Humans are an incredibly generous and empathetic species. Even if the world looks like it’s going to hell in a handbasket, people band together, time after time, pooling their skills and resources to help each other cope with the impact of all kinds of crises in our society. People independently organize relief efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters, install community fridges, deliver groceries to those in need, and look after kids for free. These are all examples of what is popularly called “mutual aid.”
As the world plunges deeper and deeper into crisis, people feel motivated to take action, and many are drawn into the world of mutual aid. These kinds of initiatives can certainly alleviate some of the worst pain for many groups of people. But is mutual aid capable of attacking, and ultimately eradicating, the root of these problems?
Origin Of Mutual Aid Politics
Forms of mutual aid have existed for much of human history, with or without politics attached. But in recent years, a loose political tendency has crystallized around the practice and become associated with it. The roots of these “mutual aid politics” go back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when Russian aristocrat-turned-anarchist Peter Kropotkin popularized the term in his work Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
In these essays, Kropotkin formulated a scorching argument against so-called social Darwinists of the time, who interpreted Darwin’s theory of natural selection as “survival of the fittest,” driven entirely by competition, and applied it to society in order to justify the evils of capitalism. Kropotkin began by examining how cooperation is at least as important a factor as competition in the evolution of species. In the face of harsh circumstances, cooperation between organisms is often decisive for survival. Biologists today still consider this to be a useful analysis.
Kropotkin’s aims were political. Social Darwinism’s exaltation of “survival of the fittest” in society laid a pseudoscientific foundation justifying cutthroat capitalism, racism, and eugenics. Kropotkin was putting forward a biological basis for the opposite. He extended his findings about Siberian ecology to the whole of human history to show not only that we have a natural tendency towards cooperation, but that the greatest advances in civilization happen during periods of maximum mutual aid.
Kropotkin puts heavy emphasis on the obstructive role the capitalist state plays by impeding and breaking up mutual aid organizations, but he asserts that our natural tendency towards mutual aid prevails, resists, and rebuilds, even under this oppressive system. He considers a much wider array of organizations than are typically thought of as mutual aid today: guilds, trade unions, friendly societies, co-operatives, credit unions, agricultural associations, and various kinds of recreational, scientific, literary, educational, and artistic societies. Some of these clearly have more potential to threaten capitalism than others.
Mutual aid organizations today tend to focus on creating survival networks within capitalism that soften some of the system’s most brutal effects. They prefer to be horizontally organized — nominally leaderless groupings of people who provide goods and services directly or organize them between parties, and usually with an aim to forge community relationships. Their politics are generally anti-capitalist and anti-state (though not always openly) but they don’t offer a clear strategy to bring an end to the system of capitalism.
Like Kropotkin’s politics, modern mutual aid politics are usually prefigurative: this means that people develop modes of organization to mirror the future society they are trying to create. Activities like mutual aid are elevated for their superficial similarities to a future society, while other more necessary and effective activities, like fighting for reforms under capitalism as a means of developing a revolutionary mass movement, are downgraded.
These are core differences between mutual aid politics and Marxism. Marxists maintain that we cannot attain a society free of exploitation and oppression until capitalism is overthrown, the existing state apparatus is broken up, and a new state is built based on the working class running society with its own democratic organs. This can only be achieved by building an organized movement of the international working class whose point of maximum leverage is in the workplace, where they produce — or can cease to produce — profits for the ruling class. We don’t believe that the steady building of independent mutual aid organizations will reach a point where they spill over and supplant the capitalist state. Survival networks don’t pose a real threat to capitalism, and the capitalists are sitting on the bulk of the resources we would need to run society on our own.
Present-Day Application Of Mutual Aid
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive spike in Google searches for “mutual aid” in March of 2020, and interest has remained high ever since. Indeed, 2020 saw tens of thousands of mutual aid networks sprouting up all around the world, providing grocery deliveries, mask distribution, childcare services, counseling, financial support, and more. Any need you could conceive of was a potential hole that mutual aid networks could plug, and the pandemic brought countless people into this work. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a mutual aid toolkit, encouraging people to build networks to support their neighbors.
