This essay felt like an excellent short summary of anarchist thought and its history. In attempting to make a case that anarchism is born from the inductive reasoning of the scientific method, Kropotkin ends up outlining the history of the movement in a tight summary that I found particularly approachable. This essay inspired me to be more systematic in my study of anarchist thought, starting up my own self-study course.
Peter Kropotkin, “Modern Science and Anarchism,” Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, edited by Roger N. Baldwin, Dover, 2002, pp. 145–194.
All really serious reformers—political, religious, and economic—have belonged to this class [of reformers seeking to modify institutions to the benefit of all] . And among them there always appeared persons who, without waiting for the time when all their fellow-countrymen, or even a majority of them, shall have become imbued with the same views, moved onward in the struggle against oppression, in mass where it was possible, and single-handed where it could not be done otherwise. These were the revolutionists, and them too we meet at all times.
But the revolutionists themselves generally appeared under two different aspects. Some of them in rising against the established authority endeavored not to abolish it but to take it into their own hands. In place of the authority which had become oppressive, these reformers sought to create a new one, promising that if they exercised it they would have the interests of the people dearly at heart, and would ever represent the people themselves. In this way, however, the authority of the Caesars was established in Imperial Rome, the power of the church rose in the first centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the tyranny of dictators grew up in the medieval communes at the time of their decay. On the same tendency, too, the kings and the czars availed themselves to constitute their power at the end of the feudal period. The belief in an emperor “for the people,” that is, Caesarism, has not died out even yet.
This is, to me, a repudiation of Trumpism on the right and also to a strain of democratic socialism that sees Senator Bernie Sanders as the last hope to avoid a descent into fascism or similar tyranny. We already exist in a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and electoralism will not provide a way out (as Kropotkin himself will outline later in this essay).
In our own time anarchism arose from the same critical and revolutionary protest that called forth socialism in general. Only that some of the socialists, having reached the negation of capital and of our social organization based upon the exploitation of labor went no further. They did not denounce what in our opinion constitutes the chief bulwark of capital; namely, government and its chief supports: centralization, law (always written by a minority in the interest of that minority), and courts of justice (established mainly for the defense of authority and capital).
Anarchism does not exclude these institutions from its criticism. It attacks not only capital, but also the main sources of power of capitalism: law, authority, and the State.
When the metaphysicians try to convince the naturalist that the mental and moral life of man develops in accordance with certain “In-dwelling Laws of the Spirit,” the latter shrugs his shoulders and continues his physiological study of the phenomena of life, of intelligence, and of emotions and passions, with a view to showing that they can all be resolved into chemical and physical phenomena. He endeavors to discover the natural laws on which they are based. Similarly, when the anarchists are told, for instance, that every development consists of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis; or that “the object of law is the establishment of justice, which represents the realization of the highest idea;” or, again, when they are asked what, in their opinion, is the “object of life?”, they, too, simply shrug their shoulders and wonder how, at the present state of development of natural science, old-fashioned people can still be found who continue to believe in “words” like these and still express themselves in the language of primitive anthropomorphism (the conception of nature as a thing governed by a being with human attributes). Anarchists are not deceived by sonorous phrases, because they know that these words simply conceal either ignorance— that is, uncompleted investigation—or, what is much worse, mere superstition.
And since man is part of nature, and since the life of his “spirit,” personal as well as social, is just as much a phenomenon of nature as is growth of a flower or the evolution of social life amongst the ants and the bees, there is no cause for suddenly changing our method of investigation when we pass from the flower to man, or from a settlement of beavers to a human town.
No struggle can be successful if it does not render itself a clear concise account of its aim. No destruction of the existing order is possible, if at the time of the overthrow, or of the struggle leading to the overthrow, the idea of what is to take the place of what is to be destroyed is not always present in the mind. Even the theoretical criticism of the existing conditions is impossible, unless the critic has in his mind a more or less distinct picture of what he would have in place of the existing state.
This reminds me of the visualization that comes with a project in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. You visualize what a project will look like when it’s completed and then your mind will naturally fill the gap with the next thing you can do to move toward it.
The anarchists conceive a society in which all the mutual relations of its members are regulated, not by laws, not by authorities, whether self-imposed or elected, but by mutual agreements between the members of that society and by a sum of social customs and habits—not petrified by law, routine, or superstition, but continually developing and continually readjusted in accordance with the ever-growing requirements of a free life stimulated by the progress of science, invention, and the steady growth of higher ideals.
No ruling authorities, then. No government of man by man; no crystallization and immobility, but a continual evolution—such as we see in nature. Free play for the individual, for the full development of his individual gifts—for his individualization. In other words, no actions are imposed upon the individual by a fear of punishment; none is required from him by society, but those which receive his free acceptance. In a society of equals this would be quite sufficient for preventing those unsociable actions that might be harmful to other individuals and to society itself, and for favoring the steady moral growth of that society.
This is the conception developed and advocated by the anarchists.
It is easy to see, however,—as has been indicated more than once by anarchist writers, and lately by the French professor, V. Basch, in an interesting work, Anarchist Invidualism: Max Stirner (1904, in French)—that this sort of individualism, aiming as it does at the “full development,” not of all members of society, but of those only who would be considered as the most gifted ones, without caring for the right of full development for all—is merely a disguised return towards the now-existing education-monopoly of the few. It simply means a “right to their full development” for the privileged minorities.
I am reminded of my recurring wish in my younger days to found an “Xavier’s School” where I took the most gifted students out of public schools and gave them a school where they had the freedom to pursue their passions but which inspired and required academic excellence. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t encounter Stirner during that time in my life.
The most warlike elements were the Jacobinists and the Blanquists, but the economic, communist ideals of Babeuf had already faded among their middle-class leaders. They treated the economic question as a secondary one, which would be attended to later on, after the triumph of the Commune, and this idea prevailed. But the crushing defeat which soon followed, and the bloodthirsty revenge taken by the middle class, proved once more that the triumph of a popular commune was materially impossible without a parallel triumph of the people in the economic field.
This was the form that the social revolution must take—the independent commune. Let all the country and all the world be against it; but once its inhabitants have decided that they will communalize the consumption of commodities, their exchange, and their production, they must realize it among themselves. And in so doing, they will find such forces as never could be called into life and to the service of a great cause, if they attempted to take in the sway of the revolution the whole country including its most backward or indifferent regions. Better to fight such strongholds of reaction openly than to drag them as so many chains riveted to the feet of the fighter.
All legislation made within the State, even when it issues from the so-called universal suffrage, has to be repudiated because it always has been made with regard to the interests of the privileged classes.
The individual understands that he will be really free in proportion only as the others round him become free.
The State is an institution which was developed for the very purpose of establishing monopolies in favor of the slave and serf owners, the landed proprietors, canonic and laic, the merchant guilds and the money-lenders, the kings, the military commanders, the noblemen, and finally, in the nineteenth century, the industrial capitalist, whom the State supplied with “hands” driven away from the land. Consequently the State would be, to say the least, a useless institution, once these monopolies ceased to exist. Life would be simplified, once the mechanism created for the exploitation of the poor by the rich would have been done away with.
The greatest obstacle to the the maintenance of a certain moral level in our present societies lies in the absence of social equality. Without real equality, the sense of justice can never be universally developed, because justice implies the recognition of equality; while in a society in which the principles of justice would not be contradicted at every step by the existing inequalities of rights and possibilities of development, they would be bound to spread and to enter into the habits of the people.
In such a case the individual would be free, in the sense that his freedom would not be limited any more by fear: by the fear of a social or a mystical punishment, or by obedience, either to other men reputed to be his superiors, or to mystical and metaphysical entities—which leads in both cases to intellectual servility (one of the greatest curses of mankind) and to the lowering of the moral level of men.
