Are we equal to events?

Peter Kropotkin

La Révolte, 5 May 1893

Events in Belgium certainly give food for thought. They were what will most likely be the beginnings of revolutionary movements in Europe, and they allow us to examine the situation of anarchists in those early days.

It is obvious that the social revolution will not begin with the expropriation of factories and homes. This may come later, if the revolution does not stop in its tracks. But, like all revolutions, it will start with something quite different, perhaps with a general strike, followed by the overthrow of governments, or even with political struggles.

Every revolution takes some time to develop. There is a certain inertia to overcome, ideas to spread, courage to awaken. Finally, the hope of a more or less peaceful settlement, so tenacious in the hearts of the people, must disappear little by little, so that the masses can take the triumph of the revolution into their own hands. All of this is easily forgotten, especially when one’s head is turned by the legend of the great Revolution, manufactured by Louis Blanc and Jacobins in general.


Well, the Belgian movement was everything that a revolutionary movement could be in its beginnings. It quickly stopped, it produced nothing, it is true; but it had in germ all that one can expect from a revolutionary movement the day it begins.

It was popular, and that is already immense. Hundreds of thousands of men took part in it; they were in the street. There was enthusiasm, especially at the beginning. The working masses had kept their promise. They had promised to go on a general strike at the signal, and they had done so, almost general. The workers were determined to prevent all work, and they paid for this decision with their privations and their precious blood.

They had kept their promise. But have the socialists in general and especially the anarchists kept theirs? Did they embark on the movement with the resolution to inspire it with broader ideas, to give it a more revolutionary character? Have they demonstrated knowledge of the general situation and been able to take advantage of the mistakes of their opponents to extend the movement and, above all, to make it deeper? Did they? Did they even try?

Tried, perhaps; but then on such a microscopic scale that it is not even visible. And in a revolution, the facts must speak for themselves, very loudly, in order to be heard by everyone.


You are probably now going to complain about the leaders of the Social Democracy. Easy task, because they lend themselves readily to attacks. But – why did we anarchists not do better than them, by comparison?

It is not a question of recriminations in the face of the enemy. Do better yourselves by comparison, and by that very fact you will have proved to the most inept that you were right.

To recriminate, especially during a time of struggle, is almost as criminal as siding with the enemy. There is no time to lose. We must act. And if you know what to do, prove it can be done, by leading the masses to do it, by doing it yourselves.

We criticise the social democrats all the time. There are even enough comrades amongst us who live only for that and who would be very embarrassed if a meeting shouted “heard it!” at their criticisms.

Go further! Say what you propose to do and start doing it!

The Social-Democrats, we say, have done everything to put the people to sleep. – Very true, no doubt! But what have we done to awaken it? Have we been able to the make the masses feel that there is a force capable of going much further than the democrats?

The Social Democrats have organised the workers around a trifle, universal suffrage or cooperatives. This was to minimise the workers’ demands. – Again very true! But what have we done to penetrate the masses, to organise them for broader principles than universal suffrage? What have we done to organise the workers by raising the level of their demands? For it is certainly not by trying to impress everyone and telling them “I don’t care about anything; I vote for myself, do the same” that we manage to inspire in the masses that feeling of solidarity which alone can push them to general movements and revolutions.

The Social-Democratic leaders are aristos who don’t care about the people. Very proper surrounds, especially for those at the top of the ladder. But, don’t we also sin by the same aristocratism which consists in despising all those who have not reached the level of anarchist ideas? Are we by chance the white bone that is born an anarchist, as viscounts were once born viscounts?

We had our period of isolation, it was necessary for the development of ideas. But it’s high time to return to the masses.


We like to appear as terrorists. But terror is in all parties. Everyone has practiced it at certain times, from Robespierre who practiced it against our anarchist grandfathers as well as on the servants of duchesses, from the virgin of the priesthood, Charlotte Corday[1], to the Italians, the Germans, the Poles and the Irish – all nationalists and just as haters of socialism as Robespierre was.

Certainly the anarchist count amongst them superb men with personal devotion.

But let us beware of making that our vainglory. All parties have them. All parties have had their grand martyrs, their terrorists, their men and women giving their lives for an act of revenge. But all parties also know in advance that these acts will only be carried out by a few isolated individuals, and that is why they are all working on other things as well.

