An Appeal to the Young: Some thoughts on a best seller

Anarchist pamphlets can pose all sorts of problems to the researcher. There’s always that constantly nagging question of who actually read them. I rather sense that some of the best pamphlets, that can, a hundred or fifty years on, take our breath away by their prescience were probably only read by a mere handful of people and we have come to bestow an importance upon them that was not reflected both in their original readership or in their effect on the movement. But we can’t say that when we talk about Kropotkin’s An Appeal to the Young. It proved to be a most remarkably popular pamphlet that crossed political tendencies and continents with apparent ease and was, unarguably, a best seller.

Originally published in La Revolte between June and August 1880, its first pamphlet publication appears to be that published by the Imprimerie Jurassiene in 1881. Editions of the work rapidly spread as pamphlets or serializations in newspapers. An 1884 German language edition was published by Moritz Bachman in New York and another was published by Johann Most in 1887. It was a staple diet of German language papers, being serialized in Der Socialist 1893, Freie Wacht (Philadelphia) in 1895 and Rudolph Grossman’s
Wohlstand fur Alle (Wien) between May and October 1911.

The first English translation appears to have been in the London-based Social Democratic Party paper Justice between August and October 1884 with a translation by H. M. Hyndman. He would go on to publish it as a pamphlet in 1885 and it would run to numerous reprints. In the same year it was published in San Francisco with the title To Young People by the International Workingmans Association (IWMA) in a translation by Marie LeCompte and it would be regularly reprinted in English language pamphlets in the years that followed, including editions in Australia, India, and elsewhere.

A Spanish translation was published in Granada in 1885 and during the next decade or so editions appeared in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Cadiz, and Madrid. It was published regularly in Italy with the first Italian edition appearing in 1884. An interesting Italian edition was also published in West Hoboken, New Jersey in 1899 with an introduction by the individualist Giuseppe Ciancabilla. The pamphlet was influential among Korean anarchists during the nineteen twenties, while in Japan, Osugi Sakae was imprisoned in 1907 for the act of translating it into Japanese.

Some have left written record of the change this pamphlet made to their lives. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spoke of its effect on her and how it propelled her towards a life of militancy. Manuel Komroff, the writer who was associated with The Modern School in New York said that “It served as a compass and gave me direction”. Ba Jin read the 1918-19 Chinese translation by Li Shizeng and was profoundly affected by his reading. We could go on: Frans Masreel, Upton Sinclair, Victor Serge and others – all have asserted its influence on them. One can only guess as to how many felt the passion of Kropotkin’s words without writing about them. Suffice it to say that Hyndman, it’s first English translator, described An Appeal to the Young as “the best propagandist pamphlet that was ever penned” (Record of an Adventurous Life, p.244-5)

The pamphlet is a call to arms. It’s earnest, scathing, condemnatory and passionate – often all at once – as well as being imbued with a fierce morality. At first reading we could easily imagine Kropotkin writing this as a stream of consciousness, such is the outpouring of anger, frustration, and, above all, hope that bounces off the page. Only after a few more readings do we appreciate the patterns and structures that are in place to guide the reader to the realization that piecemeal reform will not alleviate the mental and physical hurt of capitalism in any profound way whatsoever. It is a clever and potent piece of writing and it’s not too difficult to appreciate the passions and commitments that we know it aroused in some of its readers.

At least two thirds of An Appeal to the Young is aimed at what we would call “professionals” – the young middle class who are training or have trained to be doctors, scientists, lawyers, engineers and teachers, as well as the artist, the sculptor, and the poet. The impossibility of reform is stressed in the practice of each profession. Unless we get rid of capitalism people will continue to die because they are poor, the law will unjustly punish those who are dispossessed and try to take matters into their own hands to make redress, while scientific and engineering progress will be used to garner wealth for the already wealthy and increase poverty amongst those already suffering. Even in a clunky English translation Kropotkin’s prose crackles with anger. “What will you prescribe for this sick woman, doctor? …Say a good beef-steak every day, a dry and well-ventilated bed room?…If she could have afforded it this would have been done long since without waiting for your advice.” An Appeal to the Young identifies itself totally with the poor and exploited. The only moral answer for these young professionals is to join the cause of Socialism, to become Revolutionists and bring about the Social Revolution thus helping destroy the poverty and hurt that capitalism has brought about. Kropotkin suggests that if you are an altruist, if you are a moral person, then there is no other course of action for you to take unless you abandon all semblance of empathy and join the rich. There is no middle ground in this situation that makes any logical sense.

