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Words of a Rebel

Peter Kropotkin

Chapter 3: The Inevitability of Revolution

THERE are periods in human existence when the inevitability of a great upheaval, of a cataclysm that shakes society to its very roots, imposes itself on every area of our relationships. At such epochs, all men of good will begin to realise that things cannot go on as they are; that we need me great events that roughly break the thread of history, shake humanity out of the ruts in which it is stuck, and propel it towards new ways, towards the unknown, towards the search for the ideal. One feels the inevitability of a revolution, vast, implacable, whose role will be not merely to overthrow an economic machine based on cold exploitation, on speculation and fraud, not merely to throw down the political ladder that sustains the rule of the few through cunning, intrigue and lies, but also to stir up the intellectual and moral life of society, shake it out of its torpor, reshape our moral life, and set blowing in the midst of the low and paltry passions that occupy us now the livening wind of noble passions, great impulses and generous dedications.

In those eras when prideful mediocrity stifles all intelligence that does not kowtow to authority, when the niggardly morality of compromise creates the law, and servility reigns supreme; in such eras revolution becomes a need. Honest men of all classes call down me tempest, so that it can burn up with its breath of flame the pestilence that afflicts us, blow away the miasmas that stifle us, and sweep up in its furious progress all that debris of the past which weighs down on us, stifles us, deprives us of air and light, so that in the end it can give us a whole new atmosphere' instinct with life, with youth, with honesty. It is not merely the question of bread that is posed in such epochs; it becomes a question of progress against immobility, of human development against brutalization, of life against the foetid stagnation of the marsh.

History has retained for us the memory of such an epoch: that of the decadence of the Roman Empire; humanity today is passing through another such decadence.

Like the Romans of the decadence, we find ourselves facing a fundamental transformation which is affecting the minds of men and which only waits for favourable circumstances to become transposed into actuality. If the revolution imposes itself in the economic domain, if it has become an imperious necessity in the political domain, it assumes even more urgency in the field of morality.

Without moral links, without certain obligations which each member of society develops in his relations with others, no kind of society is possible. Thus we encounter these moral links, these sociable customs, in all human groups; we see them well-developed and rigorously put into practice among primitive peoples, who are the living remnants of what all humanity was in its beginnings.

But the inequality of fortunes and conditions, the exploitation of man by man, the domination of the masses by a few, have undermined and destroyed through the ages these precious products of the pristine stages of our societies. Large industry based on exploitation, commerce based on fraud, domination by those who call themselves "the Government," can no longer tolerate co-existence with those principles of morality, based on the solidarity of all, which we still encounter among the tribes who have been driven back to the verges of the policed world. What solidarity can exist between the capitalist and the worker he exploits? Between the head of an army and the soldier? Between the governing and the governed?

Thus we see that the primitive morality, based on the identification of the individual with his fellows, is replaced by the hypocritical morality of various religions, which search through sophistry to give legitimacy to exploitation and domination, and confine themselves to condemning only the most brutal manifestations of these phenomena. They relieve the individual of his moral obligations towards his fellows and impose them on him only in relation to a Supreme Being-an invisible abstraction, whose wrath you can avert and whose good will you can purchase, provided you pay his so-called servitors well.

But the more and more frequent contacts that occur these days between individuals, groups, nations and continents, impose new moral obligations on humanity. And as religious beliefs begin to vanish, we realize that if we want to be happy we must assume duties, not towards some unknown being, but towards all those with whom we enter into relationships. We understand more and more clearly that the individual's welfare is no longer possible in isolation; it can only be sought in the welfare of all-the happiness of the human race. The negative principles of religious morality: "Thou shalt not steal! Thou shalt not kill!" are being replaced by the positive principles of a humane morality, infinitely broader and growing from day to day. The sanctions of a deity, which one could always violate at the price of appeasing him later on with offerings, are being replaced by a sentiment of solidarity with one and all which tells human beings, "If you want to be happy, do to others as you would like others to do to you." That simple affirmation, that scientific induction which has nothing to do with religious prescriptions, opens in an instant a whole immense horizon of perfectibility, of betterment for the human race.

