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(en) Britain, Freedom* #7215/6 - Peter Kropotkin & Radical Environmentalism (Pt.1-2)

Date Tue, 13 Sep 2011 09:13:30 +0300

Article examining Kropotkin’s influence of the ecological movement ---- Next to Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin is the most famous and important of anarchist theorists, and was one of the first to advocate the theory known as Anarchist Communism. His lifelong love of science and nature led him to develop his political theory which he saw as the most sensible, and perhaps more importantly, the most natural form of social and political organization. In developing what he thought to be the most natural means of human organization, in terms of studying human needs and the most rational and equitable means of satisfying them, he laid out some of the basic ideas that would later be developed into the philosophy of Social Ecology, as well as other schools of ecological thought.

I will try to demonstrate how the tactics that Kropotkin developed in his time working within the anarchist movement have come to be used by radical environmental groups, often called ‘eco-terrorists.’ Apart from detailing the tactical methods which eco-terrorist groups have inherited from Kropotkin, I will also attempt to show how Kropotkin’s philosophical writings on anarchism and evolutionary theory have come to be incredibly influential within the environmental community. In doing this I hope to show the theoretical framework that eco-terrorist groups are working in, because I believe it is essential to understand the development of these theories into the modern period as a way of both understanding, and addressing the issues we face as a global community today.

To begin, however, we must start by laying out some of the concepts that went into Kropotkin’s thinking in order to grasp a better understanding of his overall philosophy. Firstly, there is the influence that nihilism had upon him. Kropotkin wrote of the nihilists: “The life of civilized people is full of little conventional lies. Persons who hate each other, meeting in the street, make their faces radiant with a happy smile; the nihilist remained unmoved, and smiled only for those whom he was really glad to meet.” [1]

The first sentence of this quote alone describes perfectly the nihilist view of society: whatever is accepted, reject; a perfect recipe for a rebel such as Kropotkin. It also, however, shows an incredible display of honesty. A nihilist would say one should not sugar coat something simply because it is the societal norm to do so. One should instead do it because one generally feels that that is the appropriate action to take. This level of honesty can also be seen in examples of Kropotkin’s life, as even his harshest critics could not deny the amount of honesty and gratitude that he radiated.

This break from traditions and norms are a critical aspect of modern anarchist thought. The anarchist conception of freedom is very heavily situated upon radical notions of individualism that does not “bend before any authority except that of reason,” [2] and nihilism also views life as ultimately meaningless, without a higher purpose or meaning to life. If one were then to hold a nihilistic conception of the world, things such as societal norms and traditions, as well as religious doctrines would lose much of their relevance.

Another conceptual aspect of Kropotkin’s thinking is that of our natural ability as humans to rebel. Kropotkin’s fellow Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin writes: “Yes, our first ancestors, our Adams and our Eves, were, if not gorillas, very near relatives of gorillas, omnivorous, intelligent and ferocious beasts, endowed in a higher degree than the animals of any other species with two precious faculties—the power to think and the desire to rebel.” [3]

In this quote, Bakunin reveals elements that would become absolutely paramount in Kropotkin’s thinking, and the theories he develops: the concept of evolution (of which more will be said shortly), and combining our natural capacities for intellect with our natural desire to rebel. In Bakunin’s view, humans are essentially animals. We are not some entity distinct or outside of nature, but instead we are in nature. We make up one portion of the ecosystem, and while Bakunin was not thinking as complex about this issue, Kropotkin develops it further, and the environmentalist groups that will be discussed later will grab a hold of this as a central theme in their respective philosophies.

For Bakunin and Kropotkin then, rebellion is something that comes as naturally to us as a species as breathing and thinking. Or, better yet, our natural capacity for rebellion—which is for Bakunin and Kropotkin the rebellion towards freedom—is the evolutionary product of our natural capacity for thinking. We naturally want to rebel against the status quo towards complete freedom, which for Bakunin and Kropotkin is anarchism.

