After The Revolution: Kropotkin on Food

Well! What are we to do when the thunderbolt has fallen?

We have all been studying the dramatic side of revolution so much, and the practical work of revolution so little, that we are apt to see only the stage effects, so to speak, of these great movements; the fight of the first days; the barricades. But this fight, this first skirmish, is soon ended, and it is only after the overthrow of the old constitution that the real work of revolution can be said to begin.

Effete and powerless, attacked on all sides, the old rulers are soon swept away by the breath of insurrection. In a few days the middle-class monarchy of 1848 was no more, and while Louis Philippe was making good his escape in a cab, Paris had already forgotten her "citizen king." The government of Thiers disappeared, on the I8th of March, I871, in a few hours, leaving Paris mistress of her destinies. Yet 1848 and I871 were only insurrections. Before a popular revolution the masters of "the old order" disappear with a surprising rapidity. Its upholders fly the country, to plot in safety elsewhere and to devise measures for their return.

The former Government having disappeared, the army, hesitating before the tide of popular opinion, no longer obeys its commanders, who have also prudently decamped. The troops stand by without interfering, or join the rebels. The police, standing at ease, are uncertain whether to belabour the crowd or to cry: "Long live the Commune!" while some retire to their quarters "to await the pleasure of the new Government." Wealthy citizens pack their trunks and betake themselves to places of safety. The people remain. This is how a revolution is ushered in. In several large towns the Commune is proclaimed. In the streets wander thousands of men, who in the evening crowd into improvised clubs asking: "What shall we do?" and ardently discuss public affairs, in which all take an interest; those who yesterday were most indifferent are perhaps the most zealous. Everywhere there is plenty of goodwill and a keen desire to make victory certain. It is a time of supreme devotion. The people are ready to go forward.

All this is splendid, sublime; but still, it is not a revolution. Nay, it is only now that-the work of the revolutionist begins.

* * *

Socialist politicians, radicals, neglected geniuses of journalism, stump orators, middle-class citizens, and workmen hurry to the Town Hall to the Government offices, and take possession of the vacant seats. Some rejoice their hearts with galloon, admire themselves in ministerial mirrors, and study to give orders with an air of importance appropriate to their new position. They must have a red sash, an embroidered cap, and magisterial gestures to impress their comrades of the office or the workshop! Others bury themselves in official papers, trying, with the best of wills, to make head or tail of them. They indite laws and issue high-flown worded decrees that nobody takes the trouble to carry out-- because the revolution has come. To give themselves an authority which is lacking they seek the sanction of old forms of Government. They take the names of "Provisional Government," "Committee of Public Safety," "Mayor," "Governor of the Town Hall," " Commissioner of Public Weal," and what not. Elected or acclaimed, they assemble in Boards or in Communal Councils. These bodies include men of ten or twenty different schools, which, if not exactly "private chapels," are at least so many sects which represent as many ways of regarding the scope, the bearing, and the goal of the revolution. Possibilists, Collectivists, Radicals, Jacobins, Blanquists, are thrust together, and waste time in wordy warfare. Honest men come into contact with ambitious ones, whose only dream is power and who spurn the crowd whence they sprung. Coming together with diametrically opposed views, they are forced to form arbitrary alliances in order to create majorities that can but last a day. Wrangling, calling each other reactionaries, authoritarians, and rascals, incapable of coming to an understanding on any serious measure, dragged into discussions about trifles, producing nothing better than bombastic proclamations, yet taking themselves seriously, unwitting that the real strength of the movement is in the streets.

All this may please those who like the theatre, but it is not revolution. Nothing yet has been accomplished Meanwhile the people suffer. The factories are idle, the workshops closed; industry is at a standstill. The worker does not even earn the meagre wage which was his before. Food goes up in price. With that heroic devotion which has always characterized them, and which in great crises reaches the sublime, the people wait patiently. "We place these three months of want at the service of the Republic," they said in 1848, while "their representatives" and the gentlemen of the new Government, down to the meanest Jack-in-office, received their salary regularly.

The people suffer. With the childlike faith, with the good humour of the masses who believe in their leaders, they think that "yonder," in the House, in the Town Hall, in the Committee of Public Safety, their welfare is being considered. But "yonder" they are discussing everything under the sun except the welfare of the people. In 1793, while famine ravaged France and crippled the Revolution; whilst the people were reduced to the depths of misery, whilst the Champs Élysée were lined with luxurious carriages where women displayed their jewels and splendour, Robespierre was urging the Jacobins to discuss his treatise on the English Constitution. While the worker was suffering in 1848 from the general stoppage of trade the Provisional Government and the House were wrangling over military pensions and prison labour, without troubling how the people were to live during this crisis. And could one cast a reproach at the Paris Commune, which was born beneath the Prussian cannon, and lasted only seventy days, it would be for this same error-- this failure to understand that the Revolution could not triumph unless those who fought on its side were fed, that on fifteen pence a day a man cannot fight on the ramparts and at the same time support a family.

