Expropriation/Chapter 3

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Section 3 of Chapter 4 of The Conquest of Bread


The ideas of Anarchism in general and of Expropriation in particular find much more sympathy than we are apt to imagine among men of independent character, and those for whom idleness is not the supreme ideal. "Still," our friends often warn us, "take care you do not go too far! Humanity cannot be changed in a day, so do not be in too great a hurry with your schemes of Expropriation and Anarchy, or you will be in danger of achieving no permanent result."

Now, what we fear with regard to Expropriation is exactly the contrary. We are afraid of not going far enough, of carrying out Expropriation on too small a scale to be lasting. We would not have the revolutionary impulse arrested in mid-career, to exhaust itself in half-measures, which would content no one, and which, while producing a tremendous upheaval of society, and stopping its customary activities, would have no power of life in themselves, and would merely spread general discontent and inevitably prepare the way for the triumph of reaction.

There are, in fact, in a modern state established relations which it is practically impossible to modify if one attacks them only in detail. There are wheels within wheels in our economic organisation—the machinery is so complex and interdependent that no one part can be modified without disturbing the whole. This will become clear as soon as an attempt is made to expropriate anything.

Let us suppose that in a certain country a limited form of Expropriation is effected; for example, that, as recently suggested by Henry George, only the property of the great landlords is confiscated, whilst the factories are left untouched; or that, in a certain city, house property is taken over by the commune, but merchandise is left in private ownership; or that, in some manufacturing centre, the factories are communalised, but the land is not interfered with.

The same result would follow in each case—a terrible shattering of the industrial system, without the means of reorganising it on new lines. Industry and commerce would be at a dead-lock, yet a return to the first principles of justice would not have been achieved, and society would find itself powerless to construct a harmonious whole.

If agriculture could free itself from great landowners, while industry still remained the bond slave of the capitalist, the merchant and the banker, nothing would be accomplished. The farmer suffers to-day not only in having to pay rent to the landlord, he is oppressed on all hands by existing conditions. He is exploited by the tradesman, who makes him pay half-a-crown for a spade which, measured by the labor spent on it, is not worth more than sixpence. He is taxed by the State, which cannot do without its formidable hierarchy of officials, and finds it necessary to maintain an expensive army, because the traders of all nations are perpetually fighting for the markets, and any day a little quarrel arising from the exploitation of some part of Asia or Africa may result in war.

Then again farmer and laborer suffer from the depopulation of country places: the young people are attracted to the large factory towns by the bait of high wages paid temporarily by the manufacturers of articles of luxury, or by the attractions of a more stirring life. The artificial protection of industry, the industrial exploitation of foreign countries, the prevalence of stock-jobbing, the difficulty of improving the soil and the machinery of production—all these are causes which work together against agriculture, which indeed is burdened not only by rent, but by the whole complexity of conditions developed in a society based on exploitation. Thus, even if the expropriation of land were accomplished, and every one were free to till the soil and cultivate it to the best advantage, without paying rent, agriculture, even though it should enjoy—which can by no means be taken for granted—a momentary prosperity, would soon fall back into the slough in which it finds itself to-day. The whole thing would have to be begun over again, with increased difficulties.

The same holds true of industry. Take the converse case; make over the factories to those who work in them, but leave the agricultural laborers slaves to farmer and landlord. Abolish the master-manufacturers, but leave the landowner his land, the banker his money, the merchant his Exchange, maintain still the swarm of idlers who live on the toil of the workmen, the thousand and one middlemen, the State with its numberless officials, and industry would come to a stand-still. Finding no purchasers in the mass of country people still as poor as ever, having no raw material, unable to export its products, and embarrassed by the stoppage of trade, industry could only struggle on feebly, and thousands of workers would be thrown upon the streets. These starving crowds would be ready and willing to submit to the first schemer who came to exploit them, they would even consent to return to the old slavery, if only under promise of work.

Or, finally, suppose you oust the land-owners, and hand over the mills and factories to the worker, without interfering with the swarm of middlemen who drain off the produce of our manufacturers and speculate in corn and flour, meat and groceries in our great centres of commerce. Well, when exchange is arrested and products cease to circulate, when London is without bread, and Yorkshire finds no buyers for her cloth, a terrible counter-revolution will take place—a counter-revolution trampling upon heaps of slain, sweeping the towns and villages with shot and shell; there will be proscriptions, panic, flight, perhaps all the terrors of wholesale judicial massacre of the Guillotine, as in France in 1815, 1848, and 1871.

All is interdependent in a civilised society; it is impossible to reform any one thing without altering the whole. On that day when we strike at private property, under any one of its forms, territorial or industrial, we shall be obliged to attack all its manifestations. The very success of the Revolution will demand it.

Besides, we could not if we would confine ourselves to a partial expropriation. Once the principle of the "Divine Right of Property" is shaken, no amount of theorising will prevent its overthrow, here by the slaves of the soil, there by the slaves of the machine.

If a great town, Paris for example, were to confine itself to taking possession of the houses or the factories, it would still be forced to deny the right of the bankers to levy upon the Commune a tax amounting to £2,000,000, in the form of interest for former loans. The great city would be obliged to put itself in touch with the rural districts, and its influence would inevitably urge the peasants to free themselves from the landowner. It would be necessary to communalise the railways that the citizens might get food and work, and lastly, to prevent the waste of supplies, and to guard against the chicanery of corn-speculators, like those to whom the Commune of 1793 fell a prey; it would place in the hands of the citizens the work of stocking their warehouses with commodities, and apportioning the produce.

Nevertheless, some Socialists still seek to establish a distinction. "Of course," they say, "the soil, the mines, the mills and manufactures must be expropriated; these are the instruments of production, and it is right we should consider them public property. But articles of consumption, food, clothes and dwellings, should remain private property."

Popular common-sense has got the better of this subtle distinction. We are not savages who can live in the woods, without other shelter than the branches. The civilised man needs a roof-tree and a hearth, a bed-chamber and a bed. It is true that the bed, the room and the house of the non-producer are only part of the paraphernalia of idleness. But for the worker a room, properly heated and lighted, is as much an instrument of production as the tool or the machine. It is the place where the nerves and sinews gather strength for the work of the morrow. The rest of the workman is the daily repairing of the machine.

The same argument applies even more obviously to food. The so-called economists of whom we speak would hardly deny that the coal burnt in a machine is as necessary to production as the raw material itself. How then can food, without which the human machine could do no work, be excluded from the list of things indispensable to the producer? Such hair-splitting is worthy of the metaphysic of the schoolmen. The rich man's feast is indeed a matter of luxury, but the food of the worker is just as much a part of production as the fuel burnt by the steam engine.

The same with clothing: if the economists who draw this distinction between articles of production and of consumption dressed themselves in the fashion of New Guinea we could understand their objection. But men who could not write a word without a shirt on their back are not in a position to draw such a hard and fast line between their shirt and their pen. And though the dainty gowns of their dames must certainly rank as objects of luxury, there is nevertheless a certain quantity of linen, cotton and woollen stuff which is a necessity of life to the producer. The shirt and shoes in which he goes to his work, his cap and the jacket he slips on after the day's toil is over, these are as necessary to him as the hammer to the anvil.

Whether we like it or not, that is what the people mean by a revolution. As soon as they have made a clean sweep of the Government, they will seek first of all to insure to themselves decent dwellings and sufficient food and clothes—free of rent and taxes.

And the people will be right. The methods of the people will be much more in accordance with science than those of the economists who draw so many distinctions between instruments of production and articles of consumption. The people understand that this is just the point where the Revolution ought to begin; and they will lay the foundations of the only economic science worthy the name—a science which might be called: "The Study of the Needs of Humanity, and of the Economic Means to satisfy them."