The Conquest of Bread
By Peter Kropotkin
I -The Collectivist Wages System
It is our opinion that collectivists commit a twofold error in
their plans for the reconstruction of society. While speaking of
abolishing capitalist rule, they intend nevertheless to retain two
institutions which are the very basis of this rule — Representative
Government and the Wages System.
As regards so-called representative government, we have often spoken
about it. It is absolutely incomprehensible to us that intelligent
men — and such are not wanting in the collectivist party —
can remain partisans of national or municipal parliaments after
all the lessons history has given them — in France, in England,
in Germany, or in the United States.
While we see parliamentary rule breaking up, and from all sides
criticism of this rule growing louder — not only of its results,
but also of its principles — how is it that revolutionary socialists
defend a system already condemned to die?
Built up by the middle classes to hold their own against royalty,
sanctioning, and at the same time strengthening, their sway over
the workers, parliamentary rule is pre-eminently a middle-class
rule. The upholders of this system have never seriously affirmed
that a parliament or a municipal council represent a nation or a
city. The most intelligent among them know that this is impossible.
The middle class has simply used the parliamentary system to raise
a barrier between itself and royalty, without giving the people
liberty. But gradually, as the people become conscious of their
interests and the variety of their interests multiply, the system
can no longer work. Therefore democrats of all countries vainly
imagine (livers palliatives. The Referendum is tried and found to
be a failure; proportional representation is spoken of, so is representation
of minorities, and other parliamentary Utopias. In a word, they
strive to find what is not to be found, and they are compelled to
recognize that they are in a wrong way, and confidence in a Representative
It is the same with the wages system; for after having proclaimed
the abolition of private property, and the possession in common
of all means of production, how can they uphold the wages system
in any form? It is, nevertheless, what collectivists are doing when
they recommend labour-cheques.
It is easy to understand why the early English socialists came
to the system of labour-cheques. They simply tried to make Capital
and Labour agree. They repudiated the idea of violently laying hands
on capitalist property.
It is also easily understood why Proudhon took up the idea later
on. In his Mutualist system he tried to make Capital less offensive,
notwithstanding the retaining of private property, which he detested
from the bottom of his heart, but which he believed to be necessary
to guarantee individuals against the State.
Neither is it astonishing that certain economists, more or less
bourgeois, admit labour-cheques. They care little whether the worker
is paid in labour-notes or in coin stamped with the effigy of the
Republic or the Empire. They only care to save from destruction
individual ownership of dwelling-houses, of land, of factories;
in any case that of dwelling-houses and the capital that is necessary
for manufacturing. And labour-notes would just answer the purpose
of upholding this private property.
As long as labour-notes can be exchanged for Jewels or carriages,
the owner of the house will willingly accept them for rent. And
as long as dwelling-houses, fields, and factories belong to isolated
owners, men will have to pay them, in one way or another, for being
allowed to work in the fields or factories, or for living in the
houses. The owners will accept to be paid by the workers in gold,
in paper-money, or in cheques exchangeable for all sorts of commodities.
But how can we defend labour-notes, this new form of wagedom, when
we admit that houses, fields, and factories will no longer be private
property, and that they will belong to the commune or the nation?
Let us closely examine this system of remuneration for work done,
preached by French, German, English, and Italian collectivists (Spanish
anarchists, who still call themselves collectivists, imply by Collectivism
the possession in common of all instruments of production, and the
"liberty of each group to divide the produce, as they think
fit, according to communist or any other principles"). It amounts
to this: Everybody works in field, factory, school, hospital, etc.
The working-day is fixed by the State, which owns land, factories,
roads, etc. Every work-day is paid for with a labour-note, which
is inscribed with these words: Eight hours work. With this cheque
the worker can procure all sorts of merchandise in the stores owned
by the State or by divers corporations. The cheque is divisible,
so that you can buy an hour's-work worth of meat, ten minutes worth
of matches, or half an hour of tobacco. After the Collectivist Revolution,
instead of saying "two-pence worth of soap," we shall
say "five minutes worth of soap."
