Kropotkin: Antimilitarism and Revolution (1905)

As I may have mentioned before, I am a firm believer in the need to understand and study history – particularly of anarchism and anarchists. I do not think we can know where we are – or how to progress – without have a grasp of how we got to where we are now. If we do not know our own history, we are at the mercy of those who do – or, more likely, those who claim they do.

The latter applied particularly to many Marxists who really do sprout some nonsense about anarchism and anarchists when given the chance (I mention this because I had the unfortunate experience of visiting a Trotskyist webpage recently and reading its regurgitated nonsense on anarchism). So we need to read about anarchism and anarchist thinkers to know when critics are talking rubbish – or when, as is often the case, they are just making stuff up.

The problem is that most of the major thinkers of anarchism did not write in English (Goldman and Berkman being notable exceptions). Kropotkin’s articles for the anarchist press were mostly in French (with works written in Russian to influence the movement there, some in English but nowhere near the numbers in French), as were Proudhon’s and Bakunin’s, while Malatesta’s were primarily in Italian and Rocker’s Yiddish and German. Plus, many of those in English – either written in it or translated into it – are usually stuck in the archives. While the digitalisation of the archive continues and exposes more and more of this material to the world, we still have the translation issue to deal with. Still, if someone digitalised the archives of British anarchist journals, that would be a massive step forward – I know that there are lots of interesting pieces in Freedom which should be made easily available again.

So I have been translating – hopefully sufficiently well, probably not but well enough! – various Kropotkin articles from Les Temps Nouveaux which I thought were of interest. These relate mostly to questions of the labour movement as well as particular events, not least the 1905 article on the Russian Revolution (which, incidentally, answers something I had wondered when I read in Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists – see section H.3.10 –  that the communist-anarchists of Khleb i Volia had “likened the 1905 Petersburg Soviet - as a non-party mass organisation - to the central committee of the Paris Commune of 1871”, namely was that Kropotkin’s opinion and it appears it was as the article in Les Temps Nouveaux states this also, suggesting one is a translation of the other). I also decided to work on the various articles I can identified as being of interest in terms of 1914 and his support for the allies (see a previous blog on this).

Two of these are translated below. One is of note because Kropotkin indicates how he viewed how a revolution would defend itself from counter-revolution. He – like Malatesta – points to Garibaldi’s troops and also mentions the Francs-tireurs of 1871, namely a voluntary guerrilla group – or insurgents – who were expected to act as a militia and elected their own officers. Unsurprisingly, the term was also used by Resistance groups during the second world war. Which confirms what I suggested in a footnote in Direct Struggle Against Capital:

While not explicitly stating so, it is clear that Kropotkin had in mind the popular volunteer armies of the French Revolution which were based on “the system of the election of officers by the soldiers themselves.” This ensured the “reorganising” of the Republic’s “army on a democratic basis.” These “sans-culotte armies” needed “all the genius of the Revolution and all the youthful audacity of a people awakened from its long sleep, all the faith of the revolutionists in a future of equality, to persist, in the Titanic struggle which the sans-culottes had to carry on against the invaders and the traitors.” (The Great French Revolution, 380, 462).

So, as with Bakunin and Malatesta, Kropotkin explicitly argued for a voluntary militia to defend the social revolution (see section H.2.1). He, like them, did not consider the defence of a revolution – nor the need to expropriate the resources of the few – as a “State”, regardless of what Marxists seem to suggest, it takes more than that to be a State…

As will be seen from the articles, the decision to support the Allies did not come from nowhere. Kropotkin assumed that the French people – or enough of them – would respond to a German invasion with a social revolution. The question arises – although not to Kropotkin, apparently – of what to do if the rebellion is not forthcoming? Given the evils Kropotkin attributes to the French defeat in 1871 – not least in the development of socialism, ironically as Marx had wished for in 1870! – then supporting the French State becomes the lesser of two evils…

Yet it remains an evil nor does it nullify Kropotkin’s repeated analysis of war – in many articles over the decades – as being driven by capitalism and the interests of the bourgeoisie. Workers were still being sent to kill or be killed in the interests of the few – that Kropotkin wanted them to do so for a more progressive regime (and not-so-progressive, given France’s ally the Tsar) does not change this.

However, here I am repeating the critique of the likes of Malatesta, Berkman and Rocker. Unsurprisingly, almost all anarchists rejected Kropotkin’s position – something I keep reiterating due to the Leninist myth that most anarchists supported the war (when, in fact, it was most Marxists who sided with their States). As noted initially, this is why anarchists need to know the history of their own movement to counter nonsense like that.

