Ruth Kinna: Mutual aid: Kropotkin’s theory of human capacity

Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid remains cogent as ever, demonstrating the capacity for revolutionary change even in the harshest, most repressive environments.

Roar Magazine, February 8, 2021

In March 1889 Peter Kropotkin agreed to give six lectures to William Morris’s Socialist Society in Hammersmith, London. Labeling the series “Social Evolution,” he planned to explore “the grounds” of socialism. As it turned out, he never delivered the talks, but the title and timing, just a year before he published his first essay on mutual aid, hint at the content. He left a bigger clue when he told Morris’s daughter May that he had been working on the series during his recent tour of Scotland. According to local press reports, one of the issues on Kropotkin’s mind was the feasibility of socialism. Perhaps rashly, given that one critic had dismissed his socialism as a futile, dangerous scheme to “reach Arcady through anarchy,” he told an Aberdeen meeting that too many workers attracted to socialism still believed it impractical. The account of social evolution he outlined in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, was a response to this skepticism and it has since become his most celebrated refutation.

The concept of mutual aid is outlined in eight essays. The first, “Mutual Aid Among Animals” was published in 1890 in the journal The Nineteenth Century. By 1896, Kropotkin had completed the others. The resulting book was published in 1902, but Kropotkin continued to develop the concept, notably in Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal (1897), The State: Its Historic Role (1898), and Modern Science and Anarchism (1912). Some 30 years after starting his investigations, he issued his final, incomplete statement, which was posthumously published as, Ethics, Origin and Development (1924).

Each new iteration brought out a different facet of the concept: the repressive character of the modern European state; the impulses driving exemplary behaviors; the basis of moral action; the principle of justice that morality described and, last not least, the structural mechanisms for its acculturation. The common thread tying these strands together was Kropotkin’s view that socialism tapped an innate tendency to co-operate common to all living things. Socialism was neither the utopists’ candy mountain nor the salvationists’ pie in the sky. It was a potential alternative.

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