Ruth Kinna “Kropotkin: Reviewing The Classical Anarchist Tradition” [Book review]

I have watched hurling a few times in my life. There’s lot’s of action and lots of passion but the bottom line is that for most of the time I have no idea what is going on. I really don’t. I am aware that a lot of people do, just like lots of people understand and enjoy netball. I feel somewhat similar when I read a work like this. It’s really well researched and Ruth Kinna uses her material in a shrewd and sensitive way. There’s seriousness here and respect for the sources and ideas she is working with, yet for large sections of the text, I am not really sure what is happening, or why it’s happening. I rather think the fault may be in me rather than in Kinna and I say that not from, I hope, a position of false humility or some type of sneering anti-intellectualism.

Kinna’s aim is to rescue Kropotkin from the framework of classical anarchism and counter his marginalization in modern political theory. She discusses three different eras of anarchism – classical anarchism, new anarchism and post-anarchism, all of which appear to be accepted currency in current anarchist theoretical writing. Apart from being a handy tool for political theorists/philosophers, I do struggle to see the point of them. So much so that I wonder whether these constructs obfuscate more than they clarify. They smooth down the edges of anarchist development into boxes as writers push and squeeze anarchism into them. Much of the complexity in the struggle to create anarchy is taken away and patterns are identified that may not really have been there – or not have been as prominent as they appear from this type of rough categorization. More importantly they make anarchism static. In fact in its practice I sense anarchism has been agile and multi-faceted and you can find examples of these three constructs everywhere and at any time.

Let’s just take a few examples by considering one of these constructs. Discussing “new anarchism” the author writes “An abiding theme in the significant current of new anarchist writing was the principle of evolutionary change” (19) and “opposition to the state was understood primarily in counter-cultural terms” (19). All this begs questions. There appears to be no room for personal experience in this type of argument or counter-argument – but I would mention that I became an anarchist in this time period (1960s/70s) and I can safely say that most of the people I worked with believed in the necessity of abrupt and sudden revolutionary change. Change certainly wasn’t inevitable and it would need to be made. Nor did we particularly see gradualism (sometimes a result of a belief in evolutionary change) as offering anything but minor relief. I remember some comrades suggesting how it was all too easy for a gradualist struggle to become an end it itself. On reflection I think they may have been more correct than I realized at the time. That said I realize that in this particular context personal experience is irrelevant.

Now this “abiding theme” in new anarchism, as Nicholas Walter mentions, was not new. For a period of time (1909-1916) the anarchist group around Mother Earth felt they were riding the wave of the new as they embraced new literature and ideas from Europe that, to them, indicated the inevitability of the social revolution. As Emma Goldman described it they were the “avant-garde”. At other times they celebrated the acts of attentateurs like Gaetano Bresci and Berkman himself, seeing them as a revolutionary spark. A sense of evolutionary hopefulness often permeated the work of the sex radicals around the American anarchist newspaper Lucifer (1883-1907 – slap bang in the classical period !!!). As I suggested earlier these blowsy constructs appear to ignore how anarchism changes according to circumstances and how anarchists can rather nimbly adapt to those changes. My point is that there are ebbs and flows in the activities and thoughts of many anarchists and their practice over a lifetime that lead to changes of emphasis and direction and these changes add a richness and complexity in our attempts both to understand anarchism and create anarchy. What looks socially and culturally inevitable one year doesn’t the next.

I am not quite sure what the phrase “counter-cultural” means when talking about “new anarchism”. I am presuming that it means creating and maintaining a radical culture that challenges dominant ideologies and, I guess, offers a home where like-minded comrades can meet and reflect. If I am anywhere near correct wasn’t that what the Chicago anarchists did in the 1880s (eighty years before “new anarchism”) with their drama clubs, their concerts and their picnics – never mind their rather evolutionary industrial activities as they worked towards social revolution? How many reading groups have there been in our history as people came together to read Bakunin, Goldman, Kropotkin, Proudhon? How many reading groups that brought an anarchist sensibility to Shelley, to Strindberg and mainstream literature in general? When Vanzetti and other Galleanisti read Dante in the early twentieth century weren’t they creating their own counter culture that was as rich as it was life affirming? They had their own ways of seeing that made them who they were. It fuelled their war on the State and gave them a sense of who they could be in companionship with others. Are we saying that in the “new anarchism” being counter cultural was enough to change balances of power? To be fair Kinna is keen to stress the “myth” of classical anarchism and writes “what remains of classical anarchism if one of it’s chief exponents turns out to be something other than the model allows?” and her approach, if I have understood it correctly, does appear to open all sorts of exciting and useful doors in our pursuit of understanding just what anarchism was and is.

