By Brendan Harvey
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
October 22nd, 2019
Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin has recently been the subject of new scholarly work in English. Released by the wonderful PM Press, Morris’s book is in a way then prescient, late, and timely all at once. Prescient because it was written in 2004, anticipating the growth of interest in anarchism post-Occupy by a decade. Late, not because it fails to consider key literature published in the intervening decade, but more so because, published as it was 12 years after it was written, the debates that frame the text – both in terms of the secondary literature it draws upon and the conceptual vocabulary it mobilizes – have shifted substantially from where they were in the mid-2000s (I’m referring specifically to the text’s framing in relation to American cultural-academic debates on postmodernism/poststructuralism). This shift is also discernible in relation to the text’s framing of the debate between anarchism and Marxism. ‘Post-Marxism’ is dismissed simply via reference to Ellen Meiksins Wood’s (1999) Retreat from Class. To describe how in Deleuze, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Derrida, ‘one searches in vain among their opaque and obscurantist writings for any real social and political alternative to capitalism’ (19) is one thing, but to reduce ‘post-Marxism’ to the ‘French Poststructuralists’ seems more flagrant. Morris’s book is timely as well though. In this moment of increased interest, Morris offers a comprehensive assessment of Kropotkin’s thought that largely does what it sets out to do: offer a critical introduction to Kropotkin while ‘affirm[ing] the contemporary relevance of this much-neglected scholar and political activist’ (13).
The text begins with an introduction and brief biographical note and is split into four sections: (1) The Theory of Anarchist Communism, (2) Ecology and Social Ethics, (3) Historical Studies, and (4) Anarchism. The first contains Kropotkin’s practical suggestions on economic life and education, the second his metaphysics of nature and his social ethics, the third a summary of historical studies – including the role of the modern state and Kropotkin’s work on tribal societies – and the fourth is devoted to anarchism as a movement and political tradition. The logic of their arrangement and development is not entirely clear, but each section serves to introduce the reader to Kropotkin’s views on a whole range of topics: the French Revolution and the Paris Commune; his critique of prisons and theory of integral education; his theory of mutual aid and ethical naturalism; his discussion of Anarchism’s relation to political terrorism and to Anarcho-syndicalism, and a broader discussion on the relation between Kropotkin’s anarchism and poststructuralism. Morris helpfully contextualizes Kropotkin’s thought through comparisons to liberal (Gray), social-democratic (Giddens), and Marxist (Bourdieu) social theoretical frameworks. The paradigmatic examples all ‘take for granted the present institutional framework, as defined by representative democracy’ (18). In general, Morris’s authorial standpoint is incisive and detailed but also broadly considered, negotiating the sometimes difficult terrain between exposition and criticism, all while succeeding in emulating Kropotkin’s own accessible style. And while his account lacks the rich historiographical and intellectual historical context of Ruth Kinna’s recent work on Kropotkin, readers familiar with the existing literature will find it a fluent and considered discussion of his thought. Those unfamiliar will appreciate Morris’ attempt to pose Kropotkin’s Anarchist social-scientific framework alongside the usual suspects.
Morris is at his best when offering correctives to previous readings, specifically against those who have interpreted Kropotkin’s thought as primitivist, naturalistic, or teleological. Morris castigates (often convincingly) numerous authors for either repressing the extent of Kropotkin’s influence, passing off his ideas as their own (often on a tray of false novelty), or neglecting him as a source altogether (only to go ahead and contribute similar formulations). Morris describes how Kropotkin anticipated Foucault in his analysis of the state as a regulating force of all aspects of social life (57), the way in which Kropotkin anticipated Peter Singer’s proposal for a Darwinian Left (167), as well as the extent to which Kropotkin’s own ontology anticipated the sorts of formulations offered as novel by Complex Systems Theory (114).
Indeed, that for Kropotkin, harmony is simply a ‘provisory adaptation’ possible only, ‘under one condition; that of being continually modified; of representing every moment the resultant of all conflicting actions,’ is a worthy consideration for those who accuse anarchists as being simple utopians. It also contains an implicit critique of the social contract grounding liberal political theory – where social structure, rather than being constituted by any a priori agreement, is actually constituted and reproduced thanks to a variety of competing forces.
More broadly, for Morris, Kropotkin advocates an ‘ecological worldview’ and a metaphysics of nature very different from the mechanistic conception of the universe broadly accepted at the end of the 19th century. Morris’s point about the return of such mechanistic conceptions, in particular within the field of sociobiology is a fascinating one, although he’s not the first to notice this. David Graeber (2004: 16) describes sociobiology as essentially an answer to the question posed by Kropotkin to Social Darwinism – why is it that successful species are those that cooperate most effectively (Graeber, 16). Given that Morris does so well to note both the relevance of Kropotkin’s thought across a number of disciplines and the way in which disciplines simultaneously neglect but repeat his insights, it was slightly disappointing not to find a more in-depth discussion of Kropotkin’s thought – indeed, of anarchist theory in general – in relation to the general problem of disciplinarity and the intellectual division of labor.
Alongside biting but largely in-good-faith broadsides, Morris describes the influence Kropotkin had on subsequent intellectuals, both anarchist and otherwise. He also provides useful summaries of the major 19th century debates Kropotkin participated in: with Lenin, with Marx, and with fellow anarchists. Morris goes to great lengths to dispel the colloquial understandings of Kropotkin as some sort of figure oscillating between saint (a good man but society will never be made of men like him) and terrorist/idealist (a confusion of anarchism and vulgar nihilism). I say ‘vulgar’ because, as Kinna claims, nihilism may have had more of an influence on Kropotkin’s thought than Morris lets on. Morris limits his discussion to Kropotkin’s rejection of Nietzsche and Stirner, rather than the way in which the broader nihilist intellectual movement in 19th century Russia may have influenced his thought, as Kinna convincingly argues.
