Kropotkin’s Definition of Anarchism

A common view of anarchism is that it is a general tendency in human thought which rejects the state and advocates individual freedom. In order to legitimize this view as properly ‘anarchist’ people are quick to cite Peter Kropotkin’s famous historical overviews of anarchism. The problem with doing this is that Kropotkin outlines a variety of conflicting accounts of the history of anarchism across his different works, and sometimes even within the same essay. Kropotkin broadly speaking shifts between thinking of anarchism as either a trans-historical form of anti-statism or as a historically specific form of anti-state socialism which first emerged in the 19th century.

The Anti-Statist View

In several places Kropotkin defines anarchism as any theory or practice which advocates or implements a stateless society based on individual freedom and self-governance by the people themselves.

In his 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica article on anarchism Kropotkin defines anarchism as:

“the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.” (Kropotkin, 1970, p284)

Kropotkin similarly states in Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal that anarchism,

“seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with 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.

A society to which pre-established forms, crystallized by law, are repugnant; which looks for harmony in ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own-course – these forces themselves promoting the energies which are favourable to their march towards progress, towards the liberty of developing in broad daylight and counterbalancing one another.” (Kropotkin, 1993, 105-6)

In short, Kropotkin thinks of anarchism as anything which conceives of a voluntary stateless society based on individual freedom and self-governance. Kropotkin speaks of anarchism so understand as a trans-historic tendency in human thought and action which merely takes different forms at different historic moments:

“The conception of society just sketched, and the tendency which is its dynamic expression, have always existed in mankind, in opposition to the governing hierarchic conception and tendency – now the one and now the other taking the upper hand at different periods of history.” (Kropotkin, 1970, p287)

In Modern Science and Anarchism he tells us that, “[f]rom all times two currents of thought and action have been in conflict in the midst of human societies”. On the one hand, there is the creative tendency of the masses to govern themselves by building institutions “in order to make social existence possible, to maintain peace, to settle quarrels, and to practice mutual aid”. On the other hand, there is the tendency of elites to work together “in order to be able to command the masses, to reduce them to obedience, to govern them, and to make them work for them.” For Kropotkin anarchism represents the first tendency and statism the second tendency, such that “from all times there have been Anarchists and Statists” (Kropotkin, 1995, p31-2)

Since Kropotkin thinks of anarchism so understood as a tendency within both human thought and action he locates it within both the practice of the masses when they constructed their own self-governing institutions and within the writings of a variety of thinkers. In his Encyclopedia Britannica article he locates the practice of anarchism within “the clan, the village community, the guild, the free medieval city”, “the great religious movements of medieval times, especially in the early movements of the reform and its forerunners”, and “during the great French Revolution” when the “masses of the people, in their municipalities and “sections,” accomplished a considerable constructive work.” (Kropotkin, 1970, p287, p289) Kropotkin expands upon this point in his History of the Great French Revolution, where he states that the sections of Paris “sought for unity of action, not in subjection to a Central Committee, but in a federative union”, organised self-governing general assemblies, attempted to make as many decisions as possible at the lowest levels of their organisations, and relied on mandated delegates when necessary. Such organisations, alongside the networks of popular and fraternal societies created by the people during the revolution, represents “the realisation of what the modern anarchist groups in France are advocating”. (Kropotkin, 1989, p183-4, p365).

In the realm of thought Kropotkin locates anarchism within a highly eclectic number of thinkers. To name only a few of the authors Kropotkin cites: in the Ancient world there is the 6th century BC Taoist Lao-tze and the 3rd century BC stoic Zeno of Citium. During the 16th century anarchism is represented by the humanist Bishop Marco Vida and the Anabaptist Hans Denck. By the 18th century anarchism is represented by the Radical Enlightenment figure William Godwin, who was apparently “the first to formulate the political and economical conceptions of anarchism”. The anarchists of the first half of the 19th century are the mutualist Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the individualist Josiah Warren, the left Hegelians Moses Hess and Karl Griin, and the egoist individualist Max Stirner. (Kropotkin, 1970, p288-93)

What Kropotkin terms “modern anarchism” doesn’t emerge till the 1870s and the split within the International Working Men’s Association between the followers of Marx and the followers of Bakunin. Kropotkin writes that the tactical disputes between those in favour of parliamentarianism and those opposed “soon led to a division in the Working Men’s Association, and the Latin federations, Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Jurassic. . .constituted among themselves a Federal union which broke entirely with the Marxist general council of the International. Within these federations developed now what may be described as modern anarchism. After the names of ‘Federalists’ and ‘Anti-authoritarians’ had been used for some time by these federations the name of ‘anarchists’, which their adversaries insisted upon applying to them, prevailed, and finally it was revindicated.” (ibid, p294)

