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(en) Northeastern Anarchist #7 - Peter Kropotkin And Peoples' Uprisings From the Paris Commune to the Kwangju Uprising by George Katsiaficas

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 7 Aug 2003 12:21:20 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

To more fully appreciate the contributions of Peter Kropotkin, we
would be remiss if we did not attempt to extrapolate his thinking
into our own time. With regard to the fate of the Bolshevik
revolution, such a task is straightforward. Kropotkin himself was
able to analyze its development and regression. It is quite a bit
more difficult, however, to apply Kropotkin's thinking to the
development of revolutionary movements in the latter half of the
20th Century.

While he is vital importance to contemporary anarchist thinking,
Kropotkin is still little known outside the circles of the initiated. In
South Korea, Kwangju is central to the development of modern
democracy, yet the uprising of 1980, in which as many people as
2,000 people lost their lives, remains at (or outside) the borders of
many people's understanding. In both cases, it seems to me that
Eurocentrism plays a role in the marginalization process. I feel
safe asserting that if Kropotkin had never left Russia and yet still
written the same books and articles, outside of Russia we would
know very little or nothing of him today!

We may forgive Kropotkin for many things. At the top of the list is
his support for the Entente during World War I. Somewhere else
in this list is his Eurocentric bias. Today one encounters this
category of analysis in Mutual Aid with consternation. His use of
"savages" and "barbarians" is curiously antiquated. Moreover, in
his Memoirs of a Revolutionist, we find oblique references to
"Asiatic schemes," mentions of "[...] an Oriental fashion, in an
abominable way" and "oriental amusements were looked upon
with disgust..." [Memoirs, pp. 76, 82, 310]. I assume that
Kropotkin would have outgrown these prejudices. In his own day,
they were seldom questioned.

Kropotkin was, if anything, an internationalist. Considering the
role of Le Revolte, the Swiss paper he edited, he wrote: "To make
one feel sympathy with the throbbing of the human heart, with its
revolt against age-long injustice, with its attempts at working out
new forms of life, -- this should be the chief duty of a revolutionary
paper. It is hope, not despair, which makes successful
revolutions" [Memoirs, pp. 418]


Alongside the Russian Revolution, and his experiences in
Western Europe, Kropotkin developed his analysis of revolution
mainly in relation to movements in France, especially the
Revolution of 1789-93 and the Paris Commune of 1871. For
Kropotkin, the free commune became the ends and means of
genuine revolution. He detested representative government and
those bureaucrats who sought to take upon themselves the
responsibilities and rights of the people. More than once, he
blasted those who would sit, like generals from afar, and give
directives to movements in the streets [Memoirs, p. 282]. One can
only imagine what he would have to say about those who sit home
today during demonstrations and tomorrow write "handbooks" full
of advice for activists. In his own day, he participated in armed
demonstrations and thematized cowardice as necessary to
overcome inside the movement [Memoirs, p. 419].

Kropotkin's faith in ordinary people was boundless. Admiring the
"spontaneous organization shown by the people of Paris" in the
French Revolution, he noted that each section of the city
appointed its own military and civil committee, but "it was the
General Assemblies, held in the evening, that all important
questions were generally referred" [The Great French Revolution,
p. 313]. Over time, observed Kropotkin, these sections were
transformed into arms of the Committee of Public Safety (i.e. into
instruments of the State). As 40,000 revolutionary committees
were swallowed by the State, the revolution was killed.

The sacrifices of thousands of people who lost their lives in
revolutionary movements revealed to Kropotkin the form in which
a genuine revolution would appear: the "independent commune."
Throughout his writings, Kropotkin understood democratic
republics and representative governments as fulfilling the
ambitions of middle class radicals, of those who wanted reform of
the existing system in order to improve their individual lot rather
than to revolutionize all of the existing social order [Conquest of
Bread, p. 44, 213-14]. "Representative government has
accomplished its historic mission; it has given a mortal blow to
court-rule." [Anarchist Communism, p. 68]. "Absolute monarchy
corresponded to the system of serfdom. Representative
government corresponds to the system of capital-rule." [Anarchist
Communism, p. 52]

Developing his thoughts in relation to the Paris Commune of 1871,
he wrote:

"The uprising of the Paris Commune thus brought with it the
solution of a question, which tormented every true revolutionist.
Twice had France tried to achieve some sort of socialist
revolution by imposing it through a central government more or
less disposed to accept it: in 1793-94, when she tried to introduce
l'egalite de fait - real economic equality - by means of strong
Jacobin measures; and in 1848, when she tried to impose a
"Democratic Socialist Republic." And each time she failed But
now a new solution was indicated: the free commune must do it on
its own territory..." [Modern Science and Anarchism, p. 164]

The political form of a free society for Kropotkin clearly was the
independent commune. "This was the form the social revolution
must take - the independent commune. Let all the country and all
the world be against it; but once its inhabitants have decided that
they will communalize the consumption of commodities, their
exchange and their production, they must realize it among
themselves." [Modern Science and Anarchism, p. 164]. In his
understanding of the Paris Commune and the Cartagena and
Barcelona Communes that followed on its heels, Kropotkin
fleshed out the meaning of the Commune as a political form,
projecting it into the future:

"If we analyze not only this movement in itself, but also the
impression it left in the minds and the tendencies manifested
during the communal revolution, we must recognize in it an
indication showing that in the future human agglomerations which
are more advanced in their social development will try to start an
independent life; and that they will endeavor to convert the more
backwards parts of a nation by example, instead of imposing their
opinions by law and force, or by submitting themselves to
majority-rule, which always is mediocrity-rule. At the same time,
the failure of representative government within the Commune
itself proved that self-government and self-administration must be
carried further than in a mere territorial sense. To be effective
they must also be carried into the various functions of life within a
free community." [Anarchist Communism, pp. 51-2]

In a later work, Kropotkin proclaimed that after 1871, "[...] the free
commune would be henceforth the medium in which the ideas of
modern socialism may come to realization." And in Mutual Aid, he
traces the form which communal cooperation has taken in
evolution and history.

After 1917, he moved back to Russia. Although critical of the
Bolsheviks, he published only two short statements about the
revolution, mainly aimed at undermining the counter-revolutionary,
foreign armies being sent to Russia. He did, however, indicate
again support for the free commune:

"All efforts to reunite under a central control the naturally
separate parts of the Russian Empire are predestined to failure; I
see the time coming when each part of this federation will be itself
a federation of free communes and free cities. And I believe also
that certain parts of Western Europe will soon follow the same
course." [Kropotkin, Letter to the Workers of Western Europe]

In relation to all the revolutions of his time, he established the goal
of genuine freedom as the independent commune. But how were
people to accomplish this goal? What means were to be used? For
Kropotkin, the answer was clear: uprisings would prepare the
ground. Uprisings and the free commune were essential to
Kropotkin because he believed the people themselves must make
their own revolution - not a vanguard party or any otherwise
organized small group. For popular mobilization, nothing was more
important than a central meeting place, as for example, the Palais
Royal during the French Revolution:

"The Palais Royal, with its gardens and cafes, had become an
open air club, whither ten thousand persons of all classes went
everyday to exchange news, to discuss the pamphlets of the hour,
to renew among the crowd their ardor for future action, to know
and to understand one another." [Great French Revolution, p. 61]

One example of the importance of meeting places for popular
mobilization was on June 10, 1789. After learning that eleven
soldiers had been arrested and imprisoned for refusing to load
their muskets to use against the citizens of Paris, over 4,000
people went immediately from the Palais Royal to rescue the
soldiers. Seeing such a large force, the jailers complied, and the
dragoons, riding at full speed to stop the crowd, quickly sheathed
their sabers and fraternized with the people. [Great French
Revolution, p. 69] Admiring the spontaneous militancy of people in
the streets, Kropotkin noted that thievery ended - that crowds in
control of shops did not loot - but only took what was necessary
for their collective nourishment and defense. [Great French
Revolution, p. 75, 106] As the revolt spread from one city to
another - from Paris to much of France, "All Europe was moved to
enthusiasm over the words and deeds of the revolution,"
Kropotkin traced how the revolts unified France in ways
previously not imagined. [Great French Revolution, pp. 95, 177]

After the Paris Commune of 1871, when similar uprisings occurred
in Cartagena and Barcelona in Spain, he came close to
understanding that uprisings themselves inspired others to rise up
- a phenomenon I understand as the eros effect. [See my book,
The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968]
Kropotkin noted that uprisings, while often the product of
desperation, were essential to revolution:

"They also rebelled - sometimes in hope of local success - in
strikes or in small revolts against some official whom they
disliked, or in order to get food for their hungry children, but
frequently also without any hope of success: simply because the
conditions grew unbearable. Not one, or two, or tens, but hundreds
of similar revolts have preceded and must precede every
revolution. Without these no revolution was ever wrought."
[Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchism]

He later proclaimed uprisings to be not only the means but also
the key to determining the ends of the revolution: "And it may be
stated as a general rule that the character of every revolution is
determined by the character and the aim of the uprisings by which
it preceded."

