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.


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


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

Kropotkin: Neither God Nor Master

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included some brief excerpts from Kropotkin’s essay on “revolutionary government” in Words of a Rebel. In the following excerpts, having demonstrated the failings of representative government, Kropotkin argues against those revolutionaries who think they can make a social revolution by seizing power and imposing their own so-called “revolutionary” dictatorship. He ends by quoting the French revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881), who at the end of his life proclaimed: “Neither God Nor Master,” which was to become the battle cry of the anarchist movement.

From Revolutionary Government to Personal Dictatorship

From Revolutionary Government to Personal Dictatorship

Revolutionary Government

The perils to which the revolution is exposed should it allow itself to be managed by an elected government are so evident that a whole school of revolutionaries has completely renounced that idea. They understand that it is impossible for an insurgent people to give itself by electoral means a government that does not represent the past, a government that does not act like fetters around the ankles of the people, above all when it sets out to accomplish that immense economic, political and moral regeneration we mean when we talk of the social revolution. So they renounce the idea of a “legal” government, at least for the period of revolt against legality, and they call for “revolutionary dictatorship.”

“The party which has overthrown the government — they say — will forcefully take its place. It will seize power and proceed in a revolutionary manner. It will take the measures needed to secure the success of the insurrection; it will demolish old institutions; it will organize the defence of the territory. As for those who do not want to recognize its authority — the guillotine! And for those, people or bourgeoisie, who do not wish to obey the orders it will issue to regulate the progress of the revolution — the guillotine as well!” That is how the budding Robespierres reason — those who have retained from the great epoch of the past [18th] century only its decadent phase, who have learnt nothing from it but the speeches of the public prosecutors.

For us, the dictatorship of one individual or one party — and basically it is the same thing — can be judged without hesitation. We know that a social revolution is not directed by the ideas of a single man or group. We know that revolution and government are incompatible; the one must destroy the other, no matter what name one gives to the government: dictatorship, monarchy or parliament. We know that what makes the strength and originality of our [anarchist] party lies in its fundamental formula:

“Nothing good and lasting is made except by the free initiative of the people, and all power tends to kill it.” That is why the best among us, if his ideas are not accepted by the people as fit to be applied, and if he becomes master of the formidable engine of government that allows him to act out his own fantasies, will in a week be fit only to be struck down. We know where every dictatorship — even the best intentioned of them — leads: to the death of the revolution. And we know finally that this idea of dictatorship is never more than an unwholesome product of that governmental fetishism which, in the same way as a religious fetishism, has always perpetuated slavery.


But today it is not to the anarchists that we are addressing ourselves. We speak to those among the governmentalist revolutionaries who, misled by the bias of their education, sincerely deceive themselves and are open for discussion. We will approach them from their own viewpoint.

To begin with, a general observation. Those who preach dictatorship do not generally perceive that in sustaining this attitude they only prepare the ground for the successors who will swallow them up…

But the predisposition to government so completely blinds those who talk about dictatorship, that they would prefer to further the dictatorship of a new Brissot or Napoleon rather than renounce the idea of giving another master to men who have broken their chains.

The secret societies that sprang up during the Restoration period [after the fall of Napoleon] and the reign of Louis-Phillipe contributed to sustaining this cult of dictatorship. The middle class republicans of the period, supported by the workers, initiated a long series of conspiracies which aimed at overthrowing royalty and proclaiming the Republic. Failing to take into account the profound transformations that would have to take place in France, even to enable a bourgeois republican regime to be established, they imagined that by means of a vast conspiracy they would in a single day overthrow the monarchy, seize power, and proclaim the Republic. For nearly thirty years these secret societies continued to work with boundless devotion and heroic perseverance and courage. If the Republic emerged naturally from the insurrection of February 1848 it was thanks to such societies, thanks to the propaganda of the deed they carried on for thirty years. Without their noble efforts, the Republic would even now have been impossible.

Their aim was thus to seize power for themselves, to install themselves as a republican dictatorship. But of course they never reached their goal. As always, through the inevitable course of events, it was not a conspiracy that overthrew the kingdom. The conspirators had indeed prepared for the event. They had spread broadly the republican idea; their martyrs had offered an ideal to the people. But the last thrust, which finally overthrew the bourgeois king, was much broader and much stronger than anything that could come from a secret society; it came from the popular masses.

1848 French Revolution

1848 French Revolution

The result is well known. The party which had prepared the downfall of the monarchy was pushed to the side on the steps of the Hotel de Ville [in 1848]. Others, too prudent to run the risks of conspiracy, but better known and also more moderate, watched for the moment to seize power, and assumed the position which the conspirators thought they had conquered to the sound of the cannonade. Journalists, lawyers, glib speakers who had worked at making names for themselves while the true republicans forged their arms or died in the prisons, seized hold of power. Some were acclaimed by the boobies because they were already celebrated; others pushed themselves forward, and were accepted because their names represented nothing or at best a program of being all things to all men.

Let no one stand up and tell us that it was a lack of practical intelligence on the side of the party of action — that others could have done better. No, a thousand times no! It is a law, like that of the movement of the stars, that the party of action stays on the outside, while the intriguers and the talkers take over power. They gather more votes, with or without ballots, by acclamation or through the intervention of the voting booths, because basically it is always a kind of tacit election that takes place even when there is only acclamation. Those chosen are acclaimed by everyone, and especially by the enemies of the revolution who like to push forward nonentities, and in this way acclamation recognizes as leaders those who, basically, are foes of the [revolutionary] movement or indifferent to it.

The man who more than any other was the incarnation of the system of conspiracy, the man who paid by a life in prison for his devotion to that system [Blanqui], uttered on the eve of his death these words which are a whole program: “Neither God nor Master!”

Neither God Nor Master

Neither God Nor Master

Kropotkin: Against Representation

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from several essays in Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel. I did not have room for Kropotkin’s essay on “Representative Government.” This is the second part of that essay to be posted here, focusing on his anarchist critique of political representation.

vote nobody

Representative Government Part 2

The faults of representative assemblies should not in fact astonish us if we reflect for just a moment on the manner in which they are recruited and in which they function.

Must I offer again the picture, so disgusting, so thoroughly repugnant, which we all know — the picture of what happens at elections? In bourgeois England and democratic Switzerland, in France as in the United States, in Germany as in the Argentine Republic, is not that sad comedy everywhere the same?