I should note that Kropotkin is repeating (unknowingly, presumably) Marx’s hope, expressed at the start of the Franco-Prussian war, that the French needed “a good hiding” as a German victory would “shift the centre of gravity of West European labour movements from France to Germany” which would “mean the predominance of our theory over Proudhon’s.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works 44: 3-4) Indeed, Kropotkin seems almost to fixate on the defeat of France as explaining why social revolution had not broken out – in part due to the rise of Marxism (social-democracy) and the shift away from a class struggle based labour movement to an electoral one, which in turn was an outcome of France’s defeat.

And to some degree he was right – for the war stopped the natural development of the First International (which was towards syndicalism if the 1868-9 congresses are anything to go by) and allowed Marx the opportunity to impose electioneering and expel the majority (started with Bakunin). Luckily, we are now in the position to challenge the conventional wisdom of this period – thanks to books like Robert Graham’s ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy - We Invoke It': The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement and René Berthier’s Social Democracy and Anarchism in the International Workers’ Association 1864-1877. Needless to say, Kropotkin viewed the First International – understood as a syndicalist body – as the model for the labour movement of his day – indeed, it is a subject he repeatedly returns to in Les Temps Nouveaux.

Interestingly, these two articles produced a two-part response by Charles Albert later in November (followed by a clarification to a writer in Libertaire). I’ll be translating these in due course as they make some telling points on Kropotkin’s position -- points which seem all to correct given the events of 1914. Kropotkin never replied to them, which is a shame. Still, while the decision in 1914 to support the Allies did not appear out of the blue, it is obvious that it was driven by particular aspects of Kropotkin’s personal opinions/flaws and did not flow from revolutionary anarchism as such (as Marxists are keen to suggest).

The decision should not mean we deny the contribution to anarchism which Kropotkin made. As I note in a footnote to my introduction to Modern Science and Anarchy:

One Bay Area Anarchist even went so far as to suggest “Kropotkin should have died before this war. Then he would have been held in grateful remembrance by future working classes.” (Kenyon Zimmer, Immigrants against the state: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015], 135). While the damage and confusion Kropotkin’s position produced – helped by the jingoistic press – made such extreme comments understandable, it must be said that his post-war output – such as the lessons of the Russian Revolution (namely, “Letter to the Workers of the Western World” and the post-face to the 1919 Russian edition of Words of a Rebel, both contained in Direct Struggle Against Capital) plus the unfinished Ethics – makes that too harsh.

His wrong choice in 1914 does not invalidate his revolutionary communist-anarchism and the impressive works he created to build that theory. These remain as powerful and important as ever – particularly, as can be seen from the articles below, it was driven not by anarchism but rather by personal perspectives reflecting his life and its influences: not least his love (romanticisation?) of France which seems to border on (transferred) nationalism at times.

I should note here that Jean Caroline Cahm’s “Kropotkin and the Anarchist Movement” has been of great help (in Eric Cahm and Vladimir Claude Fisera (eds.), Socialism and Nationalism (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1978) volume 1). That volume also contains another chapter by Cahm on Bakunin’s perspectives on national liberation struggles, and this is also good. Talking of nationalism, someone has put an old article of mine’s on “Braveheart and Scottish nationalism” on libcom! Anyways, I will come back to this issue in another blog when I post a relevant article by Kropotkin on it.

I’m still interested in Kropotkin even after working on Modern Science and Anarchy for what seems like forever – not least due to the material which is not available to the English-speaking world. As I indicated in both “Sages and movements: An incomplete Peter Kropotkin bibliography” (Anarchist Studies 22: 1) and my “Kropotkin, Woodcock and Les Temps Nouveaux” (Anarchist Studies 23: 1), there are many articles to work on.

Currently, I would like to produce:

1. A definitive version of Mutual Aid – which would include a revised version of the introduction I wrote for, but was not included in, the recent Freedom Press edition plus (most of) the articles he wrote on ethics and natural selection later for The Nineteenth Century and After.

2. A definitive collection of his pamphlets – these would be complete, unlike the long available Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets (which cuts 25%, 30% and more of the texts it includes). In addition, it would include pamphlets which that collection did not have – such as rare English-language ones from 1903 and 1904 and never translated ones (such as the one I posted a while back: Will the Revolution be Collectivist?).

