Kropotkin: Political Rights

Freedom in each otherIn the lead up to Kropotkin’s 170th birthday on December 21st, I will be presenting some more selections from Words of a Rebel that I was unable to include in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The first selection, as topical today as when it was written, is on political rights, the most important of which can only be protected by people asserting them for themselves.

anarchy liberation

Political Rights

Each day, in a whole range of tones, the bourgeois press praises the value and the importance of our political liberties, of the “political rights of the citizen”: universal suffrage, free elections, freedom of the press and of meeting, etc.

“Since you have these freedoms,” they say to us, “what is the point of rebelling? Don’t the liberties you already possess assure the possibilities of all the reforms that may be necessary, without your needing to resort to the gun?” So, let us analyse, from our point of view what these famous “political liberties” are worth to the class that owns nothing, rules nobody, and has in fact very few rights and plenty of duties.

We are not asserting, as has sometimes been said, that political rights have no value for us. We know very well that since the days of serfdom and even since the last century, we have made a certain amount of progress; the man of the people is no longer the being deprived of all rights that he was in the past. The French peasant can no longer be flogged at the roadside, as he still is in Russia. In public places, outside his factory or workshop, the worker considers himself the equal of anyone, especially in the great cities. The French worker is no longer that being lacking in all human rights who in the past was treated by the aristocracy as a beast of burden. Thanks to the revolutions, thanks to the blood which the people shed, he has acquired certain personal rights whose value we have no desire to minimize.

But we know how to draw distinctions, and we assert that there are rights and rights. There are those that have a real value and those that do not, and whoever tries to confound them is only deceiving the people. Certain rights like, for example, the equality of the peasant and the squire in their personal relations, or the corporal inviolability of the person, have been won through great struggles, and are so dear to the people that they will rise up rather than allow them to be violated. But there are others, like universal suffrage, freedom of the press, etc., towards which the people have always remained lukewarm, because they know perfectly well that these rights, which have served so well to defend the ruling bourgeoisie against the encroachments of royal power and of the aristocracy, are no more than an instrument in the hands of the dominant classes to maintain their power over the people. These rights are not even real political rights, since they provide no safeguard for the mass of the people; and if we still decorate them with that pompous title it is because our political language is no more than a jargon elaborated by the ruling classes for their own use and in their own interests.

What, in fact, is a political right if it is not an instrument to safeguard the independence, the dignity and the freedom of those who do not yet have the power to impose on others a respect for that right? What is its use, if it is not an instrument of liberation for those who need to be freed? The Gambettas, the Bismarcks, the Gladstones need neither the freedom of the press nor the freedom of meeting, because they can write what they want, can meet whomsoever they wish, and profess whatever ideas they please; they are already liberated. They are free. If there is any need to guarantee anyone the right to speak and write, the freedom to gather together, it is surely to those who are not powerful enough to impose their will. Such in fact is the origin of all political rights.

But, looked at from this viewpoint, have the political rights we are talking of been created with an eye to those who alone need safeguards? Obviously not. Universal suffrage can sometimes and to a certain extent protect, without the need for a constant recourse to force in self-defence. It can serve to re-establish the equilibrium between two forces which struggle for power, without the rivals being forced to draw their swords on each other as they did in the past. But it can be no help if it is a matter of overthrowing or even limiting power, or of abolishing domination. Since it is such an excellent instrument for resolving in a peaceful manner any quarrels among the rulers, what use can it possibly be to the ruled?

voting changes nothing

Does not the history of universal suffrage tell us this? Whenever the bourgeoisie has feared that universal suffrage might become a weapon in the hands of the people that could be turned against the privileged, it has fought it stubbornly. But the day it was proved, in 1848, that universal suffrage held nothing to fear, and that one could rule the people with an iron rod by the use of universal suffrage, it was immediately accepted. Now the bourgeoisie itself has become its defender because it understands that here is a weapon adapted to sustain its domination, but absolutely harmless as a threat to its privileges.

