On the federation of economic communes: Engels and Dühring

Originally published: Abstrakt on October 26, 2020 by Alp Altinors (more by Abstrakt)  | (Posted Oct 29, 2020)

In his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre states:

Between the seventeenth century and the twentieth, I see three such periods, which I would designate by the names of the men who dominated them: there is the “moment” of Descartes and Locke, that of Kant and Hegel, finally that of Marx. These three philosophies become, each in its turn, the humus of every particular thought and the horizon of all culture; there is no going beyond them so long as man has not gone beyond the historical moment which they express. I have often remarked on the fact that an “anti-Marxist” argument is only the apparent rejuvenation of a pre-Marxist idea. A so-called “going beyond” Marxism will be at worst only a return to pre-Marxism; at best, only the rediscovery of a thought already contained in the philosophy which one believes he has gone beyond. (Sartre, 1960)

Those who “go beyond” Karl Marx’s programme of economic liberation based on the socialisation of the means of production and “reach” a programme based on the federation of economic communes remind me of this promise of Sartre. But in reality, Marx’s scientific socialism was itself a transcendence of utopian socialism, anarchism and the program of the “federation of economic communes” of reformists such as Eugen Dühring. Here we will only be reminded of Friedrich Engels ‘ discussion with Dühring on this issue.

Engels’s encyclopedic work Anti-Dühring is based on a criticism of the views of Eugen Dühring, who came up in the German workers’ movement and attacked Marx’s theory by declaring himself the new prophet of socialism. Dühring’s program on the economic emancipation of the working class consisted of the “federation of economic communes”, which he called “the natural economic system of society” (Engels, 2000: 377).

Here we will leave aside Dühring’s word games, his presumptions of superiority over Marx, and Engels’s responses to them. We will instead present the content of Dühring’s program and Engels’s criticism of it.


Dühring’s federation of economic communes meant “a community of persons united by the public right to have an area of land and a group of productive institutions for joint activity and joint participation in the product” (2000: 378). What is discussed here was not social property as in Marx, but economic communes that would have ownership over their own means of production. Means of production would thus fall under group property. “The public right of these economic communes over their own means of labour is an exclusionary right of ownership, at least against all other economic communes and against society and the state” (2000: 379). But they should also not have the power to act alone, since there is an obligation to free movement and recruit new members in accordance with certain laws and administrative norms among various economic communes. There would be rich and poor communes, and the balance was to be established by the influx of the population into rich communes and the abandonment of poor communes. Dühring was in favour of the establishment of a national trade organisation which would limit competition between the various communes, but this would not save people from competition and its consequences.

Engels’s first question to Dühring was, “how will this production be carried out?” Will the mode of production change? Will this protect the existence of the division of labour? What will become of the division between the city and the countryside, “the first great social division of labour”?

According to Dühring, the antagonism between city and countryside was an “in the nature of things inevitable”.

Again, in the economic communes of Dühring, a one-sided division of labour would persist, and individuals “would dedicate themselves soley to one type of activity.” (2000: 380) when it comes to the placement of a new branch of production, the problem simply comes down to whether a certain number of things can be produced that will be dedicated to the production of a certain material. In Dühring’s social programme, there will also be people of “an economic type separate from each other in terms of lifestyle”.

In other words, as Engels put it, in Dühring’s communes, “everything within the field of production remains more or less as before. … production is (carried out) completely in the old way, with onlyt he the commune in the place of the capitalist.” (2000: 379-80) In reality, such a system of communes that would be able to cover, in the best case, only a small share of contemporary productive forces would not be able to further develop the latter. On the contrary, it will give rise to a loss of efficiency by dividing them into small pieces (one cannot run banks, large-scale factories and farms in this way). Hence, it cannot possibly transform the mode of production in a revolutionary way.

According to Engels, when a society makes itself the master of all means of production and uses them in a socially planned way, it ends the enslavement of humans to their means of production. It is clear that society cannot save itself without saving each individual. Therefore, the old style of production has to be fundamentally upended, and especially the old division of labour has to disappear. Instead, on the one hand, no individual should be superior to others in terms of the share of productive labour in this natural condition of human existence, and on the other hand, rather than productive labour being a tool for the enslavement of labour, it should be a tool for the liberation of people, developing and making use of every aspect of every individual’s physical and intellectual abilities; thus productive labour will cease to be a burden and rather must pass into the organisation of production that will result in satisfaction.

Moreover, the abolition of the old division of labour, far from damaging labour productivity, has become a condition of production itself, along with large-scale industry (2000: 384). Again, the elimination of the division between city and countryside is not a utopia, but a change that has been necessitated by the development of modern industry, but can only be realised under a planned economy (2000: 387).

