• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Lessons of Kropotkin


by Martin A. Miller
University of Chicago Press, 342 pp., $15.00

The Essential Kropotkin

edited by Emile Capouya, edited by Keitha Tompkins
Liveright, 299 pp., $3.95 (paper)

To observers in the West, the barbarism of Russia’s autocracy in the last century was on the whole less bizarre than the moralism of its intelligentsia—its dedication to a vision of a kingdom of God on earth, the reign of universal brotherhood, when man’s lost wholeness would be restored. This faith was expressed in very diverse ideologies—conservative and radical, religious and atheistic—but most of its prophets were united on two central beliefs: that the advanced cultures of Western Europe were on the verge of collapse from inner moral decay, and that the main hope for regeneration lay in the uncorrupted instincts of the simple people—in particular the Russian peasant.

The rest of Europe, acquainted with this messianism only in its more sensational manifestations, such as the eccentricity of a world-famous novelist who dressed as a peasant and reviled belles-lettres, attributed it to no more than a curious national tendency toward extremes.

Now the thirst for prophets has spread to the West. The intelligentsia of Europe and America, isolated in a cultural vacuum, morally compromised by association with the new mandarins, and insecure in its values, is increasingly seeking a sense of direction and a positive faith. Solzhenitsyn, a Russian prophet denouncing the moral bankruptcy of the West, is greeted not as an eccentric but as a sage, with a vatic insight into a profound spiritual malaise.

But Solzhenitsyn’s message may have less impact than that of another offshoot of the Russian messianic tradition—the anarchism of Bakunin and Kropotkin. Bakunin’s belief that the regeneration of the West could be achieved only through total destruction of the existing order inspired many of the revolutionaries of 1968; but it is Kropotkin’s influence which is the more significant. The most serene of Russian prophets, Kropotkin was described by Oscar Wilde as “a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which keeps coming out of Russia.” His gospel of regeneration is attracting a following not only among revolutionary youth but also among writers, teachers, and sociologists. This is a dramatic reversal in the fate of a thinker who, after his death in 1921, was consigned to almost total oblivion for half a century: George Woodcock in his biography of him in 1950 admitted that he was “half-forgotten.” Now a new biography has appeared, and all his major writings have been resurrected in a flurry of editions, of which the most recent is the one under review. All his editors, and his biographer, emphasize the relevance of his ideas to our most pressing problems. What has transformed this forgotten prophet into a cult figure, the “essential Kropotkin”?

Prince Petr Kropotkin was born in Moscow in 1842, into an ancient noble family. He was educated in the Corps of Pages, Russia’s elite military school, and served for a year as an aide to the tsar. But an interest in science and a desire to lead a useful life led him to obtain a commission in a regiment serving in Siberia where he took part in geographical expeditions which made his name as a scientist. Disillusionment with government reforms and a fascination with the customs of the Siberian peasants and nomads led him to embrace the Russian faith in the peasant commune as the model for a just society, and he was converted to international anarchism by Bakuninist groups in Switzerland, which he visited after resigning from the army.

On returning to Russia he joined a populist circle disseminating revolutionary propaganda in St. Petersburg. Arrested in a roundup of revolutionaries, he spent two years in prison before escaping to the West in 1876; he went first to Switzerland, from where he was expelled at the request of the Russian government, and then to France, where he was arrested on spurious charges of sedition and spent three years in prison. On his release he settled in England, where he devoted himself to writings on anarchist theory, enjoying immense respect in revolutionary and other circles: politicians, writers, scientists, and even the English establishment were seduced by the humanity, charm, and erudition of the “Anarchist Prince.” He returned to Russia in 1917 in hopes of an anarchist revolution and died there four years later.

Kropotkin took the basic theses of his anarchism from Bakunin. These were that the source of all injustice is the state. All revolutions (in particular the Marxist) which seek to replace one form of state by another will merely perpetuate tyranny. Freedom is found by following the instincts of the masses, which lead them to organize themselves in communal associations linked not by authority but by common interests. When the state is destroyed and the people are free to organize themselves as they wish, they will again form such associations.

Kropotkin’s specific contribution to anarchism was his attempt to provide a scientific foundation for these theses, to prove that anarchism was not a utopia but on the contrary a form of organization less artificial and better adapted to man’s needs than the existing state forms. In numerous articles, in four longer works, Paroles d’un revolté, The Conquest of Bread, Mutual Aid, and Fields, Factories and Workshops, and in his unfinished Ethics, he attempted to formulate “a scientific concept of the universe embracing the whole of nature and including man.” The basis of this ambitious construction is his theory of ethics, according to which mutual aid, not Darwinian struggle, is the fundamental law of evolution. True morality issues from an instinctive sense of solidarity, prompting men, like animals, to treat others as they themselves wish to be treated. This ethic inspired the earliest form of social organization, the tribe, and later communes and free villages, whose customs were enforced through free cooperation. The opposing state principle of social organization and traditional morality, religion, and law, which enforced obedience by exploiting superstition, is the result of the efforts of minorities to monopolize the common patrimony. All history is a battle between anarchists and jacobins which will soon end with the triumph of the popular ideal; the state will be destroyed, and property, the source of exploitation, will be replaced by “anarchist communism.”

