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.


    This is not the place to enter into an exposition of Anarchism. The present sketch has its own definite aim--that of indicating the relation of Anarchism to modern science,--while the fundamental views of Anarchism may be found stated in a number of other works. But two or three illustrations will help us to define the exact relation of our views to modern science and the modern social movement.

    When, for instance, we are told that Law (written large) "is the objectification of Truth;" or that "the principles underlying the development of Law are the same as those underlying the development of the human spirit;" or that "Law and Morality are identical and differ only formally;" we feel as little respect for these assertions as does Mephistopheles in Goethe's "Faust." We are aware that those who make such seemingly profound statements as these have expended much thought upon these questions. But they have taken a wrong path; and hence we see in these high-flown sentences mere attempts at unconscious generalization, based upon inadequate foundations and confused, moreover, by words of hypnotic power. In olden times they tried to give "Law" a divine origin; later they began to seek a metaphysical basis for it; now, however, we are able to study its anthropological origin. And, availing ourselves of the results obtained by the anthropological school, we take up the study of social customs, beginning with those of the primitive savages, and trace the origin and the development of laws at different epochs.

    In this way we come to the conclusion already expressed on a preceding page--namely, that all laws have a two-fold origin, and in this very respect differ from those institutions established by custom which are generally recognized as the moral code of a given society. Law confirms and crystallizes these customs, but, while doing so, it takes advantage of this fact to establish (for the most part in a disguised form) the germs of slavery and class distinction, the authority of priest and warrior, serfdom and various other institutions, in the interest of the armed and would be ruling minority. In this way a yoke has imperceptibly been placed upon man, of which he could only rid himself by means of subsequent bloody revolutions. And this is the course of events down to the present moment--even in contemporary "labor legislation" which, along with "protection of labor," covertly introduces the idea of compulsory State arbitration in the case of strikes,1 a compulsory eight-hour day for the workingman (no less than eight hours), military exploitation of the railroads during strikes, legal sanction for the dispossession of peasants in Ireland, and so on. And this will continue to be so as long as one portion of society goes on framing laws for all society, and thereby strengthens the power of the State, which forms the chief support of Capitalism.

    It is plain, therefore, why Anarchism--which aspires to Justice (a term synonymous with equality) more than any other lawgiver in the world--has from the time of Godwin rejected all written laws.

    When, however, we are told that by rejecting Law we reject all morality--since we deny the "categoric imperative" of Kant,--we answer that the very wording of this objection is to us strange and incomprehenesible.2 It is as strange and incomprehensible to us as it would be to every naturalist engaged in the study of the phenomena of morality. In answer to this argument, we ask: "What do you really mean? Can you not translate your statements into comprehensible language--for instance, as Laplace translated the formulæ of higher mathematics into a language accessible to all, and as all great men of science did and do express themselves?"

    Now, what does a man who takes his stand on "universal law" or "the categorical imperative" really mean? Does he mean that there is in all men the conception that one ought not to do to another what he would not have done to himself--that it would be better even to return good for evil? If so, well and good. Let us, then, study (as Adam Smith and Hutcheson have already studied) the origin of these moral ideas in man, and their course of development. Let us extend our studies to pre-human times (a thing Smith and Hutcheson could not do). Then, we may analyze the extent to which the idea of Justice implies that of Equailty. The question is an important one, because only those who regard others as their equals can accept the rule, "Do not to others what you would not have done to yourself." The landlord and the slave-owner, who did not look upon "the serf" and the negro as their equals, did not recognize the "categorical imperative" and the "universal law" as applicable to these unhappy members of the human family. And then, if this observation of ours be correct, we shall wee whether it is at all possible to inculcate morality while teaching the doctrine of inequality.

    We shall finally analyze, as Mark Guyau did, the facts of self-sacrifice. And then we shall consider what has promoted the development in man of moral feelings--first, of those which are intimately connected with the idea of equality, and then of the others; and after this consideration we should be able to deduce from our study exactly what social conditions and what institutions promise the best results for the future. Is this development promoted by religion, and to what extent? Is it promoted by inequality--economic and political--and by a division into classes? Is it promoted by law? By punishment? By prisons? By the judge? The jailer? The hangman?

    Let us study all this in detail, and then only may we speak again of Morality and moralization by means of laws, law courts, jailers, spies, and police. But we had better give up using the sonorous words which only conceal the superficiality of our semi-learning. In their time the use of these words was, perhaps, unavoidable--their application could never have been useful; but now we are able to approach the study of burning social questions in exactly the same manner as the gardener and the physiologist take up the study of the conditions most favorable for the growth of a plant--let us do so!


