Kropotkin’s classic, The Conquest of Bread, reveals problems of radical politics and organisation that remain vital today, argues Dominic Alexander
Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, introduction, David Priestland (Penguin 2015), xxxiii, 221pp.
Ever since the industrial revolution, it has been clear that capitalism produces poverty and hardship on an enormous scale, at the very same time that it creates colossal wealth for a minority with astonishing powers of production. Marx made this point in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto, and it remained the place to start for the Russian prince turned revolutionary anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, in 1892: ‘In our civilised societies we are rich. Why then are the many poor? Why this painful drudgery for the masses?’ (p.11).
Even by the 1840s, never mind the 1890s, there had already been a tremendous accumulation of capital, with both industry and agriculture becoming ever more productive. Yet, this was all dependent upon abundant supplies of labour. In the first industrial nation, Britain, the existing population was not sufficient, and labour had to be drawn in great numbers from Ireland. Similarly, great movements of people, and accumulation of capital, carried on elsewhere throughout the nineteenth century, such that Kropotkin observes, partly with America in mind:
‘And the result is, that now the child of the civilized man finds at his birth, ready for his use, an immense capital accumulated by those who have come before him. And this capital enables man to acquire, merely by his own labour combined with the labour of others, riches surpassing the dreams of the fairy tales of the Thousand and One Nights’ (p.9).
However, as Marx and others had observed for a long time, the great majority find themselves not born into a world of plenty, but one of scarcity, indeed of austerity, in today’s terms. The potential is there for affluence; we are:
‘rich in what we already possess … richest of all in what we might win from the soil, from our manufactures, from our science, from our technical knowledge, were they but applied to bringing about the well-being of all’ (p.10).
That is to say, the vast wealth that could be produced by contemporary means of production is appropriated by a very few, or is wasted through the nature of an economy geared towards the production of private profit rather than social good. The result is human misery on a terrible scale, not to mention an ecological catastrophe that has become evident now, in a way that it was not entirely in the 1890s.
The continuities we can see in the history of capitalism mean that the radicals of the nineteenth century remain touchstones for modern politics. Peter Kropotkin has always been one of the most revered figures from the revolutionary anarchist tradition of the end of the nineteenth century, and The Conquest of Bread was one of two major elaborations of his position.
Kropotkin is capable of writing some stirring passages railing against the destructive absurdities of capitalism and exploitation, and calling for a better society to take its place. However, this is where the problems begin. If it was enough to denounce capitalism, the system would have fallen long ago. Kropotkin’s crescendo at the end of The Conquest of Bread falls flat as result:
‘If only humanity had the consciousness of what it can, and if that consciousness only gave it the power to will!
If it only knew that cowardice of the spirit is the rock on which all revolutions have stranded until now’ (p.208).
To rail against people for not having one’s own brave revolutionary spirit amounts only to a wail of despair at the possibility of changing the system, rather than being a helpful contribution to building the forces capable of making such a change.
In the course of the book, Kropotkin seems to spend at least as much time attacking other, ill-defined, radicals as he does critiquing the system, and in fact there is remarkably little about capitalism as such. Instead the main enemy is the state in itself, although with typical conceptual looseness, he continually conflates state and government, stating that ‘the insoluble problem’ for so long can be overcome when going beyond:
‘the problem of constructing a government “which will constrain the individual to obedience without itself ceasing to be the servant of society”, men at last attempt to free themselves from every form of government and to satisfy their need for organisation by free contracts between individuals and groups pursuing the same aim … mutual agreement replaces law in order to regulate individual interests in view of a common object’ (p.35).
The problem with this abstract projection of a stateless society into an imagined future, is that it looks very much like libertarian free-market utopianism. Certainly, it accepts the basic presuppositions of the capitalist market.
Thus, for example, the futility of government and state is underlined: ‘Should you speak to a man who understands commerce, he will tell you that the everyday business transacted by merchants would be absolutely impossible were it not based on mutual confidence’ (p.36). This argument begs the question of whether such confidence is not produced by a society with long standing rules and sanctions for those who break them. The reality is that capitalist commerce requires a state precisely to be able to enforce contracts between capitalists. Kropotkin, however, insists that those who break agreements are punished by the refusal of others to trade with them again if ‘a man has compelled one of them to go to law’ (p.146). This example is no more than ultra-free-market fantasy. Moreover, for a self-proclaimed communist to see things through the eyes of capital rather than labour is surely somewhat odd.
