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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The Chicago Anarchists: Samuel Fielden

Samuel Fielden (1847-1922) was one of the few Haymarket defendants whose life was spared after pleading for clemency. Fielden joined the International Working People’s Association in 1884 (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 55) and became a popular and effective speaker among the Chicago workers. He was speaking at the Haymarket protest meeting when the police arrived, right before the bomb was thrown. As he points out in his trial speech, he successfully defended himself against the charge of murder, only to find out after he had called the evidence in his defence that what he and the other defendants were really on trial for was preaching “anarchy.”

Samuel Fielden

Your Honor, I was brought into this court by the police officers and the civil authorities of the city of Chicago to answer to the charge of murder… I answered that charge in this court. My attorneys on my behalf met that charge; we brought evidence which we thought was competent to rebut and meet the charge of murder. After all our evidence was put in, after all the speeches had been made on both sides, with the exception of one, we were suddenly confronted with the fact—and there is in that statement of the State’s Attorney, in his closing argument, an acknowledgment that the charge of murder had not been proven—when all the witnesses had been heard, I am suddenly told that I am being tried for ‘Anarchy.’

If I had known that I was being tried for Anarchy I could have answered that charge. I could have justified it under the constitutional right of every citizen of this country, and more than the right which any constitution can give, the natural right of the human mind to draw its conclusion from whatever information it can gain, but I had no opportunity to show why I was an Anarchist. I was told that I was to be hung for being an Anarchist, after I got through defending myself on the charge of murder. Now, your honor, my reputation, my associations, my history, as far as the lynx-eyed detectives of Chicago could get it, has been raked up, as Mr. Foster has said, from the cradle to the grave. I have been charged here with being a disturber of the peace, an enemy of public order, and generally a dangerous man…

Being of an inquiring disposition or turn of mind, and having observed that there was something wrong in our social system, I attended some meetings of workingmen and compared what they said with my own observation. I knew there was something wrong. My ideas did not become settled as to what was the remedy, but when they did I carried the same energy and the same determination to bring about that remedy that I had applied to ideas which I had possessed years before.

There is always a period in every individual’s life when some sympathetic chord is touched by some other person. That is the open sesame that carries conviction. The ground may have all been prepared. The evidence may all have been accumulated, but it has not formed any shape. In fact, the child has not been born. The new idea has not impressed itself thoroughly when that sympathetic chord is touched, and the person is thoroughly convinced of the truth of the idea. It was so in my investigation of political economy. I knew there was something wrong, but I did not know what the remedy was; but discussing the condition of things and the different remedies one day, a person said to me that socialism meant equal opportunities—and that was the touch. From that time I became a socialist; I learned more and more what it was. I knew that I had found the right thing; that I had found the medicine that was calculated to cure the ills of society. Having found it I had a right to advocate it, and I did. The constitution of the United States, when it says: ‘The right of free speech shall not be abridged,’ gives every man the right to speak his thoughts. I have advocated the principles of socialism and social economy, and for that and no other reason am I here, and is sentence of death to be pronounced upon me?

What is socialism? Taking somebody else’s property? That is what socialism is in the common acceptation of the term. No. But if I were to answer it as shortly and as curtly as it is answered by its enemies, I would say it is preventing somebody else from taking your property. But socialism is equality. Socialism recognizes the fact that no man in society is responsible for what he is; that all the ills that are in society are the production of poverty; and scientific socialism says you must go to the root of the evil.

There is no criminal statistician in the world but will acknowledge that all crime, when traced to its origin, is the product of poverty. It has been said that it was inflammatory for me to say that the present social system degraded men until they became mere animals. Go through this city into the low lodging houses where men are huddled together into the smallest possible space, living in an infernal atmosphere of death and disease, and I will ask you to draw your silks and your broadcloths close to you when these men pass you. Do you think that these men deliberately, with a full knowledge of what they are doing, choose to become that class of animals? Not one of them. They are the products of conditions, of certain environments in which they were born, and which have impelled them resistlessly into what they are. And we have this loadstone. You who wish it could be taken from the shoulders of society. What is it? When those men were children, put them into an environment where they have the best results of civilization around them, and they will never willfully choose a condition like that. Some cynic might say that this would be a very nice thing for these men. Society, with its rapidity of production of the means of existence, is capable of doing that without doing injury to a single individual; and the great masses of wealth owned by individuals in this and the old world have been produced in exactly the same proportion as these men have been degraded—and they never could have been accumulated in any other way.

I do not charge that every capitalist willfully and maliciously conspires to bring about these results; but I do charge that it has been done, and I do charge that it is a very undesirable condition of things, and I claim that socialism would cure the world of that ulcer. These are my ideas in short, on socialism. The ultra patriotic sentiment of the American people—and I suppose the same comparative sentiment is felt in England and France and Germany—is that no man in this country need be poor. The class who are not poor think so. The class who are poor are beginning to think differently; that under existing conditions it is impossible that some people should not be poor.

Why is it that we have ‘over-production?’ And why is it that our warehouses are full of goods, and our workshops have to shut up, and our workmen are turned out on the highway because there is nothing to do? What is this tending to? Let me show the change of conditions as shown in Boston in forty years. Charles Dickens, a man of acute perceptions, visited this country forty years ago, and be said that the sight of a beggar in the streets of Boston at that time would have created as much consternation as the sight of an angel with a drawn sword.

A Boston paper in the winter of 1884-5 stated that there were some quarters in Boston where to own a stove was to be a comparative aristocrat. The poor people who lived in the neighbourhood paid a certain sum of money to rent the holes on the top of the stove that belonged to the aristocrats. You see the change, and there is this comparative change in the working classes of that city, and in every large city in the Union. It is a noted fact that within the last twenty or thirty years the farms of this country have been gradually going out of the possession of the actual cultivators until today there is a little more than a quarter of the actual cultivators of farms in this country who are renters; and within twenty years in the states of Iowa and Illinois the mortgages on farms have increased thirty-three per cent of the actual value of the farms. Is it not enough to make any thinking man ask if there is not something wrong somewhere? Possibly it would be answered ‘yes, a man has a right to inquire whether there is something wrong or not, but for God’s sake, don’t think that socialism will do it any good, or if you do we will hang you! It is all right to think, but we will punish you for your conclusions.’