Morris locates the foundation of Kropotkin’s anarchism in his scientific work, particularly in relation to Mutual Aid. The discussion of Mutual Aid is comprehensive and draws useful parallels to the development of evolutionary theory. Morris certainly displays an extensive and competent grasp on the relevant scientific debates. It is somewhat notable then that the actual content of Kropotkin’s geographic work isn’t discussed at more length. Insofar as, for Kropotkin, sociality is prior to human society (where, ‘sociality pervades all nature’ and is a distinctive feature of animal life (14)) what are the political theoretical implications of such a position in relation to – to use Catherine Malabou’s phrasing – the ‘space between biological and symbolic life’ (Malabou, xv)? We know from the recent German publication of Marx’s notebooks on ecology that Marx was well aware of 19th century natural-scientific debates, particularly on the topics of soil erosion and deforestation. This is all to say that Morris’s text is not the place to find any grand philosophical confrontation between the Marxist and Anarchist traditions.
When it comes to philosophical confrontations, it is Morris’s reading of poststructuralism’s relation to anarchism – particularly as it relates to Foucault – that deserves specific consideration. This is discussed at length in ‘The Poststructuralist Critique of Anarchism’ (p. 207-220), but is sprinkled throughout the text. Morris mounts a defence of Kropotkin against post-structuralist critiques of classical anarchism’s definition of power. These critics – Todd May (1994) in particular – contend that Kropotkin and the classical anarchist tradition were largely blind to more subtle forms of power, insofar as they viewed power negatively; as having to do primarily with the state and taking the form of oppressive prohibition, rather than being in any way ‘productive.’ Morris seeks to defend Kropotkin from this charge, but does so not via a critique of postanarchist readings of Foucault, but through a critique of Foucault’s ‘rather totalizing theory of power’. ‘Kropotkin recognized the intrusive nature of the modern state,’ Morris writes, ‘and he was not simply anti-statist but challenged all forms of hierarchy and domination that curtailed the free development of the person’ (28) Once Morris successfully critiques Foucault’s theory of power as totalizing, he thinks he can sidestep the point about power being productive, relying instead on a critique of Foucault’s extension of power dynamics to all social relationships. This involves positioning Kropotkin as some sort of Habermasian liberal. ‘Like other anarchists,’ Morris writes, ‘Kropotkin always made a clear distinction between capitalism and government (state), and society, between what Habermas describes as ‘systems’ and ‘life-world’’ (70). ‘Kropotkin’s essential conception of revolution,’ for Morris becomes, ‘the replacement of state institutions based on hierarchy and coercion with voluntary relationships,’ which sounds a lot like the replacement of state with society, where society is constituted by mutual aid and voluntary relationships and the state by domination and hierarchy. Without going into the multiple intellectual historical genealogies constituting the philosophical concept ‘subject’ (Cassin, 2014), the problem here – and this is a problem shared by Jim Mac Laughlin’s book on Kropotkin as well – is one regarding the historical constitution of political subjectivity. ‘Kropotkin never conflated subjectivity with subjection … human subjectivity and social life are dialectically interrelated,’ (183) he writes, yet social life and the state also interact dialectically. To phrase it differently- the logic of ‘the state,’ while perhaps not totalizing, is not reducible merely to prohibition via law, for this would be to reduce it to its negative function. Morris is aware of this, but appears to not fully account for the fact that its logic is positive in the specific sense that certain types of political subjects are produced through, in Foucault’s terms, a variety of ‘disciplinary institutions’ (schools, prisons, military barracks, etc). If it is the totalizing effect of Foucault’s analysis (where power is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere) that is the issue for Morris, it is precisely its obverse – namely, the conceptual atemporality of Foucauldian resistance; that ever present vitalist feature where living being as living being is, imbricated and constituted by power relations, always already moving to get free – that expresses an elective affinity with Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid, which is mysteriously latent and always on the horizon. One wonders to what extent the impulse towards mutual aid can survive this positive and productive aspect of ‘the state’ and its logic, much less the ability of this impulse to confront the change of political scale in the 21st century.
‘Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again’. This quotation from Andre Gide serves as Brian Morris’s epigraph (6). Upon completion, one leaves with the impression that what Kropotkin has to say should be – and will need to be – said again. And indeed, Morris’s central aim in the book is not simply to prove Kropotkin’s contemporary relevance, but show the way in which Kropotkin anticipated and offered expositions of arguments that, decades after his death, would be treated as novel. On his own terms, he succeeds. There are, however, grander left-philosophical confrontations that lie outside the purview of the text worth exploring much further.
- Cassin, Barbara (ed.) 2014 Subject Dictionary of Untranslatables Princeton: Princeton University Press
- Graeber, David 2004 Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press
- Kinna, Ruth 2016 Kropotkin: Reviewing the Classical Anarchist Tradition Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
- Malabou, Catherine 2019 Morphing Intelligence: From IQ Measurement to Artificial Brains New York: Columbia University Press
- May, Todd 2005 The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press
- Wood, Ellen Meiksins 1999. . Retreat from Class London: Verso