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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Kropotkin Conference February 5 – 8, 2021

An ambitious online conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kropotkin’s death begins this Friday, continuing through the weekend to some special commemorative events on Monday, February 8, 2021. Here is the link to the conference webpage: https://kropotkinnow2021.wordpress.com/

New Book about Kropotkin

It’s that time of year again – yes – Kropotkin’s birthday (December 21, 1842 on the modern calendar). To mark the occasion, I thought I would mention that Richard Morgan has recently published an interesting book about Kropotkin’s anarchism, The Making of Kropotkin’s Anarchist Thought: Disease, Degeneration, Health and the Bio-political Dimension. The book has been issued as part of the BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. With Richard Morgan’s permission, here is a brief synopsis and introduction to the book. For more on Kropotkin’s revolutionary anarchism, visit my Kropotkin webpage and check out Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939).

Happy Birthday Peter!

The Making of Kropotkin’s Anarchist Thought

This book argues that the Russian thinker Petr Kropotkin’s anarchism was a bio-political revolutionary project. It shows how Kropotkin drew on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European and Russian bio-social-medical scientific thought to the extent that ideas about health, sickness, insanity, degeneration, and hygiene were for him not metaphors but rather key political concerns. It goes on to discuss how for Kropotkin’s bio-political anarchism, the state, capitalism, and revolution were medical concerns whose effects on the individual and society were measurable by social statistics and explainable by bio-social-medical knowledge. Overall, the book provides a refreshing, innovative approach to understanding Kropotkin’s anarchism.

As a site of intersection between revolutionary politics and science, Kropotkin’s thought represents a new development in the tradition of anarchist political philosophy. Although his diagnoses of humanity’s problems were distinctly anarchist – emphasising the threat of the modern state and capitalism – the ways in which he thought about these threats and the means by which he tried to expose their dangers were transformed by scientific ideas. His remedies to these problems were also transformed by science. He offered typical anarchist visions of revolution and far-reaching social change as political solutions, yet they were intended to bring about effects and consequences that made sense to and were measurable in relation to forms of scientific knowledge. With its transformed forms of diagnosis and remedy, Kropotkin’s scientised brand of anarchism provided the tradition with new and different approaches to the individual and society, to ideas about power, moral corruption, order, and the dissemination of knowledge.

Two events that occurred around the time of Kropotkin’s birth in 1842 introduce the central themes of this book – anarchist politics and science – and illustrate how they came together in his thought. First, in his book What Is Property? [1840], Proudhon declared himself to be an anarchist. This is the first known instance of a political thinker willingly adopting the title. Before, particularly during the French Revolution, it had been used as a term of negative criticism and abuse levelled at ‘unruly’ political adversaries. Second, in the year of Kropotkin’s birth, English social reformer Edwin Chadwick published his study An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain [1842]. As the title indicates, Chadwick’s work was an investigation into the state of public health, a biological assessment of a political territory’s population that stretched ‘from one end of the island to the other’.

These episodes mark two important developments within nineteenth-century political and scientific thought that became interwoven strands of Kropotkin’s life as a writer and thinker. The possibilities for thought represented by these seemingly unconnected events – both understanding that the term ‘anarchist’ could positively identify the creative ambitions of a political thinker and perceiving threats to political populations biologically – became intimately connected currents of Kropotkin’s ideas. Each typified new ways of looking at the world that together, interdependently, developed into crucial features of his worldview.

Proudhon’s self-definition as an anarchist brought into being the idea of anarchism as a non-maligned form of political philosophy, establishing a new, positive political identity to which Kropotkin would later subscribe. In relating anarchism with order, Proudhon engendered the possibility for it to be associated with creative as well as destructive political ambitions. Kropotkin grew up in a world where it was possible to conceive of the word ‘anarchist’ as a vocation, a calling that implied a desire not only to condemn socio-economic and political regimes but also to pursue society’s transformation.

This book will argue that what Kropotkin hoped to achieve politically as an anarchist – diagnosing and solving social problems – was representative of the trend in nineteenth-century social and scientific thought depicted by Chadwick’s inquiry. His anarchist exposé of the dangers facing humanity had a key bio-political dimension – that is, an intersectional concern with the biological impact of political and social environments on individuals and society and with the political and social implications of their biological states and conditions. Like Chadwick, he was concerned with identifying the threat of disease to human populations, connecting bodily experiences to wider processes of industrialisation and urbanisation. With the support of expert knowledge, evidence, facts, and data, Kropotkin believed his political diagnoses to be accurate and exact. He was confident that his anarchist politics could scientifically measure the biological threats facing individuals and society. And in accordance with his biological diagnoses of social problems, Kropotkin’s political solutions had a medical focus. His remedies sought to literally heal society with the application of bio-political knowledge and technologies.

Richard Morgan

Merry Winter Solstice!

Kropotkin: Against the State

Kropotkin Words of a Rebel Black Rose

This February marks the 99th anniversary of the death of Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). Kropotkin’s funeral was the last anarchist mass demonstration of the Russian Revolution, which was coming to a close as the Bolsheviks consolidated their dictatorship. Today I reprint excerpts from Kropotkin’s article, “The Breakdown of the State,” which was included in his collection of essays, Words of a Rebel. This is from the George Woodcock translation published by Black Rose Books. Iain McKay is working on a new translation of Words of a Rebel, to be published by PM Press. Sadly, much of what Kropotkin wrote remains true today. The modern state remains in a condition of permanent crisis, which is then used to bolster its supports.

Kropotkin-Quote-In-existing-States-a-fresh-law-is-looked

The Breakdown of the State

Today the State takes upon itself to meddle in all the areas of our lives. From the cradle to the grave, it hugs us in its arms. Sometimes as the central government, sometimes as the provincial or cantonal government, and sometimes even as the communal or municipal government, it follows our every step, it appears at every turning of the road, it taxes, harasses and restrains us.

It legislates on all our actions. It accumulates mountains of laws and ordinances among which even the shrewdest of lawyers can no longer find his way. Every day it devises new cogwheels to be fitted into the worn out old engine, and it ends up having created a machine so complicated, so misbegotten and so obstructive that it repels even those who attempt to keep it going.

The State creates an army of employees like light-fingered spiders, who know the world only through the murky windows of their offices or through their documents written in absurd jargons; it is a black band with only one religion, that of money, only one care, that of attaching oneself to any party, black, purple, or white, so long as it guarantees a maximum of appointments with a minimum of work.

The results we know only too well. Is there a single branch of the State’s activity that does not arouse revolution in those unfortunate enough to have dealings with it? Is there a single direction in which the State, after centuries of existence and of patchy renovation, has not shown its complete incompetence?

The vast and ever growing sums of money which the States appropriate from the people are never sufficient. The State always exists at the expense of future generations; it accumulates debt and everywhere it approaches bankruptcy. The public debts of the European States have already reached the vast, almost incredible figure of more than five milliards, i.e. five hundred million francs! If all the receipts of the various States were employed to the last penny just to pay off these debts, it could hardly be done in fifteen years. But, far from diminishing, the debts grow from day to day, for it is in the nature of things that the needs of States are always in excess of their means. Inevitably the State seeks to extend its jurisdiction; every party in power is obliged to create new employment for its supporters. It is an irrevocable process.

Thus the deficits and public debts continue and will continue, always growing, even in times of peace. But as soon as a war begins, however small, the debts of the States increase at an alarming rate. There is no ending; it is impossible to find our way out of this labyrinth.

The States of the world are heading full steam for ruin and bankruptcy; and the day is not distant when the people, tired of paying four milliards of interest each year to the bankers, will declare the failure of State governments and send the bankers to dig the soil if they are hungry.

Say “State” and you say “war.” The State strives and must strive to be strong, and stronger than its neighbours; if it is not so, it will become a plaything in their hands. Of necessity it seeks to weaken and impoverish other States so that it can impose on them its laws, its policies, its commercial treaties, and grow rich at their expense. The struggle for preponderance, which is the basis of economic bourgeois organization, is also the basis of political organization. This is why war has now become the normal condition of Europe. Prusso-Danish, Prusso-Austrian, Franco-Prussian wars, war in the East, war in Afghanistan follow each other without a pause. New wars are in preparation; Russia, Prussia, England, Denmark, all are ready to unleash their armies. And at any moment they will be at each other’s throats. There are enough excuses for wars to keep the world busy for another thirty years.

But war means unemployment, economic crisis, growing taxes, accumulating debts. More than that, war deals a mortal blow to the State itself. After each war, the peoples realize that the States involved have shown their incompetence, even in the tasks by which they justify their existence; they are hardly capable of organizing the defence of their own territory, and even victory threatens their survival. Only look at the fermentation of ideas that emerged from the war of 1871, as much in Germany as in France; only observe the discontent aroused in Russia by the war in the Far East.

Wars and armaments are the death of the State; they accelerate its moral and economic failure. Just one or two great wars will give the final blow to these decrepit machines.

But parallel to war outside is war within.

Accepted originally by the people as a means of defending all men and women, and above all of protecting the weak against the strong, the State today has become the fortress of the rich against the exploited, of the employer against the proletarian.

Of what use in fact is this great machine that we call the State? Is it to hinder the exploitation of the worker by the capitalist, of the peasant by the landlord? Is it to assure us work? To protect us from the loan-shark? To give us sustenance when the woman has only water to pacify the child who weeps at her dried-out breast?

No, a thousand times no! The State is there to protect exploitation, speculation and private property; it is itself the by-product of the-rapine of the people. The proletarian must rely on his own hands; he can expect nothing of the State. It is nothing more than an organization devised to hinder emancipation at all costs.

Everything in the State is loaded in favour of the idle proprietor, everything against the working proletarian: bourgeois education, which from an early age corrupts the child by inculcating anti-egalitarian principles; the Church which disturbs women’s minds; the law which hinders the exchange of ideas of solidarity and equality; money, which can be used when needed to corrupt whoever seeks to be an apostle of the solidarity of the workers; prison-and grapeshot as a last resort-to shut the mouths of those who will not be corrupted. Such is the State.

Can it last? Will it last? Obviously not. A whole class of humanity, the class that produces everything, cannot sustain for ever an organization that has been created specifically in opposition to its interests. Everywhere, under Russian brutality as much as under the hypocrisy of the followers of Gambetta, the discontented people are in revolt. The history of our times is the history of the struggle of the privileged rulers against the egalitarian aspiration of the peoples. This struggle has become the principal occupation of the ruling class; it dominates their actions. Today it is neither principles nor considerations of the public good that determine the appearance of such-and-such a law or administrative decree; it is only the demands of the struggle against the people for the preservation of privilege.

This struggle alone would be enough to shake the strongest of political organizations. But when it takes place within States that for historical reasons are declining; when these States are rolling at full speed towards catastrophe and are harming each other on the way; when, in the end, the all-powerful State becomes repugnant even to those it protects: then all these causes can only unite in a single effort: and the outcome of the struggle cannot remain in doubt. The people, who have the strength, will prevail over their oppressors; the collapse of the States will become no more than a question of time, and the most peaceful of philosophers will see in the distance the dawning light by which the great revolution manifests itself.

Peter Kropotkin

Kropotkin The State

 

Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin

David Lester, illustrator, artist , writer and musician, is working on a graphic novel-biography of Emma Goldman. Above is an excerpt commemorating her deportation from the United States to Russia on December 21, 1919, which is also Kropotkin’s birthday. This reminded me of Goldman’s recollections of her meetings with Kropotkin. Below I set forth an excerpt from Goldman’s My Disillusionment with Russia, where Goldman  describes her visit with Kropotkin in the summer of 1920, when both were witnessing the consolidation of the growing Bolshevik dictatorship. Kropotkin suggested that rather than working with authoritarian state socialists, despite their revolutionary slogans, anarchists should work to strengthen revolutionary workers’ movements, like anarcho-syndicalism, and movements to create alternate economic relationships, such as the cooperative movement (both of which were being suppressed by Bolshevik regime). Less than a year later, Kropotkin was dead, with his funeral marking the last mass anarchist demonstration in Russia for about 75 years.

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman at Kropotkin’s funeral

Peter was interested to know my impressions [of the Russian Revolution] since he saw me last. I related to him how confused and harassed I was, how everything seemed to crumble beneath my feet. I told him that I had come to doubt almost everything, even the Revolution itself. I could not reconcile the ghastly reality with what the Revolution had meant to me when I came to Russia. Were the conditions I found inevitable, the callous indifference to human life, the terrorism, the waste and agony of it all? Of course, I knew revolutions could not be made with kid gloves. It is a stern necessity involving violence and destruction, a difficult and terrible process. But what I had found in Russia was utterly unlike revolutionary conditions, so fundamentally unlike as to be a caricature.

Peter listened attentively; then he said: “There is no reason whatever to lose faith. I consider the Russian Revolution even greater than the French, for it has struck deeper into the soul of Russia, into the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Time alone can demonstrate its full scope and depth. What you see to-day is only the surface, conditions artificially created by a governing class. You see a small political party which by its false theories, blunders, and inefficiency has demonstrated how revolutions must not be made.”

It was unfortunate, Kropotkin continued, that so many of the Anarchists in Russia and the masses outside of Russia had been carried away by the ultra-revolutionary pretenses of the Bolsheviki. In the great upheaval it was forgotten that the Communists are a political party firmly adhering to the idea of a centralized State, and that as such they were bound to misdirect the course of the Revolution. The Bolsheviki were the Jesuits of the Socialist Church: they believed in the Jesuitic motto that the end justifies the means. Their end being political power, they hesitate at nothing. The means, however, have paralysed the energies of the masses and have terrorized the people. Yet without the people, without the direct participation of the masses in the reconstruction of the country, nothing essential could be accomplished.

The Bolsheviki had been carried to the top by the high tide of the Revolution. Once in power they began to stem the tide. They have been trying to eliminate and suppress the cultural forces of the country not entirely in agreement with their ideas and methods. They destroyed the cooperatives which were of utmost importance to the life of Russia, the great link between the country and the city. They created a bureaucracy and officialdom which surpasses even that of the old regime. In the village where he lived, in little Dmitrov, there were more Bolshevik officials than ever existed there during the reign of the Romanovs. All those people were living off the masses. They were parasites on the social body, and Dmitrov was only a small example of what was going on throughout Russia. It was not the fault of any particular individuals: rather was it the State they had created, which discredits every revolutionary ideal, stifles all initiative, and sets a premium on incompetence and waste. It should also not be forgotten Kropotkin emphasized, that the blockade and the continuous attacks on the Revolution by the interventionists had helped to strengthen the power of the Communist regime. Intervention and blockade were bleeding Russia to death, and were preventing the people from understanding the real nature of the Bolshevik regime.

