George Woodcock, "Introduction" to Peter Kropotkin's The Great French Revolution (1909), 1989.
The Great French Revolution is Kropotkin's longest book and, apart from the chapters in Mutual Aid dealing with barbarian societies and medieval cities, it is his most important piece of historical writing. But it is something more than the history of a single event, however important, for Kropotkin uses his observations on what happened during the French Revolution to speculate on the reasons for its ultimate failure and to draw from his conclusions lessons about the nature of revolution, and the possible course of a future successful revolution. Such lessons he regarded as of great importance to himself and his fellow anarchists in their search for a means to transform society, to replace a coercive order by a co-operative order. Thus, though it rarely speaks explicitly of anarchism, The Great French Revolution has as important a place in libertarian polemics as it does in the historiography of the Revolution, which it views from a standpoint rarely taken by writers in Kropotkin's day, that of the ordinary people who provided the manpower for the revolution and the passion that inspired it during its most dynamic days.
The Great French Revolution was the fruition of half a century of preoccupation with the events that transformed France and Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. Peter Kropotkin's childhood tutor, Monsieur Poulain, was a veteran of Napoleon's Grande Armee who had been stranded in Russia after the French retreated from Moscow in 1812. Though he was an Orleanist -- a supporter of the now deposed King Louis Philippe and a great admirer of Napoleon -- Poulain retained his respect for the ideals of the French Revolution, and was profoundly shocked that in Russia the serfdom which had come to an end in France after the events of 1789 was still in existence. He told Kropotkin and his brother Alexander about the noblemen -- and particularly Mirabeau -- who had renounced their titles in the name of democracy; this so impressed Kropotkin that he decided no longer to call himself Prince.
He sustained this decision, despite the disapproval of his superiors, when he was admitted to the elite Corps of Pages. Indeed it was in 1860, while he was in the Corps of Pages, that young Peter began his first readings on the French Revolution in the house of his sister Helen, who was now living in St. Petersburg and, with her husband, had accumulated a library of French books forbidden by the Tsarist censors. Later, during his years of military service in Siberia, Kropotkin's interest in French revolutionary ideas was sustained through his introduction to Proudhon's writings by the exiled narodnik, M. K. Mikhailov. Later in the 1860s Kropotkin and his brother Alexander resigned their army commissions in protest against the brutal treatment of Polish prisoners who had attempted a mutiny.
Back in St. Petersburg, Peter became a member of the Chaikovsky circle, which was greatly influenced by the mid-nineteenth-century French socialist thinkers. At this time his interest in the Revolution was revived by reading some of the books in the library of a student, Nizovkin, who temporarily belonged to the Chaikovtsi. But his life as a radical propagandist among the St. Petersburg factory workers was too active for him to study very deeply, and once he was imprisoned in 1874 in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress it was impossible for him to obtain any kind of book that even smelt of revolution.
However, after his sensational escape from prison in 1876, and his decision to remain in Western Europe and participate in the anarchist movement there, Kropotkin's interest in the French Revolution revived. He lived first in England, and it was there in 1877 that he began in the British Museum his serious study of the Revolution. He continued it somewhat more desultorily in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris when he arrived there later in the year. His intent at this point was to gain some insight into the way revolutions begin. He was already seeking ways in which the phenomenon of revolution could be fitted into the concept of human society as an evolving entity which he had already developed from his reading of Darwin in the early 1860s.
This was a practical as well as a theoretical intent, for as soon as he reached Paris, Kropotkin had become involved in the activities of the clandestine anarchist groups operating there. Later in the year he moved to Switzerland where, with the help of some Geneva working men, he began to publish a propaganda sheet, Le Revolte. In October 1878 he gave an address to a congress of the Jura sections of the International which he later published in Le Revolte under the title of "The Anarchist Idea from the Point of View of its Practical Realization." It dealt largely with the revolutionary techniques which should be used in the international uprising which at this period Kropotkin regarded as imminent. His stress on the need for the revolution to be based on the activities of local communes, which would carry out expropriations and transform society by collectivising the means of production, coincided so remarkably with the views of the positive aspects of the revolution to which he would give expression in The Great French Revolution that one can hardly doubt the article emerged from his studies of revolutionary history in London and Paris in 1877.
