Peter (Pytor) Alekeyevich Kropotkin (1842-1921), born in Moscow into the Russian aristocracy, was a geographer, revolutionary anarchist, libertarian communist, zoologist, anthropologist, economist, philosopher, and sociologist. His writings were published in several languages and widely discussed, exerting considerable influence, especially among political thinkers and activists of the period preceding the Russian Revolution of 1918.
In the course of his geographic work Kropotkin demonstrated that eastern Siberia was affected by post-Pliocene continental glaciations. As a result of his animal life studies, Kropotkin theorized that mutual aid was the key to understanding human evolution, contrary to the notion of the natural world as shaped entirely by ruthless competition. He suggested that science and morality must be united in the “revolutionary project.” Education should be global and humanistic and should empower everyone equally. Children should learn not only in the classroom, but also in nature and in living communities. To him, education and science should be based upon mutual aid and serve as a revolutionary activism with which to transform the entire world. This was not only morally correct, but the only life worth living.
Evolution is influenced and shaped by adaptation to a changing environment and adverse circumstances. Among many animal societies, competition between individuals, though important, is secondary to intraspecies cooperation in the survival of the species. Adaptation to the environment and the struggle against adverse conditions lead to an evolutionary theme, resulting in individuals working in partnership to protect their offspring.
In the animal world, most animals live in societies. Kropotkin felt that the survival strategy of safety was a concept that needed closer examination. This was not just a struggle for existence but a protection from all natural conditions that any species may face. Each individual increases its chances by being a member of a group. Mutual protection allows certain individuals to attain old age and experience. Among humans, these collective groups allowed for the evolution of culture. In the earliest band societies, social institutions were highly developed. In later evolution of clans and tribes, these institutions were expanded to include larger groups. Chiefdoms and state societies shared mutual identities in groups so large that an individual did not know all members. The idea of common defense of a territory and the shared character of nationalism appeared in the growth of the group sharing a collective distinctiveness.
Solidarity gives the species as a whole a better opportunity to survive. Thus, supportive attention for the well-being of relationships of the group is selected for. The manipulative and sly individuals are cleansed from the pool of ancestors, and those most supportive of mutual social life are selected to survive. Along with this, safety in numbers allows for increased chances of survival. Cooperation increases chances of an intelligent response to a threat to the group or the offspring by a coordinated effort. Be it hunters in a pack or herbivores cooperating, these efforts develop social skills and an awareness of comrades. The needs of the progeny and for continued existence bring together groups for reproduction and protection of the young. Because of this, security of all individuals is enhanced through mutual aid.
Ethics are thus a part of natural evolution. The strongest section of social companionship, which is the attraction of all major religions, is learned through the observation of nature. As animal behavior becomes more complex, association becomes less instinctual and more learned. Conscious awareness of the needs of others becomes increasingly important to the survival of the group and all its members. Communication becomes central to sociability. Vocal communication, exchange of ideas, and replication all help to teach collected knowledge to other individuals. Being companionable is an adaptation to the environment, and struggle and friendliness are the main foundations of evolution.
Through cooperation, less energy is expended for gathering food or fighting off danger. Cooperation, observed Kropotkin, favors the evolution of intelligence. Moreover, social feelings are central to development of societies, justice is part of the natural world, and ethics have a biological origin. The struggle for survival most often has a collective origin.
Carrying capacity determines population density, not by the most favorable circumstances but by the most server-limiting factors. Competition between individuals adds little to the survival of the species. Species become extinct not because they kill each other off but because they fail to adapt to a changing environment. Intraspecies competition is secondary.
According to Kropotkin, peace and reciprocal support are the rule within the group. Because societies or bands were the first social organizations in human evolution, they are the origin of consciousness, the source of social conscience, the innovators of ethics, the originators of the best of religion, gods, and our humanity. The sharing of resources necessary for life precedes all other systems of distribution. Reciprocity is the foundation of our common identity; the community precedes the individual. The life of the community becomes the validation for the life of the individual. Self-sacrifice in all major truth-seeking or sacred systems is the source of the greatest joy for the individual.
Sympathy and self-sacrifice are positively vital to human shared advantage for improvement. Sense of suitability versus hard-heartedness is the starting point of human unity. Mutual aid everywhere can be seen as the dawn of the human spirit and the soul of our humanity. The quest for power is also part of the human condition. With intelligence, conscience needs to be learned. The will to power and the quest for wealth by individuals everywhere undermines community and solidarity. Democratic communism is replaced by a stratified society based upon coercion, exploitation, and oppression. Popular democratic uprisings are as old as class society.
Social instincts are based on the pleasure of companionship; the collaboration of others is the primary basis of ethics. Compassion is the starting point of public service. The public good is expressed in the dialogue of mutual aid. The guide to action is always moral self-control and reciprocal support.
Kropotkin begins by asking the origin and meaning of social ethics. To him, exploitation is caused by unacceptable wealth based upon the poverty of others and is intolerable. Poverty is the direct result of wealth. It is the poor who support the rich through their hard work. This planet has the capacity to feed, clothe, and house every human comfortably. But, the problem must be attacked. It is important to know what is possible and to understand the right thing to do. Where science and ethics come together is the realm of sociology (anthropology).
Freedom and necessity join, and agency becomes action founded upon information. Liberty, based upon knowledge of the essential principles of nature, is the source of sovereignty. Needs and determinism are the sources of free will; people have true choices only if they have the proper knowledge of how to act to lessen unexpected consequences.
In Kropotkin’s view, ethics ultimately does lead to fulfillment, for satisfaction comes from the abandonment of exploitation and oppression. Harmony between the individual and the community is this instinct of sociality. Through imagination, we are able to feel what we have never experienced and identify with the joys and sorrows of others. This strengthens our individual identity by morally connecting us with others. Individual initiative grows out of belonging to a community. Each unique individual works together as part of a group to develop strategies for the welfare of all. This is the starting place for the expansion of the individual personality. Moral courage is the first step to overcome passivity— breaking with the narrow philosophies and religions of the past. Fulfillment comes through mutual aid and egalitarian self-restraint. Conversely, economic individualism and personal salvation are the bedrock of narcissism and existential isolation.
Michael Joseph Francisconi
See also Darwin, Charles; Ethics; Evolution, Organic;
Humanism; Marx, Karl; Materialism; Morality
Kropotkin, P. (1967). Memoirs of a revolutionist.
Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.
Kropotkin, P. (1967). Mutual aid. Boston: Extending Horizons.
Kropotkin, P. (1968). Ethics: Origin and development. London: Benjamin Blom.
Kropotkin, P. (1968). Fields, factories and workshops tomorrow. London: Benjamin Blom.
Kropotkin, P. (1970). Revolutionary pamphlets. New York: Dover.
K-T Boundary —745
Kropotkin, P. (1989). The conquest of bread. Montreal, QC, Canada: Black Rose Books.
Woodcock, G. (1971). The anarchist prince: Peter Kropotkin. New York: Schocken.