The Spread of Anarchism and the 1905 Russian Revolution

another world

In the latest installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the spread of anarchist ideas and movements at the beginning of the 20th century, and the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution. I refer to Kropotkin’s perceptive analysis of the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the full text of which can be found here. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, as the Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm himself admitted, “the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism than to that of classical marxism.”

global_r1_c2

The Spread of Anarchism

Prior to the First World War, anarchism had become an international revolutionary movement, with the largest anarchist movements in countries with anarcho-syndicalist trade union organizations, such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay, or like minded revolutionary syndicalist movements, as in France. In the early 1900s, anarchist ideas were introduced to Japan (Volume One, Selection 102) and China (Volume One, Selections 96-99). Anarchists and syndicalists, despite the efforts of the Marxists and social democrats to exclude the anarchists from the international socialist movement, formed the extreme left wing of the socialist and trade union movements. Anarchist ideas regarding direct action, autonomous social organization, anti-parliamentarianism, expropriation, social revolution and the general strike were gaining more currency, particularly after the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

1905 Russian Revolution

1905 Russian Revolution

 The 1905 Russian Revolution

In January 1905, Czarist troops massacred scores of protesters at a demonstration in St. Petersburg, precipitating a general strike and the formation of the first “soviets,” or workers’ councils in Russia (Voline, 1947: 96-101). Following Russia’s defeat in its war against Japan in February 1905, unrest spread throughout Russia, culminating in a countrywide general strike in October 1905. The Czar was forced to promise constitutional reforms, which he soon reneged upon. Nevertheless, the great general strike of October 1905 made a deep impression on workers and revolutionaries around the world, giving renewed credence to anarchist ideas, for it was the anarchists who had been advocating the general strike as a revolutionary weapon since the time of the First International (Volume One, Selection 27). The Marxist social democrats had been dismissing the general strike as “general nonsense” for years (Joll: 193).

Kropotkin observed that “what exasperated the rulers most” about the general strike “was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and reestablishing ‘order’ by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably” (1905: 280). Despite this practical vindication of anarchist ideas, Malatesta was careful to point out the limitations of the general strike. Instead of “limiting ourselves to looking forward to the general strike as a panacea for all ills,” Malatesta warned, anarchists needed to prepare for the insurrection or civil war which would inevitably follow the workers’ seizure of the means of production. For it is not enough for the workers to halt production; to avoid being forced by their own hunger back to work, the workers need to provide for themselves (Volume One, Selection 60).

As the anarchist pacifist Bart de Ligt (1883-1938) put it in the 1930s, “the workers must not strike by going home or into the streets, thus separating themselves from the means of production and giving themselves over to dire poverty but… on the contrary, they must stay on the spot and control these means of production” for their own benefit (Volume One, Selection 120). Maurice Joyeux (1910-1991), following the May-June 1968 events in France, described such action as the “self-managerial” general strike, by which the workers directly take control of the means of production (Volume Two, Selection 61).

No revolutionary group could claim credit for the 1905 Russian Revolution. As Kropotkin noted, the October 1905 general strike “was not the work of any revolutionary organization. It was entirely a workingmen’s affair” (1905: 278). What the anarchists could do was point to the 1905 Russian Revolution as a practical vindication of their ideas, enabling them to reach a much broader audience inspired by these events.

Robert Graham

Russian anarchist sailors

Russian anarchist sailors

Evolution and Revolution

evolution-revolution

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

Elisée Reclus

Elisée Reclus

Evolution and Revolution

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

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

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

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

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Lombroso Museum Exhibit

Against Racism

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

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

Robert Graham

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Science and Technology: Anarchist Perspectives

Yoked to the Machine

Yoked to the Machine

Continuing with my installments from “The Anarchist Current,” the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist perspectives on science and technology. Although some anarchists, such as Carlo Cafiero, took a somewhat uncritical view of technology, other anarchists developed a sophisticated critique of the role of science and technology in modern capitalist societies, a critique that was sharpened by later anarchists and their fellow travellers, such as Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich. As Gustav Landauer argued, this more critical perspective on science and technology helped to distinguish the views of the anarchists from other revolutionary currents, particularly Marxism, which saw technological development as the key to social emancipation.

science and tech

Science and Technology

The anarchist critique of science and technology goes back at least to Proudhon, who denounced machinery which, “after having degraded the worker by giving him a master, completes his degeneracy by reducing him from the rank of artisan to that of common labourer” (Volume One, Selection 9). Carlo Pisacane argued that technological innovation under capitalism simply concentrates economic power and wealth “in a small number of hands,” while leaving the masses in poverty (Volume One, Selection 16).

Other anarchists have argued that once the people take control of technology, it can be redesigned to eliminate onerous toil, much like Oscar Wilde suggested, to make workplaces safer and to increase production for the benefit of all. Carlo Cafiero recognized that in capitalist economies, the worker has reason to oppose the machinery “which comes to drive him from the factory, to starve him, degrade him, torture him, crush him. Yet what a great interest he will have, on the contrary, in increasing their number when he will no longer be at the service of the machines and when… the machines will themselves be at his service, helping him and working for his benefit” (Volume One, Selection 32).

Gustav Landauer took a more critical position, arguing in 1911 that “the capitalist system, modern technology and state centralism go hand in hand… Technology, allied with capitalism, makes [the worker] a cog in the wheels of the machine.” Consequently, the technology developed under capitalism cannot provide the basis for a free society. Rather, workers must “step out of capitalism mentally and physically,” and begin creating alternative communities and technologies designed to meet their needs in conditions which they themselves find agreeable (Volume One, Selection 79). In the early 1960s, Paul Goodman (1911-1972) suggested some criteria “for the humane selection of technology: utility, efficiency, comprehensibility, repairability, ease and flexibility of use, amenity and modesty” (Volume Two, Selection 70), the use of which would result in something which Goodman’s friend, Ivan Illich (1926-2002), described as “convivial tools,” enabling “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons and… with their environment” (Volume Two, Selection 73).

Goodman the-black-flag-of-anarchism

Nineteenth century anarchists often extolled the virtues of modern science, particularly in contrast to religious belief, as part of their critique of the role of organized religion in supporting the status quo. In What is Property, Proudhon looked forward to the day when “the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism” (Volume One, Selection 8). José Llunas Pujols wrote in 1882 that in an anarchist society, “the political State and theology would… be supplanted by Administration and Science” (Volume One, Selection 36), echoing Saint Simon’s comment that in an enlightened society, the government of man will be replaced by the “administration of things”. In the conclusion to his 1920 anarchist program, Malatesta summed up what anarchists want as “bread, freedom, love, and science for everybody” (Volume One, Selection 112).

However, this did not mean that anarchists were uncritical supporters of science. One of the most widely published and translated anarchist pamphlets in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Bakunin’s essay, God and the State, in which he discussed the limitations of scientific theory and research, and warned against the danger of entrusting our affairs to scientists and intellectuals. Bakunin argued that science “cannot go outside the sphere of abstractions,” being “as incapable of grasping the individuality of a man as that of a rabbit.” Because science cannot grasp or appreciate the existential reality of individual human beings, “it must never be permitted, nor must anyone be permitted in its name, to govern” individuals. Those claiming to govern in the name of science would yield “to the pernicious influence which privilege inevitably exercises upon men,” fleecing “other men in the name of science, just as they have been fleeced hitherto by priests, politicians of all shades, and lawyers, in the name of God, of the State, of judicial Right” (Volume One, Selection 24).

