Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Kropotkin: Evolution, Revolutionary Change and the End of History

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Kropotkin: Evolution, Revolutionary Change and the End of History

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Kropotkin's commitment to a concept of evolution has often been viewed as a problematic aspect of his political thought, and the adoption of the evolutionary metaphor has led to the marginalisation of his historical works. Mainstream readings suggest that he adhered to a fatalist position, seeing anarchism as an inevitable future state, revealed by a careful reading of the historical record. It is argued here that Kropotkin's use of evolution is more subtle. A closer analysis of his historical writing reveals that he did not adopt a straightforward notion of progression, and that reaction played a central role in his analysis of history. Thus, for Kropotkin, anarchism was not the inevitable culmination of the historical process, and active revolutionary activity remained essential. Moreover, Kropotkin did not see anarchism as representing an end to history. As a potential mode of future organisation Kropotkin's image of anarchism enshrined a principle of flux, concomitant with an anarchist emphasis on maximising freedom. Far from conflicting with his anarchist politics, Kropotkin's approach to history reflects its central principles.

Keywords Kropotkin, History, Evolution, Revolution

Peter Kropotkin was 'no historian', according to Martin Buber.1 Many modern commentators have endorsed this view, arguing that Kropotkin's attachment to evolutionary thinking undermines the revolutionary nature of his anarchist politics. As the key theorist in the nineteenth-century anarchist-communist political tradition, the relationship between the inevitabdity of communism and the role of conscious revolutionaries was a pressing problem for Kropotkin. In this, however, he was not alone; the relationship was an overarching issue that confronted the multiple strands of socialist thought. Within Marxism there were those similarly seeking to denude scientific socialism of its fatalist conclusions. The opinion that the materialist conception of history led to the marginalisation of the conscious activity of individuals, as undue primacy was attached to overarching structural factors, is not a new one.2 Among Kropotkin's contemporaries, Eduard Bernstein was also seeking to recast the Marxist theory of history to place the richness of modern 'ideologies' in a more prominent role, and limit the extent to which these ideas were seen as determined by economic factors.3 Yet, this was ultimately attempted through a concession that 'socialism as a theory can never be a science'.4 G.V. Plekhanov alternatively sought to revise the influence of a belief in inevitability upon the historical actor. As he suggested, perhaps 'fatalism' should not be seen as an inherent 'hindrance to energetic, practical action', but as 'a psychologically necessary basis for action.' For, in this reading, conviction imparts in the historical actor the confidence necessary for those audacious acts that anticipate major change.5

Whilst Kropotkin did not deal explicidy with these thinkers, the tension that their work explores between a fatalist view of history and the role of revolutionary agitation is one that is keenly apparent in perceptions of his intellectual legacy. Indeed, it seems fair to say more so. Along with a communistic principle of remuneration, it has been with reference to science in particular that Kropotkin has been seen as breathing new life in post-Bakuninist anarchism. His 'contribution to the anarchist tradition', one influential commentator wrote, 'was the application of the scientific approach to its practical problems.'6 Similarly, the scientific researches that occupied Kropotkin's time in Britain, drawing even from critics concessions that he was an 'excellent naturalist', help explain why the most prominent representative of anarchism should be greeted with warmth on beginning his thirty-one-year exile.7 And Kropotkin too, in his famous entry in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, interpreted his own intellectual impact as showing 'the intimate . …

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