A Russian Federalist: Peter Kropotkin

Camillo Berneri

Un federalista Russo: Pietro Kropotkine (Rome, 1925)

One of the most interesting aspects of Kropotkin’s political thought is federalism, something which constantly recurs in his writings and forms one of the foundations of his anarchist ideology. Although Kropotkin’s federalism is not a systematic theory and cannot be clearly differentiated from the federalism of Proudhon and Bakunin, it has various characteristics which make its study of interest.

This study requires a biographical excursus to illuminate for us the genesis of Kropotkin’s federalist thought in relation to the surroundings in which this thought was formed and affirmed. An Italian philosopher writing about Kropotkin rightly remarks:We will never understand the inner spirit of the anarchist movement if we do not consider it historically as a radical and violent reaction against the profound transformation undergone during the nineteenth century by the institution of the State.” (A. Tilgher, “A Philosopher of Anarchism”, in Il Tempo, Rome, 2 July 1921)

Kropotkin, anarchist-prince, is, in fact, the best example of this assertion.

I. Experiences

Kropotkin’s clear and detailed autobiography (Memoirs of a Revolutionist) makes it possible for us to follow step by step the different stages in the formation of his federalist thought.

At the age of nineteen, when he was an officer in the Cossacks, he went to Transbaikalia where he took a passionate interest in the great reforms started by the government in 1862 and entrusted to the Higher Administration of Siberia. As secretary to government committees, in contact with the best of the officials, he began to study the various projects of municipal administration but he soon saw that all the reform efforts were hampered by the District Chiefs, protected by the Governors General who, in their turn, were subject to the orders and influences of the central government. Administrative life revealed to him absurd systems and methods every day, so that given the impossibility of achieving any reforms in 1863 he took part in an expedition along the Amur.

During a storm forty barges were sunk with the loss of 2,000 tons of flour. This catastrophe gave him the opportunity of getting to know the central bureaucracy even better. The authorities refused to believe in the disaster and these same officials for Siberian Affairs in Petrograd revealed a complete ignorance of all that concerned their particular… specialty. A high functionary said to him: “But my dear fellow, how would it be possible for 40 barges to be destroyed on the Neva without anyone rushing to save them!” When Kropotkin replied that the Amur is four times as big as the Neva, the astonished functionary asked: “Is it really as big as that?” – and passed on, annoyed, to talk of some frivolity.[1]

Kropotkin left for Manchuria more than ever distrustful of the central administration. He certainly thought of the Petrograd bureaucrats when at the Chinese frontier an official of the Celestial Empire refused his passport because it consisted of a modest sheet of stamped paper whilst showing the greatest respect for an old copy of the bulky Moscow Gazette which was shown to him as a passport.[2]

Having become an attaché to the “Governor General for Cossack affairs”, Kropotkin made a thorough investigation into the economic conditions of the Ussuri Cossacks. On his return to Petrograd he was congratulated, promoted and honoured. But his proposals were not put into practice because of the officials who stole money and continued to flog the peasants, instead of providing them with cattle and alleviating, by prompt and suitable assistance, the ravages of famine. “And thus it went on,” says Kropotkin, “in all directions, beginning with the winter palace at St. Petersburg and ending with the Ussuri and Kamchatka. The higher administration of Siberia was influenced by excellent intentions, and I can only repeat that, everything considered, it was far better, far more enlightened, and far more interested in the welfare of the people than the administration of any other province in Russia. But it was an administration – a branch of the tree which had its roots at St. Petersburg – and that was enough to paralyse all its excellent intentions, enough to make it interfere with and kill all the beginnings of local life and progress. Whatever was started for the good of the country by local men was looked at with distrust, and was immediately paralysed by hosts of difficulties which came, not so much from the bad intentions of the administrators, but simply from the fact that these officials belonged to a pyramidal, centralised administration. The very fact of their belonging to a government which radiated from a distant capital caused them to look upon everything from the point of view of functionaries of the government, who think first of all about what their superiors will say, and how this or that will appear in the administrative machinery. The interests of the country are a secondary matter.”[3]

Alongside knowledge of the inefficiency of centralised administration bodies, the observations on the free agreement between those with common interests which he made throughout his long journeys in Siberia and Manchuria also contributed to the formation of his anarchist personality. He saw clearly the role played by the anonymous masses in great historic events and in the development of civilisation in general. This appreciation, as we shall see later, then informed all of his sociological criticism and was the foundation of his method of historical research.

When he came to the West, to Switzerland, his libertarian and federalist tendencies were greatly influenced by contact with the Jura Federation, whose militants were imbued with Bakunin’s libertarian federalism. As early as 1872 that organisation had assumed a distinctly autonomist and anti-authoritarian direction (Kropotkin saw in that experience “the first spark of anarchism”[4]). It should be noted that the highly centralised, it can be said tyrannical, domination of the International’s General Council had contributed greatly to the development of these tendencies.

Returning to Russia and contacting groups of left-wing intellectuals, Kropotkin notes again the uselessness of the efforts made by those who tried to regenerate the country through the zemstvos, or district and provincial councils. The idea that Russia needed to be a federative regime, agitated for by the Decembrists since the beginning of the XIX century (around 1825), was taken up by members of Pétrachewsky’s socialist group (1848), by Cernycewsky between 1855 and 1861 and finally by Bakunin and the populists of the 1870-80 period. The example of the United States of America and certain local institutions and traditions also led officials to devise administrative organisations based on the principle of autonomy. For example: Speransky’s administrative project for Siberia included councils comprising of representatives from all departments whose task would have been to manage all local affairs.

Such work was suspected as being separatist, of tending to create a State within the State, and was persecuted to such an extent that any attempt to improve the spheres of administration, health and education was a miserable failure, bringing with it the ruin of entire groups elected to the zemstvos.

Despite the disappointments suffered during his previous administrative activities, before he left Russia Kropotkin set to work once more, and having inherited his father’s property at Tambov, he went to live there and devoted all his energies to the local zemstvo. But he realised once again the impossibility of setting up schools, co-operatives, or model-farms without creating new victims of the central government.

II. Critique

From the articles that Kropotkin published between 1879 and 1882 in Le Révolté of Geneva, it is clear that the administrative life of the Western States only provided him with new material for anti-State criticism and confirmed him still further in his federalist and libertarian ideas. Wherever there is centralisation he found a powerful bureaucracy, “an army of officials, spiders with greedy little fingers, who know the world only through the dirty windows of their offices, or by their paperwork of grimoire-like absurdity – a black band with only one religion, that of money – one concern, that of clinging to any party, black, purple, or white, so that it guarantees a maximum of income for a minimum of work.”[5] (Words of a Rebel) And centralisation, which leads to extensive bureaucratism, appeared to Kropotkin as one of the characteristics of the representative system. He saw in parliamentarism the triumph of incompetence, and so he speaks with picturesque irony of the administrative and legislative activities of the representative who is not called upon to judge and arrange matters on which he has a particular competency and relates to his own constituency, but is asked to give an opinion, to vote on the varied and infinite series of questions that arise in that mammoth machine that is the centralised State:

He will have to vote on the tax on dogs and the reform of university education, without ever having set foot in a university nor knowing what a field dog is. He will have to decide upon the advantages of the Gras rifle and to choose the location for the State’s stud farm. He will vote on phylloxera, guano, tobacco, primary education and the sanitation of towns; on Cochinchina and Guiana, on chimney flues and on the Paris Observatory. He, who has only seen soldiers on parade, shall allot army corps, and without ever having seen an Arab, he will write and rewrite the Muslim land law in Algeria. He will vote on military headwear according to the tastes of his spouse. He will protect sugar and sacrifice wheat. He shall kill the vineyard believing he is protecting it; and he will vote for reforestation against pastureland and to protect pasture against the forest. He will protect the banks. He will kill such-and-such canal for a railway without being entirely sure in which part of France either of them is. He will add new articles to the Penal Code without ever having read it. An omniscient and omnipotent Proteus, today a soldier, tomorrow a pig farmer, a banker, an academic, a sewer-cleaner, a doctor, an astronomer, a pharmacist, a tanner or merchant, according to the agenda of the Chamber, he will never hesitate. Accustomed in his role as a lawyer, journalist, or public orator to talk on what he knows nothing about, he will vote on all of these issues, with the sole difference that in his newspaper he amused the janitor at his stove, and at the court he awoke drowsy judges and jurors with his voice, while in the Chamber his opinion will become law for thirty or forty million people.[6] (Words of a Rebel)

But the western world, together with the administrative absurdities of the centralised representative regimes, revealed to him that immense strength, more extensive and complex, observed in the Russian Mir: that of the free associations which “are spreading and are already starting to cover every branch of human activity,” and which made him declare that “the future lies in the free grouping of interested parties, and not in governmental centralisation”.[7] (Words of a Rebel; The Conquest of Bread; Mutual Aid: chapters VII-VIII and the conclusion). Since about 1840 the Mir had served as a starting point for Russian social thought inspired by collectivist views, while liberal thought gravitated towards the zemstvo. Formed between the XVI and XVIII centuries, as a reaction to taxation and noble power, the Mir had as essential features the collective responsibility for gathering taxes and the regular distribution of land. At the time of the 1861 reform, the Mir also acquired a judicial character. At the beginning of the XX century, the rural commune (Mir) still comprised eight-tenths of the peasants’ land, but the Stolipin reform (decree of 22 November 1907 and law of 27 June 1910) and the conditions of capitalist development in Russia started its disintegration. In 1881, at the request of Vera Zasulich, Marx had looked into the issue of the possibility of a direct passage from the Mir to a “higher communist form of land ownership” and had come to the conclusion that “this commune is the fulcrum of social regeneration in Russia; but in order that it may function as such, it would first be necessary to eliminate the deleterious influences which are assailing it from all sides, and then ensure for it the normal conditions for spontaneous development.”[8]

Especially the years spent in England, a country where the independence of the people and the enormous development of free initiative could not fail to deeply strike the foreigner coming from Slav or Latin countries, caused Kropotkin to appreciate, sometimes excessively, the value of associations.

