|Russia||Russian Revolution||Soviet Union 1920-45|
Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin was born in Moscow, Russia, on 12th December, 1842. At the age of 15 he entered the aristocratic Corps des Pages of St. Petersburg and four years later became personal page to Alexander II.
In 1862 he applied for a commission in the Cossack Regiment serving in Eastern Siberia. After reading the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the exploits of Mikhail Bakunin he developed an interest in anarchism.
Kropotkin began to take a keen interest in politics. As Paul Avrich points out: "In Siberia he shed his hopes that the state could act as a vehicle of social progress. Soon after his arrival, he drafted, at the request of his superiors, elaborate plans for municipal self-government and for the reform of the penal system (a subject that was to interest him for the rest of his life), only to see them vanish in an impenetrable bureaucratic maze."
Disillusioned by the limits of these reforms, he undertook a geographical exploration in East Siberia and produced a paper on his theory of mountain structure. Kropotkin's reports on the topography of Siberia won him immediate recognition and in 1871 he was offered the coveted post of secretary of the Imperial Geographical Society in St. Petersburg. However, he rejected the post because of his new political commitment. "Although I did not then formulate my observations in terms borrowed from party struggles, I may say now that I lost in Siberia whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist."
In 1872 Kropotkin joined a group that was spreading revolutionary propaganda among the workers and peasants of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1874 he was arrested and imprisoned. Two years later he escaped and fled to Switzerland. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II his radical socialist views made him unwelcome in the country and in 1881 he moved to France where he became a member of the International Working Men's Association (the First International), a federation of radical political parties that hoped to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist commonwealth.
Kropotkin became interested in the work of Charles Darwin. He had profound respect for Darwin's discoveries and regarded the theory of natural selection as "perhaps the most brilliant scientific generalization of the century". Kropotkin accepted that the "struggle for existence" played an important role in the evolution of species. He argued that "life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive". However, Kropotkin rejected the ideas of Thomas Huxley who placed great emphasis on competition and conflict in the evolutionary process.
In 1880 Kropotkin read an article by Karl Kessler, a Russian zoologist, entitled On the Law of Mutual Aid. Kessler's argued that cooperation rather than conflict was the chief factor in the process of evolution. He pointed out "the more individuals keep together, the more they mutually support each other, and the more are the chances of the species for surviving, as well as for making further progress in its intellectual development." Kessler died the following year and Kropotkin decided to spend time developing his theories.
Kropotkin published An Appeal to the Young in 1880. Anna Strunsky wrote that "hundreds of thousands had read that pamphlet and had responded to it as to nothing else in the literature of revolutionary socialism". Elizabeth Gurley Flynn later claimed that the message "struck home to me personally, as if he were speaking to us there in our shabby poverty-stricken Bronx flat."
In 1883 Kropotkin was arrested by the French authorities. He tried at Lyon, and sentenced, under a special law passed on the fall of the Paris Commune, to five years' imprisonment, on the ground that he had belonged to the International Working Men's Association. While in prison Kropotkin's first ideas on anarchism were published. He was eventually released in 1886 and moved to England. Over the next few years he lived in Harrow, Acton, Ealing, Bromley and Highgate.
While living in England he became friends with other socialists, including William Morris, Keir Hardie, James Mavor, Tom Mann and George Bernard Shaw. Hardie once commented that if we were all like Kropotkin "anarchism would be the only possible system, since government and restraint would be unnecessary". In 1886 Kropotkin and his socialist friends organized a mass rally in London protesting against the death sentences imposed on the conviction of Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, George Engel, Oscar Neebe, Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab for the Haymarket Bombing.
In 1886 he helped to establish the anarchist journal, Freedom. As anarchism's most important philosophers he was in great demand as a writer and contributed to the journals edited by Benjamin Tucker (Liberty), Albert Parsons (Alarm) and Johann Most (Freiheit). Tucker praised Kropotkin's publication as "the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence."
The following year he published In Russian and French Prisons. He argued that prisons are "schools of crime" and that by "subjecting him to brutalizing punishments, teaching him to lie and cheat, and generally hardening him in his criminal ways, so that when he emerges from behind bars he is condemned to repeat his transgressions.... Prisons neither improve the prisoners nor prevent crime; they achieve none of the ends for which they are designed."
Kropotkin continued to develop his ideas on evolution. In 1888 Thomas Huxley published an article entitled The Struggle for Existence. He completely rejected Huxley's argument that competition among individuals of the same species is not merely a law of nature but the driving force of progress. Kropotkin replied to Huxley in a series of articles where he documented his theory of mutual aid with illustrations from animal and human life. Paul Avrich has argued: "Among animals he shows how mutual cooperation is practiced in hunting, in migration, and in the propagation of species. He draws examples from the elaborate social behavior of ants and bees, from wild horses that form a ring when attacked by wolves, from the wolves themselves that form a pack for hunting, from migrating deer that, scattered over a wide territory, come together in herds to cross a river. From these and many similar illustrations Kropotkin demonstrates that sociability is a prevalent feature at every level of the animal world. Moreover, he finds that among humans too mutual aid has been the rule rather than the exception. With a wealth of data he traces the evolution of voluntary cooperation from the primitive tribe, peasant village, and medieval commune to a variety of modern associations that have continued to practice Mutual support despite the rise of the coercive bureaucratic state. His thesis, in short, is a refutation of the doctrine that competition and brute force are the sole - or even the principal - determinants of social progress."
In 1892 Kropotkin published Conquest of Bread. It is generally agreed that the book is Kropotkin's clearest statement of his anarchist social doctrines. As Paul Avrich has pointed out: "Written for the ordinary worker, it possesses a lucidity of style not often found in books on social themes." Emile Zola said that it was so well-written that it was a "true poem".
Kropotkin argued that the wage system, which presumes to measure the work of each individual in capitalism, must be abolished in favour of a system of equal rewards for all. Kropotkin suggested a system of "anarchist communism" by which private property and inequality of income would give place to the free distribution of goods and services. The author of Anarchist Portraits (1995) argued: "It was impossible to assess each person's contribution to the production of social wealth because millions of human beings had toiled to create the present riches of the world. Every acre of soil had been watered with the sweat of generations, every mile of railroad had received its share of human blood. Indeed, there was not a thought or an invention that was not the common inheritance of all mankind... Starting from this premise, Kropotkin argues that the wage system, which presumes to measure the work of each individual, must be abolished in favor of a system of equal rewards for all. This was a major step in the evolution of anarchist economic thought."
In Conquest of Bread Kropotkin argued that in an anarchist society no one would be compelled to work. He insisted that work is "a psychological necessity, a necessity of spending accumulated body energy, a necessity which is health and life itself. If so many) branches of useful work are reluctantly done now, it is merely because they mean overwork or they are improperly organized."
Kropotkin was also highly critical of the education system which he described as a "university of laziness". He argued that it was: "Superficiality, parrot-like repetition, slavishness and inertia of mind are the results of our method of education. We do not teach our children to learn." Kropotkin was one of the first to argue for "an active outdoor education and learn by doing and observing at first hand".
Kropotkin insisted that the education system would have to be completely reformed in order to create an anarchist society. "We are so perverted by an education which from infancy seeks to kill in us the spirit of revolt, and to develop that of submission to authority; we are so perverted by this existence under the ferrule of a law, which regulates every event in life - our birth, our education, our development, our love, our friendship - that, if this state of things continues, we shall lose all initiative, all habit of thinking for ourselves. Our society seems no longer able to understand that it is possible to exist otherwise than under the reign of law, elaborated by a representative government and administered by a handful of rulers.... The education we all receive from the State, at school and after, has so warped our minds that the very notion of freedom ends up by being lost, and disguised in servitude."
Kropotkin rejected the idea of a secret revolutionary party that had been suggested by Mikhail Bakunin. He also criticized the views of Sergi Nechayev. He insisted that social emancipation must be attained by libertarian rather than dictatorial means. Kropotkin rejected the idea of revolution put forward by Bakunin and Nechayev in Catechism of a Revolutionist (1869): "The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it." For Kropotkin the ends and the means were inseparable.
In 1897 his old friend, James Mavor, professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, invited him to speak at a conference in Canada. He was impressed by the agricultural abundance throughout the country and wrote to a friend: "How rich mankind could be if social obstacles did not stand everywhere in the way of utilising the gifts of nature."
In October 1897, Kropotkin crossed the border into the United States to meet fellow anarchist, Johann Most. Although they had disagreed in the past about politics, Kropotkin argued that "with a few more Mosts, our movement would be much stronger". Writing in the Freiheit Most described Kropotkin as the "celebrated philosopher of modern anarchism" and that it had been a pleasure "to look into his eyes and shake his hand".
At Jersey City he was asked by a group of journalists for a statement on his political beliefs: "I am an anarchist and am trying to work out the ideal society, which I believe will be communistic in economics, but will leave full and free scope for the development of the individual. As to its organization, I believe in the formation of federated groups for production and consumption.... The social democrats are endeavoring to attain the same end, but the difference is that they start from the centre - the State and work toward the circumference, while we endeavor to work out the ideal society from the simple elements to the complex."
The New York Herald reported: "Prince Kropotkin is anything but the typical anarchist. In appearance he is patriarchal, and while his dress is careless it is the carelessness of the man who is engrossed in science rather than that of the man who is in revolt against the usages of society. His manners are those of the polished gentleman, and he has none of the bitterness and dogmatism of the anarchist whom we are accustomed to see here."
In New York City Kropotkin spoke at a meeting chaired by John Swinton on the dangers of state socialism. One member of the audience later recorded that he "wore a patriarchal beard and beamed on his audience from behind a pair of spectacles like an old fashioned clergyman looking over a familiar congregation." Another remarked that "his evident sincerity and his kindness held the attention of his audience and gained its sympathy".
In 1899 Kropotkin visited Chicago and lived in the Hull House settlement, formed by Jane Addams, for a while. Alice Hamilton, one of the workers at the settlement, later recalled: "Prince Peter Kropotkin was one of the most lovable persons I have ever met. He was a typical revolutionist of the early Russian type, an aristocrat who threw himself into the movement for emancipation of the masses out of a passionate love for his fellow man, and a longing for justice. He stayed some time with us at Hull House, and we all came to love him, not only we who lived under the same roof but the crowds of Russian refugees who came to see him. No matter how down-and-out, how squalid even, a caller would be., Prince Kropotkin would give him a joyful welcome and kiss him on both cheeks."
Robert Lovett admitted that: "Hull House was emphatically the refuge of lost causes. The anarchist agitation had died out, but the fear of it was maintained by press and police to haunt the slumbers of the best people. Miss Addams was attacked for entertaining Peter Kropotkin in Hull House. The celebration of his birthday was an occasion for the visit to Chicago to the mild ghost of anarchism." Given this hostility Kropotkin decided to return to London.
In his final years Kropotkin concentrated on writing. His works during this period he produced an autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), Fields, Factories and Workshops (1901), Mutual Aid (1902) and The Great French Revolution (1909) turned him into a world known political figure. Emma Goldman argued: "We saw in him the father of modern anarchism, its revolutionary spokesman and brilliant exponent of its relation to science, philosophy and progressive thought." and was described by Emma Goldman as the "godfather of anarchism".
In 1912 Kropotkin moved to Brighton where he stayed for the next five years. After the overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, Kropotkin returned home to Russia expecting the development of "anarchist communism". When the Bolsheviks seized power he remarked to a friend that "this buries the revolution" and described government members as "state socialists".
In June 1918, Kropotkin had a meeting with Nestor Makhno, the leader of the anarchists in the Ukraine. He told him about a conversation he had with Lenin in the Kremlin. Lenin explained his opposition to anarchists. "The majority of anarchists think and write about the future without understanding the present. That is what divides us Communists from them... But I think that you, comrade, have a realistic attitude towards the burning evils of the time. If only one-third of the anarchist-communists were like you, we Communists would be ready, under certain well-known conditions, to join with them in working towards a free organization of producers."
Kropotkin disliked the developments that took place over the next few months and in March 1920 he sent a letter to Lenin that claimed Russia was a "Soviet Republic only in name" and "at present it is not the soviets which rule in Russia but party committees".
Peter Kropotkin died of pneumonia in the city of Dmitrov on 8th February, 1921, and was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. His friend, Victor Serge, attended the funeral. "These were heartbreaking days: the great frost in the midst of the great hunger. I was the only member of the party to be accepted as a comrade in anarchist circles. The shadow of the Cheka fell everywhere, but a packed and passionate multitude thronged around the bier, making this funeral ceremony into a demonstration of unmistakable significance." Kropotkin's final book, Ethics, Origin and Development (1922) was published posthumously.
(1) Peter Kropotkin, An Appeal to the Young (1880)
Must you drag on the same weary existence as our father and mother for thirty or forty years? Must you toil your life long to procure for others all the pleasures of well-being, of knowledge, of art, and keep for yourself only the eternal anxiety as to whether you can get a bit of bread?
