Source: The Guardian Unlimited
State socialism has failed, so has the market. We need to rediscover the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin
Ed Miliband’s late-night pilgrimage to Russell Brand’s loft apartment, days before the last election, was seen by supporters as a canny bid for the youth vote, and by critics as a cringe-worthy attempt to harness the Shoreditch Messiah’s charisma. Yet neither view captures its real significance as a sign of the profound weakness of mainstream social democracy and its desperate efforts to co-opt the energies of the most dynamic element of today’s left: anarchism. In their eagerness to ridicule Brand’s “ramblings”, commentators have ignored his strong identification with the left-anarchist tradition. For among the works he has recommended to his followers is a collection of writings by another charismatic figure who sometimes lived in London, the father of anarchist communism: Prince Peter Kropotkin.
Comparisons between Kropotkin and Brand may seem strained. Kropotkin’s background as the scion of one of the grandest and most ancient Russian aristocratic families is far removed from Brand’s humbler origins. Kropotkin was a highly educated polymath, while Brand – though undeniably intelligent – has played the part of popular entertainer and motor-mouth wit.
Yet, like Brand, the exiled Kropotkin became a fashionable figure in London, lauded by the late-Victorian artistic and intellectual avant garde – from William Morris to Ford Madox Ford. In a weird prefiguring of the Miliband-Brand wooing, he even received the first Labour Party leader Keir Hardie at his Bromley home. And just as satirical comparisons are made between Brand and the son of God, so Oscar Wilde described Kropotkin as a “beautiful white Christ”.
It is no surprise that anarchist sages and prophets should be so fashionable, both then and now. In Europe before the first world war, those varieties of socialism that placed their faith in state-led social reform – social democracy and Marxism-Leninism – had not yet begun to eclipse their anarchist competitor. But now that era of statist optimism is over, a left reinvigorated by the current crisis of globalised capitalism is searching for alternatives more suited to our individualistic era.
Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin, born in 1842, came of age in troubled times. Humiliated by his defeat in the Crimean war in 1856, Alexander II set out to reform Russia’s archaic aristocratic order while preserving its fundamentals, and the Kropotkins were stalwarts of the old system. As a youth, Kropotkin trained for the army in Russia’s most elite military academy, and his intellectual distinction even ensured that he was chosen as a page at the tsar’s court. He soon came to despise the status-obsessed cruelties of the ancien regime, identifying not with the nobility but with the peasants who had cared for him as a child.
This alliance of sympathy for the poor with commitment to the life of the mind, especially science, came to define Kropotkin’s career – whether in the service of the tsarist state, or in pursuit of anarchist revolution. Posted to Siberia by the military, he sought to improve the lives of convicts, while also leading pioneering geographical expeditions. And once in exile from Russia (persecuted for his revolutionary activity), he devoted himself to reconciling his deep moral outrage at social inequality with his love of science by developing a coherent anarchist vision – marking him out from his less intellectually ambitious anarchist predecessors, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin.