10 December 2010
Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Peter Kropotkin, and we celebrated by drinking a toast to him in our local Stroud Brewery ale. As we heard from Stroud's leading anarchist Dennis Gould, Kropotkin had an extraordinary life. An aristocrat by birth, Kropotkin was engaged to undertake a geographical survey of Siberia. What he saw there - the appalling suffering of the people and their struggle for survival - revolutionised his worldview. He became caught up in the struggles for justice in his homeland towards the end of the 19th century.
Kropotkin was also a scientist, who extended Darwin's theory by arguing that 'mutual aid', or the human inclination towards co-operation rather than competition, was what he called 'a factor of evolution'. His studies of how small-scale communities might be viable are not theoretical but full of earthy detail. His sociological studies give us an insight into the working-class communities of industrial London. But he was capable of rhetorical flourishes too. Here is his stirring conclusion to the 1888 essay 'The Wage System':
And these voices will be heeded. The people will say to themselves: 'Let us begin by satisfying our needs of life, joy and freedom. And once all will have experienced this well-being we will set to work to demolish the last vestiges of the bourgeois regime, its morality, derived from the account book, its philosophy of 'debit' and 'credit', its institutions of mine and thine.
Kropotkin was forced into exile first in France and then in London. He returned to Russia following the revolution but strongly disapproved of the authoritarian nature of the Bolshevik regime.
This biography may seem miles away from the violence we saw on London's streets yesterday, but perhaps what links them is the simple word: freedom. To many, anarchy is the nihilistic violence that typified the punk movement. To Kropotkin it meant the freedom to live a dignified life and to aspire to the highest levels of self-expression within self-governing rural communities.
Riots of this level of violence on the streets of our capital and within yards of the 'mother of parliaments' are a rare occurrence and people do not undertake them lightly. The abandonment of higher education is merely the taper; it is the loss of democracy that spurs people to such action. It does not take a university-level education to understand that none of the parties who competed for our votes a mere eight months ago offered us this in their manifesto. When our representatives scorn our views, political mobilisation is the only possible response.
The political crisis that has been developing since the financial crisis broke in 2008 is more reminiscent of the events of the early 19th century than anything I can remember in my lifetime. The events that led to the mass mobilisation are strikingly similar: a loss of autonomy over livelihood, political disempowerment, and a government that serves its own rather than the national interest.
Shelley, who was a trenchant critic of the economic oppression of his times, even identified the creation of artificial value in the money system as one of the sources of injustic that drove the street protests. In his poem 'The Mask of Anarchy', written following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, he included the stanza:
'Paper coin - that forgery
Of the title-deeds, which ye
Hold to something of the worth
Of the inheritance of Earth.'
In his day it was the debasement of paper money that enabled exploitation; in ours it is the ceding of the power of money creation to a self-serving banking system.
To merely condemn the actions of violent protestors, the automatic response of the powerful, is too simplistic. In an important Quaker testimony we are advised to:
Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war. Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember that they too are children of God.
What history teaches is that when people witness blatant injustice in the distribution of resources and are deprived of a political route to right this wrong, then violence is an inevitable response.