With these thoughts in mind, I now turn to the Kwangju Uprising
of 1980, which offers empirical verification of Kropotkin's ideas.
Despite its central importance to Korean and Asian democracy
movements in the 1980s, many people are unfamiliar with the
Kwangju Uprising. I will first offer a brief summary, after which I
will portray elements of the uprising especially important to what I
have described as Kropotkin's view of the free commune and
uprisings in general.

Fundamentally a humanitarian, Kropotkin understood the death
and depravity faced by those courageous enough to rise up.
Unafraid to maintain his principled opposition to capital-rule
despite imprisonment and deprivation, he refused to allow the
sacrifices of others to be forgotten. Reading his description of the
brutality of government, it is difficult to tell whether it occurred in
Paris or Kwangju:

"You shall perish, whatever you do! If you are taken with arms in
your hands, death! If you beg for mercy, death! Whichever way
you turn, right, left, back, forward, up, down, death! You are not
merely outside the law, you are outside humanity. Neither age nor
sex shall save you and yours. You shall die, but first you shall
taste the agony of your wife, your sister, your sons and daughters,
even those in the cradle! Before your eyes the wounded man shall
be taken out of the ambulance and hacked with bayonets or
knocked down with the butt end of a rifle. He shall be dragged
living by his broken leg or bleeding arm and flung like a suffering,
groaning bundle of refuse into the gutter. Death! Death! Death!"
[Peter Kropotkin, Commune of Paris, 1895]


In the past two centuries, two events stand out as unique beacons
of the spontaneous ability of thousands of ordinary people to
govern themselves: the Paris Commune of 1871, and the Kwangju
People's Uprising of 1980. In both cities, an unarmed citizenry, in
opposition to their own governments, effectively gained control of
urban space and held it despite the presence of well-armed
military forces seeking to re-establish "law and order"; hundreds
of thousands of people rose to the occasion and created popular
organs of political power that effectively and efficiently replaced
traditional forms of government; crime rates plummeted during the
period of liberation; and people felt previously unexperienced
forms of kinship with each other.

The liberated realities of the Communes in Paris and Kwangju
contradict the widely propagated myth that human beings are
essentially evil and therefore require strong governments to
maintain order and justice. Rather, the behavior of the citizens
during these moments of liberation revealed an innate capacity for
self-government and cooperation. It was the forces of the
government, not the ungoverned people that acted with great
brutality and injustice.

Events in Kwangju unfolded after the dictator of South Korea;
Park Chung-Hee was assassinated by his own chief of
intelligence. In the euphoria after Park's demise, students led a
huge movement for democracy, but General Chun Doo-Hwan
seized power and threatened violence if the protests continued.
All over Korea, with the sole exception of Kwangju, people stayed
indoors. With the approval of the United States, the new military
government then released from the frontlines of the DMZ some of
the most seasoned paratroopers to teach Kwangju a lesson. Once
these troops reached Kwangju, they terrorized the population in
unimaginable ways. In the first confrontations on the morning of
May 18, specially designed clubs broke heads of defenseless
students. As demonstrators scrambled for safety and regrouped,
the paratroopers viciously attacked: "A cluster of troops attacked
each student individually. They would crack his head, stomp his
back, and kick him in the face. When the soldiers were done, he
looked like a pile of clothes in meat sauce." [Lee Jae-Eui,
Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age,
p. 46] Bodies were piled into trucks, where soldiers continued to
beat and kick them. By night the paratroopers had set up camp at
several universities.

