Peter Kropotkin was a contemporary of many early sociological theorists, who highlighted factors that contributed to cooperation and sociability. He argued these phenomena are regular characteristics in all societies, although their presence is usually submerged and out of view. Instead, sociologists during his time and ours have tended to focus their scholarship upon the deviant, unequal, and hierarchical. Sometimes it takes extreme circumstances to see the merit in Kropotkin’s ideas, rattle people’s cynicism, and see other possible forms of social order. For example, recent disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast in 2005 stand as a testament to the “natural” sympathies of people for the suffering victims of natural phenomenon. Or, recall the outpouring of support and solidarity extended to all sorts of Americans--directly affected or not--following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. In each case, complete strangers helped each other, without hope for reward, status, or self-interest, and did what they thought was “right” in a given situation, regularly incurring great personal risk, sacrifice, and hardship on their part. Gone--even if only temporarily--was the typical egotism, individualism, and coldness that define much of life in the modern, capitalist world.
In 1997, I saw through a similar window into a new world. I was a student at the University of North Dakota when the Red River thawed in Springtime at a pace that caused record high-levels of flooding along the river, especially in the town where I lived, Grand Forks. For an entire week leading up to the flooding and eventual evacuation of the town of 50,000 people, life completely changed. Classes at the university were canceled, people didn’t go to work, and youth stayed home from school. Instead, the entire community reoriented its efforts to saving their neighbors from the encroaching water. I spent time on the tall sandbag dikes, protecting the houses of complete strangers, who thanked us with hugs, tears, and sandwiches. I witnessed thousands of people spend every waking hour helping other people. People (including me) hitched rides from random drivers for the first time ever, without fear. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or imagined before. And, although there were surely organizations providing material support and coordinating infrastructure in the struggle against the floodwaters, most people self-organized themselves within each neighborhood: college students, kids, parents, seniors, and soldiers from a nearby military base all chipped-in and made decisions on the ground, with little regard for one’s special status, except for who could offer the most sensible ideas at the time.
In the aftermath of this event, I wrote of my experiences to one of my favorite authors, Noam Chomsky. I was surprised (and honored) that he wrote me back to say he found my observations interesting. He called the phenomena I observed “mutual aid” and recommended I read what he called the most important work in the area of “socio-biology”, Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Chomsky said the book was rarely recognized or acknowledged by scholars because the book’s implications counter the dominant narrative of meritocracy, free markets, and legitimate authority figures. It took me far too long to get around to actually reading Kropotkin, but after receiving Chomsky’s letter, I immediately started seeing “mutual aid” everywhere.
Mutual aid includes cooperative behaviors that benefit the initiator as well as others. Kropotkin includes countless actions that support the strengthening and continuation of social solidarity, ranging from community self-defense to resource-acquisition and sharing. He argues that mutual aid is “not love, and not even sympathy”, but “a far wider, even though more vague feeling or instinct of human solidarity and sociability” (Kropotkin 2006: xv). Mutual aid is thus the underpinning of community.
For the anarchist Kropotkin, mutual aid is present in many varieties of animal species and communities, as well as most of human history, including the long epochs ranging from the period of “savages” to the medieval age. Most research on this phenomenon--of humans helping others, without immediate expectations or governments--has been done in the area of anthropology. For example, David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004) illustrates this history of non-state social order; or Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey’s African Anarchism (1997), focuses on tribal African communalism. Additionally, anthropologists like Harold Barclay (1990), James C. Scott (2009), and others argue that humans have lived without hierarchical authority until all but recently, or have at least lived with autonomy from centralized states. In other words, mutual aid is a very “natural” pattern in the human experience. According to Kropotkin (2006), recent governments and bureaucracies normalize social problems and thus reduce the tendency towards mutual aid:
In the guild -- and in medieval times every man belonged to some guild or fraternity [and] two “brothers” were bound to watch in turns a brother who had fallen ill; it would be sufficient now to give one’s neighbour the address of the next paupers’ hospital. In barbarian society, to assist at a fight between two men, arisen from a quarrel, and not to prevent it from taking a fatal issue, meant to be oneself treated as a murderer; but under the theory of the all-protecting State the bystander need not intrude: it is the policeman’s business to interfere, or not. And while in a savage land, among the Hottentots, it would be scandalous to eat without having loudly called out thrice whether there is not somebody wanting to share the food[…] all that a respectable citizen has to do now is to pay the poor tax and to let the starving starve. (p. 188)
Just as a self-respecting public sociologist would today, during his time Kropotkin sought to make his ideas as accessible to everyone. For example, Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid appears during a period in which radicals and the working-class are being pulled in opposite directions, by authoritarian Marxism on one side, and individualistic and nihilistic Nietzscheism on the other. Kropotkin not only disagreed with those trajectories, but tried to argue the case for an anarchist interpretation of social relations--thus he wrote Mutual Aid as an anarchist response to these competing frameworks. He thought the modern state suppresses humans’ normal inclination to cooperative organization, a problem that could not be overcome by utilizing the state in a “popular” revolution (as the Bolsheviks were to do) or by ignoring our social responsibilities to others (Kinna 1996).
