Well, Kropotkin’s 170th birthday has come and gone, and the world has not come to an end. In celebration of being able to continue celebrating Kropotkin’s and others’ birthdays, I am posting the first of two excerpts from Kropotkin’s essay on representative, or parliamentary, forms of government, from Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel, which I was unable to include in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The continuing failings of representative government are well illustrated by recent elections in the United States and Egypt, where representative forms of government are still being used to deprive people of any effective control over their daily lives.
“The mission of the State,” we have been told in order to delude us, “is to protect the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, the working classes against the privileged classes.” We know how governments have fulfilled such missions; they have done the reverse. Faithful to its origin, representative government has always been the protector of privilege against those who set out to free themselves from it. Representative government in particular, with the connivance of the people, has organized the defence of the privileges of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie against the aristocracy on one side and the exploited on the other — showing itself modest, polite, well mannered toward the first, and ferocious towards the others. That is why even the slightest of laws protecting the worker, no matter how harmless it may be, can be wrung from a parliament only by an agitation that comes close to insurrection. Remember merely the struggles it was necessary to wage, the agitations to which people had to devote themselves, in order to obtain from the British Houses of Parliament, the Swiss Federal Council, the French Chambers, a few wretched laws limiting the hours of work! The first legislation of this kind, voted in England, was extorted only by putting barrels of powder under the machines in the factories.
Elsewhere, in countries where the aristocracy has not yet been destroyed by the revolution, the lords and the bourgeois get along marvellously together. “Grant me the right to legislate, m’lord, and I will mount guards around your castle!” — and he mounts the guard as long as he does not feel threatened.
It took forty years of agitation, which sometimes carried fire through the countryside, before the English parliament decided to guarantee to the farmer the benefit of improvements he made on land he held by lease.
As to the famous “land law” voted for Ireland, it was necessary, as Gladstone himself admitted, for the country to rise in a general insurrection, openly refusing to pay rents and defending themselves against evictions by boycott, fires and the killing of landlords before the bourgeois would vote the wretched law that purported to protect the hungry land against the lords who starved it.
But if it is a matter of protecting the interests of the capitalist, threatened by insurrection or even agitation, then representative government, that organ of capitalist domination, will turn savage. It attacks, and it does so with more confidence and baseness than any despot. The law against socialists in Germany is the equivalent of the edict of Nantes; and not even Catherine II after the peasant rising of Pugachev or Louis XVI after the wheat riots displayed such ferocity as the two “National Assemblies” of 1848 and 1871, whose members shouted: “Kill the wolves, the she-wolves and their cubs,” and unanimously, without a single opposing voice, rejoiced in their slaughter by soldiers drunken with blood! The anonymous beast with six hundred heads showed itself able to surpass Louis XI and Ivan the Terrible and their kind!
It will be the same wherever there is a representative government, whether it is elected in the regular way or is imposed in the lurid light of an insurrection. Either economic equality will prevail in the nation and the free and equal citizens will no longer surrender their rights into anyone else’s hands, seeking out instead a new organization that will permit them to manage their own affairs; or, there will still be a minority who will dominate the masses on the economic level, and it is then that the masses must be watchful. Representatives elected by that minority will act appropriately. They will legislate to maintain their privileges and will act with violence and massacre against those who do not submit.
It is impossible for us to analyze at the present moment all the faults of representative government; that would take up whole volumes. In limiting ourselves entirely to what is essential, we can avoid the trap of pedantic classification. Yet there is still one fact that calls for discussion.
It is a strange fact indeed! Representative government had as its aim to put an end to personal government; it set out to place power in the hands of a class, and not of an individual. Yet it has always shown the tendency to revert to personal government and to submit itself to a single man.
The reason for this anomaly is quite simple. In fact, having armed the government with thousands of prerogatives which are still from the past; having confided to it the management of all matters that are important to a country, and given it a budget of billions, was it possible to confide to the mob in parliament the administration of such numberless concerns? Thus it was necessary to nominate an executive power — the ministry — which was invested with all these quasi-royal prerogatives. What a miserable authority, in fact, was that of Louis XIV, who boasted of being the State, in comparison with that of a constitutional chief minister in our day!
It is true that the Chamber could overturn such a minister — but for what reason? To name a successor who would be invested with the same powers and whom it would be forced, if it were consistent, to dismiss in a week? So it prefers to keep the man it has chosen until the country cries out loudly enough, and then it discards him to recall the man it has dismissed two years ago. It becomes a seesaw: Gladstone-Beaconsfield, Beaconsfield-Gladstone. And basically it changes nothing, for the country is always ruled by one man, the head of the cabinet.
