Jon Bekken – Peter Kropotkin’s Anarchist Communism

Posted on 2013/10/19



Reading Kropotkin

NOTE: This rather lengthy posting is excerpted from part 2 of an
article on Kropotkin's approach to economics (which originally ran
in Libertarian Labor Review issues #11 and #12 as part of our
ongoing series on anarchist economics), addressing issues such as
labor vouchers and free distribution.  In cutting text I have
retained the original numbering of the end notes.

              Peter Kropotkin's Anarchist Communism

by Jon Bekken

     Kropotkin believed that the purpose of anarchist economics,
indeed of any viable economic theory, was to satisfy human needs as
efficiently as possible--to promote "the economical and social
value of the human being." LLR #11 presented Kropotkin's argument
that capitalism fails miserably on this score; this issue briefly
reviews Kropotkin's conception of the economic framework of a free
                       Anarchist Communism
     Economists, Kropotkin argued, made a fundamental mistake in
beginning their studies from the standpoint of production.
Instead, economics should be approached from the standpoint of
consumption--of human needs.  Needs should govern production; the
purpose of anarchist economics is not so much to understand the
workings of the capitalist economy (to the extent that it can be
said to work at all), but rather to study "the needs of mankind,
and the means of satisfying them with the least possible waste of
human energy."  Although human needs are not met at present, there
were no technical reasons why every family could not have
comfortable homes, sufficient food, etc. The problem was not to
increase productivity alone; rather, "production, having lost sight
of the needs of man, has strayed in an absolutely wrong
direction..." [...]
     In his monumental work, The Conquest of Bread [@wikipedia], Kropotkin
devoted a lengthy chapter to rebutting such common objections as
the notion that nobody would work without compulsion and that
overseers were necessary to enforce quality standards. Free
association, Kropotkin argued, was the solution to most of these
objections. If sluggards (τεμπέληδηες) and loafers (αργόσχολοι) began to proliferate, they
should be fed to the extent that available resources permitted, but
treated as "ghost[s] of bourgeois society."  But very few people
would in fact refuse to contribute to society, "there will be no
need to manufacture a code of laws on their account." [3]
     Economists' arguments in favor of property actually "only
prove that man really produces most when he works in freedom..."
Kropotkin argued that, far from shirking work when they do not
receive a wage, when people work cooperatively for the good of all
they achieve feats of productivity never realizable through
economic or state coercion.
     Well-being--that is to say the satisfaction of physical,
     artistic and moral needs, has always been the most
     powerful stimulant to work... A free worker, who sees
     ease and luxury increasing for him and for others in
     proportion to his efforts spends infinitely far more
     energy and intelligence, and obtains first-class products
     in a far greater abundance. [4]
     To the extent possible, all goods and services should be
provided free of charge to all. Goods available in abundance should
be available without limit; those in short supply should be
rationed. Already, Kropotkin noted, many goods were provided based
on need.  Bridges no longer require tolls for passage; parks and
gardens are open to all; many railroads offer monthly or annual
passes; schools and roads are free; water is supplied to every
house; libraries provide information to all without considering
ability to pay, and offer assistance to those who do not know how
to manage the catalogue.  (That many of these services have been
eroded in recent years does not invalidate his premise.)
     Kropotkin called for expropriation not only of the means of
production (land, mines, factories, etc.), but of all goods.
     All is interdependent in a civilized society; it is
     impossible to reform any one thing without altering the
     whole. On that day when we strike at private property...
     we shall be obliged to attack all its manifestations....
     Once the principle of the "divine right of property" is
     shaken, no amount of theorizing will prevent its
     overthrow, here by the slaves of the soil, there by the
     slaves of the machine.
Since human beings "are not savages who can live in the woods
without other shelter than the branches," people will demand
housing, food, clothing, and other items of consumption necessary
to live any kind of decent life. [9]
                          Shorter Hours
     Kropotkin argued that, based upon the technology of his day,
people would need put in no more than five hours a day of labor
(for 25 years or so of their lives) in order to satisfy their needs
for food, clothing, housing, wine, transportation and related
necessities. [...]
     Such a society could in return guarantee well-being more
substantial than that enjoyed today by the middle classes. And,
moreover, each worker belonging to this society would have at his
disposal at least five hours a day which he could devote to
science, art, and individual needs which do not come under the
category of necessities, but will probably do so later on, when
man's productivity will have been augmented and those objects will
no longer appear luxurious. [10]
     This latter point was, for Kropotkin, of the greatest
importance. It was not enough merely to meet people's material
wants--human beings must also be free to pursue their artistic and
aesthetic senses. Kropotkin believed that luxury, far from being
wasteful, was an absolute necessity.  But if these joys, "now
reserved to a few... to give leisure and the possibility of
developing everyone's intellectual capacities," were to be obtained
for all, then "the social revolution must guarantee daily bread to
all." [11]
     Tastes, Kropotkin recognized, varied widely.  Some
people required telescopes and laboratories to complete their
lives, others require dance halls or machine shops.  But all of
this activity was best removed from the confines of capitalist
production and carried out on a voluntary, cooperative basis after
participants had completed their few hours of necessary labor.
Freed from the drudgery of capitalist production, we would all be
free to develop our creative instincts.  Kropotkin was certain that
the result would be finer art, available to all; dramatic
scientific advances (science was, after all, until relatively
recently an entirely voluntary endeavor).
                    Work Need Not be Painful
     Under current conditions, Kropotkin recognized, to do
productive labor meant long hours in unhealthy workshops, chained
to the same task for 20 or 30 years--maybe for one's entire life.
It means living on a paltry wage, never sure what tomorrow will
bring; and little opportunity to pursue the delights of science and
art. But it was overwork, not work itself, that was repulsive to
human nature. [....]
     Kropotkin felt it was also necessary to attack the division of