Kropotkin’s argument was also a statement against social Darwinism--particularly as advocated by Thomas Huxley--that people are naturally competitive and that vigorous conflict produces the best possible societies. Instead, Kropotkin showed that human communities survive and thrive, not through competition amongst their members, but through cooperation and sociability. Although this insight has generally been ignored by natural scientists, a few have appreciated mutual aid’s broader significance. Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould confirms Kropotkin’s emphasis upon mutual aid over mutual struggle: “I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals” (Gould 1997: 21).
Despite the audacity of his work, Kropotkin is largely unknown inside the academy, likely due to never holding an official university position. He wrote scholarly works (including The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories, and Workshops) which have been more enduring in the long-run than most sociologists of his era. Unfortunately--but not surprisingly--Kropotkin’s work is not taught in sociological theory classes when describing social solidarity. To my knowledge, courses that focus on demography or social change never use his arguments about mutual aid as an important condition for group selection. Enterprising sociologists (and anthropologists, political scientists, historians, and economists) could work to update Kropotkin’s famous study, by conducting contemporary scholarship based on his fundamental argument about mutual aid. But, this shift in scholarly attention would require an ethical re-emphasis upon the things that make societies work “well” as opposed to what makes them work “poorly” or harm people. Such a shift, I believe, is the general goal of this ASA Section on Altruism and Social Solidarity.
To simply reframe altruism as mutual aid would change its meaning, of course. While both are understudied, altruism is definitely rarer, while mutual aid happens all the time (but is nearly never noted in our discipline). Mutual aid is not altruistic in the pure sense, since people do get something back for their efforts. Yet, mutual aid might be better thought of as karmic--even without the sense of an immediate “payback” for one’s efforts, good deeds eventually benefit yourself as others will help you in your time of need, too.
Or, mutual aid may be a prime example of altruism: what seems to be selfless and sacrificial (thus altruistic), could easily serve to strengthen social solidarity (i.e. mutual aid). Neither phenomena can be driven by authority figures and both require individuals to exercise a fair amount of agency. The adoption of stronger communal norms would likely increase both practices. A society in which everyone offers altruistic assistance to everyone else would be a society filled with Kropotkin’s mutual aid. But this form of social solidarity is only truly possible within horizontal social relationships.
Altruism is well-known for falling victim to free-riding: people who have things done for them by exceptional others are less likely to do for themselves (and perhaps for others). Kropotkin’s conception of mutual aid illustrates that self-sacrificing altruism reduces collective orientations to problem-solving. Instead, true sociability avoids the alienating aspects of altruism and focuses upon community and group action (Glassman 2000). Consequently, mutual aid occupies a more stable position than altruism as the social facilitator of the common good.
Altruism scholars tend to find much merit in the notion of “positive deviants” and “exemplars” within social movements; this could be even more the case within radical, value-driven movements that avoid the approach of “charity provisioning”, such as anarchism. Yet, unlike altruists, anarchists do not do things for people, they will work with others and thus lead by example. In fact, anarchists wholly refuse official leadership and deny the right of the state (even if its power is wielded for supposedly “good reasons”). Countless movement figures--most completely unknown, uncelebrated--have anonymously martyred themselves in pursuit of “the ideal” (as Emma Goldman referred to anarchism). Anarchists sought—and still seek—the transformation of society into a horizontal social order based upon egalitarianism, cooperation, and mutual aid. An individual’s freedom is completely wrapped-up in the freedom of the collective (and vice-versa). To further and accomplish such ends, anarchists have struggled within labor movements, insurrections, and civic organizations of all types. Much effort has been given to deepening, expanding, and radicalizing human tendencies for mutual aid. In pursuit of these formidable goals, anarchists have been incredibly unsuccessful over the long-term, although small pockets of freedom have occasionally existed, and continue to endure within sub-cultures around the world. In return for their efforts, anarchists have been libeled as terrorists, executed by states, arrested on behalf of robber barons and corporations, and “disappeared” by Communist parties.
Short of an anarchist society in the near future, what immediate structures and relationships are worth obtaining and emphasizing? While altruism is clearly instructive of human potential for contributing to the common good, it is overshadowed by the mutual aid people practice every day. Kropotkin’s observation was far more mundane than that of altruism, but so much more important.
Barclay, Harold. 1990. People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy. Seattle: Left Bank Books.
Glassman, Michael. 2000. “Mutual Aid Theory and Human Development: Sociability as Primary”. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 30 (4): 391-412.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. “Kropotkin was no crackpot”. Natural History, 106 (June): 12-21.
Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Kinna, Ruth. 1995. “Kropotkin’s Theory of Mutual Aid in Historical Context”. International Review of Social History, 40 (2), August: 259-283.
Kropotkin, Peter. 2006. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Mineola, NY: Dover.
Mbah, Sam and I.E. Igariwey. 1997. African Anarchism: The History of a Movement. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press.
Scott, James C. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.
 It is crucial to dispense with cartoonish, pop-culture stereotypes of anarchism as pertaining to chaos and violence. Instead, a scholarly understanding of anarchism ought to emphasize the vision articulated by actual anarchists--like Kropotkin--which is founded on anti-authoritarianism, self-management, solidarity, and egalitarian social order.