Kropotkin’s Sermon on Anarchist Ethics


The short essay or “sermon” by Kropotkin written in 1898 concludes with this exhortation:

“Struggle! To struggle is to live, and the fiercer the struggle the intenser the life. Then you will have lived; and a few hours of such life are worth years spent vegetating.

“Struggle so that all may live this rich, overflowing life. And be sure that in this struggle you will find a joy greater than anything else can give.”

This is all that the science of morality can tell you. Yours is the choice.

Kropotkin’s anarchist ethics are summed up in the Golden Rule. He capably defends tyrannicide by pointing out that the Golden Rule still applies since any ethical person would wish to be assassinated should he become a tyrant. I don’t expect that argument will get much traction in present society, but I think he’s correct.

The analogy he uses is that of a loving parent who would wish to be killed or would kill himself if insanity made him a threat toward his beloved family.

Here’s some fiery rhetoric that is woefully out of fashion nowadays:

By proclaiming ourselves anarchists, we proclaim before-hand that we disavow any way of treating others in which we should not like them to treat us; that we will no longer tolerate the inequality that has allowed some among us to use their strength, their cunning or their ability after a fashion in which it would annoy us to have such qualities used against ourselves. Equality in all things, the synonym of equity, this is anarchism in very deed. It is not only against the abstract trinity of law, religion, and authority that we declare war. By becoming anarchists we declare war against all this wave of deceit, cunning, exploitation, depravity, vice –in a word, inequality– which they have poured into all our hearts. We declare war against their way of acting, against their way of thinking. The governed, the deceived, the exploited, the prostitute, wound above all else our sense of equality. It is in the name of equality that we are determined to have no more prostituted, exploited, deceived and governed men and women.

I am using Kropotkin to emphasize my deeply held belief that anarchism is not a political position so much as an ethical one. Contra my libertarian friends, full anarchism is not a Utopian ideal that is beyond the reach of mortal humanity. It is rather the accurate response to the enlightened awareness of reasonable, minimal ethical standards.

One of the knocks against anarchism that I hear is that it is not practical. It would never work, according to many. First, I don’t agree with that. But even if that were true, does the practicality of an ethical position determine its validity? Utilitarians presumably take practicality into account, but even they are motivated by a maximizing the good. So there is an underlying value that is paramount and impervious to claims of impracticality.

I would go this far: if an ethical system was found to be so impractical that it would be unlikely to ever be useful to anyone in the “real world” then that would certainly be a mark against it. But the fundamental ethical principal of self-ownership that is the intuitive foundation of anarchism is not at all impractical. On the contrary, this very principle is implicit in our legal system and in any version of “common” ethical standards.

The ideals of liberty and freedom, so near and dear to Americans, make no sense without a principle of self-ownership beneath them. So it is not the case that the ethical foundation of anarchism is impractical. What the critics take to be impractical is the application of the ethical principal to its logical end.

Human rights* as they are defined appeal to the dignity of individual human beings. And what is the source of dignity? Is it not autonomy? What else does it mean to have ones so-called rights violated than for a person to be objectified and treated as a thing without self-ownership? Even religions that preach about human dignity and the imago Dei would be hard-pressed to define it without appealing to the freedom which can only be derived from self-ownership.

I will close this meditation with a final quote from Kropotkin:

We are not afraid to say: “Do what you will; act as you will”; because we are persuaded that the great majority of mankind, in proportion to their degree of enlightenment and the completeness with which they free themselves from existing fetters will behave and act always in a direction useful to society just as we are persuaded beforehand that a child will one day walk on its two feet and not on all fours simply because it is born of parents belonging to the genus Homo.

All we can do is to give advice. And again while giving it we add: “This advice will be valueless if your own experience and observation do not lead you to recognize that it is worth following.”


*Lest anyone be misled by me mentioning it, let me strongly assert here my utter contempt for the entire concept of “human rights”. Only states and other institutions of oppression are benefited by the delineation of so-called rights.

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5 thoughts on “Kropotkin’s Sermon on Anarchist Ethics

  1. Contra my libertarian friends, full anarchism is not a Utopian ideal that is beyond the reach of mortal humanity. It is rather the accurate response to the enlightened awareness of reasonable, minimal ethical standards.

    I would agree with most of that, though the word “enlightened” is probably un-necessary and a little high-falutin’ at the least. I would also wonder whether it’s possible to get a humanity-wide consensus on what are the “minimal ethical standards,” at least as a forethought written down, rather than as a decision in the moment.

    More interesting perhaps would be a discussion with the libertarian (however defined) on why anarchist principles are considered only utopian and not practical. I have my own thoughts, but I don’t come at it from the libertarian view so I’d rather hear from one who does.

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    • Keep visiting please. It keeps me humble. My prose does get high-falutin’ sometimes. Occasionally it is meant ironically, but not in this case.

      The minimal ethical thing is probably worded inartfully. None of the ethical “schools” of philosophy is completely satisfying, so I am playing around with the idea that a basic insight about human beings can be the basis for a more fully developed ethical system.

      The libertarian/anarchist discussion would be very fruitful. I will look for a willing interlocutor.

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      • One person’s high-falutin’ is another person’s low-brow. It just seems like the higher brow’d voice gets plenty of work whenever these things are discussed, no matter who’s discussing. The higher tongue is exclusive, which is its weakness unless the point is politesse.

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  2. Utilitarians presumably take practicality into account, but even they are motivated by a maximizing the good.

    Utilitarians, as far as I know, haven’t come up with a practical method for measuring utility, let alone social welfare.

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    • No argument from me there. I don’t think practicality is a relevant criteria when comparing ethical systems, which was my point. I threw in the utilitarian reference more or less because there is a family resemblance between the terms “utility” and “practicality”. Or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

      On a related note, I thought it was a happy coincidence that I headed over to Kierkeguardians and read Sean’s series of posts on Particularism. His argument makes sense.

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