Discussing the activities and role of the Anarchists in the Revolution, Kropotkin said: “We Anarchists have talked much of revolutions, but few of us have been prepared for the actual work to be done during the process. I have indicated some things in this relation in my ‘Conquest of Bread.’ Pouget and Pataud have also sketched a line of action in their work on ‘How to Accomplish the Social Revolution.’” Kropotkin thought that the Anarchists had not given sufficient consideration to the fundamental elements of the social revolution. The real facts in a revolutionary process do not consist so much in the actual fighting, that is, merely the destructive phase necessary to clear the way for constructive effort. The basic factor in a revolution is the organization of the economic life of the country. The Russian Revolution had proved conclusively that we must prepare thoroughly for that. Everything else is of minor importance. He had come to think that syndicalism was likely to furnish what Russia most lacked: the channel through which the industrial and economic reconstruction of the country may flow. He referred to Anarcho-syndicalism. That and the cooperatives would save other countries some of the blunders and suffering Russia was going through.

Emma Goldman

Kropotkin, Bakunin and Goldman – for anarchist socialism

Jean Grave: Anarchy, Authority and Organization (1889)

Shawn Wilbur has recently posted a translation of Jean Grave’s 1889 book, Society on the Morrow of the Revolution. The translation first appeared in the English anarchist paper, Freedom, in serial form in early 1890. It was said to be translated “from the French of JEHAN LE VAGRE” [John Vague – sounds like the member of a punk band]. I first saw reference to this translation in Rob Knowles’ book, Political Economy from Below: Economic Thought in Communitarian Anarchism, 1840-1914 (Routledge: London, 2004), a survey of anarchist economic theory. Grave was included as an exponent of anarchist communism. Here I reproduce the introductory chapter from Grave’s book. What I find noteworthy is the degree by which the theory of anarchist communism had been developed since its first articulation in the late 1870s by members of the anti-authoritarian International (people like Elisée Reclus, Carlo Cafiero, Errico Malatesta and Peter Kropotkin), and the general consensus that had emerged among most of the anarchist communists on a number of issues. First and foremost is the issue of organization that Grave highlights in his introductory remarks. Grave was not opposed to organization, but to authoritarian and hierarchical organization and all forms of representation – a position very similar to that of Malatesta and Kropotkin. Grave also emphasized, as they did, the need for means to be consistent with one’s ends, and that for them communism could only be a libertarian communism, freely accepted, not imposed by any group on society. I included extensive selections from anarchist communists in all three volumes of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Volume One focused on the originators of the doctrine, from Joseph Déjacque to the anarchists in the International, and their immediate successors – people like Jean Grave and Charlotte Wilson – and the anarchist communists in Latin America and Asia.

Jean Grave

SOCIETY ON THE MORROW OF THE REVOLUTION

I—AUTHORITY AND ORGANISATION

Some Anarchists allow themselves to be led into confounding these two very different things. In their hatred of authority, they repel all organisation, knowing that the authoritarians disguise under this name the system of oppression which they desire to constitute. Others whilst avoiding falling into this error, go to the other extreme of extolling a thoroughly authoritarian form of organisation, which they style anarchist. There is, however, a fundamental difference to be made clear.

That which the authoritarians have baptised with the name of “organisation” is plainly enough a complete hierarchy, making laws, acting instead of and for all, or causing the mass to act, in the name of some sort of representation. Whereas what we understand by organisation is the agreement which is formed, because of their common interests, between individuals grouped for a certain work. Such are the mutual relations which result from the daily intercourse the members of a society are bound to have one with the other. But this organisation of ours has neither laws nor statutes nor regulations, to which every individual is forced to submit, under penalty of punishment. This organisation has no committee that represents it; the individuals are not attached to it by force, they remain free in their autonomy, free to abandon this organisation, at their own initiative, when they wish to substitute another for it.

We are far from having the pretentious idea of drawing a picture of what society will be in the future, far from having the presumption to wish to build a complete plan of organisation and put it forward as a principle. We merely wish to outline the main features and broad lines which ought to enlighten our propaganda, reply to objections which have been raised to the Anarchist idea, and demonstrate that a society is very well able to organise itself without either power or delegation if it is truly based on justice and social equality.

Yes, we believe that all individuals ought to be left free to seek for, and to group themselves according to, their tendencies and their affinities. To claim to establish a single method of organisation by which everybody will have to be controlled, and which will be established immediately after the Revolution, is utopian, considering the diversity of the temperaments and characters of individuals; and to wish already to prepare a frame, more or less narrow, in which society will be called upon to move, would be to play the part of doctrinaires and conservatives, since nothing assures us that the ideal which fascinates us today will respond tomorrow to our wants, and above all to the wants [of] the whole of society.

The powerlessness [and] sterility, with which the Socialist schools up to the present time have been stricken, is due precisely to the fact that in the society they wished to establish all was foreseen and regulated in advance, nothing was left to the initiative of individuals; consequently that which responded to the aspirations of some was objectionable to others, and thence the impossibility of creating anything durable.

We have to refute here the affirmation of the reactionaries, who pretend that if Anarchy was triumphant it would be a return to the savage state and the death of all society. Nothing is more false. We recognise that it is association alone which can permit man to employ the machinery which science and industry put at his service; we recognise that it is by associating their efforts that individuals will succeed in increasing their comfort and their freedom. We are, then, partisans of association, but, we repeat it, because we consider it as a means to the well-being of the individual, and not under the abstract form in which it is presented to us even now, which makes of it a sort of divinity by which those who ought to compose it are annihilated.

Then if we do not wish to fall into the same errors and to meet with the same obstacles we ought to guard ourselves against believing that all men are cast in the same mould, and to recognise that what may agree very well with the disposition of one individual may very indifferently accord with the feelings of all. This, it may be said in passing, applies equally to association in the period of propaganda and to the future society. If we desire to make a revolution which will come up to our ideal, to prepare this revolution we ought at once to organise ourselves according to our principles, to accustom individuals to act [for] themselves, and to be careful not to introduce into our organisation the institutions that we attack in the existing society, lest we relapse into the same condition as before.

Anarchists ought to be more practical than those they fight against, they ought to learn from the mistakes which are made, so as to avoid them. We ought to appeal to all those who wish to destroy the present society, and, instead of losing our time in discussing the utility of such or such means, to group ourselves for the immediate application of the means we think best, without preoccupying ourselves with those who are not in favour of it; in the same way that those who are in favour of another means should group themselves to put in practice that other means.

After [all] what we all wish [for] is the destruction of the present society; and it is evident that experience will guide us as to the choice of means. We should do practical work, instead of wasting our time at committee meetings, which are mostly sterile, where each wishes to make his own idea prevail, which very often break up without anything being decided, and which almost always result in the creation of as many dissentient factions as there are ideas put forward – factions which, having become enemies, lose sight of the common enemy, the middle-class society, to war upon each other.

Another advantage resulting from this is that individuals habituating themselves to join the group which accords best with their own ideas, will accustom themselves to think and to act of their own accord, without any authority among them, without that discipline which consists in destroying the efforts of a group or of isolated individuals because the others are not of their opinion, Yet another advantage which results is that a revolution made on this basis could not be other than Anarchist, for individuals who had learned to act without any compulsion would not be silly enough to establish a power on the morrow of victory.

For some Socialists the ideal is to gather the workers in a party such as exists in Germany. The chiefs of this party on the day of the revolution would be carried into power, would thus form a new government who would decree the appropriation of machinery and property, would organise production, regulate consumption, and suppress – that goes without saying – those who were not of their opinion. We Anarchists believe that this is a dream.

Decrees to take possession after the struggle will be illusory; it is not by decrees that the appropriation of capital will be accomplished, but by facts at the time of the struggle, by the workers themselves, who will enter into possession of houses and workshops by driving away the present possessors, and by calling the disinherited and saying to them, “This belongs to nobody individually; it is not a property that can belong to the fast occupant, and by him be transmitted to his descendants. No, these houses are the product of past generations, the heritage of the present and future generations. Once unoccupied, they are at the free disposition of those who need them. This machinery is put at the free disposition of the producers who wish to use it, but cannot become individual property.”

