Kropotkin, Woodcock and Les Temps Nouveaux.

Author:McKay, Iain

In 'Sages and Movements' (1) I attempted to fill a gap in our understanding of Peter Kropotkin's (1842-1921) contribution to the anarchist press. As well as discussing the importance of situating important thinkers ('sages') within their wider movements, the article also included a bibliography of Kropotkin's work. While incomplete, this bibliography showed that Kropotkin wrote far more than is usually assumed, based on his works that are readily available in English. Indeed, the majority of his articles remain hidden, so to speak, from the anarchist movement in archives. Consequently, those writing on Kropotkin or on anarchism in general have a very incomplete picture of his ideas.

Since the production of that incomplete bibliography, the French National Library has placed all copies of Les Temps Nouveaux on line. (2) This is a tremendous boon for both anarchists and researchers on anarchism as it allows easy access to one of the French movement's most important journals. As will be shown, in the following critique of George Woodcock's discussion of Kropotkin, access to this material allows a more complete understanding of Kropotkin's ideas and the issues he considered important while part of the movement. His contribution to anarchism can then be more fully assessed and previous interpretations of the evolution of Kropotkin's ideas challenged.

George Woodcock became one of the most prolific writers on anarchists and the anarchist movement. His Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (1962) was the standard popular introduction to the subject and he wrote numerous articles and books on libertarian thinkers and subjects. With Ivan Avakumovic he wrote the first biography of Kropotkin, The Anarchist Prince, in 1950 (3) which made the claim that '[a]s the 1890's advance, the note of extreme optimism begins to fade from [Kropotkin's] writings'. This interpretation was echoed by John Quail in his book on the British anarchist movement where he suggested Kropotkin was 'developing his evolutionary views' and how to 'nourish the gradual growth of a libertarian society' during his 'tranquil' exile in Britain. (4) Like Woodcock, Quail suggests this transformation dates from the 1890s.

While it is true that Kropotkin 'retired more and more into the intellectual world where his ideas might play a useful preparatory role' this is not linked to a growing reformist position which allegedly saw Kropotkin arguing that anarchism would arrive via a 'mutation in society' rather than by 'heroic revolutions on the pattern of 1789, 1848 and 1871'. (5) As will be shown, the evidence provided to support this analysis is weak and the analysis of Kropotkin's writings for Les Temps Nouveaux (The New Times), which started publication in 1895 and would reflect any change, also contradicts it. Both confirm that Kropotkin's revolutionary perspective did not change between his joining the anarchist movement in 1872 and the outbreak of the First World War.


Significantly, Woodcock fails to support his claims with any significant evidence other than a paragraph from the end of Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist. (6) Not only does this fail to bolster his position, Woodcock also ignores the much lengthier sections of that work where Kropotkin discusses the International Working Men's Association and its conflicts and sides with those--'the Bakuninists'--who argued that the International was 'essentially a working-men's organisation, [with] the workers understanding it as a labour movement and not as a political party'. For Kropotkin, the International was the model for the anarchist movement:

'The workers of all nations were called upon to form their own organisations for a direct struggle against capitalism; to work out the means of socialising the production of wealth and its consumption; and, when they should be ready to do so, to take possession of the necessaries for production, and to control production'. (7)

As he noted in the 'Anarchism' entry for the Encyclopaedia Britannica: 'Within these federations developed now what may be described as modern anarchism.' (8) Woodcock also ignores passages in Kropotkin's Memoirs that show his continued commitment to a revolutionary position. A 'society in which the workers would have a dominant voice', Kropotkin wrote, required 'a revolution far more profound than any of the revolutions which history had on record.' In such a rebellion

the workers would have against them, not the rotten generation of aristocrats against whom the French peasants and republicans had to fight in the [eighteenth] century--and even that fight was a desperate one--but the far more powerful, intellectually and physically, middle-classes, which have at their service all the potent machinery of the modern State. (9) Kropotkin had no illusions that the privileged classes would simply accept their dispossession, for 'each time that such a period of accelerated evolution and reconstruction on a grand scale begins, civil war is liable to break out on a small or large scale' and so the question was 'how to attain the greatest results with the most limited amount of civil war, the smallest number of victims, and a minimum of mutual embitterment'. To achieve this there was 'only one means; namely, that the oppressed part of society should obtain the clearest possible conception of what they intend to achieve, and how, and that they should be imbued with the enthusiasm which is necessary for that achievement'. (10) This is hardly consistent with Woodcock's claims.

