David Berry: Kropotkin’s Great French Revolution

PM Press is publishing a new edition of Peter Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution (originally published in 1909), with an introduction by David Berry, who has kindly agreed to let me publish the following excerpts from his introduction to Kropotkin’s classic book to mark Kropotkin’s birthday on December 21, 1842.

For Kropotkin, as for so many others throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French Revolution was where it all began…

Kropotkin’s claim to originality in The Great French Revolution did not lie in the discovery of previously unknown facts—unable to re-enter France for fear of being arrested, his research was not carried out in the Paris archives, but on published material, almost entirely among the British Museum’s albeit considerable holdings. His originality lay in his method, his approach and in his interpretation. Kropotkin’s background in the natural sciences had an influence on the way he worked and wrote, and he prided himself on this.[1] Not only is his work thoroughly researched and based on evidence gleaned from all the most up-to-date studies, his style is also very different from and notably less lyrical and digressive than that of many nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians, including Jaurès. It is scholarly, but written lucidly, in accessible language and with passion.

His anarchist communism also determined how he saw 1789: “You have seen, with Mutual Aid”, he wrote to Guillaume in 1903, “and you will see with The State: Its Historic Role, what a remarkable, powerful tool of investigation the anarchist tendency represents—the anarchist hypothesis in the language of science.”[2] And as he wrote of history in Words of a Rebel:

Do you not understand that history, today a convenient mythology regarding the greatness of kings, of notable personalities, of parliaments⸺must be entirely recast from the popular point of view, from the viewpoint of the work accomplished by the masses in the phases of human revolution?[3]

Such a perspective guarded Kropotkin against the various ‘legends’ that had been built up over the years by the more conventional histories⸺what he called the “legend of 4 August 1789”, for example, when the National Assembly is supposed to have abolished feudalism, but in fact included a clause insisting that feudal rights and tithes had to be redeemed (ie the peasants had to buy themselves out), a clause which set back the actual abolition by four years, when peasant revolts finally forced the government to act. (Besides, as Kropotkin emphasises in chapter 17: “The Assembly only sanctioned in principle and extended to France altogether what the people had accomplished themselves in certain localities. It went no further.”) Nor was the anarchist-communist Kropotkin unduly impressed by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, “this profession of middle-class liberalism” (chapter 19), with its insistence on the sacredness of private property: “Like the American Constitutionalists assembled in the Congress of Philadelphia, the National Assembly kept out of its declaration all allusions to the economic relations between citizens.” (chapter 10)

There are thus several aspects to Kropotkin’s originality, a consequence of this anarchist-communist approach: the first was a kind of class analysis (quite different, as we shall see, from that of the Marxists) and his focus on the common people, and especially on the peasantry (who made up over 80% of the population at the end of the eighteenth century); secondly, the attention he paid to spontaneous experiments by the people in decentralisation and direct democracy; and thirdly, his attempt to trace the appearance and development during the course of the Revolution of embryonic forms of socialism, communism and anarchism.

The people

His central concern, then, was with the oppressed, with the social and economic realities of their lives, with the practical implications for them of the many changes wrought by the Revolution. This is what set Kropotkin’s history apart. As he himself wrote in an article to mark the centenary:

The history of the French Revolution has been written and re-written. We know the slightest details of the drama played on the stages of the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and the Convention. The parliamentary history of the movement is fully elaborated. But its popular history has never been attempted to be written.[4]

Historians had previously focussed only on what he called “the theatrical aspect”:[5] “Thanks to the fables churned out by the Jacobin bourgeoisie on the Great Revolution, the people have learnt nothing of their own history.”[6] But it was the people who were “the passionate heart of the Revolution” (chapter 11). […]

Decentralisation and direct democracy

Kropotkin had long been interested in the history of communes and the development of central states. In The Great French Revolution he insisted on the hitherto neglected importance of the alacrity with which the insurgents created “revolutionary communes”⸺the Commune of Paris being the prototype⸺without the need for legislation at national level:

It is chiefly by studying this method of action among the people, and not by devoting oneself to the study of the Assembly’s legislative work, that one grasps the genius of the Great Revolution—the Genius, in the main, of all revolutions, past and to come. (chapter 15)

And he emphasised the extent to which such communes represented a new form of direct democracy:

The Commune which sprang from the popular movement was not separated from the people. By the intervention of its “districts”, “sections” or “tribes”, constituted as so many mediums of popular administration, it remained of the people, and this is what made the revolutionary power of these organisations.[7] (chapter 24)

The significance here was that such developments were driven by the base, it was a revolution ‘from the bottom up’ and federatively organised:

The first attempt at constituting a Commune was thus made from below upward, by the federation of the district organisms; it sprang up in a revolutionary way, from popular initiative. […] [T]he masses were practising what was described later on as Direct Self-Government. […] They sought for unity of action, not in subjection to a Central Committee, but in a federative union. (chapter 24)

The corollary of this movement was the inevitable conflict with the statists—the “antagonism which arose between the governmental prejudices of the democrats of that time [ie the bourgeois politicians] and the ideas that dawned in the hearts of the people as to political decentralisation.” (chapter 3) This, for Kropotkin, was a question of class and was the root of all the conflicts which arose later in the Convention. It would be an aspect of the Revolution which Daniel Guérin also focussed on⸺something which would not endear him to Jacobin-admiring Communists: “As an anarchist”, Guérin commented approvingly, “Kropotkin always paid attention to the rivalry between the Commune and the central government”, and to the ways in which the Committee of General Security and the Committee of Public Safety gradually undermined the Commune’s autonomy.[8] […]


Alongside Jaurès’ Histoire socialiste, Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution is one of the foundational texts of what would later come to be known as ‘history from below’, even if⸺inevitably, given the amount of research done since then on every aspect of the period—some details need correcting and some more recent avenues of research (including gender) are not touched upon at all. It can also be seen as a complement to Kropotkin’s other works, given the importance of its role in providing supporting historical evidence and example so essential for an understanding of the anarchist communism which Kropotkin elaborated over several decades. As Berneri remarked:

The epoch of the Communes and of the French Revolution were for Kropotkin […] the two historical fields in which he found the confirmation of his own federalist ideas and the elements of the development of his libertarian conception of life and politics.[9]

Throughout the history of the histories of the French Revolution, people have taken sides, identifying with certain characters or groups, turning some into heroes and demonising others. Among those so often treated in this way, Kropotkin’s sympathy was for Marat, or the enragés Varlet and Roux, rather than Danton (of whom he had a very low opinion) or Robespierre (whom he credits with at least being honest, but a very lukewarm revolutionary and a centralising authoritarian “ready […] to pass over the dead bodies of his opponents”[10]), and with the Cordeliers Club rather than the Jacobins or the Girondins (whose chief aim was “to prevent a rising of the people, to constitute a strong government, and to protect property”⸺chapter 39).[11] Whereas Lenin “saw in the Jacobins the model for revolutionaries, even though they were bourgeois, because they were firm, inflexible, decisive—the most consistent revolutionaries in the history of all the bourgeois revolutions” [12], Kropotkin not only points out that they were “chiefly well-to-do middle-class men”, “the educated, moderately democratic middle class”, he also stresses that “they did not lead the Revolution; they followed it.” (chapter 36) Robespierre “was powerfully seconded by the growing middle classes as soon as they recognised in him the “happy mean”⸺equally removed from the extremists and the moderates⸺the man who offered them the best guarantees against the “excesses” of the people.” (chapter 66) As for Babeuf, another hero of many twentieth-century communists..:

Babeuf—direct and pure descendant of the Jacobin Club of 1793⸺had conceived this idea that a revolutionary surprise attack, prepared by a conspiracy, could create a communist dictatorship in France. But once⸺true Jacobin⸺he had conceived the communist revolution as something which could be done by decrees, he came to two other conclusions: democracy first would prepare communism; and then a single individual, a dictator, provided he had the strength of will to save the world, will introduce communism.[13]

Before the publication of his history of the French Revolution, Kropotkin had already made clear his opinions with regard to ‘Jacobinism’, a term which derives from the French Revolution but came to serve as universal shorthand for the belief in the need for strong, centralised, and more or less authoritarian government. As he wrote in 1913:

It is sufficient to say that our conception of the coming social revolution is quite different from that of a Jacobin dictatorship, or the transformation of social institutions effected by a Convention, a Parliament, or a dictator. Never has a revolution been brought about on those lines; and if the present working-class movement takes this form, it will be doomed to have no lasting result. / On the contrary, we believe that if a revolution begins, it must take the form of a widely spread popular movement, during which movement, in every town and village invaded by the insurrectionary spirit, the masses set themselves to the work of reconstructing society on new lines… / Who guessed⸺who, in fact, could have guessed⸺before 1789 the role to be played by the Municipalities and the Commune of Paris in the revolutionary events of 1789-1793? It is impossible to legislate for the future. All we can do is vaguely guess its essential tendencies and clear the road for it.[14]

So like Proudhon before him, Kropotkin found the sans-culottes movement around the Paris Commune the most interesting. As he wrote in his conclusion of the The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793:

In any case, what we learn to-day from the study of the Great Revolution is, that it was the source and origin of all the present communist, anarchist, and socialist conceptions. We have but badly understood our common mother, but now we have found her again in the midst of the sans-culottes, and we see what we have to learn from her.

One final point should be made regarding the lessons Kropotkin drew from the experience of the French Revolution, and indeed from the lessons of the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1871 as well. In a pamphlet of 1913 on ‘The Revolutionary Idea in the Revolution’, he urges his readers to also read his history of the Great French Revolution and to absorb one important lesson above all others, and that was the importance of knowing what you want to achieve through revolutionary change and of having a plan of action:

Whatever may be the shortcomings of my study, it will make [any revolutionary who reads it] reflect on the necessity of bringing to the next revolution a set of constructive ideas (as well as destructive ones), of thinking them through carefully and pushing for their realisation with great vigour, and to reflect on the means at the people’s disposal to realise those ideas in society.[15]

[1] Kropotkin, an admirer of Darwin, has been criticised by some for applying an overly optimistic, even teleological understanding of evolution to history. Such criticisms are convincingly challenged in Matthew S. Adams, ‘Kropotkin: evolution, revolutionary change and the end of history’ in Anarchist Studies 19.1 (2011), pp.56-81.

[2] Kropotkin to Guillaume, 12 June 1903, quoted in Ruth Kinna, ‘Kropotkin’s Theory of Mutual Aid in Historical Context’, in International Review of Social History vol.40, no.2 (August 1995), pp.259-83 (p.279).

[3] Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992), p.57. Note that the original French has “evolution” rather than “revolution”⸺Paroles d’un révolté (Antony: TOPS, 2013), p.68.

[4] Kropotkin, ‘The Great French Revolution and its Lesson’ (1889).

[5] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution (Paris: Les Temps nouveaux, 1913), Publications des «Temps nouveaux» no.64, p.6. First published in La Révolte (1891) as ‘Etudes sur la Révolution’.

[6] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution, p.22.

[7] Bear in mind that ‘commune’ in French is an administrative term meaning the lowest level of local government, ie a village, district or town. Before 1789 such local structures had been very varied, and during the Revolutionary period a number of changes were imposed by the central government in an effort to standardise them.

[8] Daniel Guérin, La lutte de classes sous la Pemière République, 1793-1797 (Paris: Gallimard, 1946; revised edition 1968), vol.II, pp.15, 375-6.

[9] Camillo Berneri, ‘Peter Kropotkin: His Federalist Ideas’, in The Raven: An Anarchist Quarterly no.31 (Autumn 1995); abridged version available at < https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/camillo-berneri-kropotkin-his-federalist-ideas&gt;.

[10] Matt Adams discusses Kropotkin’s acknowledgement of Robespierre’s probity in an analysis of the relationship between anarchism and the idea of ‘civic virtue’: see his ‘Utopian civic virtue: Bakunin, Kropotkin, and anarchism’s republican inheritance’, in Political Research Exchange, 1:1 (2019), pp.1-27 (available here: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2474736X.2019.1668724>).

[11] Kropotkin’s admiration for Marat was, incidentally, shared by the Bolsheviks, who named a battleship and a Leningrad street after him; they also admired Robespierre, however.

[12] Daline, ‘Lénine et le jacobinisme’, p.100. Plenty has been written about the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins; the most comprehensive study is Tamara Kondratieva, Bolcheviks et jacobins: Itinéraire des analogies (Paris: Payot, 1989; 2nd edition Les Belles Lettres, 2017). See also Albert Mathiez, Révolution russe et Révolution française, edited and with a useful introduction by Yannick Bosc and Florence Gauthier (Paris: Editions Critiques, 2017).

[13] Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy (Oakland & Edinburgh: AK Press, 2018), p.366.

[14] Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy, quoted in Becker, p.229.

[15] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution. This pamphlet discusses the same failing with regard to 1848 and 1871: the paucity of new and constructive ideas contrasting with the audacity of action.

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Anarchy and the Golden Age of Piracy

Here is another excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, a history of anarchist ideas.

Anarchy and the Golden Age of Piracy

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Madagascar was a haven for pirates. One story about them is that they established a utopian community on Madagascar called Libertalia. The story is told in The History of the Pyrates, Volume II (1728), by “Captain Charles Johnson,” thought by some to be a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe. Others have attributed the book to Nathaniel Mist (died 1737), who had spent some time as a sailor in the Caribbean, where piracy was then rampant. [A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the most notorious Pirates, Vols. I & II, ed J. Franzén (Independently published, 2017)] Whoever Captain Johnson really was, his two volume history of the pirates was very popular and widely read.

The History of the Pyrates, Volume II, has a chapter on Captain James Misson (Chapter XX), a French pirate whose name is not found in any other historical records. Purportedly active in the 1690s, Misson begins his seafaring adventures in the French navy, and then to develop an anarchist sensibility. While on shore leave in Rome, Misson observes the “licentious Lives of the Clergy” and the “Luxury of the Papal Court.” [page 3] He comes to realize that religion is used to fleece the people, with “the wiser Sort”  being well aware of this. [page 3] Those higher up in the Church hierarchy use religious beliefs to exploit the people and to further their own interests. In this regard they are no different from the aristocracy.

A dissident Catholic priest named Caraccioli joins Misson in his adventures, and convinces Misson and his crew that “all Religion was no other than human Policy.” [page 8] As for government, the priest argues that “every Man was born free, and has as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired.” [page 10] Government arises from patriarchal authority, with the stronger patriarchs enslaving the weaker, laying the “first Foundation of Monarchy.” [page 11] The priest persuades Misson and his crew to become pirates, living “a Life of Liberty,” rather than  remaining under the command of the French monarchy. [page 13]

The crew confirm Misson as their captain, and choose “their subaltern Officers,” who are always to act in “the common Interest.” [page 14] The priest suggests that while obedience to a government that acts “for the common Good of all” is justified, the French government under whose flag they had been sailing was tyrannical, treating the people like slaves, and providing them with “nothing but Oppression, Poverty, and all the Miseries of Life.” [page 15] Nevertheless, the priest argues against adopting the black flag of the “Pyrates, who are Men of dissolute Lives and no Principles,” but to instead fly a white flag, with the motto, “for God and Liberty,” inscribed upon it, for theirs was “the Cause of Liberty,” not self-aggrandizement. [page 16]

The crew’s booty is kept in a chest to which every crew member has a key, with “Misson telling them, all should be in common.” [page 16] Misson advises the crew to treat each other as equals, with no one acting as a tyrant of another, and to remain united as brothers. They are free to quit the ship whenever they choose, at which time they will be given their share of the takings. [page 25] When it comes to determining where their ship should go next, the crew decides by a democratic vote. [page 27]

Misson instructs his crew to treat all prisoners humanely and generously. [page 18] They do not remain prisoners for long, either being set free or given the option of joining the crew to live a life of liberty on the high seas, an option often taken by sailors serving (often involuntarily) under a European national flag, subject to harsh conditions and discipline. Misson and his crew offer freedom to French Huguenots, members of a persecuted religious minority, and to African slaves found among the cargo of the vessels which they have captured. [pp. 25 & 28]

Misson tells his crew that “he had not exempted his Neck from the galling Yoak of Slavery, and asserted his own Liberty, to enslave others.” [page 28] He denounces racism, asserting that black Africans are equal to white Europeans, despite having different coloured skin, “Customs, or religious Rites,” and therefore should “be treated like Freemen.” [pp. 28 – 29] He argues that no one should have the “Power of Liberty of another,” and denounces religious justifications of slavery. [page 28] The crew heartily agree, and the Africans, freed of their chains, become equal members of the crew.

Whoever wrote the History of the Pyrates, whether it was Captain Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Nathaniel Mist, or someone else, appears to have been a Protestant of some kind, hence the white flag with “God and Liberty” inscribed on it. [page 16] It is institutionalized religion, particularly the Catholic Church, not religious belief, that Captain Misson is reported to have denounced.

This leads to a scene where Captain Misson threatens a Dutch crew with being “whipped and pickled” for using the Lord’s name in vain, and for drinking, because of the negative effects on Misson’s crew. [page 30] While many English pirates were nominally Protestant, and often anti-Catholic (providing a justification for plundering Spanish ships), it is doubtful any would have tried to ban swearing, and even more unlikely that any pirates would have sailed without alcohol (although one pirate captain reportedly shot a crew member for being “inattentive during mass” and for responding “to a rebuke with a blasphemy”). [Gabriel Kuhn, Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age Piracy (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), pp. 61 – 63.]

The interjection of the author’s personal moral views regarding the use of profanity and alcohol is inconsistent with the general portrait of Captain Misson as a freedom loving anti-authoritarian, illustrating the author’s own limitations in character development and tendency toward didacticism. Otherwise, the depiction of Captain Misson and his crew is of a kind of floating anarchist utopia, where all important decisions are made by consensus or democratic vote, everything is held in common, slaves are set free, and no one is master over another. Lacking the fantastical elements found in de Foigny’s imaginary Australia, the portrait of Misson and his crew retains sufficient plausibility to persuade readers that an anarchist society, at least on the scale of a ship, just may be possible.

The depiction of Libertalia, the pirate “utopia” founded by Misson and his crew on Madagascar, initially retains many of the libertarian aspects of the life led by Misson and his crew on board their ship. They are called the Liberi to emphasize everyone’s equal status regardless of their race or national origin. [page 47] Although they build a fort, much like any colonial power would when seeking to occupy an area already inhabited by others, they make an effort to establish a peaceful relationship with the local inhabitants, so that the primary purpose of the fort becomes defending Libertalia from external attack. [pp. 47 – 48 & 81 – 82]

Misson and his crew maintain their opposition to slavery. When the nearby villagers offer 45 men and woman, taken prisoner during some local conflict, as slaves to the Liberi, they accept the gift but immediately set the prisoners free, making them to “understand that they [the Liberi] were Enemies to Slavery.” [page 91] When in need of more ships, Misson gets another pirate captain, Tew, to capture a slave ship. All the slaves on board are set free, and then join the settlement at Libertalia, where they learn how to be sailors. [pp. 91 – 93] Soon they become equal members of the crews capturing ships in the Indian Ocean. [pp. 93 – 94]

After seizing a Portuguese treasure ship, with significant casualties among Misson’s crew, he persuades the Liberi to set the Portuguese crew free, despite the danger that they will report the location of Libertalia to the Portuguese authorities, opening it to attack. Misson assures the Portuguese prisoners that “he did not make War with the Oppressed, but the Oppressors.” [page 90] Misson has the released prisoners take an oath never to attack Libertalia, but later a small fleet of Portuguese war ships attempts an assault on the settlement.

After the Libertalians sink two of the war ships and capture a third, they find two of the released Portuguese prisoners among the crew. This is considered a terrible betrayal. This time, the Portuguese prisoners are put on trial before an assembly of the Liberi for violating their oaths. The former priest, Caraccioli, and Misson argue against the death penalty, for outside of battle, only God should have “Power over the Life of another.” [page 98] But Captain Tew convinces the assembly that if the prisoners “were again restored to that Liberty which they had already abused,” they would soon be back again to attack Libertalia. [page 98] The assembly then decides in favour of hanging the two prisoners, and they are put to death.

Another departure from the approaches advocated by Misson occurs when the Liberi capture a ship with pilgrims on board on their way to Mecca. Misson is unable to convince the crew to set all the prisoners free, with the crew insisting that they keep one hundred 12 – 18 year old unmarried females to bring back to Libertalia. [page 94] Both stories emphasize that ultimately the crews make the important decisions, but also that they are not as humane or as enlightened as Misson. Misson may be their Captain, but he does not exercise coercive authority over them.

Drawing on the work of the radical anthropologist, Pierre Clastres (Anarchism,Volume Two, Selection 64), Gabriel Kuhn has argued that pirate captains were similar to “chiefs” in stateless societies, and this appears particularly true in the case of Captain Misson. Clastres’ anthropological studies of stateless Amerindian societies led him to conclude that “the most notable characteristic of the [Amer-]Indian chief consists of his almost complete lack of authority.” [Pierre Clastres, as quoted in Kuhn, page 30] Misson, just like a chief in an Amerindian stateless society: 1. “is elected and replaceable. 2. His power rests on merit only. 3. His power is controlled by the community. 4. He is a peacemaker. 5. He is generous with his possessions” (in the case of Misson, to the point of implementing a form of communism among his crew, instead of claiming a greater share of the treasure, as was done by most pirate captains). “6. He is a good orator. 7. He is an able leader in war.” [Kuhn, page 30]

Up until the introduction of the character of Captain Tew (based on a real pirate active in the Indian Ocean in the 1690s), the portrait of Captain Misson and his crew is an idealized depiction of the pirate as a kind of “anti-pirate” – morally scrupulous, honourable, humane, pious, libertarian, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian and anti-slavery, with the white flag of “God and Liberty” instead of the black Jolly Roger. Under the moral, not coercive, authority of Captain Misson, assisted by the former priest, Caraccioli, the crew act as anarchist marauders liberating not only the treasures but the human cargo of the rich and powerful, regardless of the national flag under which the plundered ships may be sailing.

