The thesis which is explored in this work of history is that communitarian anarchists of the nineteenth century developed and articulated a distinct tradition of economic thought. Further, that tradition of thought has been neglected or ignored in histories of economic thought for over a century. Communitarian anarchism is understood to be a generic form of socialism which denies the need for a state or any other authority over the individual from above, and which requires absolute belief that the individual cannot exist outside a community of others. The period of this study begins with the first major writing of the French communitarian anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in 1840 and ends with the temporary burial of anarchist theorising as the First World War exploded in Europe in 1914. The historical actors who have been selected and whose work has been explored are Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), Elisée Reclus (1830-1905), Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), Jean Grave (1845-1939), and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). The basis of these selections was their individual contributions to the development and articulation of communitarian anarchist economic thought as well as their influences outside their own countries.
As the existence of a state is typically perceived to be an inevitable and necessary characteristic of human society, and as the history of 'economic thought' is primarily viewed through the lens of the neoclassical paradigm of economic theory, it was the first task of this thesis to open up these perceptions of the state and the economy to admit the possibility of considering communitarian anarchist economic ideas as 'economic thought'. The historical actors then appear in successive chapters, some of them paired within one chapter where contextually relevant, and personal and intellectual connections between them are identified where there is historical evidence of such connections. As distinct ethics underpinned the ideas of all communitarian anarchists with respect to a future society, it has been necessary to identify this ethical foundation for each historical actor in this study. Relevant biographical and social and political context has also been included in discussion of the ideas of each of them in order to ensure that this history of economic ideas is contextually grounded. This study does not attempt to plot a genealogy of their ideas and it does not engage with the politics of transformation of society excepting only in occasional areas where political ideas inform or are impossible to disassociate from economic ideas. A similarly restrictive caveat was applied to communitarian anarchists' critiques of other traditions of economic thought of the period, as well as to critiques of communitarian anarchist ideas by others. It is not a broad history of communitarian anarchism. A sharp focus on positive economic ideas has been sustained throughout this study.
It is eventually clear that the economic thought of the communitarian anarchists of the nineteenth century comprised a web of ideas, interwoven through personal and intellectual connections. That web of ideas can be readily seen as constituting a distinct tradition of economic thought which has its own integrity and which is internally consistent. Further, the tradition of communitarian anarchist economic thought did not end in 1914. It has lived on throughout the twentieth century and manifests itself today especially in the ideas of many 'deep' ecologists. It also has relevance in providing a fresh perception of the fragmentation evident in many societies today, especially where there is a substantial 'informal economy'. Communitarian anarchist economic thought is a living tradition.