Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2016
Kropotkin described the work he completed for Le Révolté as the ‘foundation of nearly all I have written later on’. What did that mean? His early writings pointed up several themes: that anarchism was an ethical approach to politics; that the problems that socialists confronted were global; that science, construed poetically, offered a key to the resolution of those problems; that submissiveness and passivity were fatal barriers to social change and social solidarity was a catalyst for action; that change was a principle of life on Earth; and that fluid movements forged across diverse populations offered a model for cooperative living. Kropotkin presented these ideas in a distinctive way, using nihilism as his touchstone, but in developing his positions on nationality, slavery and the cementation of elite power, he aligned himself with Proudhonist and Bakuninist anti-authoritarianism. And his commentary on the Paris Commune formalised the ideological division that this alignment signalled. Yet there is scant evidence in Kropotkin's early writings that his identification with anti-authoritarian politics was a launch-pad for a theory resembling classical anarchism.
One of the foils for classical anarchism is Landauer's conception of the state as a social relationship, which we destroy by behaving differently. Kropotkin advanced a similar view. The relationships he sought to change were those that instilled obedience and slavishness, on the one hand, and command and supremacy on the other. In a recent discussion of Landauer's work, Dominique Miething notes the influence of the sixteenth-century French humanist Étienne de la Boétie on his work, specifically, la Boétie's observation that the capacity of a ruler to exercise his will over his subjects extended from a social and psychological capacity, not merely coercion. Newman also draws on Boétie to explore post-anarchist principles, and the willingness of individuals to consent to their own subjection, comparing la Boétie to Landauer. Kropotkin's analysis of nihilism touches on similar themes, but demonstrates how subjection is overcome through rebellious action: nihilism showed how. Kropotkin's description of the insurgence of nihilist women and his rebuttal of the literatures that ridiculed, objectified and demonised their rebellion richly illustrates the character of the dominating relationships he had in mind when he thought about the operation of power in the state.