To his direct knowledge of the Western world, Kropotkin added a new direction to his studies. A geographer in Russia, he became an ardent historian in Britain. He wanted to understand the State and knew that to do so “there is only one way of really understanding the State: it is to study its historic development”.[9] He discovered with enthusiasm that the general tendency of science is that “of studying nature not through its great results and large sums, but rather through individual phenomena and separate elements.”[10] History also ceased to be the history of dynasties, becoming the history of peoples. So much the better for the historical method, but also so much the better for the federalist conception, for it will become obvious that great renewals have not taken place in courts and parliaments, but in the cities and in the countryside. Devoting himself to historical studies, Kropotkin saw in the excessive centralisation of the Roman Empire the cause of its collapse, and in the era of the [Medieval] Communes the renaissance of the western world. “It is precisely in the liberation of the Communes and in the uprisings of peoples and Communes against States that we find the most beautiful pages in history. Of course, in transporting us into the past, it would not be to a Louis XI, to a Louis XV, or to a Catherine II that we would look: rather it would be to the communes or republics of Amalfi and Florence, to those of Toulouse and Laon, to Liege and Courtray, Augsburg and Nuremburg, to Pskov and Novgorod.”[11]

In drawing examples from mediaeval society, Kropotkin fell into various errors of interpretation, especially in the lecture on The State: Its Historic Role,[12] due more than anything else to the fact that the texts that he consulted (such as the writings of Sismondi) were not so advanced as the historical studies of today. For example: E. Zoccoli’s criticism of Kropotkin (L’Anarchia, Torino, Bocca, 1906, pp. 494-495) regarding his interpretation of the medieval Commune is largely correct. However, we should not believe, as is asserted by certain superficial people, that Kropotkin considered the era of the Communes as a kind of golden age. “It may be said that I forget the conflicts, the internal struggles, with which the history of these communes is filled, the turmoil of the streets, the bitter battles against the lords, the insurrections of the ‘young arts’ against the ‘old arts,’ the bloodshed and reprisals of these struggles…. Well, no, I forget nothing. But like Leo and Botta – the two historians of medieval Italy – like Sismondi, like Ferrari, Gino Capponi and so many others, I see that these struggles were the very guarantee of a free life in the free city.”[13] (The State: Its Historic Role) And it was these internal struggles that allowed, according to Kropotkin, the intervention of the king and the tendency of the medieval Commune to enclose itself within its walls (The State: Its Historic Role[14]).

Another historical field explored by Kropotkin was that of the French Revolution. He was opposed to the dream of bourgeoisie of 1789 “to abolish all the local powers which at that time constituted so many autonomous units in the State. They meant to concentrate all governmental power in the hands of a central executive authority, strictly controlled by Parliament, but also strictly obeyed in the State, and combining every department – taxes, law courts, police, army, schools, civic control, general direction of commerce and industry – everything.”[15] (The Great French Revolution) He reproached the Girondins for having tried to dissolve the communes and pauses to show that their federalism was an opposition slogan and that in their actions they showed themselves as centralising as the Montagnards.[16]

For Kropotkin, the Communes were the soul of the French Revolution and he gave extensive illustrations of the communalist movement, seeking to show that one of the main causes of the decline of the cities was the abolition of the plenary assemblies of citizens which possessed control of justice and administration (The Great French Revolution, Chapters XV-XXI and XXIV-XXV).

The era of the Communes and the French Revolution were, as for Salvemini, the two historical fields in which Kropotkin found confirmation of his federalist ideas and the elements of the development of his libertarian conception of life and politics. But there always remained alive in him the memory of his observations on the Russian Mir and of the free agreement of primitive peoples, and it was precisely these recollections that led him to an integral federalism, which sometimes is guilty of that populist oversimplification that predominates in the Conquest of Bread.

III. Communalism

When explaining socialist theories, Kropotkin adopted a negative attitude towards the Saint-Simonians and the so-called Utopians, especially [Étienne] Cabet, because they based their systems on an hierarchy of administrators, instead showing enthusiasm for the communalist theory of Fourier (Modern Science and Anarchy[17]). He rejects State collectivism because although it significantly modified the capitalist regime “it does not abolish the wage system,” since “the State, that is to say the representative government, national or local, takes the place of the boss,”[18] so that its representatives and bureaucrats absorb, and render necessary, the surplus value of production. This consideration also applies to the socialist State: “How much work does each of us give to the State? No economist has ever sought to estimate the number of working days that the worker in the fields and factories gives each year to this Babylonian idol. We would search the textbooks of political economy in vain to find an approximate estimate of what the man who produces wealth gives of his labour to the State. A simple estimation based on the budget of the State, the nation, the provinces, and the municipalities (which also contribute to the expenditure of the State) would say nothing; because it would be necessary to estimate not what is in the coffers of the treasury but what the payment of each Franc paid to the Treasury represents of the real expenditures made by the taxpayer. All we can say is that the amount of work the producer gives each year to the State is immense. It must reach, and for certain categories [of worker] exceed, the three days of work a week that the serf once gave to his lord.[19] (Conquest of Bread; Modern Science and Anarchy) Even the socialist State would try to extent its powers because “every party in power is obliged to create new employment for its supporters”[20] which, in addition to burdening the economic life of the country with administrative expenses, would also constitute an oligarchy of incompetents. Instead, what is needed is “the collective spirit of the masses working on concrete things.”[21]

The collective spirit, a generic term which in the Conquest of Bread became “the people”, “the commune”, “society” etc., which administers justice, organises everything, solves the most complex problems. It is a kind of divinity which, as Saverio Merlino wrote with just irony, plays the part of the chorus in Greek tragedies, and which the most acute representatives of anarchism are far from worshipping. If Kropotkin’s federalism errs with vagueness and excessive faith in the political capacities of the people, it is remarkable for its breadth of view. No federalism can be consistent if it is not integral. And this can only be socialist and revolutionary.