An underlying weakness in Kropotkin’s argument throughout a large section of the book is that he accuses unspecified socialists of being ‘state socialists’ and then proceeds to knock down these straw men with tendentious examples of the superfluity of a centralised state. Whoever the state socialists might be (writing originally in 1892, he is presumably thinking of the German Social-Democratic Party which contained various socialist tendencies, between which Kropotkin is failing to distinguish), they might all agree that the state in its current, bourgeois form needs to be abolished.
The question is; with what will it be replaced? Kropotkin’s answer is ‘free agreement’ (p.124) and ‘much goodwill’ (p.131). His concrete examples, as in Dutch ‘syndicates of boatmen’, he admits are not ideal, as it is ‘more than probable that here too greater capital oppresses lesser. Maybe the syndicate has also a tendency to become a monopoly’ (p.129). Kropotkin does not solve the problem he raises here, which is that he envisages an economy of small property owners, existing within a market system. This is a fantasy of a past, early capitalist era, which had long since passed by the 1890s, if it ever existed at all, and cannot be (re)created by however courageous a will.
The argument becomes obviously tendentious when Kropotkin gets onto the subject of the railways as an example of how the state is unnecessary:
‘So we ask the believers in the state, who pretend that “we can never do without a central government, were it only for regulating the traffic”, we ask them: “But how do European railways manage without them? How do they continue to convey millions of travellers and mountains of luggage across a continent? If companies owning railways have been able to agree, why should railway workers, who would take possession of railways, not agree likewise? And if the Petersburg-Moscow Company and that of Paris-Belfort can act in harmony … why, in the midst of our societies, consisting of groups of free workers, should we need a government?”’ (p.124)
As a demonstration of how capitalist management could be replaced by democratic workers’ control, this argument is fine. As an argument against ‘state socialists’, it is a non-sequitur; it just does not follow. The railway companies themselves are centralised organisations of considerable size which only existed because of massive state investment and co-ordination, whether in Russia or the United States. The question is not the existence of large organisations (of which, after all, the state, or ‘government’ in Kropotkin’s language, is but one), but what social forces control them, how they operate, and for whose benefit.
At best, it seems that Kropotkin and his socialist opponents are arguing at cross-purposes, since, certainly, revolutionary socialists of the time would have envisaged the bourgeois state being replaced by radically different democratic institutions controlled by the working class, and structured around the interests of labour rather than capital. These new organs of state would resemble the soviets that appeared in Russian cities during the revolution of 1905 (some years before Kropotkin, in 1913, added a new preface to The Conquest of Bread). Soviets as practical organisations for the creation of working-class power do not appear directly in the great anarchist’s argument, but there is an imagined representation of revolution which illustrates his approach to politics.
The description begins with the odd assumption that the ‘former government having disappeared’, only then would in ‘several large towns the commune be declared’ (p.24). Leaving aside the implausibility of his scene-setting, it is Kropotkin’s treatment of the commune that is important:
‘To give themselves an authority which they have not they will seek to sanction the old forms of government … Elected or acclaimed, they will assemble in boards or communal councils, where men of ten or twenty different schools will come together, representing – not as many “private chapels”, as it is often said, but as many different conceptions regarding the scope, the bearing and the goal of the revolution. Possibilists, collectivists, radicals, Jacobins, Blanquists, will be thrust together, and waste time in wordy warfare’ (p.25).
Kropotkin has no time for these assemblies where ‘honest men’ are ‘huddled together with the ambitious ones’, but, actually, what he is spurning here is democracy of any kind. He admits that the people involved here are ‘both middle class people and workmen’ (p.25), so it is not the class character of the revolutionary institutions to which he is objecting.
How else, except through democratic organisations, can substantial and decisive support for any kind of political action that might challenge the power of the ruling class, particularly in a revolutionary situation, be achieved? Large-scale organisations of this kind must necessarily contain many different strands of thinking, ‘different schools’, or they would be rightly dismissed as factional organisations, and would not be able to claim widespread authority. To overcome the forces of reaction successfully, revolutionaries would need the mass support of the overwhelming majority of the working class, broadly conceived. This would require a great number of assembles of one kind or another, just as there were many layers of soviets in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, enabling the concentrated social power of the working class to find effective expression.