(2) Peter Kropotkin, Freedom (1893)
The genuine anarchist looks with sheer horror upon every destruction, every mutilation, of a human being, physical or moral. He loathes wars, executions and imprisonments, the crippling and poisoning of human nature by the preventable cruelty and injustice of man to man in every shape and form... Every well-meant attempt of the men in power to better things tends to confirm people in the belief that to have men in power is not, after all, a social evil.... Not the Parliament, not the Government, but the organised workmen could, if they but knew it, put an end to capitalist monopoly, peacefully, by simply bringing the capitalist to the condition of workmen, not by paper money - dreamed of by Proudhon - but by a general strike.... The guilt of these homicides lies upon every man and woman who intentionally or by cold indifference helps to keep up social conditions that drive human beings to despair. The man who in ordinary circumstances and in cold blood would commit such deeds is simply a homicidal maniac; nor can we believe that they can be justified upon any mere ground of expediency. Least of all do we think that any human being has the right to egg on another person to such a course of action. We accept the phenomena of homicidal outrage as among the most terrible facts of human experience; we endeavour to look such facts in the face with the understanding of human justice, and we believe that we are doing our utmost to put an end to them by spreading anarchist ideas throughout society.
Kropotkin spent five years in Siberia, not, like most revolutionaries, in chains or exile, but in tasks to his own liking. He was secretary to two committees set up by the Governor, one to review the whole system of exile and prison reform, and another to prepare a system of municipal self-government. This caused him to reflect on the institution of government; it also brought him into contact with political exiles and `so-called incorrigible criminals.'
Kropotkin was interested in people, and in the way in which they lived; also in the world in which they lived. In 1863 he led an expedition to the Amur. By a Treaty concluded in 1858 between the weak Chinese Government and Russia, represented by Bakunin's second cousin, Nicholas Muraviev, the territory north and west of that great river was ceded to the Russians. It had not yet been explored. It is probable that no European had ever set foot on that remote and sparsely populated land. Kropotkins' task was to make maps. That mission completed, he was sent on similar journeys into hitherto unknown parts of Manchuria. He later made geographic and geological surveys of Finland. Before he was thirty he had gained an international reputation for his work. Soon his reputation was to be of another kind.
(4) Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits (1990)
Its underlying theme (The Conquest of Bread) is that both the instruments and the fruits of production, now unjustly appropriated by the few, are the collective achievement of humanity as a whole. "All belongs to all," writes Kropotkin. "All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one's part in the production of the world's wealth." On this point Kropotkin was emphatic. It was impossible to assess each person's contribution to the production of social wealth because millions of human beings had toiled to create the present riches of the world. Every acre of soil had been watered with the sweat of generations, every mile of railroad had received its share of human blood. Indeed, there was not a thought or an invention that was not the common inheritance of all mankind. "Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present," Kropotkin insists. "By what right then can anyone whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say - This is mine, not yours?"
Starting from this premise, Kropotkin argues that the wage system, which presumes to measure the work of each individual, must be abolished in favor of a system of equal rewards for all. This was a major step in the evolution of anarchist economic thought. From Max Stirner's individualism, Proudhon's mutualism, and Bakunin's collectivism, Kropotkin proceeded to the principle of "anarchist communism," by which private property and inequality of income would give place to the free distribution of goods and services. Even under Bakunin's collectivism the criterion for distribution was, as under the proletarian dictatorship of the Marxists, performance rather than need. Kropotkin, by contrast, regarded any system of rewards based on an individual's capacity to produce as merely another form of wage slavery. By drawing a distinction between what is mine and what is yours, a collectivist economy rendered itself incompatible with the ideals of pure anarchism. Collectivism, moreover, necessitated some authority within the producers' associations to measure individual performance and to supervise the distribution of goods and services accordingly. Thus the collectivist order contained the seeds of inequality and domination.
Kropotkin considered his own theory of anarchist communism the antithesis of the wage system in all its forms. He himself, however, had not been the first to conceive the idea. Like his theory of mutual aid, anarchist communism was already "in the air," awaiting a thinker of his talents to give it systematic expression. In this lie was notably successful, winning an impressive number of workers, as well as intellectuals, to the anarchist cause. The appeal of his theory is obvious. For the principle of wages he substituted the principle of needs: persons would be the judge of their own requirements and would take from the common storehouse whatever they deemed necessary, whether or not they contributed a share of the labor. Kropotkin's benign optimism led him to assume that once political and economic exploitation had been eliminated, all - or very nearly all - would work of their own free will, without any compulsion whatever, and take from the communal warehouse no more than they required for a comfortable existence. Anarchist communism would put an end, at long last, to every manner of coercion and privilege and usher in a golden age of liberty, equality, and brotherhood.
