The Conquest of Bread (Communism, part 4)


( Part 1: The Communist Manifesto | Part 2: Capital, volume 1 | Part 3: Capital in the Twenty-First Century | Part 4: The Conquest of Bread )

[[TL;DR] Published in the 1890s. At the onset, the author makes two great assertions: 1) the people who own the factories and the land are squandering their ownership. The masters of the Industrial Revolution direct their factories to produce excess only to waste it. Millions are starving while the factories produce enough to feed everyone. 2) People who work hard for themselves cannot get rich. Great fortunes are made only by taking advantage of desperate people’s poverty, using their situation to justify paying them less than what their work is worth. This was how Feudal lords and barons lived off the work of the people, and the Capitalist is doing the same thing, and rebellion against this treatment of the working people is inevitable.


This leads to his third assertion: 3) that if left alone, mankind tends toward communal living. Communism is actually human civilization’s natural state. The formation of government is an aberration, an institution meant to keep a small group of people in power at the expense of everyone else. In the past, that group was the Feudal noblemen. Feudalism has simply evolved into Capitalism, and it is keeping people in poverty deliberately so they have no choice but to work for the factoryowner. In short, if you get rid of the upper class of landowners, the government will cease to exist, and the people will naturally form a collective society in which labor itself is transformed from something that benefits only the rich (in the form of profit) to something that benefits everyone (by relieving the masses of poverty).

Kropotkin outlines how the Communist Revolution should go, and what it should accomplish if it wants to avoid the same fate the French Revolution met.]


The Conquest of Bread

by Peter Kropotkin

It was known even in the 1800s that the Industrial Revolution had increased production of everything. Factories cranked out enough clothes for everyone to have luxury textiles, and yet the majority of people wore rags. Capitalist-run farms produced enough food to feed the world several times over, and yet the majority of people were starving. Capitalists deliberately threw away tons of goods to keep prices high. Factories have to produce far more than is needed, so waste is inevitable. The author argues this fact alone is proof that the ownership class is squandering their position by directing the economy toward whatever protects their own profit instead of what makes sense.

In short: mankind should be using all this new technology to relieve everyone of poverty instead of pushing the masses deeper into poverty for the sake of profit.

Kropotkin explicitly states that Communists should not wait for or rely upon a leader who will direct the people toward this goal, as that will lead to an oppressive dictatorship. Instead, workers will eventually rebel against this system, and they will not need a leader. Without authority, labor unions and trade organizations will take command of local industries, and when manufacturing is no longer in the hands of greedy individuals, the labor of the masses will be automatically directed toward benefiting all of mankind instead of for the benefit of a handful of owners. This will happen automatically when the people oust the landowning class that manipulates society to elevate itself.

It is in much the same fashion that the shrewed heads among the middle classes reason when they say, “Ah, Expropriation! I know what that means. You take all the overcoats 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 overcoats, although it must be said that even in such a case, the shivering folk would see advantage in it. 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; and 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 organize our system of communal production.

The day when the labourer 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 of the cultivators, the day when the worker in the factory produces for the community and not 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.

This is it. This is the question the Communists of the 19th century asked: why do we need employers? Shouldn’t people be free to work for themselves? Why shouldn’t society be organized in such a way? Instead of our labor going to benefit shareholders and corporate executives, why shouldn’t a person’s work benefit themselves?

He writes that government only exists to protect the landowning class that keeps the masses employed for the benefit of this class. A true revolution will recognize the people have a right to live their own lives, so the products of industry should be made for this purpose instead. The factory produces incredible amounts of surplus that always goes to waste, so all of that should be utilized to lift the world’s population out of poverty, not to create artificial markets that elevate a few ruling families at the expense of millions of people who must live on the edge of starvation just to maintain profit margins.

Broadly speaking, the author proposes that once there are no external forces (such as war or landowners) pushing the people to labor for a state-sponsored purpose or to pay rent to a property-owner, society will naturally default to Communism.

There will be no need for a government to force people to collectivize. Government will not exist. Instead, independent labor unions and trade associations will form on their own to run the factories and will produce whatever is necessary to provide for the masses. Land and housing will be held in common so no one will have to pay someone to live or work on it. Then the workers will be free. A 3-hour workday is possible without the body of managers and shareholders living off the labor of the masses, but it depends on removing the external forces that push society in other directions.

Kropotkin writes that for centuries individual communities existed in a communal state; it was only the State acting on behalf of the Feudal nobility (and later the Capitalist) that forced the masses to labor for the benefit of the ruling class that owns all the land.

Yes, the author is proposing that Communism is human civilization’s default state. Capitalism, like Feudalism before it, is the result of a handful of individuals who gain control of the government and the military to force the people to work for some purpose other than their own benefit.

Unlike Marx and Engels, Kropotkin proposes what should happen when the revolution comes, using what went wrong during the French Revolution as a baseline. Communist thinkers of the 19th century believed a Communist Revolution was the only possible endpoint of Industrialization, so when the people fight back against factory labor, remove land ownership. The people will then organize themselves along communal lines to use the factories to meet the basic needs of the people, using the surplus of goods to elevate everyone out of poverty.

