‘Anarchism originated among the people …’
Although Gerard Winstanley and William Godwin had begun to unfold the philosophy of anarchism in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was not until the second half of the 19th century that anarchism emerged as a coherent theory with a systematic, developed programme. This was mainly the work of four people — a German, Max Stirner (1806–1856), a Frenchman, Pierre Proudhon (1809–1865), and two Russians, Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) and Peter Kropotkin (1842- 1921).
Born in the atmosphere of German romantic philosophy, Stirner’s anarchism was an extreme form of individualism, or egoism, which placed the unique individual above all else — state, law or duty. It remains a cornerstone of anarchism.
Individualism by definition includes no concrete programme for changing social conditions. This was attempted by Proudhon, the first to describe himself openly as an anarchist.
His theories of mutualism and federalism had a profound effect on the growth of anarchism as a mass movement, and spell out clearly how an anarchist world could function and be co-ordinated.
Bakunin, the central figure in the development of modern anarchist activism, emphasized the role of collectivism, mass insurrection and spontaneous revolt in the launching of a free, classless society. His ideas became dominant in the 20th century among large sections of the radical labour movement — especially in Spain where the first major anarchist social revolution took place.
Kropotkin, a scientist by training, fashioned a sophisticated and detailed
anarchist analysis of modern conditions linked to a thorough-going prescription for a future society — anarchist-communism — which continues to be the most widely-held theory among anarchists. The various theories are not, however, mutually exclusive: they are inter-connected in many ways, and to some extent refer to different levels of social life. Individualism relates closely to the conduct of our private lives; mutualism, to our general relations with others. Production under anarchism would be collectivist, with people working together for the common good, and in the wider political and social world decisions would be reached communally.
‘Nothing is more to me than myself…
Max Stirner was born in 1806 in Bayreuth, to poor parents. His six years as a student of philosophy in Berlin were constantly interrupted by having to care for his increasingly insane widowed mother. In 1835 he scraped through his exams and began his first, unpaid, teaching job. Two years of depressing poverty culminated in marriage to his land-lady’s daughter, who died the next year in childbirth. 1839 saw improved fortune with a five-year contract to work at Madame Gropius’s Institute for the Instruction and Cultivation of Superior Girls. His new-found financial stability contrasted sharply with the mounting political and intellectual unrest in the surrounding world.
In 1840, Stirner entered the — notorious circle known as the Free Ones: glamorous student radicals and bohemians, among them the young Marx and Engels, who gathered in the smokey, drunken atmosphere of Hippel’s Cafe. The communist Arnold Ruge was so shocked by what he saw and heard there that he stormed out, shouting:
‘Social transformation was never inaugurated by a drunken rabble!’
Among the many women at Hippel’s was the wealthy 25-year-old Marie Daenhardt, a noted billiard player, cigar smoker and beer drinker who insisted on accompanying the Free Ones to the nearby brothels. After such evenings Stirner would return home alone to toil late into the night on his mysterious manuscripts. In 1843, at a chaotic ceremony in his lodgings, Max and Marie were married. Nobody remembered to bring a wedding ring. With a steady job and a wealthy wife, Stirner now completed his master work.
The Ego and Its Own — ‘The most revolutionary book ever written — burst like a thunderstorm upon radical Berlin. It threw down a series of uncompromising challenges to every religious, political or philosophical orthodoxy, whether ‘right’ or ‘left’, ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’. Immediately it was at the centre of all attention, provoking abuse and outrage and catapulting Stirner from humble obscurity to glorious notoriety.
‘What is not supposed to be my concern! First and foremost, the Good Cause, then God’s cause, the cause of mankind, of truth, of freedom, of humanity, of justice; further, the cause of my people, my prince, my fatherland; finally, even the cause of Mind, and a thousand other causes. Only my cause is never to be my concern.
Shame on the egoist who thinks only of himself!’
‘Away with every concern that is not altogether my concern. You think at least the ‘Good Cause’ must be my concern? What’s good? What’s bad? Neither has meaning for me. The divine is God’s concern; the human is down to humans. My concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, good, just, free, etc., but is unique, as I am. Nothing is more to me than myself!’
‘Nothing is more to me than myself.’ This is Stirner’s essential truth. Everything beyond the individual must be seen as a false and tyrannical abstraction. The free individual, or ‘egoist’, must turn his or her back on such ideas as the state, society, religion, nation, morality, duty and obligation. All of these demand the continual sacrifice of the individual’s own existence to the ‘greater’ good. Stirner insists that individuals should live only for themselves, bowing down to no one and to nothing, and that they should expect the same of others. A true individual will always recognise, and so automatically safeguard, the uniqueness of other individuáls. Only this, the ‘union of egoists’, can guarantee the freedom of the individual — and that of all other individuals.
Stirner’s individualist anarchism, which seeks the end of all authority and asserts nothing in its place except the unique reality of the individual, has had a tremendous influence upon anarchism. It has been especially attractive to artists, who possess a great deal of independence in their creative activity.
‘What is Property?’
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was born in 1809 in the Franche-Comte region of eastern France. His mother was a cook; his father a cooper, brewer and failed tavern keeper. Part of Proudhon’s childhood was spent as a cowherd in the Jura mountains, an experience which inspired him with the ideáis of the free peasant life that shaped all of his philosophy. He was almost entirely self-educated; at 19 he won a scholarship to study in Paris but his family's destitution forced him to quit. He became apprenticed to a printer and later started his own firm in Besancon. It soon failed, leaving him in debt for the rest of his life.
Moving to Paris, he witnessed the discontent of the urban workers and began to associate with revolutionary groups. In 1840 Proudhon published What is Property?, a work which Marx described as ‘penetrating … the first decisive, vigorous and scientific examination’ of the subject.
In that work, Proudhon makes an important distinction between the ownership of objects for personal use, which he refers to as possessions, and property — the factories, tools, land, raw materials and so on, by means of which profits are made. It is to the power of property to exploit the labour of others that Proudhon refers in a famous and characteristically paradoxical passage:
If I were asked to answer the question: “What is slavery?” and I should answer in one word, “Murder!”, my meaning would be understood at once. No further argument would be needed to show that the power to take from someone their thought, their will, their personality, is a power of life and death, and that to enslave a human is to kill them. Why, then, to this other question: “What is property?” may I not likewise answer, “Theft”?’
Property, and the political system which supports it, must be abolished, but possession — the effective control of the necessities of work and life — is the precondition for individual liberty. All workers must have complete rights over what they produce but not over the means of production: 'The right to products is exclusive; the right to means is common.' Thus the earth's resources should belong to no one, and society's wealth of productive abilities and techniques be everyone's inheritance. Proudhon was convinced that keeping property in private hands assured the exclusion of the majority from their rights to a just share of social wealth.
Proudhon was also critical of communism, which seeks equality and recognises the importance of social production but ignores the need for individual independence. In his view anarchism is the highest state of society since it promotes both justice and independence.
According to Proudhon, the true laws by which a society functions emerge naturally from society itself and automatically provide the necessary order to human life and activity. They are not imposed from above and certainly have nothing to do with government — in fact, government seeks to disrupt the development of spontaneous co-operation between free individuals. The task of relieving society from the burdens of authority and property falls to the working class:
'Workers, labourers, whoever you may be, the initiative of reform is yours. It is you who will accomplish that synthesis of social composition which will be the masterpiece of creation, and you alone can accomplish it ... And you, men of power, angry magistrates, cowardly proprietors, have you at last understood me? ... Do not provoke the outbreaks of our despair, for even if your soldiers and policemen succeed in suppressing us, you will not be able to stand up to our last resource..’
For this vague threat the government charged him with ‘crimes against public security’, but a jury refused to convict. In 1843 he arrived in Lyons, a city whose long tradition of revolt was still keenly recollected. The idea of a widespread association of workers was gaining ground in the city, linked with an emphasis upon economic action. Proudhon joined a secret society of manual workers opposed to political action:
‘The social revolution is seriously compromised if it comes through a political revolution… The new socialist movement will begin by the war of the workshops.’
Proudhon was always profoundly opposed to any reorganization of society which merely proposed to exchange one set of leaders for another. In 1847, having joined leading revolutionaries of the day in Paris, Proudhon rejected Marx’s plans for a political organisation:
‘Let us not make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance. Let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, of reason.’
