Black Flag Review of “Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation”

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“Iain McKay’s excellent, readable, and very thorough pamphlet helps put Kropotkin and Mutual Aid into proper context . . . grab yourself a copy of this extended introduction and evaluation.” (Paul Petard, Black Flag No. 233)

Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation

Iain McKay, AK Press, 2010, £3


This extended essay, published in pamphlet form by AK Press, is based on research Iain McKay did for the new Freedom Press edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. It deals not only with Kropotkin’s work but on issues in science writing in general, and encompasses Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and Matt Ridley among many others.

Mutual Aid is probably Kropotkin’s most famous work. As McKay points out in his essay, although it is often thought of as an anarchist classic, Mutual Aid is strictly speaking not about anarchism. It is more a book of popular science aimed at rebutting the misuse of evolutionary theory, in particularly Huxley’s interpretation of Darwinism, to justify the economic-liberal status quo. But McKay explains: “Its synthesis of zoological, anthropological, historical and sociological data achieved far more and, consequently, its influence is great”. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu dedicated his book Darwin, Competition and Co-operation, to Kropotkin, stating that “no book in the whole realm of evolutionary theories is more readable or more important, for it is Mutual Aid which provides the first thoroughly documented demonstration of the importance of co-operation as a factor in evolution.”

Nonetheless the way the book looks at bottom-up mutual aid tendencies of everyday life, rooted in popular history, is inherently libertarian. McKay discusses the work in the context of Kropotkin’s revolutionary ideas, looks at its influences, and also evaluates how well it has survived scientific advances. He also proceeds to discuss and debunk various myths that have grown up around the book.

Kropotkin was one of the few socialist thinkers who was also a gifted trained scientist, a naturalist of some renown with a specialised interest in geology. In the 1860’s, while in the Russian military, he played a leading role in a number of important geographical survey expeditions in Siberia and north Manchuria. Later he became the secretary of the physical geography section of the Russian Geographical Society. He contributed most of the Russian geographical articles to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for example. His scientific method can be detected in all his work, but, as McKay shows, it is most obvious in Mutual Aid.

McKay gives an account of how the articles Mutual Aid was based on were written as a specific response to Thomas Henry Huxley’s “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society.” Huxley’s article was written in 1888 and published in the journal The Nineteenth Century. Kropotkin’s replies appeared in the same journal between 1890 and 1896, and were expanded to form Mutual Aid in 1902.

To be fair, McKay points out that Huxley was not actually in favour of a “social Darwinist” position of unrestrained competition between human individuals that his name has come to be associated with. He actually favoured a significant amount of intervention to restrain competition, but intervention by the state.

Huxley’s basic argument was that human society and “civilisation” needed to be maintained artificially against our natural instincts. For Huxley, until the restraints of civilised society and the liberal state were contrived and imposed over us then; “the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence.”

Taking a scientific approach, rather than an idealistic or moralistic one, Kropotkin in Mutual Aid set out to demonstrate that Huxley’s view was in direct contradiction to the facts of both nature and history.

In a section entitled “Science and the Dominant Culture”, McKay looks at some of the background to pseudo-scientific “theories” used to justify and defend various interests of the ruling class, whether landlord or industrialist, from Malthus onwards. These theories claimed to prove the status quo was just a “law of nature” or that poverty was just the fault of the poor, and so on. Some of these theories were conscious attempts to counter the influence of radical social reformers like William Godwin, and combat ideas of liberty and equality encouraged by the American and French revolutions. 19th century capitalists like John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie borrowed Darwinist notions of “natural selection” to construct arguments that great inequalities and concentrations of wealth were just the working out of a law of nature, and a law of god.

In opposition to such pseudo-science, which imposes the values of the dominant culture and system while claiming to be objective, McKay quotes scientist Stephen Jay Gould: “Scientists can struggle to identify the cultural assumptions of their trade and ask how answers might be formulated under different assertions. Scientists can propose creative theories that force startled colleagues to confront unquestioned procedures.”

McKay goes on to argue: “Kropotkin’s work must be seen in this light, as an attempt to refute, with hard evidence, the cultural assumptions at the heart of the Darwinism of his day. In its most extreme form, this became Social Darwinism which (Like much of Sociobiology today) proceeds by first projecting the dominant ideas of current society onto nature (often unconsciously, so that scientists mistakenly consider the ideas in question as both ‘normal’ and ‘natural’)” (p.12).

A particular strength of McKay’s pamphlet, is its significant coverage of how Kropotkin, long before he became a political anarchist militant in exile in the west, was already part of an established school of scientific evolutionary theory in Russia, the Russian naturalist school, that had developed its own radically different take on Darwin’s discoveries.

The Russian naturalists included Nikolai D. Nozhin, who in the 1860’s had argued that intraspecific relations were normally characterised, not by competition, but by mutual aid, and the leading Russian Zoologist K.F. Kessler. Applying Darwin’s methods and developing his ideas, the Russian naturalists showed that it was the sociable species that prosper, develop and reproduce successfully. This lead them to conclusions quite different from western liberal Darwinism that placed a heavy emphasis on individual competition. “Solidarity and joint labour - this is what supports species in the struggle to maintain their existence…” Kropotkin wrote in an article about Darwin in the anarchist weekly Le Revolté in 1882.

