Peter Kropotkin’s work has had a lasting influence on anarcho-communism. What were his main ideas? How did he envision a just society? And how did a prince become a revolutionary?
Kropotkin was a prolific writer and anarchist propagandist, completing his most famous works The Conquest of Bread (1892), Fields, Factories and Workshops (1899), and Mutual Aid (1902) while living in exile in London. In this article, we explore some of the core ideas in these books, along with providing some biographical context about Kropkotkin’s life.
Peter Kropotkin’s Early Life
Peter Kropotkin was a Russian revolutionary, zoologist, sociologist, geographer, and anarchist. Born in Moscow in 1842, Kropotkin was born into the aristocracy as the son of prince Aleksey Petrovich Kropotkin. His aristocratic lineage meant that Kropotkin received an exclusive education at the prestigious military academy the Corps of Pages. This education paved the way for Peter Kropotkin to become an aide to Tsar Alexander II, before taking up a position as an army officer in Siberia.
During his time in Siberia, Kropotkin developed a keen interest in the study of animal life and geographical exploration. His observations won him immediate recognition, and Kropotkin looked set to have a distinguished scientific career. However, in 1871, he refused the secretaryship of the Russian Geographical Society in favor of dedicating himself to revolutionary activities and social justice. Kropotkin joined the revolutionary group “the Chaiykovski Circle” and began disseminating propaganda among the workers of Russia. Eventually, his writing was noticed by the Russian Imperial authorities, and he was imprisoned on charges of sedition.
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His imprisonment, however, was not to last long, as two years into his sentence, he sensationally escaped prison and fled to western Europe, spending time in Switzerland, France, and eventually England. He remained there until the Russian revolution of 1917 enabled him to return to Russia safely.
The Conquest of Bread (1892)
Originally published as a series of articles in the anarchist periodical Le Revolte, and later serialized in the anarchist magazine Freedom, The Conquest of Bread (1892) is a criticism of economic systems of feudalism and capitalism. A long-time opponent of serfdom and capitalism, Kropotkin argues that these two forms of social organization serve to perpetuate poverty, inequality, and scarcity.
The book isn’t just criticism, however. In it, Kropotkin also makes practical proposals for an alternative system of production and distribution of goods. Kropotkin’s particular form of anarchism is strongly communistic. Not only did he argue that the means of production ought to be cooperatively owned, but he also advocated complete communism of distribution. Taking inspiration from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), he advocated the use of common storehouses from which all could take whatever they deemed themselves to need. Contrary to other anarchists and Marxists, Kropotkin doesn’t argue for this system of distribution on the grounds that the product of the worker belongs to the worker. Instead, Kropotkin sees the product of a person’s labor as essentially collective and relational, as each person relies on the labor of those who came before them and exist alongside them to produce.
In keeping with the anarchist preference for decentralized and federated governance, Kropotkin argued for a society in which individuals would organize into small, voluntary, groups, which would then be federated together to ensure coordination.
Fields, Factories, and Workshops (1899)
In Fields, Factories and Workshops, Kropotkin sketched his vision of industry in an anarchist society. It is his manifesto of what a post-revolutionary world should aspire to. Kropotkin argued for a decentralized system of production in which individuals did both mental and manual work, both in industry and agriculture. In this sense, Kropotkin is reminiscent of Marx, who writes that:
‘In a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner’
(Marx, The German Ideology, 1845, Vol 1, Part 1).
Production, in Kropotkin’s view, should be organized to ensure that each region is self-sufficient. Like other social reformers of both the past and the present, Kropotkin envisions a world in which industrial technologies could be used to reduce the burden of work. In his self-sufficient communities, Kropotkin imagines people working for 4-5 hours a day, for around 20 years. In a remarkably prescient passage, Kropotkin suggests this would all be possible if we focused on recycling organic waste and renewable energy such as ‘solar, wind, hydraulic, and methane-producing installations’ (quoted in Kinna, 2005, p. 121).
Mutual Aid (1902)
Mutual Aid brings together Kropotkin’s expertise in zoology and the natural sciences with his interest in social justice. The book is, in essence, a response to the increasing application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to questions of society. In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argues that, despite the importance of the survival of the fittest in evolution, Darwin underestimated the productive role that cooperation plays in evolutionary fitness. Drawing on his extensive, almost encyclopedic, knowledge of zoology, Kropotkin shows, contra Darwin, that sociability amongst animals occurs at every level.
Humans are no exception. If we have survived so far, Kropotkin argues, it is because we have voluntarily collaborated with each other. Tracing the history of mutual aid from its first emergence in prehistoric societies, through peasant villages, into the later medieval period, and finally, in the form of trade-unionism and academic societies, Kropotkin shows that cooperation is surprisingly resilient, suggesting it has been selected for in evolution.
Kropotkin’s early studies of mutual aid served as a catalyst for biologists to study cooperation, and are still the inspiration for biologists who study mutualism (i.e., beneficial relationships between two different species) and altruism (where one member of a species helps another member of the same species).
Kropotkin the Revolutionary
Unlike previous anarchists like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Kropotkin was no pacifist. In his early years, Kropotkin was a vigorous exponent of “the propaganda of the deed,” i.e., the idea that acts of insurrection are needed to complement the written propaganda that he and fellow anarchist theorists circulated amongst the workers. Those who benefit from exploiting the poor and vulnerable are unlikely to give up their power willingly. Real equality and freedom for all, Kropotkin argued, could only come about through the expropriation of private property in favor of common ownership by the people.
In this sense, Kropotkin’s views are closer to Bakunin’s, who also held that violence may be a necessary means to achieve freedom and equality for all. Kropotkin also broke from anarchism’s traditional anti-militarism, being a vocal supporter of the allied powers during WWI, due to his fear that German authoritarianism may prove fatal to social progress.
Despite believing that insurrection may be both permissible and sometimes necessary to achieve freedom, it is not sufficient. Rebuilding society along anarchist lines, according to the principles of mutual aid, will also require reforming how children are educated. If people are to thrive in the small communities described in Fields, Factories, and Workshops (1899), they will need to acquire both practical and intellectual skills at school. Kropotkin advocated learning by doing and observing firsthand, favoring active outdoor education over book-learning.
Peter Kropotkin’s Legacy
Despite having been in exile for almost 40 years, Kropotkin was a well-known figure in Russia when he returned in 1917. After his death in 1921, enormous crowds of people marched behind his coffin carrying anarchist banners and, with Vladimir Lenin’s approval, anti-bolshevik slogans. It was to be the last time anarchist gatherings were to be allowed in Russia.
After his death, Kropotkin’s influence continued. The Conquest of Bread, in particular, played a prominent role in motivating fighters to join the anarchist militias during the Spanish Civil War. More recently, Kropotkin’s work was influential in motivating the Occupy Movement. David Graeber, one of the intellectual leaders of the protests in New York, for example, explicitly cited Kropotkin’s vision in Fields, Factories and Workshops as the inspiration for what he saw as Occupy’s goal.
Honderich, Ted. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Kinna, Ruth. (2019) The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism. Pelican Books, London.
Kinna, Ruth. (2009) Anarchism: A Beginner’s Guide. Oneworld, Oxford.
Horowitz, Irving. (1964) The Anarchists. Dell Publishing Company, New York.