It is the same with freedom of the press. What, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, has been the most conclusive argument in favour of freedom of the press? Its powerlessness. Yes, its powerlessness. M. de Girardin has written a whole book on this theme: the powerlessness of the press. “Formerly—he says—we burned witches because people had the stupidity to believe they were all-powerful; now people commit the same stupidity regarding the press, because they believe that it also is all-powerful. But it is nothing of the kind; it is as powerless as the witches of the middle ages. Hence, more persecutions of the press!” This is the contention that M. de Girardin offered in the past. And when the bourgeoisie discuss the freedom of the press among themselves, what arguments do they advance in its favour?

“Look at England, Switzerland and the United States,” they say. “In all of them the press is free and yet capitalist exploitation is better established in them than in any other country; its reign is more secure among them than anywhere else.” And they add, “What does it matter if dangerous doctrines are produced. Don’t we have all the means of stifling the voices of the journals that project them without even a recourse to violence? And even if one day, at a time of agitation, the revolutionary press becomes a dangerous weapon, so what? On that day it will be time enough to destroy it with a single blow on the most convenient pretext.”

As for the freedom of meeting, the same kind of reasoning holds. “Give complete freedom of meeting,” say the bourgeoisie. “It will do no harm to our privileges. What we have to fear are the secret societies, and public meetings are the best way of paralyzing them. But if, in a moment of excitement, public meetings should get out of hand, we would always have the means of suppressing them, since we hold the powers of government.”

propaganda

“The inviolability of the dwelling? Of course! Write it into all the codes! Cry it from the rooftops!” say the knowing ones among the bourgeoisie. “We don’t want policemen coming to surprise us in our little nests.” But we will institute a secret service to keep an eye on suspects; we will people the country with police spies, make lists of dangerous people, and watch them closely. And if we smell out one day that anything is afoot, then we must set to vigorously, make a jest of inviolability, arrest people in their beds, search and ransack their homes! But above all we must do this boldly and if anyone protests too loudly, we must lock them up as well, and say to the rest, ‘What would you have us do, gentlemen? We must deal firmly with the situation!’ And we shall be applauded.”

“The privacy of correspondence? Say it everywhere, write and cry it out, that correspondence is inviolable. If the head of some village post office opens a letter out of curiosity, sack him at once and proclaim loudly that he is a monstrous criminal. Take good care that the little secrets we exchange with each other in our letters shall not be divulged. But if we get wind of some plot being hatched against our privileges, then let us not stand on ceremony; let us open everyone’s letters, allocate a thousand clerks to the task if necessary, and if someone takes it on himself to protest, let us say frankly, as an English minister did recently to the applause of parliament: ‘Yes, gentlemen, it is with a heavy heart and the deepest of distaste that we order letters to be opened, but it is entirely because the country (i.e. the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie) is in danger.”

This is what these so-called liberties can be reduced to. Freedom of press and of meeting, inviolability of the home and all the rest, are only respected if the people do not make use of them against the privileged classes. But the day the people begin to take advantage of them to undermine those privileges, then the so-called liberties will be cast overboard.

This is quite natural. Humanity retains only the rights it has won by hard struggle and is ready to defend at every moment, with arms in hand.

revolution

If men and women are not whipped in the streets of Paris, as they are in Odessa, it is because on the day a government dared to attempt this, the people would tear its agents to pieces. If an aristocrat can no longer make way for himself through the streets with the help of blows delivered right and left by the staves of his servants, it is because any of the servants who got such ideas into their heads would immediately be overpowered. If a degree of equality exists between the worker and his employer, at least in the streets and in public establishments, it is not because the worker’s rights are written into the law but because, thanks to revolutions in the past, he has a feeling of personal dignity that will not let him endure an offense from anyone.

Yet it is evident that in present-day society, divided as it is between masters and serfs, true liberty cannot exist; it will not exist so long as there are exploiters and slaves, governments and governed. At the same time it does not follow that, as we await the day when the anarchist revolution will sweep away all social distinctions, we wish to see the press muzzled, as in Germany, the right of meeting annulled, as in Russia, or the inviolability of the person reduced as it is in Turkey. Slaves of capital that we all are, we want to be able to write and publish whatever seems right to us, we want to be able to meet and organize as we please, precisely so that we can shake off the yoke of capital.

But it is high time we understood that we must not demand these rights through constitutional laws. We cannot go in search of our natural rights by way of a law, a scrap of paper that could be torn up at the least whim of the rulers. For it is only by transforming ourselves into a force, capable of imposing our will, that we shall succeed in making our rights respected.

Do you want to have freedom to speak and write whatever seems right to you? Do you want to have the liberty to meet and organize? It is not from a parliament that we seekers of freedom should ask permission, nor must we beg a law from the Senate. We must become an organized force, capable of showing our teeth every time anyone sets about restraining our rights of speech and meeting; we must be strong, and then we may be sure that nobody will dare dispute our right to speak, to write, to print what we write, and to meet together. The day we have been able to establish enough agreement among the exploited for them to come out in their millions into the streets and take up the defence of our rights, nobody will dare to dispute those rights, nor any others that we choose to demand. Then, and only then, shall we have truly gained such rights, for which we might plead to parliament for decades in vain. Then those rights will be guaranteed to us in a far more certain way than if they were merely written down on a bit of paper.

Freedoms are not given, they are taken.

total-freedom1

Free Pussy Riot!

The Russian state has come down hard on three members of Pussy Riot, sentencing them to 2 years in a labour camp. One of the reasons stated by the judge for the harsh sentence was that “The court does find a religious hatred motive in the actions of the defendants by way of them being feminists who consider men and women to be equal.” So not only is there now again an alliance in Russia between the Church and State in order to maintain their mutual power and authority, being a feminist is considered a form of “religious hatred,” presumably because the Church does not support women’s rights.

Anarchists have had a lot of experience in Russian jails, before and after the Russian Revolution. Previously I posted Kropotkin’s essay on “Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners,” together with Jean Grave’s comments on judges, which are worth repeating in relation to the sentencing of the three members of Pussy Riot:

So long as authority leaned upon its divine source, so long as justice passed for an emanation from God, we can understand that those invested with authority should have believed themselves peculiar beings, endowed by the divine will with a portion of its omnipotence and infallibility, and should have imagined themselves fit to distribute rewards and punishments to the herd of vulgar mortals.  But in our century of science and free criticism, when it is recognized that all men are kneaded out of the same dough, subject to the same passions, the same caprices, the same mistakes, today when an agonizing divinity no longer comes to animate with its breath the ever fallible reason of mortals, we ask ourselves how it comes that there are men ignorant enough, or presumptuous enough, to dare to assume in cold blood and with deliberate intent the terrible responsibility of taking away another man’s life or any portion of his liberty. When in the most ordinary affairs of daily life we are most of the time unable to succeed in analyzing not only the causes which prompt our immediate neighbours to act but very often the true motives of our own acts, how can anybody have the self-sufficiency to believe himself capable of disentangling the truth in an affair of which he knows neither the beginning, nor the actors, nor the motives which prompted their actions, and which comes before the tribunal only after being magnified, commented upon, distorted by the misrepresentations of those who participated in it in any way whatsoever or, more frequently, have heard of it only through the repetitions of others?

You, who pose as severe and infallible judges of this man who has killed or robbed, do you know the motives which prompted him? Do you know the circumstances of environment, heredity, or even chance, which influenced his mind and led him to commit the act with which you reproach him? You, the implacable men that hurl your anathema against the accused whom public force has brought before your bar, have you ever asked yourselves whether, if placed in the same circumstances and surroundings under which this man acted, you would not have done worse? If, even, you were the impeccable, austere, and stainless men you are supposed to be, you, who with a word pitilessly cut off human life and liberty, you would not dare to utter your decisions if you had thoroughly reflected on human frailty; were you conscious of what you are doing, you would recoil appalled before your task!  How could you help being troubled with nightmares! How could your dreams help being peopled with spectres of the victims which your pretended justice creates every day!  Were it not for that official unconsciousness which stupidity and habit give, you would end by succumbing to the weight of remorse and the haunting of phantoms evoked by your judgments.

