THE CONQUEST OF BREAD
by P. Kropotkin
CHAPTER XIFree Agreement
Accustomed as we are by hereditary prejudices and absolutely unsoundeducation and training to see Government, legislation and magistracy everywherearound, we have come to believe that man would tear his fellow man to pieceslike a wild beast the day the police took his eye off him; that chaos wouldcome about if authority were overthrown during a revolution. Andwith our eyes shut we pass by thousands and thousands of human groupingswhich form themselves freely, without any intervention of the law, andattain results infinitely superior to those achieved under governmentaltutelage.
If you open a daily paper you find its pages are entirely devoted toGovernment transactions and to political jobbery. A Chinaman readingit would believe that in Europe nothing gets done save by order of somemaster. You find nothing in them about institutions that spring up, growup, and develop without ministerial prescription. Nothing -or hardly nothing! Even when there is a heading- "Sundry Events"- it is because they are connected with the police. A family drama, an act of rebellion, will only be mentioned if the policehave appeared on the scene.
Three hundred and fifty million Europeans love or hate one another,work, or live on their incomes; but, apart from literature, theatre, orsport, their lives remain ignored by newspapers if Governments have notintervened in some way or other. It is even so with history. We know the least details of the life of a king or of a parliament; allgood and bad speeches pronounced by the politicians have been preserved. "Speeches that have never had the least influence on the vote of asingle member," as an old parliamentarian said. Royal visits,good or bad humour of politicians, jokes or intrigues, are all carefullyrecorded for posterity. But we have the greatest difficulty to reconstitutea city of the Middle Ages, to understand the mechanism of that immensecommerce that was carried on between Hanseatic cities, or to know how thecity of Rouen built its cathedral. If a scholar spends his life instudying these questions, his works remain unknown, and parliamentary histories-that is to say, the defective ones, as they only treat of one side of sociallife- multiply, are circulated, are taught in schools.
And we do not even perceive the prodigious work accomplished every dayby spontaneous groups of men, which constitutes the chief work of our century.
We therefore propose to point out some of these most striking manifestations,and to prove that men, as soon as their interests do not absolutely clash,act in concert, harmoniously, and perform collective work of a very complexnature.
It is evident that in present society, based on individual property-that is to say, on plunder, and on a narrow minded and therefore foolishindividualism- facts of this kind are necessarily few in number; agreementsare not always perfectly free, and often have a mean, if not execrableaim.
But what concerns us is not to give examples which we could blindlyfollow, and which, moreover, present society could not possibly give us. What we have to do is to prove that, in spite of the authoritarian individualismwhich stifles us, there remains in our life, taken as a whole, a greatpart in which we only act by free agreement, and that it would be mucheasier than we think to dispense with Government.
In support of our view we have already mentioned railways, and we areabout to return to them.
We know that Europe has a system of railways, 175,000 miles long, andthat on this network you can nowadays travel from north to south, fromeast to west, from Madrid to Petersburg, and from Calais to Constantinople,without stoppages, without even changing carriages (when you travel byexpress). More than that: a parcel thrown into a station will findits addressee anywhere, in Turkey or in Central Asia, without more formalityneeded for sending it than writing its destination on a bit of paper.
This result might have been obtained in two ways. A Napoleon,a Bismarck, or some potentate having conquered Europe, would from Paris,Berlin, or Rome, draw a railway map and regulate the hours of the trains. The Russian Tsar Nicholas I dreamt of taking such action. When hewas shown rough drafts of railways between Moscow and Petersburg,he seized a ruler and drew on the map of Russia a straight line betweenthese two capitals, saying, "Here is the plan." And the road ad wasbuilt in a straight line, filling in deep ravines, building bridges ofa giddy height, which had to be abandoned a few years later, at a costof about £120,000 to £150,000 per English mile.
This is one way, but happily things were managed differently. Railways were constructed piece by piece, the pieces were joined together,and the hundred divers companies, to whom these pieces belonged, came toan understanding concerning the arrival and departure of their trains,and the running of carriages on their rails, from all countries, withoutunloading merchandise as it passes from one network to another.
All this was done by free agreement, by exchange of letters and proposals,by congresses at which relegates met to discuss certain special subjects,but not to make laws; after the congress, the delegates returned to theircompanies, not with a law, but with the draft of a contract to be acceptedor rejected.
There were certainly obstinate men who would not he convinced. But a common interest compelled them to agree without invoking the helpof armies against the refractory members.
This immense network of railways connected together, and the enormoustraffic it has given rise to, no doubt constitutes the most striking traitof our century; and it is the result of free agreement. If a manhad foreseen or predicted it fifty years ago, our grandfathers would havethought him idiotic or mad. They would have said: "Never will yoube able to make the shareholders of a hundred companies listen to reason! It is a Utopia, a fairy tale. A central Government, withan 'iron' director, can alone enforce it."
And the most interesting thing in this organization is, that there isno European Central Government of Railways! Nothing! No ministerof railways, no dictator, not even a continental parliament, not even adirecting committee! Everything is done by contract.
So we ask the believers in the State, who pretend that "we can neverdo without a central Government, were it only for regulating the traffic,"we ask them: "But how do European railways manage without them? Howdo they continue to convey millions of travelers and mountains of luggageacross a continent? If companies owning railways have been able toagree, why should railway workers, who would take possession of railways,not agree likewise? And if the Petersburg Warsaw Company and thatof Paris Belfort can act in harmony, without giving themselves the luxuryof a common commander, why, in the midst of our societies, consisting ofgroups of free workers, should we need a Government?"
This text was taken from a 1st edition of The Conquest of Bread,
G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1906.
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