Peter Kropotkin: Science and Syndicalism
For those interested in anarchism, Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) needs no introduction. Born into the Russian aristocracy, he rejected his background and title of prince to become a revolutionary anarchist, the best-known anarchist thinker of his time.
Kropotkin was an explorer and geographer, who an anarchist while visiting Western Europe in 1872. After returning to Russia, he was imprisoned for his agitation against the Tsarist regime before escaping and going into exile. Imprisoned again in France in 1883, once released he left for Britain in 1886 where he remained until he returned to his homeland after the revolution in February 1917. He died in early 1921 and his funeral was the last legal protest in the Soviet Union until its collapse.
While in exile, Kropotkin quickly became a leading member of the anarchist movement, producing such classic Anarchist books as Words of a Rebel (1885), The Conquest of Bread (1892), The Great French Revolution, 1789–1793 (1909) and Modern Science and Anarchy (1913). However, he also produced works of popular science and other books: In Russian and French Prisons (1887), Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898), Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), Mutual Aid (1902), Russian Literature (1905) and the posthumous Ethics (1921).
Many of his books were revised from articles written for the anarchist press (such as Le Révolté, La Révolte and Les Temps Nouveaux in France and Freedom in Britain) and non-anarchist journals, usually the Nineteenth Century where, for example, articles which were revised to become Mutual Aid first appeared. Perhaps needless to say, he also wrote numerous articles and pamphlets – indeed, a bibliography of his works would be long and unlikely to be complete.
Obviously, I cannot cover every aspect of Kropotkin’s ideas and, by necessity, will focus of the key ones. Before discussing these, I should say a few words on my ability to comment meaningfully on the subject. While I’ve read him since becoming an anarchist, I went into more detail when Freedom Press asked me to write an introduction to their new edition of Mutual Aid back in 2009. This turned out to be too long, so they only used the biographical sketch but AK Press published it as Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation (2011). Then I edited Direct Struggle against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (2014), the most comprehensive selection of his works to date. Finally, I edited Modern Science and Anarchy (2018), the last book of Kropotkin’s published during his lifetime and the last unavailable in English.
So I’ve read a lot of Kropotkin and I would say I have a fair understanding of his ideas.
First, though, I need to address some of the myths which have grown up around Kropotkin. Some were raised by well-meaning people who focused on only part of his legacy (namely, Mutual Aid). Others by opponents of anarchism, usually Leninists. These sometimes overlap, so allowing the latter to quote the former as support for their hatchet-jobs.
Thus we get commentators waxing lyrical on the “Gentle Prince of Co-operation” who viewed nature through Rose-tinted Glasses. Someone who was a “pacifist” and an “advocate of non-violence,” who opposed class struggle. Someone who was backward looking, idealising the Medieval Commune and advocating small-scale production.
In other words, a well-meaning utopian: an anarchist Santa!
While it is certainly true that Kropotkin was indeed a lovely person, the reality of his politics was far from these myths for he was a committed class struggle anarchist, an advocate of direct action by unions, as well as a committed revolutionary, an advocate of insurrection.
As far as his evolutionary theory goes, he recognised competition between individuals within species existed – as shown by the subtitle of Mutual Aid proclaiming “a factor of evolution.” Nor did he idealise the Communes of the Middle Ages – the key Commune for him was the Paris Commune of 1871. Likewise, he advocated appropriate technology and recognised that the size of workplaces was dependent on objective factors and human needs.
Here I sketch Kropotkin’s actual politics, both the science and the syndicalism.
The first thing to mention is that Kropotkin was a scientist of international renown. So if Proudhon is unusual in being a socialist theorist who was working class, Kropotkin was unusual in that he was also an actual scientist. More, a scientist who made numerous contributions to many subjects, particularly geography.
This meant that, in Britain, he was viewed mostly as a famous scientist who happened to be an anarchist while, in Europe, he was a famous anarchist who happened to be a scientist. As his obituary in The Geographical Journal (April 1921) reminds us:
“He was a keen observer, with a well- trained intellect, familiar with all the sciences bearing on his subject […] there is no doubt that his contributions to geographical science are of the highest value. […] He had a singularly attractive personality, sympathetic nature, a warm but perhaps too tender heart, and a wide knowledge in literature, science, and art.”
This is why he was asked to write so many articles for 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, not just his famous and rightly much reprinted entry on Anarchism.
Regardless of his significant contributions to geography, Kropotkin is best remembered for his work on biology and sociology in the form of Mutual Aid. This work was provoked by Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, who had proclaimed in 1888 that life “was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence” and fundamentally immoral. Thus individuals were, to use a more current word, inherently selfish:
“But the effort of ethical man to work toward a moral end by no means abolished, perhaps has hardly modified, the deep-seated organic impulses which impel the natural man to follow his non-moral course.”
Yet this was nothing more than “Just So” story – like much of evolutionary psychology today. It was projecting onto nature and the past assumptions of British bourgeois culture, which Kropotkin showed, by extensive evidence, ignored much. So while Huxley asserted, Kropotkin documented – yet it is the latter who is dismissed as reading his hopes onto nature!
Kropotkin was very familiar with Darwin and he was at pains to show Mutual Aid’s roots in Darwin’s work, particularly The Descent of Man. This means that regardless of some claims, mutual aid was neither “anti-Darwin” nor “an alternative to Darwin.” Nor was it idiosyncratic, for he did not invent the concept of mutual aid but rather popularised in the west a commonplace idea in Russian evolutionary thought (as Daniel Todes discusses in his excellent Darwin without Malthus). Nor did it idealise nature:
“Huxley’s view of nature had as little claim to be taken as a scientific deduction as the opposite view of Rousseau, who saw in nature but love, peace, and harmony destroyed by the accession of man [...] Rousseau had committed the error of excluding the beak-and-claw fight from his thoughts; and Huxley committed the opposite error; but neither Rousseau’s optimism nor Huxley’s pessimism can be accepted as an impartial interpretation of nature.”
As well as its lack of evidence, Kropotkin also pointed to a clear contradiction in Huxley’s position in that “he necessarily has to admit the existence of some other, extra-natural, or super-natural influence which inspires man with conceptions of ‘supreme good’ […] he nullifies his own attempt at explaining evolution by the action of natural forces only.” In short, if we are inherently immoral how do most of us manage to ignore said inheritance?
It is important to note that the work is deliberately one-sided, that it is “a book on the law of Mutual Aid, viewed at as one of the chief factors of evolution – not of all factors of evolution and their respective values.” The “war of each against all is not the law of nature. Mutual aid is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.” Rather than deny it, the theory is based on the “survival of the fittest” (to use Herbert Spencer’s expression) for Kropotkin was fully aware that “animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest” and that “life in societies is the most powerful weapon in the struggle for life.” Thus co-operation benefits individuals and increases the number and survival of their off-spring for “the maintenance and further development of the species, together with the greatest amount of welfare and enjoyment of life for the individual, with the least waste of energy.”
This is why co-operative behaviour is selected – it benefits the individual animal as well as the group, so it is not “group selection.”
It is important to remember that mutual aid is co-operation, not altruism. However, mutual aid is the basis for what is often termed the higher values for “it is evident that life in societies would be utterly impossible without a corresponding development of social feelings, and, especially, of a certain collective sense of justice growing to become a habit.” This means that “Mutual Aid-Justice-Morality are thus the consecutive steps of an ascending series, revealed to us by the study of the animal world and man.”
While Kropotkin returned to ethics towards the end of his life, he was interested in the subject for many decades. For example, he wrote in Anarchist Morality (1889) that the “idea of good and evil thus has nothing to do with religion or a mystic conscience: it is a natural need of animal species […] Is it useful to society? Then it is good. Is this harmful? Then it is bad.” This meant that “the conception of good and evil varies […] There is nothing unchangeable about it.” This applied to both individuals and societies, including to the same individual and same society over time.