He urged instead direct economic action, ‘to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination.’
Such was the strength of Proudhon’s following among radical workers that Marx resorted to abuse and misrepresentation to get his way. The divide between anarchism and Marxism began to open.
But all such disputes were swept away in the February insurrection of 1848, a popular movement whose principal demands were universal suffrage and an end to monarchy. Proudhon immediately joined the rebels on the barricades, though he had misgivings about their aims. The Second Republic was soon declared, but Proudhon recognised its limitations. ‘They have made a revolution without ideas,’ he wrote. ‘It is necessary to give a direction to the movement.’
This was the task he now set himself. He began by starting the world’s first regular anarchist newspaper, The People’s Representative, whose banner heading declared: ‘What is the Producer? Nothing. What should he be? Everything!’ In its columns he continually emphasized that ‘the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government, and attacked the myths of voting and parliaments.
In June, the discontented workers of Paris once again rose against the government. Proudhon joined their ranks, recognising that here in the first rising of the working class was a new element in the revolution. Throughout the savage repression that followed, during which many workers were shot by firing squads or transported to penal colonies, Proudhon was unshaken in his open support of the workers. In response, the government silenced his newspaper. When the ban was lifted, its heading was expanded to read:
‘What is the Capitalist: Everything! What should he be? Nothing.’
His extremism in asserting the primacy of class struggle and the need to side with the workers as a class (and not just some vague group, ‘the people’) isolated him from many radicals. With its circulation now at forty thousand copies, the government finally closed The People’s Representative down. Expecting this, Proudhon and his friends had already made plans for a new paper, The People. In it he described the recently elected French president, Louis Napoleon, as the personification of reaction conspiring to enslave the people’. (His foresight was remarkable: a few years later Louis-Napoleon, nephew of Bonaparte, staged a coup and declared himself Emperor.)
Proudhon went into hiding to avoid arrest, but he was charged with sedition and sentenced in his absence to three years in jail. He was soon captured and imprisoned in Doullens fortress, although much of the time he was able to write for his new paper, The Voice of the People. This was his most popular journal yet, selling sixty thousand copies an issue. In May 1850, it was suppressed like the others, this time for ‘Provocation to Civil War’. Proudhon used the rest of his prison term to write books, including Confessions of a Revolutionary, an analysis of the 1848 revolutions, and The General Idea of Revolution in the 19th Century, which traced the path of social progress to date and indicated the direction it must take in the future. In the General Idea, Proudhon argues that human society is not separate from nature, but part of it; natural regulations and limitations cause humanity to develop and achieve freedom. Revolution is just as necessary — and just as unavoidable — as birth, growth and death:
‘A revolution is a force against which no power, divine or human, can prevail, and whose nature it is to grow by the very resistance it encounters … The more you repress it, the more you increase its rebound and render its action irresistible, so that is is precisely the same for the triumph of an idea whether it is persecuted, harassed, beaten down from the start, or whether it grows and develops unobstructed … The revolution advanced, with sombre and predestined tread, over the flowers strewn by its friends, through the blood of its defenders, over the bodies of its enemies.’
The revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, he wrote, merely succeeded in replacing the absolute rule of feudal monarchy with the dominance of the capitalist state. In his view all forms of state organisation were ‘Nothing but chaos, serving as a basis for endless tyranny'. The 19th century therefore required a further revolution, a total economic change where the state is replaced by a new form of social organisation, based on associations of workers:
'The importance of their work lies not in their petty union interests, but in their denial of the rule of capitalists and governments which the first revolutions left undisturbed. Afterwards, when they have conquered the political lie, the groups of workers should take over the great departments of industry which are their natural inheritance.'
Once this has been achieved the way will be open to a free anarchist society based on mutualism. Proudhon here laid the foundations for the development of the anarchist and syndicalist movements that were to follow, describing the basic ideas of direct workers' control in a decentralised and federated society:
'In place of laws, we will put contracts; no more laws voted by the majority or even unanimously. Each citizen, each town, each industrial union will make its own laws. In place of political powers we will put economic forces... In place of standing armies, we will put industrial associations. In place of police, we will put identity of interests.'
