Kropotkin: Workers’ Organization (Part 1)

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

I recently posted a page collecting various writings from the Paris Commune to commemorate its 142nd anniversary. In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Peter Kropotkin’s essay commemorating  the 10th anniversary of the Commune, in which he drew two important lessons for anarchists. First, that for the social revolution to succeed, the people must take direct action to institute immediately a form of anarchist communism. Second, that a revolutionary commune has no more need for an internal government than it had for a national government to rule over it. While Kropotkin’s anarchist communism is sometimes contrasted with anarcho-syndicalism (by Murray Bookchin for example), Kropotkin was well aware of the need for the workers themselves to take up a direct struggle against capitalism and the state using their own working class organizations. In fact, he did not think a social revolution could succeed without revolutionary working class organization, as the excerpts below make clear.

direct_struggle_against_capitalThis is the first part of an essay Kropotkin published at the end of 1881, describing the kind of working class organization he felt was needed in order to abolish capitalism and the state. The translation is by James Bar Bowen for the anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, edited by Iain McKay, to be published by AK Press sometime next year. It recently appeared in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, issue number 59.

Workers’ Organization: Part 1

As bourgeois society becomes more and more chaotic, as States fall apart, and as one can sense a coming revolution in Europe, we perceive in the hearts of the workers of all countries an ever increasing desire to unite, to stand shoulder to shoulder, to organize. In France particularly, where all workers’ organizations were crushed, dismantled and thrown to the four winds after the fall of the [Paris] Commune, this desire is ever more visible. In almost every industrial town there is a movement to have the workers’ voices heard and to unite; and even in the villages, according to reports from the most trusted observers, the workers are demanding nothing less than the development of institutions whose sole purpose is the defence of workers’ rights.

Commune kropotkine

The results that have been achieved in this area over the last three years have certainly been significant. However, if we look at the enormity of the task incumbent on the revolutionary socialist party, if we compare our meagre resources with those available to our adversaries, if we honestly face up to the work that we still have to do, in order that, in four or five years’ time, on the day of the revolution, we can offer a real force capable of marching resolutely towards the demolition of the old social order – if we take that into account, we have to admit that the amount of work left to do is still immense and that we have scarcely begun the creation of a true workers’ movement: the great working masses are still a long way removed from the workers’ movement inaugurated three years ago. The Collectivists, in spite of the fact that they give themselves the pretentious name ‘Workers’ Party’ are still not seeing the rush of workers to their organization that they envisaged when they first launched their electoral campaign;[1] and, as they lean more and more towards the Radical Party, they lose ground instead of gaining it. As for the anarchist groups, most of them are not yet in sustained daily contact with the majority of workers who, of course, are the only ones who can give the impetus to and implement the action necessary for any party, be that in the field of theoretical propaganda and ideas or in the field of concrete political action.

Well, let us leave these people to their illusions, if that is what they want. We prefer to face up to the task in all its enormity; and, instead of prematurely announcing our victory, we prefer to propose the following questions: what do we need to do to develop our organizations much further than at present? What do we need to do to extend our sphere of influence to the whole of the mass of workers, with the objective of creating a conscious and invincible force on the day of the revolution, in order to achieve the aspirations of the working class?

***

It appears to us that an essential point that has been ignored up till now but which needs to be explored before we go any further is this: for any organization to be able to achieve wider development, to become a force, it is important for those at the forefront of the movement to be clear as to what is the final objective of the organization they have created; and that, once this objective has been agreed upon – specify a proposed course of action in conformity with the ends. This prior reasoning is clearly an indispensable precondition if the organization is going to have any chance of success, and essentially all of the organizations have, up to now, never proceeded differently. Take the Conservatives, the Bonapartists, the Opportunists, the Radicals, the political conspirators of previous eras – each one of their parties has a well-defined objective and their means of action are absolutely in accordance with this objective.

parti-radical_12019

It would take too long to analyze here the goals and methods of each of the parties. Therefore, I will explore just one illustrative example here and let it stand as an example for all. Let us take, by way of example, the radical or intransigent party.