Individuals will be so much the more unable to personally appropriate it, because they will not know what to do with machinery which they cannot utilise by means of wage-slaves. No one will be able to appropriate anything which he cannot work himself; and as the greater part of the present machinery can only be worked by the association of individual forces, it will be by this means that individuals will come to an understanding. Once the appropriation has been made, we see no necessity for it to be sanctioned by any authority whatsoever.

We cannot foresee the consequences of the struggle in which we are engaged. In the first place, do we know how long it will last [or] what will be the immediate result of a general overthrow of the existing institutions? what will be the immediate wants of the people on the morrow of the revolution! Certainly we do not.

We ought, then, not to waste our time in establishing in our imagination a society the wheels of which will all be prepared in advance, and which will be constructed, so to speak, like one of those boxes of play-things, all the pieces of which are numbered, and which, when placed together, start working directly [as] the mechanism is wound up. All that we can do from the theoretical point of view of Organisation will never be other than dreams, more or less complicated, which will invariably prove to be without basis when it is a question of putting them into practice.

We certainly have not this ridiculous pretention, but we ought to guard ourselves also from that other mistake common to many revolutionaries, who say: Let us occupy ourselves first of all with destroying, and afterwards we will see what we ought to construct… We certainly cannot say what the future society will be, but we ought to say what it will not be, or at least what we ought to prevent it from being.

We cannot say what will be the mode of Organisation of the producing and consuming groups; they alone can be judges of that; moreover, the same methods are not suitable to all. But we can very well say, for instance, what we would do personally if we were in a society in which all the individuals had the opportunity to act freely, what we must do now, in fact, the revolution being only the complement of evolution. We can tell how a society might evolve without the help of those famous ” commissions of statistics,” “labour-notes,” etc., etc., with which the Collectivists wish to gratify us; and we believe it is necessary to say this because it is in the nature of individuals not to wish to engage themselves to follow a certain course of action without knowing where it will take them, and besides, as we have already said, it is the end we ourselves propose to attain that ought to guide us in the employment of means of propaganda.

Jean Grave

Kropotkin: Merry Effing Xmas!

Peter Kropotkin’s birthday on the modern calendar falls on the Winter Solstice, December 21, 1842 (Wikipedia, as with many things, does not acknowledge that December 9th is Kropotkin’s birthday on the old Russian calendar). Every year around this time I like to post something by Kropotkin, sometimes with a Christmas theme. So this year I am presenting two excerpts. The first is from Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, where he describes reading Charles Dickens’ Christmas stories while imprisoned in Russia in 1874. The second is from his Conquest of Bread, where Kropotkin argues for anarchist communism, in what Christian anarchists might describe as the true spirit of Christmas. I included several excerpts from Kropotkin’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Christmas in Prison

When he learned about my arrest, [my brother] Alexander immediately left everything, — the work of his life, the life itself of freedom which was as necessary for him as free air is necessary for a bird, — and returned to St. Petersburg, which he disliked, only to help me through my imprisonment.

We were both very much affected at this interview. My brother was extremely excited. He hated the very sight of the blue uniforms of the gendarmes, those executioners of all independent thought in Russia, and expressed his feeling frankly in their presence. As for me, the sight of him at St. Petersburg filled me with the most dismal apprehensions. I was happy to see his honest face, his eyes full of love, and to hear that I should see them once a month; and yet I wished him hundreds of miles away from that place to which be came free that day, but to which he would inevitably be brought some night under an escort of gendarmes. “Why did you come into the lion’s den? Go back at once!” my whole inner self cried; and yet I knew that he would remain as long as I was in prison.

He understood better than any one else that inactivity would kill me, and had already made application to obtain for me permission to resume work. The Geographical Society wanted me to finish my book on the glacial period, and my brother turned the whole scientific world in St. Petersburg upside down to move it to support his application. The Academy of Sciences was interested in the matter; and finally, two or three months after my imprisonment, the governor entered my cell and announced to me that I was permitted by the Emperor to complete my report to the Geographical Society, and that I should be allowed pen and ink for that purpose. “Till sunset only,” he added. Sunset, at St. Petersburg, is at three in the afternoon, in winter time; but that could not be helped. “Till sunset” were the words used by Alexander II when he granted the permission.

So I could work!

I could hardly express now the immensity of relief I then felt at being enabled to resume writing. I would have consented to live on nothing but bread and water, in the dampest of cellars, if only permitted to work.

I was, however, the only prisoner to whom writing materials were allowed. Several of my comrades spent three years and more in confinement before the famous trial of “the hundred and ninety-three” took place, and all they had was a slate. Of course, even the slate was welcome in that dreary loneliness, and they used it to write exercises in the languages they were learning, or to work out mathematical problems; but what was jotted down on the slate could last only a few hours.

My prison life now took on a more regular character. There was something immediate to live for. At nine in the morning I had already made the first three hundred pacings across my cell, and was waiting for my pencils and pens to be delivered to me. The work which I had prepared for the Geographical Society contained, beside a report of my explorations in Finland, a discussion of the bases upon which the glacial hypothesis ought to rest. Now, knowing that I had plenty of time before me, I decided to rewrite and enlarge that part of my work. The Academy of Sciences put its admirable library at my service, and a corner of my cell soon filled up with books and maps, including the whole of the Swedish Geological Survey publications, a nearly complete collection of reports of all arctic travels, and whole sets of the Quarterly Journal of the London Geological Society. My book grew in the fortress to the size of two large volumes. The first of them was printed by my brother and Polakóff (in the Geographical Society’s Memoirs); while the second, not quite finished, remained in the hands of the Third Section when I ran away. The manuscript was found only in 1895, and given to the Russian Geographical Society, by whom it was forwarded to me in London.

At five in the afternoon, — at three in the winter, — as soon as the tiny lamp was brought in, my pencils and pens were taken away, and I had to stop work. Then I used to read, mostly books of history. Quite a library had been formed in the fortress by the generations of political prisoners who had been confined there. I was allowed to add to the library a number of staple works on Russian history, and with the books which were brought to me by my relatives I was enabled to read almost every work and collection of acts and documents bearing on the Moscow period of the history of Russia. I relished, in reading, not only the Russian annals, especially the admirable annals of the democratic mediæval republic of Pskov, — the best, perhaps, in Europe for the history of that type of mediæval cities, — but all sorts of dry documents, and even the Lives of the Saints, which occasionally contain facts of the real life of the masses which cannot be found elsewhere. I also read during this time a great number of novels, and even arranged for myself a treat on Christmas Eve. My relatives managed to send me then the Christmas stories of Dickens, and I spent the festival laughing and crying over those beautiful creations of the great novelist.

The Conquest of Bread – Ways and Means

If a society, a city, or a territory, were to guarantee the necessaries of life to its inhabitants (and we shall see how the conception of the necessaries of life can be so extended as to include luxuries), it would be compelled to take possession of what is absolutely needed for production; that is to say — land, machinery, factories, means of transport, etc. Capital in the hands of private owners would be expropriated and returned to the community.

The great harm done by bourgeois society, as we have already mentioned, is not only that capitalists seize a large share of the profits of each industrial and commercial enterprise, thus enabling them to live without working, but that all production has taken a wrong direction, as it is not carried on with a view to securing well-being to all. For this reason we condemn it.

