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The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
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  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
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  Art and Anarchy


by P. Kropotkin


The Collectivist Wages System


It is our opinion that collectivists commit a twofold error in their plans for the reconstruction of society. While speaking of abolishing capitalist rule, they intend nevertheless to retain two institutions which are the very basis of this rule--Representative Government and the Wages System.

As regards so-called representative government, we have often spoken about it. It is absolutely incomprehensible to us that intelligent men--and such are not wanting in the collectivist party--can remain partisans of national or municipal parliaments after all the lessons history has given them--in France, in England, in Germany, or in the United States.

While we see parliamentary rule breaking up, and from all sides criticism of this rule growing louder--not only of its results, but also of its principles--how is it that revolutionary socialists defend a system already condemned to die?

Built up by the middle classes to hold their own against royalty, sanctioning, and at the same time strengthening, their sway over the workers, parliamentary rule is pre-eminently a middle-class rule. The upholders of this system have never seriously affirmed that a parliament or a municipal council represent a nation or a city. The most intelligent among them know that this is impossible. The middle class has simply used the parliamentary system to raise a barrier between itself and royalty, without giving the people liberty. But gradually, as the people become conscious of their interests and the variety of their interests multiply, the system can no longer work. Therefore democrats of all countries vainly imagine (livers palliatives. The Referendum is tried and found to be a failure; proportional representation is spoken of, so is representation of minorities, and other parliamentary Utopias. In a word, they strive to find what is not to be found, and they are compelled to recognize that they are in a wrong way, and confidence in a Representative Government disappears.

It is the same with the wages system; for after having proclaimed the abolition of private property, and the possession in common of all means of production, how can they uphold the wages system in any form? It is, nevertheless, what collectivists are doing when they recommend labour-cheques.

It is easy to understand why the early English socialists came to the system of labour-cheques. They simply tried to make Capital and Labour agree. They repudiated the idea of violently laying hands on capitalist property.

It is also easily understood why Proudhon took up the idea later on. In his Mutualist system he tried to make Capital less offensive, notwithstanding the retaining of private property, which he detested from the bottom of his heart, but which he believed to be necessary to guarantee individuals against the State.

Neither is it astonishing that certain economists, more or less bourgeois, admit labour-cheques. They care little whether the worker is paid in labour-notes or in coin stamped with the effigy of the Republic or the Empire. They only care to save from destruction individual ownership of dwelling-houses, of land, of factories; in any case that of dwelling-houses and the capital that is necessary for manufacturing. And labour-notes would just answer the purpose of upholding this private property.

As long as labour-notes can be exchanged for Jewels or carriages, the owner of the house will willingly accept them for rent. And as long as dwelling-houses, fields, and factories belong to isolated owners, men will have to pay them, in one way or another, for being allowed to work in the fields or factories, or for living in the houses. The owners will accept to be paid by the workers in gold, in paper-money, or in cheques exchangeable for all sorts of commodities. But how can we defend labour-notes, this new form of wagedom, when we admit that houses, fields, and factories will no longer be private property, and that they will belong to the commune or the nation?


Let us closely examine this system of remuneration for work done, preached by French, German, English, and Italian collectivists (Spanish anarchists, who still call themselves collectivists, imply by Collectivism the possession in common of all instruments of production, and the "liberty of each group to divide the produce, as they think fit, according to communist or any other principles"). It amounts to this: Everybody works in field, factory, school, hospital, etc. The working-day is fixed by the State, which owns land, factories, roads, etc. Every work-day is paid for with a labour-note, which is inscribed with these words: Eight hours work. With this cheque the worker can procure all sorts of merchandise in the stores owned by the State or by divers corporations. The cheque is divisible, so that you can buy an hour's-work worth of meat, ten minutes worth of matches, or half an hour of tobacco. After the Collectivist Revolution, instead of saying "two-pence worth of soap," we shall say "five minutes worth of soap."

