A letter from Peter Kropotkin

“Une Lettre de Pierre Kropotkine”, Les Temps Nouveaux: Revue internationale des Idées Communistes Libertaires, June-July 1921

[Dessihore 5 May 1920]

My dear Alexander

I let myself be carried away by my work and I did not reply to your letter of April 22.

If I have undertaken to work on Ethics, it is because I consider that work as absolutely necessary. I know very well that books do not create movements and that it is the opposite that is true; but I also know that books are absolutely necessary for a certain definite current of ideas to be elaborated; books must, with the necessary fullness and scope, express the fundamental principles. To lay the foundations of a morality freed of any religious spirit and far superior to any religious morality, to any morality awaiting its reward “in the other world”, we need good works which would penetrate to the very bottom of the issue.

At this moment, when we waver between Kant and Nietzsche, that is to say between Nietzsche and Christianity – for Kantian morality is, despite its efforts to cover itself with a philosophy, a religious morality – such a work becomes absolutely necessary.

It is curious (I learned this recently) that after the crushing of the Paris Commune, Bakunin, retired to Locarno, also felt the need to elaborate an ethics. Someone has to do it and the ground has to be prepared for it; and since my mind urges me to seek new paths in this domain as well, I must at least do so in order to trace the guidelines. I have very little time left to write: the heart slowly strikes the beats that remain to be struck. Just today, I almost fainted without any apparent cause: it is the heart that “falters”.

And so, my dear friend, I am putting all my strength into Ethics, especially because I feel that during the moment we are passing through it is difficult to do anything serious for Russia by militant agitation when there are only weak and scattered forces. Considerable forces are at play which are by no way individuals forces.

What is happening now in Russia had been in the making for thirty years: we alone, with our exceedingly modest forces, have fought the current dominant trend. But our forces were unable to group together; moreover, the strength of the centralist spirit of social-democracy was not appreciated highly enough, and also it was not believed that the great social upheaval was so close.

I believe in the future with all my heart. I believe that the trade-union movement, whose recent congress represented twenty million workers, will become in the next fifty years a great force capable of achieving a communist society without authority. If I were in France – which is currently the centre of the trade union movement – and if I felt stronger, I would give myself body and soul to this movement, a movement which is that of the First International, not the Second nor the Third, both of which usurped the idea of the workers’ International for the benefit of a party – social democracy – which is not half composed of workers. I also believe that in order to establish a socialist, or rather communist, society amongst the peasants, the co-operative movement – especially the Russian peasant co-operatives – will provide in the next half-century nuclei capable of creating and developing a communist life. This movement will not be mixed with any religious element, because mere human reason will be sufficient for pushing the creative forces of the land to develop in the communist direction. The impulse may come from Russia and partly also from the United States.

I firmly believe this; but I feel that in order to infuse these two movements with an active force, to give them firm foundations, to help these weapons of defence become powerful weapons for the transformation of society in a communist direction, forces younger than mine are necessary and above all the collaboration of workers and peasants. These forces will be found; they already exist in the two movements in question, but they are not yet creating their future, they are not yet sufficiently aware of it; they are not sufficiently imbued with the socialist ideal.

I also believe that, once the great States are shattered, the small peoples, the small countries, will tend towards a form of social life without a State: 1. because this would avoid the danger of a militarism of conquest; 2. Because to men who have got rid of the Idol of our time – governmental centralism and the “powerful State” – it is easier to adopt a form of society without authority, that is to say that of independent communes federating amongst themselves.

I send you a big hug, my dear Alexander.

I have just reread my letter. Of course, it is not intended for the press: the thoughts are barely sketched. But that is the advantage of friendly letters: in being understood by reading between the lines.

Peter Kropotkin