Moreover, it is impossible to carry on mercantile production in everybody’s interest. To wish it would be to expect the capitalist to go beyond his province and to fulfill duties that he cannot fulfill without ceasing to be what he is — a private manufacturer seeking his own enrichment. Capitalist organization, based on the personal interest of each individual trader, has given all that could be expected of it to society — it has increased the productive force of work. The capitalist, profiting by the revolution effected in industry by steam, by the sudden development of chemistry and machinery, and by other inventions of our century, has endeavoured in his own interest to increase the yield of work, and in a great measure he has succeeded. But to attribute other duties to him would be unreasonable. For example, to expect that he should use this superior yield of work in the interest of society as a whole, would be to ask philanthropy and charity of him, and a capitalist enterprise cannot be based on charity.

It now remains for society to extend this greater productivity, which is limited to certain industries, and to apply it to the general good. But it is evident that to guarantee well-being to all, society must take back possession of all means of production.

Economists, as is their wont, will not fail to remind us of the comparative well-being of a certain category of young robust workmen, skilled in certain special branches of industry. It is always this minority that is pointed out to us with pride. But is this well-being, which is the exclusive right of a few, secure? Tomorrow, maybe, negligence, improvidence, or the greed of their employers, will deprive these privileged men of their work, and they will pay for the period of comfort they have enjoyed with months and years of poverty or destitution. How many important industries — woven goods, iron, sugar, etc. — without mentioning short-lived trades, have we not seen decline or come to a standstill alternately on account of speculations, or in consequence of natural displacement of work, and lastly from the effects of competition due to capitalists themselves! If the chief weaving and mechanical industries had to pass through such a crisis as they have passed through in 1886, we hardly need mention the small trades, all of which come periodically to a standstill.

What, too, shall we say to the price which is paid for the relative well-being of certain categories of workmen? Unfortunately, it is paid for by the ruin of agriculture, the shameless exploitation of the peasants, the misery of the masses. In comparison with the feeble minority of workers who enjoy a certain comfort, how many millions of human beings live from hand to mouth, without a secure wage, ready to go wherever they are wanted; how many peasants work fourteen hours a day for a poor pittance! Capital depopulates the country, exploits the colonies and the countries where industries are but little developed, dooms the immense majority of workmen to remain without technical education, to remain mediocre even in their own trade.

This is not merely accidental, it is a necessity of the capitalist system. In order to remunerate certain classes of workmen, peasants must become the beasts of burden of society; the country must be deserted for the town; small trades must agglomerate in the foul suburbs of large cities, and manufacture a thousand things of little value for next to nothing, so as to bring the goods of the greater industries within reach of buyers with small salaries. That bad cloth may sell, garments are made for ill-paid workers by tailors who are satisfied with a starvation wage! Eastern lands in a backward state are exploited by the West, in order that, under the capitalist system, workers in a few privileged industries may obtain certain limited comforts of life.

The evil of the present system is therefore not that the “surplus-value” of production goes to the capitalist, as Rodbertus and Marx said, thus narrowing the Socialist conception and the general view of the capitalist system; the surplus-value itself is but a consequence of deeper causes. The evil lies in the possibility of a surplus-value existing, instead of a simple surplus not consumed by each generation; for, that a surplus-value should exist, means that men, women, and children are compelled by hunger to sell their labour for a small part of what this labour produces, and, above all, of what their labour is capable of producing. But this evil will last as long as the instruments of production belong to a few. As long as men are compelled to pay tribute to property holders for the right of cultivating land or putting machinery into action, and the property holder is free to produce what bids fair to bring him in the greatest profits, rather than the greatest amount of useful commodities — well-being can only be temporarily guaranteed to a very few, and is only to be bought by the poverty of a section of society. It is not sufficient to distribute the profits realized by a trade in equal parts, if at the same time thousands of other workers are exploited. It is a case of PRODUCING THE GREATEST AMOUNT OF GOODS NECESSARY TO THE WELL-BEING OF ALL, WITH THE LEAST POSSIBLE WASTE OF HUMAN ENERGY.

This cannot be the aim of a private owner; and this is why society as a whole, taking this view of production as its ideal, will be compelled to expropriate all that enhances well-being while producing wealth. It will have to take possession of land, factories, mines, means of communication, etc., and besides, it will have to study what products will promote general well-being, as well as the ways and means of production.

Peter Kropotkin

Kropotkin: The Conquest of Bread

 

I recently came across a website promoting Kropotkin’s classic defence of anarchist communism, The Conquest of Bread. I really don’t know who is behind the website, which is called the Bread Book, but I think it’s great that people are still interested in Kropotkin’s ideas, that they see how relevant they remain today, and recognize the value of spreading Kropotkin’s message. When someone posted the Bread Book link on Facebook a Marxist troll dismissed reading Kropotkin as a waste of time, recommending Marx of course, who wrote almost nothing about how a communist society would function, and why communism was something worth striving for rather than just being the next stage of the historical development of the means of production. So here are some excerpts from what remains the best extended argument for anarchist communism, Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread. I included excerpts from The Conquest of Bread in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

 

From Chapter One – Our Riches

It has come about, however, in the course of the ages traversed by the human race, that all that enables man to produce and to increase his power of production has been seized by the few. Some time, perhaps, we will relate how this came to pass. For the present let it suffice to state the fact and analyze its consequences.

Today the soil, which actually owes its value to the needs of an ever-increasing population, belongs to a minority who prevent the people from cultivating it—or do not allow them to cultivate it according to modern methods.

The mines, though they represent the labour of several generations, and derive their sole value from the requirements of the industry of a nation and the density of the population—the mines also belong to the few; and these few restrict the output of coal, or prevent it entirely, if they find more profitable investments for their capital. Machinery, too, has become the exclusive property of the few, and even when a machine incontestably represents the improvements added to the original rough invention by three or four generations of workers, it none the less belongs to a few owners. And if the descendants of the very inventor who constructed the first machine for lace-making, a century ago, were to present themselves to-day in a lace factory at Bâle or Nottingham, and claim their rights, they would be told: “Hands off! this machine is not yours,” and they would be shot down if they attempted to take possession of it.

The railways, which would be useless as so much old iron without the teeming population of Europe, its industry, its commerce, and its marts, belong to a few shareholders, ignorant perhaps of the whereabouts of the lines of rails which yield them revenues greater than those of medieval kings. And if the children of those who perished by thousands while excavating the railway cuttings and tunnels were to assemble one day, crowding in their rags and hunger, to demand bread from the shareholders, they would be met with bayonets and grapeshot, to disperse them and safeguard “vested interests.”

In virtue of this monstrous system, the son of the worker, on entering life, finds no field which he may till, no machine which he may tend, no mine in which he may dig, without accepting to leave a great part of what he will produce to a master. He must sell his labour for a scant and uncertain wage. His father and his grandfather have toiled to drain this field, to build this mill, to perfect this machine. They gave to the work the full measure of their strength, and what more could they give? But their heir comes into the world poorer than the lowest savage. If he obtains leave to till the fields, it is on condition of surrendering a quarter of the produce to his master, and another quarter to the government and the middlemen. And this tax, levied upon him by the State, the capitalist, the lord of the manor, and the middleman, is always increasing; it rarely leaves him the power to improve his system of culture. If he turns to industry, he is allowed to work—though not always even that—only on condition that he yield a half or two-thirds of the product to him whom the land recognizes as the owner of the machine.

We cry shame on the feudal baron who forbade the peasant to turn a clod of earth unless he surrendered to his lord a fourth of his crop. We called those the barbarous times. But if the forms have changed, the relations have remained the same, and the worker is forced, under the name of free contract, to accept feudal obligations. For, turn where he will, he can find no better conditions. Everything has become private property, and he must accept, or die of hunger.

The result of this state of things is that all our production tends in a wrong direction. Enterprise takes no thought for the needs of the community. Its only aim is to increase the gains of the speculator. Hence the constant fluctuations of trade, the periodical industrial crises, each of which throws scores of thousands of workers on the streets.