Must one tell how the agents and electoral committees contrive, canvass and carry out an election, making promises on all sides, political in meetings and personal to individuals: how they penetrate into homes, flattering the mother, the child, and if necessary caressing the asthmatic dog or cat of the “voter”? How they spread themselves around in the pubs and cafés, trying to convert the voters and entrap them in their discussions just as their counterparts in roguery try to involve them in the “three card trick”? How the candidate, making himself desirable, appears among his “dear voters” with a benevolent smile, a modest look and a cajoling voice, like an old vixen of a London landlady trying to capture a lodger with her sweet smile and angelic looks? Need we enumerate the lying — entirely lying — programmes, whether socialist-revolutionary or merely opportunist in orientation, in which the candidate himself believes no more than he believes the predictions of an Old Moore’s Almanac, yet which he defends with a spirit, a sonorous voice, a show of feeling, worthy of a clown or a wandering actor? It is no wonder that the popular theatre no longer limits itself to exhibiting Bertrand and Robert Macaire as simple rogues, Tartuffes or swindlers, but adds to these traditional types the representatives of the people, in quest of votes and pockets to pick.

Finally, must we talk about the cost of elections? Surely all the newspapers keep us well informed on this question. One has only to reproduce the expense lists of electoral agents, in which figure roasts of lamb, flannel waistcoats, and sedative waters sent by sympathetic candidates to the “dear children” of their voters. Need we also recall the cost of boiled potatoes and rotten eggs “to confound the opposing party” that occur in the electoral budgets of the United States, or the costs of libellous placards and “last minute tricks” that already play such an honourable role in our European elections.

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

$6 billion 2012 US election most expensive in history

Thus it is, and it cannot be otherwise so long as there are voters to give themselves masters. Think only of the workers, who are equal among themselves, taking it into their heads one day to pick rulers; it will be just the same as ever. Perhaps roast lamb will no longer be distributed, but praise and lies will, and there will be no shortage of rotten eggs! What better can people hope for when they are willing to put up their most sacred rights for auction?

What, in fact, is asked of voters? To find a man to whom they can confide the right to legislate on everything they cherish most: their rights, their children, and their work! So why be surprised when two or three thousand Robert Macaires turn up to compete for these royal rights? We are seeking a man to whom we can confide — in the company of others chosen in the same lottery — the right to ruin our sons when they are twenty-one, or even nineteen if that is more convenient, and to shut them up for three years — or even up to ten years — in the pestilential atmosphere of a barracks! And to let them be massacred when and where the rulers want to start a war which the county will be forced to carry on to the bitter end once it has been started.

Such rulers can close the universities at their will, and either force the parents to send their children to them or refuse entry. Like a new Louis XIV they can favour an industry or kill it if they prefer; sacrifice the North to the South or the South to the North; annex a province or give it away. They can dispose of something like three billion francs a year, which they snatch out of the mouths of the workers. They retain the royal prerogative of naming the executive power, a power which, however in agreement with parliament it may be, can at the same time be just as despotic and tyrannical as the former kings. For, while Louis XIV could command a few tens of thousands of officials, the new rulers can command hundreds of thousands; while, if the king could steal from the exchequer a few paltry bags of coins, the constitutional ministry of today can “honestly” pocket a few millions by a simple manoeuvre at the stock exchange.

It is astonishing to see what passions come into play, when there is a call for a master who can be invested with such powers! When Spain put its throne up for bids, it was not in the least surprising to see the brigands flocking in from every side. As long as this commerce in royal powers continues, nothing can ever be reformed; elections will be fairs at which vanities are traded for consciences.

Furthermore, even if one manages to reduce the power of the deputies, if one breaks power up by making each commune a State in miniature, everything will remain the same.

direct democracy anarchism

The question of true delegation versus representation can be better understood if one imagines a hundred or two hundred men, who meet each day in their work and share common concerns, who know each other thoroughly, who have discussed every aspect of the question that concerns them and have reached a decision. They then choose someone and send him to reach an agreement with other delegates of the same kind on this particular issue. On such an occasion the choice is made with full knowledge of the question, and everyone knows what is expected of his delegate. The delegate is not authorized to do more than explain to other delegates the considerations that have led his colleagues to their conclusion. Not being able to impose anything, he will seek an understanding and will return with a simple proposition which his mandatories can accept or refuse. This is what happens when true delegation comes into being; when the communes send their delegates to other communes, they need no other kind of mandate. This is how it is done already by meteorologists and statisticians in their international congresses, by the delegates of railway and postal administrations meeting from several countries.

But what is being asked nowadays of the voter? Ten, twenty, even a hundred thousand men, who do not know each other from Adam, who have never even seen each other and have certainly never met to discuss a common concern, are expected to agree on the choice of one man. Moreover, this man will not be mandated to explain a precise matter or to defend a resolution concerning a special affair. No, he will become an instant Jack of All Trades, expected to legislate on any subject, and his decision will become law. In such circumstances the nature of delegation is betrayed and it becomes an absurdity.

The omniscient being whom everyone is seeking nowadays does not exist. But suppose we can present an honest citizen of probity and good sense and a modicum of education. Is he the sort of man who will get elected? Obviously not. Hardly twenty people from his grammar school remember his excellent qualities. He has never sought the limelight, and he despises the means by which attention might be drawn to his name. He will never gather more than two hundred votes!

He will not even be nominated as a candidate, but instead they will choose a lawyer or a journalist, a glib speaker or scribbler who will carry into parliament the ways of the bar and the newspaper office, and will add himself to one of the herds that vote with the government and the opposition. Or perhaps it will be some merchant, anxious to get the title of M.P., who will not hesitate about spending ten thousand francs to gain a scrap of fame. And where life is notably democratic, as in the United States, where committees spring up constantly to counterbalance the influence of great fortunes, the worst type of all is elected, the professional politician, that abject being who these days has become the plague of the great Republic, the man who makes politics an industry, and practices it according to the methods of great industry — with display, pizzazz and corruption!

Change the electoral system however you like; establish the secret ballot; make elections in two stages, as in Switzerland, make all the modifications you can to apply the system with the greatest possible equality; arrange and rearrange the voting lists; the intrinsic faults of the institution will continue. Whoever manages to gather more than half the votes will always be a nonentity, a man without convictions but anxious to please everyone.

That is why, as Spencer has already remarked, parliaments are generally so badly composed. The members of parliament, he says in his Introduction, are always inferior to the average of people in the country, not only in terms of morality but also in terms of intelligence. An intelligent people always seems to demean itself in its choice of representatives, and betrays itself by choosing nobody better than the boobies who are supposed to act on its behalf. As for the honesty of the representatives, we know what that is worth. Merely read what is said about them by the ex-ministers who have known and understood them.


What a shame it is that there are no special trains to allow the electors to see their “Chamber” at work! They would soon be disgusted. The ancients used to make their slaves drunk to teach their children the evils of intoxication. Parisians, go to the Chamber and see your representatives at work so that you will become disgusted with representative government!

To this rabble of nonentities the people abandons all its rights, except that of dismissing them from time to time and naming others in their places. But since the new assembly, chosen by the same system and charged with the same mission, will be just as bad as the last, the great mass of the people end up losing interest in the comedy and restricting themselves to a bit of patching up here and there by accepting a few of the new candidates who thrust themselves forward.

But if the process of election is already marked with such constitutional and irredeemable faults, what is there to be said of the way parliament fulfils its mandate? Think for a moment, and you will see at once the insanity of the task you have imposed on it.

Your representative is expected to express an opinion, give a vote, on the whole infinitely various series of questions that surge up in that formidable machine — the centralized State.

He must vote the dog tax and the reform of university instruction, without ever having set foot in a university or having known a country dog. He must pronounce on the advantages of the Gras rifle and on the site to be chosen for the State stud farm. He will vote on phylloxera, on tobacco, on guano, on elementary education and on the sanitation of the cities; on Cochinchina and Guyana, on chimney pots and on the Paris Conservatory. Having never seen soldiers on parade, he will rearrange the army corps, and having never seen an Arab, he will make and remake the Muslim landholding laws in Algeria. He will protect sugar and sacrifice wheat. He will kill the vine, imagining he is protecting it; he will vote for reforestation against pasture, and protect the pastures against the forests. He will know all about railways. He will kill off a canal in favour of a railway without knowing in what part of France either of them may be. He will add new items to the Penal Code without ever having consulted it.

An omniscient and omnipotent Proteus, today soldier, tomorrow pig breeder, in turn banker, academician, sewer-cleaner, doctor, astronomer, drug manufacturer, currier and merchant, according to the Chamber’s orders of the day, he will never hesitate. Accustomed in his function of lawyer, journalist, or public orator to talking of things he knows nothing about, he will vote on all these questions, with the sole difference that in his newspaper he amused housemaids with his nonsense, and at the assizes he kept the sleepy judges and jurors awake with his voice, while in the Chamber his opinion becomes law for thirty or forty million people.

And since it is materially impossible to have his views on the thousand subjects on which his vote will make law, he will gossip with his seat mates, spend time in the bar, write letters to warm up the enthusiasm of his “dear voters,” while a minister reads a report crammed with figures put together for the occasion by his administrative assistant; and at the moment of voting he will declare himself for or against the report according to the nod of his party leader.

Thus a question of pigfood or soldier’s equipment will be merely a matter of parliamentary bickering between the two parties of the ministry and the opposition. They will not ask themselves whether the pigs really need more food or whether soldiers are already as overloaded as desert camels; the only question that interests them is whether an affirmative vote will profit their party. The parliamentary battle is carried out on the backs of the soldiers, the farmers, the industrial workers, in the interests of the ministry and the opposition.Proudhon in 1848

Proudhon in 1848

Poor Proudhon, one can imagine his disappointment when he had the childlike naiveté, on entering the Assembly, to study profoundly each of the questions on the order of the day. He offered figures and ideas, but nobody listened to him. Parliamentary questions are all resolved well before the bills are presented by that very simple consideration: is it useful or harmful to our party? The scrutiny of votes is made; those submitted are registered and the abstentions are carefully noted. Speeches are made principally for the sake of effect; they are heard only if they have some artistic value or lead to scandal. Simple people imagine that Roumestand has aroused the Chamber by his eloquence, while Roumestand, after the sitting, works out with his friends how he can keep the promises he made to capture the vote. His eloquence was no more than a cantata for the occasion, composed and sung to amuse the gallery, and to maintain his own popularity by sonorous phrases.

“Capture the vote!” but who in fact are those whose votes are captured, so that the totals cause the parliamentary balance to lean one way or another? Who are those who overthrow and remake ministries and give the country a policy of reaction or of external adventurism, who decide between the ministry and the opposition?

They are those who have so justly been called “the toads in the marsh”! Those who have no opinion, those who sit always between two stools, who float between the two principal parties in the Chamber. It is precisely this group — fifty or so nonentities, people without convictions of any kind, who sway like a weather vane between the liberals and the conservatives, who allow themselves to be influenced by promises, places, flattery or panic; it is this little group of nobodies who, by giving or refusing their vote, decide all the business of the country. It is they who pass the laws or pigeonhole them. It is they who support or overthrow ministries and change the direction of policy. Fifty or so nonentities making the law of the country, that is what, in the last resort, the parliamentary regime has been reduced to.

It is inevitable that whatever may be the composition of a parliament, even if it is stuffed with stars of the first magnitude and men of integrity— the decision will belong to the toads in the marsh! Nothing in that can be changed so long as the majority makes the law.

After having briefly indicated the constitutional faults of representative assemblies, we should now show these assemblies at work. We should show that all of them, from the Convention to the Council of the Commune in 1871, from the English parliament to the Serbian Skoupchtchina, are plagued with incapacity; how their best laws — according to Buckle’s expression — have been no more than the repeals of preceding laws; how these laws had to be torn from their hands by the pikes of the people, by insurrectional means. That would be a tale to tell, but it would go beyond the limits of our review.

Besides, anyone who knows how to reason without being misled by the prejudices of our vicious educational system will find for himself enough examples in the history of representative government in our age. And he will understand that, whatever the representative body may be, whether it is composed of workers or the middle class — and even if it is wide open to social revolutionaries — it will retain all the faults of representative assemblies. These do not depend on individuals; they are inherent in the institution.

