Section 4 of Chapter 5 of The Conquest of Bread


The people of the great towns will be driven by force of circumstances to take possession of all the provisions, beginning with the barest necessaries, and gradually extending Communism to other things, in order to satisfy the needs of all the citizens.

The sooner it is done the better; the sooner it is done the less misery; there will be and the less strife.

But upon what basis must society be organised in order that all may share and share alike? That is the question that meets us at the outset.

We answer that there are no two ways. There is only one way in which Communism can be established equitably, only one way which satisfies our instincts of justice, and is at the same time practical, namely, the system already adopted by the agrarian Communes of Europe.

Take, for example, a peasant commune, no matter where, even in France, where the Jacobins have done their best to destroy all communal usage. If the commune possesses woods and copses, for instance, as long as brush-wood is plentiful, every one can take as much as they want, without other let or hindrance than the public opinion of their neighbors. As to the timber-trees, which are always scarce, they have to be carefully apportioned.

The same with the communal pasture-land; while there is enough and to spare, no limit is put to what the cattle of each homestead may consume, nor to the number of beasts grazing upon the pastures. Grazing grounds are not divided nor fodder doled out, unless there is scarcity. All the Swiss communes, and many of those in France and Germany also, wherever there is communal pasture-land, practice this system.

And in the countries of Eastern Europe, where there are great forests and no scarcity of land, you find the peasants felling the trees as they need them, and cultivating as much of the soil as they require, without any thought of limiting each man's share of timber or of land. But the timber will be divided, and the land parcelled out, to each household according to its needs, as soon as either becomes scarce, as is already the case in Russia.

In a word, then, the system is this: no stint or limit to what the community possesses in abundance, but equal sharing and dividing of those commodities which are scarce or apt to run short. Of the 350 millions who inhabit Europe, 200 millions still follow this system of natural communism.

It is a fact worth remarking that the same system prevails in the great towns in the distribution of one commodity at least, which is found in abundance, the water supplied to each house.

As long as there is no fear of the supply running short, no water company thinks of checking the consumption of water in each house. Take what you please! In Paris during the great droughts if there is any fear of supply failing, the water companies know that all they have to do is to make known the fact, by means of a short advertisement in the papers, and the citizens will reduce their consumption of water and not let it run to waste.

But if water were actually scarce, what would be done? Recourse would be had to a system of rations. Such a measure is so natural, so inherent in common sense, that Paris twice asked to be put on rations during the two sieges which it supported in 1871.

Is it necessary to go into details, to prepare tables, showing how the distribution of rations will work, to prove that it is just and equitable, infinitely more just and equitable than the existing state of things? All these tables and details will not serve to convince those of the middle classes, nor, alas, those of the workers tainted with middle-class prejudices, who regard the people as a mob of savages ready to fall upon and devour each other directly the government ceases to direct affairs. Only one who has never seen the people resolve and act on their own initiative can doubt for a moment that if they were masters of the situation they could and would distribute rations to each and all in strictest accordance with justice and equity.

If you were to give utterance, in any gathering of people, to the opinion that delicacies—game and such like—should be reserved for the fastidious palates of aristocratic idlers, and black bread given to the sick in the hospitals, you would be hissed. But say at the same gathering, preach at the street corners and in the market places, that the most tempting delicacies ought to be kept for the sick and feeble—especially for the sick. Say that if there are only five brace of partridge in the whole of Paris, and only one case of sherry wine, they should go to sick people and convalescents. Say that after the sick come the children. For them the milk of the cows and goats should be reserved if there is not enough for all. To the children and the aged the last piece of meat, and to the strong man dry bread, if the community be reduced to that extremity.

Say, in a word, that if this or that article of consumption runs short, and has to be doled out, to those who have most need most should be given: say that and see if you do not meet with universal agreement.

The man who is full-fed does not understand this, but the people do understand; have always understood it, and even the child of luxury, if he is thrown on the street and comes into contact with the masses, even he will learn to understand.

The theorists—for whom the soldier's uniform and the barrack mess table are civilisation's last word—would like no doubt to start a régime of National Kitchens and "Spartan Broth." They will point out the advantages thereby gained, the economy in fuel and food if huge kitchens were established where everyone could come for their rations of soup and bread and vegetables.

We do not question these advantages. We are well aware that important economies have already been achieved in this direction—as for instance when the handmili, or quern, and the baker's oven attached to each house were abandoned. We can see perfectly well that it would be more economical to cook broth for a hundred families at once, instead of lighting a hundred separate fires. We know, besides, that there are a thousand ways of doing up potatoes, but that cooked in one huge pot for a hundred families they would be just as good.

We know, in fact, that variety in cooking is a matter of the seasoning introduced by each cook or housewife, the cooking together of a hundred weight of potatoes would not prevent each cook or housewife from dressing and serving them in any way she pleased. And we know that stock made from meat can be converted into a hundred different soups to suit a hundred different tastes.

But though we are quite aware of all these facts, we still maintain that no one has a right to force the housewife to take her potatoes from the communal kitchen ready cooked if she prefers to cook them herself in her own pot on her own fire. And, above all, we should wish each one to be free to take his meals with his family, or with his friends, or even in a restaurant, if so it seemed good to him.

Naturally large public kitchens will spring up to take the place of the restaurants, where people are poisoned now-a-days. Already the Parisian housewife gets the stock for her soup from the butcher and transforms it into whatever soup she likes, and London housekeepers know that they can have a joint roasted, or an apple or rhubarb tart baked at the bakers for a trifling sum, thus economising time and fuel. And when the communal kitchen—the common bakehouse of the future—is established, and people can get their food cooked without the risk of being cheated or poisoned, the custom will no doubt become general of going to the communal kitchen for the fundamental parts of the meal, leaving the last touches to be added as individual taste shall suggest.

But to make a hard and fast rule of this, to make a duty of taking home our food ready cooked, that would be as repugnant to our modern minds as the ideas of the convent or the barrack, morbid ideas born in brains warped by tyranny or superstition.

Who will have a right to the food of the commune, will assuredly be the first question which we shall have to ask ourselves. Every township will answer it for itself, and we are convinced that the answers will all be dictated by the sentiment of justice. Until labor is reorganised, as long as the disturbed period lasts, and while it is impossible to distinguish between inveterate idlers and genuine workers thrown out of work, the available food ought to be shared by all without exception. Those who have been enemies to the new order will hasten of their own accord to rid the commune of their presence. But it seems to us that the people, who have always proved themselves magnanimous, and have nothing of vindictiveness in their composition, will be ready to share their bread with all who remain with them, conquered and conquerors alike. It will be no loss to the Revolution to be inspired by such an ideal, and, when work is set agoing again, the antagonists of yesterday will stand side by side in the same workshops. A society where work is free will have nothing to fear from idlers.

"But provisions will run short in a month," our critics at once exclaim.

So much the better, we say. It will prove that for the first time on record the people have had enough to eat. As to the means of keeping up the supply of food, that is the very question we are going to attack next.