As students fought back, soldiers used bayonets on them and
arrested dozens more people, many of whom were stripped naked,
raped and further brutalized. One soldier brandished his bayonet at
captured students and screamed at them, "This is the bayonet I
used to cut forty Viet Cong women's breasts [in Vietnam]!" The
entire population was in shock from the paratroopers'
over-reaction. The paratroopers were so out of control that they
even stabbed to death the director of information of the police
station who tried to get them to stop brutalizing people. [Kwangju
Diary, p. 79]

Despite sever beatings and hundreds of arrests, students
continually regrouped and tenaciously fought back. As the city
mobilized the next day, people from all walks of life dwarfed the
number of students among the protesters. [The May 18 Kwangju
Democratic Uprising, p. 127] This spontaneous generation of a
peoples' movement transcended traditional divisions between
town and gown, one of the first indications of the generalization of
the revolt. Paratroopers once again resorted to callous brutality -
killing and maiming people whom they happened to encounter on
the streets. Even cab and bus drivers seeking to aid the wounded
and bleeding people were stabbed, beaten and sometimes killed.
Some policemen secretly tried to release captives, and they, too,
were bayoneted. [Kwangju Diary, p.113] Many police simply went
home, and the chief of police refused to order his men t fire on
protesters despite the military's insistence he do so.

People fought back with stones, bats, knives, pipes, iron bars and
hammers against 18,000 riot police and over 3,000 paratroopers.
Although many people were killed, the city refused to be quieted.
On May 20, a newspaper called the Militants' Bulletin was
published for the first time, providing accurate news - unlike the
official media. At 5:50pm, a crowd of 5,000 surged over a police
barricade. When the paratroopers drove them back, they
re-assembled and sat-in on a road. They then selected
representatives to try and further split the police from the army. In
the evening, the march swelled to over 200,000 people in a city
with a population then of 700,000. The massive crowd unified
workers, farmers, students and people from all walks of life. Nine
buses and over two-hundred taxis led the procession on Kumnam
Avenue, the downtown shopping area. Once again, the
paratroopers viciously attacked, and this time the whole city
fought back. During the night, cars, jeeps, taxis and other vehicles
were set on fire and pushed into the military's forces. Although the
army attacked repeatedly, the evening ended in a stalemate at
Democracy Square. At the train station, many demonstrators were
killed, and at Province Hall adjacent to Democracy Square, the
paratroopers opened fire on the crowd with M-16s, killing many

The censored media had failed to report the killings. Instead, false
reports of vandalism and minor police actions were the news that
they fabricated. The brutality of the army was not mentioned.
After the night's news again failed to report the situation,
thousands of people surrounded the MBC media building. Soon the
management of the station and the soldiers guarding it retreated,
and the crowd surged inside. Unable to get the broadcast facility
working, people torched the building. The crowd targeted buildings

"At 1:00am, citizens went in flocks to the Tax Office, broke its
furniture and set fire to it. The reason was that taxes which should
be used for people's lives and welfare had been used for the army
and the production of the arms to kill and beat people. It was a
very unusual case to set fire to the broadcasting stations and tax
office while protecting the police station and other buildings." [The
May 18 Kwangju Democratic Uprising, p. 138]

Besides the Tax Office and two media buildings, the Labor
Supervision Office, Province Hall car depot and 16 police vehicles
were torched. The final battle at the train station around 4:00am
was intense. Soldiers again used M-16s against the crowd, killing
many in the front ranks. Others climbed over the bodies to carry
the fight to the army. With incredible fortitude, the people
prevailed, and the army beat a hasty retreat.

At 9:00am the next morning (May 21), more than 100,000 people
gathered again on Kumam Avenue facing the paratroopers. A
small group shouted that some people should go to Asia Motors (a
military contractor) and seize vehicles. A few dozen people went
off, bringing back only seven (the exact number of rebels who
knew how to drive). As they shuttled more drivers back and forth,
soon 350 vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, were in
the hands of the people. Driving these expropriated vehicles
around the city, the demonstrators rallied the populace and also
went to neighboring towns and villages to spread the revolt. Some
trucks brought bread and drinks from the Coca Cola factory.
Negotiators were selected by the crowd and sent to the military.
Suddenly gunshots pierced an already thick atmosphere, ending
hope for a peaceful settlement. For ten minutes, the army
indiscriminately fired, and in carnage, dozens were killed and over
500 wounded.

