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Voluntary Communism
Robert Beattie, in Honesty, October, 1887

One of the earliest members of the MAC to claim the term Voluntary communist, he apparently had lived a varied life around the world before coming to Australia.

Going north from Melbourne he became part of the propagandist network Andrews energised from Sydney.

Beattie was later part of the Sydney group 'agitators' which held conferences, sold books and leaflets and led to the formation of the Active Service Brigade. Later still, he joined 'New Australia', returning then to Brisbane where he worked for the Social Democratic Vanguard and chronicled his recollections as 'Adam Tramp.'

It is a strong sense of the injustice dealt out to the industrial classes (to which I belong), by those who, by a system of grab, have annexed wealth, other than their own, and became powerful, that has forced me to raise my voice against tyranny, and to try to draw the attention of my fellow men to the ways and means of bettering our condition; and, if you only give me credit for being sincere in this respect, I care not how severe your criticism may be.

I have chosen "Voluntary Communism" as the subject of this paper, believing it to be the best form of society for mankind to adopt. Having told you of my belief, the next best thing to do is to give you the reasons on which I build my belief. I believe that land, sea, and air should be the common property of all; and no man, whether endowed with mental or physical superiority or not, is entitled to more than his fair share. I believe intelligence to be a universal property of matter, and that man's brain is but an atom of this universal matter, and that the fact of a man being possessed of a more than average amount of brain is the result of an accident over which he has no control. To hear some men allude to their mental capabilities, which they do in a very cunning and indirect way, you would be apt to think that they themselves had moulded this atom of matter, breathed intelligence into it, and adjusted it in their own skulls. For instance, an employer will sometimes insinuate that it is the result of his mental energy, that gives employment to his workmen. His workmen might with equal justice say: "If we were not capable of carrying out your ideas, you might lay your brains on the shelf." I believe that every man has a right to live, and enjoy all the privileges of life in common with his fellows. I believe that men will yet grow wise enough to reverse the doctrine of "the survival of the fittest", and alter society so that it will be the best that will survive. The farmer does not allow weeds to grow up and choke his grain, nor does the conservator of forests allow worthless vines to destroy his trees; and reformers should take special care to remove all social weeds. At present, it is the unscrupuluous loafers (those who frighten by hell, coax by heaven, rob by law, poison with alcohol, starve by land-grabbing, extort by usury, and plunder by swindling) who survive. Better the world be rid of this vast army of social vermin, than lose one honest man! Some assert that all these work with their brains; but what, I ask, is the result of all this mental labor? It produces nought, save bigots, legal victims, drunkards, paupers, and fools. Their brain power is but a bastard intelligence, begotten of greed and cunning. I hold that any system, that takes out of the pockets of a great many and puts into the pockets of a few, is detrimental to the welfare of a community, and ought not to be tolerated. Some cry out: "Why not rise up like men, and demand our rights?" - and get shot down like asses! You all remember how three unfortunate men were persecuted for asking for work; and those who abused the power entrusted to them in unjustly imprisoning men, would not scruple to use the bullet and bayonet against those who dared to ask for their rights. Those who know what human rights really mean, are so few, alas! that any attempt to gain them by force would be suppressed, and our throats would be cut by our own countrymen. There is a quieter and simpler way of getting out of the difficulty: that is, by establishing communes and co-operations. Certainly we should have some of the machinery of government to contend against, but our example, I feel sure, would have a good effect, and tend to destroy it. I believe that it is every man's duty, and it ought to be a pleasant one, to expend his energies, both mental and physical, for the benefit of humanity. This is not mere sentiment; he, himself, would receive as much benefit as any. I contend that mankind would have been much happier, as a whole, had they been gifted with a mere instinct, instead of with a superior intelligence which has been selfishly misapplied. Better had the gold, silver, diamonds, and precious stones, lain undisturbed in the bowels of the earth, than be hoisted to the surface to gratify the vanity of kings and other snobbish drones; the securing of these almost useless articles has cost more human life than they are worth. The world, so far, has been ruled by self; and selfishness I believe to be the real cause of all the misery we see around us to-day. True communism aims to extract that base feeling from the human heart, and enthrone there the spirit of true humanity.

