Peter Kropotkin was a major anarchist thinker of the 19th century. His ideals have spread worldwide and have greatly influenced many of todays political structures. His passionate vision has been a major influence many controversial wars and political debates around the globe. He was a fearless revolutionary with an intense desire for change. Kropotkins strong example is one we should all make an effort to follow as we are now approaching new changes within the 21st century.
While researching further on Kropotkins life, I discovered that he was not exactly raised as I would expect from such a radical anarchist thinker. In fact, I gained more respect for him when I learned that he was born into a noble family and had the willingness to give up his riches in search for his own truth. I found some interesting facts about his life in Kropotkin the Master, by Herbert Read.
Peter Kropotkin was born in Moscow where he was the medieval Grand Prince of Kiev. He owned nearly twelve hundred male serfs in three different providences, housed about fifty servants in Moscow, and twenty-five more out in the country. He was a good master to his people and had the tendency even as a young boy to persistently fight for the less fortunate. When he was fifteen he entered the Corps of ages at St. Petersburg, a military academy consisting of only select noble children.After graduating from St. Petersburg, he became an officer in Siberia and was the elected secretary for both the reform of the prisons, and for preparing a scheme of municipal self-government. In Siberia and was brought into contact with many different social characters. He became quite rebellious through his interactions and resigned from the army in 1872 to become a geographer and anarchist carrying his extreme philosophies through Russia. He was eventually imprisoned in Russia and soon escaped to Western Europe where he began a publication called, Le Revolte, until he was imprisoned again in France around 1882. They released him in 1885 after many protests from writers, scientists, and philosophers. He then spent about thirty years writing many books including, The Conquest of Bread, Mutual Aid, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and Fields, Factories and workshops, during which he lived in the Hull House in Chicago and eventually moved back to Western Europe.
Kropotkin’s Utopian Ideals
Kropotkin had an articulate understanding of the role of law and authority within civilization. He believed that the education and imagination of the mind was expected to be the foremost important focus upon the individual personality, then upon communities, and ultimately upon the entire civilized world. His focus was on the moral well-being of each species that inhabits this earth in order to create an ideal utopian civilization.
Kropotkin’s utopian ideal consisted of individual distinction that is created by each person who is willing to earn it. His experiences ranged from an upper class noble to the prison slums, and because of his wide range of influence he was able to see from many different perspectives and come to personal realizations that many are unable to experience. “He was brought into contact with men of all descriptions: the best and the worst; those who stood at the top of society and those who had vegetated at the very bottom – the tramps and the so-called incorrigible criminals.” (Anonymous 3), he believed that it is not only our capacity to see from personal perspectives, but also to see from the perspectives of the community at large. To recognize how this relationship deepens our culture of understanding. “Of the many ways in which humans differ from animal, the most interesting – from the standpoint of law and economics – is that we, as individuals, not only can but must stand in the shoes of others, and can and must see the world from others’ standpoints.” (Johnson 1)
Kropotkin came to realize during his noble reign that unless the serfs who operated under him were able to obtain their liberty and become his equals the estate they were living on would not be competently managed. Realizing this, he concluded that unless serfdom was abolished, the entirety of Russia could never prosper and truly be happy. He believed that the lifetime of abuse inflicted upon many of the lower class would spiritually cripple their inner psyche, preventing them from using their full potential imagination and initiative.
He understood the sporadic employment of the working class and the fact that their lives were in the hands of the banks, landowners, and industrialists who in turn provided inadequate means for living. This resulted in many workers who turned to prostitution, crimes against property, and other unethical means of living.
I believe Kropotkins understanding of the lower class is quite amazing considering the lifestyle that he was raised with. I have utmost respect for his ability to adapt and penetrate the truth from different perspectives. This versatility has proven to be a major contributing factor for his expansive understandings of the working class and their trials and tribulations. I believe Kropotkins social status allowed him to impose greater influence in all levels of affluence.
Kropotkin on Crime
The conception of crime and its origins is an important factor that Kropotkin was able to evaluate and consider in his writings. He believed that there are two main causes for crime. The first was the social order that depended on the distribution of wealth among the classes and the fact that the impoverished were deprived of certain commodities, which then led to the inevitable consequence of crime due to the amount of law inflicted upon the individual. He described the fact that the upper classes are in the position to set definitions for all crimes, thus implying that crimes originate from the law and that new categories are invented as the moment applies. He argued that if there was no economic pressure most of these actions, classified as crimes, would not occur.
The second cause of crime based on Kropotkin’s theories is the moral degradation imposed upon the working class by an upper class that creates unnecessary difficult conditions. Meaning that the social arrangements are such that an impoverished person would be expected to fail from the beginning of his or her life due to the conditions that are imposed upon them. Kropotkin regards this demoralization as the worst of all social evils. He states that the crimes of violence, which occur among the working class, such as assault, rape, murder, robbery, etc., are mainly attributed to the living conditions of the working class.
I believe this theory presents questions as to whether social theorists can safely say that the poor are only part of a vast group of citizens that are merely infected with unfavorable genes or whether our current social norms have caused us to veer farther off our path toward a more utopian society. Kropotkin argues that any potential problems that are occurring in the present must be viewed with positive solutions for the future, that the social norms do not constitute problems until we reach a stage in our evolution that allows us to see more clearly from other perspectives thus allowing us to make necessary improvements.
