Bread Labour

Bread Labour is an old idea in need of renewal in the 21st century. If practiced, it will help redress the destructive avarice, affluence and abstraction that prevails in our age. 

The original idea of Bread Labour is, basically, that every person should do some form of physical labour in order to provide for their sustenance. In other words, you should both induce and sate your hunger through your own productive exertion and not through the labour of others. It is a practice that attempts to equate what an individual produces with what they consume. 

The modern-day version of Bread Labour is simple self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency is good because it is more sustainable, and it also promotes individual well-being. In other words, Bread Labour is good for your health, both mental and physical, and it doesn’t do harm to the environment.

In our modern economiesBread Labour is a way to be independent of the produce-and-consume economic machine, which is increasingly at variance with the nature of people. Material human needs are considerably fewer than the affluence most people in the western world have. It seems perverse that people have much more than they could ever need to consume. The operative word here is ‘need’. What we need is surprisingly little compared to what we want and have.

The history of ‘Bread Labour’

The idea of Bread Labour was first developed in the writings of the Russian peasant philosopher Timofei Bondarev in the 1870s and then advocated and popularised at first by Leo Tolstoy and later by Mahatma Gandhi.

Timofei Bondarev (3 April 1820—3 November 1898) was born a serf. At the age of 37, Bondarev’s owner signed him over to the army for a 25 year commission, which effectively split him from his wife and children for the rest of his life. He was discharged from the army ten years later for apostasy, as he had renounced the Russian Orthodox Church, and for punishment he was exiled to the far-east of Russia where he died 30 years later. As the only literate person in his village-exile, he set up a school and taught in it, in addition to being a farmer. He wrote a book which he finished in the early 1880s called “The Triumph of the Farmer or Industry and Parasitism” in which he explained his idea of Bread Labour.

The famous author Leo Tolstoy obtained a manuscript of Bondarev’s book in the early 1880s and he was so impressed Tolstoy immediately started a long-term correspondence with Bondarev. Tolstoy believed that Bondarev’s idea of Bread Labour is one of the most remarkable discoveries of their times. Tolstoy also took great pains to have the book published, which it finally was in 1888. 

Even before Bondarev, others had talked about similar concepts, for instance John Ruskin wrote about it in his book Unto this Last! Ruskin wrote, “For we are not sent into this world to do anything into which we cannot put our hearts. We have certain work to do for bread, and that is to be done strenuously, other work to do our delight, and that is to be done heartily: neither is to be done by halves and shifts, but with a will; and what is not worth this effort is not to be done at all.”

The feeling behind the idea of Bread Labour is that people should be able to sustain themselves independently. There has always been a conflict between capital (wealth) and labour. Workers detest the power that wealth has over them, and they resent being exploited for profit by the wealthy. Workers think (probably correctly) that the wealthy often see them as a means (to make profit) and not as an end in themselves (i.e. a freely and fully functioning person). Workers are alienated from their intrinsic ‘productiveness’ because they are producing for someone else.

Mahatma Gandhi felt that if everyone practiced Bread Labour it would reduce inequality and increase social solidarity. Gandhi, who had learned of Bread Labour from Tolstoy’s writings, wrote, “The idea is that every healthy individual must labour enough for his food and his intellectual faculties must be exercised not in order to obtain a living or amass a fortune but only in the service of mankind. If this principle is observed everywhere, all men would be equal, none would starve and the world would be saved from many a sin.” 

Elsewhere Gandhi wrote: “The needs of the body must be supplied by the body…Obedience to the law of bread labour will bring about a silent revolution in the structure of society. Man’s triumph will consist in substituting the struggle for existence by the struggle for mutual service. The law of the brute will be replaced by the law of man.” (Harijan, 29-6-1935)

Of course, we now know that the brain is part of the body and that the mind is an emergent phenomenon of the brain (and arguably the rest of the body). In other words, intellectual work is a form of physical work, requiring food to sustain it. Even so, as an intellectual worker myself (writer and designer) I still think that food seems to taste better after I have been toiling in the garden or on some other chores or projects. Anyone who has grown their own food knows how much more satisfying it is to eat it. 

“I’ve seen grown men pick at food. They can’t be hungry in the first place. Or maybe their food has been too fancy and with all the choice’s they’ve had they don’t really know what they enjoy any more.”
Dick Proenneke

Bread Labour in the 21st-century

Bread Labour was proposed and promoted by people of an earlier age, whose knowledge was less scientific and their outlook on life anachronistic. Times have changed so much in the 130 years since Bondarev was writing and yet people’s core needs and values have hardly changed at all. Therefore, the idea of Bread Labour sorely needs to be updated for the 21st-century.

As mentioned earlier, Bread Labour is akin to self-sufficiency. The dignity and satisfaction that comes from self-sufficiency is matched by its harmlessness to nature.

Of course, bread doesn’t necessarily mean bread, or even food for that matter. Any type of self-sufficiency is a form of Bread Labour – gathering, chopping and stacking wood for instance is a form of Bread Labour. Wood gets you fit and warm as you forage, find and fell it. It then gets you fit and warm as you transport and stack it. When it is seasoned you can chop it which also gets you fit and warm. Then you can not only get warm again as you burn it, you can also use it to cook with and to heat and sterilise water.

“I enjoy working for my heat. I don’t just press a button or twist a thermostat. I use a big crosscut saw and the axe, and while I’m getting my heat supply I’m working up an appetite that makes simple food as appealing as anything a French chef could create.”
Dick Proenneke

Conclusion

In modern economies there is a disconnect between what is produced and what people actually need. Labour (paid work) has become increasingly abstract, in the sense that it is far removed from a natural standpoint and concrete meaning.

By growing your own food, chopping wood, walking to work, making and mending clothes, doing DIY, collecting rainwater from the roof, or whatever else you can do to be self-sufficient, you are getting in touch with your natural humanity and you are doing much less harm to nature, if any.


Sources

Gandhi, M. K. (1984). Bread labour [The gospel of work] (Reprint ed.). Navajivan Publishing House.

Proenneke, R., & Keith, S. (1999). One Man’s Wilderness Publisher: Alaska Northwest Books; 26 Anv edition (Book Club ed.). Alaska Northwest Books.

Ruskin, J., & Wilmer, C. (1986). Unto This Last and Other Writings (Penguin Classics) (Penguin Classics ed.). Penguin Classics.

Tolstoy, L. (2012). Toil. Ulan Press.