Prince Petre Kropotkin
Prince Petre Kropotkin; drawing by David Levine

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.

The instinct before which the anarchist intellectual abases himself is a metaphysical abstraction, based on the most ancient of myths, that of a golden age of primal innocence, when man was whole and unified, a myth later incarnated in the idealist vision of the end of alienation, the resolution of the split between essence and existence. Kropotkin’s ideal, like Marx’s, is a secular version of this eschatology, supported by the rationalist optimism of the Enlightenment; social evils are seen as the results of extraneous circumstances, for Marx class conflict, for Kropotkin the state, removal of which will suffice to restore man to his true nature.

Even if “barbarian freedom,” as Kropotkin calls it, were not entirely the product of romantic nostalgia, it is a crude anachronism to see it as proof of man’s ability to harmonize his individual aspirations with the social good. For primitive harmony, such as it was, was the harmony of stagnation, where individuality was little differentiated from the mass; the rational self-directing person who Kropotkin hopes will assent to anarchist morality emerged historically as an antithesis to this primitive harmony through the growing complexity of society, which generated tension between the private individual and abstract social man.

Similarly, the economic effectiveness of Kropotkin’s anarchism depends on the technical expertise which began to develop with the division of labor and its hierarchy of roles. No empirical method can demonstrate that human individuality, which, throughout history, has been experienced only in relations of dependence on society and tension and conflict with it, is destined to perfect itself through perfect identification with the social whole, or that a technologically sophisticated economy will reach ultimate perfection by reverting to the primitive democracy and the total integration of functions characterizing early communal existence. Only in the triads of Idealism are such opposites reconciled in harmony; but the Idealist synthesis is the end of history as we know it, the identity of existence and essence, the restoration of man’s angelic nature.

Kropotkin’s anarchism suffers from the internal contradiction of all millenarian ideologies. Arising as negation, as a rebellion of the personality against the bonds of dogma and entrenched authority, it seeks to impose its own conservatism, its arbitrary end to negation and movement, in the form of one particular system for which it demands total hegemony as the goal of all progress. It is true that Kropotkin emphasizes that anarchist society will develop “in accordance with the ever-growing demands of a free life, stimulated by the progress of science.” But in rejecting the concept of tension between the individual and his social environment which has historically been the source of creativity and progress, he rejects progress in the only way we can conceive of it: his utopia is static.

But the tension between negation and faith is more acute in Kropotkin’s ideology than in earlier incarnations of this pattern of thought, for the dynamics of his negation led him to a more fundamental questioning of established values than that undertaken by most of the revolutionaries of his time. The same paradox is exhibited by the current cult of Kropotkin in its least critical forms—a questioning of fundamental values brought about by the failure of old faiths is resulting in a determined search for new absolutes to replace them. This suggests that the pattern is closed—that we should be resigned to the fact that only blind faith in absolutes can provide negation with a revolutionary impetus, even at the risk of catastrophe, and that a consistently critical appraisal of existing institutions would lead only to paralyzing skepticism. The relevance for us of Kropotkin’s thought may lie less in his solutions than in his contradictions and the light they shed on this problem: on the mechanisms of ideological negation and their relation to faith.

It is precisely this insight that Mr. Miller’s new biography seems designed to provide: his aim is, through an understanding of Kropotkin’s perception of the world, to examine “the interrelationship between personality and society, the nature of radical commitments, and the personal meaning of ideology.”

The book, however, falls very short of achieving any of these objectives, mainly because the author’s chosen method is singularly inappropriate to his subject. He asserts in his introduction that the first half of the book, a study of Kropotkin’s formative years in Russia, is the remnant of an initial project to apply Eriksonian psychology to the study of Russian revolutionaries in general. His approach locates the roots of Kropotkin’s radicalism in rebellion against a despotic father, a rebellion subsequently projected onto the Russian government, an extension of parental despotism. In concentrating on this classical clinical study, Mr. Miller provides the sketchiest of social and ideological backgrounds to Kropotkin’s thought: there is no adequate treatment of the wider tradition of populism within which Kropotkin’s thought developed, or even of immediate influences. The result is a strangely distorted view of Kropotkin’s intellectual development, from which one might infer that it was an accident of personal psychology that his filial rebellion took the path it did. The fact that rebellion against oppressive fathers sometimes culminates in anarchism says little about “the nature of radical commitments.”

In fact, Kropotkin was not a Luther, a precursor, as this extraordinarily narrow perspective might suggest: his rebellion was deeply conditioned by an established revolutionary tradition. This he acknowledges in his pamphlet Anarchist Morality by describing the basis of his anarchism as “nihilist philosophy.” If we are to understand the relation between dynamic negation and static utopia in his system, it is with the phenomenon known as nihilism that we must begin.

Nihilism was born with the birth of Russia’s intelligentsia, during the period of reaction which followed the failure of the aristocratic elite to force a constitution on the tsar in 1825. Isolated both from the backward masses and the government by their Western culture and moral values, the cultured elite was driven in on the world of ideas, and to the philosophy of the alienated, German Idealism, from which they drew the millenarian ideal of the wholly free and harmonious personality.

Dedication to this ideal led to an intransigent opposition to all existing ;social and political reality. For the most acutely estranged there was, as Alexander Herzen wrote, “one important consolation: the nakedness of negation, logical ruthlessness,” and they channeled their frustrations into left-wing Hegelianism, with its revolutionary assertion of the primacy of the individual over all traditional authorities, all absolutes. The primitive anarchism of the Russian peasant commune seemed to them the social incarnation of this principle, and for the most radical members of their generation, Herzen and Bakunin, anarchism in politics was a logical extension of anarchism in philosophy.

When, as Kropotkin writes in Anarchist Morality, the young populists of the 1860s “unfurled the banner of nihilist or rather of anarchist philosophy: to bend the knee to no authority, however respected, to accept no principle…unestablished by reason,” they were giving a new name to a tradition established by their predecessors. The revolutionary circles of the Sixties sought through a militant materialist philosophy to make their negation more “scientific,” and extended their consistency to the strict embodiment in their conduct of the ideal of the just and harmonious society. It was to the most famous of these circles, called after its founder the Chaikovsky circle, that Kropotkin belonged. Though he was in a minority in believing that nihilism demanded total rejection of the state, he frequently referred in latter life to the deep impression made on him by the moral nobility of the members of the circle, expressed in the total conformity of their conduct to their principles.

This passion for consistency in negation had a revolutionary dynamism which, far more than the bomb-throwing popularly associated with nihilism, was the movement’s distinctive contribution to the Western radical tradition. Enforced isolation in the world of ideas led Russian revolutionaries to give central emphasis to a concept which even the Marxist descendants of Hegel frequently ignored in their preoccupation with economic facts: namely, that the strength of the old order lay perhaps less in its material force than in inner voluntary submission to it, in the eternal readiness of men to surrender responsibility for their self-fulfillment to the abstract constructs of their own reason.

Kropotkin’s insight (in Law and Authority) into the phenomenon of the fear of freedom, the fact that “‘The Year I of Liberty’ has never lasted more than a day, for after proclaiming it men put themselves the very next morning under the yoke of…authority,” seems a very modern one, but it was also the leitmotif of the writings of Herzen, the founder of Russian populism. Kropotkin often echoed Herzen’s observations that the most extreme of revolutionaries in the West were conservatives, liberating men from subjection to the principle of divine right only to enslave them to that of salus populi. Though Herzen once called Proudhon “the only free man in Europe,” he nevertheless criticized his conservative attitude to the role of women, and Bakunin undertook to instruct him in Paris in 1848 on the liberating implications of Hegelian negation.

Of course, the nihilists were far from being totally consistent; in particular, the materialist philosophies whereby the populists of the Sixties sought to free themselves from superstition encouraged, through their simplistic conception of man’s dependence on his environment, a naïve faith in the ease of total social transformation. In this Kropotkin was typical of his time; and this belief in the imminence of utopia sometimes led to the use of authoritarian methods which were in contradiction with the populist goal. But these methods were always strongly criticized within the movement, and until Marxism in the Nineties declared ethics to be irrelevant to revolution, it was only in Russia that debates among revolutionaries centered less on the efficiency of tactics than on their conformity with the moral ideal.

Those who knew Kropotkin only in the West tended to attribute his “impeccable” moral harmony, as Henri Barbusse called it, to a feat of personal saintliness; and the present revival of his ideas, by paying little if any attention to the Russian tradition behind them, perpetuates this view. It is a pity that Mr. Miller’s biography does nothing to correct this perspective: there is no examination of Russian populism or its ethics, and the scattered references to both give a greatly distorted impression of them. Populism is summed up as “agrarianism, orientation towards the narod, and suspicion of the West”—a definition equally applicable to Russian conservative nationalism, while nihilism is defined as combining “a search for truth through intensive reading with an ostentatious attire, all of which had a rigidly oppositionist morality at its root.”

Such trite and often meaningless observations scattered throughout the work merely echo the most superficial of clichés about the Russian populist tradition, and the author’s habit of mentioning leading figures of the period without reference to the content of their ideas sometimes results in grotesque juxtapositions: thus the works of the liberal Ivan Turgenev, who was anathema to the nihilists, are inexplicably yoked together with those of Chernyshevsky, Pisarev, and Dobrolyubov, their intellectual leaders, as the reading matter of nihilist circles. This approach greatly devalues the second half of the book—an analysis of Kropotkin’s anarchist ideas, well documented from primary sources. As we are given no clear conception of the nature of his indebtedness to other thinkers, even to Bakunin, the dominant influence on his ideas, we have no framework within which to assess the degree of his originality. A far better introduction to Kropotkin is a work which does not mention him at all—Martin Malia’s brilliant biography, Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism—still, after fifteen years, the best introduction to the ideology of Russian populism.