I will now try to deal with a few objections people generally bring against communism; and I shall quote occasional extracts from Hind's and Nordhoffs Histories of American Communities to support my own ideas. Some people have a terror of being loafed upon. I don't see why this should be considered a great obstacle; if sufficient care be exercised in formation, loafers could be excluded; then again, a six month's probationary term ought to go a long way as a test of ability; or a community could adopt a system of payment by hour-value. I will quote here an extract for Nordhoff : " 'How do you manage with lazy people?" I asked. 'But there are no idlers in a commune; I conclude that men are not naturally idle. Even the winter shakers, - the shiftless fellows who, as cold weather approaches, take refuge in shaker and other communities, professing a desire to become members, who come at the beginning of winter, as a shaker elder said to me, with empty stomachs and empty trunks, and go off with both full as soon as the roses begin to bloom, - even these poor succumb to the systematic and orderly rules of the place, and do their share of work without shrinking, until the mild spring sun tempts them to a freer life.' " I am inclined to suspect that it is the fear of not being able to loaf on others that deters many from even contemplating the communistic question. From what I myself have been able to observe of life amongst the North American Indian, the Maories, and even the Australian aborigines, I find loafing is seldom a source of trouble. Of course, these people have only adopted a very crude form of communism, and a somewhat unjust form as far as the women are concerned, for they have to perform a large amount of drudgery; yet I do not hesitate to say, that these people enjoy more of the privileges of life than do one fourth of the civilised world: they never had to (before the advent of the whites, anyhow,) depend on charity. Charity! why an honest man's gorge rises at the sound of that hateful word; it is so suggestive; the imagination conjures up scenes of soup-kitchens and the old Supreme Court; it is but a cloak for robbery. I was rather surprised, some time ago, to hear a prominent Anarchist make use of this word. If every man was to fill his place honestly and uprightly in this life, this word could be expunged from all languages. No man can accumulate enormous wealth, without having infringed on the rights of others; and any man, who will literally roll in luxury while his fellows are starving, lacks two sterling qualities of true manhood - honesty and humanity. The Australian aboriginal has been pointed out by naturalists as the most degraded of human beings. They could never have studied the Australian larrikin. Why, an ordinary sober black-fellow is a gentleman compared with this vicious biped. Yet this is the outcome of our boasted civilisation! The industrial classes are eaten out of house and home by loafers, kings, landlords, brewers, parsons, lawyers, bankers, medical quacks, and sporting men. All these parasites utterly ignore productive labor, and assume airs of superiority, simply because they possess that low cunning which prompts one man to loaf on another. These are the fat social vermin that have caused men to degenerate into larrikins.