Jean Grave: Against the Law (1893)

Jean Grave (1854-1939) was a prominent anarchist communist active in France. He became editor of the anarchist paper, Le Révolté, in 1883 after Kropotkin was imprisoned following the Lyon trial of the anarchists (see the Manifesto of the Anarchists: Lyon, 1883, previously posted). Grave changed the name of the paper to La Révolte in 1887. That paper was suppressed and Grave imprisoned by the French authorities in 1894, shortly after Grave published Moribund Society and Anarchy in 1893, from which the following excerpts are taken. The translation is by the American anarchist, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912). The anarchist rejection of the ideology of the so-called “rule of law” was something that distinguished them from other revolutionary currents. Grave’s critique is reminiscent of the earlier critique developed by William Godwin (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 51), although it is doubtful that Grave was familiar with Godwin’s work. Kropotkin developed a more sophisticated analysis of law in a variety of publications, including his essay, Law and Authority (excerpted as Selection 52 in Anarchism, Volume One), where he argues that for the ideology of the “rule of law” to be widely accepted, the law must incorporate certain accepted social mores, such as prohibitions against murder, in order for specific laws benefitting the ruling classes to be accorded any legitimacy.

The Magistracy

Authority, as we have seen, springs from that right which arrogates force to itself.  But man having widened the field of his thought it became necessary for this authority to justify its existence. Combining with religious sentiment and the support of the priests, it claimed to be of divine origin, assumed the form of an exclusive caste, and eventually succeeded in resisting the brutal power of the king and the nobles: thus the magistracy was founded. And when the bourgeoisie seized power, in 1789, they took care not to destroy this pillar of social order. (Moreover, did not the nobility of gowns belong much more properly to the bourgeoisie than to the nobility of the sword?) They were thus relieved of the task of searching for a mode of recruit more in accord with the new aspirations.

Divine right having gotten a powerful shock in the decapitation of Louis XVI, the magistracy could not continue to lean upon the said right without the risk of likewise passing under this equalizing leveller.  Hence they invented, or rather deified, the “law.” The magistracy was constituted its guardian and incorruptible administrator, so-called. The trick was done; the most redoubtable and necessary institution for the defence of privilege succeeded in preserving itself, and becoming the priestess of this new entity, the law, created by the new masters. The submission of France to the regime of the “law” is, in fact, one of the conquests of ’89 whose benefits the bourgeois historians are exceedingly fond of setting forth. The codification of authority, according to these, its censer-bearers, had the immediate effect of legitimizing the most shameless arbitrariness. From then on Frenchmen were all to be equal; the people no longer had anything to demand. Thereafter there was to be but one master, before whom, it is true, all had to bow, which had the effect of equalizing their situations. This master was the “law.”

But we who are not satisfied with words, when we try to find out what the workers have gained by this transformation, see that they have got  just one more duping. In fact, in the time of the absolute monarchy, when the king and the nobles constrained the peasant to serve them, there was no way of deceiving oneself about it; the formula “for such is our good pleasure” showed whence they derived their rights: they claimed them by the right of the sword only, counting much more upon that than the divine will; consequently it was upon force that their claim was based.  Their orders were obeyed, their claims were submitted to, but because the people were in no condition to resist them. There were at least no imbeciles to come and say to us – repeating the phrases of the interested – that we must obey because it is “the law,” and it is the duty of everyone to conform thereto until it be changed.

