In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, subtitled From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), I included excerpts from Peter Kropotkin‘s article on expropriation (Selection 45) which forms the final chapter of his first collection of anarchist writings, Words of a Rebel (originally published in 1885). In the following postscript to Words of a Rebel, written by Kropotkin in 1919 after his return to Russia, during the civil war which racked Russia following the 1917 Revolution, Kropotkin expands on some of the ideas touched upon in that book, focusing on the need for social reconstruction by the people themselves, through their own popular organs of self-management, in order to ensure the success of the social revolution. The translation is by Nicolas Walter, and originally appeared in Freedom, the anarchist paper that Kropotkin helped found in 1886, as Anarchist Pamphlet No. 5 (no date).
Postscript to the 1921 Russian Edition of Words of a Rebel
Revolution was only lightly touched on in general terms in the last chapter of this book. This chapter must serve, so to speak, as an introduction to the second part of the work in hand—the constructive part—which I was only able to occupy myself with three years later, when I came out of prison. But since this chapter contains within itself traces of a long discussion on the question of the extent of expropriation which had taken place within the Jurassian, Italian, and Spanish federations of the International, it is worth saying a little about it here.
We were in complete agreement that private ownership of land was finished and that the future belonged to communist possession of land. But we considered it unjust and unprofitable to drive from their plots the peasants who worked their land themselves without the help of hired workers, to demolish their houses and their fences, to cut down their gardens, and to rework their land with a steam-plough, as the centralist and statist revolutionaries imagined.
Such an idea was preached in France, after the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins, by the communist Babeuf, who made it the basis of his Conspiracy of Equals, and this same idea was also developed later by Cabet in his Voyage to Icarus, and among his followers it is necessary to note during the period from 1830 to 1840 the members of the French secret societies founded by Barbes and Blanqui, as well as the League of the Just, a German society founded by Weitling, from which it passed into the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels.
In this manifesto, the end of social revolution was, as in the previous programmes of the Blanquists and Babeuf, the total abolition of private property and its transfer into the hands of the state. As for production, it would be necessary to introduce, as in Babeuf, labour which was obligatory, universal and equal for all and, to this end, ‘the organisation of industrial armies, especially as regards agriculture’. The state socialists of France preached in favour of these same industrial armies in the 1880s (1).
We naturally could not accept such a programme of expropriation. Knowing the various forms of agriculture, on both large and small scales, forms which it necessarily takes in places of varying kinds (this is marked above all in France), we could not consider the destruction of small agricultural economies as progress. The formula of Babeuf is not only unjust with regard to small rural economies, but it would lead inevitably to the revolt of the villages against the towns, and would reduce the whole country to famine. For the rest, to destroy private initiative in agriculture now would be senseless, if only because it is precisely to private initiative and individual attachment to the land that we owe the successes in agriculture so far and the development of the intensive cultivation of the land in certain parts of Europe and America.
It is, for this reason that, without wishing to prejudge the forms which agriculture would take in the future, we decided that at that moment the efforts of the revolution should be directed not towards the abolition of the small rural economy but towards the union of the small economies in everything which requires the union of their efforts.
Such an attitude with regard to the small rural economy brought us attacks from the state socialists. But they themselves, as they made contact with the real life of the countryside, soon saw—in France above all—that it was precisely this small rural economy and this possession of the land in plots which gave France its relative prosperity—without having to plunder its neighbours; the German socialists came to the same conclusion when they saw what the small rural economy yielded in Alsace and in various parts of West Germany.
After I came out of prison, at the beginning of 1886, I began in our paper a more detailed development of the question of the reconstruction of life by the social revolution. Knowing, moreover, how powerful the aspiration towards the establishment of independent communes was in the Latin countries, I had in view above all a large urban commune getting rid of the capitalist yoke, especially Paris, with its working population full of intelligence and independence and possessing, thanks to the lessons of the past, great organising capability.
These articles appeared later (in 1892) in a volume for which Elisée Reclus suggested the title, The Conquest of Bread: this name was well chosen, for it expressed the basic idea of the whole work, notably that the principal object in a period of social revolution would be not the political organisation of the social order but the question of bread for all; the question of satisfying the most urgent needs of the population—feeding, housing, clothing, etc. I tried at the same time to prove that the workers of a large town would be able to organise themselves for a free life within the free commune, without waiting for this life to be organised for them by officials, however well endowed with all virtues.
