An Appeal to the Young (1880)

By Peter Kropotkin, 1842-1921

“If you have finished reading law and are about to be called to the bar, perhaps you, too, have some illusions as to your future activity – I assume that you are one of the nobler spirits, that you know what altruism means. Perhaps you think, “To devote my life to an unceasing and vigorous struggle against all injustice! To apply my whole faculties to bringing about the triumph of law, the public expression of supreme justice – can any career be nobler?” You begin the real work of life confident in yourself and in the profession you have chosen.

Very well: let us turn to any page of the Law Reports and see what actual life will tell you.

Here we have a rich landowner; he demands the eviction of a cotter tenant who has not paid his rent. From a legal point of view the case is beyond dispute; since the poor farmer can’t pay, out he must go. But if we look into the facts we shall learn something like this: The landlord has squandered his rents persistently in rollicking pleasure; the tenant has worked hard all day and every day. The landlord has done nothing to improve his estate. Nevertheless its value has trebled in fifty years owing to rise in price of land due to the construction of a railway, to the making of new highroads, to the draining of a marsh, to the enclosure and cultivation of wastelands. But the tenant, who has contributed largely towards this increase, has ruined himself; he fell into the hands of usurers, and, head over ears in debts, he can no longer pay the landlord. The law, always on the side of property, is quite clear: the landlord is in the right. But you, whose feeling of justice has not yet been stifled by legal fictions, what will you do? Will you contend that the farmer ought to be turned out upon the high road? – for that is what the law ordains – or will you urge that the landlord should pay back to the farmer the whole of the increase of value in his property which is due to the farmer’s labor? – that is what equity decrees. Which side will you take? For the law and against justice, or for justice and against the law?

Or when workmen have gone out on strike against a master without notice, which side will you take then? The side of the law, that is to say, the part of the master who, taking advantage of a period of crisis, has made outrageous profits? or against the law, but on the side of the workers who received during the whole time only 2s. A day as wages, and saw their wives and children fade away before their eyes? Will you stand up for that piece of chicanery which consists in affirming “freedom of contract”? Or will you uphold equity, according to which a contract entered into between a man who has dined well and the man who sells his labor for bare subsistence, between the strong and the weak, is not a contract at all?

Take another case. Here in London a man was loitering near a butcher’s shop. He stole a beefsteak and ran off with it. Arrested and questioned, it turns out that he is an artisan out of work, and that he and his family have had nothing to eat for four days. The butcher is asked to let the man off, but he is all for the triumph of justice! He prosecutes, and the man is sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. Blind Themis so wills it! Does not your conscience revolt against the law and against society when you hear similar judgments pronounced every day?

Or again, will you call for the enforcement of the law against this man who, badly brought up and ill-used from his childhood, has arrived at man’s estate without having heard one sympathetic word, and completes his career by murdering his neighbor in order to rob him of a shilling? Will you demand his execution, or – worse still – that he should be imprisoned for twenty years, when you know very well that he is rather a madman than a criminal, and in any case, that his crime is the fault of our entire society?

Will you claim that these weavers should be thrown into prison who in a moment of desperation have set fire to a mill; that this man who shot at a crowned murderer should be imprisoned for life; that these insurgents should be shot down who plant the flag of the future on the barricades? No, a thousand times no!

If you reason instead of repeating what is taught you; if you analyze the law and strip off those cloudy fictions with which it has been draped in order to conceal its real origin, which is the right of the stronger, and its substance, which has ever been the consecration of all the tyrannies handed down to mankind through its long and bloody history; when you have comprehended this, your contempt for the law will be profound indeed. You will understand that to remain the servant of the written law is to place yourself every day in opposition to the law of conscience, and to make a bargain on the wrong side; and, since this struggle cannot go on forever, you will either silence your conscience and become a scoundrel, or you will break with tradition, and you will work with us for the utter destruction of all this injustice, economic, social and political.

But then you will be a Socialist, you will be a Revolutionist.”

Addressed to young men and women preparing to enter the professions, An Appeal to the Young was first published in 1880 in Kropotkin’s paper, La Revolte, and was soon thereafter issued as a pamphlet. An American edition was brought out by Charles H. Kerr in 1899, in the wake of the great Anarchist’s first U.S. speaking tour; his Memoirs of a Revolutionist was also published (by Houghton-Mifflin) that year. A new edition in Kerr’s “Pocket Library of Socialism” appeared in 1901; just after Kropotkin’s second U.S. tour. (In Chicago, he had been introduced to a large audience by Clarence Darrow, a close associate of the Kerr Company.) Yet another Kerr edition in the 1910s went through many printings, and was still on the Kerr list well into the 1930s.

Long unavailable in any U.S. edition, it is reprinted here in the standard English translation by pioneer British socialist H.M. Hyndman, whose lush Victorian prose ably captures the eloquence, fervor and charm of this celebrated revolutionary classic.

Read the full text here: http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/kropotkin/atty.html

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