The Conquest of Bread

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    Peter Kropotkin

    Publisher: AK Press

    Year: 2006

    Format: Paperback

    Size: 224 pages

    ISBN: 9781904859109

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The fourth in AK Press' Working Classics series, The Conquest of Bread is Peter Kropotkin's most extensive study of human needs and his outline of the most rational and equitable means of satisfying them. The most important and widely read exposition of anarchist economic theory, its combination of detailed historical analysis and far-reaching utopian vision is a step-by-step guide to social revolution: the concrete means of achieving it, and the new world that humanity is capable of creating. Writing in a style that he describes as "moderate in tone, but revolutionary in substance," Kropotkin adeptly translates complex ideas into common language, while rendering the often amorphous aspirations of social movements into coherent form.

As insightful as when it was first published over a century ago, The Conquest of Bread is essential reading for anyone interested in a pragmatic, yet visionary, approach to questions of economic justice.

This edition includes a new introduction that historically situates and discusses the contemporary relevance of Kropotkin's ideas.

Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) was a Russian prince who renounced his noble title and devoted his life to anarchism. His classic works include, Fields, Factories and Workshops; Memoirs of a Revolutionist; and Mutual Aid.

Selection from the new Introduction, by C. Weigl:

The Conquest of Bread is undoubtedly a classic example of both anarchist economic theory and anarchist propaganda. The question remains, though: What makes it so successful? The objection could certainly be raised that the book is a utopian text and therefore the height of the impractical, "armchairish" theorizing that Kropotkin was accused of in the Chaikovsky Circle. Some of Kropotkin's more recent supporters have understood this possibility and have responded by denying in advance that The Conquest of Bread is, in fact, utopian at all. In his introduction to an earlier edition of the book, George Woodcock describes it as a "proposition" rather than a utopia, because "utopias have a rigidity and eschatological finality which The Conquest of Bread wholly lacks."91 Whereas utopias supposedly try to achieve an imaginary perfection that means the end of all social evolution, Kropotkin, as a scientist, "knew the difference between theory and certainty."92 While Harry Cleaver also emphasizes the fact that Kropotkin was a scientist, he considers calling The Conquest of Bread a "proposition" inadequate. For him, the book bases itself on a thorough and detailed analysis of the historical development of human society and, therefore is more "certain" than Woodcock allows. "Kropotkin was presenting the results of research into the concrete developments in the present which constituted elements of a post-capitalist society... He was showing how the future was already appearing in the present."93

