Kropotkin: Celebrating Bakunin’s Anniversary

bakunin proudhon kropotkin

May 30, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail (“Michael”) Bakunin (1814-1876), the Russian anarchist who was instrumental in the founding of an international anarchist movement in the late 1860s and early 1870s in Europe. This month also marks the publication of Iain McKay’s anthology of Piotr (“Peter”) Kropotkin’s revolutionary anarchist writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press. While Kropotkin and Bakunin never met, Kropotkin was introduced to revolutionary anarchism by Bakunin’s associates in the Jura Federation, a Swiss section of the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”), although he was already familiar with Proudhon’s mutualist anarchism. Kropotkin later credited Bakunin with establishing “in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (Modern Science and Anarchism). Here I reproduce a letter Kropotkin wrote on the 100th anniversary of Bakunin’s birth, in which he sets forth his assessment of Bakunin’s role in the development of modern anarchism in more detail, and which is now included in Direct Struggle Against CapitalVolume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas contains extensive excerpts from the anarchist writings of Bakunin, Kropotkin and Proudhon.

direct_struggle_against_capitalDear Comrades

I am sorry that I cannot be with you for the commemoration of the birthday of our great teacher, Mikhail Bakunin. There are few names which ought to be as dear to the revolutionary working men of the world as the name of this apostle of the mass revolt of the proletarians of all nations.

Surely, none of us will ever think of minimizing the importance of that labour of thought which precedes every Revolution. It is the conscience of the wrongs of society, which gives to the downtrodden and oppressed ones the vigour that is required to revolt against those wrongs.

But with immense numbers of mankind, quite an abyss lies between the comprehension of the evils, and the action that is needed to get rid of these evils.

To move people to cross this abyss, and to pass from grumbling to action, was Bakunin’s chief work.

In his youth, like most educated men of his times, he paid a tribute to the vagaries of abstruse philosophy. But he soon found his way at the approach of the Revolution of 1848. A wave of social revolt was rising then in France, and he flung himself heart and soul into the turmoil. Not with those politicians who already prepared to seize the reins of power as soon as monarchy would fall under the blows of the revolted proletarians. He foresaw, he knew already, that the new rulers would be against the proletarians the moment they would be at the head of the Republic.

He was with the lowest masses of the Paris proletarians ― with those men and women whose vague hopes were already directed towards a Social, Communistic Commonwealth. Here he represented the so-much-needed link between the advanced parties of the Great Revolution of 1793 and the new generation of Socialists, a giant trying to inspire the generous but much too pacific Socialist proletarians of Paris with the stern daring of the sans-culottes of 1793 and 1794.

Of course, the politicians soon saw how dangerous such a man was for them, and they expelled him from Paris before the first barricades of February 1848, had been built. He was quite right, that bourgeois Republican Caussidière, when he said of Bakunin: “Such men are invaluable before the Revolution. But when a Revolution has begun ― they must be shot.” Of course they must! They will not be satisfied with the first victories of the middle classes. Like our Portuguese worker friends [who participated in the 1910 Portugese Revolution], they will want some immediate practical results for the people. They will want that every one of the downtrodden masses should feel that a new era has come for the ragged proletarian.

Of course, the bourgeois must shoot such men, as they shot the Paris workers in 1871. In Paris, they took the precaution of expelling him before the Revolution began.

Expelled from Paris, Bakunin took his revenge at Dresden, in the Revolution of 1849, and here his worse enemies had to recognize his powers in inspiring the masses in a fight, and his organizing capacities. Then came the years of imprisonment in the fortress of Olmütz, where he was chained to the wall of his cell, and in the deep casemates of the St. Petersburg and Schlüsselburg fortresses, followed by years of exile in Siberia. But in 1862 he ran away from Siberia to the United States, and then to London, where he joined the friends of his youth ― Herzen and Ogaroff.

Heart and soul he threw himself into supporting the Polish uprising of 1863. But it was not until four years later that he found the proper surroundings and ground for his revolutionary agitation in the International Working Men’s Association. Here he saw masses of workers of all nations joining hands across frontiers, and striving to become strong enough in their Unions to throw off the yoke of Capitalism. And at once he understood what was the chief stronghold the workers had to storm, in order to be successful in their struggle against Capital ― the State. And while the political Socialists spoke of getting hold of power in the State and reforming it, “Destroy the State!” became the war-cry of the Latin Federations, where Bakunin found his best friends.

The State is the chief stronghold of Capital ― once its father, and now its chief ally and support. Consequently, Down with Capitalism and down with the State!

All his previous experience and a close friendly intercourse with the Latin workers made of Bakunin the powerful adversary of the State and the fierce revolutionary Anarchist Communist fighter he became in the last ten years of his life.

Here Bakunin displayed all the powers of his revolutionary genius. One cannot read his writings during those years ― mostly pamphlets dealing with questions of the day, and yet full of profound views of society ― without being fired by the force of his revolutionary convictions. In reading these writings and in following his life, one understands why he so much inspired his friends with the sacred fire of revolt.

Down to his last days, even amidst the pangs of a mortal disease, even in his last writings, which he considered his testament, he remained the same firmly convinced revolutionary Anarchist and the same fighter, ready to join the masses anywhere in their revolt against Capital and the State.

Let us, then, follow his example. Let us continue his work, never forgetting that two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution ― two things, as one of my comrades said in the trial at Lyon: an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action ― guided by the force of Anarchist thought.

Peter Kropotkin

proudhon-bakounine-kropotkine-la-revolution-l

Kropotkin: Workers’ Organization (Part 2)

Kropotkin

Kropotkin

This is the second part of Kropotkin’s December 1881 article on workers’ organization, in which he argues that it is through their own organizations and direct action, particularly strikes, that the workers will develop the class consciousness and solidarity needed for them to abolish capitalism. This article will be included in Iain McKay’s forthcoming anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, and was recently published in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. The translation is by James Bar Bowen. I included several of Kropotkin’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and have posted many more on this blog, including his analysis of the 1905 Russian Revolution and his conception of a post-revolutionary anarchist society.

direct action

Workers’ Organization, Part 2: Striking Against Capitalism

Le Révolté showed in the last edition that a party which proposes as its goal a Social revolution, and which seeks to seize capital from the hands of its current holders must, of necessity, and from this day onwards, position itself at the centre of the struggle against capital. If it wishes that the next revolution should take place against the regime of property and that the watchword of the next call to arms should necessarily be one calling for the expropriation of society’s wealth from the capitalists, the struggle must, on all fronts, be a struggle against the capitalists.

