Kropotkin’s path to fame was labyrinthine, with much time in prison, 50,000-mile journeys through Siberia, and banishment from the most respectable Western countries of the day. In his homeland of Russia, he went from being Czar Alexander II’s teenage page, to a young man enamored with the theory of evolution, to a convicted felon, jail-breaker and general agitator, eventually being chased halfway around the world by the Russian Secret Police for his radical—some might, and did, say ‘enlightened’—political views.
Somehow Kropotkin found the energy and focus under duress to write books on evolution and behaviour, ethics, the geography of Asia, anarchism, socialism and communism, penal systems, the coming industrial revolution in the East, the French Revolution, and more. One common thread—the scientific law of mutual aid, which guided the evolution of all life on earth—tied these works together. Kropotkin’s deep-seated conviction was that what we today would call co-operation—but what he called mutual aid—was the driving evolutionary force behind all social life, be it in microbes, animals or humans.
Kropotkin’s theory of mutual aid was born when he was twenty years old and began his exploration of Siberia, following in the intellectual footsteps of his hero, Alexander von Humboldt. Kropotkin was already an avowed evolutionary biologist by then and a great admirer of Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. 50,000 miles later, and five years the wiser, Kropotkin left Siberia still a Darwinian, but a very different kind of evolutionary biologist: a new species of sort.
In Siberia, Kropotkin had not found what he had expected to find. Evolutionary theory of the day advanced the argument that the natural world was a brutal place: competition was the driving force. That’s what Kropotkin expected to see in Siberia. He searched for it—hard. He studied flocks of birds, herds of mammals, schools of fish, and insect societies. What he found was that in Siberia, competition appeared to be a weak force. Instead, in every nook and cranny of the animal world, Kropotkin encountered mutual aid. Individuals huddled for warmth, fed one another, and guarded others from danger, all seeming to be cogs in a larger co-operative society. “In all the scenes of animal lives which passed before my eyes,” he wrote, “I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.”
Kropotkin didn’t limit his studies to nonhumans. He cherished his time in peasant villages, with their sense of community and co-operation: here, he began to understand “the inner springs of the life of human society.” By observing “the constructive work of the unknown masses,” Kropotkin, the budding scientist and the budding anarchist, witnessed human co-operation and altruism in its purest form.