Further Reflections on Anarchist Tendencies and Mutualist History

This is a collection of another Twitter thread, in the course of which I’ve been sharing some reminiscences on how “neo-proudhonian” mutualism emerged and how those who have adopted the label or encounter it in anarchist circles might understand the particular gambits involved in its construction. These things necessarily get away from us, once loosed upon the world—and that’s fine, perhaps simply as it should be—but I suspect they may serve others better if they retain some of the character of their origins.  

Anyone who wants to rewind the debate about anarchist history to the position it was in before the mutualist renaissance of twenty-five years ago (or so) might look at Martin’s Men Against the State, Perry’s Radical Abolitionism and Schuster’s Native American Anarchism. I suspect that someone approaching those texts now would experience something similar to what we experienced at the time, as it is not always easy to reconcile the relevant portions of the various accounts into the story of a single tendency. And the deeper you go into the footnotes—or, y’know, into the library stacks—the more the richness of the details and the diversity of the individual positions seems likely to shine through.

There was a time when what modern mutualists primarily shared was a fascination with those details and with the new glimpses of the more-or-less mutualist pioneers that were emerging every day from new research. One of the strengths of that phase was, I think, the extent to which the individuality of the individuals involved was respected and celebrated—even when, as was often the case, the specifically individual elements were not so useful in the construction of ideological systems. Subordinating individuals to ideologies is a recipe for bad history and for a kind of theoretical exploration doomed to find little except what was presupposed from the beginning. If we sometimes made hard work of our early explorations, at least we went with eyes open.

The choices that confronted us pretty early on were: 1) some kind of general ideological program, to which none of the historical pioneers could be shown to adhere too consistently; 2) the subordination of some of the pioneers to others, in the name of ideological consistency; and 3) the recognition of a more anarchic association, to which various figures contributed in various ways, arising from disagreement, developing ideas, changing contexts, etc. etc.

The initial organizational context for the mutualist renaissance was itself a broad, proudly heterogeneous association organized around principles like “everyone here disagrees.” As the association crumbled we were fortunate to largely avoid rigid, competing ideological factions.

In those early days, we became “mutualists” because that was the space left open for us in the existing anarchist milieus. And we had to “be mutualists” while figuring out what that might mean, if it wasn’t just the ideological broom closet some folks wanted to shove us into. We were “individualists” and “market anarchists” as well, simply because there weren’t a gazillion meme-ideology factions to choose from. But there was that short list of works that presumably provided a richer account of the shoes we seemed destined to fill.

I think we handled the challenge admirably, all things considered, through the years it took to discover just how complicated the history of “mutualism” really had been. This is not an era marked by particular clarity or candor among political factions when it comes to their own complex histories, but I think we have done pretty well at embracing both the overall diversity and the individual eccentricities in our own.

The account that has developed over the last twenty-five years can certainly be criticized, but the available grounds are somewhat limited. In criticizing my own account specifically, one thing you probably can’t do is oppose it, as “revisionism,” to any orthodoxy of comparable scope. What is strikingly consistent about the history of accounts of mutualism is their partial and partisan nature. So one question we face is whether there is any alternative, given that fact. Let’s imagine for a moment that all we can do is propose yet another such account. If there is no question of synthesis, then presumably any new account would have to be judged on the basis of its plausibility, utility, skillful use of available sources, the capacity to appear as something other than just a new batch of fighting words, etc. Within the specific context of anarchist history and theory, we would almost certainly award extra points for plausibly anarchistic methods, compatibility of ends and means, etc. Anarchist synthesis is itself seen, ironically, as partisan, but a widely plausible and obviously inclusive synthesis—if we now consider it among the partisan options—ought to be seen as pretty strong stuff indeed.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that most of the critiques of the modern account of mutualism as “anarchism with its options left open” are fundamentally critiques of anarchist synthesis, from critics whose own positions would benefit from a more programmatic account. Again, our choice seems to be between elevating some particular partial and partisan account over the others or recognizing that “mutualism” designates an irreducibly heterogeneous range of beliefs. In this context, synthesis is just the most comprehensive sort of partisanship.

There are varieties of ideological history that treat individuals as symptoms of tendencies, but those methods are hard to square with anarchist values and concerns. But we are still dealing with a variety of ideological history and shouldn’t kid ourselves about the consequences. For example, there would seem to be a certain aptness to “an individualist history of anarchist individualism”—and to an “anarchist individualist history,” if we can find the means of embodying anarchism in historical and ideological practices and accounts.

