Book review - The Conquest of Bread

An overly analytical book review of a classic of anarchic thought, with some commentary that is not strictly necessary and undoubtedly insufficiently informed.
Posted on October 30, 2021
Tags: book review, anarchism, socialism, collectivism, Kropotkin

Introduction

Two unrelated people, with quite different political views, recommended Pyotr Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread to me recently more than six months ago, and since the theme dovetailed with topics I had been thinking about I decided to follow their advice and read it. This post is the result of that exercise, combined with some contextualisation of my own position with regard to these topics (which is a complicated way of saying that I will burden you with my opinions).

I read the following online version which is hosted by some nice anarchists, and so can you: The Conquest of Bread.

TLDR; I enjoyed the book immensely, and I’m very sympathetic to most of the sentiments. On the other hand, while I find the analysis trenchant, it is not clear to me that it can be said to recommend much beyond ideals - for instance ‘that all have a right to bread, [and] that there is bread enough for all’. It contains a lot of inspiring revolutionary rhetoric, but it does a better job of outlining the features of the capitalist system that Kropotkin (and again I am largely in agreement with him here) takes exception to than convincing the reader that he has workable solutions. The arguments in favour of his ‘solution’ of expropriation, when closely examined, appear to consist mostly of assertions rather than logically coherent arguments or proofs. I therefore believe his optimism in the feasibility of his program to be ungrounded. I also find the narrow conception of history as consisting primarily of class struggle to be excessively restrictive and fundamentally incomplete. The only concrete suggestions (i.e. expropriation and the dissolution of all forms of centralised government) he make I find to be frankly terrible and unconscionable.

Briefly situating Kropotkin in space and time

Kropotkin was a wealthy 19th century Russian. He came from an aristocratic, hence landed and serf-owning, family.

His position of privilege, combined with his concern for the welfare of the common human as evidenced by his interest in matters of social and economic organisation, places him in the same ranks as Tolstoy, Bakunin, and Alexander Herzen, contemporaries with similar backgrounds and interests. There appears to have been something in the air in 19th century Russia that lent itself to the formation of socialist and anarchic activity. I’m not sure what it was, but it appears to have subsided.

The tenor of the book

The book contains so many interesting and thought-provoking ideas that it is difficult to resist quoting long passages. This places me in the awkward position of largely agreeing with Kropotkin’s ideals and observations, while disagreeing with his proposed solution - the expropriation of basic goods and the means of production, and the dissolution of all forms of centralised government, which we will discuss later.

I will provide one quote to outline the general tenor of the book:

Fine sermons have been preached on the text that those who have should share with those who have not, but he who would act out this principle is speedily informed that these beautiful sentiments are all very well in poetry, but not in practice. “To lie is to degrade and besmirch oneself,” we say, and yet all civilised life becomes one huge lie. We accustom ourselves and our children to hypocrisy, to the practice of a double-faced morality. And since the brain is ill at ease among lies, we cheat ourselves with sophistry. Hypocrisy and sophistry become the second nature of the civilised man.

Before I break the book down, let me outline some of its merits, as I see them.

Kropotkin is a humanist

Throughout the book it is clear that Kropotkin’s primary interest is the happiness of people, and that he has given much thought to which aspects of the capitalist system of his day contributed to human misery.

Kropotkin believes that the greatest good that the ‘coming Revolution’ can render to humanity is the elimination of wage slavery, which he considers the most prominent characteristic of capitalism.

However, it is not clear to me whether Kropotkin would consider a modern, well-paid office worker (a so-called ‘knowledge worker’ such as myself) a wage slave; I identify personally as a ‘wage slave’, while being well aware that I am materially very privileged compared to many others less fortunate than myself; my ‘slavery’ resides in my lack of freedom regarding the necessity of selling my labor to make a living (hence ‘unfree labor’), not in literal ownership of my person by another human being.

It is, however, clear from Kropotkin’s writing that he is primarily concerned with the corrosive effect of the exploitative mode of capitalism on the ordinary workers’ physical, spiritual, and intellectual health - and in this sense his commentary is as relevant as ever. I imagine it may resonate as much with office workers who experience their jobs as largely meaningless, or as primarily serving the interests of wealthy people who do not care for them, as it may with the more materially downtrodden, and with thoughtful people opposed to systems of economic coercion.

Against capitalism

Kropotkin argues, convincingly in my mind, that private ownership of the means of production is analogous to medieval feudalism. His position appears also to be a rejection of the legal notion of property as it exists in most (almost all?) places in the modern world, or at least a restriction of that notion to exclude anything that can be construed as ‘the means of production’, which would surely today include also computing devices.

