Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Peter Kropotkin: Mutual Aid – A Factor of Evolution

Posted by Fredsvenn on December 23, 2014

Kropotkin circa 1900

Peter Kropotkin

The Conquest of Bread

Fields, Factories and Workshops

Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

Mutual aid is a term in organization theory used to signify a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.

Kropotkin pointed out what he considered to be the fallacies of the economic systems of feudalism and capitalism. He believed they create poverty and artificial scarcity while promoting privilege.

Instead he proposed a more decentralized economic system based on mutual aid, mutual support, and voluntary cooperation, asserting that the tendencies for this kind of organization already exist, both in evolution and in human society.

In 1902 Kropotkin published his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which provided an alternative view of animal and human survival, beyond the claims of interpersonal competition and natural hierarchy proffered at the time by some “social Darwinists” such as Francis Galton.

He argued that “it was an evolutionary emphasis on cooperation instead of competition in the Darwinian sense that made for the success of species, including the human”.

Kropotkin explored the widespread use of cooperation as a survival mechanism in human societies – through their many stages – and amongst animals. He used many real-life examples in an attempt to show that the main factor in facilitating evolution is cooperation between individuals in free-associated societies and groups, without central control, authority, or compulsion.

He did so in order to counteract the concept of fierce competition as the core of evolution, which concept provided a rationalization for the dominant political, economic, and social theories of the time and for the prevalent interpretations of Darwinism.

Mutual aid is arguably as ancient as human culture; an intrinsic part of the small, communal societies universal to humanity’s ancient past. From the dawn of humanity, until far beyond the invention of agriculture, humans were foragers, exchanging labor and resources for the benefit of groups and individuals alike.

As an intellectual abstraction, mutual aid was developed and advanced by mutualism or labor insurance systems and thus trade unions, and has been also used in cooperatives and other civil society movements.

Typically, mutual-aid groups will be free to join and participate in, and all activities will be voluntary. They are often structured as non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, non-profit organizations, with members controlling all resources and no external financial or professional support. They are member-led and member-organized.

They are egalitarian in nature, and designed to support participatory democracy, equality of member status and power shared leadership and cooperative decision-making. Members’ external societal status is considered irrelevant inside the group: status in the group is conferred by participation.

Based on Peter Kropotkin’s theories on mutual aid, those small groups are also discussed as a counter model to the historic concept of an autonomous individual.

Those discussions emphasize an open model of voluntary cooperation in mutual-aid groups as opposed to induced cooperation. Therefore they raise questions regarding the tension of the individual’s adaption and self-determination.

In order to overcome this tension an insight in the life perspective of others, a radical openness to all situations possible and a high awareness of and confidence in the self is necessary.

Examples of mutual-aid organizations include unions, the Friendly Societies that were common throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, medieval craft guilds, the American “fraternity societies” that existed during the Great Depression providing their members with health and life insurance and funeral benefits, and the English “workers clubs” of the 1930s that also provided health insurance.

Mutual aid is also a cornerstone of the self-help movement, in which the helper/helpee principle is important: the idea is that the more a person helps, the more he or she is helped, and that those who help most are helped most.

Mutual aid practices and principles are used in alcoholism and drug rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS support, among adult survivors of sexual abuse, parents of developmentally disabled children, and mentally ill older adults.

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