Notes from Kropotkin’s remarkable book Mutual Aid.


Ted Trainer



It is surprising and disappointing that this book receives so little attention today. It provides a powerful case that animals are in general mostly social and cooperative, especially humans and that the most important factor driving us is mutual aid.

It is a long book, crammed with an astounding volume of behavioural evidence, beginning with insects, then dealing with all sorts of animals, humans, different societies, history, especially of the guilds in the medieval era. Kropotkin’s knowledge is vast, evident in the many footnotes. The first versions of the case were published around 1890.The general themes re mutual aid and altruism in nature are regarded as sound today, e.g., by Stephen J Gould.

He laments the way thinking about humans has been dominated by the Hobbesian view that humans are irretrievably individualistic, competitive and aggressive and must be controlled if chaos is to be avoided. Many Darwinists have held this view, notably Huxley. But Kropotkin argues that more important in our nature, evolution and social forms has been our powerful and deeply entrenched disposition to cooperate, care about and help each other and to enjoy social interaction.


He documents these dispositions at great length, beginning with insects. Regarding “…the origin of the mutual-aid feeling or instinct …we must trace its existence as far back as to the lowest stages of the animal world; and from these stages we can follow its uninterrupted evolution.” He was strongly influenced by a lecture in 1880, in which Kessler said, “All classes of animals and especially the higher ones, practise mutual aid,”

The cooperative behaviour of ants and bees might not need to be pointed out  but what about species of beetles who come to the aid of a beetle upside down and unable to right himself and cooperate to turn him up the right way? He documents similar behaviour in “lowly” organisms. He notes that some species are more individualistic than others.  However the mammals are the ones where “…association and mutual aid are the rule ,… it is especially with the rodents, the ungulata, and the ruminants that we find a highly developed practice of mutual aid.”

“ We know at the present time that all animals, beginning with the ants, going on to the birds, and ending with the highest mammals, are fond of plays, wrestling, running after each other, trying to capture each other, teasing each other, and so on. And while many plays are, so to speak, a school for the proper behaviour of the young in mature life, there are others, which, apart from their utilitarian purposes, are, together with dancing and singing, mere manifestations of an excess of forces — “the joy of life,” and a desire to communicate in some way or another with other individuals of the same or of other species — in short, a manifestation of sociability proper, which is a distinctive feature of all the animal world.”

The evolutionary significance is not difficult to see.  “…those animals which know best how to combine, have the greatest chances of survival and of further evolution. …The fittest are thus the most sociable animals, and sociability appears as the chief factor of evolution...” Note that what matters is survival of the species, and competition between members within a species might be harmful for this.

“Happily enough, competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods, and natural selection finds better fields for its activity. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support. In the great struggle for life — for the greatest possible fullness and intensity of life with the least waste of energy — natural selection continually seeks out the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible. The ants combine in nests and nations; they pile up their stores, they rear their cattle — and thus avoid competition; and natural selection picks out of the ants’ family the species which know best how to avoid competition, with its unavoidably deleterious consequences.”

“…in the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations. The cunningest and the shrewdest are eliminated in favour of those who understand the advantages of sociable life and mutual support.”

“Mutual aid is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”

“Don’t compete! — competition is always injurious to the species, 

and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!” …“Therefore combine — practise mutual aid! That is the surest means for giving to each and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual, and moral.” That is what Nature teaches us…”

“How few are the animal species which live an isolated life, and how numberless are those which live in societies, either for mutual defence, or for hunting and storing up food, or for rearing their offspring, or simply for enjoying life in common. …those species which best know how to combine, and to avoid competition, have the best chances of survival and of a further progressive development.

“…in the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.”

The significance for justice, equity, law, intelligence, problem solving, culture, progress, compassion and morality.

Kropotkin argues persuasively that mutuality involves some kind of   concern for the other, desire to enjoy the company of others, readiness to assist the other, concern to see the other treated fairly, and this has led to a concern for morality and law.