The need to recreate our relations on this principle, so sublime and so simple, becomes more evident from day to day. But nothing can or will be done in that direction while exploitation and domination, hypocrisy and sophistry, remain the bases of our social organization.

I could bring a thousand examples to support my argument, but let us limit ourselves now to a single one-the most terrible of all-that of our children. What can we do for them in modern society?

Respect for childhood is one of the finest qualities that developed in humanity as it accomplished its painful march from the state of savagery to its present condition. How often has one not seen the most depraved of men disarmed by the smile of a child? But such respect is vanishing, and among us today the child has become a machine of flesh-and-blood, if it has not been turned into a plaything for bestial passions.

We have been shown recently how the bourgeoisie massacre our children by making them work long hours in the factories.(6) There, they are physically ruined. But that is not everything. Corrupt to the core as it is, society also kills our children morally.

It reduces education to a routine apprenticeship which gives no expression to young and noble passions and no release to that need for idealism which emerges at a certain age in most children, and so it insures that children who are naturally so varied become less independent, proud and poetic, that they hate their schools and either turn in on themselves or seek elsewhere an outlet for their passions. Some will search in novels for the poetry that is lacking in their lives; they will stuff their minds with this literary rubbish, cobbled together by and for the bourgeoisie at a penny or two a line, and they will end up, like the young Lemaitre, slashing open the bellies and cutting the throats of children in the hope of becoming "celebrated murderers." Others will give themselves up to execrable vices. Only the mediocrities, those who have neither passion nor impulse nor any sense of independence will get through it all without trouble. This minority will provide society with its contingent of good citizens with niggardly mentalities who admittedly do not steal handkerchiefs in the street, but "honestly" rob their customers; who have no passion but secretly visit the brothel to get rid of the gravy from the stewpot, who stagnate in their marshes and curse whoever tried to stir up their muck.

This is how it is for boys! As for the girls, the bourgeoisie corrupt them at an early age. Absurd children's books, dolls done up like whores, the mother's dresses and her example, the chatter of the boudoir-nothing is lacking to turn the child into a woman who will sell herself to the highest bidder. And that child already spreads the infection around her: do not working-class children look with envy on this over-dressed girl, with her elegant demeanour, a courtesan at twelve years old? But if the mother is "virtuous"---in the way a good middle-class woman understands the term-then the situation is even worse. If the child is intelligent and passionate, she will take at its true value this double morality which consists in saying: "Love your neighbour, but plunder him when you can! Be virtuous, but only up to a certain point, etc." and, stifling in that atmosphere of Tartuffian morality, finding in her life nothing of the beautiful, sublime, inspiring, nothing that breathes of true passion, she will throw herself headfirst into the arms of the first comer, provided he can satisfy her appetite for a life of luxury.

Consider these facts, think about their causes, and admit that we are right to declare that a terrible revolution is inevitable if we are finally to cleanse our societies down to the roots, for as long as the causes of the gangrene from which they suffer remain, there can be no cure.

As long as we have a caste of idlers, sustained by our work under the presence that they are necessary to govern us, these very idlers will remain a pestilential influence on public morality. The besotted playboy who spends his life in the pursuit of new pleasures, in whom the feeling of solidarity for other people is destroyed by the very manner of his existence, and in whom the most vilely egotistical feelings are nourished by the very manner of his life; such a man will always lean towards the grossest kind of sensuality, and he will degrade everything he touches. With his moneybags and his brutal instincts, he will prostitute women and children, he will prostitute art, the stage, the press-he has already done so! He will sell his country and those who defend it, and, though he is too cowardly to do the deed himself, he will arrange the slaughter of the best people of his fatherland on the day he has reason to fear the loss of his wealth, the sole source of his pleasure.

All this is inevitable, and the writings of the moralists will do nothing to change it. The plague is already on our doorsteps; we must destroy its causes, and even if we have to proceed by fire and iron, we must not hesitate. It is a question of the salvation of humanity.

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