The Perihelion Effect

the anarcho-psychology of Peter Kropotkin

Nietzsche is critical of Darwin for over estimating the influence of ‘external influences’ at the expense of the form-creating forces within the individual.

While Kropotkin would certainly not agree with Nietzsche’s conclusion of cooperative man as inferior, he would see the above statement as proof of the theory of mutual aid.  With out cooperation, the “weak” could never survive the hardships of a brutal existence in nature.  While Nietzsche sees such cooperation as a negative phenomena, preventing the man from achieving his Super-Man transcendence, Kropotkin clearly foresees the possibility of such a rising above the ‘herd’.

In a long letter which Kropotkin wrote to a friend in 1897, he sums up his concept of the individual and how society has destroyed that individuality:

” Nobody, except Ibsen, has been able, it seems to me to rise to the conception of true individualism, and even he, having perceived it by a vision of genius, has not succeeded in exposing it in such a manner as to make himself understood.  all the same, there is in Ibsen a certain vision of individualism to come which I can understand and which will be the superior affirmation of individuality- …

The Individualism which, I believe, will become the ideal of the philosophy shortly to appear will not seek its expression in the appropriation of   more  that just share for each of the common patrimony of production (the only kind understood by the bourgeoisie) ; nor in the name of the world of a crowd of slaves  serving the elect nation (Individualismus or Pro sibi Drawininanum, or rather Huxleianum ) nor in the sensual individualism and the liberation of good and evil which has been preached to us by the French anarchists, Nor in the oppression of the neighbor ( Individualismus Nietzscheanum ) which debases the “beautiful blond beast” to the status of a bull in a herd of bulls- but in a kind of Individualismus or personalismus  or Pro sibi communisticum , which I see coming and which I would seek to define clearly if I could give the necessary time to it.”        

Unlike the Nihelists who based their thinking on the prëeminence of rationality, Kropotkin allowed a place for the instinctual as well.  Thus rather than arguing his anarchist theories from the entirely abstract metaphysical position of Nietzsche, Kropotkin used the, by then scientifically accepted, paradigm of Darwin.  To his credit, in 1912 The Royal Geographic Society wrote of Kropotkin:

“…Your ammendments to Darwin’s theory have gained you worldwide fame and have broadened our understanding of nature.”

Yet no matter how influential Kropotkin’s were within the scientific community, this attempt to wed the socially conscious theory of anarchy with natural science stands out as a clear reaction to the conservative Social Darwinists.  As Carroll puts it “Anarcho-psychology, conceptualized hope not in terms of economic progress, nor a more rational society, but in terms of the individual egotistically taking control of himself, liberating himself from the mists of ideology by subjecting them to scrutiny…and how to exploit his own surplus energy for his own sake”

This irrational exploitation of a thing for its own sake, harmonizes very well in the iconoclastic revolutionary tone of the fin-de-sicle.

The reaction to the thought of Kropotkin was no less similar in tone.  Carl Schorske’s comment about the “Austrian Trio” of Schönerer, Lueger and Herzl, is just as apropos for Kropotkin:

“The liberals succeeded in releasing the political energies of the masses, but against themselves rather than against their ancient foes.   Every shot aimed at the enemy above produced a hostile salvo from below.”


For the force of anarchy came not in through the power of its word, but by the potential threat it presented.  The liberals were suffice it to say not enchanted with the tenents of anarchism.  It is interesting to note that Mutual Aid was “A good, healthy, cheerful, delightful book, which does one good to read.” by The Review of Reviews at the time of its publishing in 1902.  But the effects of the anarchists were anything but good, healthy, and cheerful.  As historian Barbara Tuchman phrased it “So enchanting was the idea of a stateless society, without government, without law , without the ownership of property, in which corrupt institutions having been swept away, man would be free to be as god intended him to be, that six heads of state were assassinated for its sake in the twenty years before 1914.”

  While the question remains as to why the idea of the “deed” should have taken such fertile root in those twenty years.  Why could the idea of anarchy have such force as to bring about the widespred following which it attracted?  There is of course no difinitive answer to that question, but Kropotkin’s identification of the principal causes of anarchy were not too far removed from the perceptions of the other intellectuals of the end-of-the century era. Such common formulas give strong evidence of the important concerns  which were in the air of the time.

Kropotkin’s reaction to the idea of government as an alienating force is practically mirrored by the thought of French sociologist Emile Durkeim.  Durkeim’s philosophy was based on a notion of social solidarity, which was an outgrowth of his general theory of the collective social conscience. Further more, Durkeim’s identification of the “horde” as a group held together by a common set of sentiments is reminiscent of the blind herd mentality which Nietzsche’s philosophy attempted to overcome.

Society was defined by the distinction which Durkeim drew between members of rival “social types”. These types which Durkeim classified were the “normal” on the one hand , and the “pathological” on the other.  In Durkeimean terms the “normal” was a term only relative to the given social type at a given moment in a society’s development, particularly during transitional phases.   

