Kropotkin: The Origins of Anarchy

I was very excited to learn that Iain McKay, who produced the excellent anthologies of the writings of Proudhon, Property is Theft, and Kropotkin, Direct Struggle Against Capital, is now working on the definitive edition of Kropotkin’s Modern Science and Anarchy (better known in English as “Modern Science and Anarchism”), to be published by AK Press. The new edition will not only include the complete text of Kropotkin’s essay on modern science and anarchy/anarchism, but the additional essays that Kropotkin included in the 1913 French edition, including “The State – Its Historic Role,” and “The Modern State,” in which Kropotkin analyzes the emergence and mutually reinforcing roles of the modern state and capitalism. Here, I reproduce Kropotkin’s introductory chapter to Modern Science and Anarchy, in which he argues that throughout human history there has been a struggle between authority and liberty, between “statists” and anarchists.

The Origins of Anarchy

Anarchy does not draw its origin from any scientific researches, or from any system of philosophy. Sociological sciences are still far from having acquired the same degree of accuracy as physics or chemistry. Even in the study of climate and weather [Meteorology], we are not yet able to predict a month or even a week beforehand what weather we are going to have; it would be foolish to pretend that in the social sciences, which deal with infinitely more complicated things than wind and rain, we could scientifically predict events. We must not forget either that scholars are but ordinary men and that the majority belong to the wealthy, and consequently share the prejudices of this class; many are even directly in the pay of the State. It is, therefore, quite evident that Anarchy does not come from universities.

Like Socialism in general, and like all other social movements, Anarchy was born among the people, and it will maintain its vitality and creative force only as long as it remains a movement of the people.

Historically, two currents have been in conflict in human society. On the one hand, the masses, the people, developed in the form of customs a multitude of institutions necessary to make social existence possible: to maintain peace, to settle quarrels, and to practice mutual aid in all circumstances that required combined effort. Tribal customs among savages, later the village communities, and, still later, the industrial guilds and the cities of the Middle Ages, which laid the first foundations of international law, all these institutions were developed, not by legislators, but by the creative spirit of the masses.

On the other hand, there have been magi, shamans, wizards, rain-makers, oracles, priests. These were the first teachers of a [rudimentary] knowledge of nature and the first founders of religions ([worshiping] the sun, the forces of Nature, ancestors, etc.) and the different rituals that were used to maintain the unity of tribal federations.

At that time, the first germs of the study of nature (astronomy, weather prediction, the study of illnesses) went hand in hand with various superstitions, expressed by different rites and cults. The beginnings of all arts and crafts also had this origin in study and superstition and each had its mystical formulae that were provided only to the initiated, and were carefully concealed from the masses.

Alongside of these earliest representatives of science and religion, there were also men, like the bards, the brehons of Ireland, the speakers of the law of the Scandinavian peoples, etc. who were considered masters in the ways of customs and of the ancient traditions, which were to be used in the event of discord and disagreements. They kept the law in their memory (sometimes through the use of symbols, which were the germs of writing) and in case of disagreements they acted as referees.

Finally, there were also the temporary chiefs of military bands, who were supposed to possess the secret magic for success in warfare; they also possessed the secrets of poisoning weapons and other military secrets.

These three groups of men have always formed among themselves secret societies to keep and pass on (after a long and painful initiation period) the secrets of their social functions or their crafts; and if, at times, they fought each other, they always agreed in the long run; they joined together and supported each other in order to dominate the masses, to reduce them to obedience, to govern them – and to make the masses work for them.

It is evident that Anarchy represents the first of these two currents, that is to say, the creative, constructive force of the masses, who developed institutions of common law to defend themselves against the domineering minority. It is also by the creative and constructive force of the people, aided by the whole strength of science and modern technology, that Anarchy now strives to set up the necessary institutions to guarantee the free development of society – in contrast to those who put their hope in laws made by ruling minorities and imposed on the masses by a rigorous discipline.

We can therefore say that in this sense there have always been anarchists and statists.

