By Javier Díaz Espinosa
In 1892, the Russian anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin wrote The Conquest of Bread, an attempt to criticize the economic system of his time using the singular metaphor of bread. In the book, he claimed: “We have the temerity to declare that all have a right to bread, that there is bread enough for all, and that with this watchword of Bread for All, the revolution will triumph”. A few decades after, thousands of workers demanding the precious aliment took control of the Russian Government.
Food is essential for life, and bread is perhaps the simplest but most powerful symbol of it. It was firstly made in Mesopotamia in the first years of the Neolithic, famously cooked in Egypt around the 2500 BC, and then adapted to Greek and Roman cuisine. The latter gave it a place in mythology in the essence of Demeter, who was venerated among others for providing the conditions for life. In the bible, Jesus declared himself “the bread of life”, which originated the Catholic ritual of transubstantiation, where bread becomes his body. Just like Christianity, most cultures made bread not only a part of their daily-life diet but a symbol of life itself.
Meanwhile, the lack of bread represented the opposite. In 1775, wheat shortages in the towns of the Paris Basin initiated a sequence of riots known as the Flour War. Whilst the absence of bread was their principal motive, the distance between an impoverished population and a noble wealthy class was the reason for the unexpected rage that led to French Revolution. One could understand people’s resentment when they heard Marie Antoinette’s famous, but unhistorical, phrase: “let them eat cake” after hearing their claims for bread. Either for its scarcity or for what it represents, bread became a source for social outburst.
Kropotkin was aware of the symbolic power of bread in the times he wrote his book. He suggested that the life impulse to eat was a fundamental right and that only a proletarian revolution could guarantee it. Indeed, in 1917 thousands of Russian women workers poured into the streets, tired over the long lines to purchase bread, claiming: “down with hunger”. Later, just as Kropotkin, Lenin understood the moment as he pronounced the fundamental slogan of the Soviets: “Bread, Peace, and Land”.
The 20th century continued and “Bread For All” was heard across the globe in the voice of many rebel movements. In 1970, the Chilean singer Victor Jara, before being tortured and killed by the dictatorship, sang: “With no shelter is like living without bread; without bread is living without life, reason, faith or justice, hope or joy”.
Although the end of the Cold War shut down the spirit of revolution in western societies, the echo of its symbols remains in the rest of the world. In 2011, thousands of Egyptians took over Cairo’s central square screaming: “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”. A month later, Tunisians chanted: “We can live on bread and water alone but not with the RCD” against Ben Ali’s regime. Either holding a Baguette against the police, like a Tunisian famously did, or raising a Pita, as Egyptians popularized, the Arab Spring was inseparable from the symbolic power of bread.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, protests around the world have been diversified, as well as their symbols. In Argentina, a hanger is the symbol of women’s claim for legal abortion; in Hong-Kong, an umbrella is a token against police brutality; and in France, the yellow vest represents the dissatisfaction with rising fuel prices. All these symbols have deeper meanings, but perhaps neither of them with the long history of bread. Furthermore, neither represents the struggles of ordinary people in the entire world pleading for the basic elements to survive. Perhaps, it is time again to demand, as Kropotkin did, Bread for All!
By Javier Díaz Espinosa
Illustration: Hilda Hedberg