Both are correct. Like any decent theorist, utopian or not, Kropotkin always provides the caveat that his ideas are ideas, neither absolute truth nor guaranteed.94 At the same time, he doesn't pull those ideas out of thin air, but bases them on a thorough study of the world as it exists. But does either of these facts mean The Conquest of Bread isn't utopian? And why shy away from the label in the first place?
Utopias have a bad name. This reputation is due, in part, to a society that does its best to convince us that we already live in the best possible world, that the market on social organization has been cornered, and that trying to imagine something better is misguided, quixotic, or, at worst, a despotic imposition. However, the critique of utopia is just as strong among anticapitalists, especially among Marxist proponents of "scientific" socialism. Woodcock and Cleaver both can be seen as providing somewhat guilty replies to the anti-utopian arguments of Friedrich Engels. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels writes of utopias that, "the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies."95 Once Marx developed his historical materialist approach, in which class conflict was the motor driving all social evolution, the "task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historic-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict."96
It's certainly debatable that the "discoveries" of Marxism, at least when used to make predictions about the future, have been any less "phantastic" than those made by theorists who don't claim scientific credentials. However, as Engels suggests, prophecy has never played an important role in Marxism. While Marx and his followers have been comfortable predicting capitalism's inevitable downfall, mapping the economic cycles and inherent contradictions that will lead to it, they rarely go into any detail about what could or might, let alone should, happen afterwards. Given the repeated, damn near total, failures of Marxist states, this aversion seems somewhat unfortunate.
Anarchists are another story. For them, the membrane between the present and the future is much thinner. Anarchist politics tend to be consciously and explicitly prefigurative. They try to embody and enact potential, post-revolutionary social relations in the present. By the same token, models of future social organization guide and shape the concrete political ideas and practices they use to build that future. Kropotkin, nowhere more clearly than in The Conquest of Bread, is a perfect example of this process.
Although he didn't use the word "utopian" to describe his work—and made many of the same scientific claims that Marx had—Kropotkin definitely understood the importance of envisioning, in advance and in some detail, the goals of any revolution. The refusal to do so, he said, was more the result of bourgeois self-delusion than scientific caution. In "Revolutionary Government," written around 1880, he notes: "To overturn a government—is for a revolutionary middle-class man everything; for us it is only the beginning of the social revolution... The possibility of acting freely being attained, what will the revolutionists do next?"97 For the bourgeois theorist, the answer is always "revolutionary government"—which is to say, more of the same, an extension of present social relations into the future.98 But, for Kropotkin, the very term is an oxymoron—"the words contradict each other, destroy each other." For any alleged socialist to use it, suggests one of two things: ignorance or deceit. "Either they are imbued with prejudices which they have imbibed without knowing it from literature, and above all from history written to suit middle-class ideas; or else they do not really desire this revolution which they have always on their lips... They only go against the governors of the present time in order to take their places."99 For Kropotkin, the modern state is a product of capitalism and "revolutionaries" who are trapped within its capitalist logic can't or won't think beyond it. Anarchism calls for a post-revolutionary society without governors or governed. But what would this actually mean?
On the one hand, Kropotkin says, the question is unanswerable. Revolutions erupt suddenly, and usually unexpectedly. While there is usually a widespread feeling that society as it exists can no longer be endured, there's no similarly broad agreement about what might replace it. If, as anarchists believe, the people themselves must make that decision—and the people don't yet know what they want—the question must be put on hold. Otherwise, the revolution will be usurped by a small minority of intellectuals who think they have the answers. "The practical solution will not be found, will not be made clear until the change will already have begun. It will be the product of the revolution itself, of the people in action—or it will be nothing, the brain of a few individuals being absolutely incapable of finding solutions which can only spring from the life of the people."100
On the other hand, Kropotkin had already affirmatively answered the question of his awkwardly titled "Must We Occupy Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?" We must occupy ourselves with such questions, he claimed, precisely because the people, as well as many revolutionaries, had no clear idea of what should happen once revolutionary energies are in motion. Thinking or writing about our ideals has both psychological and practical value. As he wrote in MWO, such seemingly abstract exercises allow us to break out of the pseudo-pragmatism of "realistic" politics, because "in the ideal we can express our hopes, aspirations, and goals, regardless of practical limitations, regardless of the degree of realization which we might attain."101 Furthermore, those exercises are a sort of training ground for the mind, a way of identifying and boldly moving beyond the prejudices society has instilled in us: "If some aspects of everyday life seem to us so sacred that we dare not touch them even in an analysis of the ideal, then how great will our daring be in the actual abolishment of these everyday features?" Although courageous ideas are no guarantee of courageous actions, "mental timidity in constructing an ideal is certainly a criterion of mental timidity in practice."102
Utopian writing is, in effect, a form of revolutionary practice for Kropotkin—or at least an important enough factor in the actual revolutionary process that simple divisions between "ideas" and "action" are hard to maintain. If, for anarchists, the real revolution only begins after the existing regime has been overthrown—after what Kropotkin calls the dramatic "stage effects" of history—people need the tools and weapons with which to actually make that revolution. "For that end, there is only one means," he writes in his memoirs, "namely that the oppressed part of society should obtain the clearest possible conception of what they intend to achieve and how... The conflict itself will depend much less upon the efficacy of firearms and guns than upon the force of the creative genius which will be brought into action by the work of reconstruction of society."103
For Kropotkin, the articles that comprise The Conquest of Bread are weapons at least as useful as guns. Taken together, his seemingly contradictory positions on the question of mapping out the details of post-revolutionary society—that it is both impossible and necessary—represent a subtle, dialectical understanding of the relationship between propaganda and concrete revolutionary practice. Ideas shape action. They "inspire men by the grandness of the horizon which they bring into view," undermining the restrictive logic of capital, and broadening definitions of what might be possible.104 Conversely, it is only "the people in action," freed from "mental timidity," who will both pose the relevant revolutionary questions and find their practical solutions—always on the fly, but hopefully with the widest possible range of conceptual tools.

Book Details

Author: Peter Kropotkin
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781904859109
Size: 224 pages
Publisher: AK Press
Year: 2006

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