Brace yourself for the most dangerous idea yet: most people are pretty decent
Peter Kropotkin believed that most people are pretty decent.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”.
Sempre que leio sobre anarquismo e encontro a expressão ‘socialismo estatal’, sinto que a União Soviética colonizou nossa imaginação de socialismos possíveis. Assim como a democracia liberal colonizou como pensamos em um governo do povo. Há muito mais. Não chegou o fim da história. Ainda podemos fazer diferente. Acredite!