A recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time featured a discussion on the Russian anarchist Peter Alekseevich Kropotkin. The focus was not primarily on his political advocacy, rather it was his book Mutual Aid: a factor of evolution that was the object of consideration.
Published a couple of years before the Socialist Party of Great Britain was founded, it is an examination of the role cooperation and mutuality has played in evolution. There was an aggressive strain of Darwinism, personified by Darwin’s bulldog, T.H. Huxley, which emphasised the war of all against all as the motive force behind natural selection.
This view has often been deployed as justification for capitalism being the expression of self-interest as the prime motivation of human economic, political and social relations. It has been a persistent theme, running from Hobbes’s Leviathan, that seemed to draw biological justification from Darwin’s work.
In common parlance, this thinking is often expressed as socialism being a nice idea, but against human nature. If evolution depends on natural selection being driven only by self-regarding motives, then socialists are setting themselves against nature.
Kropotkin however, along with many, many others internationally, insisted that it was this brutalist view that disregarded the actuality of nature. Rather than begin by justifying human potential for cooperation, which might have been regarded as a plea for human exceptionalism, his approach was to examine nature more broadly to see if there was evidence of mutuality being fundamental.
His was no sentimental view of nature, as is demonstrated in the opening lines of the Introduction. ‘Two aspects of animal life impressed me most… One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies’.
This is the antithesis of unbridled idealism, a realistic view based on his own extensive travels, experience and observation. The second aspect arising from his observations is telling:
‘…even in those spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find – although I was eagerly looking for it – that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists… as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.’
Then, chapter by chapter, he goes on to demonstrate how it is mutuality amongst animals of the same species that is the primary, and crucial, factor in survival and evolution. He begins with invertebrates and progresses through ants, bees, birds to mammals.
On reaching humans he presents what evidence there is that cooperation in the Palaeolithic period was a necessity for survival in a hostile world, continuing to be so in both the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. Primitive communism was not some fancy of Marx and Engels.
He goes on to trace this important feature of human life as it expressed itself, often in adverse political situations, from pre-history into history itself, into the medieval free cities and guilds. He cites examples of insurgent warriors taking land by force who eventually swapped spears for spades and operated cooperative farming communities.
Even in the 19th century he found expressions of mutuality in village communities and the nascent labour movement, although it is through the 19th century and the rise of industrial capitalism that private property became predominant and protected by the state. The mutual gave way to the individual.
While Mutual Aid is an anarchist constructing a scientific basis for communism rather than the historical materialism of Marx, the two approaches are surely not exclusive. Marx gives an understanding of how we arrived at the society we have and identifies the mechanism for change, the conscious action of the working class acting on its own behalf. The object being the establishment of a worldwide socialist system based on meeting need not profit. The question as to its viability will undoubtedly continue to be raised until socialism is actually realised.
Kropotkin indicates that rather than being alien to nature, biology demonstrates the contrary. Modern research and observation has found cooperation to be fundamental in nature. Plants provide each other with nutrients, fish groom each other for parasites, ants work together to build nests, bees sacrifice their lives for the good of the hive and predators hunt in packs.
Evolution requires groups of organisms to act together for mutual benefit. In 2016, research using a new conceptual evolutionary model at Tomsk State University was published. Competition and the struggle for existence were found not to be the main drivers of evolution. Rather, the avoidance of competition is important (bit.ly/3xkTOK9).
So, Kropotkin is vindicated by research in the land of his birth, as well as research more widely throughout the world. His own book refers to many researchers and observers from a plethora of nationalities, just as he draws evidence from every continent. By doing so he not only makes the case for mutuality, but also demonstrates human progress to be a global phenomenon, as socialism, as the practical realisation of mutuality, must be.
This book review might seem to be 120 years late, but not so. There is an abiding interest in the premise of Kropotkin’s argument and it continues to have a resonance for those advocating a radical alternative to capitalism.
Eighty years after Mutual Aid was published Stephen Jay Gould’s essay (1988), Kropotkin Was No Crackpot (marxists.org/subject/science/essays/kropotkin.htm) examines the controversy around the meaning for society of Darwinism at the turn of the Twentieth century.
Gould expresses how seemingly contradictory positions do not have to be polarised: ‘Reproductive success … works in many modes. Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis and mutual aid may also secure success…’
He goes on to outline Kropotkin’s work, setting it in the mainstream of Russian thinking as exemplified by N.I. Danilevsky whose expertise in both population dynamics and fisheries led him to critique Darwinism as ‘…the credo of a distinctly British ‘national type’ as contrasted with old Slavic values of collectivism.’ The ‘national type’ he referred to was the line of thought running from Hobbes through Adam Smith to Thomas Malthus, the developing philosophy of capitalism.
In September 2021, to mark the centenary year of his death, PM Press/Kairos published a new edition of Mutual Aid with a new Forward, Introduction, Afterword and Postscript. Some of the terminology is anachronistic – references to savages and red Indians – but it is of its day. When he uses such nomenclature, it is not to disparage, rather to show mutuality to be universal.
Those who would change society need to counter assertions rendered as indisputable facts, such as competition is fundamental to human nature. What Mutual Aid demonstrates, along with subsequent biological research showing cooperation at the cellular level is vital for organic development, is that advocacy of a system based on people voluntarily contributing their abilities so all can receive according to their needs is not utopianism, but natural. Mutual aid indeed.