Kropotkin on Proudhon’s Justice

Recently I have been reading criticisms of Kropotkin’s claims that Proudhon advocated the use of labour notes, accompanied by the suggestion that he had only a superficial understanding of Proudhon’s ideas. While he may have been wrong (as were many others) to attribute the advocacy of labour notes to Proudhon, he was not ignorant of Proudhon’s work. In his last book, Ethics: Origin and Development, where he analyzed ethical conceptions from a naturalist, evolutionary point of view, he devoted the following section to Proudhon’s theory of justice, showing the connections between Proudhon’s conception of justice and Kropotkin’s own ideas regarding mutual aid and morality. Several selections by Proudhon and Kropotkin can be found in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, including excerpts from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and “Anarchist Morality.”

Proudhon on Justice

Among the socialists, Proudhon (1809–1865) approached nearer than any other the interpretation of justice as the basis of morality. Proudhon’s importance in the history of the development of ethics passes unnoticed, like the importance of Darwin in the same field. However, the historian of Ethics, Jodl, did not hesitate to place this peasant-compositor, — a self-taught man who underwent great hardships to educate himself, and who was also a thinker, and an original one, — side by side with the profound and learned philosophers who had been elaborating the theory of morality.

Of course, in advancing justice as the fundamental principle of morality, Proudhon was influenced on one side by Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Voltaire and the Encyclopædists, and by the Great French Revolution, and on the other side by German philosophy, as well as by Auguste Comte and the entire socialistic movement of the ‘forties. A few years later this movement took the form of the International Brotherhood of Workers, which put forward as one of its mottoes the masonic formula: “There are no rights without obligations; there are no obligations without rights.”

But Proudhon’s merit lies in his indicating clearly the fundamental principle following from the heritage of the Great Revolution — the conception of equity, and consequently of justice, and in showing that this conception has been always at the basis of social life, and consequently of all ethics, in spite of the fact that philosophers passed it by as if it were non-existent, or were simply unwilling to ascribe to it a predominating importance.

Already in his early work, “What is property?” Proudhon identified justice with equality (more correctly — equity), referring to the ancient definition of justice: “Justum aequale est, injustum inaequale” (The equitable is just, the inequitable — unjust). Later he repeatedly returned to this question in his works, “Contradictions économiques” and “Philosophie du Progrès”; but the complete elaboration of the great importance of this conception of justice he gave in his three-volume work, “De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Église,” which appeared in 1858.[200]

It is true that this work does not contain a strictly systematic exposition of Proudhon’s ethical views, but such views are expressed with sufficient clearness in various passages of the work. An attempt to determine to what an extent these passages are Proudhon’s own ideas, and how far they are adaptations from earlier thinkers, would be difficult and at the same time useless. I shall, therefore, simply outline their main contentions.

Proudhon regards moral teaching as a part of the general science of law; the problem of the investigator lies in determining the bases of this teaching: its essence, its origin, and its sanction, i.e., that which imparts to law and to morality an obligatory character, and that which has educational value. Moreover, Proudhon, like Comte and the encyclopædists, categorically refuses to build his philosophy of law and of morality on a religious or a metaphysical basis. It is necessary, he says, to study the life of societies and to learn from it what it is that serves society as a guiding principle.[201]

Up to this time all ethical systems were constructed more or less under the influence of religion, and not a single teaching dared to advance the equity of men and the equality of economic rights as the basis of ethics. Proudhon attempted to do this as far as was possible in the days of Napoleonic censorship, always on guard against socialism and atheism. Proudhon wished to create, as he expressed it, a philosophy of the people, based on knowledge. He regards his book, “On justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” as an attempt made in that direction. And the object of this philosophy, as of all knowledge, is foresight, so that the path of social life may be indicated before it is actually laid out.

Proudhon considers the sense of personal dignity as the true essence of justice and the fundamental principle of all morality. If this sense is developed in an individual it becomes with reference to all men — regardless of whether they are friends or enemies — a sense of human dignity. The right is an ability, inherent in all, to demand from all others that they respect human dignity in their own person; and duty is the demand that everyone should recognize this dignity in others. We cannot love everybody, but we must respect each man’s personal dignity. We cannot demand the love of others, but we unquestionably have a right to demand respect for our personality. It is impossible to build a new society on mutual love, but it can and should be built on the demand of mutual respect.

“To feel and to assert human dignity first in all that pertains to us, and then in the personality of our fellow-men, without falling into egoism, as well as not paying attention either to deity or to society — this is right. To be ready under all circumstances to rise energetically in defence of this dignity — this is justice.”

It would seem that at this point Proudhon should have declared quite definitely that a free society can be built only on equity. But he did not so declare, perhaps because of the Napoleonic censorship; in reading his “Justice” this conclusion (equity) seems almost inevitable, and in a few passages it is more than implied.

The question of the origin of the sense of justice was answered by Proudhon in the same manner as by Comte and by modern science, that it represents the product of the development of human societies.

In order to explain the origin of the moral element Proudhon endeavoured to find for morality, i.e., for justice,[202] an organic base in the psychic structure of man.[203] Justice, he says, does not come from above nor is it a product of the calculation of one’s interests, for no social order can be built on such a basis. This faculty, moreover, is something different from the natural kindness in man, the feeling of sympathy, or the instinct of sociality upon which the Positivists endeavour to base ethics. A man is possessed of a special feeling, one that is higher than the feeling of sociality, — namely, the sense of righteousness, the consciousness of the equal right of all men to a mutual regard for personality.[204]

“Thus,” Jodl remarks, “after his most vigorous protests against transcendentalism, Proudhon turns, after all, to the old heritage of intuitional ethics-conscience.” (“Geschichte der Ethik,” ch. 11, p, 267.) This remark, however, is not quite correct. Proudhon merely meant to say that the conception of justice cannot be a simple inborn tendency, because if it were it would be difficult to account for the preponderance it acquires in the struggle with other tendencies continually urging man to be unjust to others. The tendency to protect the interests of others at the expense of our own cannot be solely an inborn feeling, although its rudiments were always present in man, but these rudiments must be developed. And this feeling could develop in society only through experience, and such was actually the case.

In considering the contradictions furnished by the history of human societies, between the conception of ‘justice native to man and social injustice (supported by the ruling powers and even by the churches), Proudhon came to the conclusion that although the conception of justice is inborn in man, thousands of years had to elapse before the idea of justice entered as a fundamental conception into legislation, — at the time of the French Revolution in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”

Like Comte, Proudhon very well realized the progress that was taking place in the development of mankind and he was convinced that further progressive development would occur. Of course, he had in mind not merely the development of culture (i.e., of the material conditions of life), but mainly of civilization, enlightenment, i.e., the development of the intellectual and the spiritual organization of society, the improvement in institutions and in mutual relations among men.[205] In this progress he ascribed a great importance to idealization, to the ideals that in certain periods acquire the ascendancy over the petty daily cares, when the discrepancy between the law, understood as the highest expression of justice, and actual life as it is developed under the power of legislation, acquires the proportions of a glaring, unbearable contradiction.

In a later part of this work we shall have occasion to return to the significance of justice in the elaboration of the moral conceptions. For the present I will simply remark that no one prepared the ground for the correct understanding of this fundamental conception of all morality so well as Proudhon.[206]

The highest moral aim of man is the attaining of justice. The entire history of mankind, says Proudhon, is the history of human endeavour to attain justice in this life. All the great revolutions are nothing but the attempt to realize justice by force; and since during the revolution the means, i.e., violence, temporarily prevailed over the old form of oppression, the actual result was always a substitution of one tyranny for another. Nevertheless, the impelling motive of every revolutionary movement was always justice, and every revolution, no matter into what it later degenerated, always introduced into social life a certain degree of justice. All these partial realizations of justice will finally lead to the complete triumph of justice on earth.

Why is it that in spite of all the revolutions that have taken place, not a single nation has yet arrived at the complete attainment of justice? The principal cause of this lies in the fact that the idea of justice has not as yet penetrated into the minds of the majority of men. Originating in the mind of a separate individual, the idea of justice must become a social idea inspiring the revolution. The starting point of the idea of justice is the sense of personal dignity. In associating with others we find that this feeling becomes generalized and becomes the feeling of human dignity. A rational creature recognizes this feeling in another — friend or enemy alike — as in himself. In this, justice differs from love and from other sensations of sympathy; this is why justice is the antithesis of egoism, and why the influence which justice exerts upon us prevails over other feelings. For the same reason, in the case of a primitive man whose sense of personal dignity manifests itself in a crude way, and whose self-aimed tendencies prevail over the social, justice finds its expression in the form of supernatural prescription, and it rests upon religion. But little by little, under the influence of religion, the sense of justice (Proudhon writes simply “justice,” without defining whether he considers it a conception or a feeling ) deteriorates. Contrary to its essence this feeling becomes aristocratic, and in Christianity (and in some earlier religions) it reaches the point of humiliating mankind. Under the pretext of respect for God, respect for man is banished, and once this respect is destroyed justice succumbs, and with it society deteriorates.

Then a Revolution takes place which opens a new era for mankind. It enables justice, only vaguely apprehended before, to appear in all the purity and completeness of its fundamental idea. “Justice is absolute and unchangeable; it knows no ‘more or less’.”[207] It is remarkable, adds Proudhon, that from the time of the fall of the Bastille, in 1789, there was not a single government in France which dared openly to deny justice and to declare itself frankly counter-revolutionary. However, all governments violated justice, even the government at the time of the Terror, even Robespierre, — especially Robespierre.[208]

Proudhon pointed out, however, that we should guard against tramping upon the interests of the individual for the sake of the interests of society. True justice consists in a harmonious combination of social interest with those of the individual. Justice, thus interpreted, contains nothing mysterious or mystical. Neither is it a desire for personal gain, since I consider it my duty to demand respect for my fellow-men, as well as for myself. Justice demands respect for personal dignity even in any enemy (hence the international military code).

Since man is a being capable of progressing, justice opens the path to progress for all alike. Therefore, wrote Proudhon, justice found expression in the earliest religions, in the Mosaic law, for example, which bade us love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our might, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (in the book of “Tobit,” where we are told not to do unto others what we do not want done unto us).[209] Similar ideas were expressed by the Pythagoreans, by Epicurus, and Aristotle, and the same demand was made by non-religious philosophers like Gassendi, Hobbes, Bentham, Helvétius, etc.[210]

In short, we find that equity is everywhere considered the basis of morality, or, as Proudhon wrote: as regards the mutual personal relations — “without equality — there is no justice.”[211]

Unfortunately, all the worshippers of the ruling power, even the State — socialists, fail to notice this fundamental principle of all morality and continue to support the necessity of the inequality and non-equity inherent in the State. Nevertheless, equity became in principle the basis of all the declarations of the Great French Revolution (just as it was accepted earlier in the Declaration of Rights in the North American Republic). Already the Declaration of 1789 proclaimed that “nature made all men free and equal.” The same principle was reiterated in the Declaration of July 24, 1793.