I don’t think we are being fanciful if we say that much of the passion and emotion in the first two thirds of the pamphlet are a product of Kropotkin’s own experiences. Coming from a position of privilege he, himself, had crossed his own particular “river of fire” by joining the Chaikovsky circle in 1872, committing himself to the “people” (whatever that rather complex term means) at a slightly older age than many of the circle’s members and suffering imprisonment in 1874 for having done so. I rather think that many of the examples he gives in this section are based on the experiences which his comrades had lived through – those men and women who “were not theorists about socialism but had become socialists by living no better than the workers live…….and by refusing to enjoy for their own satisfaction the riches they had inherited from their fathers” (Memoirs of a Revolutionist, p.307). We are also aware that at the time Kropotkin was writing this pamphlet similar people to the Chaikovsky group, as members of Narodnaya Volya, were waging war against the Tsar and the Russian security apparatus, and showing extraordinary courage while doing so.

Kropotkin also writes about another group of people he knows well – the radical working man already committed to the Revolution – and in doing so presents us with a blueprint for revolutionary change. These workingmen have read wisely and been able to apply their reading to their lived experience. They form small groups, realize the importance of internationalism by forging links overseas and create newspapers by depriving themselves of “sleep and food”. This is how the revolutionary message will spread. When the time is right they will move to the barricades where their blood will probably be spilt. All of this, carried under the most oppressive economic conditions Kropotkin can imagine, is, he suggests, worthy of our respect. Indeed there can be no question of Kropotkin’s profound admiration of these men who are, if you like, the stormy petrels of change. He has met men like these and, indeed, it is men like these who have influenced, and will continue to influence, his thinking and writing (and the writings of many other anarchists!) and we should recognize them as the fulcrum of this pamphlet. When he appeals to the professional young he is appealing to them to join these men who, though small in number, offer hope for the future of the world.

Such appeals do though raise an interesting question. What do these young people do once they have joined the social revolution? What is their relationship to the working class and poor (and I sense these can be two different categories in Kropotkin’s mind) that Kropotkin describes in his pamphlet? He suggests that their role is “not of masters, but as comrades in the struggle.” Their job is not to govern or teach but to “grasp the aspirations of the many: to divine them, to give them shape. Only then, he suggests, “will you lead a complete, a noble, a rational existence”. Presented in, I sense, deliberately general terms this appeal, as we have seen, struck chords all over the world. It offers a mission, a life of worthy and honourable purpose and many would walk the path he had cut through their privilege for them.

I want to suggest, though, that despite all its strengths An Appeal to the Young reflects a central tension within anarchist ideas and propaganda that we continue to grapple with. Simply put it is the lack of experience of working class life on the part of many anarchist writers, and an inability on the part of those writers to address that experience and offer anarchy as a relevant and exciting alternative. By working class experience I mean the lives of those who haven’t joined the movement, those who aren’t in the small groups creating patterns of revolution: the poor, the unemployed, the outsiders who live lives most anarchists have not come into contact with or have difficulties understanding. Within this context the final quarter of An Appeal to the Young is a disappointment. It is clichéd and melodramatic with none of the intimacy and power of its earlier sections. The young woman seduced by the industrialist’s son is straight from the pages of the sensationalist magazines. And the picture Kropotkin paints of working class life, in general, lacks conviction and reality. Working class people are one-dimensional, lacking any emotional and intellectual complexity – qualities they will only gain, presumably, by joining the movement.