With the people’s basic needs for food and shelter met, and no one has to pay a landowner to live somewhere, no one can force another human being to work, and the factories will switch from cranking out incredible quantities of goods to feed artificial markets, to producing what people actually need. Removing the profit motive will reduce the working day as a matter of course.

I was kind of onboard in the early sections of this book, outlining that factories produce so much and yet most of it goes to waste so why aren’t we using this method of production to meet the needs of every single person on the planet? It’s possible to do this. The author’s assertion that Communism—that is, community ownership of land and natural resources without need for a government—is in fact the natural state of human civilization, is a bold idea, but... requires the masses of people working toward a common goal on their own. In the same way that Capitalism does what it does because factoryowners must behave a certain way to obtain profit (according to Marx), it follows that the impoverished workers must also behave a certain way in order to break out of their bondage. No government forces this. No one must decide this is how things should be. Communist thinkers of the 19th century deduced it is simply the only way the people can behave under these circumstances.

Without propertyowners forcing the people to give up half their income as rent and most of the products they produce as export, townships will look out for one another by default. Without the fear of hunger or homelessness, people will no longer be chained to a profession. They will be free to pursue whatever interests them, and they will seek work they enjoy.

The sheer volume of empty apartments and houses will no longer sit empty while people remain homeless—the excess clothing the factories produce anyway will now be used to clothe the people who make them instead of going to waste in order to protect market prices—all the food will now end hunger among the masses instead of being deliberately tossed to keep prices up. There will be no need for administration; the people will naturally organize themselves for the benefit of everyone in the community. Once the factories are used to meet the needs of the people, there will be no counterrevolution. Everyone is out of poverty and living better than when they were wage slaves, so civilization will begin to move toward its natural state.

That is the key to the author’s idea: if government and landowners vanished, humankind defaults to Communism. Communal living is natural. Everything else is an interruption in the natural process of civilization. Remove the profit motive, and factories become cleaner, work itself becomes more pleasant, and because people only have to work 3 or 5 hours a day in a factory to meet the basic needs of mankind, people actually enjoy the work. They know it benefits not only themselves but humanity as a whole, no matter what the work is.

This was the optimism Communist and Socialist writers had prior to the Russian Revolution. That people all over the world were tired of feudalism and would soon break free of it. Communists saw Capitalism as Feudalism evolved, little more than landowners keeping peasants in poverty so the masses would have to work for the benefit of the landowner. (The change being that landownership now extended beyond royal bloodlines, meaning anyone with money could exploit the poverty of the masses.) Eventually things would get so bad everyone would revolt against the landlords and the businessmen whose ownership of everything forced the people to work for starvation wages. This shared experience made Communism inevitable, so the working people of the world would cooperate and never live this way again, and the factories would naturally become repurposed to relieve everyone of poverty.

Reading this optimism now is quite painful. The underlying presumption relies on people cooperating with no leadership or government directing them. That this behavior is a natural law of humanity without the landlords and monarchies and businessmen who force the people to work for someone else’s profit. That every single person in the world by default will cooperate to use the factories to relieve everyone of hunger and exposure so work itself becomes an exercise in lifting humanity itself out of poverty.

That was how 19th and early-20th century Communists envisioned Communism. The author cites numerous examples at the local level (during the French Revolution) to demonstrate that communities tend toward cooperation and collectivization rather than commanding the labor of others for personal gain. In spite of these, I remain unconvinced that Communism is mankind’s “natural” state, though I also don’t want to believe Capitalism (complete with its suicide nets strung up around the dorms of factory workers) is the “natural” endpoint of civilization either.

The grievances about the reality of wage work outlined here, and in other Communist texts, are the same grievances we are still repeating today (see below). Knowing all of this, the Communist revolution has never happened because the conditions of the working world have yet to become a universal, shared experience. Not everyone is suffering equally, and so long as some people can meet their needs within this system and live somewhat comfortably, a Revolution cannot happen.

If Piketty is right, then the World Wars were an interruption in the prevailing trend, and we are only just beginning to return to the working conditions the Communists wrote about. The same conditions they were certain would result in simultaneous, global rebellion.

If things get bad enough, perhaps we will once again ask the same questions people in the 19th century did. Why aren’t we using our modern technology to better the lives of everyone on the planet? Shouldn’t that be civilization’s goal? What sense does it make to work all your life only to die with nothing to show for all your labor? Who knows what will happen if the Revolution actually comes. Maybe when removed from everything else, humankind can organize itself in a better way, and no authority will be needed to make it happen.

Other notable passages:
Nowadays, whoever can load on others his share of labour indispensable to existence does so, and it is believed that it will always be so.

Now, work indispensable to existence is essentially manual. We may be artists or scientists; but none of us can do without things obtained by manual work—bread, clothes, roads, ships, light, heat, etc. And, moreover, however highly artistic or however subtly metaphysical are our pleasures, they all depend on manual labour. And it is precisely this labour—the basis of life—that everyone tries to avoid.

We understand perfectly well that it must be so nowadays.

