Modern Science and Anarchism

Peter Kropotkin

This text was taken from my copy translated from the Russian original by David A. Modell and published by The Social Science Club of Philadelphia in 1903.


But, though Anarchism, like all other revolutionary movements, was born among the people--in the struggles of real life, and not in the philosopher's studio,--it is none the less important to know what place it occupies among the various scientific and philosophic streams of thought now prevalent: what is its relation to them; upon which of them principally does it rest; what method it employs in its researches---in other words, to which school of philosophy of law it belongs, and to which of the now existing tendencies in science it has the greatest affinity.

We have heard of late so much about economic metaphysics that this question naturally presents a certain interest; and I shall endeavor to answer it as plainly as possible, avoiding difficult phraseology wherever it can be avoided.


The intellectual movement of our own times originated in the writings of the Scotch and the French philosophers of the middle and end of the eighteenth century. The universal awakening of thought which began at that time stimulated these thinkers to desire to embody all human knowledge in one general system. Casting aside mediæval scholasticism and metaphysics, till then supreme, they decided to look upon the whole of Nature--the world of the stars, the life of the solar system and of our planet, the development of the animal world and of human societies--as upon phenomena open to scientific investigation and constituting so many branches of natural science.

Freely availing themselves of the truly scientfic, inductive-deductive method they approached the study of every group of phenomena--whether of the starry realm, of the animal world, or of the world of human beliefs and institutions--just as the naturalist approaches the study of any physical problem. They carefully investigated the phenomena, and attained their generalizations by means of induction. Deduction helped them in framing certain hypotheses; but these they considered as no more final than, for instance Darwin regarded his hypothesis concerning the origin of new species by means of the struggle for existence, or Mendeléeff his "periodic law." They saw in these hypotheses suppositions that were very convenient for the classification of facts and their further study, but which were subject to verification by inductive means, and which would become laws--that is, verified generalizations--only after they have stood this test, and after an explanation of cause and effect had been given.


When the centre of the philosophic movement had shifted from Scotland and England to France, the French philosophers, with their natural sense of harmony, betook themselves to a systematic rebuilding of all the human sciences--the natural and the humanitarian sciences--on the same principles. From this resulted their attempt to construct a generalization of all knowledge, that is, a philosophy of the whole world and all its life. To this they endeavored to give a harmonious, scientific form. discarding all metaphysical constructions and explaining all phenomena by the action of the same mechanical forces which had proved adequate to the explanation of the origin and the development of the earth.

It is said that, in answer to Napoleon's remark to Laplace that in his "System of the World" God was nowhere mentioned, Laplace replied, "I had no need of this hypothesis." But Laplace not only succeeded in writing his work without this supposition: he nowhere in this work resorted to metaphysical entities; to words which conceal a very vague understanding of phenomena and the inability to represent them in concrete material forms--in terms of measurable quantities. He constructed this system without metaphysics. And although in his "System of the World" there are no mathematical calculations, and it is written in so simple a style as to be accessible to every intelligent reader, yet the mathematicians were able subsequently to express every separate thought of this book in the form of an exact mathematical equation---in terms, that is, of measurable quantities. So rigorously did Laplace reason and so lucidly did he express himself.

The French eighteenth-century philosophers did exactly the same with regard to the phenomena of the spiritual world. In their writings one never meets with such metaphysical statements as are found, say, in Kant. Kant, as is well known, explained the moral sense of man by a "categorical imperative" which might at the same time be considered desirable as a universal law. 1 But in this dictum every word ("imperative," "categorical," "law," "universal") is a vague verbal substitute for the material fact which is to be explained. The French encyclopædists, on the contrary, endeavored to explain, just as their English predecessors had done, whence came the ideas of good and evil to man, without substituting "a word for the missing conception," as Goethe put it. They took the living man as he is. They studied him and found, as did Hutcheson (in I725) and, after him, Adam Smith in his best work, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments,"--that the moral sentiments have developed in man from the feeling of pity (sympathy), through his ability to put himself in another's place; from the fact that we almost feel pain and grow indignant when a child is beaten in our presence. From simple observations of common facts like these, they gradually attained to the broadest generalizations. In this manner they actually did explain the complex moral sense by facts more simple, and did not substitute for moral facts well known to and understood by us, obscure terms like "the categorical imperative," or "universal law," which do not explain anything. The merit of such a treatment is self-evident. Instead of the "inspiration from above " and a superhuman, miraculous origin of the moral sense, they dealt with the feeling of pity, of sympathy--derived by man through experience and inheritance, and subsequently perfected by further observation of social life.