However it was expressed, it found its roots in the same evolutionary needs. How it expressed itself, it was rooted in equality as you would expect from mutual aid. This is the basis for golden rule, the maxim “Do to others what you would like them to do to you in the same circumstances.”
Yet, needless to say, Kropotkin was well aware that this instinct could be, and was, ignored and that humans invent whole ideologies (such as economics) to do so, but it remains nevertheless. Hence the pressing need to create a social environment where it could fully develop and flourish.
Given that Kropotkin sought to link anarchism to developments in the science of his time, it is useful to see how mutual aid is viewed today. As Stephen Jay Gould summarised, “Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to co-operation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals.” Primatologist Frans de Waal is of particular note in terms of work in the field Kropotkin trail blazed so well.
This position has become a commonplace in evolutionary theory thanks to Robert Trivers and his work on “Reciprocal Altruism.” Sadly, he failed to see he had reinvented the wheel for he later admitted that “I never read Kropotkin.” Moreover, he also admitted that “I had not anticipated […] that a sense of justice or fairness seemed a natural consequence of selection for reciprocal altruism” – if he had read Kopotkin then he would have seen that argued decades before!
So mutual aid – under a different name – has become a standard part of modern sociobiology. Most famously, Richard Dawkins discusses “Tit-for-Tat” in second edition of The Selfish Gene. Again, I must stress that Kropotkin had decades previously recognised the need that the uncooperative are “treated as an enemy, or even worse” – it is mutual aid, after all!
As far as the evolution of ethics goes, recent work has confirmed Kropotkin’s insights – work ably summarised by Richard Dawkins in his The God Delusion.
Science and Class
Kropotkin had no illusions that science was somehow neutral. Rather, he was well aware that in practice it is not neutral, that it is embedded in the surrounding culture, reflecting the class position of those who conduct it amongst other factors. This influences what they consider worth looking at, which questions to ask, what data they gather, how to interpret it and so on. This can be seen most obviously from history and economics (assuming the latter can be classed as a science, which is doubtful) but it also applies to other branches of science.
This can be seen from discussions of co-operation in biology. After all, co-operation is extensive in nature but considered a puzzle by some scientists. According to the mainstream interpretation, it should not happen – it would be against the “selfish” interests of individual animals (or their genes).
Take, as an example, Ant Super-colonies. These are formed of ants with different genetic backgrounds, which led a Professor from the Department of Biology in the University of Copenhagen publically stating that “it looks as if the ants defy evolution, and we’re eager to figure out how that’s even possible” for “according to the laws of evolution, you only need to help out your relatives. But we’re seeing ant colonies so big that all the ants cannot possibly be related. So why are they helping one another? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Ignoring the all-too-common confusion of a theory which seeks to describe reality with reality itself, it is useful to compare the two ant experiences. Normal ant colonies spend a lot of time fighting each other, with the ants facing the distinct possibility of having their internal organs dissolved fighting for their Queen. The super-colony ants do not have to fight the others, so they spend more time finding food and doing other, more pleasant, activities.
So, obviously, it is a complete mystery as to why such super-colonies develop and flourish.
All of which suggests that the theory of evolution is still one-sided, still focused on “one factor.” That this “one factor” reflects the dominant ideology of the system these professors are in is just a co-incidence, of course.
Kropotkin also used his scientific training for his political ideas, by building the case for anarchism by analysing society and gathering evidence. For anarchists do not compare an ideal future to the grim now. Rather, we identify tendencies within capitalism which point beyond it:
“We shall not construct a new society by looking backwards. We shall only do so by studying, as Proudhon, has already advised, the tendencies of society today and so forecasting the society of tomorrow.”
Thus Kropotkin’s anarchism was not based on wishful thinking but rather on the scientific method, on analysing reality, gathering data, producing theories, and comparing to reality. He applied this to society, most obviously in his analysis of the State – both in history and now – as well as in his support oppositional forces to oppression and exploitation, most importantly syndicalism.
Syndicalism (Revolutionary Unionism)
While Kropotkin is often portrayed as being oblivious to the class nature of current society, to the class war, the reality is different. He was well aware of class struggle and he based his politics on it:
“What solidarity can exist between the capitalist and the worker he exploits? Between the head of an army and the soldier? Between the governing and the governed?”
This perspective can be seen in Mutual Aid, in which he noted how the few “endeavoured to break down the protective institutions of mutual support, with no other intention but to increase their own wealth and their own powers” and how the many had to combine to defend themselves. Unsurprisingly, he pointed to how the “worker’s need of mutual support finds its expression” in unions and strikes.
Mutual aid is about self-defence against a hostile environment and under capitalism “the same tendency” expresses itself “in the workers unions” and “here again we find at work the same popular spirit trying to defend itself, this time against the capitalists.” This in turn pointed to the means of libertarian action:
“The enemy on whom we declare war is capital, and it is against capital that we will direct all our efforts, taking care not to become distracted from our goal by the phony campaigns and arguments of the political parties. The great struggle that we are preparing for is essentially economic, and so it is on the economic terrain that we should focus our activities.”
In this he was building upon the foundations laid by earlier anarchists.
In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first person to call themselves an anarchist. This, he later explained, meant “a solution [to the social question] based upon equality,” namely “the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.”
In numerous books, pamphlets and articles he laid the foundations of anarchism – the critique of property (“Property is theft” and “Property is despotism”) and the critique of the state (which is “inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat”). He also laid out a positive alternative, which became known as Libertarian Socialism, a socialism based on workers associations and self-management (“the revolution has launched us on the path of industrial democracy”), socialisation (“all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor”), possession (associates control what they use and “receives his usufruct from the hands of society, which alone is the permanent possessor”) and federalism. This would ensure “an effective sovereignty of the working, reigning, governing masses.”
Unlike later anarchists, Proudhon was a reformist and rejected revolution. He also saw the need for competition between co-operatives and so advocated what is now termed market socialism but what he called mutualism.
His works were influential in working class circles in France and beyond. Just as Proudhon was influenced by the workers movement of his time, so the workers movement was influenced by him. So it was mutualist French trade unionists who met with their British comrades in 1864 to form the International Workers Association – the famous First International. Michael Bakunin joined the International four years later and became influential within it by championing ideas which had become commonplace in the Association – direct action and unions as the key means of struggle, workers councils (or “Chambers of Labour,” to use the term at the time) as the means of transforming society. He summarised his vision as follows:
“Workers, no longer count on anyone but yourselves […] Abstain from all participation in bourgeois radicalism and organise outside of it the forces of the proletariat. The basis of that organisation is entirely given: the workshops and the federation of the workshops […] instruments of struggle against the bourgeoisie […] The creation of Chambers of Labour […] the liquidation of the State and of bourgeois society.”
Such ideas, while reflecting the majority of the International, inevitably brought him into conflict with Marx and his programme of political action, that is, electioneering based around socialist parties aiming for political power in parliament. As Engels summarised:
“In every struggle of class against class, the next end fought for is political power; the ruling class defends its political supremacy […] its safe majority in the Legislature; the inferior class fights for, first a share, then the whole of that power, in order to become enabled to change existing laws in conformity with their own interests and requirements. Thus the working class of Great Britain for years fought ardently and even violently for the People’s Charter, which was to give it that political power.”
As Bakunin predicted, such a programme produced reformism, not socialism. In contrast, Bakunin advocated what would now be termed syndicalism. Thus “strikes spread from one place to another, they come close to turning into a general strike. And with the ideas of emancipation that now hold sway over the proletariat, a general strike can result only in a great cataclysm which forces society to shed its old skin.” The struggle itself would produce the framework of a free society:
“The organisation of the trade sections, their federation [….] by the Chambers of Labour […] combining theory and practice […] also bear in themselves the living germs of the new social order, which is to replace the bourgeois world. They are creating not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself.”
The aim would be free socialism, in which the “land belongs to only those who cultivate it with their own hands; to the agricultural communes. The capital and all the tools of production belong to the workers; to the workers’ associations.”
