Workers’ Organisation

Peter Kropotkin

Le Révolté, 10 and 24 December 1881


As bourgeois society grows more and more disorganised, as States breakdown and generally we begin to sense the approach of a European revolution, we see emerging amongst the workers of all countries a growing desire to band together, to stand shoulder to shoulder, to organise. In France especially, where every workers’ organisation was crushed, broken up, thrown to the four winds after the fall of the [Paris] Commune, this desire is increasingly evident. In almost every industrial town they strive to reach an agreement and to band together, and even in the villages, according to absolutely trustworthy observers, they ask nothing more than to enlighten themselves about socialism and see the emergence of organisations taking into their hands the defence of workers’ interests.

The results achieved in this direction over the last three years are certainly very great. However, if we look at the enormity of the task incumbent upon the revolutionary socialist party, if we compare our meagre resources with those available to our adversaries, if we strive to complete the work that we still have to do, so that in four or five years’ time we can present, on the day of the revolution, a real force capable of marching resolutely to the demolition of the old social structure – if we consider all this, we must admit that the amount of work that remains to be done is still immense, and that we are barely at the beginning of a real workers’ movement: the great mass of workers still stand outside of the movement inaugurated three years ago.[1] The collectivists, although they give themselves the pretentious name of Workers’ Party, do not see coming to them the masses on whom they were counting when they embarked on electoral campaigning; and as they lean more and more towards the Radical Party, they lose ground instead of gaining it. And as for the anarchist groups, most of them are not yet in sustained daily contact with the great mass of workers, although they alone can give the necessary impetus and action to a party, whether for the theoretical propaganda of its ideas or to be able to express them by acts.

Let others live with illusions, if they want to! We prefer to look at the task that lies before us in all its magnitude, and instead of prematurely announcing victory we prefer to ask ourselves these questions. What must we do to develop our organisations much more than they are today? What must we do to extend our field of action to the whole mass of workers, in order to establish a conscious and invincible force which, on the day of the revolution, can achieve the aspirations of the working class?


It appears to us that there is an essential point so far overlooked but which it is important to clarify before going any further. This is it.  For any organisation to be able to develop further, to enable it to become a force, it is important for those who take the lead in the organisation to be fully aware of the goal for which the organisation is being established; and once this goal is determined – to choose the means of action in accordance with this goal. This prior reasoning is obviously an indispensable precondition in order to have any chance of success and in fact all existing organisations have never proceeded differently. Take the Conservatives, the Bonapartists, the Opportunists, the Radicals, the political conspirators of previous eras – each of their parties had a well-defined goal and their means of action are absolutely in conformity with this goal.

It would take too long to analyse here the goals and means of action of each of the parties so it will suffice to demonstrate this contention: to take only one and to see if in fact it has a defined goal and if its means of action are in accordance with its goal. Take, for example, the radical or intransigent party.

Their goal is well defined. The Radicals tell us that they want to abolish personal government and to endow France with a democratic republic copied from the model of the United States. These are the salient aspects of their programme – Abolition of the Senate; a single Chamber, elected by the free play of universal suffrage; separation of Church and State; absolute freedom of the press, of speech and of assembly; autonomy for Municipalities; a national militia. – Will the worker be happier or not? Will he as a result cease being a wage-worker at the mercy of his boss?... these questions are of little interest to them; we will sort these out later as we please, they reply. The social question is reduced in their thought to reforms that will be decreed later by the democratic State. For them it is not a question of overturning existing institutions: it is only a matter of modifying them, and in their opinion a legislative Assembly could carry out this task well. Their entire programme can be achieved by way of decrees, and for that – they say – it would be enough that power be wrenched from the hands of those who currently hold it and that it passes into the hands of the Radical Party.

That is the goal. Achievable or not, that is another question; but what is important to us at this moment is that their means of action are in accordance with this goal. Advocates of political reform, they form a political party and work towards the electoral conquest of power. Seeking to shift the governmental centre of gravity towards democracy, they strive to get as many as possible [elected] into the Chamber, into the municipalities, into all governmental institutions and to take the place of the bigwigs [currently] occupying these positions. Their enemy being the [current] government, they organise against the government; they boldly wage war on it and prepare for its fall.

Property, in their eyes, is sacrosanct, and they do not wage war on it in any way: all their efforts are directed to taking over the government. If they appeal to the people and promise them economic reforms, it is only to [help] overthrow the current government and put in its place a more democratic government.

This programme is certainly not ours. We also know that it is unattainable until the regime of property has undergone a profound transformation. But while criticising this programme, we are forced to agree that for a party that accepts this programme, the means of action that it uses and the way it organises are in accordance with the goal it proposes to achieve. Such-and-such an objective – such-and-such an organisation.


So what is the objective of the workers’ organisation? And what should be its means of action and its organisation?

The goal for which French workers want to organise has been only vaguely defined until now. However, there are two settled points on which there can no longer be any doubt. The workers’ Congresses have articulated them after long discussions, and the decisions of the Congresses on this matter continually receive the approval of the workers.[2] These two points are: collective ownership, against individual ownership; and the affirmation that this change in the property system can only take place by revolutionary means. The precursors of the workers‘ organisation have acquired, adopted these two clearly expressed points – the abolition of private property as a goal and the social revolution as the means. The communist-anarchists better define this goal and have a broader programme: they understand the abolition of private property in a more complete manner than the collectivists, and they add to this programme the abolition of the State and revolutionary propaganda. But there is one thing upon which all agree (or, rather, did agree before the appearance of the minimum programme), that is that the goal of the workers’ organisation must be the economic revolution, the social revolution.

A whole new world opens up by these resolutions of the workers’ Congresses. The French proletariat thus declares that it is not this or that government that it intends to wage war. It takes the question from a much broader and more rational perspective: it intends to declare war on the holders of capital, be they blue, red or white. It is not a political party that it intends to form: it is a party of economic struggle. It is no longer democratic reforms that it demands: it is an entire economic revolution, the social revolution. The enemy is no longer M. Gambetta nor M. Clemenceau; the enemy is capital, along with all the Gambettas and the Clemenceaus, present or future, who are or who would be its supporters or servants. The enemy is the boss, the capitalist, the financier – every parasite who lives at the expense of others and whose wealth is created by the sweat and the blood of the worker. The enemy is the whole of bourgeois society, and the goal is to overthrow it. It is no longer a question of [only] overthrowing a government, the problem is much greater: it is a question of seizing all social wealth, if necessary passing over the corpse of the bourgeoisie to do so, in order to restore all this wealth to those who produced it, to the workers with calloused hands, to those who lack necessities.

This is the goal. And once that the goal is established, the means of action this entails flow naturally. It is on capital that the worker declares war? Is it capital that he wants to dethrone? – Well, it is this war that he must prepare himself for this very day, without wasting a single moment; it is against capital that he must enter into battle. After all, the Radical Party, for example, does not wait until the day of the revolution falls from the sky to declare war on the government it wants to topple: it fights at this very moment, it does so at every moment, without respite nor rest: it does not miss any opportunity to wage this war, and if the opportunity does not present itself, it finds one; and it is right [to do so], for it is only by a continuous series of skirmishes, it is only by relentless small-scale warfare, waged day after day, at every moment, that we prepare the decisive battle and victory. We who have declared war on capital, on the bourgeoisie, must do the same if our declarations are not empty words. If we want to prepare for the day of our victorious battle over capital, we must, from this very day, begin the skirmishes, harass the enemy at every moment, make him rant with rage, exhaust him by the struggle, demoralise him. We must never lose sight of the main enemy – capital, the exploiter – and never let ourselves be dazzled by the enemy’s distractions. The State will necessarily play its part in this war; because, if it is quite possible to wage war on the State without touching capital, it is absolutely impossible to wage war on capital without striking the State at the same time.

What should be our means of action in this war? If we just set our goal to wage war, if we just understand the necessity of this war – the means will not be lacking: they will suggest themselves. Each group of workers will find them on the spot, appropriate to local circumstances, arising from the very situation facing the workers of a given locality at a given moment. The strike will certainly be one of these means of agitation and action, and we will discuss this in a later issue from this perspective. But a thousand other means that cannot be specified in advance in a newspaper and which will be discovered on the spot, during the struggle, are at our disposal. The essential thing is to fully understand this idea:

The enemy on whom we declare war being capital, it is against it that we will direct all our efforts, without letting ourselves be distracted from our goal by the phony agitation of political parties. The great struggle we are preparing for being an essentially economic struggle, it is on the economic terrain that our agitation must take place.

Let us place ourselves solely on this terrain, and we will see the great mass of workers strengthen our ranks, grouping itself under the flag of the League of Workers. Then we will be a [mighty] force and, on the day of the revolution, this force will impose its will upon exploiters of every kind.


In the last issue, Le Révolté showed that a party which sets itself as a goal the Social Revolution and which seeks to wrest capital from the hands of its current holders must, of necessity, from this very day, place itself on the terrain of the struggle against capital. If it wants the next revolution to be made against the regime of property and that the watchword of the next taking up of arms to be the expropriation of the capitalist, it must necessarily begin now the struggle against the capitalist.

Some object that the great majority of workers are not yet sufficiently aware of the situation they have been subjected to by the holders of capital. “The workers have not yet understood,” we are told, “that the real enemy of the worker, of the whole of society, of progress, and of liberty is the capitalist; and the workers let themselves be carried along too easily by the bourgeoisie into the commotion of the miserable conflicts of bourgeois politics.” But, if this is true, if it is true that the worker all too often drops the prey to chase after the shadow, if it is true that he all too often squanders his energies against those who are certainly also his enemies, but who he will not be able to strike down as long as the capitalist remains standing, if all this is true – will it also be by chasing after a shadow that we will be able to open the eyes of those who are deceived? It is not by forming a new political parliamentarian party that the economic question will be brought to the fore. If the great mass is not sufficiently aware of the importance of the economic question (which, incidentally, we anarchists doubt very much), it is not by relegating this question to the background ourselves that we will be able to show to the workers how important it really is. If this preconception exists, we must work against it, not preserve and perpetuate it.


Putting this objection to one side, we must now discuss the various aspects that the struggle against capital can take. But our readers realise that this discussion cannot take place in a newspaper. It is locally, amongst the groups themselves, with a full knowledge of local circumstances and under the impetus of events that the question of practical means should be discussed. In The Spirit of Revolt, we showed how in the last century the peasants and the revolutionary bourgeoisie created a current of ideas directed against the lords and the monarchy. In our articles on the Land League in Ireland, we showed how the Irish wage a war without truce or mercy on the lords every day. Inspired by the same idea, it is a question of finding the means to fight against the boss and the capitalist, appropriate to the needs of each locality. What is excellent in Ireland may not be in France, and what gives great results in one country may fail in another. Moreover, it is not by following the advice of a newspaper that action groups will find the best ways to fight. It is by putting the question on the agenda in each group, it is by discussing it in all its aspects, it is above all by taking inspiration from events which excite minds at a given moment in a given place, and by looking for themselves, that they will be able to find the most appropriate means of action to encourage unrest in a given locality.

But there is a general means of struggle on which Le Révolté wants to give its opinion. It is certainly not the only means. But it is a weapon that workers already wield everywhere, in every country – a weapon that the very necessities of the moment impose on them at every turn – the strike.

It is all the more necessary to speak of it today, for some time now the doctrinaires and the false friends of the workers have been discreetly campaigning against strike action, in order to divert the working class from this type of struggle and to cast it into the political rut. As a result of this, recently strikes broke out again across France and those who inscribed upon their banners that the emancipation of the workers must be achieved by the workers themselves stood proudly aloof, not throwing themselves into this struggle in which their brothers and sisters succumbed under the hardships, under the sabres of the gendarmes, under the knives of the foremen and under the sentences of the judges.


It is fashionable today to say that since the strike is not a means to emancipate the worker there is no need to bother with it. So let us see if this objection is true.

Of course, the strike is not [by itself] a means of emancipation. It is [only] by revolution, by expropriating and placing in common social wealth that the worker will break his chains. But does it follow that he will wait with folded arms until the day of the revolution? To be able to make the revolution, the mass of workers must be organised, and resistance and the strike are excellent means for organising workers. They have an immense advantage over those advocated at present (worker candidates, forming a workers’ political party, etc.), namely not diverting the movement, but keeping it in constant struggle with the principal enemy, the capitalist. The strike and the resistance fund provide the means to organise not only the socialist converts (these seek and organise themselves) but especially those who are not yet [socialists], although they would like nothing better than to be.

Indeed, strikes break out everywhere. But, isolated, abandoned to stand alone, they fail all too often. And yet, workers who go on strike want nothing more than to organise themselves, to reach an agreement amongst themselves, and they will welcome with open arms those who come to give a helping hand to build the organisation that they lack. The task is immense; there is so much work for every man and woman devoted to the workers’ cause; and the results of this organisational work will certainly be satisfying to those who pitch in. It is a question of organising in every town resistance societies for all trades, to create resistance funds and to fight against the exploiters, to unify the workers’ organisations of each town and trade and to put them in contact with those of other towns, to federate them across France, to federate them across borders, internationally. Workers’ solidarity must no longer be an empty word but must be practiced every day, between all trades, between all nations. What national and local prejudices, what rivalries between different trades did the International not meet at first; and yet – and this is perhaps one of the greatest services it rendered – these rivalries and these prejudices were overcome, and we saw in the International workers of distant countries and trades, who were once always in conflict, fraternising with each other. This result, let us not forget, was achieved by an organisation that emerged from the great strikes of the time and which grew mainly thanks to strikes. It was by organising resistance against the boss that the International managed to group more than two million workers and to build up that force before which the bourgeoisie and governments trembled.


“But the strike,” the theoreticians tell us, “only addresses the selfish interests of the worker!” First, it is not out of egotism that the worker strikes: he is driven by misery, by the pressing need to raise wages as food prices rise. If he endures months of suffering during a strike, it is not to become a petty bourgeois: it is to avoid himself, his wife, his children going hungry. Then, far from developing selfish instincts, the strike develops the sense of solidarity within an organisation as soon as it occurs. How often have the starving shared their meagre earnings with [their] brethren on strike! Only recently, the building workers of Barcelona were giving up to half their scant wages to strikers who wanted to impose on the bosses a nine-and-a-half hour day (and – let us note in passing – they succeeded, whereas with the parliamentary tactics, they would still be killing themselves working eleven or twelve hours). Never has solidarity been practised within the working class on such a vast scale than during the time of the International’s strikes.

Lastly, the best evidence against those who accuse the strike of developing selfish instincts is the history of the International. The International was born from strikes; at bottom, it was a strikers’ organisation, until the day when the bourgeoisie, assisted by the ambitious, managed to entice a part of the Association into parliamentary struggles. And yet it is precisely this organisation which managed to develop in its sections and Congresses these board principles of modern socialism which today are our strength; for – with all due respect to the so-called scientific socialists – up to now there has not been a single idea uttered about socialism which has not been expressed in the Congresses of the International. The use of the strike did not prevent the Sections of the International from grasping the social question in all its complexity. On the contrary, it helped them as it was used to spread the idea amongst the masses at the same time.


Moreover, they say that the strike does not awaken the revolutionary spirit. It is the case today that quite the contrary should be said. Almost no serious strike occurs these days without the appearance of troops, without the exchange of blows, without a few acts of revolt. Here they fight with the troops; there they march to storm the factories; in 1873, in Spain, the strikers of Alcoy declared the Commune and fired on the bourgeoisie; in Pittsburgh, in the United States, the strikers found themselves masters of a territory as large as France, and the strike became the signal for a general uprising;[3] in Ireland, the striking peasants found themselves in open revolt against the State. Thanks to government intervention, the factory rebel becomes a rebel against the State. Today, he still has before him a docile soldier who obeys the officers as soon as they give the order to fire. But the use of troops during strikes eventually “demoralise,” that is to say, moralise the soldier; it will eventually open the eyes of the soldier and make him raise the butts of his rifle into the air before his insurgent brothers.[4]

Finally, the strike itself, the days without work and without bread, spent in the midst of these opulent streets, this unbridled luxury and these vices of the bourgeoisie, do more for the propagation of socialist ideas than all the public meetings in times of calm. So much so that one fine day the strikers of Ostrava in Austria went to requisition the food in the town’s shops and thereby declared their right to society’s wealth.[5]


But the strike, as we have said, is not the only engine of war in the struggle against capital. In a strike, it is the masses who move; but alongside of this, there is the day-to-day struggle which can be conducted by groups, or even by individuals; and the methods to be employed in this struggle can vary infinitely according to local circumstances and the needs of the moment and the situation. It would even be pointless to analyse them here, since each group, if it just grasps the necessity of this struggle, and if it draws inspiration within the midst of the great mass of workers, will find new methods of struggle every day. The most important thing, for us, is to agree upon the following principles:

The goal of the revolution being the expropriation of the holders of society’s wealth, it is against these holders that we must organise. We must make every effort to create a vast workers’ organisation that pursues this goal. The organisation of resistance to and war on capital must be the principal objective of the workers’ organisation, and its activity must be directed, not at the futile conflicts of bourgeois politics, but at the struggle, by all the means found useful, against the holders of society’s wealth – the strike being an excellent means of organisation and one of the most powerful weapons in this struggle.

If we are able, within a few years, to form such an organisation, we will be sure that the next revolution will not fail; that the precious blood of the people will not be spilled in vain, and the worker, today’s slave, will emerge victorious from the fight, to begin a new era in the development of human society based on Equality, Solidarity and Labour.[6]

End Notes

[1] A reference to the Third Socialist Workers' Congress of France held in Marseille on 20-31 October 1879 which declared itself as (Marxist) collectivist and committed itself to becoming a political party taking part in elections. It formed the Fédération des travailleurs socialistes de France (Federation of the Socialist Workers of France), but the attendees soon split into different rival groups with the orthodox Marxist Parti Ouvrier (Workers’ Party) being formed in 1880. (Translator)

[2] A reference to three workers’ congresses held between 1876 and 1879, in Paris, Lyon and Marseille. The first congress was predominantly attended by supporters of co-operatives but the second saw anarchists and other revolutionary socialists attend, with a corresponding change in the politics expressed. The 1879 Congress declared itself opposed to both anarchism and co-operation. (Translator)

[3] A reference to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (Translator)

[4] A reference to how the Paris Commune of 1871 started, when troops refused to fire on civilians when ordered to by their officers (André Léo, “Là révolution sans la femme” [La Sociale, 8 May 1871]). (Translator)

[5] A reference to a miners’ strike in Ostrava, a city in the north-east of the Czech Republic but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which took place in late 1881. Twelve thousand went on strike, demanding not only an increase in wages but also the dismissal of foremen. On the bosses’ side, troops were immediately called in; on the workers, the miners refused to starve and went en masse into Ostrava and took all the food from the shops that the strikers and their families needed for a week: “And that is how the idea of the social revolution spreads.” (“Autriche,” Le Révolté, 10 December 1881). (Translator)

[6] This translation is included in Words of a Rebel (PM Press, 2022). A different translation is included in Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (Translator)