Beyond the Bread Book

One of the main texts anarchists recommend to newcomers wanting to learn about anarchism is the Conquest of Bread by Kropotkin. Its itself become a massive meme. People refer to it as the bread book and reading it as being bread pilled. Bread tube is itself named in honour of Kropotkin’s book. Someone even made this amazing website for the book.

There’s a lot of love for Kropotkin and I understand why. He talks about the expropriation of the ruling classes and looks like Santa. What’s not to like? I’m myself a big Kropotkin fan and think the Conquest of Bread is one of his best books. But despite this I don’t think it should be the first thing we tell newcomers to anarchism to read. The Conquest of Bread was never meant to be a straight forward introduction to anarchism. It instead is an attempt to persuade readers that an anarcho-communist society is desirable and could be feasibly created during and immediately after a social revolution given the available technology at the time. It is an attempt to explain what an anarcho-communist social revolution would look like and the kinds of problems it will have to overcome if it is to be successful, such as organising food production. In effect Kropotkin is outlining what he thinks a successful Paris Commune would look like.

The Conquest of Bread was first published in 1892 in French and then translated into English in 1906. It was based on articles which were originally published in the anarchist paper Le Révolté after Kropotkin’s release from prison in 1886. As a result, there are lots of important aspects of anarchism Kropotkin doesn’t talk about in the book and if he does only briefly. The reason why is that Kropotkin assumes someone who reads these articles in Le Révolté will also read the other articles he wrote for the paper or which were published as separate pamphlets.

Modern readers aren’t aware of this context and so can easily misunderstand the Conquest of Bread due to reading it in isolation and without any background knowledge about 19th century anarchist and socialist theory. For example, people can assume from only reading it that Kropotkin thinks a revolution will spontaneously come out of nowhere and people will just automatically know how to organise effectively. But if you’d read Kropotkin’s other articles from the 1880s you’d know he doesn’t think this. Kropotkin instead held a revolution would emerge out of a prior evolutionary phase during which workers were transformed through their experiences of direct struggle against capital within trade unions and that, given this, anarchists should focus on participating within the trade union movement in order to spread anarchist values, goals and strategy.

This can be seen in a series of articles Kropotkin wrote for Le Révolté in 1881. According to Kropotkin anarchists do “not expect that the day of the revolution will simply fall from the sky”. Anarchists instead hold that “only by means of repeated acts of war, undertaken daily and at every opportunity” can “one prepare for the decisive battle” and “victory over capital”. To this end they must focus on “creating a vast workers’ organisation” which will become “a powerful force” and “on the day of the revolution, impose its will upon exploiters of every sort”. (Kropotkin 2014, 305-6, 311)

Kropotkin made this point again and again. He wrote that,

We have to organise the workers’ force – not to make them into a fourth party in Parliament, but in order to make them a formidable MACHINE OF STRUGGLE AGAINST CAPITAL. We have to group workers of all trades under this single purpose: “War on capitalist exploitation!” And we must prosecute that war relentlessly, day by day, by the strike, by agitation, by every revolutionary means.

And once we have worked on such organisation over two or three years, once the workers of every land have seen that organisation at work, taking the workers’ interests into its hands, waging unrelenting war on capital, castigating the employer at every opportunity; once the workers from every trade, from village and city alike, are united into a single union, inspired by an identical idea, that of destroying capital, and by an identical hatred, hatred of the exploiters – then, separation of bourgeoisie and worker being complete, we can be sure that it is on his own account that the worker will throw himself into the Revolution. Then, but only then, will he emerge from it victorious, having crushed the tyranny of Capital and State for good. (ibid, 294-5)

If you want to go beyond the bread book and learn more about what Kropotkin thought about revolutionary strategy I highly recommend you read the Kropotkin anthology Direct Struggle Against Capital. If you want to learn about Kropotkin’s analysis of the state and his critique of state socialism read the latest AK press edition of Modern Science and Anarchy.

You might now be thinking so if the Conquest of Bread isn’t an ideal introduction to anarchism what is? In my opinion the best two historic texts to read in order to learn about anarchism are Malatesta’s 1899 anarchist programme followed by his 1891 pamphlet anarchy. Both are in the method of freedom anthology. The reason why I recommend these texts is because they give a modern reader a very clear understanding of what anarchism is, why anarchists want to abolish capitalism and the state, what anarchism aims for and in-depth theory on how to bring about social change. They in addition have the benefit of being very clearly written and very short. Malatesta’s anarchist programme is only 14 pages and his pamphlet anarchy is only 39 pages. Compare that to the Conquest of Bread which is 195 pages and contains lots of stuff that feels very irrelevant to a modern reader such as Kropotkin talking about how amazing green houses and dish washers are.

What I’m trying to say is that although Malatesta’s beard was inferior to Kropotkin’s his work makes for a better introduction to anarchism, especially for an over-worked tired worker whose attention span has been ruined by spending too much time online with a ridiculous number of tabs open.

Bibliography 

Kropotkin, Peter. 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

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