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peter-kropotkin

An American evolutionary biologist and historian of science, Stephen J. Gould, wrote the following in his essay titled “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot”:

“More generally, I like to apply a somewhat cynical rule of thumb in judging arguments about nature that also have overt social implications: When such claims imbue nature with just those properties that make us feel good or fuel our prejudices, be doubly suspicious. I am especially wary of arguments that find kindness, mutuality, synergism, harmony – the very elements that we strive mightily, and so often unsuccessfully, to put into our own lives – intrinsically in nature. “[1]

Without coercion coming from authority, whether it is the head of the church or the head of the state, a society would not regress and turn into chaos in which each individual would murder, plunder and hoard the wealth knowing that no punishment from the law enforcers awaited them. Kropotkin argued that these immoral acts were already taking place and were directly linked to the policies of the oppressive governments and the hypocritical teachings of the church and the institutions of law. Thousands of years of living in societies, of sharing and struggling together against the forces of nature, had fostered in human beings deeply rooted sentiments of sympathy and an unbending desire for equity. It is not coercion or the fear of eternal punishment that urges us to help those who are in need of assistance. We aid one another instinctively, because it has been beneficial for us to do so, morally and physically. The gratification we feel upon aiding a fellow human being is a sentiment more powerful than any other, and it is so deeply rooted that it can never be entirely eradicated from our genetic makeup because “the moral sentiment is anterior in animal evolution to the upright posture of man.”[2]

In his essay, Stephen J. Gould is sympathetic towards the theory of Mutual Aid, and he emphasizes the importance of it belonging to an entire school of Russian evolutionary thought rather than being an isolated hypothesis stemming from wishful thinking of a secluded anarchist, yet the quotation cited above is nevertheless an illustrative example of how Kropotkin’s views on the nature of living organisms, and more importantly his views on the properties of human character, have often been skewed to portray the anarchist prince as a jolly dreamer with an inclination to see only the good in his surroundings. Another frequent criticism of Kropotkin’s philosophy is that he was guilty of the same mistakes he accused the British social Darwinists of committing: that he only chose to focus on the evidence which supported his own assertions, mainly that the majority of species, including our own, were inherently good-natured.

While it is true that Kropotkin did not devote the same effort and an equal number of pages to the two extremes of human nature, the aggressive and benevolent impulses, in many of his writings he acknowledges the former and regularly refers to it as he makes the case for the latter. As Gould states, Peter Kropotkin was no crackpot; in many of his works, he stresses that competition and mutual aid are both factors of evolution, but that the latter was more prominent in the flourishing species while the former leads to dwindling of the higher intellectual and physical capacities, and even extinction. The underlying idea that runs throughout the entire body of Kropotkin’s work, both his revolutionary writings and his scientific contributions, is the attempt to demonstrate that there is another, more peaceful way of conducting our affairs.

Kropotkin argued that the existing institutions favored only an artificially select few who were able to prosper through nepotism, through the inheritance of the amassed wealth of their parents, or by engaging in some other corrupt activities. Those who were unlucky to be born to poor parents were neglected and regarded as unworthy by the institutions in any system that is ruled by some kind of authority. Kropotkin was well aware of the aggressive impulses of human nature, but he thought that coercion and punishment were not an acceptable way to contain them, and that the current system of authoritarianism was “hindering, even preventing the development of the seeds which are being propagated with its damaged walls.”[3]

In his book Darwin without Malthus, Daniel P. Todes explains how vastly different was the experience of Russian scientists and explorers compared to their British counterparts, and that this divergence was primarily due to the areas of the globe they explored and lived on. As opposed to crammed living conditions and competition for scarce resources in the industrial centers of England and the tropical rainforests studied by the British naturalists, Russian scientists of the nineteenth century lived in a vastly different milieu. The observations they made exploring the enormous and scarcely populated continental plain of Russia led them to very different conclusions than those made by the British naturalists. Therefore, when the British naturalists began to make assertions that their discoveries applied to the entire world, Russian scientists promptly objected. “They reacted negatively to what they perceived as a transparent introduction of Malthusianism—or, for some, simply the British enthusiasm for competition—into evolutionary theory.”[4] They believed that even Darwin (but especially the social Darwinists who came later) exaggerated two parts of his theory of natural selection that contained a direct link to the hypotheses of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. One of them was overpopulation and the other was the conflict that arises because of it.

