Kropotkin’s History of Mutual Aid

Kropotkin, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), offers us a historical account of the mutual aid tendency which he argues is evident throughout our society and its history. He begins his study within the animal kingdom, before showing how mutual aid continued to develop in the beginnings of our human society within our distant tribal ancestors. The next steps in his genealogy are found in village communities, medieval cities and also what would have been modern examples between ‘ourselves’.

Professor Kessler first formulated the theory of mutual aid in essays and lectures called On the Law of Mutual Aid in 1880, unfortunately, a year later he died leaving this theory undeveloped. Kessler stated that cooperation was far more important for our evolution and development than the law of mutual struggle, and besides this, there was the ‘law of mutual aid’. He argued, “the more individuals keep together, the more they mutually support each other, and the more are the chances of the species for surviving, as well as for making further progress in its intellectual development”. Kropotkin further developed this idea and traced its roots further back than Kessler, who argued its roots were found in parental feeling. The text can be seen as a reply to Darwin who Kropotkin felt had missed a vital part in his theory of evolution, this being the support and community that animals show one another and which plays such a vital part in their evolution; mutual aid.


From Kropotkin’s study of animals, he concluded that the vast majority of animal species live in societies that are based upon mutual aid instead of struggle and power. The association, support and aid that they lend one another is the best tool for the preservation of life, the advancement of knowledge, continuation of the species, rearing of children, enjoyment, safety and provision of food. Kropotkin offers us lots of examples to illustrate this point such as the behaviour of ants and bees who, through mutual aid, have nests that wouldn’t be possible if they lived in isolation, as individuals at war against one another. With paved roads, spacious halls, granaries, rational methods of nursing eggs, larvae “and finally their courage, pluck and superior intelligence”, which are “the natural outcome of mutual aid which they practice at every stage of their busy and laborious lives”, we can see how the mutual aid tendency has played the more vital role in their evolution and success. Another advantage found in the support and community is that the ants can fend off attacks from crickets, wasps, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles and flier.

Kropotkin then turns to the example of birds as another great illustration of mutual aid in practice. We can see this in the association of male and females bringing up offspring through hunting together, while some birds, such as pelicans and kites, also take flight together simply for pleasure. While the eagle is often thought of as being the top of the chain when it comes to birds, even they are forced to leave their prey to bands of kites. The migration of birds every year, thousands living together, sometimes different species, seems a more comfortable life than the lone robbers who prey on the young or the stray.

Next moving onto mammals, here too, we notice the mutual aid tendency. With an overwhelming amount of mammals living in sociable groups such as the antelope, sheep, zebra, rats, foxes, elephants, rhinos, monkeys, seals, and of course ourselves. These animals are found in the oceans, forests, deserts and cities, in all of the continents and crevasses on earth, sometimes numbering up to millions per social group. Compared to the number of carnivores, who also live in social groups, we can see that the natural world is mainly made up of these animals living in mutual aid instead of individuals involved in power relations. Still, the carnivores hunt and feed together, while it is only in the cat tribes that it can be argued that isolation is preferred, but many of these still come together to hunt. The dependency of a cub on the mother is also another indication of the importance of mutual aid. No doubt the struggle of life and competition still plays a major role in their societies, but mutual aid seems to be more influential and apparent for their development, survival and success. The species that live in isolation or small families are relatively few. Kropotkin argues that before humans multiplied on earth “and waged a permanent war against them, or destroyed the sources from which they formerly derived food” it could have been possible to see even these isolated animals living in societies.


All this leads Kropotkin to the conclusion that those animals “who acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest and that mutual aid and association is often the rule for an animal, and its species, success. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organisation.” Kropotkin offers much more in-depth evidence supporting his case, many realised during his time as a natural scientist researching in Siberia, and he argues that if these are taken into account, “it can safely be said that mutual aid is as much a law of animal life as mutual struggle, but that, as a factor of evolution, it most probably has far greater importance. Inasmuch as it favours the development of such habits and characters as ensuring the maintenance and further development of the species, together with the greatest amount of welfare and enjoyment of life for the individual, with the least waste of energy”. Sharing the burden of rearing children, safety in numbers and the provision of food are also all advantages that mutual aid offers. “The war of each against all is not the law of nature. Mutual aid is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle”.

Humans, being no different from other animals, should also then have this mutual aid tendency within. Throughout the next parts of his text, Kropotkin goes on to show how it developed in our human species, beginning with ‘savages’ in the stone age before tracing it through our evolutionary line in the villages and cities before ending with what would have been modern examples.

