Sunday, 9 August 2009

Kropotkin, allotments and new food policy

It is National allotment week and the Independent today has done a two page spread. They also carry the story that Hilary Benn is going to announce a new food policy tomorrow which will put much greater emphasis on Britain being more self sufficient in food. This is in the context of the expanding demand from the BRIC economies who it is supposed will attract a large proportion of the worlds food production to satisfy their growing middle class.

Not since the Dig for Victory campaign in the Second World War has Britain even approached self sufficiency-and for all the fashionable folk turning to allotments few would imagine that a significant contribution will come from the grow your own section.

Liberal campaigns at the turn of the C19/C20 for allotments and the belief that 'one acre and a cow' would guarantee Independence and self sufficiency are distant. Much of allotment legislation does still rely on the work of the 1906 parliament but those using its provisions to get allotments today do so as a leisure pursuit not as a way of feeding their families.

Enter Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin greatly influenced progressive Liberals and those around the Rainbow Circle. L.T. Hobhouse and J.A. Hobson the key thinkers of the New Liberalism were particulary impressed with his writings. The Journal of Liberal History Issue 55 carries an article by Alison Holmes illustrating this point. She writes:

'Prince Peter Kropotkin is particularly interesting in this
context because, although not often mentioned, he was a significant
influence on Hobhouse and Hobson as well as on other
socialists at the time. .........He
engaged with social Darwinism, or at least its popularised
version, by refuting the premise of ‘all against all’ and
making a detailed biological argument for the survival of the
species, not of individuals. His theories of ‘mutualism’ and
‘mutual aid’ provided a new view of the community crucial to
the New Liberalism a kind of halfway
house between the traditional Liberal night-watchman state
and state control. However, they also put Kropotkin fundamentally
at odds not only with Spencer and Darwin but with the Fabians,
who were focused on a much more rational or mechanical
top-down version of society.
This division would continue throughout the century.
Kropotkin created, in effect,an early type of communitarianism,
a term coined in 1841. ‘Mutualism’ - a term also used by Hobhouse – deliberately
placed the individual within the context of the community. His
ideas were based on his belief that each individual understands
and respects their links with the larger whole.

Later generation of Liberals took up Kropotkin. The Red Guard Young Liberals published a poster with-allegedly-a quote from Kropotkin's pamphlet 'Appeal to the Young' on it. Five or six years later I was putting together a series of pamphlets that the Young Liberals published in 1974 and chose 'Appeal to the Young' as one of them ( I noticed that a copy appeared on Ebay for sale recently) Sadly the quote from the poster doesn't actually appear in the essay!

For our generation it was not only Kropotkin's ideas around 'Mutual Aid' that we found attractive but his 'green' ideas especially in his book 'Factory Fields and Workshops'. This publication did impact on Liberals at the times especially those like Howard developing the idea of 'garden suburbs'. The book was republished in 1974 with a commentary by Colin Ward. In the book-and this is where we get back to allotments-Kropotkin argued that if food production was small scale 'allotment-like' then the level of production would dramatically expand. His ideas influenced Gandhi and Tolstoy as well as the Dig for Victory campaign.