Anarchist Communism: The Most Moral Organization Of Society?



Prince Peter A. Kropotkin (1842-1921), second only to Mikhail A. Bakunin among the Russian anarchist philosophers in terms of popularity and influence on the anarchist communist thought, authored a momentous scientific work which asserted that cooperation within a single species was a more significant factor of evolution than were the competition and struggle for existence. On the other hand, Prince Kropotkin (a direct descendent of the Rurik dynasty) was also a revolutionary who carried a revolver and often approved of violent acts committed against authority figures throughout Europe. It is this seeming inconsistency that this series of articles explores by answering the following question: How was Peter Kropotkin able to simultaneously disseminate the view that the anarchists were morally justified to resort to violence as well as write scientific articles on how nature is replete with examples of intraspecific (within the same species) cooperation, while circumventing this apparent contradiction? The five articles of this series collectively provide an answer to this question.

The first article provides the reader with the essential background information on the origins of anarchist communist thought and it addresses the differences as well as similarities it shares with communism of Marxist-Leninist type. The article also presents pertinent biographical information on Peter Kropotkin, and it introduces the fundamental ideas of his renowned work Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution. Finally, this section sets up the just mentioned contradiction, which is examined in the subsequent articles. Article 2 establishes Kropotkin’s support for the revolutionary strategy known as “propaganda by the deed” which affirms that violent acts against oppressive authority can be utilized to win sympathy of the general public for the revolutionary cause. It also analyzes Kropotkin’s thoughts on individuals and organizations which participated in assassinations and other violent acts, and it traces Kropotkin’s own involvement in a number of propagandistic skirmishes and revolutionary organizations. Article 3 is devoted to Kropotkin’s work on ethics and his view on morality, which offers an insight into why he, at times, condoned the use of violent tactics to overthrow oppressive regimes. Article 4 elaborates on the concept of “mutual aid” and it discusses why Kropotkin thought that a society organized in an anarchist communist fashion is the most conducive environment for the stimulation of the best instincts of human nature, as well as why, consequently, authorities who precluded this development had to be disposed of, preferably in a peaceful manner but violently if necessary. Finally, the last article of the series attempts to answer some of the chief objections that Peter Kropotkin’s ideas attracted, and it also examines the extent to which Kropotkin was successful at reconciling his scientific theories with his support for revolutionary violence. Now that we have established the outline, let us first get acquainted with the essence and aims of anarchist communism.

Anarchist Communism: the Most Moral Organization of Society?

An adherent of anarchist communist philosophy believes that a centralized government (the same is true about any other form of authority) and the capitalist system (which establishes “laissez-faire for the one; complete denial of the right to combine for the others”[1]) are the two major obstacles impeding the creation of a more equitable and moral society. In the place of all coercive institutions, the anarchist communists seek to establish a system of collaboration between individuals and associations, and instead of accumulation and hoarding of wealth by a minority, they want the workers to be the possessors of the means of production as well as to see a division of the fruits of labor according to individual need. The founders of the nineteenth century anarchist communist movements were aware that in order to achieve the mentioned aims, they needed to reform the structure and the goals of production by shaping and redefining them as means to ensure the wellbeing of all men, so that all members of a society could have the opportunity to pursue higher intellectual endeavors, and in that way put an end to the unjust amassment of intellectual and material wealth by a minority at the expense of the laborers. They claimed that the innate demand for equity and freedom could only be satisfied through active participation in the production of goods and in the making of decisions which affect the whole society.

The major features of anarchist communism were described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their account of the most advanced stage of communism which, according to them, was going to come to existence only after the “conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally”[2] have been swept away during the preceding stages of the historical development characterized by what they thought were the inevitable and predetermined changes “in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another.”[3] On the other hand, anarchist communists argued that historical processes were not as rigid as Marx and Engels had described them, that they don’t strictly follow the patterns invented by theoreticians who arrogantly claim that only they know when and how to act, and that the establishment of a society created on the foundation of freely chosen cooperation could become a reality as soon as a critical mass becomes aware of the advantages of such a society.[4]

When one is asked to explain the major differences between the anarchist communist ideology and the socialism of Marxist-Leninist kind, one typically addresses the conflicting ideas the two ideologies have on the question of authority. Anarchist communists generally believe that there should never be any while Marxist-Leninists are in favor of a central authority that, because of their advanced knowledge and perceptiveness, must lead the society in the direction of progress and pave the way for a future in which authority will eventually dissolve and the workers will assume the responsibility for the societal affairs.[5] Kropotkin believed that the resolute claim about the absolute necessity of the intermediate stage of socialism was a clear manifestation of the aspirations of a political party for the possession of power. He warned against the corrupting influence of holding any kind of position of authority, and the Bolshevist bureaucracy characterized by the dictatorship of a handful of persons belonging to a new privileged faction ended up being a prime example of the corrupting influence of absolute power.[6]

In 1929 Alexander Berkman, one of the leading figures of the anarchist communist movement at the time, wrote that “anarchism is the finest and biggest thing man has ever thought of: the only thing that can give you liberty and well-being, and bring peace and joy to the world.”[7] Anarchist communists believed that the benefits of a society designed according to the principles of their philosophy were too attractive to be delayed by the development of the specific historical preconditions regarded by Marx and Engels as necessary before the workers could claim that they are adequately prepared to take over the means of production, a prerequisite to the formation of a classless and stateless society.[8] Paul Avrich, a historian of anarchist movements in Russia and the United States, writes that Marx was convinced in the reliability of the philosophy of dialectical materialism and that “revolutions were predetermined by historical laws; they were the inevitable product of ripened economic forces.”[9] On the other hand, his chief opponent at the First International and one of the founding fathers of anarchist thought, Mikhail Bakunin, “adamantly refused to recognize the existence of any a priori ideas or preordained, preconceived laws.”[10] Anarchist communists thought that action was promptly needed since the characteristics of a free and just society were already known. Bakunin urged for less theorizing and more action; he urged the laborers, and together with them, he fought and participated in creation of free workers’ associations, which he considered to be the well of liberty and welfare.

While it is true that the chief conflicts between Bakunin and Marx came about because of their unbending positions on the role of authority and history, there was another, arguably even more significant difference between the two ideologies, a difference that is often entirely overlooked or not emphasized enough. Years of painstaking research brought Marx to the conclusion that communism was an inevitable stage in the historical progress. Conversely, anarchist communists arrived at the conclusion that communism was necessary not because it was inevitable or because it was an economically superior system, but because it was the most moral way to organize a society. The primary motivation for their actions did not come from scholarly discoveries of the historical forces and their rigid trajectory. They were instead disheartened by the oppression of the defenseless laborers, and in anarchist communism is where they found a summation of their desire for justice.

Kropotkin believed that Marx and Engels, after all, succumbed to the ideas of the Hegelian dialectical method, and by doing so had retained traces of metaphysics in their thought. It is precisely because of this that they failed to provide concrete scientific evidence to bolster their argument for the development of what they called “scientific socialism.” According to Kropotkin, the notion of a rigid flow of history, of the unavoidable accumulation of wealth by one small segment of population, of a bourgeois class and capitalist rule eventually dissolving into socialism, was overly deterministic and false, and by arguing that times were not yet ripe for a revolution they inhibited the action of people brave enough to promptly organize and implement their ideas.

Unlike Marx, whose mind was firmly made up about the veracity of the dialectical historical process, and whose actions were concentrated on detecting the stages of historical development and speeding up their progress by preparing the proletariat for the revolution, Bakunin’s and Kropotkin’s philosophy is filled with traces of their highly sensitive disposition, more specifically, their nagging psychological dissonance born out of what Kropotkin regarded as an innate urge to protect the vulnerable victims of the authoritarian system of his homeland, an unwavering feeling which urged him to act and speak out against other authoritarian systems he encountered during his exile in a number of European countries. In other words, they agreed with Marx and Engels about the importance of the economic factors in determining human behavior and welfare, but Bakunin and Kropotkin, like the majority of the nineteenth century Russian intellectuals, were much more preoccupied with ethics.

Rudolf Rocker, anarcho-syndicalist writer and activist, addresses this difference in his book Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice when he writes: “Economic equality alone in not social liberation. It is just this which Marxism and all the other schools of authoritarian Socialism have never understood.”[11] In addition to economic and political equality, a direct involvement in the decision making processes was required, and according to Kropotkin, so was the reawaking of the best impulses of human nature, those of mutual aid, solidarity, sympathy, and self-sacrifice. Kropotkin writes that these impulses were being perpetually suppressed and deliberately blunted by those in power for the purpose of preserving the existing state of affairs. Those in power employ different means to justify their status and privilege. To build an argument for their exceptionality, a cluster of the elites resort to religion, claiming that their privilege was bestowed on them from some kind of divinity. Others, like the nineteenth century British philosophers and naturalists, sometime purposefully and sometimes unwittingly, collected and interpreted scientific evidence through a specific cultural lens, and in many cases their conclusions were used as evidence to justify social and economic disparity in their homeland as well as inequality and poverty in the colonies they had subjugated.

One of these philosophers was Herbert Spencer. Spencer’s thought continues to have a significant influence on our understanding of how people and institutions of power function. Social Darwinism is an ethical theory which declares that the fittest and healthiest among us will survive and thrive, while the feeble and unfit will and ought to be allowed to perish. It must be stated that Spencer viewed charitable acts favorably, but unlike Kropotkin, he thought that economic and political inequality was natural, and consequently not worthy of objection. Spencer wrote about all of this before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection. He later incorporated Darwinian ideas to bolster his arguments. For example, Spencer used the concept of organisms’ adaptation to different conditions to argue that the rich and powerful were simply better at adapting to the social and economic circumstances of their time. He asserted that these people are naturally equipped with superior traits which they employ to become prosperous. Consequently, it is appropriate for them to thrive, even if their success is contingent on the suffering of the weaker members.[12]

Before he became one of the leaders of the anarchist communist cause, Peter Kropotkin was already a well-established scientist, an expert in a number of fields. One of Peter Kropotkin’s major scientific discoveries was the configuration of the mountains in Asia. Previously it was thought that the main structural lines of the mountains of Asia were north and south, or west and east. After more than two years of collecting, mapping out, and calculating hundreds of altitudes found in the geological and physical observations of different explorers and geographers, Kropotkin discovered that the main structural lines of the mountains were from the southwest to the northeast.[13] It was also in Siberia where he observed a wide variety of species and the role that intraspecific cooperation played in their development. It is important to stress the scientific discoveries of Kropotkin for two reasons. First, they remind us that Kropotkin was not some frivolous rabble-rouser trying his hand in science. Second, his scientific findings greatly influenced his thoughts on what the optimal social and political structures look like. Kropotkin was a “revolutionary scientist who put into anarchism the methods of science.”[14]

Because of his scientific discoveries in Siberia, Kropotkin was offered the secretaryship of the Russian Geographical Society, but he refused the position because he thought that the cause of the “toiling masses” was his priority. Instead of settling for comfort and wealth, Kropotkin travelled to Europe and joined the Jura Federation, in Switzerland. It is at  this  federalist and anarchist section of the International Workingmen’s Association (comprised mostly of watchmakers) where he witnessed the principles of free association without an exploitative hierarchy and egotistical political scheming.[15] Upon returning to Russia, Kropotkin continued his geographical studies as well as his revolutionary activities by joining a secret student organization. His involvement in a revolutionary circle was the cause of his subsequent arrest. He escaped from the military prison after two years of captivity. Forty two years of exile in Europe ensued.

Kropotkin once again settled in Switzerland among the Jura Federation until he was expelled from the country at the insistence of the Russian government. After his departure from the Jura Federation, he wrote scientific and revolutionary articles, refused the recognition of the British Royal Geographical Society out of disdain for anything ‘royal,’ and he was arrested in France after a violent demonstration in Lyons even though he had not participated in the protests. Kropotkin spent another three years in jail, where, to be fair, he was able to continue his scientific pursuits and even buy his own food and wine.[16] After France, Kropotkin settled in England where he continued his work and where Thomas H. Huxley’s essay titled Struggle for Existence in Human Society prompted him to write Mutual Aid, a masterful synthesis of anthropological, historical, sociological, and zoological data, in which he demonstrated the significance of cooperation in the evolutionary development of different species (including our own).

Kropotkin argued that Huxley had misused the evolutionary theory to try to justify the unjust status quo of his homeland. Although it cannot be claimed that Huxley’s essay is a work of social Darwinism, primarily because it argues for a necessity of state intervention to prevent social unrest by sufficiently reimbursing the laborers[17], his conclusions nevertheless stem from what Kropotkin regarded to be an apocryphal hypothesis: that a human society is an artificial conglomeration of individuals created to curtail and maintain the aggressive instincts of human beings. With a great variety of examples of behavior of different species, Kropotkin demonstrated that it was not the state that prevented the war of all against all, and in his other writings he asserted that neither did any kind of categorical imperative, religious institution or any other form of authority. Kropotkin asserted, and then bolstered with concrete proof, which has been corroborated by the subsequent anthropological and sociological research[18], that “sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.[19]

Kropotkin argued that cooperation rather than competition is the driving force behind a flourishing society. Our ancestors were physically weak and vulnerable apes who would have been wiped out if ruthless competition, and nothing else, was the law of nature. Collectivism and teamwork, rather than unbridled individualism, is what helped our ancestors survive. What Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex shows that he agreed with Kropotkin’s statement: “Those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”[20]

