Origins of Mutual Aid

“Mutual Aid” puts a name on a primal human behavior, perhaps the core pattern of human culture: we who spend more energy co-operating than competing tend to survive. Survival of the fittest means survival of the most co-operative.

Biological Examples of Mutual Aid

In ecosystems, co-operation is the rule and competition is the exception.

The physics of co-operation allow organisms to survive by receiving through their partnership the nutrients and energy that each cannot obtain separately.


  • Penguins and reindeer crowd together for heat and take turns on the inside of the pack to survive Arctic temperatures.

  • Trees supply sugar to mycorrhizal fungi, who supply minerals and water to the trees, allowing both to receive the thing they don’t have, but need to survive.

  • Parrots band together for communal foraging and gather their harvest together in one place in order to eat diverse food types together.

  • Honeybees, ants and termites literally cannot survive outside the specialized labor and physically secure context of their hive or nest.

  • Leafcutter ants have a multi-million year partnership with a certain type of fungus that they farm on leaves, as well as with a specialized bacteria that lives in their mouths and create anti-fungal compounds that exclude all fungi except their partner fungus.

Mutual Aid in Human Culture

The phrase “mutual aid” has also been adopted by anthropologists to describe a complex of similar organizational and resource-sharing strategies employed across many cultures, since at least the beginning of agricultural societies.


Our ancestors formed Mutual Aid organizations when they needed to organize, collaborate and share resources at larger scales in space and time than the village, yet with more human-scale accountability than the municipal or nation-state government.


They gathered together in Mutual Aid to fight oppression, to provide for the well-being and basic needs of their members in hard times, to create resilience and “insurance” in the presence of unpredictable ecological and economic and social conditions, and to imagine and support positive futures for their communities.


The WNC Mutual Aid Initiative is part of a contemporary renewal of mutual aid organizing, rooted in the grand historical diversity of our ancestral mutual aid heritages, yet updated to embody and address our current cultural, economic, and ecological realities.

Historical (& Current) Examples of Mutual Aid 

  • Zydowska Samapomoc Spolczna (ZSS)- 400,000 Jews in Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust who smuggled food, medical supplies, clothing and weapons into the ghetto for survival, culminating in armed resistance against Nazis (the Warsaw Uprising).

  • Italian collective farming mutual aid- 1400’s → 1800’s: groups of villages who managed millions of acres of farmland through collaborative equipment sharing, crop rotation and cultural and ritual activities.

  • African American mutual aid groups beginning during Jim Crow era and leading up to the civil rights movement (examples: Free African Society, Boston, 1787; Free Dark Men of Color, Charleston, 1791; New York African Society for Mutual Relief, 1808; African Benevolent Society, Chillicothe, Ohio, 1827).

  • These groups helped members take care of basic needs and emergencies, and begin to achieve economic self-empowerment through home, business and farm ownership, as well as civic engagement, and along with churches provided the cultural network for organizing the civil rights movement.

  • Cherokee “Gadugi” (still exist)- communal farming groups that extended beyond farming to emergency relief, adopting orphaned children, re-building destroyed homes, famine relief and so on.

  • American Jewish mutual aid- (1880’s - present): immigrant support that provided a cultural parachute for new arrivals and helped them get jobs, meet basic needs, learn English, and access resources to develop businesses and organizations, become property owners.

  • Russian multi-village Mutual Aid groups during World War I which enabled survival and re-building when their entire villages were destroyed by various armies

  • Mutualistas - Latin American groups which according to Wikipedia focus on:  cultural activities, education, health care, insurance coverage, legal protection and advocacy before police and immigration authorities, anti-defamation activities. Examples include: Alianza Hispano-Americana, Club Femenino Orquidia, Sociedad Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez in Laredo.

  • The Grange (full name: National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry)- a co-operative social/economic organization focused on farmers, rural communities and rural community centers, still operating in 36 states with 160,000 members as of 2005.

  • La Via Campesina- from Wikipedia: La Vía Campesina (from Spanish la vía campesina, the campesino way, or the peasants' way) was founded in 1993 by farmers organizations from Europe, Latin America, Asia, North America, Central America and Africa. It describes itself as "an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, America, and Europe". It is a coalition of 182 organisations in 81 countries, advocating family-farm-based sustainable agriculture and was the group that coined the term "food sovereignty".La Vía Campesina has carried out a campaign to defend farmer's seeds, a campaign to stop violence against women, a campaign for the recognition of the rights of peasants, a global campaign for agrarian reform, and others.

  • Mondragon- The Mondragon Corporation is a corporation and federation of worker cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain. It is the tenth-largest Spanish company in terms of asset turnover and the leading business group in the Basque Country. At the end of 2014, it employed 74,117 people in 257 companies and organizations in four areas of activity: finance, industry, retail and knowledge.[3] By 2015, 74,335 people were employed. This is one of, if not the single most, successful example of a regional-scale, worker-owned co-operative economy in the world.

  • Cooperation Jackson- Building a solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.

  • HUMANs ​​- a contemporary effort based in Madison, Wisconsin to create an international network of regional mutual aid initiatives which work together, share knowledge and share resources to get successful strategies off the ground.

  • Southtosouth- an assembly movement, hard to explain, just check it out.