Propaganda By Deed And The Glory Of Self-Sacrifice: The Case of Peter Kropotkin



George Woodcock, a prominent Canadian writer and anarchist thinker, writes that anarchism’s “ultimate aim is always social change; its present attitude is always one of social condemnation, even though it may proceed from an individualist view of man’s nature; its method is always that of social revolution, violent or otherwise.”[1]

Peter Kropotkin was not a pacifist. More often than not he supported regicide and other violent acts that, according to Kropotkin, were inspired by a desire to subdue those who subjugate others for personal gain. Assassinations of tyrants were welcomed by Kropotkin.  Even in international armed conflicts, Kropotkin chose sides. During the Great War, he endorsed the Allied cause because he regarded German militarism as the most potent reactionary force that, if victorious, would work to extinguish revolutionary movements throughout the globe. In 1916, he placed his signature on the Manifesto of the Sixteen, a document that justified the actions of the Allied forces and blamed the war on German hostilities.  Emma Goldman and other prominent anarchists denounced the manifesto and Kropotkin for signing it, as did Lenin and the Bolsheviks.[2]

Kropotkin admired Lev N. Tolstoy, but he thought that his religious convictions and his non-resistant form of anarchism were overly and inflexibly passive and therefore unproductive. “I am in sympathy with most of Tolstoy’s work, though there are many of his ideas with which I absolutely disagree– his asceticism, for instance, and his doctrine of non-resistance.”[3]  Kropotkin also disagreed with the argument that the landowning class could be persuaded to peacefully give up even the smallest portion of their wealth, let alone accept a society built on equality. Louis XVI demonstrated this when in the following manner he responded to the proposal to establish provincial assemblies: “It is of the essence my authority not be an intermediary, but to be the head.”[4]  Kropotkin believed that action (violent if necessary) was a more potent strategy for disseminating revolutionary sentiments, precisely because violence is a form of communication the oppressing class was familiar with.

However, unlike many revolutionaries, including his predecessor Bakunin, Kropotkin abhorred violence for violence sake. Moreover, he did not harbor any delusions about its cleansing characteristics or any other abstract or poetic traits often bestowed on such acts. He castigated any form of unnecessary violence, and he condemned the perpetrators who did not carefully consider the consequences of their actions. Although unavoidable, Kropotkin thought that violence ought to be limited to the “smallest number of victims and a minimum of mutual embitterment.”[5]  Since class struggle and conflict were inevitable, one of the primary tasks of revolutionary thinkers, according to Kropotkin, was to discover the points where pressure ought to be applied and to channel the zeal of the masses toward actions aimed at the attainment of a just society with minimal losses.

“There are periods in the life of human society when revolution becomes an imperative necessity, when it proclaims itself as inevitable.”[6]  Kropotkin believed that regardless of how long the period of political stupor lasts, the inborn detectors of injustice and the innate longing for a society that is more equitable can never be completely annihilated. New avenues and new ways of thinking are bound to open up and push the pendulum in the direction of resistance. The masses will then become more sensitive to injustice, and they will begin to urge for reforms. However, according to Kropotkin, top-down reforms cannot pacify either of the opposing sides: the rulers or the ruled. The proposed reforms will inevitably fail. Their failure will further infuriate the oppressed and more people will start marching under the revolutionary banner.[7]

Kropotkin writes that only an observable example of devotion and self-sacrifice can awaken “that feeling of independence and that spirit of audacity without which no revolution can come to a head.”[8] He explains that first instances of revolutionary action are promptly vilified. The participants are labeled insane and are banished, but their actions resonate in people’s minds, their valor annihilates the psychological stupor and ignites the revolutionary spirit. Their deeds encourage others to reconsider their personal beliefs and priorities, and many discover that the only way out of their distressing psychological state is to join the revolutionary cause and fight for justice. This is how idle observers of political events are transformed from mere commentators to active revolutionaries. Kropotkin writes that “action, the continuous action, ceaselessly renewed, of minorities brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.”[9]

