THE CONQUEST OF BREAD
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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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