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Words of a Rebel

Peter Kropotkin

The Situation Today

It is evident that we are advancing rapidly towards revolution, towards an upheaval that will begin in one country and spread, as in 1848, into all the neighbouring lands, and, as it rocks existing society to its foundations, will also reopen the springs of life.

To confirm our view, we do not even have to invoke the testimony of a celebrated German historian,(1) or a well-known Italian philosopher,(2) both of whom, having deeply studied the history of our times, have reached the conclusion that a great revolution was inevitable towards the end of this century. We need only watch the panorama that has unrolled before us over the past twenty years; we need only observe what goes on around us.

When we do so, we perceive two major facts emerging from the murky depths of the canvas: the awakening of the peoples, in contrast to the moral, intellectual and economic failure of the ruling classes; and the agitated yet powerless efforts of people of wealth to hinder that awakening.

Yes, the awakening of the peoples!

In the suffocating atmosphere of the factory as much as in the darkness of the cookshop kitchen, under the roof of the granary as much as in the streaming galleries of the mine, a new world is taking shape these days. Among those shadowy masses, whom the bourgeois despise as much as they fear them, yet from whose midst has always stirred the breath that inspired the great reformers, the most difficult problems of social economy and political organization are posed one after another, discussed, and given new solutions dictated by the sense of justice. These discussions cut to the heart of society's sickness. New hopes are awakened, new ideas emerge.

Opinions mingle and vary to the point of infinity, but two streams of ideas already sound more and more distinctly in this din of voices: the abolition of individual property and communism; and the abolition of the State, its replacement by the free commune, and the international union of working men. The two ways converge in a single aim: Equality. Not that hypocritical formula of equality, inscribed by the bourgeoisie on its banners and in its codes for the easier enslavement of the producer, but true equality: land, capital and work shared by all.

It is in vain that the ruling classes seek to stifle these aspirations by imprisoning men and suppressing their writings. The new ideas penetrate people's minds, take possession of their hearts in the same way as in the past the myth of the rich and free lands of the East possessed the hearts of the serfs when they rushed into the ranks of the crusaders. The idea may sleep for a while; if its appearance on the surface is prevented, it may burrow beneath the soil, but that will lead only to its resurging stronger than ever before. You have only to look at the present reawakening of socialism in France, the second revival in the short space of fifteen years. When the wave breaks it rises even higher an instant afterwards. And as soon as a first attempt is made to put the new ideas into practice, they will stand up before everyone in all their simplicity, in all their splendour. Let one attempt be successful, and the awareness of their own strength will give the peoples a heroic impulse.

This moment cannot be long delayed. Everything brings us near the point when poverty itself, which forces the unfortunate to take thought, reaches the point of forced unemployment, when the man who has already started to think is torn from the narrow setting of his workshop and thrown into the streets, where he quickly comes to know both the viciousness and the powerlessness of the ruling classes.

And, in the meantime, what are these ruling classes achieving?

While natural sciences are assuming a vigour that reminds one of the last century when the great French revolution was approaching and while bold inventors open up new horizons each day to the struggle of humanity against the hostile forces of nature, social science -- a bourgeois creation -- remains silent and is content to work over its outdated theories.

But perhaps these ruling classes are making progress in practical matters? Far from it. They remain obstinately intent on waving their ragged banners, on defending egotistic individualism, competition between man and man and nation and nation, and the omnipotence of the centralizing State.

They change from protectionism to free trade, and from free trade back to protectionism; from reaction to liberalism and from liberalism back to reaction; from atheism to superstition and from superstition back to atheism; always fearful, always looking towards the past, ever less capable of realizing anything that lasts. Everything these ruling classes have achieved has in fact been a contradiction of whatever they have promised. They promised to guarantee us freedom to work-and they have made us slaves to the factory, to the owner, to the overseer. They took the responsibility for organizing industry, for guaranteeing our well being, and they have given us endless crises and resultant poverty; they promised us education-and we are reduced to the impossible task of teaching ourselves; they promised us political freedom, and have led us on from one reaction to the next; they promised us peace, and have given us wars without end. They have failed in all their promises.

But the people are weary of it all; they are beginning to ask each other where they have ended up, after letting themselves be gulfed and governed for so long by the bourgeoisie. The answer to that question can be seen in the economic situation that now afflicts Europe. The crises that hitherto were passing calamities have become chronic. The crisis in cotton, the crisis in the metal industry, the crisis in watchmaking, all of these crises now occur simultaneously and take on permanence.

At the present moment one can count several millions of people out of work in Europe; tens of thousands prowl from town to town, begging for their living or rioting and with threats demanding work or bread! As the peasants of 1787 wandered by thousands over the roads without finding in the rich soil of their country, appropriated by the aristocrats, a plot of land to cultivate or a hoe to till it, so today the workers wait with idle hands for lack of access to the materials and me tools needed for production because they are in the hands of a few idlers.

Great industries are allowed to die, great cities like Sheffield are turned into deserts. There is poverty in England, above all in England, for it is there that the "economists" have most thoroughly applied their principles, but there is poverty also in Alsace and hunger in Spain and Italy. Unemployment exists everywhere, and with unemployment, mere lack becomes real poverty; anaemic children and women ageing five years in a single winter; sickness moving with great sweeps through the ranks of the workers! This is what we have attained under the rule of the capitalists.

And they talk to us of over-production! Over-production? When the miner who piles up mountains of coal has no money to pay for a fire in the depth of winter? When the weaver who produces miles of cloth cannot afford shirts for his ragged children? When the mason who builds a palace lives in a hovel, and the seamstress who creates masterpieces for the fashionable dress shops has only one ragged shawl to protect her in all weathers?

Is this what they call the organization of industry? One might rather call it a secret alliance of the capitalists to tame the workers by hunger.

We are told that capital, that product of work of all humankind which has been accumulated in the hands of the few, is fleeing from agriculture and industry for lack of confidence. But where will it find its perch, once it has left the strong-boxes?

In fact, it has many advantageous destinations. It can go to furnish the harems of the Sultan; it can supply the wars, sustaining the Russian against the Turk and, at the same time, the Turk against the Russian. Or, alternatively, it can be used to found a joint stock company, not to produce anything, but simply to lead in a couple of years to a scandalous failure as soon as the financial bigshots have withdrawn, taking millions with them as the reward for their "idea." Or, again, capital can be used to construct useless railways, over the Gothard, in Japan, across the Sahara if need be-provided that the Rothschilds who underwrite them, the engineers in charge and the contractors can make a few million each.

But above all, capital can plunge into speculation, the great game of the stock exchange. The capitalist gambles on artificially induced increases in the price of wheat or cotton; he gambles on politics, on the rising prices induced by some rumour of reform or some leaked diplomatic note; and very often-we see it every day-the government officials themselves dabble in these speculations.

Speculation killing industry-that is what they call the intelligent management of business! It is for that the capitalists tell us that we should support them!

In brief, economic chaos is at its height. However, this chaos cannot last for long. The people are tired of crises provoked by the greed of the ruling classes; they want to live by working and not to suffer years of poverty, seasoned by humiliating charity, for the sake of perhaps two or three years of exhausting work, sometimes more or less assured, but always badly remunerated.

The worker is becoming aware of the incapacity of the governing classes; their incapacity to understand his own new aspirations; their incapacity to manage industry; their incapacity to organize production and exchange.

The people will soon declare the deposition of the bourgeoisie. They will take matters into their own hands as soon as the propitious moment offers itself.

That moment cannot be far off, since the very difficulties that are gnawing away at industry will precipitate it, and its advent will be hastened by the breakdown of the State, a breakdown that in our day has entered its final precipitate phase.

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