Kropotkin: Servitude or Freedom? (1900)

First off, I have posted by talk at this year’s London Anarchist Bookfair – What it means to be Libertarian. It is pretty self-explanatory, indicating how freedom needs equality and how voluntary authoritarianism is not anarchism.

Second, I should mention I watched the French film The Anarchists and was somewhat disappointed. It recounts the infiltration of an anarchist group by a police spy in Paris in 1899. Unfortunately, it was a group of illegalists – as per Victor Serge in his earliest incarnation. This means lots of revolutionary rhetoric – and, of course, the glorification of Émile Henry and Ravachol – combined with robbing the bourgeoisie (and their graves), bank robberies and, of course, “free love.” All the individualistic and ultimately self-defeating activity which Marxists like to generalise to all anarchists. Indeed, one of our illegalists denounces someone urging workers to form a union as being an opportunist who will, eventually, become a socialist politician who will oppress the workers – sure, the last part has become the case but it does not automatically flow from the first, necessary, task!

Anyway, ignoring the cliched politics, it looked nice and was generally well acted, but not very engaging. I would not recommend it – which is a shame, because I thought it looked interesting. If you want to see a good film on anarchist subjects, I would recommend Land and Freedom, Matewan or Reds.

Third, below is a newly translated article by Kropotkin entitled “Servitude or Freedom?” which appeared in Les Temps Nouveaux as part of what later become “The Modern State” section of Modern Science and Anarchy. Yet it was not included in that work nor was it serialised in Freedom in 1914. It appeared between “La Société actuelle son principe” and “Serfs de L’état” and I can see why it was not included as it was, or feels like, an aside. It did not add that much to the discussion. However, it is interesting – and all new translations add something to our understanding of Kropotkin’s politics.

Fourth, I include it below because of something I read by the Science-Fiction writer Ken MacLeod. I’m a big fan of Ursula Le Guin and, of course, The Dispossessed – which is an absolute classic. So I was somewhat surprised to read Ken MacLeod proclaim the following:

“It is the absence of political debate, as much as the absence of privacy and the relentless presence of morality, that makes the communism of Anarres, in Ursula Le Guin’s anarchist classic The Dispossessed (1974), so oppressive. When her hero Shevek finds himself in conflict with aspects of his society he has no forum in which to express it, no way to find like-minded individuals with whom he might find common ground; instead, his conflicts become conflicts with other individuals. He is as isolated as any dissident in a totalitarian state.” (“Politics and science fiction,” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 230)

To put his comments in context, he is an ex-Trotskyist (active in the 1970s) and became interested in propertarianism (aka “Libertarianism” in America). So he is hardly coming to the work from a non-biased perspective. Indeed, he spends most time on Heinlein and notes one of his books “influence on David Friedman and other theorists of anarcho-capitalism, a significant minority strand in modern libertarianism” (233) – note that he happily follows the right’s appropriation of “libertarian” and thinks there is something called “anarcho-capitalism” (I wonder if he considers the Nazis to be socialists? I doubt it…). This does not mean it is impossible for him to have valid criticisms of the book (far from it) but, sadly, his comments on it are flawed. Flawed because there is substantial evidence against them and because he fails to note that anarchists have already addressed the issue he fixes upon.

All this may explain his utterly wrong reading of The Dispossessed. I will show why by discussing his claims against the book.

Needless to say, there be spoilers for The Dispossessed ahead!

First off, I must note MacLeod makes no mention of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – unlike the authors of the chapters on “Gender” and “Utopia and anti-Utopia” who also reference The Dispossessed (the latter’s summary of the The Dispossessed is strange). This is a strange omission, given it is another libertarian socialist utopia. Likewise, no mention of her Body of Glass (also known as He, She and It) which has its little utopian community within the corporate dystopia. Both, more importantly, are good books – like her novel on the French Revolution, City of Darkness, City of Light (I found it a good compliment to Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution). All recommended.