Beginning with the first humans, the so-called, and probably outdated term, ‘savages’, Kropotkin shows how mutual aid first began to embed itself within our human species and societies. He argues as far as we go back we will always find humans living in small tribes or clans, never isolated or alone. Just as we saw with other animals, the human, in its earliest stage would benefit hugely from forming together instead of leading an isolated life. Whether this be for safety, food, knowledge, reproduction or enjoyment. We do not need to look at history though, and there were existing ‘savages’ living that Kropotkin studied. While Hobbes used modern savages as an example of how we are still at war with one another, Kropotkin uses the savages to show how mutual aid would have existed in our earliest ancestors. He focuses on the bushmen in Australia who had no dwellings and led a very primitive way of life. Following the European settlement, the bushmen were slowly exterminated; 500 killed in 1774 and 3000 in 1808. They lived in small tribes, hunted in common, shared the spoils from the hunt and never abandoned the wounded. Kolben, one of the few researchers to spend time amongst them, wrote: “they are certainly the most friendly, the most liberal and the most benevolent people to one another that ever appeared on the earth”. Kropotkin goes onto offer other first-hand accounts of many other tribes which leads him to argue, how could these tribes, often living in the harshest of conditions on earth, sustain their life without mutual aid? If they lived isolated in a war with one another, just like the animals we looked at before, they would not last very long. The stereotypical image of the bloodthirsty savage is a wrong one. Instead, he lived under a wide range of institutions that have helped shape our modern society by planting the seeds for most of the institutions we can still find today, such as community, ethics, food and the rearing of children. There was no authority to command, but still, the savages gathered in communities and did so for thousands of years, and from these, there grew villages.

I believe an easier example of mutual aid in savages, and humans up to the present day, is our need for parental care and support. It is impossible for us to live isolated and undeniable that mutual aid is necessary for our survival. Kropotkin does not speak much about parental care, which I see as a clearer and better-founded example of mutual aid within our earliest ancestors, but this may have been because of Kessler’s work on the subject. By focusing on the tribes and first-hand accounts of the still surviving tribes it could be argued he offers further support and proof of Kessler’s original claims.

So just like every other animal, “man is no exception in nature. He is also subject to the great principle of mutual aid which grants the best chances of survival to those who best support each other in the struggle for life”. We shall now move onto the next part of Kropotkin’s genealogy which is the move from small tribes into larger communities; the village.


As people began to migrate and races mix, the inevitable wars that this caused increased and as of this so did migration, it became necessary to group with strangers of different descent, and so villages began to pop up all around the world. Kropotkin notes there is not one single race or nation that has not had its period of village communities, calling it a “universal phase of evolution, a natural outcome of clan organisation”. He sees these being born out of the hard struggle that the savages faced against hostile nature which could be overcome by grouping together and overcoming those who, although maybe stronger and more cunning, could not defeat the community and strength of the village. From this development, which expanded the tribe and united strangers, several benefits came along; agriculture was improved, increased and became more efficient, forests were cleared, organization became better, nature was tamed through the building of roads and bridges, knowledge expanded, common culture was born, with moral conceptions, a say in judicial, economic, educational and military matters, while markets were also fortified for safety. As the numbers of the tribe and clan grew so did the separation between each member in the village, but the most important aspects were still undertaken as a whole. Bridges and canals could not have been built, marshes could not have been drained, roads could not have been paved, and markets could not have been solidified if it was each individual against the other. All of these which played such an important part in creating the society which we now live in, and developing us as a species, are down to mutual aid. These changes which played such a crucial part in the development of our society, would not have been possible if individuals, or families, were isolated and only worked for themselves. 

Kropotkin argues that of course “wars were certainly unavoidable; migration means war”. While Kessler was also adamant it was not only mutual aid that was apparent. He states “I do not reject the struggle for existence, but only affirm that the progressive development both of the entire animal kingdom and, especially, of mankind is not facilitated by mutual struggle so much as by mutual aid…The law of mutual aid has played an incomparably greater role in the history of his [sic–humanity’s] successes than has the law of the struggle for existence”. But now we see that this is not all that there is. We can also find mutual aid, support, community and all that Kropotkin and Kessler speak of.

Medieval Cities

Although the evolution into the village created many advantages, Kropotkin notes that several disadvantages also occurred. With the growth of private wealth and the beginning of centralisation, important factors of society, such as the economy, knowledge and law, begins to get into the hands of the few. These few individuals then start to exercise it for themselves instead of for the interest of all, which was at the heart of the village and tribe organisation. The next part of Kropotkin’s genealogy was the move into cities, and this is where there also begins to be formed what Kropotkin calls the ‘state’. Whilst in the village land was common, now it began to be privatised. Whilst food was always shared, it soon became a matter of securing food for you and your family, instead of the whole community. People began to drift further and further away, losing their common culture, moral conceptions and their say in judicial, economic, educational and military matters. Kropotkin notes that when we go further into the higher stages of civilisation the bonds that were so important to our evolution, from the tribe to the village, begin to break and more conflicts begin to appear. Although the mutual aid tendency could never be truly lost and began to flourish elsewhere, such as the growth in importance of the family, which was a place where mutual aid was, and is, still evident.

