My schoolteachers used to say that reactionaries have maligned anarchists, who are simply peaceful, if somewhat naive, believers in the goodness of human nature. These teachers had evidently never heard of Mikhail Bakunin and his followers.
“The will to destroy is a creative will,” declared Bakunin, who never encountered a revolution he didn’t like. “I was on my feet the whole day, took part in absolutely every meeting, gathering, club, procession, walk, demonstration,” he recalled of the Paris revolution of 1848. “In a word, I inhaled with all my senses, with all my pores, the intoxicating atmosphere of revolution. It was a banquet without beginning or end.” According to his friend Alexander Herzen, Bakunin longed for any action in the midst of danger and destruction. “I await my . . . fiancée, revolution,” Bakunin proclaimed. “We will be really happy—that is, we will become ourselves, only when the whole world is engulfed in fire.”
Anarchists figured prominently among the pioneers of modern terrorism. In Europe, where Bakunin and his successor Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) agitated, anarchists assassinated President Sadi Carnot of France in 1884, Premier Cánovas of Spain in 1897, Empress Elisabeth of Austria in 1898, and King Umberto of Italy in 1900. Historians dispute whether anarchism prompted the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley. In 1896 an anarchist threw sulfuric acid and fired shots into the crowded floor of the Paris stock exchange.
Anarchists figured prominently among the pioneers of modern terrorism.
Russians took pride in their love of extremes, and early twentieth-century Russian terrorists, the most violent of whom were the anarchists, went far beyond the group that killed Tsar Alexander II in 1881. From 1905 to 1907, about 4,500 government officials and some 5,500 private individuals were killed or wounded in terrorist attacks, with anarchists responsible for more injuries than all the Marxist and Populist groups combined.
Russian anarchists were, of course, poorly organized and kept sloppy records, so it is unclear how many people they killed. But we know that one group inspired by Bakunin pioneered what it called “motiveless terror” against anyone who worked for the government (even if conscripted), all industrialists and their managers, priests and rabbis, anyone who looked like a member of the bourgeoisie, and, eventually, anyone they pleased. They applauded throwing bombs into restaurants or theaters. Productive work was considered inappropriate for an anarchist, who was morally obliged to subsist on “confiscations” (robberies).
One reason that many in England, even more than Westerners in general, regarded anarchists as mostly peaceful was that the famous theoretician of Russian anarchism, the émigré Prince Peter Kropotkin, resided there. Brought up in the highest aristocratic circles, displaying exquisite manners, contributing to scientific journals, and writing elegant prose, the kindly Kropotkin seemed anything but dangerous. He venerated Bakunin and called himself a revolutionary but did not engage in terrorism himself.
In Kropotkin’s view, violence should be kept to the minimum necessary to destroy the old order. “The question is,” he wrote in his autobiography Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), “how to attain the greatest results with the most limited amount of civil war, the smallest number of victims, and a minimum of mutual embitterment.” Lenin expressed utter contempt for such softness, which he called “moralizing vomit.”
In fact, Kropotkin never condemned anarchist violence, no matter how gratuitous. Even the worst, in his view, was an understandable reaction to oppression. At the London anarchist congress of 1881, he approved the use of chemistry to create bombs for “offensive and defensive purposes.” He financed anarchists returning to Russia to commit terrorist acts. While he cautioned his followers against violence “isolated from the masses,” he was “not afraid to proclaim, do whatever you like, act entirely accordance with your own discretion.”
In fact, Kropotkin never condemned anarchist violence, no matter how gratuitous.
His Russian followers, the Khlebnovoltsy, demanded economic as well as political terror. As anarchists, they proclaimed that trials were “bourgeois remnants” and that no authority should limit the individual terrorist’s action. True, Kropotkin and his followers affirmed a preference for “defensive” terror, but since that category included acts motivated by compassion for the oppressed, the desire for vengeance, and the need for “propaganda by deed,” it is hard to see what terrorist act would not qualify as defensive.
Who was Kropotkin? Like Herzen’s autobiographical My Past and Thoughts, Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist stands as one of the great works of Russian literature, even though it originally appeared in English as a series of articles in The Atlantic Monthly.
