Mutual Aid Revisited: Kropotkin's Work From a Modern View

By Brooks E. Davis

In 1902 Prince Peter Kropotkin published Mutual Aid which provided a scientific basic for his Anarchist views. He disputed the claim of social Darwinists such as Thomas Huxley that the wealthy were wealthy because they were most fit to be so and the poor were poor because they were unfit to be wealthy. Today, ninety-five years later, the field of evolutionary biology has advanced significantly, particularly in the area of cooperation among animal of the same or different species, and thus it is necessary to reexamine Kropotkin's work in this new light.

In the first chapter of Mutual Aid Kropotkin states:

But if we resort to an indirect test, and ask Nature: "Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?" we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization. (Ch1)

To support this view, Kropotkin provides numerous examples from a variety of Russian sources. Kropotkin states that he found no examples of intraspecies competition during his years of research in Siberia and claims are also supported by a number of other Russian zoologists. In addition to finding no evidence of intraspecies competition, he sites a number of examples of cooperation from birds and mammals all the way down to beetles:

We have quite well-observed facts of mutual help amidst the burying beetles (Necrophorus). They must have some decaying organic matter to lay their eggs in, and thus to provide their larvae with food; but that matter must not decay very rapidly. So they are wont to bury in the ground the corpses of all kinds of small animals which they occasionally find in their rambles. As a rule, they live an isolated life, but when one of them has discovered the corpse of a mouse or of a bird, which it hardly could manage to bury itself, it calls four, six, or ten other beetles to perform the operation with united efforts; if necessary, they transport the corpse to a suitable soft ground; and they bury it in a very considerate way, without quarrelling as to which of them will enjoy the privilege of laying its eggs in the buried corpse. (Ch1)

While these arguments certainly point to the presence of mutual aid among animals, the arguments that there is no evidence of intraspecies competition don't hold up to scrutiny. In his famous book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins provides two strong examples of competition or worse within a species:

Blackheaded gulls nest in large colonies, the nests being only a few feet apart. When the chicks hatch out they are small and defenceless and easy to swallow. It is quite common for a gull to wait until a neighbour's back is turned, perhaps while away fishing, and then pounce on one of the neighbour's chicks and swallow it whole. It thereby obtains a good nutritious meal, without having to go to the trouble of catching a fish, and without having to leave its own nest unprotected. (5)

Another, less extreme, example relates to

the reported cowardly behaviour of emperor penguins in the Antarctic. They have been seen standing on the brink of the water, hesitating before diving in, because of the danger of being eaten by seals. If only one of them would dive in, the rest would know whether there was a seal there or not. Naturally nobody wants to be the guinea pig, so they wait, and sometimes even try to push each other in. (5)

These cases clearly pose a problem for the theory that there is no struggle for existence between members of the same species. Another problem with Kropotkin's theory is the statement "that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest." This looks a lot like the classical group selection argument that animals evolve in ways that are "for the good of the species." While I think it is possible for Kropotkin's argument to be cleverly argued such that it is not a group selectionist argument, it is more likely that Kropotkin was thinking in a group selectionist manner when he developed his theory. For this reason it is necessary to consider the group selection theory while considering Kropotkin's theory of mutual aid.

The group selection theory is what most people tend to think of when they think of evolution. It is the theory that the species (or at least large groups within it) are the basic unit of selection. This theory is very controversial because it has a lot of philosophical appeal, but it is generally thought to be unsound, both in theory and reality. Starting with reality,

Living things have characteristics that contradict the theory of group selection. The 50:50 sex ratio is a case in point. In polygynous species, it is inefficient for the population to produce 50% males, most of whom are not needed. The widespread existence of the 50:50 sex ratio suggests that group selection has been ineffective on this trait. (Ridley 311)