The Revolution proclaimed individual equality, equality of political and civic rights, and also equality before the law and the courts. More than that, it created a new social economy by recognizing instead of private rights, the principle of the equivalent value of mutual service.[212]

The essence of justice is respect for our fellow-men, Proudhon constantly insisted. We know the nature of justice, he wrote; its definition can be given in the following formula:

“Respect thy neighbour as thyself, even if thou canst not love him, and do not permit that he or thyself be treated with disrespect.” “Without equality — there is no justice.” (I. 204, 206).[213]

Unfortunately, this principle has not as yet been attained either in legislation or in the courts, and certainly not in the Church.

Economics suggested one way out — the subdivision of labour in order to increase production, which increase is, of course, necessary; but it has also shown, at least through the testimony of some economists, such as Rossi, for example, that this division of labor leads to apathy among the workers and to the creation of a slave class. We thus see that the only possible way out of this situation is to be found in mutuality of service, instead of the subordination of one kind of service to another (I. 269), — and therefore in the equality of rights and possessions. This is just what was asserted by the declaration of the Convention of February 15, and July 24 of 1793, in which Freedom and the Equality of all before the law were proclaimed, and this declaration was reiterated in 1795, 1799, 1814, 1830, and 1848, (I. 270.) Justice, as Proudhon sees it, is not merely a restraining social force. He sees in it a creative force, like reason and work.[214] Then, having remarked, as Bacon had already done, that thought is born of action, and dedicating for this reason a series of excellent pages to the necessity of manual labour and of the study of trades in schools as a means of broadening our scientific education, — Proudhon proceeds to consider justice in its various applications: with respect to individuals, in the distribution of wealth, in the State, in education, and in mentality.

Proudhon had to acknowledge that the development of justice in human societies requires time: a high development of ideals and of the feeling of solidarity with all, is required, and this can be attained only through long individual and social evolution. We will return to this subject in another volume. I will only add here that all this part of Proudhon’s book, and his conclusion in which he determines wherein lies the sanction of the conception of justice, contain very many ideas stimulating to human thought. This quality of mental stimulation is characteristic of all Proudhon’s writings, and it was pointed out by Herzen and by many others.

However, in all his excellent words about justice, Proudhon did not indicate clearly enough the distinction between the two meanings given in the French language to the word “Justice.” One meaning is equality, an equation in the mathematical sense, — while the other meaning is the administering of justice, i.e., the act of judging, the decision of the court, and even the taking of the law into one’s own hands. Of course, when justice is mentioned in ethics it is interpreted only in the first sense, but Proudhon at times used the word Justice in its second sense, which circumstance leads to a certain indefiniteness. This is probably the reason why he did not try to trace the origin of this concept in man, — a problem with which, as we will see later, Littré dealt at some length.

At any rate, from the time of the appearance of Proudhon’s work, “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” it became impossible to build an ethical system without recognizing as its basis equity, the equality of all citizens in their rights. It is apparently for this reason that the attempt was made to subject this work of Proudhon’s to a unanimous silence, so that only Jodl was unafraid of compromising himself and assigned to the French revolutionist a prominent place in his history of ethics. It is true that the three volumes which Proudhon devoted to justice contain a great deal of irrelevant matter, a vast amount of polemics against the Church (the title, “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” justifies this, however, all the more because the subject under discussion is not justice in the Church, but in Christianity and in the religious moral teachings in general); they also contain two essays on woman, with which most modern writers will, of course, not agree; and finally they contain many digressions, which, though they serve a purpose, help to befog the main issue. But notwithstanding all this, we have at last in Proudhon’s work an investigation in which justice (which had been already alluded to by many thinkers who occupied themselves with the problem of morality) was assigned a proper place; in this work, at last, it is stated that justice is the recognition of equity and of the striving of men for equality, and that this is the basis of all our moral conceptions.

Ethics had for a long time been moving toward this admission. But all along it had been so bound up with religion, and in recent times with Christianity, that this recognition was not fully expressed by any of Proudhon’s predecessors.

Finally, I must point out that in Proudhon’s work, “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” there is already a hint of the threefold nature of morality. He had shown in the first volume though in a very cursory way, in a few lines, — the primary source of morality — sociality, which is observed even among the animals. And he dwelt later, toward the end of his work, on the third constituent element of all scientific, as well as of religious morality: the ideal. But he did not show where the dividing line comes between justice (which says: “give what is due,” and is thus reduced to a mathematical equation), and that which man gives to another or to all “above what is due,” without weighing what he gives or what he receives — which, to my mind, constitutes a necessary, constituent part of morality. But he already finds it necessary to complete justice by adding the ideal , i.e., the striving for idealistic actions, due to which, according to Proudhon, our very conceptions of justice are continually broadened and become more refined. And indeed, after all that mankind lived through from the time of the American and the two French Revolutions, our conceptions of justice are clearly not the same as they were at the end of the eighteenth century, when serfdom and slavery called forth no protest even from liberal moralists. We have now to consider a series of works on ethics by thinkers who take the evolutionist viewpoint and who accept Darwin’s theory of the development of all organic life, as well as of the social life of man. Here ought to be included a succession of works by modern thinkers, because almost all who wrote on ethics in the second half of the nineteenth century show evidence of the influence of the evolutionist theory of gradual development — which rapidly conquered the mind, after it was so carefully elaborated by Darwin in its application to organic nature.

Peter Kropotkin

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Kropotkin on Christmas

Kropotkin santa

Every year I usually post something by Kropotkin around December 21st (his birthday) but this year I was a bit too busy. Someone else beat me to reposting this article by Ruth Kinna about Kropotkin’s views regarding Christmas and Santa Claus, which reminded me to do so as well. Is the true spirit of Christmas the Spirit of Revolt?

