If Marx and Kropotkin had have met, it could have been on two occasions: in 1876-7 when Kropotkin arrived in England after making a dramatic and well-publicised escape from a Russian prison, or in 1880-1 when Kropotkin again lived in England for a while (before going to France - and ending up in a French prison).
As a matter of fact, I think Marx would have been quite keen to have met Kropotkin on both these occasions. In the last years of his life (he was to die in 1883. aged 65) Marx took a great interest in Russia. He had always seen Tsarist Russia as a threat to democratic, let alone socialist advance in Western Europe and was interested in the prospects of an anti-Tsarist revolution there. He learned Russian and began to study in detail its history and social and political structure.
Kropotkins reputation during Marx’s lifetime was not so much as an anarchist but as a Russian revolutionary with socialist leanings and as a geographer and explorer. Kropotkin came from a very privileged background. A member of the old Moscow aristocracy and a hereditary prince, he had been enrolled in the elite corps of pages, a military academy that supplied personal assistants to the Tsar. He had himself been the Tsar’s personal page for a while, but when it came to choosing which regiment to be an officer in he opted not for some prestigious one but for a regiment of Cossacks in Siberia a first sign that he was becoming disillusioned with the Tsarist regime. In Siberia, where he did his exploring and geological studies, his liberal sentiments grew turning in revolutionary ones, especially after a visit to Switzerland in 1872/3 where he joined the IWMA (International Working Mens Association, or First International). On his return to Russia he became involved in a revolutionary circle, of the "go to the people"
variety rather than the conspiracies to assassinate Tsarist officials and even the Tsars that later developed. He got arrested and was imprisoned, escaping, as I have mentioned, in 1876.
Marx would have loved to have met such a person and to have discussed with him the prospects for an anti-Tsarist revolution and for socialism in Russia including the Russian peasant commune (or mir). But the title of this talk is not "What Marx Would Have Said to Kropotkin"
. but what "Marx Should Have Said to Kropotkin"
. So what, then, should Marx have said?
1. "Don’t call me a State Socialist! I was putting forward a case for abolishing the State while you were still a toddler". Marx
2. "With regard to paying people in labour-time vouchers in the early days of Socialist society, you were right and I was wrong. This was a silly, unworkable idea".
3. "Like me. You’re a Socialist. We both want a stateless, moneyless, wageless society. Why then do you feel you have more in common with non-socialist opponents of the State than with me? After all, your disagreement with them is over ends, while you’re disagreement with me is only over means".
Most people in this room will already know either from reading Marx themselves or from hearing the arguments that Marx was not what in the 1880s and 1890s was called a "State Socialist"
but that, on the contrary, he was what might be called a "no-State Socialist"
. This, however, is not what most people out there, including many otherwise well-informed people, think. The myth of Marx the Statist is widely accepted, as a result, it has to be said, not just of his critics but also of many (perhaps even most) of those who have regarded themselves as his supporters.
But it is a myth and one that I’d like to begin by demolishing. The French marxologist, Maximilien Rubel, in an article first published in 1973 entitled "Marx: Theorist of Anarchism"
has even argued that Marx was one of the pioneers of modern anarchism! I’m not sure I’d want to call Marx an anarchist without qualification, but I think a strong case can be made out for seeing Marx as the first person to put forward a full theory of no-state communism. Marx was, if you like, the first coherent and consistent theorist of an anarchist communist society. The quotes that I’ll be using to show this are mostly taken from Rubel’s article.
Marx became a Socialist, or Communist as it was then known and as Marx generally described himself, sometime in 1843. Before that he had been a simple Democrat and active as the editor of a Cologne newspaper financed by the radical section of the Rhineland capitalists and which advocated political democracy for Prussia (which governed the Rhineland) and Germany generally.
At this time Marx accepted the view of the then dominant school of political thought in Germany that of Hegel that the State was a higher realm of human activity than the realm of everyday economic activity ("civil society"
). This was because, whereas in their everyday economic activity humans were acting in their own individual selfish interest (as they had to, to survive), the State was the realm in which they pursued the common good, the general interest of all. So the State in concrete terms, the law-making and law-enforcing institutions of society (the government, the parliament, the courts, the army, the police, prisons) was seen as representing the interests of the community as a whole. As indeed it still generally is seen.
