Mutual Aid

Pyotr Kropotkin

Book cover

I had this on my Kindle as a “backup” book for a while, because it was a free download from Project Gutenberg and I like Kropotkin pretty well (see some reviews I wrote of other books of his). I had chipped away at it piecemeal over time, on flights when I finished whatever other book I was reading and the like, but I recently went ahead and finished it (because I got a bunch of great free John Muir books as my new backups!).

This is an interesting hybrid sort of book. Kropotkin is an anarchist and also a gentleman-scientist, and his goal in this book is to show how “mutual aid” plays an important role, even a pivotal role, in the natural world, in evolution, and among humanity. I think we today are a little more used to this idea, but Kropotkin was writing this book during the heyday of Social Darwinism, so I think it was a bolder statement to contemporaries.

The first few chapters are about mutual aid in the animal world. Elise and I have watched a lot of nature documentaries over the years, and it struck me while reading this that it was probably the late nineteenth-century equivalent of watching a nature documentary–Kropotkin talks in some detail about the social organization of very many different kinds of animals, enough that you start to build a little picture in your head. Another very striking aspect of this for me was how very little was known about the lives of fish and other sea creatures at this time. Kropotkin essentially passes over them by saying that we don’t really know anything about them. That gave me a strong appreciation for Jacques Cousteau, and the very real way in which he opened up an entirely new world for people. A reminder of how lucky we are to be able to watch “Blue Planet” today.

The rest of the book is about as you’d expect, giving illustrations of cooperation from “savage” societies and modern societies, and talking about ways in which the modern state works against them. One part that was very interesting for me was Kropotkin’s depiction of the medieval European “free city.” He really paints the era of about 1100-1500 as a high point for human societal flourishing, with practices of mutual aid taking their greatest historical extent (basically, extended to the level of the city but not beyond). This interested me because I think the common depiction of this time period is as a dark and backward era preceding the flourishing of the Renaissance. Kropotkin essentially argues that the social practices of the 1100-1500 period were what allowed the Renaissance to occur, but by the time it really hit its stride, it was already starting to be crushed out by the rise of states. This is certainly a heterodox telling, but I am curious how much historical truth there is to it. Kropotkin specifically talks about how the historical narratives that are passed down tend to focus on grand events and in particular conflicts, and generally pass over the lived experience of the common man (which includes a great deal of solidarity and relatively little conflict). I am sure this is true to some extent–and also probably less controversial a statement today than in the late nineteenth century.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars