Happy Birthday to Peter Kropotkin

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Peter KroptkinPeter Kropotkin, that Gentle Bearded Animal
By: Kris Forkasiewicz

Peter Kropotkin’s birthday on December 21* (1842) calls for a few words about the man. It is especially so since, though Kropotkin is acclaimed (if not necessarily well-understood) in anarchist circles, he is insufficiently appreciated in context of animalist struggles. Building solidarity between movements, as well as pointing to their common ground in the animality of suffering beings, are both a must. Politicizing the still largely apolitical animal liberation is another. And so a look—one certainly more probing than I can offer here—is warranted at someone whose life and legacy offer valuable lessons to all radical activists and intellectuals.

Peter was born a Russian prince, steeped in privilege not many are ever likely to experience—including, reportedly, 1,200 serfs linked to the family’s properties, 50 house servants, 4 coachmen to attend a dozen horses, three cooks for the masters and two more for the servants, a dozen waiters at the dinner table, and more. Moreover, young Peter grew up in the relative proximity to Tsar Nicholas I, handpicked by him as just “the sort of boy you must bring me,” (whatever that meant) when he attended the Czar’s ball along with his parents. Peter, it seems, was not too happy about that. But he did benefit from his family’s social standing immensely.

Having received extensive tutoring from private teachers on a variety of subjects, a few years later young Kropotkin enrolled—or was enrolled—at the Tsar’s Corps of Pages. This set him on the way towards a career in the upper ranks of the imperial military. As it happened, however, on account of both boredom and frustration with the strictures of his stifling life-setting, as well as in view of his growing anti-authoritarian sentiment, Peter would start acting out and looking for ways to dodge the discipline imposed on him.

An expedition to Siberia, following his promotion from the Corps to the army, offered a chance to do just that. The 50,000-mile trek through one of earth’s harshest regions not only opened up a new vista for Peter to expand his long-developed proclivities for scientific inquiry; it also built up his character, allowing him to appreciate the hardship undergone by the animals—incuding self-governed humans of the Siberian village communities—in rough climate, as well as preparing him for the turmoil he would face for the majority of his days to come.

It was on his trek that Peter also realized the virtue in natural simplicity, noting ” how little man really needs as soon as he comes out of the enchanted circle of conventional civilization.” It was likewise on this official assignment in Siberia, while inadvertently serving the interests of imperialist Russian expansion, that he made the first and decisive discoveries concerning mutual aid as a fundamental natural force organizing animal life. With these insights, systematized in his later years, he would be able to combat the Social-Darwinist myth of the lone, amoral gladiator, promoted by his influential arch-nemesis, Thomas Huxley.

In fact, it was around the cornerstone of mutual aid that Peter’s personal, scientific, and—inevitably—political development would ripen in the years to come. Mutual aid would become the foundation of his anarchist political philosophy, of his standing in the international scientific community, of his steadily growing celebrity, and also of his more ordinary and personal integrity. Without a trace of the megalomania typical of an intellectual great, he was admired not only by his sympathizers, but also by the various liberal and reactionary figures of the day, many of whom he met and acquainted, all the while steadfastly defending his ethical and political convictions.

Now, one could be cynical about this and say Peter was popular with fellow anarchists primarily on account of his having done time, and twice at that. After all, jail time done for a good reason does help bolster one’s credibility and reputation with the anarchists, who hold “propaganda by deed” in high esteem. As for his popularity with the moderate folk, it could be said that Kropotkin was “safe” and “exotic,” and thus good to have around. Both observations are partially true. But quite beyond that, Peter Kropotkin—apparently unlike many other revolutionaries of his day—was by all accounts not only bold but also a decent and, simply put, a nice guy. “So what?,” some will say. It may indeed seem unimportant unless the reader concedes, as I think she should, that not only is the personal political, but the political is always already personal as well. This point is as basic as it is—despite constant and painful reminders—easily overlooked.