Actually. Hegel was a great deal more philosophical than this, speaking of the State as the embodiment of reason, etc. He also saw the existing Protestant Christian Kingdom of Prussia as filling this role. But Marx and the group of Young Hegelians to which he then belonged argued that the State would not become the representative of the whole community until and unless all its citizens had an equal say in its decision-making processes, until, in other words, it had become a Democratic State.
When Marx became a Communist and came to reject individualism as the regulating principle of everyday economic life his perspective altered. The establishment of Communism would mean that it would be the realm of everyday economic activity that would become the realm in which humans pursued the common interest they would no longer be individuals trying to make an independent living in conflict with all others trying to do the same, but members of a real community cooperating to meet their needs. This meant that there would no longer be any need for another, separate and superior, realm of activity in which the common interest was pursued. There was no need, in other words, for a State.
In fact, once he had become a Communist Marx came to see the State as a false (or at least only a very partial) community and as a realm that only needed to exist where individualism was the regulating principle of everyday life. It was an institution that was only needed, and only arose, out of such conditions, in order to restrain economic individualism in case it should tear society apart.
Marx expressed these views in the first article he wrote after becoming a Socialist/Communist published in 1844 and called "On the Jewish Question"
. This was the question of whether or not Jews who did not convert to Christianity should be granted political and civil rights (in Prussia at that time only Christians could vote, be civil servants, army officers, etc). Naturally. Marx argued "yes"
, but went on to argue that "political emancipation"
, or the establishment of a Democratic State with equal political rights, for all, did not amount to full human emancipation.
Political emancipation and a Democratic State, he pointed out had been achieved in the US but humans there were still not in conscious control of their destiny as their lives were still dominated by money and the need to acquire it to survive. Human emancipation, could only be achieved in a communist society where needs would be satisfied directly without having to go through the medium of money. Such a moneyless, communist society would not require a State, not even a democratic one, since there would then no longer be any need for a separate, political realm in which the general interest was pursued this would be being done directly at the level of everyday life.
As Marx put it in the philosophical terms in which he then expressed himself:
"Man must recognise his own forces as social forces, organise them, and thus no longer separate social forces from himself in the form of political forces. Only when this has been achieved will human emancipation be complete" ( Jewish Question, 1844. Early Texts, p. 108).
So, what Marx was advocating was a society without money and without a State an anarchist communist society, if you like. And this remained his goal for the rest of his life, as a few quotes will confirm:
"The existence of the State and the existence of slavery are inseparable" (1844 article, Early Texts, p. 213).
"[The proletarians] find themselves directly opposed to the form in which, hitherto, the individuals, of which society consists, have given themselves collective expression, that is, the State. In order, therefore, to assert themselves as individuals, they must overthrow the State" (1845, German Ideology, p. 85).
Particularly significant is what he wrote in 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy
. This is a criticism of the economic views of Proudhon, the man who is regarded by Anarchists as the founder of modern anarchism. Proudhon wanted a society without government, a society he called "Anarchy"
. However, he was not a Socialist or Communist but an advocate of various cranky financial reforms in the context of a completely free market economy. In fact he was a bitter opponent of Communism as he believed that this would immensely increase the power of the government and turn people into State slaves (the common bourgeois objection to communism at the time.
So it is very relevant how Marx dealt with Proudhons views. Naturally, he shows that a free market economy based on free credit is not the answer. Communism is, but Marx underlines that this will be a society without a State:
"Does this mean that after the fall of the old society there will be a new class domination culminating in a new political power? No ... The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society" (Poverty of Philosophy, 1847. Pp 196-7).
Exactly the same point is made in the 1848 Communist Manifesto:
"When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of the associated individuals, the public power will lose its political character" (1848 Communist Manifesto, p. 81).