The people quickly responded. Less than two hours after the
shootings, the first police station was raided for arms. More
people formed action teams and raided police and national guard
armories, and assembled at two central points. With assistance
from coal miners from Hwasun, demonstrators obtained large
quantities of dynamite and detonators. [The May 18 Kwangju
Democratic Uprising, p.143] Seven busloads of women textile
workers drove to Naju, where they captured hundreds of rifles and
ammunition and brought them back to Kwangju. Similar arms
seizures occurred in Changsong, Yoggwang and Tamyang
counties. The movement quickly spread to Hwasun, Naju,
Hampyung, Youngkwang, Kangjin, Mooan, Haenam, Mokpo - in
all, at least sixteen other parts of southwest Korea. [The May 18
Kwangju Democratic Uprising, p. 164] The rapid proliferation of
the revolt is another indication of people's capacity for
self-government and autonomous initiative. Hoping to bring the
uprising to Chunju and Seoul, some demonstrators set out but
were repulsed by troops blocking the highway, roads, and
railroads. Helicopter gunships wiped out units of armed
demonstrators from Hwasun and Yonggwang counties trying to
reach Kwangju. If the military had not so tightly controlled the
media and restricted travel, the revolt may have turned into a
nationwide uprising.

In the heat of the moment, a structure evolved that was more
democratic than previous administrations of the city. Assembling
at Kwangju Park and Yu-tong Junction, combat cells and
leadership formed. Machine guns were brought to bear on
Province Hall (where the military had its command post). By
5:30pm, the army retreated; by 8:00pm the people controlled the
city. Cheering echoed everywhere. Although their World War II
weapons were far inferior to those of the army, people's bravery
and sacrifices proved more powerful than the technical superiority
of the army. The Free Commune lasted for six days. Daily citizens'
assemblies gave voice to years-old frustration and deep
aspirations of ordinary people. Local citizens' groups maintained
order and created a new type of social administration - one of, by
and for the people. Coincidentally, on May 27 - the same day that
the Paris Commune was crushed over a hundred years earlier - the
Kwangju Commune was overwhelmed by military force despite
heroic resistance. Although brutally suppressed in 1980, for the
next seven years the movement continued to struggle, and in 1987
a nationwide uprising was organized that finally won democratic
electoral reform in South Korea.

Like the battleship Potemkin, the people of Kwangju have
repeatedly signaled the advent of revolution in South Korea - from
the 1894 Tonghak rebellion and the 1929 student revolt to the 1980
uprising. Like the Paris Commune and the battleship Potemkin,
Kwangju's historical significance is international, not simply
Korean (or French, or Russian). Its meaning and lessons apply
equally well to East and West, North and South. The 1980
peoples' uprising, like these earlier symbols of revolution, has
already had worldwide repercussions. After decades in which
basic democratic rights was repressed throughout East Asia, a
wave of revolts and uprisings transformed the region. The 1989
revolutions in Europe are well known, but Eurocentrism often
prevents comprehension of their Asian counterparts. Six years
after the Kwangju Uprising, the Marcos dictatorship was
overthrown in the Philippines. Aquino and Kim Dae-Jung had
known each other in the United States, and the experiences of the
Kwangju helped to inspire action in Manila. All through Asia,
peoples' movements for democracy and human rights appeared: an
end to martial law was won in Taiwan in 1987; in Burma a popular
movement exploded in March 1988, when students and ethnic
minorities took to the streets of Rangoon. Despite horrific
repression, the movement compelled President Ne Win to step
down after 26-years of rule. The next year, student activists in
China activated a broad public cry for democracy, only to be shot
down at Tiananmen Square and hunted for years afterward.
Nepal's turn was next. Seven weeks of protests beginning in April
1990 compelled the king to democratize the government. The next
country to experience an explosion was Thailand, when twenty
days of hunger strike by a leading opposition politician brought
hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in May 1992.
Dozens were killed when the military suppressed street
demonstrations, and because of the brutality General Suchinda
Krapayoon was forced to step down. In 1998 in Indonesia,
students called for "people-power revolution" and were able to
overthrow Suharto. Interviews conducted by an American
correspondent at the universities in Indonesia determined that the
people-power slogan was adopted from the Philippines, as was the
tactical innovation of the occupation of public space.


