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(en) North Easterner Aanarchist: Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886 (BOOK REVIEW)

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Sat, 15 Mar 2003 22:02:18 +0100 (CET)

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

> by Caroline Cahm (Cambridge University Press, 2002); 372pp. $35
After Bakunin's death, without a doubt the single most
important exponent of the revolutionary anarchist
ideal was Peter Kropotkin. Sympathetic biographers
have often regarded Kropotkin as something of a naive
idealist or "gentle rebel". Yet he always maintained
that idealism had to be expressed in action - often
violent action - which should be in conformity with
and directed towards the attainment of a clearly
articulated aims and ideals. He was, above all, a man
of action and an uncompromising revolutionary
agitator. Indeed, the great anarchist historian Max
Nettlau remarked that in comparison to other leading
anarchist militants of the period such as Elisee
Reclus, Kropotkin was "harder, less tolerant, and more
disposed to be practical". This is the Peter Kropotkin
of Caroline Cahm's study.

Cahm concentrates on the most active period of
Kropotkin's career as a revolutionary agitator, a
period which began with his commitment to Bakuninist
ideas in 1872 and ended with his arrival in England in
1886 after some twelve years of energetic activity
first in Russia, then in Switzerland and France. Cahm
outlines Kropotkin's ideas and revolutionary practice,
and assesses the influence of his life and work upon
the development of the European anarchist movement
during this crucial period.

What is refreshing about this book is that, unlike
many academic studies of anarchist and socialist
history, Cahm's extensive research has relied heavily
on the anarchist press of the time period (mainly
French and Swiss), congress notes and personal
correspondence between Kropotkin and a number of his
anarchist contemporaries. Many of the quotes used are
translated into English for the first time. What comes
out is a more balanced analysis of Kropotkin's ideas
and activity of this period, one which dispels
previous assumptions and misrepresentations (such as
his alleged disregard of the revolutionary potential
of the labor movement or uncritical support for
'propaganda by deed') and offers a more accurate
representation of his lasting contributions to

>From Bakuninism to Anarcho-Communism

The first section of the book traces Kropotkin's
theoretical development in the context of the general
evolution of the European anarchist movement from
collectivist Bakuninism to anarcho-communism.

>From his first contact with the Swiss anarchist
watchmakers of the Jura Federation in 1872 through his
return to Russia and subsequent imprisonment for
revolutionary activities (which lasted until 1876,
when he escaped from prison and returned to
Switzerland an exile), Kropotkin was an orthodox
Bakuninist. In 1868, Bakunin in defining his
anti-statist position, had declared himself to be a
collectivist, that is he believed in the collective
ownership of land and social wealth, with consumption
organized around the distribution of the products of
labor based on one's ability to produce (i.e. work).

Although Kropotkin is generally credited as the
primary innovator of anarcho-communism, Cahm gives a
more historically accurate account. Throughout the
early 1870s, Kropotkin concerned himself mainly with
revolutionary action and contributed very little to
the development of anarcho-communist theory.

In reality it was Elisee Reclus, the French Bakuninist
and ex-Communard, who first gave an expose of
anarcho-communist ideas at a meeting of the Jura
Federation in Lausanne, March 1876. By the summer of
that year leading Italian anarchists (Malatesta,
Cafiero, Covelli and Costa) had decided to abandon
collectivism and to persuade delegates at the
forthcoming Congress of the Italian Federation to make
a declaration for libertarian communism. The question
of the socialization of consumption was raised in a
series of articles in the Jura Federation's Bulletin
throughout the second half of 1876, and in
German-speaking Swiss anarchist circles Paul Brousse
began to campaign vigorously for the adoption of
anarcho-communism in the pages of L'Arbeiter Zeitung.

However, there was still no strong sympathy for
anarcho-communism among the mainstream of the European
anarchist movement. The first tentative step in this
direction was only taken by the Jura Federation at
their annual congress at La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1880. At
these meetings both Kropotkin and Reclus spoke in
favor of an anarcho-communist program, but it was the
Italian militant Carlo Cafiero who made the most
persuasive contribution to the discussion. He declared
that the socialization of capital without the
socialization of the products of labor would entail
the preservation of the monetary system and the
ability to accumulate wealth which, once associated
with the right of inheritance, would ensure the
disappearance of all equality. The individual
apportionment of products, moreover, would result not
only in the re-establishment of inequality among
people, but also of inequality between different types
of work with non-manual labor for the better-off and
manual labor for the poorest, a system bringing with
it the rebirth of the system of reward and punishment.
With respect to collective work, it was in any case
impossible to evaluate the individual contribution
even in terms of labor as the socialists suggested,
for, as they themselves had conceded, everyone was not
capable of producing the same amount in a given time.

