Peter Kropotkin

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“The sense of Mutual Aid, Justice, and Morality are rooted in man’s mind with all the force of an inborn instinct”

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) was a geographer, zoologist and political theorist whose ideas are crucial to coherent anarchist ideology.

At the heart of his philosophy is the idea of mutual aid, which he regarded as a universal tendency deeply engrained in both human and animal nature.

It is because we have the natural and innate capacity to live in co-operation and solidarity that the top-down hierarchy of the state is not only unnecessary, but also harmful, destroying organic communal structures.

Kropotkin wrote in his best-known work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, first published in 1902: “The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history”. (1)

He was quite clear that this mutual aid, this anarchism, was not something that needed to be constructed artificially by human endeavour, but originated in nature itself.

As he explained in the pamphlet ‘Law and Authority’ : “Without social feelings and usages, life in common would have been absolutely impossible. It is not law which has established them; they are anterior to all law… They are spontaneously developed by the very nature of things, like those habits in animals which men call instinct”. (2)

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And in Mutual Aid he declared: “Life in societies is no exception in the animal world; it is the rule, the law of Nature, and it reaches its fullest development with the higher vertebrates”. (3)

Kropotkin argued that although the mutual aid mentality was often not easy to see in modern capitalist societies, its presence among so-called “primitive” peoples showed that it was a natural attitude for humanity.

He wrote: “When first meeting with primitive races, the Europeans usually make a caricature of their life; but when an intelligent man has stayed among them for a longer time, he generally describes them as the ‘kindest’ or ‘the gentlest’ race on the earth.

“These very same words have been applied to the Ostyaks, the Samoyedes, the Eskimos, the Dayaks, the Aleoutes, the Papuas, and so on, by the highest authorities. I also remember having read them applied to the Tunguses, the Tchuktchis, the Sioux, and several others. The very frequency of that high commendation already speaks volumes in itself”. (4)

In his last, uncompleted, book Ethics: Origin and Development, Kropotkin was deepening his nature-based philosophy in a direction shared by other radical organic thinkers.

peterkropotkinethicsHe insisted that not only were we human beings physically part of nature but that our thinking inevitably arose from that same source.

Nature was “the first ethical teacher of man” (5) and our ideas of bad and good were reflections of what our ancestors saw in animal life. (6)

He wrote: “Mutual Aid-Justice-Morality are thus the consecutive steps of an ascending series, revealed to us by the study of the animal world and man.

“They constitute an organic necessity which carries in itself its own justification, confirmed by the whole of the evolution of the animal kingdom, beginning with its earliest stages (in the form of colonies of the most primitive organisms), and gradually rising to our civilized human communities.

“Figuratively speaking, it is a universal law of organic evolution, and this is why the sense of Mutual Aid, Justice, and Morality are rooted in man’s mind with all the force of an inborn instinct”. (7)

Like Ferdinand Tönnies, Kropotkin looked back favourably on the Middle Ages as a society where popular customs had evolved to protect the collective interests of the community.

He wrote: “The mediaeval cities were not organized upon some preconceived plan in obedience to the will of an outside legislator. Each of them was a natural growth in the full sense of the word – an always varying result of struggle between various forces which adjusted and re-adjusted themselves in conformity with their relative energies, the chances of their conflicts, and the support they found in their surroundings”. (8)

Unlike so many contemporary pseudo-anarchists, Kropotkin did not shy away from talking about the “social organism” (9) and expressing a classically holistic and nature-orientated view of the world.

russiastreamHe wrote, for example, that “we are compelled to acknowledge that every natural phenomenon – the fall of any particular stone, the flow of a brook, or the life of any one tree or animal, constitutes the necessary manifestation of the properties of the whole, of the sum total of animate and inanimate nature”. (10)

Kropotkin was also, of course, a fierce critic of contemporary capitalist society, which had reduced human beings to a state far removed from life in harmonious organic societies.

He commented that the son of a worker in the Western industrial-capitalist world “comes into the world more destitute than a savage… Everything has been appropriated by somebody; he must accept the bargain, or starve”. (11)

And he cut to the core of the capitalist notion of “work” when he asked: “Who would sell his labor power for less than it is capable of bringing in if he were not forced thereto by the threat of hunger?” (12)

Kropotkin explained how the state, with all its various “legitimate” structures and tools, played an essential role in imposing capitalism on the people.

He defined the law as “nothing but an instrument for the maintenance of exploitation and the domination of the toiling masses by rich idlers” (13) and said law and capital were like twins who “have advanced, hand in hand, sustaining one another with the suffering of mankind”. (14)

He added: “The State was established for the precise purpose of imposing the rule of the landowners, the employers of industry, the warrior class, and the clergy upon the peasants on the land and the artisans in the city. And the rich perfectly well know that if the machinery of the State ceased to protect them, their power over the laboring classes would be gone immediately”. (15)

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Kropotkin was a revolutionary and argued that “there are periods in the life of human society when revolution becomes an imperative necessity, when it proclaims itself as inevitable”. (16)

But for a revolution to succeed we needed “intrepid souls who know that is necessary to dare in order to succeed”. (17)

A positive attitude, a burning conviction of the possibility of victory, was essential to fuel the power of revolt, he said: “Let us remember that if exasperation often drives men to revolt, it is always hope, the hope of victory, which makes revolutions”. (18)

He added that this hope, and the action it inspired, would itself feed back into the positive energies of the revolutionary surge: “Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic”. (19)

Once this powerful spiral of revolt had started spinning, it would take on a life of its own and become “a revolutionary whirlwind”. (20)

Video links: Kropotkin on Ants and Mutual Aid (5 mins), Kropotkin’s Funeral (11 mins).

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1. Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (London: Freedom Press, 1993), p. 180.
2. Kropotkin, ‘Law and Authority’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets: A Collection of Writings by Peter Kropotkin, ed. by Roger N. Baldwin, (New York: Dover Publications, 1970), p. 202.
3. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, p. 57.
4. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, pp. 84-85.
5. Peter Kropotkin, Ethics: Origin and Development (Dorchester: Prism Press, n/d), p.45.
6. Kropotkin, Ethics, pp. 16-17.
7. Kropotkin, Ethics, pp. 30-31.
8. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, p. 154.
9. Kropotkin, Ethics, p. 18.
10. Kropotkin, Ethics, p. 87.
11. Peter Kropotkin, ‘Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 55.
12. Peter Kropotkin, ‘Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 128.
13. Kropotkin, ‘Law and Authority’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 211.
14. Kropotkin, ‘Law and Authority’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 207.
15. Peter Kropotkin, ‘Modern Science and Anarchism’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 183.
16. Peter Kropotkin, ‘The Spirit of Revolt’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 35.
17. Kropotkin, ‘The Spirit of Revolt’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 39.
18. Kropotkin, ‘The Spirit of Revolt’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 41.
19. Kropotkin, ‘The Spirit of Revolt’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 38.
20. Kropotkin, ‘The Spirit of Revolt’, Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 36.

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