The integral nature of Kropotkin’s federalist ideas is proved by many passages in his writings. Here are a few of the most explicit statements: “Federalism and autonomy are not enough. These are just words always covering the authority of the centralised State”[22]; “Today the State has managed to become involved in all the activities of our lives. From the cradle to the grave, it smothers us in its arms. Sometimes as a central State, sometimes as a provincial or district State, sometimes as a municipal State, it pursues our every step, it appears at every turn, it taxes us, restrains us, harasses us”[23]; The free commune is “the political form that the social revolution must take”[24]; He exalts the Paris Commune precisely because its communal independence was a means, and the social revolution the aim. The Commune of the nineteenth century “will not only be communalist, it will be communist; revolutionary in politics, it will also be revolutionary in matters of production and exchange”[25]; Either the Commune will be absolutely “free to endow itself with all the institutions it wants and to make all the reforms and revolutions it may find necessary”, or else it will remain “a mere branch of the State, fettered in all its movements, forever on the brink of coming into conflict with the State and sure to succumb in the struggle that would ensue”[26]; For Kropotkin, then, the free communes were the necessary environment for the revolution to reach its maximum development.

His federalism aspires to this: “Complete independence of the Commune, the Federation of free Communes, and the social revolution within the Commune, that is to say trade unions for production replacing the statist organisation”.[27]

Kropotkin said to the peasants: “In the past, the earth belonged to the Communes, composed of those who cultivated the land themselves, with their own hands”, but through fraud, harassment, violence, the communal lands have become private property”. Therefore, the peasants, organised in Communes, must take back these lands, to put them at the disposal of those who want to farm them themselves”. And again: “Do you need a road? – Well, let the people of neighbouring communes reach an agreement amongst themselves, and they will do it better than the ministry of public works. – A railway? The interested communes in a whole region will do it better than entrepreneurs, who amass millions by making bad routes. – Do you need schools? You will create them yourselves as well as, and better, than the gentlemen of Paris. – The State has nothing to do with all this; schools, roads, canals will all be better made by yourselves and with less cost.”[28] These passages from Words of a Rebel make it clear that in the Conquest of Bread, where he says that the Commune will distribute goods, ration wood, regulate pasture land, divide the land, etc., he does not mean the Commune as a “branch of the State,” but the free association of the interested parties, which may be, from one time to another, a co-operative, a productive grouping, or simply a temporary union of several people united by a common need.

Kropotkin, although he recognises their seriousness, is not concerned much with the dangers inherent in particularism. Here is a characteristic passage on the subject: “These days, the parochial mentality can arouse many jealousies between two neighbouring communes, prevent their direct alliance and even ignite fratricidal conflicts. But if such resentment can effectively prevent the direct federation of these two communes, that federation will be established through the intermediary of the large centres. Today, two small neighbouring municipalities often have nothing that connects them directly: what few relations they have would instead serve to generate conflicts than forge bonds of solidarity. But both already have a common centre with which they are in frequent contact, without which they cannot survive; and whatever their local rivalries, they will be obliged to unite through the intermediary of the large town where they obtain their supplies, where they take their products; each of them will become part of the same federation, in order to maintain their relations with this focus of attraction and group themselves around it.”[29]

Here again we have a simplification of the federalist problem. To judge Kropotkin fairly one must take account not only what he wrote but also what could not write. A certain hastiness, certain omissions, certain over-simplifications of complex problems are due not only to his mindset, but also to the material impossibility of developing his point of view. Kropotkin almost always wrote for newspapers intended to be read by working people.

Deeply democratic, he always voluntarily renounced the mantle of the theoretician in order to roll up his shirt sleeves, like Malatesta who was also an original theoretician and an educated man. Even his pamphlets do not represent the whole expression of his ideas, the complete exposition of his research, and he himself explains why in his Memoirs: “Quite a new style had to be worked out for such pamphlets. I must say that I was often wicked enough to envy those writers who could use any number of pages for developing their ideas, and were allowed to make the well-known excuse of Talleyrand: ‘I have not had the time to be brief.’ When I had to condense the results of several months’ work – upon, let me say, the origins of law – into a penny pamphlet, I had to give extra time in order to be short.”[30]

Kropotkin faced these material difficulties only until about 1884. After that, for almost thirty years, he was able to write powerful books. But in this second period he was more a theoretician than an agitator, and his thoughts were more occupied with historical research and scientific studies. That means Words of a Rebel remains his best anarchist work for freshness of expression and ideological coherence.

Kropotkin saw that the federalist issue is a technical issue, and in fact he states in his book Modern Science and Anarchy that humanity will be forced to find new forms of organisation for the social functions that the State performs through the bureaucracy and that “nothing will be done as long as this is not done”,[31] but could not systematically develop his federalist conception because of his now turbulent, now scientific life. And such a development was opposed, as far as the elaboration of projects was concerned, to its own anarchist conception in which the vital spirit of the people constitutes the soul of [social] evolution in its partial realisations in history, varying endlessly in different places and times.

IV. Coherence within incoherence

Kropotkin was inspired by his federalist thought even in his attitude to the issue of anarchist activity during the European war [of 1914 to 1918].

