Review of Peter Kropotkin’s “The Conquest of Bread”

the conquest of bread

Book cover

I downloaded this book today on a whim, and plowed through it by spending most of this Saturday reading it. Written in 1892, the book is in the public domain, and is freely available on the Kindle store.

Brief Biography of Kropotkin

The author, Peter Kropotkin, was an anarcho-communist activist and scientist – and I must say, he is an interesting guy. Wikipedia offers an extensive biography. Briefly, Peter was born into aristocratic privilege as a Prince, and his father owned serfs. As a teenager, Kropotkin enrolled into the Corps of Pages, an elite Russian military school aimed at preparing young men as officers in the Russian Army. Once out of school, Kropotkin did geological surveying in Siberia, and began reading the writings of various radicals at this time. He declared himself an anarchist in 1872. For the remainder of his life, Peter bounced around Europe, agitating for revolution, writing, and doing scientific work. He was imprisoned several times for his activities. The hopes of an anarcho-communist revolution in Russia were destroyed for Kropotkin with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. Presciently, Kropotkin declared that if the revolution were to be guided by authoritarian methods, the revolution would collapse and capitalism would eventually be restored. He died February 8, 1921 of pneumonia.

Why Read Kropotkin?

While I hate to pigeon-hole myself into groups, I am probably most closely aligned to anarcho-capitalism. I’ve read Murray Rothbard’s “Anatomy of the State“, and found myself nodding in agreement quite a bit. However, I decided that, despite advocating free-market capitalism, I really do not know much about communism other than sound bites I learned from school, movies, and television – which is basically propaganda (though I did read The Communist Manifesto a few years ago). I figured it was time to hear the communists’ side of the story, written by the hand of one of their main proponents. I am a firm believer that if you do not know all sides of an argument, you really do not know much about the topic at hand and cannot honestly defend your position without coming off as a robotic ideologue.

Another reason I decided to read it, is because I a simply baffled as to why brilliant men like Kropotkin (among other thinkers) gravitate so heavily toward radical leftism. I read it in the hope that it would reveal some of the psychology of the reds to me, so as to better understand them.

Overview

Originally written in French, the book is series of grievances against capitalism, medieval feudalism, the profit motive, the idle rich, financiers, robber barons, wage slavery, child labor, imperialist foreign wars, representative government, laws, bureaucracies, militarism, and private property. Strangely, religion goes almost unmentioned in the book, though I doubt Kropotkin was a fan. I am guessing that Kropotkin did not want to alienate religious folk in his revolutionary exhortations.

Kropotkin further discusses the actual implementation of an anarcho-communist society after a successful revolution, the abolishing of money, private property, all positions of authority, abolishing of all laws, and government. The book is organized into a series of relatively short chapters, each discussing various aspects of the Revolution, how the society will be cared for after the Revolution, the economic benefits to be gained under anarcho-communism, the inefficiencies of capitalism, and the fallacies of authoritarianism and unearned privilege.

Wealth Beyond Measure

Kropotkin first (correctly) discusses the enormous wealth that had showered Europe in the 19th century. While it is fashionable in libprog circles to pin the wealth accumulation on the plundering of colonies, the true progenitor of Europe’s vast wealth was the invention of ingenious manufacturing machines, powered by James Watt’s steam engine. This fusion of steam, coal, and steel powered the Industrial Revolution, leading to the advent of mass production and mass consumption. Kropotkin extols the enormous progress of the 19th century in terms of scientific achievement, the advances in production technologies, the developments in chemistry, and the rise of intensive agriculture.

Trouble in Paradise

All was not well however. The Industrial Revolution made a handful of men astronomically wealthy, beyond the greed of medieval kings. Railroad barons, big financiers, landowners, landlords, mill owners, mine owners, oil men, factory owners, and shipping tycoons accumulated wealth beyond calculation, while vast legions remained unemployed or on subsistence wages. This concentration of wealth led to the creation of the “idle rich”, or people so wealthy that the interest and dividends on their fortunes exceeded their (very high) living expenses, allowing them to live a luxurious life completely free from labor of any sort. Not only were they extremely wealthy, but the sheer immensity of their wealth (e.g. the Rothschilds) allowed them to steer the path of the State itself. War, or even “a rumor of war” would throw markets into upheaval, and overnight could ruin thousands and make a few men fantastically rich.

