Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2016
Peter Kropotkin has an unenviable reputation for being one of the foremost anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth century. Keeping company with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, famous for adopting the epithet ‘anarchist’ to describe his political views and Mikhail Bakunin, Marx's fiercest foe, he is also often said to be the most accessible anarchist. There are a number of reasons for this: he left a substantial body of work that gives a good account of his conception of anarchism; he published a substantial part of this work in English; and perhaps above all, he took a leading role in the propagation of anarchist ideas and exercised a profound influence on nineteenth- and twentieth-century activist movements. Pre-eminence in a political tradition is not typically disadvantageous to an individual, except where the tradition itself is outlawed. Kropotkin's reputation as one of anarchism's central figures and canonical writers is unenviable nevertheless, not just because his work has attracted sustained attention from critics and protagonists within and outside the anarchist movement, but also because he has assumed a representative status as an anarchist of a particular type. Probably more than any other anarchist, Kropotkin defines classical anarchism.
The primary aim of this book is to rescue Kropotkin from the framework of classical anarchism and highlight aspects of his political thought that have been lost as a result of the interest that his science has generated, particularly the theory of mutual aid. The chapters situate his thought in the context of late nineteenth-century debates and show how he helped shape anarchism as a distinctive politics that was quite different to the philosophy ascribed to him. Like his friend Élisée Reclus, Kropotkin was part of a European movement that, as Marie Fleming argues, ‘developed in response to specific social-economic grievances in given historical circumstances’. Kropotkin contributed enthusiastically to the formation of an anarchist tradition and even endorsed Paul Eltzbacher's dispassionate, analytical study Anarchism: Seven Exponents of the Anarchist Philosophy. However, his understanding of anarchism was more fluid and open than Eltzbacher's and instead of seeking to define a set of characteristic core concepts, Kropotkin identified anarchism with a tradition of political thought and a set of political practices.