Beyond Mutual Aid

[This piece represents the views of the author and not those of Vine Maple as a whole.]

by ragbag

Consciousness grows in spirals. Growth implies feeding and being fed. We feed consciousness by feeding people, addressing ourselves to their needs, the basic and social needs, working, organizing toward a united national left. After the people have created something that they are willing to defend, a wealth of new ideals and an autonomous subsistence infrastructure, then they are ready to be brought into “open” conflict with the ruling class and its supporters.” — George Jackson (Blood in My Eye, 81.)


Reaching out to the masses and meeting their needs has long been a central component of left-wing organizing. Many have embraced the importance of serving the masses and several of these projects have attained particular popularity in radical history such as the Black Panther’s famous survival programs or the Common Ground Collective after Hurricane Katrina. The most recent iteration, “mutual aid” has risen to prominence recently, especially in the anarchist left. Etymologically rooted in Proudhon’s mutualism and Kropotkin’s text Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, this recent phenomenon emphasizes so-called ‘non-hierarchal’ structures and organic community networks as the principle values driving this work. The term “mutual aid” itself has exploded in popularity with the growing number of natural disasters. Prestigious bourgeois publications such as The New Yorker ( have praised mutual aid organizing, and Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently published a “Mutual Aid Organizing Toolkit.” In Eugene, activists have congregated to organize relief for COVID19 pandemic, arrests for the Summer 2020 uprisings, and the historic wildfires that engulfed the McKenzie River valley, with a handful of new 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofits started around the efforts. Personally, much of my time and attention in the past few years has been dedicated mutual aid programs around natural disasters, or for unhoused people.

Given the attention and resources allocated to the mutual aid both locally and globally in the past few years, it is beyond time to critically reflect on the efficacy of this strategy. Mutual aid can provide so much to a community left behind by the ravages of capitalist-imperialism: warm food, clean water, medical supplies and treatment, attentive listening, friendship, uncompromising care, a hug. But can mutual aid wage revolution? An evaluation of these questions necessitates an understanding of: first, the history of mass work and Survival Programs in the so-called US; secondly, the history of the reactionary role of bourgeois NGOs in undermining and repressing revolutionary mass work; and third, an honest evaluation of contemporary mutual aid programs in the context of this history. In the final analysis, most mutual aid organizing resembles revolutionary survival programs only superficially in form while in substance replicating the model of capitalist-imperialist NGOs. Instead of non-profit style mutual aid, we should form revolutionary organizations dedicated to agitating at sites of struggle and with more avenues to incorporate the masses rather than merely serving them. This analysis draws on my personal engagement in mutual aid, and as such is as much a self-criticism as it is a criticism of the mutual aid strain of organizing in general.


In the mid-twentieth century, the revolutionary fervor that swelled in the imperial periphery inspired colonized people within the US to emulate that national liberation struggles finding success in the Third World. The Black Panther Party and Young Lords in particular possess an elevated status in contemporary radical imagination for the success of their self-defense and survival programs. The Free Breakfast Program, initiated by the Black Panthers in the early 1970s is often uplifted by today’s mutual aid organizations as an example of their intended goal: developing community programs to fill gaps where the state abandons people. These programs existed alongside and in support of the armed self-defense organizations, and intended to agitate the people towards a revolutionary program. Revolutionary communist, and Chairman of the Illinois branch of the Party, Fred Hampton explained the breakfast programs as such,

“And that’s what the Breakfast For Children program is. A lot of people think it is charity, but what does it do? It takes the people from a stage to another stage. Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change. Honey, if you just keep on changing, before you know it, in fact, not even knowing what socialism is, you don’t have to know what it is, they’re endorsing it, they’re participating in it, and they’re supporting socialism.” (Hampton, ‘Power Anywhere Where There’s People’ speech,1969 delivered at Olivet Church).

Hampton recognized the revolutionary potential in serving the people as a form of political education. Along with their armed self-defense organizations the Survival Programs were a central component of their Party’s education and recruitment.

The wave of political state repression and reactionary violence following the revolutionary surge of the 1960s and 70s is a familiar story to many of today’s radicals. Assassinations, imprisonment, and FBI infiltration all targeted individuals and organizations while the war on drugs and the new Jim Crow era of mass incarceration destabilized communities most active in the struggle.

Concurrently, a more covert tactic of disorienting potential revolutionaries through astro-turfed community organizations flourished as a reactionary ploy to undermine the revolutionary Survival Programs. As adamantly and brutally as it attempted to crush the leadership and base of revolutionary organizing, the state sought to redirect energy from Black, Indigenous, Puerto Rican and other Third World revolutionary movements towards a bourgeois line of “Black Capitalism” and electoral politics. The CIA covertly funded counter-revolutionary organizations through large philanthropists like the Ford Foundation:

“In 1976, a Select Committee appointed to investigate US intelligence activities reported on the CIA’s penetration of the foundation field by the mid-1960s: during 1963-6, of the 700 grants over $10,000 given by 164 foundations, at least 108 involved partial or complete CIA funding. More importantly, CIA funding was involved in nearly half the grants made by these 164 foundations in the field of international activities during the same period…

The architects of the foundation’s cultural policy in the aftermath of the Second World War were perfectly attuned to the political imperatives which supported America’s looming presence on the world stage. At times, it seemed as if the Ford Foun­dation was simply an extension of government in the area of international cultural propaganda.” (Frances Stonot Saunders, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, 139.)

In the 1960s, the Ford Foundation funded Black-led activism and social service programs in cities to “calm” the radical uprisings that defined urban politics in that decade. Among the organizations that the foundation funded was the father of “Black capitalism,” Floyd McKinnick’s Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). According to a contemporary observer, Robert L. Allen in his work Black Awakening in America, McKinnick’s CORE maintained a rhetorically militant position calling for revolution and land redistribution, but pursued an “ambiguous and reformist” agenda including voter drives and corporate investment in black communities.

“CORE and the cultural nationalists draped themselves in the mantle of nationalism, but upon examination it is seen that their programs, far from aiding in the achievement of black liberation and freedom from exploita­tion, would instead weld the black communities more firmly into the structure of American corporate capitalism. The reformist or bourgeois nationalism­ through its chosen vehicle of black capitalism-may line the pockets and boost the social status of the black middle class and black intelligentsia, but it will not ease the oppression of the ordinary ghetto dweller.” (Robert L. Allen, Black Awakening in America, 62)

This model, whereby NGOs are a weapon of the capitalist-imperialist class to undermine revolutionaries ripples through many organizing communities today. In their contribution to an anthology on the “Non-Profit-Industrial-Complex,” Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande highlight the Bread and Roses Community Fund in Philadelphia which embodies the model of an NGO with radical discourse but a petty bourgeois class character. Founded in 1971, the organization borrows their name from the rallying cry of the socialist-led 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, and boasts a history of funding “new or controversial grassroots groups, such as the National Lawyers Guild, the Black Panther Party, and Women United for Abortion Rights.” Their slogan, “change not charity” suggests an approach dissimilar from Ford Foundation progressive organizations, but they have garnered criticism from local activists for operating grants on a discretionary basis offering, “often noncompetitive grants given at the whim of a foundation to friends, be they indi­viduals or organizations. Often these funds do not require the submission of a proposal, just the existence of a ‘relationship.’” (Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande, “The Filth on Philanthropy,” in The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, 83; The authors explain the general issue at play,

“When the white Left accepts donations of white capital on behalf of oppressed people of color, they act as brokers between the capital and the oppressed people of color who were exploited to create it. As brokers, they keep white wealth from the grasp of people of color entrenched in movements for wealth redistribution, particularly the movement for reparations. And for their “brokering” efforts, white-led organizations have been able to materially benefit as they garner and maintain control of social justice movements that disproportionately impact and affect the lived reality of people of color.” (King and Osayande, 80-81)

