Selfishness or Solidarity?

Peter Kropotkin

“Égoïsme ou Solidarité ?”, La Révolte, 28 September 1889

Instead of arguments we are used to throwing words. Thus we are accused, we who, drawing inspiration from modern positivism, want to counter the so-called scientific economics and philosophy which, by the work of Marx and his followers, have so far prevailed amongst socialists and have affected even anarchists, we are accused of sentimentalism and they believe that we are crushed by this stigma.

Sentimentalism, you mean the principle and practice of solidarity? Very well, so be it. Sentiment has always been and is still the most powerful lever of progress. It is that which elevates man above momentary individual interests, at the very least above his material interests. It is that which unites the oppressed in one thought, in one need for emancipation. It was that which taught man to rebel, not for his exclusive interest but for the humanity of which he is part, to rebel even without the hope of victory, but merely to leave behind a protest, an affirmation, an example.

Moreover – and in all circumstances of life – men fraternise by sentiment, even when cold reason divides them.


Anarchy is the organisation of solidarity – as the present state is the reign of selfishness. Selfishness and solidarity are, whatever one says, two contrary, antagonistic principles, especially in today’s society.

You cannot be selfish without doing harm to someone or everyone.

The reason is that man is an essentially sociable being; that his life is composed of countless threads which extend visibly and invisibly into the lives of others; that, finally, he is not an entire being [by himself], but an integral part of humanity. There is no dividing line between one man and another, or between the individual and society: there is no moral mine and thine, as there is no economic thine and mine.

In addition to our own life, we live a little in the lives of others and of humanity. In truth, our whole lives are a kind of reflection of the latter: we do not eat, we do not walk, we do not open our eyes to the light, we do not close them for sleep without having countless proofs of our intimate connection to a host of our fellows who work with us and for us, with whom we meet at every moment and who we can consider somehow as part of ourselves, as entering the sphere of our existence.

This explains another thing: why life is not everything; why it leaves behind it memories, affections, traces; why we all live, some more and some less, a little after us.

If the sun goes out, it is said, its light would illuminate us still for eight minutes. A similar phenomenon occurs in the moral world. Must we give an example? Our martyrs of Chicago and Russia, who are still alive and will live long in us and amongst us and everywhere where there are men who think like us.


Here is how we understand selfishness and solidarity, especially in the current social environment. One is the way by which men are divided; the other is the way by which they unite. Just think of the circumstances of a strike to realise the difference. Now there is another meaning of the word selfishness. There are those who understand by selfishness the desire of man to satisfy all his needs. In this sense, we are, we must be, all selfish. The healthy man is more so than the infirm.

Nobody preaches maceration of the flesh, nor frugality, nor abstinence, nor Malthusianism.

The backward preachers of these theological virtues want to mutilate man and degrade him morally as well as physically, they want to diminish life. An intellectually and morally developed man feels his physical needs more than any other, but he also feels moral needs, and he sometimes sacrifices the former to the latter. Man does not live by bread alone, and those who preach selfishness preach to some extent moral abstinence, moral Malthusianism. Man must not only enjoy physically but also morally, and if a good diet is necessary to him, the feeling of solidarity, love of comrades, inner satisfaction are at least equally necessary to him.


We are told that every man is by nature selfish; that the altruist is himself a perfected egoist, solidarity being based upon a calculated interest. Let it be so, though the argument implies that man is guided from the beginning by reason rather than instinctively following the impulses of his sentiments.

Then again, even if this selfish calculation existed at the start, the characteristic of utility disappears at some point from the evolution of moral conduct.

We explain ourselves.

We may have been compelled to enter into a friendship for the pleasure of conversing with an intelligent man, for the assistance our comrade might give us in certain circumstances or for some other self-serving reason. But it happens that after a certain time, this motive loses its effectiveness, even disappears, and we love our comrade for himself. The effect is independent of the cause; the sentiment takes root in us; and we love because we love. It is the perfection of sentiment.

Likewise, we can begin to love a person of the other sex only for the pleasure that it offers us; but, especially amongst persons whose moral sense is developed, the transformation of sexual love into friendship, surviving old age and death, almost always happens.

It also happens that we are attached to an ideal.

Maybe in the beginning because we think that our action could bring happiness to ourselves and our loved ones; but we become more attached to it, until we love the idea for the idea, to the point of sacrificing to it our life and sometimes what is even harder than life, reputation, the love of parents, the happiness of the people whose fate is closely bound to ours.

These are facts, and we cannot deny them.

Those who reduce altruism to a calculation; abnegation, sacrifice to a gratification; friendship to an open tally between two people; finally, all that elevates man above his individuality to a miserable discovery of selfishness itself, deceiving himself on his true feelings, and they run the risk of the one who falsely cried wolf: they little by little insinuate into the heart of man true selfishness, for, it is said, since solidarity is only selfishness understood in a certain way, why bother to dedicate yourself?

Since we must be selfish, let us be so as reasonable men, let us be so for a cause!