Sociability, mutuality brings a sense of justice, equity …feelings of justice develop, more or less, with all gregarious animals. … If a lazy sparrow intends appropriating the nest which a comrade is building, or even steals from it a few sprays of straw, the group interferes against the lazy comrade…” 

 “We have a number of well certified facts of compassion between wild animals at liberty. … J.C. Wood’s narrative of a weasel which came to pick up and to carry away an injured comrade enjoys a well-merited popularity. So also the observation of Captain Stansbury on his journey to Utah which is quoted by Darwin; he saw a blind pelican which was fed, and well fed, by other pelicans upon fishes which had to be brought from a distance of thirty miles.

“As to facts of compassion with wounded comrades, they are continually mentioned by all field zoologists. Such facts are quite natural. Compassion is a necessary outcome of social life. But compassion also means a considerable advance in general intelligence and sensibility. It is the first step towards the development of higher moral sentiments.”

This factor produces protective arrangements for the individual. He details this in his lengthy discussion of the medieval towns where all saw themselves as brothers and sisters.

Further, Kropotkin argues that we are dealing here with a disposition which makes progress possible…because it is about cooperating to find solutions to mutually experienced problems…including building gothic cathedrals.  He extends this factor to improvements in social arrangements. These come from that basic concern to mutually assist.

History, leading to the Medieval town and the guilds.

Chapter 3 details cooperation among ”savages”, especially the Celtic Barbarians, involving the emergence of “the core institution”, the village, with its arrangements transcending the single tribe or family.

Much space is given to explaining the rise, nature and workings of the Medieval towns and the guilds. These are highly impressive examples of the workings of communities driven by the mutual aid principle, and an inspiration for today’s utopians.  (Later he explains how their achievements were destroyed by the rise of the state; see below.)

“…the village community, based upon a territorial conception, came into existence. This new institution, which had naturally grown out of the preceding one — the clan — permitted the barbarians to pass through a most disturbed period of history without being broken into isolated families which would have succumbed in the struggle for life.” 

Self-reliance and federalism, the sovereignty of each group, and the construction of the political body from the simple to the composite, were the leading ideas in the eleventh century.

Gradually “A new life of freedom began to develop within the fortified enclosures. The mediæval city was born”. “In the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the fortified villages and market-places, representing so many “oases amidst the feudal forest,” began to free themselves from their lord’s yoke, and slowly elaborated the future city organization

“With the growing diversity of occupations, crafts and arts, and with the growing commerce in distant lands, some new form of union was required, and this necessary new element was supplied by the guilds.” These played a very important part in the emancipation of the cities.

These towns and guilds seem to have constituted a high point in the history of mutuality. The guilds were numerous and elaborate, driven by a morality quite unlike ours, notably because of the intense sense of camaraderie; the guild “… considers all its members as brothers and sisters.” 

“… the mediaeval city … was an attempt at organizing, on a much grander scale than in a village community, a close union for mutual aid and support, for consumption and production, and for social life altogether, without imposing upon men the fetters of the State, but giving full liberty of expression to the creative genius of each separate group of individuals in art, crafts, science, commerce, and political organization.”

The guild “… had its own self-jurisdiction, its own military force, its own general assemblies, its own traditions of struggles, glory, and independence, its own relations with other guilds of the same trade in other cities: it had, in a word, a full organic life which could only result from the integrality of the vital functions. When the town was called to arms, the guild appeared as a separate company (Schaar), armed with its own arms (or its own guns, lovingly decorated by the guild, at a subsequent epoch), under its own self-elected commanders. It was, in a word, as independent a unit of the federation

Consider the extreme difference between the mentality that drove the economy and ours today. He refers to“…the general brotherly feelings which must reign in the guild; … the regulations relative to self-jurisdiction in cases of quarrels arising between two brothers, or a brother and a stranger; and then, the social duties of the brethren are enumerated. If a brother’s house is burned, or he has lost his ship, or has suffered on a pilgrim’s voyage, all the brethren must come to his aid. If a brother falls dangerously ill, two brethren must keep watch by his bed till he is out of danger, and if he dies, the brethren must bury him — a great affair in those times of pestilences — and follow him to the church and the grave. After his death they must provide for his children, if necessary; very often the widow becomes a sister to the guild.”

