Book Review: Conquest of Bread

Conquest of Bread, by Peter Kropotkin.

Reviewed by Jacob

In Conquest of Bread, Peter Kropotkin discusses how communist anarchists could successfully overthrow the political and economic systems of his day, and create a new society in accordance with anarcho-communist principles.

I read the book hoping to better understand Kropotkin’s ideas, and the differences between communist anarchism and other schools of anarchist thought. I came away from the book not knowing whether to feel disappointed, or, perhaps more accurately, feeling somewhat disappointed, but unsure how much of my disappointment to fault Kropotkin for.


Conquest of Bread was published in 1906. To point out that a lot has happened, and changed, between then and today would, obviously, understate the facts. Not only is the world a much different place, but many of the arguments made by economists like F. A. Hayek, criticizing the ideas of state socialists, had not yet been made.

Much of Kropotkin’s book attempts to argue that technology had, by his day, progressed to such a point that human beings could meet all the needs of everyone in society with the labor they had available, and thus that society could be reorganized so that everyone could live in comfort. To argue this point, he discusses how much labor, (usually how many hours worth of labor,) people would need to engage in in order to meet different needs, such as building shelter to house such and such a number of people for such and such a number of years, or growing this or that kind of food in order to feed such and such a number of people. To quote an example:

How many hours a day will man have to work to produce nourishing food, a comfortable home, and necessary clothing for his family? This question has often preoccupied Socialists, and they generally came to the conclusion that four or five hours a day would suffice, on condition, be it well understood, that all men work. …

In speaking of agriculture further on, we shall see what the earth can be made to yield to man when he cultivates it scientifically, instead of throwing seed haphazard in a badly ploughed soil as he mostly does today. In the great farms of Western America, some of which cover 30 square miles, but have a poorer soil than the manured soil of civilized countries, only 10 to 15 English bushels per English acre are obtained; that is to say, half the yield of European farms or of American farms in Eastern States. And never the less, thanks to machines which enable 2 men to plough 4 English acres a day, 100 men can produce in a year all that is necessary to deliver the bread of 10,000 people at their homes during a whole year.

Thus it would suffice for a man to work under the same conditions for 30 hours, say 6 half-days of five hours each, to have bread for a whole year; and to work 30 half-days to guarantee the same to a family of 5 people.

We shall also prove by results obtained now a days that if we had recourse to intensive agriculture, less than 6 half-days’ work could procure bread, meat, vegetables, and even luxurious fruit for a whole family.

I don’t know enough to say whether Kropotkin’s statistics were accurate, in this passage or others, but I won’t dwell on this. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that, today, 111 years hence, we have the technology to feed, house, and meet the various other needs of everyone on earth. I don’t actually know whether this is the case, but let us suppose it for the sake of argument.

Kropotkin imagines organizing society in such a way that everyone works at the trade of their choice, producing enough to meet the needs of society as a whole. He also imagines that, for non-scarce goods, people could take however much of a good they felt they needed, while for scarce goods, society would adopt a system of rations.

As long as there is no fear of the supply running short, no water company thinks of checking the consumption of water in each house. Take what you please! But during the great droughts, if there is any fear of supply failing, the water companies know that all they have to do is to make known the fact, by means of a short advertisement in the papers, and the citizens will reduce their consumption of water and not let it run to waste.

But if water were actually scarce, what would be done? Recourse would be had to a system of rations. Such a measure is so natural, so inherent in common sense, that Paris twice asked to be put on rations during the two sieges which it underwent in 1871.

Is it necessary to go into details, to prepare tables showing how the distribution of rations may work, to prove that it is just and equitable, infinitely more just and equitable than the existing state of things? All these

tables and details will not serve to convince those of the middle classes, nor, alas, those of the workers tainted with middle-class prejudices, who regard the people as a mob of savages ready to fall upon and devour each other, directly the Government ceases to direct affairs. But those only who have never seen the people resolve and act on their own initiative could doubt for a moment that if the masses were masters of the situation, they would distribute rations to each and all in strictest accordance with justice and equity.

The idea of a system of rations comes up elsewhere in the book as well, and Kropotkin makes the same basic argument, that people would accept such a system without much fuss. The impression I get is that he imagined most goods, (at least those he considered basic needs, e.g. food, water, clothing, and shelter,) would be produced in such quantity that they would no longer be scarce. Thus, the system of rations would, presumably, only need to be relied upon for luxuries, or goods for which people would be more likely to accept it.

This impression seems to be confirmed by an editor’s note at the end of another of Kropotkin’s works:

Kropotkin’s earlier writings as to the methods of organizing production and distribution after a revolutionary seizure of property were based on the assumption that there would be sufficiency of goods for each to take what he needed and to work as much as he felt able. After his experience with the Russian Revolution he came to a quite contrary conclusion. He recognized the obstacles to production on a new basis as well as the poverty of the capitalist world and expressed his changed opinion in a postscript to the Russian edition of Words of a Rebel, published in 1919. His method for organizing production follows his previous teaching, but his statement of it after the Russian Revolution adds interest to it. (R.N.B.)

