A revolutionary heart: Kropotkin’s politics

Part Two of Iain McKay’s summary analysis looks at the thinker’s key works and impact as a political philosopher. For part one see here.

Peter Kropotkin was above all else a revolutionary. While all-too-often remembered as the author of Mutual Aid, the gentle prince of co-operation, this picture of an anarcho-Santa is false. Kropotkin was no reformist, no naïve believer is cross-class cooperation. He was a revolutionary anarchist-communist who championed the direct struggle against capital for five decades.

This is not to deny the importance of Mutual Aid and his ground-breaking exposition of what is now a staple of evolutionary theory, it is just to note that this was one aspect of a thinker who was the foremost theoretician of revolutionary anarchism from 1879 to 1914. In books like Words of a Rebel (1885), Conquest of Bread (1892) and Modern Science and Anarchy (1913) as well as countless newspaper articles, he popularised the core ideas of revolutionary anarchism: direct action and solidarity, anti-parliamentarianism, expropriation and insurrection.

His books are important contributions to anarchist theory, with Words of a Rebel primarily a libertarian critique of capitalist society and Conquest of Bread arguing for libertarian communism and how best to achieve it during a revolution. Both discussed how to get from criticism to implementation only in passing and while Modern Science and Anarchy was more forthcoming on current strategy, this was hardly its main concern. For that, to understand how Kropotkin saw anarchy being achieved, we need to turn to the articles he penned for the anarchist press which were not later gathered together into books.

Sadly, these articles are relatively unknown and rarely reprinted, with only the collections Act For Yourselves! (1988) and Direct Struggle Against Capital (2014) including any. Yet without an awareness of them, Kropotkin’s politics can be misconstrued as the most easily available of his texts are those that are very general and theoretical, not those dealing with the concrete political and strategic issues facing the anarchist movement. This means that he far too often gets cast as a visionary or as a theorist rather than as an active anarchist militant actively engaged in the issues of the day, grappling with challenges facing the workers’ movement and anarchist strategies within and outwith it to produce social transformation.

His political life was bookended by two epochal events – the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Kronstadt revolt in 1921. The former played a pivotal role in him embracing anarchism and the latter, which erupted shortly after his death, confirmed his repeated warnings about Marxism. A critic of the Tzarist autocracy of which he was a scion, he avidly read Proudhon, Herzen and other radical thinkers as well as radical developments in Europe including the Parisian revolt and the International Workers’ Association. Unsurprisingly, he took the opportunity of a trip to Switzerland in 1872 to discover more about both. After joining the International, he initially met with its reformist, pro-Marxist wing but soon found his spiritual home with the Jura Federation and become an anarchist. Although he never meet Bakunin during his visit, he took his revolutionary ideas to heart and advocated the same tactics – which would later be called syndicalist – until his death. As Kropotkin put it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

the anarchists…. do not seek to constitute, and invite the working men not to constitute, political parties in the parliaments. Accordingly, since the foundation of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864-1866, they have endeavoured to promote their ideas directly amongst the labour organisations and to induce those unions to a direct struggle against capital, without placing their faith in parliamentary legislation.

In terms of strategy, Kropotkin remained true to the labour-orientated position of the so-called Bakuninists. While many anarchists became infatuated with “propaganda by the deed” (initially in the sense of invoking uprisings, later individual acts of violence or destruction), Kropotkin argued for “the spirit of revolt” as change comes from below, by the masses. The role of revolutionaries is to encourage the masses’ self-confidence, self-activity and power from within the struggle rather than trying – fruitlessly – to inspire them from outwith by spectacular acts. While unwilling to criticise such actions – being concerned about joining the denunciation of genuine acts of resistance – he recognised that while such acts spontaneously occur in any struggle, they are not to be encouraged and were only one, small, aspect of a wider struggle which had to be collective to succeed. This was why Kropotkin regularly penned articles on the importance of union struggles:

We have to organise the workers’ forces – not to make them a fourth party in Parliament but to make them a formidable ENGINE OF STRUGGLE AGAINST CAPITAL. We have to group workers of all trades with this single purpose: “war on capitalist exploitation!” And we must prosecute this war relentlessly, every day, by the strike, by agitation, by every revolutionary means . . . once the workers of every land have seen this organisation at work, taking in its hands the defence of the workers’ interests, waging an unrelenting war on capital… once the workers from all trades, from villages and towns alike, are united into a single union… [they will] emerge victorious, having crushed the tyranny of Capital and State for good.

