Will there be restaurants under communism?

10 January, 2022

Restaurants in China

In many parts of the world, restaurant work encapsulates the worst of precarization with the general meaninglessness of capitalist production. From “Michelin star” restaurants to fast food joints, every apparent advance in the art of cooking or the way of producing seems to be made at the expense of the workers, so our readers ask us if it is possible for restaurants – or something like them – to exist under communism.

Table of Contents

The question

Will there be restaurants under communism? And if not, will everyone eat at home? Will gastronomy, the art of cooking, disappear? Will there still exist some kind of similar institution? And, if so, how could it perform what a restaurant does today, without division of labor or forced labor?

The birth of the restaurant

Restaurants. “Dick, the Captain, and Squire Jenkin dining at Very’s in the Palais Royal”. Etching, coloured, by George Cruikshank (1792–1878). From: Pierce Egan (1772–1849), Life in Paris, comprising the rambles, sprees and amours of Dick Wildfire, London 1822. London, British Library.
“Dick, the Captain, and Squire Jenkin dining at Very’s in the Palais Royal”. Etching, coloured, by George Cruikshank (1792–1878). From: Pierce Egan (1772–1849), Life in Paris, comprising the rambles, sprees and amours of Dick Wildfire, London 1822. London, British Library.

The restaurant is not merely a place where one “eats”, it is the hub where a whole series of concrete social relations crystallize at a precise historical moment.

Of course, the merchant bourgeoisie prior to the French Revolution ate in inns and taverns, but the logic of those early bourgeois establishments, like that of the cafés of the 18th century, had little to do with that of a restaurant. They were rather proto-hotels in which the service paid for was the care of the saddles while the food was an extra of hospitality. Even in the first urban (actually courtly) restaurants of the 18th century, created by palace cooks who lost royal favor, the cooking was limited to the basic preparation of the food brought by the customers themselves.

The restaurant, as we know it today, is a child of the French Revolution. In the absolutist courts, “Haute Cuisine” had flourished as part of the spectacle of royal power, and the nobility had vied to bring the best cooks into their service. But the aristocratic ritual of the table was not commodified: banquets and dinners were lavished among peers of the ruling class who invited each other as part of the collective staging and structuring of their power.

During the French Revolution, however, with the fall of the aristocracy and the decline of its ways, most of the heads of aristocratic kitchens, the “chefs”, were forced to seek accommodation among their new masters.

The first patrons were the provincial deputies summoned to the Estates General at Versailles in the spring of 1789, but then, with the arrival of the Terror – and the abrupt end of great aristocratic society – restaurants multiplied.

The Terror was the moment when, after the trade of the executioners, came that of the cooks.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier

Of course, the bourgeoisie, although it opened salons, was not in favor of maintaining hundreds of chamber servants (waiters), cooks and caterers to entertain anyone, much less their peers..

Associated with members of the bourgeoisie or on their own, the old chefs of the aristocracy will open the first modern restaurants. Before 1789 there were less than 100 eating houses in Paris and practically all of them meant what we mentioned above: inns and hotels where the service included cooking what the customer brought. In 1834 there were more than 2,000 restaurants.

But they were already something else and their message was also different. It was no longer about showing the power of the aristocracy through “invitations” in which being invited meant being recognized as an equal or at least useful to the ruling class. Now the cooks’ work was open to anyone who could afford to pay them. Their embellishment was no longer aristocratic pomp and luxury, but the demonstration of the new abundance created by the bourgeois nation.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, the trope of the restaurant was the cornucopia, the horn of plenty. Restaurants were filled to the brim.

The invention of the restaurant. Rebecca L. Spang.

Those early restaurants flaunt the diversity of raw materials and regional origins, expanding the offer and with it the sense of abundance linked to the nation unifying the thousands of feudal divisions of the past. The result is the appearance of the “carte”, a list of individually priced dishes.

At first, the bourgeois, fearful of displaying ostentatious tastes in public and embarrassed by their new social status, ordered only a few dishes that were served one at a time, which is where the term “à la carte” (a la carte) comes from.

Evidently, there were only a few à la carte restaurants, first located in the neighborhood around the Palais Royal and then on the boulevards. Frères Provençaux, Véfour and Maison Dorée, each with their own specialties, were recognized for their cuisine, resulting in very impressive à la carte options (over a hundred dishes), the excellent chefs in the kitchens and their extensive wine lists.

