KNOWLES, Rob. "Political Economy from below: Communitarian Anarchism as a Neglected Discourse in Histories of Economic Thought" - 04 -

RECLUS, Élisée (1830-1905)KROPOTKINE, Petr Alekseevitch (1842-1921) Economy (in general)KNOWLES, RobSCHUMPETER, Joseph (1883-1950)ELTZBACHER, Paul (1896-1923)GIDE, Charles (1847–1932) Economiste françaisMARSHALL, Alfred (1842-1924) économiste britannique

"‘There is not one single principle of Political Economy that does not change its aspect if you look at it from our point of view’"


Previous pages:


Deconstruction of Economic Thought

Characterisations and Characteristics of Communitarian Anarchism


Kropotkin and the marginalisation of anarchist economic thought

By the turn of the nineteenth century, Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin, a Russian prince-turned-anarchist, had become the seminal theorist of communitarian anarchism – ‘anarchist communism’ in his terminology (Lindemann 1983, pp.158-9,162). Born into a Russian aristocratic family, becoming a member of the Corps of Pages in the Tsar’s palace, Kropotkin was destined for an aristocratic military career. For reasons which he set out in detail in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist, he resiled from that pre-destined path, becoming eventually an internationally respected geographer, with one of the best educations Russia could provide (Kropotkin 1971). To date, virtually all analyses of his life and his work have concentrated on the biographical and political dimensions: his early life in Russia, the years of anarchist activism in Switzerland and France, and his perceived role as a sage or prophet for the itinerant and exiled anarchists of Europe. Kropotkin was an intellectual by aspiration and by profession, and he had a familiarity with political economy through his early studies as a young aristocrat in Russia. His political writings from their earliest days possessed economic underpinnings (see Cole 1964, pp.342-8; Woodcock & Avakumovic 1970, p.90; Kropotkin 1971, esp. the essay ‘Expropriation’).

The voice of Schumpeter can offer a positive opinion regarding the history of anarchist economic thought, and Kropotkin’s work in particular. His History of Economic Analysis, first published in 1954 (although relating back to an earlier ‘sketch’ of 1914) is a classic work within the history of economic thought (Roll 1973, p.12n). Schumpeter’s History included a very short discussion of anarchism, and Kropotkin was acknowledged, though in a footnote:

The best known communist thinker of the subsequent period [after Bakunin], P.A. Kropotkin (1842-1921), is a different case [to Bakunin]. He [Kropotkin] made non-negligible efforts at analysis and his sociology of law is not without interest, though sufficiently so to warrant his exclusion from our report. Of course, for a history of economic and political thought (as contrasted with analysis), both he and Bakunin are of immense importance. And still more so for a sociology of economic and political thought. How tsarist society came to produce - in its higher and highest circles - revolutionary communism is in itself a fascinating problem: a crack cavalry regiment was not the worst of nurseries for communist impulses (Schumpeter 1972, p.458n).9

Schumpeter’s engagement with, and marginalising of, Kropotkin was explicit. He implied that Kropotkin’s work did not make a direct contribution to neoclassical economic analysis (Schumpeter 1972, pp.34-43). His noting of the ‘immense importance’ of Kropotkin’s work to ‘a history of economic and political thought’, however, is especially telling given Schumpeter’s credentials as a historian of economic thought. His assertion that Kropotkin made ‘non-negligible efforts at analysis’ was a gross understatement; one has only to read Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories, and Workshops to understand the breadth and depth of Kropotkin’s ‘efforts at analysis’ (Kropotkin, n.d.).

Just after the turn of the century, a definitive history of ‘economic doctrines’ had seriously attempted to engage with anarchism, and took special note of Kropotkin’s ideas. Gide and Rist’s (1915) A History of Economic Doctrines was first published in 1909. Apparently following Eltzbacher’s history of a group of prominent anarchists, titled Anarchism [1], their account of anarchism concentrated on the writings of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin (called by Gide and Rist ‘the real founders of anarchy’) Jean Grave, and Élisée Reclus. Gide and Rist’s work indicated that they were aware of the early polemical writings of Kropotkin as well as his later writings, The Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid. They gave an exposition of ‘Anarchist’ society, based primarily on Kropotkin’s writings, but added that revolution was a ‘necessary part of the anarchist doctrine’. They especially focussed on the writings of Kropotkin and Bakunin regarding revolution and, whilst noting that these activists did not revel in violence, they concluded that violent revolution was ‘the real programme of the anarchists’. In this way, Gide and Rist exhibited mixed chronologies of anarchist writings and, despite the extensive range of material of which they were aware and which was available to them, they concluded polemically that violence was at the core of anarchist thought (see Gide and Rist 1915, pp.xv,637n,637-639).

