Kropotkin: Communist-Anarchism

Peter Kropotkin 1888

A Speech Delivered by P. Kropotkin at the Freedom Group Meeting, 15 March 1888

The teachings of Proudhon are taken as a basis for individualistic Anarchism by a numer of English-speaking Anarchists. Proudhon is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers who have ever dealt with economical questions; and for one who does not attach importance to his dialectical methods, and looks more at the ideas than at the methods of expressing them, he is one of the most suggestive – may be the most suggestive – amongst those writers who lead men to think for themselves. He has covered in his works nearly the whole field of human enterprise: economics, politics, art, war; and everywhere he has dealt with the subject in the most suggestive way.

As a critic he is great, as a constructor weak. And when, in 1848, he was forced from the sphere of thought to that of action, compelled by his friends (as he writes) ‘to write the programme of a revolution by law and decree paragraph after paragraph’, he obviously made a failure. Revolutions are not made by decrees; still less an Anarchist revolution.

As in the case of so many born thinkers – Lasalle, Louis Blanc, Auguste Comte – there is a wide difference between Proudhon the philosopher an Proudhon the practical politician. His scheme of Mutual Banking was an evident compromise between the middle-class and working-class interests. It even seems probable that he did not believe in it himself, and only hoped that it might steer the workers to act on their own behalf.

Down to 1869 a large number of French members of the International Working Men’s Association were Proudhonians. The now bourgeois Senator Tolain, and Fribourg, whe represented the French Socialists in the early years of the International, were Proudhonian Mutualists. But since the Commune, Mutualism has virtually disappeared amongst French workmen.

The modern Individualism initiated by Herbert Spencer is, like the critical theory of Proudhon, a powerful indictment against the dangers and wrongs of government, but its practical solution of the social problem is miserable – so miserable as to lead us to enquire if the talk of ‘No force’ be merely an excuse for supporting landlord and capitalist domination.

Turning now to Communism, we find that forty years ago, before and in 1848, the theory was put forward in such a shape as to fully account for Proudhon’s distrust as to its effect upon liberty. The old idea of Communism was the idea of monastic communities under the severe rule of elders or of men of science for the directing priests. The last vestiges of liberty and of individual energy would be destroyed, if humanity ever had to go through such a communism, especially under the rule of savants. * But this old idea has completely faded before the practical experience of the revolutionary movement.

The Commune showed the people how a seemingly powerful government can be blown away in twenty-four hours. And though the foe at the gates prevented the development of the social revolution in Paris, enough initiative in social reorganisation was shown by the Parisian workers to mark the immense progress of their ideas since 1848.

During the last seventeen years that progress has been enormously quickened. The idea of expropriation, of the producers taking possession of the means of production, has sunk deep into the hearts of the people all over Europe, and even, during the last six or seven years, into those of Englishmen. The conditions in which a new 1848 will find Europe are thus completely different from what they were when Proudhon wrote. And these new conditions of mind must be taken into account.

Forty years ago, when the Paris workmen overthrew the Government, they timidly asked for universal suffrage as a means for bringing into life social reforms. They timidly asked State help for productive associations, for experiments in Communism.

Seventeen years ago, when the Paris workmen proclaimed their Commune, they asked for autonomy of the Commune as a means for permitting social reforms in the autonomic city. But as to those reforms their minds were not settled at all. The word expropriation frightened them. Their respect for bourgeois property was great, especially among the Mutualists. And therefore we saw their elected leaders in the Council of the Commune discussing such matters as divorce between Church and State, communal autonomy, and reduced rents for apartments.

Quite different will be the condition of men’s minds in tomorrow the Commune is proclaimed in several cities of France. The respect for bourgeois property has gone amidst the workers, and even the lower middle class. The Bank of France would be considered as belonging to the nation; the houses as belonging to all inhabitants, and not to their legal owners; the stores of food, clothing, and so on, as the stock of the nation, not as the property of the few. And, so far as we can judge from indications already observable in the last Communal revolution, the workers will consider that nothing hasbeen done as long as each man, woman, and child in the city has not been provided with food, decent lodgings, and clothes.

Let us look at this question practically; absreactions which lead to no practical conclusion are hateful. They are good to show us the way, but they are worth nothing if they cannot be brought to a practical issue.

Our experience of the effect of wars and such minor distrurbances as have lately occurred in the trade of the world has shown how easily international trade is disorganised by the disorganisation of any branch of it. In last month’s Freedom we gave the instance of the increase of distress in Lancashire occasioned by the Franco-Tonkinese war, and its disastrous influence on the export of Indian cotton goods to China, and so on the Indian demand for English manufactured cottons.

The first effect then of any serious revolutionary disturbances in any part of Europe will be the decline of the export trade. Those workers especially who are employed in making luxuries for the rich – and we know how numerous they are now – will be thrown out of employment. The means of expenditure of the rich will be curtailed, and they themselves will flee from the disturbed districts; moreover, the raw material required in such costly manufacture will not be forthcoming.