Most collectivists, true to the distinction laid down by middle-class
economists (and by Marx) between qualified work and simple work,
tell us, moreover, that qualified or professional work must be paid
a certain quantity more than simple work. Thus an hour's work of
a doctor will have to be considered as equivalent to two or three
hours' work of a hospital nurse, or to three hours' work of a navvy.
"Professional, or qualified work, will be a multiple of simple
work," says the collectivist Grönlund, "because this
kind of work needs a more or less long apprenticeship."
Other collectivists, such as the French Marxists, do not make this
distinction. They proclaim "Equality of Wages." The doctor,
the schoolmaster, and the professor will be paid (in labour-cheques)
at the same rate as the navvy. Eight hours visiting the sick in
a hospital will be worth the same as eight hours spent in earth-works
or else in mines or factories.
Some make a greater concession; they admit that disagreeable or
unhealthy work — such as sewerage — could be paid for at
a higher rate than agreeable work. One hour's work of a sewerman
would be worth, they say, two hours of a professor's work.
Let us add that certain collectivists admit of corporations paying
a lump sum for work done. Thus a corporation would say: "Here
are a hundred tons of steel. A hundred workmen were required to
produce them, and it took them ten days. Their work-day being an
eight-hours day, it has taken them eight thousand working hours
to produce a hundred tons of steed eight hours a ton." For
this the State would pay them eight thousand labour-notes of one
hour each, and these eight thousand cheques would be divided among
the members of the iron-works as they themselves thought proper.
On the other hand, a hundred miners having taken twenty days to
extract eight thousand tons of coal, coal would be worth two hours
a ton, and the sixteen thousand cheques of one hour each, received
by the Guild of Miners, would be divided among their members according
to their own appreciation.
If the miners protested, and said that a ton of steel should only
cost six hours' work instead of eight; if the professor wished to
have his day paid twice more than the nurse, then the State would
interfere and would settle their differences.
Such is, in a few words, the organization collectivists wish to
see arise out of the Social Revolution. As we see, their principles
are: Collective property of the instruments of production, and remuneration
to each according to the time spent in producing, while taking into
account the productivity of his labour. As to the political system,
it would be Parliamentarianism modified by positive instructions
given to those elected, by the Referendum — a vote, taken by noes
or ayes by the nation.
Let us own that this system appears to us unrealizable.
Collectivists begin by proclaiming a revolutionary principle —
the abolition of private property — then they deny it no sooner
than proclaimed by upholding an organization of production and consumption
that originated in private property.
They proclaim a revolutionary principle, and ignore the consequences
that this principle will inevitably bring about. They forget that
the very fact of abolishing individual property in the instruments
of work — land, factories, road, capital, — must launch
society into absolutely new channels; must completely overthrow
the present system of production, both in its aim as well as in
its means; must modify daily relations between individuals, as soon
as land, machinery, and all other instruments of production are
considered common property.
They say, "No private property," and immediately after
strive to maintain private property in its daily manifestations.
"You shall be a Commune as far as regards production: fields,
tools, machinery, all that has been invented up till now — factories,
railways, harbours, mines, etc., all are yours. Not the slightest
distinction will be made concerning the share of each in this collective
"But from to-morrow you will minutely debate the share you
are going to take in the creation of new machinery, in the digging
of new mines. You will carefully weigh what part of the new produce
belongs to you. You will count your minutes of work, and you will
take care that a minute of your neighbours cannot buy more than
"And as an hour measures nothing, as in some factories a worker
can see to six power-looms at a time, while in another he only tends
two, you will weigh the muscular force, the brain energy, and the
nervous energy you have expended. You will accurately calculate
the years of apprenticeship in order to appraise the amount each
will contribute to future production. And this — after having
declared that you do not take into account his share in past production."
Well, for us it is evident that a society cannot be based on two
absolutely opposed principles, two principles that contradict one
another continually. And a nation or a commune that would have such
an organization would be compelled to revert to private property
in the instruments of production, or to transform itself immediately
into a communist society.
