Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin

Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842-1921), Russian prince, was both a scientist and an anarchist. He combined biological and historical fact to derive a theory of "mutual aid" to support his belief in the superiority of an anarchist society.

Peter Kropotkin was born in Moscow on Dec. 12, 1842, to an ancient and noble Russian family. At 15 he entered the aristocratic Corps des Pages of St. Petersburg, and at 19 he became personal page to Czar Alexander II. A precocious and widely read youth, he rejected the opportunity for a fashionable military career in the Imperial Guards and volunteered to help implement the Alexandrian reforms in Siberia. Disappointed by the results after 5 years, he undertook geographical exploration in East Siberia, and his theory on the mountain structure of Siberia brought him fame and an offer of the position of secretary to the Imperial Geographical Society. However, Kropotkin was aware of the gulf between the educated elite and the impoverished masses, and he decided to enter the Russian revolutionary movement. He was arrested in 1874 but managed to escape from Russia in 1876.

Anarchist and Writer

In Switzerland, Kropotkin developed his ideas on anarchism, which were later published as Paroles d'un révolté (1885). In 1881 Kropotkin was expelled from Switzerland and settled in France. But in 1883 the French government arrested Kropotkin for belonging to the First International. His observations on prison life were later published as In Russian and French Prisons (1887).

Released in 1886 after much political agitation on his behalf, Kropotkin moved to England, where he became very active in the international socialist movement. There he also began a series of articles against social Darwinism and its emphasis on the benefits of competition. Kropotkin tried to prove that sociability existed among animals, and that cooperation rather than struggle accounted for the evolution of man and human intelligence. The publication of Mutual Aid (1902), following his Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), brought Kropotkin worldwide fame. He elaborated on the economic and social implications of mutual aid for society in Conquest of Bread (1892) and Fields, Factories and Workshops (1901).

After the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Kropotkin tried to find its significance for anarchists by studying the French Revolution. In The Great French Revolution, 1789-1793 (1909) he interpreted the Revolution as a joining together of ideas from the upper class with action from the masses.

Although, as an anarchist, Kropotkin opposed war, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought him to the side of Russia. He saw in Germany the major support of reaction in Russia and Europe. After the collapse of the Russian autocracy in 1917, Kropotkin returned home to a warm welcome. Although he refused a Cabinet post in the provisional government, Kropotkin supported it against the Bolsheviks, whom he called "state socialists." After the Bolshevik coup d'etat in October 1917, Kropotkin found himself as strongly opposed to Western intervention as he was to the Bolsheviks, for the feared that intervention would only poison future Russian-European relations. In ill health, he moved from Moscow to Dmitrov and returned to his work on ethics, which he never completed. It was published posthumously from his notes as Ethics, Origin and Development (1922). Peter Kropotkin died of pneumonia on Feb. 8, 1921.

Kropotkin is a prototype of the non-Marxist Russian revolutionary thinker of the 19th century. In him were combined the major themes of the revolutionary socialists: populism, materialism, communalism, anarchism, and scientism. Kropotkin's distinctive contribution was to combine these themes into an original philosophy of anarchism based on mutual aid.

Further Reading on Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin

Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist, edited by James A. Rogers (1962), is the most eloquent source on his life. In the appendix Kropotkin's letters and other writings are used to carry the story of his life from 1899, where the Memoirs conclude, to his death in 1921. A good guide to Kropotkin's life is George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovič, The Anarchist Prince (1950). Another useful guide to his thought is the anthology edited by Roger N. Baldwin, Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets (1927), which includes an introduction and biographical sketch. James Joll, The Anarchists (1964), is an excellent history of anarchism in which the relationship of Kropotkin to the wider movement of anarchism is clarified.

Additional Biography Sources

Cahm, Caroline, Kropotkin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism, 1872-1886, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Kropotkin, Peter Alekseevich, Memoirs of a revolutionist, New York: Dover Publications, 1988.

Osofsky, Stephen, Peter Kropotkin, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

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