Betraying the more liberal sentiments of the author of the History of the Pyrates, this floating anarchist utopia begins to break down after the pirates establish Libertalia, and Captain Tew arrives with his own crew loyal to him. To maintain Libertalia as a permanent settlement, Misson’s crew decide to keep the captured young Muslim women as their wives. When dealing with the recaptured Portuguese prisoners whom Misson had previously persuaded his crew to set free, Captain Tew convinces his and Misson’s combined crews to implement capital punishment, against the objections of Misson and Caraccioli, showing that they are no longer able to maintain a general consensus among the Liberi regarding important issues.

Soon Captain Tew’s crew is quarrelling with Misson’s crew, with Tew advocating that the quarrel be settled “by the Sword.” [page 99] Caraccioli asks Tew to use “the Authority he had over his Crew” to instead resolve the conflict by “an amicable Agreement,” and then argues that to avoid future conflict, a formal system of government should be established. [page 99] Arguments common at the time in support of legal government are put forward, including that without “coercive laws, the weakest would always be the Sufferers,” and that disputes needed to be resolved by “calm and disinterested Persons” in accordance with “Reason and Equity,” rather than by the impassioned and partial disputants themselves. [pp. 99 – 100]

The assembled pirates choose a form of representative democracy as “the most agreeable” form of government, “where the People [are] themselves the Makers and Judges of their own Laws.” [page 100] They are divided into groups of ten, with each group electing a representative to join with the other representatives “in making wholesome Laws for the Good of the whole.” [page 100] But the representatives are to meet only once per year, with executive power being exercised by a “Conservator” (with Misson being the first) elected for a three year term, and a cabinet or executive council chosen by him.

In addition to abandoning their previous informal collective forms of decision-making, Misson and his crew, in formally uniting with Captain Tew and his men, give up the communist distribution of wealth that they had followed on their ship in favour of a system of private property. While the treasure and cattle that they had accumulated were to be “equally divided,” any land that any of them staked out was to “be deem’d his Property,” which could only be “alienated by a Sale.” [page 100]

The process by which Misson and his crew come to adopt a formal system of government, with coercive laws and an executive authority, together with a system of private property, mirrors the hypothetical accounts of the social contract theorists, most notably John Locke (1632-1704), of the transition from a “state of nature” to civil society. Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1689, just a few years before Captain Misson and his crew were allegedly active.

Locke’s description of the “state of nature” that precedes the creation of the state could also have been a description of life on board Misson’s ship prior to the creation of Libertalia. In Locke’s “state of nature,” everyone is free and equal and property is initially held in common. However, as people begin to claim ownership over land and other things, such as the goods that they produce, based on the labour that they have contributed to it, and to exchange things of economic value by means of contracts, it becomes necessary to establish a system of coercive laws to enforce contracts, to resolve conflicts, and to protect life, liberty and property. And this is what is depicted by the author of the History of the Pyrates regarding Misson and his crew.

While sailing their ship, Misson and his crew are in a “state of nature,” without a formal system of laws or political institutions, and everything is held in common. Once they go on shore and found Libertalia, they establish a regime of private property and enact “a great many wholesome Laws.” They entrust the running of their affairs to their elected representatives, who sit but once a year, and to the new executive power, led by Misson, transforming the anarchistic organization that they adopted while at sea into a kind of pirate “state” after they settle on land. [page 101]

It may be that the author of the History of the Pyrates thought that an egalitarian anarchistic society was possible on a small scale, like a ship, but that it was impractical with respect to larger groups or settlements on land, where everyone would not share the same purposes or interests, like those shared by a crew of pirates united in a common endeavour on board a ship where everyone had to do their part in order for the ship to function. Although the representative democracy that the Liberi adopt is much more radical than anything existing in Europe, and more radical even than the parliamentary democracy advocated by the Levellers in the English Revolution, it is not an anarchist form of social organization, coming closer to a liberal conception of politics.

The History of the Pyrates depicts another pirate settlement on Madagascar founded by a break away group from Captain Tew’s crew. At first they appear to be even more libertarian than the Liberi.  They regard themselves as being “free and independent of all the World,” and have no desire “to subject themselves to any Government.” One of them is elected “Governor” for three months at a time, but only to resolve “Matters of small Difference which might arise.” The incumbent Governor cannot run for re-election, so that every member of the group will have a turn in that position. [page 103] Up until this part of the story, their form of self-government is more radical than the representative democracy adopted at Libertalia, and comes closer to the kinds of self-organization advocated by some anarchists.

But then it turns out that they would like to be recognized as an English colony, willing to submit themselves “to any who shall come with a Commission from a lawful Government.” As with other real pirates, they wanted to rejoin civil society, and to have wiped “away the odious Appellation of Pyrates” to avoid punishment for their crimes. [page 103] Their current “Governor,” Tew’s former quarter master, presents Tew with a detailed proposal for the colony, which like any other colony will exploit the natural resources found on Madagascar, using cheap labour, including slaves, who are supposed to be much less expensive than the slaves used in the Caribbean. [page 104] The former quarter master even goes so far as to extoll the proposed colony as providing an effective “Curb on Pyrates”! [page 105]

While also likely fictitious, this other pirate settlement more accurately reflects the reality of Anglo-American piracy during its so-called “Golden Age” (roughly the 1690s to 1730). Unlike Captain Misson and his crew, when real pirates seized a ship containing slaves as part of the cargo, they would often be resold to slave traders, or used as slaves on board the pirates’ ship. [Kuhn, pp. 66 & 70 – 71]

The pirates operating out of Madagascar were actively involved in the slave trade, competing with the Royal Africa Company, which had been granted a monopoly by the English Crown over the slave trade along the west coast of Africa. By the 1690s, although the Dutch and French were most active in exporting slaves from Madagascar, the English and their North American merchant colonists were establishing a foothold, using pirates “as cultural brokers in the slave trade.” [McDonald, “ ‘A Man of Courage and Activity’: Thomas Tew and Pirate Settlements of the Indo-Atlantic Trade World, 1645-1730,” pp. 12 – 13] One of the actual pirate settlements on Madagascar was a trading post run by Adam Baldridge, who “served both pirates and slave traders.” [Kuhn, page 143] Establishing a slave trading post appears to have been one of the primary purposes of the settlement. [McDonald, pp. 13 – 14] Baldridge was run off Madagascar by the local indigenous people in 1697 after he had captured some of them to sell into slavery. [Kuhn, page 66]

Captain Misson and his crew, and their settlement, Libertalia, are utopian then not just in the sense of being an imaginary ideal, but in the more popular negative sense of the word as being unrealistic. Nevertheless, the story about Captain Misson, his crew, and Libertalia, may have suggested to some readers that another world is possible, a world in which people can live in freedom, without enslaving or exploiting others, adopting their own libertarian forms of self-organization.

It is noteworthy that Libertalia is not depicted as eventually collapsing due to internal conflict, which implies that the author thought it had a viable form of organization. Instead, Libertalia is destroyed by a surprise attack by the indigenous people, which appears inexplicable, as unlike Adam Baldridge, the Liberi never tried to enslave the local people. [History of the Pyrates, Vol. II, pp. 106 – 107] Misson and most of his surviving crew set off on a sloop, possibly to return to Europe, but they are all lost in a storm. [page 108]

This unhappy ending serves a number of purposes common in utopian stories – it explains why the utopian society/place no longer exists and why it is difficult to confirm the accuracy of the tale. Readers can then more readily accept that the story may be true, so that the story can serve as a source of inspiration to them. The ending also incidentally betrays the author’s own colonialist mentality, portraying the indigenous people’s attack on Libertalia as entirely unprovoked, in contrast to the reality of the situation, where the attack on Baldridge’s trading post was provoked by his attempt to enslave them. Nevertheless, some credit must be given to the author of Misson’s story for his eloquently articulated opposition to slavery, in contrast to the real pirates operating out of Madagascar.