We also need to remember that Kropotkin was quite capable of contradicting himself. On p125 Kinna writes that “Kropotkin attempted to convince his middle-class audience that their cherished values properly supported anarchist conclusions”. Yes he did – but he could also write to Emma Goldman in December 1903 critiquing her attempts to work with the New York radical middle-class in the re-invigorated Free Speech League: “I really do not understand dearest Emma what sort of letter could I write to support the agitation that is carried on by believers in the Constitution” (Letter to Emma Goldman, December 10, 1903). No-one is trying to be clever here. He may well have changed his mind later (I don’t know if he did). It’s just another example of just how difficult I find writing on anarchism is and how all our generalizations and understandings need to be taken with a good fistful of salt.

The discussion on nihilism and Kropotkin will have much to offer the reader. Kropotkin prioritized Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? in his attempts to explain the influence of nihilism on women’s liberation in Russia. Certainly the latter novel played no small part in Emma Goldman’s and Alexander Berkman’s political development. Living in a commune first in New York, then New Haven, Goldman imagined herself as Vera Pavlovna – the central woman protagonist of Chernyshevsky’s novel. Berkman identified with another of the novel’s characters – Rakhmetov, the revolutionary whose sole aim was to bring about revolution. There could be no joy or love or comfort in the life of a revolutionary Rakhmetov suggests. All that matters is the revolution. The night before he attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick in July 1892 Berkman signed himself into a Pittsburgh hotel as Mr Rakhmetov.

When Kropotkin supported the allies in World War 1 Malatesta wrote to the London anarchist newspaper Freedom in December 1914 criticizing Kropotkin’s action and mentioning his “anti- German prejudices.” I have always been a little puzzled by that and Kinna explains it clearly and in detail suggesting that Kropotkin’s action in supporting the allies was consistent with his analysis of European history. It’s a fascinating and well supported argument. I am less convinced by her suggesting that he “supported the campaign against Germany as an anti-militarist and anti-coloniser”, as I am unable to believe he could ignore the reprehensible actions of the British and French in their colonies. That said she has opened an important seam here, which we would do well to mine a little more.

After all this I still can’t shake off the feeling that sometimes I don’t really know what’s going on in the book. I am not quite sure if the anarchism I am reading about is what I understand anarchism to be. Nobody could gainsay the importance of Kropotkin in how anarchism was and is made. Thousands upon thousands of anarchists read his work and found it made sense. Sometimes it simply affirmed what they were already thinking. Sometimes it must have been a bolt from the blue. Whatever the response, some kind of dialogue between them and Kropotkin’s words helped make anarchism – and the anarchism many of them made was inclusive and open as anything could be. As Kinna notes, he didn’t want to make anarchists; he wanted to make a world where anarchism could exist. That idea may well demand a closer examination than it has had.

I suppose that Kropotkin is the gift that keeps on giving. His writing is easy to read and has the ability to explain complex ideas (and there are lots of them there) in a clear and straightforward way although, as Kinna suggests, his personality is commented on as much as his writing. Reactions to who he appeared to be and to his written work differed even in his lifetime among anarchists. In the December 1912 Mother Earth which was a celebration of his seventieth birthday, Harry Kelly saw him as “An inspiration and guiding star for men and women of all lands, his influence will grow and expand”. For Emma Goldman it is Kropotkin’s attitude to the anarchists who adopt assassination and armed struggle that is worthy of mention “Never once in all his revolutionary career has our comrade passed judgment on those whom most so-called revolutionists had only too willingly shaken off – partly because of ignorance and partly because of cowardice – those who had committed political acts of violence”.

I suppose the debates and interpretations about his work can go on forever and perhaps they should. An important question we might want to consider, though, is where they could take place and how they were (and are) approached. On a final note the book is ridiculously expensive. The price is pre-selecting an academic audience and consequently confines any debate on the important issues it raises to the university arena. I hope the author approaches publishers to bring out a paperback version. There’s another audience waiting out there and there may well be much more discussion to be had where this text could play an important role.

Barry Pateman

Ruth Kinna Kropotkin: Reviewing The Classical Anarchist Tradition. Edinburgh University Press, 2016. 9780748642298 £70