Unfortunately it is necessary to say that socialists and workers in general, having lost hope in the imminent possibility of revolution, were no longer interested in the question: what character would it be desirable to give the revolution? It was only many years later, when the syndicalist movement began to take root in France, that another work appeared on the same subject. Our comrade Pouget described in his book, How We Shall Bring About the Revolution, how a revolution could be carried out in France under the control of the workers’ unions; how, not waiting at all for those who would not hesitate to take power, the workers unions and congresses would be able to expropriate the capitalists and to organise production on a new basis without allowing the least interruption in production. It is clear that only the workers, through their organisations, will ever be able to reach this goal; and though I differ with Pouget over certain details, I recommend this book with confidence to all those who understand the inevitability and imminence of the social reconstruction which humanity will have to envisage.
A short time after I came out of prison, I was obliged to leave France. I settled in England, where I had the opportunity of studying the economic life of a great industrial country in practice, and not only from the books in which economists have repeated the same errors as their predecessors for more than a hundred years. Each time that I gave speeches in the various towns of England and Scotland, I took the opportunity to talk for a long time with the workers and to visit all kinds of factories and mills—large and small—of coal-mines and big naval docks, without overlooking the small workshops as well in important centres of small-scale production, such as Sheffield and Birmingham. I also visited the great co-operative distribution centres, such as the Wholesale Co-operative Society in Manchester, as well as the attempts at co-operative production which were already beginning to spread everywhere. Getting information in this way about what real life was like, I always kept in mind the following question: what form could a social revolution take so that one could pass without too many shocks from production by individuals or by limited companies with the goal of profit to production and exchange of goods organised by the producers and consumers themselves in such a manner as to satisfy all the needs of production in the best way?
The examination of these questions led to two conclusions.
The first of these was that the production of foodstuffs and of all goods, and then the exchange of these goods, represents such a complicated undertaking that the plans of the state socialists, which lead inevitably to the dictatorship of a party, will prove to be completely defective as soon as they begin to apply them to life.
No government, we assert, can be in a position to organise production if the workers themselves are not associated with it through the mediation of their unions, in every branch of industry, in every trade; for throughout production there arise and will arise every day thousands of problems which no government can resolve or foresee.
It is of course impossible to foresee everything; it is necessary that life itself, and the efforts of thousands of minds on the spot, should be able to co-operate in the development of the new social system and to find the best conditions capable of satisfying the thousand manifestations of local needs.
Theoretical plans for construction are not of course useless in the preparatory period. They keep thinking on the alert and force serious reflection on the complex organisations represented by civilised societies. But, on the other hand, these plans simplify rather too much the problems which mankind is called to resolve; and if it is thought necessary to begin by putting these programmes into practice, one will never get round to planning life. Such a collapse would follow that it could lead to the most ferocious reaction.
Many English workers—perhaps because they have been occupied for such a long time (that is to say, since the period of the Chartist Movement of 1836-1848) with social reorganisation—considered the problem in this way: first of all, they said, it is necessary to organise strong and powerful trade unions in all branches of work, including the unskilled labour in the docks and the peasants (2). Afterwards, it is necessary to form links between them through national and international unions; and then, when they have become an effective force, to take all production under their complete control, to get rid of the domination of the capitalists, and to maintain order throughout production and consumption in the interests of the whole population of the country.
In other words, the English workers made their own the ideas which had already emerged in 1830 in Robert Owen when he tried to form the Labourers’ Union; afterwards, the English trade unions together with the representatives of the French workers tried to put these ideas into practice when, after meeting in London in 1862, they formed the First International.
This organisation represented, as is known, an International Association of Workers’ Unions which was entirely non-political and which pursued a double end: a daily struggle against capital, and the elaboration of the basis of a new socialist system. But, since ‘mixed sections’ were also admitted, it followed that some people joined who belonged to no trade unions but who simply aspired for the emancipation of labour from the yoke of capital. This International existed until the end of the 1870s, when it was destroyed by incessant government persecution and by the intrigues of the political parties. The Second International was no longer an association of workers’ unions; it became an association of the social-democratic political parties of the various countries.
With the disappearance of the First International, there disappeared in England the force which in the thought of its founders would have maintained among the trade unions the idea of the imminence of the social revolution and the necessity of its preparation among the workers themselves. The daily struggle of the local unions against the exploiters took the place of more distant ends; it is necessary to say that the majority of the active members of the workers’ unions, occupied day after day with the organisation of these unions and their strikes, lost sight of the final end of the workers’ organisation—social revolution. It is only during the last five or six years before the [First World] War that one felt again a renewal of interest in favour of this basic problem—under the influence of a similar reawakening throughout the whole world.