A comparison between the likely fictitious Captain Misson and the real Captain Tew and his crew emphasizes the gulf between the idealized portrait of Misson as the good pirate, and the reality of piracy during its Golden Age. It is most improbable that Tew would have freed any slaves from a slave ship, on his own accord or at the direction of anyone else. When Tew went to Madagascar in the fall of 1693, his port of call was not the fictional Libertalia but Baldridge’s slave trading post. [McDonald, page 10]

While it does not appear that any of Tew’s men established their own settlement on Madagascar, “several dozen” of them stayed on at Baldridge’s trading post when Tew sailed back to Rhode Island and New York, where the merchants were in the process of establishing a cheaper supply of slaves from Madagascar. [McDonald, page 18] Fourteen of those who stayed behind, feeling strapped for cash, “divided themselves into two groups of seven to fight to the death on the beach, winner take all. The two survivors of the death match split the booty.” [McDonald, page 18] The reality of pirate life on Madagascar was neither edifying nor inspirational.

Published in: on November 12, 2021 at 9:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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Sign Open Letter Protesting Midwestern’s Treatment of Nathan Jun

If you have not done so already, please consider signing the following in protest of Nathan Jun’s treatment by Midwestern State University: 





You can also donate to Nathan’s GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/please-help-me-defray-my-legal-costs/donate?fbclid=IwAR2lximrbX4JxspdThY1z6xQ8u3vZajLSKiU3l5uGWTKsABQDy9rxxh5tus

Published in: on September 25, 2021 at 8:31 am  Leave a Comment  

Gerrard Winstanley on Power – Real and Imagined

Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) first began publishing radical religious pamphlets in 1648, during the latter half of the English Revolution and Civil Wars. In January 1649, around the time of the execution of Charles I by the English Parliament, he published his first explicitly political pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness (excerpted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). A few months later, he put his ideas into action. He and a group of like-minded people, who came to be called the Diggers, sought to reclaim “waste” (unoccupied) lands at St. George’s Hill in Surrey, England, and to create an agrarian, libertarian communist settlement. They were eventually run out of the area by hostile land owners, moving to Cobham Heath, where they were able to maintain a new settlement until they were again run off the land in April 1650. About a month beforehand,, Winstanley published one of his most anarchistic pamphlets, Fire in the Bush. Here, I provide an analysis of Winstanley’s pamphlet, which contains noteworthy parallels to the writings of Cornelius Castoriadis in the late 20th century.

From The Anarchist Current: A History of Anarchist Ideas – Gerrard Winstanley, Digger and Anarchist

Fire in the Bush, published in March 1650, was one of Winstanley’s last political writings before the Digger experiment was forcibly ended. In it, Winstanley develops an analysis of the psychopathology of hierarchical societies. He argues that in addition to the kingly powers that hold the people in bondage – coercive government, the legal system, private property and the ideological apparatus (the Church and universities) – there is another that dwells within us all: the “imaginary self ruling in man’s heart.” [Hill, page 235]

Just as the “Kingdom of Heaven,” or “universal love, or pure knowledge,” lies within everyone, so does the “selfish imaginary power […] of darkness,” which seeks fulfilment in things outside of the self, like wealth and power. [Hill, pp. 218, 221] Through the power of imagination, people deceive themselves into thinking that they could achieve happiness if only they had more wealth, more power, more pleasure. But this just leads to conflict, as each person seeks their own satisfaction at the expense of others, jealous of their power and possessions, and envious of other’s. They mistake good for evil, and evil for good, judging things in terms of whether they are for their own benefit or to their disadvantage. [Hill, pp. 220 – 221] The selfish imagination fills people with “fears, doubts, troubles, evil surmisings and grudges,” stirring up “wars and divisions,” as each person seeks more power, more riches and more pleasures. [Hill, page 221]

This way of thinking lies at the root of all “power, authority and government.” [Hill, pp. 223 -224] It “makes men envy, censure and destroy one another; and to take pleasure in none but what pleases self.” People seek power over others to stop them from having power over them. Man “will oppress others, lest others oppress him; and fears he shall be in want hereafter: therefore he takes by violence that which others have laboured for.” [Hill, page 226]

While earlier Christians, such as Pelagius, had pointed to the futility of seeking spiritual fulfilment through the satisfaction of earthly ambitions and desires, Winstanley expressly ties this avaricious psychology to the emergence of hierarchical societies and authoritarian institutions, like the church and the state.

Rather than seeing government as the only means of escaping the war of all against all (the so-called “state of nature”), as Thomas Hobbes did, Winstanley sees coercive government as the institutionalization of the state of nature, leading to the perpetuation of violence, domination, exploitation and conflict, instead of their supersession. The kingly powers create, rather than prevent, “divisions and war.” Winstanley makes the point that it is inaccurate therefore to describe the condition of social conflict that results in the creation of dominating institutions as a state of nature, for it is “nature or the living soul” that is held “in bondage” by the selfish imaginary power that is incarnated in these institutions. [Hill, page 268]   

The power of authoritarian institutions is ultimately based on an internalized ideological conceptualization of the self and society. People create their own imaginary chains that bind them to a society of domination. Winstanley’s social psychology of domination provides an explanation for the voluntary obedience to authority that de la Boétie found so perplexing.

Winstanley’s notion of the “selfish imaginary power” foreshadows, in a strikingly modern way, Cornelius Castoriadus’ concept of the “social imaginary.” For Winstanley, the various manifestations of the “kingly powers” are concrete expressions of a shared imaginary conception of social life as a competitive struggle for status. Similarly, Castoriadis argues that there is an “originary psychical core” that “we carry within us and which always dreams, whatever our age, of being all-powerful and at the center of the world.” [Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), page 135.]

Unlike Castoriadis, however, Winstanley conceives of the “selfish imaginary power” as something entirely negative. He contrasts it with the “righteous spirit” of truth that each must find within themselves, the basis of “true community,” which makes “every one to seek the preservation and peace of others as of themselves,” no longer seeking fulfilment through the “outward objects” of prestige, status, power and property with which Satan tempts us. [Hill, page 222] Winstanley retains the radical Christian notion of the “kingdom of heaven within,” the spirit of Christ that “will have all saved.” [Hill, page 222] He straddles a more traditional religious conception of reality and a more modern conception of social transformation, through a process of self and social (re)creation, that nevertheless remains steeped in Christian imagery.

