Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution

Peter Kropotkin

Continuing on with my posts relating to the 100th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, and in commemoration of Kropotkin’s birthday (December 21, 1842), today I present a relatively unknown letter that Kropotkin wrote in August 1920 about the Russian Revolution, in which he criticizes the centralism and authoritarianism of the Marxists, advocating instead an anarchist social revolution based on voluntary federation, decentralization and workers’ self-management. Kropotkin points out that the differences between the Marxists and the anarchists on these points date back at least to the time of the First International, where the anarchists argued that in order to prevent the creation of a socialist state that would establish new forms of exploitation and domination of the working classes, it was necessary that the workers themselves, through their own organizations, organize production, distribution and public services on a functional and geographical basis. I explore these issues in more detail in ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’ – The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I thank Iain McKay for posting Kropotkin’s letter on his Anarcho webpage, and Lee Dugatkin, author of a book on Kropotkin (The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics), for first posting it on his Kropotkin webpage. Kropotkin’s letter was originally published in the French anarchist paper, Le Libertaire, in July 1921.

A letter from Kropotkin

Introduction from Le Libertaire, 22 July 1921:

Kropotkin was visited in his residence in the environs of Moscow by numerous foreign delegates. He was often misled as to their quality and many who were just socialists assumed an anarchist label in front of him.

One of these, the Czechoslovak Hugo Sonnenschein, obtained from the great libertarian theorist the following few lines which [Sonnenschein] was to bring to the awareness of the revolutionaries of his country. He was one of those who deceived Kropotkin over their quality; he was a Bolshevik and [so] the letter, by the author of Autour d’une Vie [Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist] and so many other admirable books, [because it] did not sing the praises of the Bolshevik regime was suppressed for more than six months.

We have only known about it for a few days. We publish it in the hope that all our comrades will read it with pleasure and profit.

Comrades and Friends,

The last war has proven, beyond all doubt, that in today’s society it is absolutely mad to hope that a day will come when wars would become impossible as long as the present exploitation of labour by Capital and backward nations by nations more advanced in industry continues to exist. As long as this exploitation lasts, wars will devastate humanity and hinder its development. The four-year war (which still continues) has confirmed once again what socialists of every shade have repeatedly stressed: As long as Capital can buy the strength of Labour and enrich itself by the toil of others, there will be internal wars. And what is true for a nation is also true for the society of peoples. The nation which precedes other nations in its economic development (or else, only believes that they have preceded), will inevitably seek to enrich themselves by force of arms.

Under the present conditions wars will return; and their character, as we have seen recently, will be more and more ferocious, more and more abominable, and more and more disastrous for the generations to come. Under these conditions the need for a profound reconstruction of society upon new bases – that is to say, for a social revolution – becomes more and more obvious. The bourgeoisie itself is beginning to realize it. And that is why it is absolutely essential for those who are most interested in reconstruction to discuss thoroughly the essential features of the changes in the structure of society which it is a question of achieving.

So far, the workers have had little interest in this kind of discussion. They did not believe in the possibility of an impending social revolution. But they must now see that they were wrong. Life itself, and above all the war, has imposed reconstruction. The social revolution knocks at our doors. Furthermore, as you will undoubtedly learn when your delegates return from Russia, the attempt at a Jacobin social revolution which has been taking place on a large scale for nearly three years has not produced the results we were hoping to obtain.

They will explain this failure by the war, which is still on going. But the cause is much deeper.

The Revolution of November 1917 sought to establish in Russia a mixed regime of Babeuf’s highly centralized authoritarian Communism; with [Constantin] Pecqueur’s equally centralized Collectivism, which has been popularized in Europe for forty years under the name of Marxism. And this attempt – it must be acknowledged – has certainly not given the results hoped for.

The attempt to establish a highly centralized power, imposing the communist revolution by decrees and by armies of bureaucrats [employés] did not succeed. The usual vices of every centralized State gnaw away at this administration, the mass of the people is excluded from reconstruction, and the dictatorial powers of the communist bureaucrats [employés], far from alleviating the evils, only aggravate them.

It is therefore obvious that the workers of central and western Europe, particularly the Latin ones, when they know the results of the Revolution in Russia should look for more effective means of reaching their goals. Already in the First International, when they were studying “public services in the future society,” they sought the solution of the social problem by the socialization of production and exchange; but they wanted to get there not by the centralized State but by the federation of free Communes, the decentralization of production and exchange, and the awakening of the local initiative of groups of producers and consumers. In short, they studied the question of how to build the new society not by orders from the centre, but by construction from the simple to the complex, always encouraging local and individual initiative, instead of killing it by armies of functionaries who carry out the will of the centre as best they can.

The experiment conducted in Russia has confirmed the need to develop these tendencies of autonomy and federalism, and it is in this direction that without doubt the efforts of the workers will head, as soon as they delve into the great and difficult questions that confront every revolution, as had been done in the federalist International.

Brothers and friends of Western Europe, history has imposed a formidable task on your generation. It falls upon you to begin to apply the principles of Socialism and to find practical forms. And it is upon you that falls the task of developing the new structures of a society where the exploitation of man by man, as well as classes, will have disappeared and, at the same time, a society where, instead of the centralization which brings us oppression and wars, will develop a thousand centres of life and constructive forces in free Trade Unions and independent Communes.

History pushes us in this direction.

Well, let us courageously get to work!

Let us break with the two prejudices of benefactor-Capital and the providence-State! And in our groups and congresses, in our Trade Unions and in our Communes, we will find the necessary elements to build a new society, the Society of Labour and Liberty, free from Capital and the State, and from the cult of Authority.

Peter Kropotkin, Moscow, August 1920

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