Homage to Kropotkin

Whenever I get to teach a philosophy course, I think of a way to talk about Kropotkin, whom I consider to be vastly underappreciated. His work has saved millions of lives and shaped our concept of our relation with all other life. But you’ve never heard of him? Shame on you.

The young Prince Peter Kropotkin was stationed at a post in Siberia—it was a lot like Wyoming—bored silly, I suppose. He had read Darwin’s Origin of Species, when it came out in 1859, and had noticed that Darwin’s thinking in that book made an assumption for which Darwin presented no evidence, namely, the assumption that all animals live in a state of total war against all other animals, that an animal will always attack any other animal (except maybe for the females of its own species) that happens to be in its proximity, and that primitive humans, being animals, behaved the same way. This was, of course, Hobbes’ assumption as well.

I read someplace (I could track that source down if I tried hard enough) that in order to test that assumption, Kropotkin while in Siberia had set up three square observation zones, one a foot on a side, the next ten feet on a side, and the third a hundred feet. He then spent the same amount of time every day at each zone, observing and recording the behavior of insects in the first zone, small animals in the second, large animals in the third. After about a year, he had arrived at some conclusions. It was true that an animal will kill and eat another animal if it is hungry, and that two males of some species will fight to determine which one will be able to mate with a female. Aside from that, he discovered, animals were not aggressive toward each other. Sometimes they just ignored each other, but sometimes they cooperated, for their mutual benefit. He called such cooperation symbiosis, and he began to see that the interactions among many species, both plant and animals, formed a network that they all depended upon in order not only to survive, but also to thrive. In other words, it was Kropotkin who helped found the field of science we now call ecology. (And even if that story is somewhat romanticized, Kropotkin does write at length of his biological observations during his military service in Siberia.)

In The Descent of Man, having thought much more about human behavior and evolution, Darwin did abandon that assumption and argued instead that evolutionary pressures would primarily affect human social groups (the hunting and gathering band, of course), only indirectly the individual, and would therefore produce cooperative and altruistic behavior. The work of E.O. Wilson and the other sociobiologists (who, by the way, claim Kropotkin as an intellectual predecessor) is thus based squarely on Darwin’s work, but attempts to deduce our underlying “programming” in more detail. (As far as I have yet seen, our “prime directive” is not “I must survive,” but instead “The human race must survive.”)

Within 20 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, “Social Darwinism” had arisen, propounded by Thomas Huxley and others of Darwin’s own followers. Social Darwinists still argue even now that, since species evolved by survival of the fittest individuals, the fittest were those who were victorious in the warfare of all against all. Therefore giving help to the weaker members of a species merely interferes with the progress of that species. Therefore giving welfare benefits to the desperately poor in order to keep them alive merely degrades the quality of our society. This is, of course, an argument advanced by Republicans and other conservatives, who apparently are too feebleminded or lazy to understand Darwin’s theory. It amounts to an excuse for their mendacity, selfishness, and lack of compassion.

That is, Social Darwinism is an almost perverse misunderstanding of Darwin’s concept of natural selection. (It was a later writer who coined the term “survival of the fittest.”) Darwin did not argue that evolution resulted from competition within or between species. The stories in Genesis imply that God created the animals with exactly the traits they have now, and that all members of a species are exactly alike. The pre-Socratic philosophers had instead deduced that animal life had evolved over time.

What Darwin argued was that, since not all members of a species have exactly the same innate characteristics, when their environment changes, as environments always do, some of those members would survive better in the new environment because of their particular innate characteristics; that is, they would “fit” the new environment better. (Part of the proof that Darwin’s theory was correct was that it predicted the existence and nature of genes.
Articles by Thomas Huxley propounding Social Darwinism appeared in the British journal Nature in the late 1880s. Kropotkin responded to them with a series of articles, published in that journal also, that were later gathered into his most important book, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, published in 1902.

Kropotkin’s agenda only began with observing animal behavior. From the beginning, within a long tradition of Russian social thought, he was thinking about human behavior. Hobbes’ argument, like that of many previous Greek and Christian philosophers, was that if primitive human beings had lived in a state of constant warfare against each and every other human, sometimes including the females. Hence, he argued that government was invented in order to force people to obey rules and thus be “good,” and that such government had to be imposed by whoever had the most power to do so, i.e., the King, meaning the meanest SOB in the territory.
John Locke’s “social contract” theory was that a government should derive “its just powers from the consent of the governed,” as Jefferson worded it, and not from “might makes right.” Locke did not assume that humans were as inherently aggressive as Hobbes had proposed, but Locke still thought that government was needed to enforce the laws and rules that all had consented to. Kropotkin thought that Locke was still too conservative.

Kropotkin reasoned that if all animals are inherently cooperative, not aggressive, then that had to be true for the human animal as well. Given the evidence he had gathered by his observations, he challenged the ancient assumption that humans are inherently and essentially “evil” or “sinful” or “selfish” or just plain antisocial, and proposed that humans are inherently good. His theory of anarchism argued that government based on force is not essential for human survival. As John Lienhard has commented,

“You and I bend the word anarchy to mean chaos. But what anarchists claim is that individuals organize society by working together—cooperatively and voluntarily. Imperial Europe didn’t like the idea that imperial rule is unnecessary. So Kropotkin spent time in jails. He finally found a safe haven in England.”

(As a result of that experience, Kropotkin also wrote a book pointing out that prisons are the major cause of crime, a fact unchanged after a century.)

Kropotkin knew, of course, that the human race is plagued by crime, cruelty, corruption, and general irrationality, and that such behavior is clearly evil—but his question was, if the behavior is not innate, does not arise from an inherently evil nature, then what are its causes? He proposed that the causes all amount to illness, but not so much physical as mental and emotional. He argued that if humans could become genuinely free of all such illness, if the causes of poverty, crime, and cruelty could be eliminated, then men’s innate cooperativeness would come to the fore. People would spontaneously do what is in their best interests—which is always what is best for the social network in which each human is immersed—and no government, based on the assumption that humans must be forced to be “good,” would be necessary. Oh, impossibly idealistic, you may say. Never happen. But let me tell you another story, starting way out in left field. By the way, I intend the preceding not as a thoroughly accurate and scholarly history of Kropotkin, but as a preface to what follows.

In about 1988, I met a very nice gentleman named Leo Kiley. He was a Christian Brother on detached duty studying new religious movements. We met at a Wiccan Sabbat in the large Palo Alto back yard of the aerospace engineer who (I believe I have this right) had created the communication systems for the Apollo satellites. When our mutual background in the Twelve-Step programs came up, Leo told me an amazing story over coffee one day.

A few years after Mikhael Gorbachev had become Premier of the Soviet Union, two women walked into the Russian consulate in San Francisco. They explained to the consul that they were members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and that they had been speculating, given glasnost and perestroika under Gorbachev, that perhaps it might now be possible for AA to be introduced into Russia. They had heard that it was badly needed, that there were villages where the entire population had been drunk for so long that all their animals had starved to death.
The consul allowed as how he thought doing that just might be possible. He made a phone call and handed the phone to one of the women, who found herself speaking with Gorbachev himself. She explained their idea, and Premier Gorbachev replied that she was right, that it was high time, and that his government would make it possible for an American delegation to come to Moscow. Soon it did, the first AA meeting was founded in Moscow, and AA began spreading, but somewhat slowly, throughout the Soviet Union. An international committee, the Council for a Sober World, was founded; among other things, it held AA meetings via satellite.

I said to Leo that, if I could ever visit Moscow, I would lay a wreath on Kropotkin’s grave. (He is one of their heroes. One of the five Moscow subway stations is named for him.)

Leo, surprised, asked “Why Kropotkin?”

I replied (more or less in these words), “Oh, didn’t you know? In the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where Bill was explaining how he had come up with the Traditions, he mentions a gentle Russian prince. See, Bill had realized (since apparently he had read everything) that AA fulfilled Kropotkin’s criteria for a true anarchism. Every member of AA, in order to combat an illness that is simultaneously physical, mental, and spiritual, must freely do what is best for himself and everyone else in his life. He cannot be forced to do that. Hence AA does not need any rules, or any government to enforce such rules, intended to ‘force people to be good.’ That is why he wrote, ‘Our leaders are but trusted servants. They do not govern.’”

Leo’s mouth literally fell open. I’d swear I saw him emit light. He said, “Aidan, you don’t realize what you’ve just done! When I tell this to my Russian friends, they’ll know that AA is truly something of their own, not something foisted on them by the Americans. You have no idea how many lives you have probably just saved!”

That felt like a good day’s work.

(One pleasant consequence of this essay was connecting with Professor John Lienhard. Please see his website at http://www.uh.edu/engines.)

  • Dave Burwasser

    The current discussion of health care reform could do with a lot more Kropotkin and a lot less Social Darwinism.


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