Imagining Other

Political Philosophy Part 2


pp18: Kropotkin and Anarchism


Links:     Imagining Other Index Page

                                                Political Philosophy Contents Page


NB the main focus of these notes is on Kropotkin’s work “Mutual Aid”: to me this is one of the most powerful works written on the subject of human society from an anarchist point of view, and its relevance today is still very strong.








1.1     Definition - #definition

1.2     Who are the anarchists? #who are they?

1.3     Comparison with other ideas #comparisons

1.4     History of the term anarchism #history of the term, and clarifications

1.5     Varieties of anarchism #varieties

1.6     A few final points! (i) Overview (ii) Updates #overview, updates etc.




2.1 Brief Life History

2.2 Kropotkin’s Writings

2.3 Mutual Aid – Commentary with Extracts












(From Goodwin, B 1982) There are two basic aspects:


(a) anarchists reject: power/authority/government/state/law - but not order.


Of course, popular belief has it that anarchists want disorder: but what this amounts to is that those who reject anarchism believe it would lead to disorder – this is not what anarchists believe.


I think it is worth noting that anarchists would not reject “authority” in the sense of expertise – that would be absurd! – but that their use of the word is to refer to the authority of the state, or other sources of authority that are backed up by coercive power (force). The same goes for the word “law”: no one would oppose “rules” (i.e. agreements about how we ought to behave) – what anarchists oppose is the coercive legal apparatus, with its sanctions (punishments: jail, forced labour etc), including only too often the ultimate sanction of capital punishment.


It must also be noted that anarchists go beyond mere rejection of law and authority:


(b) anarchists believe in the possibility of order without authority/law/the state.


Anarchists propose forms of organisation (councils, communes etc) that would bring order without the state, the law, and all the repressive apparatus that goes with this. Moreover, not anyone who rejects the state and the law is an anarchist (that is we should differentiate anarchism from nihilism or terrorism... see below on rebellion/violence).


Looking more closely at these two aspects, Goodwin argues that they rest on other ideas:


(i) anarchists reject existing law and governmental authority, because they believe that this consists of a minority imposing order on the majority.


Thus Godwin argued that government is "regulated force". It is worth noting that the (non-anarchist!) sociologist Max Weber argued that the distinctive feature of the state was precisely its monopoly of force. The anarchist Bakunin argued that "conquest is the basis of every state", and that rulers are ultimately self-interested and will always conspire against the masses.


This argument is similar to the liberal view that authority/power may be abused – anarchists would say it will always be abused. Thus even power exercised in what is seen as another’s interest is, for an anarchist, unacceptable. Power must only be exercised by ourselves and for ourselves.


It also resembles Paine’s argument that society does most of what we need...


Proudhon extended the argument against the exercise of power “for others” to political parties: "all parties without exception, in so far as they seek for power, are

varieties of absolutism. (Quoted in Woodcock 1962 p 15)  Bakunin said that self-interested rulers always conspire against the masses ("drudge people") and that

"conquest is the basis of every state." (Quoted by Goodwin)


On the other hand, the well-known saying: “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” did not originate with anarchists, but was formulated by the historian Lord Acton (1834 – 1902)!


Unlike liberals, anarchists oppose the law. (Liberals see the law as “neutral” or “above the state”). There are several reasons for this view:


(1) the law amounts to class rule, to protect property, (as Marxists also argue)


(2) the law, and punishment for infringing it, is based on the presumption that we have free will, and that anyone who commits a crime has chosen to do so; anarchists argue that crime has a social cause


(3) the law tells us what to do, and by threatening us with punishment gets obedience by fear, not out of reasoned choice: thus it removes individual freedom of judgement


(4) the law forces particular acts into general categories (Goodwin 1982) and doesn’t distinguish between individuals’ actions and motivations.


(ii) The second aspect, that we can get an ordered society without law and government is based on the view that “man” (classical anarchists for the most part used “man” to include woman: nowadays, anarchists would not accept this!) is naturally social. See Kropotkin extract (1) below. Some anarchists believe that humans are naturally good, others simply that they have a potential for good.


Many, like Kropotkin, would argue that there is a natural evolutionary process which can develop our moral and collective sentiments and which will, over time, lead to a good society.


Again, there is a similarity with socialists, and a contrast with liberals: although some anarchists are individualists (see below), there is a strong collective or communitarian aspect to anarchism (e.g. Kropotkin).


Thus, for example, Proudhon said: “[man] feels his dignity at the same time in himself and in others and thus carries in his heart a morality superior to himself. This

principle does not come to him from outside; it is secreted within him, it is immanent. It constitutes his essence, the essence of society itself. It is the true form of the

human spirit, a form which takes shape and grows towards perfection only by the relationship that every day gives birth to social life.  Justice, in other words, exists in

us like love, like notions of beauty, of utility, of truth, like all our powers and faculties." (Woodcock 1962 p 19 - 20)


Proudhon also said: "Just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the

sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of reason and must at last be lost in scientific socialism... As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in

anarchy. Anarchy - the absence of a master, of a sovereign - such is the form of government to which we are every day approximating." 


Kropotkin has a view of human nature (extract i) which I find actually resembles the view of Adam Smith – we all have a natural feeling of sympathy for others, and

this feeling will be stronger the better your imagination... (Woodcock 1962, p 20)


Perhaps the Spanish anarchist Durutti put this most forcefully, in 1936: "we carry a new world, here in our hearts. That world is growing this minute." (Woodcock 1962 p 11).



1.2  ...who are the anarchists?

(these are just a few brief notes, taken from "The Anarchist Reader" ed. George Woodcock, Fontana 1977: I hope to add more detail eventually!)


Mikhail Bakunin        1814 - 1876 


Was influenced by having read the German idealist philosophers, Fichte and Hegel; also the Russian revolutionary Herzen, and Proudhon. Took part in the 1848/9 uprisings in Paris, Prague, Dresden; imprisoned; exiled. Moved from pan-slavism to anarchism. Joined The First International 1868, but opposed Marx (some say on ideological grounds, because he believed that Marx was too authoritarian; others say that there was a personality clash, and both wanted to be leader!). He was expelled in 1872, and formed the St Imier International.


Alexander Berkman         1870 - 1936


Fled from Russia age 17; jailed for assassination attempt; worked with Emma Goldman against World War I; deported to Russia 1919 and tried to

work with the Bolsheviks, but became disillusioned especially after the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising. Died penniless as a refugee in France; wrote an "ABC of

Anarchist Communism".


Gustave Courbet       1819 - 1877


A famous painter, he worked with Proudhon, and was active in Paris Commune of 1871. He was briefly imprisoned. Later, accused of being

responsible for destruction of Vendome Column in Paris, he fled to Switzerland.


Benaventura Durutti         1896 - 1936


A member of (Spanish) CNT, he belonged to a terrorist group which robbed banks, and carried out assassinations (e.g. of Cardinal of Salamanca - at

the high altar!). He was in and out of prison, and fought against Franco. Led an anarchist column into Madrid; was shot in the back by an unidentified



William Godwin        1756 - 1836


An ex-pastor, he criticised the conservative reaction against the French Revolution, in "An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice" (the first thorough

exposition of anarchism). He married Mary Wollstonecraft (feminist, author of "The Vindication of the Rights of Woman"). Their daughter was Mary

Shelley (author of "Frankenstein"). Mary was the wife of the poet Shelley, who was influenced by Godwin’s ideas.



Emma Goldman        1869 - 1940


Left Russia for the US in 1886. She defended anarchism, women’s rights, birth control, and free speech. She was deported to Russia in 1917, where

She became so disillusioned with Bolshevism that she left in 1921 to expose it. Her autobiography is called "Living my Life".


Errico Malatesta        1853 - 1932


Italian anarchist. He joined the First International and supported Bakunin. He gave up medicine to become a full-time agitator, and travelled widely.

He was kept under house arrest in Italy, where he died and was buried in a common (i.e. anonymous) grave.


William Morris       1834 - 1896


English artist and libertarian socialist. He worked with anarchists in the Socialist League. Edited a paper called Commonwealth. Wrote utopian novel:

"News From Nowhere", which represents a kind of anarchist utopia. Believed (as part of his socialist outlook) that everyone had the right to beautiful

surroundings, and he produced fabrics etc. These became very popular, but also very expensive – so, sadly, beyond the reach of most people.


