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How relevant is Kropotkin today?

I recall a point in my youth when I took to the streets of London in celebration of May Day. Once the day had started to settle and the Trots entered the pubs, the anarchists started to congregate in the middle of Trafalgar Square.

One very young boy mounted a statue in the square and a police officer walked over to him to tell him to get down for his own safety. The boy replied: “I’m an anarchist, under which law exactly should I get down”? Another anarchist shouted up to him: “the law of you might fall and break your bloody back”. The boy soon got down.

I might not be an anarchist, I can see its limits and flaws, but I could always see that there was a difference between the kind of “no-laws” anarchism that this boy tried to do battle with an officer of the law with, and then the kind of anarchism that wanted people in a society to look out for one another.

Some will imagine that this is just common sense, but the real rupture in anarchist thinking occurred when Peter Kropotkin, a geographer, anarchist and aristocrat, in the words of Kirkpatrick Sale:

“move[d] away from the absurdist limitations of individual anarchism and no-laws anarchism that had flourished during this period and provide[d] instead a vision of communal anarchism, following the models of independent cooperative communities he discovered while developing his theory of mutual aid.”

Kropotkin lives on today in various forms. Britain’s oldest book shop, Freedom Press, has been situated in Whitechapel, East London, since the 1880s. As many of you will have heard it was subject to an arson attack recently, where various activists and supporters went and offered a hand in clearing the rubble that was left.

Today also happens to be, in the words of the anarchist Ian Bone, Kropotkin Day, owing to the fact that he died on this day, 1921. But what of Kropotkin’s ideas?

I first witnessed them in action when I was living in Holloway Road, North London. In next door Tufnell Park there was a squat with a great big bookshelf that I went to visit. Being a socialist I naturally went to challenge the anarchists on their vision for society, but when I got there I realised that instead of shouting at police and claiming the world would easily break down all norms and values, I found instead that these anarchists had taken over a disused scouting headquarters to turn it in to a self-sufficient living quarters for anybody who happened to pass by.

They grew vegetables, held meetings and provided a home for various people, anarchists or not. They were far less concerned with confronting laws they didn’t wish to understand (such as the law that says if you climb on something you might fall, hurt yourself, and need medical treatment) and more about being a good example of mutual aid.

This was the vision of Peter Kropotkin. He opposed state level laws, and, as Sale characterised him, “understood that at a certain small scale, communities and communes and co-ops could flourish and provide humans with a rich material life and wide areas of liberty without centralized control.”

But how much do Kropotkin’s ideas inform anarchism today? I asked six people what they thought about them, now that he is back on their mind after the attack on his book shop; and the results were as diverse as the people I asked.

Ian Bone, a very well known anarchist, publisher of the Class War newspaper and once dubbed ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Britain’ by The Sunday People, told me:

“I think Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid is the most influential anarchist book ever written and is likely only to become even more so in the future. When I was young I held the Prince in contempt but now older and wiser I can appreciate his influence everywhere from Colin Ward to animal rights to ethical living and….mutual aid”.

Another former editor of Class War and academic from the University of East Anglia, Paul Stott, said to me:

“Kropotkin gives the UK Anarchist movement continuity and history (he was an exile here) but you will meet plenty of active Anarchists who know of him more than they know his arguments. UK Anarchism is as much practice as theory based, and is very different to Marxism or Trotskyism where there is a canon of sacred texts to battle through.”

Tim Gee, the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen and self-described radical pacifist told me:

“For me, scepticism of authority naturally includes taking a questioning approach to the classic philosophers. Having said that, in the most prominent anarchist inspired movements of the past decade or so – Reclaim the Streets, Climate Camp, Occupy and so on – Kropotkin’s ideas of mutual aid, anti-capitalism, and anti-hierarchy shine through.”

Anarchist Peter Gallagher pointed out to me, also, that:

“Kropotkin’s ideas on Mutual Aid are ultimately timeless. When others of his era (and sadly even now) were dismissive of evolution, he was out finding evidence of intrinsic co-operation between different species and documenting it brilliantly putting all his privilege toward furthering human understanding and betterment.

“This is still something that people over look in their understanding of evolution and the supposed ‘human condition’ that should be much more bought to the fore.”

Peter also informed me that there is a bus in Brighton named after Kropotkin.

Green-Anarchist blogger Jane Watkinson reminded me that:

“I think it is important to make sure anarchism remembers its collective, communal focus rather than be co-opted by this heavily individualistic culture and turn into lifestyle anarchism and more closer to nihilism.”

Just to be slightly contrarian, I asked Dominic Graham De Montrose, an anarcho-capitalist, what he felt of Kropotkin’s libertarian communist beliefs, to which he replied:

“Typically I would see them as either misguided, or… clueless. You can’t call it freedom as long as someone else controls your purse strings – or extracts a significant percentage of your income on threat of force – regardless how benevolent or well-intentioned the motive.

“Libertarianism and communism are fundamentally incompatible, so anyone espousing both couldn’t understand what they are espousing”.

So, whether consciously or not Kropotkin’s ideas come through today, and not just in anarchist movements. The idea of removing top-down barriers and pursuing mutualism are, albeit in a distorted fashion, even talked about in the establishment politics of Labour, Lib Dems and Tories. Could David Miliband himself perhaps have been channelling Kropotkin when calling for the double devolution of power?

Perhaps not, but I think it’s right to remember the work of one of political theory’s more important, if lesser known, contributors, particularly on this day.

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