3. A collection of anarchist writings on war, starting with Bakunin’s Letters to a Frenchman (Parts I-V, Part VI) but concentrating on Kropotkin (I indicated the list in my last blog, which also included a translation of one of Kropotkin’s articles). I originally thought having the 1914-16 debate as supplementary material for Modern Science and Anarchy would be good, but it soon became obvious that this would be too much. The two articles below are part of that project.

Saying that, I would like to return to Proudhon as there are plenty of important works by him which could do with being translated – such as volume 2 of System of Economic Contradictions, Confessions of a Revolutionary and much more. This may be more of a challenge, given that Kropotkin deliberately wrote clear and understandable prose while Proudhon often indulged himself. Still, should be worth it – long term, I would like to see a full translation of System of Economic Contradictions with appropriately scathing comments on Marx (see, as an example, my recent review of The Poverty of Philosophy). That would be a big task… so perhaps a sequel to Property is Theft! which included newly translated works by, and articles on, Proudhon would be best. But we will see.

Finally, I should note I posted a review of a new book about Kropotkin – sadly, it was not that good. If it had come out thirty years ago, I may have been more positive but it ignores key works published since 1986 and has no new research. It also just quotes verbatim Kropotkin within a Woodcockian framework. Shame, as the title promised more – and Kropotkin simply did not, regardless of Woodcock’s claims, become a reformist. Also, I managed to produce An Anarchist FAQ After 21 Years in case you had not noticed. My, time does fly past when you are having fun…

So here we are, the two freshly translated articles by Kropotkin on Anti-Militarism and Revolution – perhaps the translations could be better, but they show that his decision of 1914 did not come out of nowhere even if it did – understandably – surprise almost all anarchists at the time.

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

Antimilitarism and Revolution

(Les Temps Nouveaux, 28 October 1905)

A press incident forces me to talk about myself. During my recent brief stay in Paris at Les Temps Nouveaux, we had a lively discussion amongst comrades and friends on antimilitarist propaganda.

Needless to say, I consider propaganda and action against militarism and war in general an absolute necessity. We must make this propaganda and action internationally as much as possible, and within every nation separately.

But I pointed out to friends, we would be on the wrong track, and we would be spreading an idea that is not right in preaching the conscripts strike at times “of war”, and saying that, since the worker has no country, he should be uninterested in the defence of France.

We should not understand our propaganda in a wrong manner. If France is invaded by some military power, the duty of revolutionaries is not to fold their arms and allow the invader free rein. It is to begin the social revolution, and to defend the territory of the revolution, to continue it. The phrase “conscript strike” does not say enough. It has the disadvantage of being silent on the essential purpose of propaganda, and it gives rise to misinterpretations. It says nothing about the revolution, and says nothing about the necessity in which revolutionaries will be placed – that of defending, arms in hand, every inch of the French territory that has implemented the revolution against the bourgeois and imperialist hordes of German, English and perhaps Russian invaders. Are these hordes better than those of Versailles?

This necessity must be recognised even today. We must not deny the possibility of this, as was the done on the eve of 1870. We must prepare the mind of the French people for it. To those who preach respect for the army we must reply: “Only the people revolted against its leaders and exploiters will defend the soil of France. The army – whether it performs miracles of valour – will be heavily outnumbered. Revolution, popular war, war by the peasant who has regained the soil, is the only weapon France can oppose to the coalitions of bourgeoisie, ready to launch their obedient flocks – see the recent speeches by Bebel – against the nation which produced 1793, 1848 and 1871, and which prepares a new, social, revolution.”

* * *

The echo of this conversation reached the Parisian press. The Temps included an article by M. Mille, in which the author gave, via hearsay, some garbled passages of our conversation, and as he left out what I had said about revolution he obviously travestied its meaning. Other journals went further in the same direction.

That is why I sent a letter to the Temps, in which I set out my ideas on militarism. As it has not appeared yet, I am forced to wait until the next issue to reproduce it.

Antimilitarism and Revolution

(Les Temps Nouveaux, 4 November 1905)

Here is the corrective letter sent by our friend Kropotkin to the newspaper the Temps and which the editor of the major daily newspaper kept in his files – we wonder why? – for more than eight days without publishing it.

Mister Editor

I have just read in your October 19 issue an article by Mr. Mille entitled; Esquisses d'après Nature : Pierre Kropotkine [Sketches from Life: Peter Kropotkin]. Allow me to address some inaccuracies.