“…there was on board ship the naval authority of the captain; but, for the very success of the common enterprise, all men on board, rich and poor, masters and crew, captain and sailors, agreed to be equals in their mutual relations, to be simply men, bound to aid each other and to settle their possible disputes before judges elected by all of them. So also when a number of craftsmen — masons, carpenters, stone-cutters, etc. — came together for building, say, a cathedral, they all belonged to a city which had its political organization, and each of them belonged moreover to his own craft; but they were united besides by their common enterprise, which they knew better than any one else, and they joined into a body united by closer, although temporary, bonds; they founded the guild for the building of the cathedral.”

“Such were the leading ideas of those brotherhoods which gradually covered the whole of mediæval life. In fact, we know of guilds among all possible professions: guilds of serfs, guilds of freemen, and guilds of both serfs and freemen; guilds called into life for the special purpose of hunting, fishing, or a trading expedition, and dissolved when the special purpose had been achieved; and guilds lasting for centuries in a given craft or trade.”

“So we see not only merchants, craftsmen, hunters, and peasants united in guilds; we also see guilds of priests, painters, teachers of primary schools and universities, guilds for performing the passion play, for building a church, for developing the “mystery” of a given school of art or craft, or for a special recreation — even guilds among beggars, executioners, and lost women, all organized on the same double principle of self-jurisdiction and mutual support.”

Note the significance of the feast as a bonding event. “The common meal, like the festival at the old tribal folkmote — the mahl or malum — or the Buryate aba, or the parish feast and the harvest supper, was simply an affirmation of brotherhood. It symbolized the times when everything was kept in common by the clan. This day, at least, all belonged to all; all sat at the same table and partook of the same meal.”

Further on the working of the economy;

"Everything had to go to the market and be offered there for every one’s purchase, till the ringing of the bell had closed the market. Then only could the retailer buy the remainder, and even then his profit should be an “honest profit” only.[202

“… if a scarcity visited the city, all had to suffer from it more or less; but apart from the calamities, so long as the free cities existed no one could die in their midst from starvation, as is unhappily too often the case in our own times.

“… it was the city itself which used to buy all food supplies for the use of the citizens. … the cargoes of subsistences “were purchased by certain civic officials in the name of the town, and then distributed in shares among the merchant burgesses, no one being allowed to buy wares landed in the port unless the municipal authorities refused to purchase them.”

            Working conditions.

Again note the huge difference between their attitude to work and ours, and how moral values determined the working of the economy.

“ … in a mediæval city manual labour was no token of inferiority; it bore, on the contrary, traces of the high respect it had been kept in in the village community. Manual labour in a “mystery” was considered as a pious duty towards the citizens: a public function (Amt), as honourable as any other. An idea of “justice” to the community, of “right” towards both producer and consumer, which would seem so extravagant now, penetrated production and exchange. The tanner’s, the cooper’s, or the shoemaker’s work must be “just,” fair, they wrote in those times. Wood, leather or thread which are used by the artisan must be “right”; bread must be baked “in justice,” and so on.”

 “… the mediæval artisan did not produce for an unknown buyer, or to throw his goods into an unknown market. He produced for his guild first; for a brotherhood of men who knew each other, knew the technics of the craft, and, in naming the price of each product, could appreciate the skill displayed in its fabrication or the labour bestowed upon it. Then the guild, not the separate producer, offered the goods for sale in the community, and this last, in its turn, offered to the brotherhood of allied communities those goods which were exported, and assumed responsibility for their quality. With such an organization, it was the ambition of each craft not to offer goods of inferior quality, and technical defects or adulterations became a matter concerning the whole community, because, an ordinance says, “they would destroy public confidence.”[214] Production being thus a social duty, placed under the control of the whole amitas, manual labour could not fall into the degraded condition which it occupies now, so long as the free city was living.