The Christmas Spirit of Revolt

The Christmas Spirit of Revolt

An Anarchist Guide to Christmas

It’s no surprise to discover that anarchist theorist Pyotr Kropotkin was interested in Christmas. In Russian culture, St. Nicholas (Николай Чудотворец) was revered as a defender of the oppressed, the weak and the disadvantaged. Kropotkin shared the sentiments. But there was also a family link. As everyone knows, Kropotkin could trace his ancestry to the ancient Rurik dynasty that ruled Russia before the upstart Romanovs and which, from the first century CE, controlled the trade routes between Moscow and the Byzantine Empire. Nicholas’s branch of the family had been sent out to patrol the Black Sea. But Nicholas was a spiritual man and sought an escape from the piracy and brigandage for which his Russian Viking family was famed. So he settled under a new name in the southern lands of the Empire, now Greece, and decided to use the wealth that he had amassed from his life of crime to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

Unpublished archival sources recently discovered in Moscow reveal that Kropotkin was fascinated by this family tie and the striking physical similarity between himself and the figure of Father Christmas, popularised by the publication of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ (better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in 1823.

Kropotkin was not quite so portly as Klaus, but with a cushion stuffed up his tunic, he felt he could pass. His friend Elisée Reclus advised him to drop the fur trim on the outfit. That was a good idea as it would also allow him to wear a bit more black with the red. He’d decided to follow Elisée’s advice on the reindeer, too, and to use a hand driven sleigh. Kropotkin wasn’t normally given to dressing up. But exploiting the resemblance to spread the anarchist message was excellent propaganda by the deed.

Anticipating V, Kropotkin thought that we could all pose as Santa Claus. On the edge of one page Kropotkin writes: “Infiltrate the stores, give away the toys!”

Faint remnants on the back of a postcard read:

On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.

His project notes also reveal some valuable insights into his ideas about the anarchistic features of Christmas and his thinking about the ways in which Victorian Christmas rituals might be adapted.

“We all know”, he wrote, “that the big stores – John Lewis, Harrods and Selfridges – are beginning to exploit the sales potential of Christmas, establishing magic caves, grottos and fantastic fairylands to lure our children and pressurise us to buy gifts that we do not want and cannot afford”.

“If you are one of us”, he continued, “you will realise that the magic of Christmas depends on Father Christmas’s system of production, not the stores’ attempts to seduce you to consume useless luxuries”. Kropotkin described the sprawling workshops at the North Pole, where elves worked all year, happily because they knew that they were producing for other peoples’ pleasure. Noting that these workshops were strictly not-for profit, craft-based and run on communal lines, Kropotkin treated them as prototypes for the factories of the future (outlined in Fields, Factories and Workshops).

Some people, he felt, thought that Father Christmas’s dream to see that everyone received gifts on Christmas day, was quixotic. But it could be realised. Indeed, the extension of the workshops – which were quite expensive to run in the Arctic – would facilitate generalised production for need and the transformation of occasional gift-giving into regular sharing. “We need to tell the people”, Kropotkin wrote, “that community workshops can be set up anywhere and that we can pool our resources to make sure that everybody has their needs met”!

Kropotkin santa B & W

One of the issues that most bothered Kropotkin about Christmas was the way in which the inspirational role that Nicholas’s had played in conjuring Christmas myths had confused the ethics of Christmas. Nicholas was wrongly represented as a charitable, benevolent man: saintly because he was beneficent. Absorbed in the figure of Father Christmas, Nicholas’s motivations for giving had become further skewed by the Victorian’s fixation with children.

Kropotkin didn’t really understand the links, but felt that it reflected an attempt to moralise childhood through a concept of purity that was symbolised in the birth of Jesus. Naturally he couldn’t imagine the creation of the Big Brother Santa Claus who knows when children are asleep and awake and comes to town apparently knowing which have dared to cry or pout.

But sooner or later, he warned, this idea of purity would be used to distinguish naughty from nice children and only those in the latter group would be rewarded with presents.

Whatever the case, it was important both to recover the principle of Nicholas’ compassion from this confusing mumbo-jumbo and the folkloric origins of Santa Claus. Nicholas gave because he was pained by his awareness of other peoples’ hardship. Though he wasn’t an assassin (as far as Kropotkin knew), he shared the same ethics as Sofia Petrovskaya. And while it was obviously important to worry about the well-being of children, the anarchist principle was to take account of everyone’s suffering.

Similarly, the practice of giving was mistakenly thought to require the implementation of a centrally-directed plan, overseen by an omniscient administrator. This was quite wrong: Father Christmas came from the imagination of the people (just consider the range of local names that Nicholas had accrued – Sinterklaas, Tomte, de Kerstman). And the spreading of good cheer – through festivity – was organised from the bottom up.

Buried in Christmas, Kropotkin argued, was the solidaristic principle of mutual aid.

Kropotkin appreciated the significance of the ritual and the real value that individuals and communities attached to carnivals, acts of remembrance and commemoration. He no more wanted to abolish Christmas than he wished to see it republicanised through some wrong-headed bureaucratic re-ordering of the calendar.

It was important, nonetheless, to detach the ethic that Christmas supported from the singularity of its celebration. Having a party was just that: extending the principle of mutual aid and compassion into everyday life was something else. In capitalist society, Christmas provided a space for special good behaviours. While it might be possible to be a Christian once a year, anarchism was for life.

Kropotkin realised his propaganda would have the best chance of success if he could show how the anarchist message was also embedded in mainstream culture. His notes reveal that he looked particularly to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to find a vehicle for his ideas. The book was widely credited with cementing ideas of love, merriment and goodwill in Christmas. Kropotkin found the genius of the book in its structure. What else was the story of Scrooge’s encounter with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future than a prefigurative account of change?