George Orwell       1903 - 1950


English writer and journalist (“1984” Animal Farm”), who was a libertarian socialist. His satire Animal farm is usually seen as an attack on

authoritarian socialism, but he opposed authoritarianism of any kind. He fought with the anarchist brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and wrote of

them with sympathy (“Homage to Catalonia”).  Found himself attacked by the Trotskyists as well as the fascists in Spain!


Pierre-Joseph Proudhon  1809 - 1865


French anarchist – the first to use the term for himself. By trade a printer. His best known book is "What is Property?" (1840) - where he claims that property

is theft. However, he believed in small communities owning their own property. He also wrote: The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)

and The Principle of Federation (1863), and much more, very little of which has been translated into English (Brian Morris, review of Iain McKay’s anthology of

Proudhon’s political writings, in Freedom Jan 2012). He did not develop a coherent philosophy – in fact his writing has been described as chaotic. Marxists dismiss

him as bourgeois and reactionary. Morris sees him as ‘proto-anarchist.’ Bookchin questioned whether he could even be called socialist because of his views on small-

scale ownership. Morris says he opposed strikes and the class struggle (!).His followers called themselves Mutualists, and they were active in founding the

First International, and in the Paris Commune. Bakunin regarded him as ‘a revolutionary by instinct’ and Kropotkin, Emma Goldman and Rudolf Rocker all admired

him, but some anarchists reject his views, which were reactionary over other matters – he was seen by Charles Maurras as a French nationalist, and he had anti-semitic

views and supported the patriarchal family.

McKay identifies him as anarchist because of his ‘critique of property, state and capitalism, his analysis of exploitation being rooted in wage labour, his advocacy of a

decentralised and federal system of workers’ associations, his support for workers’ self- management of production, his call for working-class autonomy and self-

activity as a means of transforming society from below.’

He became an independent Deputy in the National Assembly during the 1848/9 revolution. He founded a People's Bank (which gave free credit). He was sent into exile. 


Max Stirner  1806 - 1856


Controversial figure, author of "The Ego and His Own" - an individualist anarchist and young Hegelian. His views influenced Nietzsche, who rejected

bourgeois order and morality, and advocated that all (or those who could?) should become “supermen”.


Henry David Thoreau      1817 - 1862


American writer, author of "Walden", a utopian novel proposing a withdrawal from modern civilisation. He was imprisoned for one night for refusing

Taxes; he opposed the US war against Mexico. He advocated "Civil Disobedience" and inspired many, including Gandhi.  Some would say that Gandhi

was a kind of anarchist (See forthcoming notes in “Power and Protest”).


Leo Tolstoy 1828 - 1910


Russian writer and thinker, author of “War and Peace” etc. He was a Christian pacifist, and was influenced by Proudhon. He would not accept The

description "anarchist" because of its violent overtones. He was also a wealthy landowner, but gave up his wealth and died on a railway station.


Oscar Wilde 1854 - 1900


Irish author of plays etc. Wrote a brilliant essay: "The Soul of Man Under Socialism". Like William Morris, whom he admired, believed that socialism

and beauty must go together. Also admired Kropotkin. Foolishly sued when accused of homosexuality, and lost the case, ending up in jail carrying out

heavy forced labour. His health suffered, and he died not long after he was released. His experiences are contained in "The Ballad of Reading Jail".


and today (or recent!):


Herbert Read (1893 - 1968), poet, art critic, lecturer, publisher. Wrote "The Philosophy of Anarchism" and "Education through Art".


Paul Goodman (1911 - 1972), advocated gay liberation; psychologist and educationalist. Author of "Growing Up Absurd".


Alex Comfort (1920 – 2000), gerontologist and advocate of sexual liberation; wrote "Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State".


Murray Bookchin (1921 – 2006), author of "Post-Scarcity Anarchism"; ecologist, influence on the anti-globalisation movement.


Nicolas Walter - writer and theoretician of anarchism, author of e.g. “About Anarchism”.


Colin Ward – author of "Anarchy in Action” etc; writes on practical aspects of anarchist life-style.                                                           



1.3 Comparing anarchism with other ideas:


Anarchism and liberalism:


The liberal position on controlling the power of the state is to impose constitutional "limits" on the state. Thus the rule of law, the independence of

the judiciary, separation of powers, etc, and such processes as judicial review, are supposed to put controls or checks and balances on the state.

To anarchists this is not acceptable, since the institution of the law is backed by the same power as that of the state, and ultimately this means force. Using power to

try to remove power would be a contradiction! Using power to restrain power seems doomed to failure – especially if in the end the same kind of (coercive) power is

what is being used. (Perhaps, then, anarchism is a more consistent version of liberalism?).


Anarchists obviously reject the central tenet of liberalism, that the state is a "neutral arbiter" – some anarchists (“class war anarchists”) view the state

as an instrument of class power (as do Marxists), others simply oppose the use of centralised force by a minority over the majority.


Anarchists also have a specific view of “freedom”. They oppose what they see as the liberal notion of abstract freedom – a notion that is surely only

too prevalent today, since individual freedom seems to be the highest social goal. For anarchists, freedom can only be had through and in society,

since we are social beings. Thus Goodwin (1982) talks of the "centrality of society to the being of each individual".


Anarchists would reject the often-used liberal notion of the “social contract” – in any of its forms. If society is natural, then there is no need for its

members to contract together. Since the power of the state is coercive, a contract between the state and the citizens is meaningless – a confidence trick

in fact! (See the link to notes on Political theory and Government, above)


Whilst liberals disagree on what is the basis of a good society (is it individual happiness, or rights, or the maximum happiness of the maximum

number?), the good society for anarchists should be based on morality alone. Moreover, we can change society in this way because society is

"natural" and evolves in a way that we can guide, provided we are collectively autonomous.  (See Kropotkin on this point, below).


Anarchism and Marxism:


Whereas Marxist theory says that it is the working class - the proletariat - that will bring socialism, the anarchist view of social order is such that it is

possible for other groups (e.g. the peasantry) to bring about an anarchist society. This difference of outlook led to conflict after the Russian

Revolution, in the Ukraine, where Makhno, who was originally a supporter of the Bolsheviks, soon found himself fighting them too.  Anarchists are

less likely to be precise and strict in their definition of “class” – whereas for Marxists the key issue is the relationship to the means of production, for

anarchists it is “who exercises power over whom?”


As suggested already, many anarchists believe in a natural evolution to a higher form of society. Thus anarchists have more faith in nature, we might

say, whilst Marxists have faith in history.


Because of their belief that we all have a natural tendency towards peaceful and democratic co-operation, and because the current social order (no

matter how “liberal”!) is seen as repressive, anarchists favour spontaneity. Marxists, and especially Leninists, frequently stress the need for order and

“discipline”. After all, if history is following a clear pattern then we must at least obey that and not give in to whims!  More seriously, the ruling

class will not give up power without a struggle, and it has so many weapons at its disposal, Marxists would say, that opposition needs to be well-

organised and disciplined to overcome it. Anarchists would also tend to be flexible and pragmatic rather than rigid and dogmatic in terms of their



Although it is possible to exaggerate the difference, we could also say that Marxists/socialists are more collectivist in outlook, whereas anarchists put

more stress on freedom of the individual: on the other hand, anarchism is not simply “individualist”.


The ideal form of organisation for anarchists is (small) self-sufficient communities, whereas Marxists are prepared to “use” the state at least in the

“transition” from capitalism to socialism. This is, for some anarchists, another highly contentious point: some (perhaps the most “purist”) anarchists

will not compromise in any way with the existing nation-state – thus they are not interested in “improvements” to the existing law, or institutions

(education, the welfare state), whilst most socialists are prepared to form alliances with existing parties, or to use the state apparatus if necessary, and

to struggle to improve the workers’ lot.


In terms of strategy, whilst Marxists talk of “capturing the state” which will then "wither away" once the working class is in power, anarchists stress the immediate rejection and destruction of the state. In the Russian Revolution, anarchists were at first on the side of Lenin; however they soon learned that Lenin didn’t trust them and wanted all power to be focussed in the Bolshevik Party.


Whilst Marxists and socialists believe in the necessity for capitalism to develop to a higher stage before socialism can be established, anarchists not

only believe in spontaneous change, but some could be seen as nostalgic for the past. Anarchists are often suspicious of "progress", especially as this

is so often seen now in terms of material or capitalist “progress”. Anarchists would stress “quality of life” rather than (though not at the expense of!)

