Home > Uncategorized > Letter of Kropotkin to Lenin, March 1920

Letter of Kropotkin to Lenin, March 1920

Next year we’ll witness the hundreth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Here a link from the Marginal Revolution blog. Below a letter by Pjotr Aleksejevitsj Prpotkin, a leading anarchist and one of the keenest scientific minds of the decades around 1900, to Vladimit Iljitsj Lenin. Note that he wrote this as early as March 1920, note also that at this time a civil war not completely unlike the present turmoil in Syria was raging in Russia. Read especially the last part.

From Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, P.A. Kropotkin, edited and translated by Martin A. Miller. Source

Dmitrov, 4 March, 1920

Esteemed Vladimir Ilich,

Several employees of the postal-telegraph department have come to me with the request that I bring to your attention information about their truly desperate situation. As this problem concerns not only the commissariat of mail and telegraphs alone, but the general condition of everyday life in Russia, I hasten to fulfill their request.

You know, of course, that to live in the Dmitrov district on the salary received by these employees is absolutely impossible. It is impossible even to buy a bushel of potatoes with this [salary]; I know this from personal experience. In exchange they ask for soap and salt, of which there is noe. Since [the price] of flour has gone up – if you manage to get any – it is impossible to buy eight pounds of grain and five pounds of wheat. In short, without receiving provisions, the employees are doomed to a very real famine.

Meanwhile, along with such prices, the meager provisions which the postal and telegraph employees received from the moscow postal and telegraph supply center (according to the decree of August 15, 1918: eight pounds of wheat to an employee or to employees, and five pounds of wheat to incapaciated members of a family) have not been delivered for two months already. The local supply centers cannot distribute their provisions, and the appeal of the employees (125 persons in the Dmitrov area) to Moscow remains unanswered. A month ago one of the employees wrote you personally, but he has received no answer thus far.

I consider it a duty to testify that the situation of these employees is truly desperate. The majority are literally starving. This is obvious from their faces. Many are preparing to leave home without knowing where to go. And in the meantime, I will say openly that they carry out their work conscientiously; they have familiarized themselves with [their jobs] and to lose such workers would not be in the interests of local life in any way.

I will add only that whole categories of other Soviet employees can be found in the same desperate condition.

In concluding, I cannot avoid mentioning something about the general situation to you. Living in a great center – in Moscow – it is impossible to know the true condition of the country. To know the truth about current experiences, one must live in the provinces, in close contact with daily life, with its needs and misfortunes, with the starving – adults and children – with running back and forth to offices in order to get permission to buy a cheap kerosene lamp, and so forth.

There is now one way out of these trials for us. It is necessary to hasten the transitions to more normal conditions of life. We will not continue like this for long, and we are moving toward a bloody catastrophe. The locomotives of the Allies, the export of Russian grain, hemp, flax, hides, and other things that are so indispensable to us will not help the population.

One thing is indisputable. Even if the dictatorship of the party were an appropriate means to bring about a blow to the capitalist system ( which I strongly doubt), it is nevertheless harmful for the creation of a new socialist system. What are necessary and needed are local institutions, local forces; but there are none, anywhere. Instead of this, wherever one turns there are people who have never known anything of real life, who are committing the gravest errors which have been paid for with thousands of lives and the ravaging of entire districts.

Consider the supply of firewood, or that of last season’s spring seed…

Without the participation of local forces, without an organization from below of the peasants and workers themselves, it is impossible to build a new life.

It would seem that the soviets should have served precisely this function of creating an organization from below. But Russia has already become a Soviet Republic only in name. The influx and taking over of the people by the :party,” that is, predominantly the newcomers (the ideological communists are more in the urban centers), has already destroyed the influence and constructive energy of this promising institution – the soviets. At present, it is the party committees, not the soviets, who rule in Russia. And their organization suffers from the defects of bureaucratic organization.

To move away from the current disorder, Russia must return to the creative genius of local forces which as I see it, can be a factor in the creation of a new life. And the sooner that the necessity of this way is understood, the better. People will then be all the more likely to accept [new] social forms of life. If the present situation continues, the very word “socialism” will turn into a curse. This is what happened to the conception of “equality” in France for forty years after the rule of the Jacobins.

With comradely greetings,

P. Kr

  1. December 21, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Very interesting— last 3 paragraphs sort of sum it up. This is the classic anarchist critique — I first saw it explicitly spelled out in a biography of Bakunin by a Russian (who quoted him extensively—a very obscure and small book I have never seen cited by anyone, and I can’t find my copy—though it may be stored, if not destroyed, in the greatest state of West Virginia).

    Kropotkin saw it coming in USSR in 1920. this is also the ‘new class’ argument (james burnham, Trotskyist turned reactionary) and various ‘technocratic’ and ‘meritocratic’ views (eg technocracy movement of 30’s, even J K Galbraith), and Djilas (Yugoslavia). There was also a polish anarchist who was writing similar things in same period (I saw this in some old article in some old journal—maybe Am Academy PoliSci ). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Burnham

    one could sort of say this about ‘economics’. Maybe people who live in the economy should run it; instead its partly run by ‘economists’. (But, just as Bolsheviks like Stalin couldn’t plan and control everything in USSR —-eg WW2, not all of the economy is controlled by economists).

