Critique of Kropotkin’s Fundamental Teachings

The anarcho-bolshevik I. S. Grossman-Roshchin (1883–1934) honed his critique of Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism over many years. This is the most mature version, published in 1924.

Submitted by Karetelnik on January 15, 2012

During Kropotkin’s lifetime he was talked about a lot but little studied. The literature about Kropotkin in the Russian language is sparse. Of course one can refer to expositions of his theory in Eltzbacher1 and Zoccoli2 , but these expositions are more like photographs than portraits; these conscientious “citations” have nothing in common with a deep understanding and independent assessment of Kropotkinism. At one time Mr. Dioneo honestly, but in a rather pedestrian fashion, reviewed the book Mutual Aid in the pages of Russkoye Bogatstvo3 . In the same place Mr. Kareyev4 outlined and partly criticized (not very successfully, as he later admitted) the really remarkable book The Great French Revolution, which attracted the attention of the whole socialist world. The sociologist De Roberti wrote a small study of Kropotkin5 , and Bazarov in his brochure made some remarks in passing about the natural-scientific method6 . And that’s all. I shall not speak of the recently published collection P. A. Kropotkin, under the editorship of Comrades Borovoi and Lebedev, published by Golos Truda7 . This collection makes an important contribution to the literature about Kropotkin.

It so happens that I’ve written quite a lot about Kropotkin.

A strange thing: I was never an adherent of Kropotkinism. I wrestled with it in lectures and speeches; in my writings about Kropotkin I tended to support him in a dogmatic fashion – I felt that it was necessary to offer a more profound understanding and assessment of his system and only then would it be possible to engage in a constructive critique. It was only in articles devoted to the struggle with Kropotkin’s militaristic position during the period of imperialist war that I criticized Kropotkin, where I exposed the contradictions of Kropotkin the militarist. (Those who are interested can refer to my pamphlet “Characteristics of the creative works of P. A. Kropotkin”; “Thoughts about the creative work of Kropotkin” in the already mentioned publication of Golos Truda; “Speech at the grave of Kropotkin” in the same place; and “The Duplicity of Kropotkin’s Position” in Zhizn’ dlya vsekh [Life for everyone] for 1918.

Let’s note the basic tenets of the doctrines of Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin:
[list=1]1. The natural-scientific method. Science liquidates theology and metaphysics in all fields, including sociology. The natural-scientific materialism of the 18th century and the positivism of August Comte created the foundation for a synthetic worldview. Sociology must set as its goal the happiness and security of each and every individual – sociology must be, as it were, the physiology of society. The natural-scientific method is also opposed to the dialectical method, regarded by Kropotkin as a type of metaphysical thought.

2. Cosmic federalism. Bourgeois thinkers, conceiving the world by analogy with statist centralization, describe the cosmos hierarchically: the sun is the centre around which the “dependent” planets rotate. In actual fact the cosmos is a stable system in equilibrium, in which even the infinitesimally small plays a role in “creating” this equilibrium and stability.

3. Social federalism. In history there have been and still are two concepts at war with each other – centralism and federalism. Centralism always created inequality – the centre, like a leech, sucked the blood out of the provinces; centralism always left its own impersonal stamp on everything. Any culture in which creativity has flourished on a massive scale has owed its success to federalism. The struggle of the Hanseatic League, the struggle of Pskov and Novgorod for autonomy in the Middles Ages – these were the struggles of mass creativity with centralism. Within the limits of socialism two principles also struggle with each other: State socialism – more precisely the socialism of statists, Jacobins, centralists, admirers of Roman law (Marx, Lassalle) – with federalist, stateless socialism, representatives of which are Bakunin and the Jura Federation.

4. Everything that is positive, intelligent, and liberated in history is the product of mass creativity. These products of mass creativity require neither the laws nor the protection of the State – mass creativity finds its basis in common law. How is the State able to crush mass creativity and install the domination of Rules, Laws, and the State? The development of the masses often stagnates, or the norms generated by them turn out to be lacking in universality – too parochial. Then the State takes upon itself a “progressive” initiative both in the sense of getting things moving again and expanding the limits of application of the norms worked out on the basis of common law. But for this “service” the State – Shylock – takes its pound of flesh. The State transforms the law into some kind of eternally frozen standard, thereby preventing the aroused, heroic people from advancing further; the State makes itself synonymous with “progress”, so that Rules, Laws, and the State with its prosecutors, judges, and executioners become permanent features of history.

5. Definition of the State. The State must not be confused with government. The State existed in ancient Rome, died out in the Middle Ages, and revived in the 16th century. The State is characterized by territorial concentration, and a centre which defines and regulates everything.

6. Progress is “the transition from worse to better”.

7. Mutual aid. It’s not true that the struggle for existence, with its in-fighting and rivalry, enables the survival and selection of the best. As a matter of fact the bourgeois Darwinists have neglected the most important factor of evolution and progress – mutual aid, a factor which acts on a cosmic scale but which has been condemned and distorted in the social environment due to the principles of competition, personal property, and the State. Communism, federalism, and non-coercive agreements – these are the ideals of mass creativity and they are the ideals of anarchist communism.

8. Ethics. By acting ethically for the benefit of one’s own kind, one’s personality develops both extensively and intensively and acquires power and strength.

We have listed all the basic points of the doctrine of Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin. Of course we have no intention of analyzing this doctrine point by point. Our intention is only to highlight some aspects which may benefit other researchers in carrying out a wide-ranging and productive critique of Kropotkinism.

Elsewhere I have set forth the basic defect of Kropotkinist-Bakuninist anarchism as follows:

Anarchism gives us a formula for progress, but does not give us any notion of the mechanics of the historical process.

I assert that this is the focal point of the weakness and immaturity of anarchism.

This assertion, however, must be qualified in a significant way: Kropotkin occupies a unique intermediate position between scientific socialism and utopianism. He was not so utopian as to not base his world-view on “natural science”, but not so scientific and objective as not to subordinate unbiased scientific conclusions to his moral ideals. This makes an analysis of Kropotkinism especially difficult, for it renders his whole doctrine somewhat vague and obscure, in spite of the amazing technical skill with which he clearly, indeed with seductive clarity, expounds his thought.

One would have to be a naive rationalist, however, to believe that the “original sin” of Kropotkinist anarchism is the result only of incorrect ideas and errors of reasoning. Obviously the intellectual immaturity of anarchism is a reflection of definite social relations.

People say that Kropotkinism is petty-bourgeois. This is true, although one must add that the “petty-bourgeois-ism” of Kropotkin is uniquely mixed with liberalism. Long ago in the pages of the illegal publication Chernoye Znamya [Black Banner] I pointed out the presence of liberalism in anarchism and the complete theoretical absence of the notion of class struggle.

If by petty-bourgeois-ism one means an apology for individual peasant farming, this makes sense when applied in a general way to Proudhon, but is quite inappropriate for the communist theory of Kropotkin. If by petty-bourgeois-ism one means isolated communities – some sort of economic “monadology” – then this is an accusation which has some basis. Nevertheless it can be countered by the fact that Kropotkin demands universality from the creativity of the masses in all fields, a universality without which mass creativity will wither and be taken over by the State’s cult of “progress”.

It is also unacceptable to apply the concept “petty-bourgeois-ism” in its psychological-cultural sense to Kropotkinism. The petty bourgeois never actually climbs to the summits and that’s why he babbles impotently, daydreams about transcendental “ideals”, and even displays in comic fashion a hatred for “opportunists” who have constructed winches by means of which they can actually, and not in just their dreams, scale the Himalayas. The petty-bourgeois never sees the root cause of things, and that’s why he is incapable of a vigorous and objective analysis – for the “way things really are” he substitutes an insipid – suspended in the air – “way things should be”.
The philosophy of the petty-bourgeois was given by Shakespeare in Hamlet:

My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do ye both?

As the indifferent children of the earth.

Happy, in that we are not over-happy. On fortune's cap we are not the very button.

Nor the soles of her shoe?

Neither, my lord.

Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?

'Faith, her privates we.

In the secret parts of fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet...

Really to what extent is this classic type of petty-bourgeois mentality related to Kropotkin? Why none at all. An unlimited generosity of spirit, a struggle against the golden mean – this is the hallmark and basic feature of Kropotkin’s ethics.
“Give, without counting the cost” – this, according to Kropotkin, is the motto of the spiritually overflowing personality.

So in what sense can one speak of the petty-bourgeois-ism of Kropotkin? Only in the sense that he did not understand the objective role and significance of capitalism, and that he did not understand and underestimated the organizational-liberatory role of technology. The proletariat and large-scale industry have their place in this communist worldview, but he did not grasp the great law about the necessity of starting from the proletariat as the only reliable vanguard of freedom.

That is why he, departing from the only correct objective base, frequently turned into an utopian and, not seeing the real forces and engines of the present era, lapsed into a sociological passion for the past, idealizing the allegedly “free” Middle Ages or ancient Pskov and Novgorod.

Of course in Proudhon’s petty-bourgeois-ism there were elements of liberalism, since Proudhon believed that any economic “force”, left to its own devices, leads to freedom, and it is only the State which frustrates such freedom-seeking forces. In the liberalism of Kropotkin there is an element of petty-bourgeois-ism, since Kropotkin draw his conclusions from objective data and idealizes some aspects of pre-capitalist relations. But to paint both of them with the same brush – as “petty-bourgeois” – is inappropriate.

For us it’s important to note that the ideological and philosophical vacillations of Kropotkin stem from this failure to comprehend the objective logic of things. Indeed, “vengeance is mine and I will repay” – anyone who loses the key to understanding the laws of social development is condemned to theoretical eclecticism and inconsistency.

This is what we see in the doctrines of Kropotkin.

What is most clearly evident in the analysis of the doctrine of Kropotkin is its purely moral, ethical character. It is infused with a fervent morality of the duty-based type; this is completely understandable if we recall that Kropotkin was a shining example of the galaxy of “penitent aristocrats” who vowed to discharge an “obligation owed to the people” and even compensate the people a wee bit for subjecting them to humiliation and oppression. But no one applies the aphorism of Vladimir Solovyov according to which the intelligentsia reasons in a paradoxical way – “Man is descended from apes, therefore let us love one another!”8 – more thoroughly than Kropotkin does in his system. For Kropotkin wants to establish his ethical ideal by means of the method of natural science. And this is theoretically hopeless.

