Expropriation/Chapter 6

Section 3 of Chapter 5 of The Conquest of Bread


The most prominent characteristic of capitalism is the wage system, which in brief amounts to this:

A man, or a group of men, possessing the necessary capital, starts some industrial enterprise; he undertakes to supply the factory or workshops with raw material, to organise production, to pay the employees a fixed wage, and lastly to pocket the surplus-value or profits, under pretext of recouping himself for managing the concern, for running the risks it may involve, and for the fluctuations of price in the market value of the wares.

To preserve this system, those who now monopolise capital would be ready to make certain concessions: to share, for example, a part of the profits with the workers, or rather to establish a "sliding scale," which would oblige them to raise wages when prices were high; in brief, they would consent to certain sacrifices on condition that they were still allowed to direct industry and to take its first fruits.

Collectivism, as we know, does not abolish wages, though it introduces considerable modifications into the existing order of things. It only substitutes the State, that is to say, Representative Government, National or Local, for the individual employer of labor. Under collectivism, it is the representatives of the nation, or of the district, and their deputies and officials, who are to have the control of industry. It is they who reserve to themselves the right of employing the surplus of production—in the interests of all. Moreover, Collectivism draws a very subtle but very far-reaching distinction between the work of the laborer and of the man who has learned a craft. Unskilled labor in the eyes of the Collectivist is simple labor, while the work of the craftsman, the mechanic, the engineer, the man of science etc. is what Marx calls complex labor, and is entitled to a higher wage. But laborers and craftsmen, weavers and men of science, are all wage-servants of the State—"all officials," as has been said lately, to gild the pill.

The coming Revolution can render no greater service to humanity than to make the wage system, in all its forms, an impossibility, and to render Communism, which is the negation of wage -slavery, the only possible solution.

For even admitting that the Collectivist modification of the present system is possible, if introduced gradually during a period of prosperity and peace—though for my part I question its practicibility even under such conditions—it would become impossible in a period of Revolution, when the need of feeding hungry millions springs up with the first call to arms. A political revolution can be accomplished without shaking the foundations of industry, but a revolution where the people lay hands upon property will inevitably paralyse exchange and production. Millions of public money would not suffice for wages to the millions of out-o'-works.

This point cannot be too much insisted upon: the reorganisation of industry on a new basis (and we shall presently show how tremendous this problem is) cannot be accomplished in a few days, nor, on the other hand, will the people submit to be half-starved for years in order to oblige the theorists who uphold the wage-system. To tide over the period of stress, they will demand what they have always demanded in such cases—communisation of supplies—the giving of rations.

It will be in vain to preach patience. The people will be patient no longer, and if food is not put in common they will plunder the bakeries.

If the people are not strong enough to carry all before them, they will be shot down to give Collectivism a fair field for experiment. To this end "order" must be maintained at any price—order, discipline, obedience! And as the capitalists will soon realise that when the people are shot down by those who call themselves Revolutionists the Revolution itself will become hateful in the eyes of the masses, they will certainly lend their support to the champions of order—even though they are Collectivists. In such a line of conduct, the capitalists will see a means of hereafter crushing the Collectivists in their turn. If "order is established" in this fashion, the consequences are easy to foresee. Not content with shooting down the "marauders," the faction of "order" will search out the "ringleaders of the mob." They will set up again the law courts and reinstate the hangman. The most ardent Revolutionists will be sent to the scaffold. It will be 1793 over again.

Do not let us forget how reaction triumphed in the last century. First the "Hébertists," "the madmen," were guillotined—those whom Mignet, with the memory of the struggle fresh upon him, still called "Anarchists." The Dantonists soon followed them; and when the party of Robespierre had guillotined these Revolutionaries, they in their turn had to mount the scaffold; whereupon the people, sick of bloodshed, and seeing the Revolution lost, threw up the sponge, and let the reactionaries do their worst.

If "order is restored," we say, the Social Democrats will hang the Anarchists; the Fabians will hang the Social Democrats, and will in their turn be hanged by the reactionaries, and the Revolution will have to be begun all over again.

But everything confirms us in the belief that the energy of the people will carry them far enough, and that, when the Revolution takes place, the idea of Anarchist Communism will have gained ground. It is not an artificial idea. The people themselves have breathed it in our ear, and the number of Communists is ever increasing as the impossibility of any other solution becomes more and more evident.

And if the impetus of the people is strong enough affairs will take a very different turn. Instead of plundering the bakers' shops one day and starving the next, the people of the insurgent cities will take possession of the warehouses, the cattle markets, in fact of all the provision stores and of all the food to be had. The well-intentioned citizens, men and women both, will form themselves into bands of volunteers, and address themselves to the task of making a rough general inventory of the contents of each shop and warehouse. In twenty-four hours the revolted town or district will know what Paris has not found out yet, in spite of the statistical commission, and what it never did find out during the siege—the quantity of provisions it contains. In forty-eight hours, millions of copies will be printed of the tables giving a sufficiently exact account of the available food, the places where it is stored, and the means of distribution.

In every block of houses, in every street, in every town ward, bands of volunteers will have been organised. These commissariat volunteers will work in unison and keep in touch with each other. If only the Jacobin bayonets do not get in the way; if only the self-styled "scientific" theorists do not thrust themselves in to darken counsel! Or rather let them expound their muddle-headed theories as much as they like, prodded they have no authority, no power! And that admirable spirit of organisation inherent in tho people, above all in every social grade of the French nation,[1] but which they have so seldom been allowed to exercise, will initiate, even in so huge a city as Paris, and in the midst of a Revolution, an immense guild of free workers, ready to furnish to each and all the necessary food.

Give the people a free hand, and in ten days the food service will be conducted with admirable regularity. Only those who have never seen the people hard at work, only those who have passed their lives buried among documents, can doubt it. Speak of the organising genius of the "Great Misunderstood," the people, to those who have seen it in Paris in the days of the barricades, or in London during the last great strike, when half-a-million of starving folk had to be fed, and they will tell you how superior it is to the official ineptness of Bumbledom,

And even supposing we had to endure a certain amount of discomfort and confusion for a fortnight or a month; surely that would not matter very much. For the mass of the people it could not but be an improvement on their former condition, and, besides, in times of Revolution one can dine contentedly enough on a bit of bread and cheese, while eagerly discussing events.

In any case, a system which springs up spontaneously, under stress of immediate need, will be infinitely preferable to anything invented between four walls, by hide-bound theorists sitting on any number of committees.

  1. Kropotkine is here supposing the Revolution to break out first in France.