Jul 24 • 26M

216 Kropotkin & The Conquest of Bread

On Petr Kropotkin, Anarchism, Capitalism, and an optimistic view of humanity

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In today’s Sunday Letters essay, I’m taking a look at the Anarchist Communist philosophy of the Russian Prince and social activist, Petr Kropotkin. He envisioned a socialist revolution, a revolution of the people, but was his vision for society too idealistic to work? Is our society today any different from Kropotkin’s era? Most commentators suggest our working conditions and freedoms have improved one hundredfold. But large numbers of people are dissatisfied with work, still seeing it as a means to an end. So have things really improved? One hundred years after Kropotkin’s death, let’s examine his Anarchist philosophy and its parallels with today’s society.

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If Socialism is a dirty word, Anarchism is outright filth. Where the former is a cynical means by which the lazy and inept in our society scheme to lie about all day doing little while hard-working citizens like you and me pay for it, the latter steals from our pockets and destroys everything we own. Of course, this is the Fox News or Daily Mirror version. The reality is very different. Anarchism, and by extension, Socialism, are not about you and I propping up wasters and wielding the wrecking ball on society. Rather, their fundamental premise was founded on equity and fairness for all and the removal of exploitation by dictators and bureaucrats of those in society who are weaker.

Anarchism has its roots in the socialist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where its idealism centred upon ultra-democratic principles of fairness, economic equality, individual and collective freedom, the integrity of self-directed work, and non-hierarchical socially-led politics. Unfortunately, as it has been with most if not all social change through history, violence and destruction are never far away and served to taint the ideals that gave birth to those movements. Lenin’s version of socialism and corruption of Marxist ideas — the communist dictatorship of the proletariat—is a case in point.

One of the modern era’s most recent Anarchist initiatives was the Occupy Wall Street movement post the 2008 global financial crash. People were irate with the boldness and arrogance of the political and financial elite that ran the show. These were and are the real pick-pockets of ordinary working people, not the unemployed and disadvantaged. However, in spite of the sympathy the movement received, its leftist ideology, which sought to address the imbalance, failed to drum up a long-lasting following. It was merely a flash of idealism that peered out from a gap in the capitalist fabric of US society. The reason to fight must become compelling and inevitable for real change to happen. It must be enduring too, and I wonder if most Americans, British, Europeans and others in the Global North, are simply too comfortable to fight even in spite of the raging inflation we’re currently experiencing.

Anarchism’s 2011 display of rage against the machine of Capitalism and the inequality it breeds petered out, and people once again settled into their jobs (or their unemployment). Powerless to make a lasting change and alienated once again from the promise of work that might possibly bring about fulfilment and freedom, people got on with their lives. Although founded on the principle of freedom and liberty from the tyranny of hierarchical systems, some suggest that Anarchism may be too interested in making bold statements through violent action. It is argued that it has no lasting impact because it lacks the ability to think strategically about the change it wishes to see. As the populist idea goes, Anarchism is too interested in looting, burning, rioting and being a general nuisance to society to become a popular long-lasting movement for change.

But perhaps this idea is too simple.

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What Is Anarchism?

The late David Graeber, in a 2011 article for Aljazeera, said the following of Anarchism;

“The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society – that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.”

There is a long tradition of political and intellectual anarchist thought, one of the most astute being the nineteenth Century anarchist communist Petr Kropotkin. (For an extensive collection of political and intellectual writings from Kropotkin and others, see The Anarchist Library, the Monthly Review, and Freedom Press). Kropotkin was a blue-blood aristocrat born to an ancient noble family descendant from the Ninth Century Rurik Dynasty and the first rulers of Russia. Despite his privileged background, he railed against its imperial status and its abuse of power over the people. His father was, in his eyes, the embodiment of Tsarist Russia and its military-bureaucratic state, and although highly regarded in political and social circles, Kropotkin dedicated his life to activism. Petr’s home life was irrationally disciplinarian, and he viewed his father’s contempt and cruelty towards servants as despicable. As such, Petr developed a strong empathy for ordinary people. He wrote,

“I do not know what would have become of us if we had not found in our house, amidst the serf servants, that atmosphere of love which children must have around them.”

It was this childhood experience and the contrast between the cold imperialist attitude of his parents and the open and loving arms of the servents that laid the foundation for his later thought and writing, the most influential of which was The Conquest of Bread1. The book is said to capture Kropotkin’s philosophy more than any other of his writings. His vision of the anarchist society was based on camaraderie rather than hierarchy and goodwill rather than coercion and was founded on a profound optimism about human nature. It is a system of society based on cooperation, fairness, collectivism, and the belief that these traits of being are natural and innate to human beings.

Kropotkin on Work & Capitalism

However, Kropotkin’s Anarchism wasn’t without its challenges. For example, how may Anarchism be made compatible with the modern technological society and growing consumerism? The Conquest of Bread was first published in a series of articles, then republished in a single volume in 1892 and was his attempt to address these concerns in simple terms. He started from the assumption that property must be collectively owned because, in the complex modern world where everything is interdependent, claiming a single origin for a product of industry was untenable. He also wrote that keeping the wage system unequal would only ensure the survival of competitiveness and selfishness. Wages would have to be distributed equally, and goods and services distributed freely by democratic bodies. The economy would then be organised according to the communist principle — from each according to their ability and to each according to their need.

