenish name sprouted for the communists, and the Society of the Seasons was created.9

The actual appearance of the word, at least in English, occurred in 1840. The OED as its earliest recording in English of “communism” quotes Goodwyn Barmby writing in The Apostle in 1848. “I also conversed [in 1840] with some of the most advanced minds of the French metropolis, and there, in the company of some of the disciples of Babeuf, then called Equalitarians, I first pronounced the word Communism, which has since ... acquired that world-wide reputation.”

Who was Goodwyn Barmby? We know that at the age of sixteen he harangued the expropriated agricultural laborers of Suffolk against the New Poor Law. Then at the age of twenty with a letter from Robert Owen he crossed the English Channel to Paris to establish “regular communication between the socialists of Great Britain and France,” calling himself a “friend of socialism in France, in England, and the world.”10 He reported that people were “on fire with the word” and he eagerly seized upon it himself.

I want to make three comments about this first use of “communism” in English. First of all, in opposition to the nationalism of the day or that patriotism which is the refuge of scoundrels, we note that communism right from the start was world-wide. He proposed an International Association that summer. In 1841 he formed the Central Communist Propaganda Society, later called the Communist Church. It had five branches including ones in London, Merthyr Tydfil in Wales and Strabane in Ireland. He corresponded with French, American, and Venezuelan communists or potential communists. Barmby was affected by the orientalism of the day and proposed that the best place to site the first utopia would be in Syria.11 He toured the industrial midlands of England.

(Though Peter, your author here, received his advanced training as a social historian in Coventry at the University of Warwick and though he studied with one of the most knowledgeable of 20th century English communists,12 he never did hear tell of Goodwyn Barmby’s 1845 tour into Warwick or his speech in Coventry on “Societary Science and the Communitive Life.” What might he have missed? Barmby’s Book of Platonopolis offers a clue containing as it does forty-four ‘societarian wants’ for humanity and many scientific projects for the future, including a steam driven automobile. Each community would have its own baptistery or hydropathic centre complete with frigidary, calidary, tepidary and frictionary for cold, hot, warm bathing followed by vigorous exercise.)

The second comment I wish to make concerns ‘the most advanced minds’ of Paris. Readers understood that communism arose in the context of revolution. Parisian thought was advanced only in the context of a theory of the progress of history. Barmby’s theory was this. History evolved through four stages. First, paradisation which was pastoral, clannish, and nestled in the Vale of Arcady. Second, barbarization, which was both feudal and municipal. Third was monopolism or civilization, and communization was to be the last. It too would go through four stages, first, the club or lodging house, second, the common production and consumption center, then the city, and finally the world. We note, incidentally, that he treats communism actively, as a verb, something which William Morris also would do at the end of the century.

A communist banquet was held on July 1, 1840, for one thousand artisans in Paris, and speaker after speaker extolled the “explosive impact” of communism. Laponneraye and Théodore Dézamy, the organizers of the event, were “the true founders of modern communism.”13 Dézamy asked the “unhappy proletarians to reenter into the gyre of the egalitarian church, outside of which there can be no salvation.” When another communist banquet was planned at the Institute of Childhood to celebrate the secular marriage ceremony of leading communists the government prohibited it. At its beginning communism was associated with both spirituality and reproduction. Barmby was in touch with William Weitling, the tailor and revolutionary, who also visited Paris and who also sought the followers of Babeuf. Weitling was active in the League of the Just which later became the Communist League which commissioned The Communist Manifesto.

The revolutionary egalitarians, François-Noel Babeuf and Restif de la Bretonne, were progenitors of modern communism during the French Revolution of 1789 which we celebrate on Bastille Day. Babeuf was a commoner from Picardy who became a proletarian canal navvy or ditch digger (hence, the first line of his autobiography, “I was born in the mud”). Babeuf, like Marx, had experience with the violence of commons expropriation, and like Marx, Babeuf became a communist revolutionary. In the trajectory of their biographies from commons to communism it was the crucible of international revolution which effected the transition.

Babeuf crossed paths with James Rutledge in May 1790 in Paris. Rutledge, a “citizen of the universe” as he called himself and an Anglo- Irishman, he petitioned for agrarian laws with “no ownership of property.”14 Perhaps it was a result of this encounter that led Babeuf to change his name to Gracchus indicating his utter revolutionary identification with the ancient Roman brother who advocated equality and the ‘agrarian law.’

Babeuf publicized the radical feminist Confédération des Dames. He was secretary of Franco-Haitian Claude Fournier. Babeuf was imprisoned for six months when he wrote about his “co-athlete,” as he called the carpenter’s son, A New History of the Life of Jesus Christ. Accused of fomenting civil war, he said the war already existed of the rich against the poor. In November 1795 he published his Plebeian Manifesto calling for a total upheaval or bouleversement total. “Dying of Hunger, Dying of Cold” was the title of a popular song he wrote. In 1796 he placarded Paris with a poster beginning, "Nature has given to every man the right to the enjoyment of an equal share in all property" He was beheaded by the guillotine in May 1797.15

Restif de la Bretonne was called “Jean-Jacques des Halles,” or the “Rousseau of the gutter.” In 1785 he reviewed a book describing a communal experiment in Marseilles whose author, Hupay, was the first to describe himself as a communist, and who later wrote a Republican Koran. He was inspired by Restif’s Le Paysan perverti. In this private property is limited to clothing and furniture. Civilization had perverted the peasant whose philosophical community could be restored based on “the principles of the New World.” America, the religious Moravians, and the philosophe Mably were the sources of communism. By Restif 1793 begins to use communism to describe common ownership. Restif’s Philosophie de Monsieur Nicolas of 1796 spoke much about “communists.” He attacked US republicanism as being “nominal” only.

This ends our short trip to Paris." ((