Generally speaking there are three possibilities. Firstly, naturalistic amoralism – such to a significant degree is the teaching of Spinoza. Here all moral feelings are dethroned and unmasked – ethical feelings are only some kind of epiphenomenon of natural desires or longings. Secondly, pantheism: the moral category is identified as some kind of universal substance, and nature itself embodies some sort of moral sense, if only in a rudimentary way. The final possibility is dualism: nature is indifferent to good and evil; in it rules only the iron law of iron necessity – ethics is a purely human category.

In essence Kropotkin contrives to combine different categories, mixing together naturalistic amorality with pan-moralism. Let’s take some examples. What is the meaning of Kropotkin’s doctrine that the cosmos is organized on a federal basis? That there is no “centre” in the cosmos, that the cosmos is already prepared for a regime of anarchist federalism? But anarchy in the sense of a federalist organization makes sense only where there are live people – entities which are cursing centralism and struggling for autonomy. As applied to mechanical nature, these terms are just metaphors; but for Kropotkin they are not just metaphors. Here we find indubitable evidence of an unconscious anthropomorphism. And here the basic contradiction of the whole system is revealed: a proponent of a purely mechanistic world-view, in applying the natural-scientific method, does not know and cannot know an ethical category. He knows only the dictates of nature, and these dictates are indifferent to good and evil. Society can not be ethicized by means of the natural-scientific method; naturalism strips away the mantle of morality from man and subjects him to the pitiless, “amoral” laws of nature. But then everything disappears which is precious and dear to Kropotkin, namely the system of ethical values. And here Kropotkin has recourse (unconsciously, of course) to a peculiar “deception”: man really conforms to nature, but nature is a tiny bit ethicized – in nature some moral postulate of libertarian federalism is already in place; to cast man into the embrace of nature is really not so terrible because nature is “neither blind nor spiritless – it has spirit, and its spirit is freedom”. Yes, and what sort of freedom? Why the anarchist federalism sort!...

It’s clear that the scientific method is applied here not so much for setting out facts and their relations, as selecting them in such a way as to validate a moral hypothesis.

The scientific method as applied to the category of moral duty was brilliantly and finally undermined by Kant, who was vanquished in turn in the fields of history and sociology by the dialectical materialism of Marx. The basic concept of the whole Kantian apparatus can be formulated thus: from the study of the laws of natural phenomena it is impossible to find the slightest basis for deducing the category of moral duty. It’s true that Kant seemed to unite the world of matter and world of moral duty in his famous expression “... the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.”9 But this is a unity of things obtained by different methods. Kant’s second proposition is: the world of mechanics is a world of quantitative combinations; the world of moral values is a qualitative complex. And quantity never transforms into quality.

And who was it who defeated Kant? Was it really scientific materialism? No. Kant was defeated by the dialectic of Hegel, in which quantity is transformed into quality. The scientific method had to capitulate after Kant inflicted wounds which could not be mended.

Kropotkin denies the dialectic and sinks into eclecticism. He secretively makes his way through the world of nature to moral duty – but not by way of the scientific method!

It’s significant that the “subjective method in sociology” espoused by N. K. Mikhailovsky10 protects us from the intrusion of subjectivism to a much greater degree than Kropotkin’s scientific method.

Indeed, the “subjective method” in sociology provides a much better guarantee against the introduction of subjective arbitrariness than the fantastic justification of the social ideal by the scientific method. N. K. Mikhailovsky in no uncertain terms protested against the notion that the subjective method was some kind of “loose cannon”, randomly obliterating objective regularities and replacing empirical data with the products of a finely-turned imagination. N. K. Mikhailovsky argued as follows: nature is such as it was described scientifically by the theory of Darwin. Nature knows neither good nor evil; nor does it know good deeds or crimes. Here it causes mortality and there it causes infinitely lush forms of life. It knows neither values nor desires. But a living person knows values and desires. And this living person is a child of nature. How does one combine the truth of scientific laws with the no less real yearning for the ideal of truth? Man does not need to capitulate before nature, but woe to him if he, in the name of moral commandments, forgets the formidable dictates of nature. The subjective method is a straight-forward statement that each human individual has a definite place in society, and is a proponent of a definite type of social co-operation. A human individual does not have a neutral relationship to life. Rather than advance our ideals surreptitiously, rather than depersonalizing our moral ideals with impersonal laws of nature, rather than imputing to nature qualities which are alien to it, the subjective method openly formulates the ideal of class or personality and attempts, while taking account of the laws of nature, to achieve success. Not for nothing did the Polish sociologist Krzhivitsky11 detect in the subjective method the rudiments of the class point of view. Of course, we mean only the embryo of the class point view, for Mikhailovsky was quite unaware of the objective laws of historical development. In practice, Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin, despite all his “imperialist” tendencies, was incomparably more revolutionary than a typical ideologue of the déclassé intelligentsia of raznochintsy-aristocratic12 origins, like N. K. Mikhailovsky. The arch-eclectic Chernov tried to depict Mikhailovsky’s system as “rock-solid” without a single fissure13 , but the truth is his system is thoroughly dualistic: as an original ethical philosopher of history, Mikhailovsky was a romantic Maximalist; as a political activist he was a moderate socialist, a little to the right of Myakotin14 .

But when it comes to establishing a revolutionary world view, the natural-scientific approach is undoubtedly methodologically a step backwards in comparison with the incomplete, and long rejected, “subjective method in sociology”. This methodological inconsistency of Kropotkin is particularly striking in his treatment of Darwinism.