Unlike parliamentarianism, this direct struggle against Capital and State had a radicalising effect:

[H]owever moderate the battle-cry may be – provided that it is in the domain of the relations between capital and labour – as soon as it is put into practice by revolutionary means, it will eventually deepen and inevitably lead to demanding the overthrow of the regime of property. Whereas a party which confines itself within parliamentary politics ends up abandoning its programme, however advanced it was in the beginning: it ends up merged with the parties of bourgeois opportunism.

These arguments were repeated throughout his life and showed the importance he placed on anarchist involvement in the labour movement for raising the possibility of revolution as well as creating the bodies able to take over workplaces, expropriate the owners and start production up again under workers’ self-management. Unions, then, were considered “as natural organs for the direct struggle with capital and for the organisation of the future order ― organs that are inherently necessary to achieve the workers’ own goals.” Just as Bakunin had championed the general strike, so Kropotkin recognised its potential for revolutionary change. However, he had no illusions that it was sufficient in-and-of-itself. Pointing to the example of American Great Railway Strike of 1877, he noted how it initially had popular support but then lost it because it disrupted the flow of necessities. The conclusion was obvious:

the insurgent people will not wait for any old government in its marvellous wisdom to decree economic reforms. They will abolish individual property by themselves… They will not stop short at expropriating the owners of social capital by a decree that will remain a dead letter; they will take possession and establish their rights of usufruct immediately. They will organise the workshops so that they continue production.

Given his perspective on the role of direct action by the masses in social change, Kropotkin regularly spoke at workers’ events across Britain when ill-health did not intervene just as he had in Switzerland and France before his imprisonment in 1883. As such, he was no isolated intellectual and engaged with developments within the anarchist and labour movements as well as in the scientific community. He was particularly keen to point out the authoritarianism and growing reformism of Marxian Social-Democracy – and mocking their pretensions of being “scientific” – while pointing to the First International as an exemplar activists should embrace:

The enemy on whom we declare war being capital, it is against it that we will direct all our efforts, without letting ourselves be distracted from our goal by the phony agitation of political parties. The great struggle we are preparing for being an essentially economic struggle, it is on the economic terrain that our agitation must take place… To be able to make the revolution, the mass of workers must be organised, and resistance and the strike are excellent means for organising workers. They have an immense advantage over those advocated at present (worker candidates, forming a workers’ political party, etc.), namely not diverting the movement, but keeping it in constant struggle with the principal enemy, the capitalist… It is a question of organising in every town resistance societies for all trades, to create resistance funds and to fight against the exploiters, to unify the workers’ organisations of each town and trade and to put them in contact with those of other towns, to federate them across France, to federate them across borders, internationally… It was by organising resistance against the boss that the International managed to group more than two million workers and to build up that force before which the bourgeoisie and governments trembled.

Yet Kropotkin, for all his championing of workers’ struggle and organisation on the economic terrain, did not limit the fight for liberty and equality to the workplace. He also recognised the importance of community struggle and organisation, pointing to the example of the sections of the Great French Revolution, arguing that “through this institution it gained… immense power” and “[b]y acting in this way — and the libertarians would no doubt do the same today — the districts of Paris laid the foundations of a new, free, social organisation.” Thus the struggle for freedom was to be waged in both the workplace and the community and the bodies created in this would play their respective roles in the free society of the future.

However, Kropotkin was not blind to the limitations of even the most militant union or community grouping and recognised the need for anarchists to organise together to influence those in struggle:

The syndicate is absolutely necessary. It is the only form of worker’s association which allows the direct struggle against capital to be carried on without a plunge into parliamentarianism. But, evidently, it does not achieve this goal automatically, since in Germany, in France and in England, we have the example of syndicates linked to the parliamentary struggle… There is need of the other element which Malatesta speaks of and which Bakunin always professed.

He also, like other anarchists, opposed all forms of oppression and exploitation and did not, as some incorrectly assert, only reject the State. He recognised that while the State’s hierarchical, centralised and bureaucratic nature spawned privileged classes, this did not mean it was not an instrument forged to maintain the property and power of the economically dominant class. Indeed, a key aspect of his analysis of the State was that it had developed certain, defining in fact, features which secured minority rule. Both these factors meant the State could not be used to create socialism:

Developed in the course of history to establish and maintain the monopoly of land ownership in favour of one class… what means can the State provide to abolish this monopoly that the working class could not find in its own strength and groups? Then perfected during the course of the nineteenth century to ensure the monopoly of industrial property, trade, and banking to new enriched classes… what advantages could the State provide for abolishing these same privileges? Could its governmental machine, developed for the creation and upholding of these privileges, now be used to abolish them? Would not the new function require new organs? And these new organs would they not have to be created by the workers themselves, in their unions, their federations, completely outside the State?

