Kropotkin, Pëtr Alekseevich (1842–1921)

views updated


Pëtr Alekseevich Kropotkin, the geographer and libertarian philosopher, was the principal exponent of the theories of anarchist-communism. He was born of a line of Russian princes who claimed descent from Riurik, the reputed founder of the Russian Empire. His father was a general, and he himself seemed destined for a military career. He was educated in the Corps of Pages and served as personal attendant to Tsar Alexander II. When the time came for him to choose a career, Kropotkin applied for a commission in the Mounted Cossacks of the Amur and went to Siberia because he felt his chance of serving humanity was greater there than in Russia. He had already come under the influence of liberal ideas through reading the clandestinely distributed writings of Aleksandr Herzen.

In Siberia Kropotkin carried out an investigation of the Russian penal system, which aroused in him a revulsion against the effects of autocratic government. During the early 1860s he led a series of expeditions into the untraveled regions of Siberia and, on the basis of his observations, developed an original and influential theory concerning the structure of the mountains of Asia. He also made important discoveries regarding the glacial ages and the great desiccation of east Asia, which resulted in the onset of barbarian wanderings.

In the solitude of the Siberian wastes, Kropotkin's thoughts turned more and more toward social protest. In 1865 the exiled poet M. L. Mikhailov introduced him to the writings of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and in 1866 Kropotkin resigned his commission in protest against the execution of a group of Polish prisoners who had tried to escape.

For some years he devoted himself to science, and in 1871 he was exploring the eskers of Finland when he was offered the secretaryship of the Russian Geographical Society. It was the moment of decision. Kropotkin was already feeling the urge to "go to the people" that affected many of the conscience-stricken Russian noblemen of the 1870s, and he decided to abandon science. In 1872 he visited Switzerland to make contact with exiled Russian liberals and revolutionaries. After listening to many radical views, he went to the Jura, where the watchmakers were fervent disciples of Mikhail Bakunin. "When I came away from the mountains, after a week's stay with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled; I was an anarchist" (Memoirs of a Revolutionist ).

In Russia Kropotkin joined the underground circle led by Nikolai Chaikovskii. In 1874 he was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Two years later he made a sensational escape and returned to western Europe, where he became an active worker in the rising anarchist movement. In 1879 he founded Le révolté, the most important anarchist paper to appear since the end of Proudhon's journalistic career in 1850, and in 1881 he took part in the London International Anarchist Congress, which founded the celebrated but short-lived "Black International." In 1882 he was arrested by the French authorities and was tried at Lyons along with a number of French anarchists. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment for alleged membership in the International Workingmen's Association. The sentence aroused wide international protest, and Kropotkin was released early in 1886. He went to England, where he lived until he returned to Russia after the 1917 revolution.

Kropotkin's career in western Europe was sharply altered by his arrival in England. On the Continent, from 1876 to 1886, he had been a revolutionary agitator, conspiring, lecturing, pamphleteering, and taking part in radical demonstrations. His writings were mainly periodical pieces for Le révolté. At first they were topical, but by 1880 Kropotkin was already developing the theory of anarchist-communism in a series of articles later incorporated in two booksParoles d'un révolté (Paris, 1885) and La conquête du pain (Paris, 1892).


The doctrine of anarchist-communism differed from the collectivism preached by Bakunin and his followers in the 1860s in that it considered the need of the consumer rather than the achievement of the producer as the measure for distribution. In the vision of the anarchist-communist, the free-distribution warehouse would replace the earlier systems evolved by Proudhon and retained by the collectivists, which determined the worker's due either by hours of labor or quantity of production. Also, the anarchist-communists laid particular stress on the commune (in the sense of locality), rather than the industrial association, as the unit of social organization. In other respectstheir rejection of the state, their stress on federalism, their emphasis on direct rather than parliamentary action, their denunciation of political formsthey did not differ profoundly from other schools of anarchism.