labor that both Marxist and capitalist political economists have
extolled as a prerequisite of improved productivity (although Marx
did argue that ultimately labor should be reintegrated). Kropotkin
was prepared to concede that it might well be the case that a
person who did only one thing, over and over again, might indeed
become quite proficient at it. But such a worker "would lose all
interest in his work [and] would be entirely at the mercy of his
employer with his limited handicraft."
     It is not enough, after the revolution, to simple reduce the
hours of labor. Kropotkin found the notion that workers should be
confined to a single repetitious activity a "horrible principle, so
noxious to society, so brutalizing to the individual..." The Social
Revolution must abolish the separation between manual and brain
work, give workers control of their workplaces, abolish wage labor.
"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." [15]  Under the rubric of the division of labor, those who
actually make things are not supposed to think or make decisions,
while others "have the privilege of thinking for the others, and
... think badly because the whole world of those who toil with
their hands is unknown to them."
     The division of labor means labelling and stamping men
     for life--some to splice rope in factories, some to be
     foremen in a business, others to shove huge coal baskets
     in a particular part of a mine; but none of them to have
     any idea of machinery as a whole, nor of business, nor of
     mines. And thereby they destroy the love of work and the
     capacity for invention... [16]
It would be far better, Kropotkin argued, for teachers to share in
the duties of washing the floors, sweeping the school-yard, and the
myriad of other tasks essential to school operations, than to allow
the formation of an intelligentsia, "an aristocracy of skilled
labor." [17]
     And much of the advantage derived from the division of labor
is in any event lost through the necessity it creates to cart goods
from place to place, and to create enormous bureaucracies to
coordinate production of disparate parts that must ultimately be
integrated into a single machine. [...]  The advantages of
centralized production are similarly illusory. While it is
sometimes convenient for capitalists to bring their operations
under central control (although even they increasingly find it
necessary to encourage local initiative), this is not because of
any technical advantages. Industry is centralized to facilitate
market domination, not because of often non-existent economies of
scale. [19]  To this day, the high-tech, advanced industries so
often held up to demonstrate the superiority of centralized control
are often carried out in small-scale, dispersed operations.
Decentralization is, in fact, more efficient.
                     Abolish the Wage System
     Kropotkin argued that the coming social revolution's
"great[est] service to humanity" would be "to make the wage system
in all its forms an impossibility." [20]  In Kropotkin's day, most
socialists acknowledged the need to abolish the wage system, but
argued for its replacement by labor tokens representing either the
"value" of people's labor or time put in on the job. Kropotkin,
too, argued for such a system in 1873. [21]  But he soon concluded
that such schemes were both wildly impractical and thoroughly
     Once the abolition of private property is proclaimed, and
     the possession in common of all the means of production
     is introduced--how can the wages system be maintained in
     any form?  This is, nevertheless, what collectivists are
     doing when they recommend the use of the 'labor-cheques'
     as a mode of renumeration for labor. [22]
     Today labor vouchers are out of favor, but most socialists
still accept the wage system and money, often disguised as
consumption credits, as inevitable. Proponents of such schemes
argue that they are needed "in order to avoid systematic and
massive misallocation of time and resources." The marketplace is,
of course, a time-tested mechanism for ascertaining social needs
and preferences for goods. The reason there is mass starvation in
Africa is not because the market doesn't work to meet human needs,
but because our fellow workers prefer not to eat.
     Such devices make sense only within the framework of a market
economy where goods are produced and distributed not on the basis
of need, but on ability to pay. Whether such an economic system
maintains wage differentials (the arguments against these were
reviewed in the first installment) or proclaims equal wages (or,
perhaps, wage differentials favoring those engaged in "disagreeable
or unhealthy work"), it nevertheless upholds an organization of
production and consumption which originated in private property --
and which is realizable only within its constraints. [23]
     Kropotkin refuted such arguments 100 years ago, when they were
still fresh:
     They say, "No private property," and immediately after
     strive to maintain private property in its daily
     It can never be. For the day on which old institutions will
     fall under the proletarian axe, voices will call our: '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... and we shall build in the name of Communism and
     Anarchy.' [24]
     If there was a genuine shortage of necessities, Kropotkin
argued that it was more just to ration goods than to maintain
mechanisms for exchange.  The wage system, in all its forms, should
be rejected in favor of communist principles; for if wages are to
be maintained (whether based on labor, or any other measure) a
State apparatus is perforce necessary as well.
     But the fundamental point, for Kropotkin, was that people must
seize control of their economic destiny--must be prepared to
experiment with new processes and new methods of organization while
taking advantage of the existing methods to meet immediate needs.
The technical means of satisfying human needs, Kropotkin was
convinced, were at hand, "The only thing that may be wanting to the
Revolution is the boldness of initiative.... Ceasing to produce for
unknown buyers, and looking in its midst for needs and tastes to be
satisfied, society will liberally assure the life and ease of each
of its members, as well as that moral satisfaction which work gives
when freely chosen and freely accomplished..." [25]
     The Social Revolution would build on the basis of what was--
seizing the existing industries and goods to meet immediate needs
and as the building blocks from which we would construct a free
society. And while it is neither possible nor desireable to spell
out in every detail how such an economy might operate, Kropotkin
argued that it was in fact essential to think about its general
outlines in advance, so that we might build with a purpose.
Expropriation, direct action, federalism and self-management were,
for Kropotkin, the means. But a society not built upon communist
principles would inevitably succumb to the central power it
established to oversee production and distribution. Only the free
distribution of necessities, in all their variety, on the basis not
of position or productivity, but of need, was compatible with a
free society.