It is probable that the influence of Eltzbacher’s history of anarchism distorted the record of late nineteenth century anarchist thought, especially through ‘the implicit rejection of the importance of the socialist impulse within the thought of the European anarchists’ (Fleming, 1979, pp.20-21). Gide and Rist may have been misguided in this way. In any event, they fell into political economy ‘pedigree-plotting’. As Stark (1994, pp.161-162) has noted,

‘Gide and Rist...add dogmatic valuations from the standpoint of modern doctrine, which is made the touchstone of right and wrong’.

Despite value judgements, Gide and Rist did engage with anarchist doctrines sufficiently seriously to discuss the influence of ‘anarchy’ on ‘the working classes in general’. They concluded that anarchist activism had led to a revival of individualism and that it had ‘begotten a reaction against the centralising socialism of Marx’. Its success had been ‘especially great’ in Latin nations and Austria, ‘where it seemed for a time as if it would supplant socialism altogether’. Anarchism had also experienced ‘very marked progress’ in France, Italy and Spain (Gide and Rist, 1915, p.640). Apart from Schumpeter’s footnote, this was apparently the last occasion when a ‘mainstream’ history of economic thought took account of anarchism.

Kropotkin’s economic thought: an overview

There was a hard core of ‘scientific’ thought which underscored Kropotkin’s writings. This was particularly evident in those produced during his life in exile in Britain: from 1886, when he arrived fresh from a French prison, until his return to Russia in 1917. This was a stable period in Kropotkin’s life, in contrast to the political repression he had experienced as an active anarchist in continental Europe. He relished his family life in Britain and the opportunity he found for pursuit of his intellectual goals (Cole 1964, pp.347-8). Although in Kropotkin’s study ‘The walls were lined with books up to the ceiling [and] the desk was heaped with papers and periodicals’ (Rocker 1956, p.148), his anarchist thought did not emerge from a mind closeted with dusty books. As Kropotkin remarked,

‘anarchy and communism’ was not ‘the product of philosophic speculators, created by savants in dim lights of their studies . . . [it was] Born of the people . . . ‘ (1992, p.71).

In contrast to the belief in the need for a state and notions of entrenched individual and state competitive struggle which were so much in evidence towards the end of the century (Cole 1953, pp.98,103-104; Read 1994, pp.221,224), Kropotkin perceived a tendency towards human solidarity or social co-operation in history and in contemporary society, which he translated into his economic thought through the evolutionary notion of ‘mutual aid’. For Kropotkin, it was the competitive underpinnings of capitalist political economy, and the authoritarian character of both capitalist and (prospective) socialist societies, which led him to articulate a dissenting political economy of ‘anarchist communism’.

Kropotkin was well-aware of the intellectual impact of his anarchist communist approach on the concept of political economy more generally:

‘There is not one single principle of Political Economy that does not change its aspect if you look at it from our point of view’ (1972b, p.193).

This was written in the early 1890s at a time when Alfred Marshall had assumed a leading role in British economic thought. Kropotkin was not referring to the classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo; he was confronting the emerging neo-classical paradigm.

Kropotkin defined political economy from a ‘world-concept’ perspective: ‘Anarchism is a world-concept based upon a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of nature - that is, including in it the life of human societies and their economic, political, and moral problems’ (1968b, p.150). For Kropotkin, it followed that political economy ought to occupy with respect to human societies a place in science similar to that held by physiology in relation to plants and animals...It should aim at studying the needs of society and the various means, both hitherto used and available under the present state of scientific knowledge, for their satisfaction. It should try to analyze how far the present means are expedient and satisfactory, economic or wasteful; and then, since the ultimate end of every science (as Bacon had already stated) is obviously prediction and practical application to the demands of life, it should concern itself with the discovery of means for the satisfaction of these needs with the smallest possible waste of labor and with the greatest benefit to mankind in general (1968b, p.180, emphasis in original).

Kropotkin was precise in this definition and appears to have carefully weighed his words; he was articulating a connection between ‘modern science’ and ‘anarchism’. In abridged or slightly varied forms, he had retained this concept of political economy throughout his writings. It was at once, ‘world-concept’, natural-scientific, and directed towards satisfying the essential needs of all humanity.