After his release from jail, Proudhon's extremism made it difficult for him to find work and it was not until 1858 that he found a publisher for his most comprehensive work to date, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. Within a week, six thousand copies were sold before the government stepped in to seize the remainder. Proudhon was charged with crimes against public morality, religion and the state, and sentenced to a further three years imprisonment. Proudhon promptly fled to Belgium, where he wrote War and Peace, a work whose analysis of the roots and dynamics of war as well as its title are evident in Leo Tolstoy's novel.
In 1862, Proudhon accepted an amnesty and returned to France. He quickly completed work on his theory of federalism which has had a profound influence on anarchist thinking ever since.
On the Federal Principle, published in 1863, is a summary of his views on nationalism and an attempt to extend the field of anarchy from the industrial and economic level to world society in general. Anarchy proper he believed still lay some centuries in the future and would be preceded by a stage of social development based on federations at every level. Thus federation would begin locally, where people would voluntarily associate together to organize and control their own lives. Coordination (rather than administration) of associations and communes would be achieved through their involvement in ever more encompassing but equally freely chosen confederations.
Proudhon was strongly opposed to nationalism: a philosophy which in his view could only lead, first, to the domination of the populations which united behind ‘their’ strong centralised governments, and then to international rivalry and war. Central governments were to be abolished and nations replaced by geographical confederations of regions. Europe, for instance, would become a confederation of confederations where the smallest local federation would have as much importance as the largest. The political organisation and decisions of society would then pass from the base upwards.
By this time Proudhon had a strong following and he was influential in the abstentionist movement that formed before the 1863 election:
‘I say to you with all the energy and sadness of my heart: separate yourselves from those who have cut themselves off from you … It is by separation that you will win. No representatives, no candidates.’
This has been the position of all anarchists towards politics and voting ever since.
In the last two years of his life, and in spite of very poor health, he produced perhaps his most influential work, On the Political Capacity of the Working Classes, a last testament which wove together the strands of his various theories into a final cohesive statement about the mission of the proletariat as an independent force in social progress:
To possess political capacity is to have the consciousness of oneself as a member of the collectivity, to affirm the idea that results from this consciousness, and to pursue its realization. Whoever unites these three conditions is capable.’
He believed that the French workers were now approaching the fulfillment of these conditions. They were already well aware of their place within a collective group — the working class — whose interests were distinct from those of other classes within society. Furthermore, their class consciousness was leading them towards mutualism, the idea of a society organised along egalitarian lines, and federalism, the means whereby equality could be attained.
Proudhon died in January 1865, soon after he had received with joy the news that the International Workingmen’s Association had been formed, largely through the efforts of his followers. The acceptance of Proudhon’s ideas by a wide section of the working class was demonstrated by the immense procession that accompanied his funeral, an acceptance that ensured the emergence of anarchism as a major force in modern history and provided a lasting basis for later anarchists to build their theory upon.
‘In the thick of the popular tempest…’
Mikhail Bakunin was born in 1814 into the Russian aristocracy. At 21 he quit the St Petersburg Artillery School to study philosophy in Berlin, where he came under the influence of Hegelian ‘Left’ philosophy. It was at this time that he developed his famous dictum: ‘The urge for destruction is a creative urge.’ In contrast to Hegel's emphasis on the positive in the dialectic, Bakunin's 'revolutionary negation' sees the negative as the driving forcé of history.
For the young Bakunin, a new world could only emerge through the total destruction of the old. The true aim of history is the liberation of humanity, and true liberation is only possible through an absolute break with the past. This absolute break — revolution — is an act of absolute negation by the whole of humanity against all authority. The aim — liberty — and the method — revolt — go hand in hand.
He was already suspicious of the communists:
‘Theirs is not a free society, a really live union offers peoples, but a herd of animals, intolerably coerced and united by force, following only material ends, utterly ignorant of the spiritual side of life.’
In 1844, he met with Proudhon and Marx in Paris. His enthusiasm for national independence movements, however, and in particular for a general rising linked to revolutions in subject nations, was vehemently opposed by Marx and Engels. A rift was opened between them that continued to widen. In 1848, a speech calling for Polish independence caused the French government to expel him.
