Peter Kropotkin was an anarcho-communist revolutionary. He is perhaps now most famous for developing the theory of mutual aid and writing the conquest of bread aka the bread book. In this video I’m going to go through some fun facts about him.
1. Kropotkin was born into the Russian nobility. His family were large landowners who exploited almost 1200 serfs. (Kropotkin 1989, 24) Due to this Kropotkin inherited the title of prince. This didn’t mean he was a member of the royal family. Prince was a rank in the Russian nobility. As a child Kropotkin abandoned the title of prince in response to the influence of his tutors. He recalls in his autobiography that,
The title of prince was used in our house with and without occasion. M. Poulain must have been shocked by it, for he began once to tell us what he knew of the great Revolution. I cannot now recall what he said, but one thing I remember, namely, that ‘Count Mirabeau’ and other nobles one day renounced their titles, and that Count Mirabeau, to show his contempt for aristocratic pretensions, opened a shop decorated with a signboard which bore the inscription, ‘Mirabeau, tailor.’ (I tell the story as I had it from M. Poulain.) For a long time after that I worried myself thinking what trade I should take up so as to write, ‘Kropótkin, such and such a handicraft man.’ Later on, my Russian teacher, Nikolái Pávlovich Smirnóff, and the general republican tone of Russian literature influenced me in the same way; and when I began to write novels — that is, in my twelfth year — I adopted the signature P. Kropótkin, which I never have departed from, notwithstanding the remonstrances of my chiefs when I was in the military service. (Kropotkin 1989, 43-4)
As an adult anarchist Kropotkin did not like being called a prince. Emma Goldman writes in her autobiography Living my Life,
I remembered the anecdote he had told us about his stay in Chicago, when his comrades had arranged for him to go to Waldheim to visit the graves of Parsons, Spies, and the other Haymarket martyrs. The same morning a group of society women, led by Mrs. Potter Palmer, invited him to a luncheon. ‘You will come, Prince, will you not?’ they pleaded. ‘I am sorry, ladies, but I have a previous engagement with my comrades,’ he excused himself. ‘Oh, no, Prince; you must come with us!’ Mrs. Palmer insisted. ‘Madam,’ Peter replied, ‘you may have the Prince, and I will go to my comrades.’ (Goldman 1970a, 361)
2. Kropotkin rode a penny farthing. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich visited Kropotkin in 1886 as a child and later recalled in a 1931 article that, “I remember that our uncle astonished us with his adroitness in physical exercises, in bicycling, when that was still new in England”. Kropotkin rode a “penny-farthing”, “the wheel in front was enormous and the rear one very small”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)
3. Kropotkin spoke English in a Russian accent and mispronounced words. That Kropotkin spoke English in a strong accent is claimed by several eyewitness accounts, such as Philip Snowden and Roger Baldwin. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 226, 284) The longest description I’ve been able to find is by H.W. Nevinson. He writes that,
Anarchists do not have a chairman, but when enough of us had assembled a man stood up and began to speak. His pronunciation was queer until one grew accustomed to it (‘own’ rhymed with ‘town’, ‘law’ with ‘low’, and ‘the sluffter fields of Europe’ became a kindly joke among us). He began with the sentence, “Our first step must be the abolition of all ‘low’. I was a little startled. I had no exaggerated devotion to the law, but, as a first step, its abolition seemed rather a bound. Without a pause the speaker continued speaking, with rapidity, but with the difficulties of a foreigner who has to translate rushing thoughts as he goes along . . . (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 235-6)
Kropotkin was himself aware of the difficulties he had when speaking English. He writes in his autobiography that upon first moving to Edinburgh in 1876,
I may say that I had learned English in Russia, and, with my brother, had translated Page’s ‘Philosophy of Geology’ and Herbert Spencer’s ‘Principles of Biology.’ But I had learned it from books, and pronounced it very badly, so that I had the greatest difficulty in making myself understood by my Scotch landlady; her daughter and I used to write on scraps of paper what we had to say to each other; and as I had no idea of idiomatic English, I must have made the most amusing mistakes. I remember, at any rate, protesting once to her, in writing, that it was not a “cup of tea” that I expected at tea time, but many cups. I am afraid my landlady took me for a glutton, but I must say, by way of apology, that neither in the geological books I had read in English nor in Spencer’s ‘Biology’ was there any allusion to such an important matter as tea-drinking. (Kropotkin 1989, 355)
4. Kropotkin is sometimes depicted by later authors as a saintly figure or gentle sage. In reality he was a hardcore anarcho-communist revolutionary. This can be seen in several primary sources. For example, in 1881 he wrote that workers must “seize all of the wealth of society, if necessary doing so over the corpse of the bourgeoisie, with the intention of returning all of society’s wealth to those who produced it, the workers”. (Kropotkin 2014, 305) Decades later in 1914 he wrote that, “two things are necessary to be successful in a revolution . . . an idea in the head, and a bullet in the rifle! The force of action – guided by the force of Anarchist thought”. (Ibid, 207)
Kropotkin’s hardcore militancy can also be seen in his actions. In 1877 a small armed band of twenty-six Italian anarchists, which included Malatesta, roamed the Matese mountains attempting to spread anarchist ideas through deeds. After failing to accomplish much beyond entering two small towns, burning some official government documents, and giving speeches to peasants on the need for a social revolution, the anarchists were arrested without firing a shot. (Pernicone 1993, 121-6) In response Kropotkin wrote a letter to Paul Robin where he said,
You can imagine how angry we are with the Italians. Seeing that they have allowed themselves to be surprised and have not defended themselves, I propose a vote for their exclusion from the International. The republic of 93 was quite capable of guillotining its generals when they gave proof of ineptitude. In my view, by allowing themselves to be surprised, to take fright, and by delivering up their weapons and ammunition to 42 men they have acted as cowards. (Quoted in Cahm 1989, 103)
Kropotkin may have changed his mind after James Guillaume wrote a letter explaining that the Italian anarchists had been unable to use their old rifles because heavy rain had made it too damp to fire. (ibid). In 1877 Kropotkin had himself attended a demonstration in St Imier, Switzerland armed with a “loaded revolver”. He was ready, in his own words, to “blow out the brains” of the police if they attacked. (Cahm 1989, 102, 104) Decades later in 1905 Kropotkin, who was in his 60s, responded to news of the Russian revolution by practising shooting with a rifle in case he returned to Russia and needed to participate in street fighting. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 365-6)
5. When living in England Kropotkin refused to toast the king. He recounts in a letter that,
A month ago I was invited to a banquet of the Royal Geographical Society of London. The chairman proposed, ‘The King’! Everybody rose and I alone remained seated. It was a painful moment. And I was thunderstruck when immediately afterwards the same chairman cried, ‘Long live Prince Kropotkin!’ And everybody, without exception, rose. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 227)
6. Kropotkin called everything a prison before Foucault made it cool. Kropotkin argued in 1887 that insane asylums were prisons. He wrote,
There was a time when lunatics, considered as possessed by the devil, were treated in the most abominable manner. Chained in stalls like animals, they were dreaded even by their keepers. To break their chains, to set them free, would have been considered then as a folly. But a man came – Pinel – who dared to take off their chains, and to offer them brotherly words, brotherly treatment. And those who were looked upon as ready to devour the human being who dared to approach them, gathered round their liberator, and proved that he was right in his belief in the best features of human nature, even in those whose intelligence was darkened by disease. From that time the cause of humanity was won. The lunatic was no longer treated like a wild beast. Men recognized in him a brother.
The chains disappeared, but asylums – another name for prisons – remained, and within their walls a system as bad as that of the chains grew up by-and-by. (Kropotkin 1991, 369)
A decade later Kropotkin argued in 1899 that authoritarian schools were prisons. He wrote that in Germany “the Kindergarten . . . has often become a small prison for the little ones” where “teachers often make of it a kind of barrack in which each movement of the child is regulated beforehand”. (Kropotkin 1902, 193-4)
7. Kropotkin loved gardening. A wholesome example of this is Goldman’s description of her visit to Kropotkin during the Russian revolution. She writes,
we had visited Peter in July and had found him in good health and buoyant spirits. He seemed then younger and better than when we had seen him the previous March. The sparkle in his eyes and his vivacity had impressed us with his splendid condition. The Kropotkin place had looked lovely in the summer sunshine, with the flowers and Sophie’s vegetable garden in full bloom. With much pride Peter had spoken of his companion and her skill as a gardener. Taking Sasha and me by the hand, he had led us in boyish exuberance to the patch where Sophie had planted a special kind of lettuce. She had succeeded in raising heads as large as cabbages, their leaves crispy and luscious. He himself had also been digging in the soil, but it was Sophie, he had reiterated, who was the real expert. Her potato crop of the previous winter had been so large that there was enough left over to exchange for fodder for their cow and even to share with their Dmitrov neighbours, who had few vegetables. Our dear Peter had been frolicking in his garden and talking about these matters as if they were world events. Infectious had been the youthful spirit of our comrade, carrying us along by its freshness and charm. (Goldman 1970b, 863)
8. Kropotkin was apparently good at playing with kids. His nephew Nicholas Alexeivich claims that during his 1886 visit to Kropotkin, “[h]e taught us all the rules of fortification (a science to which he referred with great respect, regarding it indispensable for a revolutionary) and made fortifications in the snow. We arranged desperate battles with our comrades, little English boys, with my uncle’s benevolent assistance”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 212)
E.M Heath visited Kropotkin’s home as a child and recalled that “Kropotkin was gay and brimming over with life and interest in everything – very warm and affectionate. His vast knowledge, his vast experience and his great powers of thought, I was quite oblivious to them. It was enough for me to listen to his stories and play the delightful game he taught me, where he was a bull-fighter and I the bull, hurling myself in vain on him”. (Quoted in Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 222)
9. Kropotkin never met Michael Bakunin, who was one of the most influential anarchist theorists in the 19th The reason why is as follows. In 1872 Kropotkin visited Switzerland in order to meet socialists of various persuasions and learn about the 1st International. He initially met state socialists in Geneva, including one of Bakunin’s main opponents Nicholas Utin. After Utin attempted to stop workers from going on strike in order to protect the election of a bourgeois candidate, Kropotkin left in disgust and headed for the Jura Mountains. During his stay in the Jura he came into contact with anarchists for the first time and soon came to consider himself one. (Kropotkin 1989, 255-67) He attempted to meet Bakunin but Guillaume advised against this on the grounds that Bakunin was old and overwhelmed by the on-going conflict in the International with Marx and his supporters. (Cahm 1989, 27)
Kropotkin later wrote in his autobiography that “Bakunin was at that time at Locarno. I did not see him, and now regret it very much, because he was dead when I returned four years later to Switzerland.” (Kropotkin 1989, 267) What Kropotkin didn’t realise was that Bakunin had rejected him. Guillaume revealed to Max Nettlau that Bakunin had decided to not meet Kropotkin for what strike me as extremely bizarre reasons. Bakunin associated Peter Kropotkin with his politically moderate brother Alexander Kropotkin who was an associate of Peter Lavrov, one of Bakunin’s rivals. Bakunin was, in addition to this, suspicious of the fact that Kropotkin had stayed with Utin in Geneva for several weeks. (Cahm 1989, 27) At the time Bakunin, who was an antisemite, was convinced that Utin was part of a Jewish state socialist conspiracy against him that had been masterminded by Marx. As a result, Bakunin may have mistakenly believed that Kropotkin had sided with Utin or was being manipulated by him in some way. Unlike Bakunin we now know from Kropotkin’s memoirs that he disliked Utin and that this was a key reason why he had gone to meet the anarchists in the Jura.
10. Kropotkin didn’t only look like Santa Claus he was also aware of the fact. According to Ruth Kinna, Kropotkin contemplated dressing up as Santa Claus in order to expropriate toys from shops and give them away to children for free. Kropotkin wrote on the edge of one page, “[i]nfiltrate the stores, give away the toys!”. On the back of a postcard he wrote,
On the night before Christmas, we’ll all be about
While the people are sleeping, we’ll realise our clout
We’ll expropriate goods from the stores, ‘cos that’s fair
And distribute them widely, to those who need care.
Kropotkin was not born with a large beard. Here is a picture of him from 1861. (Woodcock and Avakumovic 1990, 96)
Goldman, Emma. 1970a. Living My Life Volume 1. New York: Dover Publications.
Goldman, Emma. 1970b. Living My Life Volume 2. New York: Dover Publications.
Cahm, Caroline. 1989. Kropotkin and the Rise of Revolutionary Anarchism, 1872-1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kropotkin, Peter. 1902. Fields, Factories and Workshops: Industry Combined with Agriculture and Brain Work with Manual Work. New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons.
Kropotkin, Peter. 1989. Memoirs of a Revolutionist. Montréal: Black Rose Books.
Kropotkin, Peter. 1991. In Russian and French Prisons. Montréal: Black Rose Books.
Kropotkin, Peter 2014. Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. Edited by Iain McKay. Oakland, CA: AK Press,
Pernicone, Nunzio. 1993. Italian Anarchism 1864-1892. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Woodcock, George, and Ivan Avakumović. Peter Kropotkin: From Prince to Rebel. Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1990.