The Conquest of Socialists by Power

Peter Kropotkin

Les Temps Nouveaux, 21 April 1900

We have all read day by day the debates of the socialist Congress, convened in Paris after the entry of Millerand into the cabinet. But when we read again in their entirety the two reports of this same Congress given in Humanité Nouvelle by Hamon and Cornelissen, we cannot help but make certain reflections; and our readers will perhaps forgive us returning to it.

Over six days, more than six hundred socialists – the elite of the French parliamentary socialists – were gathered in a hall. They argued, they fought. And it is in struggle, as we know, that the great ideas of the future spring. There were amongst the six hundred delegates many very intelligent men. Many amongst them had to be absolutely sincere, many claimed to be revolutionaries, while a certain number had taken part in the communalist revolution in Paris in 1871.

The subject of their debates lent itself admirably to a clear exposition of principles; it allowed the formulation of a great and board programme of the reforms aimed at by the socialists. Let us say more, it was a programme of this kind that the socialist worker masses expected of the Congress.

It was called, as we know, to pronounce on this question: “was Millerand right or not to enter the Galliffet and Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet?” A question which, necessarily, was transformed during the course of the debates into this other, somewhat broader, question: “Can a socialist deputy accept a portfolio in a bourgeois cabinet?”

Well, the only responsible answer that the Congress could give to this question would have to be conceived roughly in the following terms:

– “The Congress certainly does not represent a party of revolutionaries; it represents a party for economic and political reforms, driven by its socialist aspirations. And as these reforms are considered by the Congress as absolutely urgent and necessary – here is the programme. If a bourgeois cabinet accepts this programme of immediate reforms – a socialist can enter this cabinet. Otherwise – no!”

* * *

Leaving aside individuals, we should expect a response of this kind from such a Congress. Two or three delegates tried to give that direction to the debates. When you are a party of reforms, it is the least that you owe to the people – to frankly declare what your programme of reforms is. And, once the programme was formulated, it settled the special question, leaving no room for ambiguity from now on.

Well, that is precisely what the Congress did not do. Instead of clearly formulating what it expected of its representatives, what did it give us? – Nothing, absolutely nothing! Zero, nil, nought! A cry of rage escapes from the chest when reading about these debates. We knew, without doubt, we had even predicted here, what would become of parliamentary socialism. But we never thought that in so few years parliamentarianism would bring French socialism to this point of intellectual impotence. Our predictions fell far below the sad reality.

* * *

The Paris Congress was definitely not a revolutionary Congress – we know that and it is not from this point of view that we judge it. We know that the members of this Congress take very different attitudes in relation to the social revolution. Some do not believe in it at all; others do not see it coming any time soon; other ones abhor the very idea of the people in the street. Some are ready to shoulder a rifle the day when we will fight in the street; others will hasten on that day to organise “order,” that is to say, the counter-revolution.

But, ultimately, all agree on one point. Whether the revolution comes or not, they will do their best to obtain in the current State a certain number of reforms which they call “socialist.”

Granted! Let us take them for what they say they are. Socialist reformists, while awaiting better.

Well! It is on this duty of socialists and reformists that the six hundred delegates at the Paris Congress have failed on all points. It is in this respect that they have been absolutely useless.

* * *

We know, however, reformers of a very different temper and a whole other intellectual power.

Take Necker and the Abbe Sieyes. Read the latter’s Tiers Etat and the Pouvoir Exécutif of the other. Both lived under vile absolutism. Both loathed revolution. But they had other higher ambitions for their party – the bourgeoisie – whose power they sought to consolidate. With a firm hand and with broad aims, they sketched the political constitution which was to take power from the hands of the nobility and put it into the hands of the bourgeoisie. Their treatment of the people was detestable, they were enemies of the people; but at least they dared to think for the party they represented. The parliamentary socialists do not dare to do this at all.

Or take a modern reformer – Henry George – also an enemy of popular revolution. We saw him fight when he stood as a candidate for the mayor of New York. This one again dared to think. Not only did he promise the people that the thieves of “Tammany-Hall”, who had plundered New York for ten years, would be arrested after his election, but he demanded his nomination to carry out his great project of the “single tax” (taxation by square metre). He saw in it the means of wresting the land from the landowners, of giving it back to the people, of communalising added-value [by economic rent]. He bluntly developed this programme before the wretched of the American city and appealed to them to achieve his reform whose plank, as everyone knows, borders on an agrarian revolution. Like Eudes, he fell dead at a rally.