We have said that certain collectivist writers desire that a distinction
should be made between qualified or professional work and simple
work. They pretend that an hour's work of an engineer, an architect,
or a doctor, must be considered as two or three hours' work of a
blacksmith, a mason, or a hospital nurse. And the same distinction
must be made between all sorts of trades necessitating a more or
less long apprenticeship and the simple toil of day labourers.
Well, to establish this distinction would be to maintain all the
inequalities of present society. It would mean fixing a dividing
line, from the beginning, between the workers and those who pretend
to govern them. It would mean dividing society into two very distinct
classes — the aristocracy of knowledge above the horny-handed lower
orders — the one doomed to serve the other; the one working with
its hands to feed and clothe those who, profiting by their leisure,
study how to govern their fosterers.
It would mean reviving one of the distinct peculiarities of present
society and giving it the sanction of the Social Revolution. It
would mean setting up as a principle an abuse already condemned
in our ancient crumbling society.
We know the answer we shall get. They will speak of "Scientific
Socialism"; they will quote bourgeois economists, and Marx
too, to prove that a scale of wages has its raison d'être,
as "the labour-force" of the engineer will have cost more
to society than the "labour-force" of the navvy. In fact, — have
not economists tried to prove to us that if an engineer is paid
twenty times more than a navvy it is because the "necessary"
outlay to make an engineer is greater than that necessary to make
a navvy? And has not Marx asserted that the same distinction is
equally logical between two branches of manual labour? He could
not conclude otherwise, having on his own account taken up Ricardo's
theory of value, and upheld that goods are exchanged in proportion
to the quantity of work socially necessary for their production.
But we know what to think of this. We know that if engineers, scientists,
or doctors are paid ten or a hundred times more than a labourer,
and that a weaver earns three times more than an agricultural labourer,
and ten times more than a girl in a match factory, it is not by
reason of their "cost of production," but by reason of
a monopoly of education, or a monopoly of industry. Engineers, scientists,
and doctors merely exploit their capital — their diplomas — as middle-class
employers exploit a factory, or as nobles used to exploit their
titles titles of nobility.
As to the employer who pays an engineer twenty times more than
a labourer, it is simply due to personal interest; if the engineer
can economize £4000 a year on the cost of production, the
employer pays him £800 And if the employer has a foreman who
saves £400 on the work by cleverly sweating workmen, he gladly
gives him £80 or £120 a year. He parts with an extra
£40 when he expects to gain £400 by it; and this is
the essence of the Capitalist system. The same differences obtain
among divers manual trades.
Let them, therefore, not talk to us of "the cost of production"
which raises the cost of skilled labour, and tell us that a student
who has gaily spent his youth in a university has a right to a wage
ten times greater than the son of a miner who has grown pale in
a mine since the age of eleven; or that a weaver has a right to
a wage three or four times greater than that of an agricultural
labourer. The cost of teaching a weaver his work is not four times
greater than the cost of teaching a peasant his. The weaver simply
benefits by the advantages his industry reaps in Europe, in comparison
with countries that have as yet no industries.
Nobody has ever calculated the cost of production and if a loafer
costs far more to society than a worker, it remains to be seen whether
a robust day-labourer does not cost more to society than a skilled
artisan, when we have taken into account infant-mortality among
the poor, the ravages of anæmia, and premature deaths.
Could they, for example, make us believe that the 1s. 3d. paid
to a Paris workwoman, the 3d. paid to an Auvergne peasant girl who
grows blind at lace-making, or the 1s. 8d. paid to the peasant represent
their "cost of production." We know full well that people
work for less, but we also know that they do so exclusively because,
thanks to our wonderful organization, they would die of hunger did
they not accept these mock wages.
For us the scale of remuneration is a complex result of taxes,
of governmental tutelage, of Capitalist monopoly. In a word, of
State and Capital. Therefore, we say that all wages theories have
been invented after the event to justify injustices at present existing,
and that we need not take them into consideration.
Neither will they fail to tell us that the Collectivist scale of
wages would be an improvement. "It would be better," so
they say, "to see certain artisans receiving a wage two or
three times higher than common labourers, than to see a minister
receiving in a day what a workman cannot earn in a year. It would
be a great step towards equality."
