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Anarchism Is Not What You Think It Is -- And There's a Whole Lot We Can Learn from It

The word anarchism has been so stripped of substance that it has come to be equated with chaos and nihilism. That's not what it means.

On February 8, 1921 twenty thousand people, braving temperatures so low that musical instruments froze, marched in a funeral procession in the town of Dimitrov, a suburb of Moscow. They came to pay their respects to a man, Petr Kropotkin, and his philosophy, anarchism.     

Some 90 years later few know of Kropotkin. And the word anarchism has been so stripped of substance that it has come to be equated with chaos and nihilism.  This is regrettable, for both the man and the philosophy that he did so much to develop have much to teach us in 2012. 

I am astonished Hollywood has yet to discover Kropotkin. For his life is the stuff of great movies.  Born to privilege he spent his life fighting poverty and injustice.  A lifelong revolutionary, he was also a world-renowned geographer and zoologist.  Indeed, the intersection of politics and science characterized much of his life. 

His struggles against tyranny resulted in years in Russian and French jails.  The first time he was imprisoned in Russia an outcry by many of the world’s best-known scholars led to his release.  The second time he engineered a spectacular escape and fled the country.  At the end of his life, back in his native Russia, he enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the Tsar but equally strongly  condemned Lenin’s increasingly authoritarian and violent methods.      

In the 1920s Roger N. Baldwin  summed up Kropotkin this way. 

“Kropotkin is referred to by scores of people who knew him in all walks of life as "the noblest man" they ever knew. Oscar Wilde called him one of the two really happy men he had ever met…In the anarchist movement he was held in the deepest affection by thousands--"notre Pierre" the French workers called him. Never assuming position of leadership, he nevertheless led by the moral force of his personality and the breadth of his intellect. He combined in extraordinary measure high qualities of character with a fine mind and passionate social feeling. His life made a deep impression on a great range of classes--the whole scientific world, the Russian revolutionary movement, the radical movements of all schools, and in the literary world which cared little or nothing for science or revolution.”  

For our purposes Kropotkin’s most enduring legacy is his work on anarchism, a philosophy of which he was possibly the leading exponent.  He came to the view that society was heading in the wrong direction and identifying the right direction using the same scientific method that had led him to shock the geography profession by proving that the existing maps of Asia had the mountains running in the wrong direction.   

The precipitating event that led Kropotkin to embrace anarchism was the publication of Charles Darwin’s  Origin of the Species  in 1859. While Darwin’s thesis that we are descended from the apes was highly controversial, his thesis that natural selection involved a “survival of the fittest” through a violent struggle between and among species was enthusiastically adopted by the 1% of the day to justify every social inequity as an inevitable byproduct of the struggle for existence. Andrew Carnegie  insisted that the “law” of competition is “best for the race because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department.” “We accept and welcome great inequality (and) the concentration of business…in the hands of a few.” The planet's richest man, John D. Rockefeller,  bluntly asserted, "The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…the working out of a law of nature.”   

In response to a widely distributed essay by Thomas Huxley in The Nineteenth Century, “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” Kropotkin wrote a series of articles for the same magazine that were later published as the book  Mutual Aid .   

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