Kropotkin: Preface to Words of a Rebel (1904)

Peter Kropotkin

In 1904, Kropotkin wrote a new preface for the Italian edition of his first collection of revolutionary essays, Words of a Rebel. I included excerpts from Words of a Rebel in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and recently posted the postcript to the 1921 Russian edition that Kropotkin wrote in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In his preface to the 1904 Italian edition, Kropotkin seeks to explain why there had not yet been a social revolution in Europe, despite his view, and many others, in the late 1870s that a social revolution was imminent. Kropotkin attributes the lack of a social revolution to the continuing reaction that gripped Europe after the defeat of France by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, the brutal repression which followed the 1871 Paris Commune, and the ascendancy of German social democracy. The rise of revolutionary syndicalism and the idea of the general strike gave Kropotkin renewed hope that through a revolutionary general strike, the workers would initiate the expropriation of the bourgeoisie that would bring about the social revolution. His hopes were partially realized the following year, when general strikes throughout Russia almost succeeded in bringing down the Czarist autocracy during the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Happy Birthday Kropotkin! (December 21)

THE FIRST CHAPTERS of this book, written in 1879, speak of the social revolution as an imminent fact. The awakening of the proletariat which was then taking place in France after the period of mourning for the [1871 Paris] Commune, the expansion which the labour movement was achieving in the Latin countries, the spirit of the Russian youth, the rapid spread of socialist ideas which was then being carried out in Germany (though the Germans had remained resistant for a very long time to French socialism), and finally the economic conditions of Europe—all this seemed to presage the approaching arrival of a great social European revolution. Revolutionaries and moderates agreed then in predicting that the bourgeois regime, shaken by the revolution of 1848 and the Commune of Paris, could not long resist the attack of the European proletariat. Before the end of the century the collapse would come. Even those who opposed our revolutionary tactic and put parliamentarianism in its place did not wish to get left behind, and calculated with the voting figures in their hands that well before the end of the century they would have won a majority in the German parliament, decreed the expropriation, and accomplished the social revolution, by ballot, well before the Latin peoples.

And yet, we are now told—by some with regret, and by others in triumph—’here we are already in the twentieth century, and the promised revolution still delays its arrival!’ One might even believe—it has been said at least in the camp of the rich—that the triumph of the bourgeoisie is more assured today than ever before. The workers seem to have lost hope in a revolution.

They content themselves with sending some deputies to parliament, and they hope in this way to obtain all kinds of favours from the state.

Even their demands are reduced to quite small concessions on the part of the exploiters. At the very most the worker who is converted to social democracy dares hope that one day he will become an employee of the state—a sort of very minor official who, after twenty-five or thirty years of submission, will receive a small pension.

As for wider aims, as for the revolution which used to promise to stir up all ideas and to begin a new era of civilization; as for this future of happiness, of dignity, of emancipation, of equality which the worker had once foreseen for his children—all this, we are told today, is fantasy. A whole school of socialists has even been established who claim to possess a science of their own, according to which it can be proved that revolution is a misconception. ‘Discipline, submission to leaders—and every thing that can be done for the workers will be done in parliament. Forget the gun, forget 1793, 1848 and 1871, help the bourgeoisie to seize colonies in Africa and Asia, exploit the Negro and the Chinese with them, and everything will be done for you that can be done—without upsetting the bourgeoisie too much. Just one condition: forget this word, this illusion of revolution!’

Well, aren’t all these gentlemen triumphing too soon? To begin with, we have scarcely entered the twentieth century; and if ten or twenty years count for a lot in the life of the individual, they count for only very little or nothing in historical events. Doesn’t an event of such immense importance as the social revolution deserve to be granted the latitude of a few years?

No, we were not deceived when, twenty-five years ago, we saw the social revolution coming. Today it is just as inevitable as it was a quarter of a century ago. Only we must recognize that we had not then plumbed the full depths of the reaction which would bring the defeat of France in 1870 and 1871, and the triumph of the German military empire. We had not measured the length of the delay which was going to be produced in the European revolutionary movement following that defeat and that victory.

