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peter-kropotkin

According to N. Lebedev, Kropotkin’s editor with whom he frequently corresponded both in person and through letters, two central reasons prompted the celebrated anarchist to devote the last years of his life to writing about the fundamental questions of ethics. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw an influx of ideas about the relativity of ethical conduct and even its obsolescence, particularly in the a-moralist and deeply individualist interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.[1]  Russian literature of the mentioned period is replete with Nietzschean influences and extremely subjective and individualist themes (the abstract ideas of Helena P. Blavatsky and Nicholas Roerich, the obsession with the notion of fin de siècle of many artists and Symbolist writers such as Alexander A. Blok and Andrei Bely, the preoccupation with eternal life, the overbearing fear of the looming Asiatic invasion, etc.). Additionally, a number of predominantly English influential thinkers and scientists had isolated and focused only on the Malthusian aspects of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (intraspecific competition and overpopulation), and had manipulated these ideas to justify the brutal conquests of foreign lands as well as the extreme economic inequality in their own country.[2]

Noticing the signs of approaching death, Kropotkin set out to write a book that would extract and highlight the foundation of moral behavior, a book that would serve as a reliable guide and inspiration for people in their daily conduct, and a book that would delineate the harmful consequences of seeking moral guidance in mysticism, religion, and the apocryphal conclusions of social Darwinists. Such a book would serve as a clarification of moral goals, which was especially needed at the time when human thought was going back and forth from Nietzsche to Kant. Kropotkin was adamant in his belief that ethics ought to be a concrete scientific discipline, a distinct study that had to distance itself from the unconfirmed claims and teachings of religion and/or metaphysics. But just as dangerous were the views of those scientists (e.g. Thomas R. Malthus and Thomas H. Huxley) whose reasoning was muddled due to their inability to zoom out of their surroundings and shield their judgment from the cultural influences and traditional ways of interpreting information.

After analyzing the discoveries of his scientific research as well as careful observations of everyday life, Kropotkin arrived at the conclusion that individualism leads to psychological alienation and physical isolation, consequences that have a negative impact on the development of one’s physical and mental faculties. Moreover, Kropotkin set out to demonstrate that nature was not a-moral but quite the opposite, “that morality constitutes the natural product of the evolution of social life not only of man, but of almost all living creatures, among the majority of which we find the rudiments of moral relations.”[3]

After a meticulous study of the major works of Western philosophy, starting with the ancient Greek philosophers and ending with his own contemporaries, Kropotkin concluded that there are three elements of moral conduct without which a society cannot claim to care about ethics, and they are: mutual aid/cooperation, justice/equity, and self-sacrifice. It is only with the full realization of these elements that a society can create an atmosphere in which the optimal physical and intellectual development of an individual can take place. If any of the three elements is neglected, the society is not going to possess the necessary foundation for the best possible development of its inhabitants and therefore deserves to be criticized and altered. I believe that this is the essential idea of Kropotkin’s revolutionary thought and it will be elaborated later on in this article. I will only add that Kropotkin’s support for resistance against any form of authority is based on the idea that the very existence of authority automatically neglects at least one of the mentioned principles, that of justice/equity.

Kropotkin believed that science has infused man (at least those who engage in it and understand it) with modesty by revealing that he/she is a tiny speck in a vast universe. It has taught him that a single individual, regardless of his/her intelligence and strength, cannot achieve anything on his/her own, but that with others, the advancement of knowledge can guide him/her in his/her march forward. In other words, scientific discoveries ought to be used for the benefit of all. Since exploitation and manipulation of the masses by a minority continued after the Russian Revolution, Kropotkin set out to write about a branch of knowledge which he thought trailed behind all other scientific advances so that it can “give to the civilized nations the inspiration required for the great task that lies before them.”[4]