In The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin noted the ‘essential basis of all Political Economy’ as being ‘the study of the most favourable conditions for giving society the greatest amount of useful products with the least waste of human energy . . .’ (1972b, p.160). Kropotkin’s reference to ‘useful products’ did not imply a production-oriented approach to political economy:

‘Anarchism understands...that in political economy attention must be directed first of all to so-called “consumption” . . . so as to provide food, clothing and shelter for all . . . “Production”, on the other hand, must be so adapted as to satisfy this primary, fundamental need of society’ (1968b, p.193).

He noted that, in the same way as anarchist communism looked at ‘society and its political organization’ from a perspective which differed from that of ‘all the authoritarian schools’,

We study needs of the individuals, and the means by which we satisfy them, before discussing Production, Exchange, Taxation, Government, and so on...If you open the works of any economist you will find that he begins with PRODUCTION, i.e., by the analysis of the means employed nowadays for the creation of wealth...From Adam Smith to Marx, all have proceeded along these lines . . . Only in the latter parts of their books do they treat of CONSUMPTION, that is to say, of the means resorted to in our present society to satisfy the needs of the individuals . . . (1972b, p.190, emphasis in original).

For Kropotkin, whilst it could be claimed that it was logical to start with production - ‘before satisfying needs you must create the wherewithal to satisfy them’ - it would be at least as logical ‘to begin by considering the needs, and afterwards to discuss how production is, and ought to be, organized, in order to satisfy these needs’ (1972b, p.190).

Kropotkin’s writings exhibited a commitment to evolutionary ‘science’. He considered Darwin’s Origin of Species to be an ‘immortal work’ which ‘revolutionalized all biological sciences’. However he had only a fragmentary and highly conditional acceptance of parts of Spencer’s writings; even though he was unreserved in his claim that Spencer had ‘fully proved the necessity of placing the principles of morality on a scientific basis . . .’ (1971, pp.97,115; 1968c, p.295). In his pursuit of science, Kropotkin was very much a part of, and a product of, a post-Darwinian and positivist intellectual environment. It was evident both in his professional career as a geographer and in his anarchist theorising. His 1902 pamphlet Modern Science and Anarchism exhibited a deep connection between his anarchism and ‘science’. For Kropotkin, anarchism’s ‘complete scientific basis’ could only be developed after

‘that awakening of naturalism which brought into being the natural-scientific study of human social institutions’ (1968b, p.192).

Kropotkin utilised ‘social investigation’ as a fundamental methodology. Empirical inquiry and data collection were youthful elements in Kropotkin’s ‘scientific’ mode of thought and became crucial to his later theoretical work (Kropotkin 1971, p.103). He used ‘social investigation’ to enable him to acquire data and statistics from which he deduced and supported the core theses of his political economy. The material from which Kropotkin drew his ‘data’ was extensive and non-partisan. His sources were primarily British, French, German, and Russian. This methodology was far from unique to Kropotkin, although it was a relatively recent innovation in social inquiry in Britain. McBriar has noted that

‘the Socialists were dependent on the work of social investigators - of Charles Booth above all’. Socialists interpreted Booth’s (and others) findings as meaning that ‘scientific investigation had tipped the balance decisively in favour of social causes of poverty being more important than individual failings’ (McBriar 1987, p.90). [2]

The components of Kropotkin’s integrated view of anarchist communism were drawn together in the following words, reproduced here at length as they paint efficiently an overall picture of the genesis of a communitarian anarchist commune, in this case, Paris (1972b, pp.103-104) [3] :

With all the mechanical inventions of the century; with all the intelligence and technical skill of the worker accustomed to deal with complicated machinery; with inventors, chemists, professors of botany, practical botanists like the market gardeners of Gennevilliers; with all the plant that they could use for multiplying and improving machinery; and, finally, with the organizing spirit of the Parisian people, their pluck and energy - with all these at its command, the agriculture of the anarchist Commune of Paris would be a very different thing from the rude husbandry of the Ardennes.

Steam, electricity, the heat of the sun and the breath of the wind, will ere long be pressed into service. The steam plough and the steam harrow will quickly do the rough work of preparation, and the soil, thus cleaned and enriched, will only need the intelligent care of man, and of woman even more than man, to be clothed with luxuriant vegetation - not once but three or four times in the year.

He then drew out the social returns from this approach to political economy:

Thus, learning the art of horticulture from experts, and trying experiments in different methods on small patches of soil reserved for the purpose, vying with each other to obtain the best returns, finding in physical exercise, without exhaustion or overwork, the health and strength which so often flags in cities - men, women and children will gladly turn to the labour of the fields, when it is no longer a slavish drudgery, but has become a pleasure, a festival, a renewal of health and joy . . .

Significantly for an understanding of Kropotkin’s political economy, the concept of the ‘commune’ developed and became complex in his thought. It was no longer that of a small self-contained village community:

‘For us, “commune” no longer means a territorial agglomeration; it is rather a generic name, a synonym for the grouping of equals which knows neither frontiers nor walls.’

The ‘commune’ had become a community of interests, without geographical boundaries:

The social Commune will soon cease to be a clearly defined entity...there will emerge a Commune of interests whose members are scattered in a thousand towns and villages. Each individual will find the full satisfaction of his needs only by grouping with other individuals who have the same tastes but inhabit a hundred other communes (1992, pp.88-9).

The rapid growth and global spread in usage of the Internet, largely outside of the control or direction of any state, immediately springs to mind as potentially facilitating Kropotkin’s anarchistic ‘communes of interests’. A similar comment could be made with respect to satellite communications. Kropotkin would have been excited to see technology move in these border-crossing directions.

It is important not to misunderstand Kropotkin’s view of communitarian anarchist society by considering only this variable institution of a ‘commune’, whether of territory or of interests. The commune idea has often been used as a basis for denigrating anarchist ideas. Kropotkin was well aware of this. He acknowledged that once food and shelter requirements had been satisfied, the need for less-essential goods or pursuits would be ‘more keenly felt’. Almost anticipating a parody of many ‘hippie’ communes of the 1960s, Kropotkin noted that (as the founders of ‘new American deserts’ had realised) after essential needs had been met,

‘a music-room in which the “brothers” could strum a piece of music, or act a play from time to time’ was not enough (1972b, p.125).

He persuasively described the way in which institutions such as the Red Cross Society (which operates voluntarily even under the fire of war), the Lifeboat Association, cross-border Postal Union co-operation, the co-operation in railway construction across Europe without directing authority, and ‘thousands’ of other examples have each associated and co-operated voluntarily (1968a, pp.65-68). His vision was for

‘the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all’ (1968d, p.124).

There was no question as to whether or not anarchist society would comprise social or economic institutions:

Communist customs and institutions are of absolute necessity for society, not only to solve economic difficulties, but also to maintain and develop social customs that bring men in contact with one another (1968d, p.137).

For Kropotkin, a new form of economy embedded in society would bring about a new form of political society. There was no fundamental difference between Marx and Kropotkin in this belief. Kropotkin was under no illusion that ‘politics’ would simply disappear in communitarian anarchism. He was a realist.

‘A new form of political organization has to be worked out the moment that socialist principles shall enter into our life. And it is self-evident that this new form will have to be more popular, more decentralized, and nearer to the folk-mote self-government than representative government can ever be’ (1968b, p.184, emphasis in original).

There are echoes of this mode of thought to be heard in present political societies.

Kropotkin’s political economy was a ‘world-concept’. There would be ‘plenty for all’ in terms of available resources; that is, he denied the existence of fundamental scarcity of resources to produce human needs. In this way, his political economy was in sharp contrast to the assumption of scarcity which underpinned classical political economy. The aim of anarchist communism was to produce for the consumption needs of all human-kind, not just for the privileged few. Kropotkin was scathing in his criticism of the way in which Malthus’ writings on the world’s inability to feed its population had influenced ‘the wealth-possessing minority’. For Kropotkin, ‘Few books have exercised so pernicious an influence upon the general development of economic thought...’ (n.d., p.158). He described the presence of Malthus’ thought within the neo-classical economics paradigm in the following way:

This postulate stands, undiscussed, in the background of whatever political economy, classical or socialist, has to say about exchange-value, wages, sale of labour force, rent, exchange, and consumption. Political economy never rises above the hypothesis of a limited and insufficient supply of the necessaries of life; it takes it for granted. And all theories connected with political economy retain the same erroneous principle. Nearly all socialists, too, admit the postulate (n.d., pp.159-160, emphasis in original).

The driving force of Kropotkin’s political economy arose from his perceived need to satisfy the needs of all; to achieve the ‘greatest good for all’, to provide a measure of ‘wealth and ease’ for all.

Kropotkin had called for a reduction in working hours and a shorter working life. It would be possible to ‘guarantee well-being’ to all members of a society in a working week consisting of only ‘five hours a day from the age of twenty or twenty-two to forty-five or fifty . . .’ (1972b, p.123). Here was a crucial point of difference with classical political economy:

‘Unfortunately, the metaphysics called political economy has never troubled about that which should have been its essence - economy of labour’ (1968d, p.130).

He believed that bourgeois economic thought had taken no interest in these aspects of economy in the life of the worker:

‘few economists, as yet, have recognised that this is the proper domain of economics...’ (1968d, pp.ix-x).

The notion of ‘capital’ was another essential difference between political economists and Kropotkin. It was obviously central to capitalist political economy, and Kropotkin was well aware of its function. In an uncomfortable reflection of the nature of ‘capital’ a century later (see e.g. Hutton 1996, Ch.3,Ch.10), he observed that:

We are told that capital, that product of work of all humankind which has been accumulated in the hands of the few, is fleeing from agriculture and industry for lack of confidence. But where will it find its perch, once it has left the strong-boxes? It can go to furnish the harems of the Sultan . . . it can supply the wars . . . it can be used to found a joint stock company, not to produce anything, but simply to lead in a couple of years to a scandalous failure . . . But above all, capital can plunge into speculation, the great game of the stock exchange . . . Speculation killing industry - that is what they call the intelligent management of business! (1992, p.22).

The ‘capital’ of capitalist political economy was seen by Kropotkin as being to the benefit of the few and of little productive use in terms of his own goal for human society; the well-being of all. In an astute series of observations, Kropotkin noted that

“Knowledge ignores artificial political boundaries. So also do the industries . . .’; and ‘Capital is international and, protection or no protection, it crosses the frontiers’ (n.d., pp.22,36). [4]

These observations have since become widely acknowledged through concepts such as the ‘globalisation of capital’ (and ‘globalisation’ generally) within today’s politics and economics.

Élisée Reclus, in 1885, gave us a glimpse of the man who was the source of this economic thought, in this lament of society’s vilification of Kropotkin:

Among those who have observed his life from near or far, there is nobody who does not respect him, who does not bear witness to his great intelligence and his heart overflowing with goodwill...His crime has been to love the poor and the powerless; his offense has been to plead their cause. Public opinion is unanimous in respecting this man, and yet it is not surprised to see the prison door close firmly upon him . . . (Kropotkin 1992, ‘Introduction’, p.16). [5]

It is time that Kropotkin’s economic thought was released from its century-long intellectual prison.

In locating Kropotkin’s economic thought in confrontation with other political economies, there is a need to be as specific as possible as to which political economy or stream of economic thought is being confronted. Concurrently with Kropotkin’s development of anarchist communist political economy, Alfred Marshall, Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University from 1885, was pulling together the threads of political economy into a seminal work. It is notable that, in his Principles of Economics and in an earlier essay, Marshall (1922, pp.23, 252, 782; 1925b, pp.110-118) can be found engaged in discussion of concepts such as ‘pleasurable work’, ‘brain work’ and ‘manual work’, halving the typical hours of work, and the benefits of intellectual and artistic enjoyment for the worker. He could also seriously contemplate a society where private property was unknown and where ‘public honours’ could substitute for money as a measure of ‘the strength of motives’. These are echoes, perhaps spectres, of Kropotkin’s mode of thought - even if not of Kropotkin’s writings.

Kropotkin’s economic thought can readily withstand detailed comparison with competing economic discourses of his time. His ‘world-concept’ economic thought sits comfortably within Polanyi’s substantive definition of the economy and anticipates Polanyi’s insight into the social embeddedness of the economy. Kropotkin did not deny the necessity for institutions within anarchist political economy and he was under no illusions as to the value to the community of modern industry and innovation. For Kropotkin, communitarian anarchist political economy came from the people and it was therefore in its essence a “political economy from below”. He threw down this challenge to competing political economies:

Whether or not anarchism is right in its conclusions will be shown by a scientific criticism of its bases and by the practical life of the future...Its conclusions can be verified only by the same natural-scientific, inductive method by which every science and every scientific concept of the universe is created (1968b, p.193).


Concluding Remarks


[1Eltzbacher’s history first appeared in 1900 as "a ‘scientific’ attempt to grasp the essentials of anarchist thought...and was quickly accepted as the standard work" (Fleming 1979, p.19).

[2Charles Booth’s ‘great social survey’ Life and Labour of the People of London was undertaken during the 1880s and 1890s. For many of Kropotkin’s sources of data, see Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops, especially the Appendices.

[3Kropotkin’s reference to Gennevilliers was to an area near Paris where vegetables were grown in large irrigated fields. See (1972b, Editor’s footnote, p.103).

[4It is not claimed here that these insights were unique to Kropotkin. For example, Marx had earlier written of ’world money’, ’universal money’, and the ’theory of colonisation’. See Marx (1989, pp.150-2); (1963, pp.14, 765).

[5Kropotkin was tried with a group of other anarchists in Lyons in 1883 and spent three years in Clairvaux prison. (Kropotkin, 1971, pp.451, 458).