  1. I. Goldsmith writes that Kropotkin “was always extremely sensitive to anything that sounded like an irresponsible call to a dangerous business: the right to call for revolutionary acts he recognized only for those who commit them themselves.”[10] While he admired individual activists who were brave enough to sacrifice their lives by joining the fight against those in power, Kropotkin vehemently opposed any impetuous or self-serving acts, violent or otherwise. Kropotkin thought that if shedding of blood was unavoidable, it ought to stem from a collective decision. More importantly, actions ought to have unambiguous economic and political aims. Revenge or other abstract aspirations were never a good enough reason to take up arms and endanger lives. Clear political goals and economic equality had to be prudently considered before any irreversible revolutionary acts were carried out.

O.V. Budnickyi writes that Kropotkin condoned and encouraged violent acts but that he warned that political change alone would not bring about desirable results. In his own revolutionary newspaper Le Revolte, Kropotkin discussed the absolute necessity of economic equality. He believed that any change in the political façade would alter very little if it did not entail a major economic reorganization:

“We fully share the ideas of our friends from the party ‘People’s Will’ about the need to sweep away the tyrannical Russian government … But we just do not agree with the fact that you cannot overthrow the autocracy of the masses. If the masses in Russia remain calm, if the peasants do not rebel against the landlords, then what can only a handful of revolutionaries achieve? No serious political revolution is possible if it at the same time does not have the character of the social and economic revolution.”[11]

In 1870, Bakunin wrote the following: “All of us must now embark together on stormy revolutionary seas, and from this very moment we must spread our principles, not with words but with deeds, for this is the most popular, the most potent, and the most irresistible form of propaganda.”[12] Action, as opposed to books or pamphlets, which one must work hard to obtain and then analyze, quickly confronts people with a revolutionary event, its proponents, and their message. Unlike theories developed in books, action, regardless of how futile it might appear at first, carries with it a momentous psychological impact which cannot be easily disregarded or altered by subsequent events and information. Bakunin and other anarchists thought of propaganda by deed as a win-win revolutionary strategy. They believed that even if the insurrection is suppressed by the authorities, sympathy for the insurrectionists, brought about upon witnessing the severe punishment carried out by the powers that be, was bound to shape the public opinion in favor of the revolutionaries. On the other hand, any victories, although very unlikely to occur given the enormous disparity in resources between the warring parties, would reaffirm the revolutionary ideals by carving out enough space and time for those principles to firmly plant themselves in the public’s mind. Since either of these two outcomes was beneficial for the anarchists, they thought they had discovered an almost flawless strategy.

Propaganda by deed strategy was not exclusively violent. Some of its adherents worked to establish communes and distribute their resources to the laborers. Other actions involved setting up traps that magnified the oppressive nature of the ruling class. For example, the revolutionaries often voted for specific causes and leaders while knowing from the very beginning that their votes would not be recognized by the authorities. There were also peaceful demonstrations, like the protest that took place on December 6, 1876, outside Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. The red flag of Zemlya i Volya was raised and words of support were offered to the victims of the Tsarist regime. Around three hundred students ordered a prayer for Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a celebrated Russian materialist philosopher and a socialist. Following the prayer, Georgy Plekhanov made a speech in which he condemned the government for destroying the best people Russia had to offer. The demonstrators then marched and chanted ‘Long live Land and Liberty! Long live the people! Death to the czars!’ The protest was dispersed by violent policemen as well as Tsar-loving citizens, and over thirty demonstrators were arrested.[13]

The year 1873 was marked by serious debates at the First International on the topic of revolt. Bakunin urged for more revolutionary action and tangible resistance. He argued that ideas and theories were bountiful and that it was time to act: “more ideas have been developed in the International than would be needed to save the world if ideas alone could save it, and I defy anyone whatever to invent a new one.”[14]

In Italy, the period of 1873-1874 saw an increase in revolutionary agitation. The government of Victor Emmanuel II had neglected the basic needs of the poor. The wages fell, the price of necessities increased, and people rose up to put an end to injustice. Shops were broken into, looting was widespread, and protests and hunger strikes became more and more common. Secret revolutionary journals appeared and called for people to join the insurrection, and attempts at it were made in Bologna and at Castel del Monte.[15]  The leaders of the insurrections were arrested, but just like Kropotkin suggested, their effort to oppose the oppressors had won them a great deal of support in Italy. Moreover, the subsequent trials afforded them a platform from which they could preach about revolutionary ideas (just like Kropotkin did during his trial in Lyons), and in that way garner even more support for their cause.

In 1877, the most prominent of the Italian anarchists, Errico Malatesta, provided his followers with a potent example of how socialism can be disseminated by one’s deeds rather than by a written or spoken word. With an armed force, and in the manner of a famous heroic outlaw of English folklore, he took possession of the tax funds and distributed them to the poor.[16]  When King Emanuel I was informed about the event, he sent his troops to disperse the anarchists. The King’s troops managed to disband the insurrectionists, but an example of resistance had already been created and implanted in the minds of many.

A wave of assassination attempts and regicide swept the European countries during the second half of the 1870’s and early 1880’s. Vera Zasulich shot at General Trepov in 1878 and Kravchinsky stabbed the head of the Third Section (secret police) General N. V. Mezentsov, and the governor from Kharkov (Kropotkin’s relative) was assassinated.[17]  The year 1878 saw the attempts at the life of William I., German Emperor and King of Prussia, by the tinsmith Emil Heinrich Max Hoedel. Two days later, Karl Eduard Nobiling, a doctor of philosophy, tried his luck at assassinating the Kiser, but he only managed to wound him.[18]  “A Spanish workman, Juan Oliva Moncasi, attempted to assassinate Alphonse XII, the King of Spain, and a year later the King and his new queen escaped yet another assassination attempt. This time, the perpetrator was an assistant of a pastry cook by the name of Otero y Gonzalez.[19]  In Italy, King Humbert I escaped an assassin by the name of Passante, a cook who considered himself to be an Internationalist who followed Bakunin’s teachings.”[20]  In April of 1879, a revolutionary named Alexander Soloviev “fired five shots at Alexander II. On the first of December of the same year, an explosion derailed the Imperial train not far from Moscow. On 17 February 1880, the dining-room in the Winter Palace exploded seconds before the Imperial family was due to enter it.”[21]  One year later, in March of 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb attack in St. Petersburg.

Most scholars tend to agree that the proponents of propaganda by deed strategy had overestimated its allure. The masses generally perceived the propagandists by deed as murderous fanatics rather than liberators and therefore had no desire to join their cause. The most harmful of all (in terms of repelling rather than attracting the support of the general public) were the bombs thrown inside the cafes and restaurants that were regarded by some anarchists as hangout places of the bourgeois. Moreover, each assassination, successful or not, was followed by additional repressive measures: more arrests, more economic turmoil, more torture, and more deaths. The ultimate consequences of the mentioned political assassinations, therefore, were quite the opposite of the ones desired by those who instigated them.

Unlike the vast majority of revolutionaries whose activism began in their adolescence, Peter Kropotkin’s participation in revolutionary activities commenced as he entered the third decade of his life. By the time Kropotkin joined the revolutionary cause he was already an erudite adult with plenty of real life work and experience; that is to say that when he started contributing in different ways to the activities of the Tchaykovsky circle, Kropotkin was much more than a young man driven solely by his instincts to rectify the glaring injustices in his country. When discussing Kropotkin’s revolutionary activities, many scholars tend to emphasize that Kropotkin was a scientist whose passions were more often than not restrained by his reason and systematical study of all available options.[22]  They argue that Kropotkin was well aware of the consequences of poorly thought out action, and only after a long and careful contemplation would he allow himself to draw conclusions about what was the best way to proceed. While there is plenty of truthin this argument, it is also vital to highlight a number of instances where Kropotkin pushed for aggression as the foremost means of revolutionary activity without thoroughly considering other options. These instances demonstrate that Kropotkin supported and at times even sought out violent confrontation in situations where it could have been avoided.

In 1873, Kropotkin was already involved in the activities of the Tchaykovsky circle and was one of the authors of the group’s manifesto. According to some of the members of the circle, Kropotkin was the most ardent supporter of a violent revolt. For example, Nikolai Charushin, another nobleman who joined the circle in order to disseminate propaganda among the workers, was concerned about Kropotkin’s obsession with instigating a peasant revolt:

“I remember how at the time of the discussion of the plan of the program, Peter Alexevich heatedly defended the idea of an organization of peasant guards for open, armed action, not for victory (which of course he did not believe in for the near future), but in order to imprint this revolutionary action upon the minds and hearts (of the people) with their blood.”[23]

According to Charushin, Kropotkin was aware of the unfeasibility of any kind of victory, but yet he thought that some kind of resistance, even if it lead to deaths, was necessary in order to provide Russian peasants and workers with an example that would stir their emotions and inspire them to revolt. Kropotkin’s aim was to unite the separate cells into an armed uprising in the districts where “memories of Stenka Razin and Pugachev were still alive; and to move towards Moscow, on the way stirring up the peasants against the gentry and local authorities.”[24]  He thought that by crushing the peasant insurrection, the Tsar and the nobility that supported him would explicitly demonstrate their willingness to resort to vindictive acts and that their actions would leave an emotional stain and vivid memories that could not be washed away. Kropotkin asserted that “there is no better outcome for us than to drown ourselves in the first river which bursts the dam.”[25]  Kropotkin was willing to spill his own blood in order to direct the people on what he thought was the right path to tread on. He immensely valued self-sacrifice for the betterment of all and considered martyrdom to be the noblest act.

Morality was the foremost topic of discussion and strong ethical ideals were the driving force of the members of the Tchaykovsky circle. “The chaikovskists had judged, quite correctly, that a morally developed individu¬ality must be the foundation of every organization, whatever political character it may take afterward, and whatever program of action in the course of future events.”[26]  The members of the circle were not particularly well-educated in the subject of socialism, but they were naturally inclined toward egalitarianism and modesty. Memories of selflessness of the members of the Tchaykovsky circle remained a powerful inspiration for Kropotkin throughout his life.

Another example of Kropotkin’s willingness to endanger his life for the sake of defending his principles took place during the demonstrations led by Paul Brousse in Berne. Kropotkin asserted that the anarchist flag had to be defended at all costs. Moreover, Kropotkin, unlike Brousse, wanted to instigate a memorable altercation because he thought that it would become an effective piece of propaganda. Kropotkin encouraged other demonstrators to carry with them weapons and even revolvers, an idea that was disquieting for the nonviolent Swiss participants. In August of the same year, Kropotkin participated in another demonstration to which he arrived armed with a gun, ready to shoot if the police decided to act aggressively.[27]

Assassinations of the government officials for which members of Zemlya i Volya were responsible Kropotkin regarded as hasty and unfortunate but understandable. He felt no particular remorse after the assassination of his own relative, the governor of Kharkov. Toward Zemlya i Volya Peter Kropotkin was sympathetic and at times he defended their actions; however, their aspirations did not entirely match the ones he held dear and therefore were not enough to entice his return from Europe to Russia. Kropotkin praised Alexander Soloviev’s populism and his devotion to the dissemination of propaganda to the Russian people; however, he did not entirely agree with the narrow type of political violence promoted by this revolutionary. Despite his disagreement with Soloviev’s strategy, Kropotkin felt obligated to express solidarity with the activists and revolutionaries who were battling against an overwhelming enemy. One particular attribute of Soloviev’s attempt on the life of the Russian Tsar intrigued Kropotkin the most. In Soloviev’s act, Kropotkin recognized the willingness of an individual to sacrifice one’s life for the betterment of society as a whole. Kropotkin thought that Soloviev’s example of self-sacrifice would give strength to other activists who were engaged in revolutionary work.

