Russian revolutionary and anarchist communist Petr Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution in 1902 as a direct response to contemporary Malthusian misinterpretations of Darwin’s theories of evolution by natural selection. These held that the struggle for survival of organism against organism forces us to conclude that human nature must be understood as being driven by competition for personal benefit. Kropotkin wished to show that there are other contexts of struggle in which cooperation, rather than competition, among members of the same species – particularly those in which organisms are pitted against the harshness of surrounding environments – is what allows organisms and species to persevere through unbelievably harsh conditions. These forms of struggle are characterised by what he termed mutual aid.
Whilst we may not all agree that nature ought to be anything that offers us comfort, solace or moral guidance in human terms, history shows us that during times of crisis, the principle of mutual aid – neighbours cooperate with neighbours, essentially – is often the most rapid and effective way in which practical support can be provided to those that need it. At the same time, it offers a meaningful and useful activity with which anyone in the community can get involved.
As people gather together quickly to respond, an initial period characterised by both fear and excitement will inevitably be followed by one of questions to do with coordination; how potentially large numbers of people can meet, communicate and work together; how can material support be sourced or produced and then distributed; how to delegate tasks and share leadership functions without getting lost in squabbles over struggles for power and prestige…
We can draw on a wealth of examples from recent history that provide useful and concrete suggestions for those of us organising today, either in response to extraordinary conditions or as part of a broader struggle for a society ravaged by centuries of structural injustice and over exploitation by the capitalist system.
These groups can teach us how to handle and overcome these frightening and disrupting initial experiences, fuelled by the conviction that we cooperate together or die separately.
- Kropotkin, P. (1902) – Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
- Horras, T. (2017) in The Philadelphia Parisan
In defense of mutual aid, revolutionary culture and survival.” An essay from detailing the history of mutual aid, examples from the resurgence during the late 1960s and 1970s and responding to criticisms form the left
- ROAR Collective (Issue #9)
Some examples of mutual aid initiatives located within revolutionary movements and strategy for building “dual power” (see further readings in this edition of the magazine)
Not so much a single text as a whole syllabus put together by Professor Dean Spade of the University of Chicago and the Big Door Brigade for a course on “Queer and Trans Mutual Aid for Survival & Mobilisation” (2019). Full syllabus, reading list and discussion questions can be found: http://www.deanspade.net/2019/09/30/reading-questions-for-mutual-aid-class/
Recording from Plan C WTF is Mutual Aid Open Meeting with scott crow, author of “Black Flags and Windmills” and community organiser with mutual aid collectives responding to Hurricane Katrina
An interview with Dezeray Lyn from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, in which the host and guest discuss the history and principles of mutual aid and some practical examples of communities on the ground practicing “solidarity not charity.”