In summer 1876, Peter Kropotkin was given a pocket watch by a visiting relative. He was 33 years old, bore one of the Russian Empire’s oldest princely titles and had been a page de chambre to Tsar Alexander II. He was already famous in Russia for his scientific work on zoology and glaciation. Two years earlier, however, he had been arrested and imprisoned as a member of a revolutionary secret society. The watch was delivered to him in a prison hospital, to which he had been transferred after his health declined in the dungeons of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Concealed in the watch was a coded message detailing his role in an elaborate escape plan involving some two dozen comrades, many operating in disguise. The plan went off without a hitch; minutes after climbing into the waiting carriage, Kropotkin had changed his prison clothes for those of an aristocrat, blending in perfectly with the crowd on Nevsky Prospekt. While the imperial secret police fruitlessly combed the area, Kropotkin went out to dinner at a fashionable restaurant. After a few days lying low in nearby dachas, he was spirited away to Britain. He didn’t return to Russia until after the February Revolution of 1917.
In exile, Kropotkin drew on both his scientific and political interests to create the theoretical foundations of modern anarchism. His comrades in Russia, who were known as narodniki, or populists, shared many of his views but not all. Inspired by their liberation of Kropotkin and other daring feats, some of them embarked on a campaign of terrorism that culminated in the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. They demanded constitutional rights and an elected government, both of which Kropotkin repudiated. Yet connections were maintained: when Kropotkin returned to Russia, the Provisional Government – then led by Alexander Kerensky of the neo-populist Socialist Revolutionary Party – offered him a ministerial portfolio of his choice. He refused, saying that he thought being a cobbler was a more honourable trade, but he continued to support Kerensky’s doomed government and its commitment to staying in the First World War.
Russian populism, as Chris Ely points out in his new history, was concerned with more than revolutionary aspirations or a rhetorical emphasis on ‘the people’. Its origins lay in the enormous cultural gulf that had emerged in Russia after the reforms of Peter the Great, who at the start of the 18th century created a newly Westernised elite to help administer the country. Members of this ruling class were educated where their pre-Petrine predecessors had often been illiterate; they studied and travelled in Europe where their predecessors had lived behind closed borders; and their lifestyles were modern by Western standards where their predecessors had been seen as barbarians.
The lives of the serfs whose labour made Peter’s transformation possible, and whose continued exploitation funded the cultural efflorescence of their owners, were much less affected by Westernisation. A typical 18th-century peasant lived and thought much like his 17th-century forebears – or so we must assume. We can’t know if he didn’t, because very few could read or write. The aversion to labourers typical of aristocrats everywhere was enhanced in Russia by an incomprehension that was sometimes literal: young nobles often learned French first and spoke Russian only with difficulty.
By the 19th century, however, educated elites all over Europe were drawn, whether by poetry, paintings or music, towards a romantic notion of the rural poor. The beginnings of capitalist industrialisation and the effects of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had made rustic virtues more attractive. Johann Gottfried von Herder linked this shift to a rejection of Enlightenment universalism. Rather than seeing all societies as occupying different rungs on a ladder of ‘politeness’ and modernity, he and his followers argued that national – and ultimately racial – particularities could never be fully ironed out. These distinctions were most visible not in the lives of the upper classes, which had become more and more homogeneous, but in the apparently primordial culture of the common folk.
The Russian word narod is similar to the German Volk, but while Volkishness became associated with conservative nationalism, narodnichestvo belonged mostly to the left. The post-Petrine state remained firmly committed to the Westernisation that had created it. Even during the reign of Nicholas I (1825-55) – an arch-counterrevolutionary – the embrace of narodnost (sometimes translated as ‘nationality’ but meaning something like ‘being of the people’) remained relatively superficial. It was the Slavophiles, a group of Herder-inspired intellectuals based in Moscow, who first developed narodnost into a potentially subversive doctrine. While they rejected revolution or political reform, they believed that the communitarian, pious, localist beliefs they attributed to the Russian peasantry constituted a kind of spiritual alternative to the power-grasping of the imperial bureaucracy and its courtiers.
The Slavophiles, however, were themselves serf-owning educated elites just like the people they criticised, and their direct experience with the world of the narod was largely limited to interactions with people they owned. In this sense Slavophilism was not very different from neo-Confederate Lost Cause ideology in the US, with its paternalistic emphasis on traditional agricultural communities in contrast to the unfeeling rationalism of capitalist modernity. Unlike the Confederates, however, the aristocratic critics of the Russian state were sceptical of their own social legitimacy. The central object of fascination for the Slavophiles was the peasant agricultural commune, or mir, which they believed to be the opposite of everything individualistic and corrupt about the modern world.
Their sense of the way the commune functioned was influenced by the work of August von Haxthausen, a non-Russian-speaking German proto-sociologist who came to Russia in 1843 to write a state-sponsored study of peasant economic organisation. His interviews were mediated by interpreters and highly limited in their geographical range, but he concluded (based on his own ideological predispositions and plenty of preparatory exhortation by his Slavophile admirers) that the commune was a place where patriarchal elders governed by consensus, all decisions were made in the name of the common good, and neither private property nor social stratification played a significant role. Historians such as Tracy Dennison have since shown that this picture was wildly misleading, but Haxthausen’s work was influential across the ideological spectrum of 19th-century Russia because it provided evidence for what many wanted to believe. An understanding of the commune derived from his study was even legally formalised as part of the emancipation of Russian serfs in 1861.
The utility of this half-imaginary peasant commune for adherents of an anti-Western, traditionalist persuasion was obvious, but it proved even more influential on the political left. An early enthusiast was Alexander Herzen, whose rather mild anti-regime activities led first to a state-imposed exile from the centres of imperial power in St Petersburg and Moscow and then to a self-imposed flight to the West. Herzen initially found inspiration in the French Revolution, but the suffocating bourgeois capitalism that had triumphed across Europe and culminated in the failed revolution of 1848 led him to seek alternatives elsewhere. Before his emigration he had opposed the Slavophiles; now he believed they were on the right track: the future of socialism meant merging the economic form of the Russian peasant commune with the radical ideals of the European left.
Herzen, like Kropotkin, belonged to a distinctive social category: Russian nobles who were consumed by guilt and anger about the role they were destined to fill. As Herzen put it, the recipient of a high-quality humanistic education would eventually have to ask himself, ‘Is it absolutely essential to enter into the service? Is it really a good thing to be a landowner?’ For those who could not confidently answer yes, the way out was to sink into dissipation – or to turn against the system that created them. A revolutionary movement defined by such people is, of course, inherently limited because of its inability to mobilise the masses whose discontent it claims to represent. The wave of students, petty bureaucrats and other socially diverse young people who took up the banner in the 1850s and 1860s were not especially grateful for this inheritance. To Herzen’s considerable bitterness, even the gentry among them regarded him as an effete has-been and his whole radical coterie as a tiny circle of patricians who did nothing but talk about Hegel – whose popularity Herzen himself had also resented. This is the generational conflict Turgenev portrayed in Fathers and Sons, which popularised the term ‘nihilist’ (in reference to the younger group).
Kropotkin was caught between the two generations. He was young enough to scoff at Hegelianism but aristocratic enough to feel a conflict between his upbringing and his increasingly dissident politics. Having graduated at the top of his class in 1862, he had his pick of military assignments, but instead of choosing a prestigious guards regiment, he elected to become a Cossack in Eastern Siberia, far from the increasingly stifling climate of Alexander’s Petersburg. In Siberia, he served the empire loyally as an official and as a scientific geographer exploring the uncharted frontier of the Amur territories, which Russia had recently annexed from China. The remarks in his memoirs on this imperial project have an oddly celebratory ring, in part because of the liberal posture of the project’s impresario, Nikolai Muraviev-Amurskii. Kropotkin never quite reckoned with his role in facilitating Russia’s colonising mission in the region, which culminated in the displacement or immiseration of much of its indigenous population.
Nevertheless, Siberia proved to be a school of anti-government thought and practice for Kropotkin. He found that any efforts to impose top-down rule and bureaucratic improvements were doomed to failure. By contrast, the hardscrabble adaptability of its inhabitants offered an example of communal survival. Kropotkin tried to avoid romanticising the people or making too much of their patriarchal virtues, but his admiration remains clear.
Most of the populists who followed in Herzen’s footsteps were less sophisticated in their appreciation of the peasantry. The populists had emerged out of the nihilist milieu as its most committed revolutionaries, embracing an austere code of ethics. Like Kropotkin, they were motivated by modern science rather than Hegelian abstraction, and they wanted to move quickly from talk to action. But it wasn’t clear what that action should be. Some tried to collaborate with Russia’s first organised labour unions; others attempted to start schools and co-operatives. After first raising hopes of reform with his plans for the emancipation of the serfs, Alexander II quickly dashed them: the final emancipation law was badly flawed and a long period of repression and reaction followed. The populists were driven underground by the regime’s crackdowns on public meetings, demonstrations and organisations. It was one of these informal societies, the Chaikovtsy, that gave Kropotkin his first taste of illegal revolutionary organising – and then of state persecution, when he and other members were arrested in March 1874.
Kropotkin had been helping to plan a project which went ahead that summer: the ‘going to the people’ movement in which thousands of populists from St Petersburg fanned out across the empire, mixing with the peasantry to agitate for a revolutionary uprising. The peasants were not, on the whole, prepared to go along with this, and many populists returned deflated; others were betrayed to the police, dragged back to St Petersburg in chains and put on trial for subversive agitation. The outcome was ambiguous at best. While ‘going to the people’ showed many left-wing radicals that the Russian peasantry wasn’t the revolutionary mass they had imagined it to be, the unexpected support given by liberals in the imperial capital to prisoners of conscience – including the populist Vera Zasulich, who had tried to assassinate the brutal governor of St Petersburg – suggested another means of achieving their goal.