The Problem of Private Property

Kropotkin decries this state of affairs, claiming that (in his day) present-day technologies could easily produce enough food and manufactured goods to take care of everyone’s needs, with perhaps as little as 5 hours of daily manual labor and 5 hours of leisurely pursuits from everyone. He advocates the immediate “expropriation” (confiscation) of all property from capitalists, and handed over to communal ownership. Kropotkin repeatedly attacks the very concept of private property in the book, arguing that all inventions and advances are due to either contributions from past inventors and laborers, or are due to the collective contributions in the present day. Therefore, since no one has really developed anything by themselves, he declares that no one has any right to deem something “his” and something else “yours.” All property should be abolished.

Kropotkin elaborates further on the illegitimacy of private property, claiming that all present-day landholdings had their origins in the feudal system, in which a powerful baron would merely claim lands to be his at the tip of a sword, and charge gullible, uneducated serfs for dwelling upon it. Land was also granted by the king heavily on the basis family relations, or naked favoritism. Instead of free agreement, freely arrived at, the apportionment of land was merely the powerful exploiting the weak.

The Wastefulness of Capitalism

Waste and corruption is everywhere in Kropotkin’s eyes under wage-labor capitalism. The capitalist restricts the sale of coal in order to keep the price high. When he does decide to sell coal, instead of selling it domestically so that his workers can heat their own homes, the coal that those same workers toiled to free from the earth is exported to foreign lands and sold at a higher price.

The owners of capital refuse to invest in the peoples’ basic needs, and instead always invest their money where the returns are highest. A huge army of unemployed reserve labor sits around idle all day in the cities, begging for work. The capitalists refuse to build more factories and workshops to employ them, since to give every man a job would take away their ability to offer exploitative wages to desperate people. The moment any worker causes trouble, gets sick, gets hurt, or gets old, he is out the door and a willing replacement is found. Dangerous, debilitating jobs are done by humans, when minimal investment into a machine would free that worker from that dangerous task. Workers refuse to work up to their full potential, since any extra effort merely becomes the standard against which future quotas will be decided, and thus the harder he works, the worse-off he is afterwards.

Instead of enjoying the fruits of his labor, the farmer sees the priest, the tax collector, and the landlord all getting first dibs on his harvest, leaving him with perhaps half of what he produced. When speculators’ bets don’t go as planned, “scores of thousands” are thrown onto the streets. Instead of securing the needs of the unwashed masses, production power is directed to manufacturing toys and luxury items for the rich and their wives.

Waste is further seen in the lack of opportunities for children. Children often go hungry, as their father might work only for a little while before thrown out again. Education is reserved to children born into privilege, while the son of a laborer is damned to the same wretched existence as his father. Education ought to be a right to all, and all grades at the universities should be abolished!

Kropotkin has little good to say about the study of economics in his day. To him, economists are in the pay of capitalists, and exist only to give intellectual justification to established systems of oppression and exploitation. He attacks the idea of labor specialization, complaining that it merely makes the worker stupid by repetition. Labor specialization was even applied to entire nations in those days, as it was thought most efficient for entire countries to focus their production on one main export commodity, and use it to trade for all other commodities they required. This of course, did not last long, as domestic production and the move towards autarky was more efficient.

On Militarism, Imperialism, and the State

Kropotkin has little good to say about armies. Kropotkin viewed wars with disgust, as they sent hordes of young men with no quarrel with each other to die for no reason other than to secure the interests of wealthy business magnates and their puppet parliaments. At this time in European history, governments had not yet discovered the tactic of funding their wars through deficit spending and taxing the unborn. Instead, the entire populace was subject to high taxes, mainly to pay for the enormous cost of the armaments required by modern industrial states, as well as the expense of fielding large standing armies (Kropotkin reports that European countries spent “one-third” of their budgets on armaments). These armies and navies were then used to conquer colonies, and also to war with other European nations over access to foreign markets (which of course, they all wanted to monopolize). As an aside, these statements comport with the general plot of Peter Hopkirk’s book “The Great Game“, which is essentially about Britain and Russia flirting with war over the control of India, and also fighting to gain exclusive control over rich Central Asian markets.