After the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 Marx was called upon to write what amounted to an obituary for it on behalf of the General Council of the IWMA. He wrote various drafts for this statement which was published under the title The Civil War in France
. In one of these drafts Marx wrote:
"This was, therefore, a Revolution not against this or that, Legitimate, Constitutional, Republican or Imperialist form of State Power. It was a Revolution against the State itself, of this supernaturalist Abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people of its own social life. It was not a revolution to transfer it from one fraction of the ruling class to the other, but a Revolution to break down this horrid machinery of Class-domination itself" (p. 166).
This was an exaggerated description of what the Paris Commune was about (it was not the attempted socialist revolution that this suggests) and it was no doubt because of this that Marx did not include this passage in the final version. But it does show very clearly that Marx thought that the socialist revolution had to be a revolution against the State, not a revolution to establish a more powerful, centralised State.
I only want to give one more quote from Marx but a very significant one as in it he uses the actual word "Anarchy"
. In the course of the dispute that broke out in the IWMA after the suppression of the Paris Commune, Bakunin circulated a document in which he claimed Marx stood for a new State in which a new ruling class of ex-workers would rule over the mass of workers who would remain exploited and oppressed. Marx wrote some notes in the margin of his copy of Bakunin’s pamphlet. Some are just words like "idiot"
but others are more substantial, including the following:
"All Socialists understand by "anarchy" this: the aim of the proletarian movement, the abolition of classes, once achieved, then the power of the State, which serves to keep the great producing majority under the yoke of a small exploiting minority, will disappear and the functions of government will be transformed into simple administrative functions"(1874).
Here Marx is saying, in explicit terms, that the communist society he sees as the aim of the working class movement is to be a no-state, no-government society. Here Marx is proclaiming himself to be an . . . . anarchist communist. Eight years before Kropotkin. Kropotkin
There can be no doubt that Kropotkin was a Socialist in the sense we use the term. In fact he probably did more than any other well-known 18th century Socialist to promote the idea that Socialism means not just a stateless but also a moneyless and wageless society a society where the principle "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs"
would apply fully, where individuals would have free access to goods and services according to their own self-defined needs and without rationing of any kind. Kropotkin, in fact, always regarded himself as a Socialist and always called himself a Socialist.
Here, for instance, is what he wrote in an article in an English magazine in 1887:
"Common possession of the necessaries for production implies common enjoyment of the fruits of the common production; and we consider that an equitable organisation of society can only arise when every wage-system is abandoned, and when everybody, contributing for the common well-being to the full extent of his capacities, shall enjoy also from the common stock of society to the fullest possible extent of his needs "(1887, Anarchism Communism: Its Basis and Principles, p. 59).
The Swiss Jura Federation of the IWMA adopted "complete communism"
as its aim in 1880. Previously it had stood for the common ownership of all productive resources but for a person’s share in consumer goods and services to be proportional to the number of hours of work they had performed. Kropotkin and others criticised this as being only "incomplete"
communism and argued that a consistent communism implies free consumption according to individual needs as well as common ownership.
At this time Kropotkin (like many others) felt that capitalism could not last into the 20th century and that therefore a socialist resolution was more or less imminent. His articles from this periods (1880s) all advocate that the aim of this revolution should not be the formation of a revolutionary government nor the institution of a so-called "Workers State"
(he actually used the term) but the immediate establishment of full communism.When a number of his articles from this period were collected together and published (in French, the language he wrote them in, though from 1886 he resided permanently in England till returning to Russia in 1917 after the overthrow of the Tsar) in 1892, Kropotkin gave the book the title The Conquest of Bread
. This well sums up what he thought the revolution should be all about: not about conquering political power and setting up a new political regime (as had happened many times in France without altering the position of the majority of the people), but about meeting the immediate consumption needs for food, clothing and shelter of the impoverished majority. To this end. he advocated that all food, clothes and houses in areas won by the revolution should be put into a common pool to which every member of the oppressed class should have free access according to their basic needs.
The words Kropotkin used for "free access"
were (in French) "pris au tas"
, literally "taking from the pile"
or, colloquially, "help yourself, take what you need"
. If this wasn’t done, said Kropotkin, then the Revolution would have failed. It has to be said, however, that Kropotkins conception of the form the Revolution would take was somewhat old-fashioned, even for his days: a series of town risings on the lines of the Paris Commune of 1871.