We struggle a bit imagining what anarchist practices might be in instances like the construction of historical and ideological narratives, but perhaps it’s not a stretch to concern ourselves with the problem of “external constitution” in these contexts as well. For those unfamiliar, Proudhon described the governmentalist state in terms of “the external constitution of society,” referring to the belief of other socialists in his time that society was only “realized” when the social body was given a governmental head. In the field of discourse, the process of subordinating individualities to a thesis presents us with analogies that are often quite strong, particularly when we recall that our materials are the acts and words of human individuals—of anarchists, who are infamously insubordinate.

A “mutualist history of mutualism” would seem to call, at a minimum, for careful attention to this set of pitfalls and, ideally, for some kind of “anarchic encounter” between modern mutualists and what remains to be encountered of the mutualists of the past as individualities. I touched on this in a thread last month, but it’s worth underlining just how doggedly, extraordinarily individual anarchists have tended to be. “Herding cats” doesn’t begin to capture the difficulties when we try to consign anarchistic individualities to ideological enclosures. Eccentricity is hard to account for in ideological histories, particularly when it takes the form of eccentricity of expression. You would think that a tradition arguably launched by the claim that “property is theft” would have a more precise understanding of its own rhetoric, but I suspect that every discussion of “the authority of the bootmaker” should serve as a reminder of just what work there is still to be done in that regard. Perhaps the first, easiest observation we can make about anarchist rhetoric is that it is absolutely no surprise to see people advocating ideas entirely at odds with the common sense of their own societies struggling with their own languages to express them.

That kind of struggle poses difficulties for interpreters, since it is the most important terms that seem to be subjected to the most complex rhetorical manipulations. We can’t approach bodies of work shaped by this kind of rhetoric as if we were reading a manual or monograph. Factor in the theories regarding the construction of meaning and organization of concepts that anarchists developed or inherited and things become even more complicated. And we have to recall that speculation about these things was a common preoccupation among radicals.

Proudhon’s “War and Peace” is a work that can potentially teach us a lot about what was most anarchistic in his expression, as well as his conceptual apparatus, provided we are willing to commit to engaging with it at that level.

Anyway, if we have to treat the anarchistic expressions of the past as driven by unfamiliar strategies, charged with subversive rhetoric and emerging from individual eccentricity, the general accounts we construct will be shaped accordingly.

As problems go, this is not a bad set to have, since it arguably forces us deeper into the subject matter—and, if that sort of careful, demanding engagement doesn’t seem useful, perhaps spares us the historical chores altogether.

We can, of course, descend into the maelstrom in steps. There is an interesting story to be told about the various uses of the term “mutualism,” which becomes increasingly useful as we connect it to accounts of individual usage and rhetoric, and to the general history of ideas. But we can never neglect the general work of translation—from language to language, from era to era, but also from individual idiom to individual idiom and sometimes from work to work—as we elaborate these accounts. That’s the minimum price of any sort of generalization.

In the end, of course, history and individuality always kick our presumptuous little asses, no matter how many likes we garner on social media or how many citations we get from the academy.

But it’s not like those are battles that anarchists have any very obvious interest in winning. And maintaining some perspective about battles and interests is absolutely vital if we are not going to just waste our time with this stuff.

So perhaps the case has been made for interpretive modesty, but let’s take a moment to talk a bit about a characteristic sort of avant garde immodesty that muddies the waters considerably in these debates. “Our ideas are in everyone’s heads.” (“You may not like it now, but you will.”) The boldest use of the language and concepts of the status quo is the claim that the rationale for revolution is right there in the logic of the system opposed—when looked at through the right lens. Anarchists have often resorted to this gambit, showing a fine Stirnerian impulse to make the status quo “their food.” It is no certainly no surprise when we see this sort of subversive hyperbole in the rhetoric of an egoist like Benjamin R. Tucker. Perhaps for Tucker, the more important influence was Proudhon, or William B. Greene, who was capable, according to Ezra Heywood, of drawing the most revolutionary conclusions from the constitution of the state of Massachusetts. It probably doesn’t matter much. What’s important, in all of this work, is to recognize the genre and tone of expressions, to recognize allusions and to reconcile the quotable bits to the rest of the works in which they appear. If we treat clearly subversive or aggressive expressions like shopping lists, well…

If there is a fairly high minimal price in careful labor to be paid before we can generalize, failing to recognize punch lines when we encounter them is probably a pretty good indication to others that we have tried to get by without doing the necessary work.