    My favorite book by Kropotkin was his last one ‘ethics’. Scientifically its outdated (but so is Darwin, etc.) . But its quite a historical survey of thoughts about ‘ethics’.

    I think he is also correct about the word ‘socialism’. Bernie Sanders may have made it acceptable again–more like social democracy or democratic socialism. Others use ‘ecosocialism’.

    People at https://www.jacobinmag.com and https://thenextsystem.org still promote the term (and in these groups anarchists and socialists still conflict; and I think there is still quite a bit of a tendency to ‘create an organization from below’ which is run from the top—dictatorship of the proletariat (see ‘great dictator’ by Charlie Chaplin—who died in switzerland since he was banned from returning to Hollywood after a trip to london)).
    I know in my encounters with these groups the concept ‘new class’ was not up for discussion. (Basically everyone who writes for Jacobin promotes grassroots organizing, and most are professors or grad student at places like U Chicago, Harvard, or various lesser known universities. Some are ‘community organizers’ but don’t mention they have degrees from these places—-they may just be getting some ‘street cred’ for their CV. Maybe that’s the way it has to be. )

  2. Fons
    December 21, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    All power to the Soviets!

  3. Craig
    December 21, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    Kropotkin was wise. And history is replete with the idiocies of worshiping an abstraction whether it be communism, fascism or finance capitalism. Wisdom is the integration of truths, workabilities and the highest ethical considerations of opposing abstractions. Let us integrate…and keep on integrating.

  4. Garrett Connelly
    December 21, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Thank you for forwarding this letter to all of us. Kropotkin knew a way to focus distributed intelligence is required in order to avoid bottle necks that distort social evolution.

    I have worked for social change in a rural New England town and can testify that there is no portal to distributed human intelligence in US style democracy even at that level.

    Real world economics is dependent on real democracy.

  5. December 21, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    i hope this discussion gets more exposure and expands
    very important
    petr kropotkin was one of the most interesting people of his time, and entirely relevant now
    i’ve come to not care much for extensive discussions about political labels in the current climate, as they all seem less and less meaningful
    i try to follow one of the first principles of small-d democratic politics: watch what politicians do, not what they say
    i will accept these principles for my own involvement (cannot find single-word labels, nor do i care): resist predatory corporate capitalist rule, support the international declaration of human rights, and participate in direct democracy
    my motto is: “i help stop bad things so good things have a chance”

  6. December 22, 2016 at 3:37 am

    Oh, the bureaucrats! They are always ready to take over as soon as the opportunity presents itself. The only medicine is eternal vigilance.

  7. December 22, 2016 at 11:51 am

    Kropotkin also countered quite effectively with his “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” the social Darwinists. The social Darwinists provided some of the basic assumptions for the brutal form of capitalism that developed in the UK in the 19th century. Read Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” “Oliver Twist,” or “A Christmas Carol” for vivid descriptions of this form of capitalism. But Kropotkin’s arguments have now been forgotten, although they apply quite well to “financial” capitalism as well. Speaking of his journeys through Siberia, Kropotkin wrote, “I failed to find — although I was eagerly looking for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution. …. whenever I saw animal life in abundance, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.”

    • December 22, 2016 at 3:33 pm

      i agree with this, kropotkin is timely and fully applicable to the rule of predatory finance capitalism
      “though not always by Darwin himself”: true
      long ago i read a vigorous letter exchange between biologist julian huxley and kropotkin; the latter argued that darwin fully recognized the importance of cooperation, whereas huxley and the social darwinists exclusively emphasized competition, published in a british professional journal, as i recall

      • December 24, 2016 at 6:16 am

        What is it about conflict and competition that so captivated the social Darwinists? Perhaps it is as simple as Richard Hofstadter declares in “Social Darwinism in American Thought.” “Understandably Darwinism was seized upon as a welcome addition, perhaps the most powerful of all, to the store of ideas to which solid and conservative men appealed when they wished to reconcile their fellows to some of the hardships of life and the prevail upon them not to support hasty and ill-considered reforms.” This congealed into “Social Darwinism.” And the struggle over the future of America was on.

  8. December 24, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    see also https://en.wiikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hoffer

    D S Wilson (eg the book darwin’s cathedral , evonomics, etc told me this was one of his favorite books). Kropotkin is implictly or explictly referenced in alot of D S Wilson’s stuff (and in reviews in NY Rev Books by Lewontin, etc.) .

    Some of this stuff may not be technically correct (and doesn’t mention the ways one possibly could make it technically correct of which there are 2 main approaches–once from california and one from netherlands. )

    .Lewontin despite having done some good statistical analyses and co-authoring papers in Theoretical Population Genetics is basically anti-mathematics in my view (i took my parents to see him give a lecture at a local university—i dont think they understood half of what he was saying. i dont think he understood half of what he was saying either. he was also sortuh arrogant as befiitting of harvard)

  9. December 24, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    for what its worth https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hoffer (i cant type well)

  10. Carl Butz
    December 25, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    Mutual Aid and Self-Sufficiency, the catchwords of Kropotkin’s political philosophy, are as relevant today as they were when the Bolsheviks ignored his wisdom. Thanks, R-WER, for helping to keep this brilliant thinker alive in the minds of progressive/revolutionary thinkers and activists..

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