The following year Bakunin rushed to Dresden where, in Richard Wagner’s words, he was a ‘capable and cool-headed leader’ of the May insurrection. As Wagner, who had been beside him on the barricades, recalled: ‘Everything about him was colossal. He was full of a primitive exuberance and strength.’
This exuberance led to his arrest in Saxony, where he was sentenced to death. Extradition to Austria followed and he was again sentenced to death. Russia then demanded his repatriation and he was thrown without trial into the cells of the Peter-Paul Fortress for six years. Imprisonment and exile to Siberia broke his health forever. Yet in 1861 he made a dramatic escape, all of Europe reading of his sensational journey to London via Japan and America.
On his arrival in Britain, Bakunin’s first words were to enquire where in Europe he could find unrest. ‘Quiet,’ he wrote, ‘which everyone rates so highly, is the greatest disaster that can befall a human being.’ On hearing that there was none, he responded: ‘Then what are we to do ? Must I go to Persia or India to stir things up? It would drive me mad to sit and do nothing.’
For three years he threw his energy into the movement for Polish independence. The failure of the 1863 insurrection forced him to turn away from national towards international revolution and in 1864 in Italy he formed an international secret society, the Fraternity: ‘Invisible pilots in the thick of the popular tempest.’
In 1868, Bakunin joined the International Workingmen’s Association — the First International — a Europe- wide federation of radical organisations. It had no unified official programme, its policy being defined within its various federations and by its frequent Congresses. But although a great variety of organisations were affiliated to the International, its General Council was dominated by an authoritarian socialist faction around Marx.
According to Marx, the social and economic development of all class societies was governed by ‘scientific laws’ whose workings could only be understood by those who studied them closely using his methods. Social evolution was gradual for great periods of time until a revolutionary change occurred. In all previous revolutions one ruling class was replaced by another, which had grown in strength ‘in the womb’ of the oíd society. Under capitalism, therefore, workers should form a centrally-organised, disciplined political party to seize state power and establish the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Such ideas appalled Bakunin.
Bakunin’s critique of Marx’s authoritarianism opened the debate on two vital problems of modern revolutionary theory and practice: the role of radical intellectuals, which he ironically dubbed ‘savants’, and Marx’s notion of ‘scientific socialism’.
For Bakunin the revolutionary ‘tempest’ is created by the inevitable course of events and can be triggered by trivial causes. Organised groups can assist the revolution’s birth by propaganda and action, but only if these ideas echo the desires of the masses. These groups should never be separate from the masses and indeed must seek to prevent the consolidation of power in the hands of an élite by continually emphasizing free association.
Only the masses, completely involved and in absolute control, can make a real revolution. It cannot be made on their behalf, organised or directed by a ‘revolutionary’ nucleus who believe they know best. Such a revolution, argued Bakunin, must be seen as counter-revolutionary. The savants believe themselves superior to the masses and destined to be a future dominant class, a new aristocracy.
According to Bakunin, Marxism is the ideology of a new class in search of power. They talk of the overthrow of capitalists, of liberation and an end to exploitation, but in reality the radical intelligentsia see the revolution as a glorious opportunity to further their career prospects. Should they come to power, this élite would use its ‘science’ to justify its domination of the masses. According to Bakunin, such people are the ‘quintessence and the scientific expression of the bourgeois spirit and the bourgeois interest.’
Marx’s talk of objective ‘scientific laws’ of social evolution driven by inevitable economic developments — ‘laws’ which only Marx and his disciples could ‘interpret’ — served only by mystify the workers. By preaching patience and postponing revolt, and by replacing revolution with ‘alliances’ with bourgeois parliamentary parties until the ‘inevitable final crisis’ of capitalism occurred, Marx was selling the working class into perpetual slavery. For Bakunin, Marx’s inflated theorising was mumbo-jumbo; a new religion with a new priesthood whose Earthly Paradise, set in some unknown future, was merely yet another ideology of continued oppression.
However, at this time the most popular ideas within the International were not those of Marx but of Proudhon, whose federalism and mutualism formed the foundations of Bakunin’s concept of collectivism. In contrast to Marx’s calls to conquer the state in order to take control of its apparatuses, both Proudhon and Bakunin looked forward to a society of free federations of free associations of free workers.
