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Conquest of Bread: Chapter 1 with Notes
Lumpy's Annotated Notes on Chapter 1 of Kropotkin's Conquest of Bread
Chapter 1: Our Riches
(Summary of Chapter 1, Part 1: Kropotkin talks about how humans started with very little in which to pass on to their kin but as soon as they learned how to manipulate nature to suit their needs, some have sought to exploit other humans or to borrow from past people their ideas to amass even more wealth.)
The human race has traveled far, since those bygone ages when men used to fashion their rude implements of flint, and lived on the precarious spoils of the chase, leaving to their children for their only heritage a shelter beneath the rocks, some poor utensils — and Nature, vast, ununderstood, and terrific, with whom they had to fight for their wretched existence.
(There wasn’t much riches to inherit and grow richer.)
During the agitated times which have elapsed since, and which have lasted for many thousand years, mankind has nevertheless amassed untold treasures. It has cleared the land, dried the marshes, pierced the forests, made roads; it has been building, inventing, observing, reasoning; it has created a complex machinery, wrested her secrets from Nature, and finally it has made a servant of steam. And the result is, that now the child of the civilized man finds ready, at its birth, to his hand an immense capital accumulated by those who have gone before him. And this capital enables him to acquire, merely by his own labor, combined with the labor of others, riches surpassing the dreams of the Orient, expressed in the fairy tales of the Thousand and One Nights.
(People have changed nature to suit their needs and in doing so some have found out how to not only how to exploit nature, but other humans as well. This should have helped all of humanity equally but only the few actually get the bulk of the benefits.)
The soil is cleared to a great extent, fit for the reception of the best seeds, ready to make a rich return for the skill and labor spent upon it — a return more than sufficient for all the wants of humanity. The methods of cultivation are known.
(Farming ushered us in the days of the Haves and Have Nots.)
On the wide prairies of America each hundred men, with the aid of powerful machinery, can produce in a few months enough wheat to maintain ten thousand people for a whole year. And where man wishes to double his produce, to treble it, to multiply it a hundred-fold, he makes the soil, gives to each plant the requisite care, and thus obtains enormous returns. While the hunter of old had to scour fifty or sixty square miles to find food for his family, the civilized man supports his household, with far less pains, and far more certainty, on a thousandth part of that space. Climate is no longer an obstacle. When the sun fails, man replaces it by artificial heat; and we see the coming of a time when artificial light also will be used to stimulate vegetation. Meanwhile, by the use of glass and hot water pipes, man renders a given space ten and fifty times more productive than it was in its natural state.
(Production has been aided through the changes to nature and the inventions of humans.)
The prodigies accomplished in industry are still more striking. With the co-operation of those intelligent beings, modern machines — themselves the fruit of three or four generations of inventors, mostly unknown — a hundred men manufacture now the stuff to clothe ten thousand persons for a period of two years. In well-managed coal mines the labor of a hundred miners furnishes each year enough fuel to warm ten thousand families under an inclement sky. And we have lately witnessed twice the spectacle of a wonderful city springing up in a few months at Paris, without interrupting in the slightest degree the regular work of the French nation.
(One of the main themes throughout CoB is the fact that the revolutions, or insurrections as PK calls them, that went before such as the 1848 “Springtime of the Peoples” in France and the Paris Commune of 1871 didn’t go far enough to get rid of capitalism and maintained the State in its same form that was set about to protect capital and not the people. Not changing it led to their demise. It’s not enough to just win the revolution. You need to be prepared to totally dismantle the State and capitalism.)
And if in manufactures as in agriculture, and as indeed through our whole social system, the labor, the discoveries, and the inventions of our ancestors profit chiefly the few, it is none the less certain that mankind in general, aided by the creatures of steel and iron which it already possesses, could already procure an existence of wealth and ease for every one of its members. (These advances only serve a few but could actually enrich everyone to the point of having their needs met.)
Truly, we are rich, far richer than we think; rich in what we already possess, richer still in the possibilities of production of our actual mechanical outfit; richest of all in what we might win from our soil, from our manufactures, from our science, from our technical knowledge, were they but applied to bringing about the well-being of all.
