Will the Revolution be Collectivist?

Peter Kropotkin

La révolution sera-t-elle collectiviste?, Publications des Les Temps nouveaux, 1913[1]

Very often we hear, from anarchists themselves, that Anarchy is a very distant ideal; that it has no chance of being realised in the near future; that probably the next revolution will be collectivist and that we will have to go through a workers State before reaching a communist society without a government.

This reasoning appears completely wrong to us. It contains a fundamental error of appreciation concerning the course of history in general and the role of the ideal in history.

The individual can be guided in his actions by a single ideal. But a society consists of millions of individuals, each with his own ideal, more or less conscious and settled; so that at a given moment we find in society the most varied conceptions – that of the reactionary, the Catholic, the monarchist, the admirer of serfdom, the “free contract” bourgeois, the socialist, the anarchist. However, none of these conceptions will be realised in their entirety precisely because of the variety of conceptions existing at a given moment and the new conceptions which arise long before any of the previous ones has attained its realisation in life.

Every step forward of society is the outcome of all the currents of ideas that exist at a given moment. And to affirm that society will realise such-and-such an ideal first, then another, is to misunderstand the whole course of history. Accomplished progress always bears the stamp of all the conceptions that exist in society in proportion to the energy of thought and action of each party. This is why the society that will arise from the Revolution will not be a Catholic society nor a bourgeois society (too many forces and the whole history of humanity are working to demolish these two kinds of society) nor a workers State by the very fact there exists an anarchist current of ideas and anarchists are sufficiently powerful as a force of action and as a force of initiative.

Indeed, look at history. The Republicans of 1793 past dreamt of a Republic built on the model of the republics of antiquity. Their dream of a universal republic and to make this new Rome or Sparta triumph in France was killed in the snows of the Alps, on the plains of Belgium, Italy and Germany.

Did they achieve this Republic? No! Not only did the old regime, bearing down on them with its full weight, pull them back. But new ideas have pushed society forwards. And when their dream of the universal Republic is one day realised, this Republic will be more socialist than anything they dared to dream and more anarchist than anything Diderot dared to conceive of in his writings. It will no longer be a Republic: it will be a union of more or less anarchist peoples.

Why? Because before the republicans had attained their ideal of the egalitarian republic (of citizens equal before the law, free and tied by bonds of fraternity), new conceptions, almost imperceptible before 1789, arose and grew. Because this very ideal of freedom, equality and fraternity is unrealisable as long as there is economic servitude and misery, as long as there are republics – States – necessarily driven to rivalries, to divisions within and outwith.

Because the ideal of the Republicans of 1793 was but a small part of the ideal of Equality and Freedom which re-emerges today under the name of Anarchy.

Or take the communists of the thirties and forties of the nineteenth century.

Their ideal was Christian communism, governed by a hierarchy of elders and scholars. This ideal had an immense impact. But this communism was not realised – and will never again be achieved. The ideal was false, incomplete, obsolete. And when communism begins to develop in the coming revolution, it will no longer be Christian nor Statist. It will be a libertarian communism at the very least, based not on the gospel, not on hierarchical submission, but on the understanding of the individual’s needs for freedom. It will be more or less anarchist for the simple reason that as the current of ideas expressed by Louis Blanc worked to create a Jacobin State with socialist tendencies – new currents of anarchist ideas were already emerging – currents whose spokesmen were Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Coeurderoy and even Max Stirner.

And it will be the same for the ideal of the Workers State of the social-democrats. This idea can no longer be achieved: it is already outdated.

The ideal was born of Jacobinism. It inherited from the Jacobins its confidence in the governmental principle. It still believes in representative government. It still believes in the centralisation of the various functions of human life in the hands of a government.

But long before this ideal came close to its practical realisation, a conception of society – the anarchist conception – appeared, proclaimed itself and grew. A conception which sums up a popular distrust of government, which awakens individual initiative and proclaims this principle which had become more and more evident: “No free society without free individuals” and this other principle proclaimed throughout our century: “Temporary free agreement as the basis of any organisation or grouping.”

And whatever society may emerge from the European Revolution, it will no longer be republican in the sense of 1793, it will no longer be communist in the sense of 1848, and it will no longer be a Workers State in the sense of social democracy.

The number of anarchists is always increasing. And even today social-democracy is obliged to reckon with them. The dissemination of anarchist ideas is made not only by the action of anarchists but – moreover – independently of our action. Examples – the anarchist philosophy of Guyau, the philosophy of the history by Tolstoy, and the anarchist ideas we encounter every day in literature and of which the Supplement of La Révolte and Les Temps Nouveaux is a living testimony.

Finally the effect of the anarchist conception on the ideal of social democracy is evident; and this effect depends only in part on our propaganda; it mainly results from the anarchist tendencies which appear in society of which we are only the spokesmen.

Let us recall only the rigidly Jacobin centralising ideal of the social-democrats before the Paris Commune. At that time it was the anarchists who were talking about the possibility of the independent Commune, of the communalisation of wealth, of independent, internationally organised trades unions. Well, those points are now accepted by the social-democrats themselves. Today the communalisation of the means of production – not nationalisation – is acknowledged and politicians can be seen seriously discussing the issue of municipalising the London docks. “Public services,” the other idea which the anarchists previously had to sustain so many battles against the centralising Jacobins in the Congresses of the International, today it makes the possibilists pale.

Or else, take the general strike for which we were treated as crazy and anti-militarism for which we were treated like criminals by social democracy…

What is today for us ancient history and which evokes in us no more than a dreamy smile like an old faded flower found in an old book – makes up the bulk of the current programmes of social democracy, so much so that it can be said without exaggeration that all the progress of ideas which has been accomplished by social-democracy during the last twenty years has been merely to collect the ideas which anarchy dropped on its way, as it was still growing. Only re-read the Jura [Federation] reports on public services, Idées sur l’organisation sociale [Ideas on Social Organisation by James Guillaume], etc. for which the learned scholars of socialism treated the “Bakuninists” as enraged madmen. It is from these sources that social-democracy drinks at this moment.

Thus Anarchy has already changed the ideal of the social-democrats. It changes it every day. It will change it again during the Revolution. And whatever comes out of the Revolution – it will no longer be the Workers’ State of the collectivists. It will be something else – a result of our efforts, combined with those of all socialists.

And this outcome will be all the more anarchist as the anarchists develop more energy – more force, as they say in mechanics – in their direction. Plain and simple, the more they put individual and collective, mental and muscular energy, will and commitment at the service of their ideal; plain and simple, the less they seek compromise, the more clearly they affirm by word and their life the communist ideal and the anarchist ideal – will the outcome all the more tilt towards Communism, towards Anarchy.

End Notes

[1] Originally published: “La révolution sera-t-elle collectiviste?”, La Révolte, 25 June 1892 (Translator)