Libertarian Socialism: A Thanksgiving (Passover) Tale

In Intro to Libertarianism on April 2, 2013 at 11:17 am

[Some time back, I promised to publish a series of articles related to the concept of libertarian socialism and why I adhere to it, rather than ‘anarcho-capitalism’. I apologize for the delay…I’m old and my published material is free. So there. PD]

My household is completing Passover. Passover is kind of like ‘Jewish Thanksgiving’ where we turn our thoughts to gratitude that G-d (not government) made us and intended us to be (and live) free.

Every Thanksgiving in the United Soviet Socialist States of America brings a repetition of the story of how socialism failed the Pilgrims and how capitalism saved them.

In short, the story goes like this:

“The Pilgrims first engaged in communal economics where each person grew, hunted, or scavenged food to be put in the common store. The Pilgrims starved. In what is now attributed to Divine inspiration, the leadership changed economic policies and the colony of Puritans became instant capitalists. What a person grew…was theirs. They could store it, sell it, or trade it. The colony flourished under this system. The Pilgrims then engaged in free market trade with their red brothers and sisters. Therefore, it is said by worshipful devotees of the system, capitalism is superior to evil socialism.”

The story reminds me of “The Polish Scientist”. (I am legally empowered to tell ‘Polack Jokes’.)

“A Polish scientist embarked on an experiment. After placing a frog on his workbench, he would shout, “Jump!” at the frog. Soon, the frog learned to jump on command. The scientist cut off one of the frog’s back legs and shouted, “Jump!” The frog jumped only a few inches. The scientist recorded his findings in his notes. The scientist then cut off the other back leg and shouted, “Jump!” The frog did not move. “Jump!”, shouted the scientist. No movement. The scientist then records in his notebook: “Upon removal of both back legs, the frog becomes deaf.”

Cause and effect. They are related.

If the story linking the triumph of Pilgrim capitalism over socialism has merit, then so does the story of the Bielski otriad (Rus. ‘partisan brigade’). My sources are two historical accounts of Eastern European partisan groups: Defiance by Nachama Tec (Oxford University Press 1993) and Fugitives of the Forest by Allan Levine (Lyons Press 1998).

[NOTE: Tec’s history of the Bielski otriad was subsequently made into a feature film by director Edward Zwick. Although highly entertaining, the movie account bore only superficial resemblance to the history of the Bielski partisans.]

After the Nazis invaded Belarus in the summer of 1941, they embarked on the systematic extermination of its Jewish population. Thousands of Jews fled hamlets and cities to take their chances in the nearby forests. Most were hunted down or killed by unsympathetic (gentile) peasants. Red Army units in the area typically robbed the refugees and murdered them, counter to Soviet law (So much for state protection!).

Tuvia, Asael, and Zus Bielski likewise escaped to the Nalibocka forest where they, reluctantly, became a locus for desperate refugees in need of protection and leadership. Tuvia Bielski, with two years of Polish army service under his belt, became the unwilling commander of the otriad. His brother, Asael, became his war minister.

The Bielski family was of humble origins. Their father was a miller. They were not quite peasants and not quite bourgeoisie. Despite this, Tuvia married upward into a strongly middle class merchant family.

The Bielskis, prior to their forest exile, were not devoted to Marxism or Marxist economics.

The Bielski otriad grew. It was official policy, rigorously enforced by Tuvia, that no Jew would be turned away from membership in the otriad because they were elderly, poor, unable to work, or had nothing to offer the common store. Admission to the otriad did require potential members to surrender all money, jewelry, bullion, weapons, and food to the common pot.

If they refused, they were invited to leave and take their chances alone. Few applicants voted with their feet and left. Tales of Rambo aside, a lone wolf strategy for survival in a hostile environment is a suicidal plan.

The Bielski otriad became an operating model of libertarian socialism.

Members were expected to work, if possible. But nobody was exiled from the group if they could not work. The otriad operated, mostly, according to Bakunin’s Principle of Distribution, “From each, according to his ability. To each, according to how hard he works.” [Over-production was encouraged. Those (there were many ‘shops’ in the otriad) who over-produced were required to surrender their ‘excess’ product to the common pot, but were given a portion of the overage as a wage. There was no capitalistic accumulation of product by those who produced more than what was needed. Despite this ‘negative incentive (per the capitalists) many of the otriad’s ‘shops’ regularly competed with each other to out produce needed goods.]

This policy was often modified. During some short periods of its existence when supplies were scarcest, distribution was entirely communistic: “From each, according to his ability. To each, according to his need.” The communist approach was strongly resented by those who were productive and by those who performed dangerous work, such as scavenging for food. These workers typically demanded a better or larger share of goods and disparaged those unable to work as malbushim (lit. ‘empty clothing’). Tuvia frequently relented and gave productive and risk-prone workers better food, but he also gave the group’s malbushim slightly better rations at the same time. It is safe to say that, when the commune prospered so did all of its members. During times of plenty (some commune members gained weight after leaving the ghetto for the forest), resource distribution was practiced strictly according to Bakunin.

It was a delicate tightrope to walk. Years afterward, there were still a few bitter souls who disparaged Tuvia’s leadership.

Be that as it may, the group flourished.

The otriad successfully linked with Soviet partisans who, uncharacteristically, traded weapons, food, and medical supplies with the Jews. At the end of its existence, the otriad consisted of nearly 1,300 members and had established schools, a synagogue, and a hospital. Despite an official policy prohibiting births within the otriad, numerous babies were born during the exile and no expectant mother was cast out when her pregnancy was discovered by the central leadership.

They could, of course, leave on their own. Virtually none took advantage of the offer.

So, let’s compare the Pigrims to the Bielski Jews.

The Pilgrims were a comparatively smaller group. They had the support of the indigenous population. They were not actively hunted by a militarily superior hostile force.

They turned to capitalism and survived. Barely.

The Bielskis were numerous. Their logistics were enormous. The local peasants would gleefully turn them in for a loaf of bread. They were hunted by the most technologically advanced army in Europe.

They turned to libertarian socialism. And thrived.

Cause and effect?

[Closing Note: I cling to libertarian socialism because it works. State socialism is bloody and doomed to failure. So long as the foundation of a society is libertarian-anarchist, it will succeed under socialist or capitalist economic policies. It is the freedom in the system that matters. I believe that libertarian socialism will outlive anarcho-capitalism because capitalism is founded in exploitation. So long as anarcho-capitalists are willing to have to undergo ‘rebirth’ through practiced anarchy periodically, there is nothing wrong with their proposed system. Of course it ALL may be hogwash. In that event, we’re fucked no matter which way we go.]


[Coming: “Capitalism and Predation – Synonyms”]

  1. I searched for the Bielski partisans and I came across this. I am personally an anarchist communist so I reject Bakunin’s collectivist anarchist proposals of a wage/remuneration system but I understand how remuneration has support. Either way, freedom from capitalism and the state are vital. We will have multiple different societies co-existing. We will have free market anti-capitalist systems like what the Center for a Stateless Society supports. We will have societies based on participatory economics which is very similar to Mikhail Bakunin’s scheme for community control, community support, and limited individual remuneration for work done. Then we will have Anarchist Communism as pushed for by Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Errico Malatesta, and Peter Kropotkin. There are more tendencies but Mutualism, Collectivism, and Communism are the three main socio-economic models.

  2. You are very welcome to the discussion, Patrick.

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