Another obstacle raised, is that the useful arts and sciences would languish and die out. I fail to see why this should be. The man who possessed an inventive genius would, I am sure, meet with every encouragement in a commune, - that is, if the invention was for any practical purpose; pettyfogging gew-gaws would be scouted, I imagine, by any body of sensible men and women. I feel sure that ample time and assistance would be given him to perfect his ideas; and the increased prosperity of the commune would be his reward. And don't you think it would be a grand one? Why, to my mind, there could be no greater. I also think it would be a perfectly fair one; for every member helps to create the necessity which inspires the man of genius with ambition to overcome obstacles; and had it not been for the necessity his brains might as well have been in the possession of an emu. The man, who possesses a more than ordinary amount of brain power, can no more help being a genius, than a man, who possesses almost none, can help being a fool. Genius has struggled and asserted itself through poverty and disease, and yet reaped no reward in life. It would not be so in a commune. I believe there have been many bright ideas lost to us through the evils of our present social system. Just here, I will quote from Nordhoff to show that communal life does not dim the ideas: "The communists' life is full of devices for personal case and comfort. At Icaria, owing to their poverty, comfort was until within a year or two, out of the question - but they did what they could. Amongst the older and more prosperous communes a good deal of thought is given to the conveniences of life. One sees perfectly fitted laundries, covered ways by which to pass from house to out-houses in stormy weather, ingenious contrivances for ventilation and against draughts." Another extract goes to show that communists are not devoid of inventive genius, that they understand the science of agriculture, and are first class mechanics: "in the year 1873 the Oneida community produced and sold preserved fruits to the value of 203,784 dollars, machine and sewing silk and woven goods with 20,378½ dollars, hardware, including traps, chucks, silk-measuring machines, and silk strength testers (the last two of their own invention), gate hinges and foundry castings, 90,447 dollars. They raised 25 acres of sweet corn, 6 acres of tomatoes, 2 acres of strawberries, 2 acres of raspberries, 3½ acres of pears, ½ acre of currants, ½ acre of grapes, 22 acres of apples. In the beginning of 1874, they were worth over half a million dollars. In February of the same year, they numbered 283 persons, of whom 131 were males and 152 females." I have heard lately that this community, since the death of their leader, has broken up and settled into a joint stock company. I am not at all surprised that they should do so. The peculiar views they held regarding sexual matters tended, I am sure, to breed dissension amongst the younger members - it is a dangerous thing to meddle with mutual love. But the fact of their surviving over 40 years, and having overcome persecution and other obstacles, is very encouraging to communists, who will adopt more rational views on sexual matters and elevate humanity to the place usurped by religion. This is the foundation on which the Icarians have founded their community, and although they have been the most unfortunate of all American communities, yet, in the end, prosperity awaits them, for all their ideas are rational and humane, and as real live men and women are growing sick of bigotry and superstition, they cannot help but gain in numbers and wealth. Hear what Hind says: "Now Icaria is free from material embarrassment; without being in a very prosperous condition, it stands on a solid basis; its fidelity to the great principle of human fraternity has not failed. Now, as well as on the first day of its existence, it believes in, and proclaims, equality of rights and duties for all the children of nature. It is opposed to every idea of superiority, whether based upon muscular strength, intellect or wealth. It does not make any distinction between the son of a poor man and the son of a king; in its estimation all are equal, all have a right to receive from society the entire satisfaction of their wants, all have the duty to produce according to the amount of strength with which they are endowed by nature." Such is Icaria. I regret that I cannot give an outline of the history of this interesting community; it would occupy too much time. I will quote one more brief extract, however: "One cannot withhold his admiration from the little band at Icaria - a mere remnant of the army assembled at Naveroo under Cabet. Of every half a score that could then have responded to the rollcall, scarcely one is left; and yet they are apparently as full of courage and as enthusiastically devoted to communism, as they would have been had their pathway been strewn with roses instead of beset with thorns." in 1878, the members of this community number 83, with 50 applications for membership. Hind deals with 27 well-established communes and a number of other socialistic experiments. I will now quote the deductions he makes; they will be more interesting than anything I can say, as I have never had an opportunity of observing life among civilised communists, save once in Canada. I was stopping in a French Canadian boarding house; and among the inmates were 17 Parisian communal exiles. They were jolly fellows enough, but partial to brandy, and I could not help observing, that their communistic ideas got somewhat mixed unders its influence - generally speaking, it's a bad ingredient to mix anything with. I will now go on with Hind's deductions. "We have given a description of the principle communistic societies of the United States. Let us inquire what is taught by the facts of their history. They teach, in the first place, that it is possible to solve, by methods free from strife, the problem of the relations of labor and capital. In these communities, there exists no distinction of rich and poor. All are laborers, and all are capitalists; and all seek the common interest. A strike on the one hand, and a lock-out on the other, are made impossible by their fundamental principle of common property. They teach that individual holding of property is not essential to