In his Memoirs, Kropotkin writes: “The conflict between the Marxists and the Bakuninsts was not a personal affair. It was the necessary conflict between the principles of federalism and those of centralisation, the free Commune and the State’s paternal rule, the free action of the masses of the people and the betterment of existing capitalist conditions through legislation – a conflict between the Latin spirit and the German Geist”.[32] Once the European war broke out, Kropotkin saw in France the protector of the Latin spirit, that is of the Revolution, and in Germany the triumph of State-worship, that is of reaction. His attitude was that of the democratic interventionist. And he did, at first, made common cause with the jingoists of the Entente and fell, as did [James] Guillaume (author of the unfortunate pamphlet Karl Marx Pangermaniste), into exaggeration.

Some have wanted to see in Kropotkin’s attitude in 1914 an analogy with that of Bakunin in 1871. Bakunin was in favour of the revolutionary defence of France after the Paris revolution [in September 1870] had overthrown the monarchy; and he was also opposed to the republican government of Paris, against which he urged insurrection in order to oppose the German army only with popular revolution.[33]

With his interventionism, Kropotkin broke from anarchism, and he went so far as to sign the so-called Manifesto of the Sixteen in 1916, which marked the culmination of incoherence in the pro-war anarchists.[34]

But in the one-sidedness of his position, the affirmation of his federalist faith is remarkable. He opposed Germany because he saw in it a danger to the autonomy of peoples and to decentralisation. In his letter to the Swedish professor G. Steffan (Freedom, October 1914) he argued: “For Eastern Europe, and especially for Russia, Germany was the chief support and protection of reaction. Prussian militarism, the mock institution of popular representation offered by the German Reichstag and the feudal Landtags of the separate portions of the German empire, and the ill-treatment of the subdued nationalities in Alsace, and especially in Prussian Poland, where the Poles were treated lately as badly as in Russia (without protest from the advanced political parties), these fruits of German imperialism were the lessons that modern Germany, the Germany of Bismarck, taught her neighbours and, above all, Russian absolutism. Would absolutism have maintained itself so long in Russia, and would that absolutism ever have dared to ill-treat Poland and Finland as it has ill-treated them, if it could not produce the example of ‘cultured Germany,’ and if it were not sure of Germany’s protection?”

And anticipating the criticism – Are you forgetting the Russian autocracy? – he wrote:

Is there anybody who has not thought himself that the present war, in which all parties in Russia have risen unanimously against the common enemy, will render a return to the autocracy of old materially impossible? And then, those who have seriously followed the revolutionary movement of Russia in 1905 surely know what were the ideas which dominated in the first and second, approximately freely elected, Dumas. They surely know that complete home rule for all the component parts of the empire was a fundamental point of all the liberal and radical parties. More than that: Finland then actually accomplished her revolution in the form of a democratic autonomy, and the Duma approved it.

And finally, those who knew Russia and her last movement certainly feel that autocracy will never more be re-established in the forms it had before 1905, and that a Russian constitution could never take the imperialists forms and spirit which parliamentary rule has taken in Germany. As to us, who know Russia from the inside, we are sure that the Russians never will be capable of becoming the aggressive, warlike nation Germany is. Not only the whole history of the Russians shows it, but with the federation Russia is bound to become in the very near future, such a warlike spirit would be absolutely incompatible.

For Kropotkin, Russia was the country of the Mir, the country which had provided him with a wide number of observations on the results and possibilities of popular initiative.

The European War drove him away from his political family: the anarchist movement. The October Revolution in Russia brought him back to it.

V. Bolshevism and Sovietism

Many years ago, fighting the illusion that secret revolutionary societies had the power, having destroyed Tsarist tyranny, to replace the demolished bureaucratic machine with a new administration made up of honest and intransigent revolutionaries, Kropotkin wrote: “Others – the cautious ones who work to make their names while the revolutionaries dig their tunnels or perish in Siberia; others – the intriguers, talkers, lawyers, writers who from time to time drop a very quickly dried tear on the tomb of the heroes and pose as friends of the people – it is they who will come forward to take the vacant place of the government and will shout ‘Back!’ at the ‘unknowns’ who have prepared the revolution.”[35] Kropotkin’s prophecy has been amply confirmed, and he was in the opposition [to the Bolshevik regime], an opposition which would have had a considerable impact if his staunch interventionism had not deprived him of all political prestige.

In an interview with Augustin Souchy, published in Erkenntnis Befreiung of Vienna, Kropotkin said: “We should have communal Councils. Communal Councils should work on their own initiative. They should, for example, see to it that, in the event of a poor harvest, the population did not lack the basic necessities. Centralised government is, in this case, an extremely cumbersome machine. whereas, federating the Councils would create a vital centre.” Kropotkin expressed his hostility towards the coercive economy of the Bolshevik government in an interview with the Daily News correspondent, W. Meakin. See also the interesting interview with A. Berkman in Le Libertaire of 22 February 1922. In his meeting with Armando Borghi, Kropotkin placed great stress on the role of trade unions as the cells of the autonomous and anti-authoritarian social revolution.[36] In one of his last letters (23 December 1920) to the Dutch anarchist De Rejger, which was published in the Vrije Socialist, Kropotkin wrote: “The Social Revolution in Russia has unfortunately assumed a centralised and authoritarian character.”

On 7 January 1918, Kropotkin held a conference in Moscow (at the headquarters of the Federalist League, a group created on his initiative to study a possible federation of Russia) in which, after tracing the history of the autonomist and centralist currents in Russian thought and the steady and disastrous centralisation of the Tsarist autocracy, reaffirmed his federalist principles.

