Kropotkin: Merry Effing Xmas!

Peter Kropotkin’s birthday on the modern calendar falls on the Winter Solstice, December 21, 1842 (Wikipedia, as with many things, does not acknowledge that December 9th is Kropotkin’s birthday on the old Russian calendar). Every year around this time I like to post something by Kropotkin, sometimes with a Christmas theme. So this year I am presenting two excerpts. The first is from Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, where he describes reading Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories while imprisoned in Russia in 1874. The second is from his Conquest of Bread, where Kropotkin argues for anarchist communism, in what Christian anarchists might describe as the true spirit of Christmas. I included several excerpts from Kropotkin’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Christmas in Prison

When he learned about my arrest, [my brother] Alexander immediately left everything, — the work of his life, the life itself of freedom which was as necessary for him as free air is necessary for a bird, — and returned to St. Petersburg, which he disliked, only to help me through my imprisonment.

We were both very much affected at this interview. My brother was extremely excited. He hated the very sight of the blue uniforms of the gendarmes, those executioners of all independent thought in Russia, and expressed his feeling frankly in their presence. As for me, the sight of him at St. Petersburg filled me with the most dismal apprehensions. I was happy to see his honest face, his eyes full of love, and to hear that I should see them once a month; and yet I wished him hundreds of miles away from that place to which be came free that day, but to which he would inevitably be brought some night under an escort of gendarmes. “Why did you come into the lion’s den? Go back at once!” my whole inner self cried; and yet I knew that he would remain as long as I was in prison.

He understood better than any one else that inactivity would kill me, and had already made application to obtain for me permission to resume work. The Geographical Society wanted me to finish my book on the glacial period, and my brother turned the whole scientific world in St. Petersburg upside down to move it to support his application. The Academy of Sciences was interested in the matter; and finally, two or three months after my imprisonment, the governor entered my cell and announced to me that I was permitted by the Emperor to complete my report to the Geographical Society, and that I should be allowed pen and ink for that purpose. “Till sunset only,” he added. Sunset, at St. Petersburg, is at three in the afternoon, in winter time; but that could not be helped. “Till sunset” were the words used by Alexander II when he granted the permission.

So I could work!

I could hardly express now the immensity of relief I then felt at being enabled to resume writing. I would have consented to live on nothing but bread and water, in the dampest of cellars, if only permitted to work.

I was, however, the only prisoner to whom writing materials were allowed. Several of my comrades spent three years and more in confinement before the famous trial of “the hundred and ninety-three” took place, and all they had was a slate. Of course, even the slate was welcome in that dreary loneliness, and they used it to write exercises in the languages they were learning, or to work out mathematical problems; but what was jotted down on the slate could last only a few hours.

My prison life now took on a more regular character. There was something immediate to live for. At nine in the morning I had already made the first three hundred pacings across my cell, and was waiting for my pencils and pens to be delivered to me. The work which I had prepared for the Geographical Society contained, beside a report of my explorations in Finland, a discussion of the bases upon which the glacial hypothesis ought to rest. Now, knowing that I had plenty of time before me, I decided to rewrite and enlarge that part of my work. The Academy of Sciences put its admirable library at my service, and a corner of my cell soon filled up with books and maps, including the whole of the Swedish Geological Survey publications, a nearly complete collection of reports of all arctic travels, and whole sets of the Quarterly Journal of the London Geological Society. My book grew in the fortress to the size of two large volumes. The first of them was printed by my brother and Polakóff (in the Geographical Society’s Memoirs); while the second, not quite finished, remained in the hands of the Third Section when I ran away. The manuscript was found only in 1895, and given to the Russian Geographical Society, by whom it was forwarded to me in London.

At five in the afternoon, — at three in the winter, — as soon as the tiny lamp was brought in, my pencils and pens were taken away, and I had to stop work. Then I used to read, mostly books of history. Quite a library had been formed in the fortress by the generations of political prisoners who had been confined there. I was allowed to add to the library a number of staple works on Russian history, and with the books which were brought to me by my relatives I was enabled to read almost every work and collection of acts and documents bearing on the Moscow period of the history of Russia. I relished, in reading, not only the Russian annals, especially the admirable annals of the democratic mediæval republic of Pskov, — the best, perhaps, in Europe for the history of that type of mediæval cities, — but all sorts of dry documents, and even the Lives of the Saints, which occasionally contain facts of the real life of the masses which cannot be found elsewhere. I also read during this time a great number of novels, and even arranged for myself a treat on Christmas Eve. My relatives managed to send me then the Christmas stories of Dickens, and I spent the festival laughing and crying over those beautiful creations of the great novelist.