But when the choice falls on a clever man who guarantees “order” — that is to say internal exploitation and external expansion — then the parliament submits to all his caprices and arms him with ever new powers. However much contempt he may show for the constitution, whatever the scandals of his government, they are accepted, and even if there are quibbles over details, he is given a free hand with everything of importance. Bismarck is a living example of this; Guizot, Pitt and Palmerston were such in preceding generations.
That is understandable: all government has a tendency to become personal since that is its origin and its essence. Whether the parliament is elected by property-owners or by universal suffrage, even if it is named only by workers and consists only of workers, it will always search for the man on whom it can unload the cares of government and to whom in turn it will submit. As long as we confide to a small group all the economic, political, military, financial and industrial prerogatives with which we arm them today, this small group will necessarily be inclined, like a detachment of soldiers on a campaign, to submit to a single chief.
This happens even in undisturbed times. But let a war blaze on the frontier, let a civil struggle start up in the interior, and then the first ambitious newcomer, the first clever adventurer, seizing control of the machine with a thousand ramifications which we call the administration, will be able to impose himself on the nation. The parliament will no more be capable of preventing him than five hundred men picked by chance in the street; on the contrary, it will paralyze the resistance. The two adventurers who carried the name of Bonaparte did not succeed by chance. As to the efficacy of the parliamentary debating society in resisting coups d’états, France knows something about this. Even in our day, was it the Chamber that saved France from MacMahon’s attempted coup? As we now know, it was the extra-parliamentary committees. Perhaps the example of England will be cited. But it should not boast too loudly of having retained its parliamentary institutions intact during the nineteenth century. It is true that it has managed throughout that century to avoid class warfare, but everything leads one to believe that it will break out there too, and that Parliament will not emerge intact from that struggle and will founder in one way or another during the march of the revolution.
If we want, at the time of the coming revolution, to leave the gates wide open to reaction, to monarchy perhaps, we have only to confide our affairs to a representative government, to a ministry armed with all the powers it possesses today. Reactionary dictatorship, first tinged with red, and then turning blue in proportion as it feels itself more securely in the saddle, will not be far behind. It will have at its direction all the instruments of domination; it will find them all at its service.
But even if it is the source of so much evil, does not the representative system at least render some services in the progressive and peaceful development of societies? Has it not perhaps contributed to the decentralization of power which has asserted itself in our century? Has it not perhaps helped to hinder wars? Has it not bowed to the exigencies of the moment and at times sacrificed certain antiquated institutions, so as to prevent civil war? Does it not offer at least certain guarantees, a hope of progress, of amelioration within the nation?
What a bitter irony is to be found in each of these questions and in so many others that nevertheless spring up as soon as one judges the institution! For all the history of our century is there to condemn it.
Faithful to the royalist tradition in its modern guise, which is Jacobinism, parliaments have done nothing other than to concentrate powers in the hands of the government. Bureaucracy carried to an extreme becomes the characteristic of representative government. Since the beginning of this century the talk is all of decentralization, of autonomy, and nothing is done but to centralize and kill the last vestiges of autonomy. Even Switzerland is suffering from this influence, and England submits to it. If it had not been for the resistance of manufacturers and merchants, we should today be in the position of having to ask permission in Paris to kill a cow in Brive-la-gaillarde. Everything falls more and more under the high hand of government. All that is left to us is the management of industry and commerce, of production and consumption, and the social democrats — blinded with authoritarian prejudices — already dream of the day when in the parliament of Berlin they can regulate manufacturing and consumption over the whole surface of Germany.
Has the representative system, which we are told is so pacific, saved us from wars? Never has there been so much extermination as under the representative system. The bourgeoisie needs to establish its domination over markets, and that domination is gained only at the expense of others, by shot and shell. Lawyers and journalists like to talk of military glory, and there is nobody more warlike than stay-at-home warriors.
But is it not true that parliaments lend themselves to the needs of the moment and are ready to modify institutions that are in decay? As in the days of the Convention it was necessary to put a knife to the throats of the Conventioneers to extort from them nothing more than agreements to faits accomplis, so today we have to stage a full insurrection to tear from the “representatives of the people” the smallest of reforms.
As to the improvement of the elected body, never has there been seen a generation of parliaments like that in our day. Like every institution in its decadence, they carry on while their condition gets worse. People used to talk of the corruption of parliaments in the days of Louis Philippe. Speak today to the few honest men who have wandered into these morasses and they will tell you: “ I am sick at heart with it all!” Parliamentarianism inspires only disgust in those who see it close at hand.
But is it really impossible to improve it? Would not a new element, the working class element, infuse it with new blood? Very well, let us analyze the constitution of representative assemblies, study their functioning, and we shall see that such dreams are as naive as the thought of marrying a king to a peasant girl in the hope of being given a succession of good little kings!