These ideas are so alien to a mind educated and raised in a Capitalist culture that they seem completely absurd and unworkable. But Kropotkin believed that this radical equality should govern all spheres of life. He argued that the normal division of labour that privileged intellectual, white-collar workers enjoyed over manual workers, consigned most people to monotonous and soul-destroying lives. Labour was to be shared, and “mental” and “manual” tasks integrated so that work would no longer be a curse, and instead, be the free exercise of all the faculties of humankind.

His critique of specialisation and hierarchy was also applied to the global economy. An early critic of globalisation, Kropotkin argued that industry and agriculture must be integrated into all regions of the world, ensuring self-sufficiency. Developing countries were to be aided towards industrialisation and, therefore, rectify the growing gap between rich and poor.

It [economics] should try to analyse how far the present means are expedient and satisfactory… [, and] should concern itself with the discovery of means for the satisfaction of these needs with the smallest possible waste of labour and with the greatest benefit to mankind in general.

Kropotkin’s Anarchism was a rigorous and coherent application of radical democracy and equality to all areas of life. It did not, for example, require a central state body to distribute wages according to performance and so avoided the potential authoritarianism of other versions of Anarchism. However, it did show Kropotkin to be overly idealistic with a naive view of human nature. What about people who refused to work or those who behaved antisocially? Would eliminating market incentives not undermine a functioning economy bringing it to its knees? On the subject of production, Kropotkin insisted that collective organisation and participation were more efficient than the managerialism common in private firms. Enjoyable work, Kropotkin argued, and workers’ knowledge that they were working for the common good provided higher incentives than being compelled to work under the threat of starvation or punishment. It was the democratic organisation of work.

Kropotkin also insisted that eliminating market capitalism would improve, not undermine, market efficiency and minimise waste. For instance, abolishing private banks, he suggested, would remove parasitic middlemen allowing resources to be directed to those parts of society that desperately needed them. Similarly, local economic self-sufficiency would remove the expense of transport systems and communications required by the increasingly specialised global economy. For Kropotkin, a more egalitarian society with fair patterns of consumption was possible, and at the root of this argument was his conviction that the economy already produced enough to provide everyone with a good standard of living. The problem, he insisted, was with distribution rather than production.

In Fields, Factories and Workshops2, Kropotkin demonstrated that humanity already possessed the technical means to produce healthy food abundantly for everyone with relatively little effort and expense. We know this today too, although the imperative to hoard wealth and resources remain in place. The precursors to today’s factory farms existed at this time, and which, Kropotkin noted, destroyed the soil for generations and displaced people who might otherwise obtain a comfortable living from the land.

On the subject of wages, Kropotkin suggested that if people had the means to support themselves, to meet their daily requirements without the need to hire out their bodies for payment, no one would consent to work for wages. Which are, he insisted, inevitably a mere fraction of the value of the goods or services they produce. Even the independent artisan worker of Kropotkin’s time could barely do better than support his family, let alone save for his old age.

Have Things Changed For The Better?

Here we are today, just over one hundred years since Kropotkin’s death, and I wonder, are things fundamentally any different? Technology is a bit of a double-edged sword insofar as it has improved materially the lives of millions of people. But it has also worsened the lives of many more. African children still dig in mines for precious metals, Indian girls are forced into the sex trade in the slums of Mumbai, and illegal migrants in the US are forced to work in cramped rooms all day and night for meagre wages. Jason Hickel, economic anthropologist and author, writes extensively on globalisation and the damage it does to people in the global south. They are, he suggests, paying for the luxury that we in the north enjoy. In a recent article3, Hickel says that extreme poverty is not natural; it’s created. Exploitation in the name of Capitalism carries on.

Kropotkin sought a global revolution by working people over their capitalist overlords. It didn’t happen, and although there are brief flurries of anarchist activity, as we saw in the 2011 Occupy movement, they are short-lived. I sense that we have become too comfortable, too easily manipulated and made weak by the ease at which life comes to us. Yet, ironically, we are deeply dissatisfied and unhappy with work. We may wear different clothes, have access to a universe of information in our pockets, enjoy better healthcare, have access to endless “entertainment”, and the opportunity to satisfy our every whim, but are we really better off? And crucially, have we found a way to work free? I’m not so sure the conquest of bread has ever been satisfied and perhaps it never will.

The Sunday Letters Journal is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

1

Kropotkine, P., Kropotkin, P., & Petr, K. (1995). Kropotkin:'The Conquest of Bread and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press.

2

Kropotkine, P. (1985). Fields, Factories and Workshops edited by Colin Ward. Freedom Press, pp 194–97.

3

https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2021/3/28/extreme-poverty-isnt-natural-it-is-created