Second, I must say that it makes a change for a (ex-?) Marxist to proclaim Anarchism would produce a society which would crush individuality under collective pressure – the usual charge is that we are just extreme liberals whose advocacy of “individualism” would make all forms of organisation impossible (Max Stirner is usually invoked, in spite of him having no impact on Proudhon or Bakunin). This is not the first time that a usual charge against anarchism has been reversed, I blogged extensively on Paul Blackledge’s take of anarchism which suggested we were not optimistic enough as regards “human nature” – unlike Marxists, apparently. I noted the flaws in that particularly notion.

As such, it is tempting to just dismiss it – but that would show a complete lack of imagination and analytical power. This is for obvious reasons – well, I say obvious but I remember reading propertarian guru von Mises smugly proclaim that capitalism was accused of producing so many contradictory things that they all cancelled each other out. Which is nonsense. First, not all criticisms are equally valid. A weak or baseless criticism that X produces Y does not negate a strong one rooted in evidence that X produces not-Y. Second, the same cause can produce contradictory effects – particularly in something as complex and diverse as society. Capitalism is, after all, a System of Economic Contradictions – so, for example, as Proudhon argued machines can produce an overall increase in wealth but impoverish the many while enriching the few.

In terms of MacLeod, the standard Marxist attempt to proclaim anarchism as extreme individualism is weak – it takes an element of the truth and spins it into a lie. The argument that social pressure can be oppressive is stronger and so worth discussing – particularly as many anarchists have argued the same thing and indicated how to combat it, as I will show.

Now, thirdly, the claims against the book itself. Well, in terms of “absence of privacy,” the book makes clear that people have as much privacy as they like – the environmental limitations of a desert moon pushing towards a more communal set-up. Kropotkin would not have liked the predominant system that much – being on record as opposing hotel-like communes in favour of personal homes – but the possibility of personal/family rooms was there and taken up. As for “the relentless presence of morality,” any society – apart from the most atomised – will have some general set of social standards. On Anarres, these social standards seem to allow quite a range of self-expression – no sexism, homophobia, etc. However, the negative impact of social pressure is one of the book’s concerns – and one which actual anarchist thinkers have raised.

I’m not sure what he means in terms “the absence of political debate” as The Dispossessed recounts disagreement on Anarres repeatedly: “in the PDC debates in Abbenay” with its “fierce protests” about supplying Urras with raw materials (83); “Anybody can attend any PDC meeting, and if he’s an interested syndic, he can debate and vote!” (144); Shevek bringing up sending letters to Urras “at the Physics Federation” (137); the discussion on receiving people from, and sending to, Urras. (291-7). In the latter discussion it is noted that radio contact was disapproved being “[a]gainst the recommendation of this council, and the Deference Federative, and a majority vote of the List” as well the “increasing protests from the entire Brotherhood.” (291, 293)

Indeed, much of what MacLeod calls “the relentless presence of morality” is, in fact, political debate – particularly in relation to the “personal is political” and so how best to apply libertarian principles in everyday live. Which includes working with other people in syndicates, communities and federations. He seems to forget that organisations are made up of other individuals – and as the book make clear, Shevek and his comrades (like others) come into conflict with them in institutional settings, in syndicate and federative meetings by means of debates and… votes!

What of no possibility of finding “like minded individuals with whom he might find common ground”? He seems to have forgotten that Shevek and his colleagues form their own group (“the Syndicate of Initiative”) – as can any Anarres inhabitant – and use the resources of their society – as can any Anarres inhabitant – for their own ends. All of which is an expression of free communism – based as it is on individual initiative, free association and use rights to society’s resources.

So we have “political debate” (both between individuals, within groups and across society), we have “like-minded people” coming together to fight the institutional and societal problems developing within libertarian communism – a far cry from MacLeod’s claims.

How a society described as being so rich in associational life can dismissed as resulting in someone being “as isolated as any dissident in a totalitarian state” is lost on me. To place this in the context of the book, on Urras which is a hierarchical society marked by class and patriarchy, Shevek’s room bugged while a mass protest meeting he speaks at – after escaping from his surveillance – is fired upon by government troops, killing untold numbers, and afterwards State repression sees protesters being rounded up (imprisoned, if not shot).