Some object that the great majority of workers are not sufficiently aware of the situation imposed upon them by the holders of capital: “The workers have not yet understood,” they say, “that the true enemy of the worker, of the whole of society, of progress, and of liberty is the capitalist; and the workers allow themselves to be drawn too easily by the bourgeoisie into fighting miserable battles whose focus is solely upon bourgeois politics.” But if this is true, if it is true that the worker all too often drops his prey in order to chase shadows, if it is true that all too often he expends his energies against those who, of course, are also his enemies, but he does not realise that he actually needs to bring the capitalist to his knees; if all this is true, then we too are guilty of chasing shadows since we have failed to identify those who are the true enemies of the worker. The formation of a new political party is not the way to bring the economic question out into the open. If the great majority of workers is not sufficiently aware of the importance of the economic question (a fact about which we anarchists remain in no doubt), then relegating this question itself into the background is definitely not going to highlight its importance in the eyes of the workers. If this misconception exists, we must work against it, not preserve and perpetuate it.

black cat

Putting this objection to one side, we must now discuss the diverse characteristics of the struggle against capitalism. Our readers of course realise that such a discussion should not take place in a newspaper. It is actually on the ground, among those groups themselves, with full knowledge of local circumstances and spurred on by changing conditions that the question of practical action should be discussed. In The Spirit of Revolt,[1] we showed how the peasants in the last century and the revolutionary bourgeoisie managed to develop a current of ideas directed against the nobility and the royals. In our articles on the Agrarian League in Ireland,[2] we showed how the Irish people managed to organise themselves to fight on a daily basis a relentless and merciless war against the ruling class. Taking inspiration from this, we must find the means to fight against the boss and the capitalist in ways appropriate to each locality. What may work perfectly in Ireland may not work in France, and what may give great results in one country may fail in another. Moreover, it is not through following the advice of a newspaper that groups of activists will manage to find the best ways to fight. It is by posing questions in the light of local circumstances for each group; it is by discussing in depth; it is by taking inspiration from events which, at any given moment, may excite local interest, and by looking closely at their own situation that they will find the methods of action most appropriate for their own locality.

However, there remains one tactic in the revolutionary struggle about which Le Révolté is willing to give its opinion. This is not because this is a superior method, or even less so, the only valid tactic. But it is a weapon which workers use in different contexts, wherever they may be, and it is a weapon which can be called upon at any time, according to circumstance. This weapon is the strike!

It is, however, even more necessary to speak of it today because, for some time now, the ideologues and the false friends of the workers have campaigned covertly against the use of the strike, with a view to turning the working class away from this form of struggle and railroading them down a more ‘political’ path.[3] The result of this has been that recently strikes have broken out all over France, and those who have inscribed upon their banners that the emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the workers themselves[4] are now maintaining a healthy distance between themselves and the struggle being undertaken by their brothers and sisters; they are also maintaining for themselves a distance from the subsequent privations suffered by the workers, be these in the form of the sabres of the gendarmes, the knives of the foremen or the sentences of the judges.

It is fashionable these days to say that the strike is not a way to emancipate the worker, so we should not bother with it. Well, let us just have a closer look at this objection.

Of course, going on strike is not, in itself, a means of emancipation. It is [only] by revolution, by the expropriation society’s wealth and putting it at the disposal of everyone that the workers will break their chains. But does it follow that they should wait with folded arms until the day of the revolution? In order to be able to make revolution, the mass of workers must organise themselves, and resistance and the strike are excellent means by which workers can organise. Indeed, they have a great advantage over the tactics that are being proposed at the moment (workers’ representatives, constitution of a workers’ political party, etc.) which do not actually derail the movement but serve to keep it perpetually in thrall to its principal enemy, the capitalist. The strike and resistance funds[5] provide the means to organise not only the socialist converts (these seek each other out and organise themselves anyway) but especially those who are not yet converted, even though they really should be.

In effect, strikes break out all over the place. But, isolated and abandoned to their own fate, they fail all too often. And, meanwhile, what the workers who go on strike really need to do is to organise themselves, to communicate among themselves, and they will welcome with open arms anyone who would come and offer help to build the organisation that they lack. The task is immense: there is so much work to do for every man and woman devoted to the workers’ cause, and the results of this organisational work will of course prove enormously satisfying to all those who do put their weight behind the movement. What is required is to build societies of resistance[6] for each trade in each town, to create resistance funds and fight against the exploiters, to unify [solidariser] the workers’ organisations of each town and trade and to put them in contact with those of other towns, to federate across France, to federate across borders, internationally. The concept of workers’ solidarity must become more than just a saying: it must become a daily reality for all trades and all nations. In the beginning, the International faced national and local prejudice, rivalry between trades, and so on; and yes – and this is perhaps one of the greatest services the International has done for us – these rivalries and these prejudices were overcome, and we really did witness workers from distant countries and trades, who had previously been in conflict, now working together. The result of this, let us not forget, was achieved by organisations emerging from and owing their very existence to the great strikes of the time. It is through the organisation of resistance to the boss that the International managed to gather together more than two million workers and to create a powerful force before which both bourgeoisie and governments trembled.

general strike

“But the strike,” the theoreticians tell us, “only addresses the selfish interests of the worker.” In the first place, it is not egotism which drives the worker to strike: he is driven by misery, by the overarching necessity to raise wages in line with food prices. If he endures months of privation during a strike, it is not with a view to becoming another petit bourgeois: it is to avoid dying of starvation, himself, his wife, his children. And then, far from developing egotistical instincts, the strike serves to develop the sense of solidarity which emerges from the very heart of the organisation. How often have we seen the starving share their meagre earnings with their striking comrades! Just recently, the building workers of Barcelona donated as much as half their scant wages to strikers campaigning for a nine-and-a-half hour day (and we should acknowledge in passing that they succeeded, whereas if they had followed the parliamentary route, they would still be working eleven or twelve hours a day). At no time in history has solidarity among the working classes been practised at such a developed level as during strikes called by the International.