The criticisms of modern mutualist histories haven’t changed much since the days we were debating on Usenet. There are more texts available to dissect and discuss, thanks largely to our labor, but it remains a question of capitalists trying to accumulate capital through them. The histories, on the other hand, have changed dramatically, although as slowly as steadily, as we have learned more about the past and clarified the purposes for which historical accounts might be useful to a living movement in the present. I have proposed simple genealogy as the first step toward addressing the complexities and suggested that we never get to take the last steps, which would presumably reveal some “true history of mutualism.” All of these accounts are constructions, for which we are responsible. So how do we recognize more or less sturdy, useful, anarchistic constructions? Since we are talking about general histories, in contexts where “internal” conflict and contradiction is acknowledged, recognition of responsibility for the construction is probably a good first sign. Consciousness that a particular kind of narrative is being created and some obvious awareness of what it is likely to be good for are other good signs. Accounts presented in that magisterial voice that seems to speak for history itself are always going to be suspect.

To wrap up this set of reflections, I want to focus specifically on the origins, development and present uses of the “neo-proudhonian” narrative, with the idea that much of what I say is generalizable in the present and reflects what I’ve learned about the tendencies of the past.

There might never have been a neo-proudhonian mutualism. We could have been comfortable with what we knew second-hand twenty-odd years ago and gone straight to writings FAQs based on our limited knowledge of the tradition. There was certainly enthusiasm for that sort of project. That would have placed us in a fine old mutualist tradition, adding one more appropriation and reconstruction to what we now know is a long list. That would have been fine, in the sense that it would have been “according to the rules already established.”It would also have been useful, since the first priority was to establish an ideological space for anarchist tendencies that had been a bit “homeless” in the milieu. We wouldn’t have even been so far off from better-informed accounts, since at that time “market anarchism” still really just indicated the possibility of markets. The distinction between “mutualism” and “market anarchism,” and our present understanding of their overlaps, was itself a product of the development of various evolving narratives. This is worth underlining, in the context of the criticisms aimed at the general narrative that emerged. The account that we inherited and the account that was constructed from further research differ primarily in their degree of elaboration. We started out uncertain about what mutualism was, while trying to be mutualists, because that was the option left open for us—and we came to understand that our uncertainty was, in fact, a necessary part of embracing mutualism in a general sense. And there has been a lot of care exercised along the way not to engage in needless or premature school-building. I had my own year-long trial separation with mutualism as a framework, when the struggles over the label became too distracting.

I began this long thread by noting the choices left us by the account of mutualism we inherited. My own early responses involved continued historical research while I constructed a consciously personal variant, the old “two-gun mutualism,” on the margins of the tradition. The historical research gradually ran up against the irreducible diversity of the things that had been called mutualism, then encountered a very similar dynamic in other anarchist tendencies. My explorations of both anarchism and mutualism came to be oriented around one question: Under what conditions, in the context of what historical account, could we talk about “anarchism” and “mutualism” with both rhetorical confidence and historical support. I had to become a synthesist of a particularly anarchic kind in order to even begin to answer that question.

Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis” and a deep dive into Max Nettlau’s theoretical works were key to moving forward. Both emphasize the necessarily partial, focused nature of anarchist practices and the necessity for some sort of consultative balance. t wasn’t hard to connect those insights to Proudhon’s theory, particular to the analysis of collective force, at which point I really had a toolkit sufficient to begin drawing a wide range of anarchist and near-anarchist elements into my historical accounts, conflicts and all. And that sets up the historical gambit: take the vague story about mutualism we inherited seriously and see if there are resources discoverable within the tradition it indicates that would allow us to vindicate it, simply by elaborating it in various (sometimes complicated) ways. The fact that the theoretical elements that make the vindication possible include some, like Proudhon’s philosophy and sociology, which can be applied to a wide range of problems outside the realm of ideological history is obviously a pretty big bonus. But, again, it’s not like Proudhon hasn’t always been positioned at the center of narratives about “mutualism” and “anarchism.” It is just that the Proudhon centered there has been remarkably empty, stripped by successive appropriations of substance. To fill any of these spaces in the dominant narratives has been provocative, revisionist, transgressive—and has often been received as such, both by anarchists and rivals of anarchism alike. Recognition that it is a construction, not just “history,” hasn’t reduced that character.

All that really matters to me at this point is that the trick seems to work. It is possible to take a hard line regarding anarchist principles and still celebrate the uncertain advances of the pioneers from whom we inherited the tradition—even when the history gets deeply weird. And the specific way that the gambit succeeds is precisely through the abandonment of authority, through an embrace of anarchy, in spheres of activity where maybe we haven’t tried to apply our principles as consistently as we might.

I’m going to stop there. There are lots of loose ends that could be connected, some of which I’ll address in appropriately long-form posts sometime soon, but I don’t think the connections between the content and form of this anarchistic expression are that hard to make.


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