When the thinkers of the eighteenth century turned from the realm of stars and physical phenomena to the world of chemical changes, or from physics and chemistry to the study of plants and animals, or from botany and zoology to the development of economical and political forms of social life and to religions among men,---they never thought of changing their method of investigation. To all branches of knowledge they applied that same inductive method. And nowhere, not even in the domain of moral concepts, did they come upon any point where this method proved inadequate. Even in the sphere of moral concepts they felt no need of resorting again either to metaphysical suppositions ("God," "immortal soul," "vital force," "a categorical imperative" decreed from above, and the like), or of exchanging the inductive method for some other, scholastic method. They thus endeavored to explain the whole world --all its phenomena --in the same natural-scientific way. The encyclopædists compiled their monumental encyclopædia, Laplace wrote his "System of the World," and Holbach "The System of Nature;" Lavoisier brought forward the theory of the indestructibility of matter, and therefore also of energy or motion (Lomonósoff was at the same time outlining the mechanical theory of heat2 ); Lamarck undertook to explain the formation of new species through the accumulation of variations due to environment; Diderot was furnishing an explanation of morality, customs, and religions requiring no inspiration from without; Rousseau was attempting to explain the origin of political institutions by means of a social contract--that is, an act of man's free will.... In short, there was no branch of science which the thinkers of the eighteenth century had not begun to treat on the basis of material phenomena--and all by that same inductive method.

Of course, some palpable blunders were made in this daring attempt. Where knowledge was lacking, hypotheses--often very bold, but sometimes entirely erroneous--were put forth. But a new method was being applied to the development of all branches of science, and, thanks to it, these very mistakes were subsequently readily detected and pointed out. And at the same time a means of investigation was handed down to our nineteenth century which has enabled us to build up our entire conception of the world upon scientific bases, having freed it alike from the superstitions bequeathed to us and from the habit of disposing of scientific questions by resorting to mere verbiage.


However, after the defeat of the French Revolution, a general reaction set in--in politics, in science and in philosophy. Of course the fundamental principles of the great Revolution did not die out. The emancipation of the peasants and townspeople, from feudal servitude, equality before the law, and representative (constitutional) government, proclaimed by the Revolution, slowly gained ground in and out of France. After the Revolution, which had proclaimed the great principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, a slow evolution began--that is, a gradual reorganization which introduced into life and law the principles marked out, but only partly realized, by the Revolution. (Such a realization through evolution of principles proclaimed by the preceding revolution, may even be regarded as a general law of social development). Although the Church, the State, and even Science trampled on the banner upon which the Revolution had inscribed the words "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity"; although to be reconciled to the existing state of things became for a time a universal watch-word; still the principles of freedom were slowly entering-- into the affairs of life. It is true that the feudal obligations abolished by the republican armies of Italy and Spain were again restored in these countries, and that even the inquisition itself was revived. But a mortal blow had already been dealt them--and their doom was sealed. The wave of emancipation from the feudal yoke reached, first, Western, and then Eastern Germany, and spread over the peninsulas. Slowly moving eastward, it reached Prussia in 1848, Russia in 1861, and the Balkans in 1878. Slavery disappeared in America in 1863. At the same time the ideas of the equality of all citizens before the law, and of representative government were also spreading from west to east, and by the end of the century Russia alone remained under the yoke of autocracy, already much impaired.


On the other hand, on the threshold of the nineteenth century, the ideas of economic emancipation had already been proclaimed. In England, Godwin published in 1793 his remarkable work, "An Enquiry into Political Justice," in which he was the first to establish the theory of non-governmental socialism, that is, Anarchism; and Babeuf--especially influenced, as it seems, by Buonarotti--came forward in 1796 as the first theorist of centralized State-socialism.

Then, developing the principles already laid down in the eighteenth century, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Robert Owen came forward as the three founders of modern socialism in its three chief schools; and in the forties Proudhon, unacquainted with the work of Godwin, laid down anew the bases of Anarchism.

The scientific foundations of both governmental and non-governmental socialism were thus laid down at the beginning of the nineteenth century with a thoroughness wholly unappreciated by our contemporaries. Only in two respects, doubtless very important ones, has modern socialism materially advanced. It has become revolutionary, and has severed all connection with the Christian religion. It realized that for the attainment of its ideals a Social Revolution is necessary--not in the sense in which people sometimes speak of an "industrial revolution" or of "a revolution in science," but in the real , material sense of the word "Revolution"--in the sense of rapidly changing the fundamental principles of present society by means which, in the usual run of events, are considered illegal. And it ceased to confuse its views with the optimist reforming tendencies of the Christian religion. But this latter step had already been taken by Godwin and R. Owen. As regards the admiration of centralized authority and the preaching of discipline, for which man is histori-cally indebted chiefly to the mediæval church and to church rule generally-these survivals have been retained among the mass of the State socialists, who have thus failed to rise to the level of their two English forerunners.