Having grown up in an ancient and highly privileged family, Kropotkin explains, he came to understand the dehumanization that serfdom entailed. When Kropotkin and his brother asked their father how he received the cross of Saint Anne during the 1828 campaign against Turkey, the old man described how a Turkish village took fire. Hearing a mother despair of her child left in a burning building, Kropotkin’s father’s serf attendant Frol immediately
rushed into the flames and saved the child. The chief commander, who saw the act, at once gave father the cross for gallantry.
“But father,” we exclaimed, “it was Frol who saved the child!”
“What of that?” replied he, in the most naive way. “Was he not my man? It is all the same.”
Kropotkin describes how one landowner remarked to another that his serf population was increasing so slowly because he did not look after marriages properly. Thereupon the second landowner composed a list of all unmarried boys and girls and arbitrarily paired them off. The fact that many were already engaged made no difference. In fact, Kropotkin explains, marriages by order were so common that when a couple feared they might be ordered to marry, they arranged to stand godfather and godmother to the same child, which by Russian religious law made them relatives and ineligible to marry.
A famous witticism affirmed that Russia had two kinds of slaves: serfs who were slaves of the nobles, and nobles who were slaves of the tsar. Two years after the death of Kropotkin’s mother, his father had just fixed upon a new bride when he received a visit from General Timofeev, a favorite of the tsar famous for degrading officers to the ranks. Timofeev proposed that Kropotkin’s father wed his wife’s niece. There was no refusing. “But do you know what it meant at that time—the commander of the army corps?,” Kropotkin’s father asked his sons. “Above all, that one-eyed devil . . . coming to propose? Of course she had no dowry; only a trunk filled with their ladies’ finery, and that Martha, her one serf, dark as a gypsy, sitting upon it.”
Peter had no more choice of a career than his father had of a bride. When the tsar noticed the cute boy, he was “invited” to enroll in the corps of pages, which was not only the most elite military school but also an institution attached to the imperial household. One did not refuse the tsar’s favor, and so Peter became a reluctant pupil.
As the school’s top student, Kropotkin received the honor of serving as the tsar’s personal attendant. What he saw at court did not impress him. Even Alexander II, whom nearly everyone admired as the liberator of the serfs, struck Kropotkin as limited and overly attached to his personal authority. The incompetence, dishonesty, and self-promotion of courtiers put Kropotkin on the road to rejecting all authority.
The incompetence, dishonesty, and self-promotion of courtiers put Kropotkin on the road to rejecting all authority.
The highest career prospects opened before Kropotkin, but he chose, instead, to serve in remote parts of Siberia. So apparently self-destructive was this choice that his schoolmates took it as a joke and his father forbade it. A chance incident saved everything. When a great fire broke out in Petersburg, Kropotkin played a crucial role in fighting it. Impressed, Grand Duke Mikhail offered to recommend him to the East Siberian governor-general.
The five years Kropotkin spent in Siberia changed his life. When he arrived in Irkutsk, the capital of East Siberia, the spirit of reform reigned and the young governor-general was delighted to have a liberal on his staff. He assigned Kropotkin to outline reforms for the prisons and the system of Siberian political exile. By the time these proposals worked their way back to the centers of power, however, such reforms were no longer so welcome.
This failure led Kropotkin to reject all reforms as futile. That conclusion is all the more remarkable because no Russian ruler between Peter the Great and Lenin transformed the country more than Alexander II. I do not know whether the imperial rescript of February 19, 1861, proclaiming the liberation of the serfs—70 percent of the population—was, as some have called it, the most extensive legislative act in history, but it decisively changed more lives than any other tsarist reform. And that was only the beginning.
In 1864, organs of local self-government were established in the countryside, and in 1870 in cities. The judiciary statutes of 1864 completely transformed the legal system, which, for the first time, established equality before the law, the right to an impartial tribunal, the necessity of a trial before punishment, uniformity of legal procedure, and, perhaps most important, the independence of the judiciary.
The tsar’s rescript of 1874 modernized the military. In a country where elementary schools were all but nonexistent, the army now provided basic instruction in reading and writing. The term of military service was reduced from twenty-five years, effectively a life sentence, to six. A single state treasury was established, a state bank was created, and the annual budget was published. Any one of these would have been a major accomplishment for other tsars.