Even Kropotkin, who argued in Modern Science and Anarchism (1912) that anarchism “is a conception of the Universe based on the mechanical [kinetic] interpretation of phenomena” that “recognizes no method of research except the scientific one,” never suggested that scientists should have a privileged role in society, nor that scientific hypotheses should be regarded as akin to human laws that need to be enforced by some authority. He decried the introduction of “artificial modes of expression, borrowed from theology and arbitrary power, into [scientific] knowledge which is purely the result of observation” (Volume One, Selection 52), and argued that all theories and conclusions, including those of the anarchists, are subject to criticism and must be verified by experiment and observation.

Kropotkin no more endorsed “the government of science” than Bakunin did (Volume One, Selection 24). Instead, he looked forward to:

“A society in which all the mutual relations of its members are regulated, not by laws, not by authorities, whether self-imposed or elected, but by   mutual agreement… and by a sum of social customs and habits—not petrified by law, routine, or superstition, but continually developing and continually readjusted, in accordance with the ever-growing requirements of a free life, stimulated by the progress of science, invention, and the steady growth of higher ideals” (Modern Science and Anarchism: 59).

Robert Graham

modern science and anarchism mother earth

Anarchist Ethics

Reclus_Lhomme-et-la-terre_affiche

In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss anarchist approaches to morality and ethics. Contrary to popular misconceptions, most self-identified anarchists were not nihilistic egoists or amoralists, like Max Stirner, but instead were critics of the parsimonious and hypocritical morality found in existing society, which is designed to encourage subservience and obedience. Anarchists argued that people can only be “moral,” in a positive sense, in a society of equals without hierarchy and domination.

goldman quote

Anarchist Morality

“Official morality,” wrote Elisée Reclus in 1894, “consists in bowing humbly to one’s superiors and in proudly holding up one’s head before one’s subordinates” (Volume One, Selection 38). True morality can only exist between equals. “It is not only against the abstract trinity of law, religion, and authority” that anarchists declare war, according to Kropotkin, but the inequality that gives rise to “deceit, cunning, exploitation, depravity, vice… It is in the name of equality that we are determined to have no more prostituted, exploited, deceived and governed men and women.”

This sense of justice and solidarity, “which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own,” has been successively widened, from the clan, to the tribe, to the nation, to the whole of humankind, until it is transcended by a “higher conception of ‘no revenge for wrongs,’ and of freely giving more than one expects to receive from his neighbours” (Volume One, Selection 54). For Kropotkin, acting morally is not only natural, but a means of self-fulfillment.

What anarchists sought to achieve was a world in which everyone is free to develop his or her talents and abilities to their fullest. This is impossible as long as workers are required to engage in labour merely to eke out an existence, taking whatever jobs they can get, women must work at home and in the factory or office, subject to their husbands and fathers at home, to their bosses at work, and to conventional morality always, and children must be trained to accept their lot in life and to obey their “betters.”

It is for these reasons that anarchism, Kropotkin wrote, “refuses all hierarchical organization” (Volume One, Selection 41). As Charlotte Wilson (1854-1944), who helped found the English language anarchist newspaper, Freedom, with Kropotkin in 1886, explained, “all coercive organization” with its “machine-like regularity is fatal to the realization” of the anarchist ideal of self-fulfillment for all, not just the privileged few (Volume One, Selection 37).

Robert Graham

Kropotkin quote well being for all

Anarchist Communism

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This is the latest installment from the Anarchist Current, the afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, in which I continue my survey of the development of anarchist ideas. In this installment, I describe how the doctrine of anarchist communism arose from the debates within the anti-authoritarian sections of the International, following the split between the anarchists and the Marxists at the 1872 Hague Congress.

carlo cafiero

Carlo Cafiero

Anarchist Communism

It was from among the debates within the anti-authoritarian International that the doctrine of anarchist communism emerged in the 1870s. François Dumartheray published a pamphlet in February 1876 advocating anarchist communism, and Elisée Reclus spoke in favour of it at the March 1876 Lausanne Congress of the anti-authoritarian International. By the fall of 1876, the Italian Federation considered “the collective ownership of the products of labour to be the necessary complement of the [anarchist] collectivist” program of common ownership of the means of production (Nettlau: 139). Anarchist communism was debated at the September 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, with Paul Brousse and the Italian anarchist, Andrea Costa, arguing in favour, and the Spanish anarchists, Tomás González Morago and José García Viñas, defending the collectivist view, shared by Proudhon and Bakunin, that each person should be entitled to the full product of his or her labour.

At the October 1880 Congress of the Jura Federation, the delegates adopted an anarchist communist position, largely as the result of Cafiero’s speech, “Anarchy and Communism” (Volume One, Selection 32). Cafiero defined the communist principle as “from each and to each according to his will,” with everyone having the right to take what they will “without demanding from individuals more work than they would like to give.” With production being geared towards satisfying people’s wants and needs, instead of the financial demands of the military, the state and the wealthy few, there will be no “need to ask for more work than each wants to give, because there will be enough products for the morrow.”

Cafiero argued against the collectivist position on the basis that “individual distribution of products would re-establish not only inequality between men, but also inequality between different kinds of work,” with the less fortunate being relegated the “dirty work,” instead of it being “vocation and personal taste which would decide a man to devote himself to one form of activity rather than another.” Furthermore, with “the ever-increasing tendency of modern labour to make use of the labour of previous generations” embodied in the existing economic infrastructure, “how could we determine what is the share of the product of one and the share of the product of another? It is absolutely impossible.” With respect to goods which are not sufficiently abundant to permit everyone to take what they will, Cafiero suggested that such goods should be distributed “not according to merit but according to need,” much as they are in present-day families, with those in greater need, such as children and the elderly, being given the larger portions during periods of scarcity (Volume One, Selection 32).

kropotkin_anarchism_Freedom

Kropotkin further developed the theory of anarchist communism in a series of pamphlets and books, the best know and most influential being The Conquest of Bread (Volume One, Selection 33), and Fields, Factories and Workshops (Volume One, Selection 34). The Conquest of Bread helped persuade many anarchists, including former collectivists in Spain, anarcho-syndicalists (Volume One, Selections 58, 84, 95 & 114), and anarchists in Japan, China and Korea (Volume One, Selections 99, 106 & 108), to adopt an anarchist communist position, sometimes referred to, particularly in Spain, as “libertarian communism” (Volume One, Selection 124).

