Economic Action or Parliamentary Politics

Peter Kropotkin

Les Temps Nouveaux, 25 June 1910

Let us recall once more the essence of the ideas inspired by the international proletariat when it awoke during the years 1866-1870.

After being convinced during the 1848 Revolution that even the most radical of the bourgeoisie had neither the intention nor the ability to solve the social problem, and that they would not stop at mass massacre to prevent the proletarians from reaching that by the revolutionary route: after assuring themselves, later, that the Caesarism in which a certain number of proletarians had had confidence in would not and could not do otherwise than the bourgeoisie; after having understood, finally, the weakness of the proletariat as long as it did not rally around a general idea and did not itself elaborate a clear conception of the solution to the social problem – intelligent workers had agreed upon this idea:

1) To organise themselves internationally by trade to conduct a vigorous, direct, struggle against the capitalists in the workshop, the factory, the construction site – by the strike or by any other available means;

2) To study in every group and local and regional federation the various solutions to the social problem, with the aim of transferring the land and all the tools of production and exchange to the producers and consumers themselves.

To thus awaken in the working masses the consciousness of their interests and their power: to make them understand the necessity, for all of humanity, of a profound revolution which would restore to Society the immense capital accumulated by the work of all during the course of the centuries; to study, amongst the workers themselves, the means to accomplish this immense economic revolution, which France tried to sketch by its communes and its sections in 1793 and, later, with the support of the State in 1848. Such was the problem that was taking shape, still vaguely perhaps, but was already emerging in the consciousness of the workers of the Latin countries and England.

* * *

The Revolution of 1848, followed by the Empire of Napoleon III, and the Owenist movement in England, followed by the bourgeois selfishness of Chartism, had opened the eyes of a certain number of proletarians.

Before 1848, the hopes of proletarians had been awakened by socialist propaganda – Saint Simonian and Fourierist in France, Owenist in England. This awakening represented a real force, especially as the bourgeois daily press then had not yet reached the extent which it has today, and that the socialism before 1848 – boarder, more humanitarian, and much deeper than the State capitalism and sociological metaphysics preached today under the label of socialism – had an infinitely stronger hold over the intellectuals of the time. Let us remember only Eugene Sue, George Sand, the socialist and populist spirit of the literature of the Romantic period.

So, when the days of February [1848] came, the blue blouses overthrow the bourgeois parliamentary royalty. And for three months the advanced minds of the whole of Europe followed, anxiously, the work of the labour Commission of Luxembourg, hoping to learn from it the practical basis for great social reform.

All this ended, as is well known, with the impotence of the Luxembourg [commission], with the massacres of June, with the panicked persecution of socialism by the Blue Terror of the bourgeoisie…

After that, we could still see the impotence, the inability of the republican Chamber elected in 1849, which had more than 120 social-democratic representatives sent by more than two million voices – all to end up with Caesarism. With the support, let us say it, and especially with the indifference [le laisser faire] of a large part of the socialists, after the revolutionary elements were massacred or paralysed during and after the defeat of the proletariat in June 1848.

Initially President, then Emperor, Napoleon III, after having shot and deported the republicans, promised in his turn the abolition of the proletariat and ended in the mire of Compiègne.

Thinking Europe understood the meaning of these two terrible lessons.

* * *

Then a quite natural conclusion just imposes itself.

Never to count on the radical or other bourgeois. They have had their time.  Now, even the most well-intentioned amongst them will be either useless or dangerous if the workers do not take into their hands social emancipation. A large, powerful labour organisation is necessary to do this. The emancipation of the workers must be the task of the workers themselves, proclaimed the International.

And it is direct, economic emancipation that must be aimed for, added the French who had already experienced the radical republic in 1848.

“Through the Republic to the Social Revolution,” is an illusion. We will make the social Revolution or, at least, we will begin it – or we will have the Republic only in name.

Having that, in principle, the workers would, first and foremost, form a separate group. Certainly, the Great principles of liberty, of equality, of fraternity proclaimed in 1789 remain true for the workers, as for any other class in society. That must never be forgotten. Sacrificing these principles to give power to a socialist saviour – as was sometimes thought before the coup d’état of December 1851 – would have been a crime, especially said the French, who no longer believed in Caesarism.

The few liberties acquired at the price of so much blood remain a precious heritage, doubly cherished by the worker – a heritage that must always be increased, without ever letting it decrease. But, with this, it must not be forgotten either that those who produce all social wealth have a thousand interests of their own. The factory, the mill, the building site, the mine, is a whole world – intimately linked without doubt to the political structure of society, but a world apart.

The relations of Capital and Labour is the interest that prevails there. The essence of every society is made up of the intimate organisation of these three immense branches: consumption, exchange of products, and the production of wealth. And those who produce this wealth are the only ones able to express their views on all that concerns this immense organisation.

