Peter Kropótkin (1842–1921) was an important figure in the development of British and European geography. He made early contributions to the study of the history of glaciation in Europe. He was a popularizer of science and interpreted biological science for a mass audience. He offered significant opposition to social Darwinism and promoted the idea that cooperation was an important factor in both biological and social evolution. This was at the heart of his anarchism and he described the tension between community and central state. He wrote historical geographies of the political geography of these relations and advocated a communitarian utopia of decentralized cooperatives. At a time when geography was becoming the voice of imperialism, Kropótkin’s worries about ethnocentrism and imperialism were unfashionable and he was marginal to the institutionalization of geography in universities and schools. His ideals, however, remain inspiring and radical geographers might yet develop them more fully to produce a truly humane geography.
Peter Kropótkin (1842–1921) (Figure 1) was born into a wealthy landowning family in Russia; his father had several thousand serfs on his estate. As a youth, Kropótkin was sent to the court of the Tsar to be groomed for high office in the Russian state. He joined an elite group within the Russian army in much the way his father had hoped. However, Kropótkin’s grooming to be a Russian bureaucrat was flawed. His mother had died when he was very young and, being brought up by peasant servants, he retained a deep sympathy for the plight of Russia’s poor. In 1861, as Kropótkin embarked upon his military career, the Tsar, Alexander II, abolished the institution of serfdom. Although the peasants continued to be exploited economically, they were no longer subject to the indignities of servility. At this same time, the Russian state was extending itself into Siberia and in this unglamorous, frontier region Kropótkin imagined that he might work as part of an enlightened administration. He went to Siberia in 1862 and hoped to be part of a general process of reform. He worked first on reports about the treatment of prisoners sent in exile to Siberia. These reports did not produce a change in policy from St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg newspapers, Kropótkin reported on the repression of Polish revolutionaries sent to Siberia, and in 1866 he resigned from the military after the government in Siberia summarily executed five such prisoners. Kropótkin spent increasing amounts of his time on exploration in the mountain regions between Russia and China. Now he turned to a career in the civil service but devoted much of his time to exploration.
He worked on Arctic exploration, became a leading figure in the Russian Geographical Society, and through the 1870s published many reports on Siberia and Finland. In 1872 he resigned from the civil service to continue both with his work in geography and also with his new career as a political organizer among the working class. Kropótkin visited Western Europe in 1872 and deeply admired the socialist and anarchist organizations among the workers of Switzerland. He was struck by their principled commitment to socialist anarchism as both a means and an end. Back in St. Petersburg, under the name of Borodin, he worked with discussion groups among workers as he both taught and developed his ideas about socialism, Marxism, and anarchism. In 1874 the authorities connected Borodin to Kropótkin and he was arrested. In 1876 he made a daring escape from a prison hospital and fled, via Finland, to Britain. There, he took on the name of Alexis Levashov and made a scanty living writing reviews and translating articles for the Times, for Nature, and for the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society. In the absence of a vibrant anarcho-socialist movement, Britain was a lonely place for Kropótkin and, within a year or so, he began to spend most of his time in Switzerland and France, among anarchists, working mainly as a journalist and author. When political repression on the mainland became, periodically, too dangerous for him, he would return to England, but in 1882 he was arrested in France on a false charge of complicity in a series of strikes. Despite a petition signed by dozens of British academics and politicians, he languished in French jails until 1886. It was there that he wrote his passionate account of ‘What geography ought to be’.
He came back to Britain and lived there until 1917 although he made brief visits to continental Europe and even to North America. He played a full part in the revival of socialist and anarchist organizations from the late 1880s and he was a prominent intellectual both in geography and the biological sciences. Some academics at Cambridge even thought he might be suited to a chair in geography there but Kropótkin was unwilling to give up anarchist propaganda for the ‘ivory tower’ and it was not clear at least to him that he could follow both. When autocracy was relaxed in Russia from the mid-1890s, Kropótkin began to correspond with Russian revolutionaries schooling them away from terrorism toward organizing mass movements. After the revolution of 1905, he was a leader among those in Britain protesting the violence of its repression by the Tsarist authorities. He saw World War I in nationalist terms and took sides against Germany, favoring instead any alliance that included France, the source, to his mind, of progressive and revolutionary principles. Very many contemporary anarchists rejected the nationalism of Kropótkin’s reading of the war. Kropótkin went to Russia in 1917 to work for his anarchist ideals in the new socialist state, but the Bolsheviks suppressed the anarchists and, despite a brief audience with Lenin, Kropótkin lived on in Moscow, tolerated but unheeded, until his death in 1921.
Kropótkin’s earliest contributions were in physical geography. The Himalayas were mapped from its edges and Kropótkin was among the first to describe correctly its interior structure of folds and peaks. He was also early among the advocates of the claim that, at one time, all of Northern Europe was covered by a massive ice sheet. Finally, he proposed a general theory of the desiccation of Europe, with ice sheets giving way to lakes, and then lakes giving way to marshes. The retreat of lakes within the historic past was part of this drying out, rather than being an index of the progressive warming of Europe over the same period. Yet, he was always a student of nature rather than of physiography. It was in the Cosmos of Humboldt and in the poetry of Goethe that he found an echo of the feelings with which he contemplated the landscapes of his youth. In his autobiography, Kropótkin described the epiphany of his contemplation of the place of human labor in transforming the rural landscape of Finland. The labor that shaped the fields, planted the crops, and produced the food was unfree. The beautiful veil of nature obscured the crime of labor exploited and Kropótkin ever after abjured the guilty pleasures of a purely physical geography.
