By the 1880 ‘s Kropotkin had become one of the leading exponents of anarchist communism, the basic principles of which he set forth in a series of pamphlets and articles. In 1892 he published his most eloquent and influential argument for anarchist communism, The Conquest of Bread. It was soon translated into several languages and had a considerable impact on the anarchist movement, not only in Europe but also throughout Latin America and Asia, particularly China. The following excerpts are taken from the chapter on the wage system, which has been widely translated and published in pamphlet form. The “collectivists” Kropotkin refers to were for the most part Marxist state socialists.
“We have said that most Collectivist writers demand that in Socialist society remuneration should be based upon a distinction between qualified or professional labor and simple labor. They assert that an hour of the engineer’s, the architect’s or the doctor’s work should be counted as two or three hours’ work from the blacksmith, the mason or the nurse. And the same distinction, say they, ought to be established between workers whose trades require a longer or shorter apprenticeship and those who are mere day laborers.
Yes, but to establish this distinction is to maintain all the inequalities of our existing society. It is to trace out beforehand a demarcation between the worker and those who claim to rule him. It is still to divide society into two clearly defined classes: an aristocracy of knowledge above, a horny-handed democracy below; one class devoted to the service of the other; one class toiling with its hands to nourish and clothe the other, whilst that other profits by its leisure to learn how to dominate those who toil for it.
We know that if the engineer, the scientist and the doctor are paid today ten or a hundred times more than the laborer, and the weaver earns three times as much as the toiler in the fields and ten times as much as a match girl, it is not because what they receive is in proportion to their various costs of production. Rather it is in proportion to the extent of monopoly in education and in industry. The engineer, the scientist and the doctor simply draw their profits from their own sort of capital — their degree, their certificates — just as the manufacturer draws a profit from a mill, or as a nobleman used to do from his birth and title.
Where then is the sense of talking of the cost of production of labor force, and saying that a student who passes a merry youth at the University, has a right to ten times higher wages than the son of a miner who has pined in a pit since he was eleven? Or that a weaver has a right to wages three or four times higher than those of an agricultural laborer? The expenditure needed to produce a weaver is not four times as great as the necessary cost of producing a field worker. The weaver simply benefits by the advantageous position which industry enjoys in Europe as compared with parts of the world where at present there as yet no industries..
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 …
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 excel lent 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 the 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. ”