Kropotkin: New Article and Talk (London, 18/10/2014)

Below is a newly translated article by Kropotkin from 1890. It is part of the debates over the May Day demonstrations and libertarian participation in the labour movement. Of note is Kropotkin’s talk of the General Strike years before it became associated with syndicalism (although, as discussed before, Bakunin and his comrades raised it twenty years before).

It is very much in line with his articles from 1880 and 1881 for anarchists to get involved in the labour movement (for example, the very important article from 1881 on “Workers’ Organisation” – see part 1 and part 2). This follows on from my previous new translation “What a strike is” inspired by the 1889 London Dockers Strike. This is very much a constant position of Kropotkin, namely anarchist participation in the workers movement – as would be expected from someone who joined the so-called “Bakuninist” movement as I discussed at a talk at the London Anarchist Bookfair a few years back (Direct Struggle Against Capital; or anarchism and syndicalism).

Talking of the bookfair, I will be doing a talk at this year’s London Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 18th of October (10am to 7pm) at Queen Mary, University of London, Mile End Road, London, E1 4NS:

Kropotkin: Class Warrior

4pm, Room 321

Kropotkin is often portrayed as the peaceful "the Prince of Co-Operation", a backward looking dreamer who viewed nature and society through rose-tinted glasses. The reality is different. Kropotkin was a revolutionary communist-anarchist, committed to the working class winning the class struggle and creating a free, socialist, society. With the publication of "Direct Action Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology" by AK Press, we are able to fully understand his ideas and refute the lazy inventions inflicted on both him and our movement. Come and join Iain McKay, the editor of this new book, to discuss the real Kropotkin and his relevance to anarchists in the 21st century.

I should also mention that there is an Anarcha-Feminist conference (AFem2014) at the same venue on Sunday, the 19th of October.

Before finishing, I should mention that it seems almost certain that there will be a new Black Flag magazine for the bookfair and that my recently posted article “Boomtime in Poundland: Has Austerity Worked?”. The title is a pun/reference on/to the Scottish Nationalists suggesting a "Sterling Zone" if there was a yes vote in the Referendum on independence like the "Euro Zone" and a comedian suggested that "Poundland" would be better, Poundland being a series of shops which sells everything for £1 and which are spreading across Britain as people find it harder to make ends meet. Also, some of the references and jokes may not make sense to non-UK people (so search if in doubt, for example “badgers moving the goalposts”).

The basic thrust of the article is that while the Tories have continued their talk of austerity and their cuts in services/benefits working class people need, they put it on hold (stalled, to quote the chair of the OBR) a few years back. Government borrowing has not dropped at much as initially promised and it has intervened in numerous ways with the cash it had to boost the economy. As things stopped getting worse (flat-lining rather than downwards), the foundations of a boom were created -- so we are back to where we were in 2010, before the Tories killed off the weak recovery by actually imposing some austerity policies.

This is in contrast with, say, France which reached its pre-crisis level years before the UK but had the misfortunate to vote in a Socialist Party which was not actually anti-Austerity. While many on the left welcomed the election of Hollande as part of an anti-austerity revolt, this was wishful thinking - for French voters as much as others elsewhere as Hollande was invested with a lot of illusions his vague rhetoric did not justify. So the so-called "Socialist" Party implemented austerity policies and, unsurprisingly, the economy has stalled. That this is what happened in the UK should be stressed. Hollande has now taken firm action - and got rid of those in his government who opposed austerity policies!

Of course, reality does not matter in politics and so we have the frankly silly situation that the Tories are being praised for pursuing austerity (when they changed their mind) and being constrasted favourably to France which has a government which was falsely painted as anti-austerity but was, in practice, Austerian.

In short, the austerians have been proven to be completely wrong but are being painted as being vindicated. Still, we anarchists should be used to this - we were right about Marxism (it did become reformist and dictatorial, social democracy and Bolshevism respectively) but that did not stop Marxism being the dominant force on the left during the last century. Being correct seems to be a handicap in politics...