Now, Bakunin – like anarchism itself – is often portrayed by Marxists as being “individualistic” and having little in common with syndicalism. As shown, such claims are nonsense – but if any Marxist doubts the similarity between the two, here is a quote from someone whom they should believe, Marx himself, who once admitted that “Bakunin’s programme” was that the “working class must not occupy itself with politics. They must only organise themselves by trades-unions. One fine day, by means of the Internationale they will supplant the place of all existing states.”
“Direct struggle against capital”
Which brings me to Kropotkin, whose ideas cannot be taken in isolation from what came before and reflected those of Proudhon, Bakunin, and the Federalist-wing of the International.
Like Bakunin, he was a revolutionary class struggle anarchist although, as a leading advocate of communist-anarchism he also argued for distribution according to need rather than deed in a libertarian society. Again, like Bakunin, he argued for the “direct struggle against capital,” otherwise socialists are “continually driven by the force of circumstances to become tools of the ruling classes in keeping things as they are.” Rather than the state socialism of social democracy, he advocated a libertarian, self-managed, federalist socialism and rightly predicted that “to hand over to the State all the main sources of economic life — the land, the mines, the railways, banking, insurance, and so on — as also the management of all the main branches of industry […] would mean to create a new instrument of tyranny. State capitalism would only increase the powers of bureaucracy and capitalism.”
His politics are based on analysis, not wishful thinking – this can be seen from his studies on the State, as included in Modern Science and Anarchy.
“The Spirit of Revolt”
Anarchists had to encourage the spirit of revolt within the masses. Therefore, anarchists “have always advised taking an active part in those workers’ organisations which carry on the direct struggle of Labour against Capital and its protector, ― the State.” This is because “to be able to make revolution, the mass of workers must organise themselves, and resistance and the strike are excellent means by which workers can organise.” The need was “to build up a force capable of imposing better working conditions on the bosses, but also ― indeed primarily ― to create among the working classes the union structures that might some day replace the bosses and take into their own hands the production and management of every industry.”
Thus socialism was built in opposition to capitalism rather than taking over the state which was, for Kropotkin like all anarchists, an Instrument of class rule. More specifically, for minority classes and structured accordingly – centralised (both territorially and functionally), unitarian (power concentrated at one point) and top-down. Thus “the bourgeois struggled […] to establish a powerful, centralised State, which absorbed everything and secured their property […] along with their full freedom to exploit.”
So new functions needed new organs. An organisational structure which has evolved to exclude and enslave the masses could not be used by the masses to empower and free ourselves. New organisations created by and for the masses were needed and structured accordingly – federal (both territorially and functionally), decentralised (de-centred or multi-associational) and bottom-up. Simply put, the state “cannot take this or that form at will” for it “is necessarily hierarchical, authoritarian—or it ceases to be the State.” A new social organisation was needed, one forged in the struggle for freedom within the hostile environment of capitalism:
“what means can the State provide to abolish this [capitalist] monopoly that the working class could not find in its own strength and groups? […] Could its governmental machine, developed for the creation and upholding of these [capitalist] 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?”
History shows the validity of that analysis.
Kropotkin did not limit his ideas to how to best survive under capitalism. No, he saw that in order to really live a social revolution was needed.
The key aspect of this transformation would be the expropriation of property – workplaces, housing, everything – for workers “will not wait for orders from above before taking possession of land and capital. They will take them first, and then ― already in possession of land and capital ― they will organise their work. ” This meant the abolition of the state, that defender of class society, and so “tomorrow’s Commune will […] smash the State and replace it with the Federation.”
Some – like Marx or Lenin – like to suggest that anarchists think we simply have a revolution and the next day a perfect society appears. This is nonsense, not least because every society will be imperfect (luckily!) because we are imperfect beings. So Kropotkin, like other anarchists, explicitly rejected the notion of “overnight” revolutions:
“an uprising can overthrow and change a government in one day, while a revolution needs three or four years of revolutionary convulsion to arrive at tangible results […] if we should expect the revolution, from its earliest insurrections, to have a communist character, we would have to relinquish the possibility of a revolution.”