A difference between master and apprentice, or between master and worker (compayne, Geselle), existed but in the mediæval cities from their very beginnings; this was at the outset a mere difference of age and skill, not of wealth and power. After a seven years’ apprenticeship, and after having proved his knowledge and capacities by a work of art, the apprentice became a master himself. And only much later, in the sixteenth century, after the royal power had destroyed the city and the craft organization, was it possible to become master in virtue of simple inheritance or wealth. But this was also the time of a general decay in mediæval industries and art.”

“In fact, the more we learn about the mediæval city, the more we are convinced that at no time has labour enjoyed such conditions of prosperity and such respect as when city life stood at its highest.”

Kropotkin says “We are laughed at when we say that work must be pleasant, but — “every one must be pleased with his work,” a mediæval Kuttenberg ordinance says, “and no one shall, while doing nothing (mit nichts thun), appropriate for himself what others have produced by application and work.” (Investors might note!)


He stresses the remarkable artistic and architectural achievements the guild system gave rise to, and the loss following its demise… “…the immense results achieved under this new form of union — in well-being for all, in industries, art, science, and commerce …”

“The results of that new move which mankind made in the mediæval city were immense. At the beginning of the eleventh century the towns of Europe were small clusters of miserable huts, adorned but with low clumsy churches, the builders of which hardly knew how to make an arch; the arts, mostly consisting of some weaving and forging, were in their infancy; learning was found in but a few monasteries. Three hundred and fifty years later, the very face of Europe had been changed. The land was dotted with rich cities, surrounded by immense thick walls which were embellished by towers and gates, each of them a work of art in itself. The cathedrals, conceived in a grand style and profusely decorated, lifted their bell-towers to the skies, displaying a purity of form and a boldness of imagination which we now vainly strive to attain.”

“Such were the magic changes accomplished in Europe in less than four hundred years. And the losses which Europe sustained through the loss of its free cities can only be understood when we compare the seventeenth century with the fourteenth or the thirteenth. The prosperity which formerly characterized Scotland, Germany, the plains of Italy, was gone. The roads had fallen into an abject state, the cities were depopulated, labour was brought into slavery, art had vanished, commerce itself was decaying.”

“…the times of independent city life were times of the greatest development of human intellect during the Christian era down to the end of the eighteenth century. On looking, for instance, at a mediæval picture representing Nuremberg with its scores of towers and lofty spires, each of which bore the stamp of free creative art, we can hardly conceive that three hundred years before the town was but a collection of miserable hovels.”

This creativity “… sprang out of a conception of brotherhood and unity fostered by the city… it had that expression of vigour, because vigour permeated all the life of the city. A cathedral or a communal house symbolized the grandeur of an organism of which every mason and stone-cutter was the builder… a mediæval building appears — not as a solitary effort to which thousands of slaves would have contributed the share assigned them by one man’s imagination; all the city contributed to it. …

this spirit appears in all communal works of common utility, such as the canals, terraces, vineyards, and fruit gardens around Florence, or the irrigation canals which intersected the plains of Lombardy, or the port and aqueduct of Genoa, or, in fact, any works of the kind which were achieved by almost every city.”

Probably even more important are the implications for civility, for the caring society for collectivism.  The individual’s welfare depended  on the consideration of others for him; mutuality involves collectivism, concern for others and the public good, and thus or justice and how satisfactory social arrangements are.  Kropotkin points out that the key factor is not altruism or love, but “sociality” or solidarity a desire to interact in ways that are enjoyable and mutually beneficial.  Bonds of love might keep a family together, something more is needed in a town.

