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In praise of anarchy, Part I

Once upon a time there lived a prince. Not a fairytale prince, but a real one, his bloodline extending back to the founder of Russia's first dynasty. It was his bad luck that his mother died when he was young and his father, a military officer who paid little attention to his children, remarried a woman who also took no interest in him or his brother. And so our prince was brought up by the peasants attached to his father's estate (he was born 20 years before Russia abolished serfdom). The peasants were the only ones who took an interest in him or showed him affection, and so he bonded with them as with his family. And so our prince became a traitor to his own class.

Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin is our prince's name, and he eventually became a renowned scientist who advanced the understanding of the history of glaciers, an historian of revolutionary movements, foremost theoretician of anarchism, and, because of his lifelong burning desire to do something to help the plight of the common man, something of a revolutionary himself. His memory has not fared well over the 90 years that have passed since his death. On the one hand, he suffered from being associated with the Bolsheviks, although he never spoke out in favor of state communism or dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand, a major effort has been made by Western capitalist régimes to denigrate anarchism and equate it with terrorism.

I would like to rehabilitate both Kropotkin and anarchy. People who bother to read Kropotkin's lucid and unpretentious writings quickly realize that he is first of all a natural scientist, who approached the study of both nature and human nature using the same scientific method. He was also a great humanist, and chose the path of anarchy because, as a scientist, he saw it as the best way to improve society based on successful patterns of cooperation he observed in nature. He had no use at all for the vague metaphysics of Hegel, Kant or Marx. He also had no use at all for the imperial state, be it communist or capitalist.

Kropotkin was an advocate of communism at the level of the commune, and based his advocacy on its demonstrated superior effectiveness in organizing both production and consumption. His examples of communist production were the numerous communist communities that were all the rage in the United States at the time, where the numbers showed that they produced far better results with less effort and in less time than individuals or family farms. His examples of communist consumption included various clubs, all-inclusive resorts and hotels and various other formal and informal associations where a single admission or membership fee gave you full access to whatever was on offer to everyone. Again, the numbers showed that such communist patterns of organization produced far better results at a much lower overall expense than various capitalist pay-as-you-go schemes.

Kropotkin, in his usual data-driven way, was definitely in favor of grass roots communism, but I could not find any statements that he had made in favor of communist governance. He spoke of the revolutionary change—change that required a break with the past—as necessary in order to improve society, but he wished that it would be a spontaneous process that unleashed the creative energies of the people at the local level, not a process that could be controlled from the top. He wrote: “The rebuilding [perestroïka] of society requires the collective wisdom of multitudes of people working on specific things: a cultivated field, an inhabited house, a running factory, a railroad, a ship, and so on.” Another of his more memorable quotes is: “The future cannot be legislated. All that can be done is to anticipate its most important movements and to clear the path for them. That is exactly what we try to do.” (Here and elsewhere the translations from Russian are my own.)

Kropotkin's approach to the approaching revolution was also as a scientist, similar to that of a seismologist predicting an earthquake based on tremors: “Hundreds of revolts preceded each revolution... There are limits to all patience.” Participating in the many revolutionary movements in Western Europe during his long exile, he monitored the increasing incidence of such tremors. (He spent a long time living in Switzerland, before the Swiss government asked him to leave, during which time he radicalized a large number of Swiss watchmakers, turning them into anarchists who, we must assume, practiced their anarchy with great precision.) Based on his observations, he came to see revolution as rather likely. Again, he wished for it to be an anarchic phenomenon: “We... understand revolution as a popular movement which will become widespread, and during which in each town and in each village within a rebellious region multitudes of people will themselves take up the task of rebuilding [perestroïka again] society.” But he put absolutely no faith in revolutionary governance: “As far as the government, whether it seized power by force or through elections... we pin absolutely no hopes on it. We say that it will be unable to do anything, not because these are our sympathies, but because our entire history tells us that never have the people whom a revolutionary wave pushed into government turned out to be up to the task.”

Based on this, I feel it safe to conclude that Kropotkin was not exactly a revolutionary but more of a scientific observer and predictor of revolutions who saw them as increasingly likely (and in this he was not wrong) and kept hoping for the best as long as he could. It also bears noting that he declined to accept every leadership role that was ever offered to him, and that his participation in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was nil: he returned to Russia from exile as soon as he could, after the revolution of February 1917, but quickly removed himself to his home town of Dmitrov, north of Moscow, where he died in 1921. He wasn't exactly popular with the Bolshevik leadership, but they could not touch him because he was so popular with the common people.

Leaving aside the notion that Kropotkin was a Communist with a captal ‘C’ it remains for us to show that he was not an Anarchist with a capital ‘A’ either. My own personal working definition of anarchy, which has served me well, is “absence of hierarchy.” The etymology of the word is ἀν (not, without) + ἀρχός (ruler). Kropotkin's own definition is as follows: “Anarchy represents an attempt to apply results achieved using the scientific method within the natural sciences to the evaluation of human institutions.” You see, there are no Commie subversives here, no bomb-throwing Anarchists with a capital ‘A’—just some scientists doing some science and then attempting to apply their very interesting results to the scientific study of human social institutions.

Next week I will attempt to elucidate the principles of anarchy that Kropotkin observed operating throughout nature, which allowed him to make the dramatic leap forward and apply them to the analysis of human institutions. And the week after, in Part III of this series, I will attempt to show how Kropotkin's conclusions are fully vindicated in light of recent research into complexity theory. And, since stress is such a killer nowadays, and since anticipation has been demonstrated to raise stress levels in laboratory humans, here is what I will conclude, based on the work of Kropotkin in light of the latest stunning results from research into complexity theory. I will conclude that we have two choices moving forward: I. collapse, or II. anarchy. Pick either one, they are both very nice. Stay tuned.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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