Kropotkin was convinced that, throughout the Western world, anarchist communism was everywhere on the rise, manifesting itself "in the thousand developments of modern life." Roads and bridges were free to all; streets paved and lighted for everyone's use; water supplied to every house; parks, museums, libraries, and schools open to all. In every case, said Kropotkin, such arrangements were founded on the principle of need, so that when you go to a public library, for instance, the librarian does not ask you what services you have rendered to society before giving you the books you require. Kropotkin was greatly encouraged by these developments. Little by little, he believed, the government principle was yielding before the principle of voluntary cooperation. In every sphere of life voluntary associations - trade unions, learned societies, the Red Cross - were binding together men and women with common interests and aspirations and were preparing the way for a future society of free communes existing side by side in harmonious cooperation.
(5) Peter Kropotkin, statement in Jersey City (23rd October 1897)
I am an anarchist and am trying to work out the ideal society, which I believe will be communistic in economics, but will leave full and free scope for the development of the individual. As to its organization, I believe in the formation of federated groups for production and consumption.... The social democrats are endeavoring to attain the same end, but the difference is that they start from the centre - the State and work toward the circumference, while we endeavor to work out the ideal society from the simple elements to the complex.
(6) The New York Herald (24th October 1897)
Prince Kropotkin is anything but the typical anarchist. In appearance he is patriarchal, and while his dress is careless it is the carelessness of the man who is engrossed in science rather than that of the man who is in revolt against the usages of society. His manners are those of the polished gentleman, and he has none of the bitterness and dogmatism of the anarchist whom we are accustomed to see here.
(7) Robert Lovett, All Our Years (1948)
Hull House was emphatically the refuge of lost causes. The anarchist agitation had died out, but the fear of it was maintained by press and police to haunt the slumbers of the best people. Miss Addams was attacked for entertaining Peter Kropotkin in Hull House. The celebration of his birthday was an occasion for the visit to Chicago to the mild ghost of anarchism.
(8) Alice Hamilton, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943)
Prince Peter Kropotkin was one of the most lovable persons I have ever met. He was a typical revolutionist of the early Russian type, an aristocrat who threw himself into the movement for emancipation of the masses out of a passionate love for his fellow man, and a longing for justice.
He stayed some time with us at Hull House, and we all came to love him, not only we who lived under the same roof but the crowds of Russian refugees who came to see him. No matter how down-and-out, how squalid even, a caller would be., Prince Kropotkin would give him a joyful welcome and kiss him on both cheeks.
It was most unfortunate that his visit to us came just a short time before the assassination of McKinley. That event woke up the dormant terror of anarchists which always lay close under the surface of Chicago's thinking and feeling, ever since the Haymarket riot. It was known that Czolgosz, the assassin, had been in Chicago at the time when both Emma Goldman and Kropotkin were there, and a rumor started that he had met them and the plot had been of their making - Czolgosz had been their tool. Then the story came to involve Hull House, which had been the scene of these secret, murderous meetings.
(9) Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)
When Peter Kropotkin came to America to lecture, he was heard throughout the country with great interest and respect; that he was a guest at Hull House during his stay in Chicago attracted little attention at the time, but two years later, when the assassination of President McKinley occurred, the visit of this kindly scholar, who had always called himself an "anarchist" and had certainly written fiery tracts in his younger manhood, was made the basis of an attack upon Hull House. It is impossible to overstate the public excitement of the moment and the unfathomable sense of horror with which the community regarded an attack upon the chief executive of the nation, as a crime against government itself which compels an instinctive recoil from all law-abiding citizens.
(10) Peter Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops (1901)
We are so perverted by an education which from infancy seeks to kill in us the spirit of revolt, and to develop that of submission to authority; we are so perverted by this existence under the ferrule of a law, which regulates every event in life - our birth, our education, our development, our love, our friendship - that, if this state of things continues, we shall lose all initiative, all habit of thinking for ourselves. Our society seems no longer able to understand that it is possible to exist otherwise than under the reign of law, elaborated by a representative government and administered by a handful of rulers.... The education we all receive from the State, at school and after, has so warped our minds that the very notion of freedom ends up by being lost, and disguised in servitude.
(11) Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1945)
In February, old Kropotkin died in Dimitrovo, near Moscow. I had made no effort to see him, fearing that any conversations between us would be painful; he still believed that the Bolsheviks had received German money, etc. My friends and I had known that he was living in cold and darkness, working on his Ethics and playing the piano a little for recreation, and so we had sent him a luxurious parcel of wax candles.
I went up to Moscow for his funeral. These were heartbreaking days: the great frost in the midst of the great hunger. I was the only member of the party to be accepted as a comrade in anarchist circles. The shadow of the Cheka fell everywhere, but a packed and passionate multitude thronged around the bier, making this funeral ceremony into a demonstration of unmistakable significance.