After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Peter Kropotkin.
Life of Peter Kropotkin:
Prince Peter Kropotkin was born in 1842 and breathed his last in 1921. Kropotkin was a Russian noble. He was educated for army and at the age of twenty he became a military officer in Siberia.
Kropotkin’s great interest in science developed from his military training which he received to get a job. This moulded his life in future. He had a scientific mind and devoted his time and energy to the study of books on science.
As a military officer in Siberia Kropotkin got ample opportunity for geographical survey and expedition. Thus his shift from military service to geographical survey and expeditions enriched the subject profoundly. He contributed many articles to different journals.
Peter Kropotkin was a man of different mentality and attitude. His stay in military service could not satisfy his academic and intellectual requirements and desires and after serving several years he relinquished the job, and entered the University of St. Petersburg in 1867. His vast knowledge in geography brought for him the post of secretary of Geographical Society.
Even this vital administrative post could not detain him for long time. He moved to radical political movements. In 1872, Peter Kropotkin joined the International Workingmen’s Association. Later on he was deeply involved in subversive and anarchical activities. This led him to imprisonment in 1874.
He escaped from prison in 1876 and went to England. The England of the second half of eighteenth century was the centre of revolutionary activities, although she never experienced any revolution.
He also travelled to Switzerland and Paris. While in Paris he was again arrested by the French government in 1883. Released from prison in 1886 he went to England and settled there. He remained in England until the Russian revolution in 1917. The rest of his life was spent without political activity.
Peter Kropotkin was an evolutionist anarchist. But his evolutionism was more scientific than that of his predecessors. He wrote several books on anarchism such as ‘The Place of Anarchy in Socialist Evolution (1886), The Conquest of Bread (1888), Its Philosophy and Ideal (1896)’, ‘The State – Its Part in History (1898)’ and ‘Modern Science and Anarchism (1903)’. His deep interest in science, particularly biology and anthropology, opened before him new and enchanting vistas of knowledge and all these inspired him to study biological science with added interest.
He applied concept of evolution to the study of political ideas and this finally ended in the emergence of evolutionist anarchism. Maxey writes, “He was a student of biology and anthropology and his geographical work was much influenced by his knowledge of those subjects. His theory of anarchism revealed the same influence. He believed and marshalled an array of biological and anthropological data to prove that anarchy was in harmony with the true principles of natural social evolution.”
Political Ideas of Peter Kropotkin:
1. Theory of Evolution:
Kropotkin’s theory of evolution is based on scientific principles. As a student of geography, biology and anthropology Kropotkin studied the development of both animals and human beings.
Urge to survive forced both man and animal to adapt to the circumstances. Through adaptation and adjustment man makes himself suitable for environment. Failure to adapt is the chief cause of destruction.
Kropotkin argues that under normal circumstances man and social life pass through the natural process of evolution and this process is smooth. But when the artificial activities or human volition interfere with the natural process of evolution of social life, it becomes abrupt and violent.
Violence comes from resistance. Sometimes the sudden appearance of new ideas and new events makes the evolutionary process abrupt.
According to Kropotkin’s reasoning when impediments are placed on the natural process of evolution force is applied to neutralize or remove the effects of impediments. Kropotkin calls it revolution.
So evolution and revolution are not to be separated from each other. Revolution is a natural aid to evolution. So revolution cannot be viewed as abnormal and destructive. Kropotkin has drawn instances from history in support of his view.
The most important aspect of Kropotkin’s theory of evolution is his emphasis on cooperative mentality of men. Peter Kropotkin accepts the central idea of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The animal world has passed several phases of evolution to reach the final phase. But some evolutionists have argued that there was an intense fighting among men and animals and in this struggle only the fittest ultimately survived. This latter theory finds no place in Kropotkin’s theory of evolution.
Instead of using’ fighting as the main plank of evolution he emphasizes upon cooperation as the basic motive of human being.
