Solidarité Ouvrière no. 53
Editions du Monde Libertaire has recently republished Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, a book considered by anarchists as a classic. This book deserves to be read for more than one reason. Indeed, it develops themes that are now familiar to all of today’s “left”, but which were new at the time, and of which anarchists were the first propagators. However, it also reveals weaknesses in the author’s method of analysis, weaknesses that are indicative of the direction taken by the anarchist movement after Kropotkin.
We do not intend to write a detailed analysis of either the book, or of Kropotkin’s thought. We will limit ourselves to summarising the essential themes developed, and to presenting some critical points that will allow us to understand the current evolution of the movements that claim him as their leader.
The alliance with the peasantry
The principal idea of the book is that the fundamental problem of any victorious revolution is that of bread, in the figurative sense – i.e., the supply of food to the revolutionary urban centres. Kropotkin recalls that in 1793 “the countryside starved the big cities and killed the revolution”. The “war of villages against cities” must be avoided.
In order to rally the peasants to the revolution, it is necessary to establish balanced relations of exchange between the city and the countryside, and “the city must immediately apply itself to producing those things which the peasant lacks, instead of making trinkets for the ornament of the bourgeoisie”.
The failure of the policy of alliance with the peasantry can produce the equivalent of “three or four Vendées”.1 This was one of the most important subjects of debate within the Bolshevik party between 1918 and 1928, and it was one of the main causes of the failure of the Russian Revolution.
The second important theme concerns the work of revolutionary construction. Capitalist expropriation must be total, because there are established relations of “which it is materially impossible to modify, if you only touch them in part”. The cogs of society are so intimately linked that you cannot modify a single one without modifying them as a whole.
“From the day you strike private property in one of its forms – agricultural or industrial – you will be forced to strike it in the others.”
It will be necessary to seize everything that is indispensable for production: land, machines, factories, transport, etc.
The revolution, by transforming the form of production, will also transform the forms of compensation. “A new form of possession requires a new form of compensation”. Wages are “born with the private appropriation of the land and the instruments of production”; they will die with the destruction of capitalist production.
Parallel to this theme of the transformation of the forms of production and compensation is the theme of their very nature: the social revolution will be distinguished from previous revolutions by its goals and methods – “a new goal requires new methods”.
“[…] the very fact of abolishing private ownership of the instruments of labour (land, factories, communication routes, capital) must launch society in absolutely new directions […] it must completely overturn production in its purpose, as well as in its means […] all daily relations between individuals must be modified, as soon as land, machinery and the rest are considered to be common possessions.”
Socialism must also transform the very nature of work. Those who are engaged in the production of luxury or needless goods will be assigned to socially useful production. This will reduce individual working time in the same production. Changing life, but also changing work: “free man will create new conditions for pleasant and infinitely more productive work”.
State and capitalism
It is in his analysis of the phenomenon of the state, and of its prospects of evolution, that Kropotkin’s ideas become the most questionable. According to him, it is the state more than capitalism that is the enemy. The state is seen as a cause and not as an effect of capitalism. In the same way, it is the state which created the proletariat and “delivered” it to the exploiters; and “two-thirds” of private capital and poverty are “artificially created by the state”.2 This leads him to develop the idea that everything can go well “as long as the state doesn’t throw its heavy sword into the balance”. According to Kropotkin, we can observe a “growing movement to limit the sphere of action of the government, and to leave more and more freedom to the individual”. He is a champion of individual freedom, of “free understanding between individuals pursuing the same goal”. “The independence of each tiny territorial unit becomes a pressing need.”
“Everything that was once considered to be a function of the government is today called in question.”
Kropotkin observes that “in spite of the narrowly selfish turn given to men’s minds by market production, the tendency towards communism constantly appears and penetrates our relations in all their forms”. He cites numerous examples of this “communist tendency”, which are indicative of the perspective with which he considered the question. “Every day, millions of transactions are made without government intervention, and the biggest of them – those of commerce and the stock exchange – are carried on in such a way that the government could not even be appealed to if one of the contracting parties did not intend to fulfil their commitments”.
Another striking feature, observes Kropotkin, is “the continual expansion of the scope of enterprises due to private initiative, and the prodigious development of free groups of all kinds”. These free organisations “so advantageously replace government interference”. Examples: the Universal Postal Union, the railway unions, the learned societies, “the great industrial companies”. What is important for Kropotkin is not the class nature of these associations, but that they are made without state intervention.
It is difficult to be more mistaken than that about the nature and evolution of the state. The free associations that Kropotkin observes with such hope are only manifestations of the expansion of world capitalism, which needs an efficient and fast postal network to carry business mail, an efficient transport system to move goods and reduce tie-ups of capital stock, a rapid diffusion of scientific discoveries to be applied in industry without delay; this world capitalism is organising itself on an international level to become what we today call multinational corporations, some of the most formidable enemies of the global working class. The free organisation of the ITT trust,3 independent of the U.S. state, is in no way a step towards communism.
Except in rare cases, it is not the state that creates capitalism and the proletariat, it is the development of capitalism that creates the proletariat and conditions the development of the state.
The evolution of capitalism, far from going towards the extension of private initiative and decentralisation, instead goes towards greater control by the state and towards greater centralisation and concentration of capital.
This misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism has a cause in the methodology employed by Kropotkin; it also has serious consequences.
A mechanistic dialectic
Kropotkin professed a materialist philosophy that was dominant among scholars of the second half of the 19th century. According to this philosophy, events were totally determined and arrived in a necessary order. Malatesta said that Kropotkin, “who was very severe on the historical fatalism of the Marxist, fell into the mechanical fatalism that is much more paralysing”.
“It happened thus that criticism was discouraged, and the development of the idea was arrested. For many years, in spite of the iconoclastic and progressive spirit of anarchists, most of them in the field of theory and practice did nothing but study and repeat Kropotkin. To say something different from him was, to many comrades, almost an act of heresy.”4
For Kropotkin, communism was to necessarily flow from capitalism, and all forms of evolution of the latter were therefore progress over the previous forms. In phenomena which solidified the strengthening of capitalism and the increased exploitation of workers, Kropotkin had seen exactly the opposite – the beginnings of communism.
Finally, his conception of organisation and communalism led him to see the organisation of workers as a whole as made up of autonomous elements, each endowed with their own, independent will. To the extent that he thought that capitalism tended towards decentralisation, abandoning many prerogatives to private initiative, this was justified. Unfortunately, he saw everything upside down! For such conceptions of organisation are in clear contradiction with the needs of revolutionary action against the bourgeoisie and the state in a developed, industrial society.
Kropotkin’s influence can still be seen today among many anarchists who see the struggle against the state as an absolute priority, who see the state as the main enemy, instead of seeing it only as an instrument of repression at the service of the bourgeoisie. We needn’t look any further to understand workers’ disaffection with the anarchist movement, and the disappearance of anarchism as an autonomous movement of the proletariat.
There is a double aspect to Kropotkin’s thought. On the one hand, there is the scholar, geographer, historian and ethnographer whose work left its mark on the era. The Great French Revolution is, up to now, one of the greatest classics on the history of the French Revolution, constantly plundered by historians for a hundred years, never cited in bibliographies… and never republished, unsurprisingly. Mutual Aid is the sum of the ethnographic knowledge of the time, whose starting point is a critique of the interpretations of Darwin’s disciples, on the thesis of the selection of species. This work can be compared to The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Engels. A comparison of the bibliographies of these two works shows that most of the references are in common. This aspect of Kropotkin’s work deserves to be known, appreciated and criticised; Kropotkin was well aware that historical and sociological knowledge evolves and that new material can sometimes call into question previously developed theses. It is significant that it is not this Kropotkin that Editions du Monde Libertaire chose to republish.
In this first aspect of the Russian author’s work, the militant who is indignant comes to help and gives a breath of life to the work of the scientist.
The second aspect of his work appears when the scholar fades away in front of the activist, when he gets involved in politics, in the development of a theory of organisation, in strategy. We then have a jumble of naïve assertions, of edifying truths. Let the state disappear! Let no more authority be exercised over the masses! Then, the masses will find the way to happiness and emancipation, with a touching spontaneity. Out of his books, Kropotkin understood nothing of what was going on before his eyes. He wanted to give a scientific foundation to anarchism, instead only sterilising it with pontificating formulas. Wanting to bring reality in line with his theoretical constructs, he interpreted the events of his time completely upside down. This free understanding, which he sang as the prefiguration of communist society, was only the symptom of the birth of monopoly capitalism.5
One will search The Conquest of Bread in vain for indications about the tasks of anarchists in the class struggle.
- 1[This refers to the 1793 war in the Vendée region of France; it was the most significant counter-revolutionary event in the entire French revolution. The reactionary armies were composed primarily of peasants, led by nobles.]
- 2“Only [statists] forget the lessons of history; they do not tell us to what extent the State itself has contributed towards the existing order by creating proletarians and delivering them up to exploiters. They also forget to tell us if it is possible to put an end to exploitation while the primal causes – private capital and poverty, two-thirds of which are artificially created by the State – continue to exist.”
- 3[International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT, now operating as ITT Inc.) is a multinational company founded in 1920, based in the United States, specialising in telephone communications. It bears a heavy responsibility for the dramatic events that took place in Chile in the 1970s, as well as in other Latin American countries, including Operation Condor. The declassification of relevant documents from the CIA archives has produced overwhelming evidence for this. The U.S. government Hinchley Report details, among other things, the methods used by ITT.]
- 4[From “Peter Kropotkin: Recollections and Criticisms by One of His Old Friends”, as found in Davide Turcato’s The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. In the original ASRAS article, this quotation begins with “The mechanistic fatalism was…” instead of “It happened…”.]
- 5Kropotkin was Russian and his ideas are largely determined by this fact. The Russian state was an autocratic state, which did not allow any organisation, spontaneous manifestations. On the other hand, it was the state that had a decisive role in the creation of capitalism because the national bourgeoisie was very weak. At the time Kropotkin was writing, Russian capitalism was growing and the state was beginning to relax its control over all economic activities; it was beginning to “hand over” to the bourgeoisie. In Russia, indeed, a shift was taking place to “limit the sphere of action of the government”. The limitation of the role of the state and the increase in private initiative were observable phenomena in Russia, and it was a positive evolution, though not at all communist. But, this was only valid for the very particular case of Russia, and not at all applicable to the rest of Europe.