We also have to accept that Kropotkin’s portrayal of women is, to say the least, problematic, more so because he appears to ignore what is in front of his eyes within the revolutionary milieu he is such a part of. An Appeal to the Young does not appear to be able to understand that women might have their own agency, seeing them instead as appendages, however worthy, of their men. No working class woman, he suggests, wants to see her man broken by capitalism; he thinks that surely working class women must be impressed by the courage of the women of the Paris Commune who braved shells to encourage “their men” to greater action. Yet there were women of action and individual courage within anarchist and revolutionary circles, who acted from their own desires, not for “their men.” Kropotkin even mentions Vera Zasluich “who lodged a bullet in the chest of that rascally official” and the Spanish women who took part in the 1873 strike for the eight hour day in Alcoy. But he appears to have difficulty appreciating that women may have a political or intellectual life outside of their relationships to men.

After thirty or so years hovering around the pamphlet I have come to see An Appeal to the Young as the beginning of a search for a meaningful conversation between anarchism and the mass of the working class. At least Kropotkin tries, and if he doesn’t quite find the right language who did? Who has? Beyond the known trope of the self educated working class radical who sits around cafes and chats (see Malatesta) no one, in the formation of what we know and call anarchism, had the right words, the right tone, even the right silences to bring the mass of the working class to this magnificent idea. Some got very close. In 1885, the same year as the pamphlet’s first publication in English, some London-based anarchists were attempting to articulate this language themselves. Based in the Boundary estate in East London – one of the worst slum areas in the city – Frank Kitz, Charlie Mowbray, and others carried out an energetic leafleting and poster campaign with titles such as “Fight Or Starve” and “Revenge.” Speaking when and where they could, they attempted to draw the local population to what they saw as Revolutionary Socialism. Kitz himself was born into brutal poverty and both he and Mowbray were self-educated men. It may be that they had the necessary language skills that Kropotkin lacked, but it was an exhausting, uphill battle for them and one that appeared impossible to maintain.

Writing about this time in Freedom (between January and July 1912),[1] and still living in dire poverty, Frank Kitz explains how they had to convince the local population that they were not police spies and, after that, that they weren’t crazy. After all what sort of sane person goes around spreading propaganda and trying to organize rent strikes?!!! Histories of British anarchism have tended to see Kitz as a link between German and English radicals and a man who played no small part in the development of the movement. I think we should also see him as someone who throughout his life attempted to offset the weakness in Kropotkin’s portrayal of, and dialogue with, the working class. At a conference of Revolutionary Socialists at the Autonomie Club, London in August 1890 Kitz said “our chief enemies, strange to say, were amid the dregs of the populace” and “We were largely to blame for this, because of the academic mode in which the propaganda had been carried on” and suggesting the revolutionaries were lagging behind the Christians in that regard. It was an issue he could and would not let go of. In January 1907 writing an article entitled “The Problem of the Slums” in the first issue of Voice of Labour he begins:

If we desire to reach the mass of the people, to place before them our principles, to refute the libels of the reptile press, and to stir the workers into direct voluntary action against their conditions our methods are not sufficient for the immense task we have before us.

He goes on to paint a brutal picture of life in the London slums and urges anarchists to adopt the tactics he had all those years ago in the Boundary Estate because at present radical tactics – the odd street meeting, radical journals sold full of internal bickering among the “comrades” “have about as much effect upon the masses as trying to tickle an elephant with a straw.”

Kropotkin found a kind of moral magnificence in his use of language in much of An Appeal to the Young and we know of the effect it had on many of its readers and the influence those readers went on to have on others. It may be our job to tickle the elephant again and by doing so create another type of magnificence. If Kropotkin cut a path for some I think Frank Kitz and other comrades tried to work out a parallel one for others; towards the poor, the outcast, the exploited – and we still need to find the right language to talk to them. Yet search we must. There are so many of them with so much to offer that we might do well to try and walk down Kitz’s path as we search for this consistently elusive mass support for our wonderful ideal, because without it we are in constant danger of becoming yet another tiresome vanguard.


1, See Recollections and Reflections by Frank Kitz: