Right now, more than ever, we need a hopeful view of human nature. While we’re right to keep our physical distance from those around us to stop the spread of the virus, we also need to believe that it’s these same people who will get us through it. We need to trust them.
That message – that only together can individuals thrive – isn’t a new one. It can be found in the remarkable story of a Russian prince-turned-anarchist who had an important message. Trust, trust, trust each other.
This is his story.
Scene 1: A Prince is Born
On a cold winter’s day in the Old Equerries’ quarter of Moscow, a prince is born. He’s the youngest scion of an ancient and wealthy line. The family owns more than 2,000 serfs and their house teems with maidservants. From birth, this prince is destined for a life of privilege.
When he is eight years old, a ball in honour of Tsar Nicholas I is organised in the sprawling House of the Nobles. The boy walks in a great parade of more than 50 children, dressed as a Persian prince. And that’s when it happens. No sooner have Moscow’s nobility taken their places in the great hall, than a small commotion ripples through the room. To his surprise, the tiny prince is plucked from the procession and lifted onto the imperial platform.
“That is the sort of boy you must bring me!” the tsar cries to his blushing daughter-in-law beside him. Whether because of the earnestness with which the little boy held up his flag or the corkscrew of curls beneath his fur cap, Nicholas I is enchanted. Then and there, the young prince is promoted to the corps of pages, a rare honour in those days. “My father was delighted,” he recalled years later, “and already dreamed of a brilliant court career for his son.”
By 3 September 1851, there was no doubt about it: Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin was destined for a brilliant future.
Scene 2: An Incredible Life
Another 70 years passed before Kropotkin entered the gates of the House of the Nobles again – by then renamed the House of the Unions. Where as a little boy he’d been lifted onto the platform, now he was lying flat in a casket. An astounding 20,000 people flocked to his funeral. “Our Peter,” the people called him. In Great Britain, Oscar Wilde mourned “one of the most perfect lives I have come across in my experience”.
During his lifetime the prince became an international celebrity. He may have started out as the apple of the tsar’s eye, but he ended up fleeing halfway across the world to escape Russia’s secret police. Why? Because the prince had a radical and subversive idea; an idea that struck fear into the hearts of the ruling elites from Russia to Switzerland and from France to the US.
Peter Kropotkin believed that most people are pretty decent.
It’s likely you’ve never heard the name before, yet there’s much to learn from the anarchist prince. Especially now. In the midst of this pandemic, the biggest crisis since the second world war, many of us are searching for new forms of cooperation and connection. For new sources of hope.
Britain’s wealthy elites went wild for Darwin’s scientific justification of the yawning inequality in society
Kropotkin was far ahead of his time. He rejected both authoritarian communism and the iron cage of capitalism. He believed in the power of the individual, but equally that we can’t survive without each other.
In these times of growing inequality, a warming planet, and a virus run amok, the moment has come to radically rethink how we live. Reason enough to take a trip back to Russia around the middle of the 19th century. “Kropotkin is no messiah,” remarks a British historian, “but his writings force us to imagine a politics that might just help save the world.”
Scene 3: Panic in Prison
Hands trembling, he rereads the note. It’s been smuggled in under the lid from a pocket watch, written in a code known only to Peter and his confidants. In a few terse lines, it sets out a plan. Be ready in two hours, he reads. There’s hardly time to think.
Later that afternoon, Peter Kropotkin is brought into the courtyard of the military hospital where he’s detained. His heart is racing. The guard escorting him has no idea what’s about to happen; he’s just following the doctor’s orders, letting the apparently ill patient stumble back and forth every day for a bit.
Some 15 minutes tick by. Suddenly, a violinist begins to play in the street beyond the prison. A rousing mazurka fills the courtyard, and Peter knows his moment has arrived.
Now! In two fluid motions he casts off his flannel dressing gown and sets off at a sprint. “He’s making a run for it! Stop him! Catch him!” Some peasants unloading wood at the open gate rush to intercept him. The guard, closely followed by three soldiers, is hot on his heels.
But the prince is too fast. “Jump in, quick, quick!” cries a coachman waiting outside. The racehorse – brought for just this purpose – leaps into a gallop. Behind them, shouts can be heard: “Hold them! Get them!” Even more dangerous is the soldier stationed at the sentry post ahead. One of Peter’s friends manages to distract the man with a tale about a parasite. (“Did you ever see what a formidable tail it has?” – “What, man, a tail?” – “Yes, it has; under the microscope it’s as big a...” – “Don’t tell me any of your tales!”).
Careening down the street at a full gallop, the carriage makes its getaway. The prison officers call for a manhunt, but there’s not a carriage available for miles around – they’ve all been hired by the prince’s accomplices. “Everywhere we saw friends,” Peter later wrote, “who winked to us or gave us a Godspeed as we passed at the full trot of our beautiful horse.”
His most urgent insight
The memory of this escape became the basis for Kropotkin’s greatest insight, 12 years later. And I don’t mean his geological work, which was groundbreaking, or his anarchist pamphlets.
I’m talking about his contribution to the theory of evolution, and its consequent view of human nature. Still dismissed and defamed a hundred years ago, now this story is more urgent than ever.
In 1888, Peter was living at the outskirts of London where he’d finally found peace. One day, he came across an essay by the celebrated scientist Thomas Henry Huxley. Its title: The Struggle for Existence: A Programme.
Darwin wrote that publishing On the Origin of Species felt like confessing a murder
It turned out that Huxley was a cynic. He believed humans are beasts: that the strong survive and the weak perish. He described an eternal struggle “of man against man and of nation against nation”. The only remedy for this evolutionary maelstrom, he wrote, was to turn our backs on our nature and embrace civilising society.
This assertion echoed countless thinkers before him, from the Greek historian Thucydides to the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for whom civilisation is just a thin veneer on our bestial nature. Which put Huxley – also known as “Darwin’s bulldog” – perfectly in tune with the spirit of his age.
Because this was where it all started: with Charles Robert Darwin. In 1859, after years of persistent doubts, the British theologian-turned-biologist was ready to announce his theory to the world. A revolutionary theory, developed over the course of a long Pacific voyage to the Galapagos Islands.
To a friend, he wrote that publishing On the Origin of Species felt “like confessing a murder”. Then something unexpected happened. Britain’s wealthy elites went wild for Darwin. Here at long last seemed to be a scientific justification for the yawning inequality in British society. It explained why, in Huxley’s words, the “privileged races” won out in “the struggle for existence”.
“Social Darwinists” began to argue that evolutionary theory should inform politics, too. Like the billionaire Andrew Carnegie, who swore his wealth was a product of natural law: “We accept and welcome (...) great inequality,” he pronounced. The philosopher Herbert Spencer sold hundreds of thousands of books in which he characterised life as an eternal battle. Regarding people living in poverty, he wrote: “The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them, and make room for better.”
Economic and biological theories began to converge. Where biologists said existence revolved around survival and reproduction, economists believed that we exist to consume and produce. And the engine driving it all, they agreed, was competition.
The making of an anarchist
When Kropotkin reached the end of Huxley’s article, he thought back to his own escape. He recalled the woman who smuggled the note hidden in the watch to his prison cell, the violinist who played the mazurka, the friends who’d hired every carriage in town. And that’s when it struck him – the insight that biologists are still building on today. Human beings, Kropotkin realised, are hardwired to help one another out.
In Siberia, animals had to work together to survive. Kropotkin saw a natural tendency to cooperate in humans, too
And so the prince began work on what would become his most important book, Mutual Aid (1902). His writing drew on the stack of notes he’d taken during a long trip taken 30 years before: a 50,000 mile expedition across Amur, the frigid far eastern reaches of Siberia.
It was in this region, where temperatures could drop to -40C (-40.0F), that Kropotkin conceived his first ideas about cooperation and friendship. No matter where he looked, he was unable to find the “ bitter struggle for the means of existence” that was “considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as … the main factor of evolution”.
In Siberia, animals had to work together to survive. Kropotkin studied birds, fish, and insects. Wherever he looked he saw struggle. Not against one another, but against the Siberian cold, drought, storms, and snow.
The prince believed this natural tendency to cooperate applied to humans, too. He saw how remote villages managed to govern themselves without the tsar ever lifting a finger on their behalf. This must be the society of the future, he thought: a federation of communes in which everyone voluntarily worked together. “In Siberia I lost all faith in state discipline,” he later wrote. “I was prepared to become an anarchist.”
One leg social, one leg selfish
When you read about Kropotkin’s ideas and the prevailing discourse he opposed, you can’t help feeling time and again that this is about us. Social Darwinism may stem from the 19th century, but its view of human nature is evident all around us. You can see it on trading floors in London and New York, in the supply chains and distribution warehouses of Apple and Amazon, in the heads of untold managers and policymakers.