In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin set forth his vision of a decentralized anarchist communist society “of integrated, combined labour… where each worker works both in the field and in the workshop,” and each region “produces and itself consumes most of its own agricultural and manufactured produce.” At “the gates of your fields and gardens,” there will be a “countless variety of workshops and factories… required to satisfy the infinite diversity of tastes… in which human life is of more account than machinery and the making of extra profits… into which men, women and children will not be driven by hunger, but will be attracted by the desire of finding an activity suited to their tastes” (Volume One, Selection 34). This remarkably advanced conception of an ecologically sustainable society inspired many subsequent anarchists, including Gustav Landauer (1870-1919) in Germany (Volume One, Selection 111), and through him the kibbutz movement in Palestine (Buber, Volume Two, Selection 16, and Horrox, 2009), the anarchist communists in China (Volume One, Selection 99), the “pure” anarchists of Japan (Volume One, Selection 106), and the anarchist advocates of libertarian communism in Spain (Volume One, Selection 124).

communitas cover

Paul and Percival Goodman updated Kropotkin’s ideas in Communitas (1947), proposing not only the integration of the fields, factories and workshops, but also the home and the workplace, providing for decentralized, human-scale production designed “to give the most well-rounded employment to each person, in a diversified environment,” based on “small units with relative self-sufficiency, so that each community can enter into a larger whole with solidarity and independence of viewpoint” (Volume Two, Selection 17). In the 1960s, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) argued that “the anarchist concepts of a balanced community, a face-to-face democracy, a humanistic technology, and a decentralized society… are not only desirable, they are also necessary” to avoid ecological collapse and to support a libertarian society (Volume Two, Selection 48), a point made earlier by Ethel Mannin (Volume Two, Selection 14). Kropotkin continues to influence and inspire “green” anarchists, such as Graham Purchase, who advocates an anarchist form of bioregionalism (Volume Three, Selection 28), and Peter Marshall, with his “liberation ecology” (Volume Three, Selection 30).

There is another aspect of Kropotkin’s conception of anarchist communism that had far-reaching implications, and this is his vision of a free society which “seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects.” These “ever changing, ever modified associations” will “constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all” (Volume One, Selection 41). Some Italian anarchist communists, such as Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), argued for an even more fluid concept of voluntary association, opposing any attempts to create permanent organizations, whether an anarchist federation or a revolutionary trade union, arguing that any formal organization inevitably requires its members to “submit for the sake of discipline” and unity to “provisions, decisions, [and] measures… even though they may be contrary to their opinion and their interest” (Volume One, Selection 35).

As Davide Turcato points out (2009), the debate between “anti-organizationalists,” such as Galleani, and the “organizationalists,” such as Malatesta, “was a debate of great sophistication,” which developed many ideas which were to “become common currency in the sociological literature, particularly through the work of Robert Michels,” who recognized that “anarchists were the first to insist upon the hierarchical and oligarchic consequences of party organization.”

Most anarchist communists, including Kropotkin and Malatesta, believed that nonhierarchical organization is possible and desirable, although one must always be on guard against oligarchic and bureaucratic tendencies. In our day, Colin Ward (1924-2010), drawing explicitly on Kropotkin’s theory of voluntary association, has endeavoured to show that anarchist ideas regarding “autonomous groups, workers’ control, [and] the federal principle, add up to a coherent theory of social organization which is a valid and realistic alternative to the authoritarian, hierarchical institutional philosophy which we see in application all around us” (Volume Two, Selection 63).

Robert Graham

eco-anarchism

eco-anarchism

Additional References

Goodman, Paul & Percival. Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.

Horrox, James. A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. San Francisco: AK Press, 2009.

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Turcato, Davide. “Making Sense of Anarchism.” Introduction. Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Two. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2009.

The First International and the Paris Commune

paris_commune

Returning to my series from the Anarchist Current, the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, this installment deals with the effect of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune on anarchist theory and practice.

The Paris Commune - Street Barricades

The Paris Commune – Street Barricades

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune

The Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 had a significant impact on emerging anarchist movements. Bakunin argued that the War should be turned into a mass uprising by the French workers and peasants against their domestic and foreign masters. To bring the peasants over to the side of the social revolution, Bakunin urged his fellow revolutionaries to incite the peasantry “to destroy, by direct action, every political, judicial, civil and military institution,” to “throw out those landlords who live by the labour of others” and to seize the land. He rejected any notion of revolutionary dictatorship, warning that any attempt “to impose communism or collectivism on the peasants… would spark an armed rebellion” that would only strengthen counter-revolutionary tendencies (Volume One, Selection 28).

Although it was Proudhon who had first proposed an alliance between the workers and peasants, it was Bakunin who saw the peasantry as a potentially revolutionary force. Bakunin and subsequent anarchists did not believe that a social revolution was only possible in advanced capitalist societies with a large industrial proletariat, as Marxists claimed, but rather looked to the broad masses of the exploited and downtrodden to overthrow their oppressors. Consequently, anarchists supported the efforts of indigenous peoples to liberate themselves from colonial domination and the local elites which benefitted from colonialism at their expense, particularly in Latin America with its feudalist latifundia system which concentrated ownership of the land in the hands of a few (Volume One, Selections 71, 76 & 91). In Russia, Italy, Spain and Mexico, anarchists sought to incite the peasants to rebellion with the battle cry of “Land and Liberty” (Volume One, Selections 71, 73, 85, 86, & 124), while anarchists in China, Japan and Korea sought the liberation of the peasant masses from their feudal overlords (Volume One, Selections 97, 99, 101, 104 & 105).

Bakunin argued that the best way to incite the masses to revolt was “not with words but with deeds, for this is the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda” (Volume One, Selection 28). In Mexico, the anarchist Julio Chavez Lopez led a peasant uprising in 1868-1869, in which the insurgents would occupy a village or town, burn the land titles and redistribute the land among the peasants (Hart: 39). In September 1870, Bakunin participated in a short-lived attempt to create a revolutionary Commune in Lyon, proclaiming the abolition of mortgages and the judicial system (Leier: 258). He made a similar attempt with his anarchist comrades in Bologna in 1874.

In 1877, Bakunin’s associates, Carlo Cafiero (1846-1892), Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) and a small group of anarchists tried to provoke a peasant uprising in Benevento, Italy, by burning the local land titles, giving the villagers back their tax moneys and handing out whatever weapons they could find. Paul Brousse (1844-1912) described this as “propaganda by the deed,” by which he did not mean individual acts of terrorism but putting anarchist ideas into action by seizing a commune, placing “the instruments of production… in the hands of the workers,” and instituting anarchist communism (Volume One, Selection 43).
The inspiration for this form of propaganda by the deed was the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of Paris proclaimed the revolutionary Commune, throwing out their national government. Varlin and other Internationalists took an active part in the Commune. After its bloody suppression by the Versailles government, during which Varlin was killed, several Communards were to adopt an explicitly anarchist position, including Elisée Reclus and Louise Michel.

Paris commune journal

The anti-authoritarian sections of the First International supported the Commune and provided refuge for exiled Communards. Bakunin commended the Communards for believing that the social revolution “could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses” (Volume One, Selection 29). James Guillaume thought that the Commune represented the revolutionary federalist negation of the nation State that “the great socialist Proudhon” had been advocating for years. By 1873, the Jura Federation of the International was describing the Commune as the first practical realization of the anarchist program of the proletariat. However, as David Stafford points out, the “massacre of the Communards and the savage measures which followed it (it has been estimated that 30,000 people were killed or executed by the Versailles forces)” helped turn anarchists further away from Proudhon’s pacifist mutualism, which was seen as completely unable to deal with counter-revolutionary violence (Stafford: 20).

Louise Michel (1830-1905) had fought on the barricades when the French government sent in its troops to put down the Commune. The Union of Women for the Defence of Paris and the Care of the Wounded issued a manifesto calling for “the annihilation of all existing social and legal relations, the suppression of all special privileges, the end of all exploitation, the substitution of the reign of work for the reign of capital” (Volume One, Selection 30). At Michel’s trial after the suppression of the Commune, she declared that she belonged “completely to the Social Revolution,” vowing that if her life were spared by the military tribunal, she would “not stop crying for vengeance,” daring the tribunal, if they were not cowards, to kill her (Volume One, Selection 30).

Anarchists drew a number of lessons from the Commune. Kropotkin argued that the only way to have consolidated the Commune was “by means of the social revolution” (Volume One, Selection 31), with “expropriation” being its “guiding word.” The “coming revolution,” Kropotkin wrote, would “fail in its historic mission” without “the complete expropriation of all those who have the means of exploiting human beings; [and] the return to the community… of everything that in the hands of anyone can be used to exploit others” (Volume One, Selection 45).

With respect to the internal organization of the Commune, Kropotkin noted that there “is no more reason for a government inside a commune than for a government above the commune.” Instead of giving themselves a “revolutionary” government, isolating the revolutionaries from the people and paralyzing popular initiative, the task is to abolish “property, government, and the state,” so that the people can “themselves take possession of all social wealth so as to put it in common,” and “form themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself” (Volume One, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Père Lachaise Cemetery Wall Memorial to the Communards executed there in May 1871

Additional References

Hart, John M. Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class, 1860-1931. Austin: University of Texas, 1987.

Leier, Mark. Bakunin: The Creative Passion. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2006.

Stafford, David. From Anarchism to Reformism: A Study of the Political Activities of Paul Brousse, 1870-90. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

Kropotkin: The Action of the Masses (1890)

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

Every once in a while one of my older posts starts generating traffic. The most recent example is Peter Kropotkin’s article on “Workers Organization.” In that article, now included in Iain McKay’s anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press, Kropotkin emphasizes the need for revolutionary working class organizations controlled by the workers themselves for any revolution to be successful. The following excerpts are taken from a later article by Kropotkin, “The Action of the Masses and the Individual,” in which he responds to a letter regarding increased strike activity among the workers in conjunction with May Day demonstrations. I included several selections by Kropotkin on anarchism and revolution in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Many thanks to Iain McKay for making this translation available, and for providing the footnotes.

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The Action of the Masses and the Individual

Our comrades are perfectly right to say [in their letter] that the May strikes are a consequence of general economic conditions. If the return of work to the mines and in the iron industry, and if dreadful poverty in the other trades did not exist, there wouldn’t have been any strikes at all, as there weren’t any on such a large scale ten years ago. But what our comrades ignore is that, outside all socialist organisations, right now, within the workers of all nationalities, an immense work to press on to a general strike is taking place. Democrats, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists, have absolutely nothing to do with it. – “We are overwhelmed by this movement” we were told, two years ago, by a Belgian socialist. In England, in a big city, at least socialists took hold of this movement. They were well received at first; but when people realised that they wanted to enlist it to an electoral aim, they threw them overboard.[1]

Whether it is enough to say that this international movement comes from America; [2] that it is taking form outside all [existing] organisation; and that we find ourselves faced with one of these facts that have always characterised the great popular movements – tacit understanding that becomes established outside newspapers, committees, agitators. A word put out in a workshop is enough and they tell each other: “So be it, see you on the 1st of May!” Then a worker goes from England to Austria, or from Austria to England, and expresses the same idea, and the idea – since it results from an economic necessity – is accepted straightaway.

Every strike of the last two years, in Belgium, in England, in Moravia[3], etc., etc., are due to this spontaneous spreading of the idea. If ever there was a movement anarchist by its essence and a propaganda essentially anarchist in its processes, it is this one. Because there is no secret – it is a tacit agreement that becomes established.

Our comrades from Geneva are mistaken to attribute the 1st May to the Paris Congress.[4] It was made absolutely outside of the Congress, against the will of the social-democrats, against the will of trade-union committees and despite indifference of socialists, anarchists and authoritarians. It is precisely for that reason that we attach significance to it.

In a Congress where Liebknecht[5] enjoyed royal rights, an unknown coming from Australia makes the proposal. The flabbergasted chiefs do not dare to renounce it, because the worker delegates – the unknowns – acclaim it unanimously. Then, the proposal is forgotten. The watchword of the socialist press is to not breathe a word of it. Socialists and anarchists treat it as a joke. Democrats oppose it. And meanwhile the workers spread the call [for a general strike] amongst each other: see you on the 1st of May. And fifteen days before the 1st of May the trade unionist, socialist and democrat leaders learn with dread that the working people will be on the street on that day. So they put on a brave face at this bad news, then they try to curb the demonstration and they end up joining it. But still, they expect a demonstration of no significance – and there is the whole of working London coming out of its hovels, a third of Vienna going to the Prater[6], the whole of Hamburg on its feet, and a general uprising of miners starts in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, etc.

In fact, we are persuaded that what the popular initiators of the movement wanted for the 1st of May was the general strike – as they had wanted it, a few years ago, in America. And we are persuaded that the idea of a general strike has only been postponed and that popular agreement will find in a year or two another date, unforeseen by those in power, to start the general strike.

* * *

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We think that these facts are generally unknown and are the best reply to our comrades’ letter and for that very reason we had to set them out at length

“Individual initiative?” – Damn it! Let us practice it as much as possible! Let us not talk: let us act! But when we face a spontaneous movement of the masses – in front of an individual initiative of millions of workers – let us not put a spanner in the wheels of what is being done without us in the name of individual initiative, which will be excellent when it is taken but which, on its own, will not make the revolution. The strong point of individual initiative is to awake the spirit of revolt in the masses – because without the masses, no revolution. But once the masses awaken, once they move and descend onto the street, at the risk of sleeping that night on the barricades (it was the idea in Vienna), where does individual initiative have to go?

The answer is obvious – Where the masses are! And on the very day when the masses arrange to meet up! For us, it is absolutely obvious that in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, in Barcelona, in Valencia and elsewhere, those amongst the workers who really have some individual initiative and who wait for the watchword from the anarchists no more than from the democrats, told themselves: “While the troops are in Vienna or in Madrid, we will start the revolution here, in Moravia, in Barcelona or in Bilbao. And we will do it precisely on the 1st of May (or rather on the 2nd of May) whilst the troops are still in Vienna or in Madrid, and not on the 15th of May or on the 15th of June, when they will be back in our provinces”.

They have not been supported, precisely because the initiative was lacking elsewhere.

As for the arrests of anarchists – it is time to anticipate them in advance. Every time there is agitation in the masses, wherever it is from, the government will arrest anarchists – if they do not take precautions. That will take place before the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution. We need only to remember Marat[7] and so many others, less known, who were forced to live in cellars right in the middle of 1793, while aristocrats were guillotined by the dozens. Anarchists will be arrested because – sometimes wrongly, but most often rightly – governments will tell themselves this: “When the people are in the street and that individual initiative is lacking amongst these masses marching to storm society, it is from the anarchists that the initiative of a movement will be able to come, not from the legalists”.

And, let us note, that it will be absolutely the same thing during the revolution itself, as long as the revolution, in its development, has not reached the anarchist phase. Therefore, let us not speak of it.

* * *

Revolution-fists

Let us also add that if, on the day of a large popular demonstration, a movement in a big city hardly ever takes place, it is always a few days after such a demonstration that the movement starts. We counted ourselves, we understood its strength, we were offended by the brutality of the police, we were enraged by the blood shed at a peaceful demonstration: the soldiers themselves are furious at the leaders who made them shoot women and children; and then, on a call that, once more, is born spontaneously in the masses – we prepare another demonstration. But, before that day, the revolution already breaks out.

