Kropotkin, Power, and the State, by Sam Haraway

Anarchist political theory is perhaps one of the most neglected traditions in contemporary political science. In a world created by the existence of the state, this makes sense. Nonetheless, thinking beyond the state paradigm is essential. Here we explore a work by one of the most influential anarchist thinkers, Peter Kropotkin, looking at the argument presented in Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal, in terms of its sweeping rejection of capitalism and state. We examine interpretations of Kropotkin’s argument by notable poststructuralist anarchists—postanarchists, for short—Saul Newman, Todd May, and Uri Gordon. We also consider Ruth Kinna’s attempt to revise Kropotkin, in light of the postanarchist critique, and conclude with a brief commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of Kropotkin’s argument and its interpretations.

Kropotkin and Anarchism
Kropotkin rejects capitalism, and advocates revolution rather than reform. Interestingly, Kropotkin’s grievance is similar to that of Marx—for this reason he has sometimes been referred to as an anarchocommunist. Kropotkin, unlike Marx, also rejects the existence of the state. There are two interrelated reasons for his rejection of the state: first, the consolidation of power by the state exploits the individual; and second, the state facilitates a false division between people. In so arguing, Kropotkin distinguishes the anarchist strategy from that of the communist: because the state is the source of the problem, it is thus incapable of solving it. Thus, in contrast to Marxists, anarchists do not seek to seize state power.

While the arguments are presented separately for clarification, Kropotkin argues that the existence of the state and capitalism both exploit the individual and divide society along false lines, and further, that this exploitation is selfperpetuating. The realization of anarchism therefore relies on the abolishment of both capitalism and the state.[1]

The Problem with Capitalism
Kropotkin’s fundamental objection to capitalism is that it deprives workers from reaching their fullest potential for development: “the very essence of the present economic system is, that the worker can never enjoy the well-being he has produced, and that the number of those who live at his expense will always augment.... Inevitably, industry is directed, and will have to be directed, not towards what is needed to satisfy the needs of all, but towards that which, at a given moment, brings in the greatest temporary profit to a few. Of necessity, the abundance of some will be based on the poverty of others....” [2]

In other words, the chief problem with capitalism is that it exploits the worker. Simply, the worker possesses limited means with which to make a living: being propertyless, the worker does not control the means of production. In fact, the only thing the worker has to offer to the capitalist class is his labor-power, his ability to produce. [3] This being the case, workers are underpaid and cannot afford what they produce. “The worker is placed to sell his labor power, the seller being sure in advance that he will not receive all that his strength can produce, of being wounded in his interests, and of becoming inferior to the buyer.” [4]

The exploitation derived from this relationship is perpetual in that because workers can only sell their labor-power, and because they are underpaid, they are thus stuck within the lower class. Until this point, Kropotkin’s argument seems a mirror image of that of Marx, who referred to this phenomenon as commodity fetishism. That is, they both recognize capitalism as a chief source of alienation within society. However, an important distinction between the two arises in the context of method—i.e., how to affect the change necessary to correct the injustices of capitalism. Predictably, whereas Marx presents the state as the instrument for change, anarchists like Kropotkin see the state as the cause of exploitation. [5]

The Problem of the State

There is an important distinction to make between anarchism and communism, of which Kropotkin himself is clear:
“There are those, on the one hand, who hope to achieve the social revolution through the State by preserving and even extending most of its powers to be used for the revolution. And there are those like ourselves who see the State, both in its present form, in its very essence, and in whatever guise it may appear, an obstacle to the social revolution, the greatest hindrance to the birth of a society based on equality and liberty, as well as the historic means designed to prevent this blossoming. The latter work to abolish the State and not to reform it.” [6]

Although Kropotkin presents this distinction in Anarchism: It Philosophy and Ideal, it is articulated in The State: It’s Historic Role much more clearly, and was cited from the latter for this reason. In Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal, the state is rejected as a tool for societal transformation, and instead presented as the root of the problem for two reasons. The first is the state’s consolidation of power, and the second is the state’s creating of a false division among people. At its root, then, the state is the source of society’s problems and cannot be reconstituted as a productive force; it is fundamentally opposed.