The Paris Commune

If the war of 1870-1871 had simply displaced military power from France to Germany, that would have had no consequence for the development of the revolutionary socialist movement. But the war had gone infinitely farther: for thirty years it was to paralyse France. With Metz two or three days from Paris— not just a simple fortress, but a fortified camp from which half a million men, fully equipped to the last gun-sling, could be thrown against the capital twenty-four hours after (or rather, before) the declaration of war; with the Triple, and later the Quadruple, Alliance ready to tear France to pieces—and that danger has not stopped weighing on France until the very last few years; with the flower of French youth decimated, whether on the battlefield or in the streets of Paris: in these conditions, how could France not pass through a quarter-century of militarism, not submit to Rome for fear of a civil war, not be infatuated by the Russian alliance? It was inevitable, it was fatal. And when today we look back—we who have fought from day to day against clericalism and militarism, Caesarism and Boulangism—we may confess that we are astonished at one thing: it is that France was able to pass through this dark period without surrendering to a new Caesar.

If the Boulangist adventure, supported by all the power of the Anglo-American bankers, the clericals. and royalists of all Europe, came despite everything to such a pitiful end; if France did not become clerical, when England is ‘catholicising’ itself so well and when Germany seems to be moving in the same direction; if we are at last seeing France at the end of these dark years finding itself again, taking a new lease of life and producing this fine new generation which is going to take the place which is its due in the movement for the renewal of the civilized world— it is because the strength of the revolutionary current was in fact much more powerful than it seemed to those who saw only the surface of events.

Let them deliver anathemas as long as they wish against the brave revolutionaries—above all against the anarchists who were able to raise high the red flag, to keep France on its guard, and sometimes to remove from the political arena those who were keeping a place warm for other reactionaries even more open in their reaction; let them curse them as much as they like! History will record that it is to their energy, to the agitation which they fed with their blood that we owe the fact that European reaction is being kept within bounds. The truth is that the revolutionary party, weak as it was in numbers, had to display an immense, fierce energy to put a curb on reaction both internal and external. We certainly had not exaggerated this strength; for without it what would have become of us now?

And the same thought may be applied word for word to Spain and Italy. Which of us would have risked predicting that in Spain they would have tried to reintroduce the tortures of the Inquisition against the rebellious workers? Who would have risked predicting the machine-gunnings in Milan? Well, they dared do it! Dared only: for the reply of the workers was soon able to bring these ‘extremists’ to reason.

Only today can we appreciate the extent of the check which was produced in Europe following the Franco-Prussian war. The worst of the defeats of 1870 and 1871 was that they led to the intellectual obliteration of France.

The necessity in which the French nation was placed, of dreaming before everything of preserving its existence, its popular genius, its civilizing influence, its existence as a nation, paralysed revolutionary thought. The idea of an insurrection evoked that of a civil war, which would be brought to an end by foreign guns coming to the rescue of bourgeois order. And on the other hand everything in France that had been most energetic, most enthusiastic, most devoted—a whole generation had perished in the great struggle which began after the siege of Paris. A whole generation of revolutionaries, drawn to Paris under the Empire, had perished at the time of the massacres which followed the fall of the Commune. The whole intellectual life of France felt the effect. It was lowered, diminished, and fell into the hands of the impotent, the sick, the fearful.

This collapse of France meant the collapse not only of a nation which had stood in the forefront of civilization, but of the whole period Europe had lived through from 1848. Europe returned to 1849, to 1830. Victorious Germany was able to take the intellectual lead which until then had belonged to France and in great measure to Italy. But if Germany had indeed given to the world a certain number of thinkers, of poets, and of scholars, it had no revolutionary past. And in its political and social development it was in the position that France had been in under Louis-Philippe. Representative government, introduced in Germany in 1871, had the attraction of novelty; and if it had had, in Weitling and his successors, a few enthusiastic communists, mostly refugees, the socialist movement in Germany itself had just been recently imported, and for this reason it had to go through the same stages which it had passed through in France: the state socialism of Louis Blanc, and the state collectivism which Pecqueur and Vidal had formulated for the 1848 Republic.

1848 French Revolution

In this way the spirit of Europe fell to the level which it had previously occupied under Louis-Philippe. Socialism itself, being turned back again, returned to the capitalist state of Louis Blanc, while losing the clearness and simplicity which the Latin spirit had given it. Further, it took a centralizing character, hostile to the Latin spirit, which was imposed on it by the German spirit, for which the union of the small German states into a single empire had been a dream for thirty years.

