Posts Tagged ‘Communal Gardens’

Kropotkin on the Potential of Communal Agriculture

February 13, 2014

Kropotkin Conquest Bread

Amnesiaclinic posted this comment, pointing to the development of co-operative gardens in America, on my post about Workfare Exploitation

‘I like the idea of doing as much bartering as possible and definitely blacklisting any company or charity having anything to do with this. There seems to be quite a movement taking off in the US of community gardens where people work together cooperatively and organically to produce good food for schools. hospitals nurseries but could be expanded into teaching basic cooking with fresh food and veggies for Food Banks etc etc. We need to help ourselves become independent and self sufficient leaving them with their useless walls of gold as Voice of Reason says!’

The great 19th-early 20th century Anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, would have agreed. Kropotkin was a Russian nobleman and scientist, who had requested being posted to Siberia when he joined the Russian army. He had earlier been at the tsar’s court, and his experience there, and with the peasants on his own estate and in Siberia, convinced him that the peasants and ordinary working people were more humane and moral than the aristocracy. His research into the botany and animal life of Siberia convinced him that Darwinian ideas that stressed competition in evolution were incorrect, and that co-operation and mutual support were instead the driving forces of biological development. He published his ideas in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

His experiences also made him a convinced anarchist, believing that the state was both oppressive and unnecessary. Like many other anarchists, he believed that society could only reformed through a revolution. Unlike some contemporary anarchists, like Bakunin, he did not delight in violence, and his works take a more evolutionary line. He realised that the revolution would be violent and bloody, but believed that the new, co-operative order which would replace capitalism and individualism would develop from trends already in place. As proof of what voluntary groups could achieve without state support or interference, he pointed to charities and organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institute in Britain, and the international courts set up by merchants in Europe during the Middle Ages, in which merchants administered their own laws.

In his book, The Conquest of Bread (London: Elephant Editions 1985), Kropotkin discusses how an anarchist revolution would reform society, with a comprehensive reorganisation of industry, housing, agriculture, the provision of food and clothes, and the abolition of the wages system in favour of the direct provision of goods between communities and the workers in particular areas.

The chapter, ‘Food’, describes how a new anarchist commune, like the Paris Commune of 1871, would organise its agricultural production to feed itself. This sounds rather like the community gardens mentioned by Amnesiaclinic. Kropotkin writes

‘The large towns, as well as the villages, must undertake to till the soil. We must return to what biology calls ‘the integration of functions’ – after the division of labour, the taking up of it as a whole-this is the course followed throughout Nature.

Besides, philosophy apart, the force of circumstances would bring about this result. Let Paris see that at the end of eight months it will be running short of bread, and Paris will set to work to grow wheat.

Land will not be wanting, for it is round the great towns, and round Paris especially, that the parks and pleasure grounds of the landed gentry are to be found. These thousands of acres only await the skilled labour of the husbandman to surround Paris with fields infinitely more fertile and productive than the steppes of southern Russia, where the soil is dried up by the sun. Nor will labour be lacking. To what should the two million citizens of Paris turn their attention, when they would be no longer catering for the luxurious fads and amusements of Russian princes, Rumanian grandees and wives of Berlin financiers?

… Thus, learning the art of horticulture from experts, and trying experiments in different methods on small patches of soil reserved for the purpose, vying with each other to obtain the best returns, finding in physical exercise, without exhaustion or overwork, the health and strength which so often flags in cities – men, women and children will gladly turn to the labour of the fields, when it is no longer a slavish drudgery,, but has become a pleasure, a festival, a renewal of health and joy.’

In the last chapter, ‘Agriculture’, he argues that an anarchist commune, such as a town, could provide enough food to support its inhabitants and to trade with other communities, through the use of the intensive agricultural techniques that were then coming into use, with only a few hours labour being demanded of each citizen. He similarly describes the benefits of such communal agricultural work thus:

‘Of all the great days of the French Revolution, the most beautiful, the greatest, was the one on which delegates who had come from all parts of France to Paris, all worked with the spade to plane the ground of the Champ de Mars, preparing it for the fete of the Federation.

That day France was united: animated by the new spirit, she had a vision of the future in the working in common of the soil.

And it will again be by the working in common of the soil that the enfranchised societies will find their unity and will obliterate the hatred and oppression which has hitherto divided them.

Henceforth, able to conceive solidarity-that immense power which increases man’s energy and creative forces a hundredfold – the new society will march to the conquest of the future with all the vigour of youth.

Ceasing to produce for unknown buyers, and looking in its midst for needs and tastes to be satisfied, society will liberally assure the life and ease of each of its members, as well as that moral satisfaction which work gives when freely chosen and freely accomplished, and the joy of living without encroaching on the life of others.’

One of the criticisms levelled at him is that of excessive optimism. He believed strongly in the essential goodness of human nature, to the point where he believed that even people guilty of the most heinous crimes would behave selflessly. In Mutual Aid, for example, he points to a case in France where a murderer in hiding dashed out to rescue a child from a burning house, knowing full well that this self-less act would lead to his arrest and execution for the crime. It’s been said that this is unrealistic. Given the horrors that have occurred in the 20th century – the mass killings by a succession of brutal and tyrannical regimes, and some of the truly revolting crimes you can read about nearly every day in the press, I have to agree.

The other, related point is that, if people really are as good and noble as Kropotkin believes them to be, it’s doubtful how their condition can be improved through a revolution and Anarcho-Communism, when left to themselves in the present system people can be expected to improve their conditions and that of their fellows. It’s another good point.

I have to say that I think any revolution is far more likely to end up in a blood bath than not, though there are exceptions, the greatest of which is the American Revolution. Nevertheless, ideas like Kropotkin’s continue to have a very strong influence on modern Anarchists, and strongly influenced the American hippy counterculture. Furthermore, recent studies of Anarchism have pointed to the various communities and experiments in work and business that have been set up according to anarchist ideals in parallel and within the modern capitalist state. The communal gardens Amnesiaclinic mentions sound like just such a social experiment, though they may not be directly influenced by Kropotkin or anarchist theory generally. I wish them, however, every success if they are bringing fulfilment and good food to the people that own and work them.

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