Expropriation/Chapter 5

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Section 2 of Chapter 5 of The Conquest of Bread


We are Utopians, that is of course. So Utopian are we in fact, that we go the length of believing that the Revolution can and ought to assure shelter, food and clothes to all—an idea extremely displeasing to middle-class citizens, whatever their party colour, for they are quite alive to the fact that it is not easy to keep the upper hand of a people whose hunger is satisfied.

All the same, we maintain our contention: bread must be found for the people during the Revolution, and the question of bread must take precedence of all other questions. If it is settled in the interests of the people, the Revolution will be on the right road; for in solving the question of Bread we must accept the principle of equality, which will force itself upon us to the exclusion of every other solution.

It is certain that the coming Revolution—like in that respect to the Revolution of 1848—will burst upon us in the middle of a great industrial crisis. Things have been seething for more than a dozen years now, and can only go from bad to worse. Everything tends that way; new nations entering the lists of international trade and fighting for possession of the world's markets, wars, taxes ever increasing. National debts, the insecurity of the morrow, and huge commercial undertakings in every quarter of the globe.

There are millions of unemployed workers in Europe at this moment. It will be still worse when Revolution has burst upon us and spread like fire laid to a train of gunpowder. The number of the out-of-works will be doubled as soon as the barricades a-re erected in Europe and the United States. What is to be done to provide these multitudes with bread?

We do not know whether the folk who call themselves "practical people" have ever asked themselves this question in all its nakedness. But we do know that they wish to maintain the wage system, and we must therefore expect to have "national workshops" and "public works" vaunted as a means of giving food to the unemployed.

Because national workshops were opened in 1789 and in 1793; because the same means were resorted to in 1848; because Napoleon III. succeeded in contenting the Parisian proletariat for eighteen years by giving them public works—which cost Paris to-day its debt of £80,000,000—-and its municipal tax of three or four pounds a head; because this excellent method of "taming the beast" was customary in Rome, and even in Egypt four thousand years ago; and lastly because despots, kings and emperors have always employed the ruse of throwing a scrap of food to the people, to gain time to snatch up the whip,—it is natural that "practical" men should extol this method of perpetuating the wage system. What need to rack our brains when we have the time-honoied method of the Pharaohs at our disposal!

Well, should the Revolution be so misguided as to start on this path, all would be lost.

In 1848, when the national workshops were opened on the 27th of February, the unemployed of Paris numbered only 8,000, a fortnight later they had already increased to 49,000. They would soon have been 100,000, without counting those who crowded in from the provinces.

Yet at that time trade and manufactures in France only employed half as many hands as to-day. And we know that in time of Revolution exchange and industry suffer most from the general upheaval.

To realise this, we have only to think for a moment of the number of workmen whose labor depends directly or indirectly upon export trade, or of the number of hands employed in producing luxuries whose consumers are the middle-class minority.

A Revolution in Europe means the immediate stoppage of at least half the factories and workshops. It means millions of workers and their families thrown on the streets.

And your "practical men" would seek to avert this truly terrible situation by means of national relief works, that is to say, by means of new industries created on the spot to give work to the unemployed!

It is evident, as Proudhon has already pointed out, that the smallest attack upon property will bring in its train the complete <section begin="c5">disorganisation of the system based upon private enterprise and wage labor. Society itself will be forced to take production in hand, in its entirety, and to reorganise it to meet the needs of the whole people. But this cannot be accomplished in a day or a month; it must take a certain time thus to reorganise the system of production, and during this time millions of men will be deprived of the means of subsistance—what then is to be done?

There is only one really practical solution of the problem—boldly to face the great task which awaits us, and instead of trying to patch up a situation which we ourselves have made untenable, to proceed to reorganise production on a new basis.

Thus the really practical course of action, in our view, would be that the people should take immediate possession of all the food of the insurgent districts, keeping strict account of it all, that none might be wasted and that by the aid of these accumulated resources every one might be able to tide over the crisis. During that time an agreement would have to be made with the factory workers, the necessary raw material given them and the means of subsistence assured to them while they worked to supply the needs of the agricultural population. For we must not forget that while France weaves silks and satins to deck the wives of German financiers, the Empress of Russia and the Queen of the Sandwich Islands, and while Paris fashions wonderful trinkets and playthings for rich folk all the world over, two-thirds of the French peasantry have not proper lamps to give them light, or the implements necessary for modern agriculture. Lastly, unproductive land, of which there is plenty, would have to be turned to the best advantage, poor soils enriched, and rich soils, which yet, under the present system, do not yield a quarter, no, nor a tenth of what they might produce, submitted to intensive culture and tilled with as much care as a market garden or a flower plot. It is impossible to imagine any other practical solution of the problem, and, whether we like it or not, sheer force of circumstances will bring it to pass.