Kropotkin wrote that ants have been observed to regurgitate a drop of transparent fluid when they encounter a hungry fellow ant. Bands of white-tailed eagles survey their hunting grounds together (as individual hunters would not be nearly as successful), and when food is captured, the younger ones keep watch while the older ones have their lunch. Aleoutes, an indigenous people in Alaska, enjoyed a long established tradition of equally dividing everything they gathered and hunted. If one member showed greediness when the division of resources took place, the other members handed their portion to the greedy man to embarrass him. For Hottentots, the native people of South Africa, it was outrageous and disgraceful to eat without having loudly shouted (three times) to see whether there was a fellow tribesman in need of food. These are only a few out of many examples of cooperation that Kropotkin writes about in his book.[21]

Kropotkin’s convictions about the significance of cooperation as an agent of evolutionary progress were not an anomaly, at least not in Russia. In his book Darwin without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought, Daniel P. Todes delineates how differently Darwin’s expression “struggle for existence” was interpreted by the intellectuals of the Imperial Russia than it was by a large segment of the British disciples of Darwin’s teachings. Todes writes:

“For Darwin and other leading British evolutionists, the expression ‘struggle for existence’ appealed to common sense, and its Malthusian associations posed no problem. For Russian intellectuals, however, it was at best imprecise and confusing; at worst, and this was much more common, it was fallacious and offensive. They reacted negatively to what they perceived as a transparent introduction of Malthusianism—or, for some, simply the British enthusiasm for competition—into evolutionary theory.”[22]

Russian scientists objected to the introduction of the Malthusian factor of overpopulation; they thought that it was greatly exaggerated and not applicable to the vast and scarcely populated continental plain of Russia. Russia’s leading botanist A. N. Beketov, a botanical geographer S. I. Korzhinskii, the Noble Prize-winning pathologist I. I. Mechnikov, and ichthyologist K.F. Kessler are only some of the prominent scientists and thinkers who voiced objections to the metaphor “the struggle for existence” and the overemphasis of the Malthusianism in Darwin’s thought. The details of their objections and their similarities to Kropotkin’s arguments will be analyzed later on. What is important to state here is that Kropotkin’s convictions about mutual aid being the chief factor of evolution, albeit with some differences, were shared by many other prominent Russian intellectuals and scientists.

In this article I have attempted to depict the dual nature and the seeming contradictions of Peter Kropotkin’s life and work. On the one hand, he was a pistol carrying activist who regarded violence as an indispensible tool in the arsenal of a revolutionary; on the other hand, those who knew him envied his peaceful nature and generosity, but more importantly, he penned the scientific work which emphasized cooperation and sympathy, rather than aggression and competition, as the leading factors of evolution. As has been stated in the introduction, this thesis explores the apparent contradiction between the notion of revolutionary violence and the idea of mutual aid as the principal factor of evolution, and I devote the remaining articles to the analysis of how Kropotkin reconciled these two notions by exploring his involvement in different revolutionary movements, his philosophical work on ethics, and his scientific works which emphasize those traits of human nature that majority of people admire the most in life and immortalize in works of literature.

[1] Peter Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution 1789-1793, trans. N. F. Dryhurst (New York: Vanguard Printings, 2009), p. 14.

[2] Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2008), p.24.

[3] Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2008), p.390

[4] Alexander Berkman, ABC of Anarchism, (London: Freedom Press, 1977), p. 11-12

[5] Vladimir Lenin, What is to be Done? (Marxist Internet Archive), p. 21.

[6] Peter Kropotkin, ed., The Russian Revolution and the Soviet Government, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002), p.252.

[7] Alexander Berkman,  ABC of Anarchism, p. 1.

[8] Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, p. 389.

[9] Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, (AK Press, 2005), p. 21.

[10] Bakunin cited by Paul Avrich in The Russian Anarchists, p. 92.

[11] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice, (Oakland: AK Press, 2004), p.14

[12] Herbert Spencer, Social Statics, (Indianapolis, Indiana: Library Fund, Inc., 2011), pp. 232-234, (accessed 12 Sept. 2014).

[13] Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p, 147

[14] Roger N. Baldwin, The Significance of Kropotkin’s Life and Teaching, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002 ), p. 2.

[15] Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), p. 180.

[16] Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p. 287.

[17] Thomas H. Huxley, Struggle for Existence in Human Society,

Html, [Original Source: Volume IX, Evolution & Ethics and Other Essays, of Huxley’s Collected Essays (1894)].

[18] Melanie Killen and Marina Cords, Prince Kropotkin’s Ghost (American Scientist, 2002), p. 1-3,, (accessed 12 Sept. 2014).

[19] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (New York: New York University Press, 1972),      p. 11.

[20] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, ( Digital Edition, 2011), p. 69.

[21] Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, p. 14, 18 61, 138.

[22] Daniel. P. Todes, Darwin without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 3.

Milan Djurasovic, a graduate student at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia.  He is a regular contributor to Kosovo 2.0. and Colors magazines.

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