The Essential Kropotkin
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 …