This natural tendency of rebellion towards freedom obviously implies a very progressive view of history. Kropotkin, however, would extend this to claim that every occurrence in nature is naturally a progressive occurrence, such as is found in dialectical materialism. Let me explain: sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid crashed just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of modern day Mexico. This event heralded the end of the dinosaurs, as well as seventy percent of all the life forms on earth at the time. So, as cataclysmic as this event was, it provided for the conditions necessary for mammals to evolve, and now here you are with a paper in your hands reading about it. Kropotkin saw revolutions in just the same way: a possibly violent event which ultimately would bring about some sort of progress. This shows the very dialectical way of thinking which guided Kropotkin throughout his life.

One last critical aspect of Kropotkin’s thought, before we move on to his political theory, is the theory of evolution. Kropotkin wrote a work, Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution, and in the work he states: “Mutual Aid would be considered, not only as an argument in favour of a pre-human origin of moral instincts, but also as a law of Nature and a factor of evolution.”[4] This mention of mutual aid being the fundamental factor of moral instincts is crucial to Kropotkin’s ethical and practical arguments for anarchism. In a political pamphlet published in 1909 entitled, Anarchist Morality, Kropotkin asserts: “The feeling of solidarity is the leading characteristic of all animals living in society.”[5] He goes on to say: “Thousands of similar facts might be quoted, whole books might be written, to show how identical are the conceptions of good and evil amongst men and the other animals.”[6]

George Woodcock writes in an introduction to the Kropotkin anthology, Evolution and Environment: “Kropotkin considered that the application of evolutionary theories to the development of human societies provided a basis in reality as well as in science for his ideal of a liberated society.”[7] This view that science and technology can play a prominent role in liberating society is a concept that will be returned to with the introduction of Murray Bookchin and his theory of Social Ecology, but for now we move to his political theory.

Kropotkin writes of anarchist communism as “a synthesis of the two chief aims pursued by humanity since the dawn of its history—economic freedom and political freedom.”[8] He goes on to claim: “We are communists. But our communism is not that of the authoritarian school: it is anarchist communism, communism without government, free communism.” [9]

Kropotkin’s work, Mutual Aid, is critical for understanding why he felt humans could carry out this type of society. In Kropotkin’s view, humans are animals, ultimately no different than any other on the planet, and given his argument for mutual aid in the evolutionary process; he argues that, if given the chance, humans would naturally order society in this way. So, it is in fact unnatural, in Kropotkin’s view, for humans to subjugate one another and instead are capable of incredible amounts of empathy and aid.

Given Marx’s claim that history has been one of class struggles, where one class utilizes the state apparatus to oppress opposing classes, Kropotkin argues that if humans are ever able to take control of the means of production, they will have no need for the state. Here, Kropotkin and other anarchists differ from Marxists in one crucial aspect: tactics. Marxists believe the state should be seized in the revolution and utilized to bring about communism, and anarchists believe it should be destroyed in the very process of the revolution. The goal is the same but the strategies are vastly different.

I have attempted to elucidate briefly the theoretical aspects of Kropotkin’s thinking, and next issue I will illustrate how radical environmental groups have been influenced by these ideas. For a more complete view of his ideas I would strongly suggest delving into his body of works on the subject such as: The Conquest of Bread, Fields, Factories, and Workshops, Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution, as well as the anthology Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings.

Trent Trepanier

[1] Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p. 298.
[2] Ibid. p. 297.
[3] Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, p. 9.
[4] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: a Factor in Evolution, p. 4.
[5] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: a Collection of Revolutionary Writings, p. 95. Quoted from Anarchist Morality.
[6] Ibid. p. 90.
[7] Peter Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 12.
[8] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: a Collection of Revolutionary Writings, p. 61. Quoted from Anarchist Communism.
[9] Ibid. p. 61.
Related articles:

Peter Kropotkin & Radical Environmentalism Part 2: From past to present.

Kropotkin’s impact on the modern ecological movement

In the previous edition, I outlined briefly the various components of Kropotkin’s political ideology. In this final instalment I will detail the four main philosophies guiding radical environmental groups in existence today along with their views on revolutionary change and sabotage tactics, and finally conclude with some of Kropotkin’s own views on the use of sabotage and ‘propaganda by deed’ as a means of achieving social revolution. But let us first look at the four main philosophies of radical ecology: deep ecology, social ecology, eco-feminism, and bioregionalism.

