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KNOWLES, Rob. "Political Economy from below : Communitarian Anarchism as a Neglected Discourse in Histories of Economic Thought" - 01 -


This paper appeared originally as "Black Flags Are Hard To See : Communitarian Anarchism As A Neglected Discourse In Histories Of Economic Thought" History of Economics Review, No.31 Winter 2000. It is presented here with permission of the author.


Deconstruction of Economic Thought

Polanyi and generic economic thought

Characterisations and Characteristics of Communitarian Anarchism

Communitarian Anarchism Economic Thought

Kropotkin and the marginalisation of anarchist economic thought

Kropotkin’s economic thought : An Overview

Concluding Remarks


This paper is written in the spirit which Elias Khalil (1995, pp.78-9) expressed in a recent essay in which he criticised the historiography of economic thought as inevitably leading to the dominant paradigm of neo-classical economics. Robert Heilbroner (1979, p.192) had earlier stated more pointedly a similar criticism of such historiography :

most contemporary texts on the history of [economic] “doctrines” judge and grade the works of the past by the degree to which they anticipate the present...From this widely shared point of view, the history of economic thought becomes a chronicle of mistakes and near-misses, a kind of voyager’s log as the profession gradually makes its way to the Promised Land - in effect, to the economics of the last fifty years.

The historiographical approach of this paper respects the historical and anthropological context within which ideas were formulated or uttered. It is only by listening to the voices of the past within their own social and political contexts, and by giving respect to their intentions and to the ‘truths’ as they perceived them – regardless of whether or not we like to hear what they said or believed – that we can approach an understanding of ‘what actually happened, though our answers will be partial and provisional…’ [1] The period covered here begins early in the nineteenth century and focuses on the fin de siècle ; a time when competing discourses of political economy were in full cry.

The primary aim of this paper is to demonstrate the existence of a positive discourse of communitarian anarchist economic thought. A secondary aim is to show that there is intellectual space within the genre of ‘histories of economic thought’ that permits a claim for communitarian anarchism to stand alongside all other discourses of economic thought that compete with the hegemonic neo-classical paradigm. Throughout the twentieth century, histories of economic thought have ignored the positive dimensions of all socialist or anarchist discourses. Only the critiques of capitalism or proposals for the civilising of capitalism have been considered to be worthy of entry into the ‘voyager’s log’ of the course to the ‘Promised Land’. Most histories of economic thought selectively engage ‘socialism’ only through Marxism. These observations of the highly selective nature of histories of economic thought are not new (see, eg, Heilbroner 1979; Eff 1989; McCloskey 1983; Strassman 1993; Schabas 1992). It is still worth asking the question Schumpeter (1972, p.34) asked half a century ago, ‘Is the History of Economics a History of Ideologies ?’

If the scientific basis of (neo-classical) economic theory is thought to be a defence against the criticisms of the historiography of economic thought noted above, history can counter-attack. Early French socialists believed their work to be scientific :

The socialist perspective was universally understood by its advocates to be the product of scientific inquiry, la science sociale. This . . . was virtually a fanatical viewpoint. Socialism . . . was a movement of ideas, a triumph of the human mind . . . The scientific ideas themselves were seen as the product of man’s naturally inventive mind coming to grips with the experiences of real life, such as, for example, a thwarted Revolution and the depredations of competitive capitalism (Corcoran 1983, p.7).

Marx and the self-styled anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) were each thoroughly convinced of the scientific basis of their socialist and anarchist thought respectively. Proudhon can be heard in 1840 asserting that

By means of self-instruction and the acquisition of ideas, man finally acquires the idea of science, - that is, of a system of knowledge in harmony with the reality of things, and inferred from observation . . . And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice . . . so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism (Proudhon 1970, pp.276-7).

Note that these were the words of Proudhon, the anarchist, calling for ‘scientific socialism’, not those of Marx, who was still at University working on his Doctoral thesis at that time (McLennan, 1980, p.52). Science has been accessible to all ideologies.

The first part of this paper opens up intellectual ‘space’ within the genre of ‘histories of economic thought’ through a deconstruction of the notion of ‘economic thought’ and therefore its histories. This is achieved by a special focus on the anthropological and historical insights of the economic historian, Karl Polanyi, specifically his ‘substantive’ definition of the economy, and his demonstration of the social embeddedness of the economy. The characterisation and characteristics of ‘communitarian anarchism’ are then explored. The second part of the paper provides an overview of some of the basic economic ideas expressed by the leading communitarian anarchist theorist at the end of the nineteenth century, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), as an example of communitarian anarchist economic thought. The paper concludes that a generic approach to histories of economic thought cannot exclude communitarian anarchist thought on any grounds other than ideological bias. [2]


[1For a discussion of this historiographical approach see, for example, Skinner (1988, pp.246-7) ; LaCapra (1980, p.275). See also arguments which advocate an "anti-foundational anthropological epistemology" as playing "an important role in prescribing the forms of explanation appropriate to the history of ideas". (Bevir 1999, p.218.

[2The word "ideology" as used in this paper reflects the Marxist insight, expressed clearly by Schumpeter : "people’s ideas are likely to glorify the interests and actions of the classes that are in a position to assert themselves and therefore are likely to draw or to imply pictures of them that may be seriously at variance with the truth". Of course, "truth" itself is a variable, but "ideology" essentially represents the wielding of power (Schumpeter 1972, p.35).

Mis en ligne par : CREAGH Ronald

Pour citer cet article :
KNOWLES, Rob. "Political Economy from below : Communitarian Anarchism as a Neglected Discourse in Histories of Economic Thought" - 01 -,
Dernières modifications : 26 avril 2015. [En ligne].
[Consulté le 22 février 2017]

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