One of the most prominent anarchist writers from about 1877 to 1914. Respected for his scientific writings in other fields and for the combination of rational thinking and compassion that he brought to anarchist theorizing, and well known as a selfless and honest man who believed wholeheartedly in the benefits of anarchist communism. Following Bakunin as the world’s most visible anarchist figure, he did much to legitimize anarchism in the eyes of intellectuals worldwide.
Kropotkin was born in Russia in the 1840s to one of the noble houses of Smolensk, and seemed destined for a position of great power in the government. In his early years, he served in the prestigious Corps of Pages by personal order of Nicholas I, and was Alexander II’s personal page until 1862. Upon entering the regular army, he chose to join a Siberian unit so that he could continue the scientific pursuits that he enjoyed. His parents were shocked, but Kropotkin had already managed to impress several key figures in the government who supported his choice.
During his time in Siberia, he observed the cruelties of the Russian penal system and began to develop a respect for the co-operative systems of what he called “common understanding” amongst the Siberian peasants. While there, he met some of the greatest scholars in exile, and was first introduced to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s writings by M. L. Mikhailov. He made several long journeys through eastern Siberia, travelling light (and unarmed) and mingling with peasants who lived in the simplest fashion imaginable. As a result of these travels he managed to establish a strong reputation as a geographer, as well as a foundation of credibility for his later anarchist studies.
After resigning from the army to protest the execution of several leaders of a local peasant uprising, he returned to St. Petersburg to continue studying geography. In 1871 he was offered the position of secretary of the Russian Geographical Society, but declined the position in order to “go to the people”. Moving to Switzerland, where many of Russia’s radicals were living at the time, he mingled with Marxist and Bakuninist groups, and was exposed to a broad spectrum of radical politics.
In time he came to the Jura, where anarchist theories were being embraced enthusiastically by the local craftsmen. It was here that he became completely devoted to anarchism, rejecting socialism mainly due to the socialists’ political maneuvering which he had observed in Zurich and the honest intentions the Jura anarchists displayed. For a while he considered staying in Switzerland, but James Guillame convinced him to return to St. Petersburg, where he finally began to develop his own ideas from the teachings of Proudhon and Bakunin, and to publish anarchist propaganda as a member of the predominantly socialist “Chaikovsky Circle”.
In 1874 he was arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Peter-and-Paul fortress, serving two years before escaping to Switzerland. Although anarchist legend usually states that he escaped from the fortress itself, it was actually the St. Petersburg military hospital he broke out of. Upon leaving Russia, he began to move around Europe working with various anarchist groups, editing newspapers such as the Jura Federation’s Bulletin and L’Avant-Garde, and continuing to apply inductive reasoning to his developing theories of anarchism as both a tool for change and an actual moral philosophy. In 1878 he founded Le Revolte, one of the most influential anarchist newspapers ever, where he published articles that were later collected into his first two books. These articles contained the central tenets of Kropotkin’s philosophy and established him as one of the great anarchist thinkers. In 1880 Kropotkin and others convinced the Congress of the Jura Federation to adopt anarchist communism as the Federation’s offical economic doctrine. He spent the next year in England, where he tried unsuccessfully to attract local workers to anarchism, before giving up in disgust and returning to France.
Unfortunately, a campaign of riots and violent anarchist attacks had begun in southern France while Kropotkin had been in England, and his return to France coincided with a new wave of violence. Although he had no direct connection to these events, he was an attractive target for the French authorities, and was arrested towards the end of 1882 together with fifty three other known anarchists, and they were all brought to trial in January 1883. Although there was no evidence linking any of them to the recent violence, they were charged and convicted with membership in a “forbidden organization” – even though the French government had already declared that organization, the International, did not actually exist at that time. The irony of this judgement was unnoticed by the authorities, and Kropotkin and several others were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
While serving in the prison of Clairvaux, Kropotkin occupied himself by teaching his fellow prisoners in cosmology, languages, physics, and geometry. He also wrote articles for many respected publications, including the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Geographie Universelle, and The Nineteenth Century. His imprisonment was protested by hundreds of scholars and public figures from all over Europe, and several petitions for amnesty were submitted to the French government, but he had to wait until 1886 before he was finally pardoned. He immediately moved back to England, where he spent the next thirty years.
Kropotkin effectively abandoned his militant leadership role in England. Although he continued to work with local anarchist groups, helping to found the Freedom Group amongst other things, most of his time was devoted to writing and meeting with intellectuals and radicals of all stripes. He became a sort of “elder statesman”, semi-retired but still approached for his opinions on many issues. At this time, he became friendly with many English socialists, but maintained his position on the issues that divided them.
In 1914, due to his suspicions about German imperialism, Kropotkin found himself supporting the war against Germany, while almost all other anarchists were strongly opposed to the war. He was largely cut off from the movement, and in 1917 he returned to Russia following the February Revolution. Out of touch with Russian issues and unaware of the nature of the new government, he again found himself cut off from the local anarchists. While he was eventually reunited with the movement after the Bolshevik uprising, the movement itself was ruthlessly persecuted under Lenin’s rule. Kropotkin, an untouchable target himself due to his international reputation, was still powerless to help his fellow anarchists. His health was also failing rapidly, although he continued working on his book “Ethics” until his last days, and on February 8, 1921, he died. His funeral procession, which bore black flags with the motto “Where there is authority there is no freedom” through the streets of Moscow, was the last great anarchist protest in Russia.
Kropotkin was one of the first anarchists to consider that the revolution must be planned with forethought and an understanding of the society that would emerge from the revolution (unlike Bakunin, who seemed to believe that society would naturally take care of itself once the revolution had been accomplished). He was strongly opposed to any kind of “revolutionary government”, knowing that gradualistic interim policies and temporary compromises tend to make most revolutions meaningless. Instead, he proposed a planned, immediate and complete change, with all means of production and consumption returning immediately to the commune for free distribution as needed. This system of free distribution came to be known as anarchist communism.
Later in his life, Kropotkin became more convinced that gradual change would be effective. He was opposed to most violent action, and believed that revolution was possible without bloodshed. His peaceful and selfless nature, combined with his rationalistic approach to anarchism, were key factors in convincing many people that anarchism was not the mindless, bloodthirsty movement that many governments portrayed it as.
Kropotkin encouraged not only the creation of cooperative work institutions but the advancement of “mutual interest societies” to encourage personal development and channel energy into beneficial areas. His believed strongly in the human desire to keep oneself occupied in productive pursuits and contribute to society, and insisted that with the improvement of work environments and the encouragement of other personal interests, all workers would be more productive and would not need the wage system as an incentive to work. Having studied many animal species in Siberia and elsewhere, he believed that cooperation amongst animals for mutual benefit is the key to most species’ success, and that humanity was one of those cooperative species that would flourish once the competitive system was eliminated.
- “Paroles d’un Revolte”, 1885
- “The State: its Historic Role”, 1898
- “Fields, Factories and Workshops”, 1899
- “Memoirs of a Revolutionist”, 1899
- “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution”, 1902
- “Ideals and Realities in Russian Literature”, 1905
- “The Conquest of Bread”, 1906
- “The Russian Revolution and Anarchism”, 1907
- “The Great French Revolution”, 1909
- “Modern Science and Anarchism”, 1912
- “Ethics: Origin and Development”, 1924
Various articles, essays, pamphlets and letters published from about 1872 onward. Many of these are still available in collected form or distributed online or in pamphlets, including “An Appeal to the Young” and “Letter to the Workers of the World”.
George Woodcock’s “Anarchism: a History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements” and “The Anarchist Prince”.
- You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
- Both comments and pings are currently closed.