How does Marxism approach Darwinism? First of all, Marxism is methodologically separate from Darwinism. Attempts to transfer the laws of biology to sociology are decisively rejected, if only because Marx explains the specific nature of social life and establishes the dialectical laws of development. Marxism accepts the law of struggle for existence, but rather than regarding it as an eternal category of nature, Marxism transforms it into the struggle – not of species – but of classes, classes in history.

And how does the previously mentioned N. K. Mikhailovsky approach Darwinism? He points to cooperation as a factor modifying and limiting the law of the struggle for existence. But, true to his “subjective anthropocentrism”, Mikhailovsky sets out different types of adaptation. The fact of the matter is that it is very often the “practical” types which survive and the “ideal” ones which perish. The practical types survive because they have no “longing for the future.” They cling parasitically to a certain fixed environment, but die off as soon as circumstances change, become more complex, and require versatility instead of simplicity and passivity. “Ideal” types, on the other hand, are versatile and multifaceted; if they do not adapt themselves to a given environment it is because this environment requires them to renounce complexity and versatility in favour of a less active and more passive accommodation. Yes, there is survival of the “fittest”, but being the fittest in no way implies being the most complete. The passive types “survive” because they are “practical”. Giordano Bruno was an “ideal” type and he perished. But in this case was it really the most “complete” who survived?

Kropotkin also subjected Darwinism to the most severe critique. But his approach is quite different. P. A. Kropotkin wrote the remarkable, universally admired book Mutual Aid as a Factor in Evolution. In it he declared that mutual aid, not strife, is a factor in progress.

Important though this work of Kropotkin is, as the basis of a worldview it gives rise to a number of serious misapprehensions.

First of all Darwinism does not deny the fact of mutual aid (symbiosis). Darwinism knows perfectly well that strife takes place not only between individuals, but between species. Within the limits of the species, of course, there exists mutual aid. Now from the natural-scientific point of view the existence of strife and the existence of mutual aid are facts of equal value and equally amoral! But it’s clear that for Kropotkin mutual aid is not simply a fact, but a norm – a formula for progress.

What’s more, the fact of the existence of mutual aid is the objective basis of an ideal. Marxism is based on the objective course of things, while Kropotkin wants to base his ideals on a biological fact – he regards mutual aid as the “guarantee” of the achievement of his ideal! But – and here we come to the central question – where is the guarantee that mutual aid will win the fight? Clearly it’s impossible to prove this in practice: no matter how numerous the examples of amazing heroism, human history is nevertheless full of cruelty, ferocious hatred, and blind, senseless rage. Of course mutual aid is an important fact and factor of life, but it’s not for nothing that someone said: “It’s not so bad that man is a wolf to man, but rather that men treat each other like sticks of wood.”15 In the natural order of things you won’t find “wolves” and “sticks” beginning to “practice mutual aid” on a broad scale! Kropotkin simply noted two parallel phenomena, but proved nothing. And it’s quite clear that Kropotkin wished not merely to assert the fact of the dual character of human evolution (struggle/mutual aid), but to provide justification for his ideal of universal mutual aid. But it’s impossible to use the fact of mutual aid in this way! Here we find the indeterminacy and dualism which have frequently been pointed out.

Let’s note: if we are talking about mutual aid in the plant world, then we are dealing with a metaphor, a kind of animism. Kropotkin, who adheres to a mechanistic worldview, asserts that mental phenomena lend themselves to the same mechanical analysis as the ringing of a bell. But then Kropotkin must agree that mutual aid in relation to nature is a metaphor, or else, in actual fact, under the cover of the natural-scientific method, he is animizing nature. Indeed that’s what he is doing.

Mutual aid for Kropotkin is not just a fact, but a formula for progress. And this formula of progress is surreptitiously attributed to nature, as if it “follows” from nature and is revealed by means of the natural-scientific method. This natural-scientific fact is interpreted as a moral norm, and this norm lives on as a false natural-scientific “law”.

Kropotkin’s dualism is crystal-clear in his ethics. I’m thinking of his essay Anarchist Morality, since his book Ethics doesn’t add anything new. It’s absolutely impossible to grasp the ethical naturalism of Kropotkin without analyzing this study.

Kropotkin rejects the utilitarian morality of Bentham. He points out that from the point of view of individualism there is no reason to sacrifice one’s own selfish interest in the name of anything whatsoever. This criticism compels Kropotkin to offer a basis to ethics which would justify a sacrifice for the sake of one’s neighbours. Kropotkin quite easily distances himself from the ethics of Kant: “Really,” he says, “Must I sacrifice myself in the name of some kind of imperative?” We should note that Kropotkin rejects Christian and Biblical morality. He declares that anarchism offers only advice and scientifically shows the individual the way to happiness through moral acts.

But this idyll is soon broken, for Kropotkin compares people who don’t practice scientific ethics to the poor, sick, or disfigured. In essence we are dealing here with a harsh condemnation and possibly even punishment to anyone “naughty”. But what in fact is moral behaviour? Moral acts are those contributing to the welfare of the species.