Small, local abortion aid funds have been raising money for years to increase abortion access, especially for marginalized people. This was a need even before the overturn of Roe vs. Wade, but last year’s right-wing offensive greatly increased donations towards these mutual aid organizations. Funds help provide direct financial support, out-of-state travel, bail and legal support, childcare, and doula services.
These are certainly worthy efforts and saw millions of dollars flood into local abortion funds. Even more money went to the larger organizations like Planned Parenthood but many people were rightly skeptical of their approach, which amounted to barely lifting a finger in the face of the attacks on Roe, and instead donated to smaller funds. Much of the left put the bulk of its organizing effort into raising money for these funds, seeing this as the only useful step forward, instead of playing a more confrontational political role by channeling the mass movement towards forcing Democrats to take action. This stemmed from a pessimistic political conclusion that a mass movement could not cohere to defeat the overturn of Roe and we needed to organize for a post-Dobbs world. Unfortunately this became a self-fulfilling prophecy and had an overall demobilizing effect on the potential for a movement to develop. It fed into the narrative being pushed by establishment Democrats like former President Obama that the only way to fight attacks on abortion was by voting and by donating your already limited resources.
The contemporary understanding of mutual aid is so loose, it defies strict definitions of form. Most people accept organized survival networks to be mutual aid, but even unorganized efforts, especially to help marginalized people pay expenses, are broadly considered mutual aid by proponents today.
Organizing Aid In The Class Struggle
In 1934, the Minneapolis Teamsters waged a titanic strike against the trucking companies that brought the city to a grinding halt. Over the course of the fight, the workers transformed a rented garage into a bustling round-the-clock strike headquarters: the cooks’ union trained volunteers to serve thousands of workers daily, on equipment installed by union carpenters and plumbers, with food donated by sympathetic groceries and farmers. They had a hospital with volunteer doctors and nurses, and a team of auto mechanics keeping strikers’ cars in order. While this has something in common with mutual aid, the act of organizing resources for people who need it, it is referred to – in the tradition of labor and socialist organizing – as solidarity.
This hive of solidarity enabled the workers to conduct an agile, laser-focused strike, and also provided active roles for anyone to contribute to this class battle, ultimately winning a resounding victory with benefits for the working class of the whole city. Indeed, it had national implications as an event which helped launch the industrial organizing drive of the mid to late 1930s.
Similar tactics have been used to sustain strikes throughout the world – from the British miners’ strike of 1984-85 to the massive farmers’ struggle in India last year. This kind of solidarity organizing is implemented on a temporary basis – anything more would be unsustainable. Workers, their families, and their communities dig deep, making sacrifices to buttress their strike action and deliver the strongest possible attack on their class enemy. But crucially, it was through the strike actions themselves, not the accompanying aid programs, that the workers demonstrated their power.
In the thick of their organizing drive at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, Amazon Labor Union distributed free food at the bus stop – pizza, empanadas, pasta. These regular giveaways created opportunities for workers to gather, talk about unionizing, and join the movement, an outcome that would strengthen the workers’ position and benefit all workers. The ‘filling of a need’ wasn’t an end in itself, but to provide assistance to a more direct confrontation with the bosses.
Large-scale class struggle that directly confronts the capitalists is the necessary strategy to bring about change in society. When mutual aid has proved effective, it’s because it served that form of struggle. Most proponents of mutual aid certainly support class struggle, and maintain that they can do both. But in practice, these activists often get completely subsumed in mutual aid work. This stems from a wrong assessment that mutual aid and confrontational class struggle are just two different, but comparable, tactics in a bag of tricks.
Mutual Aid Lets The System Off The Hook
One of the biggest dangers of mutual aid as a political practice is the ease with which it can be co-opted by the establishment. This was on full display last summer during the struggle to defend abortion rights. Large organizations with millions of dollars of funding should have been bringing their entire periphery into the streets to demand federal legislation to enshrine abortion rights, but instead they hid behind calls for “mutual aid” and donations, demobilizing the movement.
When Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, displacing more than 30,000 people, working people leapt into action to rescue people trapped in their homes. Houston DSA raised over $120,000 through a GoFundMe and determined that “the two most impactful ways [to] help would be putting cash in people’s hands and assistance with muck and gutting.” Every weekend, they performed the exhausting work of clearing muck and debris from a few houses at a time, to prepare them for reconstruction. Heroic as this work was, it should have been resourced by the state. But it wasn’t. State aid that eventually came in was dwarfed by the $125+ billion in estimated total damages. What the situation required even more than direct material aid was a political approach: organizing a mass movement to demand sufficient aid from the state to restore normal life for everyone affected.
When progressive politicians play up “mutual aid,” they’re often concealing a hesitance to confront the ruling class to force them to concede resources, or to make genuine reforms. AOC readily supported people building mutual aid networks to help each other through the pandemic, but when it comes to confronting the Democratic Party establishment to fight for large scale structural gains, she and the Squad prefer peaceful coexistence. DSA member Nikkita Oliver ran for City Council in Seattle openly saying that in office, they’d make mutual aid a priority. Their campaign also shied away from much-discussed class demands like rent control and taxing big business. When movement leaders run for office, we want them to be the voice of mass campaigns and struggles fighting for tangible material gains, not building platforms for us to fill our own needs.
In contrast, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed an increase of Amazon Tax to fund free abortion for all Seattle residents and visitors, and won through the People’s Budget movement in the fall. This is far more progressive than attempting to fund abortions using donation money from regular working people. For nearly a decade, Kshama has played a key role in leading working-class movements to victory at the expense of the ruling class, like the fight to make Seattle the first major city with a $15/hour minimum wage, and the movement to win the Amazon Tax, a $200 million tax on the top 3% of corporations in Seattle.
All of these victories required Kshama to push back against establishment Democrats, and even labor leaders, who wanted to compromise or even opposed some efforts – a necessity that over-focusing on mutual aid tends to avoid. As the decay of capitalism accelerates, as it has in the last few years, the ruling class has become increasingly desperate and the space for winning lasting reforms has significantly narrowed. However, this does not mean movements should give up on fighting for reforms, but that they will have to be broader, more organized, and more combative than ever.
You’ll often hear supporters of mutual aid use the phrase “we take care of us.” It’s not wrong for communities to organize to help each other, but politically, this can point people in the wrong direction. With skyrocketing inflation and the rising cost of living, working people increasingly have less and less to go around. Only 12% of medical GoFundMes are successful – this isn’t because people aren’t generous, but because capitalism is impoverishing people too quickly for working people to be able to make up the difference for each other. Mutual aid can make a positive impact on a limited number of peoples’ lives, but we need to set our sights on the people who have all the money and build a working-class movement that can force them to give it up.
Such a mass movement can develop most effectively when it coheres around a set of demands that both resonates strongly with working people and inspires them to fight. But crucially, these demands also must expose the capitalist system as being incapable of granting them, unless workers wage an intense class struggle against it. Many demands, like the democratic public ownership of industry, won’t be achievable under capitalism at all — it will require workers to actually overthrow capitalism. The most important work for Marxists is to politically strengthen the healthy development of mass movements: by introducing these kinds of demands where they are absent, by leading with or arguing for an independent working-class strategy, and by combating any class disunity that arises within our ranks.
We Need System Change, Not Just Survival
Under an oppressive and alienating system like capitalism, it’s understandable that people feel drawn to mutual aid as a political approach. The power of capitalism seems overwhelming and it is tempting to put our heads down and focus on survival, especially for those in extremely precarious positions.
But it’s important for socialists to take the long view: the history of humanity is defined by the overthrow of systems that are no longer useful. Capitalism is absolutely a hindrance to the full development of human potential. It can be brought to an end, but we need to confront it with a well-organized force. The abolition of capitalism will not be built over long periods of time by planting gardens, fixing brake lights, or rebuilding houses.
Mutual aid tactics can have a supplementary place in a revolutionary movement, especially in sustaining the mass working-class organizations that we must build, but on their own, they’re not up to the task.
Revolutionary situations will come from masses of people getting organized to fight against capitalism’s injustices. Socialists prepare for these situations by fighting for reforms through every avenue available to us, always striving to increase the confidence, education and organization of workers and the oppressed. At every stage, we also want to educate ourselves in dialogue with these living struggles while learning lessons from the rich history of our international movement. This can prepare us to play a role in the inevitable revolutionary convulsions that will take place in the coming months and years across the world.