In short, let us turn the question over and over as much as we like, but we cannot reach another conclusion than this one: “whether we are the partisan of individual action or action of the masses – and it is obvious that both are necessary – the man of action’s place is where the masses are. If he carries out an individual act; if he responds to a policeman’s kick with a pistol shot; if he rebels against such iniquity; if he extinguishes the fire in some working factory, or if he breaks its windows (as was done in Moravia); if he goes to prison for spreading some propaganda amongst the troops or if he carries out quite another act of individual courage – his act will only have more impact, since it was done in the eyes of the masses, openly and publicly, while the press will talk about it in all details, while every worker will talk about it in the workshop”.

It is so simple, and we are so certain that all revolutionaries are of the same opinion, that there can only be debate on it by misunderstanding.

Peter Kropotkin

La Révolte, 24th of May 1890

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[1] A reference to the 1889 London Dock Strike (see Kropotkin’s article “Ce que c’est qu’une gréve” [“What a Strike is”], La Révolte, 7th of September 1889. (translator)

[2] A reference to the 1886 eight-hour day movement in America that called upon workers to strike on the 1st of May. The Haymarket event in Chicago – a police attack on a strike meeting, a bomb being thrown and subsequent framing and hanging of five Anarchists, was a part of this strike wave. (translator)

[3] Moravia was a historical country in Central Europe in the east of the Czech Republic and one of the historical Czech lands, together with Bohemia and Czech Silesia. (translator)

[4] A reference to founding congress of the Second International held in Paris during July 1889. This congress designated the 1st of May as an international holiday for labour to be marked by demonstrations and parades. It was inspired by the American Eight-Hour movement of 1886. (translator)

[5] Wilhelm Martin Philipp Christian Ludwig Liebknecht (1826-1900) was a leading German social democrat. Under his leadership, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) grew from a tiny sect to become the country’s largest political party. (translator)

[6] The Prater is a large public park in Vienna’s 2nd district (Leopoldstadt). (translator)

[7] Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) was one of the one of the most radical voices of the French Revolution. He was a vigorous defender of the sans-culottes and published the newspaper L’Ami du people (Friend of the People) which was renowned for its fierce tone and advocacy of political and economic rights for the working classes. He was Marat assassinated while taking a medicinal bath and became a revolutionary martyr for the Jacobins. Kropotkin quoted him favourably in his classic 1909 history, The Great French Revolution. (translator)

Kropotkin: This is a Strike (1889)

London Dockworkers Strike

London Dockworkers Strike

In August 1889, London dockworkers went on strike. The anarchist communist, Peter Kropotkin, recognized the significance of the event, and published the article below in September 1889. As Kropotkin points out, the dockworkers were the kind of unskilled labourers that Marxist and other socialists at the time regarded as less likely to embrace socialism, looking instead to factory workers “united” by the systems of mass production in which they worked. Anarchists, on the other hand, considered all the oppressed and exploited as potential revolutionaries, including unskilled labourers, peasants and even the lumpenproletariat, the homeless and unemployed. Kropotkin suggests that anarchists could accomplish much more if they worked with these groups towards  organizing a general strike against capitalism and the state. I included excerpts from several of Kropotkin’s works in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The translation is by N.C., and has been kindly provided by Iain McKay, editor of the most comprehensive anthology of Kropotkin’s writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press.

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What a Strike Is

We search our recent memories in vain for a single strike that was as important as the one that broke out in the docks of London and is still on going.

There have been more numerous strikes, there have been more violent ones. But none had the same meaning for the revolutionary socialist idea.

Firstly, the socialist movement was born within better-paid trades and has grouped the elite workers, the latter have always looked down on the rough trades. Men from the Fourth-Estate like to talk about “the unconscious masses, incapable of organising themselves, demoralised by poverty”.

We know that we have maintained the opposite view. And now these dock workers, who can neither go to socialist meetings nor read our literature, but who feel oppression and hate it more sincerely than well-read workers, come to confirm the core idea of those who know the people and respect it.

The most complete solidarity rules amongst the dock workers. And, for them, striking is far harder than for mechanics or carpenters.

All that was needed was that Tillet, a very young man and of weak health, devoted himself for two years to work on the beginnings of an organisation within the dock workers – while socialists doubted he could ever succeed in his task – so that all thousand branches of the workers related to the loading of ships cease work with a moving solidarity.

They knew well that for them, strike means hunger; but they didn’t hesitate.

It’s hunger with all its horrors. It’s terrible to see haggard men, already exhausted by lack of food, dragging their feet after a twenty kilometre walk, to Hyde Park and back, collapsing, fainting at the doors of cheap restaurants where the crowd was pushing to receive provision coupons and bowls of soup.

***

An immense organisation, spontaneous, was born from the centre of these rough workers, often referred to as the herd even by socialists.

Hundreds of leaflets are distributed every day. Sums of 10 to 30,000 Francs in aid – in great part pennies coming from collections – are counted, written down, distributed. Restaurants are improvised, filled with food, etc. And, except Tillet, Burns, Mann and Champion – already experienced – everything is done by dock workers who quite simply came to offer their help. Quite a vast organisation, absolutely spontaneous.

It’s the picture of a people organising itself during the Revolution, all the better for having less leaders.

It is useless to add that if this mass of 150,000 striking men didn’t feel that currently the Bourgeoisie is united and strong, it would walk as a single man against the West-End wealthy. Conversations of groups on the street state it only too well.

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But the strike has also a greater impact.

It has confirmed the strength of organisation of a mass of 150,000 men coming from every corner of England, not knowing each other, too poor to be militant socialists. But it has also demonstrated, in a way that produces a shiver down the back of the bourgeois, the extent a great city is at the mercy of two or three hundred thousand workers.

All the trade of England has already been disrupted by this strike. London Bridge, this universal trade centre, is mute. Ships coming from the four corners of the globe, go away from it as if it were a poisoned city and go towards other English ports. Cargoes – mountains – of fresh meat, fruits, food of all sorts, coming each day, rot on board ships guarded by troops. Wheat doesn’t come in to fill the shops empty each day. And if coal merchants hadn’t hastened to grant everything that the coal loaders were asking, London would stay without fuel for its million daily lit homes. It would stay in the dark if the gasmen had left work, as they had suggested, even though they had emerged victorious in a strike that took place last month. London would stay without any means of communication if Burns hadn’t commanded the tram drivers to stay at their work.

The strike spread like an oil leak. A hundred factories of all sorts, some very large, others small, no longer getting the flour, lime, kaolin, oilseeds, etc., etc. that are delivered to them on a daily basis, have extinguished their fires, throwing onto the streets every day new contingents of strikers.

It was the general strike, the stopping of all life in this universal commercial centre, imposed by the strike of three or four branches of work that hold the key to the buffet.

There are articles in the newspapers sensing terror. Never have the bourgeois felt how much they are the subjects of the workers. Never have the workers felt how much they are the masters of society. We had written it, we had said it. But the deed has more impact than the printed word! The deed has proved this strength of the workers.

Yes, they are the masters. And the day when those anarchists who exhaust themselves in empty discussions will do like Tillet, but with firmer and more revolutionary ideas – the day when they will work within the workers to prepare the stopping of work in the trades that supply all the others, they will have done more to prepare the social, economic Revolution, that all the writers, journalists, and orators of the socialist party.