Most collectivists, true to the distinction laid down by middle-class economists (and by Marx) between qualified work and simple work, tell us, moreover, that qualified or professional work must be paid a certain quantity more than simple work. Thus an hour's work of a doctor will have to be considered as equivalent to two or three hours' work of a hospital nurse, or to three hours' work of a navvy. "Professional, or qualified work, will be a multiple of simple work," says the collectivist Grönlund, "because this kind of work needs a more or less long apprenticeship."

Other collectivists, such as the French Marxists, do not make this distinction. They proclaim "Equality of Wages." The doctor, the schoolmaster, and the professor will be paid (in labour-cheques) at the same rate as the navvy. Eight hours visiting the sick in a hospital will be worth the same as eight hours spent in earth-works or else in mines or factories.

Some make a greater concession; they admit that disagreeable or unhealthy work--such as sewerage--could be paid for at a higher rate than agreeable work. One hour's work of a sewerman would be worth, they say, two hours of a professor's work.

Let us add that certain collectivists admit of corporations paying a lump sum for work done. Thus a corporation would say: "Here are a hundred tons of steel. A hundred workmen were required to produce them, and it took them ten days. Their work-day being an eight-hours day, it has taken them eight thousand working hours to produce a hundred tons of steed eight hours a ton." For this the State would pay them eight thousand labour-notes of one hour each, and these eight thousand cheques would be divided among the members of the iron-works as they themselves thought proper.

On the other hand, a hundred miners having taken twenty days to extract eight thousand tons of coal, coal would be worth two hours a ton, and the sixteen thousand cheques of one hour each, received by the Guild of Miners, would be divided among their members according to their own appreciation.

If the miners protested, and said that a ton of steel should only cost six hours' work instead of eight; if the professor wished to have his day paid twice more than the nurse, then the State would interfere and would settle their differences.

Such is, in a few words, the organization collectivists wish to see arise out of the Social Revolution. As we see, their principles are: Collective property of the instruments of production, and remuneration to each according to the time spent in producing, while taking into account the productivity of his labour. As to the political system, it would be Parliamentarianism modified by positive instructions given to those elected, by the Referendum--a vote, taken by noes or ayes by the nation.

Let us own that this system appears to us unrealizable.

Collectivists begin by proclaiming a revolutionary principle--the abolition of private property--then they deny it no sooner than proclaimed by upholding an organization of production and consumption that originated in private property.

They proclaim a revolutionary principle, and ignore the consequences that this principle will inevitably bring about. They forget that the very fact of abolishing individual property in the instruments of work--land, factories, road, capital,--must launch society into absolutly new chanels; must completely overthrow the present system of production, both in its aim as well as in its means; must modify daily relations between individuals, as soon as land, machinery, and all other instruments of production are considered common property.

They say, "No private property," and immediately after strive to maintain private property in its daily manifestations. "You shall be a Commune as far as regards production: fields, tools, machinery, all that has been invented up till now--factories, railways, harbours, mines, etc., all are yours. Not the slightest distinction will be made concerning the share of each in this collective property.

"But from to-morrow you will minutely debate the share you are going to take in the creation of new machinery, in the digging of new mines. You will carefully weigh what part of the new produce belongs to you. You will count your minutes of work, and you will take care that a minute of your neighbours cannot buy more than yours.

"And as an hour measures nothing, as in some factories a worker can see to six power-looms at a time, while in another he only tends two, you will weigh the muscular force, the brain energy, and the nervous energy you have expended. You will accurately calculate the years of apprenticeship in order to appraise the amount each will contribute to future production. And this--after having declared that you do not take into account his share in past production."

Well, for us it is evident that a society cannot be based on two absolutely opposed principles, two principles that contradict one another continually. And a nation or a commune that would have such an organization would be compelled to revert to private property in the instruments of production, or to transform itself immediately into a communist society.