For Castoriadis, the social imaginary is not just constitutive of existing heteronomous social forms. The social imaginary has a radical aspect to it that provides a basis for creating collective autonomy. The “radical imaginary” allows for “the emergence of something new” that transcends the “underlying imaginary significations” of existing institutions. [Castoriadis, Vol. 1, pp. 30 – 31] The object of politics is not to achieve any particular end state, but “the instauration of a state of affairs in which man as a social being is able and willing to regard the institutions that rule his life as his own collective creations” that are in state of “perpetual” transformation and “renewal.” [Castoriadis, Vol. 1, page 31] This is a variation of the concept of “permanent revolution” first articulated by 19th century anarchists, whereas Winstanley’s view of social change retains an element of Christian eschatology, as he foresees the attainment of a “new Jerusalem” where all will “live in peace and rest.” [Hill, pp. 222 – 223]

But Winstanley and Castoriadis share the view that social and personal transformation must go hand in hand. For Winstanley, a libertarian communist society requires not only the abolition of the kingly powers, but a new way of relating to the world and to each other. People must attain a state of inner contentment and enlightenment in order to deliver themselves “from that bondage within,” so that they no longer seek fulfillment through greater riches and status. [Hill, page 271] Castoriadis argues in a like vein that “the conditions that make it possible for” a self-instituting society “to function have to be incorporated in a certain fashion into our social organization as well as into the organization of individuals’ psyches.” [Vol. 1, page 34]

Both Winstanley and Castoriadis extoll the virtues of an inner freedom. For Castoriadis, this is the ability to put a society’s “own imaginary into question.” Not only is “the mere absence of censure or repression” not enough to achieve this, it is sometimes easier to do “under tyrannical regimes” than “under apparently liberal regimes,” because the repressive imaginaries of tyrannical regimes are more readily apparent. [Vol. 1, pp. 34 – 35] Winstanley expresses similar views, writing that even “if I were in prison without,” I can still achieve “freedom within.” [Hill, page 229] The main difference between Castoriadis and Winstanley on this point is that, for Castoriadis, the process of putting social imaginaries into question is a never-ending one, whereas Winstanley looks forward to a time when people are able to achieve both inner and outer peace and freedom.

However, unlike many other radical Christians and “antinomians,” Winstanley does not substitute for the kingly powers a power within that will ensure obedience to God’s will under threat of supernatural sanctions. Winstanley’s vision of an anarchist arcadia does not require that everyone carry a gendarme in their breast. While Winstanley would have agreed with Max Stirner that people’s actions are governed, to a certain extent, by “spooks” in their heads, for Winstanley the biggest spook is the selfish imaginary power, the very egoism that Stirner put at the centre of his philosophy.

It is in Fire in the Bush that Winstanley comes closest to proclaiming himself an anarchist. He poses the question that if what he says is true, then this “will destroy all government and all our ministry and religion,” answering yes, that when people find the kingdom of God within them, “all rule and all authority and all power” will have been put down. [Hill, page 243] The kingly powers “must be shaken to pieces.” [Hill, page 233 – 234] True “magistracy” is not the magistracy of the sword, but reason, truth, and ethics. It is not the power of the sword, but the power of love, that will bind people together, instead of making them enemies of one another. [Hill, pp. 244 – 245]

Winstanley’s anarchist writings of 1649 – 1650 remain a remarkable achievement. His critique of existing English institutions, the market economy, private property, wage labour, and other elements of the “agrarian capitalism” that was being consolidated in England, was unparalleled for its time. [Meikson Woods, Liberty and Property, page 280] So was his analysis of the inter-relationships between economic and political power, hierarchy and domination, and the social psychology that sustained and promoted the hierarchical social, economic and political structures and relations under which the English people then laboured.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Anarchist Poet

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919 – 2021)

Here’s to Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021), anarchist, poet, publisher of the Beat poets, and host of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, who died on February 22, 2021 at the grand old age of 101, a month shy of his 102nd birthday.

I Am Waiting

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder
I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting” from A Coney Island of the Mind. Copyright © 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Kropotkin Conference February 5 – 8, 2021

An ambitious online conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kropotkin’s death begins this Friday, continuing through the weekend to some special commemorative events on Monday, February 8, 2021. Here is the link to the conference webpage: https://kropotkinnow2021.wordpress.com/

Early Christianity and Anarchism

An anarchist Jesus?

Ever since anarchism emerged as a distinct doctrine in the 19th century (largely through the debates within the First International regarding the proper direction of working class and socialist movements), there have been Christians who have claimed that Jesus was a kind of pacifist anarchist. I examine these claims in my forthcoming book, The Anarchist Current, by reviewing the history of early Christianity. In this section, I compare the early Christians to the Jewish rebels against Roman rule, who appear to have been much closer to modern anarchists than Jesus and his followers.

Early Christianity and the Jewish Revolts in Palestine

When considering the alleged anarchism of Jesus and his followers, it is useful to compare them to the Jewish groups in Palestine who refused to pay taxes to the Roman Empire and denied the legitimacy of Roman authority. The refusal to pay Roman taxes pre-dated the so-called Jesus movement by about 30 years. Then between 66 and 70 CE, about 30 years after Jesus’ purported death, there was a protracted Jewish rebellion against Roman rule and the Jewish high priests and aristocrats who collaborated with the Romans. Some of the Jewish opponents of Roman authority, the “Fourth Philosophy” group, refused “to call any man master,” taking “God as their only leader.” [Horsley and Hanson, pp. 191 and 215; Horsley, p. 41] As we shall see, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any earthly authority is the basis of much of what is now described as “religious” anarchism.

During the rebellion, a group called the “Zealots” fought not only “against the alien Roman oppressors,” but also “a class war against their own Jewish nobility.” [H & H, p. 226] The Zealots opposed “hierarchical power and privilege,” and chose their priests by lot, which was meant to ensure that the priests were chosen by God, “the true ruler of society.” [H & H, pp. 233] Unlike other Jewish rebel groups, and the nascent Christian communities, the Zealots did not have individual leaders, but reached “decisions collectively.” [H & H, pp. 235] While 19th and 20th century anarchists did not believe in any master, including a divine one, they believed, as did the Zealots, that no person had the right to rule over others; they rejected hierarchy and privilege; many of them advocated class war against the aristocracy and the capitalists; and they also practiced forms of non-coercive collective decision-making.

The Zealots share more similarities with 19th and 20th century anarchists than Jesus and his followers, who do not appear to have participated in or to have supported the 66 – 70 CE Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, which was consistent with Jesus’ advice to suffer earthly authorities gladly. [Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), trans. O.C. Dean, Jr., p. 212] According to the early historian of Christianity, Eusebius (c.260–c.340 CE), the Christians left Jerusalem at the beginning of the rebellion to sit it out in areas that remained under Roman control. [Stegemann & Stegemann, p. 220]

The four gospels in the New Testament that purport to set forth Jesus’ life and teachings all post-date the 66 – 70 CE rebellion. Despite the fact that the Christians had not supported the rebellion, the Christian communities in Palestine suffered along with the Jewish ones as the Romans put down the rebellion and reasserted Imperial authority. [Horsley & Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, p. 259] According to Horsley and Hanson, the “violent reimposition of the pax Romana […] meant that little survived of the concrete movement started by Jesus in Palestinian Jewish society.” [p. 259]

It is possible then that the authors of the gospels gave Jesus’ views a more spiritual slant in order to avoid further persecution by the Roman authorities. But even before the suppression of the 66 – 70 CE rebellion, Paul, perhaps Jesus’ most important disciple, was telling his fellow Christians that:

Every person must submit to the supreme authorities. There is no authority but by act of God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him; consequently anyone who rebels against authority is resisting a divine institution, and those who so resist have themselves to thank for the punishment they will receive (Romans 13:1–3).