If it be admitted that the law may change it is thereby presumed that the law may become retrogressive; and to acknowledge that is to admit that from its very nature it may injure someone, for there are always individuals in advance of their generation. The law, then, is not just; it has not that respectable character with which men have sought to invest it.  If this law injures my interests or violates my liberty why should I be compelled to obey it, and what is the unalterable compact which can justify these abuses? In scientific matters when the savants after great research and labour at length formulate what is called a natural law, it is not because a majority or “chamber,” composed of persons believing themselves superior to the rest of us mortals, has decided, by virtue of its members’ will, that natural forces were ordered to conform to such or such a mode of evolution. We should laugh in the face of the imbecile who would make such a pretence. When a natural law is proclaimed, it is because it has been discovered that if a certain phenomenon be produced, if a certain chemical combination had been effected, it is by virtue of such and such a force, or the existence of such and such affinities; the environment in which the phenomenon took place being given, it was impossible for it to be otherwise. Given forces set in motion under given conditions produce given results; this is mathematical. Therefore the newly-discovered law does not come upon the scene to govern the phenomenon, but to explain its causes, these laws may be discovered, doubted, and even denied; the divers substances which compose our earth will none the less continue to combine according to their properties or affinities, the earth will turn, without any force being needed to protect the evolution thereof, or punish those who might want to “violate the laws.”

In our society it is otherwise. These laws seem to be made to be violated; because those who made them consulted only their personal preferences, the interests of those whom they represented, and the average degree of moral evolution in their epoch, without taking into account the character, tendencies, and affinities of those who were to submit to them — which, moreover, would be impossible, the diversity of individual character and tendencies being given. Each estate has its laws; nor can there be any single and universal law in sociology, as there is in physics, under penalty of its becoming arbitrary and inapplicable.  In fact there is not, in our society, a single law which does not injure some of its members, either in their material interests or their ideas; not a single law which each triumphant party has not been able to turn against its adversaries.  Power once obtained, every illegal party becomes legal, for it is that party which, through its creatures, administers the “law.”   We may then conclude that the law being nothing but the will of the strongest, one is obliged to obey it only when too weak to resist it; that nothing really legitimizes it, and that this famous “legality” is only a question of more or less force. So when these rogues oppose the workers with their supreme argument, “legality,” the latter may laugh in their faces and ask if anyone ever came to consult the toilers about the making of those laws. And even if the people should have adhered to these laws for a time, the latter could have no effectiveness except so long as those who accepted them continued to believe them useful, and were willing to conform to them. It would be funny if under the pretext that at a given moment of our life we had agreed to a certain line of conduct, we were forced to adopt it for the rest of our existence, without being able to modify it, because to do so would be to displease a certain number of persons who, for one cause or another finding profit for themselves in the existing order, would like to crystallize their present condition. But what is more ridiculous still, is the desire to subject us to the laws of past generations, the pretence that we should believe we owe respect and obedience to the fancies which it pleased certain nincompoops to codify and set up as laws fifty years ago! The presumption of wanting to enslave the present to the conceptions of the past!

At this point we hear the recriminations of all the makers of laws and those that get their living out of them; they naively fall into line and cry out with the others that society could not exist if there were no longer any laws; that people would be cutting each other’s throats if they had no tutelary authority to keep them in fear and respect of acquired rank and condition. Later we shall see that, in spite of law and coercion, crimes continue to be committed; that the laws are powerless to repress or prevent them, since they are the result of the vicious organization which governs us; and that, consequently, we must not seek to maintain or to modify the laws, but to change the social system.

But what makes us still more indignant is that certain persons are audacious enough to set themselves up as judges of others. So long as authority leaned upon its divine source, so long as justice passed for an emanation from God, we can understand that those invested with authority should have believed themselves peculiar beings, endowed by the divine will with a portion of its omnipotence and infallibility, and should have imagined themselves fit to distribute rewards and punishments to the herd of vulgar mortals.  But in our century of science and free criticism, when it is recognized that all men are kneaded out of the same dough, subject to the same passions, the same caprices, the same mistakes, today when an agonizing divinity no longer comes to animate with its breath the ever fallible reason of mortals, we ask ourselves how it comes that there are men ignorant enough, or presumptuous enough, to dare to assume in cold blood and with deliberate intent the terrible responsibility of taking away another man’s life or any portion of his liberty. When in the most ordinary affairs of daily life we are most of the time unable to succeed in analyzing not only the causes which prompt our immediate neighbours to act but very often the true motives of our own acts, how can anybody have the self-sufficiency to believe himself capable of disentangling the truth in an affair of which he knows neither the beginning, nor the actors, nor the motives which prompted their actions, and which comes before the tribunal only after being magnified, commented upon, distorted by the misrepresentations of those who participated in it in any way whatsoever or, more frequently, have heard of it only through the repetitions of others?