Despite thinking that the federalist wing of the first international is the origins of “modern anarchism”, Kropotkin does not limit “modern anarchism” to the ideas of this group. Rather he holds that modern anarchism has developed into four main branches. These are: the American individualists influenced by Proudhon and Warren, such as Benjamin Tucker, anarcho-communists such as Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta and Elisee Reclus, radical Christians such as Leo Tolstoy, and ‘literary anarchists’, which include any author which expresses any anarchisty ideas whatsoever such as John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexander Herzen. (ibid, p296-9)

It is this history of anarchism which many historians of anarchism have taken as their starting point. For example, Peter Marshall writes in his famous book Demanding the Impossible that he has “followed in this study the example of Kropotkin who in his famous article on anarchism for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910) traced the anarchist “tendency” as far back as Lao-Tzu in the ancient world.” (Marshall, 2008, xiv)

The Anti-State Socialism View

Elsewhere, however, Kropotkin contradicts the trans-historical anti-statist view of anarchism. Firstly, instead of viewing anarchism as a trans-historical tendency in human thought and action, he holds that throughout history there have been varying forms of authoritarianism in the interests of the elite, and anti-authoritarian popular self-governance in the interests of the masses. Kropotkin writes,

“So far as we know anything about the history of human society, there has always been found in it two currents of thought and action—two different tendencies. There has been the authoritarian tendency, represented by the wizards (the scientists of olden times), the priests, the military chiefs, and so on—who maintained that society must be organised by a central authority, and that this authority must make laws and be obeyed. And in opposition to this authoritarian current there has always been the popular current, which worked at organising society, not from above downwards, but on a basis of equality, without authority, from the simple to the complex, by the free consent of the individuals in the clan and the tribe, and later on in the village community and the confederation.

From the earliest times these two currents were found struggling against each other. They continue to do so, and the history of mankind is the history of their struggles.” (Kropotkin, 2014, p354)

Secondly, Kropotkin thinks of anarchism as not just being any form of anti-statism, but being specifically anti-state socialism. In Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles, Kropotkin writes,

“ANARCHISM, the no-government system of socialism, has a double origin. It is an outgrowth of the two great movements of thought in the economic and the political fields which characterize the nineteenth century, and especially its second part. In common with all socialists, the anarchists hold that the private ownership of land, capital, and machinery has had its time; that it is condemned to disappear; and that all requisites for production must, and will, become the common property of society, and be managed in common by the producers of wealth. And in common with the most advanced representatives of political radicalism, they maintain that. the ideal of the political organization of society is a condition of things where the functions of government are reduced to a minimum, and the individual recovers his full liberty of initiative and action for satisfying, by means of free groups and federations-freely constituted–all the infinitely varied needs of the human being.” (Kropotkin, 1993, p72)

Thirdly, anarchism understood as anti-state socialism represents a particular kind of anti-authoritarianism which emerged within the federalist wing of the first international and so is distinct to the 19th century. Kropotkin writes in The Anarchist Principle,

“Originally, Anarchy was presented as a simple negation: it was a negation of the State and of the personal accumulation of capital; a negation of all forms of authority; a negation too of the established structures of society, based on injustice, absurd egoism and oppression, as well as of the prevailing morality, derived from Roman Law, adopted and sanctified by the Christian church. As a result of this struggle against authority, and born at the very heart of the International [Working Men’s Association], the anarchist position developed as a distinct revolutionary party.” (Kropotkin, 2014, p347)

Kropotkin makes this point again in A Few Thoughts About The Essence of Anarchism. He writes,

“[the popular current] is represented now by the Anarchists. Whilst those who ignore—willingly or not—the constructive work that has been accomplished by the popular current in the savage tribe, the village community, the urban commune, the federations of communes, and, till our own days, in the working men’s organisations, open and secret, as well as in the thousands of free societies now formed for all sorts of purposes—those who ignore this work and consider themselves predestined to organise the masses are the representatives of the dominating, governing tendency that found its expression in the Church, the State, and authoritarian Socialism.” (ibid, p355)

He continues later,

“What we describe now as political and economic equality was thus aimed at since those times by the primitive builders of society. More than that. To the dominating spirit of the minorities of warriors and wizards, they were opposing the constructive spirit of the masses. To the spirit of obedience and submission they opposed the spirit of independence of the individual, and at the same time the spirit of voluntary co-operation, so as to constitute society without subduing every one to authority.

