Kropotkin: The Politics of Community

Kropotkin: The Politics of Community

by Brian Morris

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The 19th century witnessed the growth of anarchist literature, which advocated a society based on voluntary cooperation without government authority. Although his classical writings on mutual aid and the philosophy of anarchism are still published today, Peter Kropotkin remains a neglected figure. A talented geographer and a revolutionary socialist, Kropotkin—often known as the anarchist prince—was one of the most important theoreticians of the anarchist movement. In Kropotkin: The Politics of Community, Brian Morris reaffirms with an attitude of critical sympathy the contemporary relevance of Kropotkin as a political and moral philosopher and as a pioneering social ecologist. Well-researched and wide-ranging, this volume not only presents an important contribution to the history of anarchism, but also offers insightful reflections on contemporary debates in political theory and ecological thought, analyzing such topics as anarchist communism, agrarian socialism, and integral education; modern science and evolutionary theory; the French Revolution and the modern state; and possessive individualism, terror, and war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629635255
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 03/07/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Brian Morris is professor emeritus of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, London. He received a doctorate in social anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, having done his PhD fieldwork among hunter-gatherers in Southern India. Prior to his academic career, he worked as a tea planter in Malawi, where he has done extensive fieldwork. He has written books and articles on topics including ecology, botany, philosophy, history, religion, anthropology, ethnobiology, and social anarchism. After discovering anarchist thought in the mid-1960s, he remained active in various protests and political movements. His previous books include Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom and Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: A Brian Morris Reader. Brian Morris is professor emeritus of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, London. He has written books and articles on topics such as ecology, botany, philosophy, history, religion, anthropology, ethnobiology, and social anarchism—including Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom and Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: A Brian Morris Reader.

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Kropotkin has been described as having the most well-developed and wide-ranging intellect ever to place itself at the service of anarchism (Shatz in CB, ix). And his career shows a remarkable degree of consistency, in that for almost half a century Kropotkin was the leading advocate of a particular brand of revolutionary socialism — anarchist communism.

Kropotkin presented his first major political statement at a congress of the Jura Federation in August 1878, attended by only eight delegates. In his address to the delegates Kropotkin advocated the negation of the nation-state, which he considered then to be in the process of disintegration, and its replacement by a free federation of communes and productive associations. This implied also a social revolution, a fundamental social change, during which, through "insurrectionary deeds," people would spontaneously expropriate land, capital, and the means of livelihood. In the following year, at the congress held at La Chaux-de-Fonds (October 1879), Kropotkin gave a similar address, titled "The Anarchist Idea from the Viewpoint of its Practical Realization." Martin Miller indicates three important points about this speech: that Kropotkin refused to advocate the formation of the anarchists into a political party and thus seek power through the state; that the coming social revolution was defined in terms of the collective expropriation of land, capital, and the means of production; and, finally, that Kropotkin still continued to use the Bakuninist term "collectivism" (MK, 142).

At the Jura congress of October 1880, also held at La Chaux-deFonds, Kropotkin abandoned the concept of "collectivism" (which he felt still implied a system of wage-labor) and advocated for the first time "anarchist communism." This entailed the free distribution of goods, the notion of an economic system based on the adage "from each according to his means, to each according to his needs." The congress thus affirmed the formation of anarchist communism as a distinctive form of socialism. For Kropotkin this was an "important stage" in the development of revolutionary socialism — although many of the delegates at the congress were hesitant about the term "communism," for in France it was intrinsically associated with monastic life.

Although Kropotkin played an important part in the development of anarchist communism and was later to become its chief exponent and advocate, he was not its originator. Already in 1876, Françis Dumertheray, who was later to help Kropotkin to establish the newspaper Le Révolté, published a little pamphlet in Geneva titled Aux Travailleur Manuels Partisans de l'Action Politique. This had advocated anarchist communism. The linkage between anarchism and communism indeed seems to have evolved spontaneously and independently among many of the "collectivist" followers of Bakunin in Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. People important in the development of anarchist communism, besides Kropotkin, include Élisée Reclus, Carlo Cafiero, Jean Grave, and Errico Malatesta (Cahm 1989, 51–64).

Kropotkin's early political writings on anarchist communism suggest a number of important themes that form the substance of his revolutionary politics. The first was the belief in the imminence of a social revolution that would entail the expropriation of land and property by working people and the subsequent demise of capitalism and the nation-state. Second, Kropotkin offered sustained critiques of all forms of government, including both representative democracy and the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat" by a revolutionary party, as well as of capitalism and the "wage system." This chapter will focus on these essential themes of Kropotkin's political credo.

Kropotkin's essay "An Appeal to the Young," first published in Le Révolté in August 1880, and subsequently republished many times as a pamphlet, is perhaps one of the most famous socialist tracts ever written. It has been described as "certainly one of the most moving exhortations of its kind," and it had a greater influence than any other of Kropotkin's pamphlets (WA, 177). In its appeal to the young to join the revolutionary struggle for social justice, the pamphlet certainly stirred the imagination of the teenage Victor Serge. For Serge recalled that the pamphlet "spoke to me at that time in a language of unprecedented clarity." Not only did it induce him to become a revolutionary socialist, but, he wrote, its message had remained close to his heart for the rest of his life (1963, 7–8).

Kropotkin's essay is a call to social revolution. It is addressed specifically to young people of the middle classes who are about to embark upon a professional career — as a doctor, scientist, lawyer, engineer, teacher, or artist. Kropotkin addresses them each in turn. To those wishing to become a doctor, he suggests that they look honestly at the social conditions of those who come to them for treatment and to ask themselves: What is it that I really need to prescribe? Not drugs. For what is needed is less the curing of sickness than its prevention. "To hell with drugs! Fresh air, proper feeding, less brutalising work: that is where we must start" (WR, 46).

To those contemplating becoming a scholar or scientist, he asks them to observe the fact that under the present capitalist system, science is carried out largely for the benefit of the privileged few and the owners of capital. Although the pursuit of scholarship may give the scientist immense personal satisfaction, it is more imperative, Kropotkin argues, to make science available to all humanity and to ensure that scientific findings are put to the common good.

To those who intend to practice law, Kropotkin asks them to critically examine what this vocation exactly entails — given the fact that law is always on the side of property and is frequently contrary to justice. You must realize, he writes, that "to remain the servant of written law is to find yourself each day in opposition to the law of conscience" (WR, 51).

With regard to the young engineer, teacher, and artist, Kropotkin likewise emphasizes that under the regime of private property and the wage system, a sad contradiction will always exist between their aspiration and ideals and the conditions that they find in the real world. Thus a mode of production geared to the benefit of all humanity, a broad humanitarian education for all, a setting where artists' talents serve the interests of the majority and not just the rich — all these are impossible under the present capitalist system. Thus the young student, Kropotkin writes, may well ask: "If the abstract science is a luxury and the practice of medicine a sham, if law is injustice and technical advances are instruments of exploitation; if education is defeated by the self interest of the educators, and if art, lacking a revolutionary ideal, can only degenerate, what is there left for me to do" (WR, 54).

And Kropotkin replies that the young people must go among the people, take their place alongside the socialists, and to work toward the complete transformation of society. Kropotkin concludes with this appeal: "All of you, sincere young people, men and women, peasant workers, clerks, soldiers, will understand your rights and come to us; you will come to work with your brothers in preparing the revolution which, abolishing every kind of slavery (will open) new horizons to all humanity, will finally succeed in establishing in human societies the true equality, the true liberty, work for all, and for all the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, the full enjoyment of all their faculties" (WR, 62).

To struggle in the midst of the people for truth, justice, and equality, what could young people, Kropotkin writes, find more splendid, or more worthwhile (WR, 58).

This appeal echoes that of the Narodniks, and the motivation for the essay may well have stemmed from Kropotkin's own experiences in Russia and the movement of going "to the people"— as only the last section of the essay is addressed specifically to working-class youth.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kropotkin thought that a social revolution was imminent and that there were signs toward the end of the nineteenth century that both the centralized nation-state and the capitalist economic order were in decline. "It was an error which many others, including Kropotkin's leading Marxist opponents, made in those optimistic days," so write his biographers (WA, 307).