And yet Kropotkin, his friend the terrorist Stepniak, and many others maintained that reformers had no choice but killing. “There was nothing to hope for in legal and pacific means,” Stepniak explained with a straight face. “After 1866 a man must have been either blind or a hypocrite to believe in the possibility of any improvement, except by violent means.” But as we have seen, significant reforms were enacted in 1870 and 1874. The historian Adam Ulam observed that it was not government recalcitrance but the radicals’ “numerical weakness”—they had almost no support among the peasants they supposedly represented—that made terrorism the only option.
And yet Kropotkin, his friend the terrorist Stepniak, and many others maintained that reformers had no choice but killing.
Kropotkin set the date of hopeless reaction even earlier, in 1863. “True, the law of provincial self-government . . . and the reform of the law courts were promulgated in 1864 and 1866; but both were ready in 1862,” he explained, as if what was “ready” simply had to be put into practice. To understand Kropotkin’s thinking, one must appreciate his belief that nothing short of total transformation mattered. Later he rejected parliamentary reforms as worthless because, he reasoned, everything in the economic-political system was interrelated and so any change in one institution would fail unless all the others were changed too.
The Siberian passages of Kropotkin’s autobiography make riveting reading. In one adventure after another, he would travel at breakneck speed over land and water to save a community threatened with starvation or contrive, in disguise, to examine the geography of Chinese territories across the border. Russians have traditionally assumed that only central authority backed by unlimited coercion could accomplish anything significant, but Kropotkin discovered that native Siberians had developed complex social forms and solved problems while central authority just got in the way. “I lost in Siberia whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”
In War and Peace, Tolstoy argued that history is made not by generals and rulers but by the everyday actions of ordinary people, and Kropotkin remarks that “I came to hold ideas similar to those which Tolstoy expresses concerning the leaders and the masses in . . . War and Peace.” Kropotkin took these ideas to the extreme conclusion that government can never be helpful.
Reflecting on what he had seen in Siberia and reexamining earlier observations, Kropotkin made his greatest contribution to science. Prevailing ideas about Siberian mountains, he concluded, were mistaken. “One day, all of a sudden, the whole became clear and comprehensible, as if it were illuminated with a flash of light. The main structural lines of Asia are not north and south or west and east; they are from the southwest to the northeast,—just as in the Rocky Mountains.”
Kropotkin splendidly conveys the rapture of scientific discovery. “There are not many joys of human life equal to the joy of the sudden birth of a generalization, illuminating the mind after a long period of patient research,” he explains. “Out of a wild confusion of facts and from behind the fog of guesses . . . a stately picture makes its appearance, like an Alpine chain suddenly emerging in all its grandeur from the mists which concealed it a moment before.” Whoever experiences “this joy of scientific creation will never forget it” and will always crave more of it, Kropotkin enthuses. How sad, he laments, “that this sort of happiness is the lot of so few of us.”
To pursue the geographical projects he now contemplated, Kropotkin longed to be appointed secretary of the Russian Geographical Society, and one day in 1871 he received a telegram offering him the position. “My hopes were realized,” he explains. “But in the meantime other thoughts and other longings had pervaded my mind.” He refused the offer. Why?
His reasons have puzzled even ardent Western admirers, but they make perfect sense in the Russian context. “Science is an excellent thing,” Kropotkin reflected. “I knew its joys and valued them . . . . But what right had I to these highest joys, when all around me was nothing but misery and struggle for a mouldy piece of bread; when whatever I should spend to enable me in that world of higher emotions must needs be taken from the very mouths of those who grew the wheat and had not enough for their children?”
His reasons have puzzled even ardent Western admirers, but they make perfect sense in the Russian context.
“For my part I do not think he was right,” objected Georg Brandes in his otherwise enthusiastic introduction to the Memoirs. “With such conceptions Pasteur would not have been the benefactor of mankind he has been.” Kropotkin did not see matters this way. “Knowledge is an immense power,” he explained. “But we already know much!” Like other Russian radicals, he deemed it more important to distribute existing knowledge widely than to produce more of it. I know of no Western scientist who would observe, as the influential Russian thinker Peter Lavrov did, that “mankind has paid dearly so that a few thinkers sitting in their studies could discuss its progress.” Only “a Philistine of learning,” Lavrov concluded, believes in science for its own sake.