We have said that certain collectivist writers desire that a distinction should be made between qualified or professional work and simple work. They pretend that an hour's work of an engineer, an architect, or a doctor, must be considered as two or three hours' work of a blacksmith, a mason, or a hospital nurse. And the same distinction must be made between all sorts of trades necessitating a more or less long apprenticeship and the simple toil of day labourers.

Well, to establish this distinction would be to maintain all the inequalities of present society. It would mean fixing a dividing line, from the beginning, between the workers and those who pretend to govern them. It would mean dividing society into two very distinct classes--the aristocracy of knowledge above the horny-handed lower orders--the one doomed to serve the other; the one working with its hands to feed and clothe those who, profiting by their leisure, study how to govern their fosterers.

It would mean reviving one of the distinct peculiarities of present society and giving it the sanction of the Social Revolution. It would mean setting up as a principle an abuse already condemned in our ancient crumbling society.

We know the answer we shall get. They will speak of "Scientific Socialism"; they will quote bourgeois economists, and Marx too, to prove that a scale of wages has its raison d'être, as "the labour-force" of the engineer will have cost more to society than the "labour-force" of the navvy. In fact,--have not economists tried to prove to us that if an engineer is paid twenty times more than a navvy it is because the "necessary" outlay to make an engineer is greater than that necessary to make a navvy? And has not Marx asserted that the same distinction is equally logical between two branches of manual labour? He could not conclude otherwise, having on his own account taken up Ricardo's theory of value, and upheld that goods are exchanged in proportion to the quantity of work socially necessary for their production.

But we know what to think of this. We know that if engineers, scientists, or doctors are paid ten or a hundred times more than a labourer, and that a weaver earns three times more than an agricultural labourer, and ten times more than a girl in a match factory, it is not by reason of their "cost of production," but by reason of a monopoly of education, or a monopoly of industry. Engineers, scientists, and doctors merely exploit their capital--their diplomas--as middle-class employers exploit a factory, or as nobles used to exploit their titles titles of nobility.

As to the employer who pays an engineer twenty times more than a labourer, it is simply due to personal interest; if the engineer can economize £4000 a year on the cost of production, the employer pays him £800 And if the employer has a foreman who saves £400 on the work by cleverly sweating workmen, he gladly gives him £80 or £120 a year. He parts with an extra £40 when he expects to gain £400 by it; and this is the essence of the Capitalist system. The same differences obtain among divers manual trades.

Let them, therefore, not talk to us of "the cost of production" which raises the cost of skilled labour, and tell us that a student who has gaily spent his youth in a university has a right to a wage ten times greater than the son of a miner who has grown pale in a mine since the age of eleven; or that a weaver has a right to a wage three or four times greater than that of an agricultural labourer. The cost of teaching a weaver his work is not four times greater than the cost of teaching a peasant his. The weaver simply benefits by the advantages his industry reaps in Europe, in comparison with countries that have as yet no industries.

Nobody has ever calculated the cost of production and if a loafer costs far more to society than a worker, it remains to be seen whether a robust day-labourer does not cost more to society than a skilled artisan, when we have taken into account infant-mortality among the poor, the ravages of anæmia, and premature deaths.

Could they, for example, make us believe that the 1s. 3d. paid to a Paris workwoman, the 3d. paid to an Auvergne peasant girl who grows blind at lace-making, or the 1s. 8d. paid to the peasant represent their "cost of production." We know full well that people work for less, but we also know that they do so exclusively because, thanks to our wonderful organization, they would die of hunger did they not accept these mock wages.

For us the scale of remuneration is a complex result of taxes, of governmental tutelage, of Capitalist monopoly. In a word, of State and Capital. Therefore, we say that all wages theories have been invented after the event to justify injustices at present existing, and that we need not take them into consideration.

Neither will they fail to tell us that the Collectivist scale of wages would be an improvement. "It would be better," so they say, "to see certain artisans receiving a wage two or three times higher than common labourers, than to see a minister receiving in a day what a workman cannot earn in a year. It would be a great step towards equality."

