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Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition
by Jim MacLaughlin
Pluto Press, rrp £18.99
'Anarchism' is so roundly misrepresented in the press that many may ask 'intellectual tradition?, what?!'. Naturally, this is deliberate, from most quarters, as hierarchically organised rulers, left, right or centre, abhor grassroots power structures.
Of course, too, there are different threads within all political traditions, so concentrating a few aberrant ones also misrepresents the political thought behind the labels. I'd note that certain hyper-individualist ideologies sometimes use the 'anarchist' badge too, which allows the media to portray all anarchist ideals as rooted in nihilistic chaos and marginal sanity, or, simply as 'naively utopian'. It is quite convenient to use that to, to suppress a real 'people power' political, and, yes, intellectual, tradition.
One of the main elements in European anarchism has been a close alliance with socialistic and communalistic ideology, though amended to stand against centralisation, the 'state', and, for example, the dangerously anti-human heresies of 'false consciousness' and 'alienation' melded to 'vanguardism'.
Primary amongst the political science and philosophy of 'anarchism' is Pytr Kropotkin, 'the Anarchist Prince' as he is dubbed in George Woodcock's excellent biography. To get a handle on how a rationally thought out and experientially based 'left anarchism' is articulated by Kropotkin, I would strongly recommend Woodcock's biography and, of course, Kropotkin's own work – especially 'Mutual Aid: A factor of Evolution'.
However, for a deeper look at the context within which Kropotkin's work should be understood, MacLaughlin's excellent and wide-ranging academic study is invaluable. He illustrates historical background of the themes developed by Kropotkin laid out (from radical protestantism, through anti-authoritarian's like the Levellers and Diggers, to Godwin & Proudhon and finally Kropotkin's critique of 'social Darwinism'). Then gives an anarchist vision of ethics, and critique of power politics and the state.
During the years following the Russian spring Revolution and autumn coup, Kropotkin expressed the view that, having supported the initial overthrow of Tzarist autocracy, 'unfortunately, the method by which they [the 'Communists'] seek to establish communism […] in a strongly centralised state makes success absolutely impossible and paralyses the constructive work of the people', regarding the Bolsheviks as having 'buried the revolution'.
The continuing failure of empowered political groupings, left or right, to positively engage with the modernised anarchist views of, for example, Murray Bookchin (who explicitly magnifies the role of 'nature' and ecology in a sustainable future politics), and others who birthed their theories under the influence of Kropotkin's ideals blocks genuine positive development not only of idealist visions of direct grassroots democracy, but also of even 'proper' representative democracy. A cynical refusal to acknowledge that Plato's 'democracy equals mob rule' is a result of elites manipulating and managing 'education' and media has made this cynicism 'true' as a self-fulfilling prophecy. A similar dynamic is clear in the ubiquity of the 'Hobbesian' view of human nature as irredeemable under 'anarchic' conditions - 'In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short': this is the mainstream view promulgated by the capitalist and strong-state oriented nations today, and is blindly accepted by a majority, who imbibe it from their earliest years. The suppression of the anarchistic 'workers control' in Spain in the 1930s is an inevitable outcome of power fearing loss of control to 'the people'. Those seeking similar, working, ways of thriving in Rojava are surely keeping a nervous eye on their 'supporters' in the west as much as on their direct enemies.
Kropotkin's work is a good curative introduction to more optimistic techniques of political cooperation for different, diverse, and indeed divergent, social groups on the basis of shared power. MacLaughlin's may, one hopes, help combat the marginalisation of one of the, in my opinion, very few positive strands of political thought in these dark times.
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