From The Anarchist Prince by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic" (London, 1950; reissued 1971 by Schocken Books, New York), by permission of the authors.
The Great French Revolution is a lengthy and exhaustive study of the events from 1789 to 1793. It is one of the less celebrated of Kropotkin's works, but it is nevertheless an exceptionally good piece of historical writing, and can stand comparison, both for its quality and for the authenticity of its information, with any of the more celebrated histories of this period.
From childhood, from the days of his tutor M. Poulain, the French Revolution had exercised a fascination over Kropotkin's mind, and it was not long after his escape from Russia that he first began the long research into its history which continued, with interruptions, for nearly thirty years. It was after his arrival in England in 1886 that he actually planned The Great French Revolution, which he conceived on a completely different basis from the works of his predecessors, since, regarding the causes of revolutions as economic, he thought it necessary to stress the struggle of the common people for the necessities of life rather than to concentrate on political intrigues and the romantic dramatization of leading figures which had been practiced by so many other historians. Without this study of economic causes, he remarks justly, "the history of the period remains incomplete and in many points incomprehensible." He himself describes thus the evolution of his book:"It was with the intention of throwing some light upon these economic problems that I began in 1886 to make separate studies of the earliest revolutionary stirrings among the peasants; the peasant risings of 1789; the struggles for and against the feudal laws; the real causes of the movement of May 31, and so on. . . .
"Believing that it would not be easy for the reader to appreciate the bearing of separate studies of this kind without a general view of the whole development of the Revolution understood in the light of these studies, I soon found it necessary to write a more or less consecutive account of the chief events of the Revolution. In this account I have not dwelt upon the dramatic side of the episodes of these disturbed years, which have been so often described, but I have made it my chief object to utilise modern research so as to reveal the intimate connection and interdependence of the various events which combined to produce the climax of the eighteenth- century's epic."
But with the spirit of the true historian, Kropotkin was not concerned merely with the period he discussed. He saw it as a climax in a long past and future development, and sought to conjure up a picture not only of the events which were his immediate subject, but also of "the mighty currents of thought and action that came into conflict during the French Revolution -- currents so intimately blended with the very essence of human nature that they must inevitably reappear in the historic events of the future."
The result is a very skillful and absorbing book, with great momentum, an active and readable style, and a capable use of a mass of details regarding the more obscure but no less important aspects of the French Revolution. Beginning with the causes of economic discontent which actually precipitated the revolution and realized the hopes of the pre-revolutionary thinkers, it preserves a continuous and well-sustained narrative through the complex series of incidents which constituted the stormy history of the revolution, down to the final triumph of reaction on the 9th Thermidor, placing emphasis always on the basic struggle of the people to gain satisfaction for their economic needs and social demands, yet not neglecting the superimposed pattern of political maneuvering which frustrated their expectations, and here and there giving the most vivid representations in miniature of revolutionary incidents and personalities. All the theories on the nature, course, and needs of revolutions which Kropotkin put forward in his active days of agitation here take their place in the historical pattern, and are supported by convincing evidence and analysis. He illustrates the interaction of economic distress and intellectual discontent; the generation of the revolution in the heart of the people and its sweeping progress beyond the will of the leaders it threw up; the continual tendency of the revolutionary government to retard progress, to cling to power in the face of popular pressure, and finally, by revealing a fundamental cleavage in the revolutionary ranks, to open the way for the counter-revolution. And, lastly, there runs as an under-current through his narrative the insistent cry of the masses for bread, and he shows how a part was played in the eventual disaster by the failure of the revolutionaries to fulfill this basic demand.
Yet, although the revolution failed to achieve its great object of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," it did, according to Kropotkin, accomplish two great tasks which put France in the forefront of the European social movement -- the abolition of absolutism and that of serfdom. On these achievements, and on the "communist" ideas which he regarded as having been originated by the French Revolution, he based that inordinate admiration for Republican France which later amounted to a kind of adoptive patriotism. Despite this one fault of excessive partiality, The Great French Revolution remains an excellent historical study and a fine vindication, in the field of practical example, of the theoretical ideas concerning the nature and needs of revolutions which Kropotkin had put forward in his two earliest books, Paroles d'un Revolte and The Conquest of Bread.
George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic
No discussion of revolutionary anarchist activity in the nineteenth century would omit the name of Peter Kropotkin. Prince, explorer, scientist, revolutionary, lecturer and essayist, he encompassed a bewildering variety of roles in his long career. However, his most ambitious work as a historian, The Great French Revolution, has been out of print for more than forty years. We are pleased to make this neglected masterpiece available once again to the general reader.
Peter Alexeievich Kropotkin was born in Moscow in the Old Equerries' Quarter on Dec. 12, 1842. His father, Alexander, was a general in the Russian army and claimed descent from the medieval princes of Smolensk. However, by the time of his son's birth, he lived in retirement, turning his military energies to the management of the twelve hundred serfs who maintained his estates.
Kropotkin's mother, Ekaterina, died of consumption when he was only three and a half years old, but her exemplary kindness and devotion to all who knew her made her a shaping influence in his life. From her he first learned that love freely given is a force more powerful than any form of authority or coercion.