And now see how puerile is Herr Dühring’s idea that society can take possession of all means of production in the aggregate without revolutionising from top to bottom the old method of production and first of all putting an end to the old division of labour; that everything will be in order once ‘natural opportunities and personal capabilities are taken into account’–that therefore whole masses of entities will remain, as in the past, subjected to the production of one single article; whole ‘populations’ will be engaged in a single branch of production, and humanity continue to be divided, as in the past, into a number of different crippled ‘economic species’, for there still are ‘porters’ and ‘architects’ (2000:387-88)

Engels declares that the revolutionary elements that will eliminate the old division of labour alongside the division between city and countryside and disrupt all production already exist as embryos in the productive conditions of modern large-scale industry, and their development is hindered by today’s capitalist mode of production (2000: 388). It is undoubtedly the historical greatness of Marx and Engels that today’s robotics industry reveals this fact in a much more striking and clear way than we were able to see in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

Engels also directs the following criticism at Dühring, who sees the whole source of exploitation and inequality in “force” and repression, suggesting that these problems will be solved when the economy is left to its natural course and the “natural system of society” prevails:

In every society in which production has developed spontaneously–and our present society is of this type–the situation is not that the producers control the means of production, but that the means of production control the producers. In such a society each new lever of production is necessarily transformed into a new means for the subjection of the producers to the means of production. […] In making itself the master of all the means of production to use them in accordance with a social plan, society puts an end to the former subjection of men to their own means of production. (2000: 381, 383-4).

In other words, the problem cannot be solved by removing arbitrary, political forms that interrupt the natural flow of production, the real problem is to transform the mode of production. However, since Dühring, all left-wing movements that lack social radicalism have rejected the determinant of productive relations, and sought explanations in exploitation, state repression and other such elements of the superstructure and saw the solution in a return to a “natural social” order. Such fallbacks are also common in the conditions of the crisis that have dominated the socialist movement since 1991.


So how will labour be compensated for in economic communes? How then will products be obtained social accumulation be provided for?

According to Dühring, in economic communes workers will receive “compensation for their labour”; no matter how many hours they work, they will receive a wage equivalent to it in money. Prices of goods produced will also be fixed, thus ensuring an “equality of consumption” (2000: 390-392).

So, how can a social accumulation fund be created within such a system that will expand production? Because if new investments cannot be made that will constantly increase production, the ever-increasing needs of society in socialism cannot be met. Society could not constantly advance the level of civilisation. However, in Dühring’s model, nothing remains in the commune, as workers will receive all the value they produce “in money”. But workers can accumulate individually, or the commune can seize a certain portion of the workers’ labour and only accumulate only in this way provide for accumulation (2000: 393).

In addition, it is a separate problem that workers will be paid “in money” for their labour. In the commune of Dühring, it is also envisaged that people will save money, and people and communes will lend money to each other.

Engels says that in a communist society, the fact that money is still in circulation as a relic of the old society does not mean that it functions the same as money in a commodity-producing society:

But in the trading between the commune and its members the money is not money at all, it does not function in any way as money. It serves as a mere labour certificate; to use Marx’s phrase, it is ‘merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in the common labour, and of his right to a certain portion of the common produce destined for consumption’, and in carrying out this function, it is ‘no more ‘money’ than a ticket for the theatre’ (2000: 393-94).

In a socialist society, a labour certificate, which shows the value of labour, also documents the right of the worker to consume. Of course, although there is no difference between labour certificates and money in terms of this purpose, there are significant differences in other respects. So whether money stays in circulation or not is not a trivial difference.

On the other hand, by accepting money in payment without any question, the commune leaves open the door to the possibility that this money may have been obtained otherwise than by the individual’s own labour. Non olet [‘it does not stink’].

This is the most basic element that distinguishes labour credits from cash. A labour credit is a document that can only be obtained by a certain person working a certain hour, cannot be sold, is unique to the person, while the latter can come from any source.

The commune does not know where it comes from. But in this way all conditions are created permitting metallic money, which hitherto played the role of a mere labour certificate, to exercise its real money function. Both the opportunity and the motive are present, on the one hand to form a hoard, and on the other to run into debt. The needy individual borrows from the individual who builds up a hoard. […] And as the builder of the hoard is in a position to extort interest from people in need, usury is restored along with metallic money functioning as money. […] The usurers are transformed into dealers in the medium of circulation, bankers, controllers of the medium of circulation and of world money, and thus into controllers of production, and thus into controllers of the means of production, even though these may still for many years be registered nominally as the property of the economic and trading communes. And so that hoarders and usurers, transformed into bankers, become the masters also of the economic and trading communes themselves (2000: 395-6).