Among his various points against capitalism, argued with lesser or greater success are the following:

  1. Capitalism reduces (economic) output
  2. Capitalism encourages waste
  3. Capitalists decide who work - unemployed job seekers are victims of capitalists
  4. Everything is crooked; the system is rigged in favour of the capitalists who bribe/blackmail people to ensure the status quo remains in their favour
  5. Capitalism enables consumerism, which creates false needs
  6. We all owe much to countless generations of people forgotten to history, who laboured to improve the general standard of living for all; and capitalism’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of this and mutual aid in general, is itself an injustice and a sufficient argument against it.

I would say I agree with 2, sort of agree with 4 but think it’s oversimplified and could be interpreted as a negative emergent effect due to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, have trouble believing 1 but am open to being convinced otherwise, am unsure that 3 fairly or adequately captures the complexities of where jobs ‘come from’, and think 5 is self-evident. 6 is interesting as it has parallels with the idea that patents, and intellectual property in general, can be a net negative for both the economy and society. I think this is potentially a very productive train of thought, but for the sake of brevity I will not comment further on that, beyond noting that 6 is a normative, moral argument against capitalism, distinct from any technical analyses of the merits of capitalism versus any other system of economic organisation.

In addition he argues quite convincingly that the poor wage slaves of his era are exploited, underpaid, and deprived of the opportunity of an education. From the modern perspective this was certainly true then, and unfortunately is still true in many parts of the world, including certainly in my own country and other ‘developing’ nations.

He is opposed to compensating people by a payment proportionate to their hours of labor. He says this is ‘deal appears to us untenable in a society which considers the instruments of labour as a common inheritance.’ He is opposed to a wage system, basically. He also says that calling this ‘profit sharing’ is a lie - I am inclined to agree with him, although I would be curious what he thinks of the modern habit of giving employees equity.

He argues that the apparent prosperity of a small group of workers is an illusions, as even well paid workers cannot be assured of a reliable wage; their employer’s capitalist endeavours could fail (due to negligence, improvidence, the greed of their employees, speculation, competition, etc), and the wage earner will be unemployed as a result. This is true to an extent, but ignores the role of e.g. the government in sustainably fostering industry. What exactly ‘sustainably fostering industry’ means is a difficult question that I will not delve into because I am not competent to do so, and this book review is long enough already anyway.

Importantly, he then says (in relation to this observation on the precarious state of the wage earner):

This is not merely accidental, it is a necessity of the capitalist system. In order to remunerate certain classes of workmen, peasants must become the beasts of burden of society; the country must be deserted for the town; small trades must agglomerate in the foul suburbs of large cities, and manufacture a thousand things of little value for next to nothing, so as to bring the goods of the greater industries within reach of buyers with small salaries. That bad cloth may sell, garments are made for ill-paid workers by tailors who are satisfied with a starvation wage! Eastern lands in a backward state are exploited by the West, in order that, under the capitalist system, workers in a few privileged industries may obtain certain limited comforts of life.

This resonates with me, and it certainly seems that something like this is true. But it is unclear to me to what extent this actually is true, or even if it is true, to what extent this is truly due to intentional, planned behaviour on the part of ‘capitalists’, versus the afore-mentioned emergent effects of Smith’s invisible hand. These seem to me to be vital questions that I am not qualified to answer, but which I hope to have the opportunity to learn more about.

Economic value

From Kropotkin’s description of the wage system he appears to subscribe to the surplus value theory of value extraction from workers by capitalists.

For the purposes of the current discussion the following wikipedia quote summarises this view sufficiently:

surplus value is equal to the new value created by workers in excess of their own labor-cost, which is appropriated by the capitalist as profit when products are sold.

I actually largely agree with this, with the caveat that an incredible amount of detail is glossed over if the analysis stops at this basic realisation, and it does not, in itself, mean that workers have to get a ‘bad deal’. This depends, inter alia, on how much surplus value is extracted, what the other prevailing social conditions are, what role the government takes in regulating the economy and recognising the rights of workers to paid a fair wage, etc.

However, Kropotkin deepens the analysis, and tells us that

The evil of the present system is therefore not that the ‘surplus-value’ of production goes to the capitalist, as Rodbertus and Marx said, thus narrowing the Socialist conception and the general view of the capitalist system; the surplus-value itself is but a consequence of deeper causes [emphasis added]. The evil lies in the possibility of a surplus-value existing, instead of a simple surplus not consumed by each generation; for, that a surplus-value should exist, means that men, women, and children are compelled by hunger to sell their labour for a small part of what this labour produces, and, above all, of what their labour is capable of producing. But this evil will last as long as the instruments of production belong to a few [emphasis added].

