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Our selections come from Chapters 2 and 3 of Peter Kropotkin's 1902 Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Home > Philosophy > Texts > Social & Political Philosophy > Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”

Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”

Peter Kropotkin (circa 1900)

Peter Kropotkin (circa 1900)

Mutual Aid

Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin (December 9, 1842 – February 8, 1921) was a Russian philosophical anarchist. Kropotkin argues that whereas evolution is often understood as a fundamentally competition-dependent process, the reality is that competition is not even the prefered mechanism of selection — cooperation is.

*“One of the most frequent modes in which Natural Selection acts is, by adapting some individuals of a species to a somewhat different mode of life, whereby they are able to seize unappropriated places in Nature” (Origin of Species, p. 145) – in other words, to avoid competition.

Happily enough, competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods, and natural selection finds better fields for its activity. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual Support.* In the great struggle for life – for the greatest possible fulness and intensity of life with the least waste of energy – natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible. The ants combine in nests and nations; they pile up their stores, they rear their cattle – and thus avoid competition; and natural selection picks out of the ants’ family the species which know best how to avoid competition, with its unavoidably deleterious consequences. Most of our birds slowly move southwards as the winter comes, or gather in numberless societies and undertake long journeys – and thus avoid competition. Many rodents fall asleep when the time comes that competition should set in; while other rodents store food for the winter, and gather in large villages for obtaining the necessary protection when at work. The reindeer, when the lichens are dry in the interior of the continent, migrate towards the sea. Buffaloes cross an immense continent in order to find plenty of food. And the beavers, when they grow numerous on a river, divide into two parties, and go, the old ones down the river, and the young ones up the river and avoid competition. And when animals can neither fall asleep, nor migrate, nor lay in stores, nor themselves grow their food like the ants, they do what the titmouse does, and what Wallace (Darwinism, ch. v) has so charmingly described: they resort to new kinds of food – and thus, again, avoid competition.

“Don’t compete! – competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!” That is the tendency of nature, not always realized in full, but always present. That is the watchword which comes to us from the bush, the forest, the river, the ocean. “Therefore combine – practise mutual aid! That is the surest means for giving to each and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual, and moral.” That is what Nature teaches us; and that is what all those animals which have attained the highest position in their respective classes have done. That is also what man – the most primitive man – has been doing; and that is why man has reached the position upon which we stand now….

Is this passage in conflict with Kropotkin’s claim that cooperation is the tendency?

Though a good deal of warfare goes on between different classes of animals, or different species, or even different tribes of the same species, peace and mutual support are the rule within the tribe or the species; and that those species which best know how to combine, and to avoid competition, have the best chances of survival and of a further progressive development. They prosper, while the unsociable species decay.

Contra Hobbes

It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenceless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species. To a mind accustomed to the idea of unity in nature, such a proposition appears utterly indefensible. And yet, improbable and unphilosophical as it is, it has never found a lack of supporters. There always were writers who took a pessimistic view of mankind. They knew it, more or less superficially, through their own limited experience; they knew of history what the annalists, always watchful of wars, cruelty, and oppression, told of it, and little more besides; and they concluded that mankind is nothing but a loose aggregation of beings, always ready to fight with each other, and only prevented from so doing by the intervention of some authority.

Hobbes took that position; and while some of his eighteenth-century followers endeavoured to prove that at no epoch of its existence – not even in its most primitive condition – mankind lived in a state of perpetual warfare; that men have been sociable even in “the state of nature,” and that want of knowledge, rather than the natural bad inclinations of man, brought humanity to all the horrors of its early historical life, – his idea was, on the contrary, that the so-called “state of nature” was nothing but a permanent fight between individuals, accidentally huddled together by the mere caprice of their bestial existence. True, that science has made some progress since Hobbes’s time, and that we have safer ground to stand upon than the speculations of Hobbes or Rousseau. But the Hobbesian philosophy has plenty of admirers still; and we have had of late quite a school of writers who, taking possession of Darwin’s terminology rather than of his leading ideas, made of it an argument in favour of Hobbes’s views upon primitive man, and even succeeded in giving them a scientific appearance. Huxley, as is known, took the lead of that school, and in a paper written in 1888 he represented primitive men as a sort of tigers or lions, deprived of all ethical conceptions, fighting out the struggle for existence to its bitter end, and living a life of “continual free fight"; to quote his own words – “beyond the limited and, temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence" (Nineteenth Century, February 1888, p. 165).

It has been remarked more than once that the chief error of Hobbes, and the eighteenth-century philosophers as well, was to imagine that mankind began its life in the shape of small straggling families, something like the “limited and temporary” families of the bigger carnivores, while in reality it is now positively known that such was not the case. Of course, we have no direct evidence as to the modes of life of the first man-like beings. We are not yet settled even as to the time of their first appearance, geologists being inclined at present to see their traces in the pliocene, or even the miocene, deposits of the Tertiary period. But we have the indirect method which permits us to throw some light even upon that remote antiquity. A most careful investigation into the social institutions of the lowest races has been carried on during the last forty years, and it has revealed among the present institutions of primitive folk some traces of still older institutions which have long disappeared, but nevertheless left unmistakable traces of their previous existence. A whole science devoted to the embryology of human institutions has thus developed in the hands of Bachofen, MacLennan, Morgan, Edwin Tylor, Maine, Post, Kovalevsky, Lubbock, and many others. And that science has established beyond any doubt that mankind did not begin its life in the shape of small isolated families.

“One of the most frequent modes in which Natural Selection acts is, by adapting some individuals of a species to a somewhat different mode of life, whereby they are able to seize unappropriated places in Nature” (Origin of Species, p. 145) – in other words, to avoid competition.

Far from being a primitive form of organization, the family is a very late product of human evolution. As far as we can go back in the palæo-ethnology of mankind, we find men living in societies – in tribes similar to those of the highest mammals; and an extremely slow and long evolution was required to bring these societies to the gentile, or clan organization, which, in its turn, had to undergo another, also very long evolution, before the first germs of family, polygamous or monogamous, could appear. Societies, bands, or tribes – not families – were thus the primitive form of organization of mankind and its earliest ancestors. That is what ethnology has come to after its painstaking researches. And in so doing it simply came to what might have been foreseen by the zoologist. None of the higher mammals, save a few carnivores and a few undoubtedly-decaying species of apes (orangoutans and gorillas), live in small families, isolatedly straggling in the woods. All others live in societies. And Darwin so well understood that isolately-living apes never could have developed into man-like beings, that he was inclined to consider man as descended from some comparatively weak but social species, like the chimpanzee, rather than from some stronger but unsociable species, like the gorilla (The Descent of Man, end of ch. ii. pp. 63 and 64 of the 2nd edition). Zoology and palaeo-ethnology are thus agreed in considering that the band, not the family, was the earliest form of social life. The first human societies simply were a further development of those societies which constitute the very essence of life of the higher animals.

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