Discussion: Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread

Discussion Notes

The discussion began with a go-around about what from the book stuck out in our minds.  One person noted that the phrase “Well Being for All,” which Kropotkin used to describe the goal of anarchism, struck a chord, and seemed to be, along with land and the distribution of wealth, one of the main themes of the book.

Other aspects of the book that came up during this period was:

  • Human Nature, does it tend towards anarch-communism?
  • Technology
  • Naivety:  K. put has a great faith that humanity will tend towards progress, and places a great deal of hope in the technology of his day and expansion of public libraries and public museums, and other communal resources that are now under attack.
  • Social Engineering:  K.’s extended descriptions of how an anarchist society would function
  • The nascent communism and anarchism that we already practice:  The free sharing of resources and our ability to create voluntary associations.
  • How does K’s thought help us today?  Does it help understand Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other uprisings?
  • These themes came up during various parts of our resulting discussion.

Human Nature:

It was brought up that K. doesn’t elaborate any particular reasons why humanity hasn’t already achieved an anarchist-communist utopia.  While he understands that some segments of society are entrenched in the status-quo, for the most part, he believes that anarchism is achieved at through reason and that if people think, they will understand that anarchism is the best way to organize their society.

While the argument that humans are by nature, socially minded anarchists may be persuasive to anarchists, it’s probably not a good argument for people who are ambiguous or hostile to anarchism.

Technology:

K. whole-heartedly embraced technology and made it an important part of his argument about how the working day could be shortened, in particularly in regards to agriculture and housework.  This enthusiastic position seems the complete opposite of the wariness of a lot of contemporary leftists and anarchists to industrial farming and the potentially dehumanizing aspects of technology.

Social Engineering:

Much of Conquest of Bread is K.’s description of an anarchist way to organize different aspects of society.  How are we to read this?  Is it social engineering, meaning that K. thinks that we ought to live in this way?  Or is trying to provoke into thinking about different ways to run our lives by imagining alternatives?

Nascent Communism/Anarchism:

In addition to human nature, the other K.’s other major argument in support of anarchism is that we already practice it in certain aspects of our lives.  He notes how villages have a communal ownership of various parts of land, that people voluntarily form aid organizations, such as the sailors who rescue ship wrecks, and how rail road systems coordinate transnational routes and schedules in a completely decentralized manner.  K. encourages people to carry these principles to the entirety of their lives, arguing against other socialists, mutualists and collectivists who want to retain some amount private property in their future societies.

How does Kropotkin’s Thought Help Us Today?

Many writers continue to use arguments made a hundred years ago (for example, this article by David Graeber).  Furthermore, K. discussed the tension between the individual and society that continues as a discussion within many anarchist circles.  Also, while he had many descriptions of how an anarchist society would function, he never made the claim that it would be perfect, that in those societies there would still be lazy people, aggressive people and a host of other problems.  States and capitalism don’t solve these problems either, however, so the onus shouldn’t be on anarchism to make a perfect world, but rather one that promotes freedom and equality.  This thought leads us to discuss whether we should consider anarchism as a continuous process against authority; that even after a successful revolution that it would be necessary to continue to agitate and to make it easier to change society in the future.

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