Econ-Atrocity {special History of Thought series} Prince Kropotkin

By Suresh Naidu, CPE Staff Economist

Piotr Kropotkin is famous within two groups that one never sees at the same party. The biologists and evolutionary anthropologists who derive inspiration from Kropotkin’s research into the evolution of human sociality rarely intersect with the anarchists and political theorists who respect Kropotkin’s views on revolutionary change and the abolition of the state and private property. However, there was no disparity for Kropotkin, who derived many of his political beliefs from his studies of human and animal evolution.

Kropotkin had a long and interesting life. Born in 1842 to Russian nobility, he began his career as an exemplar of his class, serving in the military during the Crimean War, but eventually wound up working with the revolutionary Jura Federation. His politicization followed lengthy and difficult travels, during which he developed a deep affinity for the Russian peasants and workers he encountered. Later cut off from any political influence by Lenin, Kropotkin’s last writings were notable predictions of the tyranny that would result from the Bolshevik retention of wage labor and reliance on state coercion.

A large portion of contemporary social and biological science follows in the footsteps of Kropotkin’s academic work. Responding to the social Darwinism of his day, he wrote his primary scientific work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, arguing that a major factor in the evolutionary success of humans was a predisposition to cooperate and share, without the need for institutions such as the market or the state.

Modern day research has provided overwhelming evidence to corroborate Kropotkin’s thesis. Anthropologists and archaeologists have found widespread decentralized cooperation within many non-industrial societies. Experimental economists have definitively shown that people are not classically selfish, with people often giving away substantial amounts of money and actively cooperating in laboratory settings, even against their narrow self-interest. This is not merely “enlightened self-interest,” rather a deeply seated desire for fairness as an end in itself (this desire may or may not have roots in biology). Biologists have acknowledged that competition among early human groups could have contributed to the evolution of cooperative behavior on the part of individuals.

Much of this literature has paralleled Kropotkin in refuting a naive socio-biological theory of human behavior. Rather than concocting stories that rationalize the current order in terms of fitness, it points to potential ways of organizing human interactions that can replace the dominant institutions of our day with something more democratic and egalitarian. Kropotkin built his belief in anarchism on the knowledge that people can organize their lives without self-interest or governmental coercion as prerequisites for large-scale cooperation.

There are many current examples of such cooperation. Elinor Ostrom and colleagues are documenting community management of scarce resources and public goods provision without the aid of governments or market pricing systems. Steve Lansing examines how Balinese rice farmers coordinate their complex ecological interactions with a few simple rules. Yochai Benkler identifies Open-Source Software as an example of large-scale non-market, non-state coordination. Erik Olin Wright and others study how participatory directly democratic institutions function to solve practical problems from Kerala to Chicago. Human institutions that harness the natural propensity to cooperate (and sometimes punish those who do not) are quite pervasive.

The political implications Kropotkin drew from his work are not the ravings of a lunatic egghead. Anarchism is commonly caricatured as naive, or worse, a haven for would-be terrorists. Instead, the politics advocated by Kropotkin are best interpreted as general principles. First is an ethical imperative, that there is no policy substitute for social norms and ideals of behavior – a belief that one’s personal behavior can either reinforce or undermine the status quo. The second is a deep suspicion of facile state or market fixes to social problems. Together, these imply respecting and considering people’s abilities to develop community solutions and autonomously self-organize before suggesting “policy” or “market” solutions. Kropotkin’s mix of science and politics are not vestiges of a bygone age, but very relevant ideas deserving greater intellectual and political engagement.


Stephen Jay Gould, “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot,” Natural History, July 1997.

For experimental fairness, see Ernst Fehr et. al., “Fairness and Retaliation: The Economics of Reciprocity,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer 2000.

For group selection giving rise to cooperation, see Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others, Harvard University Press, 1998.

For egalitarian cooperation in hunter-gatherers, see Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, Harvard University Press, 1999.

The remarkable case of Balinese rice farming is found in Steven Lansing and John Miller, “Cooperation in Balinese Rice Farming.”

For community solutions to public goods problems, see Elinor Ostrom’s classic Governing the Commons, Cambridge University Press, 1990 and Trust and Reciprocity, Russell Sage Foundation, 2003.

For Open-Source Software, see Yochai Benkler, “Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm,” 112 Yale Law Journal 369 (2002).

For the efficacy of direct democracy, see Erik Olin Wright and Archon Fung, Deepening Democracy, Verso, 2003.

(c) 2004 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.