Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2016
In his critical, melancholy reminiscence of Kropotkin, Malatesta made a number of significant claims about his anarchism. First, it traced a progressive evolution, leading to emancipation understood as a singular condition. Like Malatesta, Kropotkin was an optimist, who saw ‘things rose-coloured’. They both hoped for ‘an early revolution which would realize our ideals’. But in Kropotkin's work, this optimism fuelled a rigid theorisation of anarchy, for he was also a scientist and a ‘social reformer’, ‘pressed’ by ‘the desire to know and the desire to bring about the well-being of humanity’. Second, Kropotkin was fully immersed in the conventions of his time. He ‘professed the materialist philosophy which dominated the scientists of the second half of the nineteenth century’ and ‘wanted to reduce all to a unity’. Third, his ‘conception of the universe was rigorously mechanical’ and consequently deterministic. According to Kropotkin's system, individual will ‘does not exist and is a mere illusion’. Malatesta continues:
All that was, is, and shall be, from the orbits of the stars to the birth and decay of a civilization, from an earthquake to the thought of Newton, from the perfume of a rose to the smile of a mother … all did, does and will happen by the fatal consecutive series of causes and effects of a mechanical character, leaving no room for the possibility by variation.
Because he gave ‘no power’ to the idea of will, Kropotkin was also unable to defend key anarchist principles. Malatesta argued that ‘ideas of freedom, justice and responsibility’ had ‘no meaning and do not correspond to anything real’ in his anarchism. In fact, while Kropotkin was ‘very severe on the historical fatalism of the Marxists’, he fell into a form of ‘mechanical fatalism’ which was ‘much more paralysing’.
Malatesta's critique has seeped into a number of contemporary critiques of Kropotkin's classical stance. Just as David Miller invokes Malatesta to support his judgement of Kropotkin's ‘fatalism’, Alfredo Bonnano repeats Malatesta's accusation that Kropotkin ‘put the international anarchist movement to sleep’ by ‘proposing an ideology of waiting’. Saul Newman, too, refers in passing to Malatesta's critique: his attack on the Kropotkinian scientific project was driven by a radical anti-theory of anarchism based on a commitment to insurrectionary practice, leaving a philosophical void for post-anarchism to fill.