Chapter 6 Peter Kropotkin and Anarchist Communism

Submitted by Reddebrek on August 10, 2018

IT WAS AMONG the generation of anarchists following Bakunin that anarchism received the scientific and sociological basis that up to then it had in a measure lacked. The philosophical reasoning of a Godwin, the intuitive social insight of a Bakunin had proved the reasonableness and justice of anarchism; it remained for men like Kropotkin and the brothers Reclus, who had already made for themselves considerable names as scientific writers, to bring to a study of economic and social problems the knowledge they had gained in the pursuit of natural studies and prove the scientific validity of anarchism as a social method. Of these the most influential and competent was Kropotkin. If Bakunin was the great revolutionary hero and orator of anarchism, Kropotkin was its great savant.

Peter Kropotkin was born in 1842, the year of Bakunin’s conversion to revolutionary beliefs. He came of the highest stratum of the Russian nobility, and was a prince by right of birth. Like Bakunin, he was educated for a commission in the Tsarist army, and served in the early 1860’s as an officer in a Cossack regiment stationed on the Amur river, whence Bakunin had just previously staged his sensational escape from Siberian exile. Later he travelled extensively on scientific expeditions in Siberia and Northern Manchuria, and his observations of natural history and primitive society during this period were to have a profound influence on his scientific and sociological ideas of later years. In 1867 he returned to St. Petersburg and spent four years there in the study of mathematics. He also began to attain an international reputation as a geographer, and was offered - but rejected - the Secretaryship of the St. Petersburg Geographical Society, under whose commission he made in 1871 a journey of exploration into the ice fields of Finland and Sweden.

During his various geographical journeys into the remoter parts of Russia, Kropotkin was deeply impressed by the miserable conditions under which the poorer classes lived. He presented reports on the subject to various government departments, but his representations failed to break down their apathy towards the misery of the peasants and the landless poor. It was this lack of elementary humanity in the governmental system of Tsarist Russia that drove Kropotkin steadily towards the realisation of the necessity for a social revolution.

He became an active revolutionary in 1872. In that year he made a journey to Western Europe and stayed some time in Belgium and Switzerland. There he made contact with revolutionary movements and became converted to anarchism during a visit to the militant watchmakers of the Jura. In Switzerland he joined the International, which in that region was under the influence of the Bakuninists. On his return to Russia in the same year, he took up secret revolutionary activity, and joined Tschaikowsky’s conspiratorial group. The activities of the group were discovered by the Okhrana in 1874, and for his participation Kropotkin was imprisoned in the Peterand Paul Fortress, the celebrated political prison in which Bakunin, Netchaieff and many other famous revolutionaries were incarcerated before the Revolution and in which thousands of the intelligentsia were murdered by the Bolsheviks after October 1917. From this terrible prison Kropotkin was one of the very few men ever to escape, which he did in 1876, after two years of confinement.

He went first to England, and in the following year proceeded to Switzerland. There he stayed until 1881, when he was expelled for his revolutionary activities. For a while he lived alternately in France and England, until, in 1882, he was sentenced in Paris to a second term of imprisonment, this time for five years, for membership of a prohibited association (the reformed International Working Men’s Association). His experiences of this period and of his earlier imprisonment in Russia are described in his vividly written book, In Russian and French Prisons.

He was pardoned by the French authorities, and came to England, where he lived for the next thirty years, most of which he devoted to writing. During this period he participated in English anarchist groups, helped to run the anarchist paper Freedom, and was one of the founders of the Freedom Press. It was in this relatively quiet period of his life that most of his more important books were composed.

During the great war of 1914-18 Kropotkin gave his support to the Allies, contending that they were a lesser evil than the Central European powers and that therefore it was desirable that they should win rather than that Europe should be subjected to a German imperial hegemony. There has been much controversy concerning Kropotkin’s attitude on this occasion, and from an anarchist point of view there is no doubt that he diverged from the true revolutionary attitude, which would have been (as it is to-day) to support none of the warring states and to attempt to bring about revolution in all of them, but particularly in the revolutionary’s own country. All that can be said in defence of Kropotkin in this unfortunate matter is that at the time he was already an old and very sick man, almost worn out by a life of suffering and singularly vigorous activity. His attitude also seems to have been affected by that hatred of the German Empire and of German institutions in general which characterised so many of the Russian revolutionaries of his generation.