Several other causes could also be mentioned to explain the strength of the reaction. One of them is colonial expansion. Today the European bourgeoisie is enriching itself not only from the labour of the workers of its own countries. Profiting from the facility of international transport, it has slaves and serfs everywhere—in Asia Minor, in Africa, in the Indies, in China. The tributaries are all backward states. The bourgeoisies of England, France, Holland and Belgium are becoming more and more the moneylenders of the world, living on their dividends. Whole states are mortgaged by the bankers of London, Paris, New York, and Amsterdam. Examples are Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China; and Japan is already being prepared for this role, a dear ally being lent to at 6 or rather 7 per cent, and all its customs revenues being mortgaged. In this way a few concessions can be gladly made to the European worker, the state can gladly maintain his children at school, it can even give him a few francs’ pension at the age of sixty—provided he helps the bourgeoisie conquer serfs and make vassal states of the stock exchange in Asia and Africa.

And finally it would also be necessary to mention the counter revolutionary effort which was made by all the Christian churches, but which came above all from Rome, in order to stem by all methods the revolution whose tide could be seen to be rising. The assault which was made against materialism, the campaign which was waged with so much skill against science in general, the putting on the Index of works and men, which was practised so assiduously by so many secular, political and religious organisations—all that would have to be mentioned to give an idea of the immense counter-revolutionary activity which was put in hand to combat the revolution. But all this is only secondary in the context of the dominant fact which we have just indicated: the collapse of France, its temporary exhaustion, and the intellectual domination of Germany which, despite all the admirable qualities of its genius and its people, was, by the very virtue of its geographical position and of its whole past, thirty to forty years behind France.

In this way, the revolution was delayed. But—is this a reason for saying that it is postponed indefinitely? Nothing would be more contrary to the truth, nothing would be more absurd than such an assertion.

A striking phenomenon has appeared in the development of the socialist movement. As was once said of inflammatory diseases, it has been ‘driven in’. So many external remedies have been applied to kill it that it has been driven into the organism: it exists there in a latent form. The worker votes; he follows the banners in political processions; but his thoughts are elsewhere. ‘All that isn’t it,’ he says to himself. ‘That’s the outside, only the show.’ As for the inside, the substance—he is considering; he is waiting before giving his opinion. And in the meantime he is setting up his trade unions—international, crossing frontiers. ‘Don’t trust these unions,’ said a member of a commission named by one of the Canadian provinces the other day. ‘Don’t trust them: what the workers are dreaming about in these federated unions is seizing an American state, a territory, one day and proclaiming the revolution there and expropriating—without any compensation—all they find necessary to live and work.’

Social Revolution

‘Yes, no doubt they vote, they obey you,’ the German bourgeoisie says to the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. ‘But don’t rely on them too far! They will disown you yourselves on the day of the revolution if you don’t become much more revolutionary than you are today. Let the smallest revolution come, and it is always the most advanced party which takes the lead and will force you to move. You are their leaders—you must follow them!’

And from all sides the same signs of the times force themselves on our attention. The worker votes, demonstrates, for lack of anything better—but all over the world another movement, much more serious, is being prepared and is maturing silently. Blanqui once said that in Paris there were 50,000 men, workers who never went to a single meeting; who belonged to no organisation—but when the day came they would come out into the streets, would fight, and would carry out the revolution. The same thing seems to be happening today among the workers of the whole world.

They have their idea, an idea of their own; and to make this idea become real one day they are working with enthusiasm. They don’t even speak about it: they understand one another. They know that in one way or another they will one day have to shoulder their rifles and give battle to the bourgeoisie. How? When? Following what event? Who knows! But that day will come. It is not far away. A few more years of effort, and the idea of the general strike will have gone round the world. It will have penetrated everywhere, found supporters everywhere, enthusiasts—and then?

Then, helped by some event or other, we shall see! And—ça ira!—it will come, and they will dance to bring in a new world. Our enemies believe that they have buried all these dreams so well. Even our friends wonder whether in fact the burial has not been successful. Yet see how the idea, still the same, the one which made our hearts beat thirty years ago, is reappearing, as alive, as young, as fine as ever: expropriation as an end, and the general strike as a means of paralysing the bourgeois world in all countries at once.

But then—is this the social revolution: coming now from the very inspiration of the people, from the ‘lower- depths’, where all the great ideas have always germinated when a new idea became necessary to regenerate the world?

Yes, this is the social revolution. Get ready to make it succeed, to bear all its fruit, to sow all these great ideas which make your heart beat and which make the world go round.

Peter Kropotkin, May 1904

1905 Russian Revolution

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