December 21st is the birthday of Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist communist revolutionary (1842-1921). To celebrate his 172nd birthday, I am presenting, by way of a “birthday greeting,” some comments by Kropotkin on how best to communicate anarchist ideas and what makes a successful revolution, taken from his Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas includes several selections by Kropotkin on anarchist communism, social revolution, law and authority, mutual aid, the Paris Commune, and libertarian technology.
Hope, not Despair, Makes Successful Revolutions
Socialist papers have often a tendency to become mere annals of complaints about existing conditions. The oppression of the laborers in the mine, the factory, and the field is related; the misery and sufferings of the workers during strikes are told in vivid pictures; their helplessness in the struggle against employers is insisted upon: and this succession of hopeless efforts, related in the paper, exercises a most depressing influence upon the reader.
To counterbalance that effect, the editor has to rely chiefly upon burning words by means of which he tries to inspire his readers with energy and faith.
I thought, on the contrary, that a revolutionary paper must be, above all, a record of those symptoms which everywhere announce the coming of a new era, the germination of new forms of social life, the growing revolt against antiquated institutions. These symptoms should be watched, brought together in their intimate connection, and so grouped as to show to the hesitating minds of the greater number the invisible and often unconscious support which advanced ideas find everywhere, when a revival of thought takes place in society.
To make one feel sympathy with the throbbing of the human heart all over the world, with its revolt against age-long injustice, with its attempts at working out new forms of life,—this should be the chief duty of a revolutionary paper. It is hope, not despair, which makes successful revolutions.
Historians often tell us how this or that system of philosophy has accomplished a certain change in human thought, and subsequently in institutions. But this is not history. The greatest social philosophers have only caught the indications of coming changes, have understood their inner relations, and, aided by induction and intuition, have foretold what was to occur.
It may also be easy to draw a plan of social organization, by starting from a few principles and developing them to their necessary consequences, like a geometrical conclusion from a few axioms; but this is not sociology. A correct social forecast cannot be made unless one keeps an eye on the thousands of signs of the new life, separating the occasional facts from those which are organically essential, and building the generalization upon that basis.
This was the method of thought with which I endeavored to familiarize my readers, using plain comprehensible words, so as to accustom the most modest of them to judge for himself whereunto society is moving, and himself to correct the thinker if the latter comes to wrong conclusions. As to the criticism of what exists, I went into it only to disentangle the roots of the evils, and to show that a deep-seated and carefully-nurtured fetishism with regard to the antiquated survivals of past phases of human development, and a widespread cowardice of mind and will, are the main sources of all evils.