Moreover, we always find that [social] institutions, even the best of them – those that were originally built to maintain equality, peace and mutual aid – become petrified as they grew old. They lost their original purpose, they fell under the domination of an ambitious minority, and they end up becoming an obstacle to the further development of society. Then individuals, more or less isolated, rebel. But while some of these discontented, by rebelling against an institution that has become irksome, sought to modify it in the interests of all – and above all to overthrow the authority, foreign to the social institution (the tribe, the village commune, the guild, etc.) – others only sought to set themselves outside and above these institutions in order to dominate the other members of society and to grow rich at their expense.

All political, religious, economic reformers have belonged to the first of the two categories; and among them there have always been individuals who, without waiting for all their fellow citizens or even only a minority of them to be imbued with similar ideas, strove forward and rose against oppression – either in more or less numerous groups or alone if they had no following. We see revolutionaries in all periods of history.

However, these Revolutionaries also had two different aspects. Some, while rebelling against the authority that had grown up within society, did not seek to destroy this authority but strove to seize it for themselves. Instead of an oppressive power, they sought to constitute a new one, which they would hold, and they promised – often in good faith – that the new authority would have the welfare of the people at heart, it would be their true representative – a promise that later on was inevitably forgotten or betrayed. Thus were constituted Imperial authority in the Rome of the Caesars, the authority of the [Catholic] Church in the first centuries of our era, dictatorial power in the cities of the Middle Ages during their period of decline, and so forth. The same current was used to establish royal authority in Europe at the end of the feudal period. Faith in an emperor “for the people” – a Caesar – is not dead, even today.

But alongside this authoritarian current, another current asserted itself in times when overhauling the established institutions was necessary. At all times, from ancient Greece to the present day, there were individuals and currents of thought and action that sought not to replace one authority by another but to destroy the authority which had been grafted onto popular institutions – without creating another to take its place. They proclaimed the sovereignty of both the individual and the people, and they sought to free popular institutions from authoritarian overgrowths; they worked to give back complete freedom to the collective spirit of the masses – so that the popular genius might once again freely rebuild institutions of mutual aid and mutual protection, in harmony with new needs and new conditions of existence. In the cites of ancient Greece, and especially in those of the Middle Ages (Florence, Pskov, etc.,) we find many examples of these kinds of conflicts.

We may therefore say that Jacobins and anarchists have always existed among reformers and revolutionaries.

Formidable popular movements, stamped with an anarchist character, took place several times in the past. Villages and cities rose against the principle of government – against the organs of the State, its courts, its laws – and they proclaimed the sovereignty of the rights of man. They denied all written law, and asserted that every man should govern himself according to his conscience. They thus tried to establish a new society, based on the principles of equality, complete freedom, and work. In the Christian movement in Judea, under Augustus – against the Roman law, the Roman State, and the morality, or rather the immorality, of that time – there was unquestionably considerable elements of Anarchy. Little by little this movement degenerated into a Church movement, fashioned after the Hebrew Church and Imperial Rome itself, which naturally killed all that Christianity possessed of anarchism at its outset, gave it Roman forms, and soon it became the principal support of authority, State, slavery, oppression. The first seeds of “opportunism” which were introduced into Christianity are already visible in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles – or, at least, in the versions of these writings that make up the New Testament.

Similarly, the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, which inaugurated and brought about the Reformation, also had an anarchist basis. But crushed by those reformers who, under Luther’s leadership, leagued with the princes against the rebellious peasants, the movement was suppressed by a great massacre of peasants and the “lower classes” of the towns. Then the right wing of the reformers degenerated little by little, until it became the compromise between its own conscience and the State which exists today under the name of Protestantism.

Therefore, to summarize, Anarchy was born in the same critical and revolutionary protest which gave rise to socialism in general. However, one portion of the socialists, after having reached the negation of capital and of a society based on the enslavement of labour to capital, stopped there. They did not declare themselves against what constitutes the real strength of capital – the State and its principal supports: centralization of authority, law (always made by the minority, for the profit of minorities), and [a form of] Justice whose chief aim is to protect authority and capital.

As for Anarchy, it does not exclude these institutions from its critique. It raises its sacrilegious arm not only against capital but also these henchmen of capitalism.

Peter Kropotkin

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  1. Reblogged this on Feminist Primitivism.


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