The only serious objection to communism, according to
Cafiero, came from those who, whilst accepting it as
an ultimate aim, argued that the shortage of products
at the beginning would necessitate a rationing in
distribution which would be best worked out on the
basis of the amount of labor each individual
contributed to production. Rationing, however, he
insisted, 'must be organized on the basis of needs and
not merits [2]. He concluded by stating:

"One cannot be an anarchist without being a communist.
For the least idea of limitation contains already in
itself the germs of authoritarianism. It could not
manifest itself without immediately engendering the
law, the judge, the policeman. We must be communists,
for it is in communism that we realize true equality."

Despite the reservations of leading anarchist
militants like James Guillaume and Adhemar
Schwitzguebel, the Congress adopted an
uncompromisingly anarcho-communist program for the
Jura Federation.

It would be a full eighteen months after the Congress
of La Chaux-de-Fonds that Kropotkin began to discuss
anarcho-communist ideas in the pages of Le Revolte.
His first major contribution was in the area of
popular expropriation. In November and December 1882,
he published a series of articles on the subject,
arguing that a libertarian communist revolution would
not succeed unless everything that could be used to
exploit the people was immediately expropriated and
socialized for the benefit of all. Partial
expropriation, according to Kropotkin, would lead to
the re-establishment of the old order - 'If social
wealth remains in the hands of the few who own it
now... the insurrection will not be a revolution, and
everything will have to begin again' [4]. Similarly,
expropriation had to be carried out on a large scale,
otherwise it would not be possible to ensure that
immediate improvement in the lot of the oppressed,
which was essential in giving the people a real
commitment to defend the revolution against reaction:

"General expropriation alone can satisfy the multitude
of the suffering and oppressed. We must take it from
the realm of theory into that of practice. But in
order that expropriation should correspond to the
principle that private property should be abolished
and given to all, that expropriation must be
accomplished on a massive scale. On a small scale, it
will only be seen as vulgar pillage; on a large scale,
it is the beginning of social reorganization. [...]
The entire means of production must revert to the
community, social property held by private individuals
must go back to its true master - everyone - so that
each may have their broad share in consumption, thus
production may continue in all that is necessary and
useful, and social life, far from being interrupted be
taken up again with the greatest energy." [5]

By 1883 Kropotkin began to emerge as a major exponent
of anarcho-communism, partly because of the success of
Le Revolte and partly because of the leading role he
played in the anarchist trials at Lyon. Certainly, it
is likely that he was the principle author of the
'Anarchist Declaration' read out to the court on
January 12, 1883, which contained a summary of the
ideals of the accused:

"We ourselves believe that capital, the common
inheritance of humanity, since it is the fruit of the
collaboration of generations past and present, must be
at the disposal of all, in such a way that no one can
be excluded; and that no one, on the other hand, can
seize any part to the detriment of the rest. We want,
in a word, equality: real equality, as a corollary or
rather a prime condition of liberty. From each
according to abilities, to each according to needs: no
prescription can prevail against claims which are both
legitimate and necessary." [6]

Kropotkin spent the next three years in prison for
revolutionary activities in France, and was unable to
make any substantial contributions in the elaboration
of anarcho-communist theory until his release in 1886,
when, convinced that effective action demanded a
further clarification of the anarcho-communist view
regarding the socialization of wealth, he wrote the
articles on expropriation which were to provide the
basis for 'The Conquest of Bread' (1892). The skill
and eloquence with which Kropotkin developed his ideas
certainly seems to have secured a general acceptance
for anarcho-communism in the European anarchist
movement throughout the 1890's.