“standard of living” – hence also we often find anarchists or libertarian socialists involved in the creative arts. (The arts, for Marxists can be

problematic: what to make of art-products in a capitalist or “bourgeois” society? Must art either reflect or reject current social values? Is there such a

thing as socialist art? The history of the arts in the Soviet Union was not a happy one! No such “theoretical problems” for anarchists!!)


I have stressed the differences between anarchism and Marxism so far, but it is important to note several crucial similarities, especially the opposition

to institutionalised private property - Proudhon, before Marx in fact, argued that workers are not paid for the value they create, and that “property is theft”.

My understanding of this (in light of Proudhon’s defence of ‘private property’ is that it means ownership of property which enables some to control others – what Marxists would call ‘ownership of the means of production.’ Many anarchists envisage an ideal society in which property, money and above all capital no longer exist.


One of the most systematic anarchist thinkers, Kropotkin, saw that there was a connection between the nature of the state, wage labour, and surplus

value (see below).


1.4  History of the term anarchism, and some further points of clarification:


1.4.1   History of the term “anarchism” (See Woodcock 1962 ch 2):


There is a long history, especially in Britain and Europe, of resistance to rulers and to authority:

-         there have been religious movements such as the Anabaptists, who preached free love and the abolition of private property, and who saw Christ as the earliest communist

-         during the English Civil War, there were demands for more participation in politics, from the Levellers (so-called because of their demand to “level” the social order). A more radical group were the “Diggers”, so called because they reclaimed common land (during the enclosures) by digging it

-         the word was first used pejoratively during the French Revolution, but as noted, Proudhon was the first to give it a positive connotation; however he didn't establish a "movement"

-         there were some ideas and movements that appeared as a “spin-off” from the French Revolution, for example mutualité (some of Proudhon's followers used this term to emphasise workers' mutual-aid associations); while Proudhon was the first to use the term favourably for himself, he did not establish a movement. During the Revolution there were also discussions of federalism: the allocating of power to districts, and there were also many sociétés (societies) advocating democracy, – Condorcet also used the term. Note also the “enragés”.

-         the Paris Commune of 1871, whilst not anarchist-inspired, nevertheless practised direct democracy (delegates who could be recalled if they did not stick to what they were instructed to argue).


1.4.2    Is anarchism utopian?


Woodcock argues convincingly that anarchists actually oppose utopias, since a utopia is fixed and would be rigid and stultifying. "Perfection" means there can be no

further growth.


Anarchists, as already suggested, do not have a blueprint for an ideal society, nor do they have a rigid dogma, because society evolved with man - hence we should strive to make human society reflect nature.  For example, Kropotkin society is in a continual evolution – there should be no crystallisation and immobility.


1.4.3   Anarchists and rebellion:


Anarchists would not support rebellion for its own sake, but anyone who rebels against fixed (and therefore authoritarian) institutions is not necessarily bad or



Anarchists have often been confused with terrorists or nihilists because (i) some have advocated or even practised assassination of political leaders or Royalty (ii)

because they argue that to build a new order we have to destroy the old. Bakunin, in particular, stressed the positive role of destruction: "let us put our trust in the

eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates ... because it is the… eternally creative source of all life.  The passion for destruction is also a creative passion!"

(Woodcock 1962 p 11) Assassinations carried out in Russia prior to the 1917 revolution were generally the work of a “populist” group Narodnaya Volya (People’s

Will) who were not strictly anarchists.


Compare also Durutti: "We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie may blast

and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here in our hearts..." (loc cit p 12).


1.4.4    Why is anarchism feared?


For many, the destructive aspect of anarchism is bound to be frightening. But it may well be that there is a deeper reason for the fear, since anarchism, by throwing

responsibility onto each of us, confronts the insecure, who are afraid to exercise true freedom (though they may secretly wish for it....). E. Fromm’s book “The Fear

of Freedom” is pertinent here. In this argument, that although freedom is best for us we don’t always want it, I see a link between anarchism and existentialism. (See

Notes on Existentialism (Sartre))


Of course, anarchism as a theory is always attacked by those who have power, as they don't want to lose it. And we must not forget the power that our rulers have to shape our ideas and persuade us that anarchism is dangerous, impractical or utopian!  Given the “overtones” already associated with the word, it is only too easy to portray even the most gentle anarchists as bomb-carrying terrorists!


1.4.5    What is the appeal of anarchism?


As noted, anarchism appeals to artists and to intellectuals, and to anyone of a radical frame of mind who is not attracted to Marxism or other branches of socialism.

Marxism may be rejected because it is too rigid, or because of its narrow appeal to the working classes: hence anarchism is an alternative that is especially appealing to

those of an independent turn of mind, and perhaps to those best described as classless or déclassé. Even members of the aristocracy or gentry have found anarchism

appealing – for example, Kropotkin himself, who was a “Prince” (a Russian title with not quite the same meaning as in English, but still indicating someone “high-



1.5  Types of Anarchism:


As we have seen, anarchists come in many shapes and colours! 


There are disagreements over:




The use of money or its abolition


The ownership of property, or its abolition, or communal ownership





Here is a brief “classification” with examples (drawn from Goodwin and Woodcock):


Individualist – e.g. Stirner, Godwin


Mutualist – e.g. Proudhon, whose followers established French sections of First International 1865, believed in the right of the individual to possess property, but not to own the means of production


Collectivist – e.g. Bakunin late 1860s: believed in possession by voluntary associations, and that the individual has the right to the product of his/her work, or its equivalent


Anarcho-communist – e.g. Kropotkin: believed in the abolition of wage-labour, and the formation of communes


Anarcho-syndicalist - 1880s revolutionary trade unions as organs of struggle and as basis of a new society. The Spanish CNT is the best example, but there are also the Wobblies – the IWW, who are still organised!


Pacifist – e.g. Tolstoy, Gandhi. Their followers would support the establishment of libertarian communities, and the practice of non-resistance... Their modern descendents tend to accept (non-violent) direct action, which puts them closer to anarcho-syndicalists.


1.6 A few final points:


(i) Overview:


The essence of anarchist organisation is flexibility: often an organisation will be set up temporarily, for a limited goal or purpose. Likewise, anarchists may appoint

temporary “leaders” or a “chair” for a meeting,  - the danger, for anarchists, lies in institutionalised power.


This also suggests that it is difficult to argue that anarchism has failed: certainly it would be illogical to say that it has failed because Anarchists haven’t seized power!

The task of changing the whole of society may take a very long time, and in the meanwhile anarchists may have to be content with trying to lead one’s life in a way that

is consistent with one’s anarchist principles, and trying to apply these principles in different areas of activity. The influence of anarchists is to be found in many areas:

the anti-bomb/anti-war movement (the Committee of 100 and the Spies for Peace were organised in an anarchist manner), the anti-road campaigns (Stop the City etc),

environmental movements (Earth First, Greenpeace), campaigns against animal cruelty, and especially the anti-globalisation movement.


(ii) Updates:


1. According to Jenni Russell, Guardian 12/11/11, two recent studies show that powerful people do not make the best decisions...


The first is research in the Nov 2011 issue of the journal Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, which shows that powerful people make less accurate decisions than less powerful people – especially because they ignore the opinions of others (when others’ input is valuable, and others can point out a person’s distortions).


Secondly, Daniel Kahneman in a book out this month: Thinking, Fast and Slow, shows how unwittingly flawed many professionals’ judgement is – several years’ research on market traders showed they were usually wrong about the way the market was going; and at autopsies, those doctors who said they were most confident (‘completely confident’) about their diagnosis of the patient when alive were most often wrong (40% of the time!).


2. Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy groups are all practising an anarchist type of organisation – no leaders, everyone entitled to be involved in discussions, decisions by consensus... Note that Adbusters (see CSR notes) were in at the start of the movement (‘the Canadian activist group that helped spark the movement’ according to Karen McVeigh in New York, G 12/11/11).


Karen McVeigh also quotes spokespeople for OWS saying they have had a victory in shifting the discussion of the current crisis from one exclusively about the ‘credit crunch’ to one about poverty and inequality.


3. Anarchists have supported the travellers camp Dale Farm, which has finally been closed down by Basildon Council – see Freedom Nov 2011, images at words:


4. David Sloan Wilson on co-operation:



5. See also notes on Power and Protest, especially:


The anti-war movement: link


The Environmental Movement: link


2. KROPOTKIN (1842 – 1921)


2.1 Life:


Kropotkin was born into a family that was part of the minor aristocracy in Russia – he actually had the title “Prince”!  (Such titles were widespread in pre-revolutionary Russia).  As was often the case with such families, the peasants (serfs) who served the family were significant in his upbringing, and he later said that he saw the natural goodness in them.