This insight breathes passion into his manifesto, ‘What geography ought to be’. In 1886 John Scott Keltie was working to get geography established in British universities. As part of this campaign, Keltie had written a report on the comparative position of geography in the universities of Europe and had followed this up with a series of lectures in London to promote geography as a vital research discipline. Halford Mackinder’s ‘Scope and methods of geography’ was part of this campaign and made a case for the subject as a post-exploration science for empire. Keltie sent a copy of his report to Kropótkin, then in a French prison, and from his cell Kropótkin replied with an article supporting the campaign, but with a very different politics to that articulated by Mackinder. For Kropótkin, the study of geography taught knowledge of other peoples, a knowledge that bred mutual respect rather than served imperial control. Indeed, the more we learned about the practices of other peoples, the less we could judge them as inferior and thus the less likely we were to patronize (or exploit) them with our enlightened domination.
Many of Kropótkin’s contemporaries might fairly be called social Darwinist. They believed that Charles Darwin had taught that fitter forms survived the struggle for food and resources. They applied this insight not to the struggle between species and their environment or even between species within an environment, but, rather, to the conflict between classes, or between nations, or between races. They were able to persuade themselves that Darwin’s theory of evolution implied that the rich were simply fitter than the poor; and that the powerful nations and races had to fight the others to survive. This was indeed a bleak view of society and economy. It seemed to justify laissez faire capitalism, aggressive colonialism, and even eugenic racial segregation. Kropótkin had a more optimistic view of nature. He thought nature’s bounty was more than enough for all. Scientific agriculture and industrial technology could serve ample portions to all if only fairness governed the distribution of the social product.
Kropótkin believed both that Darwin had been misinterpreted and that his ideas were incomplete. Kropótkin argued that individuals, classes, nations, and races had no biological status in Darwin’s theory. Evolution and the survival of the fittest related to species and to nothing else at all. In the second place, Darwin’s own ideas were incomplete because he had, by and large, treated species as aggregations of individuals and had ignored the social aspect of their groupings. Competition prevailed between individuals only in the lower forms of life. The social factor was vital both in the development of higher-order forms of life and in their ways of living. It was through cooperation that members of a species were fed and sheltered; no single bee could build a hive, as no lone wolf could chase down a bear. Social forces were at the heart of the development of language in animals and were most highly developed among the superior species. Kropótkin proposed that Mutual Aid was a central evolutionary force and had direct implications for social as well as biological evolution. In this respect, the antisocial stance of imperialists and free-market economists was regressive.
Kropótkin believed that cooperation implied reciprocity and freedom. He was fundamentally opposed to coercive social and economic relations. He had faith that human energies would develop most fully when allowed to flourish most freely. This was the basis of his anarchism. For Kropótkin, freedom was both a means and end to social and economic progress. This meant that he was opposed to centralization and indeed to the institutions of the state. He believed that the medieval commune was probably the largest human community that could be governed by direct democracy and thus it was the apex of social evolution. The development of centralized states thereafter reduced freedom, promoted private property, and resulted in the competitive geopolitical world order that was modern imperialism. His utopian geography was fundamentally cellular. Distinct communities using, in the main, local resources would trade only what is surplus to local needs. They would not produce things primarily for exchange but for subsistence.
Kropótkin’s ideas did not prevail in British or European geography but they were part of an anarchist tradition that remained a significant, if not dominant, presence in geography and related disciplines such as sociology. The scientific prestige of Kropótkin as a biologist and of Reclus as an encyclopedic synthesizer of geographical knowledge meant that in Britain, in Spain, in Italy, in Russia, in Germany, and in France, there were significant anarchist resources for geographers and significant geographical resources for anarchists. Regionalism in geography long served as a refuge for ideas about federalism and local autonomy that were anarchist in tendency if not in purpose. Cooperation was important to the sociological thought of urbanists such as Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes and sustained developments such as the community colleges of both the United States and the United Kingdom. Within education, Kropótkin’s ideals were celebrated by thinkers such as Paul Goodman and Paulo Freire.
Yet, in the main, it must be admitted that anarchist studies in geography remain a hope rather than a reality. With the radical turn in geography after the political and intellectual ferment that followed 1968, scholars began again to look at Kropótkin. He appeared to offer a radical vision more ecological and less state-centric than the Marxism that drove the countercultural agenda in Anglo-American geography, but the anarchist critique of Marxism was never developed with either the theoretical or empirical force of its radical rival and thus these dimensions are still underdeveloped in modern radical geography. There are few studies of the biogeography of Mutual Aid, the historical geography of medieval communalism, and the economic geography of voluntary association. The legacy of Kropótkin has potential.
Anarchism/Anarchist Geography; Cultural Geography; Darwinism (and Social Darwinism); Eurocentrism; Exploration; Gentrification; Humanism/Humanistic Geography; Imperialistic Geographies; Lamarck(ian)ism; Mackinder, H. J.; Radical Environmentalism; Radical Geography; Radical Political Economy; Reclus, E.; Segregation, Urban; Socialism; State; Territory and Territoriality; von Humboldt, A.
http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu Dana Ward’s homepage: Kropotkin Archive.
http://www.marxists.org Marxists Internet Archive: Kropotkin Reference.
http://recollectionbooks.com Recollection books used: Peter Kropotkin page from the Daily Bleed’s Anarchist Encyclopedia.
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