It was in his nihilist consistency that Kropotkin contributed most significantly to the European Left. At a time when the first priority was destruction of the enemy, he was almost alone in his uncompromising aversion to the principle that the end justifies the means, emphasizing that this would corrupt the revolution and lead to a new tyranny. When the obtaining of money by theft became popular in Russia as a source of revolutionary funds, he vehemently opposed it, true to the nihilist belief that the revolutionary must be the living embodiment of the future ideal. In his writings the materialist optimism of the Sixties contrasts oddly with the more fundamentally nihilist view that true liberation is an inner process which cannot be brought about by force. While reluctantly conceding that violence was inherent in all revolutions, he emphasized that it could achieve only limited goals:

in order to conquer, something more than guillotines is required…the revolutionary idea…which reduces its enemies to impotence by paralysing all the instruments whereby they have governed hitherto. Very sad would be the revolution if it could triumph only by terror.

In the factional squabbles of his time he saw the triumph of the revolution becoming an end in itself, and the original goal of liberty becoming a dispensable extra. In a speech in 1893 he asserted:

I now see only one party, the anarchist—which respects human life and loudly insists on the abolition of capital punishment, prison torture and punishment of man by man altogether. All the other parties teach every day their utter disrespect of human life. Killing the foe, torturing him in prison, is their principle.

This total consistency in putting the fate of individuals above the purity of dogma, in defending victims of oppression, however insignificant, gave Kropotkin a moral authority extending far beyond anarchist groups. Rudolph Rocker in his memoirs describes him speaking at a demonstration held in London in 1903 in protest against the pogroms against Jews in Russia:

I still remember him as I saw him that day, his face pale with emotion, his grey beard caught by the wind. His first words were hesitant, as though choked by his deep feeling. Then they came rushing out fiercely, each word like the blow of a hammer. There was a quiver in his voice when he spoke of the suffering of the victims. He looked like some ancient prophet. All the thousands who listened to him were moved to their depths.

There is the same incontestable moral authority in his famous indictment, in a letter to Lenin in 1920, of the Bolsheviks’ decision to take hostages in order to protect themselves against possible violence from their opponents:

How can you, Vladimir Ilich, you who want to be the apostle of new truths and the builder of a new state, give your consent to the use of such…unacceptable methods? Such a measure is tantamount to declaring publicly that you adhere to the ideas of yesterday…. What future lies in store for communism when one of its most important defenders tramples in this way on every honest feeling?

This is much more than a personal moral stand: it expresses the essence of Russian anarchism as a movement which radically subverted the millenarian tradition from which it sprang.

If the extreme alienation of many of the Russian intelligentsia made them particularly susceptible to the yearning for ultimate “wholeness,” the negation which they undertook as a means to that end gained an unexpected momentum as an instrument of self-criticism whose destructive logic constantly counteracted the pull of the millennium, by undermining the absolute pretensions of all utopias, including their own. When Bakunin, carried away by his vision of eternal harmony, resorted to authoritarian methods to hasten its coming, Herzen ruthlessly exposed his inconsistency in his Letters to an Old Comrade, which are among the great revolutionary writings on the nature of liberty. Kropotkin, while never relinquishing his visionary ideal, consistently undermined anarchism’s hopes of practical success as a revolutionary movement through his intransigent rejection of the coercion of the majority by a minority. In the present wave of enthusiasm for Kropotkin’s utopia, Russian anarchism’s more radical—and self-critical—contribution to revolutionary thought has been overlooked; if it were emphasized, it could encourage a much more radical line of questioning in current ideological debates.

An answer to whether nihilist consistency, if taken further than Kropotkin took it, would have lost its revolutionary impetus and culminated in an arid skepticism, can be found in the writings of Herzen, the first Russian socialist, and one of the first nihilists. In his famous work From the Other Shore, written in 1849, he points out that if progress is seen as the result of the negation by individuals of absolutes and outworn systems, one’s own chosen absolutes cannot consistently be excepted from this process. It is much more consistent to assume that the conflict between conservatism and utopia, between a longing for the absolute and negation of it, is not a means to an end, but the end itself, the essence of life and creativity; that general solutions and universal formulae which seek to put an end to this conflict will lead not to universal harmony but to inertia and stagnation, the submergence of the individual in the herd. In a distillation of the insights of the nihilist tradition, Herzen predicts:

Socialism will develop through all its phases, to its extremes, to absurdities; then a cry of negation will again be torn from the titanic breast of the revolutionary minority, and a battle to the death will begin again in which socialism will take the place now being occupied by conservatism and will be conquered by a new revolution which we cannot yet imagine…this is the eternal play of life….

This acceptance that to be consistent with one’s ideal of freedom is to recognize that it can only be partially realized in history and never absolutely incarnated in one particular system, one historical type of existence, is, in its delicate balance between faith and skepticism, the most difficult of political attitudes to maintain: but, contrary to a more popular view, it is this true nihilist consistency, rather than utopian faith, which is the most radical heritage of the Russian messianic tradition.

This Issue

October 28, 1976