Having not read Words of a Rebel, I don’t know what differences, if any, Kropotkin made to his proposals there compared to those he makes in Conquest of Bread.

As for the question of how to incentivize people to work, Kropotkin offers multiple points.

First, Kropotkin suggests that extreme division of labor actually decreases productivity, by inculcating boredom through repetitive work, and by restricting inventiveness and experimentation by requiring workers to tend machinery they don’t, and can’t, understand, and to be part of a production process where they only ever know how to play their own small part, never understanding the whole picture. Thus Kropotkin imagines that a communist anarchist society would help boost productivity by enabling people to work a variety of occupations, and by relying far less on division of labor.

Look at the village smith, said Adam Smith, the father of modern Political Economy. If he has never been accustomed to making nails he will only succeed by hard toil in forging two to three hundred a day, and even then they will be bad. But if this same smith has never done anything but nails, he will easily supply as many as two thousand three hundred in the course of a day. And Smith hastened to the conclusion — “Divide labour, specialize, go on specializing; let us have smiths who only know how to make heads or points of nails, and by this means we shall produce more. We shall grow rich.”

That a smith sentenced for life to the making of heads of nails would lose all interest in his work, would be entirely at the mercy of his employer with his limited handicraft, would be out of work four months out of twelve, and that his wages would decrease when he could be easily replaced by an apprentice, Smith did not think of it when he exclaimed — “Long live the division of labour. This is the real gold-mine that will enrich the nation!” And all joined in the cry.

And later on, when a Sismondi or a J. B. Say began to understand that the division of labour, instead of enriching the whole nation, only enriches the rich, and that the worker, who for life is doomed to making the eighteenth part of a pin, grows stupid and sinks into poverty — what did official economists propose? Nothing! They did not say to themselves that by a lifelong grind at one and the same mechanical toil the worker would lose his intelligence and his spirit of invention, and that, on the contrary, a variety of occupations would result in considerably augmenting the productivity of a nation.

Secondly, Kropotkin suggests that social ostracism could encourage those few inclined to let others do all the work of production to take part in the production process themselves.

Let us take a group of volunteers, combining for some particular enterprise. Having its success at heart, they all work with a will, save one of the associates, who is frequently absent from his post. Must they on his account dissolve the group, elect a president to impose fines, or maybe distribute markers for work done, as is customary in the Academy? It is evident that neither the one nor the other will be done, but that someday the comrade who imperils their enterprise will be told: “Friend, we should like to work with you; but as you are often absent from your post, and you do your work negligently, we must part. Go and find other comrades who will put up with your indifference!”

While Kropotkin doesn’t delve into mathematics or game theory, (recall that Conquest of Bread was published in 1906, before game theory had been developed to the extent is has today,) this idea of relying on social ostracism to maintain social order is both a well-accepted idea in modern social science, from economics to evolutionary psychology, and a welcome suggestion for libertarians who want to rely on physical violence as little as possible in maintaining a free society.

Whether Kropotkin wanted to rely solely on non-violent ostracism to maintain social order is not completely clear. If he did, then this touches on the question capitalists are immediately inclined to ask any anarcho-communist, “Would capitalists be able to keep private property, wage labour, and usury going amongst themselves in an anarcho-communist society without being met with violent resistance?”

Kropotkin does make clear, however, that he imagines the initial transition from capitalism to communism taking the form of a violent revolution, and to me this suggests that he might also have been willing to use violence to maintain the communistic nature of his ideal society. Other than suggesting that no one would willingly work for another for a wage after the revolution had occurred, and thus that bringing back capitalism would be prohibitively difficult, he doesn’t explicitly explain how people who choose to live by “capitalist” social norms would be treated, whether with violence or non-violent ostracism, though.


So why did I find the book disappointing?

Firstly, while Kropotkin spends a lot of time discussing the technology of production in the sense of machinery, he neglects, in my opinion, to sufficiently discuss social technology.

As a market anarchist, (not an “anarcho-capitalist” market anarchist, or a “proudhonian mutualist” market anarchist, but an anti-monopoly, individualist market anarchist in the style of Benjamin Tucker, Charles Johnson, Samuel Konkin, and Roderick Long, (trust me, the lack of a clear taxonomy is as frustrating to me as it is to you,)) I think of markets as a form of social technology, (“social software,” if you will.) Just like flocks of starlings can coordinate their movement by paying attention to the actions of their closest neighbors, without the need for a leader managing and directing everyone’s behavior, by interacting through a freed market human beings can coordinate their behavior in order to fulfill their needs, simply by paying attention to their “neighbors,” to the specific people they interact with directly, without a need for any central designer to direct the actions and decisions of each member of society.

F.A. Hayek discussed this idea in his article The Use of Knowledge in Society. I find his arguments persuasive. In another article, Socialism: Still Impossible After All these Years, Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson offer some statistics(*) from the early Soviet Union that provide empirical evidence that State Communism, under Lenin, failed to overcome “the knowledge problem,” and could not fulfill the needs of everyone in society without a price system, as communists hope their preferred social system could do.