Let us be more modest. Like all parties we have had, and we have our terrorists, as we have our theoreticians of terrorism and even our talkers of terrorism.

The most arrant reactionaries have had their terrorists. Only, by sending their Corday kill Marat, whose death was the same as a victory [in battle] for them, they also knew how to raise the Chouans.[2]

Belgium had Moineau – this man who will be counted amongst the most beautiful martyrs of humanity.[3] But – did it have these agitators ceaselessly at work, travelling through every city, every town and every village – not only to hold a more or successful lecture there, but to leave – in every village – a group of friends put in contact with other friends, sharing the same ideas, convinced after whole evenings of discussions, conquering the ranks of the other parties – convinced and ready to act together, the day when they will know that others are ready to do the same.

We have had our martyrs. We have had friends ready to storm a hall, ready to defend their arguments physically, ready to be torn to pieces by enraged adversaries.

But we have no yet had our Fenelli[4] – that fervent, persuasive man who went one day (in Bakunin’s time) to Spain, travelling all over the country, taking one by one every man of worth to persuade them, to convince them, to bring them to anarchy thus grouping together a whole generation that has made the Spanish movement the most compact, the most widespread and the most energetic anarchist movement in Europe. See its life: see Xérès.[5]

We haven’t had our popular agitators – those who, identifying themselves with grassroots workers’ movements, would travel the whole country, every town and every village, and be known everywhere, as Burns was in England[6] – unfortunately, social-democrats – known as brothers, living the same life, nourishing the same hatreds as the masses, but only endowed with a broader revolutionary idea; ready to pay with their own skin their share in the slightest workers’ strike or uprising, however small in its results – always so serious for those who do it– and for this loved, listened to like better informed brothers.

And as we do not believe in lone individuals – it is numbers of such men that anarchists need at this moment.

A few men of this calibre, whom the masses would have known, not on the day they appear before a tribunal to be sent to hard labour, but known for a long time, in the workers’ daily struggles – a few men determined to risk everything for the movement – and anarchist ideas would not have been what they still are for the Belgian people – a sphinx. The movement itself would have taken a completely different turn.

Even defeated, it would have left its mark in history.

Recrimination between comrades would be stupid, criminal. But fortunately we are not in the business of mutual adoration. Leave that to other parties. Let the future appreciate the good or bad that we have done. It is up to us, contemporaries of the great revolution which is approaching, to analyse for ourselves the causes of our weakness, to say bluntly what we think is necessary for the triumph of our ideas.

End Notes

[1] Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont (1768-1793), known as Charlotte Corday was executed by guillotine for the assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat in his medicinal bath. In 1847, writer Alphonse de Lamartine called Corday the l'ange de l'assassinat (the Angel of Assassination). (Translator)

[2] Royalist insurgents in western France during the Revolution. (Translator)

[3] Jules Moineau (1858-1934) was a Belgian militant republican, then collectivist and finally anarchist. After a series of bombings in 1891, he and 15 other activists were arrested and charged with “theft of dynamite and conspiracy”, saying at the trial he expressed “solidarity for all actions which would lead to the revolution”. Sentenced to 25 years hard labour, he was granted early release in 1901 and re-joined the movement. (Translator)

[4] Giuseppe Fanelli (1827-1877) was an Italian revolutionary anarchist, best known for his tour of Spain between October 1868 and February 1869, introducing the revolutionary anarchist ideas of Michael Bakunin to the workers’ movement and ensuring that it affiliated to the International Workers' Association. The Spanish Federation sided with the (majority) Federalist-wing of the International after the Hague Congress of 1872 when Marx expelled Bakunin. (Translator)

[5] A reference to the Jerez Uprising of 1892. Four anarchists were garrotted in Xérès for their role in the peasant revolt. (Translator)

[6] John Burns (1858-1943) was an English trade unionist and politician, who came to national prominence as a leader of the 1889 London Dock Strike. Originally a member of the Social Democratic Federation, after the Dock Strike he was elected to the London County Council for Battersea as a progressive before being elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Battersea. (Translator)