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Letters from Benjamin Seebohm-Rowntree to Piotr Kropotkin: 1901-1917

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

A black and white photograph of Benjamin-Seebohm Rowntree in a suit with his arms folded
Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree by Walter Stoneman bromide print, 1931 NPG x185049 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Archive: State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)

Reference: Fond 1129 Opisi 2 Entries 2082 and 2179

Date Range: January 28, 1901 - April 11, 1917

Number of sheets: 57

Number of letters: 47

Unfortunately letters from Kropotkin to Rowntree have almost completely been destroyed by the latter, who destroyed much of his private correspondence, so we only get one side of the discussion (Rowntree’s contributions) which I detail below. There are two entries of his correspondence at GARF with one under his name (2082) and the other (2179) under 'BS Ro...'. I have viewed the latter and confirmed they are both entirely from Rowntree or on one occasion his secretary.

As you can see from the above information Rowntree and Kropotkin had a very lengthy correspondence spanning 16 years but focused mostly between 1901 and 1912. Rowntree was introduced to Kropotkin by John A. Hobson in 1901 and initially their conversation centred around Rowntree’s interest in remedying the poverty he had observed in his home city of York and written about in his Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901). He saw potential in the reforms (especially those focused around agriculture) Kropotkin proposed in his Fields, Factories and Workshops (1899). Over the next few years they corresponded frequently about current debates in agricultural reform and Rowntree endeavoured to distribute Kropotkin’s ideas more widely - including a republishing of Fields, Factories and Workshops, which the two discussed at great length. These endeavours brought both into heavy contact with the literary agent and journalist G.H. Perris. Rowntree and Kropotkin also met in York and London occasionally throughout the years of their correspondence but more frequently at the beginning. Kropotkin also introduced Rowntree to individuals who could instruct him about agricultural policy in mainland Europe - something that would prove useful for the Englishman’s later book Land and Labour, Lessons from Belgium (1910).

Their earlier discussions about the British publishing industry continued as from 1906 Rowntree advised Kropotkin at length about the republishing of his Memoirs of a Revolutionist (first published as a book in 1899). This brought them into contact with the literary agent Charles Francis Cazenove. In 1906 Rowntree wrote to express his deep concern that his friend Kropotkin was considering a return to Russia. In this letter he also highlighted how important his presence in Britain was as a prominent critic of the Russian government. In 1907 when the newspaper the Nation was founded/renamed under new ownership by the Rowntree family he stressed his desire for Kropotkin to contribute - a request he would repeat in 1909 also. Around this time they also discussed the British campaign against the Russian government (of which Rowntree was a supporter), the 1910 election, Liberal social reforms (including potentially the 1911 National Insurance Act), Kropotkin’s recuperative holidays in Italy, agriculture and strong sales of the new edition of Fields, Factories and Workshops. They also contemplated publishing strategies going forward (focused on distribution rather than profit) and a plan for meeting each other in Italy while both were staying there in 1911 (a meeting that would include writer Bruno Lasker and both men’s wives).

In 1912 when Rowntree was very close to the Liberal government in Britain (his friend and future prime minister David Lloyd George being Chancellor of the Exchequer) and in charge of a well-funded governmental investigation into British agriculture he asked Kropotkin for advice and any additional work not included in Fields Factories and Workshops. He also asked about the new edition of this book (later published in 1913) and if it included any more information about English agriculture. After 1912 they corresponded less often - possibly owing to Rowntree’s heavy involvement in Liberal social policy before and during World War One when he worked in the Ministry of Munitions. But during this period they continued to discuss Kropotkin’s work - specifically his article Modern Science and Anarchism, articles on Direct Action of Environment in Evolution and his eventually posthumously published book on Ethics. In his last letter, dated 11th April 1917, Rowntree is joyous at the news of the first 1917 revolution in Russia and Kropotkin’s plans to return to his homeland. He apologises for rarely visiting Kropotkin in Brighton but claims 'my thoughts have often been with you' and hopes that the aging anarchist has enough years left 'to help guide the progressive movement in Russia.' The letter ends ‘Your many friends will miss you. Nevertheless they know you go home to do the work you have wanted to do your whole life!’

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