Kropotkin’s central goal is ethical—the restoration of the harmony of man’s powers which the division of labor has destroyed by forcing men to specialize in one monotonous task, reducing them to fragments of human beings. In Fields, Factories and Workshops he outlines a system of “integrated labor”: each person will engage in agricultural, factory, and intellectual work. Through rational planning and modern technology, industry and agriculture will be completely integrated. The resulting decentralization, whereby regional aggregates of individuals produce and consume most of their agricultural and manufactured produce, will eliminate starvation and the exhaustion of resources. Productivity will be dramatically increased and the working day halved, providing increased leisure for the free development of creativity. Men will be prepared for integrated labor through a system of “integrated education,” which will cultivate their mental and physical attributes at the same time.

If the distinction between intellectuals and manual workers were erased, social conflict would be succeeded by community of interest: the individual will “feel his heart at unison with the rest of humanity.” No coercion would be needed. Traditional ethics, which posit a conflict between duty and inclination, are a product of the state—anarchism will return to instinctive morality which does not recognize this conflict: “new individuality will attain its highest development in practicing communist sociality in relations with others.” Man will attain “full individualization,” completeness as an individual and social being.

There is little need to spell out the current appeal of this vision: as the editors of The Essential Kropotkin point out eloquently in their introduction, the experience of life in capitalist and communist societies alike is leading many people unacquainted with the anarchist tradition to improvise the reforms embodied in Kropotkin’s system. The perfecting of industrialized economies has resulted in an increasing mechanization and quantification of life and a consequent narrowing of spiritual horizons, so that the leisure produced by material progress has become for many a vacuum to be filled by mindless violence. Marxism has proved no solution: the product, like capitalism, of rationalist faith in the supreme importance of material progress, it shares the same values—rationalization, mechanization, quantification.

Pursuit of these values has led communist and capitalist societies alike to increasing incursion of bureaucracy into the few remaining areas open to individual initiative and to a destruction of natural resources on a scale which menaces the existence of future generations. All these problems have directed attention away from the pursuit of quantity to a preoccupation with the quality of existence. Writers like Paul Goodman and Lewis Mumford, who long since pointed to the relevance for our society of Kropotkin’s ideas of personal wholeness and cooperative work, are being echoed by sociologists, criminologists, and educationalists; while a strong current of economic theory maintains that a mixed economy is more workable and individual initiative more productive than centralization and regimentation.

There are few therefore who would not subscribe to at least some of Kropotkin’s reforms; but to many anarchists any piecemeal approach to reform is totally self-defeating. Anarchism is incompatible with any vestige of traditional attitudes and institutions; it is all or nothing, a total blueprint for the regeneration of man. It is this total faith, not empirical reformism, which is the driving force behind much of the present anarchist revival. Its logic is expressed by Mr. Capouya and Ms. Tompkins as follows: the far-seeing theories of Godwin, Proudhon, and Kropotkin having predicted the human contradictions of our societies, “a mere listing of the problems universally acknowledged to be the most fateful, corresponding point by point with the…solutions advanced by anarchism, amounts to a clear political and social agenda.” In other words, the profundity of anarchism’s critique being self-evident, logic demands that we subscribe to its total blueprint for a new society.

The argument is familiar; all totalitarian ideologies issuing from Enlightenment rationalism have based their claim to hegemony on the assertion that they are “scientific” deductions from an analysis of existing conditions. But their dismal history has amply illustrated that deep insights into the nature of social evils do not of themselves produce effective solutions to them, a point which Bakunin and the anarchist movement were among the first to make with regard to the most impressive of “scientific” social blueprints—that of Marx. Much of the momentum of the anarchist revival derives from the belief that Kropotkin has succeeded where Marx failed in providing a scientific formula for the realization of the kingdom of God on earth. But the theory of mutual aid on which his “scientific” system stands can be seen as a new version of an ancient myth.

Kropotkin’s distinction between the drive to solidarity, as the “law” of man’s nature, and the drive to domination (also inherent in primitive societies), as a corruption of nature, is a distinction of the order of theology which posits a “higher nature” existing prior to its corrupt manifestation in human societies. Empirical data, based on observation of social man, have so far failed to refute the view that aggression is, to some extent at least, characteristic of our species. Kropotkin claims that anarchism is the direct expression of popular instinct; but popular instinct is often superstitious and attached to tradition, and “anarchist morality,” with its rejection of the hold of myth over consciousness, is a pure product of the Enlightenment.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print