It is in this context that we must understand NGOs: as a counter-revolutionary carrot wielded by the same monster that holds the reactionary stick of state repression. This particular brand of counter-revolutionary ideology is called right opportunism, meaning opportunistically taking genuinely revolutionary struggles and pushing them to the political right towards reform or reaction. The opportunists and their CIA and Ford Foundation backers developed a new model of service organizations that appeal to potential revolutionaries, misdirecting them into the projects of capitalist-imperialism. These NGOs have grown to represent an entire economic sector, contributing over one trillion dollars (around five percent) of the US gross domestic product ( Internationally, if NGOs composed a country, it would be the eighth largest economy in the world ( An entire ideological state apparatus accompanied this political-economic shift with university programs that train students for careers in the non-profit sector, thousands of books published on non-profit management, and endless self-congratulatory documentaries. This ideological reproduction of capitalist-imperialist logic of NGOs has penetrated radical organizing today, because that’s exactly what the counter-revolutionary CIA and Ford Foundation intended. Ruth Wilson Gilmore terms this network of NGOs have flourished since the COINTELPRO period the “shadow state,” highlighting the the state-like role that they play in surveilling and disrupting revolutionary organizing in service of the ruling class.


The pattern goes something like this: the storm strikes; the local punks and organizers put up a GoFundMe; activists rush to Walmart and distribute supplies to people as requests pour in, receiving reimbursement days or weeks later, if at all.

It’s inspiring to watch, I’ll admit. How rapidly donations can come in, how carelessly people drop personal obligations to help the community around them, and how unapologetically funds can directly arrive in the hands of working class families is striking. But we should be cautious about this energetic spontaneity. Do those receiving aid have any say in funding priorities? Are there structures in place for the masses to criticize organizers?

Just as liberal NGOs are at the whim of the “charitable” organs of finance capital, this model leaves the funding priorities more in the hands of our well-off sympathizers than those who are receiving the aid. These sympathizers are disproportionately from the labor aristocracy (workers who benefit from imperialism such as well-paid white workers with pensions and health care) and petty bourgeoisie (small business owners). Those with hundreds of dollars of disposable income during a disaster, local small business, and liberal churches are the largest contributors to the grassroots charity. Would these organizations ever donate to an armed militia of working class or colonized people? The limits to their support are their own class interests. Only so long as mutual aid organizations align with the interests of the labor aristocracy and petty bourgeoisie will these classes continue to support mutual aid organizing.

Necessarily limited access and control over the funds enshrines an NGO-like relationship between the organizers and the community. Those who gather and distribute supplies are the volunteers, and those who receive aid are the clients. Here, the sinister, unspoken hierarchy inherent to decentralized, so-called ‘horizontal’ organizing reveals itself. The flow of funds into Mutual Aid organizations is often heart-warming, but it entrenches a contradiction that we should be struggling against – the contradiction between donor and the “needy.” Between the volunteer and the client.

Once enough donations are accumulated, the volunteers encounter all the nuances and issues that accompany financial management, and overnight, the anarchists become accountants. Meetings are consumed with discussions of transparency, accountability, tax management, finance documentation etc. If there is any degree of longevity to the project, it will almost inevitably, formalize as a 501(c)3 nonprofit or associate with an existing nonprofit for the tax benefits and structure.

At best, organizers can distribute supplies and funds in a timely manner, however unable to address the issue that the donors choose which crises are most prudent and organizers choose which supplies are most necessary with little strategic input from the masses. At worst, I have seen Mutual Aid organizers fall into the same traps of corruption, nepotism, and greed as the capitalist-imperialists, withholding money from the community, or outright stealing supplies and funds. But our error is the same in both cases. When we act as brokers between money and those who need it, we are compelled to organize like the NGOs that depend precisely on that relationship. We organize resources instead of organizing people.

The difference between red and black NGOs and liberal, imperialist NGOs is more of form than of substance. Without a sustainable, centralized, revolutionary organization made up of and accountable to the masses, we are condemned to repeat the injustices of the non-profit-industrial-complex. In effect, this error is anti-masses in that it situates organizers in an elevated position over most other working-class people. There are rarely formal avenues for the masses to critisize organizers. Insufficient attempt is made to recruit new people from the masses and elevate them to a leadership role. Instead, we need organizations that have eyes set on a long-term focus and sustainable structure that rely on and strive for a mass base.

So what distinguishes anarchist and “socialist” mutual aid efforts from the liberal, imperialist NGOs? For one, mutual aid organizations sometimes carry hastily printed zines about the importance of “autonomy” or decrying capitalism for treating its habitual crises as business opportunities. But how many of the people we reach know that we are doing it with a dream of building a better world – a revolution? Propaganda is often an afterthought, and understandably so given the sporadic and disorganized nature mutual aid often takes. Too often, contemporary mutual aid programs shy away from one of the only things we can provide that NGOs can’t: a materialist explanation of the origin and role of crises under capitalism-imperialism. That is, a language for what they are already experiencing, where they may already possess advanced ideas.