More than that. Since Capital and Labour are two hostile camps in continual struggle – one to reduce Labour to submission and the other to free itself from the yoke of Capital – Labour must itself organise its forces, which it can only do by remaining on the terrain of its own struggle.

And when it feels the strength to stipulate terms to Capital, it will have to do it – not with cap in hand asking admission into capitalist Parliaments. It will have to do it in a body, dealing on an equal footing with the power formed by capitalism – “like the proletarians who withdrew to Mount Aventine,” as it was often said at that time in the International.

Conscious of the strength that the intelligent conception of what they want will give them, workers will stipulate to the Capitalists the terms they want, and they will make them accept.

* * *

Furthermore, Parliament is the not place where we can discuss with the slightest chance of success the thousand questions arising from the relations between Capital and Labour.

We read the other day that the miners in the north of England would strike against the eight hour day law passed by the English Parliament. And that reminds us of the very fair words of old Gladstone. When they came to ask him to pass the eight hour day law in Parliament – “I hesitate to do it,” he said. “Let the English workers discuss this matter well and agree upon it. If they do, they will let me know and then I promise that I will put everything at their service to get the law passed.”

This response was deeper than it was previously thought. Indeed, it was not in Parliament that it was necessary to discuss whether the eight-hour day should be made legal for all. If the workers, or only a large minority of workers, agreed to impose the right-hour day on the bosses, the eight-hour day would become an accomplished fact.

But a legal day represented a double danger.

First, because a certain number of workers – notably the Durham miners – were already working less than eight hours: and second, because once legalised, the eight-hour day would soon become obligatory for workers. They would not dare to work less. Indeed, the conservatives, like John Gorst who flirted with socialist politicians, expressed it differently: If the State imposes the eight-hour day on the bosses, it will also impose it on the workers. This is what has always made several English trade unions resist all protective intervention by the State, and refuse its patronage.

They were a thousand times right, and it was regrettable that they have yielded to the statist sirens. The English judges who have just refused to grant the trade unions, taken under the tutelage of the State, the right to give part of their dues for the expenses for the election of their members of parliament were logical. Patronised – ruled! There is no way of getting around this.

The danger, moreover, was foreseen already in the sixties when some of the English trade unions refused to ask the State to legalise and protect them like shareholders of companies.

These workers did not want the State to intervene in their struggle against Capital, and they were perfectly right. Protective force of Capital, its intervention would only be interested and eventually became a danger for Labour.

* * *

We can now understand how the English trade-unionist movement, reinforced by its economic experience, and the French worker current, reinforced by its political experience of 1848-1852 met, were strengthened when the French came to London in 1862 for the first universal exhibition; how they united to form the International Workers Association.

When the French and English initiators of International thus wanted to create – outwith any relation with government – a powerful machine of worker war against Capital, they therefore acted as infinitely more profound sociologists than these sirs of government education think.

* * *

We do not know what parliament would be in an egalitarian society in which there would be neither exploiters nor exploited. Probably, it would not exist at all. As it is in our current societies, parliament is what has replaced the camarilla, that is to say, the rabble of people who once had influence at Court, and placed themselves between the king and the people.

Today, the mission of Parliament is also to place itself between the executive (the king, the cabinet, the president in the United States) and those they govern: preventing these from oppressing them too much; but at the same time, to maintain the privileges of the rulers and the established interests of landowners of all kinds and industrial Companies.

To hold the executive in check; to only grant the powers it demands which are needed to subdue the people and deny those which could be a danger to the bourgeoisie; to protect already established monopolies and to create new ones, without, however, weakening the old ones – that is the function of every parliament. And we must recognise that where there are a State and Government, this kind of control certainly represents a guarantee against autocracy and the rule of the camarilla. Without this it would be the return to the regime of the whim of the King and his minions.

But to destroy the monopolies established by the same bourgeoisie, to lessen the power of the monopolists – to accomplish a revolution in the relations between the various classes of society, to abolish exploitation – no intelligent and honest man has ever said that it could be within the powers of a parliament. On the contrary, whenever it has been a question of accomplishing the slightest of political or economic revolutions, those who really wanted it were always outside the government and national representation.

In France, during the Great Revolution, it was the municipalities and, in the big cities, the sections, it was finally the clubs that were the organs for revolutionary progress. In England, it was for nearly a half century the trade unions – secret at first, and then later openly – which undertook to conquer new rights for the people and which have conquered some serious concessions for the workers by a thousand means that were resorted to without too much talk.

This is also what the workers of other nations tried in 1866-70, by founding the International.

And it was this attempt that the socialist politicians succeeded in causing to be abandoned by dangling in front of the workers the mirage of the “conquest of power” for the last thirty years.

Let us now see what the results were.