Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition

As we publish a new book on the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, its author, Jim Mac Laughlin takes a moment to discuss the the history of the anarchist movement in the light of one of its founders.

‘Anarchism is the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreement concluded between various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety needs and aspirations of a civilised being.’

Kropotkin, ‘Anarchism’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910. 

‘Few words have travelled further from their original meanings than ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchists’.  In Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Traditionclassical Greece and Rome these terms specifically referred to ‘barbaric’ people and crucially also ‘wild’ or ‘unruly’ places that were considered beyond the administrative control of city-states and military elites. Today, anarchism is simply equated with political chaos, while all those engaged in wilful acts of anti-state terrorism are regularly described as anarchists. In this work, the first comprehensive study of Peter Kropotkin’s intellectual contribution to modern anarchism, I argue that few minorities have been as misrepresented as anarchists. Every conceivable crime of political terrorism has been laid at their door, and anarchy has become a twenty-first century equivalent of wickedness and social evil.

In unearthing the roots of anarchism in evolutionary theory and historical grassroots traditions of sociability and mutuality, Kropotkin did more than anyone to provide anarchism with an historical pedigree and scientific legitimacy. He sought to advance the cause of the stateless society through political and intellectual debate and peaceful strategies. Anarchists, he claimed, did not seek inspiration ‘from on high’ – they simply maintained that human sentiments of pity, sympathy and mutual respect, which were, and still are, so essential to the successful evolution of stateless societies, were to be the natural basis of social policy and political morality. Thus, for Kropotkin, anarchism which he termed the ‘no-government system of society’, was not merely a political ideology, it was ‘a conception of the universe’ based on the interpretation of the whole of nature, including human nature as well as socio-economic and cultural history. Anarchist morality, or the ‘moral sense of people’, had its origins in the further elaboration of mutual-aid tendencies that had evolved in animal and human societies long before the first man-like creatures appeared on earth.

Kropotkin also demonstrated that notwithstanding the vicissitudes of history and the efforts of Peter Kropotkinpower-holders to crush human sociability and mutual aid tendencies in advanced capitalist societies, these social traits were so deeply intertwined with the evolution of the human race that they survived even into the era of advanced capitalism. As a social historian and anthropologist, he showed that, whenever humans wished to adapt to a new phase of development their constructive genius always drew inspiration from these primordial tendencies of sociability, co-operation and mutual aid. In so far as they were creations of the masses rather than their masters, progressive ethical systems and revolutionary morality had their origins in these same social tendencies. Therefore, he concluded, the ethical progress of the human race, especially over the longue durée, represented nothing less than the gradual extension of the sociability and mutual aid tendencies of animals and primitive tribes to the large ‘agglomerations’ of people in modern societies.

Writing in the latter half of the nineteenth century in terms that still have profound relevance to marginalised communities throughout the world today, Kropotkin relentlessly argued that ‘associationism’, federalism, social cooperation and mutual aid should become the guiding principles of progressive social and cultural change. He further insisted that the anarchist ‘no-government’ system of socialism was not a dream that could only be realised in the distant future. Neither was it a stage to be reached only after other stages had been passed through. It was the product of ‘processes of life everywhere about us, which we may advance or hold back.’ Basing his anarchism on  scientific evidence for sociability and mutual aid in nature and human society, he held that social convention and historical tradition could also become the foundations upon which egalitarian, self-governing societies could be constructed in the future. Indeed, for Kropotkin, social custom and historical tradition were analogous to instinctual behaviour in the animal world. He also demonstrated that social change in human society had clear parallels with evolutionary change in organic nature. Having demonstrated that mutualism and sociability were important factors of evolution in the pre-scientific past, he went on to suggest that they would be infinitely more important in the future, particularly if underpinned by a new humanism based on anarchist principles and scientific research that served the common good rather than the sectional interests of any one class or authoritarian state.

In common with other socialists, Kropotkin believed that competitive free enterprise and the private ownership of land, capital and the means of production were fated to disappear. The need for government, he argued, would also disappear once all requisites for production became the common property of society, to be managed solely by producers, rather than by state authorities and  the owners of wealth. In response to those who accused him of placing too much faith in evolutionary theory and too little in revolutionary action, he called on his fellow anarchists to actively ‘promote their ideas directly amongst the labour organisations to induce those unions to a direct struggle against capital, without placing their faith in parliamentary legislation’. This is still of fundamental importance today as hegemonic ideas about social change and political progress continue to stress the role of self-assertion, competition and struggle to the ethos of capitalism and the successful implementation of neoliberal policies in the global arena.

