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The Anarchism of Peter Kropotkin

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03/04/2011Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "The Anarchism of Peter Kropotkin"]

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921)

A little more than 90 years ago, on February 8, 1921, Peter Kropotkin died in Dmitrov, then a small town in Russia, about 40 miles north of Moscow. He had been born in Moscow itself almost exactly 78 years before, on December 9, 1842, but he had spent at least half of the 78 intervening years living abroad — a few years in Switzerland, a few more in France (though most of his time in France was spent behind bars), and, for more than 30 years, in England.

Kropotkin was of noble birth — Prince Kropotkin was the title he was born into — and, like his father and his father before him, he was expected to become an officer in the Czar's army and pursue a military career. The young Peter Kropotkin dutifully went to military school and, on graduation at the age of 19, accepted a commission in the Czar's army. But, to his father's disgust, he requested an assignment in Siberia, where he knew there was little or nothing military for the army to do, so that he stood a pretty fair chance of being attached to one of the various geographical expeditions that were busily mapping the region and documenting its flora and fauna. Geography and zoology, you see, were his true passions. Military service was just something he was doing to please his father.

And Kropotkin succeeded with his underhanded and self-serving plans. He became a military attaché on several geographical expeditions over the next few years, working alongside the geographers and zoologists and winning their respect for his conscientiousness and accuracy. In 1867, at the age of 24, he resigned his commission in the army, whereupon his father disinherited him, leaving him a "prince" with no visible means of support.

Nothing daunted, Kropotkin began putting himself through the University of St. Petersburg by working as a salaried employee of the Russian Geographical Society. In 1871, he led exploratory expeditions for the society in Finland and Sweden. But by then, his enthusiasm for geography and zoology, though still very strong, had begun to play second fiddle to a more recently acquired enthusiasm for radical politics. By sometime late in 1872, near the time of his 30th birthday it would appear, he decided he was an anarchist.

Under the influence of these new ideas, he joined an illegal society, the Tchaikovsky Circle, which had been named for one of its members, a younger brother of the celebrated composer. Though the circle's principal activity seems to have been the publication of foreign books in editions for Russian readers (Marx, Darwin, and John Stuart Mill were among the authors they made available) the members began gradually to be picked off — arrested by the Czar's secret police and tried on charges of belonging to a banned organization. In 1874, Kropotkin, now 31, was imprisoned for this "crime." After two years behind bars, he escaped and fled to Switzerland.

There he remained for the next five years, until, in 1881, after the assassination of the Czar, the Swiss caved in to pressure from the Russian government and agreed to expel all Russian "nationals" living on Swiss soil who were known radicals or revolutionaries. Again, Kropotkin fled, this time to France; but within a couple of years, thanks to the continuing machinations of his enemies in St. Petersburg, he was arrested again, this time by French authorities, who charged him with sedition and locked him up anew after his "conviction" on these charges.

By this time, however, Kropotkin was able to rely on his growing international reputation to protect him from the worst of the mistreatment various political authorities had in mind for him. Since his escape to Switzerland from Russia almost a decade before in 1876, when he was 33 years old, he had earned his living as a scientific journalist, contributing articles to magazines and newspapers. During these same years, the scholarly papers he had published during his time in Russia (based on his explorations) had gradually percolated through the scientific community. It proved very easy for his friends and supporters on the outside to organize petitions and letter-writing campaigns in which some rather eminent persons participated.

After three years, the French gave in to the pressure and released Kropotkin. Having tried Switzerland and France without much success, he decided to try England. And England worked out for him just fine. He lived there from 1886 to 1917, writing principally for Nature magazine, the Times of London, and an influential intellectual magazine of the day, the Nineteenth Century.

Yet, when the Czar's government fell in the February Revolution of 1917, and the way was cleared for him to return home, he seized the opportunity. He was 74 years old when he came back to a Russia he hadn't seen since he was in his mid-30s. Shortly after he arrived, the October Revolution installed the Bolsheviks in power — an event Kropotkin publicly deplored. Paul Avrich reports that he told one friend, "This buries the revolution," and commented further that the Bolsheviks were demonstrating "how the revolution was not to be made — that is, by authoritarian rather than libertarian methods."