Kropotkin studied biology and anthropology and nowhere he could find the trace of Hobbesian picture of human nature. In the primitive society, Kropotkin held there was a law of nature and this was also a law of cooperation and not contradiction or animosity. There was the law of mutual aid, fellow feeling and sympathy.
The primitive society was not the society of war of all against all, not the fighting mentality. The primitive people developed a lot of cooperative mentality amongst themselves and in the opinion of Kropotkin that was the cause of their survival.
Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:
A Factor of Evolution deals with cooperation. The higher the species the more perfectly developed are the dispositions and capacities for cooperation. Kropotkin has culled innumerable instances from history in support of his conclusion. Throughout the numerous stages of evolution there was always cooperation. People behaved among themselves cordially.
But the creation of artificial organization like state or government unnecessarily interfered with the cooperative mentality and behaviour of man. This led to the loss of liberty, justice and goodwill. Kropotkin raised his voice against this situation and that laid the foundation of anarchism.
2. Theory of State:
Peter Kropotkin has argued that the natural goal of social evolution is the attainment of principle of equality, justice and social solidarity. The higher the evolution the more perfect is the natural goal.
The question then is what obstructs the attainment of this natural goal. The artificial institution and human volition are the most powerful hindrances to the natural goal. Kropotkin says that the state is the most potential source of all these hindrances.
So far as theory of evolution is concerned the state has no connection with it. It is man-made. Whereas, the society is the product of an evolutionary process. The state is regarded by Kropotkin as the embodiment of coercion and restriction. These are necessary to settle the conflict.
So in the general theory of state there is no recognition of the cooperative instincts and spirit of individuals. The existing state is based on certain false assumptions man is unsocial, quarrelsome and engaged in incessant competition. The actual situation is quite different.
Peter Kropotkin has argued that the evolution of human faculties is still in the process of evolution, that is, human faculties are changing. But the establishment of state or any other artificial organization means the interference with this natural process of evolution. Again, in this evolutionary process there works spontaneity. The present system of political authority denies the importance of spontaneity.
Every man should be given full freedom to pursue his own methods for the development of his faculties and in this way the overall progress of society will be possible.
Here he emphasizes the spontaneity of individuals. Kropotkin claims that his special emphasis on the freedom and spontaneity of individuals is not based on imagination but is a realistic one.
The freedom and spontaneity if properly nurtured would lead to sufficient development and he experienced it as an army officer of Russia. He saw that if people are allowed to work freely and spontaneously better results are to be found. But, on the other hand, if they are forced to carry out the order of others, and if this against their will, progress will be affected. For this reason Kropotkin strongly objected to the creation of artificial authority.
He has further observed that spontaneity and freedom enable men to overcome very tough situations. But authority destroys the spontaneity and freedom.
According to Peter Kropotkin the study of primitive society reveals that there was no government or coercive power. Notwithstanding, these primitive societies were well administered and there was no lack of obedience on the part of subject people. How was it possible? Asks Kropotkin. His reply was mutual aid and cooperation. Cooperation should be the basis of every society and people will cultivate it spontaneously.
Out of cooperation comes mutual aid. We can say one complements the other. In short, he says that cooperation, mutual aid and spontaneity shall be the basis of any human society. If restrictions and coercion are invited to interfere that will lead the society to destruction or anarchy.
Peter Kropotkin investigated the origin of state as a political organization. His view is stated in the following way – It is relatively a late historical development. Originally there were various social and cultural organizations based on voluntary principles and cooperation. When the economic forces and conditions divided the society into classes the interests of these classes became antagonistic. A force or power was created to settle the hostility. This is the state.
This conception of Peter Kropotkin reminds us of Marxian concept of origin of state. Laws were also enacted to serve the interests of the dominant class. The cooperation and mutual aid which prevailed in earlier societies were buried in oblivion. Customs and conventions were displaced by man-made laws.
