THE CONQUEST OF BREAD by Peter Kropotkin — eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

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Review by Gary Hayter: The Russian anarcho-syndicalist activist and theoretician, G.P. Maximov (1893 – 1950) used to bemoan the fact that so few militants in the libertarian movement bothered to read the classics of anarchism, and as a result often found themselves out manoeuvred by their political opponents. Today we have very little excuse for not studying the works of the founders of the libertarian tradition. Those of Peter Kropotkin, for example, are readily available in affordable English translations. These include “Mutual Aid”, “Fields, Factories and Workshops”, “The Great French Revolution” and perhaps his most widely read book, “The Conquest of Bread”. It is this work I want to take a closer look at now.

The Conquest Of Bread” first appeared in Paris in 1892, although Kropotkin had expounded his theories a decade earlier in the pages of the anarchist journal “La Revolt”. 1906 saw its first appearance in English when it was published in London. The book is similar in many ways to his “Fields, Factories and Workshops” (1912), which was also a compilation of articles written between 1888 and 1890. Both books are supplemented by a large number of contemporary statistics which are used to bolster the arguments Kropotkin is presenting. These may be skipped over by the modern reader who will be more concerned with the ideas being put forward.

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What is it Kropotkin intends to establish with “The Conquest Of Bread”? It would seem that he wishes to prove that humankind is moving inevitably towards anarchist communism, and that this is a scientifically based development. Throughout the 17 chapters Kropotkin hammers home the following basic points:

1. That the present political and economic situation is unjust and serves only to enrich the few at the expense of the many.
2. That humankind is moving in the direction of anarchist communism.
3. That in order to change the system a root and branch revolution is necessary on an anarchist communist basis with the free commune as the administrative unit.
4. That working class people have enormous untapped moral and organisational abilities.
5. That communism is the only just economic system as any retention of the wage system is based on an arbitrary evaluation of labour, and is therefore necessarily unjust.
6. That for the revolution to survive the free anarchist communes must strive to achieve the highest possible degree of self sufficiency.

Kropotkin draws upon historical examples to illustrate occasions when workers have failed to push revolutionary situations through to their logical conclusion and have subsequently paid for it with their lives, such as in France in 1789, 1848 and 1871. The book contains some examples of real insight into the mechanics of revolutions, many of which were borne out by the Russian revolution of 1917 just 11 years after the publication of the first English edition of the book. For example, in the chapter entitled, “Food” he describes the dangers of a “Collectivist” (read State Socialist or Marxist) revolution which retains the wages system. Seeing starvation and unemployment as a possible result of the re-organisation of the economy Kropotkin writes;

“The people will be patient no longer, and if food is not forthcoming they will plunder the bakeries. Then if people are not strong enough to carry all before them, they will be shot down, to give Collectivism a fair field for experiment. To this end ‘order’ must be maintained at any price – ORDER, DISCIPLINE, OBEDIENCE!”

Then;

“Not content with shooting down the ‘marauders’, the faction of ‘order’ will search out the ‘ringleaders of the mob.’ They will set up again the law courts and reinstate the hangman. The most ardent revolutionists will be sent to the scaffold. It will be 1793 over again.”

Finally;

“If ‘order is restored’, we say, the social democrats (read Bolsheviks) will hang the anarchists, the Fabians (read the Labour Party) will hang the social democrats…and the Revolution will come to an end.”

It is clear that although Kropotkin is drawing here upon his vast knowledge of the various upheavals in France since 1789, that these scenarios can also be applied to the revolutions in Russia 1917, Germany 1918 and Spain 1936-1937.

Elsewhere in the same chapter Kropotkin talks of practical issues raised by revolutionary upheavals, which are often overlooked by the more idealistic elements in the libertarian movement even today.

“Bread, it is bread that the Revolution needs.”

The ensured supply of basic commodities is essential to any successful revolution. Perhaps now in Britain the problem of food isn’t as vital as it once was, but notice how quickly supplies run out once shortages of certain foodstuffs are rumoured. Indeed, here once again Kropotkin anticipated a central issue in the Russian revolution of 1917, with its slogan of “Peace, Bread and Land.” Kropotkin also suggests that;

“…whether the Revolution would everywhere exhibit the same characteristics is highly doubtful.”

And;

“…the Revolution will take a different character in each of the different European nations; the point attained in the socialisation of wealth will not be everywhere the same.”

And finally;

“Side by side with the revolutionised communes such places (agricultural areas) would remain in an expectant attitude, and would go on living in the Individualist system.” (Which is exactly what happened in Spain in 1936!).

On the role of the anarchists per se, Kropotkin writes very little. He is more interested in pointing out the libertarian attributes which already exist in the average worker, when circumstances are such that they may come to the fore, which is the very theme he concentrated on in “Mutual Aid” (1902 English version). Neither does he dwell on any particular form of organisation which revolutionaries should employ prior to, or indeed after the revolutionary period. He maintains merely that;

“…remaining people among the people, the earnest revolutionist will work side by side with the masses…”

On this issue Kropotkin is very vague, the very antithesis of Bakunin who laid great emphasis on the organisational forms revolutionaries should adopt. However, it must be realised that the articles which make up “The Conquest of Bread” where written in the 1880’s, a period when anarchists in France, where Kropotkin was living at the time, were going through a period of reorganisation and reappraisal of tactics following the repression of the Paris Commune of 1871 when tens of thousands of worker revolutionaries, the cream of the class, were massacred. Anarchists now operated in small groups of like minded individuals dedicated to the overthrowing of Capital and the State. They were to resist organisational forms, like political parties, which could threaten to destroy the revolutionary momentum of the people when the time came. The role of the anarchists was to be restricted to inspiring people and;

“…accentuating their revolutionary idea.”