Is Anarres perfect? No, that is the point of the book – it has evolved into a quasi-bureaucratic system (due to routine administration) based on majority rule (via societal pressure). Yet Shevek and his comrades are able to rebel against these pressures using the principles the society was formed on – nor are they actually stopped from doing so (the little mob which forms to stop Shevek’s departure to Urras is ineffectual as well as being obviously spontaneously formed). They are subject to social pressure, disapproval by many others, but they are not – unlike on Urras – shot down or imprisoned for their activities after the appropriate “political debate.”

I should also note that Shevek and his comrades’ activities are part and parcel of libertarian communism and not somehow against it. As Le Guin makes clear:

“from the start, the Settlers were aware that that unavoidable centralisation [i.e., a town where most of the headquarters of the federations and syndicates were based] was a lasting threat, to be countered by lasting vigilance.” (86)

The “syndicate of initiative” is part of this process of “lasting vigilance” – the problem being on Anarres that this vigilance has withered away by becoming crystallised (to use Kropotkin’s term). Indeed, in Mutual Aid elsewhere indicated that this was a recurring problem during society’s evolution – and an anarchist society would also face this danger.

All of which makes you wonder what makes Anarres “so oppressive”? Comparing it to actual totalitarian states, shows the stupidity of MacLeod’s assertions. The worse example given in the book on Anarres is of an artist driven insane by social pressure and its ramifications – which is one of the factors which drive the creation of the “syndicate of initiative.” Which must be placed in the context of the high levels of mental illness within hierarchical systems as well as how often people are driven mad as a result of repressive policies decided upon by the “political debates” within Statist systems.

Of course, I am now comparing a work of fiction with actual social systems – but Le Guin’s book makes you do that because it is quite a realistic utopia, populated by people rather than political cyphers. Ultimately, for all its flaws, Shevek still defends Anarres and its principles on Urras and sees its obvious freedoms compared to that hierarchical regime. He returns to Anarres to participate in the growing social movement seeking to eliminate the unhealthy developments within libertarian communism. Again, all very much in line with Kropotkin’s sketch of social evolution in Mutual Aid.

Anyway, I have shown how MacLeod’s summary of Le Guin’s work leaves a lot to be desired – indeed, everything he lists as making Shevek “as isolated as any dissident in a totalitarian state” is simply not supported by the book. This reminds me, I must admit, of most Trotskyist accounts of anarchism – as discussed in section H.2 of An Anarchist FAQ, these are usually little more than assertions easily refuted by reading the anarchist writers in question. I must admit that I would never have thought I would have to do the same for a work of science fiction…

MacLeod then proclaims that in his “Fall Revolution books I have explored other problems of anarchy…” (239)

I’ve read the four books of that series and I am at a loss on how they relate to “Anarchy.” The first (the Star Fraction) is obviously inspired by Nozick’s “utopia” of multiple different communities (the last part of Anarchy, State and Utopia, if I remember correctly) and spends far more time making in-jokes about Trotskyist sects than exploring anarchy or anarchism (if it is mentioned at all) but it is, apparently, on “the conflict between community and individual autonomy.” The second (The Stone Canal) recounts an unappealing “anarcho”-capitalist utopia, and therefore is not anarchist at all – unless the conclusion is that anarchy needs equality, something genuine anarchists have long been aware of (he says that it is on the conflict “between inequality and liberty”). The third (The Cassini Division) is based a communist solar system, but one inspired by the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) rather than anarchist-communism as such (if I recall correctly, it even gets created by means of a vote in true SPGB-style). Other than some amusing banter involving mocking someone as a pervert for being less opposed to wage-labour than they should be, it was pretty average. The last (The Sky Road) seemed more like craftsperson guilds building rockets than anything else but apparently is about the conflict “between legality and humanity, and between stability and progress” – which surely is a topic much wider than Anarchy?