To dream of a workers’ State, governed by an elected assembly, is the most unhealthy of all the dreams that our authoritarian education inspires.

Just as one cannot have a good king, whether it is Rienzi or Alexander III, so one cannot have such a thing as a good parliament. The socialist future lies in a quite different direction; it will open to humanity new directions within the political order, in the same way as in the economic order.


Kropotkin: Political Rights

Freedom in each otherIn the lead up to Kropotkin’s 170th birthday on December 21st, I will be presenting some more selections from Words of a Rebel that I was unable to include in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The first selection, as topical today as when it was written, is on political rights, the most important of which can only be protected by people asserting them for themselves.

anarchy liberation

Political Rights

Each day, in a whole range of tones, the bourgeois press praises the value and the importance of our political liberties, of the “political rights of the citizen”: universal suffrage, free elections, freedom of the press and of meeting, etc.

“Since you have these freedoms,” they say to us, “what is the point of rebelling? Don’t the liberties you already possess assure the possibilities of all the reforms that may be necessary, without your needing to resort to the gun?” So, let us analyse, from our point of view what these famous “political liberties” are worth to the class that owns nothing, rules nobody, and has in fact very few rights and plenty of duties.

We are not asserting, as has sometimes been said, that political rights have no value for us. We know very well that since the days of serfdom and even since the last century, we have made a certain amount of progress; the man of the people is no longer the being deprived of all rights that he was in the past. The French peasant can no longer be flogged at the roadside, as he still is in Russia. In public places, outside his factory or workshop, the worker considers himself the equal of anyone, especially in the great cities. The French worker is no longer that being lacking in all human rights who in the past was treated by the aristocracy as a beast of burden. Thanks to the revolutions, thanks to the blood which the people shed, he has acquired certain personal rights whose value we have no desire to minimize.

But we know how to draw distinctions, and we assert that there are rights and rights. There are those that have a real value and those that do not, and whoever tries to confound them is only deceiving the people. Certain rights like, for example, the equality of the peasant and the squire in their personal relations, or the corporal inviolability of the person, have been won through great struggles, and are so dear to the people that they will rise up rather than allow them to be violated. But there are others, like universal suffrage, freedom of the press, etc., towards which the people have always remained lukewarm, because they know perfectly well that these rights, which have served so well to defend the ruling bourgeoisie against the encroachments of royal power and of the aristocracy, are no more than an instrument in the hands of the dominant classes to maintain their power over the people. These rights are not even real political rights, since they provide no safeguard for the mass of the people; and if we still decorate them with that pompous title it is because our political language is no more than a jargon elaborated by the ruling classes for their own use and in their own interests.

What, in fact, is a political right if it is not an instrument to safeguard the independence, the dignity and the freedom of those who do not yet have the power to impose on others a respect for that right? What is its use, if it is not an instrument of liberation for those who need to be freed? The Gambettas, the Bismarcks, the Gladstones need neither the freedom of the press nor the freedom of meeting, because they can write what they want, can meet whomsoever they wish, and profess whatever ideas they please; they are already liberated. They are free. If there is any need to guarantee anyone the right to speak and write, the freedom to gather together, it is surely to those who are not powerful enough to impose their will. Such in fact is the origin of all political rights.

But, looked at from this viewpoint, have the political rights we are talking of been created with an eye to those who alone need safeguards? Obviously not. Universal suffrage can sometimes and to a certain extent protect, without the need for a constant recourse to force in self-defence. It can serve to re-establish the equilibrium between two forces which struggle for power, without the rivals being forced to draw their swords on each other as they did in the past. But it can be no help if it is a matter of overthrowing or even limiting power, or of abolishing domination. Since it is such an excellent instrument for resolving in a peaceful manner any quarrels among the rulers, what use can it possibly be to the ruled?

voting changes nothing

Does not the history of universal suffrage tell us this? Whenever the bourgeoisie has feared that universal suffrage might become a weapon in the hands of the people that could be turned against the privileged, it has fought it stubbornly. But the day it was proved, in 1848, that universal suffrage held nothing to fear, and that one could rule the people with an iron rod by the use of universal suffrage, it was immediately accepted. Now the bourgeoisie itself has become its defender because it understands that here is a weapon adapted to sustain its domination, but absolutely harmless as a threat to its privileges.

It is the same with freedom of the press. What, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, has been the most conclusive argument in favour of freedom of the press? Its powerlessness. Yes, its powerlessness. M. de Girardin has written a whole book on this theme: the powerlessness of the press. “Formerly—he says—we burned witches because people had the stupidity to believe they were all-powerful; now people commit the same stupidity regarding the press, because they believe that it also is all-powerful. But it is nothing of the kind; it is as powerless as the witches of the middle ages. Hence, more persecutions of the press!” This is the contention that M. de Girardin offered in the past. And when the bourgeoisie discuss the freedom of the press among themselves, what arguments do they advance in its favour?

“Look at England, Switzerland and the United States,” they say. “In all of them the press is free and yet capitalist exploitation is better established in them than in any other country; its reign is more secure among them than anywhere else.” And they add, “What does it matter if dangerous doctrines are produced. Don’t we have all the means of stifling the voices of the journals that project them without even a recourse to violence? And even if one day, at a time of agitation, the revolutionary press becomes a dangerous weapon, so what? On that day it will be time enough to destroy it with a single blow on the most convenient pretext.”

As for the freedom of meeting, the same kind of reasoning holds. “Give complete freedom of meeting,” say the bourgeoisie. “It will do no harm to our privileges. What we have to fear are the secret societies, and public meetings are the best way of paralyzing them. But if, in a moment of excitement, public meetings should get out of hand, we would always have the means of suppressing them, since we hold the powers of government.”


“The inviolability of the dwelling? Of course! Write it into all the codes! Cry it from the rooftops!” say the knowing ones among the bourgeoisie. “We don’t want policemen coming to surprise us in our little nests.” But we will institute a secret service to keep an eye on suspects; we will people the country with police spies, make lists of dangerous people, and watch them closely. And if we smell out one day that anything is afoot, then we must set to vigorously, make a jest of inviolability, arrest people in their beds, search and ransack their homes! But above all we must do this boldly and if anyone protests too loudly, we must lock them up as well, and say to the rest, ‘What would you have us do, gentlemen? We must deal firmly with the situation!’ And we shall be applauded.”

“The privacy of correspondence? Say it everywhere, write and cry it out, that correspondence is inviolable. If the head of some village post office opens a letter out of curiosity, sack him at once and proclaim loudly that he is a monstrous criminal. Take good care that the little secrets we exchange with each other in our letters shall not be divulged. But if we get wind of some plot being hatched against our privileges, then let us not stand on ceremony; let us open everyone’s letters, allocate a thousand clerks to the task if necessary, and if someone takes it on himself to protest, let us say frankly, as an English minister did recently to the applause of parliament: ‘Yes, gentlemen, it is with a heavy heart and the deepest of distaste that we order letters to be opened, but it is entirely because the country (i.e. the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie) is in danger.”

This is what these so-called liberties can be reduced to. Freedom of press and of meeting, inviolability of the home and all the rest, are only respected if the people do not make use of them against the privileged classes. But the day the people begin to take advantage of them to undermine those privileges, then the so-called liberties will be cast overboard.

This is quite natural. Humanity retains only the rights it has won by hard struggle and is ready to defend at every moment, with arms in hand.


If men and women are not whipped in the streets of Paris, as they are in Odessa, it is because on the day a government dared to attempt this, the people would tear its agents to pieces. If an aristocrat can no longer make way for himself through the streets with the help of blows delivered right and left by the staves of his servants, it is because any of the servants who got such ideas into their heads would immediately be overpowered. If a degree of equality exists between the worker and his employer, at least in the streets and in public establishments, it is not because the worker’s rights are written into the law but because, thanks to revolutions in the past, he has a feeling of personal dignity that will not let him endure an offense from anyone.

Yet it is evident that in present-day society, divided as it is between masters and serfs, true liberty cannot exist; it will not exist so long as there are exploiters and slaves, governments and governed. At the same time it does not follow that, as we await the day when the anarchist revolution will sweep away all social distinctions, we wish to see the press muzzled, as in Germany, the right of meeting annulled, as in Russia, or the inviolability of the person reduced as it is in Turkey. Slaves of capital that we all are, we want to be able to write and publish whatever seems right to us, we want to be able to meet and organize as we please, precisely so that we can shake off the yoke of capital.

But it is high time we understood that we must not demand these rights through constitutional laws. We cannot go in search of our natural rights by way of a law, a scrap of paper that could be torn up at the least whim of the rulers. For it is only by transforming ourselves into a force, capable of imposing our will, that we shall succeed in making our rights respected.

Do you want to have freedom to speak and write whatever seems right to you? Do you want to have the liberty to meet and organize? It is not from a parliament that we seekers of freedom should ask permission, nor must we beg a law from the Senate. We must become an organized force, capable of showing our teeth every time anyone sets about restraining our rights of speech and meeting; we must be strong, and then we may be sure that nobody will dare dispute our right to speak, to write, to print what we write, and to meet together. The day we have been able to establish enough agreement among the exploited for them to come out in their millions into the streets and take up the defence of our rights, nobody will dare to dispute those rights, nor any others that we choose to demand. Then, and only then, shall we have truly gained such rights, for which we might plead to parliament for decades in vain. Then those rights will be guaranteed to us in a far more certain way than if they were merely written down on a bit of paper.

Freedoms are not given, they are taken.


Kropotkin: Anarchy & Order

Kropotkin in his study

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel, Kropotkin’s first collection of anarchist essays, originally published (in French) in 1885, while Kropotkin was still imprisoned in France for his revolutionary views. Space limitations prevented me from including the following excerpts from Kropotkin’s essay, “Order,” translated by Nicolas Walter. I have previously posted Kropotkin’s Preface to the 1904 Italian edition of Words of a Rebel, and his Postscript to the 1921 Russian edition.

Words of a Rebel

Peter Kropotkin: Order

We are often reproached for accepting as a label this word anarchy, which frightens many people so much. ‘Your ideas are excellent’, we are told, ‘but you must admit that the name of your party is an unfortunate choice. Anarchy in common language is synonymous with disorder and chaos; the word brings to mind the idea of interests clashing, of individuals struggling, which cannot lead to the establishment of harmony.’

* * *

Let us begin by pointing out that a party devoted to action, a party representing a new tendency, seldom has the opportunity of choosing a name for itself. It was not the Beggars of Brabant who made up their name, which later became so popular. But, beginning as a nickname-and a well-chosen one-it was taken up by the party, accepted generally, and soon became its proud title. It will also be seen that this word summed up a whole idea.

French sans-culotte

And the Sans-culottes of 1793? It was the enemies of the popular revolution who coined this name; but it too summed up a whole idea—that of the rebellion of the people, dressed in rags, tired of poverty, opposed to all those royalists, the so-called patriots and Jacobins, the well-dressed and the smart, those who, despite their pompous speeches and the homage paid to them by bourgeois historians, were the real enemies of the people, profoundly despising them for their poverty, for their libertarian and egalitarian spirit, and for their revolutionary enthusiasm.

It was the same with the name of the Nihilists, which puzzled journalists so much and led to so much playing with words, good and bad, until it was understood to refer not to a peculiar—almost religious—sect, but to a real revolutionary force. Coined by Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons, it was adopted by the ‘fathers’, who used the nickname to take revenge for the disobedience of the ‘sons’. But the sons accepted it and, when they later realized that it gave rise to misunderstanding and tried to get rid of it, this was impossible. The press and the public would not describe the Russian revolutionaries by any other name. Anyway the name was by no means badly chosen, for again it sums up an idea; it expresses the negation of the whole of the activity of present civilization, based on the oppression of one class by another-the negation of the present economic system, the negation of government and power, of bourgeois politics, of routine knowledge, of bourgeois morality, of art for the sake of the exploiters, of fashions and manners which are grotesque or revoltingly hypocritical, of all that present society has inherited from past centuries: in a word, the negation of everything which bourgeois civilization today treats with reverence.

