George Walford: Cooperative Struggle

Struggle or cooperation? Darwin and Spencer on one side, Kropotkin on the other. Well, not quite. Although the title of his book, Mutual Aid gets read as suggesting otherwise, Kropotkin, too, recognised that life means struggle, and a struggle in which the fittest survive:

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of a struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalisation of our century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions “by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried out?” and “who are the fittest in the struggle?” will differ widely according to the importance given to the two widely different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among different individuals, and the one which Darwin described as “metaphorical” – the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances. [1]

Kropotkin came to devote himself mainly to human affairs, and the importance of his book for social and political theorising keeps it alive. Human beings frequently do join together in collective struggle against adverse circumstances, foregoing immediate personal advantage for the sake of greater benefits (not always material) to come via the collectivity. But on the question whether animals do so an answer other than Kropotkin’s has some weight behind it. Adam Kendon remarks that although chimpanzees have shown themselves capable of using a form of language they have not developed it themselves, and suggests that this is because they do not need to. They have no need to communicate since they act independently; even when a group seem to be cooperating, in fact each is acting for himself, taking advantage of what the others have done. [2]

In the quotation given Kropotkin observes that opinions will differ according to the importance given the two aspects of struggle he distinguishes, and differing ideological inclinations, towards either competition or cooperation, appear prominently over areas wider than natural history. The preference for cooperation rather than independent activity in economic. affairs has appeared only recently in historical terms. Adam Kendon’s observations on chimpanzee’s tend to support the interpretation that this inclination strengthens as people move farther from their natural condition.

[1] Kropotkin P.A. 1902 Mutual Aid; a factor of evolution New York: — McClure Phillips, quoted in Gould S. J. 1991 Bully for Brontosaurus Harniondsworth: Penguin 335.
[2] Kendon A.1991 “Some Considerations for a Theory of Language Origins” in MAN, Volume 26 No.2 June 1991.

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The Kronstadt Kids strip used to appear in Freedom. Here the (A-)SPGB use it to suggest that the anarchist recommendation, not to vote, effectively supports the dictators.

They themselves advise you to mark your ballot-paper SOCIALISM – i.e. not to vote. (Except where their own candidate appears – up till now, in one constituency at each General Election).

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.