Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (1949).



This is where Kropotkin comes in. Born at a time -- a hundred years ago -- when Proudhon was just beginning his struggle against the inequity of private property, against property as "theft", he consciously takes up Proudhon's legacy so as to amplify and elaborate it. At the same time he simplifies it, though often in a fruitful and stimulating way. He simplifies Proudhon by mitigating the dazzle of contradictory principles, and that is something of a loss; but he also translates him into the language of history, and that is a gain. Kropotkin is no historian; even where he thought historically he is a social geographer, a chronicler of the states and conditions on earth; but he thinks in terms of history.

Kropotkin simplifies Proudhon first of all by setting up in the place of the manifold "social antinomies" the simple antithesis between the principles of the struggle for existence and mutual help. He undertakes to prove this antithesis biologically, ethnologically and historically. Historically he sees these principles (probably influenced very strongly by Kireyewski's picture of historical duality in 1852) crystallizing on the one hand into the coercive State, on the other into the manifold forms of association such as the County Commune, the parish, the guild, the corporation and so on right up to the modern Co-operatives. In an over-elaborate and historically under-substantiated formulation written in 1894, Kropotkin puts the antithesis thus: "The State is an historical growth that slowly and gradually, at certain epochs in the life and history of all peoples, displaces the free confederations of tribes, communities, tribal groups, villages and producers' guilds and gives minorities terrible support in enslaving the masses -- and this historical growth and all that derives from it is the thing we are fighting against." Later (in his book Modern Science and Anarchy, a complete French edition of which appeared in 1913) he found a [39] more correct and historically a more justifiable formulation. "All through the history of our civilization," he writes, "two contrary traditions, two trends have faced one another: the Roman tradition and the national tradition; the imperial and the federal; the authoritarian and the libertarian. And once more, on the eve of social revolution, we find these two traditions face to face." Here, probably under the influence of Gierke, who called the two opposing principles domination and free association, there is a hint, bound up with Kropotkin's historical insight, that the universal conflict of the two spiritual forces persists inside the social movement itself: between the centralist and the federalist forms of socialism.

Certainly Kropotkin's conception of the State is too narrow; it is not a question of identifying the centralist State with the State in general. In history there is not merely the State as a clamp that strangles the individuality of small associations; there is also the State as a framework within which they may consolidate; not merely the "great Leviathan" whose authority, according to Hobbes, is based on "terror", but also the great nourishing mother who carefully folds her children, the communities, to her bosom; not merely the machina mackinarum that turns everything belonging to it into the components of some mechanism, but also the communitas communitatum, the union of the communities into community, within which "the proper and autonomous common life of all the members" can unfold. On the other hand, Kropotkin was more or less right when he dated the inception of the modern centralist State -- which he confused with the State as such -- from the sixteenth century; from the time when "the downfall of the free cities" was sealed "by the abolition of all forms of free contract": the village communities, the Societies of Artisans, the fraternities, the confederacies of the Middle Ages. "With some certainty we may say," writes the legal historian Maitland, "that at the end of the Middle Ages a great change in men's thought about groups of men was taking place." Now "the Absolute State faces the Absolute Individual". In Gierke's words "the sovereign State and the sovereign individual fought to define their natural and lawful spheres of existence; all intermediate associations were degraded to merely legalistic and more or less arbitrary formations and at last completely exterminated". In the end nothing remained but the sovereign State which, in proportion to its mechanization, devoured everything living. Nothing organic [40] could resist "the rigidly centralized directive mechanism which, with its enormous expenditure of human intelligence, could be operated at the touch of a button", as Carl Schmitt, the ingenious interpreter of totalitarianism, calls the Leviathan. Those for whom the important thing is not so much the security of individuals (for which purpose the Leviathan is deemed indispensable) as the preservation of the substance of community, the renewal of communal life in the life of mankind -- are bound to fight against every doctrine that would defend centralism. "There is no more dangerous superstition," says the church historian Figgis, "than that political atomism which denies all power to societies as such, but ascribes absolutely unlimited competence over body, soul and spirit to the grandiose unity of the State. It is indeed 'the great Leviathan made up of little men' as in Hobbes' title-page, but we can see no reason to worship the golden image." In so far as Kropotkin did battle not with State-order itself but with the centralist State-apparatus, he has powerful allies in the field of science. In scientific circles it may perhaps be maintained against "pluralism" that the modern State, in so far as it is pluralist rather than totalitarian, has the appearance of a "compromise between social and economic power-groups, an agglomeration of heterogeneous factors, parties, interests, concerns, trades-unions, churches, etc." (Carl Schmitt.) But that says nothing against a socialistic rebuilding of the State as a community of communities, provided that the communities are real communities; for then all the various groups Schmitt mentions would either not exist or be quite different from what they are now, and the fusion of the groups would not be an agglomeration but, in Landauer's words, "a league of leagues". Any element of compulsive order still persisting would only represent the stage of development attained by man at the time; it would no longer represent the exploitation of human immaturity and human contrasts. Contrasts between individuals and between groups will probably never cease, nor indeed should they; they have to be endured; but we can and we must strive towards a state of things where individual conflicts neither extend to large wholes which are not really implicated, nor lend themselves to the establishment of absolute centralist suzerainty.

As in his inadequate distinction between the excessive and the legitimate State, or the superfluous and the necessary State, so in another important respect Kropotkin's view, although [41] perceiving many historical relationships unnoticed by Proud-hon, is not realistic enough. He says on one occasion that in his (Kropotkin's) praise of the medieval commune he might perhaps be accused of having forgotten its internal conflicts, but that he had by no means done so. For history showed that "these conflicts were themselves the guarantee of free life in the free city", that the communities grew and were rejuvenated through them. Further, that in contrast to the wars of States, these inter-communal conflicts were concerned with the struggle for and maintenance of the individual's freedom, with the federative principle, the right to unite and to act in unison, and that therefore "the epochs when the conflict was fought out in freedom without the weight of existing authority being thrown into either of the scales, were the epochs of greatest spiritual development". This is substantially right and yet one all-important point has not been sufficiently grasped. The danger of collective egoism, as also that of schism and oppression, is hardly less in an autonomous community than in the nation or party, particularly when the community participates as a co-partner in production. A telling example of this is to be found in the internal development of the "mining communities ", that is, the Producer Co-operatives of mine-workers in the German Middle Ages. Max Weber has shown in a scholarly exposition that in the first stage of this there was an increasing expropriation of the owners; that the community became the managing director and shared out the profits while observing as far as practicable the principle of equality; but that a differentiation among the workers themselves thereupon set in. For as a result of increasing demand the new arrivals were no longer accepted into the community, they were "non-union men", hired labour, and the process of disintegration thus initiated continued until purely capitalist "interested parties" permeated the personnel of the mining-community and the union finally became a capitalistic instrument which itself appointed the workers. When we read to-day (for instance in Tawney's book The Acquisitive Society) how the workers can "freeze out" the owners from industrial undertakings by making them superfluous through their own control of production; or how they can limit the interest of the owners to such an extent that the latter become mere rentiers with no share in the profits and no responsibility -- precisely, therefore, what had happened [42] in the German mines seven hundred years ago -- then the historical warning comes very close to us and commands us to have a care, to build the checks on collective egoism into the new order of society. Kropotkin is not blind to this danger; for instance, he points out (Mutual Aid, 1902) that the modern Co-operative Movement which, originally and in essence, had the character of mutual aid, has often degenerated into "share-capital individualism" and fosters "co-operative egoism".

Kropotkin realized very clearly that, as Proudhon had already indicated, a socialistic community could only be built on the basis of a double intercommunal bond, namely the federation of regional communes and trade communes variously intercrossing and supporting one another. To this he sometimes added as a third principle, communal groupings based on voluntary membership. He sketches a picture of the new society most vividly in his autobiography (1899), in that passage where he speaks of the basic views of the anarchist-communist "Jura-Federation" founded by Bakunin, in which he played an active part in 1877 and in the years immediately following. From the documents of the Jura-Federation itself no comparable formulation is indeed known to us, and it is to be assumed that Bakunin's ideas, which were never other than cursorily sketched, becoming in the course of years intertwined with those of Proudhon, only attained maturity in Kropotkin's own mind. "We remark in the civilized nations," he writes in his autobiography, "the germ of a new social form which will supplant the old. . . . This society will be composed of a number of societies banded together for everything that demands a common effort: federations of producers for all kinds of production, of Societies for consumption; federations of such Societies alone and federations of Societies and production groups, finally more extensive groups embracing a whole country or even several countries and composed of persons who will work in common for the satisfaction of those economic, spiritual and artistic needs which are not limited to a definite territory. All these groups will unite their efforts through mutual agreement. . . . Personal initiative will be encouraged and every tendency to uniformity and centralization combated. Moreover this society will not ossify into fixed and immovable forms, it will transform itself incessantly, for it will be a living organism continually in development." No equalization, no final fixation -- that is Kropotkin's basic [43] idea, and it is a healthy one. What is aspired to is, as he says in 1896, "the fullest development of individuality combined with the highest development of free association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees and for all conceivable purposes: an ever-changing association bearing in itself the elements of its own duration and taking on the forms which at any moment best correspond to the manifold endeavours of all." And he adds with emphasis in 1913: "We conceive the structure of society to be something that is never finally constituted."

Such a structure means mobilizing the social and political spontaneity of the nation to the greatest possible degree. This order, which Kropotiun calls Communism (a term usurped by that "negation of all freedom" so bitterly attacked by Proudhon) and which may be called more correctly Federal Communalism, "cannot be imposed -- it could not live unless the constant, daily collaboration of all supported it. In an atmosphere of officialdom it would suffocate. Consequently it cannot subsist unless it creates permanent contacts between everybody for the thousand and one common concerns; it cannot live unless it creates regional and autonomous life in the smallest of its units -- the street, the house-block, the district, the parish." Socialism "will have to find its own form of political relationships. ... In one way or another it will be more 'of the people'; will have to be closer to the forum than parliamentary government is. It will have to depend less on representation, more on self-government". We see particularly clearly here that Kropotkin is ultimately attacking not State-order as such but only the existing order in all its forms; that his "anarchy", like Proudhon's, is in reality "anocracy" (ακρατια); not absence of government but absence of domination. "If I may express myself so," Proudhon had written in a letter of 1864, "anarchy is a form of government or constitution in which the principle of authority, police institutions, restrictive and repressive measures, bureaucracy, taxation, etc., are reduced to their simplest terms." This is at bottom Kropotkin's opinion too. As the important words "less representation" and "more self-government" show, he also knows that when it comes to our real will for a "restructuring" of society, it is not a question of manipulating an abstract principle but only of the direction of realization willed; of the limits of realization possible in this direction in any given circumstances -- the line that defines what is demanded here and now, becomes attainable. [44] He knows that tremendous things are willed and how deeply they reach into our hearts: "All the relations between individuals and between the masses have to be corrected"; but he also knows that this can only be done if social spontaneity is roused and shown the direction in which it has to work.

That a decisive transformation of the social order as a whole cannot ensue without revolution is self-evident for Kropotkin. So it was for Proudhon. In the book that Marx attacked as "petty bourgeois" Proudhon knew well enough that the mighty task he set the working-classes -- namely to "bring forth from the bowels of the people, from the depths of labour a greater authority, a mightier fact, which will draw capital and the State into its orbit and subdue them" -- cannot be fulfilled without revolution. Proudhon saw in revolutions, as he said in a toast to the Revolution of 1848, "the successive declarations of human justice", and the modern State he held to be "counter-revolutionary in nature and in principle". What he contested (in his famous letter to Marx) was that "no reform was possible at present without a coup de main" and that "we were obliged to use revolutionary action as a means of social reform". But he divined the tragedy of revolutions and came to feel it more and more deeply in the course of disappointing experiences. Their tragedy is that as regards their positive goal they will always result in the exact opposite of what the most honest and passionate revolutionaries strive for, unless and until this has so far taken shape before the revolution that the revolutionary act has only to wrest the space for it in which it can develop unimpeded. Two years before his death Proudhon remarks bitterly: "It is the revolutionary struggle that has given us centralization." This view was not unfamiliar to Kropotkin. But he believed that it was sufficient to influence the revolutionary force by education so as to prevent the revolution from ending in a new centralization "every bit as bad or worse", and thus enabling "the people -- the peasants and the urban workers -- to begin the really constructive work themselves". "The point for us is to inaugurate the social revolution through communism." Like Bakunin, Kropotkin misses the all-important fact that, in the social as opposed to the political sphere, revolution is not so much a creative as a delivering force whose function is to set free and authenticate -- i.e. that it can only perfect, set free, and lend the stamp of authority to something that has already been foreshadowed in the womb of [45] the pre-revolutionary society; that, as regards social evolution, the hour of revolution is not an hour of begetting but an hour of birth -- provided there was a begetting beforehand.

Of course there are in Kropotkin's teaching fundamental elements which point to the significance of pre-revolutionary structure-making. As in his book on mutual aid he traces the vestiges of old community-forms in our society and compares them with examples of existing, more or less amorphous solidarity, so in his book Fields, Factories and Workshops (1898, enlarged edition 1912) he makes, on purely economic and industrial-psychological grounds, a weighty contribution to the picture of a new social unit fitted to serve as a cell for the formation of a new society in the midst of the old. As against the progressive over-straining of the principles of division of labour and excessive specialization, he sets the principle of labour-integration and the alliance of intensive agriculture with decentralized industry. He sketches the picture of a village based on field and factory alike, where the same people work in the one as in the other alternately without this in any way entailing a technological regress, rather in close association with technical developments and yet in such a way that man enters into his rights as a human being. Kropotkin knows that such an alteration cannot be "completely carried through" in a society like ours, nevertheless he plans not merely for tomorrow but for to-day as well. He stresses the fact that "every socialistic attempt to alter the present relations between capital and labour will come to grief if it disregards the trend towards integration"; but he also stresses that the future he wishes to see "is already possible, already realizable". From there it is only a step to demanding that an immediate beginning be made with the restructuring of society -- but that step is decisive.