The Conquest of Bread – Ways and Means

If a society, a city, or a territory, were to guarantee the necessaries of life to its inhabitants (and we shall see how the conception of the necessaries of life can be so extended as to include luxuries), it would be compelled to take possession of what is absolutely needed for production; that is to say — land, machinery, factories, means of transport, etc. Capital in the hands of private owners would be expropriated and returned to the community.

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

Moreover, it is impossible to carry on mercantile production in everybody’s interest. To wish it would be to expect the capitalist to go beyond his province and to fulfill duties that he cannot fulfill without ceasing to be what he is — a private manufacturer seeking his own enrichment. Capitalist organization, based on the personal interest of each individual trader, has given all that could be expected of it to society — it has increased the productive force of work. The capitalist, profiting by the revolution effected in industry by steam, by the sudden development of chemistry and machinery, and by other inventions of our century, has endeavoured in his own interest to increase the yield of work, and in a great measure he has succeeded. But to attribute other duties to him would be unreasonable. For example, to expect that he should use this superior yield of work in the interest of society as a whole, would be to ask philanthropy and charity of him, and a capitalist enterprise cannot be based on charity.

It now remains for society to extend this greater productivity, which is limited to certain industries, and to apply it to the general good. But it is evident that to guarantee well-being to all, society must take back possession of all means of production.

Economists, as is their wont, will not fail to remind us of the comparative well-being of a certain category of young robust workmen, skilled in certain special branches of industry. It is always this minority that is pointed out to us with pride. But is this well-being, which is the exclusive right of a few, secure? Tomorrow, maybe, negligence, improvidence, or the greed of their employers, will deprive these privileged men of their work, and they will pay for the period of comfort they have enjoyed with months and years of poverty or destitution. How many important industries — woven goods, iron, sugar, etc. — without mentioning short-lived trades, have we not seen decline or come to a standstill alternately on account of speculations, or in consequence of natural displacement of work, and lastly from the effects of competition due to capitalists themselves! If the chief weaving and mechanical industries had to pass through such a crisis as they have passed through in 1886, we hardly need mention the small trades, all of which come periodically to a standstill.

What, too, shall we say to the price which is paid for the relative well-being of certain categories of workmen? Unfortunately, it is paid for by the ruin of agriculture, the shameless exploitation of the peasants, the misery of the masses. In comparison with the feeble minority of workers who enjoy a certain comfort, how many millions of human beings live from hand to mouth, without a secure wage, ready to go wherever they are wanted; how many peasants work fourteen hours a day for a poor pittance! Capital depopulates the country, exploits the colonies and the countries where industries are but little developed, dooms the immense majority of workmen to remain without technical education, to remain mediocre even in their own trade.

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

The evil of the present system is therefore not that the “surplus-value” of production goes to the capitalist, as Rodbertus and Marx said, thus narrowing the Socialist conception and the general view of the capitalist system; the surplus-value itself is but a consequence of deeper causes. The evil lies in the possibility of a surplus-value existing, instead of a simple surplus not consumed by each generation; for, that a surplus-value should exist, means that men, women, and children are compelled by hunger to sell their labour for a small part of what this labour produces, and, above all, of what their labour is capable of producing. But this evil will last as long as the instruments of production belong to a few. As long as men are compelled to pay tribute to property holders for the right of cultivating land or putting machinery into action, and the property holder is free to produce what bids fair to bring him in the greatest profits, rather than the greatest amount of useful commodities — well-being can only be temporarily guaranteed to a very few, and is only to be bought by the poverty of a section of society. It is not sufficient to distribute the profits realized by a trade in equal parts, if at the same time thousands of other workers are exploited. It is a case of PRODUCING THE GREATEST AMOUNT OF GOODS NECESSARY TO THE WELL-BEING OF ALL, WITH THE LEAST POSSIBLE WASTE OF HUMAN ENERGY.

This cannot be the aim of a private owner; and this is why society as a whole, taking this view of production as its ideal, will be compelled to expropriate all that enhances well-being while producing wealth. It will have to take possession of land, factories, mines, means of communication, etc., and besides, it will have to study what products will promote general well-being, as well as the ways and means of production.

Peter Kropotkin

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] And just to get you in the mood for the season, another blogger I follow, Robert Graham’s Anarchism Weblog has Kropotkin: Merry Effing Xmas. […]

  2. Reblogged this on Anarchy by the Sea!.

  3. Are you of this new work by Sho Konishi?

    “Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan”:

    https://libcom.org/library/anarchist-modernity-cooperatism-japanese-russian-intellectual-relations-modern-japan

    It shows various ignored/forgotten histories, one being the influence of Kropotkin’s friend, the anarchist geographer Lev Mechnikov (brother the Nobel prize winner Elie Mechnikov) and his work in Japan on Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid.

    • Thanks for the reference!


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