The era which preceded the Great War was a time of tremendous intellectual revolution. These revolutions occurred in almost every field and stretched the full range from sociology to psychology, from literature to linguistics, from philosophy to physics. In fact, it seems as though no institution emerged unchanged, or at the very least unscrutinized, from the 1880-1914 period. This epoch surrounding the fin-de-sicle was, indeed, benchmarked by this profound iconoclasm which, in the words of Carl Schorske, seemed to be in the very air of the time.
It is against this background of an era in which all institutions were open to question that Anarchism, a set of beliefs which questions the validity of institutions themselves, found its greatest following in word and deed. The strong coincidence of intellectual anarchistic thought and of the iconoclastic pre-war era might well be the most manifest proof of the scent which permeated the air. Although the idea of a stateless society can be traced back to ancient times, anarchism is a modern phenomena. However, this seemingly obvious connection between the group whose principal interests are psychological and whose political orientation is anarchist and the more “conservative” iconoclasts such as Nietzsche, Freud and Darwin “has been completely neglected by modern philosophers and intellectual historians alike.”
It is to this oversight of historians which this paper will attempt to address itself. Fortunately there is an instance of this “anarcho-psychological”
disposition in the person of the great anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin’s version of anarchism has much in common with the other intellectuals of his time in his influences and his appeal. By demonstrating Kropotkin’s intellectual ties to his time, it is evident that anarchism fits within that general iconoclasm of the pre-war period, and in fact be seen as the ultimate political manifestation of the anti-positivistic trend of the era.
Kropotkin was born in Czarist Russia in 1842 and was himself the son of a family of the highest Russian nobility.
He showed a great intellectual interest even as a small child, but his educational was on the whole undistinguished.
Kropotkin later became a page de chamber at the court of Emperor Alexander II, but he soon tired of the posh, dull life of a courtier and in 1862 requested a transfer to the Cossack regiment of the Amur in Siberia. This request greatly angered Kropotkin’s politically conservative father, who believed that his son sohould live the life of an aristicract. Kropotkin resisted his father and left for the far east. While in Siberia, Kropotkin served as both a Geographer and Naturalist. His studies of the Siberian land-mass led him to formulate a widely accepted theory of its geological origin. It was at this time that he also became acquainted with the writtings of an earlier French anarchist thinker Pierre–Joseph Proudhon. His readings and scientific activity, as well as his anger at the treatment of Polish prisoners after the Polish revolt of 1863 reinforced his political estrangement form his aristocratic roots and drove him further in the direction of political radicalism.
Although this was a time of relative social liberalism in Russia, Kropotkin became more and more disturbed by the slowness which these social reforms were instituted. “Any temporary improvement in the life of a small group of people in our present society only helps to keep the conservative spirit intact.” Kropotkin wrote in 1873.
This writing followed an attempt on the life of Czar Alexander II by seven years, and most likely as a result of that failed attempt Kropotkin was arrested in March of 1874 and was imprisoned in the fortress of Peter and Paul. He spent more than two years in this prison, but was later transferred because of failing health to military hospital outside of St Petersburg in 1876. In the more relaxed state of this incarceration, Kropotkin made plans to escape, and succeeded in doing so in that same year.
In August of 1876 he landed in England and settled there until 1917. Outside of the intellectual repression of Russia, Kropotkin discovered his gift as a radical intellectual thinker and social critic.
Kropotkin’s brand of anarchy has been called a less violent philosophy than that of his predecessor Bakunin. But aside from his unrefuted amicable personality, his courtly manners, and scientific logic, Kropotkin was no less adversed to the use of violence in the name of the anarchist ideal.
He saw the possible necessity of terroristic acts in order to hasten the fall of the corrupt idea of institutionalized governments. Krpotokin’s scientific observations had convinced him of the importance of catastrophe to change the existent order of things. It is not unreasonable that it was this scientific sense of the world which reinforced Kropotkin’s belief in the validity of his anarchist cause. The state was, in his view, an artificial construct which denied the worth of the individual by its relentless subjugation of natural human rights and equality. Kropotkin clearly believed that individualism, ‘real individualism’ in the sense of an enrichment of personality, could only arise from a society where cöoperation in the material factors of life had removed those causes of strife and oppression which, in any other order, relagate individualism to a privilege of the few who live at the expense of the toiling many.