Now, this raises a whole slew of objections. Boettke and Leeson spend much of their article making a priori arguments, before getting around to their presentation of historical evidence, and I find their reliance on a priori arguments problematic. Their evidence is from the Soviet Union, an example of state communism, not anarchist communism. Authors like Kevin Carson also argue that the knowledge problem applies to bureaucratic firms as well as totalitarian governments and their associated command economies, though perhaps to a lesser degree. And, of course, F.A. Hayek wrote his article decades after the publication of Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread. Faulting Kropotkin for failing to anticipate Hayek’s arguments would be silly. One can’t respond to arguments that have not yet been made.

But, in the same way, I can’t respond to arguments Kropotkin fails to make. I could pretend to know what he would say if teleported into 2017, but my pretensions would probably not help.

Thus, if communist anarchists have somewhere provided a good explanation of how their society can overcome the calculation problems of Mises and Hayek, it is not to be found in Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread. Since I find Hayek’s arguments persuasive, I would need a good response before being convinced that any large scale, (say, hundreds of thousands of people,) society could exist and prosper under communistic anarchism.


On the other hand, Benjamin Tucker, an individualist anarchist who wrote prolifically in the late 1800s, criticized Kropotkin’s ideas before Kropotkin ever published Conquest of Bread. For example, in Should Labor be Paid or Not?, Benjamin Tucker writes:

In No. 121 of Liberty, criticising an attempt of Kropotkine to identify Communism and Individualism, I charged him with ignoring “the real question whether Communism will permit the individual to labor independently, own tools, sell his labor or his products, and buy the labor or products of others.” In Herr Most’s eyes this is so outrageous that, in reprinting it, he puts the words “the labor of others” in large black type. Most being a Communist, he must, to be consistent, object to the purchase and sale of anything whatever; but why he should particularly object to the purchase and sale of labor is more than I can understand. Really, in the last analysis, labor is the only thing that has any title to be bought or sold. Is there any just basis of price except cost? And is there anything that costs except labor or suffering (another name for labor)? Labor should be paid! Horrible, isn’t it? Why, I thought that the fact that it is not paid was the whole grievance. “Unpaid labor” has been the chief complaint of all Socialists, and that labor should get its reward has been their chief contention. Suppose I had said to Kropotkine that the real question is whether Communism will permit individuals to exchange their labor or products on their own terms. Would Herr Most have been so shocked? Would he have printed that in black type? Yet in another form I said precisely that.

If the men who oppose wages—that is, the purchase and sale of labor—were capable of analyzing their thought and feelings, they would see that what really excites their anger is not the fact that labor is bought and sold, but the fact that one class of men are dependent for their living upon the sale of their labor, while another class of men are relieved of the necessity of labor by being legally privileged to sell something that is not labor, and that, but for the privilege, would be enjoyed by all gratuitously. And to such a state of things I am as much opposed as any one. But the minute you remove privilege, the class that now enjoy it will be forced to sell their labor, and then, when there will be nothing but labor with which to buy labor, the distinction between wage-payers and wage-receivers will be wiped out, and every man will be a laborer exchanging with fellow-laborers. Not to abolish wages, but to make every man dependent upon wages and to secure to every man his whole wages is the aim of Anarchistic Socialism. What Anarchistic Socialism aims to abolish is usury. It does not want to deprive labor of its reward; it wants to deprive capital of its reward. It does not hold that labor should not be sold; it holds that capital should not be hired at usury.

But, says Herr Most, this idea of a free labor market from which privilege is eliminated is nothing but “consistent Manchesterism.” Well, what better can a man who professes Anarchism want than that? For the principle of Manchesterism is liberty, and consistent Manchesterism is consistent adherence to liberty. The only inconsistency of the Manchester men lies in their infidelity to liberty in some of its phases. And this infidelity to liberty in some of its phases is precisely the fatal inconsistency of the Freiheit school,—the only difference between its adherents and the Manchester men being that in many of the phases in which the latter are infidel the former are faithful, while in many of those in which the latter are faithful the former are infidel. Yes, genuine Anarchism is consistent Manchesterism, and Communistic or pseudo-Anarchism is inconsistent Manchesterism. “I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Now, I would not go as far as calling communistic anarchism “pseudo-Anarchism.” I find the endless, vitriolic debate over what self-identified anarchists count as “real anarchists” exhausting and unproductive. I would much rather hear real criticisms of ideas, and Tucker provides this as well.

Tucker’s contention is that for laborers to be free to earn and make a living, and trade their labor with others to the mutual benefit of both, is the whole point of socialism. It is not free exchange which creates structural poverty and enables the rich to gain economic power over the rest of us, it is “legal privilege.” In another article, State Socialism and Anarchism, Benjamin Tucker explains his ideas about how elimination of legal privilege would benefit the mass of society:

This brings us to Anarchism, which may be described as the doctrine that all the affairs of men should be managed by individuals or voluntary associations, and that the State should be abolished.

