Kropotkin and the ghost of war | Historical

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The kind of apologetics that some anarchists have adopted for Peter Kropotkin’s declared support for imperialism’s Great War is truly disturbing:  ‘

'It is commonly accepted that the Anarchist theoretician Peter Kropotkin did support the Allied cause in World War I. But is it true? Much is made of it by hostile Marxist critics (and was at the time) exaggerating the extent of whatever he said...’ (1

This was Albert Meltzer’s take on Kropotkin’s unambiguous support for the Allied cause in World War I. Of course, “support for the war” does not equate to “support for war” per se; even the “pour-encourager-les-autres” Douglas Haig would disown that sentiment. Meltzer offers the further apology that at no time did Kropotkin recruit for the war. He had no need to be out physically active in that compromising role, since his published support for a British military response to stop ‘the menace of Prussian militarism’ was in itself persuasion or recruitment, and if not, what was it?

'Equally spurious is the anarchist George Woodcock’s plea that ‘All that can be said in defence of Kropotkin in this unfortunate matter is that at the time he was already an old and very sick man, almost worn out by a life of suffering and singularly vigorous activity’. The Anarchist Prince: A Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin

The Great War was indeed a litmus test for exposing the true proclivities of anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, progressives and suffragettes as well as a platform for the reactionary jingoists and patriots of the time. Given the level of frenetic jingoism in the preparations for war in Britain and across Europe in 1914, one wonders how this wouldn’t have impressed any humanitarian, progressive individual, let alone an anarchist, with anything other than growing alarm and horror. Moreover, what level of naïveté for an anarchist theoretician would be required not to foresee the inevitability of conscription, with its fundamental violation of human freedom or, worse still, the executions of “deserters” and “cowards” demanded by military discipline.  Even in 1914  “shell shock” was well understood. Incidentally, Kropotkin’s ‘vile, warlike’ Prussian militarists executed 25 of their soldiers, compared to the 306 executed by Kropotkin’s British defenders of freedom.  


And it is not with the luxury of hindsight that one notes these considerations; plenty of socialists, syndicalists and communists were outspoken in their hostility to this the greatest of capitalist wars, and Britain’s enthusiasm for it, from Jim Larkin and James Connolly in Ireland to John Maclean and Charlotte Despard in Britain.  

The ambivalent nature of the anarchist response at the time to the war has already been frankly admitted elsewhere in the anarchist press, for example Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta’s shocked response (2) to Kropotkin’s support for the war is comparable to that of the vehemently anti-war socialist and suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst toward her suffragette mother Emmeline’s and sibling Christabel’s patriotic campaigning for war recruitment.

A reactionary strident patriotism was reflected in the suffragette movement’s new slogan: “For King, For Country, for Freedom’. The newspaper was renamed Britannia and attacked politicians and military leaders for not being warlike enough, Christabel calling the less than enthusiastic warrior politicians  “the traitors, Grey, Asquith and Cecil”.   Anti-war activists such as Ramsay MacDonald were attacked in the paper as being “more German than the Germans”.  Christabel also demanded the “internment of all people of enemy race, men and women, young and old, found on these shores, and for a more complete and ruthless enforcement of the blockade of enemy and neutral.” (3)

Whereas the socialist Sylvia’s Dreadnought paper (later re-named the Workers’ Dreadnought) was consistently anti-war. She opposed the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914 that undermined civil liberties, and advocated militant  strike action against the evils of conscription. Other anti-war trade union activists, such as Mary Macarthur and Margaret Bondfield  were attacked as “Bolshevik women trade union leaders” in the suffragette paper. The Pankhursts

As for Marxist exaggerations of Kropotkin’s stance according to Albert Meltzer, there is little need.  In October 1914, Kropotkin unequivocally declared his support for the Allies, insisting that ‘the German invasion must be repulsed – no matter how difficult this may be’ lest Europe fall to ‘Prussian militarism’.  The militarism of the British Empire, with its bloody excesses stretching back into the century before, and with its recent scorched-earth war in South Africa, causing the deliberate deaths  by starvation and disease, of at least 30, 000 Boer women, children and elderly in concentration camps, together with uncounted numbers of black Africans (107,000 were interned), didn’t feature in his anti-militarism.

