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!