In 1973, Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, developed the philosophy of deep ecology which is characterized by a more holistic approach to nature, exemplified by the preservation ethic as well as the writings of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. Douglas Long writes in his book, Ecoterrorism, of Naess stating: “Naess called for a fundamental change in human consciousness that acknowledged the intrinsic value of all natural things, the biocentric equality of all species, and the ‘submergence of the human self in a larger natural self.’ [1]

Deep ecology rejects an anthropocentric view of the world and states that humans are not the center of life on earth, but instead, only make up a small part of it, and that all living things have an equal right to live and blossom. Naess believed that anyone who subscribed to this biocentric view was obliged to try and implement necessary changes to basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.

Now, to move on to the second philosophy of the four: eco-feminism. Eco-feminism was developed in the 1970’s from a synthesis of feminist and environmental philosophies and tactical ideas. The term was coined in 1974 to represent women’s potential for bringing about an ecological revolution to ensure human survival on the planet. The view of eco-feminism, as stated by Long, is “based on the analysis of environmental problems from the perspective of the feminist critique of patriarchal systems, as well as on attempts to offer alternative systems intended to liberate both women and nature from oppression.” [2]

Now let us move on to the third philosophy: social ecology. Primarily, social ecology was the invention of American anarchist philosopher, Murray Bookchin, who was inspired by Kropotkin and other various anarchists. “Bookchin concluded that environmental problems could not be solved in a free-market, capitalist society, because such hierarchical and authoritarian social, economic, and political structures allow humans to dominate others and nature.” [3] Bookchin argues that, instead of dominating nature, humans should emulate it, which, characterized by a form of cooperation, or mutual aid, among organisms that furthers evolutionary goals.

Finally, we move to bioregionalism. Long writes that bioregionalism “is a synthesis of countercultural philosophies such as: back-to-the-land communalism, social anarchism, appropriate technology, and feminism.”[4] It is considered by its proponents to be a means through which Bookchin’s theory of social ecology can be implemented.

Now that we have covered the four main philosophies guiding radical environmental thought, it is important to point out that all four of these views all advocate some sort of revolution. They all go further than simply advocating for more governmental regulation. All of them advocate dramatic changes in lifestyle, as well as socio-economic and political structures.

Now we must move on to describe various eco-terrorist groups and their methods of realize their goals. Before going into detail on various eco-terrorist groups, it would be wise to give a definition of just exactly what eco-terrorism is. The FBI defines it thusly: “The use or the threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally oriented, sub national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.”[5]

The first group we’ll cover is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, hereafter referred to as SSCS. The former Greenpeace member, Paul Watson founded SSCS along with other activists because they believed activists such as themselves needed more tools and tactics than simply the civil disobedience that Greenpeace had been practicing. Watson and the other members of SSCS believe activists need to utilize tactics such as sabotage to achieve their goals. Quoting from the SSCS website, it reads: “Sea Shepherd uses innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas.”[6]

Earth First! was formed in 1979, and their website reads: “We believe in using all the tools in the tool box, ranging from grassroots organizing and involvement in the legal process to civil disobedience and monkey wrenching.” [7] From Earth First! came the next and final group we shall examine, the Earth Liberation Front.

The Earth Liberation Front/Animal Liberation Front, hereafter referred to as ELF/ALF was founded in Brighton, England in 1992 by several Earth First! activists who refused to abandon sabotage as a tactic when others wished to mainstream the movement. Long writes: “Extremists who act in the name of the ELF/ALF operate in secrecy and in small independent cells with no identifiable leader or hierarchy. There are no membership lists, no annual fees, and no magazines or journals.”[8] Through the 1990’s and early into the first decade of the twenty-first century the FBI had declared the ELF/ALF to be the most dangerous domestic terrorist threat to the United States.

Now we must move on to detail Kropotkin’s views on terrorism.

Kropotkin proclaims his views on terrorism quite clearly and succinctly in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist. He writes: “Terrorism was called into existence by certain special conditions of the political struggle at a given historical moment. It has lived, and has died. It may revive and die out again.” [9] Terrorism itself is seen as a natural occurrence, and in fact may be necessary for change. So, anarchists then should not fear utilizing terroristic means to achieve their desired ends. As far as Kropotkin was concerned, if the state utilized violence to maintain its authority, the people had a right to use violence to take away that authority.

