I read The Conquest of Bread, the classic 1892 work by the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin, as part of a reading group organized by Rochester Red and Black. Kropotkin was a revolutionary communist anarchist. He was dead serious about eliminating government, laws, money and corporations, as well as private property over and above what an individual could personally use.
How can you be both a communist and an anarchist? The one thing that libertarians, socialists, conservatives and liberals agree on nowadays is that equality and liberty are tradeoffs—that to get more equality, you have to sacrifice liberty, and vice versa.
Kropotkin pointed out that this hasn’t always been true. Many traditional cultures, including Russian villages of his day, had both more sharing and more freedom than most of us enjoy today. People helped each other out of neighborliness and offered hospitality to strangers out of kindness. Life did not center on earning money. There are still places like this, such as the Virginia mountain town described by Barbara Holland in Bingo Night at the Fire Hall, where people she didn’t know helped her in emergencies and acted insulted when she offered payment.
Kropotkin pointed out that even the existing capitalistic and authoritarian system of Kropotkin’s day, many important things were accomplished through voluntary cooperation. The international scientific community functioned without any particular individual in charge. Voluntary organizations such as the Red Cross and lighthouse networks performed important public functions. Capitalistic businesses themselves were able to integrate railroads and canals without a central planning organization to give orders.
And many public services, such as highways, street lighting and public libraries, were provided free—following the principle of to each according to their needs. Surely, Kropotkin argued, if so much has been accomplished under a system devoted to personal profit, how much more can be accomplished under the rule of the people in a system devoted to the public good!
He thought the progress of science had brought abundance for all within reach. And he said to the capitalists of his day, “You didn’t build that.” Since this progress was achieved by previous generations, he said, all of the present generation have the right to share in its fruits and none of us, in his view, had the right to appropriate the fruits for their exclusive benefit.
Since Kropotkin’s day, the role of voluntary associations has contracted, and the provision of universal services is under attack. Most of the world’s governments, big corporations and international organizations adhere to the so-called “neo-liberal” ideology, which says that all of human society should be organized on the model of the for-profit corporation. Kropotkin’s philosophy provides a basis for pushing back in defense of the individual and the commons.
His anarchism is the opposite of Leninism or even Fabian socialism, in which decision-making is delegated to a tiny circle of masterminds and the mass of the people are bystanders. Kropotkin said revolutionary reigns of terror created new systems of oppression that were worse than the old. He lived to see the Bolshevik Revolution, and foresaw all the evils that would flow from it.
Now I doubt a full-blown anarchist society is feasible, and I’m not sure how I would fit into one if it were. Governments, laws, money and the operation of supply and demand, however distorted they are in practice, do serve a function that a future anarchist society would have to duplicate. I’m too much of an egoist to be part of a collective. I’m too distrustful of human nature to give up the Constitution and Bill of Rights and trust to public opinion to safeguard my rights. When I think about a society wiping the slate clean and starting over fresh, I think of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Perhaps some of these questions will be resolved as I read and study more about anarchism.
In any case I don’t think that living under anarchism is something I’m going to have to deal with in my lifetime (I’m 76). Kropotkin’s ideas for me represent a direction, not a blueprint. The direction is toward a society without hierarchy, or at least with a minimum of hierarchy. I like Kropotkin’s sunny optimism, his humane spirit, his questioning of fundamental assumptions and especially his belief that a better world is possible. I refuse to accept what we have in the USA today as the best that we can hope for.
Click on Rochester Red and Black for that group’s home page.