Collectivism soon became the stated policy of the Italian and Spanish federations, the largest in the International, and increasingly popular with the Swiss, Belgian and French groups. Marx, alarmed by the popularity of Bakunin’s anti-authoritarian collectivism, threatened him with ‘Excommunication’! He began a campaign of slurs and lies against Bakunin, and a committee set up to investigate these charges resulted in majority vote to expel Bakunin.
Marx recognised that it was essential to remove Bakunin if the International was to be transformed from its current structure as a confederation of autonomous federations into a system of political parties directed by Marx himself. It was at this time that by arbitrary methods Marx succeeded in pushing a resolution to that effect through the International. The Swiss federation called a further Congress where the charges against Bakunin were proven false. An International Congress also fully supported Bakunin, and condemned and totally rejected Marx’s General Council and its plans. In their view, the duty of the workers was the destruction of political power.
Compromise with bourgeois politics, including parliamentarism, was rejected, and the organisation of new institutions of political power was seen to be as dangerous as any existing government. The Congress was a total defeat for Marx. In response he moved the General Council to the safety of New York, where it faded into irrelevance.
Exhausted by a life of struggle and worn down by the slanders and intrigues of the Marxists, Bakunin died at Berne on July 1st, 1876. His first fifty years established him throughout Europe as an heroic — indeed, an almost mythic — figure.
His legacy is enormous. The ideas he developed in the last ten years of his life spread rapidly throughout Russia, and the theories of collectivist anarchism and revolution were the basis of the anarcho-syndicalism which inspired mass movements in France and the Spanish Revolution of 1936. But most importantly, Bakunin's profound and pioneering critique of authoritarian (or state) socialism, and his remarkable prophecy of the course of its subsequent development still holds good today.
'My name will live on, and to this name will attach the real, legitimate glory of having been the pitiless and irreconcilable adversary, not of their own persons but of their authoritarian theories and ridiculous, odious, pretensions to world dictatorship.’
‘Our work is clear …’
Peter Kropotkin was born a prince of an illustrious military family, in 1842. As a boy he entered the Corps of Pages, Russia’s most exclusive academy, becoming its star pupil and serving as personal page to Tsar Alexander. A brilliant future lay ahead of him: a commission in the Guards, where he would soon be made a general, followed at least by the governorship of a province. Instead at 20 he astonished everyone by choosing to join the lowly regiment of Amur Cossacks.
The young prince was already on the side of liberal reform and had developed a passion for scientific discovery. The posting to Siberia offered the opportunity to pursue both interests. His first job was to report on prisons and salt-mines, where hard-labour, tuberculosis and scurvy united with bitter cold to bring terrible suffering and death to the prisoners. The experience opened his eyes to the nature of autocratic government.
‘I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding. 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 retreat from these grim realities, Kropotkin set out to explore Siberia. He journeyed for years throughout the region in the company of Cossacks and hunters, covering in all over fifty thousand miles. The geological and geographical discoveries he made were a tremendous contribution to scientific knowledge and established his international reputation. During this time Kropotkin met many political exiles, including the populist novelist and poet Mikhailov who had been sentenced to penal servitude in 1861 for circulating subversive leaflets. Shortly before his death from tuberculosis, Mikhailov introduced Kropotkin to Proudhon's ideas.
In 1866, a group of Polish prisoners disarmed their guards and set off to cross the Mongolian mountains for China, hoping eventually to sail around the world to Europe and freedom. Hunted down by Cossack troops, they were captured and several were executed. Kropotkin quit the army in protest and returned to St Petersburg to become a student at the university and continué his geographical work. In 1871, he was offered the prestigious secretaryship of the Russian Geographical Society, but he now recognised that his choice lay elsewhere:
'What right had I to these higher joys when all round me lives nothing but misery and struggle for a mouldy piece of bread; when whatsoever I should spend to enable me to live in that world of higher emotions must needs be taken from the very mouths of those who grew the wheat and had not bread enough for their children’.
