Peter Kropotkin

How did a man from an aristocratic family come to reject his own social status in favour of a life of social activism in the ranks of revolutionary groups? 

Peter Kropotkin Peter Kropotkin

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Table of contents

    In this explanation, we will explore the beliefs and ideas of anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin, his opposition to coercive relationships, and we will highlight some of his most influential works.

    Peter Kropotkin's biography

    Peter Kropotkin was a Russian-born anarchist philosopher. He is known for his contribution to anarcho-communism and his famous work titled Mutual Aid, published in 1902.

    Kropotkin was born into an aristocratic family, but his rejection of the behaviour and actions of his own class pushed him towards anarchism and specifically anarcho-communism. While Kropotkin can’t be credited as the founder of anarcho-communism, he was the most influential thinker in the field.

    Anarcho-communism is a branch of anarchism that promotes the idea that society should be organised in small local communities with common ownership of wealth and private property.

    Peter Kropotkin image of Peter Kropotkin StudySmarterImage of Peter Kropotkin, Wikimedia Commons

    During his career, Kropotkin spent a significant amount of time observing animal life and going on geographical expeditions. These observations of nature and the way animals behaved would help inform his later works, particularly his book Mutual Aid, in which he argues that both humans and animals are more prone to cooperation than they are to competition.

    His observations of nature also led him to propose a theory on the glaciation process during the Ice Age. As a result, he was offered a position at the Russian Geographical Society, which he declined. Instead, he gravitated towards a life of enacting social justice. This was when Kropotkin decided to renounce his aristocratic background and embraced anarchism in 1871.

    Peter Kropotkin’s new life

    In 1871, Kropotkin started to join revolutionary groups in Russia and began circulating anarchist ideologies. His role in revolutionary groups resulted in his imprisonment in 1874. Kropotkin escaped from prison and fled to Switzerland.

    However, after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, the new Russian government expelled Kropotkin from Switzerland. Kropotkin then moved to France where he was again imprisoned for inciting disorder and rebellions through his works. After serving three years in prison in France, Kropotkin moved to England where he remained until the Russian Revolution when he would finally return to his motherland.

    Peter Kropotkin and Vladimir Lenin

    Peter Kropotkin was often referred to as the 'philosopher of revolution'. This was due to the many influential texts he wrote that helped inform the ideologies of revolution in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Vladimir Lenin, who became the first head of the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, was so inspired by Kropotkin's works that he asked to meet him in 1919.

    Peter Kropotkin Vladimir Lenin StudySmarterPhotograph of Vladimir Lenin, Pavel Semyonovich Zhukov, Wikimedia Commons

    Peter Kropotkin’s literature

    Aside from Kropotkin's contribution to revolutionary ideologies, his writings also helped to highlight his views on anarcho-communism. Let's take a look at two of his most influential works in relation to anarchism.

    The Conquest of Bread

    In the Conquest of Bread (1892), Kropotkin highlights the faults in the existing economic systems of Europe. This book would serve as a foundation for Mutual Aid (1902). In this work, Kropotkin argues against capitalism and feudalism.

    Kropotkin maintained that systems like capitalism and feudalism were dependent on the existence of poverty. He argued that such systems seek to maintain poverty as opposed to eradicating it. Kropotkin believed that these systems should be replaced with those that encourage mutual aid.

    The Conquest of Bread has become a classical text in anarchist literature and serves as an ideological foundation of anarcho-communist ideologies today.

    Mutual Aid

    Published in 1902, Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid as a response to Darwinism. Darwin’s theory of evolution depicted humans and animals as competitive. Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested that competition ensured the survival of the fittest. His theory was presented as factual and scientific and therefore many people believed that human beings had to be competitive.

    Kropotkin however, sought to change this view of humans, arguing instead that mutual aid and cooperation were essential to the survival of species. To support his views, Kropotkin drew examples from nature like ants in colonies and bees in hives. Whilst Darwin argued that all species were essentially competitive and self-serving, Kropotkin used scientific evidence to counter this claim, arguing that both animals and humans were more prone to cooperative behaviour.

    In Mutual Aid Kropotkin writes:

    Under any circumstances, sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life.

    Kropotkin believed that humans were the most successful species, not because we were competitive but rather because of our predisposition to cooperation. In fact, many anarchists believe in the altruistic nature of human beings and argue that this serves as a justification for why society is capable of functioning without a state or authority.

    Put differently, anarchists believe that human beings are inherently cooperative and moral. Kropotkin supported the notion that humans are inherently altruistic and said that our existence and history were proof of it.

    Kropotkin used the formation of tribes and clans in premodern societies as an example of human cooperation. He argued that these tribes were not forcibly created due to an overarching authority, rather they were created due to the natural human desire for cooperation. These clans and tribes were based upon mutual support for one another.

    Altruism is having a selfless concern for the well-being of others

    Kropotkin and Anarchism

    Anarchism is based on the rejection of all coercive and hierarchical relationships. Thus, as an anarchist, Kropotkin was opposed to all coercive relationships. Let's take a look into his anarchist beliefs and the kinds of coercive or hierarchical relations he opposed.

