Kropotkin: Anarchy & Order

Kropotkin in his study

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel, Kropotkin’s first collection of anarchist essays, originally published (in French) in 1885, while Kropotkin was still imprisoned in France for his revolutionary views. Space limitations prevented me from including the following excerpts from Kropotkin’s essay, “Order,” translated by Nicolas Walter. I have previously posted Kropotkin’s Preface to the 1904 Italian edition of Words of a Rebel, and his Postscript to the 1921 Russian edition.

Words of a Rebel

Peter Kropotkin: Order

We are often reproached for accepting as a label this word anarchy, which frightens many people so much. ‘Your ideas are excellent’, we are told, ‘but you must admit that the name of your party is an unfortunate choice. Anarchy in common language is synonymous with disorder and chaos; the word brings to mind the idea of interests clashing, of individuals struggling, which cannot lead to the establishment of harmony.’

* * *

Let us begin by pointing out that a party devoted to action, a party representing a new tendency, seldom has the opportunity of choosing a name for itself. It was not the Beggars of Brabant who made up their name, which later became so popular. But, beginning as a nickname-and a well-chosen one-it was taken up by the party, accepted generally, and soon became its proud title. It will also be seen that this word summed up a whole idea.

French sans-culotte

And the Sans-culottes of 1793? It was the enemies of the popular revolution who coined this name; but it too summed up a whole idea—that of the rebellion of the people, dressed in rags, tired of poverty, opposed to all those royalists, the so-called patriots and Jacobins, the well-dressed and the smart, those who, despite their pompous speeches and the homage paid to them by bourgeois historians, were the real enemies of the people, profoundly despising them for their poverty, for their libertarian and egalitarian spirit, and for their revolutionary enthusiasm.

It was the same with the name of the Nihilists, which puzzled journalists so much and led to so much playing with words, good and bad, until it was understood to refer not to a peculiar—almost religious—sect, but to a real revolutionary force. Coined by Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons, it was adopted by the ‘fathers’, who used the nickname to take revenge for the disobedience of the ‘sons’. But the sons accepted it and, when they later realized that it gave rise to misunderstanding and tried to get rid of it, this was impossible. The press and the public would not describe the Russian revolutionaries by any other name. Anyway the name was by no means badly chosen, for again it sums up an idea; it expresses the negation of the whole of the activity of present civilization, based on the oppression of one class by another-the negation of the present economic system, the negation of government and power, of bourgeois politics, of routine knowledge, of bourgeois morality, of art for the sake of the exploiters, of fashions and manners which are grotesque or revoltingly hypocritical, of all that present society has inherited from past centuries: in a word, the negation of everything which bourgeois civilization today treats with reverence.

It was the same with the anarchists. When a party emerged within the [First] International which denied authority in the Association and also rebelled against authority in all its forms, this party at first called itself federalist, then anti-statist or anti-authoritarian. At that period they actually avoided using the name anarchist. The word an-archy (that is how it was written then) seemed to identify the party too closely with the Proudhonians, whose ideas about economic reform were at that time opposed by the International. But it was precisely because of this—to cause confusion—that its enemies decided to make use of this name; after all, it made it possible to say that the very name of the anarchists proved that their only ambition was to create disorder and chaos without caring about the result.

The International (Paris Section)

The anarchist party quickly accepted the name it had been given. At first it insisted on the hyphen between an and archy, explaining that in this form the word an-archy—which comes from the Greek—means ‘no authority’ and not ‘disorder’; but it soon accepted the word as it was, and stopped giving extra work to proof-readers and Greek lessons to the public.

So the word returned to its basic, normal, common meaning, as expressed in 1816 by the English philosopher Bentham, in the following terms: ‘The philosopher who wishes to reform a bad law,’ he said, ‘does not preach insurrection against it… The character of the anarchist is quite different. He denies the existence of the law, he rejects its validity, he incites men to refuse to recognize it as law and to rise up against its execution.’ The sense of the word has become wider today: the anarchist denies not just existing laws, but all established power, all authority; however its essence has remained the same: it rebels—and this is what it starts from—against power and authority in any form.

But, we are told, this word brings to mind the negation of order, and consequently the idea of disorder, of chaos.

Let us however make sure we understand one another—what order are we talking about? Is it the harmony which we anarchists dream of, the harmony in human relations which will be established freely when humanity ceases to be divided into two classes, of which one is sacrificed for the benefit of the other, the harmony which will emerge spontaneously from the unity of interests when all men belong to one and the same family, when each works for the good of all and all for the good of each? Obviously not! Those who accuse anarchy of being the negation of order are not talking about this harmony of the future; they are talking about order as it is thought of in our present society. So let us see what this order is which anarchy wishes to destroy.

Order today—what they mean by order—is nine-tenths of mankind working to provide luxury, pleasure, and the satisfaction of the most disgusting passions for a handful of idlers.

Order is these nine-tenths being deprived of everything which is a necessary condition for a decent life, for the reasonable development of intellectual faculties. To reduce nine-tenths of mankind to the state of beasts of burden living from day to day, without ever daring to think of the pleasures provided for man by scientific study and artistic creation—that is order!

Order is poverty and famine become the normal state of society. It is the Irish peasant dying of, starvation; it is the peasant of a third of Russia dying of diphtheria and typhus, and of hunger, following scarcity—at a time when stored grain is sent abroad. It is the people of Italy reduced to abandoning their fertile countryside and wandering across Europe looking for tunnels to dig, where they risk being buried after existing for only a few months or so. It is the land taken away from the peasant to raise animals to feed the rich; it is the land left fallow rather than being restored to those who ask for nothing more than to cultivate it.

Order is the woman selling herself to feed her children, it is the child reduced to being shut up in a factory or to dying of starvation, it is the worker reduced to the state of a machine. It is the spectre of the worker rising against the rich, the spectre of the people rising against the government.

Order is an infinitesimal minority raised to positions of Power, which for this reason imposes itself on the majority and which raises its children to occupy the same positions later, so as to maintain the same privileges by trickery, corruption, violence and butchery.

Order is the continuous warfare of man against man, trade against trade, class against class, country against country. It is the cannon whose roar never ceases in Europe, it is the countryside laid waste, the sacrifice of whole generations on the battlefield, the destruction in a single year of the wealth built up by centuries of hard work.

Order is slavery, thought in chains, the degradation of the human race maintained by sword and lash. It is the sudden death by explosion or the slow death by suffocation of hundreds of miners who are blown up or buried every year by the greed of the bosses and shot or bayoneted as soon as they dare complain.

Finally order is the Paris Commune drowned in blood. It is the death of thirty thousand men, women and children, cut to pieces by shells, shot down, buried in quicklime beneath the streets of Paris. It is the fate of the youth of Russia, locked in the prisons, buried in the snows of Siberia, and—in the case of the best, the purest, and the most devoted—strangled in the hangman’s noose.

Order in the streets of Paris, 1871 (M. Luce)

That is order! 

* * *

And disorder—what they call disorder?

It is the rising of the people against this shameful order, bursting their bonds, shattering their fetters, and moving towards a better future. It is the most glorious deeds in the history of humanity.

It is the rebellion of thought on the eve of revolution; it is the upsetting of hypotheses sanctioned by unchanging centuries; it is the breaking of a flood of new ideas, of daring inventions, it is the solution of scientific problems.

Disorder is the abolition of ancient slavery, it is the rise of the communes, the abolition of feudal serfdom, the attempts at the abolition of economic serfdom.

Disorder is peasant revolts against priests and landowners, burning castles to make room for cottages, leaving the hovels to take their place in the sun. It is France abolishing the monarchy and dealing a mortal blow to serfdom in the whole of Western Europe.

Disorder is 1848 making kings tremble, and proclaiming the right to work. It is the people of Paris fighting for a new idea and, when they die in the massacres, leaving to humanity the idea of the free commune, and opening the way towards this revolution which we can feel approaching and which will be the Social Revolution.

Disorder—what they call disorder—is periods during which whole generations keep up a ceaseless struggle and sacrifice themselves to prepare humanity for a better existence, in getting rid of past slavery. It is periods during which the popular genius takes free flight and in a few years makes gigantic advances without which man would have remained in the state of an ancient slave, a creeping thing, degraded by poverty.

Disorder is the breaking out of the finest passions and the greatest sacrifices, it is the epic of the supreme love of humanity!

* * *

The word anarchy, implying the negation of this order and invoking the memory of the finest moments in the lives of peoples—is it not well chosen for a party which is moving towards the conquest of a better future?


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  1. […] of the same grounds cited by Bakunin: preferring freedom to “public order” (see for example Kropotkin’s essay, “Order,” in Words of a Rebel); advocating “anarchy” as both a method and as a goal (Malatesta, in his pamphlet, Anarchy, […]

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