Of the influence which the reaction that set in after the Great Revolution has had upon the development of the sciences, it would be difficult to speak in this essay.3 Suffice it to say, that by far the greater part of what modern science prides itself on was already marked out, and more than marked out--sometimes even ex-pressed in a definite scientific form--at the end of the eighteenth century. The mechanical theory of heat and the indestructibility of motion (the conservation of energy); the modification of species by the action of environment; physiological psychology; the anthropological view of history, religion, and legislation; the laws of development of thought--in short, the whole mechanical conception of the world and all the elements of a synthetic philosophy (a philosophy which embraces all physical, chemical living and social phenomena),--were already outlined and partly formulated in the preceding century.

But, owning to the reaction which set in, these discoveries were kept in the background during a full half-century. Men of science suppressed them or else declared them "unscientific." Under the pretext of "studying facts" and "gathering scientific material," even such exact measurements as the determination of the mechanical power necessary for obtaining a given amount of heat (the determination by Séguin and Joule of the mechanical equivalent of heat) were set aside by the scientists. The English Royal Society even declined to publish the results of Joule's investigations into this subject on the ground that they were "unscientific." And the excellent work of Grove upon the unity of physical forces, written in 1843, remained up to 1856 in complete obscurity. Only on consulting the history of the exact sciences can one fully understand the forces of reaction which then swept over Europe.

The curtain was suddenly rent at the end of the fifties, when that liberal, intellectual movement began in Western Europe which led in Russia to the abolition of serfdom, and deposed Schelling and Hegel in philosophy, while in life it called forth the bold negation of intellectual slavery and submission to habit and authority, which is known under the name of Nihilism.

It is interesting to note in this connection the extent to which the socialist teachings of the thirties and forties, and also the revolution of 1848, have helped science to throw off the fetters placed upon it by the post-revolutionary reaction. Without entering here into detail, it is sufficient to say that the above-mentioned Séguin and Augustin Thierry (the historian who laid the foundations for the study of the folkmote regime and of federalism) were Saint-Simonists, that Darwin's fellow-worker, A. R. Wallace, was in his younger days an enthusi-astic follower of Robert Owen; that Auguste Comte was a Saint-Simonist, and Ricardo and Bentham were Owenists; and that the materialists Charles Vogt and George Lewis, as well as Grove, Mill, Spencer, and many others, had lived under the influence of the radical socialistic movement of the thirties and forties. It was to this very influence that they owed their scientific boldness.

The simultaneous appearance of the works of Grove, Joule, Berthollet and Helmholtz; of Darwin, Claude Bernard, Moleschott and Vogt; of Lyell, Bain, Mill and Burnouf --all in the brief space of five or six years (1856-1862),--radically changed the most fundamental views of science. Science suddenly started upon a new path. Entirely new fields of investigation were opened with amazing rapidity. The science of life (Biology), of human institutions (Anthropology), of reason, will and emotions (Psychology), of the history of rights and religions, and so on--grew up under our very eyes, staggering the mind with the boldness of their generalizations and the audacity of their deductions. What in the preceding century was only an ingenious guess, now came forth proved by the scales and the microscope, verified by thousands of applications. The very manner of writing changed, and science returned to the clearness, the precision, and the beauty of exposition which are peculiar to the inductive method and which characterized those of the thinkers of the eighteenth century who had broken away from metaphysics.


To predict what direction science will take in its further development is, evidently, impossible. As long as men of science depend upon the rich and the governments, so long will they of necessity remain subject to influence from this quarter; and this, of course, can again arrest for a time the development of science. But one thing is certain: in the form that science is now assuming there is no longer any need of the hypothesis which Laplace considered useless, or of the metaphysical "words" which Goethe ridiculed. The book of nature, the book of organic life, and that of human development, can already be read without resorting to the power of a creator, a mystical "vital force," an immortal soul, Hegel's trilogy, or the endowment of abstract symbols with real life. Mechanical phenomena, in their ever-increasing complexity, suffice for the explanation of nature and the whole of organic and social life.

There is much, very much, in the world that is still unknown to us--much that is dark and incomprehensible; and of such unexplained gaps new ones will always be disclosed as soon as the old ones have been filled up. But we do not know of, and do not see the possibility of discovering, any domain in which the phenomena observed in the fall of a stone, or in the impact of two billiard balls, or in a chemical reaction--that is, mechanical phenomena-should prove inadequate to the necessary explanations. bar


1Kant's version of the ethical maxim, "Do to others as you would have them do to you," reads: "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law."--Translator.
2Readers of Russian literature to whom Lomonósoff is known only by his literary work, may be surprised as much as I was to find his name mentioned in connection with the theory of heat. On seeing the name in the original, I promptly consulted the library--so sure was I that I was confronted with a typographical error. There was no mistake, however. For, Mikhail Vassilievich Lomonósoff (1712-1765), by far the most broadly sifted Russian of his time, was--I have thus been led to discover--even more ardently devoted to science than to the muses. His accomplishments in the physical sciences alone, in which he experimented and upon which he wrote and lectured extensively, would have won for him lasting fame in the history of Russian culture and first mention among its devotees.-- Translator.
2Something in this line is set forth in my lecture "On the Scientific Development in the XIX Century."

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