I did read the first book last, but that did not make any of the rest much clearer. Of the four, only the third (The Cassini Division) was interesting – in the sense of wanting to find out what happens rather than trudging through to the end. So, obviously, I’m not a fan of the series – and based on that experience, I have avoided his other books. Still, flicking through Le Guin’s masterpiece to reference the evidence gathered above reminded me of how good it is – and so I’ve re-read it, again. It is masterpiece and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

Is there a conflict between liberty and equality? No, as the two need each other – there is only a conflict if you, like the propertarians, consider equality an irrelevance and think voluntary hierarchy as somehow expressing freedom. Indeed, the whole anarchist tradition is based on showing that reducing “freedom” to picking masters is not freedom at all. Sure, it is better than being bound to a specific master (as Kropotkin notes in “The Modern State,” in Modern Science and Anarchy) but it is not genuine freedom – which must be a free association of equals based on the participation of all members (as he likewise notes in “Communism and Anarchy,” in Modern Science and Anarchy). He makes the same point in the article below and elsewhere.

What of the conflict between community and individual autonomy? Here, MacLeod is on stronger ground but he is simply covering ground raised by others, as he notes:

“Orwell’s interest in, and aptitude for, politics as a practical art were negligible, but his interest in, and imaginative grasp of, the implications of political philosophies were deep. What he said in a sentence about the potentially repressive underside of the anarchist ideal summarizes most of the message of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” (231)

Since MacLeod mentions Orwell, I would think it is sufficient to ask the question whether Shevek on Anarres is “as isolated” as Winston Smith in Oceania to show the weakness of MacLeod’s position.

(Just in the unlikely case you have not read it, this is a reference to George Orwell’s 1984, another great work you should read – like Animal Farm, his account of his time in Spain during the revolution, Homage to Catalonia, and his numerous essays. Orwell is an important writer and do yourself a favour and read him if you haven’t already.)

Orwell has a point, as I indicate in section I.5.6 of An Anarchist FAQ (although that is hardly “most of the message” of The Dispossessed!). Significantly, Orwell makes his comment when discussing Jonathan Swift – who was no anarchist (not even a “Tory Anarchist,” which does not exist):

“Swift was a kind of anarchist, and Part IV of Gulliver's Travels is a picture of an anarchistic Society, not governed by law in the ordinary sense, but by the dictates of ‘Reason’, which arc voluntarily accepted by everyone. The General Assembly of the Houyhnhnms ‘exhorts’ Gulliver’s master to get rid of him, and his neighbours put pressure on him to make him comply. Two reasons are given. One is that the presence of this unusual Yahoo may unsettle the rest of the tribe, and the other is that a friendly relationship between a Houyhnhnm and a Yahoo is ‘not agreeable to Reason or Nature, or a Thing ever heard of before among them’. Gulliver's master is somewhat unwilling to obey, but the ‘exhortation’ (a Houyhnhnm, we are told, is never compelled to do anything, he is merely ‘exhorted’ or ‘advised’) cannot be disregarded. This illustrates very well the totalitarian tendency which is explicit in the anarchist or pacifist vision of Society. In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else. The Houyhnhnms, we are told, were unanimous on almost all subjects. The only question they ever discussed was how to deal with the Yahoos. Otherwise there was no room for disagreement among them, because the truth is always either self-evident, or else it is undiscoverable and unimportant. They had apparently no word for ‘opinion’ in their language, and in their conversations there was no ‘difference of sentiments’. They had reached, in fact, the highest stage of totalitarian organization, the stage when conformity has become so general that there is no need for a police force. Swift approves of this kind of thing because among his many gifts neither curiosity nor good-nature was included. Disagreement would always seem to him sheer perversity.” (Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver's travels)

Yet anyone familiar with anarchist thought would be aware that anarchists have also been aware of this danger. Indeed, an awareness of the authoritarian aspects of utopian socialism and their “ideal” communities has always driven anarchism, not to mention the similar – if not totalitarian – possibilities of State socialism. And, of course, Orwell echoes Max Stirner:

“Communism rightly revolts against the pressure I experience from individual proprietors; but still more horrible is the might that it puts in the hands of the collectivity.” (The Ego and Its Own, 257)