M. Mille reproduces some remarks from a conversation on antimilitarism which he did not attend but which he heard of in Paris. I am sure he does so with the best of Intentions of being accurate; but, by giving only a few comments from this conversation, he completely distorts its meaning.

Yes, I said:

– I am sixty-two years of age, I am not sentimental towards France, I have been condemned to imprisonment there, I am still subject to an expulsion order… Well, if France were invaded by the Germans, I would regret one thing. It is that with my sixtieth year passed, I would probably not have the strength to pick up a gun to defend it… Not as a soldier of the bourgeoisie, of course, but as a soldier of the Revolution, in the free legions of revolutionaries, similar to those of the Garibaldians and the guerrillas [francs-tireurs] of 1871.

Make the Revolution and race to the frontiers, that is the essence of the opinions I expressed in this conversation, and the sentence I have just quoted and which struck Mr. Mille was the conclusion.

Since you were kind enough to mention my ideas on anti-militarism, you will allow me to clarify them, will you not?

When I see how easily rulers throw people into dreadful wars, undertaken in the interest of the bourgeoisie and since I know with what unpardonable levity the rulers of France – on an insignificant promise made by an English imperialist minister – have recently been on the point of throwing France into a war which it would have come out of, perhaps, with a crushing worse than that of 1871, I understand the necessity of a strenuous antimilitarist propaganda, fearlessly made by workers. And I fully understand that the French workers, the vanguard of the working class of the whole world, should take the initiative, without knowing exactly how far they will be followed by the German workers.

– But, I said, in the conversation which Mr. Mille provided you a passage, the conscripts strike at the moment when war is declared is not the right way. The strike is good for neutral nations. When two States go to war, the workers of the neutral nations should completely refuse all work used to fuel the war. This was the campaign which we had to conduct during the last Russo-Japanese war.

But if the Germans invade France, as they will doubtless do, at the head of a powerful coalition and forcing the hands of the small neighbouring States (Belgium, Switzerland) then the conscripts strike will not suffice. We must do as did the sans-culottes of 1792 when they established in their sections the revolutionary Commune of August 10th, overthrew royalty and the aristocracy, raised the forced levy on the rich, compelled the Legislative to make the first effective decrees on the abolition of feudal rights and recovery by the peasants of communal lands, and marched to defend the soil of France while also continuing the Revolution. This is also what Bakunin and his friends tried to do at Lyon and Marseilles in 1871.

The only effective barrier to oppose a German invasion will be the people’s war, the Revolution. That is what we must anticipate and openly proclaim today.

Yes, I also said that France marched at the forefront of other nations. And that is true. Not as an intellectual, artistic or industrial culture, for in these the leading European nations and the United States are marching together, and if one of them takes the lead in one direction, it is overtaken in another. But France marches at the head of other nations in the path of social revolution. It is because it made 1789-93, because it had 1848, and it planted a milestone in 1871, while Germany has not yet finished abolishing its feudal regime, England made its great revolution just to conquer the political and religious liberty of the individual without demolishing feudal property, and Russia is still in 1788-89.

Under these conditions, a new crushing of France would be a misfortune for civilisation. The triumph of the German centralised military State in 1871 gave Europe thirty years of reaction, and to France it gave the cult of the military, Boulangism, the Dreyfus affair, and the halting – I will say more: the oblivion for thirty years of all the socialist development which was taking place towards the end of the Empire.

It is because I have experienced the social and intellectual reaction of the last thirty years that I think that antimilitarists of all nations should defend every country invaded by a military State and too weak to defend itself; but above all, when it is invaded by a coalition of bourgeois powers which especially hate in the French people its role as vanguard of the social revolution.

Here, sir, are the ideas which I have developed during the conversation which Mr. Mille has engaged your readers.

To finish, allow me to raise some inaccuracies of a personal nature in Mr. Mille’s article.

I am pleased to contradict Mr. Mille in that my wife has not died, and Mr. Mille, if he came to Bromley – only, please, not as a reporter – would find her pretty much such as he saw her at Acton. And, for my part, Mr. Mille not only makes me commit a pretty large error of fact (sentenced to five year’s imprisonment, we served only three), but he also attributes to me in connection with this imprisonment language which I would never have spoken. I ignore the comments that Mr. Mille attributes me concerning reporters: it is too personal.

Thank you in advance, accept, Mister, etc.


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