Lastly, the best evidence against the accusation levelled at the strike that it is purely a selfish tactic is of course the history of the International. The International was born from strikes; at root, it was a strikers’ organisation, right up until the bourgeoisie, aided by the ambitious, managed to draw a part of the Association into parliamentary struggles. And, at the same time, it is precisely this organisation, by means of its local sections and its congresses, which managed to elaborate the wider principles of modern socialism which today gives us our strength; for – with all due respect to the so-called scientific socialists – until the present there has not been a single idea on socialism which has not been expressed in the Congresses of the International. The practice of going on strike did not hinder different sections within the International from addressing the social question in all its complexity. On the contrary, it helped it as well as simultaneously spreading the wider ideas among the masses.

The Spirit of Revolt

The Spirit of Revolt

Others have also often been heard to say that the strike does not awaken the revolutionary spirit. In the current climate, you would have to say that the opposite is true. There is hardly a strike called these days which does not see the arrival of troops, the exchange of blows, and numerous acts of revolt. Some fight the soldiers, others march on the factories; in 1873 in Spain, the strikers at Alcoy declared the Commune and fired on the bourgeoisie; [in 1877] at Pittsburgh in the USA, the strikers found themselves masters of a territory as large as France, and the strike became the catalyst for a general uprising; [7] in Ireland, the striking farm workers found themselves in open confrontation with the State. Thanks to government intervention, the factory rebel becomes a rebel against the State. Today, he finds ranged before him soldiers who will tamely obey the orders of their officers to shoot. But the employing of troops in strikes will only serve to “demoralise”, that is to say, to moralise the soldier: as a result, the soldier will lay down his arms and refuse to fight against his insurgent brothers.

In the end, the strike itself, the days without work or bread, spent in these opulent streets of limitless luxury and the vices of the bourgeoisie, will do more for the propagation of socialist ideas than all manner of public meetings in times of relative social harmony. Such is the power of these ideas that one fine day the strikers of Ostrau in Austria will requisition all the food in the town’s shops and declare their right to society’s wealth.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

But the strike, we must be clear, is not the only engine of war in the struggle against capital. In a strike, it is the workers as a whole who are taking up the fight; but there is also a role for groups and even individuals; and the ways in which they may act and be effective can vary infinitely according to local circumstances and the needs of the moment and the situation. It would be pointless to analyse these roles here since each group will find new and original ways to further the workers’ cause as it becomes active and effective in their own part of the great labour movement. The most important thing for us to do here is to agree upon the following principles:

The goal of the revolution is the expropriation of the holders of society’s wealth, and it is against these holders that we must organise. We must marshal all of our efforts with the aim of creating a vast workers’ organisation to pursue this goal. The organisation of resistance [to] and war on capital must be the principal objective of the workers’ organisation, and its methods must be informed not by the pointless struggles of bourgeois politics but the struggle, by all of the means possible, against those who currently hold society’s wealth – and the strike is an excellent means of organisation and one of the most powerful weapons in the struggle.

If we manage over the course of the next few years to create such an organisation, we can be sure that the next revolution will not fail: the precious blood of the people will not be spilled in vain, and the worker, currently a slave, will emerge victorious from the conflict and will commence a new era in the development of human society based on Equality, Solidarity and Labour.

Le Révolté,  December 24, 1881


[1] L’Espirit de Révolté was one of Kropotkin’s most famous pamphlets and was initially published in Le Révolté between May 14 and July 9 1881 and was subsequently included in Words of a Rebel. Excerpts from the Nicolas Walter translation are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

[2] A reference to the Irish National Land League. (Editor)

[3] The Parti Ouvrier did not encourage strikes although they supported them once they had begun. (Editor)

[4] An ironic reference to first sentence of the “General Rules” of The International Working Men’s Association drawn up by Marx in 1864 (included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). Anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin agreed with the position and argued that Marx’s support for “political action” (electioneering) by political parties contradicted this fundamental position of genuine socialism. (Editor)

[5] Caisse de résistance (resistance funds) are strike funds, reserves set up by a union ahead of a strike or gathered from other unions and workers during a strike which are used to provide strike pay or for other strike-related activities. (Editor)

[6] Sociétés de résistance was a common term for militant unions within the libertarian-wing of the International Working Men’s Association. (Editor)

[7] A reference to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Editor)

solidarity

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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Kropotkin: After the Revolution

collective

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included some excerpts from Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel, in which he wrote that “To overthrow a government — that is everything for a bourgeois revolutionary. For us, it is only the beginning of the Social Revolution.” Here, I reproduce excerpts from an article he wrote for Freedom, the English anarchist paper which he helped found, on the necessity of economic communism after the overthrow of the government, emphasizing the positive measures that must be taken by the people themselves in order to make the revolutionary struggle worthwhile. What is particularly interesting is Kropotkin’s discussion regarding how a libertarian, or anarchist, communist society would function. Rather than, for example, housing being allotted by a new “revolutionary” government, which would soon turn into an unwieldly bureaucracy, at best, or a bureaucratic dictatorship, as happened in Russia, at worst, Kropotkin insists that the people themselves must work out a way of providing for each other’s housing needs by means of free agreement.

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The Necessity of Communism

If all Socialists should agree… that the wants of all must be the first guiding consideration of any revolutionary movement which has a Socialist character — and we really cannot understand how this can be denied, or even underrated — then they would perceive that the next revolution, if it is guided by Socialist principle, must necessarily drive them to Communism, and Communism drive them to Anarchy.

Of course, if we admit that the next revolution will have accomplished its mission as soon as it succeeds in overthrowing the present rulers and proclaims some great industrial undertakings, like railways and mines, the property of a State democratized a bit — everything beyond that remaining as it is — then, of course, there is no use in speaking about Social Revolution at all. It is no use to describe with so pompous a word the visions of Herr Bismarck, who also dreams of taking all great branches of industry under the management of the State democratized  by Imperial ism. We only remark that such a result would be utterly shabby in comparison with the great movement of ideas stirred up by Socialism; and that it stands in very strange contradiction with the hopes that Socialists are awakening precisely among the most miserable classes of labourers.

But, if those who describe themselves as revolutionists and really are revolutionists, at least with regard to their proceedings, if not always in ideas which inspire them, if they really mean a thorough modification of the present state of property, they cannot avoid perceiving that the day they begin any serious economical change in the present conditions of property, they immediately will have to face the problem of providing food for those who so long have suffered from want of it, of giving shelter to those who have none worthy the name of a dwelling, and of providing clothes for those who are now ragged and barefoot.

Not in the shape of charities, whosoever might distribute them; as charities distributed by a municipal or local board brought to power by the revolution would remain as much an insult to those to whom they were distributed as the charities of the millionaire at the present day; but as something which is due by society to everybody; and, first of all, precisely to those who have patiently waited for the ‘justice to all’ regularly promised by revolutionists and reformers, and always forgotten as soon as the said revolutionists and reformers are on the top of the political ladder. We do not care about ‘Coronation gifts’, be they distributed by a King, or by a shopkeeper acclaimed President of a Republic, or by a brother-workman nominated Municipal Councillor. We merely ask for what is due to everybody, everybody having contributed to the extent of his capacities to the creation of the riches which surround us.

FoodNotBombsUnfreeTradePosterv01

To leave nobody without food, shelter and clothing, is the first and imperative duty of each popular movement inspired by Socialist ideas; and we wonder why our Socialist friends, so outspoken in their political programs, are so discreet exactly on this subject — the object, the first aim, in our opinion, of any movement worthy to be called Socialist. Is it a simple omission, or something so obvious that it is needless to waste words upon it?

But, if it is really so, then, how is it possible to avoid Communism entering into our life in the very first days of the revolution?

We have already said… why the revolution in our present conditions of property can only issue from widely- developed, independent local action. The miners of a more advanced mining district, the inhabitants of a more advanced city, cannot wait until all Great Britain is converted to their ideas by pamphlets, manifestoes, and speeches; they will go ahead, saying to themselves that the best means to convert everybody is by example.

And now, imagine a city in revolt where the majority follows the Socialists. What must the Socialists propose if they really wish to be with the masses, and march together with them for the conquest of the future? What must they propose if they mean to be in accordance with justice and with their own principles? The words Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity are surely grand and glorious words. We may inscribe them on each banner, and let them float over each house. We may even inscribe them, as our Paris neighbours do after each revolution, on each public building, even on prisons. But, what besides the words? Another word? The nationalization of land, of mines, of capital, which may be full of meaning, but may remain as meaningless as the great words of Fraternity, of Equality, of Liberty, when they are painted on prison walls?

As to us, Communist-Anarchists, the question we shall put to ourselves will not be, What shall we inscribe on our banners? It will be, What shall the workman eat during the next twenty-four hours? Is he able, and must he continue to pay the rent to the landlord and house-owner? Where will those who live in dens, or even have not a den to live in, spend the next night?

These plain, brutal questions will be asked in each workman’s household; they will be asked in each of the slums so particularly described a few years ago by the newspapers for the amusement of the occupiers of ducal and princely palaces; they will be asked, however limited the knowledge of the workman and the slum-inhabitant of Marx’s or Proudhon’s Political Economy. And they must be asked — and answered — by each earnest Socialist, unless his presumptuous learnedness considers a question too mean which has not been treated in Marx’s Capital, or in Proudhon’s Economical Contradictions.

Once asked, there is, however, no other answer to the question than this: There are so many houses in the city. Some of them are overcrowded, some others nearly empty; some of them being dens which even a beast would find too dirty, too wet, and too disgusting to stay in unless compelled to do so; and some others embellished with all the refinements of modern luxury.

It might remain so as long as we lived under the monopoly of private property. It could remain so as long as humanity was considered as consisting of two classes: the one created for the dens, and the other for the palaces. It could remain so as long as there was a State ruled by land, house, and capital owners, who exacted rack rents for their own benefit, and called in police and emergency men to evict the rebels who refused to enrich them. But it cannot remain so any longer.

Tenants Take Over

Tenants Take Over

Apart from a few cottages purchased by workmen families, at the price of all possible privations, none of these houses can be honestly considered as honestly acquired by their present owners. Humanity has built them; they belong to humanity, or at least to that part of humanity which is gathered on the spot. As soon as we proclaim that property — whatever its shape — is an accumulation of wealth due to the spoliation of the masses by the few — and who amongst Socialists does not affirm and reaffirm that principle? — we can no longer consider property in houses as a sacred right. They belong to all, and the very first thing we have to do is to consider what use can be made of them in order to provide everybody with a decent home.

The only rule to guide us must be the wants of each family, each of them being equally entitled to enjoy the produce of the labour of generations past and present. We cannot ask what each family will be able to pay for a house; it is not their fault if thousands and thousands, brought to misery by our former conditions, can afford to pay nothing, and even those who can produce will be reduced to idleness by the economic changes rendered necessary by the faults of our forefathers. It is not his fault if the man there who has half a dozen children has none of the accomplishments which characterize the owner of the palace and his daughters. He and his wife have worked all their life long; can the owner of the palace say as much of himself and his wife? And his rights to a decent dwelling are as good as that of the palace-owner.

And the Socialist who is not a mere quack must accept this standpoint: he must recognize that to take possession of the houses in the name of the city in revolt, and provide every inhabitant with a decent dwelling, is the very first duty of the Socialist who is in earnest, whose criticisms of the capitalist system have not been empty declamation.

Communism as to the dwelling must thus necessarily impose itself from the very first days of any serious Socialist movement.

But, who can come to an allotment of this very first necessity of life if the inhabitants themselves cannot do it? Can it be a local board? Can it be any other elected body which will order: Mr. A goes to house No. 10, and Mr. B to house No. 15? Obviously not! The settlement, any settlement which would last for some time, can only result from the initiative of all interested in the settlement, from the good-will of all in conjunction. And a first step towards Anarchy — towards the settlement of a grave social question without the intervention of Government — will be taken.

It will take some time to come to a satisfactory settlement of the question of dwellings. The Russian Mir spends sometimes three or four days before a hundred householders come to a unanimous agreement as to the repartition of the allotments of soil in accordance with the working powers of each family (there is no government to enforce a solution which is not unanimous), but they come nevertheless.

The settlement must be arrived at, for the very simple reason that the present inhabitants of the dens and slums will not recognize that they must forever remain in their slums and dens, and leave the palaces to the rulers of the day. And an approach to Communism will thus be enforced — even on the most individualistic collectivist.

Freedom, September 1887

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Freedom Bookshop Fire Bombed

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Freedom Bookshop has been fire bombed. It is part of the Freedom Press group that has been publishing the Freedom newspaper, founded by Kropotkin, Charlotte Wilson and several other anarchists, since 1886. You can help them out by donating books and money, and by buying Freedom Press literature, as indicated in the announcement below:

A lot of our stock was damaged in the firebomb attack and we appreciate any any help with re-stocking. Anyone wanting to donate books, magazines or pamphlets to the shop to help us get back on our feet, it’s probably best to wait until next week before bringing them down as by then we hope to have part of the shop fully functional and have some nice clean shelves to fill. We’ll be open during our normal shop opening hours.

There’s quite a bit of work still need to be done. If you’d like help us out financially, cheques or postal orders made payable to Freedom Press can be sent to Freedom Press, 84b Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX.

You can also help by ordering books through our website here and then emailing us at subs@freedompress.org.uk to let us know that your purchase was a donation.

Check out the benefit events for Freedom Press coming up.

Freedom Bookshop Fire Bombed

Freedom Bookshop Fire Bombed

Kropotkin: Governmental Counter-Revolution

The Anarchist Revolution

The Anarchist Revolution

This is another excerpt from Kropotkin’s critique of “revolutionary government,” which from his anarchist perspective is a contradiction in terms. Additional excerpts can be found in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939).

Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

To allow any kind of government — a power that is strong and demands obedience — to establish itself is to put the brakes on the revolution from the very beginning. The good that this government might do is nil, and the evil immense.

In fact, what is it that we understand by revolution? It is not a simple change of rulers. It is the seizing by the people of all social wealth. It is the abolition of all those powers that have not ceased to hobble the development of humanity. But is it in fact by decrees emanating from a government that such an immense economic revolution can be accomplished? In the last century we saw the Polish dictator Ksciuzko decreeing the abolition of personal servitude, but serfdom continued to exist for eighty years after that decree. We saw the Convention [of the French Revolution], the omnipotent Convention, the terrible Convention, as its admirers called it — decreeing the sharing out according to need of all the communal lands regained from the lords. Like so many others, the decrees remained a dead letter, because, in order to put them into execution, a new revolution made by the proletarians of the countryside would have been needed, and revolutions are not made by decree.

For the repossession of social wealth by the people to become an accomplished fact, the people itself must feel its elbows free, must shake off the servitude to which it is no longer bound, must use its collective intelligence and march ahead without heeding the orders of anyone. For it is precisely this which will frustrate the dictatorship, even if it is the worst intentioned in the world, incapable of advancing the revolution by a single inch.

But if the government — however it may strive for the revolutionary ideal — creates no new force and does not further the work of demolition which we have to accomplish, even less can we count on it for the work of reconstruction that must follow the demolition of the old order. The economic changes that will result from the social revolution will be so immense and so profound, they will so alter all the relations based on property and exchange, that it will be impossible for one or even a number of individuals to elaborate the social forms to which a further society must give birth. This elaboration of new social forms can only be the collective work of the masses. To satisfy the immense variety of conditions and needs that will emerge on the day when property is swept away, we shall need the flexibility of the collective spirit of the community. Any kind of external authority will be merely an obstacle, a hindrance to the organic work that has to be accomplished; it will be no better than a source of discord and of hatreds.

But it is surely time to abandon that illusion, so often dismissed — and also so often paid for dearly — of a revolutionary government. It is time to say once and for all — and adopt it as a political axiom — that a government cannot be revolutionary. People talk about the Convention, but we must not forget that the few measures of even a slightly revolutionary character taken by the Convention were the confirmation of acts accomplished by the people who at that moment advanced over the heads of all governments. As Victor Hugo said in his flamboyant manner, Danton pushed Robespierre, Marat watched and pushed Danton, and Marat himself was pushed by Cimourdain, that personification of the clubs, of the rebels and enragés. Like all the governments preceding and following it, the Convention was no better than a ball-and-chain on the feet of the people.

The facts that history has to teach us are so conclusive in this direction; the impossibility of a revolutionary government and the harmfulness of what is proposed under this name are so evident, that it would seem difficult to explain the stubbornness which a certain school of self-styled socialists [Marxism] puts into maintaining the idea of a government. But the explanation is very simple. However much they may call themselves socialists, the adepts of that school have a quite different conception from ours of the revolution which it is incumbent on us to accomplish. For them — as for all the bourgeois radicals — the social revolution is a matter not to be thought of today. What they dream of in the depths of their hearts without daring to admit it, is something quite different. It is the institution of a government similar to that of Switzerland or the United States, making a few attempts at State appropriation of what they ingeniously call “public services.” It has something in it of the ideas of Bismarck and of the tailor who became president of the United States. It is a compromise, reached in advance, between the socialist aspirations of the masses and the appetites of the bourgeoisie. They would like a complete expropriation, but they do not feel in themselves the courage to attempt it, so they put it off for the next century, and before the battle takes place they have already entered into negotiations with the enemy.

For us, who realize that the moment is getting near to strike a mortal blow at the bourgeoisie; that the time is not far away when the people will be able to put their hands on all social wealth and reduce the exploiting class to impotence; for us, I say, there can be no hesitation. We will throw ourselves body and soul into the Social revolution; once that path has been taken any government, no matter what headgear it wears, will be an obstacle, and we shall reduce to powerlessness and sweep away whoever is ambitious enough to try and impose himself on us to control our destinies.

Enough with governments! Make way for the people! Make way for anarchy!

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Kropotkin: Neither God Nor Master

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included some brief excerpts from Kropotkin’s essay on “revolutionary government” in Words of a Rebel. In the following excerpts, having demonstrated the failings of representative government, Kropotkin argues against those revolutionaries who think they can make a social revolution by seizing power and imposing their own so-called “revolutionary” dictatorship. He ends by quoting the French revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881), who at the end of his life proclaimed: “Neither God Nor Master,” which was to become the battle cry of the anarchist movement.

From Revolutionary Government to Personal Dictatorship

From Revolutionary Government to Personal Dictatorship

Revolutionary Government

The perils to which the revolution is exposed should it allow itself to be managed by an elected government are so evident that a whole school of revolutionaries has completely renounced that idea. They understand that it is impossible for an insurgent people to give itself by electoral means a government that does not represent the past, a government that does not act like fetters around the ankles of the people, above all when it sets out to accomplish that immense economic, political and moral regeneration we mean when we talk of the social revolution. So they renounce the idea of a “legal” government, at least for the period of revolt against legality, and they call for “revolutionary dictatorship.”

“The party which has overthrown the government — they say — will forcefully take its place. It will seize power and proceed in a revolutionary manner. It will take the measures needed to secure the success of the insurrection; it will demolish old institutions; it will organize the defence of the territory. As for those who do not want to recognize its authority — the guillotine! And for those, people or bourgeoisie, who do not wish to obey the orders it will issue to regulate the progress of the revolution — the guillotine as well!” That is how the budding Robespierres reason — those who have retained from the great epoch of the past [18th] century only its decadent phase, who have learnt nothing from it but the speeches of the public prosecutors.

For us, the dictatorship of one individual or one party — and basically it is the same thing — can be judged without hesitation. We know that a social revolution is not directed by the ideas of a single man or group. We know that revolution and government are incompatible; the one must destroy the other, no matter what name one gives to the government: dictatorship, monarchy or parliament. We know that what makes the strength and originality of our [anarchist] party lies in its fundamental formula:

“Nothing good and lasting is made except by the free initiative of the people, and all power tends to kill it.” That is why the best among us, if his ideas are not accepted by the people as fit to be applied, and if he becomes master of the formidable engine of government that allows him to act out his own fantasies, will in a week be fit only to be struck down. We know where every dictatorship — even the best intentioned of them — leads: to the death of the revolution. And we know finally that this idea of dictatorship is never more than an unwholesome product of that governmental fetishism which, in the same way as a religious fetishism, has always perpetuated slavery.

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But today it is not to the anarchists that we are addressing ourselves. We speak to those among the governmentalist revolutionaries who, misled by the bias of their education, sincerely deceive themselves and are open for discussion. We will approach them from their own viewpoint.

To begin with, a general observation. Those who preach dictatorship do not generally perceive that in sustaining this attitude they only prepare the ground for the successors who will swallow them up…

But the predisposition to government so completely blinds those who talk about dictatorship, that they would prefer to further the dictatorship of a new Brissot or Napoleon rather than renounce the idea of giving another master to men who have broken their chains.

The secret societies that sprang up during the Restoration period [after the fall of Napoleon] and the reign of Louis-Phillipe contributed to sustaining this cult of dictatorship. The middle class republicans of the period, supported by the workers, initiated a long series of conspiracies which aimed at overthrowing royalty and proclaiming the Republic. Failing to take into account the profound transformations that would have to take place in France, even to enable a bourgeois republican regime to be established, they imagined that by means of a vast conspiracy they would in a single day overthrow the monarchy, seize power, and proclaim the Republic. For nearly thirty years these secret societies continued to work with boundless devotion and heroic perseverance and courage. If the Republic emerged naturally from the insurrection of February 1848 it was thanks to such societies, thanks to the propaganda of the deed they carried on for thirty years. Without their noble efforts, the Republic would even now have been impossible.

Their aim was thus to seize power for themselves, to install themselves as a republican dictatorship. But of course they never reached their goal. As always, through the inevitable course of events, it was not a conspiracy that overthrew the kingdom. The conspirators had indeed prepared for the event. They had spread broadly the republican idea; their martyrs had offered an ideal to the people. But the last thrust, which finally overthrew the bourgeois king, was much broader and much stronger than anything that could come from a secret society; it came from the popular masses.

1848 French Revolution

1848 French Revolution

The result is well known. The party which had prepared the downfall of the monarchy was pushed to the side on the steps of the Hotel de Ville [in 1848]. Others, too prudent to run the risks of conspiracy, but better known and also more moderate, watched for the moment to seize power, and assumed the position which the conspirators thought they had conquered to the sound of the cannonade. Journalists, lawyers, glib speakers who had worked at making names for themselves while the true republicans forged their arms or died in the prisons, seized hold of power. Some were acclaimed by the boobies because they were already celebrated; others pushed themselves forward, and were accepted because their names represented nothing or at best a program of being all things to all men.

Let no one stand up and tell us that it was a lack of practical intelligence on the side of the party of action — that others could have done better. No, a thousand times no! It is a law, like that of the movement of the stars, that the party of action stays on the outside, while the intriguers and the talkers take over power. They gather more votes, with or without ballots, by acclamation or through the intervention of the voting booths, because basically it is always a kind of tacit election that takes place even when there is only acclamation. Those chosen are acclaimed by everyone, and especially by the enemies of the revolution who like to push forward nonentities, and in this way acclamation recognizes as leaders those who, basically, are foes of the [revolutionary] movement or indifferent to it.

The man who more than any other was the incarnation of the system of conspiracy, the man who paid by a life in prison for his devotion to that system [Blanqui], uttered on the eve of his death these words which are a whole program: “Neither God nor Master!”

Neither God Nor Master

Neither God Nor Master

Kropotkin: Against Representation

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from several essays in Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel. I did not have room for Kropotkin’s essay on “Representative Government.” This is the second part of that essay to be posted here, focusing on his anarchist critique of political representation.

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Representative Government Part 2

The faults of representative assemblies should not in fact astonish us if we reflect for just a moment on the manner in which they are recruited and in which they function.

Must I offer again the picture, so disgusting, so thoroughly repugnant, which we all know — the picture of what happens at elections? In bourgeois England and democratic Switzerland, in France as in the United States, in Germany as in the Argentine Republic, is not that sad comedy everywhere the same?