He joined the military, and became a Page to the Tsar. However, when a Polish uprising was repressed violently, his disillusionment began.


As a member of the growing bureaucracy he drew up proposals for reform of the education system, but he saw that top-down change was not bringing results. On his travels, as a geographer, mapping and surveying Russia and other parts of the world, he was impressed by the self-governing communities in Siberia and in Switzerland. He was even offered the post of Secretary of the Russian National Geographic Society: however he turned this down in order to devote his life to political writing and agitation.


As a result of his activities he spent two periods in gaol – he even escaped once!  He spent some time living in London, and founded Freedom Press (a newspaper, publishers and bookshop which is still going to this day).


There were thousands at his funeral in 1921, but at this time the Bolshevik government was exerting itself to stop anarchists from organising - the Cheka arrested, tortured & executed anarchists (even Tolstoyans, who were non-violent).


2.2 Writings:


Words of a Rebel 1885 (articles in Le Revolte/La Revolte)

Conquest of Bread 1892 (ditto) [Cambridge U.P. 1995]

Act for Yourselves (published 1988 - articles in Freedom)

Fields, Factories and Workshops 1899

Memoirs of a Revolutionist 1899

Anarchist Communism 1891

Mutual Aid 1902 [New York University Press 1972, see also Freedom Press 1987]

The State 1903

Modern Science and Anarchism 1901

Ideals and Realities in Russian Literature 1905

The Great French Revolution 1909

Ethics (published) 1922                        



2.3 "Mutual Aid": Commentary, with Extracts:


2.3.1 Introduction:


          His best-known book, Mutual Aid was produced as result of Kropotkin’s travels through Siberia, together with his own geographical research. It seems to me that “geography” covered a wide field at the time, much of which we would now call ethnography or anthropology. Mutual Aid was first published in 1902 (with revised editions in 1904 and 1914). The ideas of Darwin were being discussed at the time, and Kropotkin was looking for evidence that conflict, fighting, and killing were the main ways in which the fittest (animals and humans) survive.  In fact he found more evidence of co-operation in the struggle for survival, than of conflict. The book is primarily a response to TH Huxley, and other followers of Darwin, who, Kropotkin believed, had distorted Darwin’s views on the "survival of the fittest" - for Kropotkin the fittest to survive are those who co-operate, not those who are the strongest. (“Social Darwinism”, whose best known proponent was Herbert Spencer – i.e. the view that human progress is a result of struggle between humans and depends on the survival of the strongest – was a pernicious theory which contributed to the rise of fascism and Nazism).


          Kropotkin called his method and approach "scientific" (see extract (3) below), and this is indisputably true, in the sense that he used observation and the accumulation of data, followed by generalisations (cf. Aristotle).


          The book covers co-operation amongst:

- animals

- what Kropotkin called "savages" (i.e. pre-industrial peoples)

- the "barbarians" i.e. those peoples regarded historically as “outside of” civilisation

- people living in Medieval cities

- present day peoples. 


          These examples of co-operation are described and discussed below, but it is important to point out that there are several other important arguments in the book, for example:


- on the origin of the law: Kropotkin, believing that co-operation amongst humans is natural, saw legal systems as having emerged over time, as a result of free agreements becoming “fixed”, and the agreed arrangements being exploited by a few to take authority. This led to fixed rules, and to the allocation to a few individuals of the task of resolving disputes, rather than the community maintaining responsibility. Punishment also, having originally been decided on by the community – often with some notion of reparation involved – became fixed. (See our constant argument today over sentencing).


- on the evolution of “society” and “the individual”: Kropotkin argues that it is wrong to suggest that, historically, there were first individual humans, then families and group of families (leading to tribes) – the evidence is that society comes first, both in a chronological sense, and (“ontologically”) in that individuals are shaped by and maintained by society.  This is reflected in his view on ethics (see extracts 1 and 3 below).


2.3.2: A summary of “Mutual Aid”

(page references are to: Kropotkin: Mutual Aid – A Factor of Evolution, Ed. Paul Avrich, New York University Press, 1972):


Chapters 1, 2: Mutual aid among animals:


Kropotkin assembles a truly amazing number of examples of co-operation among even the “humblest” of animals: starting with the very simplest, he works his way through the biologists’ classifications up to the highest vertebrates and then to humans.


One of the first examples he gives (1972, p 34) is of burying beetles (so-called because they bury the corpses of small dead animals to lay their eggs in): “As a rule, they lead an isolated life, but when one of them has discovered the corpse of a mouse or of a bird, which it could hardly manage to bury itself, it calls four, six, or ten other beetles to perform the operation with united efforts; … and they bury it in a very considerate way, without quarrelling as to which will enjoy the privilege of laying its eggs in the buried corpse.”  When an experimenter hung a bird’s corpse from a stick, the beetles worked together to try to retrieve it!


He goes on to write of the social practices of ants, bees, etc, and birds: he describes (p 41) the observations of N. Syevertsoff, who watched a white eagle circling in the air calling out to other eagles – it had found food (a dead horse) on the ground below and did not descend to eat until the group had joined it; he notes how birds gather in flocks “for the mere pleasure of the flight”; how sparrows share food; how parrots have become the most intelligent of birds through their practice of social life, etc. (On intelligence as a result of social organisation, see the reference in extract 3 below to individualization, which Kropotkin argues depends on social organisation).  The migration of birds, as he notes at the start of chapter 2 is of course a highly organised social phenomenon.


With mammals, he notes that there are far more social species than there are “carnivores who do not associate”. It strikes me over and over, when going through this book, how our own picture of animal life has been distorted by the preoccupation with animals that demonstrate aggressiveness, rather than the many more examples of peaceful co-operation.  This is a reflection, I am sure, of the morbid general social obsession with death and violence… It’s hardly “news” that millions and millions of people get on perfectly happily with their families, friends workmates and neighbours – but should one murder occur we all have to know about it!!


Many mammals live in colonies, Kropotkin points out: deer, antelopes, gazelles, buffaloes, wild goats and sheep – also squirrels, beavers, mice, marmots and other rodents – also, of course, elephants and monkeys, wild horses etc, etc. Only members of the cat tribe prefer isolation, but even among lions there is a tendency to hunt in company. Rodents, Kropotkin says, show a highly-developed practice of mutual aid: squirrels live in separate nests, and accumulate their own food, but if food in an area runs short they will migrate together. They also play together: marmots, for example, have their own nests, but there are tracks between the nests showing that they spend a lot of time visiting each other! 


Kropotkin comes back to this point on p 66-7: play can be a “school for the proper behaviour of the young in mature life”, but it can also be simply a “manifestation of an excess of forces” - “the joy of life”, and a “desire to communicate with other individuals”… - a “manifestation of sociability proper”. For anarchists (in contrast to Marxists!) play, rather than work, is an essential activity. Since Kropotkin’s time we have learned how important play is to children’s development, and we have found how playful - and intelligent - dolphins and whales are. 


After filling the first two chapters with such examples and arguments, Kropotkin concludes (p 65):


          "We thus see, even from the above brief review, that life in societies is... the rule in the animal world, the law of Nature, and it reaches its fullest development with the higher vertebrates.  Those species which live solitary.. are relatively few...”


          “Association is found in the animal world at all degrees of evolution…. But, in proportion as we ascend the scale of evolution, we see association growing more and more conscious.… it ceases to be simply instinctive, it becomes reasoned”.  Moreover, association, higher up the evolutionary ladder, takes more subtle and sophisticated forms – e.g. temporary association for a particular purpose (again, note the point made in 1.6 above, that it is when association becomes fixed and unchangeable that problems arise).   


Chapter 3, 4: Mutual Aid among "savages" (peoples in pre-developed societies) and “barbarians” (the peoples who invaded Europe following end of the Roman empire).


Kropotkin raises the question: how did original (prehistoric) man live? This had been an issue for political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau in the previous century. Kropotkin’s position is opposed to that of Hobbes, who believed that early humans acted as self-interested individuals and were therefore constantly in conflict with each other (before the establishment of a strong central controlling power). Kropotkin sees no reason why we should not view humans as “part of nature” just as are animals etc. Since animals show strong tendencies to social life, how could humans be any different?


