1985 – Agence de Cooperation Culturelle at Technique – Flicker commons
Anarchism has gotten a rather bad rap over the years with anarchists caricatured as bomb throwing fanatics with bad hair. But the anarchist philosophy is quite the opposite and reasonable.
Anarchism is generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, or alternatively as opposing authority and hierarchical organization in the conduct of human relations. Proponents of anarchism, known as “anarchists”, advocate stateless societies based on non-hierarchicalvoluntary associations.
His struggles against tyranny resulted in years in Russian and French jails. The first time he was imprisoned in Russia an outcry by many of the world’s best-known scholars led to his release. The second time he engineered a spectacular escape and fled the country. At the end of his life, back in his native Russia, he enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the Tsar but equally strongly condemned Lenin’s increasingly authoritarian and violent methods.
In the 1920s Roger N. Baldwin summed up Kropotkin this way.
“Kropotkin is referred to by scores of people who knew him in all walks of life as “the noblest man” they ever knew. Oscar Wilde called him one of the two really happy men he had ever met…In the anarchist movement he was held in the deepest affection by thousands–“notre Pierre” the French workers called him. Never assuming position of leadership, he nevertheless led by the moral force of his personality and the breadth of his intellect. He combined in extraordinary measure high qualities of character with a fine mind and passionate social feeling. His life made a deep impression on a great range of classes–the whole scientific world, the Russian revolutionary movement, the radical movements of all schools, and in the literary world which cared little or nothing for science or revolution.”
For our purposes Kropotkin’s most enduring legacy is his work on anarchism, a philosophy of which he was possibly the leading exponent. He came to the view that society was heading in the wrong direction and identifying the right direction using the same scientific method that had led him to shock the geography profession by proving that the existing maps of Asia had the mountains running in the wrong direction.
Kropotkin re-examined Darwin’s work and doing his own investigations, came to the conclusion that cooperation – not competition – was more valuable and responsible for the evolution and continued survival of the species.
In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.
He also studied the social and economic conditions of Barbarian and Medieval cities and found the mutual aid played a far bigger part in their lives than any hierarchical governing system. You can find an online HTML version of Mutual Aid here. And a PDF version here. His examination of the Medieval cities found…
“The medieval city was not a centralized state. It was a confederation, divided into four quarters or five to seven sections radiating from a center. In some respects it was structured as a double federation. One consisted of all householders united into small territorial units: the street, the parish the section. The other was of individuals united by oath into guilds according to their professions.
The guilds established the economic rules. But the guild itself consisted of many interests. “The fact is, that the medieval guild…was a union of all men connected with a given trade: jurate buyers of raw produce, sellers of manufactured goods, and artisans – masters, ‘compaynes,’ and apprentices.” It was sovereign in its own sphere, but could not develop rules that interfered with the workings of other guilds.
Four hundred years before Adam Smith, medieval cities had developed rules that allowed the pursuit of self-interest to support the public interest. Unlike Adam Smith’s proposal, their tool was a very visible hand indeed.
This mini world of cooperation resulted in remarkable achievements. From cities of 20,000-90,000 people emerged technological as well as artistic developments that still astonish us.
Life in these cities was not nearly as primitive as the Dark Ages to which our history books assign them. Laborers in these medieval cities earned a living wage. Many cities had an 8-hour workday.
Florence in 1336 had 90,000 inhabitants. Some 8-10,000 boys and girls (yes girls) attended primary schools and there were 600 students in four universities. The city boasted 30 hospitals with over 1000 beds.
Indeed, Kropotkin writes, “the more we learn about the medieval city, the more we are convinced that at no time has labor enjoyed such conditions of prosperity and such respect as when city life stood at its highest.” – Alternet
Indeed, we can see today how the centralized economy and government is now in the midst of collapsing on itself and how the hierarchical authoritarian state is less and less responsive to the people on the whole. We can also see with the large increase in cooperatives and the states here more and more asserting the own desires, that our current system based on some perverted idea of social Darwinism is not the way to go.
I do believe that we need to look hard at what Kropotkin has written and his school of thought on anarchism and the idea of mutual aid. As the system continues to deteriorate, this is what needs to replace it.