Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Mutual Aid - Peter Kropotkin

It's been a while since I posted a book review. This month I've been reading a work that couldn't be much further from the topic of my previous book post back in January.

For one thing, it was written over a century earlier. Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince, born in 1842, who was also a revolutionary anarchist. The book that is the subject* of this post was published in 1902.

*Once again, as far as is reasonable I am reviewing the book, rather than expanding on the ideas contained therein

Peter Kropotkin - 'Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution'

'Mutual Aid' can roughly be divided up into three parts dealing with animals, primitive peoples, and city-dwelling peoples.

In the first two of these, Kropotkin aims to dispel the notion that "mutual struggle" between individuals is the defining characteristic of life. In this respect, the book is conspicuously a product of its time. Kropotkin filled a gap, telling the other side of a story that had been neglected by the evolutionary biologists of the time, such as Huxley. To the modern reader, much of the factual information in the 'Mutual Aid Among Animals' chapter is common knowledge and accepted science, and it seems strange that it would need to be pointed out in the way Kropotkin does, delineating examples of altruism and sociability species by species.

However, as Kropotkin concedes in the Introduction, "animals and men are represented in ['Mutual Aid'] in too favourable an aspect...". The chapters dealing with animals do expound on social species to a much greater degree than solitary or live in small families, and also describe animal life with a somewhat anthropomorphic colouring that reads a little strangely to this modern reader at times. Overall, though, this section of the book surely represented a valuable contribution to the understanding of the natural world at the time.

It is when Kropotkin moves onto anthropology in the second section of the book that the content becomes both rather more divergent from modern science, and at times rather perplexing. In particular, the chapter entitled 'Mutual Aid Among Savages' frequently displays the romantic, utopian view of the way of life of primitive peoples nowadays referred to as the 'Noble Savage' and, I consider (though I know there are those who disagree), discredited. In other places Kropotkin makes reference to blood feuds and clan warfare "chiefly in consequence of superstition", however there is little discussion on the implications on the book's central contention as it is applied to the human species.

From the next chapter and throughout the following chapters, the book becomes rather more of a study of history than a scientific review. Viewed in this way, 'Mutual Aid' can again be seen as a work that fills a gap and redresses a balance, examining feudalism and early capitalism from the perspective of the ordinary worker, highlighting the importance of people's councils, guilds and unions. The impositions of the lords and feudal barons and later the capitalistic class and Parliament are described in great contrast with the co-operation and solidarity of the people, and by the end of the 'Mutual Aid Amongst Ourselves' chapters there is more than a whiff of the political tract about 'Mutual Aid' that will probably be familiar to those of you who've read a modern-day far-left newspaper.

As a book, 'Mutual Aid' is a thought-provoking read which considering its date of publication and subject matter has aged very well. However, due to the level of detail and number of often rather repetitive examples, it is heavy going at times despite the fairly self-explanatory central contentions.

Kropotkin does fulfil the aim of showing that mutual aid is indeed a factor of evolution, and in a way he was ahead of his time in this regard. The later sections are rather less so, and leave several of the sort of questions a cynic would ask unanswered. However, that isn't such a bad thing...


Stephenfromacton said...

Nice post, Ian. I appreciate the way that you've taken the time to read a book, that while it might not be considered by the "blogosphere" to be modern and relevant, in essence deals in a fascinating manner with two of the current obsessions of internet political debate-namely evolutionary biology and libertarianism.

You mention towrds the end of your well-considered review, that Mutual Aid "leave(s) several of the sort of questions a cynic would ask unanswered."

I'd like to see you act the role of the "cynic" and ask some of those questions. :-)

In any case, I'm sure you'd agree that as a young libertarian, it has one great advantage for you as a defining political text-unlike certain other books you've reviewed, it's not written by a desperatedly depressing ingrate-cum-snob!

Anyway, in the spirit of liberty, what will the subject of your next review be-Tolstoy's Resurrection? Don Cherry's Symphony for Improvisers, "The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism"?

QT said...

Above deleted comment was a duplicate post.

Some of the unanswered questions relate to the more psychological political theory that I am particularly interested in. For instance, Kropotkin refers to clan warfare, but doesn't delve into the origin of divergence of clans, or the social structure of same, to any meaningful degree...and so on in similar vein through the book.

I'm not sure you'll appreciate the posts I would write in response, but they to me are the most important unanswered questions from a book that waxes on human nature the way 'Mutual Aid' does.

As for the next book review, I don't think it'll be any of those suggestions. I have a big pile of books on my bookshelves waiting to be read or re-read. Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett or Naomi Klein, maybe.