Once again there was a period of intense propagandist activity, first in Switzerland and then, after his expulsion from that country, in France; once again the activity was terminated by imprisonment, this time after a shamefully rigged trial in 1883, in which Kropotkin was charged with membership of an illegal organization, the International, that had actually come to an end in 1877. Despite widespread indignation both in France and abroad at the injustice of the sentence, which provoked a widely signed petition from British scientists, writers and artists, Kropotkin remained in prison until 1886, when he was released and took refuge in England, which remained his home until he returned to Russia in 1917.
In spite of all he had suffered from the reactionary regime that held power in France at the time of his imprisonment, Kropotkin was remarkably lacking in bitterness towards the French people or France regarded as a nation. Perhaps because, as a Russian aristocrat brought up in the manner initiated by Peter the Great, he had always spoken French fluently, he felt more at home there than in the England that accepted him with friendship and honour. Despite his imprisonment, he still regarded France as a country that had been irremediably changed by the revolution. Even if that revolution had not gained its objectives completely, it resulted in a society renewed where, as Kropotkin said in the last pages of The Great French Revolution, "for the first time in centuries the peasant ate his fill, straightened his back and dared to speak back." The revolution had broken feudalism, it had given land to the people, and in so doing it had transformed French society and the French economy. France, Kropotkin would declare in the last pages of The Great French Revolution, had become the richest country in Europe as a result of the changes in relations the revolution had precipitated, and with so much -- in his view -- gained socially he obviously regarded the political squalor of late nineteenth century France as a temporary phase that would pass because the people had learnt the lesson of freedom. Thus, like Bakunin, he always took the side of France in its recurrent disputes with Germany, which he regarded as an irremediably conservative society. In the end such an intense transfer of patriotism would lead him to abandon the anti-militarist tradition sustained by the anarchists, and in 1914 actively, to support the Allied cause, which would end in to his tragic isolation from the comrades of a life of struggle. But in the 1880s all that lay in the unanticipated future.
Not long after Kropotkin's return to England, his interest in the French Revolution was stimulated by its coming centenary, and during 1889 it became his principal preoccupation as he began to write the series of articles and essays on which The Great French Revolution would eventually be based.
In 1889 he published two articles on "Le Centenaire de la revolution" in La Revolte, the French anarchist journal which appeared after the suppression of Le Revolte, and was edited by Jean Grave with some distant collaboration from Kropotkin. In the same year Kropotkin wrote "The Great French Revolution and Its Lessons" for The Nineteenth Century, whose editor, James Knowles, was one of his staunchest non-anarchist supporters. Four years later, in 1893, La Revolte published a pamphlet (an expansion of the 1889 essays) entitled Un Siecie d'attente, 1789-1889. In 1894 La Revolte in its turn was suppressed during the French anti-anarchist panic of that period; it was followed in 1895 by Temps Nouveaux, also edited by Jean Grave, and in 1903 Kropotkin published two further articles in its columns on "Les Anarchistes et la grande revolution."
In preparing these articles and in carrying on the further research needed for his book, Kropotkin was unable to consult the manuscript and archival sources in France, since he was persona non grata there for many years after his release from prison. He did go to Paris in 1887, and on the 20th December gave a lecture on "The Moral Influence of Prisons on Prisoners" to a large audience in the Rue de Rivoli, but there is no record of his having done anything else at this time than deliver the lecture, and it is possible he was subjected to the attentions of the French police, for he made no attempt to visit France again, despite his love of the country, until 1896. Then he went to Dieppe, intending to speak under anarchist auspices in Paris, but was excluded because the Tsarevich (the future Nicholas II) happened to be visiting Nice, and the admission of so distinguished an opponent of the autocracy as Kropotkin would have displeased the authorities in St. Petersburg at a time when France was eager to sustain good relations with Russia as a counterbalance to Germany.
Not until 1905 was Kropotkin in fact able to visit France without interference. On this occasion, after a vacation on the north coast, he went to Paris and stayed with the great impressionist painter, Camille Pissaro, who was also a dedicated anarchist. But there is no evidence that he spent any of his time on research, and his own statement that he depended on the rich collection of printed material in the British Museum can be accepted as generally correct. What little information he received from the French records came through James Guillaume, the printer from the Jura who had introduced him to the Swiss anarchists in 1872 and who had since moved to Paris where he took an active part in the revolutionary syndicalist movement which was emerging among French factory workers at this period and in which the anarchists were playing a leading role.