We have often spoken about the general strike. We now see that in order to achieve it, it is not necessary that all workers cease work on the same day. It is necessary to block the supply channels to the Bourgeoisie and to its factories.

Peter Kropotkin

La Révolte, 7th September 1889

The Spirit of Revolt

The Spirit of Revolt

Kropotkin: Celebrating Bakunin’s Anniversary

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May 30, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mikhail (“Michael”) Bakunin (1814-1876), the Russian anarchist who was instrumental in the founding of an international anarchist movement in the late 1860s and early 1870s in Europe. This month also marks the publication of Iain McKay’s anthology of Piotr (“Peter”) Kropotkin’s revolutionary anarchist writings, Direct Struggle Against Capital, published by AK Press. While Kropotkin and Bakunin never met, Kropotkin was introduced to revolutionary anarchism by Bakunin’s associates in the Jura Federation, a Swiss section of the International Workingmen’s Association (the “First International”), although he was already familiar with Proudhon’s mutualist anarchism. Kropotkin later credited Bakunin with establishing “in a series of powerful pamphlets and letters the leading principles of modern anarchism” (Modern Science and Anarchism). Here I reproduce a letter Kropotkin wrote on the 100th anniversary of Bakunin’s birth, in which he sets forth his assessment of Bakunin’s role in the development of modern anarchism in more detail, and which is now included in Direct Struggle Against CapitalVolume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas contains extensive excerpts from the anarchist writings of Bakunin, Kropotkin and Proudhon.

direct_struggle_against_capitalDear Comrades

I am sorry that I cannot be with you for the commemoration of the birthday of our great teacher, Mikhail Bakunin. There are few names which ought to be as dear to the revolutionary working men of the world as the name of this apostle of the mass revolt of the proletarians of all nations.

Surely, none of us will ever think of minimizing the importance of that labour of thought which precedes every Revolution. It is the conscience of the wrongs of society, which gives to the downtrodden and oppressed ones the vigour that is required to revolt against those wrongs.

But with immense numbers of mankind, quite an abyss lies between the comprehension of the evils, and the action that is needed to get rid of these evils.

To move people to cross this abyss, and to pass from grumbling to action, was Bakunin’s chief work.

In his youth, like most educated men of his times, he paid a tribute to the vagaries of abstruse philosophy. But he soon found his way at the approach of the Revolution of 1848. A wave of social revolt was rising then in France, and he flung himself heart and soul into the turmoil. Not with those politicians who already prepared to seize the reins of power as soon as monarchy would fall under the blows of the revolted proletarians. He foresaw, he knew already, that the new rulers would be against the proletarians the moment they would be at the head of the Republic.

He was with the lowest masses of the Paris proletarians ― with those men and women whose vague hopes were already directed towards a Social, Communistic Commonwealth. Here he represented the so-much-needed link between the advanced parties of the Great Revolution of 1793 and the new generation of Socialists, a giant trying to inspire the generous but much too pacific Socialist proletarians of Paris with the stern daring of the sans-culottes of 1793 and 1794.

Of course, the politicians soon saw how dangerous such a man was for them, and they expelled him from Paris before the first barricades of February 1848, had been built. He was quite right, that bourgeois Republican Caussidière, when he said of Bakunin: “Such men are invaluable before the Revolution. But when a Revolution has begun ― they must be shot.” Of course they must! They will not be satisfied with the first victories of the middle classes. Like our Portuguese worker friends [who participated in the 1910 Portugese Revolution], they will want some immediate practical results for the people. They will want that every one of the downtrodden masses should feel that a new era has come for the ragged proletarian.

Of course, the bourgeois must shoot such men, as they shot the Paris workers in 1871. In Paris, they took the precaution of expelling him before the Revolution began.

Expelled from Paris, Bakunin took his revenge at Dresden, in the Revolution of 1849, and here his worse enemies had to recognize his powers in inspiring the masses in a fight, and his organizing capacities. Then came the years of imprisonment in the fortress of Olmütz, where he was chained to the wall of his cell, and in the deep casemates of the St. Petersburg and Schlüsselburg fortresses, followed by years of exile in Siberia. But in 1862 he ran away from Siberia to the United States, and then to London, where he joined the friends of his youth ― Herzen and Ogaroff.

Heart and soul he threw himself into supporting the Polish uprising of 1863. But it was not until four years later that he found the proper surroundings and ground for his revolutionary agitation in the International Working Men’s Association. Here he saw masses of workers of all nations joining hands across frontiers, and striving to become strong enough in their Unions to throw off the yoke of Capitalism. And at once he understood what was the chief stronghold the workers had to storm, in order to be successful in their struggle against Capital ― the State. And while the political Socialists spoke of getting hold of power in the State and reforming it, “Destroy the State!” became the war-cry of the Latin Federations, where Bakunin found his best friends.

The State is the chief stronghold of Capital ― once its father, and now its chief ally and support. Consequently, Down with Capitalism and down with the State!

All his previous experience and a close friendly intercourse with the Latin workers made of Bakunin the powerful adversary of the State and the fierce revolutionary Anarchist Communist fighter he became in the last ten years of his life.

Here Bakunin displayed all the powers of his revolutionary genius. One cannot read his writings during those years ― mostly pamphlets dealing with questions of the day, and yet full of profound views of society ― without being fired by the force of his revolutionary convictions. In reading these writings and in following his life, one understands why he so much inspired his friends with the sacred fire of revolt.

Down to his last days, even amidst the pangs of a mortal disease, even in his last writings, which he considered his testament, he remained the same firmly convinced revolutionary Anarchist and the same fighter, ready to join the masses anywhere in their revolt against Capital and the State.

Let us, then, follow his example. Let us continue his work, never forgetting that two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution ― two things, as one of my comrades said in the trial at Lyon: an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action ― guided by the force of Anarchist thought.

Peter Kropotkin

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Kropotkin: Happy Solstice (Across the Anarchist Universe)

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Around this time of year, the combination of religious idolatry and capitalism called “Christmas” can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are other things to celebrate, like Peter Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice, both of which fall on December 21st. Instead of focusing his critique on religion and its role in perpetuating the domination and exploitation of the masses, something that Bakunin was adept at, Kropotkin tried to articulate a positive view of the universe and people’s place in it, which mirrored his views of an anarchist society. In Modern Science and Anarchism (1903), Kropotkin described anarchism as “a world-concept based upon a mechanical [kinetic] explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of nature.” This was a 19th century conception of nature and the universe, still steeped in Newtonian physics, soon to be replaced by Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum physics. But in Kropotkin’s earlier pamphlet, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal (1896), he set forth a view of the universe that is surprisingly modern, anticipating post-Einsteinian theories, such as the hypothesis of the “God particle,” infinitesimally small particles that hold the universe together. Space considerations prevented me from including these passages in the excerpts from Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In celebration of Kropotkin’s birthday and the Winter Solstice, I reproduce them below, hopefully providing some respite from the relentless religious and commercial propaganda at around this time of year.

Across the Anarchist Universe

Across the Anarchist Universe

An Anarchist Across the Universe

Those who are persuaded that anarchism is a collection of visions relating to the future, and an unconscious striving towards the destruction of all present civilization, are still very numerous. To clear the ground of such prejudices as maintain this view we should have to enter into many details which it would be difficult to cover briefly.