The people suffer and say: "How to find the way out of these difficulties?"

It seems to us that there is only one answer to this question: We must recognize, and loudly proclaim, that every one, whatever his grade in the old society, whether strong or weak, capable or incapable, has, before everything, THE RIGHT TO LIVE, and that society is bound to share amongst all, without exception, the means of existence at its disposal. We must acknowledge this, and proclaim it aloud, and act up to it.

It must be so contrived that from the first day of the revolution the worker shall know that a new era is opening before him; that henceforward none need crouch under the bridges, with palaces hard by, none need fast in the midst of food, none need perish with cold near shops full of furs; that all is for all, in practice as well as in theory, and that at last, for the first time in history, a revolution has been accomplished which considers the NEEDS of the people before schooling them in their DUTIES.

This cannot be brought about by Acts of Parliament [or 'central comittee'], but only by taking immediate and effective possession of all that is necessary to ensure the well-being of all; this is the only really scientific way of going to work, the only way to be understood and desired by the mass of the people. We must take possession, in the name of the people, of the granaries, the shops full of clothing, and the dwelling houses. Nothing must be wasted. We must organize without delay to feed the hungry, to satisfy all wants, to meet all needs, to produce, not for the special benefit of this one or that one, but to ensure that society as a whole will live and grow.

Enough of ambiguous words like "the right to work," with which the people were misled in 1848, and which are still used to mislead them. Let us have the courage to recognize that Well-being for all, henceforward possible, must be realized.

Very different will be the result if the workers claim the right to well-being! In claiming that right they claim the right to possess the wealth of the community--to take the houses to dwell in, according to the needs of each family; to seize the stores of food and learn the meaning of plenty, after having known famine too well. They proclaim their right to all wealth--fruit of the labour of past and present generations--and learn by its means to enjoy those higher pleasures of art and science too long monopolized by the middle classes.

And while asserting their right to live in comfort, they assert, what is still more important, their right to decide for themselves what this comfort shall be, what must be produced to ensure it, and what discarded as no longer of value.

The "right to well-being" means the possibility of living like human beings, and of bringing up children to be members of a society better than ours, whilst the "right to work" only means the right to be always a wage-slave, a drudge, ruled over and exploited by the middle class of the future. The right to well-being is the Social Revolution, the right to work means nothing but the Treadmill of Commercialism. It is high time for the worker to assert his right to the common inheritance and to enter into possession.

* * *

"Bread, it is bread that the Revolution needs!"

Let others spend their time in issuing pompous proclamations, in decorating themselves lavishly with official gold lace, and in talking about political liberty!...

Be it ours to see, from the first day of the Revolution to the last, in all the provinces fighting for freedom, that there is not a single man who lacks bread, not a single woman compelled to stand with the weariful crowd outside the bake-house-door, that haply a coarse loaf may be thrown to her in charity, not a single child pining for want of food.

It has always been the middle-class idea to harangue about "great principles"--great lies rather!

The idea of the people will be to provide bread for all. And while middle-class citizens, and workmen infested with middle-class ideas admire their own rhetoric in the "Talking Shops," and "practical people" are engaged in endless discussions on forms of government, we, the "Utopian dreamers"--we shall have to consider the question of daily bread.

We have the temerity to declare that all have a right to bread, that there is bread enough for all, and that with this watchword of Bread for All the Revolution will triumph.

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.

All the same, we maintain our contention: bread must be found for the people of the Revolution, and the question of bread must take precedence of all other questions. If it is settled in the interests of the people, the Revolution will be on the right road; for in solving the question of Bread we must accept the principle of equality, which will force itself upon us to the exclusion of every other solution.

* * *

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 its statistical committees, 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 organized. 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 then expound their muddle-headed theories as much as they like, provided they have no authority, no power! And that admirable spirit of organization inherent in the people, above all in every social grade of the French nation, 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 organizing 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 great dockers 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.

* * *

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. – Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, 1906

 


Why not? "Alas! 'tis because I am poor and an orphan; because I have no more means and people are not esteemed save in reason of the aid and benefits one imagines may be had of them." - De Sade

 


HOME