Servitude or Freedom?

Peter Kropotkin

Les Temps nouveaux, 20 January 1900

Up to the present, all the popular uprisings, all the struggles of the workers against their exploiters and all the revolutions, have resulted in only one thing: abolishing personal servitude and the compulsory labour that ensued. However, through a series of laws passed during the abolition of serfdom and after (imposed redemption, seizure of the land for the benefit of the lord, abolition of workers unions, treated henceforth as illegal coalitions, industrial monopolies created by the State, and so on), serfdom was reconstituted in a new form – economic and impersonal. A whole new science was even created (the science of laws, political economy, etc.) to persuade society that this new form of serfdom represents a natural necessity; that it is also the only possible guarantee of individual freedom.

So our modern societies are in this state, that the plundering of the workers continues but the principle is totally changed. They do not speak to us any more of divine right, or historical rights. But they seek to assure us – and unfortunately the immense number still believe it – that the system of bourgeois exploitation under which we live is the only form [of society] that can guarantee us the little personal freedom we enjoy. It is to guarantee to us this individual freedom – we are told – that the masses must be doomed to misery, to insecurity about tomorrow, to crises, to economic servitude – such are the laws of nature; and any attempt to end this exploitation by socialising production or consumption, each step we take in the communist direction, would bring us back to the old regime of personal serfdom, re-established under a new name.

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Indeed, when we say that the peasant who takes land by leasehold or who buys it by getting into debt with a usurer is bound to work three or four days for the privileged – just like the serf formerly; that the lord, the usurer, the railway companies, and a thousand other drones pocketed all that the peasant gave to the land – we are told: “yes, it is true; but at least the peasant is no longer the serf of anyone. He has a certain amount of freedom; his person is inviolable; he feels himself the equal of those who were formally his lords; he can even nourish the hope to one day leave the caste of the exploited. If he is not yet free, at least he has the vision of the free man – do you want him to become again the serf of the commune or society?”

Likewise for the worker in the factory. When we say that when being hired by the factory he works to enrich his boss while he himself will be thrown onto the pavement at the age of fifty just as destitute (except for more infirmities) as he was at the age of twenty – the bourgeois economist replied: “yes, that is again true. But ask him if he would prefer to become the serf of a lord, a company, or even his municipality and thus lose the little personal liberty he possesses? Misery is the price he pays for this freedom. And gradually, thanks to this same freedom, by grouping and forcing society to take care of his needs, he will eventually obtain a greater share of the riches he produces, without losing his freedom.”

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This discussion between socialists and bourgeois economists has already lasted for more than fifty years. “Serf or exploited” – we cannot escape this. And let us frankly admit it, since the socialists have until the present been only able to offer the worker employment one day in “labour armies,” commanded by a hierarchy of functionaries named by the State, the worker has answered until the present, not wrongly, that this future was not a happy one. He saw in the new chiefs that he was offered the same exploiters as today, in addition dressed up in the uniform of a functionary. And he was absolutely right.

He knows how illusory his personal liberty is; but he is in no hurry to sell what little he does possess for a bowl of soup cooked in socialist barracks. He needs something else, and it is this other thing that he still has to find.

* * *

The anarchists have tried many times to find, to formulate this “other thing.” Our literature has, in fact, a whole series of works whose authors, anxious above all to preserve the liberty of the individual, have tried to show how the common possession of the earth and all that serves to produce wealth could be combined with complete freedom of the individual. But our ideas, fought by both the privileged bourgeoisie and by the socialists of the old school, are little known by the great worker masses. Most of them are familiar with pre-1848 authoritarian socialism, reprised on their behalf by the German socialists and their colleagues from the Latin countries – socialism enamoured with discipline, authority and officialdom. And, no matter what anyone says, the pyramidal organisation of labour armies, commanded by socialist generals, is repugnant to the great mass who do not wish to risk the little freedom it has for a Socialist dictatorship or caesarism. It does not see a solution to the social question there, it does not get enticed by that, since it already vaguely senses the possibility of another solution; and while the negative side of the struggle develops from day to day, nothing positive has yet emerged from the grand struggles which our century has the right to be proud of. Continually, every year we see immense struggles between the exploited and the exploiters. Here erupt formidable strikes which, with an ever-increasing zest, assume the character of uprisings, or wars conducted with a bitterness and a reciprocal hatred, always growing. There whole populations rise up against the rich, as, for example, in the countryside and cities of Italy. And whenever a big strike takes place in Paris or London, in the United States or in Russia, we feel the bloody conflict ready to erupt. And yet, for all these struggles, strikes and riots, for all these congresses in which the very words Social Revolution stirs the enthusiasm in thousands of workers’ chests, no clear picture emerges on what we will do: on what are we going to get our hands on? How are we to organise consumption and production without bosses or monopolies? For to say that it will be the “people’s parliament” or else “the workers dictatorship”, as the Germans say, or else “the people”, as so many anarchists say, is not enough. You might as well say: I do not know, I do not see my path yet, I have not thought about it yet. When the mass of people ask us who, by calling ourselves socialists or anarchists, declare by this very fact that we study these things, when it asks us, if only for purposes of advice or for a vague suggestion, what we want to establish in the place of the current exploitation – we refuse to answer or reply with ambiguous phrases.

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On only one point is opinion formed. Since the day – over fifty years ago – socialism clearly appeared, red flag in hand, in the streets of Paris – agreement has been reached on one essential point.

In 1848, the working masses still hoped that a change in government, that a popular Republic, could tackle the great social question; that the workers unions, aided by the State, would gradually take possession of the wealth accumulated in the hands of a few; that they would break privileges, and abolish economic servitude.

Today – at least in the Latin countries – that illusion is destroyed, and socialists of every shade understand that to accomplish anything it is necessary to destroy property rights over the social capital created upon the ruins of personal serfdom. This idea emerges quite clearly – take possession of the land, housing, factories, mines and the means of transportation. The word “expropriation” has made headway during the last half century: it has become established.

This is undoubtedly an immense step forward. But how to proceed with this necessary expropriation? In whose name will it be done? For whose benefit is the revolution achieved? What, finally, is this “State” on whose benefit a large section of the socialists proposes to expropriate? Such are the questions which arise in a more or less clear form in the mind of every worker, every peasant, every exploited person, every man or women who at last felt in themselves the breath of freedom.

It is these questions that we will try to answer again and again. For nothing but a more or less clear vision of the future we are aiming for can inspire the masses with the inner fire every Revolution demands.