Anarchists have been spoken of so much lately that part of the public has at last taken to reading and discussing our doctrines. Sometimes men have even given themselves the trouble to reflect, and at the present time we have at least gained the admission that anarchists have an ideal. Their ideal is even found too beautiful, too lofty for a society not composed of superior beings.

But is it not pretentious on my part to speak of a philosophy, when according to our critics our ideas are but dim visions of a distant future? Can anarchism pretend to possess a philosophy when it is denied that socialism has one?

This is what I am about to answer with all possible precision of clearness. I begin by taking a few elementary illustrations borrowed from natural sciences. Not for the purpose of deducing our social ideas from them—from it; but simply the better to set off certain relations which are easier grasped in phenomena verified by the exact sciences than in examples taken only from the complex facts of human societies.

What especially strikes us at present in exact sciences is the profound modification which they are undergoing in the whole of their conceptions and interpretations of the facts of the universe.

There was a time when man imagined the earth placed in the center of the universe. Sun, moon, planets and stars seemed to roll round our globe; and this globe inhabited by man represented for him the center of creation. He himself—the superior being on his planet—was the elected of his Creator. The sun, the moon, the stars were made for him—towards him was directed all the attention of a God who watched the least of his actions, arrested the sun’s course for him, launched his showers or his thunderbolts on fields and cities to recompense the virtue or punish the crimes of mankind. For thousands of years man thus conceived the universe.

An immense change in all conceptions of the civilized part of mankind was produced in the sixteenth century when it was demonstrated that far from being the center of the universe, the earth was only a grain of sand in the solar system—a ball much smaller even than the other planets—that the sun itself, though immense in comparison to our little earth, was but a star among many other countless stars which we see shining in the skies and swarming in the milky way. How small man appeared in comparison to this immensity without limits, how ridiculous his pretentions! All the philosophy of that epoch, all social and religious conceptions, felt the effects of this transformation in cosmogony. Natural science, whose present development we are so proud of, only dates from that time.

But a change much more profound and with far wider-reaching results is being effected at the present time in the whole of the sciences, and anarchism is but one of the many manifestations of this evolution.

Take any work on astronomy of the last century. You will no longer find in it our tiny planet placed in the center of the universe. But you will meet at every step the idea of a central luminary—the sun—which by its powerful attraction governs our planetary world. From this central body radiates a force guiding the course of the planets, and maintaining the harmony of the system. Issued from a central agglomeration, planets have, so to say, budded from it. They owe their birth to this agglomeration; they owe everything to the radiant star that represents it still: the rhythm of their movements, their orbits set at wisely regulated distances, the life that animates them and adorns their surfaces. And when any perturbation disturbs their course and makes them deviate from their orbits, the central body re-establishes order in the system; it assures and perpetuates its existence.

This conception, however, is also disappearing as the other one did. After having fixed all their attention on the sun and the large planets, astronomers are beginning to study now the infinitely small ones that people the universe. And they discover that the interplanetary and interstellar spaces are peopled and crossed in all imaginable directions by little swarms of matter, invisible, infinitely small when taken separately, but all-powerful in their numbers.

It is to these infinitely tiny bodies that dash through space in all directions with giddy swiftness, that clash with one another, agglomerate, disintegrate, everywhere and always, it is to them that today astronomers look for an explanation of the origin of our solar system, the movements that animate its parts, and the harmony of their whole. Yet another step, and soon universal gravitation itself will be but the result of all the disordered and incoherent movements of these in finitely small bodies—of oscillations of atoms that manifest themselves in all possible directions. Thus the center, the origin of force, formerly transferred from the earth to the sun, now turns out to be scattered and disseminated. It is everywhere and nowhere. With the astronomer, we perceive that solar systems are the work of infinitely small bodies; that the power which was supposed to govern the system is itself but the result of the collision among those infinitely tiny clusters of matter, that the harmony of stellar systems is harmony only because it is an adaptation, a resultant of all these numberless movements uniting, completing, equilibrating one another.

The whole aspect of the universe changes with this new conception. The idea of force governing the world, pre-established law, preconceived harmony, disappears to make room for the harmony that Fourier had caught a glimpse of: the one which results from the disorderly and incoherent movements of numberless hosts of matter, each of which goes its own way and all of which hold each in equilibrium.

anarchist galaxy

If it were only astronomy that were undergoing this change! But no; the same modification takes place in the philosophy of all sciences without exception; those which study nature as well as those which study human relations.

In physical sciences, the entities of heat, magnetism, and electricity disappear. When a physicist speaks today of a heated or electrified body, he no longer sees an inanimate mass, to which an unknown force should be added. He strives to recognize in this body and in the surrounding space, the course, the vibrations of infinitely small atoms which dash in all directions, vibrate, move, live, and by their vibrations, their shocks, their life, produce the phenomena of heat, light, magnetism or electricity.

In sciences that treat of organic life, the notion of species and its variations is being substituted by a notion of the variations of the individual. The botanist and zoologist study the individual—his life, his adaptations to his surroundings. Changes produced in him by the action of drought or damp, heat or cold, abundance or poverty of nourishment, of his more or less sensitiveness to the action of exterior surroundings will originate species; and the variations of species are now for the biologist but resultants—a given sum of variations that have been produced in each individual separately. A species will be what the individuals are, each undergoing numberless influences from the surroundings in which they live, and to which they correspond each in his own way.

And when a physiologist speaks now of the life of a plant or of an animal, he sees an agglomeration, a colony of millions of separate individuals rather than a personality, one and invisible. He speaks of a federation of digestive, sensual, nervous organs, all very intimately connected with one another, each feeling the consequence of the well-being or indisposition of each, but each living its own life. Each organ, each part of an organ in its turn is composed of independent cellules which associate to struggle against conditions unfavorable to their existence. The individual is quite a world of federations, a whole universe in himself.

And in this world of aggregated beings the physiologist sees the autonomous cells of blood, of the tissues, of the nerve-centers; he recognizes the millions of white corpuscles who wend their way to the parts of the body infected by microbes in order to give battle to the invaders, More than that: in each microscopic cell he discovers today a world of autonomous organisms, each of which lives its own life, looks for well-being for itself and attains it by grouping and associating itself with others. In short, each individual is a cosmos of organs, each organ is a cosmos of cells, each cell is a cosmos of infinitely small ones. And in this complex world, the well-being of the whole depends entirely on the sum of well-being enjoyed by each of the least microscopic particles of organized matter. A whole revolution is thus produced in the philosophy of life.

anarchist-bigpic

But it is especially in psychology that this revolution leads to consequences of great importance.

Quite recently the psychologist spoke of man as an entire being, one and indivisible. Remaining faithful to religious tradition, he used to class men as good and bad, intelligent and stupid, egotists and altruists. Even with materialists of the eighteenth century, the idea of a soul, of an indivisible entity, was still upheld.

But what would we think today of a psychologist who would still speak like this! The modern psychologist sees in a man a multitude of separate faculties, autonomous tendencies, equal among themselves, performing their functions independently, balancing, opposing one another continually. Taken as a whole, man is nothing but a resultant, always changeable, of all his divers faculties, of all his autonomous tendencies, of brain cells and nerve centers. All are related so closely to one another that they each react on all the others, but they lead their own life without being subordinated to a central organ—the soul.