In a speech given at the 1881 International Anarchist Congress in London, there is little doubt that Kropotkin’s attitude to anarchist organisation was influenced by his historical studies into the French Revolution, where the self activity of the French workers and peasants was seen to be sufficient. This concept of spontaneity combined with that of the inevitability of anarchist communism, weakened the organisational effectiveness of libertarian ideas in France until the 1890’s when they returned to the labour movement.

No, “The Conquest of Bread” is no text book on revolutionary organisation, rather it is a work on anarcho-communist economics and history, the great constructivist work of the libertarian tradition. Kropotkin had by 1880 broken with the Bakuninist idea of remuneration for labour in the post-revolutionary society. While Bakunin and the Federalist wing of the First International suggested a period of economic transition between Capitalism and Libertarian Communism, Kropotkin believed it necessary to leap from one to the other, from day one of the revolution. Any retention of the wages system in whatever form, such as labour cheques or time coupons, would only result in further exploitation and injustice. He points out;

“After the Collectivist Revolution, instead of saying, ‘twopence’ worth of soap we shall say, ‘five minutes’ worth of soap.”

If the revolution is to be based on the belief that all things are the common inheritance of humanity and should be held in common, why continue to operate, what logically can only be an arbitrary system of remuneration, which suggests that perhaps all things are not to be held in common after all? Collectivists are tinkering with the wages system, rather than destroying it.

The argument is a powerful one, but it presupposes much. It presupposes that the working people, the instigators and victors of the revolution, are of an extremely high moral nature. Without doubt many are and many of those who are not would change once the revolution took place. Revolutions change individuals. Cowards become heroes, the lazy become diligent, the disorganised become organisers. But for how long? Disruptions in production and the effects of civil strife would lead to the rationing of certain products for periods of time, which would lead to hoarding and further shortages. Solidarity and self-sacrifice are indeed one side of the human character, but egoism and selfishness are the other. Kropotkin’s scenario presupposes an unrealistic degree of surplus in every commodity to make a transition to anarchist communism overnight a feasible proposition.

Kropotkin’s ambivalent attitude towards pre-Revolutionary forms of organisation, and in particular his sceptical attitude towards anarcho-syndicalism was, I believe, a great weakness in his theory. Revolutionary unions are schools within which the membership are already practising mutual aid and co-operation, developing and educating themselves for the post revolutionary society. Revolutionary ethics and morality have to be relearned and constantly practised and reinforced while still under capitalism. The Spanish C.N.T. members, for example, had after years of struggle been schooled in what was required after the revolution and it was their moral and ethical integrity which kept the agricultural and industrial collectives going so long in extremely adverse circumstances. Kropotkin did, toward the end of his life become more supportive of the anarcho-syndicalist position, but he was always on guard against what he perceived as reformist or bureaucratic tendencies.

This brings us to the conception that Kropotkin had of anarchism as reflected in “The Conquest of Bread” and his other works. He doesn’t seem to see anarchism as a political ideology on a par with, say Marxism, but rather he sees it as a constantly present tendency within human groups. Anarchism, then, is more of an anthropological category than a political one for Kropotkin. In his “Mutual Aid” he looks at the ancient European tribes, the medieval city states, the guilds, and even the animal world, for examples of solidarity, self-sacrifice and mutual aid – all aspects of the anarchist idea. In “The Conquest of Bread” he does the same. He highlights events from the French revolution where associations of labourers sprang up to till the soil together. He looks at aspects of Russian and Swiss peasant communal land use as well as the English lifeboat crews who voluntarily aid seamen in distress. This is where Kropotkin’s real worth is – in the field of history and ethics. Of course some of his historical conclusions can be criticised: medieval cities were not as democratic and peaceful as he would have us believe. But he did illuminate an aspect of human history which had been completely neglected. Academics of the nineteenth century were heavily under the influence of neo-Darwinist ideas which sought to justify both capitalism and imperialism. Kropotkin was one of the very first to attempt to refute the ‘survival of the fittest’ idea. The basic point that humanity has made most progress under conditions of co-operation runs through the length and breadth of “The Conquest of Bread”.

The book contains much of interest for present day libertarians. Kropotkin touches on “integral education”, agricultural production in cities, international trade, the decentralisation of industry and much else of importance currently. It is, to reiterate, one of the great constructivist anarchist works and one of the few readily available in English. It should be read and studied by every serious anarcho-syndicalist. Kropotkin had his weaknesses – he failed to link the anarchist communist goal to the organisational strength of the revolutionary unions, as the Spanish libertarians had always done and as the French were in the process of doing by the 1890s. Had he done so, perhaps Maximov and his Russian comrades would have been in a better position to influence events in the revolutions of 1917.

(from libcom.org)