For us this step would be the reverse of progress. To make a distinction
between simple and professional work in a new society would result
in the Revolution sanctioning and recognizing as a principle a brutal
fact we submit to nowadays, but that we nevertheless find unjust.
It would mean imitating those gentlemen of the French Assembly who
proclaimed August 4th, 1789, the abolition of feudal rights, but
who on August 8th sanctioned these same rights by imposing dues
on the peasants to compensate the noblemen, placing these dues under
the protection of the Revolution. It would mean imitating the Russian
Government, which proclaimed, at the time of the emancipation of
the serfs, that the land should henceforth belong to the nobility,
while formerly the lands were considered belonging to the serfs.
Or else, to take a better known example, when the Commune of 1871
decided to pay members of the Commune Council 12s. 6d. a day, while
the Federates on the ramparts received only 1s. 3d., this decision
was hailed as an act of superior democratic equality. In reality,
the Commune only ratified the former inequality between functionary
and soldier, Government and governed. Coming from an Opportunist
Chamber of Deputies, such a decision would have appeared admirable,
but the Commune doomed her revolutionary principles because she
failed to put them into practice.
Under our existing social system, when a minister gets paid £4000
a year, while a workman must content himself with £40 or less;
when a foreman is paid two or three times more than a workman, and
among workmen there is every gradation, from 8s. a day down to the
peasant girl's 3d.; we disapprove of the high salary of the minister
as well as of the difference between the 8s. of the workman and
the 3d. of the poor woman. And we say, "Down with the privileges
of education, as well as with those of birth!" We are anarchists
precisely because these privileges revolt us.
They revolt us already in this authoritarian society. Could we
endure them in a society that began by proclaiming equality?
That is why some collectivists, understanding the impossibility
of maintaining a scale of wages in a society inspired by the breath
of the Revolution, hasten to proclaim equality of wage. But they
meet with new difficulties, and their equality of wages becomes
the same unrealizable Utopia as the scale of wages of other collectivists.
A society having taken possession of all social wealth, having
boldly proclaimed the right of all to this wealth — whatever share
they may have taken in producing it will be compelled to abandon
any system of wages, whether in currency or labour-notes.
The collectivists say, "To each according to his deeds";
or, in other terms, according to his share of services rendered
to society. They think it expedient to put this principle into practice
as soon as the Social Revolution will have made all instruments
of production common property. But we think that if the Social Revolution
had the misfortune of proclaiming such a principle, it would mean
its necessary failure; it would mean leaving the social problem,
which past centuries have burdened us with, unsolved. In fact, in
a society like ours, in which the more a man works the less he is
remunerated, this principle, at first sight, may appear to be a
yearning for justice. But it is really only the perpetuation of
past injustice. It was by virtue of this principle that wagedom
began, to end in the glaring inequalities and all the abominations
of present society; because, from the moment work done was appraised
in currency or in any other form of wage; the day it was agreed
upon that man would only receive the wage he could secure to himself,
the whole history of State-aided Capitalist Society was as good
as written; it germinated in this principle.
Shall we, then, return to our starting-point and go through the
same evolution again ? Our theorists desire it, but fortunately
it is impossible. The Revolution will be communist; if not, it will
be drowned in blood, and have to be begun over again.
Services rendered to society, be they work in factory or field,
or mental services, cannot be valued in money. There can be no exact
measure of value (of what has been wrongly-termed exchange value),
nor of use value, with regard to production. If two individuals
work for the community five hours a day, year in year out, at different
work which is equally agreeable to them, we may say that on the
whole their labour is equivalent. But we cannot divide their work,
and say that the result of any particular day, hour, or minute of
work of the one is worth the result of a minute or hour of the other.
We may roughly say that the man who during his lifetime has deprived
himself of leisure during ten hours a day has given far more to
society than the one who has only deprived himself of leisure during
five hours a day, or who has not deprived himself at all. But we
cannot take what he has done during two hours and say that the yield
is worth twice as much as the yield of another individual, working
only one hour, and remunerate him in proportion. It would be disregarding
all that is complex in industry, in agriculture, in the whole life
of present society; it would be ignoring to what extent all individual
work is the result of past and present labour of society as a whole.