By seeing his present through his past, Scrooge was given the chance to alter his miserly ways and re-shape both his future and the future of the Cratchit family. Even if it was only remembered once a year, Kropotkin thought, Dickens’s book lent anarchists a perfect vehicle to teach this lesson: by altering what we do today, by modelling our behaviours on Nicholas, we can help construct a future which is Christmas!

Ruth Kinna is the editor of the journal Anarchist Studies and professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University. She is the author of Anarchism: A Beginners Guide and also William Morris: The Art of Socialism. This article was originally published by STRIKE! magazine.

Peter-Kroptkin birthday

Evolution and Revolution

evolution-revolution

Continuing my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, today I summarize anarchist views on evolution, revolution, Darwinism and their opposition to the reactionary and racist uses to which 19th century science was put. One of the founders of “criminology,” Cesare Lombroso, claimed that anarchists were defective human beings, a throw back to an earlier stage of evolution. Unsurprisingly, as I pointed out in my previous post on science and technology, anarchists were not uncritical supporters of scientific views. Anarchists in the 20th century faced even more extreme racist doctrines, particularly in Nazi Germany. The Italian anarchist activist, Camillo Berneri, was among the first to denounce the racist ideology and policies of the Nazis.

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus

Evolution and Revolution

The anarchist communist revolutionary Peter Kropotkin noted in Modern Science and Anarchism that among the scientific works that appeared in the mid-19th century, “there was none which exercised so deep an influence as The Origins of Species, by Charles Darwin.” What Darwin demonstrated, Kropotkin argued, was that “man… was the product of a slow physiological evolution; that he drew his origin from a species of animals which gave birth both to man and the now-living apes and monkeys; that the ‘immortal mind’ and the ‘moral sense’ of man had developed in the same way as the intelligence and the social instincts of a chimpanzee or an ant.”

While anarchists welcomed Darwin’s ideas regarding evolution because they undermined the authority of religion by discrediting notions of divine creation and design, they also had to contend with the apologists of a rapacious capitalism, the “Social Darwinists,” who used Darwin’s notion of “the struggle for existence” to attack egalitarianism and to argue against social reform in general. As Kropotkin put it, there was “no infamy in civilized society, or in the relations of the whites towards the so-called lower races, or of the strong towards the weak, which would not have found its excuse in this formula.”

To combat the ideas of the Social Darwinists, Kropotkin wrote a series of essays, later published as Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), in which he sought to demonstrate “the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and in the progressive evolution of both the animal species and human beings.” It is from these practices of mutual aid, Kropotkin argued, that moral feelings are developed, leading him to conclude that “in the ethical progress of man, mutual support—not mutual struggle—has had the leading part” (Volume One, Selection 54). Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid and his critique of Social Darwinism was very influential in anarchist circles, not only in Europe but also in Latin America and Asia.

Some opponents of revolutionary change argued that the notion of “progressive evolution” was inconsistent with the anarchist commitment to social revolution. As Elisée Reclus observed in 1891, the “word Evolution, synonymous with gradual and continuous development in morals and ideas, is brought forward in certain circles as though it were the antithesis of that fearful word, Revolution, which implies changes more or less sudden in their action… entailing some sort of catastrophe.” It was Reclus, not Kropotkin, who first developed the idea that revolutionary upheavals are part of a natural evolutionary process, an accelerated period of evolutionary change, such that revolution and evolution “are fundamentally one and the same thing, differing only according to the time of their appearance.” Turning Social Darwinism on its head, he argued that as “powerful as may be the Master,” and the “privileged classes” in general, they “will be weak before the starving masses leagued against” them. “To the great evolution now taking place will succeed the long expected, the great revolution” (Volume One, Selection 74). This was a common theme among late 19th and early 20th century anarchists, including anarchists in Japan (Volume One, Selection 102) and China (Volume One, Selections 97, 100 & 102).

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Against Racism

Anarchist supporters of science also had to contend with the development of a racist ethnology, purportedly based on scientific theory and research, which was used to justify colonial exploitation and war against the so-called “inferior” races. In his 1904 essay, ironically entitled “Our Indians,” the Peruvian anarchist intellectual, Manuel González Prada (1848-1919), marveled at what “a handy invention” ethnology was in the hands of those who seek to justify white domination: “Once one has accepted that Mankind is divided into superior and inferior races and acknowledged the white man’s superiority and thus his right to sole governance of the Planet, there cannot be anything more natural than suppression of the black man in Africa, the redskin in the United States, the Tagalog in the Philippines and the Indian in Peru” (Volume One, Selection 91).

While González Prada questioned the “science” behind racist doctrines, pointing out that there “is such a mish-mash of blood and colouring, every individual represents so many licit or illicit dalliances, that when faced by many a Peruvian we would be baffled as to the contribution of the black man or the yellow man to their make-up: none deserves the description of pure-bred white man, even if he has blue eyes and blond hair,” he argued that rather than “going around the world spreading the light of [European] art and science, better to go around dispensing the milk of human kindness,” for “where the ‘struggle for existence’ is enunciated as the rule of society, barbarism rules.” González Prada agreed with Kropotkin that the true mark of progress and civilization is the degree to which practices and institutions of mutual aid are spread throughout society, such that “doing good has graduated from being an obligation to being a habit” (Volume One, Selection 91).

