David Berry: Kropotkin’s Great French Revolution

PM Press is publishing a new edition of Peter Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution (originally published in 1909), with an introduction by David Berry, who has kindly agreed to let me publish the following excerpts from his introduction to Kropotkin’s classic book to mark Kropotkin’s birthday on December 21, 1842.

For Kropotkin, as for so many others throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French Revolution was where it all began…

Kropotkin’s claim to originality in The Great French Revolution did not lie in the discovery of previously unknown facts—unable to re-enter France for fear of being arrested, his research was not carried out in the Paris archives, but on published material, almost entirely among the British Museum’s albeit considerable holdings. His originality lay in his method, his approach and in his interpretation. Kropotkin’s background in the natural sciences had an influence on the way he worked and wrote, and he prided himself on this.[1] Not only is his work thoroughly researched and based on evidence gleaned from all the most up-to-date studies, his style is also very different from and notably less lyrical and digressive than that of many nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians, including Jaurès. It is scholarly, but written lucidly, in accessible language and with passion.

His anarchist communism also determined how he saw 1789: “You have seen, with Mutual Aid”, he wrote to Guillaume in 1903, “and you will see with The State: Its Historic Role, what a remarkable, powerful tool of investigation the anarchist tendency represents—the anarchist hypothesis in the language of science.”[2] And as he wrote of history in Words of a Rebel:

Do you not understand that history, today a convenient mythology regarding the greatness of kings, of notable personalities, of parliaments⸺must be entirely recast from the popular point of view, from the viewpoint of the work accomplished by the masses in the phases of human revolution?[3]

Such a perspective guarded Kropotkin against the various ‘legends’ that had been built up over the years by the more conventional histories⸺what he called the “legend of 4 August 1789”, for example, when the National Assembly is supposed to have abolished feudalism, but in fact included a clause insisting that feudal rights and tithes had to be redeemed (ie the peasants had to buy themselves out), a clause which set back the actual abolition by four years, when peasant revolts finally forced the government to act. (Besides, as Kropotkin emphasises in chapter 17: “The Assembly only sanctioned in principle and extended to France altogether what the people had accomplished themselves in certain localities. It went no further.”) Nor was the anarchist-communist Kropotkin unduly impressed by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, “this profession of middle-class liberalism” (chapter 19), with its insistence on the sacredness of private property: “Like the American Constitutionalists assembled in the Congress of Philadelphia, the National Assembly kept out of its declaration all allusions to the economic relations between citizens.” (chapter 10)

There are thus several aspects to Kropotkin’s originality, a consequence of this anarchist-communist approach: the first was a kind of class analysis (quite different, as we shall see, from that of the Marxists) and his focus on the common people, and especially on the peasantry (who made up over 80% of the population at the end of the eighteenth century); secondly, the attention he paid to spontaneous experiments by the people in decentralisation and direct democracy; and thirdly, his attempt to trace the appearance and development during the course of the Revolution of embryonic forms of socialism, communism and anarchism.

The people

His central concern, then, was with the oppressed, with the social and economic realities of their lives, with the practical implications for them of the many changes wrought by the Revolution. This is what set Kropotkin’s history apart. As he himself wrote in an article to mark the centenary:

The history of the French Revolution has been written and re-written. We know the slightest details of the drama played on the stages of the National Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, and the Convention. The parliamentary history of the movement is fully elaborated. But its popular history has never been attempted to be written.[4]

Historians had previously focussed only on what he called “the theatrical aspect”:[5] “Thanks to the fables churned out by the Jacobin bourgeoisie on the Great Revolution, the people have learnt nothing of their own history.”[6] But it was the people who were “the passionate heart of the Revolution” (chapter 11). […]

Decentralisation and direct democracy

Kropotkin had long been interested in the history of communes and the development of central states. In The Great French Revolution he insisted on the hitherto neglected importance of the alacrity with which the insurgents created “revolutionary communes”⸺the Commune of Paris being the prototype⸺without the need for legislation at national level:

It is chiefly by studying this method of action among the people, and not by devoting oneself to the study of the Assembly’s legislative work, that one grasps the genius of the Great Revolution—the Genius, in the main, of all revolutions, past and to come. (chapter 15)

And he emphasised the extent to which such communes represented a new form of direct democracy:

The Commune which sprang from the popular movement was not separated from the people. By the intervention of its “districts”, “sections” or “tribes”, constituted as so many mediums of popular administration, it remained of the people, and this is what made the revolutionary power of these organisations.[7] (chapter 24)

