Pyotr Kropotkin, 100 years old

Image: Vasco Prado


Commentary on the intellectual trajectory of the Russian thinker.

The centenary of Kropotkin's death is a fine moment to return to the question he asked in Freedom (Liberty) in 1886: What Should We Do? Kropotkin's different responses to this question were informed by his varied assessments of the political situation in Europe. In the 1870s, he described such a situation as "revolutionary". Ten years later, his terminology changed: he spoke of evolutionary processes and mutual help. However, it is not obvious that this change signaled a major reduction in his political ambitions. Evolution still pointed to "the coming anarchy," a revolutionary proposition that resided in most people's minds.

Kropotkin used to write about the anarchist transformation as if the glass were half full. He highlighted social and economic trends that could increase confidence in this anarchist shift. But he tempered his “utopianism” with a healthy dose of realism. Most of the data he used to show the imminence of anarchy, in fact, also attest to the dire health of the system of state-regulated markets, should it continue to grow unhindered. The essence of Kropotkin's thinking about social transformation was that the potential for anarchy was not the same thing as its likelihood.

The contours of Kropotkin's alternate future are well known. To combat urbanization and agribusiness development, he envisioned the integration of agriculture and industry and the creation of what economists now call “the10-minute neighborhoods (10-minute neighborhoods)”. His alternative globalization prioritized the sharing of information about international trade and envisioned the communist decentralized federation as opposed to government monopoly and corporate conglomerate. The plan may have seemed speculative, but Kropotkin's aim was to increase practical organizational efforts and disrupt existing socio-economic arrangements.

For Kropotkin, the strengthening of liberalism was a bleak prospect. He anticipated that the internationalization of laissez-faire it would lock trading partners in a competition for scarce resources and economic advantages. Free trade pointed to the militarization of the interstate system, capital investment in warfare, and government sponsorship of industrialized weapons production. The unequal and colonizing patterns of exchange that shaped economic activity around the world would simultaneously encourage opposition to European domination and spur migration from poorer to wealthier regions.

These pressures would likely intensify as the global warming process (which Kropotkin did not link to human activity) affected production and distribution. Sooner or later, liberalism would embrace social democracy. Once liberals would come into contact with the idea of ​​the historical march of socialism, the notion of class struggle could easily be neutralized by welfare. Gas and water socialism would control workers' loyalty.

Kropotkin's hopes for the anarchization of social and economic life were dashed, and he proved to be entirely right about the course of liberalism. He warned that the democratization of Western states would diminish the appetite for internationalism along the lines he proposed and would instead increase chauvinistic and xenophobic rivalry. Liberal democracy implied the professionalization of politics and the abdication of decision-making power to specialists. But this would be misinterpreted as a tremendous redistribution of power and a victory for the working class.

Co-opted by the franchises, the people would be sovereign only when they renounced their individual sovereignty. Equality would create opportunity and privilege. Kropotkin foresaw the broad strokes of liberalism's socialization, though he did not live to see the consequences: hero-worthy homes, free universal education, and cradle-to-grave health care. Citizens would seek every protection to maintain their advantages against "foreigners". The idea that society could function cooperatively and independently of the state would sound fantastic.

Kropotkin's world was not so different from the one we inhabit. It is a mistake to consign his conception of social transformation to a distant past, where the barriers to anarchist change were less formidable than they are now. Some of his immediate priorities – such as resisting the seductions of representative government and state socialism – depended on what support anarchists could garner for their cause at the time.

His down-to-earth understanding hardly diminishes the force of his criticism. Kropotkin sensed the possible eclipse of anarchism in Europe and witnessed the collapse of his dreams in Russia. Despite this, he continued to promote anarchist politics to the end. As is well known, he believed that anarchy could always be discovered in the nooks and crannies of the state and could always be recovered as an alternative social order. Mutual aid was one of the pillars of his anarchism. He also gave us fruitful concepts of free agreement, the spirit of revolt, and welfare for all.

Mutual aid is sometimes linked to a restricted set of activities. But Kropotkin set no limits on the types of direct action and did not prescribe which undertakings people should pursue, so long as they were moved by considerations of justice.

What, then, are we to do? Kropotkin gave his answer: Act for yourselves!

*Ruth Kinna coordinates the Anarchism Research Group and co-edits its journal Anarchist Studies. She is the author, among other books, of The Government of No-one and Great Anarchists.

Translation: A. Padalecki.

Originally posted by Anarchist News Agency.


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