The dinner ceremony at the court of Napoleon III between 1852 and 1870. Anne Lair.

But this profusion of dishes and victuals had to be reconciled with the reduction in the amount of labor power the restaurant employed compared to the aristocratic salon. Compared to the almost 300 people who worked in the kitchen and the service of a royal banquet in the old courts, the bourgeois restaurant had to serve a similar number of different dishes with only 15 or 20 workers. Surplus value was always the top patron.

The solution will come in the essence of what will later be known as “French cuisine”: the sauce. A technological innovation that in reality had already been intuited and experimented by the cooks of the marshals of the Napoleonic campaigns, to whom we owe, besides rescuing and modernizing hundreds of medieval recipes, the universalization of the Menorcan mayonnaise.

The use of sauces allowed the reorganization of the kitchens and its passage from an artisan workshop for each type of food to a “factory” organized in “islands” specialized in different parts of a process. The same product, once sealed, cooked or fried, could be used as the basis for half a dozen different preparations. It could also be cooked in advance, before the kitchens were opened, kept warm by the residual heat of an oven and heated just before serving when the sauce was poured over it.

Thus the customers, instead of spending half a day or more, as in the aristocratic banquets, could go back to their business earlier and… leave the table vacant. This increased productivity in terms of profit for each hour of work spent. This is why the great chefs of the “gastronomic” century, whether the French Beauvilliers, Carême, Urbain Dubois or the Russian Olivier, were above all creators of sauces and uses for sauces.

It goes without saying that the new system will drive the emergence of the first modern restaurants all over Europe. Indeed, “Basque cuisine ” and its famous four sauces, would be, according to Arzak, the adaptation of the sauce system by the Basque women who worked during the summers in the service of the vacations shared by Isabel II of Spain and Eugenia de Montijo (Napoleon III’s wife) between Biarritz and San Sebastián.

The social and historical significance of restaurants

Passage Jouffroy, restaurant inaugurated on February 17, 1847
Passage Jouffroy, restaurant inaugurated on February 17, 1847

What has the bourgeoisie done by creating the restaurant? In a superficial and obvious sense, the one that delights historians of gastronomy, it has replaced the aristocratic socializing spaces and their rituals with new ones.

It has gone from the culture of the gluttonous “gourmand” of the Ancien Régime to that of the “gastronome”, a term that first appeared in 1803. The birth of “gastronomy” expresses both the passage from the consideration of the cook as an artisan to an “artist” and the new sense of bourgeois “refinement”: the capacity to demand and enjoy “sophisticated” consumption that, in addition to socially differentiating those who appreciate it, carries “meanings” (the nation, overseas expansion, etc.). What the bourgeoisie began with painters in the Renaissance, it culminated at the time of the Revolution with the chef.

But in reality it has done something much more far-reaching. First of all, it has commodified food. And in doing so it has socialized the consumption of processed foods. And evidently, it has done so in the capitalist way: absorbing aristocratic cuisine in order to, from within, transform the social relations that define it through the incorporation of new processes and systems of organization, linked to the exacerbation of the division of labor and the use of new technologies.

The supposed universality of the restaurant, inherent to the bourgeois version of equality, initiates a path that under capitalist decadence will become today’s deplorable industrial food and its ills. However, the socialization of production and consumption, as we have seen throughout this series, is a progressive tendency, which lays the foundations for the communist transformation of society.

The founder of German social democracy, August Bebel, saw this clearly in his most important work under the concrete conditions of the time in which he was writing:

For millions of women the private kitchen is an institution extravagant in its methods, limiting them in endlessly monotonous tasks and wasting their time, robbing them of health and good cheer, an institution which is nothing but an object of daily distress, especially when means are scarce as they are in most families.

The abolition of the private kitchen will be liberation for countless women. The private kitchen is as antiquated an institution as the small machine shop. Both represent an unnecessary and useless waste of materials and labor time.

Women and socialism. August Bebel. 1879

This idea will shape the housing reform movements of the workers’ movement of the Second International: to build apartment buildings with a large, clean, industrial collective kitchen, with a professional staff, dedicated to preparing a healthy cuisine according to the dietary needs of each individual and under the tutelage of medical science and nutrition.