Proudhon made the same point – against what he termed “Community” and which is usually translated as “Communism.” This was why he stressed that while ownership should be undivided, use had to be divided (see my Proudhon, Property and Possession). Although, I should note, that neither Stirner nor Proudhon was addressing libertarian communism by their comments as that did not exist then. Similarly, communist-anarchists like Kropotkin were aware of this danger (indeed, Kropotkin said Proudhon was right to attack what was called communism in his day). More, anarchist-communists recognised the validity of these critiques and created a new, libertarian, communism which addressed these issues as well as building in mechanisms to reduce tendencies towards them in anarcho-communism – for example, he discusses its possible impact on individuality in Modern Science and Anarchy, in the second section entitled “Communism and Anarchy” (an expanded version of “Communism and Anarchy” which was translated for Freedom and is in Direct Struggle Against Capital).

(On another issue, the propertarians forget or downplay – when not defending it against, say, union organisers! – “the pressure” from proprietors. Also, I should note that the Marxist caricature of Anarchism, namely that it is “just against the State,” is only applicable to propertarians – so both have a healthy interest in proclaiming “anarcho”-capitalism is a form of anarchism, accepting the right-wing appropriation of “libertarian,” and so forth. Combine that with a joint vision of socialism as being Statist and based on nationalisation, then you have a mutually beneficial implicit pact against genuine anarchism and genuine libertarians… indeed, against genuine socialism, rather than State-capitalism!)

So let me be clear what we are talking about – not social pressure and intervention to stop actual anti-social acts (that is, stopping those who do actual harm to others) but rather social pressure against activities some others think of as somehow wrong but which harm no one. The actions of nosy-parkers, busy-bodies, gossips and such like – plus general social disapproval, particularly of those with avant-guard notions and who express them in action.

This can be – has been, in many a small community – a problem. Yes, it can mean no anti-social behaviour but it can also be suffocating. So that is the germ of truth in this objection. However, as section I.5.6 of An Anarchist FAQ argues, it is overblown. Particularly in a society which does not have hierarchical relations in production and elsewhere – where most people spend the bulk of their time and so shapes them most (excluding authoritarian education, which trains children to be bored and follow orders in preparation to their time in work).

But, yes, there is a danger – but as with those who take anarchism and conclude, wrongly, an opposition to organisation as such, the alternative is worse. For while even the best libertarian organisation can become bureaucratic, no organisation at all would make life impossible. Similarly, public pressure does not disappear with laws and authorities – it gets bolstered by them.

Take the racism of the Southern States of America, well, that became a national issue after the decentralised self-organisation and direct action of the oppressed and their allies in those areas and the violent State or State-backed repression against them could no longer be ignored. And, again, it was an example of centralised political power backing oppressive social customs within the former slave States. Needless to say, we would expect external solidarity to happen in a libertarian society if such a development arose (presumably, in areas within which the social revolution had not taken place or been crushed).

This is the case with any societal progress you care to think of – civil rights, feminism, the labour movement. They all start with a minority pushing at what is considered “normal” and increasing freedom by flaunting convention – that is, by direct action. Progress has never been the gift of authority – it has always been won. And the majority finally shift – but adding the State to the mix hardly makes those struggles easier. It only makes rolling those victories back easier – just look at the Trump regime, where State power is being used to do precisely that.

All in all, if oppressive social pressure is an issue in an Anarchy– and it can be – adding political (and/or economic) power does not make it disappear, quite the reverse. Does the customary rather than political nature of the pressure increase the totalitarian tendencies as Orwell suggests? Doubtful… Take the Houyhnhnm’s – let us add a State to that regime. Presumably, the majority of the Houyhnhnm (or the majority of their representatives, to be more accurate) would vote on the matter and Gulliver’s master would either have to get rid of him or be punished by imprisonment or death. Is that less authoritarian?