    Likewise, when certain economists tell us that "in a perfectly free market the price of commodities is measured by the amount of labor socially necessary for their production," we do not take this assertion on faith because it is made by certain authorities or because it may seem to us "tremendously socialistic." It may be so, we say. But do you not notice that by this very statement you maintain that value and the necessary labor are proportional to each other--just as the speed of a falling body is proportional to the number of seconds it has been falling? Thus you maintain a quantitative relation between these two magnitudes; whereas a quantitative relation can be proved only by quantitative measurements. To confine yourself to the remark that the exchange-value of commodities "generally" increases when a greater expenditure of labor is required, and then to assert that therefore the two quantities are proportional to each other, is to make as great a mistake as the man who would assert that the quantity of rainfall is measured by the fall of the barometer below its average height. He who first observed that, generally speaking, when the barometer is falling a greater amount of rain falls than when it is rising; or, that there is a certain relation between the speed of a falling stone and the height from which it fell--that man surely made a scientific discovery. But the person who would come after him and assert that the amount of rain fall is measured by the fall of the barometer below its average height, or that the space through which a falling body has passed is proportional to the time of fall and is measured by it,--that person would not only talk nonsense, but would prove by his very words that the method of scientific research is absolutely strange to him; that his work is unscientific, full as it may be of scientific expressions. The absence of data is, clearly, no excuse. Hundreds, if not thousands, of similar relationships are known to science in which we see the dependence of one magnitude upon another--for example, the recoil of a cannon depending upon the quantity of powder in the charge, or the growth of a plant depending upon the amount of heat or light received by it; but no scientific man will presume to affirm the proportionality of these magnitudes without having investigated their relations quantitatively, and still less would he represent this proportionality as a scientific law. In most instances the dependence is very complex--as it is, indeed, in the theory of value. The necessary amount of labor and value are by no means proportional.

    The same remark refers to almost every economic doctrine that is current to-day in certain circles and is being presented with wonderful naivety as an invariable law. We not only find most of these so-called laws grossly erroneous, but maintain also that those who believe in them will themselves become convinced of their error as soon as they come to see the necessity of verifying their quantitative deductions by quantitative investigation.

    Moreover, the whole of political economy appears to us in a different light from that in which it is seen by modern economists of both the middle-class and the social-democratic camps. The scientific method (the method of natural scientific induction) being utterly unknown to them, they fail to give themselves any definite account of what constitutes "a law of nature," although they delight in using the term. They do not know--or if they know they continually forget--that every law of nature has a conditional character. It is always expressed thus: "If certain conditions in nature meet, certain things will happen." "If one line intersects another, forming right angles on both sides of it, the consequences will be these or those." If two bodies are acted upon by such movements only as exist in interstellar space, and there is no third body within measurable distance of them, then their centres of gravity will approach each other at a certain speed (the law of gravitation)." And so on. In every case there is an "if"--a condition.

    In consequence of this, all the so-called laws and theories of political economy are in reality no more than statements of the following nature: "Granting that there are always in a country a considerable number of people who cannot subsist a month, or even a fortnight, without accepting the conditions of work imposed upon them by the State, or offered to them by those whom the State recognizes as owners of land, factories, railways, etc., then the results will be so and so."

    So far middle-class political economy has been only an enumeration of what happens under the just-mentioned conditions--without distinctly stating the conditions themselves. And then, having described the facts which arise in our society under these conditions, they represent to us these facts as rigid, inevitable economic laws. As to socialist political economy, although it criticises some of these deductions, or explains others somewhat differently,--it has not yet been original enough to find a path of its own. It still follows in the old grooves, and in most cases repeats the very same mistakes.

    And yet, in our opinion, political economy must have an entirely different problem in view. It ought to occupy with respect to human societies a place in science similar to that held by physiology in relation to plants and animals. It must become the physiology of society. It should aim at studying the needs of society and the various means, both hitherto used and available under the present state of scientific knowledge, for their satisfaction. It should try to analyze how far the present means are expedient and satisfactory, economic or wasteful and then, since the ultimate end of every science (as Bacon had already stated) is obviously its practical application to life, it should concern itself with the discovery of means for the satisfaction of these needs with the smallest possible waste of labor and with the greatest benefit to mankind in general. Such means would be, in fact, mere corollaries from the relative investigation mentioned above, provided this last had been made on scientific lines.

    It will be clear, even from the hasty hints given already, why it is that we come to conclusions so different from those of the majority of economists, both of the middle class and the social-democratic schools; why we do not regard as "laws" certain of the temporary relations pointed out by them; why we expound socialism entirely differently; and why, after studying the tendencies and developments in the economic life of different nations, we come to such radically different conclusions as regards that which is desirable and possible; why we come to Free Communism, while the majority of socialists arrive at State-capitalism and Collectivism.

    Perhaps we are wrong and they are right. But in order to ascertain who is right, it will not do either to quote this and that authority, to refer to Hegel's trilogy, or to argue by the "dialectic method." This question can be settled only by taking up the study of economic relations as facts of natural science.3

    Pursuing the same method, Anarchism arrives also at its own conclusions concerning the State. It could not rest content with current metaphysical assertions like the following:

    "The State is the affirmation of the idea of the highest Justice in Society;" or "The State is the instigation and the instrument of progress;" or, "without the State, Society is impossible." Anarchism has approached the study of the State exactly in the manner the naturalist approaches the study of social life among bees and ants, or among the migratory birds which hatch their young on the shores of sub-arctic lakes. It would be useless to repeat here the conclusions to which this study has brought us with reference to the history of the different political forms (and to their desirable or probable evolution in the future); if I were to do so, I should have to repeat what has been written by Anarchists from the time of Godwin, and what may be found, with all necessary explanations, in a whole series of books and pamphlets.

     I will say only that the State is a form of social life which has developed in our European civilization, under the influence of a series of causes,4 only since the end of the sixteenth century. Before the sixteenth century the State, in its Roman form, did not exist--or, more exactly, it existed only in the minds of the historians who trace the genealogy of Russian autocracy to Rurik and that of France to the Merovingian kings.

     Furthermore, the State (State-Justice, State-Church, State-Army) and Capitalism are, in our opinion, inseparable concepts. In history these institutions developed side by side, mutually supporting and reenforcing each other. They are bound together, not by a mere coincidence of contemporaneous development, but by the bond of cause and effect, effect and cause. Thus, the State appears to us as a society for the mutual insurance of the landlord, the warrior, the judge, and the priest, constituted in order to enable every one of them to assert his respective authority over the people and to exploit the poor. To contemplate the destruction of Capitalism without the abolition of the State--though the latter was created solely for the purpose of fostering Capitalism and has grown up alongside of it--is just as absurd, in our opinion, as it is to hope that the emancipation of the laborer will be accomplished through the action of the Christian church or of Caesarism. Many socialists of the thirties and forties, and even the fifties, hoped for this; but for us, who have entered upon the twentieth century, it is ridiculous to cherish such hopes as this!



1 "Compulsory arbitration"--What a glaring contradiction!
2I am not quoting an imaginery example, but one taken from a correspondence which I have recently carried on with a German doctor of law.
3A few extracts from a letter written by a renowned Belgian biologist and received when these lines were in print, will help me to make my meaning clearer by a living illustration. The letter was not intended for publication, and therefore I do not name its author: "The further I read [such and such a work]--he writes--the surer I become that nowadays only those are capable of studying economic and social questions who have studied the natural sciences and have become imbued with their spirit. Those who have received only a so-called classical education are no longer able to understand the present intellectual movement and are equally incapable of studying a mass of social questions. . . . . The idea of the integration of labor and of division of labor in time only [the idea that it would be expedient for society to have every person cultivating the land and following industrial and intellectual pursuits in turn, thus varying his labor and becoming a variously-developed individual] will become in time one of the cornerstones of economic science. A number of biological facts are in harmony with the thought just underlined, which shows that we are here dealing with a law of nature [that in nature, in other words, an economy of forces may frequently result in this way]. If we examine the vital functions of any living being at different periods of its life, and even at different times of the year, and sometimes at different moments of the day, we find the application of the division of labor in time, which is inseparably connected with the division of labor among the different organs (the law of Adam Smith).

    "Scientific people unacquainted with the natural sciences,are frequently unable to understand the true meaning of a law of nature; the word law blinds them, and they imagine that laws, like that of Adam Smith, have a fatalistic power from which it is impossible to rid oneself. When they are shown the reverse side of this last--the sad results of individualism, from the point of view of development and personal happiness,--they answer: this is an inexorable law, and sometimes they give this answer so off-handedly that they thereby betray their belief in a kind of infallibility. The naturalist, however, knows that science can paralyze the harmful consequences of a law; that frequently he who goes against nature wins the victory.

     "The force of gravity compels bodies to fall, but it also compels the balloon to rise. To us this seems so clear; but the economists of the classical school appear to find it difficult to understand the full meaning of this observation.

    "The law of the division of labor in time will counter-balance the law of Adam Smith, and will permit the integration of labor to be reached by every individual."

4An analysis of which may be found--say--in the pamphlet, " The State and its Historic Role " (Freedom pamphlets).

Return to Table of Contents
To next section
Return to Anarchy Archives