Kropotkin, Pyotr Alexeyevich

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(18421921), Russian revolutionary.

Born into a family of the highest nobility, Kropotkin (the "Anarchist Prince," according to his 1950 biographer George Woodcock) swam against the current of convention all his life. He received his formal education at home and then at the Corps of Pages in St. Petersburg, graduated in 1862, and, to the tsar's astonishment, requested a posting to Siberia rather than the expected court career. There he remained until 1867. Siberia was a liberation for Kropotkin, contrary to the experience of others. He participated as a geographer and naturalist in expeditions organized by the Imperial Russian Geographical Society (IRGS). He was also entering his parallel career as a revolutionary: for him, Russia's Age of Great Reforms was that of the discovery of unchanging corruption among Siberian state officials.

In 1867 Kropotkin returned to St. Petersburg where he enrolled at the University (he never graduated), supporting himself by working for the IRGS. His scientific reputation grew and in 1871 he was offered the post of IRGS secretary, which he rejected. Events in his own life (the death of his tyrannical father), in Russia (the growth of a revolutionary student movement), and in the world (the Paris Commune) strengthened his revolutionary feelings. In 1872 he visited Switzerland for the first time to discover more about the International Workingmen's Association and on his return to Russia began to frequent the Chaikovsky Circle. As his 1976 biographer Martin Miller revealed, Kropotkin authored the Circle's principal pamphlet, "Must We Examine the Ideal of the Future Order?"(1873).

Kropotkin was by this time (though the title was yet to be invented) an anarchist-communist that is, he advocated the destruction of state tyranny over society (as anarchist predecessors like William Godwin, Pierre Proudhon, and Mikhail Bakunin had done) on one hand, while on the other he sought a communist, egalitarian transformation of society (like Karl Marx, only without using the authority of the state). This paradox required the dissolution of national government and its postrevolutionary replacement by a free federation of small communes, a local government freely administered from below rather than national and imposed from above. Revolutionaries from privileged backgrounds must organize the preceding popular revolt by propaganda and persuasion only: Workers and peasants must make the revolution themselves.

In March 1874 Kropotkin was arrested for his revolutionary activities and interrogated over a two-year period. Moved to a military hospital, he was liberated in a complex, sensational escape organized by his comrades. Kropotkin continued his revolutionary career in the Jura Federation, Switzerland, comprising the anarchist sections of the International, and from early 1877 began for the first time to take part in public political life: demonstrating, making speeches, attending congresses, writing articles. This activity is chronicled in detail in Caroline Cahm's 1983 biography. Around 1880, the issue of terrorism or "propaganda by the deed," as was the expression of the time, arose. This was crystalized by the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. Although not approving assassination as a political method, Kropotkin was unwilling to condemn the assassins, explaining their actions as the result of impotent desperation. At the end of 1882 he was arrested in France for revolutionary activity in which, for once, he had not participated. Sentenced to five years' imprisonment, he was released following international pressure in early 1886 and settled in London, England.

For a living and for the cause, Kropotkin now lectured throughout Britain and wrote for numerous publications. His principal fame during the British period derived from his books, including In Russian and French Prisons (1887), Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), Fields, Factories, and Workshops (1899), Mutual Aid (1902), Modern Science and Anarchism (1903), Russian Literature (1905), The Terror in Russia (1909), and The Great French Revolution (1909). With British comrades, he launched the anarchist journal Freedom. He wrote frequently for political publications in several languages. He was greatly encouraged by the 1905 revolution in Russia.

Kropotkin's writings during these years of exile are parts of an ongoing argument with those hegemonic Victorian thinkers Thomas Malthus, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin. He takes issue with Malthus's bleak vision to argue that humanity's future is not limited by its reproductive success, but by science and equality. Nature shows the role of mutual aid in its evolution, analogous to the freely cooperating communes of postrevolutionary humanity. Anarchist communism is not merely desirable, but inevitable. Kropotkin's optimistic view of science no longer commands respect, but to many his works beckon us to a wonderful future.

In 1917, in old age, Kropotkin was able to return to revolutionary Russia. He worked for a while on various federalist projects and died in Dmitrov, a Moscow province. His last major work, Ethics, was published posthumously and incomplete in 1924.

See also: anarchism; bakunin, mikhail alexandrovich; imperial russian geographical society


Cahm, Caroline. (1989). Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 18721886. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cahm, Caroline, Colin Ward, and Ian Cook. (1992). P. A. Kropotkin's Sesquicentennial: A Reassessment and Tribute. Durham: University of Durham, Centre for European Studies.

Miller, Martin A. (1976). Kropotkin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Slatter, John (ed.). (1984). From the Other Shore: Russian Political Emigrants in Britain 18801917. London: Frank Cass.

Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumovic. (1950). The Anarchist Prince: A Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin. London: Boardman.

John Slatter