One of the articles that later appeared in The Conquest of Bread
was called "The Wage System"
(written in 1888, it appeared as a pamphlet in English in 1889). In my opinion, it is the best refutation that has been written of the idea of Labour Time Vouchers an idea, of course, that Marx somewhat unwisely endorsed in his 1875 comments on the Gotha programme of the German Social Democrats. Kropotkin’s criticism was not in fact specifically aimed at Marx (he couldn’t have known what Marx’s views on the subject were since Marx’s comments had not been made public at the time Kropotkin was writing). It was aimed at all those, including some anarchists as well as the German Social Democrats, who advocated the use of Labour Time Vouchers (LTVs), labour certificates, labour checks, labour chits, labour money, labour notes as they were variously called, to regulate consumption in a Socialist society.
Kropotkin put forward two simple, but effective arguments.
First, that it just didn’t make sense to try to measure an individual’s contribution to production. This was impossible since production was not (or no longer) individual, but was cooperative and social. All the workers in a particular factory or mine contributed to the product, but only as a group, not individually. In fact, in the end all that is produced is the result of the collective work effort of all the producers in all farms, mines, factories, transport, services, etc. So:
"No hard and fast line can be drawn between the work of one and the work of another. To measure them by results leads to absurdity. To divide them into fractions and measured them by hours of labour leads to absurdity also. One course remains: not to measure them at all, but to recognise the right of all who take part in productive labour first of all to live - and then to enjoy the comforts of life" (1888, The Wage System, p. 10).
Kropotkin’s second argument was that, in any event, and even if production had still been individual, it still wouldn’t be fair to ration a person’s consumption by the number of hours worked. Because the skills they would be using would have been acquired only through society they weren’t born with them, but were benefiting from the experience of countless past generations. And the towns and factories they worked in, as well as the general level of education and culture, were likewise the result of the work of past generations. So:
"A society that has seized upon all social wealth, and has plainly announced that all have a right to this wealth, whatever may be the part they have taken in creating it in the past, will be obliged to give up all idea of wages, either in money or in labour notes" (1888. The Wage System, p.8).
What Kropotkin was claiming was that to use LTVs to regulate consumption would be to retain the wages system.
If people are to be given labour vouchers to regulate consumption, this implies that goods and services have to be given labour-time "prices"
. I’ve got the word "prices"
in inverted commas in my notes but I could as well have left them out, as it is clear that the LTV system does imply problems of supply and demand, inflation, devaluation, etc, even taxes, just like the ordinary monetary system does.
When he endorsed LTVs Marx never said anything about this, though he had done earlier when he had discussed and dismissed as unworkable various schemes that had been put forward for introducing labour money under capitalism. What he failed to realise was that many of his objections also applied to the use of LTVs in Socialism. LTVs were, or would rapidly have become, labour money and we’d be back to buying and selling and capitalism.
It was Kropotkin’s merit to have seen this and to have denounced the LTV system as nonsense a criticism of course which we have long taken on board.
Kropotkin was also able to see that because they didn’t really aim at abolishing the wages system, groups like the German Social Democrats stood not for socialism, but for State capitalism. In fact Kropotkin must have been one of the first to use this term, as for instance in his autobiography Memoirs of A Revolutionist
that first appeared in 1899. And in one of another series of articles later published (in 1913) in Modern Science and Anarchism
"We entirely differ from all the sections of state socialists in that we do not see in the system of state capitalism, which is now preached under the name of collectivism, a solution to the social question. We see in the organisation of the posts and telegraphs, in the State railways, and the like which are represented as illustrations of a society without capitalists nothing but a new, perhaps improved, but still undesirable form of the wage system" (1913, Modern Science and Anarchism, p. 170).
"Anarchism cannot see in the next coming revolutions a mere exchange of monetary symbols for labor-checks, or an exchange of present capitalism for state-capitalism" (p.195).
So, as I said, if Marx had met Kropotkin he ought to have conceded that he was wrong on labour-time vouchers and that Kropotkin was right.