At the present time liberal scholars and postmodernist theorists give the impression that capitalism and the state are the only possible forms of social organization, and that no alternative is possible. History, we are informed, has come to an "end," and there has been an unholy alliance between the capitalist triumphalism of the neoliberals and the nihilistic pessimism of the postmodernists. The former glorify a rampant individualism, while the postmoderns, as neo-idealists, virtually eradicate human agency (Wood and Foster 1997). For Kropotkin, however, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was evident that "we are advancing rapidly towards revolution" (WR, 19), and one of his essays is in fact titled the "Inevitability of Revolution" (WR, 29–33).

Throughout human history, Kropotkin argued, there are periods or epochs when the inevitability of a great upheaval, or revolutionary cataclysm, shakes the very roots of society and "imposes itself on every area of our relationships" (WR, 29). One feels the inevitability of a revolution. Such he felt was happening in his own time. Capitalism was in crisis — with overproduction, high unemployment, widespread poverty, and rampant financial speculation — while the state was in the process of breakdown. The modern state, for Kropotkin, has the essential function of upholding and promoting a system of inequality; capitalism and the state were thus intrinsically and "symbiotically" linked. The state, he wrote, has "become the fortress of the rich against the exploited, of the employer against the proletarian," for the state is here "to protect exploitation, speculation and private property, it is itself the by-product of the rapine of the people" (WR, 27). But Kropotkin argued that states for historical reasons were in decline and showing signs of disintegration. "Having reached a high point in the eighteenth century, the old states of Europe have now entered into their decline; they are falling into decrepitude" (WR, 24).

Thus Kropotkin summed up the situation in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century as one involving economic chaos and the failure of capitalist production and the rapid breakdown of the state. Although Kropotkin's writings are full of apocalyptic imagery and almost imply a historical determinism, recent history, of course, has not borne out Kropotkin's premonitions — to the contrary, capitalism has now become global and penetrates almost every aspect of social life and the natural environment, and the nation-state, too, shows no signs of disappearing. Capitalism, in fact, with its logic of commodification, competition, and profit-maximization, now permeates the whole social fabric and continues to be supported and protected by the state in ways that Kropotkin suggested. "Today the state takes upon itself to meddle in all areas of our lives," wrote Kropotkin (WR, 25) — and this is still very much the case. It is of interest that while Michel Foucault critiques the "normalization," the "discipline," and the "biopower" of the modern state that are expressed in the "microphysics of power"— and in the process verily ablates social life and human agency in a "totalizing" vision of "power" — Giddens, in contrast, applauds and advocates the nation-state and its "civilizing" mission (Simons 1995; Giddens 1998, 48).

Kropotkin saw a deep contradiction between capitalism — based on exploitation and fraud — and the principles of morality and the sentiment of solidarity that was expressed in everyday social life. He thus saw international socialism with its emphasis on solidarity and equality —"land, capital and work shared by all"— and the suggestion of replacing the state by a federation of free communes, as both crucial in the "coming revolution." Kropotkin therefore concluded that Europe was proceeding down a steep slope toward a revolutionary outbreak, and that the "distinct character of the coming revolution will consist in international attempts at economic revolution, made by the people without waiting for the revolution to fall like manna from the heavens" (WR, 38).

Such a revolution, he suggested, essentially involved two things — awakening the "spirit of revolt," and the "expropriation" of land, capital, and the means of production by the working people.

As a close and perceptive student of the French Revolution, Kropotkin was always keen to draw lessons from the revolutionary upheavals that occurred in France between 1789 and 1793. The "causes" of this revolution, Kropotkin always recognized, were complex, multiple, and panoramic. It involved the bourgeoisie complaining at their loss of privileges and being hostile to the king; the peasants revolting against the salt tax and the feudal tithes; the urban workers reacting against their poverty and the general insecurity: the ridiculing of the establishment and the exposure of the vices of the court through popular broadsheets and popular songs. But most important for Kropotkin was the transformation of popular resentment and revolutionary ideas into social action — and the key here was the awakening of the Spirit of Revolt and the engendering of hope for the future. "Hope is born in men's hearts; let us remember that if exasperation often leads to riots, it is always hope, the hope of winning that makes the revolutions" (WR, 188).