Robert Graham

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Godwin & Proudhon: Against Malthusianism

William Godwin (1756-1836) was the author of perhaps the first systematic exposition of anarchist ideas, An Enquiry Concerning Poltitical Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793; excerpts are reprinted in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Selection 4). Published at the height of the French Revolution, Godwin’s book was at first well received and very influential. But with England declaring war on revolutionary France, Godwin was caught up in the growing tide of reaction, becoming the target of a widespread campaign of vilification and abuse. One of his critics was Thomas Malthus, who in his 1798 essay, “On the Principle of Population,” argued that Godwin’s ideas were impossibly utopian and contrary to nature, such that any attempt to implement them would simply make matters worse. Malthus asserted, without any evidence in support, that population increases geometrically, while food production can only increase arithmetically, such that it was impossible to overcome poverty and starvation among the lower classes. Malthus’ ideas became accepted truisms among those opposed to any meaningful social change, and would later inspire the Victorian era Social Darwinists, who also argued against social reform on the specious pretext that “nature” should be allowed to take its course. This ideological misuse of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was later subjected to a thoroughgoing critique by Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), the renowned anarchist communist, in his book, Mutual Aid (1902).

Godwin responded to Malthus, pointing out that the amelioration of poverty generally reduces population growth, and that food production can be increased by a variety of means in order to meet the needs of an increasing population. The following excerpts are taken from Peter Marshall’s The Anarchist Writings of William Godwin (London: Freedom Press, 1986), pp. 136-139:

There is a principle in the nature of human society by means of which everything seems to tend to its level, and to proceed in the most auspicious way, when least interfered with by the mode of regulation. In a certain stage of the social progress, population seems rapidly to increase… In a subsequent stage, it undergoes little change, either in the way of increase or diminution; this is the case in the more civilized countries of Europe. The number of inhabitants in a country will perhaps never be found in the ordinary course of affairs greatly to increase beyond the facility of subsistence.
Nothing is more easy than to account for this circumstance. So long as there is a facility of subsistence, men will be encouraged to early marriages, and to a careful rearing of their children… In many European countries, on the other hand, a large family has become a proverbial expression for an uncommon degree of poverty and wretchedness. The price of labour in any state, so long as the spirit of accumulation shall prevail, is an infallible barometer of the state of its population. It is impossible where the price of labour is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens a still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.
There are various methods by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients… by the art of procuring abortion… by a promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, which is found extremely hostile to the multiplication of the species; or, lastly, by a systematical abstinence, such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex. But, without any express institution of this kind, the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.
Supposing however that population were not thus adapted to find its own level, it is obvious to remark upon the objection of this chapter that to reason thus is to foresee difficulties at a great distance. Three fourths of the habitable globe are now uncultivated. The improvements to be made in cultivation, and the augmentations the earth is capable of receiving in the article of productiveness, cannot, as yet, be reduced to any limits of calculation. Myriads of centuries of still increasing population may pass away, and the earth be yet found sufficient for the support of its inhabitants. It were idle therefore to conceive discouragement from so distant a contingency.
Let us apply these remarks to the condition of society… in which a great degree of equality and an ardent spirit of benevolence are assumed to prevail. We have found that, in the community in which we live, one of the great operative checks upon an increasing population arises from virtue, prudence or pride. Will there be less of virtue, prudence and honourable pride in such a condition of society, than there is at present? It is true, the ill consequences of a numerous family will not come so coarsely home to each man’s individual interest, as they do at present. It is true, a man in such a state of society might say, ‘if my children cannot subsist at my expense, let them subsist at the expense of my neighbour’. But it is not in the human character to reason after this manner in such a situation. The more men are raised above poverty and a life of expedients, the more decency will prevail in their conduct, and sobriety in their sentiments. Where everyone has a character, no one will be willing to distinguish himself by headstrong imprudence. Where a man possesses every reasonable means of pleasure and happiness, he will not be in a hurry to destroy his own tranquility or that of others by thoughtless excess.
If I look to the past history of the world, I do not see that increasing population has produced such convulsions as he [Malthus] predicts from it, or that vice and misery alone have controlled and confined it; and, if I look to the future, I cannot so despair of the virtues of man to submit to the most obvious rules of prudence, or of the faculties of man to strike out remedies as yet unknown, as to convince me that we ought to sit down forever contented with all oppression, abuses and inequality, which we now find fastened on the necks, and withering the hearts, of so great a portion of our species.
I have endeavoured to show: 1) that we have no authentic documents to prove any increase in the numbers of mankind, and that, if there is any tendency to increase, exclusively of the counteracting causes that are to be traced in the annals of history, which is by no means certain, that tendency is of the most moderate description; 2) that the counteracting causes are neither constant nor regular in their operation, and have nothing in them of an occult and mysterious nature; and 3) that the means which the earth affords for the subsistence of man are subject to no assignable limits, and that the nourishment of human beings in civilized society can never, unless in the case of seasons peculiarly unfavourable, sustain any other difficulty, till the whole globe has been raised to a very high degree of cultivation, except such as arises from political institutions.

By the 1840s, Malthus’ ideas, and the related doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, were seized upon by reactionaries of all hues to combat the spread of socialist doctrines.  During the 1848 Revolution in France, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the self-proclaimed anarchist and socialist, argued against the “Malthusians” that it was property and privilege, protected and maintained by the force of law, that were the causes of poverty and inequality, not a parsimonious, blind and merciless nature.

The following essay, “The Malthusians,” was published by Proudhon in August 1848, just weeks after the French military had savagely repressed the June 23, 1848 working class uprising protesting the workers’ impoverished circumstances. Almost alone in the National Assembly, Proudhon came to the defence of the workers, calling on the National Guard to take the side of the workers, and for immediate debt relief, with the ultimate aim of abolishing property in favour of possession of the necessary means of support and the full product of one’s labour. When Proudhon told the Assembly that the proprietors woud be responsible for the consequences of their refusal to accept such proposals, and was challenged to explain himself, he responded that “in the case of refusal we ourselves shall proceed to the liquidation without you.” When asked whom he meant by “we” and “you,” he said it was evident that he “was identifying myself with the proletariat, and you with the bourgeois class,” to shouts from the reactionaries that “It is the social war!” and “the 23rd of June at the tribune!” This translation by Benjamin Tucker was originally published in Henry Seymour’s The Anarchist, and later reprinted as a pamphlet (London: International Publishing, 1886).

