Peter Kropotkin, anarchist scientist

August 15, 2010

Great guest post from Eric Michael Johnson over at Skulls in the Stars on Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), a respected Russian naturalist and self-proclaimed anarchist who rejected his wealthy upbringing in favor of the people.

[Kropotkin] was a devoted Darwinian from the first publication of On the Origin of Species, and it was this scientific background that he held as the basis for a politics of individual liberty and the necessity of social change.

As he wrote in his essay “Revolutionary Studies”:

Everything changes in nature, everything is incessantly modified: systems, wages, planets, climates, varieties of plants and animals, the human species — Why should human institutions perpetuate themselves! … What we see around us is only a passing phenomenon which ought to modify itself, because immobility would be death. These are the conceptions to which modern science accustoms us.

Kropotkin lived in a time when the human environment was indeed undergoing radical change. A previously stable ecosystem had been upended and the scramble for a new niche had already begun in force. Modern economic realities were changing the structure of feudal society and those who had previously been on the edge were now being pushed over it. As was often the case (and largely still is today) the comfortable sought justification for these changes by looking to laws of nature or by excusing them as a manifestation of God’s will. But others saw them as a warning. Unless the marginalized and oppressed became organized, they argued, there would never be any justice.

Kropotkin’s travels in Siberia convinced him that cooperation between individuals of a species – not competition – was key to survival in a harsh environment.

Enthusiastic to observe Siberia’s animal life through an evolutionary lens, Kropotkin and the respected zoologist I.S. Poliakov looked in vain for the intraspecific competition that Darwin described from his explorations in the tropics. “We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling,” Kropotkin recalled, but it was “very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies.” What Kropotkin found most often was mutual aid and cooperation between members of a group.

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalization of the century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions “by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried on!” and “who are the fittest in the struggle!” will widely differ according to the importance given to the two different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as “metaphorical” – the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances.

His Siberian voyage gave him a new perspective on his own species as well.

It was also during his expeditions that he discovered the brutality inflicted on Russia’s peasants by agents of the Tsarist government. Workers in the Lena gold mines were slaves in all but name, he witnessed district police who “robbed the peasants and flogged them right and left,” and a culture of impunity that allowed officials to “plunder the natives free of any control.” Moved to take action against such injustice, Kropotkin also saw the futility of working within a system that was built on exploitation.

I soon realized the absolute impossibility of doing anything really useful for the mass of the people by means of the administrative machinery. With this illusion I parted forever.

It was this commitment to political change that sealed his fate and set him on the path of a radical.

Read the whole thing.

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