There are three principal ways in which the Kwangju Uprising
illuminates and verifies Kropotkin's framework of analysis:

(1) The independent commune and free distribution of

After the military had been driven out of the city on May 21,
everyone shared joy and relief. Markets and stores were reopened
for business, and food, water, and electricity were available as
normally. No banks were looted and normal crimes like robbery,
rape or theft hardly occurred - if at all. Coffins, gasoline and
cigarettes were in short supply. While some people attempted to
procure more coffins from the army, the CA rationed gasoline, and
people shared cigarettes with their newly found comrades in arms,
happy to be alive. For some people, sharing cigarettes symbolized
an important part of the communal experience. Storeowners who
still had cigarettes often sold - or gave away - one pack at a time
(to be fair to everyone). Blood was in short supply at the hospital,
but as soon as the need became known, people flooded in to
donate it, including barmaids and prostitutes, who at one point
publicly insisted that they, too, be permitted to donate. Thousands
of dollars was quickly raised through donations. All these
examples are indications of how remarkably the whole city came

For days, citizens voluntarily cleaned the streets, cooked rice,
served free meals in the marketplace, and kept constant guard
against the expected counter-attack. Everyone contributed to and
found their place in liberated Kwangju. Spontaneously a new
division of labor emerged. The citizens' army, many of whom had
stayed up all night, nonetheless was models of responsibility.
People dubbed the new militia the "Citizens' Army" or "our allies"
(as opposed to the army, "our enemy"). They protected the people
and the people, in turn, took care of them. Without any
indoctrination and none of the military madness that elicits
monstrous behavior in armies around the world, the men and
women of the CA behaved in an exemplary fashion. Unafraid to
impose a new type of order based on the needs of the populace,
they disarmed all middle school and high school students, an
action for which the Militant's Bulletin too responsibility.
[Kwangju Diary, p. 71] When the final assault was imminent, their
leaders insisted that the high schoolers among the militants return
home so they could survive and continue the struggle. After many
protests and with tears in their eyes, the younger militants

(2) General assemblies at Democracy Square, not representative
government, was the highest decision-making body

Popular will was directly formulated at daily rallies around the
fountain at Province Hall Square. Renamed "Democracy Square"
on May 16, the space was holy even before the liberation of the
city. The ability to assemble peacefully by the thousands was a
right won through the blood of too many friends and neighbors.
Instinctively, the people of Kwangju recognized the square as
their spiritual home, and they assembled there every day by the
tens of thousands. The daily rallies became the setting for a new
kind of direct democracy where everyone had a say. Women's
public roles were impressive, standing in sharp contrast to the
everyday subordination they suffered. Many people were able to
express heartfelt needs:

"The foundation was now the center of unity. All walks and
classes of people spoke - women street vendors, elementary
school teachers, followers of different religions, housewives,
college students, high school students and farmers. Their angry
speeches created a common consciousness, a manifestation of
the tremendous energy of the uprising. They had melded together,
forging a strong sense of solidarity throughout the uprising. For
the moment, the city was one." [Kwangju Diary, p. 105]

Five rallies occurred during the time the city was liberated, and
huge crowds attended each. The first massive rally was a
spontaneously organized gathering to celebrate the defeat of the
military the day after the army retreated. The next day (May 23),
at the First Citywide Rally for Democracy, the crowd swelled to
150,000. It ended with the people singing, "Our Wish is National
Unification." On May 24, over 100,000 people assembled; there
were 50,000 on May 25 (where the resignation of the Settlement
Committee was demanded); and 30,000 at the end of the final rally
on May 26. At this last gathering, the demand for a new
government of national salvation emerged.

(3) Spontaneous organization

The capacity for self-organization that emerged spontaneously,
first in the heat of the battle and later in the governing of the city
and the final resistance when the military counter-attacked, is
mind-expanding. In the later part of the 20th Century, high rates of
literacy, the mass media, and universal education (which in South
Korea includes military training for every man) have forged a
capacity in millions of people to govern themselves far more
wisely than the tiny elites all too often ensconced in powerful
positions. We can observe this spontaneous capacity for
self-government (as well as the deadly absurdity of elite rule) in
the events of the Kwangju Uprising.

In Kwangju, no pre-existing armed force like the Parisian National
Guard led the assault on power. Rather a spontaneous process of
resistance to the brutality of the paratroopers threw forward men
and women who rose to the occasion. Many had little or no
previous political experience. Some had little or no formal
education. All emerged in the concrete context of unfolding
historical events. Liberated Kwangju was organized without the
contrivance of governments or planning by political parties.
Kropotkin would have made no less of those who responded to the
call to seize vehicles at the rally on Kumnam Street than he did of
the crowd from the Palais Royal freeing the prisoners.