Revolutionary Action and 'Propaganda by Deed'

Rejecting the strategy and tactics of parliamentary
socialists, the general policy of the European
anarchist movement tended to alternate between
revolutionary trade unionism and acts of revolt by
individuals and small groups. The second section of
'Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism,
1872-1886' primarily deals with the latter forms of
action, which were associated with the notion of
propaganda by deed and developed out of the failure of
insurrectionary action in the early 1870's.

Propaganda by deed is a political slogan which today
tends to be associated specifically with isolated
terrorist acts carried out by a few anarchists in the
1890's. In fact, the concept, developed in Bakuninist
circles in the 1870's, was originally defined as
insurrectionalist acts which were intended to affirm
socialist principles by deeds. As early as 1870,
Bakunin himself stated:

"Now we all have to embark together on the
revolutionary ocean, and henceforth spread our
principles no longer by words but by deeds - for this
is the most popular, most powerful and the most
irresistible form of propaganda." [7]

In the aftermath of the 1873 Catonalist uprisings in
Spain, the French Bakuninist Paul Brousse went
further, declaring:

"Revolutionary propaganda is made not only by the pen
and the spoken word, by books, pamphlets, public
meetings, and newspapers, it is above all made in the
open, in the midst of the piled-up paving stones of
the barricades, on days when the exasperated people
make war on the mercenary forces of reaction.

>From a socialist point of view, we have arrived at the
point of action - Let us act, if only from the point
of view of propaganda. Perhaps victory will crown our
efforts, and if it is martyrdom let us remember that
the idea does not perish by the sword, does not fall
beneath bullets. Let us never forget that it is the
blood of the people which nourishes and makes fertile
the ground of Revolution." [8]

It was Brousse who later coined the phrase 'propaganda
by deed' in an article which ran in L'Arbeiter Zeitung
in December 1876.

Although Kropotkin always attached a great deal of
importance to heroic acts of self-sacrifice to
encourage the development of the popular spirit of
revolt, he never liked the slogan 'propaganda by
deed', and did not use it to describe his own ideas of
revolutionary action. On the contrary, in his mind
this slogan implied that action was to be undertaken
as a publicity stunt rather than as a genuine act of
revolt against oppression. Nevertheless, from the very
beginning of his revolutionary career he was
preoccupied with the necessity of action in addition
to oral and written propaganda, and he certainly
supported the forms of action adopted by the early
advocates of propaganda by deed.

In 1879, Kropotkin outlined his ideas for a program of
action for the anarchist movement in a document
entitled 'L'idee anarchiste au point de vu de sa
realisation practique' for the Jura Federation's
Bulletin. He identified three phases in the
revolutionary process - a preparatory period, which
would be followed by a period of ferment which, in its
turn, would lead to the period of transformation (the
revolution itself). He then suggested a program of
anarchist action appropriate to each of these phases.

During both the preparatory period and period of
ferment, Kropotkin declared that anarchists would need
to concentrate their efforts on widespread propaganda
(by both word and deed) in favor of expropriation and
libertarian communism. Once the period of ferment had
begun, revolutionary ideas would spread much more
quickly, at which point anarchists should take
advantage of any opportunity to agitate among workers
around all questions of everyday life in order to
'awake the spirit of independence and revolt'. During
the revolution itself, the duty of anarchists would be
one of direct action, that is, a policy of
revolutionary activity that would incite popular
expropriation among the masses.

Expropriation and anti-capitalist revolt were common
themes in much of Kropotkin's writing during this
period. Even during the early 1880's, when, for a
brief period he became less preoccupied with
collective action and began to show a greater
enthusiasm for acts of revolt carried out by
individuals and small groups, he was still more
interested in economic, rather than political, forms
of terrorism. For inspiration he turned to the
proliferation of spontaneous acts of revolt - popular
riots, archive burnings, refusals to pay taxes and
rents, and the burning of plantations and factories -
in Spain and Italy. He saw in these acts a spontaneous
awakening among the masses which would lead to a
general insurrection.