This is anything but a religious anarchism denying the legitimacy of earthly authorities. Christian teachings like this provided support for the later transformation of Christianity into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

However, the transition of Christianity from an outlawed religious movement to state religion was to take over two hundred years. Regardless of whether the authors of the New Testament gospels tried to downplay the political significance of Jesus’ teachings, and despite Paul’s admonitions to the faithful to obey those in authority, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Roman officials remembered that they had executed the founder of this sect as a dangerous rebel who claimed to be the Messiah. By around 117 CE, being a Christian had become a crime under Roman law. [Stegemann, pp. 323 – 324]

Robert Graham


Diogenes telling Alexander to get out of his light

Here is an excerpt from a book I am currently writing, The Anarchist Current: A History of Anarchist Ideas, based on the Afterword to my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the 21st century, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In this chapter, I discuss the similarities between modern anarchism and the Cynic philosophers of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

Anarchism and the Cynic Philosophers of Greece and Rome

Diogenes of Sinope

Anarchistic elements can be found in the teachings of Diogenes the Cynic (412/404–323 BCE), and Zeno of Citium (333–262 BCE), the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy who was influenced by Diogenes. Only stories about Diogenes’ sometimes outrageous conduct and fragments of Zeno’s writings have survived, making it difficult to determine what they really advocated.

When assessing the possibility of “anarchist” ideas emerging among the ancient Greeks, it is useful to consider the attitudes that Diogenes, Zeno, and other possible precursors of anarchism, held regarding slavery, one of the most extreme examples of hierarchy and domination to which any anarchist worthy of the name must be inalterably opposed.

Diogenes is the most interesting example, because at one point he had his own slave, and at other points in his life he was a slave himself. There is a story that when Diogenes’ personal slave escaped, Diogenes did not try to bring him back, reasoning that if his slave could live without him, then he could live without a slave. [Doyne Dawson, Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought, Oxford U Press, 1992, p. 136] But this tells us more about Diogenes’ views regarding living a self-reliant life with few, if any, possessions, than it demonstrates any kind of political opposition to slavery, or to hierarchy and domination more generally. Doyne Dawson suggests that the “story that Diogenes himself was sold as a slave […] was so popular” not only “because it furnished the most dramatic demonstration possible of Cynic indifference to fortune; but also perhaps because it implicitly assured everyone that there was nothing socially subversive about Cynicism.” [p. 136]

But despite his indifference toward slavery (and much else), Diogenes acted in ways that were very subversive of ancient Greek morality and conventions. The other stories about him could not have assured anyone that his ideas were harmless. Diogenes was called a “Cynic,” meaning “dog-like,” because he lived much like a dog would, on the streets, with no possessions, and without shame. He purportedly masturbated and had sex in public.

Diogenes’ rejection of conventional morality could make him seem like a kind of philosophical anarchist, but he also expressed opinions of a more directly political kind, famously declaring himself a citizen of the “cosmos” or world, rejecting affiliation with any particular Greek city and related notions regarding loyalty to one’s homeland. Diogenes and other Cynics did not believe in sacrificing oneself for the sake of one’s city or state, and they opposed war and the use of weapons, a very contrarian view in ancient Greece where military service was expected of all able-bodied men and war was ubiquitous. [Malcolm Schofield, The Stoic Idea of the City, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 51-52]

Nevertheless, Diogenes’ political views remain unclear, as none of his writings, if there were any, have survived. Later writers claimed he wrote a Republic; if so it sounds more like a parody of Plato’s hierarchical and authoritarian Republic than a conventional political treatise. Among other things, Diogenes advocated replacing coinage with dice. However, through parody and satire, Cynics like Diogenes would attempt to convey more serious ideas, such as abolishing currency because people should be able to satisfy their needs directly without having to use an artificial medium of exchange. Opponents claimed that this “communism” included women as common property, but that was a misrepresentation (one that was repeated in the 19th century by the much later opponents of socialist and communist doctrines).

The Cynics rejected conventional notions regarding property, and therefore would never have advocated that women should be held in common. Rather, they advocated that women were just as capable as men of living a natural life, without being bound by conventional norms, traditions or customs. Both women and men were therefore free to choose when, where and with whom to have sex, or any kind of relationship. Given the decidedly patriarchal structure of ancient Greek societies, such views could only have been regarded as “scandalous.” [Dawson, p. 137] Diogenes’ pupil, Crates, and his partner, Hipparchia, would allegedly have sex whenever it struck their fancy, including in public.

Not only was sex supposed to be entirely consensual, the Cynics rejected ideas regarding social modesty and decorum. Women therefore were not required to hide their bodies, but could wear the same simple garb as Cynic men, or exercise with them with little or no clothing at all.

The rejection of social conventions included disrespect for the law and authority, because laws are artificial human constructs. The Cynics were beholden to no one, including people who claimed to be superior to them, whether their owners (if they were slaves) or their rulers. One of the stories about Diogenes is that he told the man who bought him at the slave market that it was his new owner who would have to obey Diogenes. [Luis E. Navia, Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996, p. 105] Another story is that Diogenes liked to sun himself, and that when Alexander the Great went to meet him, he told Alexander to get out of his light. [Classical Cynicism, p. 81]

Cynic doctrines focused on the individual, with no aspirations to become a social movement. While the Cynics had nothing but contempt for property rights and traditional mores, they did not suggest that the lower classes and slaves rise up and overthrow their masters. Cynicism was a means to individual liberation from conventional morality, viewing political institutions as having no claim to legitimacy or obedience.

In this sense, Cynicism was similar to 20th century conceptions of “philosophical anarchism.” As with the “philosophical anarchists,” the Cynics had no expectation or confidence that enough people would come to share their views to pose a threat to the status quo, nor was it their mission to incite them to do so. On the other hand, living a self-reliant life simply and independently, like an animal, with few possessions and no allegiance to any god or master, finds some distant echoes in the ideas of the anarcho-primitivists of the late 20th century, with the major point of difference being that the Cynics were urban outliers. They may have lived like dogs, but as dogs in the streets, not as hunter-gatherers in a world without cities.

Diogenes looking for an honest man

The Cynics’ jaundiced view of people, still reflected today in the modern meaning of the word “cynical,” can also be compared to the views of those 19th century philosophers who rejected conventional morality, like Friedrich Nietzsche, but who had nothing but contempt for “the masses.” After all, it was Diogenes who was famous for walking city streets with a lantern in broad daylight looking for an “honest man.” One aphorism attributed to him is “reason or the rope,” which meant that if you cannot think for yourself, you might as well commit suicide.

Yet despite the sometimes misanthropic tone, Cynicism became popular among the lower classes during the first two centuries of the Roman empire, in contrast to its successor, Stoicism, which became allied with that empire, denuded of its radical content. Respectable philosophers denounced the Cynic “street philosophers” for inciting disrespect for authority and undermining social hierarchy, with their rejection of conventional notions of property and propriety. [Dawson, pp. 244-245]

The Cynics did not expect, but they argued, that anyone, including women and slaves, could, if they had enough independence of mind, embrace the Cynic lifestyle. Unlike the earlier Cynics in Greece, the Cynic street philosophers of the Roman empire “intended,” through their actions, “to set a model for people to imitate.” [Dawson, p. 246] In a way they practiced a kind of “propaganda by the deed”: through their actions and lifestyle they showed people how to live honestly, naturally and freely. But even these Cynics did not aspire to create a mass movement. As we shall see in the next chapter, it was only with the rise of Christianity that heretical movements arose that rejected the hierarchies of the Roman empire and the early Christian Church that later became allied with it.

Cynicism, by its very nature, could never serve as an ideological support for the Roman empire, which helps explain why so few Cynic writings have survived. Dawson has compared Cynicism to philosophical Daoism, in that it acted as a “counterpoint” to the philosophical and religious doctrines that provided justifications for the social hierarchies of ancient Rome, much like Daoism acted as a counterpoint to Confucianism in China. [Dawson, p. 250] Diogenes’ pupil, Crates, imagined a polis, Pera, “where no one owns anything, and war and conflict do not exist, because no one cares for money, glory, or lust.” [Dawson, p. 149]

The connections between private property, status, ambition, greed and war were also emphasized by the philosophical Daoists, and by 19th century anarchists. The Roman emperor, Julian (331–363 CE), was sufficiently concerned about the subversive nature of Cynic teachings to denounce them for promoting communism, and the scorn “of all laws human and divine.” He compared Cynics to bandits, because they “went about everywhere confounding the common laws.” [Dawson, p. 249]

Robert Graham

New Book about Kropotkin

It’s that time of year again – yes – Kropotkin’s birthday (December 21, 1842 on the modern calendar). To mark the occasion, I thought I would mention that Richard Morgan has recently published an interesting book about Kropotkin’s anarchism, The Making of Kropotkin’s Anarchist Thought: Disease, Degeneration, Health and the Bio-political Dimension. The book has been issued as part of the BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. With Richard Morgan’s permission, here is a brief synopsis and introduction to the book. For more on Kropotkin’s revolutionary anarchism, visit my Kropotkin webpage and check out Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939).

Happy Birthday Peter!

The Making of Kropotkin’s Anarchist Thought

This book argues that the Russian thinker Petr Kropotkin’s anarchism was a bio-political revolutionary project. It shows how Kropotkin drew on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European and Russian bio-social-medical scientific thought to the extent that ideas about health, sickness, insanity, degeneration, and hygiene were for him not metaphors but rather key political concerns. It goes on to discuss how for Kropotkin’s bio-political anarchism, the state, capitalism, and revolution were medical concerns whose effects on the individual and society were measurable by social statistics and explainable by bio-social-medical knowledge. Overall, the book provides a refreshing, innovative approach to understanding Kropotkin’s anarchism.

As a site of intersection between revolutionary politics and science, Kropotkin’s thought represents a new development in the tradition of anarchist political philosophy. Although his diagnoses of humanity’s problems were distinctly anarchist – emphasising the threat of the modern state and capitalism – the ways in which he thought about these threats and the means by which he tried to expose their dangers were transformed by scientific ideas. His remedies to these problems were also transformed by science. He offered typical anarchist visions of revolution and far-reaching social change as political solutions, yet they were intended to bring about effects and consequences that made sense to and were measurable in relation to forms of scientific knowledge. With its transformed forms of diagnosis and remedy, Kropotkin’s scientised brand of anarchism provided the tradition with new and different approaches to the individual and society, to ideas about power, moral corruption, order, and the dissemination of knowledge.

Two events that occurred around the time of Kropotkin’s birth in 1842 introduce the central themes of this book – anarchist politics and science – and illustrate how they came together in his thought. First, in his book What Is Property? [1840], Proudhon declared himself to be an anarchist. This is the first known instance of a political thinker willingly adopting the title. Before, particularly during the French Revolution, it had been used as a term of negative criticism and abuse levelled at ‘unruly’ political adversaries. Second, in the year of Kropotkin’s birth, English social reformer Edwin Chadwick published his study An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain [1842]. As the title indicates, Chadwick’s work was an investigation into the state of public health, a biological assessment of a political territory’s population that stretched ‘from one end of the island to the other’.

These episodes mark two important developments within nineteenth-century political and scientific thought that became interwoven strands of Kropotkin’s life as a writer and thinker. The possibilities for thought represented by these seemingly unconnected events – both understanding that the term ‘anarchist’ could positively identify the creative ambitions of a political thinker and perceiving threats to political populations biologically – became intimately connected currents of Kropotkin’s ideas. Each typified new ways of looking at the world that together, interdependently, developed into crucial features of his worldview.

Proudhon’s self-definition as an anarchist brought into being the idea of anarchism as a non-maligned form of political philosophy, establishing a new, positive political identity to which Kropotkin would later subscribe. In relating anarchism with order, Proudhon engendered the possibility for it to be associated with creative as well as destructive political ambitions. Kropotkin grew up in a world where it was possible to conceive of the word ‘anarchist’ as a vocation, a calling that implied a desire not only to condemn socio-economic and political regimes but also to pursue society’s transformation.

This book will argue that what Kropotkin hoped to achieve politically as an anarchist – diagnosing and solving social problems – was representative of the trend in nineteenth-century social and scientific thought depicted by Chadwick’s inquiry. His anarchist exposé of the dangers facing humanity had a key bio-political dimension – that is, an intersectional concern with the biological impact of political and social environments on individuals and society and with the political and social implications of their biological states and conditions. Like Chadwick, he was concerned with identifying the threat of disease to human populations, connecting bodily experiences to wider processes of industrialisation and urbanisation. With the support of expert knowledge, evidence, facts, and data, Kropotkin believed his political diagnoses to be accurate and exact. He was confident that his anarchist politics could scientifically measure the biological threats facing individuals and society. And in accordance with his biological diagnoses of social problems, Kropotkin’s political solutions had a medical focus. His remedies sought to literally heal society with the application of bio-political knowledge and technologies.

Richard Morgan

Merry Winter Solstice!

Trial of the Chicago 7/8

Aaron Sorkin’s liberal revisionist take on the trial of the Chicago 7/8 has sent me in search of more accurate portrayals of the trial, for example, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, which relies entirely on the actual court transcripts and includes later interviews with the defendants. Another more accurate depiction is Chicago 10:

The proceedings against the defendants was a show trial orchestrated by the Nixon administration in order to break the back of radical protest and revolutionary movements in the United States in the late 1960s. The original 8 defendants, including Black Panther leader, Bobby Seale, were accused of conspiracy to incite riots at the Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

What really happened is more accurately described as a “police riot,” with the Chicago police assaulting and arresting hundreds of anti-Vietnam war protestors outside of the Convention. The defendants, with the exception of Bobby Seale, had helped organize the protests, but were then put on trial for allegedly instigating the so-called riots by the protestors who were being beaten by the police. The trial was a farce, with Bobby Seale being bound, gagged and chained in the courtroom, until his case was severed from the other defendants, leaving the 7 defendants of the title to Sorkin’s Hollywood version of the trial.

The most radical of the defendants were the two Yippies (Youth International Party), Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Hoffman had been involved in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s and then became more radical, advocating a youth-based cultural revolution, departing from the boring rituals of leftwing protest by doing things like showering the New York Stock Exchange trading floor with dollar bills to disrupt the heart of world capitalism. Jerry Rubin had been involved in the free speech movement in Berkeley, California, and then became active in the Yippies, an anarchistic, anti-capitalist as well as anti-war group. While Sorkin at least portrays Hoffman as a smart and funny guy (well played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen), Rubin is portrayed as an irresponsible stoner nitwit with a penchant for molotov cocktails and female FBI infiltrators of the protest movement (all untrue according to Rubin’s then companion, Nancy Kurshan (https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/10/22/i-was-in-the-room-where-it-happened-one-womans-perspective-on-the-trial-of-the-chicago-7/).

The veteran anti-war activist David Dellinger (I included a piece by him in Volume Two of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), is portrayed in Sorkin’s film as a middle-class pacifist do-gooder provoked into punching a sheriff at the trial (which never happened either).

One of the prosecutors is portrayed, again inaccurately, as having doubts about putting people on trial for their radical ideas.

One of the few good parts in Sorkin’s version of the trial is that it includes (briefly) one of the leaders of the Black Panthers in Chicago, Fred Hampton, and the fact that he was murdered by the FBI during the trial.

Fred Hampton