Kropotkin, Peter

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KROPOTKIN, PETER (1842–1921), Russian geographer, author, revolutionary, anarchist theorist.

In the years before World War I, Peter Kropotkin was the Western world's foremost theoretician of the philosophy and politics of anarchism. During the course of his long life, he achieved fame in a number of diverse fields of knowledge. While still in his twenties, Kropotkin was elected to the Russian Imperial Geographical Society as a result of his pioneering explorations in Finland and Siberia. Later, he became a well-known journalist, editor, and author of a number of books, including his inspiring autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, and his scientific alternative to Herbert Spencer's social Darwinian evolutionary theory, Mutual Aid.

Kropotkin was born in 1842 into extraordinary privilege, inheriting the title of prince from his father. His formative years were spent on the family's primary country estate as well in a Moscow mansion surrounded by the culture of serfdom. He attended the empire's most elite school and served in the military before becoming disenchanted with the possibilities of reform under Tsar Alexander II. In 1872, searching for a new path, he underwent a transformative experience in the Swiss Jura Mountains, where he discovered survivors of the Paris Commune carnage who had established an independent society without allegiance to any government.

Returning to Russia, Kropotkin joined the leading underground revolutionary organization, the Chaikovsky Circle, where he wrote his first anarchist treatise, "Must We Occupy Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?" He was arrested and imprisoned by the tsarist police for his activities, but made one of the rare escapes from the infamous Peter and Paul Fortress with help from his comrades still at large in 1876. He fled to Paris, where he immediately established himself as the successor to the deceased founders of modern anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin. He was arrested by the French authorities for condoning the violent protests of miners in Lyon in his newspaper, La Révolté, and imprisoned for three years, but took his revenge by writing the first comparative history of conditions of penal servitude, In Russian and French Prisons (1887).

Unable to remain in France after his release from prison, Kropotkin moved to London, where he spent the next two very productive decades. He created the English-speaking world's most influential anarchist newspaper, Freedom, which is still published, and lobbied successfully, with the help of several sympathetic British members of Parliament, against the evils of the tsarist regime in the House of Commons, where his brief was introduced prior to its publication as a pamphlet, The Terror in Russia (1909). One measure of his renown was the invitation he received to write the article on anarchism for the celebrated eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Equally significant was Kropotkin's shock when he learned that the editors, without his consent, had added a long note to the article listing the acts of political violence associated with the widespread anarchist movement of the time, a subject Kropotkin had deliberately not included.

Kropotkin's main contribution to political theory remains his critique of authority and his radical concept of a future stateless society in which both freedom and equality would be realized. His argument was grounded in a comprehensive assault on both the liberal and conservative interpretations of the theory of the social contract as conceptualized in Hobbes's Leviathan (and refined by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) as well as the schools of thought and movements oriented around species (Charles Darwin) or class (Karl Marx) conflict. He located numerous examples in ancient, medieval, and modern history of independent and cooperative activities that resulted from collective efforts to overthrow or transcend the abusive power of kings, landowners, armies, and clerics and their justifying legal codes.

Although Kropotkin agonized over the ethics of employing violence in the name of genuine liberty, he consistently supported his colleague Paul Brousse's formulation of "propaganda by the deed." By this, Kropotkin meant that the assassinations of major political leaders, which had spread like an epidemic in the 1890s across Europe, had to be understood in their proper social context. The "terrorists" who threw their bombs in Naples, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, and London as they cried "long live anarchy!" were motivated by the horrendous conditions of inequality that had become intolerable for the majority of society. In his view, the assassins of terror were representatives of popular rebellion against the immoral authority of state, church, and ruling classes. Left to their own devices, without those institutions of control and oppression, ordinary people would find cooperative methods of production and exchange to replace the vicious competition of capitalism. Kropotkin believed that he was already witnessing the birth pangs of that future society, as municipalities at the federal level (rather than central authorities) in many European towns and cities had created free parks, public entertainment, and cooperative shops operating without profit or managerial hierarchies.

Kropotkin's influence spread as his followers expanded around the globe. However, his decision to support the anti-German allies in World War I split and seriously weakened the anarchist movement. Nevertheless, he lived long enough to enjoy the consequences of the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. As part of the general amnesty offered by the Russian Provisional Government to all exiles and political prisoners, Kropotkin returned to his native land at the age of seventy-five. His last years were spent encouraging anarchist parties and organizations in Russia despite Vladimir Lenin's efforts to isolate him and limit his influence. One of his most dedicated disciples, the deported American anarchist Emma Goldman, visited him just before he died in 1921. His funeral was the last public anarchist demonstration permitted in the Soviet Union.

See alsoAnarchism; Bakunin, Mikhail; Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph.


Cahm, Caroline. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872–1886. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Joll, James. The Anarchists. Boston, 1965.

Kropotkin, Peter. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Boston, 1899.

——. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. London, 1904.

——. Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution. Edited by Martin A. Miller. Cambridge, Mass., 1970.

Miller, Martin A. Kropotkin. Chicago, 1976.

Woodcock, George. Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Cleveland, Ohio, 1962.

Martin A. Miller

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