Of course Marx could have said that, in the end, there is no point in discussing now how goods should be distributed in the early days of Socialism, since that will have to depend on how much there was to distribute at the time of the socialist revolution. In fact this is what he did say. Kropotkin was fully aware of this and one of the themes of the Conquest of Bread
was to show that enough food, clothing and shelter already existed, or could very rapidly be brought into existence, to satisfy people’s needs for them. He knew that his call for the revolution to bring in full communism immediately depended on this being the case, and he used his scientific approach and knowledge to demonstrate that it was. This was also the theme of his other book Fields, Factories and Workshops
, the first edition of which came out in 1899. Whereas the assumption in the Conquest of Bread
was that communism would and should be implemented to begin with in one town and its surrounding countryside, here Kropotkin set out to show that a self-sufficient anarchist communist society could be established in the two islands that make up the British Isles.
In the 1880s, as I said, Kropotkin really believed that a Socialist revolution was more or less round the corner. When it became clear that this was not the case, he settled down to trying to give anarchism a scientific basis in much the same way as Engels did for socialism. And just as Engels spoke of "scientific socialism"
, so Kropotkin spoke of "scientific anarchism"
. Kropotkin was in fact better-qualified to do this than Engels since he was actually a scientist himself, having made a major contribution to an understanding of the geology and geography of North East Asia and nearly becoming the Secretary of the Russian Geographic Society (he had been offered the post, but turned it down in order to devote his life to revolutionary activity).
Kropotkin’s great achievement here was undoubtedly his book Mutual Aid
(1902), which used to be on the bookshelves of every Socialist (in fact we used to sell it as a Socialist book along with those of Marx and Engels). Subtitled "A Factor in Evolution"
, this was a refutation of the Social Darwinist view (then very popular as a defence and justification of capitalism) that capitalism was natural as "the struggle for existence"
and "the survival of the fittest"
were inevitable features of all animal societies, including those formed by the animal species homo sapiens.
Kropotkin produced the evidence to show that "mutual aid"
and cooperation had been an important factor in both biological and social evolution. It was the right book at the right time as far as Socialists were concerned and by the right person, a Socialist who had had some scientific training and experience. This no doubt explains its one-time immense popularity amongst critics of capitalism. It showed that nature was not like capitalism and that human beings were social, cooperating animals and not isolated, competing individuals. This has since been confirmed many times by other scientists anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists and others and is now an integral part of the case for socialism as a refutation of the so-called "human nature"
Incidentally, the American scientific writer Stephen Jay Gould
in his collection of articles Bully for Brontosaurus
has a chapter on Kropotkin called "Kropotkin Was No Crackpot"
in which he says that most of what Kropotkin wrote in Mutual Aid
has stood the test of time, even if he did commit the same fallacy as the Social Darwinists (to reach the opposite conclusion, of course) of arguing from what happened in the rest of nature to what should happen in human society. Creating an anarchist tradition
The other thing Kropotkin did, once his revolutionary days were over, was to try to create an anarchist tradition separate and distinct from the socialist tradition. Originally, those who became the anarchists were one of a number of different groups within the First International, a group which saw themselves as Socialists and who called themselves Socialists. They stood for the end of the rule and privileges of the bourgeoisie, for the common ownership of productive resources, for the abolition of the wages system and for production for use not profit. In other words, they werepart and saw themselves as part of a broader anti-capitalist movement.
This, no doubt, is why we today would find just as much to agree with in the writings of those in this tradition Kropotkin, Malatesta. Rudolf Rocker
, Alexander Berkman
and others as we do in the writings of those more directly in our tradition like Kautsky
, Rosa Luxemburg
. And our differences with them on how to get to the classless stateless, wageless, moneyless society that is Socialism are no greater, or no less, than those with the Social Democratic tradition of the Second International from which we emerged.
Perhaps because he saw that most of those who called themselves Socialists (and the German Social Democrats in particular) stood in fact for State capitalism, Kropotkin became the prime mover in an attempt to invent a separate "anarchist" tradition. Although he himself was a thorough-going Communist, he dropped the insistence on standing for a moneyless and wageless society as a condition for admission to this tradition in favour of standing only for a stateless society.