Peter Kropotkin makes no distinction between different forms of government so far as their repressive nature is concerned.
Even in democratic states based on universal suffrage few rule on behalf of the majority. Coercion and exploitation both are characteristic features of such states.
All states are repressive and their activities as well as laws are sources of injustice and suffering. Labourers and peasants are exploited. Again, the institution of private property is the source of dissension, strife and inequality. Thus, in Kropotkin’s judgment authority, law and private property are enemies of people and their cooperation.
3. Revolution, Terrorism and Violence:
Why the state-power is to be destroyed is now clear. But how it is to be done we have not yet analysed. We shall do it now. In order to establish freedom, justice and equality, he asserted the private property and its ally state must be destroyed.
The state and its ally the capitalist class have created religion to hoax ordinary people and to make exploitation thorn-free. So religion and its institutionalization must be abolished. This can be performed only by revolution.
Peter Kropotkin’s theory of revolution is quite different from what his predecessors had talked about. In the words of Woodcock “He is considering the revolution, not in the apocalyptic form of a vast inferno of destruction but as a concrete event in which the rebellious workers must be aware of the consequences of their actions, so that revolt will not end in the establishment of new organs of power that will halt the natural development of free society.”
The raison d’etre of revolution, in Kropotkin’s view, is to build up a new society based on the principles of liberty and equality. It will have before that to destroy the old society. It is to be remembered that destruction can never be the leitmotif of any revolution. But destruction is unavoidable.
In the theory of revolution enunciated by Kropotkin there is no place of gradualism which is fatal in all its aspects. Gradualism is reformism, it is compromise. But Kropotkin is explicit and uncompromising.
Only revolution can ensure substantial advance towards social equality. Gradualism accommodated old forms and private property system. It keeps the state structure as it is and permits additions and alterations. This is not enough. A new society is to be constructed and so revolution is indispensable.
So far as revolution and terrorism are concerned the position of Kropotkin is different from that of other anarchists. He thought the revolution was the only way to change society. But his idea of revolution is not fully connected with terrorism.
His apathy to terrorism is quite known to his readers. He thought that the terrorist way might be used as last weapon. Explaining Kropotkin’s viewpoint James Joll observes “In fact, Kropotkin believed that in certain situations violence was justified and that it might well be the only means of revolution.”
Peter Kropotkin said, “A frightful storm is needed to sweep away all this rottenness, to vivify torpid souls with its breath, and to restore to humanity the devotion, self-denial, and heroism, without which a society becomes senile and decrepit and crumbles away.”
Kropotkin had suggested that a violent and pervasive revolution was needed to free the society from all evils and undesirable elements.
It was beyond the capacity of gradualism to cure the disease. But the question is – Can terrorism be accepted as part of revolution? Personally Kropotkin disliked terrorism or revenge.
Revenge, moreover, can never be the aim of the revolutionaries. But the importance or significance of revenge or terrorist activities lies elsewhere. Kropotkin has said that in the present structure of state the workers are the victims of all types of tortures, exploitation and persecution. This is really a sorry state of affairs and they must be freed.
Peter Kropotkin has said:
“In fact we have not suffered from the persecution as they we are not judges to those who live in the midst of all this hell of suffering personally I hate these explosions, but I cannot stand as a judge to condemn those who are driven to despair…one single thing that revenge must not be erected into theory. That no one has the right to incite others to it, but that if he keenly feels all that hell and does a desperate act, let him he judged by those who are peers, his equals in bearing those pariahs’ sufferings.”
Peter Kropotkin was faced with a complicated problem. Without a violent revolution the working class of Russia could not be freed from the present situation. But he did not like a violent revolution because the government of Russia was extremely reactionary. People will have to face severe penal measures for their involvement in violent revolution.
So far as use of violence is concerned there was a clear difference of opinion between Kropotkin and Tolstoy. Tolstoy was also an anarchist and he wanted the abolition of state or political authority. But he was convinced that this objective could successfully be achieved through non-violent methods.
Tolstoy’s doctrine has been called a Christian anarchism. Both the state and private property, according to Tolstoy, are incompatible with true Christianity.
The state demands obligation from its citizens and executes its will through coercion. Tolstoy argues that this act of the state is against the principles of Christianity. Christianity further maintains that evil cannot be resisted by force. Tolstoy believed that anarchism could be attained by non-violent methods.
Personally Kropotkin had no quarrel with Tolstoy. They also never met. Points of disagreement centred around Christianity and use of violent methods. Kropotkin was scientific minded. He had a great respect for history.
He buttressed his theory of anarchism by scientific argument. Kropotkin’s love for scientific argument and reason prevented him from agreeing with Tolstoy who based his theory of anarchism on religion.
Peter Kropotkin viewed anarchism in the light of evolution and not of Christianity. Kropotkin also did not like violence. But in final analysis he thought that it depended upon the situation.
Kropotkin’s anarchism is different from Bakunin’s collectivist anarchism and Poudhon’s mutualist anarchism. Peter Kropotkin is an anarchist communist. In his anarchism there is compulsion. His anarchism is no longer compatible with voluntarism in a hundred percent way. The whole theory of communism in anarchist form is developed in his The Conquest of Bread published in 1892.
Peter Kropotkin enthusiastically propagated the anarchist communism though he was not the first man in this field. Long before him several persons advocated it. Anarchist communism was advocated by Sir Thomas More in the sixteenth century and Winstanely in the seventeenth century. Campanula’s City of the Sun contained seeds of anarchist communism. Kropotkin was, however, its great apostle and popularize.
In the Jura Congress of 1880 Kropotkin presented a report—The Anarchist Idea from the point of view of Its Practical Realisation. This report for the first time stressed anarchist communism.
The objective of the anarchist communism was the expropriation and collectivization of the means of production. He did not specifically mention the word communism nor did he speak of communist method of distribution. However, what he suggested was nothing but anarchist communism.
Peter Kropotkin said, “To make prosperity a reality, these immense capital-cities, houses, tilled fields, factories; means of communication, education must stop being considered as private property which the monopolist can dispose of as he likes. This rich productive equipment, so painfully obtained, constructed, developed, invented by our ancestors must become common property so that the collective spirit can draw from it the greatest advantage for everyone. We must have expropriation. Prosperity for all as an end, expropriation as a means.” The expropriation clears the way of the appearance of anarchist communism.
The system of private property would be abolished. Communism would fill up the vacuum. With the private property, political authority and exploitation would also go.
In The Conquest of Bread we find Kropotkin saying, “All things are for all men, since all men have need for them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate everyone’s part in the production of world’s wealth. If the man and the woman bear their fair share of the work, they have a right to their fair share of all that is produced by all, and the share is enough to secure their well-being.”
The basic principle of anarchist communism is from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. It is not, says Kropotkin, possible to allocate the fruits of labour according to the work done by man.
However, it is enough that each labourer will get what he requires. Kropotkin observed that capitalist society is the heartland of all sorts of exploitation. Naturally in order to bring about an end of exploitation it is necessary to uproot capitalist system. How could it be done that is the problem?
Let us see what he says:
“Common possession of the necessaries of the production implies the common enjoyment of fruits of the common production; and we consider that an equitable organization of society can only arise when every wage system is abandoned and when everybody, contributing to the common well being to the full extent of his capacities, shall enjoy from the common stock of society to the fullest possible extent of his needs.
The communists share this ideal of the anarchists. But the communists believe that this can be achieved through the centralized system of production and distribution. On the other hand, Kropotkin and his followers believe that the ends can be obtained by mutual cooperation and free association.
The central idea of Kropotkin’s anarchist communism is a communist society can be built up through decentralization and diversification. Whereas Marxism thinks of centralization is anathema to freedom, equality and to some extent justice.