The working people cannot purchase with their wages the wealth which they have produced, and industry seeks foreign markets among the monied classes of other nations. In the East, in Africa, everywhere, in Egypt, Tonkin or the Congo, the European is thus bound to promote the growth of serfdom. And so he does. But soon he finds that everywhere there are similar competitors. All the nations evolve on the same lines, and wars, perpetual wars, break out for the right of precedence in the market. Wars for the possession of the East, wars for the empire of the sea, wars to impose duties on imports and to dictate conditions to neighbouring states; wars against those “blacks” who revolt! The roar of the cannon never ceases in the world, whole races are massacred, the states of Europe spend a third of their budgets in armaments; and we know how heavily these taxes fall on the workers.

Education still remains the privilege of a small minority, for it is idle to talk of education when the workman’s child is forced, at the age of thirteen, to go down into the mine or to help his father on the farm. It is idle to talk of studying to the worker, who comes home in the evening wearied by excessive toil, and its brutalizing atmosphere. Society is thus bound to remain divided into two hostile camps, and in such conditions freedom is a vain word. The Radical begins by demanding a greater extension of political rights, but he soon sees that the breath of liberty leads to the uplifting of the proletariat, and then he turns round, changes his opinions, and reverts to repressive legislation and government by the sword.

A vast array of courts, judges, executioners, policemen, and gaolers is needed to uphold these privileges; and this array gives rise in its turn to a whole system of espionage, of false witness, of spies, of threats and corruption.

The system under which we live checks in its turn the growth of the social sentiment. We all know that without uprightness, without self-respect, without sympathy and mutual aid, human kind must perish, as perish the few races of animals living by rapine, or the slave-keeping ants. But such ideas are not to the taste of the ruling classes, and they have elaborated a whole system of pseudo-science to teach the contrary.

Fine sermons have been preached on the text that those who have should share with those who have not, but he who would carry out this principle would be speedily informed that these beautiful sentiments are all very well in poetry, but not in practice. “To lie is to degrade and besmirch oneself,” we say, and yet all civilized life becomes one huge lie. We accustom ourselves and our children to hypocrisy, to the practice of a double-faced morality. And since the brain is ill at ease among lies, we cheat ourselves with sophistry. Hypocrisy and sophistry become the second nature of the civilized man.

But a society cannot live thus; it must return to truth, or cease to exist.

Thus the consequences which spring from the original act of monopoly spread through the whole of social life. Under pain of death, human societies are forced to return to first principles: the means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one’s part in the production of the world’s wealth.

All things for all. Here is an immense stock of tools and implements; here are all those iron slaves which we call machines, which saw and plane, spin and weave for us, unmaking and remaking, working up raw matter to produce the marvels of our time. But nobody has the right to seize a single one of these machines and say: “This is mine; if you want to use it you must pay me a tax on each of your products,” any more than the feudal lord of medieval times had the right to say to the peasant: “This hill, this meadow belong to me, and you must pay me a tax on every sheaf of corn you reap, on every brick you build.”

All is for all! If the man and the woman bear their fair share of work, they have a right to their fair share of all that is produced by all, and that share is enough to secure them well-being. No more of such vague formulas as “The right to work,” or “To each the whole result of his labour.” What we proclaim is The Right to Well-Being: Well-Being for All!

Peter Kropotkin

 

Anarchaeology – The Black Trowel Collective

I recently came across this manifesto from a group of anarchist archaeologists, the Black Trowel Collective. It appears at one point they had a website but the link is currently not working. With neo-liberal apologists for state power like Steven Pinker continuing to garner unwarranted media attention with they inaccurate and biased views of life in non-hierarchical anarchistic societies, it is good to see that there is a growing community of archaeologists and anthropologists who are debunking the potted histories of the contemporary successors to Thomas Hobbes, who argued that without coercive political power and authority to maintain order, life would be nasty, solitary, brutish and short, a view that anarchists have been critiquing since the times of Elisée Reclus and Kropotkin, particularly in the latter’s Mutual Aid. I included excerpts from Kropotkin and Reclus’ works on this topic in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In Volume Two, I included excerpts from Pierre Clastres’ now classic work, Society Against the State, and in Volume Three I included material from David Graeber and Harold Barclay on the origins of the state and non-coercive alternatives. This article was originally published as part of the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

Foundations of an Anarchist Archaeology: A Community Manifesto

By The Black Trowel Collective

An anarchist archaeology embraces considerations of social inequity as a critique of authoritarian forms of power and as a rubric for enabling egalitarian and equitable relationships.

The term anarchism derives from an– (without) + arkhos (ruler), but a better and more active translation of it is perhaps ‘against domination.’ An anarchist archaeology insists on an archaeology that is committed to dismantling single hierarchical models of the past, and in that sense, its core incorporates tenets of a decolonized, indigenous, and feminist archaeology, contesting hegemonic narratives of the past. It is a theory explicitly about human relationships operating without recourse to coercive forms like authoritarianism, hierarchy, or exploitation of other humans. Some anarchists extend this argument further to non-human relationships with objects, other species, and the environment.

In keeping with these principles, there is no orthodox, overarching, uniform version of anarchism. There are multiple approaches to anarchist theory and practice tied together by common threads, and it is these commonalities that inform our anarchist archaeology. Here we outline principles for an anarchist archaeology that can be applied towards studies of the past, toward archaeologically informed examinations of contemporary societies, and to archaeological practices, including professional ethics. We offer this as both a manifesto and as a living document open to constant contextual review and revision.

Critiquing Power. We recognize that there are many ways to evaluate and interpret topics like value, domination, coercion, authority, and power. Anarchists, and thus anarchist archaeologists, have long recognized that organizational complexity is not produced simply from elite control, but also forms through heterarchies and networked collaborations. Many anarchist archaeologists strive to uncover lost periods of resistance to domination and exploitation of people by a few elites, which can be termed vertical power, or power of some over others. Thus, an anarchist archaeology seeks to examine forms of horizontal power, the power of people working to coordinate consensus, often in opposition or parallel to emerging or extant forms of vertical power.

Recognizing the Arts of Resistance. Anarchist archaeologists recognize that periods of change, as well as periods where change does not seem to be present, do not require connotative evaluations of either good or bad. An anarchist archaeology does not give preferential treatment to any particular arrangement of ‘civilization.’ In practice and in popular culture, periods of heightened inequity are often seen as periods of cultural fluorescence or ‘climax.’ Terms such as ‘collapse,’ ‘decline,’ or ‘dissolution’ are often applied by archaeologists and others to describe periods in time in which hierarchies end. Language about cultural ‘climax’ and ‘decline’ retains Victorian notions of progress, identified with the state, as opposed to a more active notion of societies against the state. Alternative perspectives reveal the complex and sometimes conflicted struggles of humanity against entrenched exertions of power in hierarchical societies. Many of the so-called ‘collapses’ of the past were periods of greater assertions of local autonomy in the face of hegemonic centralizations of power. Such times are often the product of unrecognized acts of revolt, resistance, and resurgences of alternative ways of life. Thus, these periods can be successes for the majority of people in terms of increasing self-determination and independence. Anarchist archaeologists are committed to theorizing and identifying the material manifestation of such cultural transformations.