The crisis that followed divided the populists. One faction wanted to continue working in the countryside, embracing slower and less legally fraught methods of politicising the peasantry. The other, seduced by the ease with which they were now able to outfox the secret police, began to pursue a strategy of terror and assassination. They called themselves Land and Freedom, after an earlier society. As Ely showed in Underground Petersburg (2016), their mastery of the social and physical environment of the city shifted both populist tactics and goals away from their original agrarian focus. Although they continued to hope for a rising of the common folk, their practical emphasis was now on the constitutionalist objectives they shared with their liberal allies rather than the peasant-socialist economic agenda on which they had once focused. They hoped to spark a broader revolt with dramatic acts of terror plotted and executed in secret – such as the massive bombing they carried out at the Winter Palace in 1880, which narrowly missed the tsar. But when they finally succeeded in killing him a year later, the only spontaneous uprising that took place was a pogrom against the empire’s Jewish population. The secret police swiftly rounded up and executed the terrorists, and the populist movement entered a period of decline.
One of the most important aspects of Russian populism was its unprecedented focus on gender equality, about which Ely says little. Populist women were involved as agitators, terrorists and ideologists to a degree unequalled even in the much larger left-wing movements in Western Europe. While this sometimes sat awkwardly with romantic ideals of peasant life, it reflected the desire of both elite and non-elite Russian women for political and social liberation. For Kropotkin, the intergenerational solidarity of radical women was an important corrective to their male comrades. As a result, one of populism’s lasting legacies for the left was the emphasis that almost all of its successors placed on female emancipation.
While his former comrades were making bombs, Kropotkin was gambolling in Alpine meadows. After his escape from prison and a long journey through Europe, he lived in a community of watchmakers in the Jura, which he had first visited on an earlier trip to Europe prior to his arrest. It was the self-reliance and self-organisation practised by the watchmakers that convinced him that formal governmental structures were an unnecessary evil. But these were not politically unsophisticated simple folk: together with tens of thousands of their comrades in Spain, Italy and Belgium, they had been organised as part of the Bakuninist wing of the International Workingmen’s Association. Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin never met, although both renegade Russian aristocrats were in Switzerland in 1872. Bakunin was too suspicious for a meeting to take place at this time, and he died shortly before Kropotkin’s flight to Britain.
In Russia the 1870s marked the temporary triumph of militant populism, but for the left in the rest of Europe it was a decade of conflict and anxiety. The Paris Commune had briefly flowered in 1871 before being crushed, the tens of thousands of executed Communards a sign of what awaited unsuccessful revolutionaries. Conflict over Marx and Engels’s alleged overcentralisation of the International led to a permanent schism between the Marxists and the Bakuninists. Kropotkin returned to the Jura just as the Bakuninists had begun to cohere around a platform of ‘anarchist communism’.
Examining the practical and theoretical implications of the anarchist vision became Kropotkin’s principal task. Anarchism’s main rival, Marxism – as represented by the Social Democratic Party in Germany – was the foil for these efforts. While there was no denying the apparent success of the Marxist model – the SPD survived Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws and eventually became the largest political party in the Reich – Kropotkin saw its obsession with securing electoral control of the state as dangerously bureaucratic, sapping the revolutionary energy of the masses and replacing capitalists with state managers who were equally unaccountable. The theory of history that grounded it was, in his view, a collection of reheated Hegelian and utopian-socialist abstractions pretending to be scientific.
As a famous scientist, Kropotkin saw himself as particularly well-placed to offer an alternative, one that would debunk not only Marxist ‘scientific socialism’ but also the other dominant political-scientific current of the period – the marriage of Darwinism and liberalism exemplified by the work of T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer, whose ideas were pervasive in Britain, where Kropotkin settled in 1886 after leaving Switzerland for the second time. If Marx saw the driving force of history in the dialectical motion generated by conflict between rising and falling social classes, Huxley and Spencer saw it as the product of relentless competition; social systems that failed to recognise this were doomed to stagnation and defeat. For Kropotkin, evolution and natural selection were scientifically well-founded but incomplete, and their extension to social theory was a pernicious distortion of the complexity of interactions he observed in the natural world.
He began the essays that eventually became Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution in 1890 as a response to Huxley’s ‘The Struggle for Existence in Human Society’ (1887). As a book, it brings together hundreds of vivid instances of co-operation between insects, animals and human beings at different stages of social development. Deliberately written in a style designed to be accessible to ordinary workers, Mutual Aid lacks the complexity of many contemporary Marxist texts, and it’s hard to escape the impression that its examples could be condensed to a few pages without much loss of meaning. Yet Kropotkin’s aim was not just to demonstrate that co-operation is important for both human and animal life – it was to hint at, if not irrefutably prove, the existence of a historical tendency towards the global expansion and intensification of co-operative efforts throughout human society. Despite the ever increasing pressure of bureaucrats and capitalists, ordinary people have continued to organise for mutual support and protection and to federate these projects across national lines.
It remains a compelling vision. Kropotkin’s understanding and appreciation of societies then regarded as primitive, from Africa to the Arctic, forms a striking contrast both to Social Darwinist racism and the historical developmentalism of traditional Marxism. It shares the Romantic impulse that drove his old populist comrades to lionise Russian peasant communities, but instead of fixating on the national particularity of rural Russia it takes in the whole human and natural world.
The last century of human history has dampened the appeal of Kropotkin’s optimism. The anarchist trade unions and co-operative movements that inspired him in his own time have lost much of their significance, and it would be hard for an outside observer to dispute Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that ‘the history of anarchism, almost alone among modern social movements, is one of unrelieved failure.’ But if anarchism was a failure, Russian populism fared even worse. After the collapse of the terrorist strategy a decade of tactical retreat followed in which some of the populists abandoned their revolutionary commitments while the folkish aspects of their worldview were partially co-opted by right-wing rivals. The radical heirs of Land and Freedom began to lose ground to the Russian version of social democracy. The work of Karl Kautsky – Marxism’s Saint Paul – inspired a new generation of revolutionaries, including former populists such as Zasulich. Against the populist emphasis on agrarian revolt, social democrats tried to pursue the merger of organised socialism and the underground (but growing) labour movement. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) as well as other groups, in particular the Jewish Bund, targeted Russia’s industrial worker population and forged a new alliance between educated intellectuals and militant proletarians in underground reading groups and organising committees. Social democracy succeeded in rallying masses that the populists could never reach. In the Revolution of 1905, millions of striking workers seized power at the local level. They formed soviets: federated direct-democratic governing bodies in the best anarchist tradition. That revolution was swiftly defeated, but the precedent it established was essential to what came next.
The Socialist Revolutionary Party, formed in 1902 to revive populist traditions by emulating the social-democratic strategy, was Russia’s largest but least ideologically coherent political party. While the RSDLP was torn between the Bolshevik faction, which stressed underground organising, and the Mensheviks, who focused on electoral collaboration with liberals, the SRs were a volatile combination of every available tactical persuasion. The party’s Combat Organisation pursued a large-scale strategy of terrorism targeting civilians as well as regime officials (almost five hundred bombings and assassinations were carried out by the organisation and its successors between 1905 and 1911), which lost impetus only when it emerged that one of its proponents was a secret-police plant. Meanwhile, the Socialist Revolutionaries’ political wing engaged in legal agitation across the country. Its work in Russian villages allowed it to become the most influential political party after the February Revolution, but the incoherence remained. When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917, the left wing of the SRs entered a coalition with them. Its influence shaped the Decree on Land, which legalised peasant land seizures across the empire. After the devastating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, however, the left SRs embarked on a desperate, failed terrorist campaign against their former partners. The right wing, for its part, formed an alternative government on the Volga which by 1919 had been crushed between the Red Army and the increasingly dictatorial Whites.
After his return to Russia, Kropotkin remained loyal to the Socialist Revolutionaries who argued that Russia had to stay in the war to prevent the revolution from being crushed by German imperialism. His position was a puzzle to most of his friends. Aside from the relatively small anarchist faction that survived in 1917, it was Lenin’s Bolsheviks who represented the position closest to Kropotkin’s, with their demand for ‘all power to the soviets’ and their anti-bureaucratic, anti-electoral agenda; after taking power in 1918-19 they even formed a temporary alliance with Nestor Makhno’s anarchist army in Ukraine. But Kropotkin viewed Lenin as a dictatorial figure, and implored him in letters to abstain from the use of terror and the taking of political hostages.
Lenin admired Kropotkin nonetheless. As his secret police hounded down the last remnants of Russian populism, he ensured that Kropotkin could live out his declining years in comfort at his dacha outside Moscow. When Kropotkin died in February 1921, dozens of anarchists were released from Moscow’s prisons to attend the lavish funeral and all the leading party newspapers carried laudatory announcements. A few weeks later, there was an uprising at the naval stronghold of Kronstadt, in which anarchists and left SRs played a leading role. The Bolsheviks wiped out every cell they could find. Anarchism and populism had few enemies more bitter than the Soviet brand of communism; this was because the Bolsheviks saw themselves as both continuing and overcoming the revolutionary tradition these approaches represented. But thanks to the Soviet government, streets, squares, towns and metro stations all over Russia still bear Kropotkin’s name.
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