Kropotkin didn't live to see the worst consequences of the Bolshevik takeover of the Russian Revolution, however. As we have seen, by the time conditions in the larger cities had become as bad as Ayn Rand portrays them in her novel We the Living, he was dead. And, of course, conditions became far worse after his death than they had ever been before it.

Kropotkin himself played no small part in bringing this catastrophe about. In the later years of the 19th century, his was one of the most influential of the voices raised in support of the economic absurdity of abolition of private property and the rule of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Early in his career, he had lent his support to what was often called back then "propaganda of the deed" — terrorist violence we would call it today, intended to arouse the sleeping masses to political awareness and political action. He abandoned these positions early on, but not before he had committed his early ideas to paper and thereby made certain of their influence over at least two generations of young European anarchists and communists.

Nonetheless, Peter Kropotkin is one of the half-dozen cases of famous anarchocommunists that I would say are worth a second look if you're seeking candidates for places in the libertarian tradition. I've previously said as much about Rudolf Rocker and Emma Goldman; I say it now about Peter Kropotkin. Not only did Kropotkin awaken pretty quickly to the folly of his early admiration for violence and force, but he was arguably the first to enunciate and systematically defend what has since become one of the key ideas of modern libertarianism. In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand first the intellectual world in which Kropotkin came of age in the early 1860s.

Like all good students of that era (and later eras as well), Kropotkin knew his Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes had written, 200 years before, in the middle of the 17th century, about the conditions that had existed when human beings lived in what he called the "state of nature," before coercive governments were established. Hobbes described the principal feature of this period as a "war of all against all" and the life of the average human during this time as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

This conception of things seemed to be echoed in the language of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, when Kropotkin was 16 years old, with its talk of how (as George Woodcock summarizes it)

in nature there is never enough for all, and … it is not desirable that it should be, since the most potent force in the evolution of the animal world and of human societies is the struggle for existence within the species which procures the survival of the fittest and thus ensures the progress of the race.

The problem Kropotkin confronted with respect to all this, not long after his appointment to a post in Siberia, is described simply and succinctly in the opening pages of his most famous work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, first published in 1902, when he was nearly 60 years old. "I failed to find," he wrote, "although I was eagerly looking for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life and the main factor of evolution." What he saw instead was "Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution."

He concluded that

life in societies enables the feeblest animals, the feeblest birds, and the feeblest mammals to resist, or to protect themselves from the most terrible birds and beasts of prey; it permits longevity; it enables the species to rear its progeny with the least waste of energy and to maintain its numbers albeit a very slow birth-rate; it enables the gregarious animals to migrate in search of new abodes. Therefore, while fully admitting that force, swiftness, protective colors, cunningness, and endurance to hunger and cold, which are mentioned by Darwin and Wallace, are so many qualities making the individual or the species the fittest under certain circumstances, we maintain that under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay; while those animals which know best how to combine have the greatest chance of survival and of further evolution, although they may be inferior to others in each of the faculties enumerated by Darwin and Wallace, except the intellectual faculty.

As George Woodcock notes, this argument is potentially important to anyone who wants to allege that human society, with all its manifest advantages, can be carried on without the "protection" offered by the state. The argument was designed, Woodcock writes, "to show that anarchist proposals could work because they were based on the constants of social relations among beings of all kinds, human and animal." It was also designed, of course, to put the quits to Thomas Hobbes's assertion that life in the state of nature was a war of all against all. Perhaps, if life in the state of nature included mutual aid, then there could indeed be a free society, one in which force and the threat of force played no part.

In the 1960s, Barbara Branden famously responded, when asked what would happen to the poor and disabled in a libertarian society, that, "if you want to help [those people], no one will stop you." Kropotkin envisioned a human society in which more than a few would want to help those who were poor and disabled.


When Peter Kropotkin died in February of 1921, these ideas did not die with him. About three weeks before his death, in Brooklyn, New York, a Russian immigrant couple gave birth to an infant they named Murray — Murray Bookchin — who would do a good deal to advance Kropotkin's main idea about human society. Bookchin was what used to be known as a "red-diaper baby." He grew up a Marxist. He joined the Young Pioneers, the communist youth organization, when he was nine. But he devoted as much of his time as he could to reading and studying. And it wasn't long before he began to discern problems in the faith he had been fed with his mother's milk.

By the end of the 1930s, while still a teenager, he announced that he could no longer support Stalin. And after another few years as a progressively more disillusioned and skeptical Trotskyite — years in which Bookchin, now in his 20s, did factory work and organizing for the Congress of Industrial Organizations — he began to feel that he had to reject categorically the coercion he had come to see as inherent in conventional Marxism-Leninism. By the time of his 29th birthday, at the beginning of 1950, he had decided he was an anarchist.

And what earlier anarchist had impressed him and influenced him the most? Why, Peter Kropotkin, of course. As William O. Reichert put it in his 1976 book Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism, Bookchin shared Kropotkin's view that "the evolutionary process we find in physical nature has its counterpart in social development, and that we ignore this truth at our own peril." To Bookchin, it had begun to seem obvious that, if Kropotkin had been right that mutual aid was a principal factor of the evolutionary process for humans and other animals, then it would be wise to treat mutual aid as the spontaneous natural process it is.

Reichert notes that "for both the ecologist and the anarchist, the most striking characteristic of nature is the spontaneity that lies at the bottom of every natural growth pattern." Mutual aid, as a natural growth pattern for our species, is also, in a sense, what Friedrich Hayek famously spoke of as a "spontaneous order." And when we see this, we see also that mutual aid needs our protection. This is how Reichert summarizes Bookchin's argument:

Natural living processes atrophy and die to the extent that they are artificially restricted and caged within imposed regimens of force and restraint … whereas they flourish and progress whenever left to their own internal resources.

Here's how Bookchin himself puts it, in his 1971 book Post-Scarcity Anarchism:

The ecologist, insofar as he is more than a technician, tends to reject the notion of "power over nature." He speaks, instead, of "steering" his way through an ecological situation, of managing rather than recreating an ecosystem. The anarchist, in turn, speaks in terms of social spontaneity, of releasing the potentialities of people. Both, in their own way, regard authority as inhibitory, as a weight limiting the creative potential of a natural and social situation. Their object is not to rule a domain, but to release it.

Reichert comments on this quotation from Bookchin in a way that would probably be surprising to the man behind this idea — Peter Kropotkin. "As the above makes clear," Reichert writes,

anarchism draws its inspiration not from the modern world of science but from the idea of nature as it has always been interpreted during the previous periods of enlightened thought. Nature, on this view, is not a defective system that needs to be discarded but a highly ordered living process that merely needs to be relieved of its artificial restraints to become the magnificent thing it is. Just as ecology seeks to right the balance of physical nature by allowing it to revert back to its natural patterns of growth, so anarchism seeks to right the balance of human society by allowing people to express their inner social inclinations. There is a vital truth contained in ecology, according to Bookchin, and this is that "if we wish to advance the unity and stability of the natural world, if we wish to harmonize it, we must conserve and promote variety." If Bookchin's theory appears strikingly similar to the theory of laissez-faire formulated by the enlightened thinkers of the eighteenth century, we should not be surprised, for the philosophical foundations of all anarchists stem from the same source.

Perhaps it was this common debt to the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries that led Bookchin to seek grounds for friendly relations with libertarians of our sort during the 1960s and '70s. In the '60s, apparently in response to Murray Rothbard's friendly overtures to the New Left, Bookchin arranged to meet Rothbard and for a brief time became an occasional visitor in Rothbard's famous living room at 215 W. 88th Street in Manhattan. But the two men did not get along, and the time came soon enough when Rothbard threw Bookchin out of his apartment, though the nature of the enormity committed by Bookchin to make him deserving of such an eviction seems never to have been recorded. In any case, Bookchin continued his friendly overtures to libertarians of our sort into the late 1970s, when he spoke to at least one national libertarian gathering — the national convention of the Libertarian Party, held in Boston over Labor Day Weekend of 1978.

In later years, Bookchin changed his mind about libertarians of our sort and about various other things as well. He even stopped calling himself an anarchist.

But, however he characterized his political views at the time of his death nearly five years ago, in late July of 2006, his work in the middle years of the 20th century stands on its own. And the essence of that work was the updating and further popularization of an idea traceable to Peter Kropotkin: the idea that if human beings are freed from the burden of the state, they will naturally find a way to live peaceably together; they will create a spontaneous order and live in it harmoniously. The idea remains an enticing one.


Contact Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach is a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach has also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.

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