Talking of being right not helping, a few words on the Independence vote in Scotland. So it is over – I remain, officially at least, “British” as the Scottish referendum was 45% “yes” against 55% “no”. I have not mentioned the campaign very much over the two years since the independence campaign was announced, in part due to being very bust but mostly because I am in exile (which gives you a clue as to how I would have voted if I were in Scotland, namely the same as my home city of Glasgow: “aye”). I had expected a “no” vote but a closer than expected one – which happened, although not as close as I hoped. Those claiming it was “overwhelming” or “decisively” a “no” vote are deluding themselves – it was close and change is needed when 45% of a country wishes to leave a bigger country and most of the 55% of others had to be bribed with more devolution…

Looking at it from exile, the obvious panic the “yes” campaign produced in the political elite and ruling class was very amusing – almost as amusing as seeing Tories saying nice things about a union. The “yes” campaign did involve people into something which raised hopes that something better was possible – it may have been wrapped around a Saltire but it was wider than nationalist (illusional or not). Indeed, on Channel Four News a Labour “no” campaigner grumbled that the “yes” campaign had become a “socialist movement” in all but name and moaned that this was not the SNP’s politics – true, but a desire for independence (autonomy/decentralisation) does not equal nationalism. Still, it was nice for him to confirm that, when in peril, the British ruling class can count on Labour to save them from popular movements for change!

The elephant in the room was, of course, the unspoken British nationalism of the “no” position – while berating the “yes” campaign as being nationalistic and therefore bad, the default position was that British nationalism was perfectly acceptable (indeed so natural was this nationalism that it was not even mentioned). The Daily Mail likened Scottish Nationalism to the rise of nationalist movements in the 1930s, that is fascism. Forgetting for the moment that at the time that paper was pro-Nazi, I do need to say it was the “British Union of Fascists” and like the “no” campaign very much in favour of the benefits of the Act of Union of 1707 alleged provided the world. Simply put, to portray the independence campaign as a return to the 1930s is simply illiterate nonsense – but what can you expect from a paper which denounced everyone else as fascists while keeping its own support for Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and Mosley unmentioned.

British nationalism is simply not nationalism, apparently – talking of which, I wonder how the members of the Orange Order voted? While obviously Unionists, the Pope came out in favour of a “no” vote... so I have to wonder if that caused some confusion...

Anyway, back to the subject. The “yes” campaign obviously spooked the establishment – so there will be a backlash. We are already seeing it start in numerous nasty articles in a host of right-wing papers (in London, the Evening Boris - the voice of the 1% given free to the 99% - had articles which I could not finish due to the bile expressed). It will get worse - particularly when the Tories hit their stride - so the people who live in Scotland will pay for daring to challenge the status quo. The Tories are ruthless and will utilise everything to secure power and impose their social engineering. Many “no” voters won over, to a large degree, by the vow for new powers being devolved, will be waking up to the cold reality of what was left out of it – the “small print”, if you like (except that is being too generous to the Tories as it was never placed anywhere anyone could read it). Things will get nasty and promises will either be broken or conditions imposed which will make many think “we did not vote ‘no’ for that”.

Still, the whole “we love you don’t leave us but if you do we will make you suffer” campaign should have been a taste of what a “no” vote would produce... particularly with the Tories in office. To be fair to the likes of Gordon Brown, he seemed sincere in his defence of the Union and the promises given but “no” voters seemed to forget that he was not able to grant them, only the Tories could and they should have known that those evil numpties would twist anything to bolster their agenda. Still, rest assured when the backlash gets going and the conditions announced they will proclaim it as all being done in the name of “fairness”...

So anarchists in Scotland – and elsewhere in Britain – will have their work cut out for them. The positive vision of change, independence and autonomy which the “yes” campaign uncovered and pushed in a certain direction is still there and could blossom into a wider social movement which aims for freedom in all aspects of life – which could only be a decentralised, federal, self-managed socialist system, or anarchism (to use the proper name!). Time will tell whether I suffer from “nationalist illusions” or not, but anarchism must be a popular movement, a movement of the people, and that means it must reflect and develop the progressive wishes of the masses if it is to be relevant. In Scotland that means addressing the independence question – and linking it wider issues, not least decentralisation, federalism, self-management and socialisation of the economy (the only real basis for meaningful individual and collective self-determination).

In short, as section D.7 of An Anarchist FAQ argued, libertarians must “aim to turn national liberation struggles into human liberation struggles”. As Kropotkin stressed in the article below, where must anarchists be? “Where the masses are!” Why? “without the masses, no revolution”. Is it a movement which is libertarian? No. Can it become such a movement? Perhaps, but only if anarchists take part and push it beyond the national question into the social question (also see this blog on the attitude of Kropotkin and Bakunin to national liberation movements).

Anyways, that is enough for the time being (I will probably return to the subject). My bookfair talk will not write itself...

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

The action of the masses and the individual

Peter Kropotkin

La Révolte

24th of May 1890

Translation by N.C.

Our comrades are perfectly right to say [in their letter] that the May strikes are a consequence of general economic conditions. If the return of work to the mines and in the iron industry, and if dreadful poverty in the other trades did not exist, there wouldn’t have been any strikes at all, as there weren’t any on such a large scale ten years ago. But what our comrades ignore is that, outside all socialist organisations, right now, within the workers of all nationalities, an immense work to press on to a general strike is taking place. Democrats, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists, have absolutely nothing to do with it. – “We are overwhelmed by this movement” we were told, two years ago, by a Belgian socialist. In England, in a big city, at least socialists took hold of this movement. They were well received at first; but when people realised that they wanted to enlist it to an electoral aim, they threw them overboard.[1]

Whether it is enough to say that this international movement comes from America;[2] that it is taking form outside all [existing] organisation; and that we find ourselves faced with one of these facts that have always characterised the great popular movements – tacit understanding that becomes established outside newspapers, committees, agitators. A word put out in a workshop is enough and they tell each other: “So be it, see you on the 1st of May!” Then a worker goes from England to Austria, or from Austria to England, and expresses the same idea, and the idea – since it results from an economic necessity – is accepted straightaway.

Every strike of the last two years, in Belgium, in England, in Moravia[3], etc., etc., are due to this spontaneous spreading of the idea. If ever there was a movement anarchist by its essence and a propaganda essentially anarchist in its processes, it is this one. Because there is no secret – it is a tacit agreement that becomes established.

Our comrades from Geneva are mistaken to attribute the 1st May to the Paris Congress.[4] It was made absolutely outside of the Congress, against the will of the social-democrats, against the will of trade-union committees and despite indifference of socialists, anarchists and authoritarians. It is precisely for that reason that we attach significance to it.

In a Congress where Liebknecht[5] enjoyed royal rights, an unknown coming from Australia makes the proposal. The flabbergasted chiefs do not dare to renounce it, because the worker delegates – the unknowns – acclaim it unanimously. Then, the proposal is forgotten. The watchword of the socialist press is to not breathe a word of it. Socialists and anarchists treat it as a joke. Democrats oppose it. And meanwhile the workers spread the call [for a general strike] amongst each other: see you on the 1st of May. And fifteen days before the 1st of May the trade unionist, socialist and democrat leaders learn with dread that the working people will be on the street on that day. So they put on a brave face at this bad news, then they try to curb the demonstration and they end up joining it. But still, they expect a demonstration of no significance – and there is the whole of working London coming out of its hovels, a third of Vienna going to the Prater[6], the whole of Hamburg on its feet, and a general uprising of miners starts in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, etc.

In fact, we are persuaded that what the popular initiators of the movement wanted for the 1st of May was the general strike – as they had wanted it, a few years ago, in America. And we are persuaded that the idea of a general strike has only been postponed and that popular agreement will find in a year or two another date, unforeseen by those in power, to start the general strike.

* * *

We think that these facts are generally unknown and are the best reply to our comrades’ letter and for that very reason we had to set them out at length

“Individual initiative?” – Damn it! Let us practice it as much as possible! Let us not talk: let us act! But when we face a spontaneous movement of the masses – in front of an individual initiative of millions of workers – let us not put a spanner in the wheels of what is being done without us in the name of individual initiative, which will be excellent when it is taken but which, on its own, will not make the revolution. The strong point of individual initiative is to awake the spirit of revolt in the masses – because without the masses, no revolution. But once the masses awaken, once they move and descend onto the street, at the risk of sleeping that night on the barricades (it was the idea in Vienna), where does individual initiative have to go?

The answer is obvious – Where the masses are! And on the very day when the masses arrange to meet up! For us, it is absolutely obvious that in Moravia, in the Basque provinces, in Barcelona, in Valencia and elsewhere, those amongst the workers who really have some individual initiative and who wait for the watchword from the anarchists no more than from the democrats, told themselves: “While the troops are in Vienna or in Madrid, we will start the revolution here, in Moravia, in Barcelona or in Bilbao. And we will do it precisely on the 1st of May (or rather on the 2nd of May) whilst the troops are still in Vienna or in Madrid, and not on the 15th of May or on the 15th of June, when they will be back in our provinces”.

They have not been supported, precisely because the initiative was lacking elsewhere.

As for the arrests of anarchists – it is time to anticipate them in advance. Every time there is agitation in the masses, wherever it is from, the government will arrest anarchists – if they do not take precautions. That will take place before the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution. We need only to remember Marat[7] and so many others, less known, who were forced to live in cellars right in the middle of 1793, while aristocrats were guillotined by the dozens. Anarchists will be arrested because – sometimes wrongly, but most often rightly – governments will tell themselves this: “When the people are in the street and that individual initiative is lacking amongst these masses marching to storm society, it is from the anarchists that the initiative of a movement will be able to come, not from the legalists”.

And, let us note, that it will be absolutely the same thing during the revolution itself, as long as the revolution, in its development, has not reached the anarchist phase. Therefore, let us not speak of it.

* * *

Let us also add that if, on the day of a large popular demonstration, a movement in a big city hardly ever takes place, it is always a few days after such a demonstration that the movement starts. We counted ourselves, we understood its strength, we were offended by the brutality of the police, we were enraged by the blood shed at a peaceful demonstration: the soldiers themselves are furious at the leaders who made them shoot women and children; and then, on a call that, once more, is born spontaneously in the masses – we prepare another demonstration. But, before that day, the revolution already breaks out.

In short, let us turn the question over and over as much as we like, but we cannot reach another conclusion than this one: “whether we are the partisan of individual action or action of the masses – and it is obvious that both are necessary – the man of action’s place is where the masses are. If he carries out an individual act; if he responds to a policeman’s kick with a pistol shot; if he rebels against such iniquity; if he extinguishes the fire in some working factory, or if he breaks its windows (as was done in Moravia); if he goes to prison for spreading some propaganda amongst the troops or if he carries out quite another act of individual courage – his act will only have more impact, since it was done in the eyes of the masses, openly and publicly, while the press will talk about it in all details, while every worker will talk about it in the workshop”.

It is so simple, and we are so certain that all revolutionaries are of the same opinion, that there can only be debate on it by misunderstanding.

End Notes

[1] A reference to the 1889 London Dock Strike (see Kropotkin’s article “Ce que c’est qu’une gréve” [“What a Strike is”], La Révolte, 7th of September 1889. (translator)

[2] A reference to the 1886 eight-hour day movement in America that called upon workers to strike on the 1st of May. The Haymarket event in Chicago – a police attack on a strike meeting, a bomb being thrown and subsequent framing and hanging of five Anarchists, was a part of this strike wave. (translator)

[3] Moravia was a historical country in Central Europe in the east of the Czech Republic and one of the historical Czech lands, together with Bohemia and Czech Silesia. (translator)

[4] A reference to founding congress of the Second International held in Paris during July 1889. This congress designated the 1st of May as an international holiday for labour to be marked by demonstrations and parades. It was inspired by the American Eight-Hour movement of 1886. (translator)

[5] Wilhelm Martin Philipp Christian Ludwig Liebknecht (1826-1900) was a leading German social democrat. Under his leadership, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) grew from a tiny sect to become the country's largest political party. (translator)

[6] The Prater is a large public park in Vienna's 2nd district (Leopoldstadt). (translator)

[7] Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793) was one of the one of the most radical voices of the French Revolution. He was a vigorous defender of the sans-culottes and published the newspaper L’Ami du people (Friend of the People) which was renowned for its fierce tone and advocacy of political and economic rights for the working classes. He was Marat assassinated while taking a medicinal bath and became a revolutionary martyr for the Jacobins. Kropotkin quoted him favourably in his classic 1909 history, The Great French Revolution. (translator)


Time update -- apparently the

Time update -- apparently the meeting has been moved to 5pm.

So I would make sure you turn up early on the day to be sure and to make the most of what is an excellent event.


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