The significance here was that such developments were driven by the base, it was a revolution ‘from the bottom up’ and federatively organised:

The first attempt at constituting a Commune was thus made from below upward, by the federation of the district organisms; it sprang up in a revolutionary way, from popular initiative. […] [T]he masses were practising what was described later on as Direct Self-Government. […] They sought for unity of action, not in subjection to a Central Committee, but in a federative union. (chapter 24)

The corollary of this movement was the inevitable conflict with the statists—the “antagonism which arose between the governmental prejudices of the democrats of that time [ie the bourgeois politicians] and the ideas that dawned in the hearts of the people as to political decentralisation.” (chapter 3) This, for Kropotkin, was a question of class and was the root of all the conflicts which arose later in the Convention. It would be an aspect of the Revolution which Daniel Guérin also focussed on⸺something which would not endear him to Jacobin-admiring Communists: “As an anarchist”, Guérin commented approvingly, “Kropotkin always paid attention to the rivalry between the Commune and the central government”, and to the ways in which the Committee of General Security and the Committee of Public Safety gradually undermined the Commune’s autonomy.[8] […]

Conclusion

Alongside Jaurès’ Histoire socialiste, Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution is one of the foundational texts of what would later come to be known as ‘history from below’, even if⸺inevitably, given the amount of research done since then on every aspect of the period—some details need correcting and some more recent avenues of research (including gender) are not touched upon at all. It can also be seen as a complement to Kropotkin’s other works, given the importance of its role in providing supporting historical evidence and example so essential for an understanding of the anarchist communism which Kropotkin elaborated over several decades. As Berneri remarked:

The epoch of the Communes and of the French Revolution were for Kropotkin […] the two historical fields in which he found the confirmation of his own federalist ideas and the elements of the development of his libertarian conception of life and politics.[9]

Throughout the history of the histories of the French Revolution, people have taken sides, identifying with certain characters or groups, turning some into heroes and demonising others. Among those so often treated in this way, Kropotkin’s sympathy was for Marat, or the enragés Varlet and Roux, rather than Danton (of whom he had a very low opinion) or Robespierre (whom he credits with at least being honest, but a very lukewarm revolutionary and a centralising authoritarian “ready […] to pass over the dead bodies of his opponents”[10]), and with the Cordeliers Club rather than the Jacobins or the Girondins (whose chief aim was “to prevent a rising of the people, to constitute a strong government, and to protect property”⸺chapter 39).[11] Whereas Lenin “saw in the Jacobins the model for revolutionaries, even though they were bourgeois, because they were firm, inflexible, decisive—the most consistent revolutionaries in the history of all the bourgeois revolutions” [12], Kropotkin not only points out that they were “chiefly well-to-do middle-class men”, “the educated, moderately democratic middle class”, he also stresses that “they did not lead the Revolution; they followed it.” (chapter 36) Robespierre “was powerfully seconded by the growing middle classes as soon as they recognised in him the “happy mean”⸺equally removed from the extremists and the moderates⸺the man who offered them the best guarantees against the “excesses” of the people.” (chapter 66) As for Babeuf, another hero of many twentieth-century communists..:

Babeuf—direct and pure descendant of the Jacobin Club of 1793⸺had conceived this idea that a revolutionary surprise attack, prepared by a conspiracy, could create a communist dictatorship in France. But once⸺true Jacobin⸺he had conceived the communist revolution as something which could be done by decrees, he came to two other conclusions: democracy first would prepare communism; and then a single individual, a dictator, provided he had the strength of will to save the world, will introduce communism.[13]

Before the publication of his history of the French Revolution, Kropotkin had already made clear his opinions with regard to ‘Jacobinism’, a term which derives from the French Revolution but came to serve as universal shorthand for the belief in the need for strong, centralised, and more or less authoritarian government. As he wrote in 1913:

It is sufficient to say that our conception of the coming social revolution is quite different from that of a Jacobin dictatorship, or the transformation of social institutions effected by a Convention, a Parliament, or a dictator. Never has a revolution been brought about on those lines; and if the present working-class movement takes this form, it will be doomed to have no lasting result. / On the contrary, we believe that if a revolution begins, it must take the form of a widely spread popular movement, during which movement, in every town and village invaded by the insurrectionary spirit, the masses set themselves to the work of reconstructing society on new lines… / Who guessed⸺who, in fact, could have guessed⸺before 1789 the role to be played by the Municipalities and the Commune of Paris in the revolutionary events of 1789-1793? It is impossible to legislate for the future. All we can do is vaguely guess its essential tendencies and clear the road for it.[14]

So like Proudhon before him, Kropotkin found the sans-culottes movement around the Paris Commune the most interesting. As he wrote in his conclusion of the The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793:

In any case, what we learn to-day from the study of the Great Revolution is, that it was the source and origin of all the present communist, anarchist, and socialist conceptions. We have but badly understood our common mother, but now we have found her again in the midst of the sans-culottes, and we see what we have to learn from her.