This definition provokes our deepest mistrust. We shall pose the same question which Kropotkin put to the utilitarians – why should I contribute to the welfare of the species? Why not reason in the spirit of Bazarov? The happiness of the muzhik won’t means anything to me once I’m pushing up burdock.16 And another thing. Just what kind of welfare of the species are we talking about? Do we mean simply the endless prolongation of the biological life of the species? Then it is incomprehensible why this biological fact of the life of the species is transformed into a moral category. Why is an action good which promotes the biological continuity of the species? Pozdnyshev, the hero of Tolsoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, believes that the end of the human race is the inevitable consequence of moral consciousness17 : the life of the species is a fact, and my unwillingness to contribute to the life of the species is also a fact – and nothing more! Obviously Kropotkin is talking not merely about the continued existence of the species as a desirable end, but about a continued existence which is morally worthy. Thus he must prove what this moral worthiness consists of. And this Kropotkin does not do nor can he: a moral category is transformed into a natural-scientific fact, and this natural-scientific fact is interpreted as a moral category. It’s true that Kropotkin declares that in the lives of animals and savages we can observe examples of self-sacrifice on behalf of the species. But if this is a fact, then where does the “evil” in the world come from? If self-sacrifice is a fact then how do we account for rampant egocentrism, cannibalism, slavery, and malice? If mutual aid is a fact, there would be no need to propagandize it. This means that in life other facts are operative, facts which are of equal importance and morally neutral. In a formal sense Kropotkin has by no means proved the necessity of self-sacrifice for the species, for no matter how inspiring the behaviour of monkeys and savages, I find myself unable to apply this biological fact– the existence of self-sacrifice – as the basis of my own behaviour.

Kropotkin tries to resolve these difficulties and promises to those who sacrifice themselves for the common good: great happiness, an exuberant life, and the harmonious development of all sides of the personality. He points out that biological abundance impels the individual to overflow with strength and power. But we must leave it to the individual to determine what constitutes this strength and power. (This doctrine of excess strength and power was taken by Kropotkin from Guyau18 . I have analyzed this doctrine in a short note to which I shall allow myself to refer the reader: see Krasnaya Nov’, Vol. 7, 1923, Sec. “Criticism and bibliography”: J.-M. Guyau – Morality without sanctions and obligations.)

Kropotkin emphasizes that only the genetic method gives us the key to solving contentious issues. He studies the genesis of morality and on this foundation constructs his own worldview – as we have seen, by this route the further elucidation of the facts then becomes superfluous! And yet a more careful analysis indicates that here also we observe a vacillation between naturalism and ethicism which is fatal for Kropotkin. In fact it is not only possible, but indeed necessary, to reject the formal-ethical scholasticism of Kant. Marxism, for example, approaches ethics in a class-pragmatic manner. Kropotkin would like to demonstrate the origins of morality to us by purely scientific means, but in reality he wants to construct his system based on the fact of the long and continuous existence of altruism. How is this possible? It isn’t. And if Kropotkin seemingly attains his goal, it is only by ethicizing the cosmos, by positing that the universe is already some kind of cosmic, anarcho-federalist republic. Every fact of the natural order is simultaneously – big secret! – a paean to mutual aid. Kropotkinism supposedly in a purely scientific manner demonstrates the origin, indeed the moral lineage, of every simple bio-cosmic fact. Here he not only simply states the origin, but stresses the ethical nobility of “ancestors”. The natural-scientific method is in reality a cover for the selection and justification of a formula for progress. Kropotkin himself naively thinks that the consistent application of the natural-scientific method necessarily leads to the notion of human equality and fraternity. Kropotkin reproaches Spenser for an incorrect application of the scientific method which leads to the justification of private property. In reality the ethicizing of nature – the arbitrary transformation of biology into ethics – allows Kropotkin supposedly by means of the natural-scientific method to discover the “law” of progress.

It’s amazing that in Kropotkin we scarcely find any attempt to offer an analysis of the specific nature of social phenomena or indicate how classes are differentiated. This has a disastrous effect on his formulation of the problem of the mutual relationship of creativity, common law, and the State.

After living through the momentous years it’s already difficult to recall the stunning effect produced (and not only among revolutionaries) by the news that P. A. Kropotkin “accepted” the war. There was frantic rejoicing among the imperialist ideologues and their collaborators. Kropotkin’s famous letter, written, it seems, to a Swedish scholar, about why socialists and anarchists should be under the banner of the Entente against Germany – this letter became simultaneously a sort of rallying point and a cover-up for the imperialists.

For many, Kropotkin’s slogan – “let’s cast guns and move them into position” was tantamount to an ideological crisis. To many it seemed that by this he had delivered a crushing blow and an irreparable wound to the significance and durability of any ideological pretensions he may have had. After all, what is the value of such a slender reed of an ideology when a whirlwind of facts bends it in any sort of direction?

I recall one insignificant, but for me striking, fact. I was standing on a corner in Geneva, waiting for a streetcar. A young student came up to me and in an excited, even angry, manner said:

“Well, Comrade Roshchin, will you now continue to believe in the importance of ideas now that Kropotkin, who has spent his life under the banner of statelessness and antimilitarism, is beating a war drum and issuing appeals under the banner of Joffre?”

Personally I wasn’t the least bit shocked by what had happened, because I was never a Kropotkinist and was all the time carrying on a struggle on two fronts: with social-democratism and pre-Leninist Marxism, since the latter subordinated the class struggle to the norms of democracy; and with Kropotkinism, since it was permeated with supra-class humanism and also subordinated the class struggle to democracy under the guise of federalism.

