Review: Evolution and Environment by Peter Kropotkin

Review: Evolution and Environment by Peter Kropotkin
Black Rose Books £11.99

This work, volume eleven of The Collected Works of Peter Kropotkin, is in two parts. The first is Modern Science & Anarchism. The second part, Thoughts on Evolution, is concerned with the latest theories and experiments in biology and evolutionary thought. As will become clear, the combining of these two very different works is not as contradictory as it first seems.

Modern Science & Anarchism is Kropotkin's attempt to place anarchist theory in the context of nineteenth century scientific thought. In so doing, he stresses the importance of the inductive-deductive method, namely the analysis of everyday society and the basing of theory on the results of that analysis rather than creating a theory in abstraction and fitting the facts to it. This methodology is particularly fruitful when used to analyse anarchism as a product of the class war ("Anarchism... originated in everyday struggles"). Kropotkin stresses that anarchism is not a utopian theory but rather a product of the needs and aspirations of working class people, as expressed in their resistance to authority, exploitation and domination. In Kropotkin's eyes, all that anarchist writers did was to "work out a general expression of [anarchism's] principles, and the theoretical and scientific basis of its teachings" derived from the experiences of working class people in struggle as well as analysing the evolutionary tendencies of society in general.

This vision of anarchism as a product of working class struggle and its organisations can be seen from Kropotkin's comments that "the Anarchist movement was renewed each time it received an impression from some great practical lesson: it derived its origin from the teachings of life itself." He pointed to the experience of the Paris Commune and the trade union movement, "the idea of independent Communes for the territorial organisation, and of federations of Trade Unions for the organisation of men [and women] in accordance with their different functions, gave a concrete conception of society regenerated by social revolution." So, for Kropotkin, the present and the future are linked by the struggle against capitalism (and the state) and the organisations and solidarity created by that struggle. Kropotkin saw the free society as a free federation of self-managing communes in which "associations of men and women... work on the land, in the factories, in the mines, and so on, [and are] themselves the managers of production."

Such a perspective is as essential now as it was then and this is why Modern Science & Anarchism should be read by all anarchists. It gives an essential base from which to develop and build anarchist theory in the future. Also of interest is the way Kropotkin links revolutions in science with social movements and transformations. This is important, for as any student realises, education does not exist in a vacuum. What is taught in schools, colleges and universities will be influenced by social struggles going on out-side. If social struggle is low, radical ideas (in all areas of science, not only the social sciences) may be safely ignored. However, when social struggle heats up, new ideas appear and enter all aspects of society, including education and science. People develop new ideas and rebel against the authority of what passes for science as well as against the authority of the state or the boss. Thus, as well as linking anarchism to the daily struggles of the oppressed, he links this struggle to the evolution of ideas, of science. This is to be expected as the ideal, as Bakunin argued, is the flower whose root lies in the material conditions of existence. The very process of struggle, the changing of those material conditions, will necessarily find expression in the world of science and thought. And it is this challenge to existing scientific authority which is expressed in the second half of the book.


This second half contains articles on evolution previously unpublished in book form. They date from 1910 to 1915, and discuss the effects of the environment on planet and animal evolution and its relationship to previous theories on evolution, particularly those of Darwin. The articles are relevant to anarchists as they suggest that if animals and plants adapt quickly to changing environments, the same applies to humans. It is these rapid adaptations to the environment which Kropotkin discusses, along with their influence on long-term evolutionary change. The research implies that rather than a fixed and definite 'human nature' people (like other animals) can adapt and evolve quickly to different environmental circumstances. Thus an anarchist society is neither utopian nor incompatible with 'human nature' as human nature will change in response to new stimuli (the "direct action of the environment"). This complements Kropotkin's ideas on the nature of anarchism as a product of struggle. By resisting power, people create new forms of social organisation and modify their environment. This new environment encourages adaptations in those who experience it, thus a process of accumulated changes occurs in a specific direction provoked by the direct action of the (changing) environment on individuals.

One question remains, however. If animals and plants adapt to changing environments then will humans adapt to hierarchical society? If this is the case, then the spirit of revolt can only occur from external influences, not from any need for liberty, equality or solidarity. It also implies that alienation cannot exist, as there is nothing to be alienated from. This can be inferred from Kropotkin's comments that "Anarchism is a conception of the Universe based on the mechanical interpretation of phenomena." This vision is lacking in that it ignores the fact that people have always striven for freedom no matter how terrible the environment in which they live. While people do adapt to their environment, they also try and change that environment to better satisfy their needs, needs which exist in spite of their environment.

Hence Kropotkin's vision must be informed by Malatesta, who argued against Kropotkin's fatalism and mechanistic tendencies and reminded us that anarchy "is a human aspiration" and "can be achieved through the exercise of the human will." This subjective element in the struggle for freedom is essential and one Kropotkin recognises in Modern Science & Anarchism when he writes that "Anarchy represents... the creative constructive force of the masses, who elaborated common-law institutions in order to defend themselves against a domineering minority." In other words, anarchism comes from the resistance of those who do not adapt to hierarchical society and act to change it to one more fitting their needs and desires. Kropotkin was obviously aware of this but, unfortunately, did not see how it contradicted his mechanistic philosophy.

This minor point aside, these works are of use to anarchists today. Rather than produce a 'science' of the class struggle —Kropotkin applies the techniques of science to that struggle in order to ground anarchism in the struggle of the oppressed and to show it was a product of our own self-activity. This methodology is one anarchists should continue to apply while ignoring the mechanistic comments of Kropotkin. Despite its flaws, this book (especially Modern Science & Anarchism) is essential reading for anyone interesting in both analysing and changing the world.

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Jan 22 2021 16:29


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