Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921) was the leading - and the most widely admired - anarchist Communist in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. He lived long enough to see the establishment of Communism in Russia under Lenin, who acknowledged Kropotkin’s commitment to political change. However, Kropotkin was a very different kind of revolutionary figure, for he argued not only for Communism but anarchist Communism, distrusting and even despising central government control in favour of a more individual sense of responsibility and civic duty.
In The Conquest of Bread, first published in 1892, Kropotkin set out his ideas on how his heightened idealism could work. It was all the more extraordinary because he was born into an aristocratic land-owning family - with some 1,200 male serfs - though from his student years his liberal views and his fixation on the need for social change saw him take a revolutionary path. This led rapidly to decades of exile. Even today, The Conquest of Bread is fascinating listening.
It is a passionate, even a fierce polemic for dramatic social change. Kropotkin looks at the European revolutions, from the French Revolution to the upheavals of 1848 and later 19th-century events, commenting on why they were ultimately unsuccessful. Like Karl Marx he was convinced that major social upheaval was inevitable, but he argued for a different social structure - one where innate human goodness would not only overcome individualist capitalist greed but obviate the necessity of overbearing government control. Kropotkin’s faith in humanity and the reasonableness of man may seem naive, but his slogans are persuasive. ‘All belongs to all’; 'well-being for all’; ‘anarchist Communism, Communism without government - the Communism of the free: it is the synthesis of the two ideals pursued by humanity throughout the ages - economic and political liberty.’
His views encompassed further ideals: wealth should not hoarded by the few but distributed to each according to his need; women must be released from traditional domestic drudgery (he predicted that new machines would lightening the domestic load); the working day could easily be reduced to five hours a day, allowing more leisure time. With these innovations, Kropotkin argues, the future would be very different.
The Conquest of Bread is a classic political text of an idealistic vision that may never come to pass but which contains views which are difficult - theoretically - to dismiss.