In conversation with Kropotkin during the Bulgarian-Turkish war, I was shocked by his appalling remark that victory of the Slavs over Turkey and the disappearance of Turkey as a State should be welcomed as a victory for statelessness: at least one State would have disappeared from the face of the earth...

Even the most passionate supporters of Kropotkin, I recall, gasped in astonishment: and indeed it would have been amazing if Bulgarian Ferdinand and the whole Russian-Austrian clique had turned out to be the embodiment of statelessness!

And yet, in spite of the fact that I was sufficiently prepared, the news about Kropotkin’s acceptance of the war seemed incredible to me. One would think that an incorrect theory would be cancelled out by the healthy instincts of an internationalist. The first leaflet against Kropotkin, “A Troubling Question”, was written in a state of uncertainty as to whether Kropotkin had really abandoned his stand on antimilitarism, or whether this was some sort of soon-to-be-rectified error.

But of course it was not so.

Proletarian internationalism, like treacherous anarcho-socialist chauvinism, is not limited just to the matter of accepting or rejecting war.

Here there is complex spectrum of shades, a complex system of mutual interactions. Some or another opportunist might reject the war, but this is still not internationalism! Internationalism requires drawing the appropriate conclusions in accordance with Lenin’s formula: imperialist war must be converted into civil war. From this flows acceptance of the October Revolution with its advances and retreats.

P. A. Kropotkin progressed through the whole cycle of anarcho-chauvinism: he accepted the war, rejected the slogan of civil war, repudiated the October Revolution, and, with some minor reservations, acknowledged the Treaty of Versailles.

Of course here again is a phenomenon typical of the petty-bourgeois milieu, but in Kropotkin’s case this petty-bourgeois-ism took the form of a struggle for federalism and for the spontaneous actions of the masses of the Latin countries against the monstrously cruel and stifling centralism of the Germans.

Characteristically, at Kerensky’s famous Democratic Conference19 Kropotkin demanded a federal republic.

What is this federalism which Kropotkin venerates? First of all, federalism and centralism are not conceived concretely in relation to a given set of circumstances, but abstractly in such a way that centralism is always evil, while federalism is always good!...

Let’s move on to an analysis of some of Kropotkin’s theoretical positions connected with the problem of federalism and the State.

We already know that Kropotkin describes the State as a territorial concentration. If there is no single centre, then we have government, but no State.

Let’s assume for the moment that this distinction has some theoretical value as a classification scheme, although we have strong doubts about this. But it’s clear that the anti-statist Kropotkin is not interested in a formal classification, but rather in the real influence of State compulsion on the consciousness, psyche, and will of the people! It’s all the more amazing that Kropotkin says nothing about those ways by which the State consolidates its influence and corrupts minds. Kropotkin has nothing to say about whether in the quest for immunity from law and order government is better, or at least less harmful, than the State. But of course this is the main question! It’s worth noting that that other anti-statist, Tolstoy, both as an artist and a thinker, intently studied the mechanism of political power and its hypnotic force and came to the conclusion that political power is an irrational force, founded on unreflective imitation.

A reservation: we have no intention of demanding from Kropotkin a psychological explanation for laws and the State. Such an approach is correct only within the comparatively narrow confines of subjective, psychological experiences, and does not give us the objective social-class basis of the State. What is at issue here is only the study of modi operandi and the way in which influence is exercised by the State and “government”. And the absence of any study of the influence mechanism allows Kropotkin to make a fuss over the imaginary distinction between “government” and “the State” and to build up federalism into some kind of stateless category.

Indeed, is it really true that in arch-federalist Switzerland citizens are less fanatical statists than in centralized Germany? Not in the slightest. In fact, if we take a close look at federalism, we can see quite clearly that, while it may not be worse than centralism, it still represents the triumph of statism in the minds and souls of the citizens.

Kropotkin, incidentally, nowhere gives us a precise statement of the concept of federalism. One would think that he means some kind of territorial autonomy and a significant degree of independence of local life from control by the centre. But it is necessary to prove that this federalism corresponds with anti-statism.

Let’s clarify this with an example. Parallel to trial by judge there exists trial by jury, which arrives at judgments not just on the basis of the law, but also according to conscience. Reactionaries of all periods have always been outraged at this institution. They said: “It’s pure anarchy, a mockery of the law! Is it really possible to submit the strict, objective rules of law to the whims of people who are often ‘unreliable’?” But the bourgeoisie understands its own people perfectly and knows that it has already sufficiently conditioned the human “conscience”. In the odd case a jury trial might result in freedom, but in general conscience is found on the side of private property and the State! At the cost of insignificant victims the bourgeoisie convinces the masses that its system is based not only on the rigid, impersonal, merciless rule of law, but is sanctioned by the conscience of the people. And the jury trial is transformed into a magnificent instrument for inculcating bourgeois justice! And so it is with federalism: liberties at the local level do not hinder, but rather promote, the fetishizing of the State; and the existence of these liberties serves as convincing evidence that the foundations of a free life are strengthened by a regime of law and order. Centralization and decentralization are in essence different forms of State building. Neither in the principle of federalism nor in an analysis of real class relations is there any basis for equating federalism with statelessness.

