Kropotkin: Opponent or advocate of violence as means for social change?

I was shocked and disappointed to read in the article «History Misinterpreted: Trotsky and Terror» by Harry van Versendaal (Saturday-Sunday August 17-18, 2002) of a supposed link between Peter Kropotkin and the terror tactics of Mikhail Bakunin and November 17. Kropotkin never espoused violence as a means to social change – quite the reverse. He was an early, fervent and consistent critic of Bakunin and others who chose the path of terror. His best-known work, «Mutual Aid,» proposes cooperation as a basic principle in biological and social evolution, as a compliment to Darwin’s competition for survival of the fittest and Marx’s revolutionary «class struggle.» His later work «Fields, Factories and Workshops» applies this analysis to human productive activity in the modern world. His views were entirely peaceful. It is a pity to read such an egregious error in your newspaper, which can only undermine the credibility of an otherwise apparently well-founded piece. David Stevens, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Thames Valley University-London Harry van Versendaal replies: Thank you for your comments. Kropotkin’s vision of a peaceful stateless society based on mutual exchange and voluntary cooperation does not exclude the use of violence during the crucial phase of societal transformation. Quite the opposite, in fact, as according to Kropotkin, the new order will have to come about with a social revolution, that is «a violent subversion of the old order.» Destruction, we are told, is the first act. Violence is necessary, even liberating, in the abolition of the state and the «forcible expropriation of the broadest kind.» In this process, «the impulse to destruction,» he says in «Words of a Rebel», «which is so natural and justifiable becau se it is a t the same time an impulse to renovation, will find its full satisfaction.» In Kropotkin’s view, as with most anarchist theorists, physical violence is a legitimate response to the institutionalized violence on which the modern state is founded and an unavoidable means of resisting state aggression. Also note that, in his early years as a militant anarchist, Kropotkin was a fervent advocate of «propaganda by deed,» meaning acts of terror to awaken the rebellious instincts of the people.

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