Also:

The great harm done by bourgeois society, as we have already mentioned, is not only that capitalists seize a large share of the profits of each industrial and commercial enterprise, thus enabling them to live without working, but that all production has taken a wrong direction, as it is not carried on with a view to securing well-being to all [emphasis added]. For this reason we condemn it.

So it appears that his position is that while he agrees that capitalists extract surplus value from workers, this is merely a symptom of a problem, and not the problem itself; the problem is that the means of production are owned by only a few (the capitalists) which compels the workers to sell their labor.

Anarchy

Why anarchy AND communism? Why not just communism?

Kropotkin believes that

the problem of constructing a government “which will constrain the individual to obedience without itself ceasing to be the servant of society” is impossible - anarchy is the solution.

He imagines the State to be the personification of injustice, oppression, and monopoly. Again, I am inclined to largely agree, which is not to say that I think States can’t also be responsible for good things.

He also goes on a rant against parliamentarianism, which I learnt via wikipedia is something that is different from the situation where a country merely has a parliament:

A society founded on serfdom is in keeping with absolute monarchy; a society based on the wage system and the exploitation of the masses by the capitalists finds its political expression in parliamentarianism.

Kropotkin believes that establishing a strong central government in the event of a revolution would not suffice to solve the problem of providing food for the isolated revolutionary city/town by commanding (via coercive methods) that certain districts must supply certain amounts of the various sorts of produce. This is in the context of e.g. a single city that has embraced communism (in his sense of the word), but where neighbouring districts have not. Not unreasonably, he posits that the people living outside the city in revolt would not go along with this.

He points to 1793, by which I understand him to mean that period during the French Revolution called the Reign of Terror, as an actual instance of this happening: ‘In 1793 the provinces starved the large towns, and killed the Revolution’. He identifies the reason for this in the attempt to exchange these agricultural goods for ‘worthless paper money’, and posits that if instead they had been paid in ‘the manufactured articles of which he stands in immediate need’, this situation would not have arisen. A fuller quote:

In 1793 the provinces starved the large towns, and killed the Revolution. And yet it is a known fact that the production of grain in France during 1792–93 had not diminished; indeed the evidence goes to show that it had increased. But after having taken possession of the manorial lands, after having reaped a harvest from them, the peasants would not part with their grain for paper-money. They withheld their produce, waiting for a rise in the price, or the introduction of gold. The most rigorous measures of the National Convention were without avail, and even the fear of death failed to break up the ring, or force its members to sell their corn. For it is matter of history that the commissaries of the Convention did not scruple to guillotine those who withheld their grain from the market, and pitilessly executed those who speculated in foodstuffs. All the same, the corn was not forthcoming, and the townsfolk suffered from famine.

He claims that towns (e.g. Paris) could have manufactured what the peasants needed (clothes, lamps and oil, agricultural tools, etc), in exchange for food. Whether this analysis is correct, whether his proposal would have been feasible, or whether this would led to a different outcome for the revolution I don’t know - there appears to be a large academic literature debating the role of food supplies and price fixing during the Revolution that I have not had time to explore.

While he does not make this explicit, I think Kropotkin may be opposed to the idea of money itself. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint - money is the great leveller of value, which is both its major feature, and the reason for its symbolism as an enabler of evil. But objects themselves are neutral, it is what they are used for that makes them ‘good’ or ‘evil’. If someone purchases a firearm to murder someone, I would say the evil lies in the murderous intention and act, not in the exchange of money for the firearm (unless the seller was aware of the intended purpose, and hence morally complicit). Obtaining a firearm via barter, gifting, or theft would have the same end result. If the claim is rather that the system of money itself is evil because it enables capitalism, then I am afraid Kropotkin’s position here might be untenable, because the incredible utility of money makes it one of the human conventions I reckon least likely to disappear in the foreseeable future (here I include cryptocurrencies as ‘money’ - they do have their own problems, which I will add to the increasingly long list of things I will allude to but not discuss). Money has also been around for far longer than what is viewed as the era of the capitalist mode of production in the Marxist view of history.

So his answer seems to be something like bartering, in the spirit of mutual aid, to the benefit of society at large. So… stop zero sum thinking, trust your fellows to see the benefit for all in behaving altruistically, and give the peasants the goods they need to improve their lives in exchange for the products of their labor? Again, I applaud this in principle, while being completely unconvinced that Kropotkin provides us with reasons to believe this is feasible.

