Chapter 11 : Free Agreement

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Chapter 11


by P. Kropotkin


Free Agreement


Accustomed as we are by hereditary prejudices and absolutely unsoundeducation and training to see Government, legislation and magistracy everywherearound, we have come to believe that man would tear his fellow man to pieceslike a wild beast the day the police took his eye off him; that chaos wouldcome about if authority were overthrown during a revolution.  Andwith our eyes shut we pass by thousands and thousands of human groupingswhich form themselves freely, without any intervention of the law, andattain results infinitely superior to those achieved under governmentaltutelage.

If you open a daily paper you find its pages are entirely devoted toGovernment transactions and to political jobbery.  A Chinaman readingit would believe that in Europe nothing gets done save by order of somemaster. You find nothing in them about institutions that spring up, growup, and develop without ministerial  prescription.  Nothing -or hardly nothing!  Even when there is a heading- "Sundry  Events"- it  is because they are connected with the  police. A family drama, an act of rebellion, will only be mentioned if the policehave appeared on the scene.

Three hundred and fifty million Europeans love or hate one another,work, or live on their incomes; but, apart from literature, theater, orsport, their lives remain ignored by newspapers if Governments have notintervened in some way or other.  It is even so with history. We know the least details of the life of a king or of a parliament; allgood and bad speeches pronounced by the politicians have been preserved. "Speeches that have never had the least influence on the vote of asingle member," as an old parliamentarian said.  Royal visits,good or bad humor of politicians, jokes or intrigues, are all carefullyrecorded for posterity.  But we have the greatest difficulty to reconstitutea city of the Middle Ages, to understand the mechanism of that immensecommerce that was carried on between Hanseatic cities, or to know how thecity of Rouen built its cathedral.  If a scholar spends his life instudying these questions, his works remain unknown, and parliamentary histories-that is to say, the defective ones, as they only treat of one side of sociallife- multiply, are circulated, are taught in schools.

And we do not even perceive the prodigious work accomplished every dayby spontaneous groups of men, which constitutes the chief work of our century.

We therefore propose to point out some of these most striking manifestations,and to prove that men, as soon as their interests do not absolutely clash,act in concert, harmoniously, and perform collective work of a very complexnature.

It is evident that in present society, based on individual property-that is to say, on plunder, and on a narrow minded and therefore foolishindividualism- facts of this kind are necessarily few in number; agreementsare not always perfectly free, and often have a mean, if not execrableaim.

But what concerns us is not to give examples which we could blindlyfollow, and which, moreover, present society could not possibly give us. What we have to do is to prove that, in spite of the authoritarian individualismwhich stifles us, there remains in our life, taken as a whole, a greatpart in which we only act by free agreement, and that it would be mucheasier than we think to dispense with Government.

In support of our view we have already mentioned railways, and we areabout to return to them.

We know that Europe has a system of railways, 175,000 miles long, andthat on this network you can nowadays travel from north to south, fromeast to west, from Madrid to Petersburg, and from Calais to Constantinople,without stoppages, without even changing carriages (when you travel byexpress).  More than that: a parcel thrown into a station will findits addressee anywhere, in Turkey or in Central Asia, without more formalityneeded for sending it than writing its destination on a bit of paper.  

This result might have been obtained in two ways.  A Napoleon,a Bismarck, or some potentate having conquered Europe, would from Paris,Berlin, or Rome, draw a railway map and regulate the hours of the trains. The Russian Czar Nicholas I dreamed of taking such action.  When hewas shown  rough drafts of railways between Moscow and Petersburg,he seized a ruler and drew on  the map of Russia a straight line betweenthese two capitals, saying, "Here is the plan."  And the road ad wasbuilt in a straight line, filling in deep ravines, building bridges ofa giddy height, which had to be abandoned a few years later, at a costof about £120,000 to £150,000 per English mile.

This is one way, but happily things were managed differently. Railways were constructed piece by piece, the pieces were joined together,and the hundred divers companies, to whom these pieces belonged, came toan understanding concerning the arrival and departure of their trains,and the running of carriages on their rails, from all countries, withoutunloading merchandise as it passes from one network to another.

All this was done by free agreement, by exchange of letters and proposals,by congresses at which relegates met to discuss certain special subjects,but not to make laws; after the congress, the delegates returned to theircompanies, not with a law, but with the draft of a contract to be acceptedor rejected.

There were certainly obstinate men who would not he convinced. But a common interest compelled them to agree without invoking the helpof armies against the refractory members.