Nowadays, in the struggle of the exploited ones against the exploiters, the same constructive activity has fallen to the Anarchists. Their aim is the free individual. But they understand that it is not by robbery, nor by seizing upon and monopolising all sorts of natural wealth (lands, mines, roads, rivers, seaports, etc.), nor by exploiting the labour of other men fallen (forcibly or willingly) into servitude, that they shall succeed in freeing the individual. They understand that, as they live amidst sociable creatures, such as men are, they never would free themselves if they tried to free themselves alone, individually, without taking the others into account. To have the individual free, they must strive to constitute a society of equals, wherein every one would be possessed of equal rights to the treasuries of knowledge and to the immense wealth accumulated by mankind and its civilisation, wherein nobody should be compelled to sell his labour (and consequently, to a certain degree, his personality) to those who intend to exploit him.

This is why Anarchy necessarily is Communist, why it was born amidst the international Socialist movement, and why an Individualist, if he intends to remain Individualist, cannot be an Anarchist.” (ibid, p356-7)

While in Modern Science and Anarchism Kropotkin states that anarchism is a distinctly modern phenomenon which is part of the new ways of thinking brought about by the development of science in the 19th century:

“we may observe that a different conception of society, very different from that which now prevails, is in process of formation. Under the name of anarchism, a new interpretation of the past and present life of society arises, giving at the same time a forecast as regards its future, both conceived in the same spirit as the above mentioned interpretation in natural sciences. Anarchism, therefore, appears as a constituent part of the new philosophy”. (Kropotkin, 1993, 105)

The founders of anarchism understood as anti-state socailism are unsurprisingly 19th century thinkers, Proudhon and Bakunin,

“I have been accused of being the father of anarchism. That is too much of an honour. It was Proudhon who first stated it in 1848, and Bakunin and other socialists who popularised it.” (Kropotkin, 2014, p203)


From this it should be clear that Kropotkin is inconsistent when talking about the history of anarchism. But most people are not aware of this because they don’t choose to spend their time trawling through Kropotkin’s complete works in English. Instead they read Kropotkin’s Encyclopedia Britannica article, or books inspired by its approach, such as Marshall’s Demanding The Impossible. This leads to at least three issues. Firstly, people new to anarchism are greeted by an overwhelming number of obscure historic figures whose ideas have little in common, contradict one another, and seem more relevant to a philosophy seminar than everyday political concerns and struggles. The anarchism that is relevant to people’s lives is not a list of anti-authoritarian intellectuals from the 6th century BC onwards. It is instead a contemporary social movement which has a history dating back to the first international and an accompanying set of coherent ideas about why our society is bad, what a better society would be, and how we can be transform our society through collective struggle. Developing a knowledge of anti-authoritarians throughout history can be important in helping us broaden our ideas and realise that we are not so alone since so many other anti-authoritarians have existed in the past. But this is an appropriate lesson for someone already familiar with anarchist basics and shouldn’t be a person’s first engagement with anarchism.

Secondly, it opens anarchism up to mis-characterisations or straw man arguments. For example, a Marxist may notice that Kropotkin’s list of anarchists includes the egoist Stirner, read Stirner’s ideas into the anarchist movement as a whole, despite him having very little influence, and then critique anarchism for ignoring that humans are a social animal or for not seeking a democratically managed society. Yet if such Marxists were familiar with Kropotkin’s anti-state socialism definition of anarchism, such lines of attack would not be open to them.

Thirdly, it leads to anarchists themselves not understanding the history of anarchism. They read Marshall or Kropotkin and think they are developing a knowledge of anarchists throughout history, but are instead merely learning about a variety of anti-authoritarians, who are mainly male and European. When anarchists should instead be learning about such figures as the lesbian physician Marie Equi, the Mexican agitator Flores Magon, the black IWW member Lucy Parsons, the Chinese anarcha-feminist He-Yin Zhen and so on.

Kropotkin’s anti-state socialism definition in contrast has none of the above mentioned defects. It instead provides individuals with a coherent definition of anarchism that is useful to understanding the ideas of the movement and its history. As a result, I propose that we shift from Kropotkin’s broad definition of anarchism as anti-statism, and instead adopt his restricted definition of anarchism as the anti-state socialism that was founded by Proudhon and Bakunin.

Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that which definitions of anarchism we use and share is not merely a semantic or academic question. It has direct relevance to how newcomers come to understand anarchism, how people in different movements discuss and relate to anarchism, and how we ourselves think about and develop our understanding of anarchist theory and history.


Kropotkin, Peter (1970). Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets: A Collection of Writings by Peter Kropotkin. Dover Publications.
Kropotkin, Peter (1989). The Great French Revolution. Black Rose Books
Kropotkin, Peter (1993). Fugitive Writings. Black Rose Books
Kropotkin, Peter (2014). Direct Struggle Against Capital: A Peter Kropotkin Anthology. AK Press
Marshall, Peter (2008). Demanding The Impossible: A History of Anarchism. Harper Perennial


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