State Consolidation of Power

The first objection appears in Kropotkin’s discussion of the state’s consolidation of power, which occurred during its formation: “We know well the means by which this association of the lord, priest, merchant, judge, soldier, and king founded its domination. It was by the annihilation of all free unions: of village communities, guilds, trade unions, fraternities, and mediaeval cities. It was by confiscating the land of the communes and the riches of the guilds; it was by the absolute and ferocious prohibition of all kinds of free agreement between men; it was by massacre, the wheel, the gibbet, the sword, and the fire that Church and State established their domination, and that they succeeded henceforth to reign over an incoherent agglomeration of subjects, who had no direct union more among themselves.” [7]

In other words, the consolidation of power is the result of the consolidation of the interests of the wealthy and military classes of mediaeval society. Their ability to articulate the supremacy of their interests over the lower classes is a function of their assuming power. Kropotkin then argues that in the domain of the economy, coercion has led us to industrial servitude; in the domain of politics, to the State—that is to say, to the destruction of all ties that formerly existed among citizens, and to that nation becoming nothing but an incoherent mass of obedient subjects of a central authority. [8]

In this sense, power is viewed as the ability of a group—in this case, the state, which is composed of the elite classes of society—to impose its interests and enforce its will on another group through coercive means. Thus, the creation of the state increased the amount of power within society. And, since power is unequally distributed to the dominant class, to the state, the consolidation of power enables the state to enforce its exploitative will—i.e., hierarchical rule and expression of the interests of the dominant elite who run it. Said differently, prior to the existence of the state, power did not exist as a coercive force; power was simply not a dominating factor in the lives of individuals because it was not used to dictate the lives of individuals.[9] However, the advent of the state changed society in two ways. First, it created more power through the consolidation of the interests of the economic and military elite. Second, power became disproportionately distributed to the state, to these same members of the elite class. Accordingly, for Kropotkin, the state cannot be reconstituted as a tool of reform because it the source of the creation and consolidation of power, which is inherently exploitative.

State Facilitation of Division
Kropotkin’s second objection to the state concerns its creation of a false division between peoples. As described earlier, Kropotkin views the state as created by the consolidation of the interests of the wealthy and military classes of mediaeval society. As a result, borders are imposed on individuals. This is a clear extension of Kropotkin’s first grievance regarding the state’s power over the individual: the creation of borders stems from a place of power above the individual.

Authority and the state are constituted and imposed on the individual through the creation of borders. In other words, the drawing of borders is a manifestation of state authority. The result is an artificial division between peoples insofar as the state in which we happen to reside is said to determine our interests against the peoples of an opposing state. [10]

Consequently, a sort of social estrangement results from this false division, whereby “...we live side by side without knowing one another.... Our neighbor may die of hunger or murder his children—it is no business of ours; it is the business of the policeman. You hardly know one another, nothing unites you, everything tends to alienate you from one another, and finding no better way, you ask the Almighty (formerly it was a God, now it is the State) to do all that lies within his power to stop anti-social passions from reaching their highest climax. [11]

For Kropotkin, the lack of meaningful relations between people is the direct result of the consolidation of state power and the arbitrary construction of borders. This intensifies social alienation that, in turn, perpetuates the existence of the state as individuals relate to one another competitively rather than collectively. In the midst of the state and its control over the lives of individuals, people lose their collectivist nature and are complacent with regard to state domination. Accordingly, Kropotkin opposes the existence of the state and its use as a transforming agent because it is responsible for the imposing of artificial borders, and thus the alienation of individuals from their collectivist natures, and this is not reconcilable.

Kropotkin’s rejection of capitalism and the state are essentially two parts of the same argument. That is, capitalism’s self-perpetuated exploitation of the worker is viewed as inextricably linked to the state’s consolidation of power and false division of society. To review, Kropotkin’s rejection of capitalism stems, in part, from his belief in commodity fetishism. That is, the cyclical relationship of workers being limited to the selling of their labor-power for substandard wages—their inability to afford the products they make— ensures their perpetual exploitation by the capitalist system. First, because the creation of the state is based primarily on the consolidation of power, and because power is inherently exploitative, the state cannot be the medium through which Revolution is achieved. Second, the existence of the state creates artificial division between peoples; the drawing of borders and boundaries separates us, arbitrarily, from our neighbors. In turn, the resulting social estrangement perpetuates the existence and authority of the state insofar as it further alienates individuals from each other.

For Kropotkin, revolution, the abolishment of the state and capitalism and reestablishment of collectivism, is necessary because of the exploitative nature of both capitalism and the state. Bearing this in mind we shift to responses to Kropotkin’s conception of anarchism, namely those from poststructuralist anarchist movement, and Ruth Kinna.

Kropotkin & the Poststructuralist Response
Kropotkin’s rejection of the state is consistent with classical anarchist philosophy. Newman explains: “the critique of political authority—the conviction that power is oppressive, exploitative and dehumanizing—may be said to be the crucial politico-ethical standpoint of anarchism. For classical anarchists the sovereign state [is] the embodiment of all forms of the enslavement and degradation of man.”[12]

However, it is this characteristic of classical anarchism, that all power is oppressive, that forms the basis of the poststructuralist anarchist critique. This section will first present post-anarchism’s reaction to the grounds upon which Kropotkin rejects the state—not to the rejection of the state, but rather to what Newman refers to as anarchism’s uncontaminated point of departure. [13] More specifically, it discusses the postanarchist response to anarchism’s essentialist view of human nature. Then, it presents post- anarchism’s alternative development of power: namely, that power can in fact be productive. It thus rejects Kropotkin’s idea that power is altogether exploitative.

A few similarities between postanarchism and classical anarchism should be noted from the outset of this critique. First, postanarchism shares the classical tradition’s rejection of the state. Indeed, Newman, a well-known postanarchist, notes that “the state has its own structural logic of domination, expansion and self-perpetuation and is largely autonomous from class interests” [14] Accordingly, we ought to remain cautious of domination at the hands of the state. (Here we also see that post-anarchism offers a critique of Marxism similar to Kropotkin’s, which was presented earlier.) Second, although this is not explicitly addressed in the works covered, there is no reason to suspect that postanarchists reject Kropotkin’s idea that the state is responsible for the creation of false divisions between peoples. In fact, given post-anarchism’s grounding in poststructuralist philosophy, it likely extends this critique to include discursive-based division, and the reification of division through interaction; division, then, is seen not just as stemming from state power, but as reinforced in our everyday social world. Although these similarities may seem obvious, it is useful to clarify such that we proceed with an equal footing.

Rejection of an Essential Identity

One of the fundamental critiques by post-anarchists concerns what Saul Newman refers to as anarchism’s uncontaminated point of departure.[15] This is classical anarchism’s belief that individuals’ possess a sort of essence or naturalism, which is fundamentally good. Thus, for Kropotkin, humans possess a natural morality: “the human essence is a good essence.” [16] Postanarchists like Newman and May suggest that anarchism’s essentialist logic is motivated by the need for an ethical point of resistance: if individuals possess a moral essence, and state power is viewed as suppressing this essence, it follows that the existence of the state ought to be opposed in order to free the individual. [17] In other words, because anarchism possesses an essentialist logic, and sees the state as stifling human essence (as power is always oppressive), it follows that once the state is abolished, human essence will flourish. Therefore, anarchism is not trapped within the state paradigm because it imagines this uncontaminated point of departure; it imagines a human condition outside of the state, and that condition is marked by a moral essence. “For Kropotkin, anarchism can think beyond the category of the state, beyond the category of absolute political power, because it has a place, a ground from which to do so.”[18]

It is this notion of an uncontaminated point of departure, of essence as a pure place of resistance, that Newman and May criticize classical anarchist philosophy. Newman explains the broad problem with essentialist logic: “Essentialist identities limit the individual, constructing his or her reality around certain norms, and closing off the possibilities of change and becoming. There is, moreover, a whole series of institutional practices which dominate the individual in a multitude of ways, and which are brought into play by essentialist logics.” [19]

The problem is that essentialist logics construct binary, behavioral hierarchies, and that those who do not meet these “normal” behaviors are exploited. In opposing state power as oppressive while making an assumption about a moral human essence, anarchism falls subject to the very hierarchies it seeks to oppose. Thus, “even though it is a form of resistance, it is resistance according to the terms of the dominant position.” Essentialist logic, like state power itself, is a form of authoritarian identity because it constructs seemingly natural hierarchies when, in reality, such assumptions are equally oppressive. The solution, then, is not to reconstitute behavioral hierarchies, but to displace and deconstruct the hierarchy, “to displace place” [20]

In summation, poststructuralist anarchism offers a critique of classical anarchism’s uncontaminated point of departure, its assumption of a moral human essence. Newman states that to assume that in the absence of state power, a moral essence will emerge “...would be to fall into the trap of place, to merely substitute one kind of authority for another—just as the anarchists [substitute] the authority of man for the authority of the state”.[21] From this rejection of essential logic, comes the postanarchist response to anarchism’s conception of power as fundamentally oppressive.

Power as Productive
As stated earlier, Kropotkin, like other classical anarchists, regard power as inherently oppressive. Therefore, the consolidation of power by the state is a severe threat—central authority is Kropotkin’s foremost objection to the existence of the state. Poststructuralist anarchists, on the other hand, reject this conception of power: “this impoverished notion of power as ever oppressive, never productive, [is] the Achilles heel of anarchist political philosophy.”[22] For poststructuralist anarchism, there is no center within which power is to be located. ... There are many different sites from which it arises, and there is an interplay among these various sites in the creation of the social world. This is not to deny that there are points of concentration of power or, to keep with the spatial image, points where various (and perhaps bolder) lines intersect. Power does not, however, originate at those points; rather, it conglomerates around them. [23]

Thus, postanarchism replaces classical anarchism’s view of power as operating exclusively through a central authority, as inherently oppressive, with the idea that because it operates through multiple points, it can in fact be productive. Rather than view power strictly as domination, Gordon presents a conception of power as power-with. Power-with is a “cooperative form of power, where individuals influence each other’s behavior in the absence of a conflict of wills or interest.” [24] In other words, whereas the conception of power as domination is concerned with A’s ability to exert B’s compliance for something B would not otherwise do, power-with implies a different sort of compliance. For example, if A asks a favor of B, and the request is understood as a favor rather than as the use of force or coercion, power-with is exercised. “This is because A and B share cultural codes that stand at the background of their unspoken, mutual expectations.” [25] This form of power acting at the interactional level, then, is a fundamentally different kind of power than that which is exerted by the state; power-with exists horizontally rather than vertically. Therefore, whereas Kropotkin views power as inherently oppressive, Gordon and other postanarchists articulate a more productive conception: “when one no longer conceives of power solely as oppressive, but also as productive, the image of top and bottom no longer captures its operation.” [26]

Kinna’s Revision

Ruth Kinna offers a brief critique of poststructuralist anarchism, arguing that it misinterprets the degree to which anarchism is essentialist, and thus resituating Kropotkin’s argument: “The tendency towards integration would not provide a panacea for all ills.” [27] Kinna argues that post-anarchism’s assertion that Kropotkin harbors an essentialist conception of man—that through the abolition of the state emerges man’s pure, moral essence—is overstated. Kinna holds that Kropotkin acknowledges that factors such geography influence the purity of one’s essence. To suggest Kropotkin operates from an uncontaminated place, as does Newman, is false.

Kinna’s critique is based on her interpretation of Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops. Admittedly, while Newman is the only postanarchist to specifically address this text in his work, Kropotkin’s rejection of capitalism and the state is consistent throughout his work. Kinna offers a second critique, arguing that post-anarchism oversimplifies Kropotkin’s conception of the revolution. Whereas postanarchists allegedly assert that Kropotkin envisions the revolution as a single event, Kinna clarifies that “ was work in progress as much as a cataclysmic event; and its success depended centrally on the extent to which individuals were able and/or willing to seize initiatives and act for themselves.”[28]

Kinna’s argument, it seems it me, may also be overstated. Kropotkin’s conception of power as centrally located, and as inherently oppressive, seems incongruent with Kinna’s assertion of revolution. If power is conceived as emanating from a single location, how can revolution be anything other than a single event? That is, because Kropotkin posits that power rests in a single, central entity—the state—it doesn’t follow that he imagines a revolution other than one that directly seizes that central power: revolution as a single event. Approached inversely for further clarification, if one believes that revolution emerges from the process of reconstituted places of power, it does not follow that one also conceives power as inherently oppressive. That is, if one believes that power emanates from multiple locations, and from multiple relationships, it does not follow that one also reduces power to inherently repressive. Accordingly, Kinna’s attempt to reestablish Kropotkin’s conception of revolution does not hold with Kropotkin’s conception of power, as presented here.

In summation, while Kinna may make an important revision of Kropotkin’s belief in essentialist logic, it appears that her interpretation of Kropotkin’s revolution is misconstrued based upon his conception of power.

Reflecting on Kropotkin
For contemporary radical politics, Kropotkin offers some useful conclusions. First, that the state facilitates false division, while ceding that the extent to which it does so may vary from case to case. That is, various classes and ethnic groups within various states may indeed perceive the existence of division, and the degree to which this is negative, differently. That the African state is the result of the colonial “scramble for Africa,” where European powers drew up African states arbitrarily with respect to existing nations is an affirmative example of false division. The implications of which have been fatal. The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is, in many ways, an example of the severe ethnic conflict that can arise when a state is perceived as dividing its people. This appears to be among the most valuable contributions from Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal.

Second, Kropotkin’s conception of power and human nature needs revision. At this point we can side with poststructuralist anarchism. Briefly, Kropotkin argues that power operates through the authority of the state, and is therefore inherently oppressive. It seems that in terms of revolution, however, Kropotkin’s conception of power leaves us trapped. If power exists only in the state apparatus, it follows that abolishing the state abolishes power altogether. However, Kropotkin’s essentialist logic amounts to a sort of leap of faith that seemingly oversimplifies the results of the abolishment of the state. With such a dramatic restructuring of society, relying on a “good” conception of man is simply unconvincing in terms of the resulting order. In other words, it is not inevitable that the abolishment of the state leads to the sort of collective order Kropotkin suggests.

Here postanarchists make a useful contribution with regard to their conception of power. Recall that post-anarchists such as Gordon differ in their conception of power, arguing that it has not one, but many locations, and that it is not inherently oppressive but also productive. Through this conception of power, the possibilities for revolution, and the act of revolution itself, become clearer. If we agree that power does not have a place, as Newman argues, we allow power to operate between us. Even if power currently operates exploitatively, in viewing it as local, by implication we see our own ability to capture and manipulate it. We thus can reconstitute power relations in a productive manner. Whereas a strictly top-down perspective requires us to seize power, in a single act, the poststructuralist conception of power lends itself to a progressive revolution. Similarly, while the top-down conception of revolution clouds the role of the agent, a revolution whereby the places and manifestations of power are gradually changed, by degree, affords the agent a great purpose: only through a local reconstitution of power can we affect change.

In conclusion, Kropotkin’s argument is relevant in its skepticism of central authority. Specifically, the conception of false division lends itself to an understanding of the arbitrary ways in which authority and power operate through the state form. However, in terms of affecting change, the poststructuralist response more usefully considers the existence of power, and how we can appropriate it at an individual level in order to achieve revolution.

1. Kinna, Ruth. “Fields of Vision: Kropotkin and Revolutionary Change.” SubStance #113 36(2) (2007): 67-86, p. 72, 76
2. Kropotkin, Peter. Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal. 1901, p. 11
3 ibid, p. 14
4 ibid, p. 14
5. Newman, Saul. Power and Politics in Poststructuralist Thought: New Theories of the Political. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 34
6. Kropotkin, Peter. The State: It’s Historic Role. 1896 Section 1, p. 1; emphasis added
7. Kropotkin, “Anarchism” p. 17
8. ibid, p. 23
9. May, Todd, The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. p. 47-49
10.Kropotkin “Anarchism” p. 8; Kropotkin “The State” Section 9, p. 4
11. Kropotkin, “Anarchism,” p. 24-25
12. Newman, “Power and Politics,” p. 33-34
13. Newman, Saul, From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001, pp. 39, 48
14. Newman, “Power and Politics,” p. 34
15. Newman, “From Bakunin to Lacan,” p. 39, 48
16. May, “Political Philosophy,” p. 62
17. ibid, p. 63-65
18. Newman, “From Bakunin to Lacan,” p. 41; emphasis added
19. ibid, p. 3
20. ibid, p. 119
21. ibid, p. 116
22. Antliff, Allan. “Anarchy, Power, and Poststructuralism.” SubStance #113 36(2) (2007): 56-66, p. 56
23. May, “Political Philosophy,” p. 11
24. Gordon, Uri. Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press, 2008, p. 54
25. ibid, p. 54
26. May, “Political Philosophy,” p. 49
27. Kinna, “Fields of Vision,” p. 81
28. ibid, p. 82).

Antliff, Allan. “Anarchy, Power, and Poststructuralism.” SubStance #113 36(2) (2007): 56-66.
Gordon, Uri. Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. London: Pluto Press, 2008.
Kinna, Ruth. “Fields of Vision: Kropotkin and Revolutionary Change.” SubStance #113 36(2) (2007): 67-86.
Kropotkin, Peter. Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal. 1901. (26 March, 2009).
Kropotkin, Peter. The State: It’s Historic Role. 1896.
kropotkin-peter/1896/state/index.htm (26 March, 2009).
May, John. The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
Newman, Saul. From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001 [2007].
Newman, Saul. Power and Politics in Poststructuralist
Thought: New Theories of the Political. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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