The impossibility of directing from one single centre 180 million people who inhabit extremely different territories and which far exceed that of the whole of Europe, becomes increasingly evident. This truth is becoming more and more clearly understood: that the creative power of these millions of men can only manifest itself when they feel they possess the fullest liberty to work out their own peculiarities and organise their life in accordance with their aspirations, the physical characteristics of their territories and their historic past. (Plus loin, Paris, 15 May 1925, and Pensiero e volontà, 1 February 1926)

Kropotkin’s thoughts on the Russian Revolution are expressed in a message to the western workers, given to Miss Bonfield on 10 June 1920 when she and other delegates of the [British] Labour Party went to visit him in his retreat at Dimitrov. This message is a notable document in the history of the Russian Revolution.

Given that, although the attempt to establish a new society through the dictatorship of a party is doomed to fail, one cannot fail to recognise that the revolution had introduced new conceptions into Russian life on the social function and on the rights of labour as well as on the duties of the individual citizen, Kropotkin set out his ideas, making a calm but intransigent criticism of Bolshevism as a party dictatorship and as a centralised government.

The first general question was that of the different nationalities that make up Russia. On this question Kropotkin writes:

A renewal of relations between the European and American nations and Russia certainly must not mean the admission of a supremacy of the Russian nation over those nationalities of which the empire of the Russian Tsars was composed. Imperial Russia is dead, and will not return to life. The future of the various provinces of which the empire was composed lies in the direction of a great Federation. The natural territories of the different parts of that Federation are quite distinct for those of us who are acquainted with the history of Russia, its ethnography, and its economic life, and all attempts to bring the constituent parts of the Russian Empire – Finland, the Baltic Provinces, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Siberia, and so on – under one central rule are surely doomed to failure. The future of what was the Russian Empire is in the direction of a Federation of independent units. It would, therefore, be in the interest of all that the Western nations should declare beforehand that they are recognising the right of self-government for every portion of what was once the Russian Empire.[37]

But Kropotkin’s federalism goes further than this programme for ethnographic autonomy. He says that he sees in the near future “a time when every portion of that Federation will itself be a federation of free rural communes and free cities, and I believe still that portions of Western Europe will soon take the lead in that direction.”[38]

And then the revolutionary tactics of the federalist autonomist is outlined and the critique of the centralised State-worship of the Bolsheviks expounded:

The Russian Revolution – being a continuation of the two great Revolutions in England and in France – is trying now to make a step in advance of where France stopped, when it came to realise in life what was described then as real equality (égalite de fait), that is, economical equality.

Unfortunately, the attempt to make that step has been undertaken in Russia under the strongly-centralised Dictatorship of one party – the Social Democratic Maximalists, and the attempt was made on the lines taken in the utterly Centralist and Jacobinist conspiracy of Babeuf. About this attempt I am bound frankly to tell you that, in my opinion, the attempt to build up a Communist Republic on the lines of strongly-centralised State Communism under the iron rule of the Dictatorship of a party is ending in a failure. We learn in Russia how Communism cannot be introduced, even though the populations, sick of the old regime, opposed no active resistance to the experiment made by the new rulers.

The idea of Soviets, that is, of Labour and Peasant Councils, first promoted during the attempted revolution of 1905 and immediately realised by the revolution of February 1917, as soon as the Tsar’s regime broke down – the idea of such councils controlling the political and economical life of the country is a grand idea. The more so as it leads necessarily to the idea of these Councils being composed of all those who take a real part in the production of national wealth by their own personal effort.

But so long as a country is governed by the dictatorship of a party, the Labour and Peasant Councils evidently lose all their significance. They are reduced to the passive role played in times past by “States-General” and Parliaments, when they were convoked by the King and had to oppose an all-powerful King’s Council.

A Labour Council ceases to be a free and valuable adviser when there is no free Press in the country, and we have been in this position for nearly two years, the excuse for such conditions being the state of war. More than that, the Peasant and Labour Councils lose all their significance when no free electoral agitation precedes the elections, and the elections are made under the pressure of party dictatorship. Of course, the usual excuse is that a dictatorial rule was unavoidable as a means of combating the old regime. But such a rule evidently becomes a formidable drawback as soon as the Revolution proceeds towards the building up of a new society on a new economic basis: it becomes a death sentence on the new construction.

The ways to be followed for overthrowing an already weakened Government and taking its place are well known from history, old and modern. But when it comes to build up quite new forms of life – especially new forms of production and exchange – without having any examples to imitate; when everything has to be worked out by men on the spot, then an all-powerful centralised Government which undertakes to supply every inhabitant with every lamp-glass and every match to light the lamp proves absolutely incapable of doing that through its functionaries, no matter how countless they may be – it becomes a nuisance. It develops such a formidable bureaucracy that the French bureaucratic system, which requires the intervention of forty functionaries to sell a tree felled by a storm on a public road, becomes a trifle in comparison. This is what we now learn in Russia. And this is what you, the working men of the West, can and must avoid by all means, since you care for the success of a social reconstruction, and sent here your delegates to see how a Social Revolution works in real life.