Their goal is well defined: the radicals tell us that they wish to abolish personal government and to install in France a democratic republic copied from the US model.[2] Abolition of the Senate, a single chamber, elected by the simple means of universal suffrage; separation of Church and State; absolute freedom of the press, of speech and of association; regional autonomy; a national army. These are the most important features of their programme. And will the worker be happier under this regime or not? And as a result, will he cease to be a wage-earner at the mercy of his boss? These questions do not really interest them: these things can be sorted out at a later date, they reply. The social question is reduced in importance to something which can be sorted out some time in the future by the democratic state. It is not a question for them of overturning existing institutions: it is simply a case of modifying them; and a legislative assembly could, according to them, do this easily. All of their political programme can be implemented by means of decrees, and all that needs to happen – they say – is that power needs to be wrenched from the hands of those who currently hold it and passed into the hands of the Radical Party.

This is their goal. Whether it is achievable or not is another question; but what is important to us is to establish whether their means are in accordance with their ends. As advocates of political reform, they have constituted themselves as a political party and are working towards the conquest of power. Envisaging the realignment of the centre of governmental power towards a democratic future, with a view to getting as many Members as possible elected to the Chamber, in local councils and in all of the government institutions and to become the bigwigs in these positions of power. Their enemy, being the government, they organise against the government, daringly declaring war on it and preparing for it to fall.

Property, in their eyes, is sacrosanct, and they do not wish to oppose it by any means: all their efforts are directed towards seizing power in government. If they appeal to the people and promise them economic reforms, it is only with the intention of overturning the current government and putting in its place a more democratic one.

This political programme is very definitely not what we are working for. What is clear to us is that it is not possible to implement real social change without the regime of property undergoing a profound transformation. However, while having strong criticisms of this programme, we have to agree that the means of action proposed by this party are in accordance with its proposed goals: these are the goals, and that is the organization proposing to achieve them!

***

What then is the objective of the workers’ organization? And what means of action and modes of organization should they employ?

The objective for which the French workers wish to organize has only ever been vaguely articulated up until now. However, there are two main points about which there definitely remains no doubt. The workers’ Congresses have managed to articulate them, after long discussions, and the resolutions of the Congresses on this subject repeatedly receive the approval of the workers. The two points are as follows: the first is common ownership as opposed to private property; and the second is affirmation that this change of regime regarding property can only be implemented by revolutionary means. The abolition of private property is the goal; and the social revolution is the means. These are the two agreed points, eloquently summed up, adopted by those who at the forefront of the workers’ movement. The Communist-Anarchists have honed these points and have also developed a wider political programme: they believe in a more complete abolition of private property than that proposed by the Collectivists[3], and they also include in their goals the abolition of the State and the spread of revolutionary propaganda. However, there is one thing upon which we all agree (or rather did agree before the appearance of the minimum programme[4]) and that is that the goal of the workers’ organization should be the economic revolution, the social revolution.

Courbert: The Stone Cutters

Courbert: The Stone Cutters

A whole new world opens up in the light of these resolutions from the workers’ Congresses. The French proletariat thus announces that it is not against one government or another that it declares war. It takes the question from a much wider and more rational perspective: it is against the holders of capital, be they blue, red or white [the colours of the French flag], that they wish to declare war. It is not a political party that they seek to form either: it is a party of economic struggle. It is no longer democratic reform that they demand: it is a complete economic revolution, the social revolution. The enemy is no longer M. Gambetta nor M. Clemenceau; the enemy is capital, along with all the Gambettas and the Clemenceaus from today or in the future who seek to uphold it or to serve it. The enemy is the boss, the capitalist, the financier – all the parasites who live at the expense of the rest of us and whose wealth is created from the sweat and the blood of the worker. The enemy is the whole of bourgeois society and the goal is to overthrow it. It is not enough to simply overthrow a government. The problem is greater than that: it is necessary to seize all of the wealth of society, if necessary doing so over the corpse of the bourgeoisie, with the intention of returning all of society’s wealth to those who produced it, the workers with their calloused hands, those who have never had enough.