Moreover, we will inherent a world shaped by the priorities of a hierarchical socio-economic system. This will obviously take time to change, given that “Socialism implies […] a transformation of industry so that it may be adapted to the needs of the customer, not those of the profit-maker.” Similarly, Kropotkin was not so naïve as to think the ruling class would simply disappear after a successful revolt and so saw the need to defend the social revolution, to defend freedom, by means of a voluntary people’s militia for “mutual protection against aggression, mutual aid, territorial defence.”
Kropotkin argued that libertarian communism would be the best form of society to ensure the flourishing of all. It would be based on three interwoven structures of “independent Communes for the territorial groupings, and vast federations of trade unions for groupings by social functions” as well as “groupings by personal affinities.” These “three kinds of groupings, covering each other like a network, would thus allow the satisfaction of all social needs.”
This would be rooted in self-management of all aspects of life. For the economy, it would mean “all the workers […] managing that industry themselves […] This is the future. For it is not going to be the [government] ministers but rather the workers themselves who will see to the honest management of industry.” For social life, it would mean socialism “find[ing] its own form of political relations” which would be “more popular, closer to the assembly, than representative government” and “less dependent on representation and become more self-government.”
These would be the basis on which personal freedom and individualisation would be achieved. Economic security was key, for “we finally realise now that without communism man will never be able to reach that full development of individuality which is, perhaps, the most powerful desire of every thinking being.” Likewise, “every nation, however small it may be, every region, every commune must be absolutely free to organise itself as it sees fit.” In short, “free workers, on free land, with free machinery, and freely using all the powers given to man by science.”
“How not to introduce communism”
Such a vision is very much at odds with what has become known as “communism,” namely the Soviet Union. Yet as Kropotkin warned in 1920, the Bolsheviks had simply shown “how not to introduce Communism.” Yet given Kropotkin’s scientific training, he would have seen the Russian Revolution as more than a tragedy – he would have viewed it as empirical evidence to evaluate conflicting ideas, in this case Marxism and Anarchism.
Lenin’s State and Revolution is often pointed to as showing Marxism’s liberatory potential. It did, indeed, present a revision of Marxism and argued for a new state based on workers’ organisations (soviets). However, it was still centralised – indeed, a more centralised structure. It also argued for new economy based on structures inherited from capitalism – again, it was still centralised, more centralised, than what came before.
Faced with similar arguments by social democrats on the need for a “transitional” state, Kropotkin had long predicted that such a system would see the rise of a new tyranny – bureaucracy and state-capitalism – rather than socialism.
So what happened after October? Simply put, Kropotkin was proven right. The new regime saw a massive increase in the numbers and remit of bureaucrats, the marginalisation of soviets and factory committees by state bodies and, finally, party power replaced popular power – which in turn quickly became party-dictatorship. In short, anarchist predictions were confirmed.
Sadly, being proven completely right seems to be considered an irrelevance by many.
In term of Kropotkin’s scientific contributions, mutual aid has become a standard of evolutionary theory. Likewise, his evolutionary ethics has substantial evidence to support it. This does not stop him being dismissed as a utopian viewing nature through rose-tinted glasses.
As far as his politics go, his syndicalism has likewise been vindicated. Socialist use of the state has resulted in the failures of Social Democracy and Leninism – at best we saw a reformed capitalism or, at worst, the tyranny of state-capitalism, but not socialism. In terms of the day-to-day struggle, the need remains for building in the community and workplace, not “politics” – which simply focuses attention on a few, easily corrupted, leaders. Instead we must build the new world by fighting the old.
So Kropotkin’s alternative remains true. We need meaningful participation in all aspects of life – not a cross on a bit of paper every five years. Socialism needs to be self-managed and federalist, not centralised and state-capitalist. It is the abolition of wage-labour, not everyone employees of the state.
As Kropotkin argued in Modern Science and Anarchy, we must remember that in order to be socialism, it must be libertarian in both means and ends.