Not only was there no pre-existing organization to stage a coup
d'etat, almost all the leaders of the movement were either arrested
or in hiding when the uprising began. On the night of May 17,
military intelligence personnel and police raided homes of activists
across the city, arresting the leadership of the movement. Those
leaders not picked up went into hiding. Already at least twenty-six
of the movement's national leaders (including Kim Dae-Jung) had
been rounded up. Nonetheless the very next morning, people
spontaneously organized themselves - first by the hundreds and
then by the thousands.

The emergence of organization appears to have happened quite
naturally. The process was obvious to everyone. Even the
government publicly referred to the uprising as "community
self-rule". At about 10:30am on May 22, a group of eight
evangelical pastors met to appraise the situation. One of them
was Arnold Peterson, a U.S. Baptist missionary who happened to
be in Kwangju. He later remembered the pastors' appraisal:

"The consensus of their feeling is summed up in the phrase "This
cannot be." It was unheard of that the citizens of a city should rise
up and throw off their government with no conscious planning and
leadership." [Peterson, p. 49]

There were a small number of pre-existing groups like Wildfire (a
night school for workers), Clown (an activist theatrical troupe),
and the National Democratic Workers' League, whose members
came together to publish a daily newspaper, the Militants'
Bulletin, which they used to stiffen and inspire the armed
resistance. They successfully outmaneuvered the mayor and more
conservative members of the council. Making an alliance with the
emergent groups of armed fighters, they created an energy center,
as a spectrum of militant individuals merged together and devoted
themselves to a single focus - continued armed resistance.

Significantly, many of the members of this more militant group had
previously participated in study groups about the Paris Commune,
some with poet and activist Kim Nam-Ju. [Interview, November
29, 1999] In 2001, I conducted twenty-nine interviews with
participants in the uprising, and many persons indicated that they
had been part of study groups that for a time focused on the Paris
Commune before the Kwangju Uprising. Yoon Sang-won (one of
the key leaders that emerged in liberated Kwangju) attended a
1976 speech given by Kim Nam-Ju at Nokdu bookstore in which
he discussed the Paris Commune. [Interview, November 7, 2001]
During the uprising, Yoon Sang-won spoke publicly at least once
about the Paris Commune in his discussions with other leading
members of the university. [Interview, June 22, 2001] At least a
dozen other key activists had studied the Paris Commune.

That activists studied the Paris Commune prior to the Kwangju
Uprising illustrates how the legacy of uprisings, whether in Paris
or Kwangju, consciously or not is to empower the human species
to struggle against oppression. Even when an uprising is brutally
suppressed - as in both cases here - their being experienced
publicly creates new desires and new needs, new fears and new
hopes in the hearts and minds of participants and all those
standing in the path of the ripples sent out by the uprisings.


These brief remarks on the Kwangju Uprising indicate how much
Kropotkin's thinking continues to offer revolutionary movements.
To his credit, his categories of analysis, gleaned from the blood
and sacrifices of so many, remain germane to contemporarily

While Kropotkin's insights have relevance today, it would be
foolish to apply mechanically his thinking. Particularly when the
cost of error can be thousands of lives, revolutionary theory, while
bringing to consciousness the legacy of previous waves of
revolution, should empower people to create their own destiny.

Happily, one way in which Kropotkin was wrong was his
statement that bloody agents of repression "never are arraigned"
[Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 138]. Incredibly, after
the victory of the June 1987 struggle in South Korea, former
presidents Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo (masterminds of the
Kwangju Massacre) were both tried and imprisoned. Seldom in
history have the authors of such bloodshed been held responsible.
Let us hope that in the future, Kropotkin's dream of freedom and
prosperity will replace our current nightmare of corporate
domination, war and militarism.


George Katsiaficas is professor of humanities and social sciences
at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts,
editor for New Political Science, and the author of several books
including The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social
Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life and
Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. He is
currently a visiting professor at Chonnam University in Kwangju,

This essay is from an edited version of a speech prepared for the
International Conference on Peter Kropotkin; St. Petersburg,
Russia, December 6-8, 2002.


The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language theoretical
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(NEFAC), covering class struggle anarchist theory, history,
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