Kropotkin stated in his Memoirs that Words of a Rebel was 'the critical part' of his 'work on anarchism'. He had, he wrote, 'to interrupt' this work when he was arrested and on his release he 'began to work out the constructive part of an anarchist-communist society--so far as it can now be forecast--in a series of articles' in La Revolte. (11) These were later revised and incorporated into La Conquete du Pain (The Conquest of Bread) in 1892, an explicitly revolutionary work which was translated into English in 1906 with a second edition in 1913 (significantly, he did not indicate any change in perspective in his prefaces to either edition).

Kropotkin may have retired into 'the intellectual world' but this does not imply a change in perspective. While The State: Its Historic Role can 'in a way be regarded as the final chapter' (12) of Mutual Aid, its aim is to discuss the evolution of the state as an instrument of minority rule and the impossibility of using it for popular social transformation. The Great French Revolution, like Kropotkin's numerous articles on the Paris Commune in the 1880s and 1890s, aims to provide anarchists with lessons of this period and show the 'true fount and origin of the Revolution--the people's readiness to take up arms--that the historians of the Revolution have not yet done justice--the justice owed to it by the history of civilisation'. (13) Modern Science and Anarchism summarises anarchist ideas and its account of anarchist tactics repeats his previous writings on both militant trade unionism and revolution. None of these 'intellectual' works suggests a reformist perspective.

Other factors are at also at play. We must not forget that when Les Temps Nouveaux started publication Kropotkin was 52 and when it ended he was 71. Moreover, as Woodcock himself noted, by 1908 'Kropotkin's concern over his health again became acute' with good reason: he had contracted influenza in New York during 1901 and suffered a severe heart attack on his return to Britain; a speech given in the East End of London in December 1905 resulted in another heart attack. Yet during 'the intervals between illnesses, he worked continuously on a great variety of subjects'. (14)

His two trips to North America (15) in 1897 and 1901 may have reflected his scientific ('intellectual') credentials but both were utilised for holding meetings on anarchism. Significantly, his final article before his 1897 trip was on a British Engineers strike and while on it he sent one on the slaughter of strikers in America. (16) This latter article concluded: 'Nothing, nothing but war, war without mercy, will lead to any solution for the United States, and the war will be terrible, for the limit of the workers' patience has long been exceeded'. (17) This is inconsistent with claims of a development of a reformist position.

Then there are the mundane aspects of life like earning a living. Unlike Marx and Engels who lived off the surplus-value exploited out of those toiling in the latter's factories, he rejected being supported by the movement and he (rightly) noted that a 'socialist must always rely upon his own work for his living'. (18) His primary income was his writing as a scientific journalist and the income for the works that were not primarily anarchist and so not published by anarchist groups. (19) Interestingly, these works were usually written for English language publishers or based on articles written for English language journals. The exception is The Great French Revolution which was also published in French and is by far the most explicitly libertarian--and revolutionary!--in nature. We can then, for example, expect that the period when he was writing the articles for the Atlantic Monthly that became Memoirs of a Revolutionist (September 1898 to September 1899) would see fewer articles for Les Temps Nouveaux and that is the case. Likewise, significant research was required for his many articles for the 10th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (the one on anarchism is just the best known).

Three editions of Modern Science and Anarchism were published during this period: the original Russian version in 1901, an expanded English version in 1912 and a revised book version in French in 1913 which also included Communisme et Anarchie, L'Etat: son role historique, L'Etat Moderne and Herbert Spencer: sa Philosophie. The second...

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