Book review: Mutual Aid, by Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin was a geographer, activist and splendidly bearded anarcho-communist philosopher. Born into the Russian aristocracy in 1842, he spent his life advocating a decentralised form of self-government that put him at odds with the tsarists and then with the communists that followed the revolution. He was jailed for his activism, but escaped into exile in Britain and then Switzerland. It was there that he wrote most of his books, including this one, the frequently cited but less frequently read Mutual Aid.

Mutual Aid is a treatise on cooperation. At the time of its publication in 1902, social darwinism was on the rise, taking Darwin’s theory of evolution and applying it to society. It provided a convenient scientific legitimacy to competitive capitalism. If nature runs of principles on survival of the fittest and winner-takes-all, then it’s natural that society would work that way and futile to resist it. In would be ‘unnatural’ to suggest anything different.

Kropotkin sets out to correct the social Darwinists by showing that cooperation runs all through nature, and all is found in all human societies from the earliest recorded history. Mutual aid is a factor of evolution too, and cooperation for shared flourishing is just as important as any individual struggle for survival.

The first chapter looks for examples of cooperation among animals, and lines up a huge range of examples. There are tiny ones in bees, ants and termites. We see it in rats, in bird migrations, in the hunting behaviour of wild dogs. The herding instincts of deer and and wild horses show cooperation, right up to the largest example of the elephants. Though there is obviously conflict in nature, many animals survive by actively avoiding competition. Herds will relocate. Beaver ‘villages’ will grow and then divide, avoiding overcrowding by planting a new community in another section of the river.

Moving on to people, the book looks at cooperation in early human societies and tribes that still live close to the land in the Kalahari, Papua New Guinea or the Arctic circle. “Unbridled individualism is a modern growth” argues Kropotkin, “but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind.”

It’s here that the book becomes a tougher read, as it’s very much of its time. However admiring he may be of some of their practices, there’s a deep vein of cultural superiority in Kropotkin’s writing. The chapter on indigenous cultures, many of which are still with us today, is called ‘mutual aid among savages’. Having dealt with the ‘filthy primitives’, the next chapter is called ‘mutual aid among barbarians’. It deals with historical examples from the Saxons, Franks and Vandals, and also with cultures that the author considers to be at the same stage of development, mainly Arabs.

It’s not fair to judge a work of literature by the standards of one’s own time, but it does make it difficult to apply the lessons from the book. There’s no such thing as an objective anthropological insight, but such a clear hierarchy of humanity is going to make all of these observations biased and dubious, and these chapters need to be read with a pinch of salt.

Mutual Aid is on firmer ground the closer it gets to the author’s own era. There are useful examples from medieval guilds, and how deferring to centralised state governments eroded local cooperation – to the benefit of the ruling elite. Nevertheless, people continue to work together, and Kropotkin brings the book up to date for his own time with Swiss commons, peasant farming syndicates, lifeboat associations, charities, scientific organisations and many more. Among my favourites were the Brotherhood of Paddlers and the Unity of Oddfellows. (The latter is still going, and you can join it.)

While not exactly easy to recommend, Mutual Aid makes its point that cooperation has always run alongside competition as a factor in both evolution and in society. To say otherwise is a corruption of science and a power play, and as I’ve written before, it’s a message we still need to hear.

The book is also rather useful in describing how mutual aid can be quashed by government or by religion, undermining people’s natural inclinations to work together and promoting our equally natural inclination to squabble and compete. Social structures can encourage our better instincts or exploit our worst. Modern consumer capitalism does the latter, constantly inviting individual competition as a drive for profit.

For a contemporary take on that problem and how we could foster a politics of cooperation and belonging instead, see George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage. You could also try Eric Kleinenberg’s work on public space, Palaces for the People, or Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons.

  • You can pick up Mutual Aid from Hive, Amazon UK or Amazon US, and I suspect you can get a free ebook from somewhere too if you look for it.

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