A fully engaged activist and scientist, Peter was also courageous and sincere enough to really leave behind the privilege and the family fortune, born of exploitation, with which he had grown up. In doing so, he was thrown all the way into a wholly different life, a life quite unlike that of many other radicals who would keep one foot firmly planted in the world of aristocratic and bourgeois privilege (I’ll refrain from name-calling here). Financial troubles, while fairly rare, were a recurrent concern for Peter and his wife. But not only would Kropotkin have no part in the undeserved riches of his family; he did not aspire to amassing a wealth of his own or to securing a permanent position so many would seek today in think tanks, university offices, or through collusion with business. He didn’t seem to care much for the level of personal comfort the bourgeois of the time so prized, and by not making that choice into any kind of ostentatious act of rejection, he Peter came across as unselfconscious in his stance. He was busy with matters he deemed far more important—mutual aid in politics, science, and his own life—and thus he truly walked the talk.

Soon after his return from Siberia and “break with all things Tsarist,” Peter settled in St. Petersburg, enrolled at university. More importantly, though, he became involved with an anarchist organization known as the Tchaykóvsky Circle, distributing pamphlets and meeting with peasants, educating them about cooperation and solidarity as naturally occurring in a self-governed community and, relatedly, about the oppressive nature of state government. That they also provided medical help and technical instruction to the villagers did not help their case much in the eyes of the regime. The authorities, rubbed just the wrong way, would have none of that, and, not long after Kropotkin undertook his St. Petersburgian efforts at activism, he was arrested by secret police in a crackdown on the anarchists. Subsequently, he landed at the Peter and Paul prison, a facility with a reputation compared to that of the Bastille.

Owing to an intricate scheme organized to free him, Peter managed to flee his captors, but not before his health deteriorated with two and a half years spent behind bars. He wouldn’t be arrested for the next two decades. After fleeing Russia, he settled in England, then Switzerland (where he happily married another Russian refugee, Sophie Ananiev), then, when the Swiss government expelled him under pressure from Alexander III, went back to England and soon landed in Nice, France.  It was in France that, in 1882, he would find himself locked away at the French Clairvaux prison along with a few dozens of other anarchists. Even though he had no real ties to the the anarchist movement, mere membership in the International Workingmen’s Association, illegal in the country, earned him a five-year sentence. This time, however, Peter emerged as a tougher man with a reputation in scientific and anarchist circles already firmly established. He was offered a deal but declined and decided to remain imprisoned in solidarity with the other inmates. He would spend some of his jail time writing for Encyclopedia Brittanica. Since the international pressure to release Kropotkin was mounting and there was no way to have him harmed and get away with it, the authorities wanted to get rid of him. He was soon freed and immediately returned to England.

In the turbulent years to come, Peter would be seen twice touring the US and Canada on an intense lecture circuit, writing extensively on all of his broad topics of interest, and finally settling down back in Russia following the February 1917 revolution, only to see his hopes for an anarchist Russia shatter against a wall of Leninist centralization and discipline that soon overtook the country. Soon after, engaged to the very end in the life of the village community in which he came to live out his final days, the gentle bearded animal known to the human world as Peter Kropotkin died. As noted in Lee Alan Dugatkin’s The Prince of Evolution, Peter’s path made him highly admired in Oscar Wilde’s eyes as “that beautiful white Christ which seems to be coming out of Russia… [one] of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience.” But what of the nonhuman world, a world wherein all things we think of as specifically human are embedded and whence they stem?

Kropotkin was one of the great naturalists of his day, a sensibility that developed in him in congruence not only with his scientific interests but through lived experience, especially during his Siberian days. It’s no wonder he didn’t quite grasp the full consequences of Darwinian insights into the animal origins of “man.” Darwin himself didn’t fully grasp them, and neither has anyone since his time, either in philosophy or in science. These are ways of engaging the world framed with distinct limitations. Philosophy is to some degree always slave to the concept, its major locus of loyalty. In turn, science, and the scientific method more specifically, inevitably objectify and freeze reality and experience in their interrelatedness, exploiting their regularities for laws through abstraction.

Kropotkin was a man of his time, a man of 19th-century science, philosophy, and, perhaps inevitably, prejudice. Thus, he retained an antipathy towards using scientifically unverifiable categories such as “love,” at least as explanatory devices. He put objectivism undialectically ahead of lived experience, but, even though he didn’t seem to think for a minute about how to reconcile the two, somehow he ended up feeling quite a bit for the others in the world, perhaps thus attesting to the correctness of his observation that mutual aid (or compassion, empathy, or love, I would add) is a wholly natural phenomenon. It was the search for the purported natural origins of mutual aid that made Peter fairly well-tuned to nonhuman animal sentience and intelligence, both of which he took seriously as a scientist. In looking carefully at the minutiae of animal life, Kropotkin was quite the ethologist. He wrote voluminously and enthusiastically about sociality in the communities of the fallow-deer, eagles, ants (his own favorite example), horses, crabs, pelicans, or primates. This has to be seen as an admirable shift in perspective from a view, preferred by Huxley and dominant at the time, of other animals as “mechanically engineered living machines.” It did leave much to be desired, though.

For one, Kropotkin ordered his observations in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution into a seeming hierarchy with the civilized human at the top—a standard anthropo- and Eurocentrist move, one undertaken (it is safe to assume) for much more than tactical reasons. There were distinct conceptual and ethical limitations to what he could conclude observing the normalcy of mutual aid in other species and our own, and building on that. Although mutual aid was found to be present across species, indeed almost universally, Kropotkin thought it predominantly an intraspecies phenomenon. Thus, he was not consistently pushed toward a questioning of the human exploitation and extermination of other creatures: an unprecedented situation that mutual aid may not be very useful in explicating or objecting to; a situation that will nonetheless require a heretofore unseen scope of not-necessarily-mutual aid to be overcome. But in embracing nonhuman animal life so thoroughly in his thinking, Peter was already way ahead of the blunt speciesist dogma of many of his contemporaries, as well as the self-serving, regressive reductionism of many ecological thinkers of our own day.

To be fair, Kropotkin was not entirely indifferent towards the fate of other animals in human hands. It is telling, given his own prison experience, that he would speak of crabs held captive at the Brighton Aquarium as “prisoners.” Dugatkin recounts Peter’s visit to the aquarium where he was

transfixed on a crab that had flipped over on its shell, and become immobilized. To Kropotkin’s utter delight, “Its comrades came to the rescue, and for one hour’s time I watched how they endeavoured to help their fellow-prisoner. They came two at once, pushed their friend from beneath, and after strenuous efforts succeeded in lifting it upright; but then the iron bar would prevent them from achieving the work of rescue, and the crab would again heavily fall upon its back… After many attempts… one of the helpers would go in the depth of the tank and bring two other crabs, which would begin with fresh forces the same pushing and lifting of their helpless comrade.” (Dugatkin 2011)

Iron bars here, iron bars there. Are they any different? Iron is iron, a cage is a cage, a prison’s a prison.

Reminiscing on his travels through Siberia in a journal, Kropotkin wrote of a “two thousand mile journey in a row-boat, changing rowers at each village, every twenty miles or so.” He wrote further of “fifty thousand miles in carts, on board steamers, in boats, but chiefly on horseback.” Dugatkin praises Peter’s fortitude, and rightly so. The question, however, is this: As we envision the fortitudinous Kropotkin finally merging with the vast Siberian horizon, are we able also to notice the steaming nostrils of the exhausted horse on whose back he swiftly moves? Was he moved to liberate the imprisoned crustaceans? Not that we know of. It seems like he didn’t pay nearly enough attention, though he had the eyes and the heart to see. Now it is up to us to open ours.


*Most sources state that Peter was born on December 9. If I take his birthday to be December 21, the publication of this note becomes a little less overdue, so I’m sticking with it. Essay originally published on Dec 26, 2013. Simultaneously posted at http://radicallyreal.wordpress.com.

References and Further Reading

Cahm, Caroline. 1989. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism 1871-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dugatkin, Lee Alan. 2011. The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin’s Adventures in Science and Politics. CreateSpace Independent publishing platform. Kindle edition.

Kropotkin, Peter. 2008. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Forgotten Books.

Woodcock, George and Ivan Avakumovic. 1971. Anarchist Prince: Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin. Schocken Books Inc.