The State is dismissed by Kropotkin as unnecessary, though men cling to it with all their might out of fear of the unknown. One of the first purposes of mass education, he writes, is to instill a child-like adoration of the State, and believe to be a form of providence. In Kropotkin’s day however, European governments were bloated, Kafka-esque monstrosities, with armies of policemen, courts, lawyers, judges, inspectors, tax collectors, politicians, huge standing armies, and other non-producers, whose sole purpose is to enforce class boundaries and keep the masses pinned down. The State not only interferes negatively in the lives of the poor, but works feverishly to make the rich even richer. According to Kropotkin, “nine-tenths” of the great fortunes made in Europe and America were garnered by direct State interference in the economy. Savings and frugality, according to Kropotkin, are false hope, a distraction, and a waste of time, and no serious fortune has been made by these methods. The only way to become wealthy in a reasonable amount of time is to become an exploiter of the poor.

Government, Schmuvernment

Kropotkin repeatedly mentions “The Revolution”, which in his mind is a perpetually-imminent event, and a great upheaval that will demolish world capitalism and rule by authority, where revolutionaries will attempt to institute a new government. Kropotkin fears the re-institution of government. He does not believe any government or code of laws is necessary for people to live in prosperous peace, and that free contracts can negotiate all matters. Once the Revolution has succeeded, he advocates the organization of people into communes, where (as he assumes), production shall increase, and the necessities of life shall be made freely available to all.

Representative government and parliaments are also on Kropotkin’s hit-list. According to him, these systems of government are merely a consequence of middle-class rule, and hence illegitimate. He does not believe that “representatives” who write the laws have any idea as to why such laws are needed, or what they are even about. To stay politically fluid, it is often best for a politician to have no opinion on any matter, until it is advantageous for him to open his mouth and broadcast a lie.

Kropotkin denounces technology patents in the work, claiming that they stifle innovation, and encourage scientists and inventors to toil inefficiently in secret instead of freely discussing their ideas together.

Brain Work and Manual Work

While extolling the wonders of science and the progress it had wrought in the 19th century, Kropotkin does not believe that “brain work” is of any greater value than “manual work.” To Kropotkin, to attach greater importance to brain work is to embrace classism. Furthermore, the only way someone in his day would have been able to embark on the long course of study required to be an engineer would already have to be wealthy – and so the hell with them.

According to Kropotkin, it is impossible to measure the value of labor in terms of wages, since everybody needs everybody. For this reason, no one can charge for their labor; they must provide it for free. Kropotkin dismisses the proposal of using “labor notes” as a form of remuneration, viewing it as indistinguishable from money, and would lead to the re-establishment of classes and capitalism since some labor would be deemed more valuable than other forms of labor.

I of course, completely disagree with Kropotkin, for the simple reason that a high IQ is a requirement for being a competent engineer. High IQs are a rare event biologically, and so in any society, assuming intact educational standards, there will always be fewer people able and willing to be engineers than manual laborers. Scarcity breeds value, and good engineers and physicians are scarce.

Being a scientist, Kropotkin is a heavy advocate of invention, which I think blinds him to the realities of who is genuinely capable of scientific work. In Kropotkin’s mind (as with all blank-slaters), anyone is capable of learning anything, as long as they are given the opportunity. Access to the technical sciences (as well as art) would be possible for everyone, were they not tied to factory jobs for sixteen hours a day. Kropotkin dreams of large, well-equipped, communal workshops and laboratories, where anyone who wishes to do scientific research can experiment as much as they please. They will be free to collaborate with other researchers, and freely share their findings, all in pursuit of the long-sought-after solution.

This of course, flies in the face of experience, for reasons rooted deeply in IQ that I have already discussed.Furthermore, there is enormous variance in experience between various professionals, and an engineer with 5 years of experience is simply not worth the same as an engineer with 25 years of experience. Good luck trying to get the ragamuffin dregs of the Chicago Public Schools to learn anything. Despite an operating budget of $5.7 billion (see pg. 29 here), the CPS is packed with ineducable, out-of-control, low-IQ, impulsive minorities, that are incapable (with noble exception) of a rigorous education in the hard sciences and engineering. Can you imagine the Math Team from the Chicago Public Schools going up against a team from Hong Kong, Singapore, or China? More utility would be derived from that money by using it to fire a wood stove. In Kropotkin’s defense however, he did not have the privilege of living in the “vibrant and diversified” West, and likely did not have much experience with such people.