It was Owen, the Welsh utopian socialist, who first suggested that money would have no place in future communist society and would be replaced by “labour notes”. Weitling also put forth the idea of a “trade notebook” with business hours on one page and products used in return on the other.

Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Program puts forth that “in the lower stage of communism”: as a community, an individual will receive a labour certificate indicating they did such amount of labour (in which the effort needed for collective funds is reduced) and with this document, receives a share from the collective stocks of the fruits of social labour. They reclaim from society in one form the same amount of labour that they have offered to society in another (Marx, 1875).

In any case, like with the great utopian socialists of prior eras, the scientific socialists Marx and Engels foresaw socialism as a moneyless society, a society where money’s importance was lost because in the place of the circulation of commodities would stand a society of planned distribution of products; in such a society everyone would receive compensation, not in the form of money, but in labour credits, and not for all their labour, but for the remainder after allocating a certain amount to a collective fund for social accumulation of health, education, transportation, insurance, reproductive production etc.

If money were still used to pay for labour in such a society, this indicates that that society has not yet progressed in socialist construction, has not yet reached the lower stage of communism, but nevertheless, as Engels makes clear, “in the trading between the commune and its members the money is not money at all, it does not function in any way as money” (2000:394).

If a federation of communes is envisaged to operate on the basis of money circulation, it is inevitable that this money circulation will divide the commune’s members into rich and poor, lenders and borrowers, and turn the former into a class that increasingly dominates the latter. As socialist society moves towards the socialisation of all means of production, it also constantly narrows the area of commodity production and circulation. What is a commodity today will be decommodified tomorrow. The degree of socialist construction is measured by decommodification. The more widespread and deepening the provision of human needs as a social right without money is, the more mature socialism is. Thus, as the area of commodity production and circulation narrows, money also loses its economic importance. In a society where the circulation of commodities disappears, money (which is the agent of commodities) will also become completely unnecessary–except for the ground of relations with the external capitalist world, if it still exists.

Communist society does not seek to find a roundabout means to define the value in quantities of labour in line with the basic law of commodity production: it determines the quantities of labour “in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time” (2000: 393). Dühring, while leading his communes to find the “value of “labour” and give “the full value of labour”, in fact, makes the law of value, which is the basic law of commodity production and therefore capitalism, the basic law of his own sociality. However, the communist society is not a commodified society and does not recognize the operation of the law of value.[1]


“The ‘exchange of labour for labour on the principle of equal valuation’, in so far as it has any meaning, that is to say, the mutual exchangeability of products of equal social labour, hence the law of value, is the fundamental law of precisely commodity production, hence also of its highest form, capitalist production. […] By elevating this law to the basic law of his economic commune and demanding that the commune should execute it in all consciousness, Herr Dühring converts the basic law of existing society into the basic law of his imaginary society. He wants existing society, but without its abuses” (2000:405).

And today, those who advance such theses as “we are not against the market, but monopolisation”, “we are not against money, but its collection in the hands of a few”, “democratic markets” etc. indeed ask for nothing more than this. A federation of communes, where commodity production and its basic law are preserved in their most perfect form, will eventually and inevitably give birth to capitalist production, the most advanced form of commodity production, from its own heart. Capitalism, as the product of the development of modern productive forces, was born precisely from the bosom of commodity production, generalising it and ensuring its complete dominance. Socialism will produce value for use, not commodities, through socialised means of production, ensuring maximum satisfaction of society’s ever-growing needs, make what is a commodity today a free right tomorrow, and in this way create a society without commodities or money.

In the 20th Century, when small commodity production (especially among the peasantry) was widespread and powerful, it was extraordinarily difficult and difficult to socialise all means of production and to eliminate commodity production. At present, when capitalism has largely liquidated the production of small commodities, this is a much easier task in objective terms.


1) Marx and Engels did not suggest that in socialism the value of labour would be measured in money or rewarded with a higher wage than in capitalism. They said the opposite. For example; “Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labour” (Marx 1875). Therefore, those who develop criticisms based on this, who suggest that Marxism says that the value of labour in socialism will be measured by money (or value), are fighting shadows, not Marxism.


Engels, F. (2000) Anti-Dühring, Bay Eugen Dühring’in Bilimi Alt Üst Edişi, Translated to Turkish by İsmail H. Yarkın, İnter Yayınları, İstanbul.

Sartre, J.P. (1960) The Critique of Dialectical Reason, www.marxists.org

Marx, K. (1979), Gotha Programının Eleştirisiwww.kurtuluscephesi.com

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