Kropotkin as a Transcendentalist
Kropotkin talks about the necessity of will that allows us to persist in the midst of misery. He speaks of the discipline of prison and that it is designed to crush the will of the prisoner. As a result, the prisoner is taught to abandon important qualities of will such as consideration, self-reliance, initiative, etc. He believed that the concept of “criminal tendencies” is basically “biological nonsense” (Kropotkin 16) and concludes that perhaps these criminals, people who clearly possess enough personal will to defy the law, are merely facing the consequences of self-realization.
The concept of self-realization within the confines of law brings us to examining the spiritual underdevelopment within the people of industrialized societies as a whole. Kropotkin believed that self-will is infecting the views of all people who are unfulfilled by their occupation and who have fallen victim to the habitual patterns of modern society. He stated that the disease of the will is permeating our modern intellectuals to the extent that the concept of self-realization has reached new levels (23)
Our realizations are structured around the transcendental view of an examined life, which brings us to question our own lifestyles and how we are to live fully and completely without falling subject to those laws we are to mercifully abide by.
As this disease of the will continues to permeate our society we are faced with new ideals and strategies of action. Kropotkin argues that it is a matter of experience and understanding in the face of an exploitive system directed by the desire for profit. He states that we are able to produce innumerable cases in which methods of production can be altered in order to benefit all of humanity as opposed to just part. It is through this effort toward equality that each individual would gain a personal freedom. (73)
Kropotkin’s communal living
The idea of independent communes soon became complex issues of thought in Kropokin’s mind. He believed in simplifying life to the extent that within the commune environment everyone would be equal and independent. He began to imagine thousands of free combines and societies that would satisfy all economic, educational, and any other imaginable needs. He envisioned a system by which all organizations would interact in peace and would work together for the benefit of the other. So verily he is not only focusing on the freedom of the individual, but also the freedom and openness of the community. (74)
Kropotkin envisioned the social commune as not only being bound by geographical locations, but also by characteristics and personal interests. He imagined that each individual, part of many communities scattered throughout the world, would soon connect and be part of a large intertribal community of like minds even though their geographical boundaries may differ.
We can somewhat compare Kropotkin’s foresight to the internet communities that are now spread across the globe in many directions. The communes of interest that exist within chat rooms and internet communities, consisting of individuals from everywhere around the world serve as a link between many different types of people. We can also compare his theory to the satellite communications that are equally, if not more able, to communicate to a widespread audience.As we travel further through this age of technology we will have better opportunity to assess the possible complications and/or benefits of this type of communication. We will also have the opportunity to spread the wealth of technological communication to the less fortunate as well as to understand whether or not this technological way of speaking is beneficial to our worldwide community.
Kropotkin argued that once the basic needs of a community were met, then the less-essential goods could be more appreciated by all of humanity. His vision was for each person to engage in as much volunteer activity in order to increase the amount of creative exploration and as a result give rise to new ideas and better methods of action.
Kropotkins communal ideals were definitely powerful foresights that have led us to contemplate creatin these ideals in the 21st century. We can incorporate much of what he has researched and understood into our own communal development. His ideals definitely give us a political, scientific, and psychological basis that we can begin use to piece together our own ideals for the future.
Many of Kropotkin’s writings are still published in pamphlets, books, and other forms media. His vision was definitely a step ahead of his time as we are continuing to learn from his publications. His ideals made their way to the Chinese during the time of the Peoples Revolution and also had a major effect on the Spanish Civil War during the 1930’s.He has also affected the writings of many deep ecologists as well as many other anarchist thinkers.
Kropotkin’s focus on equality between classes along with his understanding and ability to adapt to many walks of life gives him a unique quality of opinion. Without his exposure to many different experiences one may disregard much of his writings as nonsense. Yet his willingness to give up the noble life that he had as a child, in the interest of that which he strongly believed in, alerts us to the fact that this man definitely had some special qualities.
We can look at Kropokin with admiration for the defeats he has made and know that he has set a solid example for those radical anarchists who wish to follow. It is through his determination and intelligence, his ability to envision a better future, that he continued to persist even in the face of misery. We will continue to examine his ideals and question whether we can also persist in the face of misery and work equally as hard to implement change within this world.
Kropotkin’s views have left many questions in our minds. We are beginning to examine the importance of economic change and question the crutch imposed upon the working class. We are questioning the motives and psychological makeup of criminals and the role of law within our government system. And we are questioning the structure of community within our suburban culture.
As these questions come to rise, we are learning the true value of freedom within our culture, and we are searching for the truth behind the faade that is presented before us. We will continue to examine Kropotkin’s ideals and begin to merge those with our own as we develop new methods and solutions to our current problems.
Anonymous. Communitarian Anarchist Economic Thought, from Political Economy From Below. (28 Feb. 02) http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives
Johnson, Barnabas. Freedom of Contract and The InfoSphere of Democracy: What Kropotkin Didnt Understand Until he Stopped Being a Master of Serfs, April 2000. (27 Feb. 02) http://www.jurlandia.am/corev3.htm.
Kropotkin, Peter. The Essential Kropotkin, New York: Liveright, 1975.
Logan, R. Kropotkin: Basis for a Cooperative Economy in Russia, Prout Journal, 1993.
Read, Herbert. Kropotkin The Master. (28 Feb. 02) http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bright/read
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