I have even heard from fellow organizers that anti-capitalist propagandizing during a natural disaster is political “opportunism,” suggesting that we are taking advantage of a crisis for manipulative political gain. On the contrary, the opportunism that is holding us back is that which defangs revolutionaries prepared to seize a moment instead mimicking the gestures and functions of the NGOs. Those who recoil from agitation betray their revolutionary convictions or reveal themselves to have been liberal opportunists all along. Instead of merely meeting peoples’ needs, we should be agitating them to engage in struggle against those who exploit us. Crises, including natural disasters, are prime moments for labor and rent strikes, eviction blockades, organized reappropriation of supplies hoarded by capitalists, and other actions that can unify a conscious class capable of bold strides against the bourgeoisie. We can earn trust by serving the people, but to cower from agitation is to discard that trust.

What educational outcomes have our mutual aid programs achieved? How many people that access our distribution hubs arrive at an advanced understanding capitalism and revolutionary struggle? Are we only ever reaching the “same crowd” or are we expanding our base? I have no illusion that this educational process happens overnight. But we rarely even have conversations about the effectiveness of our political education efforts, taking for granted that having some zines and agitational literature alongside other supplies at a distribution site is sufficient.

Perhaps more sinister than the role of NGOs in surveilling and diverting potential revolutionaries is the ideological limits they have placed on political imagination. Why is it that after a natural disaster one of the first thing anarchists and socialists think to do is replicate non-profits? The bourgeois ideological apparatuses have so thoroughly penetrated the strategy of organizers, that our attempts to emulate the Black Panther’s Survival Programs resemble more closely the reactionary backlash against them. This is why it has been so easy for the ruling class to file in behind and uplift calls for more mutual aid. By and large, the manner we approach mutual aid is precisely the one designed for us by the CIA and Ford Foundation.


In Eugene, several NGOs and mutual aid projects have surfaced in the past few years, and we should scrutinize their revolutionary potential. Consider the Neighborhood Anarchist Collective (NAC), the largest organization of anarchists in Eugene of the past few years. According to their website, the collective “strives to grow the anarchist movement through strategic direct action and by providing a welcoming environment for education and participation.” The bulk of their ‘strategic direct action’ has been Share Fair. The Share Fair is a monthly event organized and lead by NAC, where various contributors and volunteers provide a variety of services and donations to the attendees, mainly unhoused people and other anarchists.

“Events such as the share fair [sic] are necessary because capitalism is failing people. Those who don’t conform to the dominant economic model are discarded by society and the government is unable to provide the sort of care we can provide for each other.” What kind of care is being provided at the Share Fair? Free hair cuts, bike repairs, food, drug use harm reduction kits, clothing, and a handful of other services and donations. There are dozens of organizations providing all of those already in Eugene. The Share Fair does not and cannot hand out anything the NGOs and “shadow state” already provide in higher quantities and more efficiently.

NAC explains, “one of the principles of anarchism is that members of a community see what needs to be done and take responsibility for doing it themselves.” This is a principle of the captialist-imperialist NGOs as well. A culture of entrepreneurship is pervasive in the non-profit world, where NGOs compete to find the next big cause to secure more funding. All the better if someone from that community is spearheading or figureheading the project! This was precisely the CIA and Ford Foundation strategy to suppressing militant black nationalism and revolutionary organizing. A more revolutionary principle we should embrace is identifying a trench of struggle and agitating there, and recruiting leadership out of existing struggles.

The goal of their organizing is to “set the example to others, to show that it’s possible to take action without the government and to cooperate without hierarchy while still being effective (or being more effective).” So the Share Fair is an ‘example’ ‘shown’ to others, and admittedly, performative. Bravo. Of course we should inspire the masses, but we should inspire them to take bold strides against the bourgeoisie. Confrontation with victory will show the masses that when they unite, they can defeat the ruling class. In their own words, NAC and the Share Fair avoid confrontation with the ruling class in favor of a performative repliction of the same services NGOs already provide.

