I just finished reading The Conquest of Bread by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). The book inspired Catalonia syndicalists in the Spanish Civil War, Magonism in Mexico, and the Occupy movement but still… I wasn’t expecting anything, I thought I’d be very bored because the book was written in 1892, I was sure it was going to be outdated, irrelevant, but instead, to my surprise…
I was totally “bread-pilled,” astounded by the clear analysis of capitalism, the prophetic vision, the contagious optimism, the truthfulness, pragmatism, and applicability to current events.
My favorite sections are the core depictions of what Kropotkin’s ideal society would look like. Are these scenarios possible in my lifetime? I believe they are, impelled by four current concerns: climate change, economic inequity, distrust in leadership, and yearning for community.
Below are three of his ideas that I regard as especially prescient:
Kropotkin criticizes the time inefficiency, fuel waste, and unfriendliness of today’s dining routine. Every night, he notes, 50 different households cook 50 different meals on 50 different stoves in 50 different kitchens to serve in 50 different dining rooms on 50 different tables. How much better it would be, he suggests, if these 50 different households cooked and ate together, using food in bulk, with giant pots and just one or two stoves and a single long table: a communal kitchen and dining area. Energy, time, and expense would be hugely slashed, new friendships would be established, schemes and dreams would be shared.
In my twenties I regularly attended two community meals in Davis, California, and I enjoyed them — eating communally is thrifty and fun! Since then, there’s been a 30-year gap… that I ended three weeks ago. Inspired by Kropotkin, I began volunteering for Food Not Bombs, preparing food for the homeless in People’s Park (Berkeley). My wife and I also organized a “get to know the neighbors” barbecue party attended by 15 people on my block, and we’ll repeat that every three months.
Internationally, communal kitchens seem to be most prevalent today in Brazil, Tamil Nadu (India), Australia, and in the Sikh langar. But really, they could and should be everywhere.
Squatting / Expropriation of Empty Dwellings for Housing
Kropotkin believes (as I do) that everyone deserves a decent dwelling to live in, and he noted that there is plenty of acceptable housing for everyone. The compassionate revolutionist saw the injustice of aristocrats meandering through their spacious palaces while working families in Paris and London slums were squished 8-10 per room in decrepit hovels. Kropotkin advocated for peaceful expropriation of the wealthy accommodations, to benefit the public.
This situation is the same today. In San Francisco there are a reported 8,000 homeless people and 40,000 vacant homes. This doesn’t even include the thousands of empty rooms in public buildings or the unslept-in bedrooms in 5-9-bedroom mansions of wealthy widows and widowers now residing alone. (Yes, my grandmother was one of them)
Let’s legalize squatting. Instead of tents crowding our sidewalks and parks, the un-housed people can and should be housed in vacant buildings.
MUTUAL AID (solidarity not charity)
Kropotkin, as a biologist, observed and promoted the belief that collaboration between animals (including humans) is the most important factor in their ability to survive. He defined cooperation for the common good, i.e., solidarity, as “mutual aid.” His opinion that this provides the highest guarantee for survival counteracts the brutal “survival of the fittest” notion that was (and still is) used as a justification for colonialism, vertical societies, hierarchies, capitalism, and war.
Mutual aid appeals to me because I’m founder/director of a nonprofit (Humanist Global Charity), that frequently causes me huge frustration. Recipients of charity, I notice, are often impelled by the philanthropic system to compete against each other for funding. Instead of aiding poor neighbors who also need help, recipients are prone to sending me emails claiming these neighbors are lying, misusing funds, fraudulent, secretly-rich-but-greedy, etc.
Kropotkin inspired me to move away from charity and promote mutual aid. My non-profit’s satellite organization — Share The World Club — is now helping only collectives that demonstrate willingness to support everyone in their community. We’ve established mutual aid groups in India, Uganda, Nigeria, Zambia, and we’re assisting an already-existing mutual aid group in Myanmar.
More A+ Ideas
Are Kropotkin’s ideas listed above… unreasonably radical? Are they ludicrous, absurd, too far out, beyond-the-fringe? Amazingly, they are probably the mildest suggestions in The Conquest of Bread. Communal kitchens, squatting, and mutual are just little appetizers before the magnificent entrees of his anarcho-communist banquet.
His other egalitarian ideas to tenderly chew on include a 5-hour workday, equalization of all wages, abolition of money, abolition of private property, abolition of government, and — of course — abolition of capitalism, replaced by gift economy & mutual aid that has as its singular goal, “well-being for all.”
Kropotkin presents all these propositions with such impeccable statistics and logic; I thought my brain was going to explode.
Take the bread-pill if you dare. The consequence is psychedelic. You won’t see the world the same afterwards. You will see the possibilities that Kropotkin saw.
You will envision a vastly superior political reality — a caring and sharing society, free of hierarchies and exploitation, contributing what we have because it feels good and right and natural, flying joyously in community with each other like a dazzling flock of starlings in harmonious leader-less murmurations.