In an effort to revive the International Workers'
Association, a congress was held in London in 1881.
This was to be the infamous meeting of international
revolutionaries where propaganda by deed was formerly
adopted as a strategy and tactic. As a majority of
delegates accepted that the aim of the
Internationalists should be to create 'a powerful
instrument to attack society violently and defend
revolutionary interests', debate centered on strategic
questions over which forms of struggle anarchists
should prioritize in their revolutionary program.
Malatesta argued that more importance should be given
to the struggle against governments, because it was
the State which maintained and protected the system of
economic oppression. Kropotkin flatly rejected this
proposal, declaring that a narrow political struggle
against the State implied the creation of a
hierarchical party of conspirators to take power and
declare revolution. "If we think, for example, that it
is enough to overthrow the government, to put
ourselves in its place and decree the revolution, we
could set ourselves up as an army of conspirators,
with all the characteristics of the old secret
societies with their leaders and deputy leaders." He
maintained that a future revolution would be sabotaged
by the bourgeoisie unless the masses themselves struck
at the system of private property.

Contrary to Malatesta's vision of a conspiratorial
revolutionary organization, Kropotkin argued that the
role of the International should be to organize among
the working class and help translate popular hatreds
and aspirations into anti-capitalist revolt:

"It is the mass of workers we have to seek to
organize. We, the little revolutionary groups, have to
submerge ourselves in the organization of the people,
be inspired by their hatreds, their aspirations, and
help them translate those hatreds and aspirations into
actions. When the mass of workers is organized and we
are with it to strengthen its revolutionary idea, to
make the spirit of revolt against Capital germinate
there - and the opportunities for that will not be
wanting - then we shall be entitled to hope that the
next revolution will not be conjured away as the
revolutions of the past have been: then it will be the
social revolution." [10]

Although Kropotkin did not hold a majority position
among congress delegates, he held firm to his ideas
throughout the proceedings. He rejected the view that
conspiratorial struggle against governments could
result in the destruction of the power of the State;
he believed that this could only be brought about by a
genuinely popular struggle to destroy the economic
system which gave the State its power and raison
d'tre, and argued that the primary role of anarchist
revolutionaries was to organize among the working

The draft declaration of the 1881 London Congress
which was finally adopted made some accommodation to
Kropotkin's position, but stressed, above all, the
importance of propaganda by deed and the study of
bomb-making. Kropotkin remained critical of the
positions adopted, an though he never officially
disassociated himself from propaganda by deed, he
immediately set to work writing a series of articles
for Le Revolte which elaborated on his own positions
around the question of revolutionary action.

Kropotkin and the Unions

The last major section of Cahm's study should be of
particular interest to anarcho-communists, as it
reflects an important debate which continues to this
day. It deals with the relationship between
revolutionary anarchists of the period and the growing
trade union movement, with a particular focus on
Kropotkin's criticial attitude toward unionism.

The revolutionary self-activity of the working class
has always been a central feature of
anarcho-communism. However, there has been some
ambivalence towards the organized expression of this
self-activity found within trade unions. The trade
union movement, for all its potential for mobilizing
the masses, has often tended to be moderate in its
aims and hierarchical in its organization.
Nonetheless, most of the early anarchists of the Jura
Federation argued in favor of trade unions as an
important means to build up working class power
against capitalism through organized militancy and
practical international solidarity. The one exception
would be the Italian Federation, who, still favoring
insurrectionary methods of struggle, declared trade
unions to be 'a reactionary institution' and denounced
partial strikes as 'diversionary activity'.

Despite Kropotkin's early enthusiasm for the radical
workers' associations of the Swiss Jura, he held
serious reservations about trade unionism in general,
particularly the trade union movement which was
beginning to emerge in England at the time. In a
series of articles which appeared between May and July
1877 in the Jura Federation's Bulletin he insisted on
the necessity for an organization of workers using
revolutionary methods and imbued with revolutionary
aims (that is, a total rejection of legal action and
short-term aims), and argued against the parliamentary
reformism associated with the English trade union

It was not until the violent U.S. railway strike of
1877, which took a near insurrectionary character,
that Kropotkin began to seriously consider the
revolutionary potential of trade unionism. This
increasingly sympathetic position was further
reinforced when he visited Spain for six weeks in the
summer of 1878. According to Max Nettlau, Kropotkin
derived a new inspiration from his rediscovery of the
revolutionary spirit of the old International in Spain
which seemed to have disappeared from among the trade
unionists in England, Belgium and the Jura [11]. It
was after his visit to Spain that Kropotkin began to
urge a more clearly defined policy of revolutionary
action - both inside and outside the trade unions - on
the Jura Federation.

