100 years on, Kropotkin remains strikingly modern

The centenary of Kropotkin’s death is a good time to return to the question he asked in Freedom in 1886: what must we do? Ruth Kinna considers a thinker whose work evolved through a rapidly changing political and social era but never lost its humanity and faith in the possibility of real change.

Kropotkin’s different answers were informed by his changing assessments of the political situation in Europe. In the 1870s he described it as “revolutionary”. Ten years later, his terminology had changed: he spoke instead of evolutionary processes and mutual aid. Yet it’s not obvious that this shift signalled a major reduction of his political ambitions. Evolution still pointed to “the coming anarchy”, a revolutionary proposition in most people’s minds.

Kropotkin usually wrote about anarchist transformation as if the glass were half full. He highlighted social and economic trends that could bolster confidence in anarchist change. But he tempered his “utopianism” with a healthy dose of realism. The mass of data he used to show the imminence of anarchy in fact also attested to the rude health of the state-regulated market system should it continue to grow unhindered. The gist of Kropotkin’s thinking about social transformation was that the potential for anarchy was not the same as its likelihood.

The contours of Kropotkin’s alternative future are well known. To counteract urbanisation and the development of agri-business he envisaged the integration of agriculture and industry and the creation of what economists now call “10-minute neighbourhoods”. His alternative globalisation prioritised information-sharing over international trade and envisaged communist decentralised federation to oppose government monopoly and corporate conglomeration. The plan may have looked speculative, but Kropotkin’s aim was to boost practical organisational efforts and disrupt existing socio-economic arrangements.

For Kropotkin, the entrenchment of liberalism was a bleak prospect. He anticipated that the internationalisation of laissez-faire would lock trading partners into competition for scarce resources and economic advantage. Free trade pointed to the militarisation of the inter-state system, capital investment in war and government sponsorship of industrialised arms production. The uneven, colonising patterns of exchange that shaped economic activity across the globe would simultaneously incentivise opposition to European domination and encourage migratory movements from poorer to richer regions. These pressures were likely to intensify as processes of global warming (which Kropotkin did not link to human activity) affected production and distribution. Sooner or later liberalism would embrace social democracy. Once liberals tapped into the idea of socialism’s historic march, the notion of class struggle could be easily neutralised by welfarism. Gas-and-water socialism would command workers’ loyalty.

Kropotkin’s hopes about the anarchisation of social and economic life were dashed and he was proved broadly right about liberalism’s direction of travel. He warned that the democratisation of western states would dampen the appetite for internationalism along the lines he proposed and instead heighten chauvinistic and xenophobic rivalry. Liberal democracy entailed the professionalisation of politics and the abdication of decision-making power to specialists. But it would be misunderstood as a tremendous redistribution of power and a victory for the working class. Enfranchised, the people would be sovereign just at the point when they surrendered their individual sovereignty. Equality would bestow opportunity and entitlement. Kropotkin predicted the broad lines of liberalism’s socialisation though he did not live to see the consequences: homes fit for heroes, free universal education and cradle-to-grave health services. Citizens would seek every protection to maintain their advantages against “foreigners”. The idea that society could ever function co-operatively and independently of the state would seem fantastical.

Kropotkin’s world was not so different from the one we inhabit. It is a misunderstanding to consign his conception of social transformation to some distant past where the barriers to anarchist change were less formidable than they are now. Some of his immediate priorities – to resist the seductions of representative government and state socialism – were contingent on the support anarchists could garner for their cause at the time. Their actual realisation hardly diminishes the force of his critique. Kropotkin sensed the possible eclipse of anarchism in Europe and witnessed the collapse of his dreams in Russia. Regardless, he continued to promote anarchist politics to the end. As is well known, he believed that anarchy was always discoverable in the nooks and crannies of the state and always recoverable as an alternative social order. Mutual aid was one of the lynchpins of his anarchism. He also gave us fruitful concepts of free agreement, the spirit of revolt and well-being for all.

Mutual aid is sometimes linked to a narrow set of activities. But Kropotkin did not set limits on types of direct action and was not prescriptive about what ventures people should pursue, as long as these were driven by considerations of justice.

What, then, must we do? Kropotkin gave his answer: Act for yourselves!

Ruth Kinna is a co-ordinator of the Anarchism Research Group and co-edits its journal Anarchist Studies. Recent books by the author include The Government of No-one and Great Anarchists.