For us this step would be the reverse of progress. To make a distinction between simple and professional work in a new society would result in the Revolution sanctioning and recognizing as a principle a brutal fact we submit to nowadays, but that we nevertheless find unjust. It would mean imitating those gentlemen of the French Assembly who proclaimed August 4th, 1789, the abolition of feudal rights, but who on August 8th sanctioned these same rights by imposing dues on the peasants to compensate the noblemen, placing these dues under the protection of the Revolution. It would mean imitating the Russian Government, which proclaimed, at the time of the emancipation of the serfs, that the land should henceforth belong to the nobility, while formerly the lands were considered belonging to the serfs.

Or else, to take a better known example, when the Commune of 1871 decided to pay members of the Commune Council 12s. 6d. a day, while the Federates on the ramparts received only 1s. 3d., this decision was hailed as an act of superior democratic equality. In reality, the Commune only ratified the former inequality between functionary and soldier, Government and governed. Coming from an Opportunist Chamber of Deputies, such a decision would have appeared admirable, but the Commune doomed her revolutionary principles because she failed to put them into practice.

Under our existing social system, when a minister gets paid £4000 a year, while a workman must content himself with £40 or less; when a foreman is paid two or three times more than a workman, and among workmen there is every gradation, from 8s. a day down to the peasant girl's 3d.; we disapprove of the high salary of the minister as well as of the difference between the 8s. of the workman and the 3d. of the poor woman. And we say, "Down with the privileges of education, as well as with those of birth!" We are anarchists precisely because these privileges revolt us.

They revolt us already in this authoritarian society. Could we endure them in a society that began by proclaiming equality?

That is why some collectivists, understanding the impossibility of maintaining a scale of wages in a society inspired by the breath of the Revolution, hasten to proclaim equality of wage. But they meet with new difficulties, and their equality of wages becomes the same unrealizable Utopia as the scale of wages of other collectivists.

A society having taken possession of all social wealth, having boldly proclaimed the right of all to this wealth--whatever share they may have taken in producing it will be compelled to abandon any system of wages, whether in currency or labour-notes.


The collectivists say, "To each according to his deeds"; or, in other terms, according to his share of services rendered to society. They think it expedient to put this principle into practice as soon as the Social Revolution will have made all instruments of production common property. But we think that if the Social Revolution had the misfortune of proclaiming such a principle, it would mean its necessary failure; it would mean leaving the social problem, which past centuries have burdened us with, unsolved. In fact, in a society like ours, in which the more a man works the less he is remunerated, this principle, at first sight, may appear to be a yearning for justice. But it is really only the perpetuation of past injustice. It was by virtue of this principle that wagedom began, to end in the glaring inequalities and all the abominations of present society; because, from the moment work done was appraised in currency or in any other form of wage; the day it was agreed upon that man would only receive the wage he could secure to himself, the whole history of State-aided Capitalist Society was as good as written; it germinated in this principle.

Shall we, then, return to our starting-point and go through the same evolution again ? Our theorists desire it, but fortunately it is impossible. The Revolution will be communist; if not, it will be drowned in blood, and have to be begun over again.

Services rendered to society, be they work in factory or field, or mental services, cannot be valued in money. There can be no exact measure of value (of what has been wrongly-termed exchange value), nor of use value, with regard to production. If two individuals work for the community five hours a day, year in year out, at different work which is equally agreeable to them, we may say that on the whole their labour is equivalent. But we cannot divide their work, and say that the result of any particular day, hour, or minute of work of the one is worth the result of a minute or hour of the other.

We may roughly say that the man who during his lifetime has deprived himself of leisure during ten hours a day has given far more to society than the one who has only deprived himself of leisure during five hours a day, or who has not deprived himself at all. But we cannot take what he has done during two hours and say that the yield is worth twice as much as the yield of another individual, working only one hour, and remunerate him in proportion. It would be disregarding all that is complex in industry, in agriculture, in the whole life of present society; it would be ignoring to what extent all individual work is the result of past and present labour of society as a whole. It would mean believing ourselves to be living in the Stone Age, whereas we are living in an age of steel.