Kropotkin believed that certain periods in historical progress are ripe for a complete abolishment of old institutions. He wrote that “two great currents prepared and made the Great French Revolution.”[28]  One of them was the current of ideas, the other the current of action. New ideas and modes of thinking accumulate and can no longer be contained by those who rule. Novel economic and political foundations are thought of and the injustices inherent in the old system are exposed. People become eager to implement these new ideas and with the growing pressure the authorities try to pacify the masses by giving them token concessions, whose dishonesty and futility further infuriate the downtrodden masses. Peter Kropotkin thought that revolution and government were incompatible, and he wrote that eventually “one must destroy the other no matter what name is given to government, whether dictatorship, royalty, or parliament.”[29]

We have yet to analyze why Kropotkin thought of government/authority as inherently irreconcilable with human nature, and why he was convinced that anarchist communism was the mode of social organization that would provide human beings with the optimal environment for physical vigor and intellectual fulfillment. This article is an attempt to provide an explanation of why Kropotkin occasionally participated in violent acts and why he backed those who went even further. We have also seen that violence was meant to inspire the demoralized masses to do away with those who oppressed them, but we have not yet fully explored based on what moral ground were the acts of violence justified. I believe that a more comprehensive answer to this question ought to be looked for in Kropotkin’s stance on morality and human nature, which is going to be the topic of my next article.

Milan Djurasovic is a Bosnian American collage artist, blogger, and a book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history. He can be reached via Face Book

[1] George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, (Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books, 1962), pp. 9.

[2] Peter Kropotkin, et al., The Manifesto of the Sixteen, trans. Shawn P. Willbur, (Contr’un, 2011), (accessed 18 Sept. 2014).

[3] Roger N. Baldwin, The Significance of Kropotkin’s Life and Teaching, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002 ), pp. 4.

[4] Peter Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution 1789-1793, pp. 27.

[5] Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, pp. 291.

[6] Peter Kropotkin, ed., The Spirit Of Revolt, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002), pp.35.

[7] Peter Kropotkin, ed., Anarchist Morality, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002), pp. 80-85.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kropotkin, The Spirit of Revolt, pp. 38.

[10] M.I. Goldsmith cited by O. V. Budnickiy’s essay “П.А.Кропоткин и проблема революционного     терроризма.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mikhail Bakunin, ed., General Problems of the Social Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), pp. 195-196.

[13] Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 210-228.

[14] This is a segment from Bakunin’s speech cited by Caroline Cahm in Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, pp. 72.

[15] Ibid., pp. 75.

[16] Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, pp. 79

[17] Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, translated by Peter Sedgwick (USA: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), pp. 26.

[18] Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, The Anarchists: Their Faith and Their Record (Edingurgh: Turnbull and Spears Printers, 1911), pp. 48-51.

[19] Ibid., pp.119-120.

[20] Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, pp. 388.

[21] Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, pp. 27

[22] Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism, pp. 19.

[23] N.A. Charushin quoted by Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism, pp. 93.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Quoted by Caroline Cahm from Martin Miller’s Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution by P. A. Kropotkin (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970), pp. 114-115.

[26] Quoted by Caroline Cahm from  Memoirs of a Revolutionist, pp. 96.

[27] Kropotkin’s letter to Herzig quoted by Caroline Cahm, Kropotkin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism, pp. 102.

[28] Peter Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution 1789-1793, pp. 7.

[29] Peter Kropotkin, Revolutionary Government, (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002), pp. 243.


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Atheist, Irreligious And Anarchist

India is going through a lot of communal tensions for the last few years. As a response to it some secular persons have been, among other things, organising ‘Inter –…

Marxism and Anarchism

Recently Arun Kumar Sinha posted in Marx_Forum, Murray Bookchin’s pamphlet ‘Listen! Marxist!’ This was published in the '50s in which he admonished and rebuked the ‘Marxists’ community. To Marx_Forum Dear Arun,…

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News