Criticism - the problem of expropriation

‘Expropriation’ here means exactly what it sounds like - taking stuff from some people and giving them to other people. The idea is that this will free the common person from the drudgery of wage slavery:

We wish to give to the workers all those things the lack of which makes them fall an easy prey to the exploiter, and we will do our utmost that none shall lack aught, that not a single man shall be forced to sell the strength of his right arm to obtain a bare subsistence for himself and his babes.

and

What we do want is so to arrange things that every human being born into the world shall be ensured the opportunity in the first instance of learning some useful occupation, and of becoming skilled in it; next, that he shall be free to work at his trade without asking leave of master or owner, and without handing over to landlord or capitalist the lion’s share of what he produces. As to the wealth held by the Rothschilds or the Vanderbilts, it will serve us to organise our system of communal production.

This is admirable in principle, and clearly animated by a desire to alleviate suffering and permit people to achieve a fuller, human potential. This is to be achieved through the expropriation of the means of production, which is supposed to enable the satisfaction of everyone’s basic needs (e.g. the need for bread).

But even Kropotkin seems to realise that there are dangers associated with expropriation:

A political revolution can be accomplished without shaking the foundations of industry, but a revolution where the people lay hands upon property will inevitably paralyse exchange and production.

And this is exactly why I do not agree with him - he believes that widespread - I would say almost complete - expropriation would alleviate the consequences of this paralysis of exchange and production, while I think this is wishful thinking.

Here is one of the few passages I could find where Kropotkin outlines what exactly this expropriation (of food, in this case) would entail, practically:

The well-intentioned citizens, men and women both, will form themselves into bands of volunteers and address themselves to the task of making a rough general inventory of the contents, of each shop and warehouse. In twenty-four hours the revolted town or district will know what Paris has not found out yet, in spite of its statistical committees, and what it never did find out during the siege — the quantity of provisions it contains. In forty-eight hours millions of copies will be printed of the tables giving a sufficiently exact account of the available food, the places where it is stored, and the means of distribution.

Unfortunately I think that in his avoidance of a discussion of the violence likely to be associated with such a scheme of expropriation he may fairly be accused of either intellectual dishonesty, or a peculiar lack of insight into human nature that is almost touching in it’s naiveté. While he hints at the necessity of violence, he quickly turns away, and avoids acknowledging the obvious truth that people are likely to want to protect the property they conceive of as ‘theirs’, that this will necessitate violence, and that this will be ugly. The scenario he sketches would appear to be basically that of armed mobs roaming around, ‘suggesting’ that the people formerly recognised as the rightful owners of e.g. homes leave them, and then forcibly ejecting them if they refuse. The history of humanity suggests that this will often involve assault, murder, and even torture, if only for the simple reason that even the noblest movement, moved by the finest sentiment, aiming for the highest goal, will inevitable have among its members people who are some combination of cruel, stupid, and vicious. In the event of the overthrow of the existing social order, with the removal of the usual legal and social protections of persons and their property, there is little to prevent the aggrieved, bitter or plain sociopathic from violence towards those they resent - more so if the other has been vilified and othered as the cause of all the world’s misery, deserving of being stripped of their possessions.

Similarly, there is nothing to prevent a tyrant from arising who will create a system that is horrible in completely novel ways; or some clique gaining power and doing the same. I almost can’t believe Kropotkin doesn’t address this; but I have had the benefit of the history of the 20th Century to draw on, which produced e.g. Animal Farm. The Bolshevik revolution was still more than two decades away when the Conquest of Bread was written, and while Kropotkin did not live to see the formal declaration of the creation of the USSR in 1922, he himself was apparently not impressed by the dictatorial tendencies of the Bolsheviks.

This is crux of my opposition to his vision - the need for violence to dispossess people of their property, and Kropotkin’s charming inability to admit that people are quite capable of forming groups that use violence and exploit others for their own gain, at the expense of others, without the aid of the State or capitalism.

I expect that in almost all circumstances the type of anarcho-communism he espouses will eventually lead either to a form of authoritarianism, or to a chaotic state of semi-barbarism in the medium to long term, and to incredible suffering and violence in the short term. That doesn’t mean I disagree with him on principle - I disagree with his analysis of how the type of revolution he outlines, e.g. one based on expropriation, would progress.

The following might appear to be an unfair caricature or straw man of his argument, but I’m afraid I honestly think it might summarise the only concrete suggestions he makes in the book: Abolish the government and expropriate everything, including the means of production, and then everyone should become market gardeners, and then everything will be awesome.

On the other hand, if there was a magical button I could press that could somehow initiate his vision while avoiding the violence, dispossession, and likely mass starvation that I expect, and progress to a functioning society where his ideals are truly embodied, I would be tempted to press it - whether I, or the majority of other people currently entrenched in a capitalistic mode of life would be capable of adjusting to such a state of affairs is a different question.