Peter Kropotkin – the Russian Anarchist formerly known as Prince

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An unusual one this.  The Freeman’s Journal of October 27th 1887 carried an interview with Peter Kropotkin, well known Anarchist Communist.

This interview starts with the journalist’s view that Kropotkin is “the most distinguished apostle of anarchy all over the world” and that “..people look upon Prince Kropotkin as a ferocious sort of individual, albeit a fool, and regard him much as they would one the inhabitants of the Zoological Gardens at Regent’s Park.  The real Prince Kropotkin, whatever may be his peculiar views, and we have nothing to do with them, is, as his rank denotes, an accomplished gentleman and scholar.  He has been described as an “amiable Anarchist”, and he is, in truth, one of the most kindhearted of men … to break down in all countries the system by which the few thrive on the labour of the many is his aim”.

We have mentioned previously the activity of anarchists in the Ireland of the 1880s and, while not mentioned in this article, one would wonder if this contributed in any way to the interview being printed. The fact that Kropotkin was a prince seems to have impressed the journalist and may have had some novelty value, though ‘the Prince’ himself had dropped the title at the age of twelve.

Certainly well known, Kropotkin arrived in London in 1886, after fourteen years of political activity in Russia and Switzerland, and a three year stretch in a French jail.   He was sentenced by a police-court magistrate (under a special law passed after the suppression of the 1871 Paris Commune) on the grounds that he had belonged to the International Working Men’s Association.  Acknowledged and respected internationally both for his scholarship and for his revolutionary activities, Kropotkin’s release from the French prison was the result of lobbying from within the French parliament.

Kropotkin had yet to publish his major works like Mutual Aid: a factor in evolution or The Conquest of Bread, but the shape of things to come was signposted by articles such as What Geography Ought To Be (1885) and The Scientific Basis of Anarchy (1887).

The interview focuses first on his background and intellectual conversion to anarchism, then the campaign to free or pardon the Haymarket 8 in Chicago (later unfortunately the Haymarket Martyrs) which the journalist compares to the Manchester Fenians.  It ends with Kropotkin’s definition of anarchy and a reference to a series of articles in the Nineteenth Century (1888) and The Great French Revolution (1889).

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For more information on Kropotkin check out the ‘Peter Kropotkin’ entry on Wikipedia. For an assessment of his scientific endeavours see the article ‘Kropotkin was no crackpot’ by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and for more on background and context you can read ‘The Russian Anarchists’ by Paul Avrich.

Irish anarchism in the 1880s

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Irish anarchism is often seen as a movement which started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with just a minor pre-history of lone individuals prior to that. Historian Fintan Lane has done much to correct this misunderstanding, particularly with his book The origins of modern Irish socialism, 1881-1896 (Cork University Press, 1997).

When we read of Irish revolutionaries in the 1880s, we read of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (popularly known as the Fenians) rather than the anarchists who were becoming influential among advanced radicals in much of Europe. With the dominance of nationalist ideas among Irish radicals of the time, neither Marxism nor anarchism had many supporters here. But that is not to say that there none.

According to Lane “The emergence of a Dublin branch of the Socialist League in December 1885 marks the beginning of modern organised socialism in Ireland, though it was immediately preceded by the semi-socialist Dublin Democratic Association. An unbroken continuity of organisation exists between this first socialist group and Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party of 1896. Moreover, the libertarian socialism of the Socialist League remained influential within Dublin socialist circles until the arrival of ‘new unionism’ and the subsequent establishment of branches of the Independent Labour Party in Dublin, Belfast and Waterford in the mid-1890s.”

We have two articles by Lane: Practical Anarchists We was published by History Ireland in March/April 2008 (vol.16, no.2), and The origins of modern Irish socialism, 1881-1896 in Red & Black Revolution (no.3) in 1997.

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A Wee Black Booke of Belfast Anarchism (1867-1973)

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Historian Mairtin O Cathain’s A Wee Black Booke pulls together reports of anarchism in and around Belfast in the years from 1867 to 1973.  With no local movement for much of this period, the pamphlet looks at some individuals whose political activity merited mention in the media of the time. O Cathain’s work stops before the emergence in the late 1970s of the groups from which contemporary organisations Workers Solidarity Movement and Organise can trace their roots.

Some readers will be aware of the Irish Citizen Army’s Captain Jack White who became an anarchist after seeing the Spanish revolution in practice. The others will be unknown to all but historians. Bolton Hall and William Baillie emigrated to the USA, where Hall was involved in communal experiments, propaganda, and union organising.  Baillie was more of an individualist, though he still realised that “personal freedom was tied inexorably to collective and economic freedom.”

John McAra was a Scottish anarchist who came to speak in Belfast, where he was arrested and jailed. A group did form from his activity, but appears to have died away after the First World War.  Jack McMullen was a public speaker and socialist with anarchist sympathies, who campaigned against slum housing and unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally there is John McGuffin, a founder member of the Belfast Anarchist Group, who was involved in the early Peoples Democracy and the civil rights movement.