The Conquest of Bread
AK Press Working Classics Series
Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince who lived during times of great flux in his country. He was born to nobility during the “last hurrah” of the tsarist regime. He witnessed the disintegration of that regime through the early decades of the 20th century, and before he died, he watched as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, substituting one authoritarian system for another. It would have been easy for Kropotkin to maintain his aristocratic life, which would have brought him tremendous privileges even after the fall of tsarism, but he renounced his title and became one of anarchism’s foremost theorists.
The Conquest of Bread is one of Kropotkin’s contributions to anarchist theory. Kropotkin posits, like Marxists, that the concentration of wealth which is the basis of a capitalist economy is the root cause of poverty. Unlike the Marxists, however, Kropotkin does not suggest a centralized state as the solution to workers’ exploitation. His solution is autonomous collectives in which produce what they can and barter for what they need and want. In essence, Kropotkin is suggesting an anarchist market economy.
This market is not profit driven, as it would be in a capitalist market, having no regard for the basic needs of the individual. Kropotkin believed, instead, that the productive system is efficient enough to produce not only the needs of the population, but also enough of the luxuries that make life pleasant. What prevents the general enjoyment of these goods is not lack of production or inability to distribute them, but the determination of production by profit motives rather than social consumption motives.
Kropotkin’s divides his book thematically, looking at basic human needs and wants. He examines why despite the ability to produce enough for everyone, people live in want. He looks at the need for luxury and sees it as an understandable and necessary part of being human. And despite being written over 100 years ago, his analysis is still fresh and relevant. The same problems that limit the lives of the working class in 2008 limited them in 1905. The difference is in scale and scope.
Charles Weigl’s Introduction is well-researched and gives important insight into Kropotkin’s life and context for his work. For someone unfamiliar with Kropotkin, it will prove invaluable. Weigle takes the reader through the ideas and critiques of Kropotkin without the pedantic idealizing of many who write about the people they admire.
The Conquest of Bread is an important contribution to anarchist economics and anarchist theory in general. This edition by AK Press is well presented and of high quality. I highly recommend it.