It will be said: “But didn’t Kropotkin offer a different explanation for the origin of the State?” Indeed, according to his teaching, the State is the destroyer of mass creativity! The State takes advantage of a low point in mass creativity to take upon itself the initiative for progress. But this progress is formalized in laws which are transformed into chains which constrain mass creativity.

There’s no question this is Kropotkin’s most interesting idea. But, alas, here also the absence of any analysis of concrete social phenomena transforms this idea into an abstract, quite moribund, scheme. And this scheme with incontrovertible clarity once again confirms Kropotkin’s vacillation between naturalism and abstract moralism.

Consider mutual aid as a factor and fact of cosmic existence. Let’s return to the question posed previously: what does it mean to say that human society has ‘broken away’ from nature; why does hostility and hatred exist? The perspective of the law of mutual aid as a universal fact and norm of nature leads inexorably to Mitya Karamazov’s incomprehension: “Why is the baby crying? Why are people hungry? Why don’t they hug and kiss each other and sing happy songs?”20 This brings us to an interesting point in Kropotkin’s creative work. Latent in Kropotkinism is the notion that mankind has become “alienated” from nature and has recourse to evil impulses... And although, according to Kropotkin, “progress is the transition from worse to better,” in reality Kropotkinism implies that human history, since it is “alienated” from the law of mutual aid, is the transition from the best (natural mutual aid) to the worst (historical struggle). Mankind should sound the alarm!

We are lost! What’s to be done?
‘Tis a devil leads us, plainly, –
From the road would have us gone!

Then the subsequent course of history would be the history of “redemption” or the re-connecting of mankind with the spontaneous mutual aid prevailing in nature.

If you go to a concrete analysis, a fantastic picture emerges: mass creativity is stifled by the “outside” pressure of the State. But we are not told why this mass creativity suddenly congeals and loses its universal character. How and from where did the forces arise which trapped the heroic, but enfeebled, people in their legal snares? The fact of the matter is we are dealing with an abstract scheme instead of a real analysis of facts and the correspondence of forces. Just try studying the history of the Middle Ages and the transition to the 16th century from the point of view of the impoverishment of mass creativity and the “outside” pressure of the State! Indeed it seems that mass creativity is by no means homogeneous but produces its own ups and downs. Unfortunately the down part of the cycle does not come from “outside” but is also the product of mass “self-activity”. But it’s best, of course, to throw aside these little scientific analogies and just move on to study the laws of social dynamics – to study the system of economic forces at a given economic level. And then the problem of mass apathy – of the resistance of the masses to their own liberation – acquires paramount importance; then we will talk about the relationship between the objective and subjective preconditions for revolution. But in this case the problem loses its fantastic character and acquires specific class contours.

Just manipulating vague terms like “mass creativity” and “federalism” does not lead us to the essence of the matter.

It’s remarkable that Kropotkin didn’t make the slightest attempt to elucidate the social structure of society. The social world is dispersed somehow between nature and the formula of progress. This is typical of all utopians.

Kropotkin was prepared to idealize natural law, quite illogically confounding the notion of future “noncoercive agreements” with natural law. Of course both natural law and freely-entered-into agreements are opposed to written law – to statutes and the State! But natural law and freely-entered-into agreements are in essence deeply opposed. There is no need to discuss the norms of natural law. Natural law sanctions darkness, tyranny, and violence. It authorizes the torture of an unfaithful wife and the abuse of children. We draw on natural law only as a way of registering collective experience outside the framework of the written law. But it’s clear to anyone that this natural law represents an early stage of statutory law, only under more primitive, elementary conditions of existence. In fact natural law is distinguished by less flexibility than the written law. Non-coercive agreements in the future will not just be a matter of transactions between individuals, but a moment in the development of society when man finally dominates nature, technology achieves its highest level, social squabbles and the rat race are replaced by comradely solidarity, and – this is the main thing – prolonged comradely cooperation and social habits will make compulsion unnecessary, and this or that change will flow from the requirements of the transition to a higher form of culture.

What is there in common between natural law and non-coercive agreement? Nothing. But to Kropotkin it is important to make the contrast with statutory law. This preference for contrasts leads to the idealization of pre-capitalist relations. Thus the future is interpreted by analogy with the pre-capitalist past, and the pre-capitalist era is idealized by the illuminating rays of the future society. In fact Kropotkin over and over again reveals his dualism: nature so to speak loses its power and strength and becomes imbued with some sort of ethics, while ethics loses its normative power and strength and is reduced to a simple fact of the natural order – it is elaborated as something dull, vague, and banal. In the same way the past is somehow elevated to the future, while the future is diminished to the level of the pre-capitalist past.

In the person of Kropotkin the last great representative of semi-utopian, semi-scientific anarchism has gone to his grave. His moral rapport with working people allowed him to expose the evils of bourgeois society in Words of Rebel, while in The Conquest of Bread he gave a naive, but by no means obsolete, picture of the future society. And in The Great French Revolution Kropotkin rose to the true pathos of the revolutionary.

But there are iron laws of social development. Just by knowing these laws and connecting himself once and for all to a certain class, a thinker can weather the storms of history. Kropotkin was connected with the masses emotionally and morally. But he did not understand the laws of social development.

His apparently flawless system was riddled with contradictions: in fact its formula of progress could not replace the missing mechanics of the historical process; his sentimental-moralistic relationship to mass creativity undermined the possibility of objective study.

The ailments and ulcers of semi-utopian, semi-scientific anarchism were exposed, not theoretically but practically, by the War and the October Revolution. Kropotkin himself was trapped in the maelstrom of imperialist passions.

Our job is “not to cry, not to laugh, but to understand.”

The October Revolution gave us an example of how to combine blind will power with cold reason. This experience will form the basis of the experience of the world proletariat which, without hesitating, will bring about all the best goals of Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin.

I. S. Grossman-Roshchin
Krasnaya nov', Vol. 2 (Moscow, 1924), pp. 139-154.

Translated from the Russian. Notes are by the translator, who would like to thank NR for helpful advice.

  • 1Paul Eltzbacher, Das Anarchismus, Berlin (1900).
  • 2Ettore Zoccoli, L'anarchia, Turin (1907).
  • 3Dioneo was the penname of Isaak Vladimirovich Shklovskiy (1864-1935), a left-wing journalist and writer, who translated Kropotkin's Words of a Rebel into Russian. Russkoye Bogatstvo [Russian Wealth] was a monthly magazine, moderately left-wing, published in St. Petersburg from 1876 to 1918.
  • 4Nikolai Ivanovich Kareyev (1853-1931) was an historian and philosopher with a special interest in the French Revolution.
  • 5E. V. De Roberti, Kropotkin (Personality and Doctrine), St. Petersburg (1906) – a 32-page pamphlet. E. V. De Roberti (1843–1915) was a Russian sociologist, philosopher, and economist.
  • 6
  • 7Peter Kropotkin: a collection of articles devoted to the memory of P. A. Kropotkin, ed. A. Borovoi and N. Lebedev, Moscow: Golos Truda (1922). Golos Truda was an anarcho-syndicalist publishing house, marginally tolerated in the early Soviet Union.
  • 8A famous aphorism by the religious philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), ascribed ironically to the Russian nihilists who combined political idealism with faith in science (Darwinism especially).
  • 9The complete sentence reads: "Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me."
  • 10Nikolai Konstantinovich Mikhailovsky (1842-1904) was a journalist, sociologist, literary critic, and a leading ideologue of Russian non-Marxist socialism. He censured the Russian Marxists for regarding the development of capitalism as progressive, and was in turn pilloried by Lenin.
  • 11Liudvik Krzhivitsky (1859-1941) was a Polish anthropologist, sociologist, and economist. One of the first Marxists in Poland, he translated Capital into Polish.
  • 12Raznochintsy denotes persons of non-noble origin (students, teachers, and other intellectuals/professionals) who due to their education enjoyed some of the privileges (such as tax breaks) of the nobility in tsarist Russia.
  • 13Viktor Mikhailovich Chernov (1873-1952), the leading theoretician of the Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party, was strongly influenced by N. K. Mikhailovsky.
  • 14Benedikt Alexandrovich Myakotin (1867-1937) was an historian and politician. A moderate socialist, he was an active anti-Bolshevik after the October Revolution and was deported from the Soviet Union in 1922.
  • 15A quotation from the novel Sisters of the Cross (1910) by the surrealist/symbolist writer Alexey Remizov (1877-1957).
  • 16Bazarov, a radical character in Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons, disdained to help the peasants to a better life under serfdom because he preferred a revolutionary re-structuring of the whole of Russian society.
  • 17Pozdnyshev believes in absolute chastity not only for unmarried, but even for married people.
  • 18The principal work of the French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau (1854–1888) was Esquisse d'une morale sans obligation ni sanction (1884).
  • 19The Democratic Conference (September 27 - October 5, 1917), held in Moscow, was an attempt by the Russian Provisional Government to legitimize bourgeois democracy and generate support for continued involvement in the World War.
  • 20From Chapter 61 of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
  • 21From Pushkin's poem "Besy" [The Demons].



12 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by aris on February 6, 2012

excellent piece ok i always wanted anarcho-bolshevism ideas

is there any way to publish more from this writer please!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

also i am looking for the pamphlet of the historian of the maknovist movement where he supported the dictatorship of the proletariat. there is a french version only is there anyway to publish it in english.

also in my opinion eomeone should translate panekoek, ronal holst, rutgers there are a lot of texts on marxist archive can someone translate them in english or johan most lesson on capital for example or the whole collection of friends of durruti.

these are my interests

apart from smashing this fucking capitalist system

greetings from greece


9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Anarcho on May 31, 2014

I have to say that I've not read such a terrible article in a long time. It is riddled with simply false statements on Kropotkin's ideas and could only be taken seriously by someone with little knowledge of his communist-anarchism. Indeed, you could be forgiven in thinking the author had never read anything by Kropotkin.

The notion that Kropotkin was unaware of the importance of class struggle is simply a joke, a complete distortion of his ideas. The notion that Kropotkin was unaware that "Darwinism" recognised co-operation existed simply suggested the author has not read Mutual Aid -- Kropotkin repeatedly stressed his debt to Darwin and stated that Darwin's followers had distorted his message by stressing competition so.

I could go on, but I don't have the time. For those interested in what Kropotkin actually stood for, may I suggest my books:

Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology


Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation

Hopefully these will show how wrong this article is and why Kropotkin is still worth reading.