As Meltzer reveals, ‘he did not come out in open opposition to the Boer War, and told Emma Goldman at the time (as she records in ‘Living My Life’) that he did not think Russians who were ‘guests’ of Britain should do so’. (3)


Both Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were among the authors of the ‘International Anarchist Manifesto on the War’, published in February 1915 and signed by 37 anarchists from several countries, including from the belligerent states.  Signatories numbered leading anarchist theorist Errico Malatesta and Freedom’s own Lilian Wolfe (Lilian G Woolf) and Tom Keell. The manifesto was published in Freedom in March 1915. It reminded readers that neither side ‘is entitled to invoke the name of civilisation’.  Anarchists should continue to ‘summon the slaves to revolt against their masters’.  

Naturally, one would have thought that anarchists would have been without question on the side of the mutineers at Les Fontinettes and Étaples. Le Camp Britannique at Étaples was notorious for its brutal “Bull Run”, where soldiers were daily terrorised and bullied back into the war by the hated NCOs and officers.

Like the socialist Sylvia Pankhurst, Freedom newspaper’s editor Tom Keell and his partner and fellow-contributor Lilian Wolfe were actively and openly anti-War. The 1916 introduction of conscription by the Military Service Act drew condemnation from the British anarchist periodical The Voice of Labour, of which Lilian was a founding contributor.  Wolfe and Keell were arrested and imprisoned as a consequence of an article they wrote, also published as a leaflet, advocating dodging the draft and practical measures that could be adopted to achieve it.  They were charged and found guilty under the Defence of the Realm Act.

Conversely, in contradiction to all the apologetics for Kropotkin, the words he wrote in a letter to Swedish professor Gustav Steffen, and published in Freedom in October 1914, clearly show his support for the war. According to Kropotkin:


‘And the moment they began to feel themselves strong as a sea power, the Germans took it into their heads to destroy the maritime power of Britain, to take a strong footing on the southern shores of the Channel, and to menace England with an invasion.

...all freedom-loving Europe is ready at this moment to combat that vile warlike spirit which has taken possession of Germany since it abandoned the traditions of its former civilization and adopted the tenets of the Bismarckian Imperialism.’


And worse still:

‘It is certain that the present war will be a great lesson to all nations. It will have taught them that war cannot be combatted by pacifist dreams and all sorts of nonsense about war being so murderous now that it will be impossible in the future. Nor can it be combatted by that sort of antimilitarist propaganda which has been carried on till now. Something much deeper than that is required.’

The anarchist supporters for the Allied war, including Jean Grave and Peter Kropotkin, followed this up in February 1916 with ‘Le Manifeste des Seize’, with 15 leading anarchist signatories and appearing in the French newspaper Bataille, insisting that the fight must continue.

It opens with a summation of the position of those opposed to the war, which it goes on to disavow in no uncertain terms in its insistence that war must continue:

‘From various sides, voices are raised to demand immediate peace. There has been enough bloodshed, they say, enough destruction, and it is time to finish things, one way or another...’


And the response:

‘To speak of peace at this moment, is precisely to play the game of the German ministerial party...We would prefer to look the danger in its face and seek what we can do to ward it off. To ignore this danger would be to increase it’.

But they were not, were they, looking “danger in its face”? No more than any armchair-warrior patriot back in Britain, castigated in Wilfred Owen’s famous anti-war poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori’.

One who did look danger in the face, and unwillingly, was Somerset man Harry Patch,  whose statement on the Great War in which he was forced to take part is starkly genuine in its simplicity: “I felt then as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”

It couldn’t be more relevant today, when the annual poppy-fest is growing yearly into ever more spectacular celebrations of Britain’s warring traditions than a ceremony of remembrance for the lives wasted by war. As Iain Cobain wrote: “For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.
Only the British are perpetually at war”.

On my nearby Folkestone war memorial is the name of Frederick C Butcher. The 23 year old was executed for “desertion” on 27/8/1918. He was found wandering in a dazed condition and going in the opposite direction from the front line. The implacable Haig turned down an appeal for mercy, as he did in so many cases.  Frederick’s family understandably objected to his name being carved on the memorial by those that killed him, but their feelings of loss and outrage were ignored.  He didn’t die for his country he was murdered by his country.  

We owe it to Frederick Butcher and all the other millions of young working class victims of the Great War, which was inspired by nationalism, patriotism and imperialism, to be very clear about the deadly betrayal of a generation of slaughtered youth in Kropotkin’s stand. ■

Patrick Carey

(1) - https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/sf7n16
(2) - https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/mpg5xs
(3) - Sylvia Pankhurst, ‘The History of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement’, p 594, (1931 edition)
(4) - https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emma-goldman-living-my-life