Propaganda By Deed And The Glory Of Self-Sacrifice: The Case of Peter Kropotkin

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By Milan Djurasovic
October 17th, 2016

George Woodcock, a prominent Canadian writer and anarchist thinker, writes that anarchism’s “ultimate aim is always social change; its present attitude is always one of social condemnation, even though it may proceed from an individualist view of man’s nature; its method is always that of social revolution, violent or otherwise.”[1]

Peter Kropotkin was not a pacifist. More often than not he supported regicide and other violent acts that, according to Kropotkin, were inspired by a desire to subdue those who subjugate others for personal gain. Assassinations of tyrants were welcomed by Kropotkin.  Even in international armed conflicts, Kropotkin chose sides. During the Great War, he endorsed the Allied cause because he regarded German militarism as the most potent reactionary force that, if victorious, would work to extinguish revolutionary movements throughout the globe. In 1916, he placed his signature on the Manifesto of the Sixteen, a document that justified the actions of the Allied forces and blamed the war on German hostilities.  Emma Goldman and other prominent anarchists denounced the manifesto and Kropotkin for signing it, as did Lenin and the Bolsheviks.[2]

Kropotkin admired Lev N. Tolstoy, but he thought that his religious convictions and his non-resistant form of anarchism were overly and inflexibly passive and therefore unproductive. “I am in sympathy with most of Tolstoy’s work, though there are many of his ideas with which I absolutely disagree– his asceticism, for instance, and his doctrine of non-resistance.”[3]  Kropotkin also disagreed with the argument that the landowning class could be persuaded to peacefully give up even the smallest portion of their wealth, let alone accept a society built on equality. Louis XVI demonstrated this when in the following manner he responded to the proposal to establish provincial assemblies: “It is of the essence my authority not be an intermediary, but to be the head.”[4]  Kropotkin believed that action (violent if necessary) was a more potent strategy for disseminating revolutionary sentiments, precisely because violence is a form of communication the oppressing class was familiar with.

However, unlike many revolutionaries, including his predecessor Bakunin, Kropotkin abhorred violence for violence sake. Moreover, he did not harbor any delusions about its cleansing characteristics or any other abstract or poetic traits often bestowed on such acts. He castigated any form of unnecessary violence, and he condemned the perpetrators who did not carefully consider the consequences of their actions. Although unavoidable, Kropotkin thought that violence ought to be limited to the “smallest number of victims and a minimum of mutual embitterment.”[5]  Since class struggle and conflict were inevitable, one of the primary tasks of revolutionary thinkers, according to Kropotkin, was to discover the points where pressure ought to be applied and to channel the zeal of the masses toward actions aimed at the attainment of a just society with minimal losses.

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