Expropriation/Chapter 1

Section I of Chapter 4 of The Conquest of Bread


IT is told of Rothschild that, seeing his fortune threatened by the Revolution of 1849, he hit upon the following stratagem:—"I am quite willing to admit," said he, "that my fortune has been accumulated at the expense of others, but if it were divided among the millions of Europe to-morrow the share of each would only amount to five shillings. Very well then, I undertake to render to each his five shillings if he asks me for it."

Having given due publicity to his promise, our millionaire proceeded as usual to stroll quietly through the streets of Frankfort. Three or four passers-by asked for their five shillings, which he disbursed with a sardonic smile. His stratagem succeeded and the family of the millionaire is still in possession of its wealth.

It is in much the same fashion, that the shrewd heads among the middle-classes reason when they say "Ah, Expropriation, I know what that means. You take all the top-coats and lay them in a heap, and every one is free to help himself and fight for the best."

But such jests are irrelevant as well as flippant. What we want is not a redistribution of top-coats. Besides, is it likely that in such a general scramble the shivering folk would come off any better? Nor do we want to divide up the wealth of the Rothschilds. What we do want is so to arrange things that every human being born into the world shall be ensured the opportunity in the first instance of learning some useful occupation, and of becoming skilled in it; next, that he shall be free to work at his trade without asking leave of master or owner, and without handing over to landlord or capitalist the lion's share of what he produces. As to the wealth held by the Rothschilds or the Vanderbilts, it will serve us to organise our system of communal production.

The day when the laborer may till the ground without paying away half of what he produces, the day when the machines necessary to prepare the soil for rich harvests are at the free disposal off the cultivators, the day when the worker in the factory produces for the community and not for the monopolist—that day will see the workers clothed and fed; and there will be no more Rothschilds or other exploiters.

No one will then have to sell his working power for a wage that only represents a fraction of what he produces.

"So far good," say our critics, "but you will have Rothschilds coming in from outside. How are you to prevent a person from amassing millions in China and then settling amongst you? How are you going to prevent such an one from surrounding himself with lackeys and wage-slaves—from exploiting them and enriching himself at their expense?"

"You cannot bring about a Revolution all over the world at the came time. Well then, are you going to establish Custom Houses on your frontiers, to search all who enter your country, and confiscate the money they bring with them?—Anarchist policemen firing on travellers would be a fine spectacle!"

But at the root of this argument there is a great error. Those who propound it have never paused to inquiie whence come the fortunes of the rich. A little thought would suffice to show them that these fortunes have their beginnings in the poverty of the poor. When there are no longer any destitute there Avill no longer be any rich to exploit them.

Let us glance for a moment at the middle ages, when great fortunes began to spring up.

A feudal baron seizes on a fertile valley. But as long as the fertile valley is empty of folk our baron is not rich, His land brings him in nothing, he might as well possess a property in the moon. Now what does our baron do to enrich himself? He looks out for peasants!

But if every peasant-farmer had a piece of land, free from rent and taxes, if he had in addition the tools and the stock necessary for farm labor, who would plough the lands of the baron? Each would look after his own. But there are whole tribes of destitute persons ruined by wars, or drought, or pestilence. They have neither horse nor plough. (Iron was costly in the middle ages, and a draught-horse still more so.)

All these destitute creatures are trying to better their condition. One day they see on the road at the confines of our baron's estate a notice-board indicating by certain signs adapted to their comprehension that the laborer who is willing to settle on this estate will receive the tools and materials to build his cottage and sow his fields, and a portion of land rent free for a certain number of years. The number of years is represented by so many crosses on the sign-board, and the peasant understands the meaning of these crosses.

So the poor wretches swarm over the baron's lands, making roads, draining marshes, building villages. In nine years he begins to tax them. Five years later he levies rent. Then he doubles it. The peasant accepts these new conditions because he cannot find better ones elsewhere; and little by little, by the aid of laws made by the oppressors, the poverty of the peasant becomes the source of the landlord's wealth. And it is not only the Lord of the Manor who preys upon him. A whole host of usurers swoop down upon the villages, increasing as the wretchedness of the peasants increases. That is how things went in the Middle Ages; and today is it not still the same thing? If there were free lands which the peasant could cultivate if he pleased, would he pay £50 to some "Shabble of a Duke"[1] for condescending to sell him a scrap? Would he burden himself with a lease which absorbed a third of the produce? Would he—on the métayer system—consent to give the half of his harvest to the landowner?

But he has nothing. So he will accept any conditions, if only he can keep body and soul together, while he tills the soil and enriches the landlord.

So in the Nineteenth Century, just as in the Middle Ages, the poverty of the peasant is a source of wealth to the landed proprietor.

  1. "Shabble of a Duke" is an expression coined by Carlyle; it is a somewhat free rendering of Kropotkine's "Monsieur le Vicomte," but I think it expresses his meaning.—Trans.