- The Time Travellers:Alfred Russel Wallace and Peter Kropotkin
Alfred Russel Wallace and Peter Kropotkin both enjoyed enormous reputations that were built in the nineteenth century and steadily shrank during the twentieth. Each was eclipsed during the twentieth century by a counterpart who was in some respects a rival and in others a comrade: Charles Darwin for Wallace, Karl Marx for Kropotkin. In each case, Wallace and Kropotkin were not simply overshadowed but quite specifically ridiculed and for much the same reason: the gentleness and the sentimentality of their biopolitical1 vision. I will examine here why it is that Wallace and Kropotkin have now “time travelled,” both seeming to be nineteenth-century figures surprisingly fitted for the early twenty-first century in the same measure that they were elbowed out of the twentieth.
The fond and bemused manner of Wallace’s and Kropotkin’s relegation—the way critics have acknowledged the admirable aspects of their minds and lives while simultaneously dismissing them as unserious—is familiar and evocative in its gendered stereotypy, for all that it divides one pair of gloriously bearded Victorian gentlemen from another such duo of hirsute patriarchs. The favourable re-evaluation of Wallace and Kropotkin over the last decade or so is correlated with the impact of feminism on both politics and scholarship. In the present essay, I draw upon feminist literary analyses of the rise and fall of sentimental literature (often written by and for women) across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, using these to illuminate the pervasiveness and force of the divide that separated Wallace from Darwin and Kropotkin from Marx during the twentieth century. In so doing, I hope to persuade the reader of the gendered nature of the divergent posthumous fates of each pair in this quartet of bewhiskered old beans. Understanding this divide helps to explain why their relative positional supremacy is currently under revision.
A political and scientific conversation began during the nineteenth century in which only some of the parties seemed to continue speaking during much of the twentieth. Now in the twenty-first, however, a sort of belated rejoinder is crossing the threshold of societal and scientific audibility. Despite enjoying simultaneous popular, scholarly, and scientific influence in the nineteenth and into the first years of the twentieth century, by the end of [End Page 133] the twentieth century, both Wallace and Kropotkin were characterized as well-meaning but misguided eminences whose contributions to science and politics were marred by a moony faith in the benignity of the ultimate order of things, which could not be credibly sustained in the face of the manifest scientific and political evidence accrued in the years since their deaths (1913 for Wallace, 1921 for Kropotkin). Darwin and Marx, though rather older and thus sooner dead (1882 and 1883, respectively) emerged as the real visionaries: hard and serious analysts, each with a keen eye for the cheerless practical and utilitarian facts underlying life in its strictly biological and its complex social manifestations.
That these characterizations map so neatly onto gender stereotypes cannot but excite a certain disquieted awareness on the part of anyone with any bent toward feminism, and my own twig certainly inclines thus. But, on their own, they do not suggest anything about the vector of causality. I will argue here that Kropotkin and Wallace ended up sidelined for so many years because their analyses invoked dynamics coded as feminine and thus were dismissed (scientific and political merit very much aside) as unserious. However, in the absence of other kinds of evidence, it would be equally possible to posit that Wallace and Kropotkin lost on the scientific and political merits and then, as losers, were coded as feminine because of the sexism of the larger social context. I will argue that the second causal chain is wrong in this case, though to argue for it could also produce a feminist analysis. I belabour this point because it is often supposed that the deployment of a feminist intellectual apparatus means only certain kinds of causal relationships will be entertained. This supposition is not true, and its falsity is relevant to questions in the sociology of science that...