It was twenty years after his first article in La Revolte that Kropotkin finally published The Great French Revolution. He wrote it in French and it was this version that was issued in Paris by Stock, who also published the works of Bakunin and other anarchists. The English version, brought out by Heinemann, was translated by Nannie Florence Dryhurst, with whom Kropotkin was on friendly terms for his whole period in England until his departure to Russia in 1917. N. F. Dryhurst, the wife of a British Museum official, was one of the group Kropotkin gathered around him to found the English anarchist journal, Freedom, in 1886, and she remained close to the whole Kropotkin family for thirty years. There is no doubt that Kropotkin carefully supervised her translation, which is used in this edition. Shortly afterwards an Italian version was published in Switzerland by the Ticinese Luigi Bertoni, who brought out many anarchist books which at that time could not be published in Italy. Kropotkin was particularly impressed by the "brilliant translation"; the translator, it now seems ironical to observe, was the young Benito Mussolini, then a militant revolutionary socialist.
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The Great French Revolution is essentially a popular history, untrammeled by any great pedantic apparatus, and this may be why academic historians have paid it so little attention. The approach was deliberate on Kropotkin's part; he wrote very consciously for the common reader, seeking to reach the worker as well as to convince the intellectual, and he set great store by clarity of presentation. Considering that he wrote most of his major works in languages that were not his own, either French or English, he succeeded remarkably well (with some scantily acknowledged help from native-speakers who corrected his manuscripts) for his books have a readability and an accessibility rare among political writers in his time. Even Proudhon's prose, vigorous though it may be, is dense in comparison with Kropotkin's.
Essentially, The Great French Revolution applies to a particular historic event the generalization that Kropotkin had already developed in the chapters of Mutual Aid which deal with human society when it reaches the level beyond primitive tribal groupings. Belonging to the generation of scientists which created the great guiding concepts that changed our view of the universe and of human destiny and which preceded the more recent age of specialization, Kropotkin set great store by generalization, which he saw as the result of an intuitive leap -- rather like what the poets call "inspiration" -- by which the scholar suddenly understands the natural law that underlies a whole complex of phenomena.
The generalization he drew out of his facts when he was writing Mutual Aid was that there is a natural tendency towards sociability which plays its part in the process of evolution, shaping human societies as well as animal species, and that by and large this tendency governs the relations among primitive peoples, whose societies depend on the maintenance of communal institutions to ensure survival in the struggle against adverse natural circumstances. When life becomes more settled, and larger, more prosperous, and technologically advanced communities emerge, a specialization of function appears, with largely negative results, for classes of warriors and priests and rulers emerge who seek to appropriate power and authority to themselves. At the same time, the real force that holds society together is the voluntary co-operation -- or mutual aid -- that still persists on a vast scale among the ordinary people. Thus two currents appear in every advanced society -- that towards a class order based on private property and a hierarchy of power, and that towards free co-operation based on the needs and the natural tendencies of the populace.
In The Great French Revolution Kropotkin saw a dramatic example of these two currents brought into action and opposition through the breakdown of an autocratic and still largely feudal order.For in the Pans insurrection leading to July 14, as all through the Revolution, there were two separate currents of different origin: the political movement of the middle classes and the popular movement of the masses. At certain moments during the great days of the Revolution, the two movements joined hands in a temporary alliance, and then they gained their great victories over the old regime. But the middle classes always distrusted their temporary ally, the people, and gave clear proof of this in July 1789. The alliance was concluded unwillingly by the middle classes; and on the morrow of the 14th, and even during the insurrection itself, they made haste to organize themselves, in order that they might be able to bridle the revolted people.On the one side were the representatives of the rising middle class, the so-called Third Estate, who were largely inspired by the liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment, but who at the same time were anxious to make use of events to enrich themselves at the expense of the old aristocracy, and who therefore favoured either a limited monarchy or an oligarchical republic based on an electorate defined by property rights. On the other side were the poor, represented by the Parisian sans culottes (those who did not wear the knee-breeches and silk stockings of gentlemen), mainly labourers, craftsmen, mechanics and small shopkeepers, and also by the peasants in the countryside. The city workers -- hardly yet a proletariat in the sense used by the Marxists -- strove for a complete democracy in which every man would have the full rights of a citizen and would share in political power. The local "sections" in which the people of a quartier came together to decide their immediate concerns, and the Commune of Paris, were their means of organizing the revolution and giving expression to their demands; as Kropotkin convincingly demonstrates, the famous clubs which figure so notably in the political histories of the revolution were -- even the Jacobin Club -- overwhelmingly middle class in membership and also in orientation except when the people shouldered them in a radical direction. But it was the peasants, the most oppressed class of the ancien regime, whose role in the revolution was perhaps the most vital.The insurrection of the peasants for the abolition of the feudal rights and the recovery of the communal lands which had been taken away from the village communes, since the seventeenth century, by the lords, lay and ecclesiastical, is the very essence, the foundation of the Great Revolution. Upon it the struggle of the middle classes for their political rights was developed.As he traces the popular elements of the revolution, the peasant risings, with the intent of repossessing the land and destroying the feudal records, and the various revolts of the Parisian poor that punctuated the revolutionary years, Kropotkin develops in this special context a number of themes that run through the general body of his work.
One of these is the importance of the local centre of activity, the commune, in keeping alive the spirit of a revolution. He saw the people working at this local level -- often little known to history -- as the real radicals who tried to relate events to the true needs of the country and the people.They made a bold attempt at organizing France as an aggregate of forty thousand communes, regularly corresponding amongst themselves, and representing so many centres of extreme democracy, which should work to establish the real equality -- l'egalite de fait, as used then to be said -- the "equalization of incomes."The common people who sought to establish communes so that the revolution would have its local bases from which to halt attempts to impede the progress of the revolution were in fact, he suggests, re-establishing the traditional communalism of French peasant life -- the kind of communalism dating from the middle ages which he had already praised in Mutual Aid. During the revolution. . . it was the commune which took back from the lords the lands that were formerly communal, resisted the nobles, struggled against the priests, supported the patriots and later on the sans-culottes, arrested the returning emigres, and stopped the runaway king.In doing so, the communes acted against the centralizing tendencies of the middle class revolutionaries, who actually sought to curtail rights the people had retained even under the monarchy so that the attempts of the newly rich to take over the lands appropriated by the nobles should be unimpeded.As to the villages, they had preserved, as we have seen, under the old regime, in nearly the while of France, up to the Revolution, the general assembly of the inhabitants, like the Mir in Russia . . . But now these general assemblies of the village communes were forbidden by the Municipal Law of December 22 to 24, 1789.The idea of the commune as an institution offering an alternative to state centralization recurs throughout the anarchist tradition, appearing in Proudhon as the basic unit of a federal system, and even in Godwin as the parish which he sees as the essential organic unit on which society could be organized. Already, in his earliest pamphlets and in his sketch of an anarchist revolution, The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin had made the commune the basis of the kind of anarchism that has always been especially associated with him, anarchist communism, with its stress on the primacy of the economic and the social rather than the political factors in a revolution, and on the need to organize production and consumption on a free basis that will both stimulate the producer and satisfy the consumer with adequate provision to meet his true needs.
Closely linked with Kropotkin's concern with the organization of production and consumption was the idea of bread both as a pressing need during times of revolution and as a symbol of the well-being of the people. For Kropotkin, as a Russian, bread had a special significance; bread and salt were given as earnests of brotherhood and hospitality in Russian peasant communes (a custom persisting among the Doukhobors in Canada even to this day). But when he used The Conquest of Bread as the title for his most militantly anarchist book, it was because he saw the paramount importance of securing the economic base of the revolution, of keeping the people from starving, before anything more ambitious could be achieved. Such a conviction led him to write yet another of his important books, Fields, Factories and Workshops, which shows how the wastefulness of agricultural and industrial undertakings, under a system of private ownership. could be replaced by plenty for all under a system controlled by the workers and making full use of scientific knowledge to increase production rather than restricting it to serve special interests.
There is much of this talk of bread and of agricultural productivity in The Great French Revolution. Kropotkin notes that even before 1789 "the lack of bread always remained one of the principal causes of the risings.'' Generalizing from the experience of the French and other revolutions, he remarks that: "One of the great difficulties in every Revolution is the feeding of the large towns," and he argues that the desperation and even savagery of some of the manifestations of popular anger in Paris during the years of the revolution were due to the failure of those who tried to take control of events to satisfy the pressing material needs of the people. And he accused the Third Estate, so intent on using the revolution for the conquest of power on behalf of the middle classes, of failing to recognize:yet another problem, infinitely more important to solve -- that of giving back the land to the peasant, in order that, possessing a land freed from heavy feudal exactions, he might double and treble the production of its soil, and so put an end to the incessant periods of scarcity that were undermining the strength of the French nation.Perhaps the one tangible victory of the revolution, in Kropotkin's eyes, came from the fact that incessant pressure from the people forced the middle-class revolutionaries in the Convention, and particularly the Jacobins, finally to return their land to the peasants free of feudal exactions, thus creating a situation when even the Bourbons, returning in 1815, were unable to reverse, and ensuring France's pre-eminence in productivity among the agrarian nations of Europe.
As was his custom, Kropotkin sought in The Great French Revolution to generalize from the particulars, and much of the book is concerned -- in a manner consonant with the scientific style of the time -- with finding the "laws" under which revolutions proceed, laws that seemed to him embodied in the failures and successes of the French Revolution. For example, he saw in the progression of a revolution a kind of recapitulative process similar to that which contemporary evolutionists saw in the development of the human embryo.When a revolution has begun, each event in it not merely sums up the events hitherto accomplished; it also contains the chief elements of what is to come.For him revolutions were really accelerations of the evolutionary process, rather like the mutations by which species will show dramatic changes in a short period of time.This is the 'anarchic' revolution, the only way pertaining to free Nature. It is the same even with institutions when they are the organic product of life, and this is why revolutions have such immense importance in the life of societies. They allow men to start with the organic reconstruction work without being hampered by an authority which, perforce, always represents the past ages.At another point, seeming to reverse Proudhon's famous dictum that "anarchy is order", he declared the necessity of what one might call creative insurrectionism, when he remarked:In fact, the triumph of the committees over the Commune of Paris was the triumph of order, and during a revolution the triumph of order is the termination of the revolutionary period. There might be a few more convulsions, but the Revolution was at an end.The "committees" to which he referred were the Committee of Public Welfare and the Committee of Public Safety, the sinister tribunals that increasingly directed the Terror towards the establishment of a centralized authoritarian republic, represented at its most extreme by the inflexible doctrinaire Saint Just. Kropotkin believed that the Committees and the interests they represented had disastrously impeded the natural processes of the revolution.The fact is, that a revolution that stops half-way is sure to be soon defeated, and at the end of 1793 the situation in France was, that the Revolution, having been arrested in its development, was now wearing itself out in internal struggles.Nevertheless, there was a central paradox in the operation of revolutions that Kropotkin never fully reconciled; it was that of the dedicated and often lonely revolutionary and the masses who might benefit from his actions. Kropotkin has few illusions about the masses, even when they became involved in a revolution, being able without some kind of guidance to carry events to positive conclusions. He realized from experience how few the militants always were, how cautious, except at critical moments, was the support they received from the general populace.Revolutions, we must remember, are always made by minorities, and when a revolution has begun, and a part of the nation accepts its consequences, there is always only a very small minority who understand what still remains to be done to ensure the triumph of what has been obtained, and who have the courage ot action.As he well knew, the impetus of an occasion like the taking of the Bastille, when the people came out in the dawn of the revolution, full of enthusiasm and resolution, was less and less likely to be repeated as the revolution continued. Yet any diminution in the vigilance, not only of militants, but also of the people in general, any lessening of the maximalist urge towards entire social and economic equality, was bound to open the revolution to the politically minded, the men seeking personal power and wealth.A revolution should include the welfare of all. otherwise it is certain to be crushed by those very persons whom it has enriched at the expense of the nation. Where a shifting of wealth is caused by a revolution, it ought never to be for the benefit of individuals but always for the benefit of communities.Here Kropotkin was writing with an eye partially on the experience of dedicated anarchists in the nineteenth century: of Malatesta and Cafiero trying to rouse the peasants of southern Italy to burn the tax records and seize the land; of Bakunin in Lyons of 1870 trying to recreate the revolutionary commune; of Proudhon in the 1860s attempting to convince the working men of their own political capability which took another direction from that of party politics. And although The Great French Revolution is not openly a manifesto for anarchism, it is very clear that Kropotkin is trying to find the roots of the movement to which be belonged in the French Revolution, and also to draw from that revolution lessons for anarchists in the present. He may, through ill health, have withdrawn largely from active participation in the movement itself, which in England was in any case small and devoted mainly to rather sedate propaganda, but he still believed in the possibility of revolutionary changes in society, he thought the anarchists were the only people calling themselves revolutionaries who had the right will and awareness to avoid the errors of the French Revolution, and he sought in his own way to prepare them for the revolutionary opportunities which he still believed, and with renewed expectations after the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, would emerge in the not distant future.
In the actions of the people of France in 1789 Kropotkin saw anarchism in action even before its principles were worked out theoretically by William Godwin, the first of the anarchist thinkers, whose strong roots in the English dissenting tradition Kropotkin chose to ignore. For him Political Justice was a brilliant production of its own times and most significant as a development of ideas originating in the French Revolution.
In fact, as he had already done in great detail in the original Russian version of Modern Science and Anarchism (published in London in 1901), Kropotkin was seeking, even as he wrote his own version of the history of the French Revolution, to give anarchism an ancestry, a tradition. This of course accorded with the approach he necessarily took in Mutual Aid, where he presented his libertarian communist ideal of a society, united by voluntary social and economic links, as part of a great natural continuity stretching back far before the dawn of human history or even of the existence of man as a species.
As more recent scientists might say, Kropotkin saw man as part of a great ecosystem whose laws must be rediscovered, and so he differed from the eschatological kind of revolutionary, who seeks to establish a new Earth if not a new Heaven, by contending that we do not need the radically changed world of Utopia, because what we are searching for is what is already there, waiting to be revived and reactivated. The real aim of the French Revolution, as he saw it, was to take people back to a past from which they had strayed, to return to the people what they had lost: the common land, the liberties shredded away by feudalism, and to let them start again creating a sane society.
Kropotkin devotes a chapter to those whom their enemies -- notably the Girondins -- called "the anarchists", and he shows how these men, like Jacques Roux and Jean Varlet, did anticipate the anarchists of later periods by their continuous selfless agitation, and by their recognition that the revolution had not ended and would not continue unless the Convention were continually forced by the people whom they -- the "anarchists" -- considered it their duty both to support and to incite.
One senses anxiety and foreboding in The Great French Revolution whenever Kropotkin seems to be using the event as an example. He tells how, at the time of the Terror:The creative, constructive spirit of a popular revolution, which was feeling its way, was now confronted by the spirit ot police management, which was soon to crush it.In other words, he was showing a revolution that failed. He was aware that other revolutions had failed in the same way, as the English one did when Cromwell suppressed the Levellers, as the 1848 revolutions and the Commune of 1871 also failed and, most pertinent in 1909 when the Great French Revolution appeared, the Russian revolution of 1905. He foresaw, as we know from his correspondence, a renewal of the revolutionary ferment in Russia, and the lessons he drew from the French experience were largely directed at his comrades there, members of a small movement that would play little part in the events of 1917.
When Kropotkin returned to Russia in 1917, an old and wornout man, to play what part he could in the revolution, he found -- as he wrote to his friend Georg Brandes in 1919 -- that the Bolsheviks were following a similar path of centralism and authoritarianism to that pursued by the Jacobins between 1792 and 1794. He felt that, unless the "social revolution" were allowed to find its "right path", the constructive work of the people would be negated, and "a furious and evil reaction" would follow, as it did under Stalin. Lenin, who seems to have had some kind of personal regard for the old anarchist, tried to persuade him to allow The Great French Revolution to be re- published in Russian; Kropotkin refused because he did not want his work to be brought out by a State publishing house, and at that time there was no alternative.
There remain some aspects of The Great Revolution which seem to mar the consistency of the work, and which suggest the confusion of Kropotkin's loyalties. At one point he remarks that "in revolution it is only the accomplished facts that count." Yet a few pages earlier he had complained that: "What the historians have chiefly studied on this period is the War and the Terror. Yet these are not the essentials." But it would seem, even from reading Kropotkin's account, that the War and the Terror are not only "accomplished facts", but that they are essential facts to the extent that they offer the principal reasons why the popular movement failed.
Kropotkin's attitude to the revolutionary wars is ambivalent. There are times when he glorifies the romantic aspects of the formation of a citizen army -- "the tocsin sounding all over Paris, the drums beating in the streets, the alarum gun, the reports of which rang out every quarter of an hour, the songs of the volunteers setting out for the frontier..." -- and others when he saw the war as a convenience both for the supporters of the old regime and for the middle-class leaders seeking to establish their own power. The fact is that he himself was trapped between his transferred loyalty to France, which would take on militaristic aspects when he supported the Allies in World War I, and the anti-militarism of the anarchists. He never at any point really faced the fact that war -- even defensive war -- has always been the death of revolutions, for the simple fact that war needs for its continuance the very disregard of human life and human freedom that re-establishes authority and reaction. This happened during the French revolutionary wars that ended in Bonapartist imperialism, it happened in Russia during the civil war which ended in a State run by the secret police, it happened in Spain, where the anarchists never really stood a chance against their ruthlessly authoritarian and military more efficient opponents of the left and right alike. "War," as Randolph Bourne said, "is the health of the State." It is the wasting sickness of the Revolution.
Kropotkin's equivocal view of terror in the French Revolution was bred of his indecision during the 1890s about the anarchist assassins of the period. His feelings were repelled by their actions, and yet on principle -- since he himself allowed for violent methods -- he found himself unable to condemn them, particularly as he admired their suicidal courage. Tolstoy defined Kropotkin's uneasy position astutely when he remarked to their common friend, Vladimir Chertkov:His arguments in favour of violence do not seem to me to be the expression of his real opinions, but only of his fidelity to the banner under which he has served so honestly all his life.It is hard, in fact, to find a consistent line in Kropotkin's attitude to terror during the revolution, since he seems to condemn its use in some hands but not in others. For example, he rightly denounces the indiscriminate execution of people from both right and "anarchist" left, of innocent and guilty, of opponents and former comrades in action, by the Committee of Public Safety and its pitiless henchmen. But towards the September massacres of 1792 he is much more ambivalent, even though many among the thousand odd people slaughtered in the Paris prisons at this time were innocent of intrigue against the revolution; they included no less than 300 common law prisoners who had the ill luck to be incarcerated with the political "suspects". Kropotkin treats these massacres as a popular uprising, coming from the anger of the people, and blames them on the failure of the Convention to move quickly enough in fulfilling the aims of the revolution.
In these hesitations, in this pusillanimity, this want of honesty among the statesmen in power, lies the true cause of the despair that seized upon the people of Paris on September 2.
But he does not give due importance to the fact -- which he offers himself -- that the people slaughtered, often very cruelly, on September 2, were not killed by an angry popular "mob", but cold-bloodedly by a group of at most three hundred self-appointed "executioners". From such "popular" killings of people whose guilt was unproven, to the State-supported killings of "suspects" by the Jacobin dictators in 1783 was not a great step.
Perhaps Kropotkin shows in the poorest light, from his own anarchist viewpoint, when he is dealing with the trial of Louis XVI. Since anarchists do not support the right of the State to exist, one would have expected a trial for treason to arouse at least some uneasiness in Kropotkin. What is treason, if one condemns political loyalties? Furthermore, having already written books, pamphlets and articles condemning the legal process and the idea of punishment, it seems extraordinary that Kropotkin should write of a trial of any kind, particularly one resulting from the death penalty, with equanimity. Yet he did so, not merely without revulsion, but also with a kind of gloating approval that does not sit well with his repute as a "gentle" anarchist.From the legal point of view, there is... nothing wherewith to reproach the Convention...Surely, for a consistent anarchist, there can be no "legal point of view," and there seems a lapse in libertarian logic when killing a "principle" is used as an excuse for killing a human being. Kropotkin might have considered the arguments Tom Paine put forward in 1793, at the risk of his own life (he was saved from the guillotine only by Robespierre's fall) when he claimed that the revolution would harm itself by killing the king and that banishment was preferable to execution. Kropotkin must have known of Paine's arguments and his courageous stand, but he mentions neither.
On the contrary, by sending Louis to the scaffold, the Revolution succeeded in killing a principle, which the peasants had begun to kill at Varennes. On January 21, 1793, the revolutionary portion of the French people knew well that the pivot of all the power, which for centuries had oppressed and exploited the masses, was broken at last . . .
Kropotkin's attitude in these crucial issues of anarchist morality shows that, though he performed an immensely useful task in stressing the social and economic aspects of the events, and the importance of the communal strain in bringing about some fundamental changes in French society even if the revolution was not wholly successful, he still remained in part a prisoner of the political myths that have coloured our view of the dramatic years from 1789 to 1794. Much as he hated the Jacobins for their centralizing authoritarianism, he did not entirely escape their spell.