Because, to do manual work now, means in reality to shut yourself up for ten or twelve hours a day in an unhealthy workshop, and to remain chained to the same task for twenty or thirty years, and maybe for your whole life.

It means to be doomed to a paltry wage, to the uncertainty of the morrow, to want of work, often to destitution, more often than not to death in a hospital, after having worked forty years to feed, clothe, amuse, and instruct others than yourself and your children.

It means to bear the stamp of inferiority all your life; because, whatever the politicians tell us, the manual worker is always considered inferior to the brain worker, and the one who has toiled ten hours in a workshop has not the time, and still less the means, to give himself the high delights of science and art, nor even to prepare himself to appreciate them; he must be content with the crumbs from the table of privileged persons.

We understand that under these conditions manual labour is considered a curse of fate.

We understand that all men have but one dream—that of emerging from, or enabling their children to emerge from this inferior state; to create for themselves an “independent” position, which means what?—To also live by other men’s work!

As long as there will be a class of manual workers and a class of “brain” workers, black hands and white hands, it will be thus.

What interest, in fact, can this depressing work have for the worker, when he knows that the fate awaiting him from the cradle to the grave will be to live in mediocrity, poverty, and insecurity of the morrow? Therefore, when we see the immense majority of men take up their wretched task every morning, we feel surprised at their perseverance, at their zeal for work, at the habit that enables them, like machines blindly obeying an impetus given, to lead this life of misery without hope for the morrow; without foreseeing ever so vaguely that some day they, or at least their children, will be part of a humanity rich in all the treasures of a bountiful nature, in all the enjoyments of knowledge, scientific and artistic creation, reserved to-day to a few privileged favourites.

It is precisely to put an end to this separation between manual and brain work that we want to abolish wagedom, that we want the Social Revolution. Then work will no longer appear a curse of fate: it will become what it should be—the free exercise of all the faculties of man.


In our civilized societies we are rich. Why then are the many poor? Why this painful drudgery for the masses? Why, even to the best paid workman, this uncertainty for the morrow, in the midst of all the wealth inherited from the past, and in spite of the powerful means of production, which could ensure comfort to all, in return for a few hours of daily toil?

The Socialists have said it and repeated it unwearyingly. Daily they reiterate it, demonstrating it by arguments taken from all the sciences. It is because all that is necessary for production—the land, the mines, the highways, machinery, food, shelter, education, knowledge—all have been seized by the few in the course of that long story of robbery, enforced migration and wars, of ignorance and oppression, which has been the life of the human race before it had learned to subdue the forces of Nature. It is because, taking advantage of alleged rights acquired in the past, these few appropriate to-day two-thirds of the products of human labour, and then squander them in the most stupid and shameful way. It is because, having reduced the masses to a point at which they have not the means of subsistence for a month, or even for a week in advance, the few can allow the many to work, only on the condition of themselves receiving the lion’s share. It is because these few prevent the remainder of men from producing the things they need, and force them to produce, not the necessaries of life for all, but whatever offers the greatest profits to the monopolists. In this is the substance of all Socialism.


Nor is this all. The owners of capital constantly reduce the output by restraining production. We need not speak of the cartloads of oysters thrown into the sea to prevent a dainty, hitherto reserved for the rich, from becoming a food for the people. We need not speak of the thousand and one luxuries—stuffs, foods, etc., etc.—treated after the same fashion as the oysters. It is enough to remember the way in which the production of the most necessary things is limited. Legions of miners are ready and willing to dig out coal every day, and send it to those who are shivering with cold; but too often a third, or even one-half, of their number are forbidden to work more than three days a week, because, forsooth, the price of coal must be kept up! Thousands of weavers are forbidden to work the looms, although their wives and children go in rags, and although three-quarters of the population of Europe have no clothing worthy the name.


We know, indeed, that the producers, although they constitute hardly one-third of the inhabitants of civilized countries, even now produce such quantities of goods that a certain degree of comfort could be brought to every hearth. We know further that if all those who squander to-day the fruits of others’ toil were forced to employ their leisure in useful work, our wealth would increase in proportion to the number of producers, and more. Finally, we know that contrary to the theory enunciated by Malthus—that Oracle of middle-class Economics—the productive powers of the human race increase at a much more rapid ratio than its powers of reproduction


That we are Utopians is well known. So Utopian are we that we go the length of believing that the Revolution can and ought to assure shelter, food, and clothes to all—an idea extremely displeasing to middle-class citizens, whatever their party colour, for they are quite alive to the fact that it is not easy to keep the upper hand of a people whose hunger is satisfied.


It is not for us to answer the objections raised by authoritarian Communism—we ourselves hold with them. Civilized nations have suffered too much in the long, hard struggle for the emancipation of the individual, to disown their past work and to tolerate a Government that would make itself felt in the smallest details of a citizen’s life, even if that Government had no other aim than the good of the community. Should an authoritarian Socialist society ever succeed in establishing itself, it could not last; general discontent would soon force it to break up, or to reorganize itself on principles of liberty.

It is of an Anarchist-Communist society we are about to speak, a society that recognizes the absolute liberty of the individual, that does not admit of any authority, and makes use of no compulsion to drive men to work.


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