Kropotkin: The Anarchist Revolution

Literary Commentary: “Memoirs of a Revolutionist”

The government and the ruling bodies of the state can be detrimental to the population as a whole, despite their intended benefit.  Corruption, superiority, greed, and lack of trust can lead to the suppression of individuals at the hands of the state. According to Peter Kropotkin(1) in Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Russia would have evolved very differently if a strongly enforced ruling body had not been present.  

The poverty and inequality witnessed by Kropotkin inspired him to become involved in the International Workingmen’s Association when in Zürich and later in Geneva, which in turn fueled his passion for anarchism.  Such an association was focused primarily on the coming together of all common working class men, regardless of trade, in response to the unfortunate conditions under which they worked.  The spirit of equality that prevailed in such a group, especially in the Jura Federation where there were no distinct leaders, was also witnessed by Kropotkin as a young boy when he attended a fair and had the opportunity to interact with the peasant class.  

The unity and equality that existed amongst the peasants had a lasting impact upon Kropotkin and he realized that while not as well educated as wealthier individuals, peasants are not necessarily inferior.  “When you speak to the Russian peasant plainly, and start from concrete facts…there is no generalization from the whole world of science, social or natural, which cannot be conveyed to a man of average intelligence, if you yourself understand it concretely” (Kropotkin105).  Despite his privileged upbringing, Kropotkin felt at ease with the peasant class and was deeply moved and motivated trough the varying discussions he was able to hold with them. He noted that despite the “feeling of simplicity and of natural relations of equality, as well as of hearty goodwill” he associated with the peasants, they were too submissive to force and oppression despite their dislike of it.

Because of his early exposure to peasants Kropotkin became in tune to the goings on of a variety of different classes of people and the way varying groups interacted within the state.  He was aware and involved in attempts to reform aspects of the Russian state including administration in the provinces, the police, tribunals, exile, and the self-government of the townships.  Despite working under a fairly liberal government, self-government and freedom from despotic-type rule was impossible. In some areas, democratic-style governing bodies with municipal governing bodies of freely elected citizens existed, similar to that of the United States, but municipal self-government did not prevail across many of the towns of Siberia or even Russia as a whole.  Because of this, the common class of people were not given the freedom to represent themselves politically and therefore suffered from the lack of government attention and resources.

Even in the areas where equality was more prevalent, the government was able to intervene with stealth in the affairs of the common people.  For example, police chiefs would abuse their powers by robbing and assaulting peasants. A police officer was given “wide and indeterminate rights” that were not extended to the common class of people.  Therefore he had leverage over commonplace individuals and could take advantage of them with ease. Such inequality troubled Kropotkin and he sought after reform to decrease corruption and inequality. However, he soon realized that such a process was difficult if not impossible to accomplish because the strong governing body had the ability to impose its force upon the nation as a whole.  

Kropotkin was inspired by areas where the government placed a stronger emphasis on promoting equality and fairness towards its people, however he believed that natural and beneficial ways of life could not truly emerge when entangled in an administration.  According to Kropotkin, when an administration is involved in the governing and manipulation of individuals, a great deal of humility and humanity is lost amongst those with power. When people are giver power, they put their own prestige and self-image before the good of the state.  For this reason, Kropotkin advocates anarchism.

The underprivileged and underrepresented workers must join together in an effort to secure equality and opportunity for themselves.  This communal sense of working together and being united as equals under the same cause should be reflected in the government, or lack there of.  As Kropotkin came to realize throughout his travels, there is a distinct difference between “acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding”. “The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills” (Kropotkin, 216).  Often, the distance that separates those in power from their subjects is simply the idea that those with a great deal of power know little of the lifestyle of the commonplace peasant. Because they are out of tune with “real life”, it is very difficult to address and appeal to the needs of the vast majority of people, corruption aside.

“The working men have no country”, education is in the hands of the ruling class, and “all family ties among the proletariat are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 460).  Culture in and of itself is determined by the actions of the ruling class and can foreign to the commonplace worker due to the severe differences in lifestyle that exist between them.  For this reason, true culture cannot be taken from the worker for his culture is simply “a mere training to act as a machine”(2) .  This being the case, society would benefit from the promotion of equality.  If people could work together for the benefit of all, Kropotkin believes a great deal of violence and conflict would be avoided.  

The common individual is often exploited.  Because the worker is viewed as little more than a commodity by the classes above him, “the cost of production of a workman is restricted, almost entirely, to the means of subsistence that he requires for maintenance, and for the propagation of his race. But the price of a commodity, and therefore also of labour, is equal to its cost of production. In proportion, therefore, as the repulsiveness of the work increases, the wage decreases” “The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth” (Karl Marx, Estranged Labor, The Communist Manifesto 452,456).  

As Kropotkin observed by interacting with James Guillaume the print maker and the watchmakers, no matter how hard a worker works, he cannot always find equal opportunity and success in his state.  The workers encountered by Kropotkin worked hard for long hours and in some cases had multiple jobs, which they held in conjunction with their work for the Association. Angered by their inequality, “war was declared upon the existing system of private ownership of land and factories”.  “The workers asserted with increasing emphasis that, of all the divisions which exist in modern society, by far the most important is that between the owners of capital and those who come into the world penniless, and are doomed to remain producers of wealth for the favored few” (Kropotkin, 273).  The common man works hard, but his interests are not met. He must work to obtain equal opportunity. He is not yet free.

Kropotkin feels that anarchism is the best way to end the “exploitation of man by man” (Kropotkin, 273) because if there is no ruling administration, there is no outside force to intervene in the lives of individuals and prevent them from flourishing in a natural manner.  Many of the masses, working to secure opportunity and equality, are not helped by those in society whose power and influence could provide them with the tools needed for the success of the movement. Because there is little to no action taken by those with the power over the working class to help them succeed, except in instances where doing so will help obtain prestige, it seems sensible to assume that a governing body would be apathetic to the needs of its people in a similar manner.  

Kropotkin was strongly inspired by the Jura Federation because their particular branch of the revolting mass had no separation between “leaders” and “workers” as had been observed in Geneva.  While some of the members of the federation were more skilled or able than others, they did not have direct and potentially corrupting power over the others. Because of this, the federation was able to function smoothly and naturally, as one would like society to flow.

The presence of a strict government, especially one in which minimal freedom is granted to the working class majority is detrimental to the natural nature and flow of a society.  Peter Kropotkin favored anarchy as an alternative to the exploitation and inequality he witnessed amongst the working class in Russia and across Europe. He believed that if there was no ruling body to overpower the common man and to act without his best interest in mind, a collaborative and equal society could emerge in which rights and opportunity are not determined solely by social standing. Such an institution would greatly benefit society and would have the potential to restore the nation to its full potential, unblemished by corruption and superiority.

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