I had for the entirety of my life believed in the necessity of government intervention in ensuring the fair treatment of citizens and limiting the power of corporations. I then stumbled upon the book “The Conquest of Bread” – essentially the Bible of anarcho-communist thought – by Peter Kropotkin. I was initially skeptical. Anarchist thought was mostly foreign to me. I understood its principles roughly in the abstract, but I was one of the many who dismissed both anarchism and communism out of hand as being contrary to human nature. However, in a mere 200 pages, Kropotkin managed to persuade me of the well-founded merits of anarcho-communist thought, despite my initial reservations.
Throughout 17 chapters, Kropotkin attempts to establish that humanity is moving inevitably towards anarcho-communism, and that this trend is supported scientifically. “The Conquest of Bread”, while quite dense in how much information it stores, effortlessly undermines the common criticisms of both anarchism and communism as well as establishes the moral superiority and feasibility of an anarcho-communist society.
Two points amongst the many made swayed me most to open myself to anarcho-communism. The first is that over the course of history the means of production have been seized by the few, but as the means of production are the collective work of humanity, the product of these means should be the collective property of humanity in its entirety. The dismantling of private property is a notion unappealing to many liberals, but because each new generation’s wealth is the result of the labours of all the previous generations, we need to reject private ownership of the means of production and re-appropriate them for the common good. Furthermore, private property allows for the continuation of hierarchical work structures which oppress those in lower classes. A clear example of the moral bankruptcy of the unequal distribution of the product of the means of production is in Ethiopia. It is there that multinational corporations are simultaneously employing Africans to farm their property, the products of which are sold outside of Ethiopia – all the while many Ethiopians are suffering from malnutrition.
The second argument put forward by Kropotkin which appealed to me deeply was that of eliminating the wage system. Wage labor acts as a system of subjugation because those who work to create the things we use are not paid the same that their labor is worth. Instead, a wage given amounts to a fraction of the labor performed, resulting in an oppressed working class which is completely dependent on wages. This is best called wage slavery. Wage labor has always acted in this fashion and under a capitalist system always will. The origin of capitalism and thus wage labor itself was one of violence and theft. An example of this are The Inclosure Acts enacted in the United Kingdom from 1604 to 1914. These were a series of acts passed to give control of common land to more wealthy landowners, forcing the peasants off their land and into wage labor jobs to survive. In contrast, in an anarcho-communist society, the revoking of private property would create the conditions necessary for achieving associated or free labor. This is a system in which those who do the work manage it themselves.
In the long term the aim would be to abolish “work”. This essentially means liberating the people to pursue work which satisfies all their faculties, thus no longer making work tiresome and undesirable, but rather enjoyable and fulfilling. This would also boost productivity.
Naturally, in the year 2017, we live in a capitalist world and the revoking of private property and the elimination of the wage system are not conceivable developments at the current time. In many respects, the failure of the Soviet Union has delayed the anarcho-communist agenda by an indefinite amount of time, despite the Soviet Union being neither anarchist, nor fundamentally communist. The automatic associations of communism with the Holodomor and breadlines and of anarchism with chaos need to be broken – not just to further the anarcho-communist message, but also to improve political discourse. Even in academic institutions, “Red Scare” sentiments prevail, and if anarcho-communists are to be taken seriously, they must diligently and strenuously do their utmost to normalize anarchism and more particularly communism as political terms – which is necessary if anarcho-communism is to permeate the mainstream as it promised to do at the turn of the 20th century.
I still retain issues with Kropotkin’s politics. I am not comfortable with the vagueness with which Kropotkin explains how the process of expropriation, the bedrock upon which the revolution would rely, would proceed. Expropriation would most certainly result in mass amounts of bloodshed and violence, not just against capitalists, but communists and innocents too. The argument made by Kropotkin in defense of expropriation is that it is justified to initiate violence against those institutions which are a threat to human freedom or the preconditions to human freedom. Regardless, the notion that a true anarcho-communist society could only be borne of blood is a deeply troubling one which Kropotkin fails to address with any deep consideration. Certainly, one could be both an anarcho-communist and a pacifist and bypass the issue of expropriation. However, I am immensely skeptical that capitalists and statesmen would voluntarily give up all their property and power to the working class, particularly as they are currently very intent on defending them with heavily militarized police.
Socialists – let alone anarcho-communists – are often criticized lazily by those unconcerned with debating actual policy. We have seen a sign of a shift from that mentality with the rise of Bernie Sanders in the mainstream in 2016. This shift has been caused by the widespread realization that the capitalist status quo that the western world adheres to is unjust and needs restructuring. Sarah Palin said in 2008 that “now is no time to experiment with socialism”. Coming off the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, a time period of continuously growing wealth disparity between the rich and poor, and facing the existential threat of climate change, if there ever was a time to experiment with socialism or anarcho-communism, it was 2008, and it remains now. We may call anarcho-communist idealists or naive, but as Kropotkin so eloquently stated: “That we are utopians is well known. So utopian are we that we go the length of believing the revolution can and ought to assure shelter, food, and clothes to all” (p. 55). That is a naive idealism I can prescribe to.