Kropotkin, Peter (Aleksieevich) 1842-1921
KROPOTKIN, Peter (Aleksieevich) 1842-1921
Born December 12 (some sources say December 9), 1842, in Moscow, Russia; died of pneumonia February 8, 1921, in Dmitrov, Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. Education: Educated in St. Petersburg.
Aide to Czar Alexander II; geographer and scientist; revolutionary. Military service: Russian Army, officer in Siberia, 1862-67; imprisoned for revolutionary activity, 1874-76.
First International Working Men's Association; Socialist Party.
Words of a Rebel, 1885.
In Russian and French Prisons, 1887.
Fields, Factories and Workshops, 1899.
Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 1899.
Mutual Aid, 1902.
The Conquest of Bread, 1906.
The Great French Revolution 1789-1793, 1909.
Peter Kropotkin is best known as a theorist and practitioner of anarchism in late-nineteenth-century Russia. Through his writings and his political activities, Kropotkin greatly influenced the anarchist movement, and though he was ultimately unsatisfied by the revolution's political changes, his work nonetheless contributed to the international literature of anarchism. Kropotkin offered an ideal of human potential. He wrote, "Man would [in anarchism] be enabled to obtain the full development of his faculties, intellectual, artistic, and moral, without being hampered by overwork for the monopolists or by the servility and inertia of mind of the great number. He would thus be able to reach full individualization."
Kropotkin's family was aristocratic, which enabled Kropotkin to study at St. Petersburg and to serve as an aid to Czar Alexander II. At age twenty he went to Siberia as an officer of the Russian Army, and for the next five years he made a study of the zoology and geography of Siberia. In 1871, Kropotkin refused an invitation to become a member of the Russian Geographical Society, and instead became a member of the anarchist movement.
In The Making of Modern Russia Lionel Kochan and Richard Abraham noted that Kropotkin first became involved in the "non-conspiratorial student circles" that grew up in reaction to the conspiratorial underground: "The primary purpose of these circles was self education and self-betterment through study. The next step was to extend this process to the less privileged—the urban workers and peasants." Kropotkin himself wrote of these circles: "the only way was to settle among the people and live the people's life …devoting themselves entirely to the poorest part of the population." Dedicating his efforts to improving society through anarchy, in 1872 Kropotkin joined the First International Working Men's Association.
Kropotkin's activities on behalf of the disenfranchised—along with his increasing support of anarchist philosophy—led to his imprisonment in 1874. Within two years he escaped from prison to western Europe, where he was buffeted from one country to another; he was expelled from Switzerland, jailed in France, and in 1886 managed to settle in England, where he lived and wrote about his hopes for Russia. In his greatest writings on anarchism, Kropotkin explains how his theory may ennoble human nature: "Anarchism, the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government-harmony in such a society being obtained…by free agreements concluded between the various groups." This concept of "free agreements" is, for Kropotkin, based on a notion of evolution among animals: "such a society would represent nothing immutable," he writes. "On the contrary—as is seen in organic life at large—harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitude of forces and influences." Unlike social Darwinists, Kropotkin favored cooperation over competition and argued that sociability and cooperation exist in the animal kingdom.
While promoting violence, Kropotkin never resorted to such means. In a late essay he explained his nonconfrontational efforts to promote anarchy: "for many years [I] endeavored to develop the following ideas: to show the intimate, logical connection which exists between the modern philosophy of the natural science and anarchism; to put anarchism on a scientific basis by the study of the tendencies that are apparent now in society and may indicate its further evolution; and to work out the basis of anarchist ethics …[and] to prove that-communism—at least partial—has more chances of being established than collectivism, especially in communes taking the lead, and that free, or anarchist-communism is the only form of communism that has any chance of being accepted in civilized societies; communism and anarchism are therefore two terms of evolution which complete each other, the one rendering the other possible and acceptable."
In June of 1917, following the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Kropotkin returned to his homeland. He was disappointed in the changes induced by the revolution; although he abhored Bolshevik brutality, he supported even less any outside efforts to stabilize Russia's new government after the fall of Czar Nicholas II. Kropotkin lived in St. Petersburg until 1921, when he died of pneumonia.
Kropotkin was, in many way, a contradictory man: he was an aristocrat and a man of the people; he was a believer in peace and tolerance and a proponent of violent insurrection. His writing, however, promotes a coherent ideal: that man, given the freedom to evolve as other animals do, will become something finer than he is.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kochan, Lionel, and Richard Abraham, The Making of Modern Russia, Penguin (London, England), 1963.*