When Warren and Proudhon, in prosecuting their search for justice to labor, came face to face with the obstacle of class monopolies, they saw that these monopolies rested upon Authority, and concluded that the thing to be done was, not to strengthen this Authority and thus make monopoly universal, but to utterly uproot Authority and give full sway to the opposite principle, Liberty, by making competition, the antithesis of monopoly, universal. They saw in competition the great leveler of prices to the labor cost of production. In this they agreed with the political economists. The query then naturally presented itself why all prices do not fall to labor cost; where there is any room for incomes acquired otherwise than by labor; in a word, why the usurer, the receiver of interest, rent, and profit, exists. The answer was found in the present one-sidedness of competition. It was discovered that capital had so manipulated legislation that unlimited competition is allowed in supplying productive labor, thus keeping wages down to the starvation point, or as near it as practicable; that a great deal of competition is allowed in supplying distributive labor, or the labor of the mercantile classes, thus keeping, not the prices of goods, but the merchants’ actual profits on them down to a point somewhat approximating equitable wages for the merchants’ work; but that almost no competition at all is allowed in supplying capital, upon the aid of which both productive and distributive labor are dependent for their power of achievement, thus keeping the rate of interest on money and of house-rent and ground-rent at as high a point as the necessities of the people will bear.

On discovering this, Warren and Proudhon charged the political economists with being afraid of their own doctrine. The Manchester men were accused of being inconsistent. The believed in liberty to compete with the laborer in order to reduce his wages, but not in liberty to compete with the capitalist in order to reduce his usury. Laissez faire was very good sauce for the goose, labor, but was very poor sauce for the gander, capital.

Tucker mentions four main “monopolies” that, he thought, served to grant capitalists their power, without which they would be left to work for a living like everyone else. He specifically discusses “the money monopoly, the land monopoly, the tariff monopoly, and the patent monopoly.” Later in the same article he also discusses, (though only in passing,) how an anarchist society could also improve relations between adults and children, and between men and women.

In other words, he criticizes the “social software,” (as I like to call it,) of the society in which he found himself, and gave some indication of how a better society might work, of how people could facilitate cooperation, coordinate their behavior, and achieve their values as best they could.

More recent authors have built upon and expanded the work of Tucker and other early individualists. The book Markets Not Capitalism compiles some of their work, but discussing their ideas in more detail can be left for another day. My point is that, in Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin barely addresses the ideas of individualist anarchists. He mentions Proudhon in passing, never mentions Tucker, and spends a chapter criticizing collectivists for wanting to keep a “wage system” around, but he leaves Tucker’s questions about whether or not people could, in a communist society, voluntarily buy, sell, and trade their labor and products in a free market unaddressed.

The result is that, in reading Kropotkin’s book, I get the impression that he valued both “equity,” (a value that I think subsumes Tucker’s call for labor to receive its full product,) and “well-being,” but had not worked out clearly in his mind how these values related to one another, or how to resolve potential conflicts in their application. Thus, I can’t tell whether he would condone the use of physical force to prevent people from voluntarily adopting non-communistic norms of resource use, (e.g. “sticky” property norms of the sort anarcho-capitalists tend to favor, or “usufructory” norms of the sort mutualists suggest using.) Similarly, would he, and other communists, use force to prevent wage labor, or the use of currency? Would they forcibly abolish markets?

For that matter, among themselves, would they use force to protect the means of production that the communists themselves collectively owned? How would they prevent people from wandering into a machine shop and absconding with the ratchet, screwdriver, and electric generator? If they use physical force to prevent people from doing this, then are they not enforcing a form of “private property,” preventing some from using resources “owned” by others? What about people who take more than their share of rationed goods? Do they use force to prevent this? If so, how is their society less hierarchical than one that uses force to enforce contracts voluntarily entered into, or to protect individual ownership of resources? Conquest of Bread does not adequately answer these questions.

Now, Kropotkin does suggest that people who had their basic needs met would no longer be willing to work for a wage. Perhaps so. I personally think that, if States were abolished, people would adopt a plurality of different norms, and, in fact, that economic constraints would discourage the adoption of “sticky property rights,” (because they’re more costly to enforce than usufruct, at least based on my understanding of what “sticky” and “usufructory” norms might look like. Unfortunately, Proudhon left a lot unclear in his description of “usufructory” norms of resource use. But I digress.) Economic factors may also encourage people to engage in artisan labor or self-employment, as well as, perhaps, joining cooperatively owned and operated businesses rather than the bureaucratic firms that predominate today. I expect a real “freed market” would look alien compared to today’s world, like something out of a science fiction story or a “mad economist’s” imagination.

But Kropotkin’s suggestion that people would no longer be willing to work for others does not answer Tucker’s question, “whether Communism will permit the individual to labor independently, own tools, sell his labor or his products, and buy the labor or products of others.”