At the age of fifteen, Kropotkin was sent to school in the elite Corps of Pages at the court of the Czar in St. Petersburg. There he rose to become first in his class, even to serve a year as page de chambre to Alexander II himself, a man he at first pitied for his crushing responsibilities and later despised for his cowardly repressions.
Upon graduation, rather than take his pick of the Petersburg military commands and enter on the paths of ambition, Kropotkin chose to be commissioned in a Siberian regiment, the mounted Cossacks of the Amur. There he hoped to pursue his scientific interests in studying the geography and geology of this largely uncharted region. Moreover, as he later wrote in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), "I had ample opportunities to watch the ways and habits of the peasants in their daily life. . . ."
One of the first tasks of the nineteen-year-old officer was to investigate the provincial prisons and the system of exile which supplied them. This was to be carried out with a view to early reforms. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had engendered a brief wave of liberal sentiment from St. Petersburg. However, with the rising of the Poles in 1863, all hopes for betterment were quickly swallowed in reaction and repression. Kropotkin's horrified accounts were unheeded, his superior dismissed, and, rather than continue as an impotent functionary, he set out at the head of a trading caravan to explore Manchuria.
The scientific results of Kropotkin's five years in Siberia and its environs produced, on the one hand, a series of articles on the geographical, geological, and zoological composition of that area that gained him acclaim from colleagues throughout Europe. On the other hand, it provided the data for his most popular work, Mutual Aid (1902), a refutation of the Darwinian thesis of the survival of the fittest. In its place, Kropotkin sought to attribute the endurance of man and the animals to cooperation and the instinctive desire to help one another achieve common goals. It remains the best statement of the other side of the evolutionary coin.
In 1867 Kropotkin was back in St. Petersburg and, having made the decision to resign his military commission, he began to engage in antigovernment politics, while continuing publication of his scientific papers. By 1874, after an inspirational visit to the anarchist Jura Federation of workers in Switzerland, he was deeply committed to the cause of revolution. Also in 1874 he was arrested with other members of the subversive "Tchaykovsky Circle," to the astonishment of the Russian aristocracy. He was imprisoned in the notorious Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, where he spent two years awaiting trial and until his broken health forced a transfer to a military hospital. It was from this hospital, in 1876, that Kropotkin made his sensational escape to the West, an event which marked the beginning of his ascendancy in the ranks of European and Russian revolutionaries.
Thereafter Kropotkin lived chiefly in England and Switzerland, attending the various international workers' congresses, tirelessly expounding his theories in lectures and pamphlets, and earning a frugal income from contributions to scientific periodicals.
To restore his wife's, Sophie's, declining health, he moved to Lyons, where in 1883 he was again arrested in a dragnet of suspected radicals. He was convicted on the flimsy charge of having belonged to the outlawed -- and defunct -- International. He served three years of a five-year sentence in the prison at Clairvaux, and in 1887, the year following his release and in fulfillment of a personal vow, he published the classic In Russian and French Prisons (reissued by Schocken Books in 1971). It is a devastating indictment of the futility of punishment by imprisonment. (The first edition of the book was bought up by Russian police agents and destroyed, necessitating an immediate second printing.)
For the next thirty years Kropotkin lived in England and spent most of his time in political activity and historical research. (He did, however, visit America in 1897 and again in 1901, experiencing on the latter trip a very unlikely simultaneous meeting with Booker T. Washington and the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis!) During this period he enjoyed a reputation as the leading European theoretician of anarchism, and his blessing was religiously sought for their programs and plans by the revolutionaries of the day.
The fruit of Kropotkin's lifelong love of the history and people of France was, of course, the publication in 1909 of The Great French Revolution. (This was a love in part reciprocated, at least by French workers, who knew Kropotkin as "notre Pierre.") This work is a unique contribution to the history of that event, being written to attract attention to the neglected intellectual sources of the Revolution and to restore to the peasants and urban workers their true stature as the chief instrument in achieving the goals of the Revolution. The book was written from an anarchist viewpoint, but, as Roger Baldwin has pointed out, in tribute to its objectivity, the word "anarchism" will not be found in its pages.
The final phase of Kropotkin's career -- surely one no novelist of the nineteenth century could ever have conceived -- began with his return to Russia in 1917, at the age of 75, during the brief Kerensky government. After Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power, he quickly grew disillusioned with his earlier bright hopes for the success of the revolution. And although he was held in great honor and public esteem, he preferred to take no role in the political upheaval of the time. With his family he retired to a small cottage outside Moscow.
In January of 1921 he contracted pneumonia, and his already poor constitution quickly deteriorated. He died in the presence of his wife and only daughter early in the morning of Feb. 8. His family refused the offer of a state funeral and instead the obsequies were arranged by the surviving anarchist societies of Moscow. A funeral procession of one hundred thousand mourners carrying the black banners of anarchism followed the coffin on its final journey. It included such anarchist worthies as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, fresh from their expulsion from the United States.
Today Kropotkin's books, personal papers and possessions, and other similar materials may be viewed in the house of his birth in Moscow, now the Kropotkin Museum. The continuing influence of his life and thought is well attested by the republication of his major works in Europe, America, and the Soviet Union. For further details of his life, the reader is referred to The Anarchist Prince by George Woodcock and Ivan Avakumovic (1950; reissued by Schocken Books in 1971).