In free surroundings based upon equality, man might with full confidence let himself be guided by his own reason (which, of course, by necessity, would bear the stamp of his social surroundings). And he might also attain the full development of his individuality; while the “individualism” considered now by middle-class intellectuals as the means for the development of the better-gifted individuals, is, as every one may himself see, the chief obstacle to this development. Not only because, with a low productivity, which is kept at a low level by capitalism and the State, the immense majority of gifted men have neither the leisure nor the chance to develop their higher gifts; but also because those who have that leisure are recognized and rewarded by the present society on the condition of never going “too far” in their criticisms of that society, and especially never going over to acts that may lead to its destruction, or even to a serious reform.
I am reminded of how I was elevated from rural poverty by a constellation of scholarships provided by the State of Florida. A very small number of us are elevated from the working class to this illusory middle class in order to defang unrest that may one day lead to revolution. We are educated in their liberal institutions of higher learning where we are taught to accept certain societal structures simply as given. Of course we need a State. Of course capitalism is the most fair system. Of course capitalist market economics are the way of the world. To get ahead you must compete against your fellows instead of cooperating with them against structural injustice.
So long as socialism was understood in its wide, generic, and true sense—as an effort to abolish the exploitation of labor by capital—the anarchists were marching hand-in-hand with the socialists of that time. But they were compelled to separate from them when the socialists began to say that there is no possibility of abolishing capitalist exploitation within the lifetime of our generation: that during the phase of economic revolution which we are now living through we have only to mitigate the exploitation, and to impose upon the capitalists certain legal limitations.
Contrary to this tendency of the present-day socialists, we maintain that already now, without waiting for the coming of new phases and forms of the capitalist exploitation of labor, we must work for its abolition. We must, already now, tend to transfer all that is needed for production—the soil, the mines, the factories, the means of communication, and the means of existence, too—from the hands of the individual capitalist into those of the new communities of producers and consumers.
On the other hand, since the times of the International Working Men’s Association, the anarchists have always advised taking an active part in those workers’ organizations which carry on the direct struggle of labor against capital and its protector,—the State.
Such a struggle, they say, better than any other indirect means, permits the worker to obtain some temporary improvements in the present conditions of work, while it opens his eyes to the evil that is done by capitalism and the State that supports it, and wakes up his thoughts concerning the possibility of organizing consumption, production, and exchange without the intervention of the capitalist and the State.
To begin with, all are agreed in repudiating the new form of the wage system which would be established if the State became the owner of all the land, the mines, the factories, the railways, and so on, and the great organizer and manager of agriculture and all the industries. If these powers were added to those which the State already possesses (taxes, defence of the territory, subsidized religions, etc.), we should create a new tyranny even more terrible than the old one.
Communism in the possession of the land, factories, etc. and individualism in production are too contradictory to coexist in the same society—to say nothing of the difficulty of estimating the market value or the selling value of a product by the average time that is necessary, or the time that was actually used, in producing it. To bring men to agree upon such an estimation of their work would already require a deep penetration of the communist principle into their ideas—at lest, for all produce of first necessity.
Law confirms and crystallizes these customs, but while doing so it takes advantage of this fact to establish (for the most part in a disguised form) the germs of slavery and class distinction, the authority of priest and warrior, serfdom and various other institutions, in the interests of the armed and would-be ruling minority. In this way a yoke has imperceptibly been placed upon man, of which he could only rid himself by means of subsequent bloody revolutions. And this is the course of events down to the present moment—even in contemporary “labor legislation” which, along with “protection of labor,” covertly introduces the idea of compulsory State arbitration in case of strikes, a compulsory working day of so many hours, military exploitation of the railroads during strikes, legal sanction for the dispossession of the peasants in Ireland, and so on.
Let us extend our studies also to prehuman times. Then, we may analyze to what extent the idea of Justice implies that of Equality. The question is an important one, because only those who regard others as their equals can accept the rule, “Do no to others what you would not have done to yourself.”