industry and the vigorous prosecutions of complicated businesses. They teach that a large proportion of what are termed middle-men, as also of non-producers in general, may be transferred to the side of production. They teach that litigation and other expensive evils, made necessary, in part at least, by the system of individual property, disappear with the advent of communism. They teach that pauperism and trampism, necessary results of the grab system, by which some are made extremely rich and others extremely poor, have no place in communism. They teach that education, libraries, lectures, and the pleasures of art, the instructions of science, the best means of moral and spiritual discipline, may be brought within the reach of the common people. They teach that the necessary preliminary conditions of successful communism are comparatively few, and within the reach of all. None of the described communities had, at starting, the numbers or capital required by Fourier, or any conception of the laws he deemed so indispensable; but they have wrought out their success under the simple conviction, that it is possible to live together and work together as brethren. They teach that successful communism is not dependent on any single theory of the sexual relations, for there are monogamic communities as prosperous as the celibate ones, and others favouring complex marriages as prosperous as those which hold to monogamy. They teach that while no special religious system, or special interpretation of The Scriptures, is essential to successful communism, religion is a powerful promoter of agreement, which is indispensable to the permanent prosperity of any commune. The present anarchic condition of the Icarian community emphasises this fact, as does the entire history of American socialism. (I might say just here, that the dispute among the Icarians is over the propaganda question: the young members are enthusiastic and wish to spread the principles of communism; the older members, rendered cautious by the many hardships they came through, are more careful; and hence the difference. I have heard since that the dispute is settled.) They teach that as a community loses the afflatus of its first leaders and relies upon doctrines and the machinery of government, it tends to death. In other words, a community needs for its growth and progress in all stages of its career, a living power at its head, not inferior to that which it had in the beginning." I agree with most of these conclusions. There is one point, however, on which I differ with him. He asserts that religion is a powerful promoter of agreement; that may be for a generation or more, but when religious fervor leads communists to adopt celibate lives you see at once where the mischief comes in, and you no longer wonder at their decreasing in numbers. Both the Rappists and the Shakers, though increasing in wealth, are decreasing in numbers. The peculiar religious views held by other communities, who have not adopted celibacy, prevents them from gaining converts; and contact with outside influences robs them of many young members. Rational communism would, I feel sure, be a success. I will now quote a passage from Hind to show what women thinks of communism. The lady belonged to the Oneida community: "Do community women talk much about their rights? No; there is no occasion for that - they have all they desire. One of them thus defines the position of women in the community: 'Communism gives woman, without a claim from her, the place which every true woman most deserves as the free and honored companion of man. Communism emancipates her from the slavery and the corroding cares of a mere wife and mother; stimulates her to seek the improvement of mind and heart, that will make her worthy of a higher place than ordinary society can give her; freed from forced maternity, a true and holy desire for children grows in her heart. Here no woman's hand is red with the blood of innocents as is whispered so often of many of her sisters in bondage.' Gradually, as by natural growth, the community women have risen to a position, where, in labor, in mind, and in heart, they have all and more than all that is claimed by the women who are so loudly asserting their rights, and through it all they have not ceased to love and honor the truth, that man is the head of the woman, and that woman's brightest God-given right is to be the glory of man." This sounds well: how many women in our midst would dare say so much for our present state of civilisation? Although I do not wish to pose as a leader in communism, simply because I am not capable of filling such an important office, yet I will here propose a few fixed principles, that I would like to see adopted in any community I were a member of: - First, the total abolition of priestcraft. I believe that every man should be his own priest. I believe too, that once you make a man your spiritual guide, it is a hundred chances to one he will try to control your temporal affairs. Second, total abstinence from stimulants as beverages. Experience, observation, and the evidences of scientists have proved to me, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it is one of the hugest frauds that has ever been foisted upon humanity. I have seen its effects in the soldier's barrack-room and camp, in the sailor's fo'c'sle, in the bush, and in the city; and always it has the same baneful influences. Though not the cause of all misery, it always aggravates it. Third, total abstinence from war as a means of settling disputes. I believe that those who cultivate a fighting disposition, when hard pushed for enemies, will fight with their friends. Fourth, the abolition of permanent government, and the adoption of a system of management to be entrusted to the most capable members. Because I believe, that when men grow old in office, they grow jealous of interference, and are apt to be tyrannical; and I think it ought to become the ambition of every communist to fit himself for some office, so that he could fill the breach caused by the death or retirement of other members. And now, friends, I leave the matter in your hands, hoping you will fearlessly criticise anything you conceive to be faulty, and support me in anything you consider worthy.

Graphic: In the toils of the serpent

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