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100 years with Kropotkin: time and again, his concepts – social economy, communist reorganization, mutual aid – prove their worth for analysis and transformative action alike. Amidst the current ecological and economic crisis, Piotr Kropotkin’s immense body of work allows us to think across geography and the sciences, culture and politics, economy and ecology. However, as the neoliberal state mobilizes its full authoritarian potential to protect capitalist accumulation in a warming world, his anarchist horizon can appear distant. As we face compounding crises on an unprecedented scale, we are without Kropotkin. This means that Kropotkin cannot serve as an infallible guide to revolutionary thought and action. Instead of merely celebrating his legacy or using his work as a blueprint, this conference aims to suggest ways of adapting his varied thought to other times and places, refracting it through different approaches, and asking what it has to tell us about the crises of today.
Black Rose Books, in global collaboration with other organisations, scholars, activists and university departments, is organizing a conference to celebrate Peter Kropotkin’s life and work. This conference would commemorate 100 years since his death on February 8th, 1921.
Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), offers us a historical account of the mutual aid tendency which he argues is evident throughout our society and its history. He begins his study within the animal kingdom, before showing how mutual aid continued to develop in the beginnings of our human society within our distant tribal ancestors. The next steps in his genealogy are found in village communities, medieval cities and also what would have been modern examples between ‘ourselves’.
Professor Kessler first formulated the theory of mutual aid in essays and lectures called On the Law of Mutual Aid in 1880, unfortunately, a year later he died leaving this theory undeveloped. Kessler stated that cooperation was far more important for our evolution and development than the law of mutual struggle, and besides this, there was the ‘law of mutual aid’. He argued, “the more individuals keep together, the more they mutually support each other, and the more are the chances of the species for surviving, as well as for making further progress in its intellectual development”. Kropotkin further developed this idea and traced its roots further back than Kessler, who argued its roots were found in parental feeling. The text can be seen as a reply to Darwin who Kropotkin felt had missed a vital part in his theory of evolution, this being the support and community that animals show one another and which plays such a vital part in their evolution; mutual aid.
The Geography Department of University of São Paulo, Brazil, has announced it will be organizing a conference dedicated to the work and influence of Peter Kropotkin. The event will take place from 19-23 July 2021 although due to the current climate it is yet to be decided if the event will be held at the university, online, or a mixture of both.
When in the late XIX – early XX centuries anti-state ideas became especially popular, Peter Kropotkin created his own anarchist theory of social development [Saytanov, 2014]. In its completed form, it was developed by Kropotkin, primarily in the work The State: Its Historic Role, which later became part of the well-known work Modern Science and Anarchism, and in the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. At the same time, Kropotkin was always convinced that it was impossible to determine in advance precisely, in all details the course of the future evolution of society. “Life will break any conceptual scheme”; he spoke about this as early as 1873 in the program he created for the Tchaikovsky Circle [Markin, 1992: 42].
This is a brief text about Kropotkin’s idea of the Commune. I’m writing this because far too often I’ve read people talking about Kropotkin’s Commune who completely misunderstand it. I can not be sure but I think the crux of the misunderstanding lies in reading Kropotkin’s enthusiasm towards the medieval commune as an endorsement of it. In fact, and this is exactly what we’ll see in this post, Kropotkin opposed to the medieval commune what he called the Free Commune or the Communist Commune. Let’s begin.
Michel Foucault claimed that “power is everywhere”. It underlies our society and can be seen as the major driving force behind our social institutions and relationships. The novelty of Foucault’s work is that he makes power ‘active’, it is no longer an entity that is possessed by a person or groups but it “traverses the entire social body” and “comes from below”. We are all involved in ‘power relations’ to which we reinforce, resist or submit. Consequently, he argues that we must study where it is exercised, whom it is exercised over, as well as its techniques, aims and effects. In his genealogy of power, these will be revealed in the societal ‘blocks’ that he studies; medicine, military, education, sexuality and the penal system. The study of power relations, evident in these blocks, reveals key characteristics; repression, domination, authority and ‘normalisation’.
Despite agreeing with Foucault that power plays a major role, the concern I address here is that it cannot explain all facets of society. Alongside power relations we also find ‘mutual aid’. Petr Kropotkin gave a history of this relation and the characteristics he identifies as belonging to this are cooperation, support, sacrifice and solidarity. He writes; “it is a feeling infinitely wider than love or personal sympathy. An instinct that has been slowly developed among animals and men in the course of an extremely long evolution.” Reflecting on Foucault’s illustration of power, even here we find mutual aid. Within the penal system is the idea of justice and morality; in sexuality is love, kinship and the continuation of the species. Just as power is ‘active’, traverses the social body and is a relationship that we all find ourselves involved in, likewise is mutual aid.