It was the same with the anarchists. When a party emerged within the [First] International which denied authority in the Association and also rebelled against authority in all its forms, this party at first called itself federalist, then anti-statist or anti-authoritarian. At that period they actually avoided using the name anarchist. The word an-archy (that is how it was written then) seemed to identify the party too closely with the Proudhonians, whose ideas about economic reform were at that time opposed by the International. But it was precisely because of this—to cause confusion—that its enemies decided to make use of this name; after all, it made it possible to say that the very name of the anarchists proved that their only ambition was to create disorder and chaos without caring about the result.

The International (Paris Section)

The anarchist party quickly accepted the name it had been given. At first it insisted on the hyphen between an and archy, explaining that in this form the word an-archy—which comes from the Greek—means ‘no authority’ and not ‘disorder’; but it soon accepted the word as it was, and stopped giving extra work to proof-readers and Greek lessons to the public.

So the word returned to its basic, normal, common meaning, as expressed in 1816 by the English philosopher Bentham, in the following terms: ‘The philosopher who wishes to reform a bad law,’ he said, ‘does not preach insurrection against it… The character of the anarchist is quite different. He denies the existence of the law, he rejects its validity, he incites men to refuse to recognize it as law and to rise up against its execution.’ The sense of the word has become wider today: the anarchist denies not just existing laws, but all established power, all authority; however its essence has remained the same: it rebels—and this is what it starts from—against power and authority in any form.

But, we are told, this word brings to mind the negation of order, and consequently the idea of disorder, of chaos.

Let us however make sure we understand one another—what order are we talking about? Is it the harmony which we anarchists dream of, the harmony in human relations which will be established freely when humanity ceases to be divided into two classes, of which one is sacrificed for the benefit of the other, the harmony which will emerge spontaneously from the unity of interests when all men belong to one and the same family, when each works for the good of all and all for the good of each? Obviously not! Those who accuse anarchy of being the negation of order are not talking about this harmony of the future; they are talking about order as it is thought of in our present society. So let us see what this order is which anarchy wishes to destroy.

Order today—what they mean by order—is nine-tenths of mankind working to provide luxury, pleasure, and the satisfaction of the most disgusting passions for a handful of idlers.

Order is these nine-tenths being deprived of everything which is a necessary condition for a decent life, for the reasonable development of intellectual faculties. To reduce nine-tenths of mankind to the state of beasts of burden living from day to day, without ever daring to think of the pleasures provided for man by scientific study and artistic creation—that is order!

Order is poverty and famine become the normal state of society. It is the Irish peasant dying of, starvation; it is the peasant of a third of Russia dying of diphtheria and typhus, and of hunger, following scarcity—at a time when stored grain is sent abroad. It is the people of Italy reduced to abandoning their fertile countryside and wandering across Europe looking for tunnels to dig, where they risk being buried after existing for only a few months or so. It is the land taken away from the peasant to raise animals to feed the rich; it is the land left fallow rather than being restored to those who ask for nothing more than to cultivate it.

Order is the woman selling herself to feed her children, it is the child reduced to being shut up in a factory or to dying of starvation, it is the worker reduced to the state of a machine. It is the spectre of the worker rising against the rich, the spectre of the people rising against the government.

Order is an infinitesimal minority raised to positions of Power, which for this reason imposes itself on the majority and which raises its children to occupy the same positions later, so as to maintain the same privileges by trickery, corruption, violence and butchery.

Order is the continuous warfare of man against man, trade against trade, class against class, country against country. It is the cannon whose roar never ceases in Europe, it is the countryside laid waste, the sacrifice of whole generations on the battlefield, the destruction in a single year of the wealth built up by centuries of hard work.

Order is slavery, thought in chains, the degradation of the human race maintained by sword and lash. It is the sudden death by explosion or the slow death by suffocation of hundreds of miners who are blown up or buried every year by the greed of the bosses and shot or bayoneted as soon as they dare complain.

Finally order is the Paris Commune drowned in blood. It is the death of thirty thousand men, women and children, cut to pieces by shells, shot down, buried in quicklime beneath the streets of Paris. It is the fate of the youth of Russia, locked in the prisons, buried in the snows of Siberia, and—in the case of the best, the purest, and the most devoted—strangled in the hangman’s noose.

Order in the streets of Paris, 1871 (M. Luce)

That is order! 

* * *

And disorder—what they call disorder?

It is the rising of the people against this shameful order, bursting their bonds, shattering their fetters, and moving towards a better future. It is the most glorious deeds in the history of humanity.

It is the rebellion of thought on the eve of revolution; it is the upsetting of hypotheses sanctioned by unchanging centuries; it is the breaking of a flood of new ideas, of daring inventions, it is the solution of scientific problems.

Disorder is the abolition of ancient slavery, it is the rise of the communes, the abolition of feudal serfdom, the attempts at the abolition of economic serfdom.

Disorder is peasant revolts against priests and landowners, burning castles to make room for cottages, leaving the hovels to take their place in the sun. It is France abolishing the monarchy and dealing a mortal blow to serfdom in the whole of Western Europe.

Disorder is 1848 making kings tremble, and proclaiming the right to work. It is the people of Paris fighting for a new idea and, when they die in the massacres, leaving to humanity the idea of the free commune, and opening the way towards this revolution which we can feel approaching and which will be the Social Revolution.

Disorder—what they call disorder—is periods during which whole generations keep up a ceaseless struggle and sacrifice themselves to prepare humanity for a better existence, in getting rid of past slavery. It is periods during which the popular genius takes free flight and in a few years makes gigantic advances without which man would have remained in the state of an ancient slave, a creeping thing, degraded by poverty.

Disorder is the breaking out of the finest passions and the greatest sacrifices, it is the epic of the supreme love of humanity!

* * *

The word anarchy, implying the negation of this order and invoking the memory of the finest moments in the lives of peoples—is it not well chosen for a party which is moving towards the conquest of a better future?