“The mediæval cities have undoubtedly rendered an immense service to European civilization. They have prevented it from being drifted into the theocracies and despotical states of old; they have endowed it with the variety, the self-reliance, the force of initiative …Why were they seized with senile debility in the sixteenth century? …why did they finally succumb…”

The demise: The takeover by the state.

Kropotkin provides much detail on the collapse of the medieval system, in terms of the rise of centralisation, i.e., the formation of states which took control away from citizens, towns and the guilds … the essential Anarchist concern. The following extracts indicate the value of his insights into the rise of capitalist society, eliminating localism, community and mutuality.

The towns had always needed to struggle against the encroachment of kings, lords and the papacy but eventually “… the State … stepped in, confiscating the property of the guilds and destroying their independence in favour of its own bureaucracy.”

Many towns “…had to fight fifty or a hundred years in succession,..” to gain or preserve their freedom from marauding lords.” Town charters stated the conditions the surrounding lords had been forced to agree to.  “The mediaeval city was a fortified oasis amidst a country plunged into feudal submission, and it had to make room for itself by the force of its arms.” “Every meadow, every field, every river, and road around the city, and every man upon the land was under some lord.” “Florence sustained for seventy-seven years a succession of bloody wars, in order to free its contado from the nobles…”

These emerging states killed local autonomy.

“For the next three centuries the States, both on the Continent and in these islands, systematically weeded out all institutions in which the mutual-aid tendency had formerly found its expression.”… “The guilds were spoliated of their possessions and liberties, and placed under the control, the fancy, and the bribery of the State’s official. The cities were divested of their sovereignty, and the very springs of their inner life — the folkmote, the elected justices and administration, the sovereign parish and the sovereign guild — were annihilated…” “… whole regions, once populous and wealthy, were laid bare; rich cities became insignificant boroughs; the very roads which connected them with other cities became impracticable. Industry, art, and knowledge fell into decay.” “ It was taught in the universities and from the pulpit that the institutions in which men formerly used to embody their needs of mutual support could not be tolerated in a properly organized State; that the State alone could represent the bonds of union between its subjects; that federalism and “particularism” were the enemies of progress, and the State was the only proper initiator of further development.”  It was asserted that”… no separate unions between citizens must exist within the State; that hard labour and death were the only suitable punishments to workers who dared to enter into “coalitions.” “The State alone, and the State’s Church, must take care of matters of general interest…”  “As to the workers, their unions were treated as unlawful almost within our own lifetime in this country…”

“Along with this went the confiscation of the communal lands.”“It took the ruling classes several centuries of persistent but not always successful efforts to abolish it and to confiscate the communal lands.”

“The village communities had lived for over a thousand years; and where and when the peasants were not ruined by wars and exactions they steadily improved their methods of culture. But as the value of land was increasing, in consequence of the growth of industries, and the nobility had acquired, under the State organization, a power which it never had had under the feudal system, it took possession of the best parts of the communal lands, and did its best to destroy the communal institutions.” “The growth of the State on the pattern of Imperial Rome had put a violent end to all medieval institutions for mutual support…”

“The Christian Church, once a rebel against Roman law and now its ally, worked in the same direction. … The Church bestowed upon the rising rulers her sanctity, she crowned them as God’s representatives on earth…”

The towns made serious mistakes, undermining solidarity, especially in not looking after the peasants.

“…the mediæval citizen had committed a formidable mistake at the outset. Instead of looking upon the peasants and artisans who gathered under the protection of his walls as upon so many aids who would contribute their part to the making of the city — as they really did — a sharp division was traced between the “families” of old burghers and the newcomers. For the former, all benefits from communal trade and communal lands were reserved, and nothing was left for the latter but the right of freely using the skill of their own hands. The city thus became divided into “the burghers” or “the commonalty,” and “the inhabitants.”[247] The trade, which was formerly communal, now became the privilege of the merchant and artisan “families,”

“The peasants, whom the cities had failed or refused to free, on seeing the burghers impotent to put an end to the interminable wars between the knights — which wars they had so dearly to pay for — now set their hopes upon the King, the Emperor, or the Great Prince; and while aiding them to crush down the mighty feudal owners, they aided them to constitute the centralized State.”

Thus “….the growing autocracies found support in the divisions which had grown within the cities themselves. The fundamental idea of the mediæval city was grand, but it was not wide enough. Mutual aid and support cannot be limited to a small association; they must spread to its surroundings, or else the surroundings will absorb the association.”

Town “…wars against the lords became, as already mentioned, wars for freeing the city itself from the lords, rather than for freeing the peasants. She left to the lord his rights over the villeins, on condition that he would molest the city no more and would become co-burgher. Meanwhile lords within towns …”… disliked to submit to a tribunal of simple artisans and merchants…”,

“The greatest and the most fatal error of most cities was to base their wealth upon commerce and industry, to the neglect of agriculture. They thus repeated the error which had once been committed by the cities of antique Greece, and they fell through it into the same crimes. The estrangement of so many cities from the land necessarily drew them into a policy hostile to the land …commercial policy involved them in distant enterprises. Colonies were founded…”

“For two or three hundred years they taught from the pulpit, the University chair, and the judges’ bench, that salvation must be sought for in a strongly-centralized State, placed under a semi-divine authority; that one man can and must be the saviour of society, and that in the name of public salvation he can commit any violence: burn men and women at the stake, make them perish under indescribable tortures, plunge whole provinces into the most abject misery. Nor did they fail to give object lessons to this effect on a grand scale, and with an unheard-of cruelty, wherever the king’s sword and the Church’s fire, or both at once, could reach. By these teachings and examples, continually repeated and enforced upon public attention, the very minds of the citizens had been shaped into a new mould. They began to find no authority too extensive, no killing by degrees too cruel, once it was “for public safety.” And, with this new direction of mind and this new belief in one man’s power, the old federalist principle faded away, and the very creative genius of the masses died out. The Roman idea was victorious, and in such circumstances the centralized State had in the cities a ready prey.”

“When the medieval cities were subdued in the sixteenth century by growing military States, all institutions which kept the artisans, the masters, and the merchants together in the guilds and the cities were violently destroyed. The self-government and the self-jurisdiction of both, the guild and the city were abolished; the oath of allegiance between guild-brothers became an act of felony towards the State; the properties of the guilds were confiscated in the same way as the lands of the village communities; and the inner and technical organization of each trade was taken in hand by the State. Laws, gradually growing in severity, were passed to prevent artisans from combining in any way

what formerly was the vital force of medieval life and industry has long since disappeared under the crushing weight of the centralized State.”


At the end of the book Kropotkin details the many institutions and practices remaining today which proceed in the communal ways which were the norm in medieval society. Good examples come from the Swiss villages. 

“Two-thirds of all the Alpine meadows and two-thirds of all the forests of Switzerland are until now communal land; and a considerable number of fields, orchards, vineyards, peat bogs, quarries, and so on, are owned in common. In the Vaud, where all the householders continue to take part in the deliberations of their elected communal councils, the communal spirit is especially alive. Towards the end of the winter all the young men of each village go to stay a few days in the woods, to fell timber and to bring it down the steep slopes tobogganing way, the timber and the fuel wood being divided among all households or sold for their benefit. These excursions are real fêtes of manly labour. On the banks of Lake Leman part of the work required to keep up the terraces of the vineyards is still done in common; and in the spring, when the thermometer threatens to fall below zero before sunrise, the watchman wakes up all householders, who light fires of straw and dung and protect their vine-trees from the frost by an artificial cloud. In nearly all cantons the village communities possess so-called Bürgernutzen— that is, they hold in common a number of cows, in order to supply each family with butter; or they keep communal fields or vineyards, of which the produce is divided between the burghers, or they rent their land for the benefit of the community… Switzerland is, however, by no means an exception in Europe, because the same institutions and habits are found in the villages of France, of Italy, of Germany, of Denmark.”


            Some thoughts on the book.