You, who pose as severe and infallible judges of this man who has killed or robbed, do you know the motives which prompted him? Do you know the circumstances of environment, heredity, or even chance, which influenced his mind and led him to commit the act with which you reproach him? You, the implacable men that hurl your anathema against the accused whom public force has brought before your bar, have you ever asked yourselves whether, if placed in the same circumstances and surroundings under which this man acted, you would not have done worse? If, even, you were the impeccable, austere, and stainless men you are supposed to be, you, who with a word pitilessly cut off human life and liberty, you would not dare to utter your decisions if you had thoroughly reflected on human frailty; were you conscious of what you are doing, you would recoil appalled before your task!  How could you help being troubled with nightmares! How could your dreams help being peopled with spectres of the victims which your pretended justice creates every day!  Were it not for that official unconsciousness which stupidity and habit give, you would end by succumbing to the weight of remorse and the haunting of phantoms evoked by your judgments.

Our epoch of criticism and positive science no longer admits the principle of distributive justice, nor recognizes the legitimacy of a superior authority rewarding the good and chastising the wicked. Against this ancient doctrine, which the conceptions of the age during one period of humanity’s evolution rendered logical, we promulgate the opposite idea.  We no longer see actions as good or bad, except as they are agreeable or disagreeable to us, and in consequence act accordingly. We approve or become enthusiastic, defend or attack, according to the benefit or injury received by our interests, our passions, and our conceptions of the ideal. The common need of solidarity which leads people subjected to the same attacks to unite for their defence is to us the guarantee of a future social order less troubled than our own. We do not judge, but work and struggle; and we believe that universal harmony will result from the free action of all men, when once the suppression of private property no longer permits a handful of persons to enslave their fellows.

Hence we cannot admit that, six weeks or six years after an act has been committed, a group of persons supported by armed force should assemble to judge, in the name of some entity or other, and reward or punish the author of the act. That is hypocrisy and cowardice. You reproach a man with having killed, and to teach him that he was wrong you have him killed by the executioner, society’s hired assassin!  The executioner and you have not even the excuse of having risked your own necks, since you proceed under cover of an armed force which protects you. We are at war with the ruling caste: recognize, gentlemen of the magistracy, that you are its retainers, and let us alone with your big words and fine phrases.   Maintain the privileges whose care is confided to you, use the force which ignorance concedes to you, but leave justice in peace; she has nothing to do with you!

That you might be able to judge appreciatively of the ignominy of your role in beating down others, we would like, O judges, that it might happen to you that, being innocent, you should fall into the clutches of your fellows, to be judged in your turn. In such a situation you might learn what anguish and terror they have had to pass through who have filed before your bar, and whom you have tortured, you, magistrates, as the cat tortures the mouse.  With the floods of eloquence from the prosecuting attorney pleading against you rolling about your ears, you might see passing before your eyes the spectres of those unfortunates that, during your career, you have immolated upon the altar of social vengeance; you might ask yourselves then, with terror, if they also were not innocent. Oh yes, we would heartily wish that there might be one among you falsely accused, who should go through the terrors of those that come before your bar. For if, his innocence being one day admitted, he were reinstated in his functions, it is strongly to be presumed that he would re-enter his place in the tribunal only to tear his robe and apologize for his criminal life as magistrate, judging haphazard and trafficking in human lives.

Jean Grave, Paris 1893

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