If you enter a coal-mine you will see a man in charge of a huge machine that raises and lowers a cage. In his hand he holds a lever that stops and reverses the course of the machine; he lowers it and the cage turns back in the twinkling of an eye; he raises it, he lowers it again with a giddy swiftness. All attention, he follows with his eyes fixed on the wall an indicator that shows him On a small scale, at which point of the shaft the cage is at each second of its progress; as soon as the indicator has reached a certain level he suddenly stops the course of the cage, not a yard higher nor lower than the required spot. And no sooner have the colliers unloaded their coal-wagons, and pushed empty ones instead, than he reverses the lever and again sends the cage back into space.

During eight or ten consecutive hours he must pay the closest attention. Should his brain relax for a moment, the cage would inevitably strike against the gear, break its wheels, snap the rope, crush men, and obstruct work in the mine. Should he waste three seconds at each touch of the lever, in our modern perfected mines, the extraction would be reduced from twenty to fifty tons a day.

Is it he who is of greatest use in the mine? Or, is it perhaps the boy who signals to him from below to raise the cage? Is it the miner at the bottom of the shaft, who risks his life every instant, and who will some day be killed by fire-damp? Or is it the engineer, who would lose the layer of coal, and would cause the miners to dig on rock by a simple mistake in his calculations? And lastly, is it the mine owner who has put all his capital into the mine, and who has perhaps, contrary to expert advice asserted that excellent coal would be found there?

All the miners engaged in this mine contribute to the extraction of coal in proportion to their strength, their energy, their knowledge, their intelligence, and their skill. And we may say that all have the right to live, to satisfy their needs, and even their whims, when the necessaries of life have been secured for all. But how can we appraise their work?

And, moreover, Is the coal they have extracted their work? Is it not also the work of men who have built the railway leading to the mine and the roads that radiate from all its stations? Is it not also the work of those that have tilled and sown the fields, extracted iron, cut wood in the forests, built the machines that burn coal, and so on?

No distinction can be drawn between the work of each man. Measuring the work by its results leads us to absurdity; dividing and measuring them by hours spent on the work also leads us to absurdity. One thing remains: put the needs above the works, and first of all recognize the right to live, and later on, to the comforts of life, for all those who take their share in production.

But take any other branch of human activity--take the manifestations of life as a whole. Which one of us can claim the higher remuneration for his work? Is it the doctor who has found out the illness, or the nurse who has brought about recovery by her hygienic care? Is it the inventor of the first steam-engine, or the boy, who, one day getting tired of pulling the rope that formerly opened the valve to let steam enter under the piston, tied the rope to the lever of the machine, without suspecting that he had invented the essential mechanical part of all modern machinery--the automatic valve.

Is it the inventor of the locomotive, or the work man of Newcastle, who suggested replacing the stones formerly laid under the rails by wooden sleepers, as the stones, for want of elasticity, caused the trains to derail? Is it the engineer on the locomotive? The signalman who can stop trains? The switchman who transfers a train from one line to another?--To whom do we owe the transatlantic cable? Is it to the engineer who obstinately affirmed that the cable would transmit messages when learned electricians declared it to be impossible? Is it to Maury, the scientist, who advised that thick cables should be set aside for others as thin as canes? Or else to those volunteers, come from nobody knows where, who spent their days and nights on deck minutely examining every yard of the cable, and removed the nails that the stockholders of steamship companies stupidly caused to be driven into the non-conducting wrapper of the cable, so as to make it unserviceable.

And in a wider sphere, the true sphere of life, with its joys, its sufferings, and its accidents, can not each one of us recall some one who has rendered him so great a service that we should be indignant if its equivalent in coin were mentioned? The service may have been but a word, nothing but a word spoken at the right time, or else it may have been months and years of devotion, and are we going to appraise these "incalculable" services in "labour-notes"?