(Well-being for All is PK’s cry and the title of chapter 2. Kropotkin is saying that with all our advances there is no need for anyone to suffer from not having their needs met. It is the greed of a few that causes this.)
We, in civilized societies, are rich. Why then are the many poor? Why this painful drudgery for the masses? Why, even to the best paid workman, this uncertainty for the morrow, in the midst of all the wealth inherited from the past, and in spite of the powerful means of production, which could ensure comfort to all in return for a few hours of daily toil?
(Think on how the US is the richest country in the world and yet 68,000 people are dying each year for not having health insurance, 1 in 6 kids are food insecure, and the inequality levels are far higher than most European countries with a Gini rate (the index that measures income inequality among a group of people) at .48, where .4 is the warning rate, .5 represents severe income gap).
The Socialists have said it and repeated it unwearyingly. Daily they reiterate it, demonstrating it by arguments taken from all the sciences. It is because all that is necessary for production — the land, the mines, the highways, machinery, food, shelter, education, knowledge — all have been seized by the few in the course of that long story of robbery, enforced migration and wars, of ignorance and oppression, which has been the life of the human race before it had learned to subdue the forces of Nature. It is because, taking advantage of alleged rights acquired in the past, these few appropriate to-day two-thirds of the products of human labor, and then squander them in the most stupid and shameful way. It is because, having reduced the masses to a point at which they have not the means of subsistence for a month, or even for a week in advance, the few only allow the many to work on condition of themselves receiving the lion’s share. It is because these few prevent the remainder of men from producing the things they need, and force them to produce, not the necessaries of life for all, but whatever offers the greatest profits to the monopolists. In this is the substance of all Socialism.
(Keeping the poor desperate is how the capitalists (monopolists even) keep their riches but also they don’t do it to the benefit of society but what benefits them. They don’t care what benefits society, only what lines their pockets.)
Take, indeed, a civilized country. The forests which once covered it have been cleared, the marshes drained, the climate improved. It has been made habitable. The soil, which bore formerly only a coarse vegetation, is covered to-day with rich harvests. The rock-walls in the valleys are laid out in terraces and covered with vines bearing golden fruit. The wild plants, which yielded naught but acrid berries, or uneatable roots, have been transformed by generations of culture into succulent vegetables, or trees covered with delicious fruits. Thousands of highways and railroads furrow the earth, and pierce the mountains. The shriek of the engine is heard in the wild gorges of the Alps, the Caucasus, and the Himalayas. The rivers have been made navigable; the coasts, carefully surveyed, are easy of access; artificial harbors, laboriously dug out and protected against the fury of the sea, afford shelter to the ships. Deep shafts have been sunk in the rocks; labyrinths of underground galleries have been dug out where coal may be raised or minerals extracted. At the crossings of the highways great cities have sprung up, and within their borders all the treasures of industry, science, and art have been accumulated.
(He is speaking of all that we accomplished. He is not dismissing these changes as being bad, just pointing them out to make his next point.)
Whole generations, that lived and died in misery, oppressed and ill-treated by their masters, and worn out by toil, have handed on this immense inheritance to our century.
(We need to remember that many people struggled and were treated poorly to gain all that has made our lives easier.)
For thousands of years millions of men have labored to clear the forests, to drain the marshes, and to open up highways by land and water. Every rood of soil we cultivate in Europe has been watered by the sweat of several races of men. Every acre has its story of enforced labor, of intolerable toil, of the people’s sufferings. Every mile of railway, every yard of tunnel, has received its share of human blood.
(People gave their lives to make it easier for others to gain riches.)
The shafts of the mine still bear on their rocky walls the marks made by the pick of the workman who toiled to excavate them. The space between each prop in the underground galleries might be marked as a miner’s grave; and who can tell what each of these graves has cost, in tears, in privations, in unspeakable wretchedness to the family who depended on the scanty wage of the worker cut off in his prime by fire-damp, rock-fall, or flood?
(Without the workers where would we be? Oppression works for the rich. Granted now even some poor people have benefitted from what people suffered for in the past but not nearly as much as those who generation after generation held the wealth and exploited the workers.)
