Peter Kropotkin & Radical Environmentalism (Pt.1)

( Next to Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin is the most famous and important of anarchist theorists, and was one of the first to advocate the theory known as Anarchist Communism.  His lifelong love of science and nature led him to develop his political theory which he saw as the most sensible, and perhaps more importantly, the most natural form of social and political organization.  In developing what he thought to be the most natural means of human organization, in terms of studying human needs and the most rational and equitable means of satisfying them, he laid out some of the basic ideas that would later be developed into the philosophy of Social Ecology, as well as other schools of ecological thought.

I will try to demonstrate how the tactics that Kropotkin developed in his time working within the anarchist movement have come to be used by radical environmental groups, often called ‘eco-terrorists.’  Apart from detailing the tactical methods which eco-terrorist groups have inherited from Kropotkin, I will also attempt to show how Kropotkin’s philosophical writings on anarchism and evolutionary theory have come to be incredibly influential within the environmental community.  In doing this I hope to show the theoretical framework that eco-terrorist groups are working in, because I believe it is essential to understand the development of these theories into the modern period as a way of both understanding, and addressing the issues we face as a global community today.

To begin, however, we must start by laying out some of the concepts that went into Kropotkin’s thinking in order to grasp a better understanding of his overall philosophy.  Firstly, there is the influence that nihilism had upon him.  Kropotkin wrote of the nihilists: “The life of civilized people is full of little conventional lies.  Persons who hate each other, meeting in the street, make their faces radiant with a happy smile; the nihilist remained unmoved, and smiled only for those whom he was really glad to meet.” [1]

The first sentence of this quote alone describes perfectly the nihilist view of society: whatever is accepted, reject; a perfect recipe for a rebel such as Kropotkin.  It also, however, shows an incredible display of honesty.  A nihilist would say one should not sugar coat something simply because it is the societal norm to do so.  One should instead do it because one generally feels that that is the appropriate action to take.  This level of honesty can also be seen in examples of Kropotkin’s life, as even his harshest critics could not deny the amount of honesty and gratitude that he radiated.

This break from traditions and norms are a critical aspect of modern anarchist thought.  The anarchist conception of freedom is very heavily situated upon radical notions of individualism that does not “bend before any authority except that of reason,” [2] and nihilism also views life as ultimately meaningless, without a higher purpose or meaning to life.  If one were then to hold a nihilistic conception of the world, things such as societal norms and traditions, as well as religious doctrines would lose much of their relevance.

Another conceptual aspect of Kropotkin’s thinking is that of our natural ability as humans to rebel.  Kropotkin’s fellow Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin writes: “Yes, our first ancestors, our Adams and our Eves, were, if not gorillas, very near relatives of gorillas, omnivorous, intelligent and ferocious beasts, endowed in a higher degree than the animals of any other species with two precious faculties—the power to think and the desire to rebel.” [3]

In this quote, Bakunin reveals elements that would become absolutely paramount in Kropotkin’s thinking, and the theories he develops: the concept of evolution (of which more will be said shortly), and combining our natural capacities for intellect with our natural desire to rebel.  In Bakunin’s view, humans are essentially animals.  We are not some entity distinct or outside of nature, but instead we are in nature.  We make up one portion of the ecosystem, and while Bakunin was not thinking as complex about this issue, Kropotkin develops it further, and the environmentalist groups that will be discussed later will grab a hold of this as a central theme in their respective philosophies.

For Bakunin and Kropotkin then, rebellion is something that comes as naturally to us as a species as breathing and thinking.  Or, better yet, our natural capacity for rebellion—which is for Bakunin and Kropotkin the rebellion towards freedom—is the evolutionary product of our natural capacity for thinking.  We naturally want to rebel against the status quo towards complete freedom, which for Bakunin and Kropotkin is anarchism.

This natural tendency of rebellion towards freedom obviously implies a very progressive view of history.  Kropotkin, however, would extend this to claim that every occurrence in nature is naturally a progressive occurrence, such as is found in dialectical materialism.  Let me explain: sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of modern day Mexico.  This event heralded the end of the dinosaurs, as well as seventy percent of all the life forms on earth at the time.  So, as cataclysmic as this event was, it provided for the conditions necessary for mammals to evolve, and now here you are with a paper in your hands reading about it.  Kropotkin saw revolutions in just the same way: a possibly violent event which ultimately would bring about some sort of progress.  This shows the very dialectical way of thinking which guided Kropotkin throughout his life.

One last critical aspect of Kropotkin’s thought, before we move on to his political theory, is the theory of evolution.  Kropotkin wrote a work, Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution, and in the work he states: “Mutual Aid would be considered, not only as an argument in favour of a pre-human origin of moral instincts, but also as a law of Nature and a factor of evolution.”[4]  This mention of mutual aid being the fundamental factor of moral instincts is crucial to Kropotkin’s ethical and practical arguments for anarchism.  In a political pamphlet published in 1909 entitled, Anarchist Morality, Kropotkin asserts: “The feeling of solidarity is the leading characteristic of all animals living in society.”[5] He goes on to say: “Thousands of similar facts might be quoted, whole books might be written, to show how identical are the conceptions of good and evil amongst men and the other animals.”[6]

George Woodcock writes in an introduction to the Kropotkin anthology, Evolution and Environment: “Kropotkin considered that the application of evolutionary theories to the development of human societies provided a basis in reality as well as in science for his ideal of a liberated society.”[7]  This view that science and technology can play a prominent role in liberating society is a concept that will be returned to with the introduction of Murray Bookchin and his theory of Social Ecology, but for now we move to his political theory.

Kropotkin writes of anarchist communism as “a synthesis of the two chief aims pursued by humanity since the dawn of its history—economic freedom and political freedom.”[8]  He goes on to claim: “We are communists.  But our communism is not that of the authoritarian school: it is anarchist communism, communism without government, free communism.” [9]

Kropotkin’s work, Mutual Aid, is critical for understanding why he felt humans could carry out this type of society.  In Kropotkin’s view, humans are animals, ultimately no different than any other on the planet, and given his argument for mutual aid in the evolutionary process; he argues that, if given the chance, humans would naturally order society in this way.  So, it is in fact unnatural, in Kropotkin’s view, for humans to subjugate one another and instead are capable of incredible amounts of empathy and aid.

Given Marx’s claim that history has been one of class struggles, where one class utilizes the state apparatus to oppress opposing classes, Kropotkin argues that if humans are ever able to take control of the means of production, they will have no need for the state.  Here, Kropotkin and other anarchists differ from Marxists in one crucial aspect: tactics.  Marxists believe the state should be seized in the revolution and utilized to bring about communism, and anarchists believe it should be destroyed in the very process of the revolution.  The goal is the same but the strategies are vastly different.

I have attempted to elucidate briefly the theoretical aspects of Kropotkin’s thinking, and next issue I will illustrate how radical environmental groups have been influenced by these ideas.  For a more complete view of his ideas I would strongly suggest delving into his body of works on the subject such as: The Conquest of Bread, Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution, as well as the anthology Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings.

Trent Trepanier

[1] Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p. 298.
[2] Ibid. p. 297.
[3] Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, p. 9.
[4] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: a Factor in Evolution, p. 4.
[5] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: a Collection of Revolutionary Writings, p. 95. Quoted from Anarchist Morality.
[6] Ibid. p. 90.
[7] Peter Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 12.
[8] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: a Collection of Revolutionary Writings, p. 61. Quoted from Anarchist Communism.
[9] Ibid. p. 61.


Part 2 available here: Peter Kropotkin & Radical Environmentalism (Part 2)

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