Paul Mattick 1956

Kropotkin on Mutual Aid — Review

Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, January-February 1956;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.

MUTUAL AID. By Peter Kropotkin, with Foreword by Ashley Montague, and including “The Struggle for Existence” by T. H. Huxley. Extending Horizons Press, Boston, 1955, pp. 362, $3.00.

This new issue of Kropotkin’s work on Mutual Aid, first published at the turn of the century, not only satisfies the need for its continued availability but — in some measure — also helps to combat the current neo-Malthusianism and the renewed, though futile, attempts to present capitalist competition as a “law of nature.” Provoked by Huxley’s belief that in nature and society the struggle for existence is one of all against all, Kropotkin demonstrated that both in the animal world and human society it is rather mutual aid which secures existence and makes for progress.

What Huxley proclaimed passes under the name of Social Darwinism — “the survival of the fittest.” The successful in society are such by way of “natural selection.” Nothing can be done about it, and no apology is needed, as nature is neither “moral” nor “immoral,” but “non-moral.” Of course, attempts are made to defy “natural law” through the establishment of social order designed to mitigate the struggle of all against all. Yet this promises little for the future because population tends to outrun the means of subsistence, and thus the struggle for survival continues to destroy the weak.

Kropotkin did not answer Huxley’s Malthusian argument, even though it is the only one Huxley advanced in support of his views. Instead, he described forms of mutual aid observed in the animal world and various types of social collaboration throughout man’s history. This he did excellently, so that the book — quite apart from its special intent — is an important study of animal behavior and of the evolution of human sociality. Himself under the spell of Darwinism, Kropotkin wished to correct its capitalistically-determined one-sided interpretation, which saw only competition and not the far more important factor of mutual aid as the instrument of survival. He did not take up the Malthusian argument because he thought that existing “natural checks to over-multiplication” made it irrelevant.

This plays into the hands of the “social Darwinists,” who do not distinguish between society and nature, and see in all social misery manifestations of “natural laws.” They would insist that, even though the struggle for existence may not be characterized by the ever-present bitter struggle for the means of subsistence, nevertheless pauperism and starvation, as also famine and pestilence, must be regarded as “natural checks to over-population.” In their views, the alleviation of human suffering, caused by whatever reason, opposes the necessary “natural checks to over-population.”

Kropotkin did not answer the Malthusian argument because he, too, did not clearly enough distinguish between society and nature. Just as to the social Darwinists competition is instinctive to both men and beast, so to Kropotkin mutual aid is a “moral instinct” of “prehuman origin” and a “law of nature.” This did not hinder him, however, from making the “watchword, mutual aid,” which comes to us “from the bush, the forest, the river, the ocean,” into the foundation of our “ethical conceptions” so as to secure “a still loftier evolution of our race.” It seems, then, that “natural laws” to be really effective require the support or neglect of men.

Observation reveals that there is both competition and mutual aid within and between the different species. Mutual aid is, of course, the best way for survival for those species whose survival depends on mutual aid, as competition. For a long time, however, survival in the animal world has not depended upon the practice of either mutual aid or competition but has been determined by the decision of men as to which species should live and thrive and which should be exterminated. Whatever “natural law” may mean with regard to animal behavior, it is overruled by man-made “laws” that shape “nature” to their own needs or whims. “Nature in the raw,” so to speak, where “natural laws” could rule is now in need of preservation and protection by national and international law. Wherever man rules, the “laws of nature” with respect to animal life cease to exist.

If this is true for the animal world, how much more must this be true for man himself. Although also a great admirer of Darwin, Marx drew attention to the fact that “nature” is continuously changed by the activities of men, and (against Malthusianism specifically) that no “natural law” governs the growth of population. The changing social structure, not “natural law,” determines whether there is “over-population” or not, and whether in consequence thereof, or independently of it, mutual aid or competition characterizes social relationships. “Over-population” and the hunger and misery associated with it, are not products of nature but products of men, or rather of social relationships which preclude such a social organization of production and of life generally as would abolish with the problem of hunger that of “over-population.” The “over-population” of which Huxley spoke was not one relative to the means of subsistence, but relative to the needs of capital accumulation; it was a product of the capitalist mode of production not of “natural law.”

To be sure, “over-population” seems to exist in large parts of the world where people are subjected to famines, floods and backward methods of production. While this condition may not be man-made, it is at any rate maintained by men, so as to secure privileged positions within existing social relations, or international power relations, or both simultaneously. “Over-population” is not the cause but the result of these attempts to arrest social development, as may be seen by the fact that wherever hunger is eliminated population tends to decline. But even if it would not do so, there exist for a very long time ample opportunities for an increased production able to feed a world population many times its present size.

It is not really “over-population” which worries the ruling classes. Rather the opposite is true; as is made clear by frantic efforts to increase population at the first sign of its tendential decline, by the fact that birth-control is made a crime, and by the maintenance of conditions that foster a vast increase of the impoverished masses. Conditions of misery for the masses are a prerequisite to the wealth and special social position of the ruling classes.

Although it is good to know that there is just as much, or more, mutual aid as competition in nature and society, this is not enough to make men change their ways and to alter social relationships. For those who profit by conditions it does not matter whether it is “natural” or “unnatural,” the “best” or the “worst” method for survival of the species. Mankind is none of their concern. For those who create the profits it may be nice to know that the mutual aid practised in their own circles attests to their high ethical concepts and natural behavior, but it does not stop their exploitation. The whole controversy between Huxley and Kropotkin is somewhat beside the point — it does not touch upon the relevant issues of society, namely that “mutual aid” in human society presupposes the abolition of class relations.