This ties into a recurring theme of Leninism, particularly in its various attempts to rationalise and justify the party dictatorship under Lenin and Trotsky. You could call it “the masses are backward” narrative and best seen by Leninists muttering without evidence about the Kronstadt rebels being peasants and so anti-Semitic. The assumption being that you cannot let these “backward” people express themselves by political means because they would repress minorities (in this case, Jews) and (accidently) let the Whites seize power. To stop that you need tyranny – and it seems unlikely that such a regime would remain benevolent (assuming it was to begin with). Moreover, in the case of the Bolshevik party dictatorship, elements of that did resort of anti-Semitism. So benevolent power is unlikely – and disempowering the many and empowering the few seems very much at odds with the ideals of socialism…

More, the anarchist theory of social change recognises the key role minorities play in social change. Kropotkin stressed it (see “Revolutionary Minorities” in Words of a Rebel), as did Emma Goldman – and it is obvious enough (even if Leninists pretend not to grasp it, see section H.2.11 of An Anarchist FAQ). Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism being a must read in this regard. As Kropotkin put it in Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal (which I’ve included as “supplementary material” in Modern Science and Anarchy):

“Well, then, those who will work to break up these superannuated tactics, those who will know how to rouse the spirit of initiative in individuals and in groups, those who will be able to create in their mutual relations a movement and a life based on the principles of free understanding—those that will understand that variety, conflict even, is life, and that uniformity is death”

He makes a similar point in the “Conclusion” of Mutual Aid:

“It will probably be remarked that mutual aid, even though it may represent one of the factors of evolution, covers nevertheless one aspect only of human relations; that by the side of this current, powerful though it may be, there is, and always has been, the other current – the self-assertion of the individual, not only in its efforts to attain personal or caste superiority, economical, political, and spiritual, but also in its much more important although less evident function of breaking through the bonds, always prone to become crystallized, which the tribe, the village community, the city, and the State impose upon the individual. In other words, there is the self-assertion of the individual taken as a progressive element.”

Shevek’s odyssey is an example of this, of “the self-assertion of the individual taken as a progressive element” against the “the bonds, always prone to become crystallized, which the tribe, the village community, the city, and the State impose upon the individual” – or the self-managed associations of a free society. The “syndicate of initiative” is an expression of this minority within the libertarian communist society of Anarres. Progress will remain a product of the interaction of the few and the many, but without the vested interests associated with various social, economic and political hierarchies – and the coercive forces they can call upon in a non-anarchist society.

So where does this get us? That Anarchy is not perfect, but we knew that. Like any social system it will have its problems, its contradictions, its areas in need of work – but, then, we have usually claimed Anarchy will simply be better than the current system rather than perfect. It will be created by and made up of people, people who will be more rounded and better developed than under hierarchy but still flawed. This awareness is why, unlike Marxists, we have always built into our systems safeguards against irremovable imperfections – safeguards such as federalism, election, mandates, recall, socialisation, etc. In short, there will always be arseholes – anarchists just think giving arseholes power over others is not a wise idea.

On a related note, when I was writing my chapter on anarchist organisation, I originally produced a much longer initial draft (surprise!) and I plan to post that sometime. I want to add a section on “Majorities and Minorities” for I was struck that those who complain about majority decision-making as the (potential) tyranny of the majority do not have a viable alternative. Consensus (that is, everyone agrees) seems unlikely – even in a small group – and would be either majority decision-making (the minority agree to just to allow a decision to be made) or minority decision-making (a stubborn individual or individuals refusing to compromise). As for an “individualist” solution based on property that means rule by the owner, so definitely minority rule – as I mentioned, Stirner recognises this and makes the obvious egoist point – and so cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Sure, in self-management you may often be in a minority – but to see your ideas always be implemented means to either have no groups at all (an impossibility) or be a dictator (or owner, the terms are synonymous as Proudhon noted in 1840). Ironically, the more abstractly individualist a theory is, the more likely it will produce authoritarian rather than libertarian social relationships – as shown by Lockean ideologies (like propertarianism). So not getting your way all the time, ironically, ensures freedom – both yours and others. More, at least in libertarian socialism (unlike capitalism) you will have the resources available to form new associations if you feel that your current ones are ignoring you and your ideas – as is constantly mentioned in The Dispossessed and “the syndicate of initiative” does.