Georges Clemenceau

Georges Clemenceau

This is the goal. And now that the goal has been established, the means of action are also obvious. The workers declaring war on capital? In order to bring it down completely? Yes. From today onwards, they must prepare themselves without wasting a single moment: they must engage in the struggle against capital. Of course, the Radical Party, for example, does not expect that the day of the revolution will simply fall from the sky, so that they can then declare war on the government that they wish to overthrow. They continue their struggle at all times, taking neither respite nor repose: they do not miss a single opportunity to fight this war, and if the opportunity to fight does not present itself, they create it, and they are right to do so, because it is only through a constant series of skirmishes, only by means of repeated acts of war, undertaken daily and at every opportunity that one can prepare for the decisive battle and the victory.  We who have declared war on capital must do the same with the bourgeoisie if our declarations are not to constitute empty words. If we wish to prepare for the day of the battle [and] our victory over capital, we must, from this day onward begin to skirmish, to harass the enemy at every opportunity, to make them seethe and rage, to exhaust them with the struggle, to demoralize them. We must never lose sight of the main enemy: capitalism, exploitation. And we must never become put off by the enemy’s distractions and diversions. The State will, of necessity, play its part in this war because, if it is in any way possible to declare war on the State without taking on capital at the same time, it is absolutely impossible to declare war on capital without striking out at the State at the same time.

What means of action should we employ in this war? If our goal is simply to declare this war, then we can simply create conflict – we have the means to do this: indeed, they are obvious. Each group of workers will find them where they are, appropriate to local circumstance, rising from the very conditions created in each locality. Striking will of course be one of the means of agitation and action, and this will be discussed in a later article; but a thousand other tactics, as yet unthoughtof and unexpressed in print will also be available to us at the sites of conflict. The main thing is to carry the following idea forward:

The enemy on whom we declare war is capital; and it is against capital that we will direct all our efforts, taking care not to become distracted from our goal by the phony campaigns and arguments of the political parties. The great struggle that we are preparing for is essentially economic, and so it is on the economic terrain that we should focus our activities.

If we place ourselves on this terrain, we will see that the great mass of workers will come and join our ranks, and that they will assemble under the flag of the League of Workers. Thus we will become a powerful force which will, on the day of the revolution, impose its will upon exploiters of every sort.

Le Révolté, December 10, 1881


[1] Kropotkin is referring to the French Marxists rather than collectivists like Bakunin who were active in the First International. The Parti Ouvrier (Workers Party) was created in 1880 by Jules Guesde who drew up in conjunction with Marx the minimum programme accepted at its National Congress that year. It stressed the need to form a political party using elections in pursuit of socialism. Marx wrote the preamble which stated: “That such an organization must be striven for, using all the means at the disposal of the proletariat, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of deception which it has been hitherto into an instrument of emancipation.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 340). (Editor)

[2] Personal government refers to situations were the head of state extends their powers and controls other parts of the government. The classic example in France was when Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the elected President of the Republic, staged a coup d’état in December 1851 and dissolved the National Assembly before, a year later, proclaiming himself Emperor. This situation remained until 1869 when, under pressure by the population, a parliamentary monarchy was substituted for personal government. (Editor)

[3] As Kropotkin discussed in a later pamphlet, “The Wage System”, the collectivists advocated common ownership of the means of production but retained payment according to work done. Communist-anarchists argued that this retained private property in products and argued that both logic and ethics demanded the socialization of products as well as means, in other words “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” (Editor)

[4] A reference to the standard Marxist practice of drawing up two programmes, a minimum one listing various immediate reforms which could be implemented within capitalism and a maximum one which listed the longer term aims that would be implemented once the Marxist party had won political power. The former existed to secure popular support, the latter to console the consciences of the socialists. In conjunction with Marx, Jules Guesde drew up the minimum programme accepted by the National Congress of the French Workers Party at Le Havre in 1880, which stressed the creation of a socialist party, use of elections and possible reforms. (Editor)

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