The cities, bound together by railroads and waterways, are organisms which have lived through centuries. Dig beneath them and you find, one above another, the foundations of streets, of houses, of theatres, of public buildings. Search into their history and you will see how the civilization of the town, its industry, its special characteristics, have slowly grown and ripened through the co-operation of generations of its inhabitants before it could become what it is to-day. And even to-day; the value of each dwelling, factory, and warehouse, which has been created by the accumulated labor of the millions of workers, now dead and buried, is only maintained by the very presence and labor of legions of the men who now inhabit that special corner of the globe. Each of the atoms composing what we call the Wealth of Nations owes its value to the fact that it is a part of the great whole. What would a London dockyard or a great Paris warehouse be if they were not situated in these great centers of international commerce? What would become of our mines, our factories, our workshops, and our railways, without the immense quantities of merchandise transported every day by sea and land?
Millions of human beings have labored to create this civilization on which we pride ourselves to-day. Other millions, scattered through the globe, labor to maintain it. Without them nothing would be left in fifty years but ruins.
(The “uncivilized” created civilization.)
There is not even a thought, or an invention, which is not common property, born of the past and the present. Thousands of inventors, known and unknown, who have died in poverty, have co-operated in the invention of each of these machines which embody the genius of man.
(So many who deserve the credit for their innovations and do not get them and therefore, how can someone just coopt credit for themselves. Why should any one person benefit over others if the work was done by many hands?
You cannot possibly claim ownership to work that came before. You are now reaping awards off someone else’s labor. The few should not benefit why the many do not.)
Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, have labored to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought, without which the marvels of our century could never have appeared. And these thousands of philosophers, of poets, of scholars, of inventors, have themselves been supported by the labor of past centuries. They have been upheld and nourished through life, both physically and mentally, by legions of workers and craftsmen of all sorts. They have drawn their motive force from the environment.
The genius of a Séguin, a Mayer, a Grove, has certainly done more to launch industry in new directions than all the capitalists in the world. But men of genius are themselves the children of industry as well as of science. Not until thousands of steam-engines had been working for years before all eyes, constantly transforming heat into dynamic force, and this force into sound, light, and electricity, could the insight of genius proclaim the mechanical origin and the unity of the physical forces. And if we, children of the nineteenth century, have at last grasped this idea, if we know now how to apply it, it is again because daily experience has prepared the way. The thinkers of the eighteenth century saw and declared it, but the idea remained undeveloped, because the eighteenth century had not grown up like ours, side by side with the steam-engine. Imagine the decades that might have passed while we remained in ignorance of this law, which has revolutionized modern industry, had Watt not found at Soho skilled workmen to embody his ideas in metal, bringing all the parts of his engine to perfection, so that steam, pent in a complete mechanism, and rendered more docile than a horse, more manageable than water, became at last the very soul of modern industry.
(This all reminds me of people like Elon Musk. They get the credit for science that came before or from his current engineers in his employ. The people who claim to own things others have toiled over have no right to them.)
Every machine has had the same history — a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless workers, who have added to the original invention these little nothings, without which the most fertile idea would remain fruitless. More than that: every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded it in the vast field of mechanics and industry.
Science and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and muscle — all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present.
By what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say — This is mine, not yours?
(How can one person claim the work of many as his own?)
It has come about, however, in the course of the ages traversed by the human race, that all that enables man to produce, and to increase his power of production, has been seized by the few. Sometime, perhaps, we will relate how this came to pass. For the present let it suffice to state the fact and analyze its consequences.
To-day the soil, which actually owes its value to the needs of an ever-increasing population, belongs to a minority who prevent the people from cultivating it — or do not allow them to cultivate it according to modern methods.
The mines, though they represent the labor of several generations, and derive their sole value from the requirements of the industry of a nation and the density of the population — the mines also belong to the few; and these few restrict the output of coal, or prevent it entirely, if they find more profitable investments for their capital. Machinery, too, has become the exclusive property of the few, and even when a machine incontestably represents the improvements added to the original rough invention by three or four generations of workers, it none the less belongs to a few owners. And if the descendants of the very inventor who constructed the first machine for lace-making, a century ago, were to present themselves to-day in a lace factory at Bâle or Nottingham, and demand their rights, they would be told: “Hands off! this machine is not yours,” and they would be shot down if they attempted to take possession of it.
(Not just land is hoarded by a few. They hoard the machinery that wasn’t even conceived by them. They claim to own things that should be for all.)
The railways, which would be useless as so much old iron without the teeming population of Europe, its industry, its commerce, and its marts, belong to a few shareholders, ignorant perhaps of the whereabouts of the lines of rails which yield them revenues greater than those of medieval kings. And if the children of those who perished by thousands while excavating the railway cuttings and tunnels were to assemble one day, crowding in their rags and hunger, to demand bread from the shareholders, they would be met with bayonets and grape-shot, to disperse them and safeguard “vested interests.”
(Looking at America during slavery: The North claimed they didn’t have slaves (they did) but they made their money off the slaves of the South just as much as the Southerners did. The Northern textile mills relied on the cotton from the South in order to sell the material to Europe.)
In virtue of this monstrous system, the son of the worker, on entering life, finds no field which he may till, no machine which he may tend, no mine in which he may dig, without accepting to leave a great part of what he will produce to a master. He must sell his labor for a scant and uncertain wage. His father and his grandfather have toiled to drain this field, to build this mill, to perfect this machine. They gave to the work the full measure of their strength, and what more could they give? But their heir comes into the world poorer than the lowest savage. If he obtains leave to till the fields, it is on condition of surrendering a quarter of the produce to his master, and another quarter to the government and the middlemen. And this tax, levied upon him by the State, the capitalist, the lord of the manor, and the middleman, is always increasing; it rarely leaves him the power to improve his system of culture. If he turns to industry, he is allowed to work — though not always even that — only on condition that he yield a half or two-thirds of the product to him whom the land recognizes as the owner of the machine.
(The worker has a right to the mine more so than the “owner” (capitalists). His family worked that mine for a pittance. He’ll work that mine for a pittance. His son will then work for the same slave wage (maybe slightly increased because of inflation) and so on and so forth.)
We cry shame on the feudal baron who forbade the peasant to turn a clod of earth unless he surrendered to his lord a fourth of his crop. We call those the barbarous times. But if the forms have changed, the relations have remained the same, and the worker is forced, under the name of free contract, to accept feudal obligations. For, turn where he will, he can find no better conditions. Everything has become private property, and he must accept, or die of hunger.
(The few have stolen “rights” to the land and sit back and make their money off of charging rents (in form of crops or money) that he does not actually need.)
The result of this state of things is that all our production tends in a wrong direction. Enterprise takes no thought for the needs of the community. Its only aim is to increase the gains of the speculator. Hence the constant fluctuations of trade, the periodical industrial crises, each of which throws scores of thousands of workers on the streets.
(Capitalists do not think on what is best for all of humanity but what is beneficial to themselves.)
The working people cannot purchase with their wages the wealth which they have produced, and industry seeks foreign markets among the monied classes of other nations. In the East, in Africa, everywhere, in Egypt, Tonkin or the Congo, the European is thus bound to promote the growth of serfdom. And so he does. But soon he finds everywhere similar competitors. All the nations evolve on the same lines, and wars, perpetual wars, break out for the right of precedence in the market. Wars for the possession of the East, wars for the empire of the sea, wars to impose duties on imports and to dictate conditions to neighboring states; wars against those “blacks” who revolt! The roar of the cannon never ceases in the world, whole races are massacred, the states of Europe spend a third of their budgets in armaments; and we know how heavily these taxes fall on the workers.
(There is a comradery among the capitalists no matter what nation they are from. They work together to keep themselves rich and not let others into that club. Millions of working class around the world will be killed in war for those resources that make rich people richer.)