Although he became its leading exponent, Kropotkin did not originate anarchist-communism. The form of distribution embodied in the theory dates back at least as early as Thomas More's Utopia (15151516), and it appeared in a modified form in François Marie Charles Fourier's Phalansterian communities. The geographer Élisée Reclus, a former Phalansterian, appears to have brought the idea with him when he came to anarchism; it was first developed in writing by François Dumartheray, a Geneva artisan who helped Kropotkin in the founding of Le révolté. But Kropotkin developed the theory and, in La conquête du pain, he tried to show how it would work. This benign vision of an anarchist future reflects not only the optimism of Kropotkin's views, but also the benevolence of his character. For, although he always paid homage to the ideas of violent revolution, he did so against his nature; as Lev Tolstoy shrewdly remarked, "His arguments in favour of violence do not seem to me the expression of his opinions, but only of his faith to the banner under which he has served all his life."

Anarchism and Science

When he reached England, Kropotkin moved into a world where he was respected by people in all walks of life. His achievements as a geographer were remembered; he was honored by learned societies; his articles were published in scientific journals; and his books were welcomed by respectable publishers. He did not abandon his ideals, but his role changed from that of agitator to that of writer and libertarian philosopher.

The most important books Kropotkin wrote during this period were his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (New York, 1899), and Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (London, 1902). Mutual Aid, together with Modern Science and Anarchism (London, 1912), shows Kropotkin attempting to base anarchist theory on a scientific foundation. These books reveal him as a devoted evolutionist, to the extent that he explains revolutions as part of the natural process by which man, as a social animal, evolves. He sees revolutions arising obscurely in the consciousness of the people and punctuating the slow tenor of progress by sudden mutations in social organization, while he views anarchism as a backward trend toward a natural order that has been perverted by the emergence of authoritarian institutions. Man is naturally social, he suggests; therefore he does not need government, which itself perpetuates the unequal conditions that breed crime and violence. In their sociality, human beings resemble the more successful species of animals that depend for their survival on cooperation among their members. This idea is the core of Mutual Aid, which is an attempt, based largely on the arguments of K. F. Kessler, to reform evolutionary theory by demonstrating that the neo-Darwinians wrongly stressed competition as a factor in evolution, to the exclusion of cooperation. In biological terms, his point was well taken; the appearance of Mutual Aid led to modifications in evolutionary theory. But Kropotkin never convincingly welded his ideal of mutual aid to his anarchistic love of freedom, since he ignored the extent to which customs restrict liberty in most societies in which nongovernmental cooperation dominates the pattern of life.

Kropotkin's departure to Russia in 1917 led to tragic disappointment. He found himself out of touch with Russian realities and isolated during the events that led to the October Revolution. He retired to the village of Dmitrov outside Moscow, where he spent his last years writing. He denounced the Bolshevik dictatorship and the terror it imposed. When he died in 1921, his funeral was the last great demonstration against communist rule.


Kropotkin's last years were spent on the uncompleted Etika (Ethics ), which was published posthumously in Moscow in 1922. In part a history of ethical theories, this book seeks to present ethics as a science. In developing his naturalistic viewpoint, Kropotkin shows the emergence of morality among animals as an outgrowth of mutual aid and demonstrates its extension into human society, where it acquires a disinterestedness that goes beyond mere equality. He sees morality as the extension of human good will beyond equity and justice. The historical parts of Ethics are admirable, but the work is incomplete; Kropotkin's own ethical system is barely worked out.

See also Anarchism; Bakunin, Mikhail Aleksandrovich; Communism; Evolutionary Ethics; Evolutionary Theory; Fourier, François Marie Charles; Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich; Libertarianism; More, Thomas; Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph; Russian Philosophy; Tolstoy, Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich.


works by kropotkin

Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings. Edited by Roger N. Baldwin. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002.

The Conquest of Bread. New York: New York University Press, 1972.

The Great French Revolution. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989.

Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets: A Collection of Writings. New York: B. Blom, 1968.

Russian Literature: Ideals and Realities. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 1991.

Works. Vols. 711 edited by George Woodcock. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books, 19921995.

works on kropotkin

Cahm, Caroline. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 18721886. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. London: HarperCollins, 1992.

Morland, David. Demanding the Impossible? Human Nature and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Social Anarchism. London and Washington, DC: Cassell, 1997.

Morris, Brian. Kropotkin: The Politics of Community. Amherst and New York: Humanity Books, 2004.

Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumovic. Peter Kropotkin: From Prince to Rebel. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990.

George Woodcock (1967)

Bibliography updated by Vladimir Marchenkov (2005)

About this article

Kropotkin, Pëtr Alekseevich (1842–1921)

Updated About content Print Article