Without entering into further details you thus see that a profound modification is being produced at this moment in the whole of natural sciences. Not that this analysis is extended to details formerly neglected. No! the facts are not new, but the way of looking at them is in course of evolution. And if we had to characterize this tendency in a few words, we might say that if formerly science strove to study the results and the great sums (integrals, as mathematicians say), today it strives to study the infinitely small ones—the individuals of which those sums are composed and in which it now recognizes independence and individuality at the same time as this intimate aggregation.

As to the harmony that the human mind discovers in nature, and which harmony is on the whole but the verification of a certain stability of phenomena, the modern man of science no doubt recognizes it more than ever. But he no longer tries to explain it by the action of laws conceived according to a certain plan pre-established by an intelligent will.

What used to be called “natural law” is nothing but a certain relation among phenomena which we dimly see, and each law takes a temporary character of causality; that is to say: If such a phenomenon is produced under such conditions, such another phenomenon will follow. No law placed outside the phenomena: each phenomenon governs that which follows it—not law.

Nothing preconceived in what we call harmony in Nature. The chance of collisions and encounters has sufficed to establish it. Such a phenomenon will last for centuries because the adaptation, the equilibrium it represents has taken centuries to be established; while such another will last but an instant if that form of momentary equilibrium was born in an instant. If the planets of our solar system do not collide with one another and do not destroy one another every day, if they last millions of years, it is because they represent an equilibrium that has taken millions of centuries to establish as a resultant of millions of blind forces. If continents are not continually destroyed by volcanic shocks it is because they have taken thousands and thousands of centuries to build up, molecule by molecule, and to take their present shape. But lightning will only last an instant; because it represents a momentary rupture of the equilibrium, a sudden redistribution of force.

Harmony thus appears as a temporary adjustment established among all forces acting upon a given spot—a provisory adaptation. And that adjustment will only last under one condition: that of being continually modified; of re presenting every moment the resultant of all conflicting actions. Let but one of those forces be hampered in its action for some time and harmony disappears. Force will accumulate its effect, it must come to light, it must exercise its action, and if other forces hinder its manifestation it will not be annihilated by that, but will end by upsetting the present adjustment, by destroying harmony, in order to find a new form of equilibrium and to work to form a new adaptation. Such is the eruption of a volcano, whose imprisoned force ends by breaking the petrified lavas which hindered them to pour forth the gases, the molten lavas, and the incandescent ashes. Such, also, are the revolutions of mankind.

Eco-Anarchism

Eco-Anarchism

An analogous transformation is being produced at the same time in the sciences that treat of man. Thus we see that history, after having been the history of kingdoms, tends to become the history of nations and then the study of individuals. The historian wants to know how the members, of which such a nation was composed, lived at such a time, what their beliefs were, their means of existence, what ideal of society was visible to them, and what means they possessed to march towards this ideal. And by the action of all those forces, formerly neglected, he interprets the great historical phenomena.

So the man of science who studies jurisprudence is no longer content with such or such a code. Like the ethnologist he wants to know the genesis of the institutions that succeed one another; he follows their evolution through ages, and in this study he applies himself far less to written law than to local customs—to the “customary law” in which the constructive genius of the unknown masses has found expression in all times. A wholly new science is being elaborated in this direction and promises to upset established conceptions we learned at school, succeeding in interpreting history in the same manner as natural sciences interpret the phenomena of nature.

And, finally, political economy, which was at the beginning a study of the wealth of nations, becomes today a study of the wealth of individuals. It cares less to know if such a nation has or has not a large foreign trade; it wants to be assured that bread is not wanting in the peasant’s or worker’s cottage. It knocks at all doors, that of the palace as well as that of the hovel. It asks the rich as well as the poor: Up to what point are your needs satisfied both for necessities and luxuries?

And as it discovers that the most pressing needs of nine-tenths of each nation are not satisfied, it asks itself the question that a physiologist would ask himself about a plant or an animal:—”Which are the means to satisfy the needs of all with the least loss of power? How can a society guarantee to each, and consequently to all, the greatest sum of satisfaction?” It is in this direction that economic science is being transformed; and after having been so long a simple statement of phenomena interpreted in the interest of a rich minority, it tends to become a science in the true sense of the word—a physiology of human societies.

While a new philosophy—a new view of knowledge taken as a whole—is thus being worked out, we may observe that a different conception of society, very different from that which now prevails, is in process of formation. Under the name of anarchism, a new interpretation of the past and present life of society arises, giving at the same time a forecast as regards its future, both conceived in the same spirit as the above mentioned interpretation in natural sciences. Anarchism, therefore, appears as a constituent part of the new philosophy, and that is why anarchists come in contact on so many points with the greatest thinkers and poets of the present day.

In fact it is certain that in proportion as the human mind frees itself from ideas inculcated by minorities of priests, military chiefs and judges, all striving to establish their domination, and of scientists paid to perpetuate it, a conception of society arises in which there is no longer room for those dominating minorities. A society entering into possession of the social capital accumulated by the labor of preceding generations, organizing itself so as to make use of this capital in the interests of all, and constituting itself without reconstituting the power of the ruling minorities. It comprises in its midst an infinite variety of capacities, temperaments and individual energies: it excludes none. It even calls for struggles and contentions; because we know that periods of contests, so long as they were freely fought out without the weight of constituted authority being thrown on one side of the balance, were periods when human genius took its mightiest flights and achieved the greatest aims. Acknowledging, as a fact, the equal rights of its members to the treasures accumulated in the past, it no longer recognizes a division between exploited and exploiters, governed and governors, dominated and dominators, and it seeks to establish a certain harmonious compatibility in its midst—not by subjecting all its members to an authority that is fictitiously supposed to represent society, not by trying to establish uniformity, but by urging all men to develop free initiative, free action, free association.

Kropotkin A pamphlet

It seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.

A society to which pre-established forms, crystallized by law, are repugnant; which looks for harmony in an ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own course—these forces themselves promoting the energies which are favorable to their march towards progress, towards the liberty of developing in broad daylight and counterbalancing one another.

This conception and ideal of society is certainly not new. On the contrary, when we analyze the history of popular institutions—the clan, the village community, the guild and even the urban commune of the middle ages in their first stages—we find the same popular tendency to constitute a society according to this idea; a tendency, however, always trammelled by domineering minorities. All popular movements bore this stamp more or less, and with the Anabaptists and their forerunners in the ninth century we already find the same ideas clearly expressed in the religious language which was in use at that time. Unfortunately, till the end of the last century, this ideal was always tainted by a theocratic spirit. It is only nowadays that the conception of society deduced from the observation of social phenomena is rid of its swaddling-clothes.

It is only today that the ideal of a society where each governs himself according to his own will (which is evidently a result of the social influences borne by each) is affirmed in its economic, political and moral aspects at one and the same time, and that this ideal presents itself based on the necessity of communism, imposed on our modern societies by the eminently social character of our present production.

In fact, we know full well today that it is futile to speak of liberty as long as economic slavery exists. “Speak not of liberty—poverty is slavery!” is not a vain formula; it has penetrated into the ideas of the great working-class masses; it filters through all the present literature; it even carries those along who live on the poverty of others, and takes from them the arrogance with which they formerly asserted their rights to exploitation.

Peter Kropotkin

Anarchist Sky

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