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Struggle or Mutual Aid: Jane Addams, Petr Kropotkin, and the Progressive Encounter with Social Darwinism

From: The Pluralist
Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2010
pp. 21-43 | 10.1353/plu.0.0041

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The year is 1901. Two minor celebrities from opposite corners of the globe share an evening meal in Chicago. Both are politically left-leaning, both are evolutionists of a sort, both are concerned with the plight of the poor in the face of the escalation of the Industrial Revolution. The Russian man has been giving a series of lectures to the people of Chicago; he is staying at the American woman's settlement house-Hull House. They are Jane Addams, Chicago's activist social worker and Petr Kropotkin, Russian nobleman by birth, anarchist in politics, and naturalist by inclination. Each awaits publication of their first full-length book concerning politics and moral development: Democracy and Social Ethics (1902) on Addams's part and Mutual Aid (1902) on Kropotkin's. They discuss the status of moral development at the dawn of the twentieth century over dinner at Hull House.

Odds are, such a meeting took place. Kropotkin, on his second tour of the United States, was indeed a week-long guest at Hull House in Chicago. Throughout the week Kropotkin gave lectures on "mutual aid" to various Chicago area organizations. The lectures Kropotkin gave were drawn from the essays he had published in The Nineteenth Century over the past seven years, essays which would shortly appear in book form, as Mutual Aid. I initially had hoped that an archival search would reveal telling discussions of evolutionary matters between Addams and Kropotkin. What I found in written documents were travel arrangements and complimentary thank-you notes-documents that did not further the analysis and provided no delicious details of those discussions. So it remains a task for thoughtful conjecture as to how those discussions illuminated the influence and the fine controversies of nineteenth-century evolutionary social thought. This article proposes to draw from their known writings to speculate on the substance of those conversations-what were their grounds of agreement; on what points might they have differed from each other? The comparative analysis can help us understand the power, shape, and application of evolutionary arguments on the moral discourse of the time and how those ideas of evolution shaped Addams's and Kropotkin's opinions on religion, ethics, and politics.

Both Addams and Kropotkin admired Darwin and the growing prestige of science in the modern world. But both tended to read Darwin through the lens of other Darwinists of their day who allowed for some form of moral teleology to exist in the natural world. Both Addams and Kropotkin held that mutuality in relationships was the heart of ethical commitments. One, Addams, called this mutuality in relationship "democracy"; the other, Kropotkin, saw it exemplified in the informal relationships of the village community. Though both Addams and Kropotkin deplored the individualist virtue (that simply seemed to be another name for selfishness) propounded by Herbert Spencer's natural and scientific ethic, both needed Spencer's unilineal account of history to tell the progressive moral tale that was ultimately important to them both.

Jane Addams, an undersung member of the first generation of American pragmatists, believed that human moral relationships were changing as the conditions of American society became less rural-agricultural and more urban-industrial. She busied herself with the task of understanding and participating in the new kinds of moral relationships such a changing scene called into development, for better or worse. She had high hopes that if these new relations evolved thoughtfully, the United States would progress toward fulfillment of its democratic ideals. Kropotkin thought that industrial society, as nourished by the modern nation-state, fostered a new ethos in which each person looked to individual interests in a spirit of cold-hearted competition. This struggle of all against all, he felt, was endangering a tremendously important aspect of human history and moral development-the tendency of living things to be sociable and care for each other.

Darwinism raised many moral issues in the human social context of the late nineteenth century. Did the natural world provide a basis or model for moral action for human beings? Would the authority of science come to replace the authority of theology? What could be said about human nature from a Darwinist perspective and did...

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