Kropotkin, P’etr

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Kropotkin, P’etr



P’etr (Peter) Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842–1921), anarchist theoretician and leader, came from an ancient Russian aristocratic family. He received an excellent education, which included several years in the Imperial Corps of Pages. As a graduate of that school he could have had a brilliant career at the court; but inspired by egalitarian principles (which led him, while still a boy, to drop his princely title) and love of adventure, he applied instead for service in Siberia. He spent five fruitful and exciting years there, from 1862 to 1867, in the course of which he had much opportunity to observe human and animal life under conditions of virtually complete freedom. He also engaged in geographic exploration. His reports on the topography of Asia, published after his return to St. Petersburg, earned him immediate scholarly recognition and opened doors to a distinguished academic career. But Kropotkin once again rejected the path of personal advancement. The reading of socialist literature had persuaded him to dedicate his life to the cause of social justice. This intention was strengthened by a brief visit to Switzerland in 1872, during which he met some of the leading figures of European socialism as well as the anarchist workers of the Jura region. He returned to Russia a convinced anarchist and joined a clandestine circle engaged in propagandizing among laborers. When the police broke up the circle two years later, Kropotkin was arrested and confined. In 1876, after a dramatic escape from the prison hospital, he made his way to western Europe, where he remained (mostly in England) until 1917.

Kropotkin’s social theory concentrated on rebutting Darwinist explanations, which, be it noted, never found favor among Russian intellectuals. To the notions of “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” he opposed the conception of “mutual aid”; and he did so not on ethical but on what he believed to be scientific grounds.

He began to have doubts about Darwinism while still a young officer in Siberia. He departed for Siberia strongly impressed by the Origin of Species, published three years earlier, and eagerly sought there additional evidence of “struggles for existence.” To his great surprise, he soon discovered that such struggles played a relatively minor role in animal life. Instead, he noted numerous instances of solidarity in coping with nature and with man. Firsthand observations of peasant and Cossack communities in the Siberian wilderness strengthened his belief in the importance of cooperation. Afterwards, in the course of studying the history and situation of the working class in Russia and western Europe, he was again struck by the prevalence of solidarity within the species.

These vague ideas crystallized into theory in the early 1880s, under the direct stimulus of the Rus-sian zoologist Karl F. Kessler. Kessler, in a report delivered in 1880, argued on the basis of extensive scientific observation that cooperation and not conflict determine the relations between individuals of the same species and constitute the vital factor of the evolutionary process. Kropotkin promptly applied these views to social questions and advanced the view that custom and voluntary agreement, rather than law and normative authority, represent the creative forces in history (1885; 1886). In 1888, when Thomas Huxley published his “Struggle for Existence,” in Nineteenth Century, Kropotkin replied there with a series of essays (1890–1896) which were later gathered into a separate volume called Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution; this book became his most celebrated work.

The principal thesis of Mutual Aid is the proposition that “sociability is as much a law of nature as natural struggle” and that “under any circumstances [sociability is] the greatest advantage in the struggle for life.” In other words, the “fittest” are not those strongest individually, but those most adept at cooperation. Creatures that learn to cooperate become the most numerous and the most prosperous; those that fail to do so are doomed to decay. To prove this contention Kropotkin traced evidence of voluntary cooperation from lower forms of animal society through the primitive tribe, village community, and medieval guild to various modern associations. The basis of mutual aid is an instinctive sense of solidarity which, he emphasized, does not derive from love but, on the contrary, provides the basis for love. Kropotkin contrasted voluntary associations with institutions of state and law, which embody predatoryinstincts and facilitate exploitation. He believed the “governmental,” “Roman” principle must with time inevitably yield to the voluntaristic one. Although he did not deny the efficacy of the competitive element in evolution, Kropotkin felt it had been greatly overrated by Darwin’s followers.

The society which he envisaged was one of free associations, in which the means of production as well as the products themselves would be held in common, and every citizen would receive according to his needs (1892). This system he called “anarchist communism,” in contrast to Marxism, which he regarded as “statist” and indelibly tainted with authoritarian elements. Like many Russian con-temporaries, notably Nikolai K. Mikhailovskii, Kropotkin objected strenuously to the intensified division of labor characteristic of modern times as deleterious to human character and pleaded for conditions under which everyone could engage in both mental and physical labor (1899).

In the summer of 1917 Kropotkin returned to Russia. He supported the provisional government and opposed the Bolsheviks. When Lenin seized power Kropotkin withdrew from public life and settled in the country near Moscow, where under conditions of extreme hardship he spent his last years writing a history of moral ideas (1922). Occasionally he emerged from isolation to protest publicly against Lenin’s dictatorial measures, such as the taking of hostages. He died convinced that Bolshevism was doomed because it had failed to evolve a grand ethical ideal capable of appealing to the masses.

Kropotkin based his ethical theory, as he did his whole social theory, on the notion of “mutual aid.” The necessity for cooperation among individuals of the same species in coping with their environment inevitably develops in them a sense of justice. Justice entails an appreciation of the rights of other individuals and a respect for equality. It induces the individual to sacrifice his personal interests for those of the community. Morality is merely a highly developed conscious and articulated form of this sense of justice. The development from mutual aid through justice to morality is an intrinsic and necessary process of social evolution. All three constitute manifestations of an instinct for self-preservation, mutual aid being the most rudimentary and most deeply rooted, and morality being the highest and least secure of these instincts. Societies which fail to undergo the evolution from mutual aid to morality are doomed to decline and disappear.

Kropotkin’s particular achievement was to provide the anarchist theory with a scientific foundation. Drawing on a rich knowledge of zoology and history (among his writings is a history called The Great French Revolution: 1789–1793, 1893), he could persuasively argue the great importance of spontaneous, voluntaristic, and associational factors in the evolution of both animals and men and thus endow anarchism with some of the qualities of scientific “inevitability” that helped so much to popularize the views of Engels and Marx. In his own life he personified that combination of thought and action which he preached in his writings. His idealism, his love of life, and the incorruptibility which he displayed even under the most adverse circumstances endowed him with an irresistible charm to which even Oscar Wilde succumbed: he once called Kropotkin one of the two happy men he had known.

Richard Pipes

[See alsoAnarchism. Other relevant material may be found inCooperation; Marxism; Syndicalism; Utopianism.]


1885 Paroles d’un révolté. paris: Marpon & Flammarion.

1886 Law and Authority: An Anarchist Essay. London: International.

(1890–1896) 1955 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Boston: Extending Horizons. → Thomas Huxley’s “The Struggle for Existence” is included in both the original 1902 and the 1955 publication.

(1892) 1926 The Conquest of Bread. New York: Vanguard. → First published in French.

(1893) 1927 The Great French Revolution: 1789–1793. 2 vols. New York: Vanguard. → First published in French.

(1898–1899) 1930 Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin. → First published in the Atlantic Monthly as “The Autobiography of a Revolutionist.”

(1899) 1913 Fields, Factories and Workshops: Or, Industry Combined With Agriculture and Brain Work With Manual Work. Rev. & enl. ed. New York and London: Putnam.

(1922) 1924 Ethics: Origin and Development. New York: MacVeagh. → First published in Russian.


Joll, James (1964) 1965 The Anarchists. Boston: Little.

Nettlau, MAX 1927 Der Anarchismus von Proudhon zu Kropotkin: Seine historische Entwicklung in den Jahren 1859–1880. Berlin: Kater.

Woodcock, George; and Avakumović, Ivan 1950 The Anarchist Prince: A Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin. London and New York: Boardman.