The French Revolution, though it entailed the disorganization of the state by popular revolution, did not lead to a full social revolution. But it did, Kropotkin emphasizes, lead to two great achievements — the abolition of royal autocracy and the advent of bourgeois rule, and the abolition of serfdom and of feudal tenure in the countryside. (WR, 191; see chapter 12 below).

The coming revolution, Kropotkin felt, would follow the general pattern of the French Revolution in that it would be a popular revolution. But it would go a step further: it would not simply lead to a change of government but to the abolition of the state and its replacement by a federation of free communes (anarchism); it would also involve a complete transformation of property relations, that is, an end to capitalism and the wage system, and its replacement with a communist economic system based on free cooperation and mutual aid (socialism). In the initial stages of this social transformation, it was important to evoke the "spirit of revolt" among working people. Thus Kropotkin felt that every popular movement was a step toward a social revolution, for "It awakens the spirit of revolt, it makes men accustomed to seeing the established order (or rather the established disorder) as eminently unstable" (WR, 203).

Believing like many of his contemporaries that Western Europe was on the eve of a great revolution (Kropotkin was writing in the 1880s), Kropotkin placed great emphasis on expropriation — of land, capital, and the means of production by working people — as the key factor in the revolution. Expropriation, he wrote, "that is the guiding word of the coming revolution, without which it will fail in its historic mission." Such expropriation involved the return to the community, to the common people, "of everything that in the hands of anyone can be used to exploit others" (WR, 207–208). It entailed the expropriation, the repossession, of the factories, warehouses, and workshops; of the railways and the means of transportation; of the mansions and villas that then housed the rich and powerful; and of the land. Kropotkin affirmed that in relation to land, its cultivation was much better done when the peasants themselves owned the fields, orchards, and gardens — and this ruled out sharecropping, tenancy agreements, the private ownership of land, and the land "nationalization" schemes that were then being advocated by the partisans of Henry George. Kropotkin was also skeptical that the "agrarian problem" could be solved by small proprietorship and petty commodity production as was advocated by the followers of Proudhon. Those who sing the praises of "small property," he wrote, are half a century behind the times and ignore present-day realities. The future, according to Kropotkin, "does not belong to individual property, to the peasant penned in a fragment of land that barely sustains him. It belongs to communist cultivation" (WR, 215). Individual property he felt would be a hindrance to the development of agriculture, as well as a form of theft. For Kropotkin emphasized that cultural ideas and social products are in essence the result of the collective efforts of humanity: "We must understand without hesitation or reserve that all products, the whole of what man has accumulated and made use of, are due to the common work of all, and have only one owner humanity. We must see private property clearly for what it is in reality, a conscious or unconscious theft of the wealth of all people" (WR, 221).


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Table of Contents

Preface 9

List of Abbreviations 12

Introduction 13

Peter Kropotkin: A Biographical Note 37

Part 1 The Theory of Anarchist Communism

1 The Coming Revolution and Anarchist Communism 45

2 The Paris Commune and Free Communism 65

3 Objections to Anarchism and the Critique of Prisons 75

4 Agrarian Socialism 89

5 Integral Education 103

Part 2 Ecology and Social Ethics

6 Modem Science and Anarchism 113

7 Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution 129

8 Ethical Naturalism 151

Part 3 Historical Studies

9 Tribal Life and Anarchism 173

10 The Modern State: Its Historic Role 191

11 The Poststructuralist Critique of Anarchism 207

12 The French Revolution 221

Part 4 Anarchism

13 The History of Anarchism 241

14 Anarchist Terrorism and War 255

15 Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism 267

Bibliography 283

Index 307

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