21st Century Kropotkin III: A Challenge to the Libertarians, Research Time, 09/07/2014

A little personal history. When I was in middle and high school, I had a friend who I lost contact with when university started. I met up with G again years later on Facebook, and he was a radical libertarian. We had several stimulating conversations over the following year, which was a worthwhile critical voice for my own political beliefs. My own thinking on several important matters became more nuanced because of G’s critiques and those of some of the folks he introduced me to. 

There are some awful stereotypes
about libertarianism that should be
combatted. Nonetheless, I'm not a
libertarian, nor do I wish to be.
But I never became a libertarian. I think that’s why G eventually defriended me on Facebook, and we hardly talked again, except once when he taunted me in a comment thread. I welcomed a voice that offered a set of political beliefs that were different than mine, precisely because it kept me out of groupthink habits and the resulting dogmatism. Yet when it became clear to him that I wouldn’t accept the dogma of his own libertarianism, G seemed to disconnect himself from me, even though we had spoken regularly for over a year.

I tell this story because there’s a point in Peter Kropotkin’s relation of the political history of Europe’s transition from the Medieval to the Modern period when he almost sounds like a libertarian. And I think this glimmer of resemblance constitutes a fundamental challenge to the essential premise of libertarian philosophy: the political primacy of the individual and the free market of independent individuals.

Kropotkin gives us a narrative of Europe’s transition from medieval society to the modern as the destruction of freedom by oppressive military forces. Communities and craftsmen’s guilds fostered cities of people working together for the common good and achieving remarkable prosperity. Medieval Europe held their cultural pinnacles in city-states, whose central organizing philosophy was an update of the Greek polis: each community was different, but all were equal, and confederated together for mutual defence, aid, and development. With slavery out of the question, their societies were free of most forms of hard hierarchy.

The development of the medieval city-states amped up in the 11th century, and climaxed in the 13th. The period of decadence began in the 15th and 16th centuries, as the grand old families of many city-states became oligarchs and despots, and the guilds grew alienated from their agricultural base in the peasantry. But the true death blow to this self-organized prosperity came with the assaults of the military state. The Catholic Church, as an institution, had taught for centuries that society should be unified and authoritarian. They combined with the growing military force of Europe’s kings to create the modern state.

When the military state crushed the free city-states of medieval Europe over the 17th to 18th centuries, the major thrust of the political movement over the following hundred years until Kropotkin’s time, the 1890s, was that all social and community bonds would be mediated by the functions of the state. My enthusiastic Hegelian friends should note another reason for my opposition to Hegel’s philosophy here: central to the German’s political metaphysics is the notion that the progress of society is the subsumption of all individual and community activities and identifications in the mediating institution of the state. Kropotkin’s philosophy lets you call this out as political authoritarianism.*

The French Revolution's outcome,
which was clearly a victory for the
freedom of working people.
* Kropotkin even argues that Hegel's treasured French revolution was just another form of authoritarianism. Far from freeing the people, it simply traded stewardship of the levers of state violence from the landed gentry and royals to the bourgeoisie and new capitalist class. He never mentions Hegel by name, however, but to anyone familiar with the philosophical tradition, the association is clear.

Here’s where Kropotkin’s narrative can become a critique of contemporary libertarianism. The essential focus of libertarian political philosophy is to make the individual, his needs, desires, and personal freedoms the paramount political principle. But, says Kropotkin, this concept of the totally free individual, unconnected from institutional or communal obligations is itself a creation of the militarized state. 

The modern state was created through the military force of Europe’s royalty and landed gentry (having become overpoweringly rich on colonial exploitation) unleashing a centuries-long wave of mass violence to break the bonds of social obligation and non-hierarchical organizations that were the backbone of the free city-states’ prosperity. Tradesmen’s guilds were suppressed because “there shall be no State within the State.” 

As the state and its functionaries mediated all social ties and obligations, the radically separate individual was the only way that adults could express themselves. The concept of the radically free individual needed the state to create it in the first place. Before this period of violence, the individual was free through the shared benefits of his social obligations, and his identity was a function of these relationships which enabled his prosperity in times of plenty and his survival, through the obligations of his fellows to care for him, in times of poverty. 

Libertarianism conceives of individuals as inherently radically free, any obligation being either totally voluntary or else a function of state repression. But it was only the repression of the state that destroyed the ability to conceive of how social obligation could free you. The freedom of libertarianism is entirely negative, freedom of the individual to disconnect himself from all obligation. The freedom of Kropotkin’s anarchism, inspired by the example of the mutual aid institutions that defined the medieval city-states, is an even greater freedom because it connects you in networks of social relations, mutual obligations, that empower you and all your compatriots.

I know which one I prefer.


  1. Very interesting. My only question is this remark about the Catholic Church's teaching that society should be unified and authoritarian. I am not familiar with that teaching and it seems odd since the medieval good things referred to flourished while the influence of the Church was at its pinnacle, including its major theolgian Aquinas and poet Dante, while the militarization and the rise of the central state seems to have started occurring around the time of the Reformation. I have seen it written that the lack of a counterweight of the Church allowed folk like Henry VIII to make the State the totality and have a national church utterly aligned with the interests of the State. I bring it up here because I find the analysis here to be very similar to the analysis by Distributist authors, who are in the main within the Catholic tradition. . .

    1. Thanks, J.J. That note just comes from a comment by Kropotkin himself, when he describes the Catholic Church as having allied with the kings and their militaries when the medieval cities were at their most vulnerable from internal decadence (alienation of the peasantry, influence of noble families like the Borgias). He actually describes the Protestant reformation as the reaction of people from the cities against increasingly autocratic Church practices.

      Remember as well that Thomas Aquinas was a heretic for the first decades after his death, and was only canonized a century later after his work was re-evaluated and the influence of the Greek philosophers in the Church's teachings grew.

      I'm not familiar with the Distributist authors and their concepts, though. The same goes for a lot of the details of Catholic political philosophy. That tradition is quite far outside my fields of learning, and the larger political philosophy project my anarchism research is part of will come from a very different background.