As a result, some strange people, from a working class point of view, came to be included in particular extreme individualists like Max Stirner as well as various currency cranks and free marketeers and other advocates of complete laissez-faire in the tradition of Proudhon. All of them raving anti-Socialists but with whom Kropotkin felt some affinity just because they envisaged the disappearance of the State even though they were all in favour of money and the market.
It has to be said that Kropotkin (who wrote the contribution on "Anarchism"
that appeared for years in the Encyclopaedia Britannica
) largely succeeded in creating this anarchist tradition which lumped together all those who opposed the state from whatever point of view. It has affected anarchism ever since. Most anarchists today justify their anarchism not on the grounds that they want to abolish the State because it is an instrument of class oppression and defender of private property and capitalist exploitation, but on the grounds of the "right of the individual"
to be unrestrained by any external authority. Look at the various anthologies of anarchism in the bookshops and you will see that the socialist element has shrunk to a distinct minority viewpoint.
The idea of the isolated, completely independent and unrestrained individual is an absurd proposition, both from the philosophical point of view and from the point of view of social theory. It assumes that the individual exists prior to society. And it is this that makes it absurd since, clearly, society exists prior to any particular individual. An individual human being does not, and could not, exist outside society: all the things that makes humans specifically human arose in and through society language, abstract thought, the transmission of acquired experience by non-biological means, the consciousness of being a separate individual, even our physical attributes (voice box, brain size), all these are social products.
Society is of course composed of individuals, but of social and already socialised individuals, not of previously independently-existing individuals who came together to set up society and who retain certain pre-existing rights against society, including the right not to comply with majority decisions if they don’t want to. People who take up this position are opposing not so much the State as Society. The ironic thing here is that Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid
is one of the best refutations of extreme individualist position, which of course is shared by open supporters of capitalism as well as probably by most anarchists nowadays.
It was because he understood that anarchists, including some who regarded themselves as Communists, were taking up an anti-society rather than a simple anti-State position that William Morris always refused to call himself an anarchist; in fact to denounce anarchism (in this sense) as an impossibility. This from a man who is on record as saying:
"State Socialism? I don’t agree with it, in fact I think the two words contradict one another, and that it is the business of Socialise to destroy the State and put Free Society in its place"(Morris, Commonweal, 17 May 1890, p.479).
So there would have been no need for Marx to have been clairvoyant in the early 1880s and warned Kropotkin against going off the rails by associating with anti-socialist, individualist anarchists as he was to after Marx’s death. Morris could have done it for him, and no doubt did since Morris and Kropotkin met frequently up to Morris’s own death in 1896.
It only remains to mention the sad end to Kropotkin’s political life. When in 1914 war broke out Kropotkin came out in vociferous support of the British-French-Russian side against the German-Austro-Hungarian side in that struggle for markets, trade routes and spheres of influence. He was immediately disowned as a traitor (as he was) by most of the anarchist movement.
It was clear that his character was marred by a deep-rooted anti-German prejudice which led him to advocate and cheer on the slaughter of millions of workers in a conflict between two imperialist power blocs. Even after he returned to Russia following the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917 he still advocated continued Russian participation in the slaughter. The Russian soldiers, however, were more sensible. They voted with their feet, as Lenin put it, by simply walking away from the front.
Kropotkin died in Russia in February l921 and his funeral was the occasion of the last public opposition to the state capitalist regime Lenin and the Bolsheviks were setting up in Russia. He died a discredited old man, but this should not detract from his contribution to socialist ideas in the rest of his. life. After all. some others who we have always recognised made a contribution, such as Kautsky and Plekhanov, also took (separate) sides in this imperialist slaughter. And we are on record as criticising Marx for his support of the British-French-Turkish side in the Crimean War.
I want to end on a point anarchists should appreciate. This talk has been called "What Marx Should Have Said to Kropotkin"
. But neither Marx nor Kropotkin should be regarded as authorities, whose views should be accepted just because they put them forward. They should be regarded simply as two 19th century Socialists who made some interesting contributions to the development of Socialist ideas. Their views are not, and should not be regarded, as any more "authoritative"
than those of any of us in this room. The case for a classless, stateless, moneyless, wageless society rests on the facts and on its own merits, not on what one or other great man may or may not have said or written.