Another organization, Lane County Mutual Aid (LCMA), emerged after the first outbreak of COVID19 in Oregon as a collective of mainly anarchists seeking to emulate the mutual aid organizing that cropped up around the country. For the most part, they have had three main projects: encouraging the formation of pods, fundraisers for individuals experience hardship due to the pandemic, and a distribution hub at the NAACP office.

The neighborhood pods were intended to be networks of neighbors communicating to “organize grocery and supply delivery, share resources, and support (each other).” Essentially, they amounted to neighborhood associations with an added component of charity. Needless to say, the most active and sustained pods occurred in middle class, petty bourgeois and student neighborhoods like Amazon neighborhood. Without any agitational component pods will only ever be cute Zoom get-togethers, and occasional support systems for elderly and disabled neighbors. Lacking struggle, the pods have no mechanisms to challenge capitalism, other than a vague, petty bourgeois prefigurative politics. I even tried to form a pod in my neighborhood at the time, in a working class suburb in west Eugene. Offering grocery runs and resources like LCMA suggested, I received some smiles but no follow up despite my best efforts. However, the same neighborhood has been responsive to Eugene Housing and Neighborhood Defense’s canvassing around forming tenants unions and eviction defense.

The individual fundraisers no doubt provided real aid to those suffering under the recent capitalist crisis. Among them were latino families struggling to afford groceries, tenants seeking money for rent to avoid eviction, and mothers asking for help to buy toys to keep their children entertained. Was there any attempt to connect these people with revolutionary organizations engaging in labor agitation, tenant organizing, or women’s liberation struggles? Why not? Fundraisers can be great tools to earn peoples trust, but how we use that trust is just as important. We can use fundraisers to build connections and relationships with the masses. We must then use those relationships to grow our fighting organizations so we can build something worth defending. If we only attain that trust without using it towards a political goal, we are abandoning that trust and hardly deserved it in the first place.

LCMA, for now, is committed to a charity model and like Neighborhood Anarchist Collective recoils from the struggle and agitation necessary to wage revolution. Perhaps some of the people involved in these organizations have been present in more militant actions such as the uprisings this summer. This is not sufficient grounds to dismiss these criticisms. Certainly, people who work for capitalist-imperialist NGOs in an official capacity also participated in militant uprisings, were teargassed, and even arrested. That does not make their work within conciliatory NGOs revolutionary. Neither does the presence of some militants and insurrectionary anarchists within mutual aid organizations alter the political character of those organizations.

Organizers in NAC and LCMA should critically reflect on their projects and the shortcomings of the mutual aid model. I encourage those comrades to engage in more agitational approaches, even if this means disbanding these organizations in pursuit of truly revolutionary projects.

Other organizations and projects in Eugene/Springfield risk following the same path. White Bird, Occupy Medical, and Black Thistle all provide important health and human services to unhoused folks but are thoroughly embedded within the NGO sector with little hope of turning towards revolutionary organizing. The stop the sweeps work has shifted emphasis towards mutual aid as a way to make connections with the unhoused community. Without clear steps towards agitation and uniting other working class people to fight against common class enemies (gentrifying businesses and the police), that work can easily devolve into charity. Even the cop watching and confrontation with city officials during sweeps could unfold into merely legalistic non-profit work of law suits and litigation – yet another task NGOs already perform. The Lane County Jail hunger strike support team has shifted to broader abolitionist organizing. Organizing with incarcerated people involves working around and against some of the most intense censorship and repression that the bourgeois state can muster. Given this obstacle, the fundraisers for and direct support and contact with prisoners is already approaching a level agitation that the state cannot bear. However, I do urge these comrades to dilineate what distinguishes them from the countless liberal NGOs and University programs already working with prisoners while serving the imperialist functions of prisons.


The fundamental error of Mutual Aid is economism and tailism, that is, subordinating the broader political aims to immediate economic needs, and only ever acting as a responsive force to the whims of capital, rather than advancing a political struggle. In form, Mutual Aid organizations resemble the Black Panther Party’s survival programs or the 1930’s Communist Party’s relief organizations. However, in essence, organizers can’t seem to help but replicate the structures and relationships of NGOs. With a historical perspective, we can see that this is by design.

Rhetorical assertions of “solidarity not charity” are insufficient. Without agitating towards unity and struggle, the mutual aid programs are merely charity. If we only meet material needs, then our work will never conclude, will never reach revolution, because capitalism perpetually robs people of the basic necessities of life and always tends towards crisis. The shortfalls of red-washed charities are now painfully evident after years of being a strategic priority of the US left – especially anarchists, and particularly pronounced in Eugene. Without drawing in masses of working class people, we are incapable of elevating the struggle to the next level.

Revolutionaries need to be engaged in agitation and mass-line work first. The day-to-day tasks of mutual aid programs such as food and clothing distribution and medical services might be useful tactics in our efforts but we should not allow them to become the primary impetus.

To understand the political function of Survival Programs we can turn to the work of the revolutionary writer George Jackson:

“The vanguard cannot stay alive long enough to effect a broad consciousness unless it possesses the latent threat of force. They’re going to claim that our clothing projects, the people’s bazaars, the people’s stores and decentralized cottage industries are fronts for stolen property. The establishment will claim that the vanguard party is feeding and clothing people with goods stolen from the old enemy culture. They’ll claim that we’re buying it from the city-state’s lumpen who steal everything they can sell, or that we’re ripping it off ourselves. Of course, this will be used to justify an attack upon our political projects, our infrastructure. The assaults will be justified by them in a dozen different ways, whether we establish ourselves in storefronts or in our homes. They will attack us–behind the fire ordinance, the sanitation department, the anonymous tip. The establishment’s mercenaries will break in shooting, and all of us who are not killed will go to jail, for violating the fire ordinance, reisting arrest, attempting murder and receiving stolen property, etc. It’s as predictable as nightfall. I’m convinced that any serious organizing of people must carry with it from the start a potential threat of revolutionary violence.” (George Jackson, Blood in My Eye, 79)

The task of Survival Programs, Jackson explains, is to demonstrate to the people that we can build something worth defending and then to defend it. Our projects must be confrontational rather than conciliatory towards capital and the state. Certainly, some NGOs and mutual aid programs have faced political repression. We should unite to defend the humanitarian activists charged with felonies for providing water to refugees at the border or to Food Not Bombs activists arrested for offerring food to the unhoused in public parks. But we must admit that the mutual aid organizations that agitate to the point of repression are a minority. Most mutual aid programs are more likely to recieve an applause from city council than a police raid.

This is not to say go hand out food and then get arrested on purpose in the process. Symbolic arrests should be calculated and have a clear propagandistic purpose if there are used at all. A crude form agitation that emphasizes spectacle and sponteneity over strategy will have the same pitfalls of the conciliatory approach to mutual aid. The point of agitation is to unite the working class.

For example, we can help neighbors form tenant committees to rent strike and defend against evictions and provide food for their meetings. We could then bring water and supplies to apartment complexes nearby as a way to strike up a conversation to see if they will unite to defend their neighbors. Direct case work such as helping tenants document their move-out to ensure they receive their deposit or organizing a fundraiser for a group of tenants can be an important way to earn trust. Turning a site of struggle, like a labor strike picket, into a distribution hub for supplies and services can be an excellent propaganda tool to win the support of others in the community. We should have child-care collectives prepared to watch infants children while their parents attend meetings or mobilizations. An organization dedicated to recruiting and uplifting revolutionary women leaders may fundraise for individual domestic violence survivors as a method of earning their trust and incorporate them into the organization itself. As our organizations grow we will build base areas that we can defend. Truly revolutionary survival programs will draw the most heavy handed repression the state can throw at us, and we should be prepared.

I understand the temptation to orient our struggle to filling in the gaps for capitalism. It’s hard to negociate with the impulse to drop everything, gather supplies, and reach as many material needs as we can when disaster strikes. However, as revolutionaries, we are still few and our resources limited. We need to focus everything towards providing the one thing that capitalist NGOs cannot: a revolutionary organization. We need to be deliberate about where we dig our trenches and build organizations prepared to struggle and defend our gains in the midst of a crisis. Serving the people will always be a central component of our organizing, but agitating towards unity in struggle will be our primary cause.

Serve the people through agitation!

Dare to struggle! Dare to win!