3:  Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread. New York University Press,
    1972 (reprint of 1913 edition), pp. 55, 170 174.
4:  Conquest of Bread, pp. 161-63.
9:  Kropotkin, "Expropriation" (1895), pp. 171-72. In: M. Miller
    (ed.), Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution. MIT
    Press, 1970.
10: Conquest of Bread, pp. 122-23.
11: Conquest of Bread, p. 124.
15: Conquest of Bread, p. 164.
16: Conquest of Bread, pp. 198-99.
17: "Must We Occupy Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of
    a Future System?" p. 56. In Miller.
19: Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow. Freedom
    Press edition (1985), pp. 153-54.
21: "Must We Occupy Ourselves..." pp. 68-69.
22: Kropotkin, "The Wage System," pp. 94-96. In: V. Richards, Why
    Work?  Freedom Press.  Conquest of Bread, p. 176.
23: For an example of one such approach see Michael Albert and
    Robin Hahnel's Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the
    Twenty-First Century, reviewed [in LLR #12]. Similarly, WSA's
    Richard Laubach argues, in the Discussion Bulletin (#23, May
    1987, p. 21; #25, Sept. 1987, pp. 17-22), for giving all
    workers a set of votes on what to produce... 'consumption
    credits'" used "to acquire goods and services [and thereby]
    provide information about the community's cumulative
    preferences." (He does not mean that we would inform central
    planners of our consumption plans for the coming year, an
    unwieldy system, though not a market economy. Instead,
    consumers would be provided with an equal number of
    "consumption credits" which they would use to buy things from
    stores, just as with money.) We are clearly talking about
    money here, and an economic system which must quickly revert
    to a full-fledged market economy or to central planning--in
    either case one that has little if anything to do with meeting
    human needs and promoting human freedom.
24: Conquest of Bread, pp. 179, 189.
24: Conquest of Bread, p. 229.

A copy of the complete article is contained in LLR #11-#12, available
for $5 (both) from LLR, Box 762, Cortland NY 13045.  LLR #15, now in press
($3), includes part II of Abraham Guillen's Libertarian Economics, an analysis
of TDU Boring-from-Within, reports on international syndicalism, and several
book reviews.