Kropotkin resigned his military commission, enrolled in Saint Petersburg University, traveled to Switzerland where he met Bakunin’s anarchist disciples, returned to Russia, joined the revolutionary Chaikovsky circle, was arrested, and staged a dramatic escape from a prison hospital. Arriving back in Europe, he agitated, found himself expelled from Switzerland and France, and at last settled in Britain, where this aristocrat was lionized and became friends with George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. Supporting himself with articles for scientific publications, he soft-pedaled agitation so as not to be expelled from this last country of refuge. Instead, he worked out the theoretical—he said “scientific”—basis of anarchism.
For many Russians, and especially for Bakunin and Kropotkin, Germany, the home of Marx, represented centralized power and therefore the opposite of anarchism. While many revolutionaries refused to take sides during World War I—declaring that the proletariat has no homeland—Kropotkin alienated many followers by advocating for Germany’s defeat. When the Russian Revolution broke out, Kropotkin returned after forty years in exile. As an anarchist, he refused an invitation to join the Provisional Government. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 led to the centralization he deplored, and his communication with Lenin led nowhere. He died in 1921, and the crowds honoring him constituted the last anarchist demonstration the Soviets allowed.
As Marx insisted that his socialism was the only “scientific” one, Kropotkin made the same claim for his “communist anarchism.” In his view, anarchism followed directly from the laws of nature. “Anarchism is a world-concept based upon a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of nature,” including human society, he wrote. And since nature’s laws are deterministic, anarchism is inevitable.
To support this view, Kropotkin developed a reverse Social Darwinism. Social Darwinists justified ruthless competition, eugenics, and the weeding out of the poor as continuing evolutionary survival of the fittest. Since nature is, in Tennyson’s words, “red in tooth and claw,” under this conception society could progress only by ruthless competition.
To support this view, Kropotkin developed a reverse Social Darwinism.
In Kropotkin’s view, Darwin was wrong—later he attributed this assessment to a misreading of Darwin—in describing competition within species. The struggle for existence is primarily not of one animal of a species against another but of the whole animal kingdom against nature. To explain the inversion, some have noted that Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace developed their theory by observing the teeming life of the tropics, whereas Kropotkin derived his ideas from the sparse conditions of Siberia, where nature is so inhospitable. In Siberia he found no evidence of Darwinian competition. Instead, he detected its opposite, “mutual aid” among those facing the ravages of the elements.
Ants and termites “cooperate.” Using anthropomorphic language, Kropotkin explained how ant societies depend on “voluntary mutual aid” and acknowledge “the obligation of every ant in sharing its food, already swallowed and partly digested, with every member of the community which may apply for it.” If an ant should be “selfish enough to refuse feeding a comrade, it will be treated as an enemy or even worse.” In addition to comradely ants, higher species cooperate in herds, colonies, flocks, or packs. They all experience what might loosely be called sympathy, which is really the instinctive feeling of “solidarity” with the rest of the species. The law of nature says:
“Don’t compete!—competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!” . . . . That is the watchword which comes to us from the bush, the forest, the river, the stream. “Therefore come—practice mutual aid!” . . . That is what nature teaches us . . . [and] why man has reached the position upon which we stand now.
This instinct governs human nature and forms the sole basis of morality. People naturally cooperate. Kropotkin pointed to the Russian peasant commune, which, in his idealized view, distributed resources equitably, according to each family’s need. Anyone who has read Chekhov’s story “Peasants” would suspect otherwise. Kropotkin’s view prevailed among Russian populists, but when the populist writer Gleb Uspensky moved to the countryside, he found that peasant communes let widows and children starve. Far from rejecting selfish cheating, peasants admired those who sold out the commune’s interests for the cleverness of their dishonesty. The peasants, singly and together, would do anything for vodka. Contemplating all this “swinishness,” as he called it, the idealistic Uspensky went insane and literally imagined he was a pig.
Kropotkin insisted that the revolution must immediately eliminate private property, money, the wage system, laws, and government. Then people, acting on their own initiative, would organize communities based on voluntary cooperation. There would be such abundance that everyone would usually be told, take what you please! On the few occasions of scarcity, the commune would distribute resources “equitably.” Members would of course concur on who needed what.