Kropotkin: Preface to Words of a Rebel (1904)

Peter Kropotkin

In 1904, Kropotkin wrote a new preface for the Italian edition of his first collection of revolutionary essays, Words of a Rebel. I included excerpts from Words of a Rebel in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, and recently posted the postcript to the 1921 Russian edition that Kropotkin wrote in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In his preface to the 1904 Italian edition, Kropotkin seeks to explain why there had not yet been a social revolution in Europe, despite his view, and many others, in the late 1870s that a social revolution was imminent. Kropotkin attributes the lack of a social revolution to the continuing reaction that gripped Europe after the defeat of France by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, the brutal repression which followed the 1871 Paris Commune, and the ascendancy of German social democracy. The rise of revolutionary syndicalism and the idea of the general strike gave Kropotkin renewed hope that through a revolutionary general strike, the workers would initiate the expropriation of the bourgeoisie that would bring about the social revolution. His hopes were partially realized the following year, when general strikes throughout Russia almost succeeded in bringing down the Czarist autocracy during the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Happy Birthday Kropotkin! (December 21)

THE FIRST CHAPTERS of this book, written in 1879, speak of the social revolution as an imminent fact. The awakening of the proletariat which was then taking place in France after the period of mourning for the [1871 Paris] Commune, the expansion which the labour movement was achieving in the Latin countries, the spirit of the Russian youth, the rapid spread of socialist ideas which was then being carried out in Germany (though the Germans had remained resistant for a very long time to French socialism), and finally the economic conditions of Europe—all this seemed to presage the approaching arrival of a great social European revolution. Revolutionaries and moderates agreed then in predicting that the bourgeois regime, shaken by the revolution of 1848 and the Commune of Paris, could not long resist the attack of the European proletariat. Before the end of the century the collapse would come. Even those who opposed our revolutionary tactic and put parliamentarianism in its place did not wish to get left behind, and calculated with the voting figures in their hands that well before the end of the century they would have won a majority in the German parliament, decreed the expropriation, and accomplished the social revolution, by ballot, well before the Latin peoples.

And yet, we are now told—by some with regret, and by others in triumph—’here we are already in the twentieth century, and the promised revolution still delays its arrival!’ One might even believe—it has been said at least in the camp of the rich—that the triumph of the bourgeoisie is more assured today than ever before. The workers seem to have lost hope in a revolution.

They content themselves with sending some deputies to parliament, and they hope in this way to obtain all kinds of favours from the state.

Even their demands are reduced to quite small concessions on the part of the exploiters. At the very most the worker who is converted to social democracy dares hope that one day he will become an employee of the state—a sort of very minor official who, after twenty-five or thirty years of submission, will receive a small pension.

As for wider aims, as for the revolution which used to promise to stir up all ideas and to begin a new era of civilization; as for this future of happiness, of dignity, of emancipation, of equality which the worker had once foreseen for his children—all this, we are told today, is fantasy. A whole school of socialists has even been established who claim to possess a science of their own, according to which it can be proved that revolution is a misconception. ‘Discipline, submission to leaders—and every thing that can be done for the workers will be done in parliament. Forget the gun, forget 1793, 1848 and 1871, help the bourgeoisie to seize colonies in Africa and Asia, exploit the Negro and the Chinese with them, and everything will be done for you that can be done—without upsetting the bourgeoisie too much. Just one condition: forget this word, this illusion of revolution!’

Well, aren’t all these gentlemen triumphing too soon? To begin with, we have scarcely entered the twentieth century; and if ten or twenty years count for a lot in the life of the individual, they count for only very little or nothing in historical events. Doesn’t an event of such immense importance as the social revolution deserve to be granted the latitude of a few years?

No, we were not deceived when, twenty-five years ago, we saw the social revolution coming. Today it is just as inevitable as it was a quarter of a century ago. Only we must recognize that we had not then plumbed the full depths of the reaction which would bring the defeat of France in 1870 and 1871, and the triumph of the German military empire. We had not measured the length of the delay which was going to be produced in the European revolutionary movement following that defeat and that victory.

The Paris Commune

If the war of 1870-1871 had simply displaced military power from France to Germany, that would have had no consequence for the development of the revolutionary socialist movement. But the war had gone infinitely farther: for thirty years it was to paralyse France. With Metz two or three days from Paris— not just a simple fortress, but a fortified camp from which half a million men, fully equipped to the last gun-sling, could be thrown against the capital twenty-four hours after (or rather, before) the declaration of war; with the Triple, and later the Quadruple, Alliance ready to tear France to pieces—and that danger has not stopped weighing on France until the very last few years; with the flower of French youth decimated, whether on the battlefield or in the streets of Paris: in these conditions, how could France not pass through a quarter-century of militarism, not submit to Rome for fear of a civil war, not be infatuated by the Russian alliance? It was inevitable, it was fatal. And when today we look back—we who have fought from day to day against clericalism and militarism, Caesarism and Boulangism—we may confess that we are astonished at one thing: it is that France was able to pass through this dark period without surrendering to a new Caesar.

If the Boulangist adventure, supported by all the power of the Anglo-American bankers, the clericals. and royalists of all Europe, came despite everything to such a pitiful end; if France did not become clerical, when England is ‘catholicising’ itself so well and when Germany seems to be moving in the same direction; if we are at last seeing France at the end of these dark years finding itself again, taking a new lease of life and producing this fine new generation which is going to take the place which is its due in the movement for the renewal of the civilized world— it is because the strength of the revolutionary current was in fact much more powerful than it seemed to those who saw only the surface of events.

Let them deliver anathemas as long as they wish against the brave revolutionaries—above all against the anarchists who were able to raise high the red flag, to keep France on its guard, and sometimes to remove from the political arena those who were keeping a place warm for other reactionaries even more open in their reaction; let them curse them as much as they like! History will record that it is to their energy, to the agitation which they fed with their blood that we owe the fact that European reaction is being kept within bounds. The truth is that the revolutionary party, weak as it was in numbers, had to display an immense, fierce energy to put a curb on reaction both internal and external. We certainly had not exaggerated this strength; for without it what would have become of us now?

And the same thought may be applied word for word to Spain and Italy. Which of us would have risked predicting that in Spain they would have tried to reintroduce the tortures of the Inquisition against the rebellious workers? Who would have risked predicting the machine-gunnings in Milan? Well, they dared do it! Dared only: for the reply of the workers was soon able to bring these ‘extremists’ to reason.

Only today can we appreciate the extent of the check which was produced in Europe following the Franco-Prussian war. The worst of the defeats of 1870 and 1871 was that they led to the intellectual obliteration of France.