The theoretical problem with group selection is more compelling because we know that selection does act on different sizes of units in different circumstances. Let us consider a group of organisms that have a trait that increases the fitness of the group as a whole at the expense of its own fitness. (For example, restricted reproduction when food is scarce.) You can think of them as animal is that makes it easier to visualize, but don't assume they are capable of logical thought. Now, let us say that a mutation occurs causing one of the organisms to reproduce as much as possible. That organism will have more progeny then the other organisms because it doesn't restrict its reproduction. Its progeny will likely have this new gene which will cause them to produce in an unrestricted manner as well. Clearly, these selfish organisms will quickly takeover because they are more fit, but their prominence will be to the detriment of the group as a whole.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published his revolutionary book, The Selfish Gene. The Selfish Gene takes the view that the only unit of selection that matters is the gene (thought the term gene is loosely defined) and as a direct all that matters is the survival of the gene. Strictly speaking, there was nothing new about this claim, but Dawkins took it to a new level. By arguing from the perspective of a gene rather then an individual, Dawkins was able to utterly reject group selection and still account for behaviors that are ultimately detrimental to the individual. The basic premise is that organisms which tend to live in groups that are closely related (and thus are likely to have the same genes) will tend to evolve traits that are beneficial to the group as a whole. The reason for this is not that the group benefits, but that any particular gene is likely to be present in many individuals in the group. Thus a gene that leads to an increase in the group's fitness at the detriment of the individual will still tend to increase in the population as long as the statistical detriment to the individual is less then the statistical gain to the group. This theory is generally misunderstood because people assume that a conscious count of relatives who might be saved is made each time a potentially detrimental action is considered. All that matters to this theory is the statistical likelihood that those in the area are carrying the gene that is causing the action. This theory, in addition to a number of social psychological theories, makes the claim that every action is inherently selfish. This certainly casts some doubt on the concept of mutual aid.

Fortunately, more recent research in the area of game theory indicates that Kropotkin may be right after all. This research investigates a problem called the iterated prisoners' dilemma. The prisoners' dilemma is commonly stated as follows. Two people are arrested for a crime that they did commit but for which there is only enough evidence to convict them of a lesser crime. They are separated and then asked to tell on the other person in exchange for no sentence and are given no chance to communicate. The following payoff matrix shows the results of each combination of actions.

Prisoner B's Action



Prisoner A's Action



Ex. 1 year in jail


Ex. 10 years in jail



Ex. No time in jail


Ex. 5 years in jail

Payoff naming is from Prisoner A's point of view.

If you consider the standard prisoner's dilemma, the only possible choice (from a purely selfish, outcomes point of view) is to defect because that will insure that you will never get the worst possible value, the "sucker's payoff." Thus, this isn't a very interesting problem. However, if you assume each prisoner will be given each choice repeatedly and will know what the other person did last time, then some communication is allowed. As a result it is possible to develop strategies which will produce outcomes better then the outcome from each person defecting every time. A political scientist named Robert Axelrod conducted a investigation into which strategies where best for the iterated prisoner's dilemma. Dawkins describes Axelrod's work in detail in a chapter entitled "nice guys finish first" in the second edition of The Selfish Gene. The details are well beyond the scope of this paper, but the results are quite interesting. The winning strategy was technically nice which means that is will cooperate by default. The strategy was named Tit for Tat and it works on a very simple principle. The first round it cooperates with the other. If the other side defects then it defects the next round and if the other side if cooperative then it cooperates then next round. This simple and elegant strategy will beat out any other strategy under the conditions of the standard iterated prisoner's dilemma. Under a slightly more complicated system where "populations" of strategies "breed" with one another, Tit for Tat won five out of six trials although a number of other strategies which were also "nice but provocable strategies" were still around at the end as they were all playing "cooperate" and thus could not tell each other apart. In the case were Tit for Tat didn't win out, one of the other nice strategies won.

This strategy sounds very similar to the very strategy which Kropotkin proposed in The Conquest of Bread for dealing with those few people who will not work for the communal good:

Let us take a group of volunteers, combining for some particular enterprise. Having its success at heart, they all work with a will, save one of the associates, who is frequently absent from his post. Must they on his account dissolve the group, elect a president to impose fines, or maybe distribute markers for work done, as is customary in the Academy? It is evident that neither the one nor the other will be done, but that some day the comrade who imperils their enterprise will be told: "Friend, we should like to work with you; but as you are often absent from your post, and you do your work negligently, we must part. Go and find other comrades who will put up with your indifference!" (190)

This gives some hope that Kropotkin's theory of mutual aid holds true under certain circumstances. Better yet, these circumstances do not appear to be to idealistic to ever actually hold true.


Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kropotkin, P. (1902). Mutual Aid. London: Heinemann. (

--- (1906). The Conquest of Bread. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons. (

Logan, R. (1993). Kropotkin: Basis for a Cooperative Economy in Russia. Prout Journal, 6(3). (

Ridley, M. (1993). Evolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Science, Inc.