This immense network of railways connected together, and the enormoustraffic it has given rise to, no doubt constitutes the most striking traitof our century; and it is the result of free agreement.  If a manhad foreseen or predicted it fifty years ago, our grandfathers would havethought him idiotic or mad.  They would have said: "Never will yoube able to make the shareholders of a hundred companies listen to reason!  It is a Utopia, a fairy tale.  A central Government, withan 'iron' director, can alone enforce it."

And the most interesting thing in this organization is, that there isno European Central Government of Railways!  Nothing!  No ministerof railways, no dictator, not even a continental parliament, not even adirecting committee!  Everything is done by contract.

So we ask the believers in the State, who pretend that "we can neverdo without a central Government, were it only for regulating the traffic,"we ask them: "But how do European railways manage without them?  Howdo they continue to convey millions of travelers and mountains of luggageacross a continent?  If companies owning railways have been able toagree, why should railway workers, who would take possession of railways,not agree likewise?  And if the Petersburg Warsaw Company and thatof Paris Belfort can act in harmony, without giving themselves the luxuryof a common commander, why, in the midst of our societies, consisting ofgroups of free workers, should we need a Government?"


When we endeavor to prove by examples that even to-day, in spite of the iniquitous organization of society as a whole, men, provided their instincts be not diametrically opposed, agree without the intervention of authority, we do not ignore the objections that will be put forth.

These examples have their defective side, because it is impossible to quote a single organization exempt from the exploitation of the weak by the strong, the poor by the rich. That is why Statists will not fail to tell us with their wonted logic: "You see that the intervention of the State necessary to put an end to this exploitation!"

Only they forget the lessons of history; they do not tell us to what extent the State itself has contributed towards the existing order by creating proletarians and delivering them up to exploiters. They also forget to tell us if it is possible to put an end to exploitation while the primal causes -- private capital and poverty, two-thirds of which are artificially created by the State -- continue to exist.

As regards the complete harmony among railway companies, we expect them to say: "Do you not see railway companies oppress and ill-use their employers and their travelers! The State must intervene to protect the public!"

But have we not often repeated that as long as there are capitalists, this abuse of power will be perpetuated It is precisely the State, the would-be benefactor, that has given to the companies that monopoly which they possess to-day. Has it not created concessions, guarantees? Has it not sent its soldiers against railwaymen on strike? And during the first trials (we see it in Russia), has it not extended the privilege to forbidding the press mentioning railway accidents, so as not to depreciate the shares it guaranteed? Has it not favored the monopoly which has anointed the Vanderbilts and the Polyakoffs, the directors of the P.L.M., the C.P.R., the St. Gothard, "the kings of the times"?

Therefore, if we give as an example the tacit agreement come to between railway companies, it is by no means as an ideal of economical management, nor even an ideal of technical organization. It is to show that if capitalists, without any other aim than that of augmenting their dividends at other people's expense, can exploit railways successfully without establishing an International Department, societies of working men will be able to do it just as well, and even better, without nominating a Ministry of European railways.

Another objection is raised that is more serious at first sight. We may be told that the agreement we speak of is not perfectly free, that the large companies lay down the law to the small ones. They might, for example, quote a certain rich company compelling travelers who go from Berlin to Bâle to pass via Cologne and Frankfort, instead of taking the Leipzig route; a second, carrying goods sixty or a hundred and thirty miles in a roundabout way (on long distances) to favor influential shareholders; a third, ruining secondary lines. In the United States travelers and goods are sometimes compelled to travel impossibly circuitous routes so that dollars may flow into the pocket of a Vanderbilt.

Our answer will be the same: As long as Capital exists, the greater' Capital will oppress the lesser. But oppression does not result from Capital only. It is also owing to the support given them by the State, to monopoly created by the State in their favor, that certain large companies oppress the little ones. The early Socialists have shown how English legislation did all in its powers to ruin small industries, drive the peasant to poverty, and deliver over to wealthy industrial employers battalions of men, compelled to work for no matter what salary. Railway legislation did exactly the same. Strategic lines, subsidized lines, companies which received the International Mail monopoly, everything was brought into play to forward wealthy financiers' interests. When Rothschild, creditor to all European States, puts capital in a railway, his faithful subjects, the ministers, will do their best to make him earn more.