Of course, Kropotkin says, it is hard to come to any conclusion from the small amount of direct or positive evidence about prehistoric man. However, studying primitive races shows traces of ways of living from earlier times, so these chapters have a dual purpose: to argue for a natural and historical origin to mutual aid, as well as to give concrete examples of mutual aid in surviving “savage” peoples.


For Kropotkin, the evidence shows (contrary to what was argued by many at the time) that the family is a late development in evolution: the earliest form of social organisation must have been tribes or bands. There are several reasons for his arguing this:


          (i) As Darwin himself pointed out, man is more likely to have evolved from a weak, social species such as the chimpanzee than from a stronger and unsociable species such as the gorilla (pp 84-5). (Aggressive animals organise themselves into small families, more peaceful ones into larger groupings…).


          (ii) There is also some significant positive evidence:


- there are huge piles of flint tools and chippings in many places, showing that people gathered together to make tools and weapons for hunting;


- there are also sites where caves can be found large numbers in groups;


- the shell-heaps found along the coast of lakes in Denmark (which were thought to be made by nature not by humans) it is now clear must have been built up over a long time by hundreds of small tribes;


- villages tend to be clustered together, as are the 24 small villages by the side of Lac Leman in Switzerland.


Kropotkin goes on, as we would expect, to survey existing knowledge about people living in what we would now call pre-industrial or developing societies.  Here the most common form of organisation by far is the clan, which has a complex organisation and rules of behaviour. For Kropotkin, nature of clan organisation shows the preparedness of individuals to put aside their own passions, drives and needs for the sake of the wider society. What is more, clans have existed for “scores of thousands of years”, so they must have been stable and practical!


Among the examples of clans and their characteristics, Kropotkin discusses:


Bushmen and others: they are noted by many observers for their sociability, and they live by a complex set of moral rules; they are always said to be good-hearted, disinterested, true to their promises and grateful. These are all qualities “which could develop only by being practised within the tribe” (p 93).


Hottentots and others share goods, and live in a form of communism; for example, if someone suddenly becomes wealthier than the others, they give their goods away.


Amongst some peoples, e.g. the Papuans, there are fairly frequent feuds. However, Kropotkin argues that the cause of these feuds is superstition (i.e. a belief in black magic, so that someone in a neighbouring tribe is blamed when illness occurs). He stresses that these feuds do not arise as a result of economic pressures or competition, as western observers might think


The Eskimos practice collective justice: when someone offends, they are shamed in the eyes of the others, and this in itself is a strong form of punishment.


However, as Kropotkin acknowledges, there are practices among these people that would horrify us: notably infanticide and parricide (killing, or allowing the very young and the very old to die, without trying to keep them alive).  It seems particularly strange that this should be the case with people who are very close to their children. Kropotkin tries to understand the context and background to these practices, and to find something positive in them: he also argues that they are not as widespread as some claim, and in fact their extent has been "extremely exaggerated." Yet the fact that the practice exists at all, and is found amongst most “savages” is significant. Kropotkin stresses that these things are done out of a sense of loyalty to the tribe: in situations of shortage or difficulty, everyone has to think of the survival of the tribe as a whole, which would be put in jeopardy by trying to feed too many mouths or by expending too much time and energy on “carrying” those who cannot contribute any more to the well-being of the tribe. As he puts it, these things are done: “as an obligation towards the tribe, and a means of rearing the already growing children. Kropotkin quotes other observers who say that the “savages”  ” do not “multiply without stint”, but take all kinds of measures to reduce the birth-rate (p 102).


Kropotkin takes the same approach with superstition, head-hunting, blood revenge etc: he puts them in context, stressing always that there is a sense of morality (not an absence of morality) behind these practices – thus strengthening his case that morality is “natural” and evolves with human society. He does recognise the danger of “idealising” “savages” (as had been done by many writers in the 18th century) but he feels that scientists have now gone to the other extreme (p 109). Scientists of his time were too pre-occupied with trying to prove the “animal” nature of primitive man.


“The savage is not an ideal of virtue, nor is he an ideal of “savagery”… he identifies his own existence with that of his tribe; and without that quality mankind never would have attained the level it has now” (p 110).


Of course we might want to question this: doesn't Kropotkin underestimate the power of the community over the individual? For example, isn’t it only too easy for a community to persuade someone that their life was no longer worth living?


In Chapter 4 Kropotkin notes the prevalence of warfare, which belongs to a later stage of human development, and which, he says, emerged with the development of nations and states. He says that “the pessimist philosopher triumphantly concludes that warfare and oppression are the very essence of human nature” (p 113) – but historians ignore the many acts of co-operation, the peaceful toil going on amongst the majority, whilst it is only a minority who are actually fighting battles and wars. The contemporary relevance is striking again: the media care more about bringing us images and stories of conflict and suffering than they do positive news of human happiness and co-operation.


A historically important event which caused war and conflict was the migration from Asia into Europe: as a geographer, (and surely an anthropologist!) Kropotkin looks for physical and social reasons for this movement of peoples. He finds there was widespread “desiccation” (drying up) of rivers, in North West Mongolia and East Turkestan, which would drive the inhabitants to move elsewhere to survive. When these (Mongolian and other) peoples moved in amongst the “Teutons, Celts, Scandinavians, Slavonians and others” there was bound to be an enormous social impact. The peoples of Europe and Scandinavia at the time were in a “transitional” state of social organisation, where the gens was beginning to change, allowing the existence of families within it.  Earlier (p 90) Kropotkin has described the probable origin of the patriarchal family: the conquest of women in war led to their being kept in separate huts by the captors (originally they would have been the property of the whole gens): “frequent migrations of the barbarians and the ensuing wars only hastened the division of the gentes into separate families” (p 116)


These conquests and this mixing also led to the beginnings of a new basis for organisation i.e. territorial rather than consanguine (organisation by the relationship of peoples to each other at birth). Thus we now have village communities, which also allow the family to become more independent. Kropotkin notes how extensive (among many different peoples) the new kind of organisation, the village community, was.  In opposition to other authorities, Kropotkin says that the village community must have preceded serfdom: “we do not know one single human race or one single nation which has not had its period of village communities… it was a universal phase of evolution, a natural outcome of the clan organisation – a union between families considered as of common descent and owning a certain territory in common” (p118 -9). He also notes how aspects of life in this kind of social organisation have persisted over a long period of time, for example the village folk-motes (assemblies with judicial and other powers).


He stresses that the villages did recognise private property, but mainly with regard to “movables”; land was always held in common (whereas during the time of the old gens, hunting, fishing and the culture of orchards was communal). However, consumption (i.e. partaking of meals) became less communal. Meals took place in families, except for festivals (and the “harvest festival” is a remnant of old communal village practices). There was also a lot of work carried out communally: digging irrigation canals, mowing, road-making, fences, bridges, etc.


There are some very important observations about justice: “ every quarrel arising between two individuals was treated as a communal affair… - even the offensive words that might have been uttered during a quarrel being considered as an offence to the community and its ancestors (p 124)” – “every dispute was brought first before mediators or arbiters, and it mostly ended with them” – if the dispute could not be settled this way, it was taken before the folkmote, which had procedures for finding the sentence, settling the dispute etc. Again, this way of organising and finding a just solution to disputes lasted for more than two thousand years in some parts of the world, surviving even the transition to feudalism:


“The moral authority of the commune was so great that even… when the village communities fell into submission to the feudal lord, they maintained their judicial powers” (p 125)


With regard to conceptions of punishment, at first the villages practised like for like punishment; gradually however the idea of compensation was introduced. Kropotkin stresses that this was not just a “fine” for wrongdoing (which would not prevent crime if people thought they could afford to risk a fine). Often (especially for murder) the amount of compensation demanded was set so high that the wrongdoer was put permanently into debt to the wronged (even sometimes being adopted by them!). There are, he says, remnants of this practice in some parts of Africa.


During this period, although war did occur, of course, there were many institutions that were set up to prevent it or to provide an alternative, says Kropotkin. He argues that even the fact that the profession of “warriors” (as specialists in fighting) arose indicates the desire for most people not to be involved in war. (See next chapter)


As with the sections of the book that deal with animals, there are many examples given of historical peoples and of peoples today who have similar kinds of social organisation (Mongol Buryates, Red Indians, Chinese on the banks of the Usuri, the Kabyles (in Algeria, who follow Islamic practices),  and several more.  But, as Kropotkin says, at the end of this chapter: “More illustrations would simply involve me in tedious repetitions, so strikingly similar are the barbarian societies under all climates and amidst all races.” (p 139)


Chapters 5 and 6: Mutual Aid in the Medieval City


Again, Kropotkin’s position is that the mass of people have no desire for war and conflict. The vast bulk of “the Teutons, the Saxons, the Celts, the Slavonians and so on” settled on the lands they had conquered soon after their arrival. There is evidence of “barbarian codes” which show “societies composed of peaceful agricultural communities, not hordes of men at war with each other.” (p 142)  They “covered the country with villages and farmhouses.” Warlike pursuits were left to scholae, that is “trusts” of men, “gathered around temporary chieftains”, who wandered about offering their services to the people, who were “only too anxious to be left in peace.”


Life in the villages was not secure, owing to unstable physical (e.g. weather) conditions, and to threats from new waves of migrating tribes. Whole villages would be abandoned as their inhabitants went off to search for new places to live. The bands of fighting men were then able to offer to assist and defend the peasants, who eventually “fell into servile obligations towards the protector of the territory.” These protectors thus got wealth (from the payments they expected from the peasants), and power. 


Finally, the headmen or chieftains of these scholae protectors (“kings, dukes, knyazes and the like”) came to be entrusted with the administration of justice – especially if they were regarded as having knowledge of the ways of settling disputes that the tribes had developed over time. Kropotkin gives examples (p 145) of the different national assemblies etc which emerged at this time, Authority thus went to those who had knowledge, or who were regarded as impartial. For example, the Slavonians [as Kropotkin calls them] in north-western Russia perhaps surprisingly “relied on Norman varingiar to be their judges and commanders of warrior scholae. Then we find that the dukes, or knyaze are drawn by election from the same Norman families over the next two hundred years: showing how much they were trusted for their knowledge (as outsiders) of the laws of the different Slavonian tribes.


All this, Kropotkin argues, undermines the belief that the origin of authority is purely military power – rather such power has “its origin in the peaceful inclination of the masses”.  This account, he says, shows the true origins of feudalism.


Kropotkin states that the next surprising development, which seems to have happened all over Europe, was the growth of free cities, as villages shook off the control of the lords. Within the town walls people now established “co-jurations” and “fraternities”. In three or four hundred years they “changed the face of Europe”, covering the country with beautiful buildings (cathedrals and churches) built by “free unions of free men”, and developing the arts and industries which are the foundation of our civilisation. Kropotkin identifies the guilds – a new form of unions (see also notes on unions: The labour Movement– as responsible for these constructive changes.


According to Kropotkin, “feudalism did not imply a dissolution of the village community”, but the village kept its two characteristic powers with regard to: (i) possession of the land, and (ii) self-jurisdiction. They maintained the folk-mote’s jurisdiction, nominating judges with whom any official sent by a superior lord would have to work. During the tenth and eleventh centuries the towns gradually strengthened this freedom from higher control. Many towns and cities developed charters, which show a common idea in the union of the town, but great variety in details between different towns. (p 160) Given its self-jurisdiction, the city was in effect a “State”, Kropotkin says.


At the same time, but organised on a different basis, the guilds served to bring groups together within the city in order to carry out a particular function (e.g. building a cathedral) or to organise a particular trade or craft. The universality of guild-type organisations is noted: in Russia they were called druzhestva, minne or artels, in Serbia and Turkey esnaifs, in Georgia amkari – meaning guilds, brotherhoods or friendships.  We now have available hundreds of examples of their statutes, he says, showing their relationship to older institutions in Roman or Greek times, and in India.


Two fundamental principles are the basis of guild organisation: self-jurisdiction over quarrels within the guild, and mutual support, i.e. social duties (p 155).


The variety of guilds is fascinating. Kropotkin mentions guilds of: serfs and of freemen, and of both; guilds formed temporarily for a special purpose such as a trading expedition and guilds which have lasted for centuries. Guilds brought together merchants, craftsmen, hunters and peasants; priests, painters, teachers, even beggars and lost women!! (p 156).


Alongside this organisation of its members into guilds, each city or town was also divided into territorial unions – “the street, the parish, the section” – which had jurisdiction over crime, its own aldermen, priests, and maybe even its own militia. So the medieval city was “a double federation: of all householders united into small territorial units … and of individuals united by oath into guilds according to their profession” (p 162).


Communal purchases were made for the cities, the cities were collectively responsible for losses by any individual merchant, and in times of scarcity everyone collectively bore the burden. Above all, this kind of community meant that: “so long as the free cities existed no one could die in their midst from starvation, as is unhappily too often the case in our own times.” (p 163)


In Chapter 6, Kropotkin explores further the organisation of the medieval cities, their achievements, the conflict between town and country, and the decline of the independent cities.


Here (p 169, and Appendix 11), there is a fascinating discussion of the special attributes of the market-place: the location where trading occurred. Kropotkin points out that at first trading would take place only with “outsiders”, and that there was a need for a protected area where the traders could meet. There were rules concerning the market-place: arms could not be carried there, “no feud could be prosecuted” on it, and if a quarrel arose amongst those trading, it had to be brought before whoever were the protectors of the market-place (the community tribunal, or that of the bishop or lord or king’s representative). In the market-place there would be a pole with an emblem representing the king or a lord or a local saint, or a cross – depending on “whether the market was under the protection of the king, the lord, the local church, or the folkmote.”


Note: I am reminded here of Castoriadis’s use of the term agora to describe the practice of allocating a public space in which democratic discussion could take place (See the website link in my notes at: Recommencing Revolution). 


Clearly there was a danger that the merchants’ guild would form an oligarchy,(and when merchants’ guilds did become more powerful, Kropotkin suggests, the power of the city was in decline); however, the craft guilds were strong enough to counterbalance the power of the merchants for a long time. The craft guild encompassed those who produced goods (manual workers) those who bought raw materials, and those who sold the goods (merchants). Moreover, the master and the apprentice would belong to the same guild – distinctions between them being “at the outset a mere difference of age and skill, not of wealth and power.”  Kropotkin notes that only much later, in the sixteenth century, when the kings had destroyed the independent cities and the craft guilds, was it possible to become a master simply by acquiring wealth.


Manual workers, and work itself, had a high status in these cities: ideas of “just” workmanship, “rightness” of materials (and I would add, a “just” price) were central. After all, the guild was responsible for the quality of goods, and it was in the collective interest to ensure that standards were maintained. Moreover, production was primarily for consumption within the city – what would be the point of shoddy workmanship, or inferior products?


As many socialists and anarchists have pointed out, (and even Aristotle believed this): when goods are produced for exchange and not for use, something changes in the process of production. The purpose of production becomes profit not the usefulness or reliability of the product.


“The more we learn about the medieval city, the more we are convinced that at no time has labour enjoyed such conditions of prosperity and respect as when city life stood at its highest.” (p 172) Hours of work were regulated, and the fact that the guild had autonomy, or as Kropotkin called it self-jurisdiction (on anything which did not hamper other guilds), meant that the guild was a superior form of organisation to our modern-day trade unions. (Again, see Notes on the Labour Movement).


Kropotkin is clearly full of admiration for the medieval city: “The medieval cities have undoubtedly rendered an immense service to European civilization. They have prevented it from being drifted into the theocracies and despotical states of old; they have endowed it with the variety, the self-reliance, the force of initiative, and the immense intellectual and material energies it now possesses.”


The last part of this chapter deals with the conflict between city and countryside, and the decline of the cities. The two phenomena were interlinked, as Kropotkin sees it, since the cities “based their wealth upon commerce and industry, to the neglect of agriculture” and therefore came to treat the peasants as outsiders, even with hostility.  Some feudal lords lived in the cities, and they were resistant to being subordinate to the city and its guilds. So powerful families arose within the cities, who were able to defend their wealth by means of force. And when the cities fought the rising power of the feudal lords and the king, it was for their own protection, not seeing the peasants were on the same side, and not realising that this would lead the peasantry to support the lords and the new monarchical power. Most important however, as Kropotkin saw it, was the spread of the “Roman” idea (backed up by the Christian church) of a strongly centralized state, ruled by a semi-divine individual; this replaced the city ideals of “self-reliance and federalism, the sovereignty of each group, and the construction of the political body from the simple to the composite”.  


It is clear from this, if Kropotkin is right, that there are two challenges to modern-day anarchists: how to organise our world on this decentralised basis, and how to prevent groups emerging who will take power from us!


Chapters 7, 8: Mutual Aid Amongst Ourselves.


Here Kropotkin deals with examples of co-operation today, and these examples are used to support the ideas he has already set out several times:


- all people desire order, and they then put their trust in those who promise to deliver it


- those who are entrusted to keep order may have the best of intentions, but they are bound to gain power, and end up abusing the trust given to them, becoming a ruling minority


- this minority may be the wealthy, or the militarily skilled, or those with knowledge of traditions and laws, or religious leaders.  (Note how this is a more complex picture than the standard Marxist reduction of the source of power to control over the means of production.)


- people also desire structured rules for behaviour, but these have become "crystallised" and rigid, and this then destroys freedom and morality


- the fact that there are authoritarian and exploitative leaders, far from disproving the existence of an instinctive moral sense in ordinary people, is in fact evidence for it, once we understand how the leaders arose in the first place


- the responsibility, then, lies with ordinary people, not to allow others to gain power over them: as the 1960s slogan had it: “they only rule over us because we are on our knees”.


 “And whenever mankind had to work out a new social organisation, adapted to a new phasis (sic) of development, its constructive genius always drew the elements and the inspiration for the new departure from that same ever-living tendency [the mutual-aid tendency in man]. New economical and social institutions, in so far as they were a creation of the masses, new ethical systems, and new religions, all have originated from the same source, and the ethical progress of our race, viewed in its broad lines, appears as a gradual extension of the mutual-aid principles from the tribe to always larger and larger agglomerations, so as to finally embrace one day the whole of mankind, without respect to its divers creeds, languages, and races.” (p 194)


As noted at the end of the previous chapters, it was in the fifteenth/sixteenth centuries that a new form of organisation emerged in Europe: the nation state.  But Kropotkin stresses the survival of mutual-aid instincts and activities: for example, the Reformation was not just a challenge to Catholicism, over Christian doctrine – it contained a “constructive ideal as well, and that ideal was life in free, brotherly communities.” There were communist fraternities, “comprising scores of thousands of men and women”, in Moravia, and anabaptism was a powerful social movement (notwithstanding the bitter opposition, I might add, of Martin Luther).


Gradually the mutual-aid institutions were destroyed by the rising state powers, until at the end of the 18th century all the states of Europe, despite their wars, agreed that there should be “no state within the state” – no separate unions between citizens within the state.  We now have state education, and the absorption of all social functions into the state, favouring “the development of an unbridled, narrow-minded individualism. In proportion as the obligations towards the state grew in numbers the citizens were evidently relieved of their obligations towards each other.” (p 197).


In a passage that I find incredibly perceptive, and that could be a comment on the present-day, he continues:


“In the guild - and in medieval times every man belonged to some guild or fraternity – two “brothers” were bound to watch in turns a brother who had fallen ill; it would be sufficient now to give one’s neighbour the address of the nearest paupers’ hospital. In barbarian society, to assist at a fight between two men, arising from a quarrel, and not to prevent it from taking a fatal issue, meant to be treated oneself as a murderer; but under the theory of the all-protecting State the bystander need not intrude: it is the policeman’s business to interfere, or not. And while in a savage land, among the Hottentots, it would be scandalous to eat without having loudly called out thrice whether there is not somebody wanting to share the food, all that a respectable citizen has to do now is pay the poor tax and let the starving starve.


The result is, that the theory which maintains that men can, and must, seek their own happiness in a disregard of other people’s wants is now triumphant all round – in law, in science, in religion.”


[see Richard Jones’s article in Guardian G2, 25.01.07, on the social life of wasps: researchers have been puzzled by the wasps’ tendency to socialise – since “Received wisdom is that seemingly altruistic behaviour… pays off in genetic terms, if they help in securing a future for their own nests… . and gene line”. Yet the wasps – 56% of them in fact! - even join other nests and help them to feed and care for their queen. So there seems to be a conflict between the social behaviour of these wasps and the “selfish gene” theory!!]


The rest of Chapter 7 deals mainly with the many instances of survival of mutual aid practices, such as communal ownership of land, despite the State’s determination to stamp out all such institutions.


In Chapter 8 he first shows how the State attempted unsuccessfully to maintain control over trade and over production and wages. Although the State found it was unable to keep hold of these parts of the economy, since the capitalist class was becoming more powerful all the time, nevertheless it fought to prevent control falling into the hands of the workers.  Laws, in France and in Britain, were passed preventing workers “combinations” [see also Labour Movement: Combination Acts]. However, workers found all sorts of ways of getting together for mutual support: friendly societies, burial clubs, secret brotherhoods etc, which were very well-organised. The Combination Acts were repealed in 1825, giving rise to the trade union movement as we know it – though as Kropotkin notes, this was a long-drawn-out struggle. (p 226 ff).


Kropotkin goes on to describe the unions and their political counterparts – socialist parties – in rather over-romanticised tones! (The years of effort and sacrifice put in to keep a paper going, to get votes, to support each other, without any personal ambition or hope of personal reward….).  He does, however, note that there is sometimes an element of egotism, even in co-operatives; but underlying it all is the same spirit of solidarity and mutual aid. (p 230)


The most intriguing passages in this part of the book are those describing organisations that we may have forgotten, or that we may not think of as having anything to do with mutual aid:


- on the one hand the “friendly societies, unities of odd-fellows, the village and town clubs organised for meeting the doctor’s bills, the dress and burial clubs”;  “the countless clubs and alliances for the enjoyment of life, for study and research, for education and so on” – he enumerates sports clubs, cyclists’ clubs, the Alpine Clubs with over 100,000 members; the scientific societies (Kropotkin was a geographer, remember!); Froebel unions (for the education of children), etc. All are voluntary, and a few hundred years ago would have been illegal because of the control exercised by the state or the feudal order.  Of course, such “civil society” associations as we now would call them, are still not allowed to exist in many authoritarian countries today…


- and on the other hand the Lifeboat Association: volunteers man hundreds of boats up and down the coast and rescue whoever is in distress at sea, no matter what the conditions; or the way that miners team up to go to the rescue of their fellows after a mining accident.


Alongside this, Kropotkin tries to address counter-arguments about selfishness: 


When someone produces an example of people ignoring others’ suffering, he points out that the miners and fishermen had a sense of community and a common interest, as well as the common threat from outside (the sea, mining accidents etc) which create a feeling of solidarity. In the cities there is none of this: we are separate individuals with no common danger to oppose; moreover there is no common tradition (or culture) as there is with miners and others, and as the village communities shared in their stories and epics. Instead, we have the church which is “anxious to prove that all that comes from human nature is sin” (p 234), and writers (and journalists?) whose main idea of heroism is that of the state or of leading military or political figures.


Later (p 238) he notes that when the churches do speak of mutual aid they mean “charity”, which implies the superiority of the giver over the receiver, as well as attributing supernatural origins to such feelings!  After all, the church assisted the state in its destruction of popular mutual aid institutions. Still, Kropotkin is generous enough to note that many church bodies do carry out charity work, and that this must (whatever the church followers themselves believe!) be “an outcome of the same mutual-aid tendency.”


He also notes the growth of feelings of international solidarity among people, despite the “jealousies which are bred by competition” and the historical rivalries between states with their “provocations to hatred… sounded by the ghosts of a decaying past.” (ibid)


The final paragraphs of this remarkable book may be said to fall into romanticism again: this time it is Kropotkin arguing that charitable acts are more common among the poor. The stories he tells are touching and sentimental – but before we dismiss them we should note that recent studies have found that the less well-off in fact contribute proportionally more to charity than the rich. There is also no doubt that when he was writing the poor had a stronger sense of community than they do now.


The best final comment to make might be that Kropotkin notes two distinct tendencies in society today: one that favours mutual aid and one that opposes it. His book, and these notes, were written to encourage the former tendency, and to discourage pessimistic notions that we will never have control of our own lives.

3. Further Extracts from Kropotkin’s writings:

(1)             Comments on “the moral sentiment”: Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiment”, and Darwin. (Extract taken from Freedom magazine):

“In a fine work, left to slumber in silence by religious prejudice…(i.e. Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiment” - the book was on the Black List for a century, Kropotkin says) Adam Smith has laid his finger on the true origin of moral sentiment. He does not seek it in mystic religious feelings; he finds it in the feeling of sympathy.

You see a man beat a child. You know that the beaten child suffers. Your imagination causes you yourself to suffer the pain inflicted upon the child; or perhaps its tears, its little suffering face tell you. And, if you are not a coward, you rush at the brute who is beating it and rescue it from him.

This example by itself explains almost all the moral sentiments. The more powerful your imagination, the better you can picture to yourself what any being feels when it is made to suffer, and the more intense and delicate will your moral sense be. The more you are drawn to put yourself in the place of the other person, the more you feel the pain inflicted upon him, the insult offered him, the injustice of which he is a victim, the more you will be urged to act so that you may prevent the pain, injustice or insult….

Adam Smith’s only mistake was not to have understood that this same feeling of sympathy, in its habitual usage, exists among animals as well as amongst men.

Pace the popularisers of Darwin, who ignore in him all he did not borrow from Malthus, the feeling of solidarity is the leading characteristic of all animals living in society.

the more the principles of solidarity and equality are developed in an animal society and have become habitual to it, the more chance has it of surviving… The more thoroughly each member of society feels his solidarity with each other member of society, the more completely are developed in all of them those two qualities which are the main factors of all progress: courage, on the one hand, and, on the other, free individual initiative.”


I deal elsewhere with the “imagination” (See Imagining Other, and forthcoming further notes on Castoriadis).

Kropotkin makes an important point when he stresses solidarity and free individual initiative as interdependent: as I understand it, he is saying that we cannot exercise individual freedom unless we have the social stability and sense of security that collective solidarity brings.

Note that Kropotkin talks of an instinct for co-operation, and in the (1902) Introduction to Mutual Aid (Kropotkin 1972, p 21) he spells out that he is not talking about “love” (as had Louis Büchner in a book of 1882), nor of “(personal) sympathy”: “It is a feeling infinitely wider … - an  instinct (my emphasis) that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution, and which has taught animals and men alike the force they can borrow from the practice of mutual aid and support, and the joys they can find in social life.”

(2)             From the Preface to the 1914 Edition of Mutual Aid:

[Kropotkin starts by saying that biologists have begun to accept his idea that amongst animals mutual aid “represents in evolution an important progressive element”.  He criticises current thinking, however, for exaggerating both the extent of the “internal” struggle (i.e. within the species, as against the struggle of the species against external forces) for survival, and its importance in evolution, and he says this distortion has been made “much to the regret of Darwin himself”.]

“however, if the importance of mutual aid and support among animals begins to win recognition among modern thinkers, this is not yet the case for the second part of my thesis – the importance of these two factors in the history of man, for the growth of his progressive institutions.

The leaders of contemporary thought are still inclined to maintain that the masses had little concern in the evolution of the sociable institutions of man, and that all progress made in this direction was due to the intellectual, political, and military leaders of the inert masses.

The present war [i.e. the First World War]… will show how much the creative, constructive genius of the masses of the people is required, whenever a nation has to live through a difficult moment of history.

It was not the masses of the European nations who prepared the present war-calamity and worked out its barbarous methods: it was their rulers, their intellectual leaders….

And if… we may still be sure that the teachings and traditions of human solidarity will, after all, emerge intact from the present ordeal, it is because, by the side of the extermination organised from above, we see thousands of those manifestations of spontaneous mutual aid, of which I speak in this book…

The peasant women who, on seeing German and Austrian war prisoners wearily trudging through the streets of Kiev, thrust into their hands bread, apples, and occasionally a copper coin; the thousands of women and men who attend the wounded, without making any distinction between friend and foe, officer or soldier; … the cooperative kitchens and popottes communistes which sprang up all over France… - all these facts and many more similar ones are the seeds of new forms of life. They will lead to new institutions, just as mutual aid in the earlier ages of mankind gave origin later on to the best progressive institutions of civilised society.”

(3)             “Harmony Without Government” – the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, written by Kropotkin in 1910, reprinted in 14th edition, 1926 (vol. 1 pp 873-4, 877).

“Anarchism, the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government … - harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption…  Such a society would represent nothing immutable. On the contrary – as is seen in organic life at large – harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and re-adjustment of equilibrium between the multitude of forces and influences, and this adjustment would be the easier to obtain as none of the forces would enjoy a special protection from the state. 

If, it is contended, society were organised on these principles, man would not be limited in the free exercise of his powers in productive work by a capitalist monopoly, maintained by the state; nor would he be limited in the exercise of his will by a fear of punishment, or by obedience towards individuals or metaphysical entities, which both lead to depression of initiative and servility of mind. He would be guided in his actions by his own understanding, which necessarily would bear the impression of a free action and reaction between his own self and the ethical conception of his surroundings. Man would thus be enabled to obtain the full development of his faculties, intellectual, artistic and moral, without being hampered by overwork for the monopolists, or by the servility and inertia of the mind of the great number. He would thus be able to reach full individualization, which is not possible either under the present system of individualism, or under any system of State Socialism in the so-called Volkstaat (popular State).

Scientific Anarchist-Communism.  … the present writer for many years endeavoured to developed the following ideas: to show the intimate, logical connection which exists between the modern philosophy of natural sciences and anarchism; to put anarchism on a scientific basis by the study of the tendencies that are apparent now in society and may indicate is future evolution; and to work out the basis of anarchist ethics.  As regards the substance of anarchism itself, it was Kropotkin’s aim to prove that Communism – at least partial – has more chances of being established than collectivism, especially in communes taking the lead, and that free, or anarchist-Communism is the only form of Communism that has any chance of being accepted in civilised societies…  And in order to elucidate the main factors of human evolution he has analysed the part played in history by the popular constructive agencies of mutual aid and the historical role of the State.”




Main Sources;


Goodwin, Barbara (1982): Using Political Ideas, Wiley

Kropotkin, Peter (1972): Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution, edited by Paul Avrich, New York University Press, (first published 1902)

Woodcock, George (1962): Anarchism, Pelican

Woodcock, George (1977): The Anarchist Reader, Fontana


Further Reading:


Apter, David and Joll, James (1971): Anarchism Today, Macmillan

Barclay, Harold (1990): People Without Government, Kahn and Averill; The State, Freedom Press

Bourne, Randolph – The State – See Sharp Press 1998

Butterworth, Alex: The world that never was: a true story of dreamers, schemers, anarchists and secret agents, Vintage £8.99. Anarchism etc in early part of 20th century.

Carter, April (1971): The Political Theory of Anarchism, Routledge

Christie, Stuart and Meltzer, Albert (1979): The Floodgates of Anarchy, Kahn and Averill

Cole, G.D.H.: A History of Socialist Thought, Vol II.

Goodway, David: Seeds Beneath the Snow, Liverpool Univ.Press (£20).

Holloway, John: Change the World without taking Power. The meaning of revolution today. Pluto 2002. £15.99. 0-7453-1863-0.

Joll, James – The Anarchists

Leier, Mark: Bakunin: The Creative Passion: Thomas Dunne Books (review freedom 11/8/07)


Marshall, Peter (1992): Demanding the Impossible, Fontana; A History of Anarchism.

McKay, Iain: Property is Theft: A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, AK Press.

Miller, D - Anarchism

Morris, Brian – The Anarchist Geographer… Genge Press ISBN 978-0-9549043-3-3 (c/o Freedom Press) £8.00. Primarily biography but some treatment of his ideas.

Quail, John (1981): The Slow Burning Fuse

Sitrin, Marina: Horizontalism: Voices of popular Power in Argentina, - AK Press (reviewed in Freedom). On autonomy in Argentina.

Vallance, Ted: A Radical History of Britain: visionaries, rebels and revolutionaries… Little, Brown £25

Various: Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society – Freedom Press

Walter, Nicholas – About Anarchism – Freedom Press

Ward, Colin (1973): Anarchy in Action, Allen and Unwin

Ditto            (2004): Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction

Weinberg, Chaim: Forty Years in Struugle – memoirs of a Jewish Anarchist – can be downloaded free from


Anarchy, and The Raven (no longer published); Freedom (fortnightly), , published by Freedom Press (84b Whitechapel High Street, nr. Aldgate East tube).


Works by Kropotkin and others published by Freedom Press, in Angel Alley, Whitechapel (near Aldgate East underground station - worth a visit!). (Russia)


See also: – international research centre on anarchism, a member of 


Film on Ethel MacDonald – went to Spain during Civil War, and reported from front line, including account of how Stalinists arrested their erstwhile allies during May riots, handing victory to the fascists (Tom Jennings, F 210608):


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