Around this period, Kropotkin wrote a series of
articles in Le Revolte entitled 'L'organisation
ouvraire' which were addressed specifically to the
labor movement. These articles denounced legislative
reforms (such as the ten hours bill) and the
participation of French trade unions in the
forthcoming elections, and insisted on the need to
develop workers' organizations to wage a relentless
war against capitalism. Although highly critical of
the increasingly reformist direction of the French
trade unions, Kropotkin was still optimistic about
their revolutionary potential and fought hard against
parlimentarianism in the labor movement. He saw the
proliferation of strikes (which, by now, increasingly
involved violent confrontations with the forces of the
State) as a means both of developing the popular
spirit of revolt and spreading anarchist ideas among
the working class, and called for greater anarchist
participation in trade unions so as to not become
isolated from the labor movement.

He explained that "while the trade unions stuck to the
illegal ground as prohibited organizations, and
proceeded by strike and by force, they constituted a
terrible power that the employers end up respecting.
Once the unions had secured legal status and had
abandoned revolutionary tactics the movement had
turned into a fourth estate made up of an elite of
labor which had become a mere attachment of the
liberal bourgeoisie and which was content to limit its
demands to the microscopic reforms contained in
liberal party programs" [12].

A resolution about trade unions (which seems to
reflect Kropotkin's ideas of this period) was passed
at the Jura Federation's annual Congress of 1882 which
stated: 'The Congress, recognizing the great utility
of every workers' organization, declares solidarity
with every strike and every struggle on the economic
ground'. The previous preoccupation with trade union
organization and the need to form more unions had now
been replaced by a concern to radicalize the trade
unions from within and to urge upon members the need
to develop and intensify the anti-capitalist struggle
through militant strike action.

Despite Kropotkin's preoccupation with trade union
organization and militant strike action during the
early 1880's, he firmly rejected the syndicalist view
among many Jurassians, which considered trade unions
as the basis of the new society. He was unwavering in
his view that 'the Commune' (local urban and
agricultural communities) would act as the basic unit
in the future libertarian communist society, and
disliked the vision of society narrowly based on
workers' organizations. To this day, this is one of
the main theoretical distinctions between
anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism.


Overall, Cahm's 'Kropotkin and the Rise of
Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886' is an important
contribution to the historical study of Peter
Kropotkin and the impact he had on the revolutionary
anarchist tradition during its most important period
of development. By relying primarily on the anarchist
press from this period (most notably, Le Revolte) and
personal correspondence, Cahm is able to provide a
more accurate study and analysis of Kropotkin's ideas
- his contributions to anarcho-communist theory and
overall revolutionary praxis - within their proper
movement context. Cahm is a generally accessible
writer, managing to cover fairly complex ideas and
detailed history without falling victim to overly
academic theoretical muddle or a dry list of dates and
events. With that said, it is unfortunate that, do to
its expensive cover price ($35!), 'Kropotkin and the
Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886' will not
be widely read by Kropotkin's intended audience (the
working class!) and will instead collect dust amongst
the inactivity of privileged academic circles.

- reviewed by MaRK, Class Against Class (NEFAC-Boston)



[1] Cahm, 'Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary
Anarchism, 1872-1886'; pp. 56-7 [2] ibid [3] Carlo
Cafiero's report to the Jura Federation entitled
'Anarchy and Communism', 1880 [4] 'L'Expropriation',
Le Revolte, November 25, 1882 [5] 'L'Expropriation',
Le Revolte, December 23, 1882 [6] 'Declaration des
anarchists accusf????f?s,©s devant le tribunal
correctionnel de Lyon', Le Revolte, January
20-February 3, 1883 [7] 'Lettre f???? un
Franeais', in Michel Bakounine sur la Guerre
Franco-Allemande et la revolution sociale en France
[8] La Solidarite Revolutionnaire, July 8, 1873 [9]
Cahm, 'Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary
Anarchism, 1872-1886'; pp. 125-6 [10] Kropotkin,
quoted from the London IWA Congress notes [11] La
Premiere Internationale en Espagne, pp. 307-8 [12] 'La
Ligue et les Trade Unions', Le Revolte, October 1,


The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language
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Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC), covering class struggle
anarchist theory, history, strategy, debate and
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