Medieval cities succeeded so well, that once again, just like the villages they changed the face of Europe. No longer were there miserable huts, poorly built churches and only weaving and forging as art. Now we see the emergence of huge cathedrals, craft and art reached new heights, oceans were conquered, science advanced, mechanical invention began; “such were the magic changes accomplished in Europe in less than 400 years”. Kropotkin sees the roots of the medieval city being planted in the 10th century when invasions from Normans, Arabs and Urgins began a movement of fortifying villages with stone walls and a city enclosed within. Within these walls, invasion could be encroached, and a new life of freedom began to develop. What he calls ‘guilds’ play a vital part in the medieval free city which existed around the 12-16th century. These guilds were inspired by the same mutual aid and support which was at work in the village community. Guilds were brotherhoods made up of members with similar interests. For example, there were guilds of craftsmen, painters, hunters, peasants, teachers, religion, beggars, executioners, women and pretty much everything else and they were “all organised on the same double principle of self-jurisdiction and mutual support”. These guilds have lived for thousands of years and continue to exist to this very day, and this is because they answer to that deeply rooted need of human nature – mutual aid.

Unfortunately, these cities did not last, and in the 14th century, we see the mutual aid that was apparent within them begin to be replaced by relations of power. Kropotkin says that younger crafts proved too strong for traditional methods and that they soon took over the management of the city. Although this opened up a season of new prosperity, only the few who were in control of this power would benefit, and soon “every meadow, every field, every river, and road around the city, and every man upon the land was under some lord”. By the end of the 15th century, Kropotkin sees mighty states, moulded on the old Roman pattern, coming into existence and with it a sharp division is traced throughout the city which is marked by a growing military institution.

No longer can every family and person help to make the city prosper via mutual aid and support. Instead, all faith, power and authority are placed in the hands of a king or a lord who is “the saviour of society, and that in the name of public salvation he can commit any violence: burn men and women at the stake, make them perish under indescribable tortures, plunge whole provinces into the most abject misery”. All the social functions become centralised into the state which no longer favours the development of these for all but for individualism. The mutual aid tendency was crushed as much as possible with guilds coming under threat. In medieval times every man would have belonged to a guild, but these were slowly made illegal by the new power. As of this, individualism slowly begins to take over from brotherly feelings, but, as already stated, the mutual aid tendency can never be fully lost.


Now, we can clearly trace Kropotkin’s genealogy of mutual aid. Its roots can be found in all animals and the earliest stages of humanity before developing within the village and city. But, after the 15th century, we begin to see the centralisation of the state. Self-government,  self-jurisdiction, support and aid, all characteristics that played such an important role up until then, slowly began to diminish. Guilds were also destroyed and matters that would have been settled by them, we find in the latter half of the 16th century, are now resolved in courts and parliament through such things such as legislation and law. Truth and knowledge are no longer found in the guilds or the community but are replaced by law. Kropotkin states “judicial power thus makes its appearance”, which turns societies focus away from collectivism and towards individualism. No longer do people get a say in important matters, but those who express power instead settle societies problems, and often in their personal interest. But Kropotkin does not want to focus on this for so much has already been written about it, as is evident in writers such as Hobbes. Instead, his task was to show how the mutual aid tendency continued to live on

An example of mutual aid in Kropotkin’s time, and still ours today, are “the countless societies, clubs and alliances, for the enjoyment of life, for study and research, for education and so on.” Every town, village and city has a football, cricket, tennis, singing, acting club, etc. People, from different backgrounds and social standing, come together to create new bonds and satisfy their need for mutual aid. These clubs do not help the economy, but they help develop relations and also to help create what we call society. These associations are made up mostly of volunteers doing unpaid work and can therefore offer us evidence of where we can still see mutual aid in action. 

He also offers us the family as another modern example of where mutual aid is still present. He takes specific care to mention here, that although the bourgeoisie, the higher classes and those who have managed to gain control of power relations, may not practice mutual aid with the rest of society, even they, express mutual aid between family and friends. This is because “the brain cannot resist the mutual aid feeling because this feeling has been nurtured by thousands of years of human social life and hundreds of thousands of years of pre-human life in societies”.  

In this chapter, Kropotkin goes on to give more examples that could be found throughout society at the time of writing the book. One of these was the many still thriving village communities that rested upon mutual aid. Kropotkin gives us examples from Siberia, wherein the harsh struggles of life, such as weather, the impracticality, poor vegetation and distance from modern cities, without mutual aid life would not be possible. He also talks of syndicates and in the aftermath of a natural disaster where we can find mutual aid throughout Europe. More examples can be found in another of Kropotkin’s books The Conquest of Bread such as “free agreement”, which is the countless transactions that happen in society every day without the need for state intervention.

Further Reading

Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution

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