Contrary to conventional caricatures of anarchists, Kropotkin insisted that anarchists were not opposed to all manifestations of authority, they simply rejected the specific forms of authority associated with hierarchy and socio-economic privilege. While recognising the many varieties of anarchism, he stressed that all true anarchists shared a common characteristic that distinguished anarchism from other political creeds. In proclaiming the illegitimacy of ‘the principle of authority in social organisations’, anarchists of all hues professed a mutual ‘hatred of all constraints that originate in institutions founded on this principle’. Crucially, his opposition to the principle of authority extended equally to anarchist activists and to philosophers of anarchism. Regardless of their status as theorists or the calibre of their political thinking, no individual anarchist theorist or group of anarchists was to be allowed to formulate a libertarian ‘creed’ that might foster the development of canonical thinking. Neither could they devise an anarchist ‘catechism’ that could hamper freedom of anarchist thought or action either in the present or in the future. This is why the majority of anarchists still object to any close identification of anarchism with its best-known theorists and writers, including, not least, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Tolstoy and Reclus.

With the exception of a handful of advanced libertarian thinkers such as Murray Bookchin, Noam Chomsky, Paul Goodman and Peter Marshall, twentieth-century writers on anarchism have generally failed to compete with the new mandarins of revolutionary thought as represented by state-centred Marxism, Maoism, and more recently political Islam. In the event, most traditional anarchist activists, not least Spanish and Italian anarchists in the first half of the twentieth century, struggled to keep alive the ideas of classical anarchists.

Nevertheless, as this work clearly demonstrates the heritage of classical anarchism is still to be found not only in the inspirational lives of self-sacrifice of these anarchists who dedicated to the service of ‘the wretched of the earth’. It is also evident in the intellectual stimulation that their writings have offered to all those who still believe that moral self-realisation must ultimately depend upon free choice, human dignity, sound ecological practice, social harmony, and fair moral judgements. These arguments must never be swapped for material affluence, the false promises of political democracy, and the illusions of collective security. Thus the anarcho-communist intellectual tradition that Kropotkin did so much to sustain has survived as a subaltern tradition right up to the present day, even if it sometimes seemed to lie dormant in the decades immediately after his death.

More recently, it has been experiencing a vibrant Renaissance with the growth of ‘academic anarchism’ and the growing popularity of anti-statist politics. With the emergence of the anti-globalisation movement, the rise of Occupy movements in cities as far apart as New York, Cairo, Barcelona, London and Athens, the birth of the Democracy Project, and the political coming of age of new groupings like Podemos and People Before Profit movement, anarchism has emerged as one of the most vibrant and exciting political movements of our times.

Despite the assertions of those critics who predicted that the emergence of affluent, industrial state-societies would sound the death knell of anarchism and usher in a new federalised and vibrantly democratic capitalist utopia, the passing of industrial society in the traditional core areas of global power has instead ushered in a new era of anarchist agitation and theorising.  Conditions for the future growth and development of this new critical anarchism have rarely been better. The growing disillusionment with state-centred politics and the rise of the ‘nanny state’ calls for the rejection of political borders, the radical disavowal of sexism and racism, and the growth of increasingly intrusive ‘regimes of domination’ that have for so long structured modern life – all these should encourage political activists and social theorists alike to re-acquaint themselves with the classical works of modern anarchism, not least with the vast volume of work left by Kropotkin and Reclus.

The rapid growth of social media and trans-territorial modes of social and political organisation, together with the bankruptcy of state-centred Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism, the rejection of state-centred democracy, the denunciation of post-Keynesian austerity policies as well as the widespread appeal of ‘low-footprint’ lifestyles, the attractions of consensus decision-making, the growing attractions of ‘neighbourhood politics’ and libertarian municipalism, all point to a growing proportion of well-educated and highly articulate young activists in the direction of vibrant new conceptualisations of Kropotkin’s ‘no-government system of society’. Not only is this new ‘advocacy anarchism’ now flourishing, but debates within anarchism continue to flourish within and outside academic circles. This has resulted in the birth of intellectually sustained and critical new studies of anarchist theory and anarchist practice. This has clearly been helped by a renewed quest for free communities of liberation and solidarity that must not only be socially and economically sustainable in the traditional sense, but must also be capable of self-determination, self-transformation and creative self-negation.

As this study concludes, it is in this atmosphere that critical re-evaluations of the works of leading anarchist theorists must take place. Like other founding fathers of anarchist theory, he lamented the centralisation of state authority, the unification of nation-states, the commercialisation of social and environmental relations, the increased efficiency of state surveillance systems and the globalisation of metropolitan authority on the world stage. Today’s anarchists should not shy away from a critical reappraisal of Kropotkin’s work in their efforts to articulate an anarchist alternative to the failed state-centred strategies of the Left and Right. Today’s anarchists face a new challenge, one that must live up to the intellectual standards of pioneers like Kropotkin and Reclus in particular.  This will involve a robust re-evaluation of the logic of anarchist scholarship and a critical reappraisal of the classics of anarchist thought in the light of the vibrant critiques of Marxism, structuralism, authoritarianism, sexism, racism, and post-colonialism that have added such intellectual vigour to antithetical theory and revolutionary praxis.’

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Jim Mac Laughlin is a political geographer and social scientist who has published widely on state formation, nation separatism, political regionalism, emigration, racism and the ideology of the social sciences. He is the author of Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition (Pluto, 2016) and Reimagining the Nation State: The Contested Terrains of Nation-building (Pluto, 2001).

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Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

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