It would mean believing ourselves to be living in the Stone Age,
whereas we are living in an age of steel.
If you enter a coal-mine you will see a man in charge of a huge
machine that raises and lowers a cage. In his hand he holds a lever
that stops and reverses the course of the machine; he lowers it
and the cage turns back in the twinkling of an eye; he raises it,
he lowers it again with a giddy swiftness. All attention, he follows
with his eyes fixed on the wall an indicator that shows him On a
small scale, at which point of the shaft the cage is at each second
of its progress; as soon as the indicator has reached a certain
level he suddenly stops the course of the cage, not a yard higher
nor lower than the required spot. And no sooner have the colliers
unloaded their coal-wagons, and pushed empty ones instead, than
he reverses the lever and again sends the cage back into space.
During eight or ten consecutive hours he must pay the closest attention.
Should his brain relax for a moment, the cage would inevitably strike
against the gear, break its wheels, snap the rope, crush men, and
obstruct work in the mine. Should he waste three seconds at each
touch of the lever, in our modern perfected mines, the extraction
would be reduced from twenty to fifty tons a day.
Is it he who is of greatest use in the mine? Or, is it perhaps
the boy who signals to him from below to raise the cage? Is it the
miner at the bottom of the shaft, who risks his life every instant,
and who will some day be killed by fire-damp? Or is it the engineer,
who would lose the layer of coal, and would cause the miners to
dig on rock by a simple mistake in his calculations? And lastly,
is it the mine owner who has put all his capital into the mine,
and who has perhaps, contrary to expert advice asserted that excellent
coal would be found there?
All the miners engaged in this mine contribute to the extraction
of coal in proportion to their strength, their energy, their knowledge,
their intelligence, and their skill. And we may say that all have
the right to live, to satisfy their needs, and even their whims,
when the necessaries of life have been secured for all. But how
can we appraise their work?
And, moreover, Is the coal they have extracted their work? Is it
not also the work of men who have built the railway leading to the
mine and the roads that radiate from all its stations? Is it not
also the work of those that have tilled and sown the fields, extracted
iron, cut wood in the forests, built the machines that burn coal,
and so on?
No distinction can be drawn between the work of each man. Measuring
the work by its results leads us to absurdity; dividing and measuring
them by hours spent on the work also leads us to absurdity. One
thing remains: put the needs above the works, and first of all recognize
the right to live, and later on, to the comforts of life, for all
those who take their share in production.
But take any other branch of human activity — take the manifestations
of life as a whole. Which one of us can claim the higher remuneration
for his work? Is it the doctor who has found out the illness, or
the nurse who has brought about recovery by her hygienic care? Is
it the inventor of the first steam-engine, or the boy, who, one
day getting tired of pulling the rope that formerly opened the valve
to let steam enter under the piston, tied the rope to the lever
of the machine, without suspecting that he had invented the essential
mechanical part of all modern machinery — the automatic valve.
Is it the inventor of the locomotive, or the work man of Newcastle,
who suggested replacing the stones formerly laid under the rails
by wooden sleepers, as the stones, for want of elasticity, caused
the trains to derail? Is it the engineer on the locomotive? The
signalman who can stop trains? The switchman who transfers a train
from one line to another? — To whom do we owe the transatlantic
cable? Is it to the engineer who obstinately affirmed that the cable
would transmit messages when learned electricians declared it to
be impossible? Is it to Maury, the scientist, who advised that thick
cables should be set aside for others as thin as canes? Or else
to those volunteers, come from nobody knows where, who spent their
days and nights on deck minutely examining every yard of the cable,
and removed the nails that the stockholders of steamship companies
stupidly caused to be driven into the non-conducting wrapper of
the cable, so as to make it unserviceable.
