Review; Mutual Aid: an introduction and evaluation by Iain McKay

A review of Iain McKay's introduction and evaluation to Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, reviewed by Paul Petard.

Submitted by Red Marriott on February 14, 2012

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

Mutual Aid is probably Kropotkin's most famous work. As Iain McKay points out in his essay, although it is often thought of as an anarchist classic, Kropotkin's Mutual Aid is strictly speaking not a book about anarchism. It is more a book of popular science aimed at rebutting the misuse of evolutionary theory, in particular 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". Nonetheless the way the book looks at bottom-up mutual aid tendencies of everyday life, rooted in popular history, is inherently libertarian.

Anthropologist Ashley Montagu dedicated his book Darwin, Competition and Co-operation, to Kropotkin, stating about Mutual Aid 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 cooperation as a factor in evolution."

McKay's pamphlet places Mutual Aid in the context of Kropotkin's revolutionary ideas, looks at its influences, and also evaluates how well it has survived scientific advances. McKay 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. He was a "a naturalist of some renown, with specialized interest in geology" as David Roger Oldroyd described him. In the 1860s, 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 Encyclopedia Britannica for example. His scientific method can be detected in all his work, but, as McKay shows, it is most obvious in Mutual Aid. (By comparison, despite their pompous and false claims to be "scientific", neither of the philosophical fraudsters Marx or Engels ever achieved anything in any physical science in their whole lives!)

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 "civilization" needed to be maintained artificially against our natural instincts. For Huxley, until the restraints of civilized 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.

Nineteenth 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 1860s had argued that intraspecific relations were normally characterized, 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 Revolte in 1882.

McKay quotes the historian of science Daniel P. Todes who pointed out (in Darwin Without Malthus, Daniel P. Todes, 1989, Oxford) 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 term 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 Unweaving the Rainbow, in a chapter "The Selfish Cooperator". But Dawkins 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 "mutualistic co-operation". As McKay puts it; "regardless of the assertions of Hobbes 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 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 problem regarding arguments about competition and mutual aid in human interactions comes from a mistaken presumption that cooperation and competition have to be seen as opposites. But cooperation and competition are not necessarily opposites. They often overlap and are often intertwined, or can be multiple aspects of the same interaction. What is sometimes referred to as "friendly competition", such as friendly games and sport to exercise mind and body, or friendly mutual challenges, might involve both mutually beneficial competition and highly complex co-operation at the same time.

Much competition in human societies, whether friendly or hostile, often in fact needs high levels of cooperation of one sort or another to organize it. Solidarity in community will also generate new subtle forms of competitiveness to support it: people will compete to show off how good and usefully skilled they are at cooperating, this can be beneficial both to all the developed individuals and to the community at the same time. This is part of why a total resolution of all developed differences and all forms of competition into one monolithic unity doesn't happen, and won't be necessary for a libertarian socialism.

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 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." (Actually it is a multiple 3 or more way conflict - it's not "dialectical", it is "multilectical"! And there is never just ONE total "synthesis" at the end of it all.)

Kropotkin also understood the difference between hierarchical organizations and their imposed co-operation between bosses and workers, and the 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, Iain 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 predominantly capitalist and statist reality, Kropotkin's Mutual Aid according to McKay, is still an important antidote to the dominant culture, and it emphasizes 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 with each other. 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 Iain's extended Introduction and Evaluation.


Iain McKay is the creator of the Anarchist FAQ, a vast resource of anarchist thought available online at He has also recently edited Property is Theft - a collection of the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, published at the end of 2010.

(An edited version of this article appeared in Black Flag issue 233 mid-2011, Black Flag, BM Hurricane, London, WC1N 3XX, UK. [email protected])

Source; The Worst of The Whinger; London, 2011.

Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation. Iain McKay. Pub. AK Press. 2010. A5 format. 68pp. AK Press, PO Box 12766, Edinburgh, EH8 9YE.



12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Choccy on February 14, 2012

Would you really class Jones as a neoliberal? He has never come across that way to me at all. He's anti-determinist, hates evolutionary psychology, despises grammar schools and is no fan of any type of conservativism. Doubtless he's no radical... but neoliberal, really?

Worth noting that Lee Dugatkin's latest book, The Prince Of Evolution, has tried to put Kropotkin bnack on the scientific map.

Paul Petard

12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Paul Petard on February 18, 2012

Thanks Choccy. I have been shown some writings by Steve Jones, and you are right, he doesn't come across specifically as "neoliberal", so I appear to have made a mistake in lumping him in with neoliberalism. Paul Petard.