The Bourgeoisie and Parliamentary Socialism

Peter Kropotkin

Les Temps Nouveaux, 23 July 1910

Let us now see what were the results of the tactic which consisted in organising “workers parties” or “socialist parties” marching towards the “conquest of power” – in the bourgeois State, of course. What is the outcome of the forty-five years during which this tactic was followed?

Let us say it clearly. It was, on the one hand, almost half a century of respite for the bourgeoisie, from which it intelligently took advantage to increase and extend its power, consolidate it, give it a broader and more solid basis.

And, on the other hand, it was the conquest by power of what represented the bulk of the labour movement.

* * *

All the time we were told about the “class struggle.” It was in the name of a class struggle that the workers were called upon to enter into parliamentary struggles, as a distinct political party.

Well, as a class, as producers, the workers, by their parliamentary action, have not approached by a single step towards the conquest of power in the State. The bourgeoisie has indeed made way in its councils for some representatives of the working class, after being assured that they would offer no danger. But as for losing the least part of its political or economic power, that did not happen. We can even say that this double power has increased, for the simple reason that the immense, incredible increase of wealth, the immense accumulation of operating capital and the concentration of political force in the hands of modern States were made for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, and the worker masses themselves contributed to this.

Is there a single bourgeoisie in the world today who fears the socialist party in its parliament? Not a single one!

“They reckon with us,” these gentlemen the deputies tell you, but it is a simple boast! “It is our safety valve,” replied the intelligent bourgeois. “If they had not come, we would have brought them there ourselves!” This was indeed what the English liberal bourgeoisie had done by backing the candidatures of a few miners as soon as the miners began to become dangerous in the years 1860-1870.

* * *

And why should the bourgeoisie fear the representatives of what is today called socialism?

Take all the labour legislation of the last forty years in all the countries of the world, and say: Is there a single law, a single measure, that has reversed the proportions of produced wealth that goes to the capitalist exploiter on the one hand, and to the exploited worker on the other? Name only one that has just altered this proportion in a way to enrich the worker a little or else curb the enrichment of the bourgeois?

For thirty to forty years the worker’s productive force has increased three-, four-, ten- fold. Let us only recall that where the weaver supervised two or three mechanical looms in 1860, today he monitors ten, twelve of them, and even up to twenty in the United States; that where it took man a month or more to produce the wheat necessary for his subsistence for a year, he produces it today in only a day; and so on in all branches [of the economy].

The progress of science, the development of the technical spirit, the invention of new machines, the extension of networks of exchange, and above all the blossoming of ideas of freedom, thrown into the world by the revolutions of 1789-93 and 1848 – for it is they which gave to the sciences, to the spirit of invention and to technique the audacity which characterises the second half of the nineteenth century – all this has increased our productive power in very high proportions.

But, this being an established fact, how then is it possible that well-being has not already established itself in the working class? Our fathers, the French socialists of the last forty years, had already proved that at least half the product of the labour of the worker goes to his boss. That inspired the International’s slogan: The full (entire) product of his labour to the worker! But since the productive capacity of the worker has doubled or tripled since then, well-being should have already been established in his home if this exploitation had only been reduced by half. It would have been a serious beginning for well-being if the old proportion had only been maintained!

This is not the case, however. We all know that. It is scarcely one in a hundred workers who know a certain well-being, while thousands and thousands of bourgeois, small and medium, are enriched every day at an appalling level. Despite the noise that has been made about labour legislation, the enrichment of the bourgeoisie by the exploitation of the workers’ labour is always growing. The insolent mob, mocking the socialists, always increases.

Why then would the bourgeoisie fear the statist and parliamentary socialists, who serve it so admirably as a safety value? Are not those who have allowed it to pocket almost the totality of the immense increase in wealth over the last half-century, without putting up any resistance, not its reliable allies?

* * *

Perhaps you will say that it is going too far to represent the parliamentary socialists as the guard dogs for the enrichment of the bourgeoisie? Well, take any law regarded as the embodiment of socialist thought. Take, for example, income tax.

The idea of a progressive tax on income was launched by the Great [French] Revolution in 1793. What was wanted at that time was to trim by taxation all income, landed and bourgeois, so that they were kept within certain limits: from 1,200 to 20,000 francs per person, without ever exceeding the latter limit.[1]

The men of 1793 understand perfectly that a progressive tax, which would rise very rapidly to hit large incomes would disrupt all production and deprive the bourgeois of the lure of enrichment by the labour of the masses. They knew that the abolition of feudal rights without any redemption, the income tax such as they wanted, the limitations on the right of inheritance they had introduced, production by the communes and the organisation of exchange based on the social establishment of values, which they were trying – all these were measures for the expropriation of the rich, for the equalisation of fortunes – equality in fact, as they said then.

It was the overthrow of the economic system hitherto based on the exploitation of the poor.

And what do the parliamentary socialists now do with income tax? Do they even dare to advocate the theory as it was understood in 1793? Even to draw it to the attention of the workers? Never!

Their first care – here, as in the eight-hour day law, in the workers’ pensions, the law on unions and all the rest – their first care is to ensure that the monopoly of the exploitation of labour, assured to the bourgeoisie by the modern State, is neither undermined nor threatened in any way. Their great preoccupation is to secure themselves and to prove to the exploiter that monopoly will suffer no infringement from the new measure: that with a little “know how” the new law will only increase the strength of monopoly and give it a more solid foundation: the consent of the exploited themselves. At most the new law will serve as a slight stimulus for those of the bourgeoisie who would be likely to sink into the life described by Zola in Le Ventre de Paris.

And whether it be income tax, the eight-hour day law, the law of associations, or pensions, the somewhat intelligent bourgeois easily understands that these laws do not in any way affect his monopolies; he realises that they ensure his privileges. The less perceptive, after some resistance, are finally convinced when they see the immense accumulation of wealth in the bourgeoisie and the incredible development of the class of owners which they themselves observe around them, and of which each new census brings them striking proofs.

No, nowhere does the bourgeoisie fear the parliamentary socialists. It recognises in them its allies. If there is a black spot which it currently dreads, it is precisely the workers who are not recruited into political parties: the miners of Colorado, the metallurgy and metal workers around Pittsburgh, and, in Europe, the French, Spanish and Italian unions rebelling against statist regimentation.

Only those who are not conquered by power arouse its fears.

End Notes

[1] For more details, see The Great [French] Revolution, ch. LVII and LIX