Kropotkin’s scientific research lead him to conclude that cooperation, justice/equity, and self-sacrifice were the traits that were responsible for a healthy existence, while aggression and competition were the traits of those species that were on the brink of extinction. This conclusion was the framework through which he analyzed human societies. During his stay with the Jura Federation of watchmakers, Kropotkin’s belief that egalitarianism was synonymous with a peaceful society was confirmed. Mutual decision making, cooperation, and the equitable distribution of the obtained resources were the primary reasons behind the contentment and moral development of the Jura Federation laborers.

Individual effort is never entirely individual; even an estimation of how much each member of a society contributes to the wellbeing of all is unfeasible. Since no individual lives on an isolated island, none can claim that their work is entirely their own, and that they deserve preferential treatment because of it. The alternative which anarchist communism offers is a society in which everyone works and contributes to the fullest extent of their ability and consumes what is necessary to satisfy his/her need so that the rest of one’s time can be devoted to pursuing cultural and intellectual interests. In his books Fields, Factories and Workshops and The Conquest of Bread, books which were not analyzed in this thesis but whose importance cannot be overstated, Kropotkin, in great detail, discusses how to go about organizing and producing enough goods so that everyone’s needs would be adequately satisfied. It is also important to mention that Kropotkin believed that in a just society, a division between intellectual and physical labor should not exist because each individual ought to engage in both. The over-specialization of labor was a major problem that stood in the way of obtaining justice/equity. This is why Kropotkin believed that the metaphysical explanations of human nature offered by philosophers, who spent many years of their lives hiding in libraries, failed to represent the reality as it is. Additionally, Kropotkin thought that physical activity and labor would only augment the intellectual activities by enriching the individual’s life with a variety of experiences.

Another line of criticism that is sometimes directed at Peter Kropotkin’s activism and philosophy is that he, too, was hypocritical and judged others by the standards he himself refused to follow; that while he egged on the poor and ignorant masses to revolt against their oppressors, he enjoyed the safety and comfort his prominence provided him. But even a brief examination of Peter Kropotkin’s biography reveals that such a case cannot be made with a serious conviction. At the very young age Kropotkin was already disenchanted with punishment his father regularly imposed on his serfs, and at the age of twelve he decided to give up his title of prince. Instead of embarking on a promising military career in St. Petersburg, Kropotkin chose an insignificant post in a remote part of Siberia. Upon his return to the capital, he did not accept the secretaryship of the entire Russian Geographical Society, and instead he joined a revolutionary circle and was jailed for two years in the Peter and Paul Fortress, where his health greatly deteriorated. After his escape, forty two years of involuntary exile followed. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Kropotkin was forced to leave Switzerland at the insistence of the Russian government, and he received numerous death threats from the Russian Holy League, which was organized to protect the Tsarist regime. Later on, in France, Kropotkin was again arrested under the suspicion that he played a role in the terrorist attacks in Lyons, although no connection between Kropotkin and the perpetrators was ever established. He spent three years in Clairvaux prison. After his imprisonment, he was expelled yet again, and this time he settled in the vicinity of London. There, after writing four books and reaffirming his place as a serious scholar, Kropotkin was offered the chair of geography at Cambridge University, but he did not take the position because the university expected him to abandon his revolutionary activities. At the time of the Russo-Japanese war Kropotkin rejected financial assistance that the Japanese government proposed to the Russian revolutionaries because he thought that external influence in Russian affairs was detrimental as well as because the aid came from the government/authority. When Kropotkin returned to Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, despite living in poverty in a small town near Moscow by the name of Dimitrov, he refused a hefty financial offer given to him by the Soviet Government in exchange for his approval that his book, The Great French Revolution, be used in Russian schools for the simple reason that the offer came from those in positions of authority.[5] As we can clearly see, Peter Kropotkin was neither a crackpot nor a hypocrite.