Kropotkin judged all ethical theories based on the extent to which they emphasized the importance of mutual aid, justice, and self-sacrifice. He admonished those philosophers who ignored these three components and he lauded those who stressed their significance. In his work on ethics, Kropotkin traces the teachings of various schools of Western ethical thought, explains their evolution and what new contributions they brought to the field of moral principles, and elaborates on the essential points they neglected. To summarize Kropotkin’s critiques of each philosopher he wrote about would be an unproductive digression, primarily because each critique points in the direction of the same conclusion: that mutual aid, justice, and self-sacrifice are the three indispensable principles of moral conduct. Each school of moral thought and each philosopher are judged by the extent to which they emphasized the significance of these three principles. Kropotkin lauds some philosophers for abandoning religious and metaphysical explanations of the origin of moral conduct and for seeking answers in the natural world. However, Kropotkin writes that since these great minds perished before they were able to witness the major scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century, most of them could only hint at but not fully explain the origin of morality and the roles that mutual-aid, justice/equity, and self-sacrifice had played in the evolution and progress of the humankind.

According to Kropotkin, a great number of Western philosophers had correctly hinted at the symptoms of moral feelings in human beings, but they had failed to elaborate on the origin of these symptoms. He writes that throughout different historical periods philosophers and scientists tried to explain the origin of the moral instinct; however, most of them, due to the lack of knowledge of natural sciences, have either wrongfully attributed the existence of moral behavior to some kind of divinity (e.g. Lev N. Tolstoy’s religious convictions) or a metaphysical construct (e.g. Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” or Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the “Will”) or, in the case of those who attempted to secularize the study of moral behavior by seeking answers in nature, many had not fully explored the question or were overly influenced by the cultural and political events of their day (e.g. Kropotkin thought that Thomas Hobbs’ concept of “Social Contract” was apocryphal due to the omission of the fact that human beings are and have always been social creatures).

Because each new system either took away or added a new element that had been omitted in the previous systems, according to Kropotkin, the study of ethics is an open-ended domain that ought to continuously acquire new elements as humanity enters and goes through new stages of development. The rise of the late 19th century mystico-religious idealism served as proof that previous ethical systems with a positivist foundation had failed to inspire the masses. Instead of science, the source of all reliable knowledge, the new generation of writers and intellectuals had returned to St. Bernard and Neo-Platonism, and had placed “symbolism” and the “incomprehensible” above the concrete and observable.[5]  A different cluster of intellectuals bought into the idea of “superior natures,” or “superior individualization”. Then there were the Darwinists who tried to justify the status quo by emphasizing competition and struggle and completely disregarding another aspect “of another set of facts, parallel to those of mutual struggle, but having a quite different meaning: the facts of mutual support within the species, which are even more important than the former, on account of their significance for the welfare of the species and its maintenance.”[6]

In a pamphlet titled Anarchist Morality, Kropotkin succinctly explains the origin of moral instinct, and this elucidation, I believe, sheds light on his decision to support those who resorted to assassinations and other violent tactics in their revolutionary struggle. Kropotkin believed that moral sense which steers our conduct is instinctive. The moral instincts could be dulled and remain dormant for a long time, but as soon as a favorable opportunity for their reawaking presents itself, as soon as one encounters an example of valor, those moral instincts undergo an unconscious stimulation.

Kropotkin believed that both moral and immoral acts “arise from a single motive: the lust for pleasure.”[7]  A man/woman who drinks, robs, murders, or commits some other kind of offense does so because at that moment he/she is either attempting to augment his/her life with momentary pleasure or to expel from it undesirable pain. Similarly, a man/woman who gives his/her only clothes to a fellow human being freezing on the street, he/she does so because it pains them more to see another man suffering than to endure the chill. In both cases each man/woman acts because their deed brought them pleasure or spared them suffering, but “so vastly different for humanity are the results of these two lives; so much do we feel ourselves drawn towards the one and repelled by the other.”[8]  Kropotkin then explains that benevolence is the most rewarding feeling there is and that those who help, even if they were to be executed for their actions, would not exchange their lives “for the life of the petty scoundrel who lives on the money stolen from his work-people.”[9]  Kropotkin writes that in their struggle, the martyrs feel the highest joy: the inward peace that one feels after rectifying a previously caused harm or preventing an act of injustice.

“Without this quest of the agreeable, life itself would be impossible. Organisms would disintegrate, life cease.”[10]  The innate, contagious, and uncontainable urge to deter injustice was the reason why revolutionaries frequently chose the path that led to death, both their own and of those they regarded as tyrants. Many of them, due to the lack of opportunity to devise more effective means of resistance, never clearly articulated or understood what it was that compelled them to put their lives in peril for the sake of people they had never met. Kropotkin was well aware that haste and confusion comprise a significant part of any insurrection. During this period rational thinking and thoroughly planned decisions are often unfeasible. Some revolutionaries rush into action without consulting their peers; they inconsiderately hurl bombs and aim their revolvers at people they regard to be symbols of oppression. They blunder and often are responsible for unnecessary suffering. While Kropotkin was critical of such acts, he was generally forgiving of those who carried them out because he understood the circumstances in which the revolutionaries made their decisions. Moreover, and most importantly, Kropotkin thought that their actions stemmed from a moral impulse, and for this reason, he was unable to categorically condemn them.

This is precisely how Peter Kropotkin viewed the actions of Sophia L. Perosvkaya and other members of Narodnaya Volya who participated in the orchestration of the assassination of the Emperor of Russia. Kropotkin believed that the assassination was not a useful act because it was clear that the majority of Russian people would condemn it. However, Kropotkin believed that the general public did not emphatically denounce Perovskaya and other Pervomartsovtsy because it was clear to everyone that “not for all the gold in the world would Perovskaya and her comrades have consented to become tyrants themselves.”[11]  What prompted Perovskaya to organize the assassination of the Russian Emperor was not glory, material wealth or some other personal advantage. According to Kropotkin, who had personally known her during the time he spent in the circle of Tchaykovsky, it was her sincere aversion of tyranny that led her to the conclusion that regicide was morally permissible. Kropotkin believed that “the right to kill must be conquered.”[12]  What he meant by this is that a revolutionary ought to completely adhere to the moral principles described in this article. Only when one accepts that equality in everything, sympathy and mutual aid in times of joy and sadness are the principles to be followed do they earn the right to criticize and overthrow those who reject these same principles.

In various places in his writings on morality, Kropotkin stresses the importance of the age-old moral guide better known as the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you in the same circumstances.”[13]  At this point one might ask whether those revolutionaries who used explosives to tear apart the Russian Emperor were breaking their devotion to the just mentioned principle. Kropotkin anticipated this inquiry and he answered it in the following way: “Any man with a heart asks beforehand that he may be slain if ever he becomes venomous; that a dagger may be plunged into his heart if ever he should take the place of a dethroned tyrant.”[14]  Kropotkin believed that those who wish to oppress automatically forfeiting the right to be treated with compassion. The masses do not condone such hypocrisy, and only those who are fighting for equality for everyone everywhere have the moral standing to lead, not by accumulating wealth or climbing the socioeconomic ladder, but by practicing comprehensive egalitarianism.

Milan Djurasovic is a Bosnian American collage artist, blogger, and a book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history. He can be reached via Face Book https://www.facebook.com/milan.djurasovic

[1] N. Lebedev, Introduction by the Russian Editor (London: George E Harrap Co, Ltd., 1924), pp. iii-ix, http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/ethics/intro.html (accessed 2 December, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peter Kropotkin, Ethics: Origin and Development (London: George E Harrap Co, Ltd., 1924), pp.11, http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/ethics/intro.html (accessed 5 December, 2014).

[5] Ibid., pp. 15.

[6] Ibid., pp. 16.

[7] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchist Morality, pp. 84.

[8] Ibid., pp. 86.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 88.

[11] Ibid., pp. 100.

[12] Ibid., pp. 101.

[13] Ibid., pp. 92.

[14] Ibid., pp. 100.

2 Comments

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The works and thoughts of Kropotkin have been elaborately dealt in these essays. The anarchist principles based mainly on morality should be analysed in modern context and applied to specific situations

  2. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The teachings of Kropotkin are valid even in modern day world. The elaborate discussion of his life and works would go a long way in understanding him in historical perspective.