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Cooperation and mutual aid between animals and between people has shaped the world even more than the struggle for life. According to Peter Kropotkin, it is the crucial principle to give everyone and each other the greatest certainty, the best guarantee of existence and of progress.
Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) is considered the most important anarchist theorist. He renounced a career in the service of the Tsar, published about his interesting geographical investigations in Siberia, but eventually chose to devote his life to propaganda for anarchism and to provide a scientific basis for it.
In Mutual Aid, first published in 1903, Kropotkin applies his geographic investigations in Siberia and his study of animal behavior to a critical examination of evolution. His arguments remarkably anticipate contemporary ecologists’ view that the world of nature is one of cooperation rather than struggle.
In a series of large-scale essays in the magazine The Nineteenth Century Kropotkin elaborated on Darwinism. He opposed the one-sided interpretation of Darwinism that the expression « struggle for existence » (« struggle for life« And » the survival of the fittest « (« survival of the fittestDeliberately explained way too literally. The resulting social Darwinian concepts such as eugenics and racial doctrine labeled Kropotkin as despicable and dangerous, and turned against these interpretations and its spokespersons.
Kropotkin showed that in his lifetime Darwin distanced himself from the « struggle for existence » theory: « The struggle for life excludes a grim war in the bosom of tribes and groups: it cannot be a struggle for individual benefits. It must be a united struggle of the groups against their common enemies and against adverse environmental factors. ”Kropotkin relied on Darwin’s scientific insights when he showed that he had already recognized the significance of social relations in evolution and not the nature in a permanent struggle of all against all.
Kropotkin accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution as a scientific basis for the analysis of human society, but on the one hand he changed the notion of « struggle for existence » and contrasted it with a second, equally important factor of development: mutual aid. He wrote, « He [Darwin] showed how in many animal societies the struggle for livelihoods between individual individuals disappears, how struggle is replaced by cooperation, and how this substitution ultimately leads to the development of spiritual and moral capacities, guaranteeing the species the best chance of survival. He stressed that in such cases the most suitable are neither the physically strongest nor the most cunning, but those who have learned to bond in such a way that they support each other, strong or weak, for the good of the community. (…) Unfortunately, these comments, which could have been the basis of very fruitful research, were eclipsed by the multitudes of facts gathered to illustrate the consequences of a real struggle for existence. «
According to Kropotkin, through mutual aid many species, of which the individual creatures would be defeated in the « struggle for existence », could even survive against others. This social behavior would be the most important « weapon » in the struggle for survival.
Kropotkin linked the development of intellectual capacities to social behavior. For him, sociality is a « main factor of development, both directly, because the improvement of the species is accompanied by the least possible physical exertion, and indirectly, because the development of the mind is favored. » According to Kropotkin, a co- evolution between social behavior and mind takes place. Due to an « increasing sociality, the creation and differentiation of institutions became possible. » Sociality and progress stimulate each other, in the « struggle of all against all » there is no progressive further development. He therefore demanded: « Unite, practice mutual aid! That is the surest means of giving everyone and each other the greatest certainty, the best guarantee of existence and progress, physically, mentally and morally. (…) That is also what man – primitive man – has done, and that is why man has reached the level where we are now. »
According to Kropotkin, there are two basic aspirations of man: sociality and individuality. Working together on social and individual aspirations in human behavior forms the basis for him to explain the zoological question about the relationship between individual and society. For Kropotkin, striving for sociality and individuality are the mutually complementary basic conditions for a libertarian society. Those institutions in the history of humanity that could combine both aspirations well proved to be the best afterwards. Kropotkin pointed to the tendency towards ever larger associations that respond to the pursuit of mutual aid. The group size of the individual subsystems was thereby reduced. This not only enabled the satisfaction of the urge for individuality, but also strengthened the urge for mutual help through closer contact with each other.
The conception of the peaceful, solidarity-based nature of man was based by Kropotkin on the proposition that the principle of mutual aid in man’s natural and social history has played a much greater role than the principle of competition. Mutual aid practiced from the beginning of animal and human society would have become a helpful habit and a natural rule of behavior over time.
Solidarity is a necessary condition for comparison with nature or the hostile environment. Mutual aid has developed in early human societies, the hordes and the tribes. Kropotkin: « The first human societies were only a further development of societies that form the real life element of the higher animals. » Solidarity only had something in common with altruism in exceptional cases, it is a natural phenomenon. The first human societies identified their own existence with the tribe or the horde, which was developed and maintained through the necessities of the « struggle for life. » Only a great deal of mutual aid resulted in a corresponding strength of the tribe or the horde, which considerably alleviates the conflict with nature. Solidarity was expressed mainly in total communal property, in the common search for food, in the equitable distribution of food to one another or in support for the elderly and the sick.
Solidarity is a central factor in the progressive social development. Kropotkin conceived mutual aid as a principle of evolution in natural and social history. In the course of human development, solidarity increased and was one of the most important preconditions for human progress. Kropotkin sought to demonstrate that wherever social progress in the sense of the development of productive forces or the development of science and art occurs, « the constructive genius of the masses in their institutions of mutual aid » was the basis for this progress. Kropotkin attributed a strong dynamic to human social drive, which would be able to overcome antisocial social relations. From this he developed a tireless optimism in social progress.
Kropotkin considered the factor of development « mutual aid as an instrument of progress », that is, the social realization of the principle of solidarity and mutual aid meant progress for Kropotkin. He defined progress as a form of social life that « ensures a particular society and, above all, humanity the greatest happiness. » Kropotkin was convinced that humanity was on the path of this progress, which will ultimately lead to the total liberation of the individual people. In the ideal of anarchist communism he sees the realization of progress.
He understood man as a moral being: « Since man does not live alone, feelings and useful habits develop in him to maintain society and to multiply its species. Without these social feelings, without solidarity, common life would be impossible, unimaginable. « Without reason, self-respect, compassion and mutual aid, » the species would decay. Since man is a community, the freedom of the individual for Kropotkin can only be a freedom connected with other people, a collective idea and freedom founded on the equality of all.
In his historical analysis of the history of humanity, he sees time and time again forms of mutual aid appearing: in the prehistoric horde, in the village communities, in the guilds in the medieval cities and in the extra-state associations in the new age.
– Today we see how mutual aid is resurfacing and taking on thousands of guises: from neighborhood committees, food distributions and cooperatives to free health care, education or public transportation from the bottom up. We see it in the countless people who work for others in the fight against the virus. That is the best guarantee for a liveable world.
* This article is a brief summary of the relevant chapter from Michael Lausberg, « Anarchist Communism. Peter Kropotkin’s Philosophy, Utrecht: Basement Publishing House, 2019. In 2013 a reprint of Peter Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’ was published by the same publishing house. (www.kelderuitgeverij.nl)