Peter Kropotkin was a perceptive psychologist and responsive to even the minutest acts of violence. He believed that even if the authorities refrained from using repressive means against any semblance of opposition, and even if the serfs had been freed much earlier, the Russian society would still have been unequal, and for Kropotkin, deeply unjust and harmful. Once the malady had been detected and the cure found, Kropotkin set out to promptly apply it so that the equilibrium would be reestablished. At times violence was a part of the cure because Kropotkin thought that the privileged minority would never willingly, and equally, share their possessions.

Kropotkin believed that the Tsarist regime and its adherents were ruled by the instincts of greed and egocentricity, and that any negotiations with them would be futile even if they were permitted. The only way to improve the state of things was through a revolution, a complete demolition of the old system and the creation of a new one, whose foundations would be built around the principles of mutual aid, justice/equity, and self sacrifice. Unfortunately, one cannot find in Kropotkin’s writings any elaboration on what happens to the psychology of the revolutionaries who engage in violence and even murder. Revolutions are chaotic and can be protracted for years, even decades. In a constant struggle awash with blood and suffering, one cannot help but wonder how such an environment impacts one’s emotional wellbeing. Kropotkin more than adequately described the adverse effects of greed and power and how they influence one’s psychology; he did not, however, sufficiently address the very likely consequence of the revolutionaries becoming what they are fighting against (cruel and dogmatic), a process that would arise after years of employing the same tools (violence) in a struggle against what they thought was unjust. Wouldn’t they, after all, resort to those same aggressive instincts which Kropotkin warned about in his scientific works? Kropotkin regrettably does not adequately address whether or not the revolutionaries would be capable of re-assimilating after a bloody revolution in order to undertake the tasks he thought were necessary for the creation of a different society.

Perhaps this issue was too daunting to take on candidly, and since Kropotkin was convinced that peaceful demonstrations could only yield limited concessions, and that a revolution is inevitable, it is likely that he purposefully avoided the mentioned problem out of fear that it might prevent a segment of the Russian population form supporting and joining the revolutionaries. Another explanation, one I believe is closer to the true sentiments of Peter Kropotkin, is that he simply thought that if aims of the revolution were properly and sincerely understood, if the urge for action was stimulated by the sympathy one feels for fellow men and a desire to live in an equal society, that participation in violent acts would not alter, in any significant way, the moral psychological makeup of a revolutionary. Instead, he/she would understand that what they are doing is necessary, and that just like the various species of animals in which a group collectively punishes the gluttonous hoarder, they were ridding the society of parasites. Whether or not Kropotkin was mistaken in his conviction that some blood needed to flow in the process of a societal transformation is a debate for another essay, but one cannot help but wonder why a man who was admired by so many for his peaceful nature and gaiety did not choose a path followed by Lev N. Tolstoy or Alexandr I. Herzen, who were inclined to think about and protect each individual life.

Herzen thought that life and living in general was far too complex and insoluble, and found it objectionable for any human being to devote all of his/her attention to any single cause. He believed that the biggest tragedy arises when one sacrifices his/her life for the bold statements of those who claim to have discovered some unalterable truth.[6]

“I can no longer bear this perpetual rhetoric of patriotic and philanthropic phrases that have no influence on life at all. Can you find many people ready to sacrifice their lives for whatever it may be? Not many, of course, but, still, more than those with the courage to say that ‘Mourir pour la Patrie’ is not really the apex of human happiness, and that it would be much better if both country and the individual could remain intact.”[7]

While Peter Kropotkin would agree with the essence of this statement, he would add to it that realty, as he finds it, is such that a just a society cannot be achieved without bloodshed, not because those who desire it would not want it to be created without loss of life, but because history shows that those who rule do not value life at all. Herzen also wrote that words like ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’, unless they were explained in detailed and unambiguous terms that could be applied to real situations, were bound to, at best, only instigate the nebulous and poetical imagination and encourage men to behave morally and generously. Liberty and equality were the words Kropotkin used the most in his writings. What Kropotkin offered as a scientist, as a revolutionary, and, most of all, as a human being with an insatiable thirst for a different, more peaceful and equitable way of conducting affairs, would surely not have entirely disappointed Herzen. With his detailed account of what ought to be done, from his comprehensive theory on human nature to meticulous descriptions of the steps to be taken by the revolutionaries in their struggle, to exhaustive calculations and statistics of production of all necessities required for a respectable life for all members of the society, Kropotkin’s work appears to satisfy Herzen’s requirements.