Kropotkin also, as mentioned above, discusses the “Collectivist Wages System” in chapter 13. He basically argues that because production is a collective process, with thousands of people working together to produce all the goods and services they provide to one another, it is impossible to measure any individual’s contribution to the process as compared with any other’s. Thus, he suggests, “put the needs above the works, and first of all recognize the right to live, and later on, to the comforts of life, for all those who take their share in production.” Whereas he says the collectivists want to base society on the principle, “To each according to his deeds,” Kropotkin wants, more or less, to base society on Marx’s principle of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

Kropotkin’s argument sounds similar to arguments made by Shawn Wilbur, (a modern mutualist who draws heavily on Proudhon’s work, “u/humanispherian” on reddit.) Since people’s “deeds” are not comeasurable, and their contribution to production can not be quantified or disentangled from the contributions of others, both others in their own workplace and others in society at large, Kropotkin believes a principle of equity can not be applied by directly compensating individuals for their own contributions to production, and so society must strive to secure the well-being of all instead, by giving to each member of society whatever they need for free.

Now, I actually agree, more or less, with Kropotkin’s argument, just not with his conclusions. I agree that we can not, objectively, disentangle the contributions made by different individuals from each other. Kropotkin spends a bit of time illustrating this point with various hypothetical scenarios, and I think he makes the point well.

But I don’t see his suggested system of general production of stuff, giving away of some of the fruit of this production, and rationing of the rest as an improvement over a market. Even setting aside the calculation problem, (how producers could know what to produce, when to produce it, and who to send it to, mysteries Kropotkin leaves unsolved in his book,) it seems likely to me that people operating in a freed market could achieve a better “sense” of equity for themselves than in Kropotkin’s system, even if this were a purely subjective “sense.” People could agree on the general “rules of the game” through creation and maintenance of a polycentric dispute resolution system, and then, within the resulting environment(s), contractually agree with each other on specific terms of compensation for specific tasks.

If each person will only agree to associate with others when they expect to benefit, on net, from the interaction, and if they have to continually persuade others to continue helping them achieve their goals, then presumably people would get something in return for their work. If they thought their reward was disproportional to the costs they bore, they could try to lower their costs, try to negotiate with others to get a better reward, or change what they were working on entirely. While differences in bargaining power might exist, a polycentric dispute resolution system could enable people to try living by different kinds of norms, and prevent people from gaining bargaining power through legal privilege, or even through social recognition of privileges enforced through ostracism. If people wanted to live in a society where they had good bargaining positions, then they could probably come closer to achieving this by working with others to find a set of norms that gave all participants good bargaining positions. It seems likely that people could end up getting enough in return for their labor that they were satisfied. At the very least, it seems clearer to me how this setup could be used to try to achieve “equity,” in the subjective estimations of society’s members, than it does how people could implement Kropotkin’s ideas in order to achieve either “equity” or “well-being.”

Apart from my skepticism of Kropotkin’s praxis, what bothers me is that he almost seems to want to abandon “equity” as a value, or at least to abandon any attempt at achieving it. I don’t think he would have agreed that this was what he wanted to do, he appeals to “equity” explicitly in Conquest of Bread and his later pamphlet on Anarchist Communism. But because Benjamin Tucker seems to treat equity as a core value of socialism, I’m taken aback when Kropotkin seems to want to take a different direction, towards a different goal.

At this point my readers would probably appreciate an explanation of just what I mean by “equity.” What I mean, more or less, is “maintaining a connection and correlation between who makes decisions and takes actions and who is affected by those actions, and maintaining a proportionality between the actions taken and the effects experienced by the actor.” Or, alternatively, “creating an environment in which people control what happens to them, and in which others do not, so that each individual can choose the direction their own life takes and the experiences they themselves have, either negative or positive, to the greatest extent that is possible.”

Thus, if some individual or group labors to create a good or service, equity implies that they should enjoy the fruit of their labor, keeping the good or being able to benefit from the service. Further, it captures the idea that people should receive a share of any collective product in proportion to their own share of the input into that product’s creation. Thus, from equity, one can derive Tucker’s principle of “to laborers their full product.”

The value can also be used to generate something like a “non-aggression principle,” (something Benjamin Tucker also advocated for, though he used different terminology.) If one person harms another, there is a disconnect between who makes the choice to cause someone to suffer, (the person doing the harm,) and who suffers, (the person hurt.) This is “inequitable” in the sense that the person doing the harm experiences less suffering than they have created in the world, and the person harmed experiences more. If the person harmed then retaliates or seeks restitution, they can restore this balance, so long as they don’t go overboard and cause their aggressor more harm than the aggressor caused them.

Now, if critics want to point out that what counts as “equitable,” given my description, is subjective rather than objective, I’ll be the first to agree. I’ll also agree that this creates problems for applying the value. But I don’t see any solution in Kropotkin’s work. “Well-being” is at least as subjective a value as “equity.” Even if there is an objective element in what people “need” to survive, (“if we don’t have bread we will starve,”) it is still subjective which of their needs are more important, (“should we spend the next hour growing food or digging a well? Or building a shelter? Or sowing clothes? What kind of food? What kind of clothes?”), and whose needs outweigh whose, (“do we give the last bottle of milk to the single mother and her child, or to the workers maintaining the dam on the edge of town that’s keeping out the floodwaters?”) I understand if Kropotkin is unsatisfied with the results of people bargaining with their neighbors, coworkers, trading partners, and so forth about who deserves what, but I don’t find Kropotkin’s case that his system would be better at all convincing.