"The works of each!" But human society would not exist for more than two consecutive generations if every one did not give infinitely more than that for which he is paid in coin, in "cheques," or in civic rewards. The race would soon become extinct if mothers did not sacrifice their lives to take care of their children, if men did not give all the time, without demanding an equivalent, if men did not give just to those from whom they expect no reward.

If middle-class society is decaying, if we have got into a blind alley from which we cannot emerge without attacking past institutions with torch and hatchet, it is precisely because we have calculated too much. It is because we have let ourselves be influenced into giving only to receive. It is because we have aimed at turning society into a commercial company based on debit and credit.

Collectivists know this. They vaguely under stand that a society could not exist if it carried out the principle of "Each according to his deeds." They have a notion that necessaries--we do not speak of whims--the needs of the individual, do not always correspond to his works. Thus De Paepe tells us: "The principle--the eminently Individualist principle--would, however, be tempered by social intervention, for the education of children and young persons (including maintenance and lodging), and by the social organization for assisting the infirm and the sick, for retreats for aged workers, etc." They understand that a man of forty, father of three children, has other needs than young man of twenty. They know that the woman who suckles her infant and spends sleepless nights at its bedside, cannot do as much work as the man who has slept peacefully. They seem to take in that men and women, worn out maybe by dint of overwork for society, may be incapable of doing as much work as those who have spent their time leisurely and pocketed their "labour-notes" in the privileged career of State functionaries.

They are eager to temper their principle. They say: "Society will not fail to maintain and bring up its children; to help both aged and infirm. Without doubt needs will be the measure of the cost that society will burden itself with, to temper the principle of deeds."

Charity, charity, always Christian charity, organized by the State this time. They believe in improving asylums for foundlings, in effecting old-age and sick insurances--so as to temper their principle. But they cannot yet throw aside the idea of "wounding first and healing afterwards!"

Thus, after having denied Communism, after having laughed at their ease at the formula--"To each according to his needs" these great economists discover that they have forgotten something, the needs of the producers, which they now admit. Only it is for the State to estimate them, for the State to verify if the needs are not disproportionate to the work.

The State will dole out charity. Thence to the English poor-law and the workhouse is but a step.

There is but a degree, because even this stepmother of a society against whom we are in revolt has also been compelled to temper her individualist principles; she, too, has had to make concessions in a communist direction and under the same form of charity.

She, too, distributes halfpenny dinners to prevent the pillaging of her shops; builds hospital--often very bad ones, though sometimes splendid ones--to prevent the ravages of contagious diseases. She, too, after having paid the hours of labour, shelters the children of those she has wrecked. She takes their needs into consideration and doles out charity.

Poverty, we have said elsewhere, was the primary cause of wealth. It was poverty that created the first capitalist; because, before accumulating "surplus value," of which we hear so much, men had to be sufficiently destitute to consent to sell their labour, so as not to die of hunger. It was poverty that made capitalists. And if the number of poor rapidly increased during the Middle Ages, it was due to the invasions and wars that followed the founding of States, and to the increase of riches resulting from the exploitation of the East, that tore the bonds asunder which once united agrarian and urban communities, and taught them to proclaim the principle of wages, so dear to exploiters, instead of the solidarity they formerly practised.

And it is this principle that is to spring from a revolution which men dare to call by the name of Social Revolution, a name so clear to the starved, the oppressed, and the sufferers?

It can never be. For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: "Bread, shelter, ease for all!" And those voices will be listened to; the people will say: "Let us begin by allaying our thirst for life, for happiness, for liberty, that we have never quenched. And when we shall have tasted of this joy we will set to work to demolish the last vestiges of middle-class rule, its morality drawn from account-books, its 'debit and credit' philosophy, its 'mine and yours' institutions. 'In demolishing we shall build,' as Proudhon said; and we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy."

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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