In the United States, in the Democracy that authoritarians hold up to us as an ideal, the most scandalous fraudulency has crept into everything that concerns railroads. Thus, if a company ruins its competitors by cheap fares, it is often enabled to do so because it is reimbursed by land given to it by the State for a gratuity. Documents recently published concerning the American wheat trade have fully shown up the part played by the State in the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Here, too, the power of accumulated capital has grown tenfold and a hundredfold by State help. So that, when we see syndicates of railway companies (a product of free agreement) succeeding in protecting their small companies against big ones, we are astonished at the intrinsic force of free agreement that can hold its own against all-powerful Capital favored by the State. It is a fact that little companies exist, in spite of the State's partiality. If in France, land of centralization, we only see five or six large companies, there are more than a hundred and ten in Great Britain who agree remarkably well, and who are certainly better organized for the rapid transit of travelers and goods than the French and German companies.

Moreover, that is not the question. Large Capital, favored by the State, can always, if it be to its advantage, crush the lesser one. What is of importance to us is this: The agreement between hundreds of companies to whom the railways of Europe belong, was established without intervention of a central government laying down the law to the divers societies; it has subsisted by means of congresses composed of delegates, who discuss among themselves, and submit proposals, not laws, to their constituents. It is a new principle that differs completely from all governmental principle, monarchical or republican, absolute or parliamentarian. It is an innovation that has been timidly introduced into the customs of Europe, but has come to stay.


How often have we not read in the writings of State-loving Socialists: "Who, then, will undertake the regulation of canal traffic in future society? Should it enter the mind of one of your Anarchist 'comrades' to put his barge across a canal and obstruct thousands of boats, who will force him to yield to reason?"

Let us confess the supposition to be somewhat fanciful, yet it might be said, for instance: "Should a certain commune, or a group of communes, want to make their barges pass before others, they might perhaps block the canal in order to carry stones, while wheat, needed in another commune, would have to stand by. Who, then, would regulate the barge traffic if not the Government?"

But real life has again demonstrated that Government can be very well dispensed with here as elsewhere. Free agreement, free organization, replace that noxious and costly system, and do better.

We know what canals mean to Holland. They are its highways. We also know how much traffic there is on the canals. What is carried along our highroads and railroads is transported on canal boats in Holland. There you could find cause to fight, to make your boats pass before others. There the Government might really interfere to keep the traffic in order.

Yet it is not so. The Dutch settled matters in a more practical way, long ago, by founding a kind of guilds, or syndicates of boatmen. These were free associations sprung from the very needs of navigation. The right of way for the boats was adjusted by a certain registered order; they followed one another in turn. None were allowed to get ahead of the others under pain of being excluded from the guild. None could station more than a certain number of days along the quay, and if the owner found no goods to carry during that time, so much the worse for him; he had to depart with his empty barge to leave room for newcomers. Obstruction was thus avoided, even though the competition between the private owners of the boats continued to exist. Were the latter suppressed, the agreement would have been only the more cordial. It is unnecessary to add that the ship-owners could adhere or not to the syndicate. That was their business, but most of them elected to join it. Moreover, these syndicates offered such great advantages that they spread also along the Rhine, the Weser, the Oder, and as far as Berlin. The boatmen did not wait for a great Bismarck to annex Holland to Germany, and to appoint an Ober Haupt General Staats Canal Navigations Rath (Supreme Head Councilor of the General States Canal Navigation), with a number of stripes corresponding to the length of the title. They preferred coming to an international understanding. Besides, a number of ship-owners, whose sailing vessels ply between Germany and Scandinavia, as well as Russia, have also joined these syndicates, in order to regulate traffic in the Baltic and to bring about a certain harmony in the chassé-croisé of vessels. These associations have sprung up freely, recruiting volunteer adherents, and have naught in common with governments.

It is, however, more than probable that here too greater capital oppresses lesser. Maybe the syndicate has also a tendency to become a monopoly, especially where it receives the precious patronage of the State that will not fail to interfere with it. Let us not forget either that these syndicates represent associations whose members have only private interests at stake, and that if at the same time each ship-owner were compelled -- by the socializing of production, consumption, and exchange -- to belong to a hundred other associations for the satisfying of his needs, things would have a different aspect. A group of ship-owners, powerful on sea, would feel weak on land, and they would be obliged to lessen their claims in order to come to terms with railways, factories, and other groups.

At any rate, without discussing the future, here is another spontaneous association that has dispensed with Government. Let us quote more examples. As we are talking of ships and boats, let us mention one of the most splendid organizations that our century has brought forth, one of those we may with right be proud of -- the English Lifeboat Association.