This is not to deny the negative aspects of social pressure – but anarchists are aware of it and build an awareness of this into their ideas. I’ve quoted Kropotkin already on the need for conflict, for variety. I’ve also quoted him on the need for individual self-assertion against crystallised social institutions. For he was an actual anarchist, unlike Swift. So, yes, Orwell makes a valid point – but exaggerates it. As does MacLeod with his misreading of The Dispossessed – which is full of discussion, disagreement, debate. Both fail to mention that anarchism is aware of the problem and has sought solutions – and Le Guin’s book expresses them!

Ultimately, Shevek remains an anarchist, argues for anarchism on Urras and returns to Anarres – for good reasons, as the book makes clear. I cannot envision Winston Smith doing likewise on Airstrip One – or wishing he faced the Thought Police rather than the disapproval of some of his neighbours…

Le Guin, in short, produced a very astute book on anarchism, one aware of the problems and also aware that anarchists had predicted said problems and shown means of solving them. It is a classic – and I gain something new every time I read it. It deserves better than MacLeod’s summary – particularly as those comments are refuted by the book itself, as I have indicated.

And, yes, I’m aware I’ve been discussing a work of fiction but it is so well written that is worth doing so in the manner. I will return, I am sure, to more contemporary issues in future blogs – or not, depending on how I feel and what gets me writing. However, it does tie into the points Kropotkin makes in the newly translated article below. So, finally, here it is – enjoy!

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

Servitude or Freedom?

(Les Temps nouveaux, 20 January 1900)

Up to the present, all the popular uprisings, all the struggles of the workers against their exploiters and all the revolutions, have resulted in only one thing: abolishing personal servitude and the compulsory labour that ensued. However, through a series of laws passed during the abolition of serfdom and after (imposed redemption, seizure of the land for the benefit of the lord, abolition of workers unions, treated henceforth as illegal coalitions, industrial monopolies created by the State, and so on), serfdom was reconstituted in a new form – economic and impersonal. A whole new science was even created (the science of laws, political economy, etc.) to persuade society that this new form of serfdom represents a natural necessity; that it is also the only possible guarantee of individual freedom.

So our modern societies are in this state, that the plundering of the workers continues but the principle is totally changed. They do not speak to us any more of divine right, or historical rights. But they seek to assure us – and unfortunately the immense number still believe it – that the system of bourgeois exploitation under which we live is the only form [of society] that can guarantee us the little personal freedom we enjoy. It is to guarantee to us this individual freedom – we are told – that the masses must be doomed to misery, to insecurity about tomorrow, to crises, to economic servitude – such are the laws of nature; and any attempt to end this exploitation by socialising production or consumption, each step we take in the communist direction, would bring us back to the old regime of personal serfdom, re-established under a new name.

* * *

Indeed, when we say that the peasant who takes land by leasehold or who buys it by getting into debt with a usurer is bound to work three or four days for the privileged – just like the serf formerly; that the lord, the usurer, the railway companies, and a thousand other drones pocketed all that the peasant gave to the land – we are told: “yes, it is true; but at least the peasant is no longer the serf of anyone. He has a certain amount of freedom; his person is inviolable; he feels himself the equal of those who were formally his lords; he can even nourish the hope to one day leave the caste of the exploited. If he is not yet free, at least he has the vision of the free man – do you want him to become again the serf of the commune or society?”

Likewise for the worker in the factory. When we say that when being hired by the factory he works to enrich his boss while he himself will be thrown onto the pavement at the age of fifty just as destitute (except for more infirmities) as he was at the age of twenty – the bourgeois economist replied: “yes, that is again true. But ask him if he would prefer to become the serf of a lord, a company, or even his municipality and thus lose the little personal liberty he possesses? Misery is the price he pays for this freedom. And gradually, thanks to this same freedom, by grouping and forcing society to take care of his needs, he will eventually obtain a greater share of the riches he produces, without losing his freedom.”