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: The Malthusians

Dr. Malthus, an economist, an Englishman, once wrote the following words:
“A man who is born into a world already occupied, his family unable to support him, and society not requiring his labour, such a man, I say, has not the least right to claim any nourishment whatever; he is really one too many on the earth. At the great banquet of Nature there is no plate laid for him. Nature commands him to take himself away, and she will not be slow to put her order into execution.”
As a consequence of this great principle, Malthus recommends with the most terrible threats, every man who has neither labour nor income upon which to live to take himself away, or at any rate, to have no more children. A family —that is, love — like bread, is forbidden such a man by Malthus.
Dr. Malthus was, while living, a minister of the Holy Gospel, a mild-mannered philanthropist, a good husband, a good father, a good citizen, believing in God as firmly as any man in France. He died (heaven grant him peace) in 1834. It may be said that he was the first, without doubt, to reduce to absurdity all political economy, and state the great revolutionary question, the question between labour and capital. With us, whose faith in Providence still lives, in spite of the century’s indifference, it is proverbial—and herein consists the difference between the English and ourselves—that “everybody must live.” And our people, in saying this, think themselves as truly Christian, as conservative of good morals and the family, as the late Malthus.
Now, what the people say in France, the economists deny; the lawyers and the littérateurs deny; the Church, which pretends to be Christian, and also Gallican, denies; the Press denies; the large proprietors deny; the government, which endeavours to represent them, denies.
The Press, the government, the Church, literature, economy, wealth—everything in France has become English; everything is Malthusian. It is in the name of God and his holy providence, in the name of morality, in the name of the sacred interests of the family, that they maintain that there is not room in the country for all the children of the country, and that they warn our women to be less prolific. In France, in spite of the desire of the people, in spite of the national belief, eating and drinking are regarded as privileges, labour a privilege, family a privilege, country a privilege.
Mr. Antony Thouret said recently that property, without which there is neither country, nor family, nor labour, nor morality, would be irreproachable as soon as it should cease to be a privilege; a clear statement of the fact that, to abolish all the privileges which, so to speak, exclude a portion of the people from the law, from humanity, we must abolish, first of all, the fundamental privilege, and change the constitution of property.
Mr. A. Thouret in saying that, agreed with us and with the people. The State, the Press, political economy, do not view the matter in that light; they agree in the hope that property, without which, as Mr. Thouret says, there is no labour, no family, no Republic, may remain what it always has been—a privilege.
All that has been done, said, and printed today and for the last twenty years, has been done, said and printed in consequence of the theory of Malthus.
The theory of Malthus is the theory of political murder; of murder from motives of philanthropy and for love of God. There are too many people in the world; that is the first article of faith of all those who, at present, in the name of the people, reign and govern. It is for this reason that they use their best efforts to diminish the population. Those who best acquit themselves of this duty, who practice with piety, courage and fraternity the maxims of Malthus, are good citizens, religious men; those who protest against such conduct are anarchists, socialists, atheists.
That the Revolution of February [1848] was the result of this protest constitutes its inexpiable crime. Consequently it shall be taught its business, this Revolution which promised that all should live. The original, indelible stain on the Republic is that the people have pronounced it anti-Malthusian. That is why the Republic is so especially obnoxious to those who were and would become again the toadies and accomplices of kings— grand eaters of men, as Cato called them. They would make a monarchy of your Republic; they would devour its children.
There lies the whole secret of the sufferings, the agitations and the contradictions of our country.
The economists are the first among us, by an inconceivable blasphemy, to establish as a providentia1 dogma, the theory of Malthus. I do not reproach them; neither do I abuse them. On this point the economists act in good faith and from the best intentions in the world. They would ask nothing better than to make the human race happy; but they cannot conceive how, without some sort of an organization of homicide, a balance between population and production can exist.
Ask the Academy of Moral Sciences. One of its most honourable members, whose name I will not call—though he is proud of his opinions, as every honest man should be—being the prefect of I know not which department, saw fit one day, in a proclamation, to advise those within his province to have thenceforth fewer children by their wives. Great was the scandal among the priests and gossips, who looked upon this academic morality as the morality of swine! The savant of whom I speak was nonetheless, like all his fellows, a zealous defender of the family and of morality; but, he observed with Malthus, at the banquet of a Nature there is not room for all.
Mr. Thiers, also a member of the Academy of Moral Sciences, lately told the committee on finance [in the National Assembly] that, if he were minister, he would confine himself to courageously and stoically passing through the crisis, devoting himself to the expenses of his budget, enforcing a respect for order, and carefully guarding against every financial innovation, every socialistic idea—especially such as the right to labour— as well as every revolutionary expedient. And the whole committee applauded him.
In giving this declaration of the celebrated historian and statesman, I have no desire to accuse his intentions. In the present state of the public mind, I should succeed only in serving the ambition of Mr. Thiers, if he has any left. What I wish to call attention to is that Mr. Thiers, in expressing himself in this way, testified, perhaps unconsciously, to his faith in Malthus.
Mark this well, I pray you. There are two million, four million men who will die of misery and hunger, if some means be not found of giving them work. This is a great misfortune, surely, and we are the first to lament it, the Malthusians tell you; but what is to be done? It is better that four million men should die than that privilege should be compromised; it is not the fault of capital, if labour is idle: at the banquet of credit there is not room for all.
