Confessions of a latter day mutualist


Contrun Revisited: This is still one of my favorite bits of personal position-taking and much of it still rings true for me, even if I am much less eclectic in my associations these days and much more focused on that anarchy that “accepts no adjectives.” Indeed, the notion of a Babel-in-reverse in the workers’ movements is probably a pretty good summary of much of what I think has gone wrong over time among anarchists. 

As for the prediction of wild swoops, well, I think it has been fulfilled.

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What is this Mutualism of which you speak?

I see that Kevin Carson has given me a rousing welcome to the neighborhood. I’ll try not to let him down. I see he counts me among the “free market anti-capitalists.” It’s a label I’ll happily embrace — at least as a partial description of my position. But the truth is that I’m a whole lot less interested in economics than some of my friends and comrades — and maybe a bit less interested than I should be, though I have done my fair share of slogging through the stuff — so defining myself in those terms seems like a little bit of an imposture. All labels have their limits. I’m a christian individualist poststructuralist socialist green market anarchist — I guess. Or something. . . .

Mostly, I call myself an anarchist, or a mutualist — depending on who I’m talking to, and how confusing or distracting the terms are likely to be in the context. There was a time, not all that long ago when mutualist was a term used very little among the generally left-anarchist company I was keeping. It struck me as a term used to keep folks like Proudhon carefully suspended about half in and half out of “proper anarchism.” It was also a nice way to say “individualist anarchism” without starting quite as many fights. There still aren’t very many of us who call ourselves mutualists, but at least now when we do so we only have to explain why we’re not automatically enemies of anarchism about half the time. Let’s hear it for progress.

I’m being a bit facetious, but, whatever you call them, the more individualistic and market-friendly early forms of anarchism pose all sorts of problems for contemporary anarchist ideologies — both right and left. Engaging with them takes us back to a time before the marxian coup in the First International remapped the political terrain, when socialism still meant little more than simultaneous concerns with social science and social justice. It’s hard to grasp the diversity of that International. Beyond the familiar assortment of folks from the labor movement, the cooperatives, Proudhonists, Marxists, Bakuninists and such, Stephen Pearl Andrews and the Woodhull sisters were part of an American section grounded in part in Andrews’ pantarchy and universology. William Batchelder Greene, the “American Proudhon,” was a member of a French-speaking Boston chapter which understood the work of the International as a continuation of that of the Knights Templar. Cabet’s Icarians were represented as well. You can imagine Marx tearing out his hair, wondering how he could get rid of half this crew. He worked it out eventually, of course, expelling the American English-speaking sections before he and Bakunin had a chance to duke it out. And while he was at it, Andrews and Greene continued to translate and disseminate Marx and Engels’ Manifesto.

I’ll be honest. The strange, promiscuous character of that First International fascinates me. All of the work that I’ve been doing on the history of anarchism and mutualism is aimed at getting a glimpse of some of the roads not traveled from that point to the present. It’s tempting to say that the breakup of the International was a sort of Tower of Babel incident for the broad socialist movement. Certainly, some form of common language was lost, as it rapidly became almost impossible to speak of a broad socialist movement — and largely remains so today. But the incident is also, and perhaps more compellingly, a sort of Babel-in-reverse. First, there was a clamor of voices, but there was also this fragile joint project, the International. And then there was a different sort of clamor, but not within the joint project, which had become rather narrow and German. We’ve played out at least some of the possible outcomes of this change in relations. And the historical debates about anarchism, socialism and capitalism have helped us to make some judgments about the inevitability of some of the less pleasant outcomes. There’s still a lot of historical spadework to be done to flesh out the genealogies of the various current anarchistic and socialistic currents, but there’s also the very difficult job of trying to grasp the character of the International in that earlier moment.

I guess I’m happy to call myself a mutualist because it positions me within a story that must reach back before Marxian takeover — to the extent that it’s possible to do so. Mutualism, for me, is necessarily identified with the sort of chaos-in-concert that seems to have characterized that early, broad socialism. My intuition is that if there are going to be mutualists again, in a sense that is meaningful — that gets some work done — we’ll have to learn to be pluralists, to relate to others despite the confusions of voices.

Right now, being a mutualist seems to involve being open, being committed to an experimental approach, embracing multiple, partial projects while we look for common ground. For that reason, the writing here will swoop wildly from high theory to minute concrete details. Hopefully, it will make for an interesting ride for all involved.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.