Embracing Everyday Anarchy. To understand histories of human resistance, resilience, and maintenance of equity or heterarchy, an anarchist archaeology must also be an archaeology of everyday life, not just elites and monuments. We acknowledge that people operate outside structures of power, even when entangled in strong power structures. Contextualizing a quotidian anarchy allows an interrogation of when different sources of power are in operation and when they are silent/silenced or unused. This is where an anarchist archaeology can build upon an existing strength of the discipline, as archaeologies of non-elites and of resistance movements are already prominent fields of knowledge. The interests of an anarchist archaeology lie in the building of coalitions and consensus, so contexts where we can find alignments with people in the field of archaeology and outside are critical to the development of the movement. The archaeology of everyday anarchy is also a good reminder of the ways we can integrate anarchist practices into our own present, with an eye towards the future. One does not have to self-identify as an anarchist to embrace and contribute to everyday anarchy. Simple, self-confessional acts in the classroom, test pit, and elsewhere provide myriad opportunities to deconstruct hierarchies of power that perpetuate harmful stereotypes in the past, present, and future.

Visioning Futures. An anarchist archaeology perceives that vanguardism (i.e., a traditional Marxist revolutionary strategy that attempts to design cultural change with the hope of a pre-determined outcome) often represents an extension of present power structures, either intentionally or otherwise, and rarely succeeds in the long term. Instead, anarchist archaeologists examine material culture across time using prefigurative practices as decolonized visioning. This means that they examine the material record and their discipline with the recognition that people who act within the present in ways that create change towards a desired future, are more likely to implement broadly beneficial change (anarchists call this “making a new society in the shell of the old one”). This practice of visioning the future in the present moment aligns an anarchist archaeology with the commitments of a contemporary archaeology, even if the material under investigation is one of the deep past. An anarchist archaeology recognizes that the past can only be investigated within a deep present rife with conflicts, conversations, and politics. This does not repudiate perspectives of archaeology as a science. Instead, it recognizes how culture interacts with and informs scientific analysis. The shedding of hierarchy from scientific practice opens its predictive potential beyond the traditional realm of archaeology (i.e., the past) towards future places.

Seeking Non-Authoritarian Forms of Organization. An anarchist archaeology attempts to reimagine, redistribute, and decolonize processes and positions of authority within communities, the academy and discipline, and its many publics, while doing research, facilitating student learning, and engaging in heritage management. These reconfigurations, though, can only happen in an inclusive environment, and one imbued with recognition of the perils of layering present perspectives uncritically upon the past. This means that an anarchist archaeology is also an archaeology that is committed to community, encompassing multiple voices, and a deep critical engagement with research. Anarchist archaeologists seek alternatives to the traditional hierarchical modes of knowledge production and management of past places and time, in favor of egalitarian ways of bringing people together to learn, to protect places, and to understand the relevance of the past for the present.

Recognizing the Heterogeneity of Identities. Anarchist archaeologists understand that people live in many different social spaces. More importantly, they encourage people, including archaeologists, to live in and explore many different positions, worlds, and identities. An anarchist archaeology is necessarily intersectional. It understands that people are not products of one simple form of identity (i.e., not essentialist), nor even one very complex form of identity, but they are created, and continually recreated, by the constant intersection, erasure, and addition of these many different aspects of themselves. In fact, it is this very act of recognizing each other’s multivalent identities/positions/standpoints that offers a powerful method for building equity between individuals, groups, cultures, and other cultural constructs.

Exposing Multiple Scales from the Bottom Up. An anarchist archaeology works at many different scales. This means that it works at global, regional, community, and personal levels. Most importantly, an anarchist archaeology recognizes both the roles of assemblages as encompassing individual people, places, materials, and animals, as well as larger collections of those social influences. It is cognizant of the agency of social participants to author how and where they are situated within the scales of the social environment. This contextual, feminist, decolonized, and non-human/humanism integrates with anarchist archaeologies, anchoring it to place. This means that research, interpretation, and advocacy often focus on individuals or localities, and then expand to encompass a more global scale. The grassroots scale of people and lived places provide the critical building blocks for a re-imagining of higher systemic-level changes. This is the space where the scales of archaeological analysis—from the sherd, to the place where it was found, to the regional context—help us to build connections between many scales of order that allow us give voice to the past and present.

Recognizing Agency in Change and Stability. An anarchist archaeology is agentive. Anarchist archaeologists understand that if placed in equitable systems, all humans/nonhumans have the ability and capacity to enact change. Most archaeologists recognize that the power of our discipline derives from its understanding of human capacity for shaping the environment, the material world, and spiritual realms through action. Combined, these agents allow archaeologists to add people, instead of only objects, back into the past (and the present). Recognizing that all people are important means that an anarchist archaeology is an archaeology of social relations that uses how people interact to understand the archaeological record. An anarchist archaeology focuses especially on those people who are least likely to have contributed to dominant narratives from the past.

Valuing the Heritage of State and Non-State Societies. An anarchist archaeology contests conservation and preservation of heritage by questioning why and how some sites and regions are chosen to be protected while others are not. Anarchist archaeologists understand that preserving sites and communities that only represent states, or what are usually perceived as the precursors for states (i.e. vertical hierarchies with elites) means that we create a past that sees state and state-like societies as models of success. Societies that are not states, often intentionally preventing the emergence of hierarchy as they evolve, become implicit examples of failure. An anarchist archaeology is asking that we start to change our understanding of what success looks like, and that this theoretical shift is accompanied by action in how we understand whose heritage is deemed significant. This is where an anarchist archaeology can powerfully parallel and support an indigenous archaeology. These biased decisions on what heritage is valued also decrease our historical imagination. Removing or limiting the archaeological, historical, and cultural presence of horizontally organized societies through preservation decisions can have dramatic impacts on the ability of future societies to envisage and enact alternatives to present hierarchies.

No Paradigms––A Multitude of Views and Voices. Anarchist archaeology acknowledges that a multiplicity of viewpoints exist, and rejects the false dichotomy that all who promote these ideas must self-identify as an anarchist or archaeologist. Labels limit people’s ability to find utility in anarchist theory. For instance, people do not need to call themselves anarchists to promote anarchist ideas and ideals in the same way that people do not need to call themselves archaeologists to promote the use of material culture as a social science and a historical method. This standpoint allows us to be theoretically promiscuous and claim that it is scientifically fruitful to consider alternate theories and methods from the normal paradigm, thus engaging in epistemological anarchism.

A Heterarchy of Authorities. As anarchist archaeologists, we do not recognize ourselves as one community. Instead, we recognize ourselves belonging to, and claiming, many connected communities. We support the idea that decentralizing our knowledge and authority does not deny any expertise we may have. We recognize that while we have the skills of our craft and expertise concerning material culture and knowledge about the past, it is an expertise that derives from a certain perspective that is without sole authority. Our knowledge should be open and our expertise should be available so that we do not create a situation in which archaeologists (or historians) alone obtain authority over the past, especially as concerns the heritage of descendant peoples. Further, we recognize that many kinds of expertise exist outside of our discipline, and indeed outside of the realm of ‘academic’ knowledge. An anarchist archaeology is about respecting the many kinds of experts that can speak to the past and the present.

Decentering the Human––Recognizing Relationships with Non-Human Entities. An anarchist archaeology understands and encourages us to examine how non-human agents may create social change. Thus, place, space, the environment, material objects, and the supernatural can all be agents of change. Moreover, the patterns of human behavior may be structured by their relationships with non-human entities, as geontologies, whether it is perceived agents within the landscape, climate, plants, animals, or spirits. We acknowledge that since people in past cultures often saw themselves as equal to or lesser than non-human entities, decentering the human may help us understand how past peoples arranged themselves. Such a stance also helps us to reimagine our own subject positions in relation to the environment, to places, to plants, animals, and spirits.