One final point should be made regarding the lessons Kropotkin drew from the experience of the French Revolution, and indeed from the lessons of the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1871 as well. In a pamphlet of 1913 on ‘The Revolutionary Idea in the Revolution’, he urges his readers to also read his history of the Great French Revolution and to absorb one important lesson above all others, and that was the importance of knowing what you want to achieve through revolutionary change and of having a plan of action:

Whatever may be the shortcomings of my study, it will make [any revolutionary who reads it] reflect on the necessity of bringing to the next revolution a set of constructive ideas (as well as destructive ones), of thinking them through carefully and pushing for their realisation with great vigour, and to reflect on the means at the people’s disposal to realise those ideas in society.[15]


[1] Kropotkin, an admirer of Darwin, has been criticised by some for applying an overly optimistic, even teleological understanding of evolution to history. Such criticisms are convincingly challenged in Matthew S. Adams, ‘Kropotkin: evolution, revolutionary change and the end of history’ in Anarchist Studies 19.1 (2011), pp.56-81.

[2] Kropotkin to Guillaume, 12 June 1903, quoted in Ruth Kinna, ‘Kropotkin’s Theory of Mutual Aid in Historical Context’, in International Review of Social History vol.40, no.2 (August 1995), pp.259-83 (p.279).

[3] Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992), p.57. Note that the original French has “evolution” rather than “revolution”⸺Paroles d’un révolté (Antony: TOPS, 2013), p.68.

[4] Kropotkin, ‘The Great French Revolution and its Lesson’ (1889).

[5] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution (Paris: Les Temps nouveaux, 1913), Publications des «Temps nouveaux» no.64, p.6. First published in La Révolte (1891) as ‘Etudes sur la Révolution’.

[6] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution, p.22.

[7] Bear in mind that ‘commune’ in French is an administrative term meaning the lowest level of local government, ie a village, district or town. Before 1789 such local structures had been very varied, and during the Revolutionary period a number of changes were imposed by the central government in an effort to standardise them.

[8] Daniel Guérin, La lutte de classes sous la Pemière République, 1793-1797 (Paris: Gallimard, 1946; revised edition 1968), vol.II, pp.15, 375-6.

[9] Camillo Berneri, ‘Peter Kropotkin: His Federalist Ideas’, in The Raven: An Anarchist Quarterly no.31 (Autumn 1995); abridged version available at < https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/camillo-berneri-kropotkin-his-federalist-ideas&gt;.

[10] Matt Adams discusses Kropotkin’s acknowledgement of Robespierre’s probity in an analysis of the relationship between anarchism and the idea of ‘civic virtue’: see his ‘Utopian civic virtue: Bakunin, Kropotkin, and anarchism’s republican inheritance’, in Political Research Exchange, 1:1 (2019), pp.1-27 (available here: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2474736X.2019.1668724>).

[11] Kropotkin’s admiration for Marat was, incidentally, shared by the Bolsheviks, who named a battleship and a Leningrad street after him; they also admired Robespierre, however.

[12] Daline, ‘Lénine et le jacobinisme’, p.100. Plenty has been written about the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins; the most comprehensive study is Tamara Kondratieva, Bolcheviks et jacobins: Itinéraire des analogies (Paris: Payot, 1989; 2nd edition Les Belles Lettres, 2017). See also Albert Mathiez, Révolution russe et Révolution française, edited and with a useful introduction by Yannick Bosc and Florence Gauthier (Paris: Editions Critiques, 2017).

[13] Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy (Oakland & Edinburgh: AK Press, 2018), p.366.

[14] Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy, quoted in Becker, p.229.

[15] Kropotkin, L’Idée révolutionnaire dans la Révolution. This pamphlet discusses the same failing with regard to 1848 and 1871: the paucity of new and constructive ideas contrasting with the audacity of action.

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