After the revolution of February 1917 in Russia, Kropotkin returned and gave it his support. When the Bolsheviks seized power at the end of the year, Kropotkin saw the true nature of their actions and purpose. He opposed their rule and their myth of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and denounced their methods of oppression and persecution. The last four years of his life were spent in poverty and as much obscurity as his enemies could induce. In many small ways the authorities made his life unpleasant; but they did not dare to use their ordinary Cheka methods against so great and famous a revolutionary. He died in 1921. The anarchists of Moscow organised his funeral, refusing to accept assistance from the Government, and tens of thousands of workers, intellectuals and students followed the cortege in demonstration of their solidarity with his opposition to the Communist dictatorship. True to character, the Bolsheviks, having promised to release all the many anarchist political prisoners for the funeral, released only a few of them for one day only.
Kropotkin was the principal advocate of communist anarchism, which differed from the collectivism of Bakunin in that not only the means of production, but also the products of labour would be held in common and each individual producer would receive from the common pool to the extent of his needs. This he regarded as more just and practicable, as under modern methods of production it would be very difficult to assess with any exactitude the value of individual labour, and as, with the technical resources of modern science and industry, an adequate supply of goods could be made available to give every person in society a comparatively generous share.

“The Anarchists cannot consider, like the Collectivists, that a remuneration which would be proportionate to the hours of labour spent by each person in the production of riches may be an ideal, or even an approach to an ideal, society. Without entering here into a discussion as to how far the exchange value of each merchandise is really measured now by the amount of labour necessary for its production, we must say that the Collectivist ideal seems to us merely unrealisable in a society that has been brought to consider the necessaries for production as common property. Such a society would be compelled to abandon the wage system altogether. It appears impossible that the mitigated Individualism of the Collectivist school could co-exist with the partial Communism implied by holding land and machinery in common-unless imposed by a powerful government. The present wage system has grown up from the appropriation of the necessaries for production by the few; it was a necessary condition for the growth of the present capitalist production; and it cannot outlive it, even if an attempt be made to pay the worker the full value of his produce; and hours of labour cheques be substituted for money. Common possession of the necessaries for production implies the common enjoyment of the fruits of the common production; and we consider that an equitable organisation of society can only rise when every wage system is abandoned, and when everybody, contributing for the common wellbeing to the full extent of his capacities, shall enjoy also from the common stock of society to the fullest extent of his needs.”

Thus Kropotkin envisaged a distribution of consumption goods based not on service but on need. He successfully refuted the customary objection that under such a system it would be difficult to get anybody to work by showing that work is natural to man and that it is not work but overwork which men dislike.
“Overwork is repulsive to human nature-not work. Overwork for supplying the few with luxury - not work for the well being of all. Work, labour, is a physiological necessity, a necessity of spending accumulated bodily energy, a necessity that is health and life itself. If so many branches of useful work are so reluctantly done now, it is merely because they mean overwork, or they are improperly organised. But we know that four hours of useful work every day would be more than sufficient for supplying everybody with the comfort of a moderately well-to-do middle-class house, if we all gave ourselves to productive work, and if we did not waste our productive powers as we do waste them now. As to the childish question, repeated for fifty years: ‘Who would do disagreeable work? ’frankly I regret that none of our savants here have ever been brought to do it, be it for only one day in his life. If there is still work which is really disagreeable in itself, it is only because our scientific men have never cared to consider the means of rendering it less so: they have always known that there were plenty of starving men who would do it for a few pence a day.”

Kropotkin’s ideas of the possibility of a reduction of necessary work and a vast increase in production, both of food and industrial products, were not based on speculation merely. His scientific training had taught him the necessity of supporting his theories by a background of facts, and he went thoroughly into the question of the productivity, both of the soil and of industry, which could be obtained by an application of the scientific and technical knowledge then available. The results of his researches and the conclusions he attained from them are embodied in his important books, Fields; Factories and Workshops, The Conquest of Bread, and Modern Science and Anarchism.

His arguments in the matter of food production are of particular importance. Almost alone among revolutionary-theorists, he realised that bread is essential to the maintenance of a revolution, that without bread the revolution would be doomed from the outset. He therefore set out to study intensive methods of farming, and proved that, under a system not tied by the economic necessities of imperialist capitalism, it would be possible to grow on a country the size of England more than enough food to maintain the present population.

Kropotkin realised the unhealthiness of the excessive division of labour, and of a life spent in the performance of a single monotonous function. He saw the physical and mental evils of the mass life of factories and towns, of a life completely severed from nature and deprived of a healthy balance of work and leisure. He envisaged the gradual break-up of the large urban and industrial centres, and the decentralisation of industry into small factories and workshops set in the agricultural countryside, which would enable the workers to alternate land work with factory work and so preserve a better balance of physical and mental health. Thus he foresaw the elimination of both the factory system and the proletariat as we know it.