    Kropotkin and the state and capitalism

    For anarchists, the state represents the worst form of a coercive relationship, and therefore, at the core of anarchist thinking lies the question: how does one reject the state? For Kropotkin, the state serves to conceal the sociable and cooperative nature of humans.

    In The State: Its Historic Role (1896) he argued that the state seeks to coerce individuals and ‘subject the masses to the will of the minorities’. Capitalism served as an example of this exploitation as its foundation is private property ownership and inequality. For capitalism to thrive it had to sustain inequality. Therefore, Kropotkin considered it an illegitimate way to structure economic relations in society.

    Kropotkin and religion

    In line with most anarchist thinking, Kropotkin saw religion as a coercive form of illegitimate authority. He argued that religion uses concepts of hell and heaven to force people into obedience against their own will. It also upholds class inequality as it keeps the poor and working-class disillusioned as they believe that despite their struggles on earth they will receive grandeur in heaven. This disillusion stopped many people from uncovering the truly coercive nature of religion and rising up against this form of coercion and control.

    According to Kropotkin, the only solution to the problems of religion, the state, and capitalism, was a revolutionary movement. Whilst Kropotkin did not directly advocate for the use of violence, he stressed the need for a revolution. The revolution would result in the restoration of human beings to their natural state: a state where altruism and cooperation would prevail.

    Kropotkin as a Utopian Anarchist

    Kropotkin believed that the post-revolutionary society would be utopian and would represent the highest stage of human evolution, whereby society is structured into a series of small autonomous communities. These communities would use direct democracy to inform their decisions.

    In these small communities, there would be common ownership of any wealth produced as well as the means of production and land. Due to the removal of private property and competition, Kropotkin believed that issues of poverty and crime would dissipate. Any issues in the post-revolution utopia would simply be settled by fair arbitration.

    A utopia is a perfect or qualitatively better society. This perfection can be characterised by sustained harmony, self-fulfilment, and liberty. The word utopia comes from the Greek words outopia and eutopia, meaning 'nowhere' and a 'good place' respectively. Utopian thinking and utopianism refer to ideologies that seek to achieve a utopia.

    The economic structure of this utopia would be organised based on an anarcho-communist structure which means that there would be common ownership of the means of production. In The Conquest of Bread Kropotkin argues that common ownership is justified:

    All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate everyone’s part in the production of the world's wealth.

    Kropotkin believed that every single person is instrumental in the production of any product and therefore must own a share of it. In his anarcho-communist utopia, all individuals would work according to both their abilities and need, and this transformation of society would promote cooperation and altruism.

    In this society, humans would live in harmony as they would be able to realise their true natural potential: cooperation and sociability.

    Divisions within Anarchism

    As an anarcho-communist, Kropotkin disagreed with the writings and philosophies of individualist anarchists. A key anarchist thinker whom Kropotkin disagreed with was Max Stirner. Stirner proposed a radical individualist anarchist society in which individuals had no restraints.

    Peter Kropotkin Max Stirner StudySmarterSketch of Max Stirnerby Friedrich Engels, Wikimedia Commons

    Stirner argued that humans were egoists and that society should be structured into a union of egoists in which individuals interacted with each other only for their own self-interest. Kropotkin however, rejected this assertion, arguing that it is only through the equal distribution of property that human beings can achieve their basic needs and enjoy the leisure time to develop as complete humans.

    Unlike Stirner, Kropotkin believed in human solidarity and in an innate morality as opposed to inherent selfishness.

    An egoist is a radical individualist for whom ego or self-interest is the sole motivation for their actions.

    Peter Kropotkin's quotes

    While in prison in France Kropotkin wrote:

    Prisons are universities of crime, maintained by the state.

    When talking about Anarchism he said:

    Anarchism...strives to maintain and enlarge the precious kernel of social customs without which no human or animal society can exist.

    Finally, on the topic of poverty and wealth, he argued that:

    Everywhere you will find that the wealth of the wealthy springs from the poverty of the poor.

    Peter Kropotkin - Key Takeaways

    • Peter Kropotkin was one of the most influential anarcho-communist thinkers.
    • Though Kropotkin grew up an aristocrat, the actions of his social class turned him to anarcho-communism.
    • Kropotkin was a utopian anarchist thinker and believed that under an anarcho-communist society humans would live in harmony.
    • Kropotkin believed in the common ownership of property and in living in small communities in which workers owned the means of production.
    • Like many anarchists, Kropotkin rejected the state, capitalism, and religion due to their coercive and controlling nature. To achieve an anarcho-communist utopia, Kropotkin advocated for mass revolution.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Peter Kropotkin

    Who was Peter Kropotkin?

    Peter Kropotkin was a Russian born anarchist philosopher.

    Is Peter Kropotkin an anarchist?

    Yes, specifically an anarcho-communist. 

    Did Peter Kropotkin write books?

    Yes, his most famous books are The Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid. 

    What was Kropotkin's contribution to evolutionary theory?

    Kropotkin challenged Darwin's theory of evolution and argued mutual aid and cooperation were essential to the survival of species. 

    What are Peter Kropotkin's beliefs?

    Kropotkin believed in mutual aid and had a utopian view of anarchism.

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