My Thoughts

I actually agree with Kropotkin on some points – mainly those related to the illegitimacy of the State, the perpetual wars it causes, and its meddling in economic affairs. I think taxes are baloney, too, and much of my income is usurped by the State solely to put food in the mouths of EBT-card swipers. Abolish grades at the universities? I’m all for it – instead, all classes would be pass-fail (though admission standards would be much higher than they are now).

Kropotkin’s revolutionary ideas however, I believe are pie-in-the-sky. Read the book for yourself. When he goes on explaining how an anarcho-communist society will spring up after The Revolution, to boil it down, he says “It will all just work.” Assumption after bogus assumption is made, that people will “do the right thing” if their good sensibilities are appealed to. Experience in my life has taught me otherwise – people only do what is in their best interests. Morality has no bearing. Hell, look at Kropotkin’s own time, where Christianity and religion were held in far higher regard. And yet the nations of Europe pitilessly sent their best and brightest to slaughter each other over monarchical dreams of conquest. Capitalists and factory owners perpetrated labor abuses that today would put them behind bars. The land was polluted beyond reclamation. Millions of pounds, Deutschmarks, and francs were poured into arms races. Foreign peoples were conquered and manacled into slavery. Millions of Negroes were stolen from Africa to be used as cotton slaves. My question to Kropotkin is this, “If the threat of eternal damnation cannot convince men to behave morally, what hope is there for your begging?”

I actually agree with Kropotkin that it is not necessary for people to work so much – especially these days with the rise of automation. My own job is becoming a source of discontent to me, as my boss routinely pushes me to work more than 40 hours a week. I do not know what the point was of going to college and achieving so highly. I only did that out of the unshakeable conviction that it would make my life better – but I don’t think that has happened. All that has happened is that I have worked myself into a box. I feel that by working to the absolute best of my abilities, I am now expected to do that forever. What is the point of earning a high salary, when you must put the hours of two jobs into it? Why not just skip college entirely, and just go work two jobs? With the proliferation of robots, and the coming unemployment wave, I think we are headed towards upheaval. As much as I hate redistributionism, I do not know of any other solution other than to tax producers to provide a minimum guaranteed income to people that have nothing to contribute to the labor market.

My main beef with Kropotkin is fundamental – he claims that private property is illegitimate because everyone’s contribution could only have been made with the help of others. He furthermore finds the concept of profit to be inherently disagreeable. I can only read these words as appeals to man’s inherent jealousy and envy. If someone else is successful, my response is not to covet their wealth, rationalize its theft, and plot to murder him for his property. I do not dispute that the owners of capital are manifestly corrupt and greedy – I have already written about the hypocrisy of the tech industry and its bloodlust for cheap labor. But they sow the seeds of their own destruction – assuming the State does not create huge artificial barriers to entry, there becomes enormous incentive for another employer to open up shop, and steal the maltreated, high-quality labor of the other owners.

While I am sympathetic to the idea of anarchism, I do not believe it to be workable in the existence of other states. A anarchistic society would be attacked from all directions by neighboring states to stamp out the problem, lest their own citizens get ideas about fitting nooses for their kings. How would an anarchistic society defend itself against states that dump billions into war technologies? Fighter planes, bombers, anti-satellite weapons, drones, tactical missiles, tanks, and cruise missiles – it all costs a fortune. An anarchy would have no chance of competing in an arms race, and its inhabitants would be slaughtered and enslaved in their own lands by neighboring countries. Their only recourse would be to band together and organize for defensive purposes, e.g. to form an army, which would eventually lead to the rebirth of the State in their country. And assuming anarchy swept the United States, who would control our nuclear stockpile? I think the best we can hope for is the original American model of limited government restrained by a Constitution. However, considering that present-day America is de facto post-Constitutional, perhaps I am misplacing my faith in a system that was flawed to begin with.

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One thought on “Review of Peter Kropotkin’s “The Conquest of Bread”

  1. Pingback: On Capitalism and Race | unpropaganda

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