It is known that every year more than a thousand ships are wrecked on the shores of England. At sea a good ship seldom fears a storm. It is near the coasts that danger threatens -- rough seas that shatter her stem-post, squalls that carry off her masts and sails, currents that render her unmanageable, reefs and sand banks on which she runs aground.

Even in olden times, when it was a custom among inhabitants of the coasts to light fires in order to attract vessels on to reefs, and to seize their cargoes, they always strove to save the crew. Seeing a ship in distress, they launched their nutshells and went to the rescue of shipwrecked sailors, only too often finding a watery grave themselves. Every hamlet along the seashore has its legends of heroism, displayed by woman as well as by man, to save crews in distress.

No doubt the State and men of science have done something to diminish the number of casualties. Lighthouses, signals, charts, meteorological warnings have diminished them greatly, but there remain a thousand ships and several thousand human lives to be saved every year.

To this end a few men of goodwill put their shoulders to the wheel. Being good sailors and navigators themselves, they invented a lifeboat that could weather a storm without being torn to pieces or capsizing, and they set to work to interest the public in their venture, to collect the necessary funds for constructing boats, and for stationing them along the coasts, wherever they could be of use.

These men, not being Jacobins, did not turn to the Government. They understood that to bring their enterprise to a successful issue they must have the co-operation, the enthusiasm, the local knowledge, and especially the self-sacrifice of sailors. They also understood that to find men who at the first signal would launch their boat at night, in a chaos of waves, not suffering themselves to be deterred by darkness or breakers, and struggling five, six, ten hours against the tide before reaching a vessel in distress — men ready to risk their lives to save those of others, there must be a feeling of solidarity, a spirit of sacrifice not to be bought with galloon. It was therefore a perfectly spontaneous movement, sprung from agreement and individual initiative. Hundreds of local groups arose along the coasts. The initiators had the common sense not to pose as masters. They looked for sagacity in the fishermen's hamlets, and when a lord sent £1000 to a village on the coast to erect a lifeboat station, and his offer was accepted, he left the choice of a site to the local fishermen and sailors.

Models of new boats were not submitted to the Admiralty. We read in a Report of the Association: "As it is of importance that lifeboatmen should have full confidence in the vessel they man, the Committee will make a point of constructing and equipping the boats according to the lifeboatmen's expressed wish." In consequence every year brings with it new improvements.

The work is wholly conducted by volunteers organizing in committees and local groups; by mutual aid and agreement! -- "Oh, Anarchists! -- Moreover, they ask nothing of ratepayers, and in a year they may receive £40,000 in spontaneous subscriptions.

As to the results, here they are: In 1891 the Association possessed 293 lifeboats. The same year it saved 601 shipwrecked sailors and 33 vessels. Since its foundation it has saved 32,671 human beings. In 1886, three lifeboats with all their men having perished at sea, hundreds of new volunteers entered their names, organized themselves into local groups, and the agitation resulted in the construction of twenty additional boats. As we proceed, let us note that every year the Association sends to the fishermen and sailors excellent barometers, at a price three times less than their sale price. It propagates meteorological knowledge, and warns the parties concerned of the sudden changes predicted by men of science.

Let us repeat that these hundreds of committees and local groups are not organized hierarchically, and are composed exclusively of volunteers, life boatmen, and people interested in the work. The Central Committee, which is more of a center for correspondence, in no wise interferes.

It is true that when voting on a question of education or local taxation takes place in a district, these committees do not, as such, take part in the deliberations, a modesty, which unfortunately the members of elected bodies do not imitate. But, on the other hand, these brave men do not allow those who have never faced a storm to legislate for them about saving life. At the first signal of distress they rush forth, concert, and go ahead. There are no galloons, but much goodwill.

Let us take another society of the same kind that of the Red Cross. The name matters little; let us examine it.

Imagine somebody saying twenty-five years ago: "The State, capable as it is of massacring twenty thousand men in a day, and of wounding fifty thousand more, is incapable of helping its own victims; as long as war exists private initiative must intervene, and men of goodwill must organize internationally for this humane work!" What mockery would not have met the man who would have dared thus to speak! To begin with he would have been called Utopian, and if that did not silence him he would have been told: "Volunteers will be found wanting precisely where they are most needed, your hospitals will be centralized in a safe place, while what is indispensable will be wanting in the ambulances. National rivalry will cause poor soldiers to die without help." Disheartening remarks are only equaled by the number of speakers. Who of us has not heard men hold forth in this strain?

