Every anarchist of the olden days has left a mark: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) introduced the idea of property as theft, Michael Bakunin (1814-1876) stressed the importance of union-based organizations in order to carry out a revolution, and Peter (Pyotr) Kropotkin (1842-1921), among other things, is best known for having carefully theorized about how an anarchist society would function and how human cooperation is completely compatible with evolution.
Like with Proudhon’s whopping collection Property Is Theft, AK Press has taken it upon themselves to create an anthology of Kropotkin’s work. That’s no small task and it’s absolutely evident in this volume Direct Struggle against Capital. At first, I was intrigued by the title, but after a couple chapters I found it to be a fitting title: Kropotkin used the expression “direct struggle against capital” very often when he wrote about how the workers should orient themselves when fighting for their rights.
Starting off with one hundred pages which very nicely summarize Kropotkin’s life, Direct Struggle against Capital’salmost seven hundred pages then collects several articles, letters, chapters, and speeches of Kropotkin’s. I commend editor Iain McKay for his work, as the amount of material he had to edit is simply monumental. Another thing also becomes evident when reading this book: Kropotkin has had a very consistent view on the working class and their relation to the economy and politics. First off, the workers must not involve themselves with public office or with elections unless it is happening within their own ranks. Trying to improve their lives through the state is absolutely futile as the state itself functions to promote capital, which in turn functions to oppress workers. Second, the state itself must be abolished once revolutions occur in order to prevent a centralization of power and promote government from the bottom up (which Kropotkin claims is what doomed the Paris Commune). Third, a revolution cannot be carried out by allowing a certain group of people to rule over another, whether this group is the bourgeoisie or the proletariat (as Marxism insists). If that happens, the ruling party consolidates its power and one group of tyrants replaces another. These ideas surface over and over again when reading McKay’s selections of Kropotkin throughout the years. As such, these writings, though extensive, are surprisingly easy to follow.
Several other topics are discussed in this anthology, including Kropotkin’s proposal of the daily functions of an anarchist society (from the Conquest of Bread), Kropotkin’s own life (from Memoirs of a Revolutionist), the Paris Commune, the French Revolution, the Anarchist trial in Lyon in 1883, and the prison system. All of these writings come through with clarity and simplicity.
Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses in Direct Struggle Against Capital, like Kropotkin’s very thin analysis of how education in an anarchist society would work, very few writings on post-revolutionary Russia (perhaps he was not allowed to write or his writings have not survived), and no writings at all on Kropotkin’s support of the Allied forces during World War I. And for being his most popular book, Mutual Aid seems awfully underrepresented (though I will admit that I always thought Mutual Aid was a little overrated and too wordy for the idea it was trying to get across). Also, sometimes Kropotkin just turns to the virtue of humans instead of examples or facts to defend his position. (But maybe Kropotkin just didn’t give these topics too much thought or these writings haven’t survived.)
Regardless, Direct Struggle against Capital is a hefty, enlightening, and pretty thorough collection that not just helps us understand Kropotkin and anarchism, but also the world we live in, and perhaps the world we might live in one day. –Ollie Mikse (AK Press, 674-A 23rd St., Oakland, CA94612, akpress.org)