Education still remains the privilege of a small minority, for it is idle to talk of education when the workman’s child is forced, at the age of thirteen, to go down into the mine or to help his father on the farm. It is idle to talk of studies to the worker, who comes home in the evening crushed by excessive toil with its brutalizing atmosphere. Society is thus bound to remain divided into two hostile camps, and in such conditions freedom is a vain word. The Radical begins by demanding a greater extension of political rights, but he soon sees that the breath of liberty leads to the uplifting of the proletariat, and then he turns round, changes his opinions, and reverts to repressive legislation and government by the sword.
(They deem you unskilled and uncivilized for the crime of having to work for these small wages just to get by. There is no time for study when you spend all day doing physical labor just so you can feed yourself and your family.)
A vast array of courts, judges, executioners, policemen, and jailers is needed to uphold these privileges; and this array gives rise in its turn to a whole system of espionage, of false witness, of spies, of threats and corruption.
(Those that they claim are there to protect you are there only to protect the Capitalists’ interests. There is no protection for the mere worker who can be scapegoated and blamed for just about anything wrong that happens.)
The system under which we live checks in its turn the growth of the social sentiment. We all know that without uprightness, without self-respect, without sympathy and mutual aid, human kind must perish, as perish the few races of animals living by rapine, or the slave-keeping ants. But such ideas are not to the taste of the ruling classes, and they have elaborated a whole system of pseudo-science to teach the contrary.
(Pretty sure he is talking about economics there as it is a pseudo-science but, yes, the ruling class constantly creates lying propaganda to get enough people to think giving away their labor is their only choice.)
Fine sermons have been preached on the text that those who have should share with those who have not, but he who would act out this principle is speedily informed that these beautiful sentiments are all very well in poetry, but not in practice. “To lie is to degrade and besmirch oneself,” we say, and yet all civilized life becomes one huge lie. We accustom ourselves and our children to hypocrisy, to the practice of a double-faced morality. And since the brain is ill at ease among lies, we cheat ourselves with sophistry. Hypocrisy and sophistry become the second nature of the civilized man.
(We constantly lie to ourselves and pass those lies down to our children. It has been thousands of years of conditioning and keeping that shared memory alive to the point we doubt ourselves when we stand up and say it is wrong because so many of our fellow workers are too deep into the propaganda to shake it.)
But a society cannot live thus; it must return to truth or cease to exist.
Thus the consequences which spring from the original act of monopoly spread through the whole of social life. Under pain of death, human societies are forced to return to first principles: the means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one’s part in the production of the world’s wealth.
(All belongs to all. This is not saying my pair on pants belongs to everyone but everyone should be able to have a pair of pants like mine. This is one the bigger stuff…like machinery. Many people, hundreds, possibly thousands, went into creating anything from the concept to reality. It is not meant for just the few.)
All things are for all. Here is an immense stock of tools and implements; here are all those iron slaves which we call machines, which saw and plane, spin and weave for us, unmaking and remaking, working up raw matter to produce the marvels of our time. But nobody has the right to seize a single one of these machines and say, “This is mine; if you want to use it you must pay me a tax on each of your products,” any more than the feudal lord of medieval times had the right to say to the peasant, “This hill, this meadow belong to me, and you must pay me a tax on every sheaf of corn you reap, on every rick you build.”
(The hoarding of machinery is like the hoarding of land. He brings this off the farm and into the industrial age and machines are “owned” by the few and those few may not have anything to do with the manufacturing or conception of those machines.)
All is for all! If the man and the woman bear their fair share of work, they have a right to their fair share of all that is produced by all, and that share is enough to secure them well-being. No more of such vague formulas as “The Right to work,” or “To each the whole result of his labor.” What we proclaim is THE RIGHT TO WELL-BEING: WELL-BEING FOR ALL!
(The people who do hoard the machines and land are taking away from others well-being.)
 The Paris Commune of 1871
 Marc Seguin (20 April 1786 – 24 February 1875) was a French engineer, inventor of the wire-cable suspension bridge and the multi-tubular steam-engine boiler.
 Julius Robert von Mayer (25 November 1814 – 20 March 1878) was a German physician, chemist and physicist and one of the founders of thermodynamics.
 Sir William Robert Grove (11 July 1811 – 1 August 1896) was a Welsh judge and physical scientist was a pioneer of fuel cell technology. He invented the Grove voltaic cell.