Politics is made of alliances, and sometimes words must be exchanged in order to convince different people of the best course of action, whether or not some might find discussion tedious. Kropotkin will have none of this, opposing the ‘discussions about trifles’ to his pious declaration that ‘the real strength of the movement is in the streets’ (p.26). Yet, this would only make sense at all if that power in the streets is organised, and has a clear and united strategy for opposing the ruling class, whose strength will not have disappeared overnight. For that to happen, democratic discussions need to have taken place. These can indeed take place in streets and squares as well as indoors, but this is not what Kropotkin means in his artificial contrast between ‘wordy warfare’ in assemblies and class war in the streets.
Kropotkin moralistically condemns politics as such, since ’people suffer’ while their ‘leaders’ apparently do nothing. The caricature of the revolutionary council does not, it seems, have anything to do with the workers, who are a separate group, even if the ‘commune’ is actually composed of ‘workmen’. In fact, the real people just suffer ‘with the childlike faith, with the good humour of the masses who believe in their leaders, they think … their welfare is being discussed’ (p.26). The Russian prince is revealed here; he, in his wisdom, knowing better than squabbling workmen, can act on behalf of the people, a mass of trusting, passive onlookers. Yet, once again, this whole passage is falsified by subsequent events, since the soviets turned out to be not just venues of factional discussion, but active bodies capable of taking control of factories, neighbourhoods, and indeed whole cites, organising transport, food distribution and so forth.
The alternative to ‘wordy warfare’ turns out to be an abstract declaration of principles that ‘everyone, whatever his grade in the old society, whether strong or weak, capable or incapable, has, before everything, the right to live, and that society is bound to share among all, without exception, the means of existence it has at its disposal’ (p.27). Thus far, we can all, from Possibilists (reformists) to revolutionaries, agree, but the question is how to achieve such a state of affairs. Kropotkin does not want to spend time building mass support for a revolutionary transformation of power, such as the Bolsheviks achieved within the Russian soviets, enabling the October Revolution of 1917. Instead the answer is that:
‘We must take possession, in the name of the people, of the granaries, the shops full of clothing and the dwelling houses. Nothing must be wasted. We must organise without delay a way to feed the hungry, to satisfy all wants, to meet all needs’ (p.27)
In so far as this passage is more than a shopping list of desirable goals, it is simply calling for resources to be seized, presumably by those who want action now, rather than wait for mass support for taking social resources into collective democratic control. In practice, this involves small minorities of activists attempting something like a coup. In the reality of revolutionary situations, such action leads to disaster in premature uprisings. In Germany in April 1919 a group of ultra-left radicals performed just such an adventure in Munich, declaring the Bavarian Soviet Republic. This was soon destroyed by right-wing paramilitaries, the Freikorps, precisely because it lacked the mass backing it would need to establish any real authority. This disastrous miscalculation by the revolutionary left led to decisive defeat in Bavaria, at least, where the right became ascendant. The subsequent situation incubated Hitler’s Nazi Party, which grew from being a tiny group in 1919 into a substantial danger even by 1923.
The fantasy that radical action by a minority, bypassing the need to build a mass movement, can ‘awaken’ the masses into action, is a dangerous one. It is also inherently anti-democratic, since it takes actions which affect the standing of the whole movement, while disdaining the work of building a mass consensus. Kropotkin throws around phrases such as ‘state socialists’ and ‘authoritarians’ to refer mainly to his Marxist opponents in the socialist movement of the late nineteenth century. Yet, his disdain for democratic politics in the movement, and his wish to make decisions on behalf of others, surely make Kropotkin himself the real authoritarian.
The consequences of Kropotkin’s imagined revolution turn out to be somewhat alarming. They also underline the extent to which the ex-landowner is really only comfortable with a rural society of small property owners. The immediate impact of the revolution, he thinks, would be the breakdown of international trade, while the import of food would cease, and ‘the circulation of commodities and of provisions will be paralysed’ (p.188). For the revolution to survive this a ‘great number of the inhabitants of the cities will have to become agriculturalists’ (p.189). Kropotkin imagines this could be different than the serfdom he grew up with in Russia, but his is a vision of the dissolution of industrial society.
The alternative would be the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into a society run by the democratic control of social and economic resources, from schools to railways, factories to local services. Only through the creation of revolutionary democratic organisations, such as the Russian soviets, can the mass of the people come to control the vast potential of modern society and establish a sustainable, egalitarian society of plenty and leisure rather than scarcity and endless toil.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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