If one inquires where this abundance will come from, Kropotkin replies by explaining that among the twenty-six million Englishmen of his day, only eight million—the agricultural laborers, miners, and textile laborers—do productive work. The rest are exploiters and middlemen who just consume resources. If they were productive, too, no one would have to labor more than a few hours a day for everyone to enjoy as much as he liked.
One also wants to ask: What would happen if one commune welched on an agreement with another? Why would people work hard without incentives? And with no capital to risk, who would commit the resources to try out innovations, most of which fail? To grasp Kropotkin’s answers, one must appreciate three assumptions he made. Kropotkin died just a century ago, but these assumptions are still commonplace.
First, life is a zero-sum game. Microeconomics teaches that in every free exchange both buyer and seller benefit or they would not have made the exchange. Kropotkin, along with many socialists, proceeded from a model of “exploitation”: if one person is better off, the other must be that much worse off. Workers accept raw deals and low wages because they would starve otherwise. Merchants perform no useful service; they make their money by underpaying producers and overcharging customers. That is why money and the wage system must go.
Kropotkin points to numerous instances where, even in existing society, businesses cooperate without the aid of law or government. As much as any free marketer, he is impressed by the ingenious inventions produced without any central guidance. But he draws an unexpected conclusion: no central authority of any sort must be allowed. Why not minimal government? Because no principle works unless it governs everywhere without exception. From such totalist reasoning Lenin drew the opposite conclusion, that centralized power, since it is needed sometimes, must always govern everything.
Kropotkin’s second key assumption explains why people will work without incentives, why inventions will proliferate, and why distributions will be fair. “Establish tomorrow a socialist system of distribution,” declares a character in Solzhenitsyn’s novel November 1916, “and right away there’ll be enough and to spare for everyone. Hunger will cease the day after the revolution. Everything will appear . . . an age of abundance will set in . . . . People will start producing all that is needed with such enthusiasm!” It would appear that the world is not a place where scarcity obtains unless people struggle to produce. Not scarcity, but wealth and happiness are the natural state of things. As Rousseau declared that “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” Kropotkin asks rhetorically: “We in civilized societies are rich. Why then are the many poor?”
As Rousseau declared that “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
Kropotkin’s answer is that the natural state of things has been artificially concealed by selfish capitalists, rulers, and priests. Nature is trapped in a carapace of capital and government. Just smash the carapace, and wealth will abound. Crime and war, which are produced by the very institutions that supposedly restrain them, would disappear.
Kropotkin’s third assumption is that once human solidarity is realized in this way, almost no one will ever want to live otherwise, and so the new system will be self-sustaining. It seems clear to some people that if we abolish police, crime rates will fall, and if we direct military spending to social needs, peace will reign. Lenin thought otherwise: no power vacuum lasts for long. When authority disappears, when “power lies in the streets,” a small, disciplined group of armed thugs can readily establish its rule, as the Bolsheviks did.
By the same token, calls to “tax the rich” often appeal to the “exploitation” model. That is why it seems more virtuous to work for government or a nonprofit. When people advocate economic equality as an ideal, they often presume, as Kropotkin did, that the distribution of goods should not be based on productivity. Many would object: is it really fair that those who work harder deserve no reward? When I ask students whether for the sake of equality I should give everyone a C, I have no takers.
I think of the “abundance is natural” assumption as the “magic wand” theory. Innovations happen just because inventive people love to make them. “Big pharma” has produced one life-saving drug after another, and recently produced vaccines against covid-19 in record time, but instead of regarding these enterprises as ones to encourage, many call for their profits to be taken away. In 2019 the Center for American Progress attributed patent protection on new drugs to a “culture of corruption in which special interests and big donors advance their interests at the expense of everyday people.” “The turpitude of the pharmaceutical industry is so commonplace that it has become part of the cultural wallpaper,” wrote the science journalist Stephen Buranyi in a December 17, 2020, New York Times op-ed complaining that people give credit for the new vaccine not to particular scientists but to the noxious pharmaceutical industry.
It does not occur to these writers, any more than it would have to Kropotkin, that large profits motivate people and attract resources. They do not ask whether it is wise to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.
Golden eggs, they seem to assume, lay themselves.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 6, on page 12
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