But where is the programme, where is the nobility of thought, the audacity of the Paris Congress? It talked of the conquest of power, but it knew only how to show us its conquest by power, the conquest of socialism by the bourgeoisie.

* * *

Do not quibble over the resolutions of the Congress. Let us suppose that under the penalty of a rupture between the two factions of the party, the Congress could not do otherwise than vote in the space of twenty-four hours for two contradictory resolutions: today to say that a socialist deputy must not enter a bourgeois cabinet and add tomorrow that he could do so under “exceptional” (which?) circumstances. It is true that, in our opinion, an honest division of the party into two factions would have been preferable to the latent schism that continues to exist, and which paralyses both. But let us move on.

Let us also say that the ten or twenty leaders could not say anything but banalities or make recriminations. For them, questions of personal influence dominated the rest.

But the others? But the other six hundred delegates present? Did they also have nothing to say?

* * *

To call yourself a socialist does not mean, however, renouncing any idea of changing, even overturning, the current political machine. On the contrary. The socialist is forced to conceive of another political structure than that which exists.

Here, in fact is a State, France, which has already had its first sketch of communal revolution but which still remains, under the name of republic, the centralised imperial State that it was in the time of Napoleon. So centralised that the Caesarists base all their plans on it. The first Caesar to come will find, on the one hand, a complete crushing of local life and, on the other, a whole powerful machine made to drown in blood any attempt to revolt.

Here is a State in which a forest ranger dares not sell a tree felled by the wind without fifty-two papers being exchanged between the offices of three ministries; a municipality dares not open a school or give 100 francs to hungry workers, without the kinglet, the prefect, sticking his nose in and scrapping the decision. A State, crushed by taxes and monopolies that deliver an unprecedented power to the bourgeoisie. A State in which the clergy, thanks to its immense possessions and political influence, is still the master and still holds [in its hands]  a third of children going to primary school as well as half the young people receiving secondary education in its religious schools. A State, simply put, which is still within the administrative customs of the former regime, which is still a prey and a monopoly of the bourgeoisie. And these socialist reformists find nothing wrong with this machine which they nevertheless should work to remake, if not to demolish, in the very interest of socialist action!

Finally, France is not Germany, which is still waiting for its 1848. It experienced the Paris Commune which, taking in its true sense the saying of Proudhon: “The Commune will be all or it will be nothing,” one day affirmed this so correct idea on the barricades and paid with the blood of 35,000 Parisian workers.

A whole programme of economic and political reconstruction of society can be summarised in this single idea of the free Commune, of the “Commune-All”, becoming the starting point of a republic differently republican than that of Millerand and Co., as well as the beginning of the expropriation and the sharing of housing, shops, factories, production. This idea represents at least a tangible form to begin the social revolution, an idea already more or less familiar to the French worker, especially for those who do not want to know anything about anarchy

Well! None of this exists for these so-called “conquerors of power,” well and truly conquered by the bourgeois power.

* * *

It is not for us to write programmes for the reformists. But we can see from here what a proud programme of political and economic reforms could be devised on this basis alone. The Commune – master of its destiny, regulating itself the conditions of labour within it, completely reorganising from the bottom to the top the basis of taxation, itself naming its judges, reconstructing the whole of education at, expropriating where it finds it necessary, communalising what it wants to communalise, without going through the channels of Parliament – are not all the elements of a proud programme there?

For us anarchists, this is not our dream. We go much further in our demands. But the Commune master of all its destinies and the shredding of the centralised State is certainly a reform already needed in old Europe. Was it not the duty of the reformist socialists, sons of the communards, to at least raise the flag of this reform, if they do not dare to go further?

* * *

They did not; they did not dare do anything. For to do so would have required the parliamentary socialists to have had the audacity to appear before the Chamber – not as beggars who come, hat in hand, into the shrine of their dreams, but as proud conquerors who want to conquer a better future for the people.

But no! Except for a moment of enthusiasm at the close of the Congress – made brief, to make amends to the bourgeois calling themselves socialist – that is all they have done…

Is that all, though? – We should be delighted to be mistaken, we would be happy to be wrong, but we strongly believe that what was established at this Congress – tacitly, in such a way as not to have been perceived by the sincere members at the meeting – is THE PARTY OF SOCIALIST REACTION; the party which, one day, will seek to strangle the social revolution by covering itself with the label of socialism.

Socialism cannot be reformist. If it refuses to be revolutionary, it necessarily falls into the arms of reaction.