Now we know what happened. Red Cross societies organized themselves freely, everywhere, in all countries, in thousands of localities; and when the war of 1870-1 broke out, the volunteers set to work. Men and women offered their services. Thousands of hospitals and ambulances were organized; trains were started carrying ambulances, provisions, linen, and medicaments for the wounded. The English committees sent entire convoys of food, clothing, tools, grain to sow, beasts of draft, even steam-plows with their attendants to help in the tillage of departments devastated by the war! Only consult La Croix Rouge, by Gustave Moynier, and you will be really struck by the immensity of the work performed.

As to the prophets ever ready to deny other men's courage, good sense, and intelligence, and believing themselves to be the only ones capable of ruling the world with a rod, none of their predictions were realized. The devotion of the Red Cross volunteers was beyond all praise. They were only too glad to occupy the most dangerous posts; and whereas the salaried doctors of the State fled with their staff when the Prussians approached, the Red Cross volunteers continued their work under fire, enduring the brutalities of Bismarck's and Napoleon's officers, lavishing their care on the wounded of all nationalities. Dutch, Italians, Swedes, Belgians, even Japanese and Chinese agreed remarkably well. They distributed their hospitals and their ambulances according to the needs of the occasion. They vied with one another especially in the hygiene of their hospitals And there is many a Frenchman who still speaks with deep gratitude of the tender care he received from a Dutch or German volunteer in the Red Cross ambulances. But what is this to an authoritarian? His ideal is the regiment doctor, salaried by the State. What does he care for the Red Cross and its hygienic hospitals, if the nurses be not functionaries?

Here is then an organization, sprung up but yesterday, and which reckons its members by hundreds of thousands; possesses ambulances, hospital trains, elaborates new processes for treating wounds, and so on, and is due to the spontaneous initiative of a few devoted men.

Perhaps we shall be told that the State has something to do with this organization. Yes, States have laid hands on it to seize it. The directing committees are presided over by those whom flunkies call princes of the blood. Emperors and queens lavishly patronize the national committees. But it is not to this patronage that the success of the organization is due. It is to the thousand local committees of each nation; to the activity of individuals, to the devotion of all those who try to help the victims of war. And this devotion would be far greater if the State did not meddle with it.

In any case, it was not by the order of an International Directing Committee that Englishmen and Japanese, Swedes and Chinamen, bestirred themselves to send help to the wounded in 1871. It was not by order of an international ministry that hospitals rose on the invaded territory and that ambulances were carried on to the battlefield. It was by the initiative of volunteers from each country. Once on the spot, they did not get hold of one another by the hair as foreseen by Jacobins; they all set to work without distinction of nationality.

We may regret that such great efforts should be put to the service of so bad a cause, and ask ourselves like the poet's child: "Why inflict wounds if you are to heal them afterwards?" In striving to destroy the power of capital and bourgeois authority, we work to put an end to massacres, and we would far rather see the Red Cross volunteers put forth their activity to bring about (with us) the suppression of war; but we had to mention this immense organization as another illustration of results produced by free agreement and free aid.

If we wished to multiply examples taken from the art of exterminating men we should never end. Suffice to quote the numerous societies to which the German army owes its force, that does not only depend on discipline, as is generally believed. I mean the societies whose aim is to propagate military knowledge.

At one of the last congresses of the Military Alliance (Kriegerbund), delegates from 2452 federated societies, comprising 151,712 members, were present. But there are besides very numerous Shooting, Military Games, Strategical Games, Topographical Studies Societies "these are the workshops in which the technical knowledge of the German army is developed, not in regimental schools. It is a formidable network of all kinds of societies, including military men and civilians, geographers and gymnasts, sportsmen and technologists, which rise up spontaneously, organize, federate, discuss, and explore the country. It is these voluntary and free associations that make up the real backbone of the German army.

Their aim is execrable. It is the maintenance of the Empire. But what concerns us, is to point out that, in spite of military organization being the "Great mission" of the State, success in this branch is the more certain the more it is left to the free agreement of groups and to the free initiative of individuals. Even in matters pertaining to war, free agreement is thus appealed to; and to further prove our assertion let us mention the three hundred thousand British volunteers, the British National Artillery Association, and the Society, now in course of organization, for the defense of England's coasts, as well as the appeals made to the commercial fleet, the Bicyclists' Corps, and the new organizations of private motor-cars and steam launches.

The State is abdicating and appealing in its holy functions to private individuals. Everywhere free organization trespasses on its domain. And yet, the facts we have quoted let us catch only a glimpse of what free agreement has in store for us in the future, when there will be no more State.

This text was taken from a 1st edition of The Conquest of Bread, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1906.

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