The Historical Relationship of Anarchism and Geography

The confluence of anarchism as a political philosophy and geography as an emerging discipline occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth-century largely in response to European nation building and growing social inequities. As taught in the halls of European military colleges, geography was often complicit in promoting imperial conquest by mapping resources to benefit European nations. Two prominent dissidents within the field, Elisee Reclus (1830–1905) and Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), employed their geographic knowledge to counter these tendencies. Their efforts contributed not only to the progressive development of the discipline, but to revolutionary movements for social justice and the foundation of social anarchism as a philosophy and practice. In the effort to pursue their profession as geographers, Kropotkin and Reclus uncovered principles of social and physical life that underscored the need for revolutionary change in their society. They also believed that a revolution in social and economic relationships would necessitate the creation of totally new or renovated land use patterns and built environments. Spatial concepts are thus key to social anarchist philosophy and strategies to promote radical social change.

The Social Geography of Elisee Reclus and Peter Kropotkin

One can best understand the evolving relationship between anarchism and geography, its theories and practical applications, in the lives and body of writing generated by two prominent geographers, Elisee Reclus and Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin. Their contributions to geography in the form of new theories about human ecology, decentralization, and experiential education wereclearly aimed at halting the use of geographic research for imperialistic ends and toward the discovery of models of better balanced and more humane social relationships and relations between people and their environments. Their notoriety stemmed from a different source – a growing commitment to radical social change and their role in the development of a social anarchist philosophy and practice.

Development of a radical theory of social ecology

In a comprehensive analysis of the contributions of Reclus to social geography and ecology, John Clark claims that both Reclus and Kropotkin shared a particular optimism based on their broad love and understanding of the natural world and people, but also on their belief in the power of science to provide a better understanding of the determinants of the social world and examples of more balanced human/environment relations. Both geographers believed that this knowledge would provoke critiques of social inequality and the abuse of nature that would result in the creation of people who were more active, responsible agents in their own liberation. Reclus devotes considerable attention in his six volume work, L'Homme et la Terre (1905–08), to analyses of the effects of the human exploitation of nature and examples of how resources can be used to promote social well being. Establishing the basis of a contemporary radical theory of social ecology, both geographers believed that imbalances in nature reflected imbalances in human relationships and suggested that people base their use of the natural world on a respect for, and understanding of, its key properties. Kropotkin and Reclus assumed that sustainable human/environment relations could only be initiated through social transformation and fundamental changes in human values that would promote the demise of capitalism, racism, the modern State, gender inequities, and other forms of social hierarchy. They perceived that these changes would then be supported by a progressive sense of place, greater human interaction, and the centrality of love. While Kropotkin tried to develop a basis for higher moral standards from the natural world, Reclus assumed that moral development would come from the growing scope of our knowledge and attachment to key life systems.

As students of the natural world, Reclus and Kropotkin found unity and progress in diversity. They believed that people would derive their understanding of both progressive and flawed social relationships from the active and deliberate exploration of their communities at the ground level. Some of their initial ideas about the power of particular kinds of egalitarian social and human/environment relationships were based on their observations of life among the Swiss Jura watchmakers in the late nineteenth-century who overcame many social and environmental obstacles to progress through complex cooperative social and spatial networks. Kropotkin also developed his concept of 'mutual aid', in part, as a reaction against the rise of Social Darwinism in the 1890s, which argued for the importance of competition over cooperation in human relations. Using counter examples drawn from the natural and social world to establish the basis for a moral standard, he hoped to support cooperative impulses and encourage people to replace freedom blocking institutions with those that support collaborative work. Much of this basis for a theory of social ecology and municipal democracy was taken up in the late twentieth century and developed further by anarcho feminist ecologists and social anarchist Murray Bookchin.

Decentralism: The sociology and geography of anarchism

Kropotkin also believed that certain kinds of human–environment relations and social and spatial modes of interaction were more conducive to development of the human potential. Decentralism is the revolutionary social anarchist philosophy and socio spatial form of organization that he believed would comprise the foundation of a new cooperative anarchist mode of living. These ideas are developed in several pieces of writing, much of which is considered prophetic in its anticipation of contemporary problems of food security and critiques of largescale enterprise, the dehumanization of work, and the lack of imagination in learning. Kropotkin's version of 'decentralism' envisions a multitude of associations federated for the purposes of trade and production, intellectual, and artistic exchange, as well as communal villages and urban neighborhoods federated across geographic and thematic boundaries for the purposes of distribution, consumption, and innovation.

Both Reclus and Kropotkin anchored their ideas for communal decentralism not in fanciful utopias but in direct human observation, scientific analysis, and experimentation with new social and spatial forms of living. They also encouraged people to engage in active, participatory experiential learning from a young age, believing that this approach to education would capitalize on the natural imagination and curiosity of young people and encourage a critical examination and analysis of both the past and the present. These ideas were best articulated in a moving plea for social relevance in education entitled 'What geography ought to be', written by Kropotkin in 1885. Here, he describes the importance of building on the passions and natural curiosities of children to want to know about different people and places. He also suggests a potential role for geography as a discipline to redirect its prior support for imperialist ventures toward helping to dissipate national rivalries, racial prejudice, and class interests.

Anarchist Decentralism in Spain, 1936–39

Nowhere did the ideas generated by Kropotkin and Reclus about a communal space economy have more extensive application than in Spain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when anarchism emerged as a strong revolutionary movement. When Franco and his fascist generals attacked the newly elected Republic in July 1936, thousands of industrial workers and peasants responded with militias and also with a massive collectivization of land, factories, transportation systems, and public services. Collectivization encompassed more than one half of the total land area of Republican Spain, affecting the lives of nearly eight million people. Large cities like Barcelona were transformed into federations of neighborhoods, while in many parts of the Republican held countryside, new irrigation systems and well organized federations of communes allowed peasants to bring new land under cultivation, expanding and diversifying production. Social landscapes accommodated new educational, cultural, and health facilities. Massive regional exchange networks formed by federations of collectives starting at the local level and working their way up to districts and provinces, linked cities with the countryside for the purposes of distribution and consumption, extending transportation and health services into areas that had never been serviced before. A revo lution, which began by creating more communal and egalitarian relationships among people, resulted in the creation of highly efficient and environmentally sensitive new spatial formations.

None of these developments would have taken place without decades of preparation for self management and the elaborate organizing strategies used by anarchosyndicalist trade unions that acknowledged the importance to workers and peasants of an affiliation based on both trade and locale (pueblo). These tactics encouraged people operating under extremely oppressive conditions, to become critical observers and analysts of the economic system under which they labored and the political structures that secured inequality and unequal divisions of power. Strikes and pueblo seizures, however temporary, also provided the space and opportunity for Spanish workers to experiment with many alternative communal forms of workplace and community management. It is possible to trace many efforts to decentralize economic and social space, and create whole new communal systems of regional communication and exchange, directly to the writings of Kropotkin and the ideas spread by the travel of Elisee Reclus and his brother Elie in Spain prior to the start of the Spanish Civil War and social revolution in 1936. Decentralist practices similar to these have emerged more recently in Argentina, in the struggles of the Zapatistas in Mexico, and in contemporary antiglobalization struggles.

The Early Influence of Social Anarchism on Land-Use Planners

Anarchist theories of social ecology and decentralism developed by geographers Kropotkin and Reclus have also influenced many practitioners and theorists in the spatial disciplines who sought solutions to a variety of social problems partly through environmental planning. For example, it is claimed that his close reading of Kropotkin, heavily influenced the more communal residential forms and innovative ideas for linking agriculture and industry, found in Ebenezer Howard's early and more radical formulation of the Garden City alternative.

Paul Goodman and his architect brother, Percival, also drew heavily on Kropotkin's decentralist concepts and examined their implications for planning in their groundbreaking book, Communitas : Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life (1947). Here, they decried the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy and social engineering while demonstrating through hypothetical community planning scenarios, how built environments could display and reinforce differing social priorities from efficiency to communality. Encouraging people to reject externally imposed designs for living, the Goodmans echoed Kropotkin's call for people to transform themselves into active change agents and to decentralize decision making in planning wherever and whenever possible.

Patrick Geddes, a prominent Scottish biologist and town planner, also drew heavily upon social anarchist philosophy and Kropotkin's concept of decentralism in the promotion of participatory, experiential education, and urban regional development. To encourage responsible citizenship, Geddes devised and built the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh to promote active environmental exploration of the social networks and the physical environment of the city by ordinary citizens. Drawing on the ideas of Kropotkin and Reclus, he sought to awaken students' imaginations by moving them beyond book study into the field as the site for active inquiry based learning. The Outlook Tower became the hub of these activities and the repository of visual findings. With a camera obscura on the roof, the building was open to all, and encouraged shared insights and accumulated knowledge.

In the 1970s, British architect and anarchist, Colin Ward, founder of Freedom Press and former Director of Education for the Town and Country Planning Association, reinvented this concept of a place to train young explorers in participatory design and planning in the many Urban Studies Centres he inspired throughout the UK. He also wrote several books on how to encourage young people and adults to become actively involved in their cities and towns. Ward reissued an edited and updated version of Kropotkin's Fields, Factories and Workshops in the 1970s and wrote extensively on dweller control of housing, squatting, and numerous efforts to reclaim space in the city and countryside for the purposes of survival and free public use. In the years since, he has continued to advocate for open minded, flexible planning and extensive resident involvement in housing.

In addition to those traditions that emphasize social planning, it is important to recognize other aspects of anarchist philosophy promoted in the 1950s and the 1960s by groups such as the avant-garde Situationist Internationale, whose philosophies influenced the worker and student riots in France in May 1968. The Situationists, and particularly the writings of Guy Debord, demonstrate how the urban environment and everyday sensory experience are conditioned by the 'society of the spectacle', driven by the ethos of commodified capitalism and the need to sell both products and lifestyles. Part of their revolutionary response was to utilize the techniques of psychogeography such as the 'derive' (unplanned drifting through the city to awaken real desire) and 'detournement' (an artistic technique to subversively reappropriate space through the transformation of messages found on such artifacts as billboards). These tactics were meant to contest the passivity of the spectacle, break the hold of commodities, and create terrains of resistance. Hakim Bey's promotion of temporary autonomous zones (TAZs) as sites of free expression and the encouragement of imaginative and experimental short term uses of space is a more recent manifestation of this approach.