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Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition.

Jim Mac Laughlin, Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition

London: Pluto Press, 2016; 288pp; |SBN 9780745335124

If this book had been published thirty years ago it would have been welcomed--albeit with some reservations--as a useful summary of the conventional wisdom on Kropotkin in the English-speaking movement. Yet this wisdom, derived from George Woodcock's work, was questionable then and subsequent research has exposed its extremely weak foundations.

So we have Kropotkin 'the gentle sage' (p49) and we are treated to Woodcock's account of his life. This means it is somewhat apologetic concerning Kropotkin's actual revolutionary class struggle politics and Mac Laughlin repeats uncritically Woodcock's suggestion that as early as 1891 Kropotkin was embracing 'evolutionary change' rather than revolution and 'becoming increasingly less confident in the imminence of the anarchist revolution' (p237). Given that this is based on little more than one quote from a single talk given in Leeds, it is surprising to see it repeated.

Mac Laughlin proclaims that there 'were times, [Kropotkin] argued, when class warfare and political violence could be considered the lesser evil' (p111). He even prefaces a quote on anarchist involvement in the labour movement with the suggestion that this was written 'in response to those who accused him of placing too much faith in evolutionary theory and too little in revolutionary action' (p98). Yet at the time it was well known that Kropotkin had always advocated class struggle and had done so since joining the Federalist wing of the First International in the 1870s. While this is most obviously shown by the articles he wrote for Les Temps Nouveaux and Freedom, it is not absent from his more general works.

Even a quick glance through the anarchist papers for which Kropotkin wrote would show how wrong it is to suggest that he had a 'penchant for scientific research and intellectual debate rather than polemics and political propaganda' (pp238-9). His articles for Les Temps Nouveaux, for example, see him return again and again to polemics against Marxism and in favour of what became known as a syndicalist labour movement.

Like Woodcock, Mac Laughlin seeks to portray Kropotkin as a near-pacifist, closer to Tolstoy than Bakunin. Thus we find that 'compared to Bakunin and others who believed in the efficacy of anarchist-inspired acts of political violence, Kropotkin represented the reasonable face of European anarchism' (50). Yet Bakunin did not advocate 'propaganda by the deed' and both Russians advocated insurrection as well as militant working-class direct action as a means to win reforms today and prepare for revolution tomorrow.

Yet while Bakunin is rarely mentioned, space is given to William Godwin even though he had little impact on the development of anarchism. Unsurprisingly, Kropotkin mentions him more or less in passing while concentrating on the First International. Mac Laughlin also includes a discussion of someone--Gerrard Winstanley--whom Kropotkin did not mention yet we are informed his writings 'laid the foundations of modern anarchism' (p9).

It could be argued that this follows Kropotkin, who also presents anarchism has having a long history but a close reading of his work shows that he was well aware that modern, revolutionary, anarchism was born in the First International. He also noted that Anarchism was a product of both the class struggle and the scientific analysis of societies. In that sense, yes, anarchistic ideas have appeared before Proudhon used the word 'anarchist'. Yes, scientific theories are discovered independently. So it would stagger belief that no one had looked at an oppressive and exploitative society and not concluded that it should be changed and then acted accordingly. However, to draw conclusions similar to anarchism but independently of and anterior to it does not equal laying its foundations in any meaningful sense. Which means that while there can be anarchy before anarchism and, likewise, anarchistic ideas and movements can develop independently of it, this does not mean that modern anarchism was not born in the First International.

This book is essentially a summation of previous works on Kropotkin rather than new research. Surprisingly, it makes no mention of Caroline Cahm's Peter Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism (1989) which is still the best account of his ideas nor Daniel Todes' important work on the Russian engagement with Darwin, Darwin without Malthus (1989). There is no attempt to look into the many papers Kropotkin was associated with during his life as an anarchist thinker and activist. Instead, we have accounts of the most accessible--and so most general--of Kropotkin's voluminous output. This cannot help skewing how Kropotkin is viewed.

While the aim of this book cannot be faulted, sadly it fails to live up to its promise.
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Author:McKay, Iain
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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