Kropotkin’s Memoirs

802268Kropotkin: geographer, former aristocrat, anarchist revolutionary. This is a fascinating glimpse into Russia before the revolution through his childhood, into the intellectual development of someone seeking to understand their own position and privilege in the world, and their attempts to transform it. Also many insights to a branch of anarchism I quite like, and a study of how cooperation is as common as competition in the world. Much of this book was unexpected.

Some quotes:

Besides, I began gradually to understand that revolutions, i.e. periods of accelerated rapid evolution and rapid changes, are as much in the nature of human society as the slow evolution which incessantly goes on now among the civilized races of mankind. And each time that such a period of accelerated evolution and thorough reconstruction begins, civil war may break out on a small or on a grand scale. The question is, then, not so much how to avoid revolutions as how to attain the greatest results with the most limited amount of civil war, the least number of victims, and a minimum of mutual embitterment. For that end there is only one means; namely, that the oppressed part of society should obtain the clearest possible conception of what they intend to achieve and how, and that they should be imbued with the enthusiasm which is necessary for the achievement–in which case they will be sure to attract to their cause which is possessed of historically grown-up privileges.

The Commune of Paris was a terrible example of an outbreak with yet undetermined ideals. (270)

After his escape from Russia:

…later on, when the Russian movement became a conspiracy and an armed struggle against the representative of autocracy, all thought of a popular movement was necessarily abandoned; while my own inclinations drew me more and more intensely toward casting in my lot with the laboring and toiling masses. To bring to them such conceptions as would aid them to direct their efforts to the best advantage of all the workers; to deepen and to widen the ideals and principles which will underlie the coming social revolution; to develop these ideals and principles before the workers, not as an order coming from their leaders, but as a result of their own reason; and so to awaken their own initiative, now that they were called upon to appear in the historical arena as the builders of a new, equitable mode of organization of society–thsi seemed to me as necessary for the development of mankind as anything I could accomplish in Russia at that time. (354)

On the Jura Federation and parties:

It always happens that after a political party has set before itself a purpose, and has proclaimed that nothing short of the complete attainment of that aim will satisfy it, it divides into two fractions. One of them remains what it was, while the other, although it professes not to have changed a word of its previous intentions, accepts some sort of compromise, and gradually, from compromise to compromise, is driven further from its primitive programme, and becomes a party of modest makeshift reform (358).

On the International Working Man’s Association:

The workers of all nations were called upon to form their own organisations for a direct struggle against capitalism; to work out the means of socializing the production of wealth and its consumption; and, when they should be ready to do so, to take possession of the necessaries for production, and to control production with no regard to the present political organization, which must undergo a complete reconstruction. The Association had thus to be the means for preparing an immense revolution in men’s minds, and later on in the very forms of life–a revolution which would open to mankind a new era of progress based upon the solidarity of all. That was the ideal which aroused from their slumber millions of European workers, and attracted to the Association its best intellectual forces. (359)

The conflict between the Marxists and the Bakunists was not a personal affair. It was the necessary conflict between the principles of federalism and those of centralization, the free Commune and the State’s paternal rule, the free action of the masses of the people and the betterment if existing capitalist conditions through legislation–a conflict between the Latin spirit and the German Geist, which, after the defeat of France on the battlefield, claimed supremacy in science, politics, philososphy, and in socialism too, representing its own conception of socialism as ‘scientific’, while all other interpretations it described as ‘utopian’. (361)

The role of science in social change:

anarchism represents more than a mere mode of action and a mere conception of a free society; that it is part of a philosophy, natural and social, which must be developed in a quite different way from the metaphysical or dialectic methods which have been employed in sciences dealing with man. I saw that it must be treated by the same methods as natural sciences; not, however. on the slippery ground of mere analogies, such as Herbert Spencer accepts, but on the solid basis of induction applied to human institutions. And I did my best to accomplish what I could in that direction. (377)

The most fascinating of asides, on Turgenev’s brain of all things:

His fine head revealed a vast development of brain power, and when he died, and Paul Bert, with Paul Reclus (the surgeon), weighed his brain, it so much surpassed the heaviest brain then known-that of Cuvier-reaching something over two thousand grammes, that they would not trust to their scales, but got new ones, to repeat the weighing. (381)

The role of revolutionary media:

a revolutionary paper must be, above all, a record of those symptoms which everywhere announce the coming of a new era, the germination of new forms of social life, the growing revolt against antiquated institutions…(390) As to the criticism of what exists, I went into it only to disentangle the roots of the evils, and to show that a deep-seated and carefully-nurtured fetishism with regard to the antiquated survivals of phases of human development, and a widespread cowardice of mind and will, are the main sources of all evils (391).

And I think what has endured most through the ages, along with the idea that as a species we are more cooperative than competitive (capitalism and its ideologies notwithstanding), is his vision of the future. A federation of local, non-hierarchical associations of human beings, free to change and grow as they desired, as they needed to.

We saw that a new form of society is germinating in the civilized nations, and must take the place of the old one: a society of equals, who will not be compelled to sell their hands and brains to those who choose to employ them in a haphazard way, but who will be able to apply their knowledge and capacities to production, in an organism so constructed as to combine all the efforts for procuring the greatest sum possible of well-being for all, while full, free scope will be left for every individual initiative. This society will be composed of a multitude of associations federated for all the purposes which require federation: trade federations for production of all sorts-agricultural, industrial, intellectual, artistic; communes for consumption, making provision for dwellings, gas works, supplies of food, sanitary arrangements, etc.; federations of communes among themselves, and federations of communes with trade organizations; and finally, wider groups covering the country, or several countries, composed of men who collaborate for the satisfaction of such economic, intellectual, artistic, and moral needs as are not limited to a given territory…There will be full freedom for the development of new forms of production, invention, and organization; individual initiative will be encouraged, and the tendency toward uniformity and centralization will be discouraged.

Moreover, this society will not be crystallized into certain unchangeable forms, but will continually modify its aspect, because it will be a living, evolving organism: no need of government will be felt, because free agreement and federation can take its place in all those functions which governments consider as theirs at the present time, and because, the causes of conflict being reduced in number, those conflicts which may still arise can be submitted to arbitration. (372-373)

Long years of propaganda and a long succession of partial acts of revolt against authority, as well as a complete revision of the teachings now derived from history, would be required before men could perceive that they had been mistaken in attributing to their rulers and their laws what was derived in reality from their own sociable feelings and habits. (373)

social life itself, supported by a frank, open-minded criticism of opinions and actions, would be the most effective means for threshing out opinions and divesting them of the unavoidable exaggerations. We acted, in fact, in accordance with the old saying that freedom remains still the wisest cure for freedom’s temporary inconveniences. There is, in mankind, a nucleus of social habits, an inheritance from the past, not yet duly appreciated, which is not maintained by coercion and is superior to coercion… We understood, at the same time, that such a change, cannot be produced by the conjectures of one man of genius, that it will not be one man’s discovery, but that it must result from the constructive work of the masses, just as the forms of judicial procedure which were elaborated in the early medieval ages… (375)

A fascinating read whatever your political persuasions.

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