And in a wider sphere, the true sphere of life, with its joys,
its sufferings, and its accidents, can not each one of us recall
some one who has rendered him so great a service that we should
be indignant if its equivalent in coin were mentioned? The service
may have been but a word, nothing but a word spoken at the right
time, or else it may have been months and years of devotion, and
are we going to appraise these "incalculable" services
"The works of each!" But human society would not exist
for more than two consecutive generations if every one did not give
infinitely more than that for which he is paid in coin, in "cheques,"
or in civic rewards. The race would soon become extinct if mothers
did not sacrifice their lives to take care of their children, if
men did not give all the time, without demanding an equivalent,
if men did not give just to those from whom they expect no reward.
If middle-class society is decaying, if we have got into a blind
alley from which we cannot emerge without attacking past institutions
with torch and hatchet, it is precisely because we have calculated
too much. It is because we have let ourselves be influenced into
giving only to receive. It is because we have aimed at turning society
into a commercial company based on debit and credit.
Collectivists know this. They vaguely understand that a society
could not exist if it carried out the principle of "Each according
to his deeds." They have a notion that necessaries — we
do not speak of whims — the needs of the individual, do not
always correspond to his works. Thus De Paepe tells us: "The
principle — the eminently Individualist principle — would,
however, be tempered by social intervention, for the education of
children and young persons (including maintenance and lodging),
and by the social organization for assisting the infirm and the
sick, for retreats for aged workers, etc." They understand
that a man of forty, father of three children, has other needs than
young man of twenty. They know that the woman who suckles her infant
and spends sleepless nights at its bedside, cannot do as much work
as the man who has slept peacefully. They seem to take in that men
and women, worn out maybe by dint of overwork for society, may be
incapable of doing as much work as those who have spent their time
leisurely and pocketed their "labour-notes" in the privileged
career of State functionaries.
They are eager to temper their principle. They say: "Society
will not fail to maintain and bring up its children; to help both
aged and infirm. Without doubt needs will be the measure of the
cost that society will burden itself with, to temper the principle
Charity, charity, always Christian charity, organized by the State
this time. They believe in improving asylums for foundlings, in
effecting old-age and sick insurances — so as to temper their principle.
But they cannot yet throw aside the idea of "wounding first
and healing afterwards!"
Thus, after having denied Communism, after having laughed at their
ease at the formula — "To each according to his needs"
these great economists discover that they have forgotten something,
the needs of the producers, which they now admit. Only it is for
the State to estimate them, for the State to verify if the needs
are not disproportionate to the work.
The State will dole out charity. Thence to the English poor-law
and the workhouse is but a step.
There is but a degree, because even this stepmother of a society
against whom we are in revolt has also been compelled to temper
her individualist principles; she, too, has had to make concessions
in a communist direction and under the same form of charity.
She, too, distributes halfpenny dinners to prevent the pillaging
of her shops; builds hospital — often very bad ones, though sometimes
splendid ones — to prevent the ravages of contagious diseases. She,
too, after having paid the hours of labour, shelters the children
of those she has wrecked. She takes their needs into consideration
and doles out charity.
Poverty, we have said elsewhere, was the primary cause of wealth.
It was poverty that created the first capitalist; because, before
accumulating "surplus value," of which we hear so much,
men had to be sufficiently destitute to consent to sell their labour,
so as not to die of hunger. It was poverty that made capitalists.
And if the number of poor rapidly increased during the Middle Ages,
it was due to the invasions and wars that followed the founding
of States, and to the increase of riches resulting from the exploitation
of the East, that tore the bonds asunder which once united agrarian
and urban communities, and taught them to proclaim the principle
of wages, so dear to exploiters, instead of the solidarity they
And it is this principle that is to spring from a revolution which
men dare to call by the name of Social Revolution, a name so clear
to the starved, the oppressed, and the sufferers?
It can never be. For the day on which old institutions will fall
under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: "Bread, shelter,
ease for all!" And those voices will be listened to; the people
will say: "Let us begin by allaying our thirst for life, for
happiness, for liberty, that we have never quenched. And when we
shall have tasted of this joy we will set to work to demolish the
last vestiges of middle-class rule, its morality drawn from account-books,
its 'debit and credit' philosophy, its 'mine and yours' institutions.
'In demolishing we shall build,' as Proudhon said; and we shall
build in the name of Communism and Anarchy."
This text was taken from a 1st edition of The Conquest of
Bread, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1906.
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