Read also: The socialist origins of "co-living", 25/5/2020

The “restaurants” of the revolution

'Down with kitchen slavery!', poster from 1919.
“Down with the slavery of the kitchen!” 1919 poster.

Bebel never thought of the restaurants of the “einküchenhaus” (one-kitchen houses) as part of life under communism. He thought of them as immediate goals to be generalized during the transitional process which – although it begins and renews itself with every class struggle or organizational expression – multiplies socially when the proletariat destroys the existing state and takes political power.

What the one-kitchen houses point to is that the socialization of food is a tendency to be consciously developed. In fact, in the two major revolutionary experiences of the 20th century, the Russian and Spanish Revolutions, workers affirmed it from day one.

On October 27, 1917 (November 9), day two of the revolution, the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets approves the decree allowing local soviets to organize “communal kitchen” systems. A year later in Peters and Moscow alone there were more than 3,000 such canteens in which millions of workers ate every day. “Socializing” the kitchen responded to three fundamental goals.

The first, which arose from “the initiative of the masses”, was the need to progressively convert food into an effective and free universal right […].

The second was organizational: to be able to organize with a certain rationality the collective satisfaction of needs. The idea of organizing the proletariat in each neighborhood and in each large industrial complex in a large consumer cooperative will be increasingly affirmed by the Bolsheviks and Lenin will make it one of the banners of the NEP in 1920.[…].

The third was the idea of “putting an end to kitchen slavery”. An idea inherited from Bebel and his book “Women and Socialism” which enjoyed exceptional traction among the workers. The end of the family kitchen – and with it of the working mother cook – was almost universally seen as the material basis – along with day-care centers – for the egalitarian reorganization of the family and was also fused with the extraordinary communal explosion of the 1920s that involved millions of workers in experiences of collective housing and production.

Nutrition, gastronomy and revolution, 8/6/2020
Read also: Nutrition, Gastronomy and Revolution, 8/6/2020

In other words, collective kitchens and canteens were, as Bebel foresaw, an indispensable tool of transformation, even if they were not, in themselves, the goal towards which they were consciously trying to move.

Beyond the restaurant: the socialization of food production and consumption

Gastronomic society in Bilbao. The members select and contribute raw materials, cook them and share them with the other members of the group of friends.
Gastronomic society in Bilbao. The members select and contribute raw materials, cook them and share them with the other members of the group of friends.

As we have seen in the previous instalments of this series, the three vectors from which we can glimpse how different communism will be from the current way of producing and living are decommodification, socialization and the development of productive capacities which, irremediably, will be intertwined with these. In a previous instalment we saw what worlds were opening up in food production. But isn’t it much more difficult to imagine a socialized consumption different from the restaurant?

Read also: Under communism… Who will be in charge of agriculture? In a communist society, won’t we have pineapples, oranges or coffee?, 2/27/2021.

The truth is that we don’t have to go very far either to find communitarian models among workers that anticipate or give clues about the simultaneous socialization of production and consumption.

The most obvious example is that of gastronomic societies. These societies were originally premises which the salaried fishermen paid a rent for. They served as a shelter while waiting to be hired to go out to sea. But also as a form of mutualization: the food, brought and cooked in common, also served as a sort of primitive “unemployment insurance” for those who did not manage to sail for one reason or another.

Today these societies are widespread throughout the working class and far beyond. They are a way of bonding and maintaining the cohesion of a group of friends. Selecting raw materials, cooking, eating and cleaning -usually meticulously- so that everything is impeccable for those who come later, is in them an experience of fraternity and group cohesion.

And they are not a strange island, all over the world there exist similar institutions in which production and consumption merge into a single community activity. From them we can learn something important for the future: the artist cook, the innovator, the one who reinvents and creates new dishes, will not disappear. On the contrary. He grows in the most eager of the members.

Of course, the “entrepreneurial figure” does not exist in the same way as “cooking school” as a separate institution disappears. Because what disappears, above all, is wage labor. Work lies at the center, but it is voluntary and makes everyone contribute and feel part of it. Collective socialization and decommodification are inseparable from human development at all levels.

As always, we can go little further in trying to imagine what a universal institution could be like under similar principles and logics. We know what it will not be: oppressive, exploitative or alienating. And we know what principles it could recover and develop – those of non-commercial, non-oppressive collective work. But for more details… we have to get going as a class first.

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