The centenary of Kropotkin’s death is a good time to return to the question he asked in Freedom in 1886: what must we do? Ruth Kinna considers a thinker whose work evolved through a rapidly changing political and social era but never lost its humanity and faith in the possibility of real change.
Kropotkin’s different answers were informed by his changing assessments of the political situation in Europe. In the 1870s he described it as “revolutionary”. Ten years later, his terminology had changed: he spoke instead of evolutionary processes and mutual aid. Yet it’s not obvious that this shift signalled a major reduction of his political ambitions. Evolution still pointed to “the coming anarchy”, a revolutionary proposition in most people’s minds.
Kropotkin usually wrote about anarchist transformation as if the glass were half full. He highlighted social and economic trends that could bolster confidence in anarchist change. But he tempered his “utopianism” with a healthy dose of realism. The mass of data he used to show the imminence of anarchy in fact also attested to the rude health of the state-regulated market system should it continue to grow unhindered. The gist of Kropotkin’s thinking about social transformation was that the potential for anarchy was not the same as its likelihood.