I will focus here on one aspect of his rich and extensive work, namely his seminal writings on social ecology.
At the heart of human life, for Kropotkin, there was an essential “paradox” given that, on the one hand, humans were an intrinsic part of nature, the product of an evolutionary process, and totally dependent on the World. Natural for food, water and air – for their very existence.
But on the other hand, humans were in a sense “separate” from nature: the earth itself had existed for billions of years, long before humans emerged, and humans, as a whole. specific beings, were rather unique in combining a high degree of self-awareness, deep sociality, and having developed complex symbolic cultures and technologies.
Indeed, humans are now described as having become a “geological force” on planet earth. Humans were sort of “separate” from nature.
What is important about Kropotkin is that he has always strived to keep these two dimensions of human social life together.
He thus combined humanism, with an emphasis on human action and human culture, and naturalism, fully recognizing the ecological dimension of human life, according to which humans are always “rooted in nature”. As a social philosopher, therefore, Kropotkin was fundamentally an ecological humanist, a social ecologist.
Two books he wrote (both based on articles published in the 1890s) illustrate his social ecology: they are “Fields, factories and workshops of tomorrow” (1899) and “Mutual aid: a factor of evolution ”(1902).
Towards the end of the 19th century, Kropotkin became increasingly concerned with two interrelated problems or developments.
One was the growing “gulf” that developed between the empty countryside of its inhabitants and more and more wildlife, and the city, with people living in misery and poverty in overcrowded housing and working in the city. factories in which conditions were unsanitary, exploitative and completely undemocratic.
The other concern was the development within capitalism of an industrial form of agriculture, a system of monoculture which impoverished the fertility of the soil, and in which agriculture was oriented not only towards the production of food but towards the profit generation.
He was also concerned that virtually all of Britain’s land was privately owned and that huge tracts of land were being used for guarded hunts – pheasants and grouse – specifically for the recreational activities of a rich and powerful ruling class.
Although people like Trotsky, and liberal scholars in general, portrayed Kropotkin as a dreamy intellectual, a utopian socialist, completely disconnected from social and political “realities”, in fact Kropotkin was a very practical and down-to-earth scholar. .
While Marx had spent his time in the library of the British Museum studying economics – mainly government reports, Kropotkin traveled widely to do empirical studies of agricultural practices, and all his life he and his wife Sophie cultivated a parcel. He even made his own furniture!
In his little book of reflections Fields, factories and workshops tomorrow, which Colin Ward described as one of the “great prophetic works of the 19th century,” Kropotkin advocated the following:
- That all forms of industry, whether factories or workshops, should be decentralized, and he argued for what we would now call the “greening” of city life.
- That future agriculture must be both diversified and intensive, involving vegetable gardens, intensive field crops, irrigated meadows, orchards, greenhouse crops, as well as vegetable gardens. Thanks to these, Kropotkin argued, high yields of a variety of crops could be produced. Food self-sufficiency could be achieved, he believed, without resorting to industrial agriculture (under capitalism), if the farmer could be freed from the three “vultures” (as Kropotkin then described) – the state, the landlord. earthling and the banker. . Kropotkin thus opposed both the state collectivization of agriculture and capitalist agriculture.
- This labor force, in both industry and agriculture, should – and could – be reduced to a few hours a day, allowing the inhabitants of a community to have sufficient time for leisure and activities. cultural.
All of this, Kropotkin admitted, would involve a social revolution and the creation of an ecological society based on communist anarchist principles.
It should be noted that Kropotkin’s book had an important influence on many people, including for example Lev Tolstoy, Ebenezer Howard (and his advocacy for garden cities), Lewis Mumford and Paul Goodman.
The book on “Mutual Aid” is perhaps the best known of all of Kropotkin’s work and is still in press. A popular scientific work, it expressed Kropotkin’s concern at the end of the 19th century at the emergence of a school of thought known as “social Darwinism”.
What initially provoked Kropotkin was an article by Thomas Huxley, widely known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, given his defense of Darwin’s theory., published in the journal The nineteenth century in 1888.
It was titled, The struggle for existence and its impact on man. Quoting Hobbes, Huxley specifically described life in nature – both organic nature and the social life of indigenous peoples – as “lonely, poor, wicked, brutal and short.”
Following Huxley, social Darwinists – who included such ruthless American entrepreneurs as Rockefeller and Carnegie – applied Darwinian theory – particularly Herbert Spencer’s concept of “survival of the fittest” to human social life.
This concept has been used as an ideological justification to promote capitalism and imperialism, and the colonial exploitation of indigenous peoples. It also implied that humans were inherently motivated by aggressive impulses and were inherently selfish, selfish, competitive, and possessive individualists.
Kropotkin, of course, was critical of Rousseau and never doubted the existence – of the reality – of conflict, competition, and selfishness (subjective action), both in the living world and in human social life.
But he nevertheless strongly contested the Hobbesian (capitalist) worldview, arguing that it was exaggerated and completely one-sided. So he came to write a series of articles on “mutual aid”, that is, cooperative activities, mutual support and care that are expressed not only by animals, but in all human societies and throughout history.
The self-help tendency, or what he also described as “anarchy” was also clearly evident “among us” people in Western societies.
It coexisted with, and often in opposition, the state and capitalist institutions. Mutual aid (or anarchy) was expressed, according to Kropotkin, in workers’ associations, unions, family life, religious charities, various clubs and cultural societies, as well as many other forms of voluntary associations. . Mutual aid, Kropotkin stressed, was an important factor in evolution and in human social life.
Mutual aid is not an anarchist text, nor a work of political theory, but it reflects Kropotkin’s conception of a future society which he qualifies as free or anarchist communism.
This would imply the need for a social revolution and a form of politics involving the following three essential principles or principles:
- A rejection of the state and all forms of hierarchy and oppression that inhibited the autonomy and well-being of the person as a single social being;
- A repudiation of the capitalist market economy, with its wage system (which for Kropotkin was a form of slavery), private property, its competitive ethic and its ideology of possessive individualism;
- And finally, a vision of a future ecological society, based on mutual aid, voluntary service, participatory forms of democracy and a form of community social organization. Such a society would promote both the fullest expression of individual freedom and would express mutualism, a cooperative relationship with the natural world.
In a time when corporate capitalism reigns triumphantly, creating conditions that induce fear, social upheaval, glaring economic inequalities, and acute ecological crisis, Kropotkin’s vision and his form of politics still hold contemporary relevance.
Unlike the supporters of the “Green New Deal” – supported by Naomi Klein et al – Kropotkin allegedly insisted that the capitalist state rather than being the solution to the ecological crisis was in fact the cause.
For, as social ecologist Murray Bookchin has long argued, capitalism in a symbiotic relationship with the state is plundering the earth in search of profit and is therefore the main cause of the “modern crisis”.
Brian Morris is thmerited professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, and aauthor of several books on ecology and anarchism, including Kropotkin: politics from the community (Press PM 2018). “In memory of a colleague, David Graeber (1961-2020). “