Owing much to Darwin in this regard, Durkeim points out that the disemination of any characteristic within a species would be inexplicable if it were not supposed to be advantageous to the survival of the species as a whole.

  These characteristics manifested in the individual were symptomatic of real illness which was rooted in the culture itself.  In other words, the individual’s social nature is a microcosmic reflection of social conditions within the entire society.  Ideas which are widely influential are therefore acountable only if they are seen in their total cultural context.  “Sick” individuals, are products of a society which could produce such a sickness.  The ultimate “disease” may affect the solitary person, but in Durkeimean terms the root is the diseased society itself.  Society, for Durkeim, is an irreducible entity with its own ontological reality.

By Durkeimean analysis, the phenomena of anarchy is not the inspiration of a few deranged individuals, but rather evidence of the anomic state of man living in the culture of the fin-de-sicle.  This profound sense of personal alienation is therefore a fact of the society as a whole.

Max Weber found the roots of this anomie in the growing strength of the bureaucratic institution which denies the individuality of human being.  Weber shares Durkeim’s sense perception of his culture lacking real human cohession. Weber’s inditement of bureaucracy also shares with Karl Marx an identification of the growing alienation with the growth of the power of the state.  However, Weber denied that any form of social activity could be seen in purely Marxian economic terms.  All activities have an economic aspect insofar as the face scarcity of resources and thus involve planning, cöoperation, and compition.

  But economic considerations alone cannot explain the particular direction taken by any social activity or movement; for this, other values have to be taken into consideration.  Further, the sociologist’s own culturally conditioned values are already involved in the way in which he has isolated an intelligible field of study from the infinite complexity of social life.  Hence, there is a certain subjectivity of value at the very foundation of the social scientific inquiry, but this need not damage the objectivity of the results of such inquiry.

Like Durkeim, and Nietzsche,  Weber was concerned with the total context of the individual within society.  These three thinkers provide a rare insight to the perceived condition of man within the fin-de-sicle society.  For all their various formulations, contradictions, and disimilarities, the general thesis plays variations upon one theme.  In the almost every sense these influential thinkers all agreed upon the needless and harmful separation of the individual from a decadent or perverted culture.  This commonality of thought can only lead to the conclusion that the general perceptions which these thinkers shared reflect an underlying truth of the radical intelligencia of the fin-de-sicle.

How different then is this common critique of society, from the anarchist’s rejection of all of that culture’s institutions?  Are the violent deeds of the anarchists simply anomlies within the larger more stable culture? Or to the contrary, were the acts of the anarchists reflective of the general social being of that culture? The proof of Nietzsche, Durkeim and Weber’s theories of alienation, seem in fact to be captured and underlined by the acts of these “desperate romantics”.


Barbara Tuchman points out the tremendous strains and hardships which the lower classes were subjected to during the pre-war era.  The economic troubles of the late century had driven the urban workers in to even more strained conditions than their industrial revolution cousins had endured.  Often these warrens of the poor were full of men, women, grandparents and children, eating, sleeping, fornicating, defecating, sickening, and dying in one room.

  Given these brutal facts of life it seems almost natural that these members of the lumpen class, would seek out even the most radical solutions to their daily strife.  The appeal of anarchy may well have been for the intelligencia, its utopist hope of a life of the mind’s freedom.  But for the working class, its doctrine offered escape from the misery of urban survival.  While it may be true that: “Between the idelogues and the actual doers of the deeds there was no contact.”

, the very fact of anarchy’s historical significance belies the sensitivity of the isolated intellectuals and the down-trodden desperates whom they spoke for.

Was this tension between the individual and his society really sensed by the common man of the time?  The evidence for this recognition of an expanding government at the expense of personal identity seems convincing.  Stephen Kern identifies this era as being dominated by a preoccupation with Space and Time.  However there is much within Kern’s book which points to this struggle for individuality as well.

“At 10 o’clock on the morning of July 1, 1913 the Eiffel Tower sent the first time signal transmited around the world.  the independence of local times began to collapse once the framework of a global electronic network was established”

With this transmition came a sudden public awareness of a shrinking world.

  Kern states that the greatest challenge of the time was to affirm the reality of private sense of time in the face of mass standardization.

It seems evident that he is supporting the proposition that the governments of the time made overtures toward consolidation of their power.  This assertion is true not only in the light that of the fact that each of the Great Powers had only fully unified their respective empires in the few years surrounding this time period, but also by the virtue of the fact that a world standard time was under serious consideration.  This governmental invasion of personal time highlights yet again the possible source of anomic alienation, and thus the roots of anarchistic word and deed.

It was finally the deed which brought the ideology of anarchism to the attention of a fearful world.  The year 1878 saw four attempts on crowned heads: Two on Wilhelm I of Germany and one each on the Kings of Spain and Italy.  The “Propoganda of the deed”  Kropotkin claimed “was worth a thousand phamphlets.”

  But it is wrong to equate anarchism with irrational violence.  Even as Kropotkin called these assasins “heros of the movement”  he still maintained that anarchy’s goals  were not to destroy.   “…we must build. We must build in the hearts of men. We must establish a kingdom of God.”

  Anarchy was not devoted to the destruction of society for its own sake.  The anarchists of the fin-de-sicle hoped for peace, struggled for their identities, and as paradoxical as it may sound, killed in the names of “cooperation, suport and sympathy.”


The recognition of anarchy as a part of the general intellectual climate of the time gives new insight to the culture of Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein.  The heightened sense of anomie which one finds reading the polimical tracts of the anarchists, reaffirms social theories of Durkeim and Weber, but more importantly sheds new light on the society which gave rise to those theories.  The thought of Kropotkin is clearly in line with that of his less radical counterparts.  Like his conservative cohorts, Kropotkin saw the rise of the state as a limiting factor in human life.  He saw the individual as a distinct member of the human race, and for that reason reacted to the apperent genralizing of the individual’s rights and freedoms.  The theoretical proposal of anomie is given a solid empirical basis through the thought of Kropotkin.  What is more, the philosophy of the stateless society gives entirely new meaning to Shorske’s assumptions about the fin-de-sicle society.  If there was in fact a common feeling in the air it seems to have been aimed at an attempt  to define the boundaries between the individual and the society in which that individual dwelt.  Perhaps this recognition of the distinctness and worth of every human life, and the necesity of cooperation to preserve that distinction is the greatest legacy of that period.

For our own day and age, such anarchist explanation of the phenomena of anienation has profound impact as well.  This “anarcho-psychological” position of the fin-de-sicle, may have been transformed in our day to the “techno-anarchist” stance of such intellectuals as Herbert Marcuse.  The drum which sound to the beat of anarchy in the years which preceeded the Great war, are still echoed today in radical intellectual circles.  Kropotkin’s warnings about the danger of an expanding state seem to have been an unfortunate premenition of the First World War and its blind plunge into  self-destruction.  Perhaps we have learned our lesson from that time, perhaps man has even recovered some of his lost essence.  Still, even today the anarchists have their following in Spain and Sicily.  It is possible that the pathological element of our society has become so entrenched in our culture as to totaly obscure its presence from our recognition.  The philosophical movement headed by Jacques Derrida takes this hidden nature as one of its centeral premisses and attempts to “De-construct” the ideas of of culture.  It indeed would be interesting to read a paper by a student of intellectual history in the year 2040 and see his analysis of the legacy of anarchism and how it is active in our own time.



John Carroll, Break-Out from the Crystal Palace

The anarcho-psychological critique: Stirner, Neitzsche, Dostotyevsky. p. 1

John Carroll, ibid. p.5

In fact, Kropotkin’s ancestors had been grand princes of Smolensk in medieval Russia, descended from a branch of the Rurik clan, which had ruled in Muscovy before the advent of the Romanovs.

Joll, The Anarchists p.127

Joll, ibid. p.126

Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution (London 1959) vol II p.790

An interesting coincidence since this was also the year of Bakunin’s death, which created an enormous gap within the anarchist’s intelligencia.

Paul Averich,  The Russian Anarchists p. 27

George Woodcock &   Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince p.281

For one of many such accusations see James Hulse Revolutioists in London: A Study of Five Unorthodox Socialists. p.63

Kropotkin’s utopist tendencies were even more in evidence in his book “Fields, factories and workshops or Industry combined with agriculture and Brain Work with manual work,  (New York, London,1901) . In fact Kropotkin  makes the claim that 1000 men living on 1000 acres could produce’ luxurious vegetable and animal food, as well as the flax, wool, silk, and hides necessary for their clothing’ simply by using known methods. (James W. Hulse, Revolutioists in London p.63)

These articles were later collected in Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid, a Factor in Evolution. published English in 1902.

James W. Hulse, Revolutioists in London  p. 68

John Carroll, Break-Out from the Crystal Palace  p. 97

George Woodcock &   Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince p.321

John Carroll, ibid. p. 96

F. Neitzsche,Twilight of the Idols and The Anti -Christ

translated by R.J. Hollingdale p.76

John Carroll, Break-Out from the Crystal Palace  p.71

George Woodcock &   Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince ,   p.281

  The Dictionary of Scientific Biography , C.C. Gillisppe ed. vol. VII, p.511

John Carroll, Break-Out from the Crystal Palace p.171

Carl Shorske, Fin-de-Sicle Vienna p.117

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower; A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 p.63

Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards ed.  vol.2 pp.438-439

John Carroll, Break-Out from the Crystal Palace    p.71

Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 8 pp 282-283

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower; A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 p.63

Barbara W. Tuchman, ibid. p.64

Barbara W. Tuchman, ibid. p.64

Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space:1880-1918   p.15

The 1879 publication of Jules Vern’s Around the World in Eighty Days  reflects a more positivisticly optimistic version of this same phenomena of the shrinking world.

Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space:1880-1918   p.26

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower; A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 p.72

Tuchman, ibid. p.72

George Woodcock &   Avakumovic, The Anarchist Prince ,   p.301