Caroline Cahm, in her book, Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism: 1872-1886 quotes Kropotkin saying: “…an act of revolt should be a serious act of war—not a dramatic gesture,” [10] and “preliminary acts of revolt were necessary before a full-scale revolution could take place.” [11] Cahm goes on to say “anarchists…sought to awaken the popular spirit of revolt for the violent expropriation of property and the disorganization of the state, by theoretical propaganda and above all by insurrectional acts.” [12] Cahm quotes Kropotkin further stating: “The act accomplished in one locality becomes itself the most powerful means of propaganda.”[13] And finally, Cahm quotes Kropotkin saying: “This would be a living act of propaganda: ‘The idea will not be written down, put in a newspaper or picture, any more than it will be sculptured in marble, carved in stone or cast in bronze: it will walk in flesh and blood, living before the people.” [14]

One can see from this then that Kropotkin’s ideas for spreading anarchist propaganda by deed, as well as by theoretical means, should always ultimately be directed towards a future revolution, and that those who participate in these acts of revolt will be the ones who shape the direction that the revolution will take. Of course, the very name, ’propaganda by deed,’ that Kropotkin developed and advocated lies very much within the definition of eco-terrorism that the FBI provides as stated above. In Kropotkin’s eyes, the terroristic act is propaganda. By carrying out a terroristic act, you illuminate problems within the existing system by shining a spotlight on the specific issue, and the act also demonstrates to the people what and how they can act themselves.

To reference this to popular culture, the film, V for Vendetta depicts a masked hero living in London in the not too distant future, in which England has dissolved into a fascist state. The main character, V—who is labelled a terrorist by the fascist authorities—has the goal of blowing up the parliament building because it is a symbol of political power. In one scene, V goes into a speech to Natalie Portman’s character, Evi Hammond, about how the building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. V professes that by blowing up parliament, this in turn can inspire hope among the masses, showing them the deficiencies of the existing system, and a possible path forward to change. This is propaganda by deed.

So, in summation, what modern environmental groups do to further their goals is no different than what Kropotkin and V were advocating by suggesting acts of revolt as a means to propagate their ideas. So, I hope I have succeeded in adequately detailing the correlations between Kropotkin’s theories and the theories and practices of the various radical environmental eco-terrorist groups of today. Kropotkin’s influence goes well beyond the philosophical contributions that Bookchin and other ecologists have proved, and perhaps his most chilling contributions to the radical environmental movement are his ideas for revolution, and insurrectional acts, which I have attempted to detail in the preceding pages.

In writing this paper, I have not tried to make any ethical judgments about any of the people or ideas presented here, and I have tried to limit my own biases as much as possible, though, given the historical climate we find ourselves in, with respect to climate change and the continued despoliation of nature, I find it difficult to believe that eco-terrorist acts and groups will disappear anytime in the near future, or, if anything, only intensify. And I believe it is there which lays the importance of any future study in this area. In order to understand the aspirations of a certain group with political and ideological goals, it is necessary to understand where these aspirations have their roots, and that is perhaps how one can better understand how to address the issues raised by eco-terrorists who really are a product of the evolutionary chain of anarchist thought. So, simply to neglect having an adequate understanding of how something develops is unproductive for finding solutions, and because, to quote another radical work, “in reality, everything involves everything else.”[15]

Trent Trepanier

[1] Douglas Long, Ecoterrorism, p. 20.
[2] Long, Ecoterrorism, p. 21.
[3] Ibid. p. 22.
[4] Long, Ecoterrorism, p. 22.
[5] Ibid. p. 3-4.
[6] Information attained at SSCS website: www.seashepherd.org
[7] Information attained from Earth First! website: www.earthfirst.org
[8] Long, Ecoterrorism, pp. 45-6.
[9] Kropotkin, Memoirs, p. 297.
[10] Cahm, Revolutionary Anarchism, p. 103.
[11] Ibid. pp. 106-7.
[12] Ibid. p. 111.
[13] Ibid. p. 126.
[14] Ibid. p. 84.
[15] The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, p. 97.
* Anarchist journal
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