Those influenced in this way were above all the syndicalist movement in France and Italy, and the awakening observed in the United States where, under the name of the Industrial Workers of the World, a movement developed which devotes itself directly to the end of the struggle against capital with a view to the transfer of all industry from the hands of the capitalists into the hands of the producers, organised in strong unions. Also influenced in this way were the first revolution in Russia, in 1905, and the general situation and upheaval of social life in Europe during the last years before the war. The horrors which the war has just made us pass through, and its consequences of poverty for the whole world, as well as the Russian revolution, will place without any doubt and in the forefront before the whole world the question of the necessity of a social revolution.
The second conclusion I came to is the following: present economic life in the civilised countries is constructed on a false basis. The theory which economic scholars put forward depends on the assumption that the peoples of the earth are divided into two categories. Some, thanks to their superior education, are called to occupy themselves above all with the production of all kinds of goods (textiles, machines of every type, motors, etc.). The others, because of their limited ability, are condemned to produce the food for the peoples of the first category and the raw materials for their factories. Every course of political economy states this theory; it is in this way that the English bourgeoisie enriches itself; it is in this way that other countries will enrich themselves by developing their industry at the expense of backward peoples.
But a more thorough study of the economic life and of the industrial crises of England and the other countries of Europe leads to a different conclusion. It is no longer possible to enrich oneself as England has done until now; no civilised country wants to remain or will remain in the position of the provider of raw materials. All the other countries aspire to develop their own manufacturing industry, and all are gradually reaching this goal. Technical education can never become the privilege of a single country, except by the armed subjugation of the neighbouring countries which aspire to develop their own education and industry. As for the tendency towards’ subjugation with this end, a tendency which has emerged during the last forty years, especially in Germany, it has led the whole world into a terrible war which has cost Europe and the United States more than six million dead and more than ten million dead, injured and mutilated, without mentioning the ravaging of Belgium and Northern France, or the unbelievable destruction of provisions, coal and metal which are lacked by all the peoples of the civilised world today.
In the meantime, a people has risen during the last fifty years, and has taken its place in the family of civilised peoples: the United States of North America. This people has shown that eighty million inhabitants can reach a state of enormous wealth and power without exploiting other peoples, but solely by developing industry and agriculture at home on parallel lines, with the help of machines, railways, free unions, and the spread of education.
France has also developed to some extent in the same direction, and this striking lesson given to the world has transformed current theories of political economy from top to bottom. The way towards the development of the prosperity of the peoples is to be found in the union of agriculture and industry and not in the subdivision of peoples into industrial and agricultural categories. Such a division would inevitably lead mankind into incessant wars for the seizure of markets and slaves for industry.
I had studied this vital and enormous question in a series of articles published between 1890 and 1893 and later in a book, Fields, Factories and Workshops. It was necessary to study many connected questions to do this work, and to learn many things. But the most important conclusion was this: we are very far from being as rich as we used to think, when, passing through the streets of our large towns, we saw the luxurious houses of the rich and their gleaming carriages, the crazy luxury of the big shop windows, and the expensively dressed crowds of passersby. England is the richest country in the world. But if one added up all that it gets from its fields, its coal-mines, and its numerous factories and mills, and if one divided this total among all the inhabitants in equal shares, one would get only three shillings a head a day, and in no circumstances more than four shillings. As for Russia, one would scarcely reach fifty kopeks (one shilling) a head a day.
It therefore follows that the social revolution, wherever it breaks out, will have to consider as its first priority and from the earliest days a considerable increase in production. The first months of emancipation will inevitably increase the consumption of provisions and of all goods and, at the same time, production will decrease; on the other hand, every country in social revolution will be surrounded by a circle of unfriendly or even hostile neighbours. ‘How shall we be able to live then, if two-thirds of the bread England needs is imported from abroad?’ English comrades asked me more than once. ‘How will our factories be able to work to buy bread, when we do not have our own raw materials?’ And they were right. When I drew up an account of the reserves which existed in England—of what could be called the reserve capital of a country in case of revolution—the conclusion I came to was rather disconcerting. Immediately after the harvest, there was a reserve of grain sufficient for three months; but from January, this reserve fell to six weeks. Of cotton there was never enough for more than three months, often enough for only six weeks, This was even more the case with all secondary products (like, for example, manganese for steel). In a word, industrial England, with its insignificant reserves, lived almost from day to day.
But England is not the only country to live like this; all peoples, in the present conditions of the capitalist economy, live in the same way. Not long ago Russia suffered a series of cruel famines during which tens of millions of the inhabitants were hit. And now still more than one-third of the population of Russia and Siberia is always in poverty and even lacks bread for three or four months a year—without mentioning the insufficiency of all other goods, the primitive rustic equipment, the half-starved livestock, the absence of fertiliser, and the lack of knowledge.
