American Friends Service Committee
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Editorial material in Peacework is published under a Creative Commons
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
Peter Kropotkin (1842 - 1921) was a naturalist and one of Russia's foremost anarchists.In his book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, published in 1902, he propounded the idea that biological and social evolution proceeded at least as much through cooperation as through competition, thus turning social darwinism on its head. The passage below is excerpted, by Peacework intern Andrew Riedl, from the conclusion to the book. The full version is available at <www.calresco.org/texts/mutaidc.htm>.
It will probably be remarked that mutual aid, even though it may represent one of the factors of evolution, covers nevertheless one aspect only of human relations; that by the side of this current, powerful though it may be, there is, and always has been, the other current -- the self-assertion of the individual, not only in its efforts to attain personal or caste superiority, economical, political, and spiritual, but also in its much more important although less evident function of breaking through the bonds, always prone to become crystallized, which the tribe, the village community, the city, and the State impose upon the individual. In other words, there is the self-assertion of the individual taken as a progressive element.
It is evident that no review of evolution can be complete, unless these two dominant currents are analyzed. However, the self-assertion of the individual or of groups of individuals, their struggles for superiority, and the conflicts which resulted therefrom, have already been analyzed, described, and glorified from time immemorial. In fact, up to the present time, this current alone has received attention from the epical poet, the annalist, the historian, and the sociologist.
History, such as it has hitherto been written, is almost entirely a description of the ways and means by which theocracy, military power, autocracy, and, later on, the richer classes' rule have been promoted, established, and maintained. The struggles between these forces make, in fact, the substance of history. We may thus take the knowledge of the individual factor in human history as granted -- even though there is full room for a new study of the subject on the lines just alluded to; while, on the other side, the mutual-aid factor has been hitherto totally lost sight of; it was simply denied, or even scoffed at, by the writers of the present and past generation.
It was therefore necessary to show, first of all, the immense part which this factor plays in the evolution of both the animal world and human societies. Only after this has been fully recognized will it be possible to proceed to a comparison between the two factors.
To make even a rough estimate of their relative importance by any method more or less statistical, is evidently impossible. One single war -- we all know -- may be productive of more evil, immediate and subsequent, than hundreds of years of the unchecked action of the mutual-aid principle may be productive of good.
But when we see that in the animal world, progressive development and mutual aid go hand in hand, while the inner struggle within the species is concomitant with retrogressive development; when we notice that with man (sic), even success in struggle and war is proportionate to the development of mutual aid in each of the two conflicting nations, cities, parties, or tribes, and that in the process of evolution war itself (so far as it can go this way) has been made subservient to the ends of progress in mutual aid within the nation, the city or the clan -- we already obtain a perception of the dominating influence of the mutual-aid factor as an element of progress.
But we see also that the practice of mutual aid and its successive developments have created the very conditions of society life in which man (sic) was enabled to develop his (sic) arts, knowledge, and intelligence; and that the periods when institutions based on the mutual-aid tendency took their greatest development were also the periods of the greatest progress in arts, industry, and science.
For industrial progress, as for each other conquest over nature, mutual aid and close intercourse certainly are, as they have been, much more advantageous than mutual struggle.
However, it is especially in the domain of ethics that the dominating importance of the mutual-aid principle appears in full. That mutual aid is the real foundation of our ethical conceptions seems evident enough. But whatever the opinions as to the first origin of the mutual-aid feeling or instinct may be -- whether a biological or a supernatural cause is ascribed to it -- we must trace its existence as far back as to the lowest stages of the animal world; and from these stages we can follow its uninterrupted evolution, in opposition to a number of contrary agencies, through all degrees of human development, up to the present times.
Each time, however, that an attempt to return to this old principle was made, its fundamental idea itself was widened. From the clan it was extended to the stem, to the federation of stems, to the nation, and finally -- in ideal, at least -- to the whole of mankind. It was also refined at the same time.
In primitive Buddhism, in primitive Christianity, in the writings of some of the Mussulman teachers, in the early movements of the Reform, and especially in the ethical and philosophical movements of the last century and of our own times, the total abandonment of the idea of revenge, or of "due reward" -- of good for good and evil for evil -- is affirmed more and more vigorously. The higher conception of "no revenge for wrongs," and of freely giving more than one expects to receive from his (sic) neighbours, is proclaimed as being the real principle of morality -- a principle superior to mere equivalence, equity, or justice, and more conducive to happiness.
And man (sic) is appealed to to be guided
in his acts, not merely by love, which is always personal, or
at the best tribal, but by the perception of his (sic) oneness
with each human being. In the practice of mutual aid, which we
can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find
the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions;
and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man (sic), mutual
support not mutual struggle -- has had the leading part.
In its wide extension, even at the present time, we also see the
best guarantee of a still loftier evolution of our race (sic).