McKay quotes the historian of science Daniel P. Todes who pointed out (Darwin Without Malthus, Todes 1989) that Kropotkin was simply “The most famous heir to Kessler’s legacy” and “brought a Russian intellectual tradition into contact with a quite different English one.” Todes has shown how Darwin’s ideas on natural selection were welcomed in Russian intellectual and scientific circles, but Darwin’s Malthusian assumptions were seen clearly in Russia for what they were, a product of Darwin’s class, culture and his more capitalistic society in the west.

In the section “Modern Science and Mutual Aid”, McKay looks at how the ideas in Mutual Aid have fared in the light of more recent and contemporary scientific thinking. He concludes that Kropotkin’s ideas have not only stood the test of time, but are now “standard positions in evolutionary theory, biology and anthropology.”

In regards to evolutionary theory, Stephen Jay Gould concludes that “Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to co-operation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals” (Kropotkin Was No Crackpot. P.338).

Leading primatologist Frans de Waal and Jessica C Flack argued that Kropotkin was part of a wider tradition “in which the view has been that animals assist each other precisely because by doing so they achieve long term collective benefits of greater value than the short benefits derived from straightforward competition.” And, as de Waal argues, the “fairness principle” in humans has evolved and is “part of our background as co-operative primates.”

Even an establishment science celebrity like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, and The God Delusion, briefly acknowledges Kropotkin in his Unwearing the Rainbow, in a chapter “The Selfish Cooperator”. But Dawkin’s still stereotypes Kropotkin, Margaret Mead and others who stress cooperation in nature, as “gullible”, while nonetheless also questioning Huxley.

But in his work Dawkins has developed arguments why co-operation serves an evolutionary purpose, and stresses that the “selfish gene” does not exclude, and in fact can encourage “mutuality co-operation”. As McKay puts it; “regardless of the assertions of Hobbs and Huxley, there was never a point at which we decided to become social. We are descended from highly social ancestors and … our ancestors lived in groups. This was not an option but an essential survival strategy and from this mutual aid ethics arose.” (p.23).

In a piece titled “Prince Kropotkin’s Ghost”, Melanie Killen and Marina Cords suggest that recent research in developmental psychology and primatology indicates “that human aggressive inclinations are balanced by equally strong tendencies to co-operate with one another - an argument Prince Pîotr Kropotkin made a century ago in  Mutual Aid. They state that “observations from the natural world…. Suggest that there is, in fact, a biological basis for our social predispositions”.

Perhaps part of the paradox of mutual aid in human interactions is that cooperation and competition are not always opposites but often overlap. What is referred to as “friendly competition”, for example, involves both mutually beneficially competition and highly complex co-operation at the same time. Much competition in human society, whether friendly or hostile, needs high levels of one sort or another to organise it.

McKay’s pamphlet also helps to correct some common myths and misunderstandings about Mutual Aid. For a start, even a simple consulting of the book’s subtitle, A Factor of Evolution , never mind a proper full reading of the book, shows the book is not claiming mutual aid to be THE only factor in evolution. Kropotkin was not denying the existence of competition in nature or the role of struggle in natural evolution, nor in human history.

Nor does Mutual Aid show Kropotkin to be in denial of the nasty side of human behaviour. Indeed, as McKay argues, Kropotkin “became an anarchist, …. Precisely because he saw the horrors and evils of class society.” Kropotkin’s research “traced the evolution of mutual aid through human history, showing when (and how) it was overwhelmed by mutual struggle (another key factor of evolution), and showed how it provided the foundation for continual efforts at co-operative self-emancipation from various forms of domination…” (p.30).

In pages 26-27 of Mutual Aid Kropotkin noted that “when mutual aid institutions… began… to lose their primitive character, to be invaded by parasitic growths, and thus to become hindrances to progress, the revolt of individuals against these institutions took always two different aspects. Part of those who rose up strove to purify the old institutions, or to work out a higher form of commonwealth.” But at the same time, others “endeavoured to break down the protective institutions of mutual support, with no other intention but to increase their own wealth and their own powers.” In this conflict “Lies the real tragedy of history.”

Kropotkin also understood the difference between hierarchical organisations and imposed co-operation between bosses and workers, and genuine free and equal mutual aid and solidarity in resistance to them. In the context of his times he pointed to workers’ unions, strikes, and cooperatives as examples of mutual aid, as a means for the working classes to start fighting back within a hostile social environment. So as well as countering hostile attacks on Kropotkin from neoliberals like Matt Ridley and Steve Jones, McKay also deals with some misunderstandings from libertarian socialists and Marxists like Maurice Brinton and Paul Mattick, who mistakenly stereotyped Kropotkin’s argument as ignoring the need for class struggle.

McKay concludes that Mutual Aid is still important today because many of the justifications for capitalism on the political right, and for state control on the left, retain traces of the old Social Darwinian rationale he was opposing in the 19th century. Given the current capitalist and statist reality, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid according to McKay, is still an important antidote to the dominant culture, and it emphasises that “we need not live like this and that there is nothing in ‘nature’ which precludes transcending capitalism.”

Kropotkin has often been misunderstood in the west, even by many western anarchists, perhaps as just some lone gentle bearded eccentric with nice philosophical ideas about federalism and people co-operating. Iain McKay’s excellent, readable, and very thorough pamphlet helps put Kropotkin and Mutual Aid into proper context. If you are tempted to get your hands on the new Freedom Press edition of Mutual Aid, then first grab yourself a copy of this extended introduction and evaluation.

Paul Petard

Black Flag No. 233

Pages 30-1


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