He travelled first to Zurich, where hundreds of Russian exiles were gathered around pro-and anti-Bakuninist factions, then to Geneva, and finally to the Jura mountains, a stronghold of anarchism. Here he was introduced to James Guillaume and Adhemar Schwitzguebel, who had brought Bakunin’s ideas to the watchmakers of the area.
The manner in which these strongly independent peasant craftworkers discussed the principles and the possibilities of social justice finally determined Kropotkin’s position:
‘The egalitarian relations which I found in the Jura mountains; the independence of thought and expression which I saw developing in the workers and their unlimited devotion to the cause appealed strongly to my feelings; and when I came away from the mountains, after a week’s stay with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled; I was an anarchist.’
On his return to Russia, Kropotkin threw himself into underground activity among the workers of St Petersburg. In 1874 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress, where he became seriously ill. Two years later he made a dramatic escape, and in 1877 reached the Jura again.
Kropotkin was immediately welcomed into the inner circles of the anarchist movement, and he spent the next few years travelling throughout western Europe as an agitator and organiser. Switzerland was for a time his base but he was expelled in 1881 for praising the assassination of Tsar Alexander II as an ‘heroic act’. He then moved to France, but following a wave of riots and bombings in that country he was arrested and imprisoned for three years. International protest and his ill-health eventually led to his release and in 1886 he arrived in England, where he lived for the next thirty years.
Kropotkin now felt that the movement must go beyond discussion of theory and develop concrete anarchist alternatives to immediate social problems. In his newspaper Le Revolte and in countless pamphlets and books, Kropotkin dealt in a vivid, journalistic style with contemporary social questions of economics and history. His optimism and clarity made his writing so popular that his ideas — generally called Free or Anarchist Communism — soon circulated around the world and became a great influence upon the anarchist movement everywhere.
Most anarchists see no great contradiction between Kropotkin’s and Bakunin’s anarchism, regarding Bakunin as being more concerned with questions of how to overthrow the existing order and Kropotkin with the forms of organisation that should replace it.
Unlike Bakunin’s revolution — an immense destruction or sweeping away of the old order, Kropotkin’s was even at its origin a constructive act. To prevent the establishment of new forms of power, the workers must know that their revolution is the starting point of an entirely free society. All attempts to create a new ‘revolutionary government’ must be checked, while every step towards a greater freedom and equality must be encouraged. Reformism and hesitation are fatal; only total and rapid transformation can prevent a return to the old order. For Kropotkin, the Paris Commune of 1871 clearly signposted the direction for the revolution: the commune would become a voluntary association of all groups of individuals within it, uniting with other communities to form a freely co-operating regional and worldwide network which would replace all states and governments.
When these days shall come — and it is for you to hasten their coming — when a whole region, when great towns with their suburbs, shall shake off their rulers, our work is clear; all equipment must be returned to their true owners, everybody, so that each may have their full share in consumption, that production may continue in everything that is necessary and useful, and that social life, far from being interrupted, may be resumed with the greatest energy.’
In Kropotkin’s anarchist-communist society there could be no wages for labour (both Proudhon’s mutualism and Bakunin’s collectivism contained systems of payment for labour time); for Kropotkin any kind of wage (even if it took the form of labour cheques or credits) was a form of compulsion. In the commune all goods and services will be freely available to whoever needs them. Need, not work, should decide how things are distributed, and in a free society need can only be defined freely. Like Proudhon, he recognised that the wealth of society is created collectively — it is impossible to measure any individual’s contribution — so the social wealth must be enjoyed collectively also.
Inequality and private property in factories, land and so on must be abolished, but capitalism is not to be replaced by state ownership — the authoritarian socialist’s ambition — but by the international system of voluntary co-operation, Kropotkin pointed out that elements of such a system already exist — the international postal system is one example — and there is no logical reason why such voluntary co-operation cannot become universal. It is more practical and sensible way to organise a complex, modern society than capitalist competition or state planning, especially as most of the world's suffering comes from the chaos and waste that is associated with these systems. If all the energy and labour that goes into such unproductive activities as militarism and bureaucracy were directed instead into socially useful activity, there would be enough to satisfy everyone's needs.