Resistance was fertile – not only did it change those who take part in it and society, it also creates the organisational structures of the future. The link between now and the future, between the tyranny of class society and the freedom of libertarian communism, was the class struggle, the direct struggle against capital and the State, waged in the workplaces and on the streets. These federated groups would provide those useful social functions required for the “satisfaction of all social needs” but which are currently monopolised by the capital and State in their own interests including “consumption, production and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection against aggression, mutual aid, territorial defence; the satisfaction, finally, of scientific, artistic, literacy, entertainment needs.”

Yet getting rid of the bosses would only be the first stage of a long process in which the legacy of class society would be transformed to reflect the needs of a free people rather than those of profit and power. Kropotkin was well aware that the structure of industry, the nature of the work, how towns and cities have developed, to name just a few, were shaped by the power and priorities of capital and the State, so “while a thorough change in the present relations between labour and capital is becoming an imperious necessity, a thorough remodelling of the whole of our industrial organisation has also become unavoidable. “ Expropriation, then, was the start, not the end, of the revolution.

Like earlier anarchist thinkers like Proudhon and Bakunin, Kropotkin envisioned the transformation of work once workers were managing their own productive activity and workplaces. The crippling division of labour of capitalism would be replaced by the integration of brain and brawn work, agriculture and industry, to produce a satisfying and ecologically balanced work-life. In Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898, 1912) he showed, with his usual flare for empirical evidence, that this was no utopian vision but rather reflected tendencies already existing within capitalist society (albeit tendencies subject to the pressures of the political, economic and class power within it). Likewise, while favouring the decentralisation and integration of industry and agriculture, he recognised that certain industries and products required an objective size (“oceanic steamers cannot be built in village factories”) and did not see the end of global interaction (“Not to reduce… the world-exchange: it may still grow in bulk; but to limit it to the exchange of what really must be exchanged”). Rather than fetishise local, small-scale, production as many assert, Kropotkin advocated appropriate levels of both to help humanise work.

The main difference between anarchist-communism and the early forms of anarchism, whether Proudhon’s mutualism or Bakunin’s collectivism, was primarily to do with distribution as all advocated workers’ management of production. Rather than distribution according to the work done (by deeds), Kropotkin championed free distribution (by needs). While undoubtedly the most famous, persuasive and appealing advocate of libertarian communism, he did not invent it. Rather, it initially developed within the Italian sections of the First International in the mid-1870s while he was in a Tsarist jail. Indeed, Kropotkin was still referring to Collectivism in articles written in 1879, championed communism from the following year.

Given that communism has been advocated by authoritarians before and after Kropotkin, it is important to stress that all that is meant by the term is simply the maxim “from each according to the ability, to each according to their needs”. It does not imply a commitment to central planning (as in the USSR), quite the reverse as communism “must result from thousands of separate local actions, all directed towards the same aim. It cannot be dictated by a central body: it must result from the numberless local needs and wants.” It was needed for many reasons, including the fact that “in the present state of industry, when everything is interdependent, when each branch of production is knit up with all the rest, the attempt to claim an individualist origin for the products of industry is untenable.” So it “is utterly impossible to draw a distinction between the work of each” and to “estimate the share of each in the riches which all contribute to amass”. Modern production is collective and each task is an important as another for if one is not done the whole suffers.

More importantly, it was fairer to share according to need as rewarding labour done did not take into account the many factors that impact on a person’s ability to work. Thus “a man of forty, father of three children, has other needs than a young man of twenty” and “the woman who suckles her infant and spends sleepless nights at its bedside, cannot do as much work as the man who has slept peacefully.” Moreover, “the needs of the individual, do not always correspond to his works.” This is obviously the case with children, the sick and the elderly and so we should “put the needs above the works, and first of all to recognise the right to live, and later on the right to well-being for all those who took their share in production.”

Libertarian communism, Kropotkin stressed, was “the best basis for individual development and freedom; not that individualism which drives men to the war of each against all” but “that which represents the full expansion of man’s faculties, the superior development of what is original in him, the greatest fruitfulness of intelligence, feeling and will.” This was because the “most powerful development of individuality, of individual originality” can “only be produced when the first needs of food and shelter are satisfied” and “when man’s time is no longer taken up by the meaner side of daily subsistence, — then only, his intelligence, his artistic taste, his inventive spirit, his genius, can develop freely and ever strive to greater achievements.”

To conclude, Kropotkin was far more than the writer of Mutual Aid. Just as he was a world-renown scientist, he was a world-renown revolutionary. His writings present a critique of modern society, an appealing vision of a better society and, just as importantly, a strategy of transforming the former into the latter. All three are still relevant.

~ Iain McKay


Further Reading

Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Peter Kropotkin, Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2014).

Peter Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2018)

Brian Morris, Kropotkin: The Politics of Community (Oakland: PM Press, 2018)