In a word, given that until now a good third of the population of all the countries of Europe has lived in poverty and has suffered from the lack of clothing and so on, revolution will lead inevitably to increased consumption. The demand for all goods will rise while production will fall, and in the end there will be famine—famine in everything, as is the case today  in Russia. There is only one way of avoiding such a famine. We must all understand that as soon as a revolutionary movement begins in a country, the outcome will be successful only if the workers in the factories and mills, the peasants, and all the citizens themselves at the start of the movement, take the whole economy of the nation into their own hands, if they organise themselves and direct their efforts towards a rapid increase in all production. But they will not be convinced of this necessity unless all general problems concerning the national economy, today reserved by long tradition to a whole multitude of ministries and committees, are put in a simple form before each village and each town, before each factory and mill, as being its own business when they are at last allowed to manage themselves.
It is in this way that the study of the real life of the peoples leads inevitably to the conclusion that all the peoples must endeavour in their own countries to produce a powerful expansion, to bring about an improvement in agriculture—by means of the intensified cultivation of the soil—and at the same time in manufacturing industry. It is in this way that a guarantee of progress and of success in the emancipation of labour from the yoke of capital will be found. There is no place for some peoples destined to serve others. It is in this, and also in the understanding of the fact that it is impossible to bring about a social revolution by dictatorship, that we may find the cornerstone of the whole structure. To build without it is to build on sand.
The reformers gave too little attention to this side of life thirty or forty years ago. Today, however, after the cruel lesson of the last war, it should be clear to every serious person and above all to every worker that such wars, and even crueller ones still, are inevitable so long as certain countries consider themselves destined to enrich themselves by the production of finished goods and divide the backward countries up among themselves, so that these countries provide the raw materials while they accumulate wealth themselves on the basis of the labour of others.
More than that. We have the right to assert that the reconstruction of society on a socialist basis will be impossible so long as manufacturing industry and, in consequence, the prosperity of the workers in the factories, depend as they do today on the exploitation of the peasants of their own or of other countries.
We should not forget that at the moment it is not only the capitalists who exploit the labour of others and who are ‘imperialists’. They are not the only ones who aspire to conquer cheap manpower to obtain raw materials in Europe, Asia, Africa and elsewhere. As the workers are beginning to take part in political power, the contagion of colonial imperialism is infecting them too. In the last war the German workers, as much as their masters, aspired to conquer cheaper man-power for themselves—even in Europe, that is in Russia and in the Balkan peninsula, as well as in Asia Minor and Egypt; and they too considered it necessary to crush England and France which prevented them from making these conquests; and on their side the French and English workers showed themselves to be full of indulgence for similar conquests on the part of their governments in Africa and Asia.
It is clear that in these conditions one may still predict a series of wars for the civilised countries—wars even more bloody and even more savage—if these countries do not bring about among themselves a social revolution, and do not reconstruct their lives on a new and more social basis. All Europe and the United States, with the exception of the exploiting minority, feels this necessity.
But it is impossible to achieve such a revolution by means of dictatorship and state power. Without a widespread reconstruction coming from below—put into practice by the workers and peasants themselves—the social revolution is condemned to bankruptcy. The Russian revolution has confirmed this again, and we must hope that this lesson will be understood: that everywhere in Europe and America serious efforts will be made to create within the working class—peasants, workers and intellectuals—the personnel of a future revolution which will not obey orders from above but will be capable of elaborating for itself the free forms of the whole new economic life.
Peter Kropotkin, December 5, 1919
(1) The success of the huge ‘giant’ farms in the prairies of Canada and the United States drew the admiration of partisans of state socialism; precisely at that period, a disastrous economy formed with exactly the help of such industrial armies recruited twice a year—for the ploughing and sowing of the wheat, and for the reaping. But it was of short duration. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when I crossed the Canadian province of Manitoba, no trace of these farms was visible; as for the prairies of Ohio, I saw them in 1901 covered with little farms, and one saw in the fields a whole forest of windmills which drew the water for the market-gardeners. After two or three bad crops of wheat, the large farms were abandoned and the land was sold to small farmers who now raise on their little farms considerably more foodstuffs of all kinds than the ‘giant’ farms could do.
(2) Before and up to the early 1880s, the trade unions existed only in a few branches; women, for example, had no union, though there were more than 700,000 of them in the textile industry alone; the woodworkers only admitted into their unions those who earned at least tenpence an hour; and so on.