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Study Notes

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921)

Level:
A-Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 21 Jan 2019

Born into a Russian aristocratic family, Peter Kropotkin achieved an international reputation as a physical geographer. By the 1870s, he had rejected the attitudes of his own class and had turned to anarchism.

A pivotal point in his political conversion came when he travelled to the Jura federation in Switzerland and visited a watch-makers’ community that engaged in cooperative production, pooled resources and shared the rewards flowing their collective labours. Kropotkin is a key theorist in the anarcho-communist movement and his major works are Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), The Conquest of Bread (1892) and Fields, Factories and Workshops (1897).

In his most famous book, Mutual Aid, Kropotkin uses the methods of natural science to support his arguments on mutual aid and human nature. Kropotkin draws on examples from the animal kingdom and human history to refute the social Darwinist argument that competition and struggle lead to the survival of the fittest. Instead, for both animals and humans, cooperation and mutual aid are the keys to evolutionary success. As Kropotkin puts it ‘under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life.’ In his view, humans have become the most successful species because they realise that cooperation and mutuality, not competition, are natural. This altruistic and cooperative behaviour, according to Kropotkin, can be seen in pre-modern human societies which were collectively organised into tribes and clans and based on mutual support.

Kropotkin extends his argument linking mutual aid with human nature by maintaining that people living together in society develop a natural collective sense of justice founded on equal treatment and altruism. He also rejects Stirner’s egoism as a negative and self-absorbed form of individual pleasure seeking. This emphasis on human solidarity, innate morality and altruism leads Kropotkin to conclude that people are not inherently aggressive. Furthermore, humans not only have basic needs (e.g. for food or shelter) but also creative impulses to satisfy. The latter can only be realised by the equal distribution of property so that everyone has the leisure time to develop as complete human personalities.

For Kropotkin, the state and capitalism distort and conceal humans’ natural sociable and cooperative tendencies. The state, he contends, is a coercive institution designed to ‘subject the masses to the will of the minorities.’ Capitalism and private property, founded on exploitation and inequality, do not reflect the ‘true’ communal nature of production and wealth creation.

Like most anarchist thinkers, Kropotkin also regards religion as another form of illegitimate authority that seeks to control people. Only a spontaneous mass revolutionary movement, prepared to use force, can remove the state, capitalism, private property and religion, thereby restoring mutual aid and reconnecting humans with their ‘real’ nature. Anarchist intellectuals can play a part in this revolutionary process by promoting ideas that resonate with the revolutionary instincts of the masses but any direction by a central political authority (such as a vanguard party or radical elite) will inevitably check the progress of the revolution. This led to Kropotkin’s rejection of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Although opposed to indiscriminate violence, Kropotkin argues that such acts are legitimate either if they are part of an anarchist revolutionary campaign against oppression or focus on economic targets rather than individuals. Ultimately, he remains convinced of ‘the force of the popular revolution.’ The post-revolution society, in Kropotkin’s estimation, will be utopian, representing the highest stage of human development and comprising a federal network of voluntary self-governing communities of equal individuals. Each community will be regulated by free agreements based on common interest and direct democracy. Kropotkin envisages that, with the removal of private property and poverty, crime will diminish significantly and disputes will be settled by arbitration. Economically, these communities will be based on anarcho-communism – common ownership of the means of production by the communes and the eradication of the wage system. Kropotkin justifies these arrangements on the grounds that ‘All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them …’ Each person will work according to their ability and receive according to their needs. This fundamental economic transformation, he argues, will promote human cooperation and social harmony. Furthermore, under this new system, people will be able to choose, and vary, their work to increase their own sense of fulfilment and contribute to the general good of the commune. The wilfully idle will be ‘encouraged’ to become more productive through social disapproval and ostracism. Finally, Kropotkin advocates the decentralisation of industry and the integration of industry and agriculture locally to widen people’s choice of work and give them greater control over production and distribution.

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