The immense constructive work that is required from a Social Revolution cannot be accomplished by a central Government, even if it had to guide it in its work something more substantial than a few Socialist and Anarchist booklets. It requires the knowledge, the brains, and the willing collaboration of a mass of local and specialised forces, which alone can cope with the diversity of economical problems in their local aspects. To sweep away that collaboration and to trust to the genius of party dictators is to destroy all the independent nuclei, such as Trade Unions (called in Russia “Professional Unions”) and the local distributive Co-operative organisations – turning them into bureaucratic organs of the party, as is being done now. But this is the way not to accomplish the Revolution; the way to render its realisation impossible. And this is why I consider it my duty earnestly to warn you from taking such a line of action.[39]

These are the thoughts of Kropotkin on the Russian Revolution, confirming all his propaganda. And these are the ideas which inspired and still inspires the opposition of the Russian Anarchists.

VI. Sovietist Anarcho-Syndicalism

On the eve of leaving for Russia, Kropotkin wrote from Brighton on 21 May 1917 a warm letter of revolutionary enthusiasm and shinning with anarchist hope:

Something great has happened in Russia and something which will be the beginning of still greater events everywhere… what struck me very much is the profound good sense of the masses of workers and peasants in comprehending the import of the movement and its promise… I see here, in France, in Russia, opening up immense possibilities for constructive work in the direction of communalist communism… What they reproached us with as a fantastic Utopia is being realised on a grand scale in Russia, at least as far as the spirit of free organisation, outwith the State and the municipality, is concerned.

In his letter, Kropotkin mentioned the reason for his return to Russia: participating in the development of the revolution. In Moscow, in the winter of 1917-1918, he attempted to elaborate the elements of a federalist-sovietist republic. After having his small apartment requisitioned, he had to retire to the small village of Dimitrov, where, in isolation, he resumed work on Ethics which he had begun in London. A. Schapiro writes of this period:

He refrained from openly criticising and attacking the State Communists who had become the masters of Russia. It was the military period of the Revolution when its fiercest enemies were attaching it from every side. Kropotkin, who was against any foreign intervention, feared that an untimely criticism, that a misinterpreted opposition, would benefit the common enemy at that moment.

He was a great rebuilder and whether it was a question of workshops or agriculture, trade unions or schools, he always had his practical proposal, his plan for reconstruction. You wanted to immediately treasure those suggestions that were so useful in that moment of creative revolution. Seeing that the reconstructive spirit was missing from the Russian anarchists caused him pain and one day when this and the divisions amongst us come into our discussion (this theme often recurred in our conservations) he exclaimed: “Let us see, my friend, whether we could not draw up a plan for the organisation of an anarchist party? We certainly cannot stand by with folded arms.” It was so good to see this forever young old man – who could have been the grandfather of his interlocutor – unable to remain inactive and call upon young people to unite and organise themselves. We decided that for our next meeting Kropotkin would prepare a project for the organisation of the anarchist party. He spoke of a party not to mimic those of politicians; but because the word group had become too small and narrow faced with the revolution, magnificent even though obstructed by politicians and political parties. At our next meeting we had a long discussion about the project, which he of course had not forgotten to prepare. [Federal] Organisation was the basis of this project.”

The anarchist party dreamt of by Kropotkin would have been, even if it was not called by this name, an anarcho-syndicalist party. Schapiro recounts:

And when the discussion was on the trade union issue, he always reiterated that, in reality, the revolutionary syndicalism which had developed in Europe was already found in its entirety in the ideas propagated by Bakunin in the First International, in that International Workers’ Association which he loved to give as an exemplar of a workers’ organisation. He was increasingly interested in the development of revolutionary syndicalism and the attempts of the Russian anarcho-syndicalists to participate in the trade union movement and the industrial reconstruction of the country.

When towards the end of 1920 – almost on the eve of the illness that killed him – young people called on him to ask for guidance within the anarchist movement, Kropotkin sent me the question of these comrades with a note which ended with these words: If they are serious young people, the best way forward for them is anarcho-syndicalism.

We were glad to have Kropotkin with us. And when I went to see him a few days before his death – the last conversation I had with him – he wanted first of all to know how the proceedings of the Conference of Anarcho-Syndicalists (which lasted from Christmas [day] 1920 to 7 February 1921, that is to say to the eve of his death) were going and he expressed to me the expectation of good work for the future.

Also in his meeting with Armando Borghi, Kropotkin was most insistent on the role of trade unions as cells of the autonomist and “anti-authoritarian” revolution. And likewise when meeting with Augustin Souchy and other exponents of anarcho-syndicalism. b

But, to avoid suspicions of a biased interpretations of his words, I think it appropriate to quote a passage from a letter of 2 May 1920: “I believe profoundly in the future. I believe that the trade union movement, that is to say the professional unions – which recently brought together the representatives of twenty million workers at its congress – will become a great power over the next fifty years, ready to begin the creation of an anti-State communist society. And if I were in France, where the centre of this professional movement is currently located, and if I felt physically stronger, I would throw myself body and soul into this movement of the First International (not the Second, nor the Third, which represent the usurpation of the idea of the workers’ International for the benefit of the Social Democratic Party alone, which is not even half composed of workers).”

To End

Kropotkin, old, sick, destitute, died during a period of inactivity after having attempted to encourage a federalist movement but without being able to achieve anything due to his lack of liberty and because his staunch interventionism had taken away so much of his political prestige. Kropotkin had also deluded himself about Bolshevik sovietism, so much so to say that he felt a connection with Bolshevism; but above the reservations, the incidental doubts, his syndicalist-communalist sovietism shone with logical consistency and constructive audacity, so that it is to be regretted that Kropotkin could not follow the subsequent degenerative phases of the October Revolution.

