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The anarchist prince
Who debated sex with Emma Goldman
Peter Kropotkin was the most famous anarchist in the world in the 1890s. This wasn’t saying a lot, for anarchists by their ideological choice occupied the outer fringes of society. It irked them to be called terrorists, although some confessed tolerance for what they labeled “propaganda of the deed.” And it annoyed them that anarchism was equated with a penchant for chaos. It wasn’t order they opposed but authority, especially the authority of government. They preached the destruction of government in the name of liberating individuals to create their own order. Cooperation, not coercion, was their mantra.
Kropotkin achieved his fame by abdicating his position as a prince in the Russian royal family and working to end the system that had given his like the power to lord over Russian serfs and peasants. To his fellow anarchists he was simply Peter. But the newspapers of the world considered a titled terrorist catnip for their readers, and he was commonly dubbed the “Anarchist Prince” in headlines.
For his pains he was imprisoned in Siberia before being cast into exile. The French didn’t like him much better than the Russians did; he spent another four years behind bars in France. In Britain he breathed more freely, publishing commentaries on the labor troubles of the day, the brutality of European imperialism, and the essential goodness of ordinary people if they could manage to escape the oppression of centralized government.
In 1897 he traveled to America. Tens of thousands of Russians had gone before him; hundreds of thousands would follow. Among the Russians were more than a few anarchists, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Berkman was in prison for the attempted murder of Henry Frick, Alexander Carnegie’s lieutenant, during the Homestead steel strike of 1892.
Kropotkin found much to like in America. He marveled at the American economy, “aided as it is by a wonderful development of technical skill, by excellent schools, a scientific education which goes hand in hand with technical education, and a spirit of enterprise which is unrivaled in Europe.” Yet he condemned child labor and lamented the lack of strong labor unions.
Even here, though, he found reason for optimism. The nationwide railroad strike of 1877 had shown what American workers could do when they banded together. “Its spontaneity, its simultaneousness at so many distant points, the aid given by the workers of different trades, the resolute character of the uprising from the beginning, call forth our sympathies, excite our admiration, and awaken our hopes,” he said. He praised the courage of the workers convicted for the Haymarket bombing of 1886. Their refusal to confess to a crime they hadn’t committed was “a lesson for the old, an inspiration for the young.”
To Emma Goldman, Kropotkin represented all that was noble and progressive about the anarchist movement. “We saw in him the father of modern anarchism, its revolutionary spokesman and brilliant exponent of its relation to science, philosophy and progressive thought,” she wrote. She had been the first to invite Kropotkin to come to America; he had made plans to do so but been foiled by politics and poor health.
His 1897 tour, however, was a triumph. He spoke in several cities from Boston to Detroit; the high point of his trip was a New York lecture in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln had made his eastern debut in 1860.
He fascinated reporters. “Prince Kropotkin is anything but the typical anarchist,” one wrote. “In appearance he is patriarchal. And while his dress is careless, it is the carelessness of the man who is engrossed in society rather than that of the man who is in revolt against the usages of society. His manners are those of the polished gentleman, and he has none of the bitterness and dogmatism of the anarchist whom we are accustomed to see here.”
Unluckily, the person who had made it happen wasn’t present to share the triumph. Emma Goldman was spreading the anarchist word on the West Coast and didn’t feel she could honorably break her engagements. But she read of the large turnouts and appreciated Kropotkin’s contributions of the gate receipts to the American anarchist press.
Goldman finally got to meet Kropotkin after he returned to England and she traveled there herself. “Both Peter and Sophia Grigorevna”—Mrs. Kropotkin—“received us with affectionate cordiality,” Goldman recounted. “We discussed America, our movement there, and conditions in England.” Kropotkin asked about Goldman’s western tour. She explained that the enthusiasm had required her to retrace her steps to accommodate all who wanted to hear her.
He was delighted. “It must be a splendid field if you can cover the same ground three times in succession,” he said.
She agreed. She added that her paper Free Society had prepared her audience in advance; to it she attributed the large turnouts.
“The paper is doing splendid work,” Kropotkin agreed. “But it would do more if it would not waste so much space discussing sex.”
Goldman had heard this before. Her notion of anarchism entailed a destruction of male authority over women, to match the destruction of government authority over the people. Kropotkin was more conservative on this point.
“I disagreed, and we became involved in a heated argument about the place of the sex problem in anarchist propaganda,” Goldman recalled. “Peter’s view was that woman’s equality with man had nothing to do with sex; it was a matter of brains. ‘When she is his equal intellectually and shares in his social ideals,’ he said, ‘she will be as free as he.’ We both got somewhat excited, and our voices must have sounded as if we were quarreling. Sophia, quietly sewing a dress for her daughter, tried several times to direct our talk into less vociferous channels, but in vain. Peter and I paced the room in growing agitation, each strenuously upholding his side of the question.”
Goldman wasn’t accustomed to not winning debates. She tried one last argument. “All right, dear comrade, when I have reached your age”—Kropotkin was fifty-five, Goldman twenty-eight— “the sex question may no longer be of importance to me. But it is now, and it is a tremendous factor for thousands, millions even, of young people.’”
Kropotkin smiled. “Fancy, I didn't think of that,” he said. “Perhaps you are right, after all.”
Goldman remembered the moment well. “He beamed affectionately upon me, with a humorous twinkle in his eye,” she wrote.