Must one tell how the agents and electoral committees contrive, canvass and carry out an election, making promises on all sides, political in meetings and personal to individuals: how they penetrate into homes, flattering the mother, the child, and if necessary caressing the asthmatic dog or cat of the “voter”? How they spread themselves around in the pubs and cafés, trying to convert the voters and entrap them in their discussions just as their counterparts in roguery try to involve them in the “three card trick”? How the candidate, making himself desirable, appears among his “dear voters” with a benevolent smile, a modest look and a cajoling voice, like an old vixen of a London landlady trying to capture a lodger with her sweet smile and angelic looks? Need we enumerate the lying — entirely lying — programmes, whether socialist-revolutionary or merely opportunist in orientation, in which the candidate himself believes no more than he believes the predictions of an Old Moore’s Almanac, yet which he defends with a spirit, a sonorous voice, a show of feeling, worthy of a clown or a wandering actor? It is no wonder that the popular theatre no longer limits itself to exhibiting Bertrand and Robert Macaire as simple rogues, Tartuffes or swindlers, but adds to these traditional types the representatives of the people, in quest of votes and pockets to pick.

Finally, must we talk about the cost of elections? Surely all the newspapers keep us well informed on this question. One has only to reproduce the expense lists of electoral agents, in which figure roasts of lamb, flannel waistcoats, and sedative waters sent by sympathetic candidates to the “dear children” of their voters. Need we also recall the cost of boiled potatoes and rotten eggs “to confound the opposing party” that occur in the electoral budgets of the United States, or the costs of libellous placards and “last minute tricks” that already play such an honourable role in our European elections.

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

Thus it is, and it cannot be otherwise so long as there are voters to give themselves masters. Think only of the workers, who are equal among themselves, taking it into their heads one day to pick rulers; it will be just the same as ever. Perhaps roast lamb will no longer be distributed, but praise and lies will, and there will be no shortage of rotten eggs! What better can people hope for when they are willing to put up their most sacred rights for auction?

What, in fact, is asked of voters? To find a man to whom they can confide the right to legislate on everything they cherish most: their rights, their children, and their work! So why be surprised when two or three thousand Robert Macaires turn up to compete for these royal rights? We are seeking a man to whom we can confide — in the company of others chosen in the same lottery — the right to ruin our sons when they are twenty-one, or even nineteen if that is more convenient, and to shut them up for three years — or even up to ten years — in the pestilential atmosphere of a barracks! And to let them be massacred when and where the rulers want to start a war which the county will be forced to carry on to the bitter end once it has been started.

Such rulers can close the universities at their will, and either force the parents to send their children to them or refuse entry. Like a new Louis XIV they can favour an industry or kill it if they prefer; sacrifice the North to the South or the South to the North; annex a province or give it away. They can dispose of something like three billion francs a year, which they snatch out of the mouths of the workers. They retain the royal prerogative of naming the executive power, a power which, however in agreement with parliament it may be, can at the same time be just as despotic and tyrannical as the former kings. For, while Louis XIV could command a few tens of thousands of officials, the new rulers can command hundreds of thousands; while, if the king could steal from the exchequer a few paltry bags of coins, the constitutional ministry of today can “honestly” pocket a few millions by a simple manoeuvre at the stock exchange.

It is astonishing to see what passions come into play, when there is a call for a master who can be invested with such powers! When Spain put its throne up for bids, it was not in the least surprising to see the brigands flocking in from every side. As long as this commerce in royal powers continues, nothing can ever be reformed; elections will be fairs at which vanities are traded for consciences.

Furthermore, even if one manages to reduce the power of the deputies, if one breaks power up by making each commune a State in miniature, everything will remain the same.

direct democracy anarchism

The question of true delegation versus representation can be better understood if one imagines a hundred or two hundred men, who meet each day in their work and share common concerns, who know each other thoroughly, who have discussed every aspect of the question that concerns them and have reached a decision. They then choose someone and send him to reach an agreement with other delegates of the same kind on this particular issue. On such an occasion the choice is made with full knowledge of the question, and everyone knows what is expected of his delegate. The delegate is not authorized to do more than explain to other delegates the considerations that have led his colleagues to their conclusion. Not being able to impose anything, he will seek an understanding and will return with a simple proposition which his mandatories can accept or refuse. This is what happens when true delegation comes into being; when the communes send their delegates to other communes, they need no other kind of mandate. This is how it is done already by meteorologists and statisticians in their international congresses, by the delegates of railway and postal administrations meeting from several countries.

But what is being asked nowadays of the voter? Ten, twenty, even a hundred thousand men, who do not know each other from Adam, who have never even seen each other and have certainly never met to discuss a common concern, are expected to agree on the choice of one man. Moreover, this man will not be mandated to explain a precise matter or to defend a resolution concerning a special affair. No, he will become an instant Jack of All Trades, expected to legislate on any subject, and his decision will become law. In such circumstances the nature of delegation is betrayed and it becomes an absurdity.

The omniscient being whom everyone is seeking nowadays does not exist. But suppose we can present an honest citizen of probity and good sense and a modicum of education. Is he the sort of man who will get elected? Obviously not. Hardly twenty people from his grammar school remember his excellent qualities. He has never sought the limelight, and he despises the means by which attention might be drawn to his name. He will never gather more than two hundred votes!

He will not even be nominated as a candidate, but instead they will choose a lawyer or a journalist, a glib speaker or scribbler who will carry into parliament the ways of the bar and the newspaper office, and will add himself to one of the herds that vote with the government and the opposition. Or perhaps it will be some merchant, anxious to get the title of M.P., who will not hesitate about spending ten thousand francs to gain a scrap of fame. And where life is notably democratic, as in the United States, where committees spring up constantly to counterbalance the influence of great fortunes, the worst type of all is elected, the professional politician, that abject being who these days has become the plague of the great Republic, the man who makes politics an industry, and practices it according to the methods of great industry — with display, pizzazz and corruption!

Change the electoral system however you like; establish the secret ballot; make elections in two stages, as in Switzerland, make all the modifications you can to apply the system with the greatest possible equality; arrange and rearrange the voting lists; the intrinsic faults of the institution will continue. Whoever manages to gather more than half the votes will always be a nonentity, a man without convictions but anxious to please everyone.

That is why, as Spencer has already remarked, parliaments are generally so badly composed. The members of parliament, he says in his Introduction, are always inferior to the average of people in the country, not only in terms of morality but also in terms of intelligence. An intelligent people always seems to demean itself in its choice of representatives, and betrays itself by choosing nobody better than the boobies who are supposed to act on its behalf. As for the honesty of the representatives, we know what that is worth. Merely read what is said about them by the ex-ministers who have known and understood them.

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What a shame it is that there are no special trains to allow the electors to see their “Chamber” at work! They would soon be disgusted. The ancients used to make their slaves drunk to teach their children the evils of intoxication. Parisians, go to the Chamber and see your representatives at work so that you will become disgusted with representative government!

To this rabble of nonentities the people abandons all its rights, except that of dismissing them from time to time and naming others in their places. But since the new assembly, chosen by the same system and charged with the same mission, will be just as bad as the last, the great mass of the people end up losing interest in the comedy and restricting themselves to a bit of patching up here and there by accepting a few of the new candidates who thrust themselves forward.

But if the process of election is already marked with such constitutional and irredeemable faults, what is there to be said of the way parliament fulfils its mandate? Think for a moment, and you will see at once the insanity of the task you have imposed on it.

Your representative is expected to express an opinion, give a vote, on the whole infinitely various series of questions that surge up in that formidable machine — the centralized State.

He must vote the dog tax and the reform of university instruction, without ever having set foot in a university or having known a country dog. He must pronounce on the advantages of the Gras rifle and on the site to be chosen for the State stud farm. He will vote on phylloxera, on tobacco, on guano, on elementary education and on the sanitation of the cities; on Cochinchina and Guyana, on chimney pots and on the Paris Conservatory. Having never seen soldiers on parade, he will rearrange the army corps, and having never seen an Arab, he will make and remake the Muslim landholding laws in Algeria. He will protect sugar and sacrifice wheat. He will kill the vine, imagining he is protecting it; he will vote for reforestation against pasture, and protect the pastures against the forests. He will know all about railways. He will kill off a canal in favour of a railway without knowing in what part of France either of them may be. He will add new items to the Penal Code without ever having consulted it.

An omniscient and omnipotent Proteus, today soldier, tomorrow pig breeder, in turn banker, academician, sewer-cleaner, doctor, astronomer, drug manufacturer, currier and merchant, according to the Chamber’s orders of the day, he will never hesitate. Accustomed in his function of lawyer, journalist, or public orator to talking of things he knows nothing about, he will vote on all these questions, with the sole difference that in his newspaper he amused housemaids with his nonsense, and at the assizes he kept the sleepy judges and jurors awake with his voice, while in the Chamber his opinion becomes law for thirty or forty million people.

And since it is materially impossible to have his views on the thousand subjects on which his vote will make law, he will gossip with his seat mates, spend time in the bar, write letters to warm up the enthusiasm of his “dear voters,” while a minister reads a report crammed with figures put together for the occasion by his administrative assistant; and at the moment of voting he will declare himself for or against the report according to the nod of his party leader.

Thus a question of pigfood or soldier’s equipment will be merely a matter of parliamentary bickering between the two parties of the ministry and the opposition. They will not ask themselves whether the pigs really need more food or whether soldiers are already as overloaded as desert camels; the only question that interests them is whether an affirmative vote will profit their party. The parliamentary battle is carried out on the backs of the soldiers, the farmers, the industrial workers, in the interests of the ministry and the opposition.Proudhon in 1848

Proudhon in 1848

Poor Proudhon, one can imagine his disappointment when he had the childlike naiveté, on entering the Assembly, to study profoundly each of the questions on the order of the day. He offered figures and ideas, but nobody listened to him. Parliamentary questions are all resolved well before the bills are presented by that very simple consideration: is it useful or harmful to our party? The scrutiny of votes is made; those submitted are registered and the abstentions are carefully noted. Speeches are made principally for the sake of effect; they are heard only if they have some artistic value or lead to scandal. Simple people imagine that Roumestand has aroused the Chamber by his eloquence, while Roumestand, after the sitting, works out with his friends how he can keep the promises he made to capture the vote. His eloquence was no more than a cantata for the occasion, composed and sung to amuse the gallery, and to maintain his own popularity by sonorous phrases.

“Capture the vote!” but who in fact are those whose votes are captured, so that the totals cause the parliamentary balance to lean one way or another? Who are those who overthrow and remake ministries and give the country a policy of reaction or of external adventurism, who decide between the ministry and the opposition?

They are those who have so justly been called “the toads in the marsh”! Those who have no opinion, those who sit always between two stools, who float between the two principal parties in the Chamber. It is precisely this group — fifty or so nonentities, people without convictions of any kind, who sway like a weather vane between the liberals and the conservatives, who allow themselves to be influenced by promises, places, flattery or panic; it is this little group of nobodies who, by giving or refusing their vote, decide all the business of the country. It is they who pass the laws or pigeonhole them. It is they who support or overthrow ministries and change the direction of policy. Fifty or so nonentities making the law of the country, that is what, in the last resort, the parliamentary regime has been reduced to.

It is inevitable that whatever may be the composition of a parliament, even if it is stuffed with stars of the first magnitude and men of integrity— the decision will belong to the toads in the marsh! Nothing in that can be changed so long as the majority makes the law.

After having briefly indicated the constitutional faults of representative assemblies, we should now show these assemblies at work. We should show that all of them, from the Convention to the Council of the Commune in 1871, from the English parliament to the Serbian Skoupchtchina, are plagued with incapacity; how their best laws — according to Buckle’s expression — have been no more than the repeals of preceding laws; how these laws had to be torn from their hands by the pikes of the people, by insurrectional means. That would be a tale to tell, but it would go beyond the limits of our review.

Besides, anyone who knows how to reason without being misled by the prejudices of our vicious educational system will find for himself enough examples in the history of representative government in our age. And he will understand that, whatever the representative body may be, whether it is composed of workers or the middle class — and even if it is wide open to social revolutionaries — it will retain all the faults of representative assemblies. These do not depend on individuals; they are inherent in the institution.

To dream of a workers’ State, governed by an elected assembly, is the most unhealthy of all the dreams that our authoritarian education inspires.

Just as one cannot have a good king, whether it is Rienzi or Alexander III, so one cannot have such a thing as a good parliament. The socialist future lies in a quite different direction; it will open to humanity new directions within the political order, in the same way as in the economic order.

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