But these raw materials are not the only imports that will fail. Do you think that Russian or Indian peasants, for instance, will send to England wheat which they need themselves, selling the food of their children to pay the taxes? Do you not think that they will rather prefer to pay no taxes, and keep their supplies of corn that they may not starve next spring? Do you think also that the railway servants of America will continue to transport corn for nothing from Illinois, merely to increase the rent value of the lands of the railway companies?

The supplies of food will be shortened, and the profits derived from the export trade will be curtailed. Will the workers patiently starve in such conditions? Or, will they try to begin the great social reorganisation of which they are thinking now all over Europe?

In 1848, the Paris workers gave three months to their bourgeois rulers for making a new start in economical life, and the rulers took advantage of the delay för massing troops, for arming the middle classes, and for disorganising the workers, so as to crush their first attempt at revolt at the end of the three months. Grape-shot and bullets were the middle-class answer to their claims, when they raised in June their black flag of ‘Bread or Labour’. So that, despairing of the Republic andtheir Radical leaders, they accepted the Second Empire, saying, ‘We know that Napoleon with his fine promises is a scoundrel, but all these Radicals and pseudo-Socialists are no better than he.’

Just so the coming revolution will be crushed in the despair of the workers if we are not prepared to meet the crisis. Prepared by the full acceptance of Communism.

In 1848, it was all right to devise schemes for the gradual extinction of house-rent by manual banking. But the workmen of our times – the French workers, at least – do not recognise at all the rights of property in houses claimed by their present owners. The will proceed by expropriation, and see in it no injustice.

In our great cities, for instance, can the houses be fairly described as in any real sense belonging to the present landlords? The value of those houses is created, not by any isolated individuals, but by the presence of the whole community. What would be the value of the handsomest London mansion in the wilds of Siberia? It would not be worth the expense of warming! All the inhabitants of the city contribute to the value of each dwelling place, and all these houses belong therefore in whole justice to the whole community. This is how the workers reason now.

To maintain the private ownership of houses will become impossible; and therefore the first task of the Revolution will be to arrange things so as to share the accommodation of available houses according to the needs of the inhabitants of the city, to clear out the slums and fully occupy the villas and mansions. But sixty elected persons sitting round a table and calling themselves a Municipal Council, cannot arrange the matter on paper. It must be arranged by the people themselves, freely meeting to settle the question for each block of houses, each street, and proceeding by agreement from the single to the compound, from the parts to the whole; all having their voice in the arrangements, and putting in their claims with those of their fellow citizens; just as the Russian peasants settle the periodical repartition of the communal lands.

Equally pressing will be the great question of food. During previous revolutionary persiods social wealth has been doled out by the authorities in unequal portions. Even during the Commune, which proclaimed that none of its officials would get more than 12s 6d a day, whilst the combatants of the National Guards had only 1s 3d. But in the next Revolution even equal money wages will not do. The question of food will become as pressing as it is in a besieged city, and the workmen will demand that the food supply be placed at once at the public disposal for the common consumption. Most great cities have food for several months stored within reach. Paris was besieged for six months and not reduced to absolute starvation.

But the general food supply cannot be seized and administered by an elected municipal council; it must be distributed according to the needs of each family by volunteers, who will surely be found in each street and each quarter, to organise just distribution under the eyes of all people concerned; and a system of distribution of food, organised again by the people themselves, will necessarily spring out of the revolution.

Again, in the matter of clothing. When the workers are not labouring, and whilst nothing new can be made, the people must depend for their supply on the things already stored in the shops. Thus from the very beginning the idea of private property necessarily will be shattered, and practical Communism introduced into the daily life of the masses.

The like will occur in the reorganisation of production. The first, the most obvious necessity, will be to raise from the soil the food required by the community. The fields round London are left uncultivated now because of the heaviness of the clay, we are told. Rather because of the heaviness of the social conditions! The oxen have little interest in the crop, whilst the dogs lie on hay! But when the dogs are driven off, when the land is free of monopolists demanding an impossible rent, the fields will very quickly be cultivated with hearty goodwill by free associations of labourers, driven by necessities of the population to raise produce to supply the common needs. The need will plainly be common, and common labour the speediest way to supply it.

The same with industry. The manufacture of plush for West End ladies and silks for Russian courtiers will not be revived, but the needs of the people will force the artisans into cooperation to make warm woollen cloth for the workmen who are now sleeping between two newspapers in the neighbourhood of Trafalgar Square.

As soon as the respect for private property has been shaken, and the very necessities of maintaining life have driven the workers towards Communism, the production must become communal. The workers cannot be persuaded any longer that the millions of horse-power of our steam-engines are the just property of those who possess them now. They will consider them as a common legace from past generations, and use them for supplying the needs of the community.

Free workers, on free land, with free machinery, and freely using all the powers given to man by science, could with the greatest easiness grow the necessary food for the whole of the population of the country, even if it should soon be doubled, and supply all the necessities for a comfortable living for all members of the community.

The two great movements of our century – towards Liberty of the individual and social co-operation of the whole community – are summed up in Anarchist-Communism.

* Bakounin, in God and the State, has beautiful pages on that kind of government. It would be worse than the present.

Freedom 19, April 1888

Act for Yourselves, Articles from Freedom 1886-1907