The necessity in which the French nation was placed, of dreaming before everything of preserving its existence, its popular genius, its civilizing influence, its existence as a nation, paralysed revolutionary thought. The idea of an insurrection evoked that of a civil war, which would be brought to an end by foreign guns coming to the rescue of bourgeois order. And on the other hand everything in France that had been most energetic, most enthusiastic, most devoted—a whole generation had perished in the great struggle which began after the siege of Paris. A whole generation of revolutionaries, drawn to Paris under the Empire, had perished at the time of the massacres which followed the fall of the Commune. The whole intellectual life of France felt the effect. It was lowered, diminished, and fell into the hands of the impotent, the sick, the fearful.

This collapse of France meant the collapse not only of a nation which had stood in the forefront of civilization, but of the whole period Europe had lived through from 1848. Europe returned to 1849, to 1830. Victorious Germany was able to take the intellectual lead which until then had belonged to France and in great measure to Italy. But if Germany had indeed given to the world a certain number of thinkers, of poets, and of scholars, it had no revolutionary past. And in its political and social development it was in the position that France had been in under Louis-Philippe. Representative government, introduced in Germany in 1871, had the attraction of novelty; and if it had had, in Weitling and his successors, a few enthusiastic communists, mostly refugees, the socialist movement in Germany itself had just been recently imported, and for this reason it had to go through the same stages which it had passed through in France: the state socialism of Louis Blanc, and the state collectivism which Pecqueur and Vidal had formulated for the 1848 Republic.

1848 French Revolution

In this way the spirit of Europe fell to the level which it had previously occupied under Louis-Philippe. Socialism itself, being turned back again, returned to the capitalist state of Louis Blanc, while losing the clearness and simplicity which the Latin spirit had given it. Further, it took a centralizing character, hostile to the Latin spirit, which was imposed on it by the German spirit, for which the union of the small German states into a single empire had been a dream for thirty years.

Several other causes could also be mentioned to explain the strength of the reaction. One of them is colonial expansion. Today the European bourgeoisie is enriching itself not only from the labour of the workers of its own countries. Profiting from the facility of international transport, it has slaves and serfs everywhere—in Asia Minor, in Africa, in the Indies, in China. The tributaries are all backward states. The bourgeoisies of England, France, Holland and Belgium are becoming more and more the moneylenders of the world, living on their dividends. Whole states are mortgaged by the bankers of London, Paris, New York, and Amsterdam. Examples are Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and China; and Japan is already being prepared for this role, a dear ally being lent to at 6 or rather 7 per cent, and all its customs revenues being mortgaged. In this way a few concessions can be gladly made to the European worker, the state can gladly maintain his children at school, it can even give him a few francs’ pension at the age of sixty—provided he helps the bourgeoisie conquer serfs and make vassal states of the stock exchange in Asia and Africa.

And finally it would also be necessary to mention the counter revolutionary effort which was made by all the Christian churches, but which came above all from Rome, in order to stem by all methods the revolution whose tide could be seen to be rising. The assault which was made against materialism, the campaign which was waged with so much skill against science in general, the putting on the Index of works and men, which was practised so assiduously by so many secular, political and religious organisations—all that would have to be mentioned to give an idea of the immense counter-revolutionary activity which was put in hand to combat the revolution. But all this is only secondary in the context of the dominant fact which we have just indicated: the collapse of France, its temporary exhaustion, and the intellectual domination of Germany which, despite all the admirable qualities of its genius and its people, was, by the very virtue of its geographical position and of its whole past, thirty to forty years behind France.

In this way, the revolution was delayed. But—is this a reason for saying that it is postponed indefinitely? Nothing would be more contrary to the truth, nothing would be more absurd than such an assertion.

A striking phenomenon has appeared in the development of the socialist movement. As was once said of inflammatory diseases, it has been ‘driven in’. So many external remedies have been applied to kill it that it has been driven into the organism: it exists there in a latent form. The worker votes; he follows the banners in political processions; but his thoughts are elsewhere. ‘All that isn’t it,’ he says to himself. ‘That’s the outside, only the show.’ As for the inside, the substance—he is considering; he is waiting before giving his opinion. And in the meantime he is setting up his trade unions—international, crossing frontiers. ‘Don’t trust these unions,’ said a member of a commission named by one of the Canadian provinces the other day. ‘Don’t trust them: what the workers are dreaming about in these federated unions is seizing an American state, a territory, one day and proclaiming the revolution there and expropriating—without any compensation—all they find necessary to live and work.’

Social Revolution

‘Yes, no doubt they vote, they obey you,’ the German bourgeoisie says to the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. ‘But don’t rely on them too far! They will disown you yourselves on the day of the revolution if you don’t become much more revolutionary than you are today. Let the smallest revolution come, and it is always the most advanced party which takes the lead and will force you to move. You are their leaders—you must follow them!’

And from all sides the same signs of the times force themselves on our attention. The worker votes, demonstrates, for lack of anything better—but all over the world another movement, much more serious, is being prepared and is maturing silently. Blanqui once said that in Paris there were 50,000 men, workers who never went to a single meeting; who belonged to no organisation—but when the day came they would come out into the streets, would fight, and would carry out the revolution. The same thing seems to be happening today among the workers of the whole world.

They have their idea, an idea of their own; and to make this idea become real one day they are working with enthusiasm. They don’t even speak about it: they understand one another. They know that in one way or another they will one day have to shoulder their rifles and give battle to the bourgeoisie. How? When? Following what event? Who knows! But that day will come. It is not far away. A few more years of effort, and the idea of the general strike will have gone round the world. It will have penetrated everywhere, found supporters everywhere, enthusiasts—and then?

Then, helped by some event or other, we shall see! And—ça ira!—it will come, and they will dance to bring in a new world. Our enemies believe that they have buried all these dreams so well. Even our friends wonder whether in fact the burial has not been successful. Yet see how the idea, still the same, the one which made our hearts beat thirty years ago, is reappearing, as alive, as young, as fine as ever: expropriation as an end, and the general strike as a means of paralysing the bourgeois world in all countries at once.

But then—is this the social revolution: coming now from the very inspiration of the people, from the ‘lower- depths’, where all the great ideas have always germinated when a new idea became necessary to regenerate the world?

Yes, this is the social revolution. Get ready to make it succeed, to bear all its fruit, to sow all these great ideas which make your heart beat and which make the world go round.

Peter Kropotkin, May 1904

1905 Russian Revolution