The best solution I can think of to the problem of subjectivity, and conflict, in people’s values, is to let people decide who they want to associate with, and who they don’t, and to refrain from interfering in each other’s affairs and decisions as much as humanly possible. If people can choose who to interact with, and avoid interacting with those they wish to avoid, then perhaps they can work with like-minded people to come as close as they can to achieving their own values. In other words, voluntary association, and disassociation.


Anyway, this is only a book review, and I risk making it look like a book in itself.

To conclude, what voluntaryists need from communist anarchists is an explanation of the social technology they imagine using to facilitate cooperation, to coordinate their behavior, and to enable people to benefit from participating in society, plus an explanation of how they would react to people voluntarily using markets, and non-communistic norms of resource use, as their own “social software.” While certainly an interesting book, and worth reading for other reasons, these questions find no adequate answers in Conquest of Bread, and I sadly expect voluntaryists who read it to feel unconvinced and underwhelmed.

Addendum: July 8th 2017.

I was reading back through the chapter on “free association,” on the suggestion of someone on reddit, to see if I had missed anything pertinent to my review. Indeed, it occurred to me that the following passage may come the closest, out of anything in Conquest of Bread, to answering Tucker’s question, (and my own,) about voluntary association, and adoption of non-communist norms in an overall anarcho-communist civilization:

Take, for example, an association stipulating that each of its members should carry out the following contract: “We undertake to give you the use of our houses, stores, streets, means of transport, schools, museums, etc., on condition that, from twenty to forty-five or fifty years of age, you consecrate four or five hours a day to some work recognized as necessary to existence. Choose yourself the producing groups which you wish to join, or organize a new group, provided that it will undertake to produce necessaries. And as for the remainder of your time, combine together with those you like for recreation, art, or science, according to the bent of your taste.

“Twelve or fifteen hundred hours of work a year, in a group producing food, clothes, or houses, or employed in public health, transport, etc., is all we ask of you. For this work we guarantee to you all that these groups produce or will produce. But if not one, of the thousands of groups of our federation, will receive you, whatever be their motive; if you are absolutely incapable of producing anything useful, or if you refuse to do it, then live like an isolated man or like an invalid. If we are rich enough to give you the necessaries of life we shall be delighted to give them to you. You are a man, and you have the right to live. But as you wish to live under special conditions, and leave the ranks, it is more than probable that you will suffer for it in your daily relations with other citizens. You will be looked upon as a ghost of bourgeois society, unless some friends of yours, discovering you to be a talent, kindly free you from all moral obligation towards society by doing necessary work for you.

“And lastly, if it does not please you, go and look for other conditions else where in the wide world, or else seek adherents and organize with them on novel principles. We prefer our own.”

The answer, here, seems to be that, as far as Kropotkin was concerned, people opposed to communism, even “anarcho-capitalists”, could get together to adopt alternative sets of norms amongst themselves, without violent intervention from “anarcho-communists.”

Some of the things he says, (elsewhere in the book,) when talking about violent overthrow of the “capitalist” society of his own time still leave me not completely convinced…

The collectivists say, “To each according to his deeds”; or, in other terms, according to his share of services rendered to society. They think it expedient to put this principle into practice as soon as the Social Revolution will have made all instruments of production common property. But we think that if the Social Revolution had the misfortune of proclaiming such a principle, it would mean its necessary failure; it would mean leaving the social problem, which past centuries have burdened us with, unsolved. In fact, in a society like ours, in which the more a man works the less he is remunerated, this principle, at first sight, may appear to be a yearning for justice. But it is really only the perpetuation of past injustice. It was by virtue of this principle that wagedom began, to end in the glaring inequalities and all the abominations of present society; because, from the moment work done was appraised in currency or in any other form of wage; the day it was agreed upon that man would only receive the wage he could secure to himself, the whole history of State-aided Capitalist Society was as good as written; it germinated in this principle.

Shall we, then, return to our starting-point and go through the same evolution again? Our theorists desire it, but fortunately it is impossible. The Revolution will be communist; if not, it will be drowned in blood, and have to be begun over again.

…but perhaps in these parts what he means is not so much that communist anarchists would have to use violence to ensure that the post-revolution society was a communist one, but that, if it were not, the masses’ needs could not be met and they would inevitably reject the new society, bringing about a return to the old state of things, and sending anarchists back to square one.

If this was all he meant, then perhaps “anarcho-communists,” drawing on Kropotkin’s ideas, could live peacefully alongside “anarcho-capitalists?” And, if this were possible, surly mutualists, collectivists, individualists, or whoever could live peacefully alongside both of these other groups as well?

I think part of my uncertainty springs from the fact that I want Kropotkin to have been in favor of letting individualists do their own thing in his ideal world, without using violence to stop them, and I am afraid of misinterpreting his words in a way that satisfies what I want him to have said. It is possible, though, that my fears are misplaced, perhaps I should simply take the passage on “organizing with [others] on novel principles” at face value, and say that he would have left individualist anarchists alone.

