Kropotkin’s Farewell (1917)
By Better Worlds, Brighter Futures
What follows is a report in Freedom: A Journal of Anarchist Communism detailing Peter Kropotkin‘s letter to the working class of Western Europe as he departed to Russia in 1917.
Some context may be helpful. In February of that year the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, was deposed by revolution. A provisional, social democratic government, led by Alexander Kerensky, was established and had not yet been deposed by the famous “October Revolution.” At the time of Kropotkin’s farewell letter and return, the historical moment in Russia must have seemed wide open and bright.
Also at this time, the first World War had been raging for three years. While the vast majority of anarchists, communists, and socialists agreed on the analysis of the war as one between imperial powers, where working-people were being used as fodder to settle scores of the then-global elite, Kropotkin–shockingly to most–broke from this.
Peter Kropotkin, the great anarchist-communist thinker, friend of the international working class, and staunch proponent of international solidarity as against nationalism, sided completely with Russia and against Germany. Expending the respect and solidarity he had accumulated over the course of his life and career, he broke with most of the radical left of the period to side with a national interest in the largest war mankind had yet seen. He formalized this position with the publication of the “Manifesto of the Sixteen” the previous year (1916).
This then, was the atmosphere in which Kropotkin penned his farewell letter, perhaps explaining why Freedom: A Journal of Anarchist Communism, a London-based paper Kropotkin had founded (which is still in existence today) chose only to excerpt the letter with commentary.
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In a long farewell letter addressed to the “Western Working Men,” prior to his return to Russia, Peter Kropotkin writes:
“After having worked in your midst for forty years, I cannot leave Western Europe without sending you a few words of farewell. From the depths of my heart I thank you for the reception–more than fraternal–that I found in your midst. The International Working Men’s Association was not for me a mere abstract word. Amidst the working men of Switzerland, France, Britain, Spain, Italy, the United States, I was in a society of brothers and friends. And in your struggles, each time I had the opportunity to take part in them, I lived the best moments of my life. I deeply felt that wave of human solidarity and oneness of men, disregarding all frontiers, which represents one of the greatest promises for man in the future.”
In dealing with the war, he says that no International will be possible that does not oppose “every attempt of every nation to invade foreign territories.” The brutality of the war has awakened mankind to the necessity of all men and women uniting their energies in social reconstruction, and he points out that it was the reconstruction work which had been going on all over Russia since the beginning of the war which rendered the Revolution possible. The main lines of reconstruction he states as follows:
“The production of all that is necessary for the nation, as well as the distribution of the produced wealth, must be organised in the direct interest of all. It is no more a matter of struggling for adding to the wages a few shillings, which usually are soon swallowed by all sorts of exploiting intermediaries. The workers, the producers, must become the managers of the producing concerns. They must settle the aims and the means of production, and society must recognise their right of disposing of the capital that is needed for that.”
After insisting on the necessity of a great final military effort to beat the Germans, on whom he throws the whole blame for the war, Kropotkin tells the Western workers that as soon as the war is over they must “seriously study and resolutely take in hand the fundamental reconstruction on the lines of socialisation of the social wealth, socialised production, and socialised distribution of produced riches…. Russia will join you in the same work.”
In bidding farewell to Kropotkin on his return to Russia, we can but hope that by contact with the Russian workers he may realise the errors of his attitude on the war, and with them work in the building up of that Anarchist society of which he was such an enthusiastic exponent prior to the war. His numerous Anarchist books and pamphlets will be read and remembered long after his patriotic backsliding in this war has been forgotten.