Another and perhaps most valid criticism of Kropotkin’s revolutionary ideas comes from those who have stated that in modern history one cannot find an example of a lasting society built on anarchist principles. These critics say that the faith of the Paris Commune and what took place in 1939 to the Spanish anarchist-syndicalists who were defeated by Francisco Franco’s troops, demonstrates the impracticability of anarchist communist principles. In the first case, it was the regular French army that crushed the workers; in the latter case it was done by the much more powerful fascist forces and their allies. Anarchists stood no chance against these more numerous and better armed foes. Kropotkin was aware of the steep and difficult climb anarchist communists would have to undertake before their message reached enough ears for a critical mass to form and implement at least some aspects of the social and political organization discussed in their pamphlets and speeches. A claim could be made that anarchist philosophy, because of its disdain for authority (and therefore lack of it in their own ranks) and unwillingness to employ simple, comforting but deceitful promises to win the support of the masses, a devious strategy that politicians and leaders of all political parties have engaged in since the advent of the profession, contains an inherent disadvantage.

Kropotkin thought that the demise of the Paris Commune began as soon as the Parisian workers elected representatives, thinking that they had finally found some generous and honest leaders who will work for the good of all.[8] Kropotkin writes that this very act, regardless of how sincere the leaders happen to be, is harmful for the society because the personal initiative (the most important factor of insuring the equity/justice of a society) is discarded and that laziness and apathy inevitably ensue whenever someone is elected to do the work people themselves ought to carry out. The initiative and involvement of the workers in the decision making of all aspects of societal affairs would not only ensure that no self-centered leader arises and hijacks the effort of all for his personal benefit, but, at the same time, it also aids the laborers in the process of developing new intellectual capacities; it fosters cooperation, and it makes an individual’s life rich with variety of experiences.

As has been stated already, Kropotkin knew that the realization of a society built on anarchist communist principles was a daunting task, but he believed that human species had the potential to move towards those goals. In fact, he believed that their biological inclinations urged them to move in the direction of anarchism and communism, but that those, whose minds had been spoiled by living in a society with hierarchical institutions and severe authority since their births, were, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unknowingly, preventing the majority from developing an alternative system. Kropotkin believed that these obstructions had to be eliminated; and, as we have seen, violence, in some cases and in a limited capacity, was permissible. If those obstructions remained sturdy, if a minority who held all the power and wealth continued to make decisions for the entire society, humanity would engage in more acts of needless competition, unnecessary destruction, and could even bring about extinction of our species. When one thinks of imperialist endeavors which continues to this day, the weapons of mass destruction that could obliterate humanity many times over, and the irreversible hazardous consequences that man made climate change presents to the existence of our species, all being the consequences of ruthless but unnecessary competition instigated by a minority of powerful and wealthy masters of the humanity, Kropotkin’s teachings promptly become relevant and indispensible.

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] Stephen Jay. Gould, Kropotkin Was No Crackpot, (Marxist.org, 2002),  http://www.marxists.org/subject/

Science/essays/Kropotkin.htm (accessed 8 January, 2015).

[2] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchist Morality, pp. 98.

[3] Peter Kropotkin, The Spirit Of Revolt, pp. 35.

[4] Daniel P. Todes, Darwin without Malthus, pp. 3.

[5] Roger N. Baldwin, The Significance of Kropotkin’s Life an Teaching, pp. 1-9.

[6] Isaiah Berlin, Alexander Herzen: His Opinions and Character, http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/alexander-herzen-his-opinions-and-character-1955.

[7] Alexander Herzen, From the other shore and The Russian People and Socialism, trans. Moura Budberg, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1956), pp. 138.

[8] Peter Kropotkin, The Commune of Paris, The Place of the Commune in Socialist Evolution (London: W. Reeves, 1895), http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu//Anarchist_Archives/Kropotkin/pcommune.html.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Being a psychologist and social scientist, kropoktin applied revolutionary principles to real situations. He understood the labour exploitation by capitalists and workers sufferings in the hands of few industrialists and their rebellious mental attitude and resultant contradictions. He , therefore, applied the violent reaction of labour to obtain political power and justified the use of pressure on the capitalists to bow down to workers power.