Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2016
The principle aims of this book were to rescue Kropotkin from the framework of classical anarchism and to explain the politics that led him to support the Entente powers in 1914. The two objectives were to open up more space for serious engagement with the history of anarchist ideas and to offer an alternative to the ideological, exclusionary accounts of anarchism that the invention of the classic tradition has helped to stimulate.
The emergence of classical anarchism and Kropotkin's place in it is set out in the first part of the study. Two dominant narratives have been promoted: in their keenness to disassociate anarchism from revolutionary violence, leading new anarchists turned Kropotkin into a poster-boy for a type of non-violent, gradualist politics that overplayed and distorted the role that evolution played in his work and helped create a philosophy that could be detached from practice. Removing the wedge that new anarchists placed between Kropotkin-brand anarchism and Bakuninism, postanarchists fastened on a dubious account of science to mount a critique of grand narratives, essentialism and utopianism. The shakiness of the application of the classical model to Kropotkin's political thought is discussed in the conclusions to the second and third parts of the study. Neither the new anarchist nor the post-anarchist renderings of Kropotkin's evolutionary theory, his understanding of science, his theory of change or his idea of the state bear close scrutiny. Kropotkin thought that the world was knowable and that knowledge advanced through a process of continual revision. But he also thought that the world could be re-imagined and that its remodelling was achievable by the application of science. He was a scientist, not a metaphysician and an empiricist not a rationalist but he was also a utopian, not a realist. Nihilism shaped Kropotkin's thinking, tailoring science to the achievement of anarchist goals where the removal of fear enabled individuals to investigate a plethora of questions that statism repressed. Rather than root anarchy in a conception of human nature, he grounded it in resistance.
Kropotkin's view was that flawed, ordinary people were capable of taking responsibility for their actions and negotiating their differences without recourse to institutionalised systems of law. This is not an unproblematic view, as the discussion of wilfulness indicates, but the questions that it raises are quite different from those associated with the thesis of natural goodness.