* * *

This discussion between socialists and bourgeois economists has already lasted for more than fifty years. “Serf or exploited” – we cannot escape this. And let us frankly admit it, since the socialists have until the present been only able to offer the worker employment one day in “labour armies,” commanded by a hierarchy of functionaries named by the State, the worker has answered until the present, not wrongly, that this future was not a happy one. He saw in the new chiefs that he was offered the same exploiters as today, in addition dressed up in the uniform of a functionary. And he was absolutely right.

He knows how illusory his personal liberty is; but he is in no hurry to sell what little he does possess for a bowl of soup cooked in socialist barracks. He needs something else, and it is this other thing that he still has to find.

* * *

The anarchists have tried many times to find, to formulate this “other thing.” Our literature has, in fact, a whole series of works whose authors, anxious above all to preserve the liberty of the individual, have tried to show how the common possession of the earth and all that serves to produce wealth could be combined with complete freedom of the individual. But our ideas, fought by both the privileged bourgeoisie and by the socialists of the old school, are little known by the great worker masses. Most of them are familiar with pre-1848 authoritarian socialism, reprised on their behalf by the German socialists and their colleagues from the Latin countries – socialism enamoured with discipline, authority and officialdom. And, no matter what anyone says, the pyramidal organisation of labour armies, commanded by socialist generals, is repugnant to the great mass who do not wish to risk the little freedom it has for a Socialist dictatorship or caesarism. It does not see a solution to the social question there, it does not get enticed by that, since it already vaguely senses the possibility of another solution; and while the negative side of the struggle develops from day to day, nothing positive has yet emerged from the grand struggles which our century has the right to be proud of. Continually, every year we see immense struggles between the exploited and the exploiters. Here erupt formidable strikes which, with an ever-increasing zest, assume the character of uprisings, or wars conducted with a bitterness and a reciprocal hatred, always growing. There whole populations rise up against the rich, as, for example, in the countryside and cities of Italy. And whenever a big strike takes place in Paris or London, in the United States or in Russia, we feel the bloody conflict ready to erupt. And yet, for all these struggles, strikes and riots, for all these congresses in which the very words Social Revolution stirs the enthusiasm in thousands of workers’ chests, no clear picture emerges on what we will do: on what are we going to get our hands on? How are we to organise consumption and production without bosses or monopolies? For to say that it will be the “people’s parliament” or else “the workers dictatorship”, as the Germans say, or else “the people”, as so many anarchists say, is not enough. You might as well say: I do not know, I do not see my path yet, I have not thought about it yet. When the mass of people ask us who, by calling ourselves socialists or anarchists, declare by this very fact that we study these things, when it asks us, if only for purposes of advice or for a vague suggestion, what we want to establish in the place of the current exploitation – we refuse to answer or reply with ambiguous phrases.

* * *

On only one point is opinion formed. Since the day – over fifty years ago – socialism clearly appeared, red flag in hand, in the streets of Paris – agreement has been reached on one essential point.

In 1848, the working masses still hoped that a change in government, that a popular Republic, could tackle the great social question; that the workers unions, aided by the State, would gradually take possession of the wealth accumulated in the hands of a few; that they would break privileges, and abolish economic servitude.

Today – at least in the Latin countries – that illusion is destroyed, and socialists of every shade understand that to accomplish anything it is necessary to destroy property rights over the social capital created upon the ruins of personal serfdom. This idea emerges quite clearly – take possession of the land, housing, factories, mines and the means of transportation. The word “expropriation” has made headway during the last half century: it has become established.

This is undoubtedly an immense step forward. But how to proceed with this necessary expropriation? In whose name will it be done? For whose benefit is the revolution achieved? What, finally, is this “State” on whose benefit a large section of the socialists proposes to expropriate? Such are the questions which arise in a more or less clear form in the mind of every worker, every peasant, every exploited person, every man or women who at last felt in themselves the breath of freedom.

It is these questions that we will try to answer again and again. For nothing but a more or less clear vision of the future we are aiming for can inspire the masses with the inner fire every Revolution demands.

Peter Kropotkin


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