On Mutual Aid

By Timothy Dirte


“Mutual Aid” is a common program on the left. The dominant conception of it mainly revolves around donated items being distributed to a given community. The recipients are poor, often lumpen elements of society. And nine times out of ten, the work is hardly “mutual.” It is ultimately a huge sink of resources from the organized “militants” with almost nothing in return, functionally.

Workers toil under their boss to receive wages to purchase their means of subsistence, but with Mutual Aid, these wages are diverted to other members of the working class. A pittance divided. In effect, no ground was gained for the workers, their wages unchanged, workplaces unchanged, and their relation to production unchanged. The latter is a crucial part of the issue with “Mutual Aid” as it is understood in the mainstream. 

Over the course of the redistribution of wages among the workers the proponents of “Mutual Aid” have focused on the distribution of meager wages rather than confronting the mode of production. Without changing the mode of production the workers’ tiny wages are forever and always under the control of the interests of capital in the appropriation of unpaid labor. 

Some Mutual Aid groups include pamphlets and books in their distribution. Very well. But this likewise does nothing fundamentally to educate workers politically. In reality it is their practical experience being engaged in the class struggle which does this. Many assume that by sheer reading alone the masses will raise their political education, but this is idealism. Political development involves more than reading. As Lenin said “Needless to say, the masses learn from life and not from books.” 

Why did Lenin say this? Was he polemicizing against reading? No. He is very correctly and succinctly explaining that the class consciousness of the workers is social. Individual class consciousness is not collective class consciousness, which is formed through social practice. In the class struggle, the most politically advanced members of the proletariat form the vanguard and lead the workers through struggle in strategic ways to raise their class consciousness and prepare them for the seizure of state power. The character of this struggle is dominated by the mode of production. 

The mere redistribution of wages, being strictly concerned with the distribution of production, is wholly incapable of attacking the mode of production. This leads, if anywhere, to social-democracy, the left-face of the bourgeoisie. Therefore, “Mutual Aid” as it is dominantly conceived on the left is the product of non-proletarian elements who don’t know how or don’t want to attack the mode of production. 

These non-proletarian elements have no real proletarian class understanding, no idea how to organize the workers. They can only conceive of “revolutionary” action within bourgeois ideology, i.e., in terms that do not actually threaten bourgeois class rule. 

The concept of “Mutual Aid” is not completely without merit however, it is simply its application that determines its utility to furthering the class struggle. Which is why up until now “Mutual Aid” has been dealt with from a specific angle.

For “Mutual Aid” to benefit rather than harm, it must truly become mutual. The act and execution of “Mutual Aid” programs must correspond with a strengthening of ties to the community through the working class movement: meaning through exchanges of skill and resources meant to further a given struggle of the workers. By preparing the way for struggle at a higher level, this “Mutual Aid” objectively furthers the interest of the proletariat thereby becoming truly “mutual.” This accomplishes a number of things,

  1. The exchange of skill and resources is tied to the political education of those involved, 
  2. The struggle is strengthened by extending itself and then relying on a greater community of people,
  3. The party and its mass organizations now form a center to educate the workers in class struggle through practical experience, 
  4. The party receives invaluable organization and political experience by truly leading the workers in their organization as a class.

In other words, “Mutual Aid” should be conducted insofar as it strategically furthers a struggle in a given situation. “Mutual Aid” for sake of it, or rather, charity, is a dead end. However, if used as a tactic by the party to prepare the ground for struggle by fortifying and educating the workers engaged, it is essential. 

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