The Conquest of Bread

Pyotr Kropotkin

Book cover

Reading this book was a strange experience for me. From what I had read about Kropotkin before picking up the book, I had expected I’d really like it–critique of capitalism, Communism without the state, warm and fuzzy anarchism. But while I thought Kropotkin made a number of incisive points, I came away from CoB feeling wholly unconvinced. Part of it may be the 100+ year time gap: Kropotkin writes for a society that is largely organized around agriculture and industrial manufacturing, and while of course those things are of course still important today, it just seems clear that he’s writing about a very different time and place.

My first issue with Kropotkin’s proposals centers around violence. The bedrock of his anarchist program is expropriation–the invalidation of the institution of private property and the seizing of all property by the people. He begins by making a pretty cogent argument for why property is theft, centering around the idea that the vast quantity and variety of human efforts going into any one item are such as to make it absurd for a single person to pretend to “rightful ownership” thereof. Therefore, he argues, it is only right that the people should expropriate property from its present claimants. Yet he is extremely vague about the nature of such expropriation, and in particular doesn’t give attention to the fact that it would likely require a great deal of violence and killing (no doubt bringing about the demise of many workers as well as capitalists). I think this is an extremely important point for any expropriationist to take seriously. After all, it would be a completely plausible position to say that all property is theft, and yet that violence to expropriate it is not justified. In this sense Kropotkin refuses to count the cost, or to consider the implications of the fact that his ideal society would be born in blood.

My second issue with CoB is that I think Kropotkin provides a very weak moral foundation for his society. Even if we agree with him that capitalism and property are unjust institutions, what then? The alternative vision that he provides is still very much painted from the perspective of homo economicus–a society that minimizes work (which is disutility, natch) and studies “the needs of humanity, and the economic means to satisfy them.” Here I turn to a passage from Alasdair MacIntyre on Aristotle, quoted by Stanley Hauerwas (all my favorite dudes!) in this excellent 2010 interview with Wunderkammer magazine (

“…from an Aristotelian standpoint, it can never be right to weigh preferences in such a way that everybody counts for one and nobody for more than one. And it would be a fundamental mistake to try to maximize the satisfaction of the preferences of all the members of a given society.”

Hauerwas glosses MacIntyre as referring to the practice of weighing vicious and virtuous desires equally. As Hauerwas goes on to say, the position that MacIntyre is critiquing (which implicitly advantages pleonexia) stands at the heart of modern economic rationality–but I would argue that it also stands at the heart of Kropotkin’s anarchist program. It’s true that the needs that Kropotkin emphasizes–food, clothing, shelter–are hardly open to reasonable critique, but nonetheless I think that any system that focuses wholly on the fulfillment of “needs” without giving attention to the construction of those needs is dangerously incomplete. (cf. “parasitic liberalism” thesis)

I have not given up on anarchism as a subject of intellectual inquiry and am looking forward to reading Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” and Ellul’s “Anarchy and Christianity.”

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars