The Scientist and the Anarchist – Part II

The following guest post by Eric Michael Johnson is part of the Primate Diaries in Exile blog tour. You can follow other stops on this tour through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter. If this is your first time visiting Skulls in the Stars make sure to browse some of the other posts on the blog. The Scientist and the Anarchist – Part I can be found at Cocktail Party Physics. Thanks. – EMJ

How Europe’s Most Notorious Anarchist Came to Challenge England’s Most Distinguished Man of Science.

Artist depiction of the bombing during an anarchist rally at Haymarket Square,
May 4, 1886 / Harper’s Weekly

If you read the English-language press at the time, you would know that Peter Kropotkin was a dangerous man. As a self-proclaimed anarchist he was condemned as “a malignant fungoid growth…on the body politic” and his philosophy was nothing but “another name for organized crime.” Kropotkin and his ilk were “a pack of bloodthirsty and ferocious criminals who prey upon their fellows for their own gain,” and his published writings were not “a document of contemporary politics,” but rather a disturbing “matter for the pathologist of disease.” He had already spent years in Russian and French prisons after being convicted for crimes against the State, he had known associations with dangerous radicals and revolutionaries, and he wouldn’t be satisfied until anarchy reigned throughout Europe. He was also a Prince, an internationally respected naturalist who wrote regularly for the journal Nature, and was as likely to be found in attendance at a London scientific conference as a clandestine political meeting. [1]

Kropotkin’s notoriety as a political radical was equaled only by the high esteem held for his scientific and scholarly achievements. The discoveries he had made of glacial formations during the Quaternary Period in Russia were received with international acclaim and earned him invitations to join the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a Cambridge University endowed chair in geology (which he turned down because it came with the stipulation that he give up his political work). Kropotkin gave lectures on biology and geology throughout Europe, England, and North America and was an outspoken proponent of an ecosystems worldview in which nature was never static but remained constantly in flux. He was a devoted Darwinian from the first publication of On the Origin of Species, and it was this scientific background that he held as the basis for a politics of individual liberty and the necessity of social change.

As he wrote in his essay “Revolutionary Studies”:

Everything changes in nature, everything is incessantly modified: systems, wages, planets, climates, varieties of plants and animals, the human species — Why should human institutions perpetuate themselves! … What we see around us is only a passing phenomenon which ought to modify itself, because immobility would be death. These are the conceptions to which modern science accustoms us.

Kropotkin lived in a time when the human environment was indeed undergoing radical change. A previously stable ecosystem had been upended and the scramble for a new niche had already begun in force. Modern economic realities were changing the structure of feudal society and those who had previously been on the edge were now being pushed over it. As was often the case (and largely still is today) the comfortable sought justification for these changes by looking to laws of nature or by excusing them as a manifestation of God’s will. But others saw them as a warning. Unless the marginalized and oppressed became organized, they argued, there would never be any justice.

G.D.H. Cole wrote about the growing popular movement during this period in his British Working Class Politics:

Wherever the workers are voteless, or the right of political agitation is not granted to them, working-class political movements are bound, if they exist at all, to take a revolutionary form.

After years of attempting to get their concerns heard in Parliament through The People’s Charter, the poor were tired of being told to work within a system that didn’t work with them. A laborer in the north of England expressed the sentiment that many felt when he said, “There is not a labouring man here, from 16 to 60, who has not signed the petition, and there is a pike for every signature.” But the aristocracy rejected The People’s Charter outright. Secretary at War Thomas Babington Macaulay announced before the House of Commons that he believed giving poor people the right to vote would be “fatal to all purposes for which government exists.” For members of the landed gentry such as himself and most ministers in Parliament, the very concept was a threat to their high station and was thought to be “incompatible with the very existence of civilization.” Voted down by a tally of 235 to 46, the movement that had developed as a political reform now took on a revolutionary direction. The following decades would see an explosion of political activity among the poor as those now familiar concepts — socialism, communism, and anarchy — sought to challenge a stagnant and corrupt system. [2]

Coronation of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Three generations would be targeted for assassination by Russian radicals with Alexander II dying in a bomb attack.

However, as a young man in the court of Tsar Alexander II, Peter Kropotkin’s idea of rebellion was to follow in the footsteps of Darwin and embark on a five-year expedition of Siberia rather than follow in his family’s military legacy. Born into the Russian nobility, Kropotkin grew up in household of just eight family members but attended by no fewer than fifty servants at their Moscow estate. As Kropotkin described in his memoir, these included four coachmen to attend the horses, three cooks, a dozen men to wait upon them at dinner (“one man, plate in hand, standing behind each person seated at the table”) and innumerable maidservants to attend them in their chambers. Then, of course, there were the serfs who made the Kropotkin family’s wealth possible.

Wealth was measured in those times by the number of “souls” that a landed proprietor owned. So many “souls” meant so many male serfs: women did not count. My father, who owned nearly twelve hundred souls, in three different provinces, and who had, in addition to his peasants’ holdings, large tracts of land which were cultivated by these peasants, was accounted a rich man.

However, among the serfs, “human feelings were not recognized, not even suspected,” by members of his class. Kropotkin recalled stories of husbands and wives torn from their families because they’d been lost in a hand of cards or to be exchanged for a pair of hunting dogs. Peasant children could be sold on a whim or flogged in the stables “with unheard-of cruelty.” As to the poverty, “no words would be adequate to describe the misery to readers who have not seen it.”

Graduating first in his class in the Corps of Pages, and personal attendant of Tsar Alexander II himself, Kropotkin had his choice of military stations. But it was his desire to escape from courtly life and pursue the calling of a scholar and naturalist that set a course which would later define his life. Kropotkin’s writings during his Siberian expeditions evoke a harsh landscape where life was under constant struggle for survival. Terrible snow-storms that would descend without warning, torrential rains from the summer monsoons “resulting in inundations…and swamping, on the plateaus, areas as wide as European States.” Kropotkin witnessed entire communities of animals wiped out under these brutal conditions and he came to understand natural selection as fundamentally a struggle against the elements.

Enthusiastic to observe Siberia’s animal life through an evolutionary lens, Kropotkin and the respected zoologist I.S. Poliakov looked in vain for the intraspecific competition that Darwin described from his explorations in the tropics. “We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling,” Kropotkin recalled, but it was “very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies.” What Kropotkin found most often was mutual aid and cooperation between members of a group.

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalization of the century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions “by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried on!” and “who are the fittest in the struggle!” will widely differ according to the importance given to the two different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as “metaphorical” – the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances.

This mutual aid that Kropotkin found amongst Siberia’s fauna from beetles and land crabs to birds, deer, and antelope he also witnessed amongst the indigenous peoples he lived with in remote reaches of the empire. These experiences revealed to him “the complex forms of social organization which they have elaborated far away from the influence of any civilization.” Having been raised in a society steeped in discipline, hierarchy, and the glories of conflict, Kropotkin’s experience in Siberia planted the seed of inspiration. [3]

As Johns Hopkins University historian Daniel P. Todes observed:

Kropotkin’s Siberian experience played a similar role in the development of his ideas about evolution and ecology as had Darwin’s Beagle voyage in his. Just as Darwin came to doubt the fixity of species, so did Kropotkin, already an evolutionist, become skeptical of the importance of intraspecific competition.

It was also during his expeditions that he discovered the brutality inflicted on Russia’s peasants by agents of the Tsarist government. Workers in the Lena gold mines were slaves in all but name, he witnessed district police who “robbed the peasants and flogged them right and left,” and a culture of impunity that allowed officials to “plunder the natives free of any control.” Moved to take action against such injustice, Kropotkin also saw the futility of working within a system that was built on exploitation.

I soon realized the absolute impossibility of doing anything really useful for the mass of the people by means of the administrative machinery. With this illusion I parted forever.

It was this commitment to political change that sealed his fate and set him on the path of a radical. Upon his return Kropotkin received great acclaim for the scientific papers he wrote during his travels in Siberia and he was subsequently awarded a gold medal from the Imperial Russian Geographical Society. In March 1872, after delivering a paper on the origins of the Ice Age, Kropotkin was nominated to chair the Society’s section on physical geography. Hours later he was arrested and imprisoned along with other members of the Chaikovtsky Circle, an organization of Russian scholars to which he belonged who translated radical literature from Europe and disseminated it amongst the peasantry. Imprisoned for four years, Kropotkin was eventually able to escape from a prison hospital and found refuge among the underground network of subversives scattered throughout Europe. It was only then, after having experienced first hand the abuses of dictatorship, that he committed himself to the life of a revolutionary.

Chased from one country to the next Kropotkin challenged authority wherever he could put pen to paper. He also drew a practical lesson from his experience as a naturalist in Siberia: when living in a hostile environment the most successful strategy is to cooperate with other members of your group against a common threat. But, for Kropotkin, this mutual aid had to be voluntary and any force or coercion — even if it was believed that the end justified the means — had to be resisted as an affront to individual liberty. As a political thinker, Kropotkin was as likely to be criticized by Socialists and Marxists for his individualism and rejection of orthodoxy as he was by members of the aristocracy for pointing out the abuses of their class. However, it was in 1888, soon after fleeing Continental Europe to escape political persecution, that he challenged the famed naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley when the latter was engaged in a political project of his own.

The Scientist and the Anarchist – Part III will conclude next week at Deborah Blum’s Speakeasy Science following a stop at Carin


[1] Quotes come from (in order) The Gentleman’s Magazine, The Daily Mail, Evening News, and The Spectator. See: Haia Shpayer-Makov (1987). “The Reception of Peter Kropotkin in Britain, 1886-1917,” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 19(3): 373-90.

[2] Patricia Hollis (1973). Class and Conflict in Nineteenth-Century England, 1815-1850, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Preston Williams Slosson (1916). The Decline of the Chartist Movement, New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

[3] Daniel P. Todes (1989). Darwin Without Malthus: The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought, London: Oxford University Press.


Update by Dr. SkySkull: Thanks to Eric for this awesome post! Be sure to follow future stops on his exile tour at Primate Diaries in Exile, through his RSS feed or at the #PDEx hashtag on Twitter.

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3 Responses to The Scientist and the Anarchist – Part II

  1. tideliar says:

    Fantastic! Very educational and a fun read. Looking forward to more

  2. Chapter I was an intro to Huxley and his political environment; Chapter II was the same for Kropotkin; and Chapter III will be the fireworks. I’m on the edge of my seat!

  3. Pingback: The Scientist and the Anarchist – Part III - Guest Post science history - Charles Darwin Darwin's Bulldog Eric Michael Johnson evolutionary biology Friedrich Engels history of biology Peter Kropotkin phossy jaw Royal Society T.H. Huxley The Scientis

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