It is a most impressive case against the taken for granted assumption that humans are competitive and aggressive and that therefore we have to accept that society is too.  It aligns with the work of Polanyi and Tawney especially on the medieval world view, economic thinking, and morality, and how very different these were from the present dominant capitalist ideology. The recent book Human Kind by Rutger Bregman details much the same case.

It is interesting that Kropotkin seems to make no reference at all to Marx. Anarchists regard his account as a powerful critique of the state, whereas Marxists are happy about the state having great power. Thus this book is a strong case against Socialism, especially from the perspective of “social ecology”, that is the vital importance of social relations, customs, codes, solidarity,morale etc. in determining functioning, resilience and quality of life.

This connects with Marx’s failure to consider the importance of “culture”, especially in the transition to a good society.  Kropotkin’s lengthy account of the medieval villages, towns and guilds is a most powerful case for the social importance of ideas, values, customs, morality etc. in enabling a good society.  Avineri (1968) explains how Marx neglected this realm, assuming it could be attended to after the revolution. (Anarchists see that it has to be dealt with before the revolution; See TSW: Transition theory.) 

The puzzling relationship between Kropotkin’s account and Marxist theory. It is not clear how his discussion of the demise of medieval society, which he discusses in terms of eliminate by the rise of the state, connected to a Marxist account of the rise of capitalism. Nor is it evident why he makes no reference to Marxist theory on the issue.  Marx deals with the destruction of medieval society in terms of the rise to power of the capitalist class, so it would have been good to know how Kropotkin saw the causal relations between the capitalist class, the lords, the villages and the state. His account is admittedly in terms of a class conflict (although he does not use the term), i.e.,, especially the struggle between villagers and lords, but he does not discuss where the capitalist class fits into the causal picture (or related classes, such as merchants.). His critique is of the state, not capitalists. But a Marxist would (rightly) say that it was the ruling class(es) that drove things, especially the enclosures taking away from people their traditional lands, and that it was their control of the state which was the means, e.g., passing hundreds of enclosure acts through parliaments. Again at least Kropotkin does focus on the centrality of class struggle in these events, but he does not discuss or explain why the states emerged or quickly became overwhelmingly powerful.  However it would seem that the two accounts are not in conflict and that they could easily be integrated.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is in its illustration of the crucial significance of “social ecology” in medieval society. It was an extremely complex and powerful mix of firmly held ideas, values, ideas, customs, commitments, codes, habits and morality which firmly bound all into mutually beneficial thinking and behavior. There was, as Polanyi and Tawney also detail, an intensely “moral” economy, in which considerations of money, profit, marketing and wealth accumulation had no place. The dominant attitude was “brotherhood”, commitment to the welfare of others and of society.  Kropotkin discusses the way the rise of the centralization especially in the form of the state, drives out and destroys the powerful “spiritual” ethos permeating a cohesive community … consider when Walmart comes to town. The anarchist realizes that this is what happens when there is centralization of functions and power. Perhaps Socialism’s greatest sin is its sociological naivity.

Thus the book is an extremely effective case for anarchism and against socialism. Only in self-governing communities of responsible citizens who must attend to the public good and the systems they have developed for providing for themselves can you expect to get a culture of concern for “brothers” and for society. Those who would centralise power and functions are making a tragic mistake; centralization prohibits participatory citizenship (or redefines citizenship as obedience to authorities) and thus eliminates responsibilities, decisions and actions and mutuality, leaving dormitory suburbs full of consumers who have nothing to do with each other, and no interest in their community.

Hence Kropotkin makes us acutely aware of the distinction between on the one hand the competitive, acquisitive go-getting isolated individual and the social institutions that go with him, notably the winner-take-all neo-liberal economy, and on the other hand…community. That is, an ethos in which the focus is on social values such as concern for the public good, the welfare of all, the underdog, social justice, and seeing  everyone flourishing. It is in other words a powerful case for local, small scale participatory collectivism.