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed (...) is good,” declares Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street. “Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” Greed and fear, supposedly, are what drives us. Humankind has risen to great heights by fighting each other and crushing its weak. Because humans are animals, motivated solely by food, sex, and money. Only the powerful hand of the state can restrain us with an arsenal of rules, protocols, and violence.
Students of economics in the US seemed to grow increasingly selfish: the longer they studied, the more they became the picture of humanity they were taught
Even today, reams of legislation are written from an assumption that most people are rotten. This assumption is constantly treated as biological fact, when nothing could be further from the truth. “Too many economists and politicians model society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection,” observes biologist Frans de Waal. “What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature.”
This discussion isn’t purely academic. Our view of human nature has huge implications for how we design our democracies, schools and workplaces. The debate between Huxley and Kropotkin hinged on the biggest questions we can ask. What is it to be human? How should we organise ourselves? And, can we trust one another?
Kropotkin knew that nature has its share of selfishness, struggle, and violence. But he also understood that the Social Darwinists were blind to something even bigger: mutual aid. Since his book, a tremendous body of scientific literature has emerged on altruism and kindness in humans and animals alike. “We walk on two legs, a social and a selfish one,” writes de Waal, who in a scientific sense is Kropotkin’s great-grand-successor.
This will never change.
But which foot we put forward makes all the difference. In recent decades we’ve been limping along, relying more and more on our selfish leg – and not without consequences. Anyone who expects the worst from someone else calls forth the worst in themselves.
Theories about human nature – unlike theories about molecules or black holes – can come true simply because we believe in them. This phenomenon was noted in the early 1990s by Robert Frank, an economics professor who saw his students grow increasingly selfish the longer they studied economics. In time, they seemed to become the picture of humanity they were taught.
What would happen if we turned this around? What if schools, businesses, and governments assumed that most people are doing their best? What if we rallied round our tendency to trust and cooperate – a tendency with every bit as much of an evolutionary basis, over hundreds of millions of years?
Maybe we wouldn’t have to drill our kids to compete with each other any longer. Maybe fewer employees would buckle under depression. Maybe we wouldn’t need so many managers and controllers. Maybe we could switch to other and more direct forms of democracy. Maybe the financial sector would revert to serving society instead of itself.
The tragedy of Kropotkin is that he was right too early. The great ideological battle of the 20th century was a contest between capitalism and communism; but the anarchist prince was convinced they were just two sides of the same human coin, of our shared humanity.
After the revolution of 1917, Kropotkin returned to his native Russia. He wound up disappointed. The new dictator, Vladimir Lenin, appeared to defy his ideas. In 1920 Kropotkin sent him a furious letter, warning that the word “socialism” would one day be considered a curse. State socialism, he predicted, would lead to “a new tyranny even more terrible than the old one”.
The last ideology
The life story of Peter Kropotkin may sound more like the stuff of Hollywood (why isn’t there a blockbuster about him yet?), but I think the prince’s ideas are more urgent now than ever. Because if there’s one thing we need in these times, it’s a hopeful view of humankind.
I was one year old when the Berlin Wall came down. The great battle between capitalism and communism was already over. When I was in elementary school, the age of the ideologies was declared finished, settled. Around the time my generation reached adulthood, in 2008, the final ideology came crashing down: the ideology of an omniscient market.
The market has not proved any less bureaucratic and oppressive than the state. Or, more accurately, the “invisible hand” of the market too often conceals the iron fist of the state. Politicians on both sides of the aisle tend to assume a negative view of human nature: the right suspects most people are self-centred and lazy; the left often doesn’t trust people to make their own decisions.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s a good deal in Kropotkin’s work that is dated and maybe even naive. I’m not advocating a society without government, as he did. I don’t believe revolutions can abruptly change the world, and most of all I don’t believe in the violence that some anarchists – including Kropotkin, in his youth – deem necessary to achieve it.
Even so, I think it’s time to dust off those old tomes and pamphlets. For a long time, it looked as if history had proved the dissident prince wrong. Kropotkin lived out his final days in a tiny village north of Moscow, sick from hunger and filled with anxiety for the future. He spent a couple of hours each day at work on his last book, about the good in human nature and the natural world.
But make no mistake: the story that started with Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin is far from finished. On the contrary, I believe there’s a good chance that it’s only just begun.
This article first appeared on De Correspondent. It was translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton.
Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind, will be released in hardcover, ebook and audiobook in North America by Little, Brown on 2 June. It will be released in the UK on 19 May by Bloomsbury.