In any case, I thought readers of my review would appreciate knowing about this passage.

(For those interested, an article here by an anarchist who draws, in part, on Kropotkin’s work, argues explicitly in favor of using coercion to prevent even voluntary “capitalism.” They have some commentary, in their article, on Kropotkin’s ideas, which is relevant to my own commentary here.)

(*One final note, I want to correct an error I made; I misremembered the content of one of my sources. I said, when discussing coordination with and without markets, that “Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson offer some statistics from the early Soviet Union that provide empirical evidence that State Communism, under Lenin, failed to overcome ‘the knowledge problem,'” but, reading back through their paper, they do not provide specific numbers, as I had thought they had. They only refer to other authors and quote a qualitative description, specifically William Chamberlin’s statement that, “Every branch of economic life, industry, agriculture, transportation, experienced conspicuous deterioration and fell far below the pre-War levels of output.”)

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Conquest of Bread

  • Thanks for the book review. It saved me the trouble of reading the book. Kropotkin sounds pretty lame to me, laboring under some economic and game theoretic falsehoods, bordering on utopianism. It’s hard to see how anyone today could take his thought seriously. I found it interesting that, even in 1906, Kropotkin held the utopian “end of scarcity* myth.

    • I actually thought Kropotkin’s game theory sounded about the same as that of mainstream, and ancap, theorists today. For example, he says:

      This way is so natural that it is practiced everywhere nowadays, in all industries, in competition with all possible systems of fines, docking of wages, supervison, etc.; a workman may enter the factory at the appointed time, but if he does his work badly, if he hinders his comrades by his laziness or other defects, and they quarrel with him on that account, there is an end of it; he is compelled to leave the workshop.

      Authoritarians pretend that it is the almighty employer and his overseers who maintain regularity and quality of work in factories. In fact, in a somewhat complicated enterprise, in which the wares produced pass through many hands before being finished, it is the factory itself, the workmen as a unity, who see to the good quality of the work. Therefore the best factories of British private industry have few overseers, far less on an average than the French factories, and less than the British State factories.

      A certain standard of public morals is maintained in the same way. Authoritarians say it is due to rural guards, judges, and policemen, whereas in reality it is maintained in spite of judges, policemen, and rural guards. “Many are the laws producing crimirials!” has been said long ago.

      Not only in industrial workshops do things go on in this way; it happens everywhere, every day, on a scale that only bookworms have as yet no notion of. When a railway company, federated with other companies, fails to fulfil its engagements, when its trains are late and goods lie neglected at the stations, the other companies threaten to cancel the contract, and that threat usually suffices.

      It is generally believed, at any rate it is taught, that commerce only keeps to its engagements from fear of lawsuits. Nothing of the sort; nine times in ten the trader who has not kept his word will not appear before a judge. There, where trade is very great, as in London, the sole fact of having driven a creditor to bring a lawsuit suffices for the immense majority of merchants to refuse for good to have any dealings with a man who has compelled one of them to go to law.

      Then, why should means that are used to-day among mates in the workshop, traders, and railway companies, not be made use of in a society based on voluntary work?

      The problem is that I don’t understand what differences he thought there would be between how social ostracism were to be used in a “communist” society, and how it was used already in the various examples he provided from the real world of his day. Sometimes it seems almost like he imagines communism keeping around some kind of barter, just without calling it barter, but it’s not all that clear.

      I found the parts arguing about an “end of scarcity” unpersuasive not just because I wasn’t convinced that the non-social technology existed to reach post-scarcity levels for the various goods he discussed, but because he fails to explain how producers could know what to produce in the first place, or who to send it to, or how to get it to those who needed it. It felt like he was imagining that human beings had a standard checklist of needs that could be fulfilled by unorganized production of a finite number of kinds of goods, (wheat, vegetables, water, electricity, clothes, etc.) in whatever amount people could produce them. Any time he sounded like he was touching on an explanation of how people could coordinate their behavior, (for example when talking about people in cities interacting with people in rural areas to get food,) I couldn’t tell the difference between the solutions he seemed to be imagining and barter.

      It’s not that long of a book, and I feel a little sad that my review would discourage anyone from reading it, but I do think your reaction would be much the same if you read the whole book.

  • Love your reviews, can’t wait to see what you review next! Are you taking suggestions?? (I have a list ready if you need some!)

    . . .

    AnCap: Yo, Kropotkin, awesome revolution my friend, way to get rid of the State. Btw, I’d like to live by AnCap principles, is that cool with y’all?

    Kropotkin: Are you sure want to do that, comrade? It is more than probable that you will suffer for it in your daily relations with other citizens.

    AnCap: Yeah, that’s fine with me.

    Kropotkin: You do realize you will be looked upon as a ghost of bourgeois society!?

    AnCap: That’s so sweet of you! I appreciate the heads up. But caring about what other people think of me just isn’t on my list of priorities for a number of reasons, so no worries there, my friend!

    Kropotkin: Well, fine, then, be a lame ass loser if you really want to. If you don’t like AnCom then go and seek adherents and organize with them on AnCap principles. We prefer our own principles, and you can’t play with any of our toys. Nah nah nah boo boo, stick your head in doo doo.

    AnCap: Ok kiddo, guess this is goodbye! Thanks for letting me live my life how I want so long as I don’t hurt anyone!

    Kropotkin: Lmao, you thought I was being serious?? Bro, the whole history of State-aided Capitalist Society was as good as written the day it was agreed upon that man would only receive the wage he could secure to himself. If you think we’re gonna let you run off and return to the starting-point and go through the same evolution again, you have another thing coming, pal. You WILL be communist, as it is for your own good, as determined by superior men such as myself. You WILL be dominated whether you like it or not. If you resist, I assure you that you will be drowned in your own blood. But, ya know, equity and social justice and rainbows and all that stuff, of course…

    . . .

    When you agree with the views of murderous, bloodthirsty people, I guess you have the luxury of ‘wanting’ to believe a vague assurance (if it could be called that) from them that they won’t murder those they disagree with. For those of us who disagree with them, on the other hand, we necessarily have to be a little more suspicious, as our lives may literally depend on it.

    . . . . . . . . . .

    While the above is my main problem with Kropotkin (as you’ve laid him out here), I gotta agree with Hogeye — if one’s ideas rest on the make-believe premise that valued stuff isn’t scarce, why not incorporate perfect health and anti-aging into your philosophy? Why not time travel? Why be such a piker? If we’re going to dream up a fantasy world to live in, let’s dream BIG!!

    Furthermore, the whole point of ‘organizing society’ along some kind of principles is specifically to avoid conflicts over necessarily scarce resources. If we ever get to a post-scarcity world, then who cares how we ‘organize society’, considering everyone will have everything they could ever want?

    If the above is wrong, then I must be misunderstanding ‘post-scarcity’?

    . . .

    If the utopianism wasn’t enough of a red flag that this guy isn’t all that bright, then the calculation of how many hours a day a man will have to work to produce what he needs should have been a huge clue that this guy belongs in the historical dustbin. You acknowledged that you ‘don’t know enough to say whether Kropotkin’s statistics were accurate’ as if there was some kind of way to ever ‘know enough’ verify their accuracy. No one can ever ‘know enough’ to calculate this. (It assumes ‘perfect information transfer networks’, if my understanding of that obfuscated phrase is correct.)

    . . . . . . . .

    “…the earth can be made to yield to man when he cultivates it scientifically… instead of throwing seed haphazard in a badly ploughed soil as he mostly does today. In the great farms of Western America … which… have a poorer soil than… civilized countries… Thanks to **machines**… 100 men can produce in a year all that is necessary to deliver the bread of 10,000 people at their homes during a whole year… If we had recourse to [more] **intensive** agriculture, less than 6 half-days’ work could procure bread, meat, vegetables, and even luxurious fruit for a whole family.”

    Kropotkin advocates for using more energy to farm than the land can return in produce because that will reduce the amount of hours a person needs to work to fulfill their needs – for a short amount of time. Of course, someone has to produce the machines, and dig/pump/refine the oil for those machines, deal with the byproducts of that production, etc., making it pretty hard to say it would actually reduce the total labor hours required, but let’s say Kropotkin’s non-calculations are correct and at least in the short run this saves us some time: this is similar to how I can party all night after snorting half an eight ball of coke. I can avoid the hangover the next day by shooting some more dope but eventually, there will be a hangover. Eventually Kropotkin’s recommendation will of course deplete the soil’s nutrients, inevitably requiring far more labor hours (and far more energy/petroleum ‘intensive’ practices) to fulfill one’s needs, but hey, ‘eventually’ we’re all dead, so eff those future generations so long as we selfishly/greedily/lazily get to work less today, eh comrade?

    Is Kropotkin’s agricultural advice better than ‘throwing seed haphazardly in badly ploughed soil’ which is incidentally/arguably what Native Americans did for millennia, which is arguably the source of the astonishingly nutrient dense soil found in the new world, but hey, stupid savages, what do they know, Kropotkin is WAY too smart to fall for that ‘ancient wisdom’ crap…

    I’m convinced we have more than enough empirical evidence today to show beyond any doubt Kropotkin’s agricultural recommendation is absolutely horrible (considering State-capitalism did exactly as he describes and look at the mess we’re in agriculturally speaking). How arrogant/dumb does one have to be to think that the newest agricultural practices/machines as of 1906 (or 2006 for that matter) were so amazing that they should be used by an entire land mass for presumably the rest of time?

    Central planning works no better for agriculture than it does for anything else. Let people farm their own land how they see fit, so long as they don’t aggress against anyone.

    I’ll cut Kropotkin some slack for writing in 1906, but no such grace for anyone still taking these intellectually bankrupt ideas seriously today. Sounds like just another arrogant dude that thinks he’s smarter than me and as a result he should get to tell me how I should live my life and subsequently have me killed if I refuse. Not a fan.

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