An Archaeology of Action. Anarchist archaeologists recognize that even though our research can often tackle incredibly difficult and sensitive topics, that archaeological research should be pleasant and joyful. Simultaneously, archaeology should be conducted and reported with respect. While our subject matter can be fraught with violence, we look at finding ways to study these topics that are not themselves violent. Following the many successful acts of resistance that use humor to contest violence, such as marchers protesting injustice armed with puppets, we also think that presentations of difficult topics can be broken up with artistic, poetic, or revolutionary interventions. But most of all, we see an anarchist archaeology as a call to action, and we invite those who are interested to join us. Do research. Write an essay. Compose an epic poem. Contribute song lyrics. Offer a painting or photograph. Do something big, or do something small. Do something different. Write a classic. Do what feels right. Do it for archaeology’s potential to help us build a better world. Make it grand. Make it humble. Make it brilliant.

*          *          *

Simply, we offer an anarchist archaeology as an alternate way to think about the past and to consider our methods and practices in the present. An anarchist approach reminds us to consider relations of power and to question whether those relationships are authoritarian or coercive, whether in past societies we study, among archaeologists as teams in practice, among archaeologists and descendant communities concerning heritage, or in the relationships between archaeology and contemporary nation-states. The vast bulk of societies in the past were anarchic societies, organizing their lives without centralized authorities. This is one primary reason that an anarchist archaeology can be of use for understanding the principles and dynamics of societies without government. Moreover, sustained critique of power can help us better recognize the forms of resistance within centralized societies. Finally, anarchist principles can help us better attain more egalitarian and democratic practices among archaeologists and others with interests in the past. This approach can also engage archaeology to invigorate the historical imagination and present alternatives to contemporary top-down oriented political and economic structures of authority. In short, an anarchist archaeology can help us to expand the realm of the possible, both in relation to our interpretations of the traces of past lives, and in terms of our understandings of what is possible in the future.

The Black Trowel Collective: We come to anarchism and archaeology from many backgrounds, and for varied reasons. Most of this document comes from a conversation started at the Amerind Foundation in April 2016 (made possible by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation), where we began to put the ‘sherds’ of an anarchist archaeology into a coherent framework. Since then, many of us have continued to work together on this and other projects relating to anarchist archaeology, and our circle has widened as the project evolves.

Elisée Reclus: Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel

In October 1885, the anarchist revolutionary, Peter Kropotkin, was in a French prison, having been condemned in 1882 for being a member of the by then defunct International Workingmen’s Association. Of course, the real reason for his imprisonment was that he was directly involved in reviving the French anarchist movement after ten years of state repression following the defeat of the Paris Commune. Kropotkin was the major contributor to the manifesto that he and his co-defendants issued during their trial. While in prison, his friend, the anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus, put together a collection of Kropotkin’s essays under the title, Words of a Rebel. Here I reproduce Nicolas Walter’s translation of Reclus’ introduction. I previously posted some of Walter’s translations of Kropotkin’s preface to the 1904 Italian edition and the post-script to the 1921 Russian edition.

Preface to Words of a Rebel

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS Peter Kropotkin has been in prison, cut off from the society of his fellow-men. His punishment is hard, but the silence imposed on him concerning the things he cares about most is much harder: his imprisonment would be less oppressive if he were not gagged. Months and years may perhaps pass before the use of speech is restored to him and he can resume interrupted conversations with his comrades.

The period of forced seclusion which our friend has to undergo will certainly not be wasted, but it seems very long to us! Life quickly goes by, and we sadly watch the weeks and months running out when this voice-so proud and honest among the rest–cannot be heard at all. In its place, how many common places will be repeated to us, how many lying words will afflict us, how many biased half-truths will ring about our ears! We long to hear one of those sincere and forthright tongues which boldly proclaim the truth.

But if the prisoner of Clairvaux no longer has the freedom to speak to his comrades from the depths of his cell, they can at least remember their friend and recall the words he spoke before. This is a task which I am able to perform, and I have devoted myself to it with pleasure. The articles which Kropotkin wrote from 1879 to 1882 in the ‘anarchist’ paper Le Révolté seemed to me ideal for publication in book form, especially because they did not run after chance events but followed a logical order. The vigour of the thought gave them the necessary unity.

Faithful to the scientific method, the author first explains the general situation of society, with its scandals and defects, its elements of discord and war; he studies the evidence of collapse shown by states, and shows us the cracks opening in their ruins. Then he pushes the experience offered by contemporary history in the direction of anarchic evolution, indicates its exact significance, and draws the lessons which it teaches. Finally, in the chapter ‘Expropriation’, he sums up his ideas, which derive from both observation and experience, and appeals to men of good will who want not just to know, but also to act.

I do not wish to sing the author’s praises here. He is my friend, and if I said all the nice things I think about him I might be suspected of blindness or accused of partiality. It would be enough for me to report the opinion of his judges, even his jailers. Among those who have observed his life, from far or near, there is no one who does not respect him, who does not bear witness to his high intelligence and to his heart which overflows with kindness, no one who does not acknowledge him to be truly noble and pure. Anyway, is it not because of these very qualities that he has known exile and imprisonment?

His crime is to love the poor and weak; his offence is to have pleaded their cause. Public opinion is unanimous in respecting this man, and yet it is not at all surprised to see the prison gates closing remorselessly on him, so that it seems natural that superiority has to be paid for and devotion has to be accompanied by suffering. It is impossible to see Kropotkin in the prison yard and to exchange greetings with him without wondering: ‘And what about me, why am I free? Could, it be perhaps because I am not good enough?’

However, the readers of this book should pay less attention to the personality of the author than to the value of the ideas he expresses. These ideas I recommend with confidence to honest people who do not make up their minds about a work before opening it, or about an opinion before hearing it. Clear away all your prejudices, try to stand aside temporarily from your interests, and read the pages simply looking for the truth without bothering for the time being about its application. The author asks only one thing of you – to share for a moment his ideal, the happiness of all, not just of a few privileged people.

If this desire, however fleeting it may be, is really sincere, and not a mere whim of your fancy, an image passing before your eyes, it is probable that you will soon agree with the writer. If you share his yearnings you will understand his words. But you know in advance that these ideas will bring you no honour; they will never be rewarded with a well-paid position; they may well bring you instead the distrust of your former friends or some cruel blow from your superiors. If you seek justice, you can expect to suffer injustice.

At the time when this work is being published, France is in the middle of an election crisis. I am not so naive as to recommend the candidates to read this book – they have other ‘duties’ to perform – but I do invite the electors to take a look at Words of a Rebel, and I would particularly draw their attention to the chapter called ‘Representative Government’. There they will see how far their confidence will be justified in these men who are springing up on all sides to solicit the honour of representing their fellow-citizens in Parliament.

At the moment all is well. The candidates are omniscient and infallible – but what about the deputies? When they at last receive their share of the kingdom, will they not be fatally afflicted by the dizziness of power and, like kings, be deprived of all wisdom and all virtue? If they decided to keep all those promises which they made so lavishly, how would they maintain their dignity in the midst of a crowd of petitioners and advisers? Even supposing that they went into Parliament with good intentions, how could they emerge without being corrupted? Under the influence of that atmosphere of intrigue, they can be seen turning from left to right, as if they were impelled by an automatic mechanism-clockwork figures who come out looking proud and strike noisily in front of the clock face, then soon afterwards go round and disappear ‘pathetically into the works.

Choosing new masters is no solution at all. It is we anarchists, enemies of Christianity, who have to remind a whole society which claims to be Christian of these words of the man whom they have made a God: ‘Call no man Master, Master! Let each man remain his own master.’ Do not go to the offices of bureaucrats, or the noisy chambers of parliaments, in the vain hope for the words of freedom. Listen rather to the voices which come from below, even if they come through the bars of the prison cell.

Elisée Reclus

Clarens (Switzerland), October 1, 1885