Home > Uncategorized > More about Mutual Aid and Competition

More about Mutual Aid and Competition

In an earlier post I wrote a little about a paper about Pyotr Kropotkin. In the comments, ‘Anarcho’ links to a very good and thorough longread written by him about Kropotkin. In the comment he states that: “Kropotkin’s work has been more than confirmed by modern science”. Which is, considering this recent piece from neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt (which however does not mention Kropotkin) indeed true. Interestingly, according to Anarcho Kropotkin wrote his work as a reaction to the fundamentalist individualism of Anglosaxon social scientists, which as we know also permeates neoclassical economics:

“As Kropotkin explained in Mutual Aid, the articles the book was based on were written in response to Thomas Henry Huxley’s “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society” written in 1888.”


“As Kropotkin explained in an anarchist essay written after Mutual Aid, Huxley’s position like “all our religious, historical, juridical, and social education is imbued with the idea that human beings, if left to themselves, would revert to savagery; that without authority men would eat one another; for nothing, they say, can be expected from the ‘multitude’ but brutishness and the warring of each against all. Men would perish if above them soared not the elect . . . These saviours prevent, we are told, the battle of all against all.” This, he argued, was nonsense as “a scientific study of societies and institutions brings us to quite different views. It proves that usages and customs created by mankind for the sake of mutual aid, mutual defence, and peace in general, were precisely elaborated by the ‘nameless multitude.’ And it was these customs that enabled man to survive in his struggle for existence in the midst of extremely hard natural conditions.” The notion that the state was merely the instrument of the people is hardly supported by history nor current practice, for what the state and its laws have done is to “fix, or rather to crystallise in a permanent form, such customs as already were in existence” and adding to them “some new rules – rules of inequality and servile submission of the masses in the interest of the armed rich and the warlike minorities.”

Which is totally consistent with the ideas of Aamodt in her blogpost. An aspect which fascinates me: Kropotkin’s views were, though not Anglosaxon, mainstream in Russia (and, might I add, on the entire European continent, as shown by for instance the ideas of Friedrich Hayek or Norbert Elias):

“[The ideas] were but one expression of a broad current in Russian evolutionary thought that pre-dated, indeed encouraged, his work on the subject and was no means confined to leftist thinkers.” Significantly, he “first questioned Darwin’s approach to the struggle for existence while exploring Siberia as a youth and was an accomplished and celebrated naturalist before his political views crystallised. Furthermore . . . his ideas about co-operation in nature were quite common among Russian naturalists of varying political perspectives.”.


“It is arguable that of all the books on co-operation written by biologists,” suggests Lee Alan Dugatkin Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Louisville, “Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid had the most profound affect on biologists, social scientists, and laymen alike.” Anthropologist Ashley Montagu dedicated his book Darwin, Competition and Co-operation, to Kropotkin, stating it was a “classic” and “no book in the whole realm of evolutionary theories is more readable or more important, for it is Mutual Aid which provides the first thoroughly documented demonstration of the importance of co-operation as a factor in evolution.”

Time to include Kropotkin in the economics textbooks?

  1. February 17, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    I’ve met Lee Alan Dugatkin when i was visiting D S Wilson.(i stayed at his house)—he was his grad student studying cooperation in guppies. (I did everything except mail in my grad school application—i decided my test scores were a bit low—i usually am in the 90th percentile but for GREs one score was in the 80’s so i decided i’d keep the application fee in my pocket —a whole 50$—and go back to west va and dc). Probably a bit stoopid. Dugatkin later disagreed with D S Wilson on group selection.

    I beleive in cultural group selection anyway—‘west coast school’ (like Biggie vs Tupac in music) —DS Wilson is correct for biological systems but not human ones. see ‘the false allure of group selection’ by the proto-fascist Steven Pinker on edge magazine online.

    My favorite book by Kropotkin is his ‘Ethics’—the last one. Very outdated (written in 1920 or so), I am quite familiar with ‘anarcho”s writings. Some of that stuff i think he got from me (i’ve corresponded with him). He is not totally reliable—spends alot of time and words debating the protostalinists the ISR (internationalist social/a/ist review) or ISO like we have here (jacobin magazine).

    u need bakunin and proudhon as well as modern science in there too

  2. dmf
    February 17, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    our efforts at co-operation are full of acts of competition, as human critters we are always already manipulating our environs to try and achieve our interests sometimes in ways that are welcomed by those at hand (those in our reach) sometimes not so much.

    • merijnknibbe
      February 17, 2016 at 7:02 pm

      And now suppose that evolution has changed us in a way that what seems selfish to some of us (making love, having sex, whatever) is in fact an individual waste of energy in the interest of the survival of the species?

      • dmf
        February 17, 2016 at 9:25 pm

        well I think that might take “species” as some-thing more that a figure of speech which would be a sort of categorical error, but if you mean that the materials/assemblages that make us up as kludged together individual organisms don’t act in ways that have our personal survival as their ends (as they don’t really have ends/teloi) than indeed, no Necessity to life in physics.

      • February 18, 2016 at 12:03 am

        I was thinking more about conservation of information, cooperation and exploration of methodology for purposeful democratic focus of enthusiastic and educated minds.

      • dmf
        February 18, 2016 at 2:48 am

        that doesn’t sound much like evolution, there is some interesting historical work into that kind of venture:

  3. February 17, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    Thank you merijnknibbe

  4. February 17, 2016 at 8:45 pm

    “Only the efforts of thousands of intelligences working on the problems can co-operate in the development of a new social system and find the best solutions for the thousands of local needs.”[169] Unsurprisingly, he concluded that the Bolsheviks “have shown how the Revolution is not to be made.”[170]”

    Straight from anarcho quantum physics, astrophysics and information theory.

  5. February 17, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    Read Elinor Ostrum.

    We have always co-operated with each other in our common interests.

    • February 18, 2016 at 12:10 am

      So climate collapse will be solved at the last minute?

      • February 18, 2016 at 1:09 am

        Why would I believe that? At this point, I have little hope that we can avert it or do much in the way of mitigating it. Though doing nothing is not an option, there is a lot of money in play that puts short-term profits ahead of long term existence beyond the death of those opting for short-term profits.

        Our institutions for action on many fronts have been corrupted in ways that militate against or actually disable our abilities to cooperate.

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