The federalist issue both in the field of nationalities and in that of political and economic organisation is the vital problem in Russia. When experience and opposition have led the Russian communists definitely away from their doctrinaire schemes and the union of left-wing parties takes the first steps on the road to the new revolution, the figure of Peter Kropotkin will appear in all its full height and his thought will inspire the new reconstruction. In Kropotkin’s federalism there is excessive optimism, there are simplifications and contradictions, but there is a great and fertile truth: that freedom is a condition of life and development for the people; that only when a people governs itself and for itself is it safe from tyranny and certain of its progress.

End Notes

[1] Memoirs of a Revolutionist (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989), 183-4. (Translator)

[2] Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 192-3. (Translator)

[3] Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 199. (Translator)

[4] Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 262. (Translator)

[5] “The Breakdown of the State”, Words of a Rebel (Oakland: PM Press, 2022), 9. (Translator)

[6] “Representative Government”, Words of a Rebel, 118. (Translator)

[7] “Representative Government”, Words of a Rebel, 127. (Translator)

[8] “Marx to Vera Zasulick, 8 March 1881”, Collected Works 26: 72. The expression “higher communist forms of land ownership” is a paraphrase summarising the nature of the discussion rather than a direct quote although the preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto uses a similar expression: “Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina, a form of primeval common ownership of land, even if greatly undermined, pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership?” (Marx-Engels, Collected Works 24: 426) (Translator)

[9] “The State: Its Historic Role”, Part III, Modern Science and Anarchy (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2018), 234. (Translator)

[10] A paraphrase of Kropotkin’s “Anarchy: Its Philosophy, Its Ideal”, included in Modern Science and Anarchy, 456. (Translator)

[11] “The Commune”, Words of a Rebel, 65. (Translator)

[12] Kropotkin’s well-known pamphlet The State: Its Historic Role was originally planned as a public lecture to be given in Paris during March 1896 but the French authorities refused him entry into France. It was subsequently serialised in the newspaper Les Temps Nouveaux and issued as a pamphlet before being later revised and included as Part III of the expanded French edition of Modern Science and Anarchy in 1913. (Translator)

[13] “The State: Its Historic Role”, Part III, Modern Science and Anarchy, 251. (Translator)

[14] See Section VI, “The State: Its Historic Role”, Part III, Modern Science and Anarchy, 252-7. (Translator)

[15] The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793 (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989), 7. (Translator)

[16] The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793, 365-7. (Translator)

[17] Chapters XI and XII, “Modern Science and Anarchy”, Part I, Modern Science and Anarchy. (Translator)

[18] “Food”, The Conquest of Bread and other writings, 58; translation corrected. (Translator)

[19] “Taxation: A Means of Creating the Powers of the State”, Chapter III, “The Modern State”, Part IV, Modern Science and Anarchy, 294. (Translator)

[20] “The Breakdown of the State”, Words of a Rebel, 10. (Translator)

[21] “The Means of Action”, Chapter XV, “Modern Science and Anarchy”, Part I, Modern Science and Anarchy, 192. (Translator)

[22] “Anarchy”, Chapter XII, “Modern Science and Anarchy”, Part I, Modern Science and Anarchy, 159. (Translator)

[23] “The Breakdown of the State”, Words of a Rebel, 9. (Translator)

[24] “Anarchy”, Chapter XII, “Modern Science and Anarchy”, Part I, Modern Science and Anarchy, 161. (Translator)

[25] “The Commune”, Words of a Rebel, 67. (Translator)

[26] “The Commune”, Words of a Rebel, 66. (Translator)

[27] “Anarchy”, Chapter XII, Part I, Modern Science and Anarchy, 161. (Translator)

[28] “The Agrarian Question”, Words of a Rebel, 99. (Translator)

[29] “The Commune”, Words of a Rebel, 69-70. (Translator)

[30] Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 394. (Translator)

[31] “Anarchy”, Chapter XIII, “Modern Science and Anarchy”, Part I, Modern Science and Anarchy, 169. (Translator)

[32] Memoirs of a Revolutionist, 361. (Translator)

[33] A reference to Bakunin’s “Letter to a Frenchman on the Present Crisis”, Bakunin on Anarchism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980), edited by Sam Dolgoff. (Translator)

[34] Errico Malatesta expressed this well by his article in Freedom (April 1916) entitled “Pro-Government Anarchists”. This, along with his other critiques of Kropotkin’s position, can be found in the excellent anthology Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta (Oakland: PM Press, 2015). (Translator)

[35] “Revolutionary Government”, Words of a Rebel, 155-6. (Translator)

[36] It should be noted that Kropotkin used the same words in the lessons he wished the Russian Anarchist movement to draw from the experience of the 1905 Revolution: “anarchists look to the workers’ unions as cells of the future social order and as a powerful means for the preparation of the social revolution, which is not confined to a change of political regime but also transforms the current forms of economic life” (“The Russian Revolution and Anarchism”, Direct Struggle Against Capital [Edinburgh: AK Press, 2014], 467). (Translator)

[37] “Message to the Workers of the Western World”, Direct Struggle Against Capital, 488-9. (Translator)

[38] “Message to the Workers of the

[39] “Message to the Workers of the Western World”, Direct Struggle Against Capital, 489-90. (Translator)