“When we thus revert from the scholastics of our text-books, and examine human nature as a whole, we soon discover that, while all the benefits of a temporary division of labour must be maintained, it is high time to claim those of the integration of labour. Political economy has hitherto insisted chiefly on division. We proclaim integration; and we maintain that the ideal of society is a society of integrated, combined labour. A society where each individual is a producer of both manual and intellectual work; where each able-bodied human being is a worker, and where each worker works both in the field and the industrial workshop; where every aggregation of individuals, large enough to dispose of a certain variety of natural resources - it may be a nation or rather a region - produces and itself consumes most of its own agricultural and manufactured produce.”

But important as Kropotkin may have been as the chief protagonist of anarchist communism and as demonstrator of the possibility, by the application of modern scientific methods, of attaining those increases in production and leisure which are essential in a free society, his most valuable contribution to anarchist thought was the scientific basis he gave to the anarchist theory of society in his sociological work Mutual Aid, a book which has since become one of the classic works on the nature of society.

In Mutual Aid Kropotkin attacked the neo-Malthusian doctrines of the survival of the fittest, which were preached by Huxley and his followers as providing the reasons for both animal and human evolution and the prime moving forces in the whole of the natural world. These theories had a great influence on many ‘advanced’ political thinkers of the time, and have persisted to this day among the Marxists; a fact which gives Communist pseudo-philosophy its peculiarly musty flavour of nineteenth century materialism. The slogan of the struggle for existence became the excuse for a new and more evil Machiavellianism that justified any method to gain the ends of the party that desired power - hence the steady deterioration of political morals since the middle of the nineteenth century. This idea was also used to justify any kind of repressive government, on the argument that only the class or nation could survive which was able most ruthlessly to gain and maintain power over the rest.

Kropotkin set out to disprove these ideas, and showed that, far from the struggle for existence being the dominant feature of animal life, the weaker species only survived because they lived in groups and practiced certain forms of co-operation in satisfying the vital needs of life. Furthermore, these social species, although individually weaker than such solitary beasts as the larger carnivores, had a better chance of survival and of evolution to a higher form. While Kropotkin did not deny that there does indeed exist in nature a struggle for existence, he thought it was balanced by the contrary principle of mutual aid, and that in evolution, at least in the evolution of the higher animals; mutual aid was the more important factor. Kropotkin showed, by a study of the information then available concerning human history, that there was no evidence of man’s existence at any time as other than a social animal, and that there was every reason to suppose he entered the evolutionary vista as a social species descended from one of the gregarious primates. He went on to demonstrate how this element of co-operation lay at the base of all human societies, and how in periods when men’s activities were governed by mutual aid and not by authority the progress of culture and material well-being was most considerable. Human evolution has been such that in a natural state of existence, i.e. without the repression of government or dogma, man would be led by a feeling of personal responsibility and would co-operate willingly with his fellows for the good of society. This fundamental mutuality among men lies at the base of every creed of social ethics, and if it did not condition almost every act of a man’s common life, the most austere of tyrannies could not prevent the disintegration of human social patterns.

In other works Kropotkin, like his friend Elisée Reclus, related the progress of human society to the law of evolution, and contended that the social revolution was a natural part of the evolutionary process. ‘Order is the free equilibrium of all forces that operate on the same point; if any of these forces are interfered with in their operation by a human will, they operate none the less, but their effects accumulate till some day they break the artificial dam and provoke a revolution... Evolution never advances so slowly and evenly as has been asserted. Evolution and revolution alternate, and the revolutions - that is, the times of accelerated evolution - belong to the unity of nature just as much as do the times in which evolution takes place more slowly.’

The revolution was only a stage in evolution, not the end of evolution, for change is the law of the natural world. ‘The idea hitherto prevalent, that everything in nature stands fast, is fallen, destroyed, annihilated. Everything in nature changes; nothing remains; neither the rock that appears to us to be immovable and the continent that we call terra firma, nor the inhabitants, their customs, habits and thoughts. All that we see about us is a transitory phenomenon, and must change, because motionlessness would be death.’
So human development continued beyond the revolution, beyond the breakdown of the state and the establishment of a society of mutual co-operation. In the millennium men would not just relax into a stasis of happy existence. On the contrary, human social and individual evolution, freed of repressive influences, would progress with an energy unparalleled in history, and the achievements of men would establish forms of society beyond the imagination of Kropotkin or any of his contemporaries. The revolution would merely release the natural process of human and social evolution.

In addition to his original contributions to anarchist thought, Kropotkin, in his numerous works, clarified and expanded the general theory of anarchism. In such works as his essay on The State he gave a historical backing to the anarchist denial of government, and in other works, such as The French Revolution he showed that a political revolution which replaced one government by another would end not in revolution but in reaction, a contention which has been proved by many examples in our own time.

Kropotkin, as the scientific interpreter of anarchism, has been unsurpassed since his day, and his main contentions have been doubly proved by the widening of scientific knowledge and the process of social evolution during the last fifty years.