Understanding law, right, and the State as we do, we cannot see any guarantee of progress, still less an approach to the required social changes, in the submission of the individual to the State. We are therefore no longer able to say, as do the superficial interpreters of social phenomena when they require the State management of industries, that modern capitalism has come into being through “the anarchy of exploitation,” through “the theory of non-interference,” which—we are told—the States have carried out by practicing the formula of “let them do as they like” (laissez faire, laissez passer). We know that this is not true.
The mission of the church has been to hold the people in intellectual slavery. The mission of the State was to hold them, half starved, in economic slavery.
Socialism, whatever may be the form in which it will appear, and in whatever degree it may approach to its unavoidable goal,—communism,—will also have to choose its own form of political structure. Of the old form it cannot make use, no more than it could avail itself of the hierarchy of the church or of autocracy. The State bureaucracy and centralization are as irreconcilable with socialism as was autocracy with capitalist rule. One way or another, socialism must become more popular, more communalistic, and less dependent upon indirect government through elected representatives. It must become self-governing.
To assure the laborers that they will be able to establish socialism, or event to take the first steps on the road to socialism, by retaining the entire government machinery, and changing only the persons who management; not to promote but even to retard the day on which the working people’s minds shall be bent upon discovering their own new forms of political life,—this is in our eyes a colossal historical blunder which borders upon crime.
Without entering here upon an analysis of other revolutionary movements, it is sufficient to say that we understand the social revolution, not at all as a Jacobinist dictatorship—not at all as a reform of the social institutions by means of laws issued by a convention of a senate or a dictator. Such revolutions have never occurred, and a movement which should take this form would be doomed to inevitable death. We understand the revolution as a widespread popular movement, during which in every town and village within the region of the revolt, the masses will have to take upon themselves the task of rebuilding society—will have to take up themselves the work of construction upon communistic bases, without awaiting any orders and directions from above. That is, first of all they will have to organize, one way or another, the means of supplying food to everyone and of providing dwellings for all, and then produce whatever will be found necessary for feeding, clothing, and sheltering everybody.
…anarchism obviously cannot take a sympathetic attitude toward the program which aims at “the conquest of power in present society.” We know that by peaceful, parliamentary means in the present State such a conquest as this is impossible. The middle class will not give up its power without a struggle. It will resist. And in proportion as the socialists become a power in the present bourgeois society and the State, their socialism must die out. Otherwise the middle classes, which are much more powerful both intellectually and numerically than is admitted in the socialist press, will not recognize them as their rulers.
…not a single revolution has originated in parliaments or in any other representative assembly. All began with the people. And no revolution has appeared in full armor—born, like Minerva out of the head of Jupiter, in a day. They all had their periods of incubation during which the masses were very slowly becoming imbued with the revolutionary spirit, grew bolder, commenced to hope, and step by step emerged from their former indifference and resignation. And the awakening of the revolutionary spirit always took place in such a manner that at first single individuals, deeply moved by the existing state of things, protested against it, one by one. Many perished, “uselessly” the arm-chair critic would say. But the indifference of society was shaken by these progenitors…It was impossible to remain indifferent; it was necessary to take a stand, for or against: thought was awakening. Then little by little small groups came to be imbued with the same spirit of revolt. They also rebelled—sometimes in the hope of local success—in strikes or in small revolts against some official whom they disliked, or in order to get food for their hungry children, but frequently also without any hope of success: simply because the conditions grew unbearable. Not one, or two, or tens, but hundreds of similar revolts have preceded and must precede every revolution. Without these no revolution was ever wrought.
Without the menace contained in such revolts not a single concession was ever made by the ruling classes.
In the economic field anarchism has come to the conclusion that the root of modern evil lies not in the fact that the capitalist appropriates the profits or the surplus-value, but in the very possibility of these profits, which accrue only because millions of people have literally nothing to subsist upon without selling their labor-power at a price which makes profits and the creation of “surplus values” possible.