They are courageous, they are stoical, these statesmen of the school of Malthus, when it is a matter of sacrificing labourers by the millions. Thou hast killed the poor man, said the prophet Elias to the king of Israel, and then thou hast taken away his inheritance. Occidisti et possedisti. Today we must reverse the phrase, and say to those who possess and govern: You have the privilege of labour, the privilege of credit, the privilege of property, as Mr. Thouret says; and it is because you do not wish to be deprived of these privileges that you shed the blood of the poor like water: Possedisti et occidisti!
And the people, under the pressure of bayonets, are being eaten slowly; they die without a sigh or a murmur; the sacrifice is effected in silence. Courage, labourers! sustain each other: Providence will finally conquer fate. Courage! the condition of your fathers, the soldiers of the republic, at the sieges of Gênes and Mayence, was even worse than yours.
Mr. Léon Faucher, in contending that journals should be forced to furnish securities and in favouring the maintenance of taxes on the press, reasoned also after the manner of Malthus. The serious journal, said he, the journal that deserves consideration and esteem, is that which is established on a capital of from four to five hundred thousand francs. The journalist who has only his pen is like the workman who has only his arms. If he can find no market for his services or get no credit with which to carry on his enterprise, it is a sign that public opinion is against him; he has not the least right to address the country: at the banquet of public life there is not room for all.
Listen to Lacordaire, that light of the Church, that chosen vessel of Catholicism. He will tell you that socialism is antichrist. And why is socialism antichrist? Because socialism is the enemy of Malthus, whereas Catholicism, by a final transformation, has become Malthusian.
The gospel tells us, cries the priest, that there will always be poor people, Pauperes semper habebitis vobiseum; and that property, consequently, insofar as it is a privilege and makes poor people, is sacred. Poverty is necessary to the exercise of evangelical piety: at the banquet of this world below there cannot be room for all.
He feigns ignorance, the infidel, of the fact that poverty in Biblical language signified every sort of affliction and pain, not hard times and the condition of the proletarian. And how could he who went up and down Judaea crying, Woe to the rich! be understood differently? In the thought of Jesus Christ, woe to the rich meant woe to the Malthusians.
If Christ were living today, he would say to Lacordaire and his companions: “You are of the race of those who, in all ages, have shed the blood of the just, from Abel unto Zacharias. Your law is not my law; your God is not my God!” And the Lacordaires would crucify Christ as a seditious person and an atheist.
Almost the whole of journalism is infected with the same ideas. Let Le National, for example, tell us whether it has not always believed, whether it does not still believe, that pauperism is a permanent element of civilization; that the enslavement of one portion of humanity is necessary to the glory of another; that those who maintain the contrary are dangerous dreamers who deserve to be shot; that such is the basis of the State. For, if this is not the secret thought of Le National, if Le National sincerely and resolutely desires the emancipation of labourers, why these anathemas against, why this anger with, the genuine socialists—those who, for ten and twenty years, have demanded this emancipation?
Further, let the Bohemians of literature, today the myrmidons of journalism, paid slanderers, courtiers of the privileged classes, eulogists of all the vices, parasites living upon other parasites, who prate so much of God only to dissemble their materialism, of the family only to conceal their adulteries, and whom we shall see, out of disgust for marriage, caressing monkeys when Malthusian women fail—let these, I say, publish their economic creed, in order that the people may know them.
Faites des filles, nous les aimons—beget girls, we love them—sing these wretches, parodying the poet. But abstain from begetting boys: at the banquet of sensualism there is not room for all.
The government was inspired by Malthus when, having a hundred thousand labourers at its disposal, to whom it gave gratuitous support [in the national workshops], it refused to employ them at useful labour, and when, after the civil war [the June 1848 working class uprising], it asked that a law be passed for their transportation [to French penal colonies]. With the expenses of the pretended national workshops, with the costs of war, lawsuits, imprisonment, and transportation, it might have given the insurgents six months’ labour, and thus changed our whole economic system. But labour is a monopoly; the government does not wish revolutionary industry to compete with privileged industry: at the workbench of the nation there is not room for all.
Large industrial establishments ruin small ones; that is the law of capital, that is Malthus.
Wholesale trade gradually swallows the retail; again Malthus.
Large estates encroach upon and consolidate the smallest possessions; still Malthus.
Soon one half of the people will say to the other:
The earth and its products are my property.
Industry and its products are my property.
Commerce and transportation are my property.
The State is my property.
You who possess neither reserves nor property, who hold no public offices and whose labour is useless to us, TAKE YOURSELVES AWAY! You have really no business on the earth: beneath the sunshine of the Republic there is not room for all.
Who will tell me that the right to labour and to live is not the whole of the Revolution?
Who will tell me that the principle of Malthus is not the whole of the Counter-Revolution?
And it is for having published such things as these—for having exposed the evil boldly and sought the remedy in good faith, that speech has been forbidden me by the government, the government that represents the Revolution!
That is why I have been deluged with the slanders, treacheries, cowardice, hypocrisy, outrages, desertions, and failings of all those who hate or love the people! That is why I have been given over, for a whole month, to the mercy of the jackals of the press and the screech-owls of the platform! Never was a man, either in the past or in the present, the object of so much execration as I have become, for the simple reason that I wage war upon cannibals.
To slander one who could not reply was to shoot a prisoner. Malthusian carnivora, I discover you there! Go on, then; we have more than one account to settle yet. And, if calumny is not sufficient for you, use iron and lead. You may kill me; no one can avoid his fate, and I am at your discretion. But you shall not conquer me; you shall never persuade the people, while I live and hold a pen, that, with the exception of yourselves, there is one too many on the earth. I swear it before the people and in the name of the Republic!

August 11, 1848