In a free, anarchist world productive activity too would be very different from what it is today under capitalism. The sub-division of labour, dangerous factory conditions, meaningless tasks, boredom, frustration, want and compulsion, would all be replaced by the satisfaction of freely chosen, varied and useful occupations. In such a society, human activity, once artificial restrictions are removed, will be naturally directed to the general good of all.
'People's exclusive purpose in life is not eating, drinking, and providing shelter for themselves. As soon as their material wants are satisfied, other needs, which generally speaking may be described as of an artistic nature, will thrust themselves forward. These needs are of the greatest variety; they vary in each and every individual, and the more society is civilized, the more will individuality be developed, and the more will desires be varied’.
A constant argument used against those who believe that human society is capable of fundamental progress is that it is against nature. Godwin had been told that any improvement in the condition of people would inevitably lead them to breed faster, and hence to wipe out any advance that was made. In the middle of the 19th century it became a commonplace of scientific and political thought that the basic laws of society are also those of nature (a view which of course Godwin and Proudhon shared), but that life in nature is always and everywhere ‘red in tooth and claw’. Darwin and his associates talked of animal life as an endless ‘gladiators’ show’ where the rule of strength ensured the survival of the fittest and the elimination of the weakest, and who enlarged this idea to include primitive human society as a ‘continuous free fight”’.
Kropotkin’s travels in Siberia and Manchuria and the scientific observations he made there had convinced him that the opposite was the case. He argued instead that such perpetual struggle would in fact have been fatal to any species because it would have cancelled out the advantages gained from living in a group or society. It is certainly inconsistent with the development of human society. In his view, cooperation and social solidarity, not struggle and competition, are the vital elements for the success and survival of animal life.
In his book Mutual Aid (1902), Kropotkin collected impressive scientific evidence to support these ideas. If there is a struggle it is against natural circumstances — climate, food supply and so on — and not between individual animals of the same species.
‘Life in societies enables the feeblest animals to resist, or to protect themselves from the most terrible and beasts of prey; it permits long life; it enables the species to rear its young with the least waste of energy; it enables gregarious animals to migrate in search of new abodes. While admitting that force, swiftness, protective colours, cunningness, and endurance to hunger and cold, are so many qualities making the individual or the species the fittest under certain circumstances, we maintain that under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species that willingly abandon it are doomed to decay; while those animals which know best how to combine have the greatest chance of survival and of further evolution, although they may be inferior to others in each of the faculties, except the intellectual faculty.’
The ‘intellectual faculty’ itself is further evidence of the importance of sociability. Language, experience, knowledge, culture; all these can only grow from a shared, social life, which also creates the day-to-day practice of a ‘collective sense of justice’ which for Kropotkin is at the very heart of society. Justice, solidarity, co-operation and mutual aid are essential in human society. Without them everyday life would soon come to a halt, and it is these, not coercive, centralised, authoritarian government, that ensure the growth and vitality of society.
Kropotkin’s lasting contribution was to place anarchist theory on a scientific basis and to provide a vision of great optimism and hope for the future. Kropotkin saw anarchism as the highest expression of a biological need for animals to form social groups. His scientific studies provided proof that the general direction of human history was continually towards liberty, in spite of anything that authority imposed, and that further progress was inevitable. Following an all-embracing social revolution society will continue to grow and change in directions unimaginable to people living in the present authoritarian world. Society is naturally developing to secure a life of ‘wellbeing for all’, in which collective productivity will be put to collective use — anarchism.
His last years were unhappy ones. Kropotkin mistakenly supported the First World War because he believed that Germany was more authoritarian than its opponents, a position which separated him from most anarchists. In 1917 he returned to Russia, where he was hailed as a great revolutionary. But he soon clashed openly with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Old, infirm and isolated he nevertheless continued to call for anarchist revolution:
‘A social revolution cannot be accomplished by a central government… To trust to the genius of party dictators is to destroy all the independent nuclei, trade unions and local co-operative distributive organisations, turning them into bureaucratic organs of the party … This is not the way to accomplish revolution.’
Kropotkin died on February 8th, 1921. As his coffin passed through the Moscow streets, a five mile long procession of mourners formed. In red letters on the anarchists’ black banners were written the phrase: ‘Where there is authority there is no freedom.’