Mutualism, the Anarchism of Approximations, I

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The Contr’un Revisited project starts here.

It’s nice to find that some of this material has weathered the passing decade fairly well. And returning to these early attempts to sketch out a general account of mutualism—in the wake of finally working up a short sketch for the Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism—I’m reassured to find that we weren’t off to such a bad start, way back when. We know that the problem is even deeper than we supposed. For example, the best exposition of mutualist theory is probably Proudhon’s La Propriété vaincue, an unpublished manuscript that will finally see its first French publication next year. And a decade ago I was still unaware of the extent to which non-mutualists contributed to the ongoing definition and redefinition of the term. But the general summary of the problems faced by would-be modern mutualists seems to me to ring true.

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Mutualism: The Anarchism of Approximations


Inheriting Mutualism

“Well,” [Joseph Warden] said, the smile still lingering in the corners of his mouth, “we are in one sense, my friend, a poverty-stricken people. We haven’t any institutions to speak of. All we can boast are certain outgrowths of our needs, which, for the most part, have taken care of themselves. We have, perhaps, an unwritten law, or general understanding, though no one to my knowledge has tried to state it. We all seem to know it when we meet it, and, as yet, have had no dispute about it. It may be said in a general way, however, as a matter of observation, that we are believers in liberty, in justice, in equality, in fraternity, in peace, progress, and in a state of happiness here on earth for one and all. What we mean by all this defines itself as we go along. It is a practical, working belief, we have. When we find an idea won’t work, we don’t decide against it; we let it rest; perhaps, later on, it will work all right. I don’t know as there is much more to say.”

The man was evidently disappointed. Warden’s talk all seemed trivial to him. It gave him the impression, he said, that the people had not taken hold of the great problem of life in a serious and scientific manner.

Warden replied that, if the gentleman would define what he meant by the terms serious and scientific, they would be better able to determine the matter. If he meant by serious anything sorrowful or agonizing, they would plead guilty; in that sense, they were not serious. If their life was declared not scientific in the sense that it was not cut and dried, planned, laid out in iron grooves, put into constitutions, established in set forms and ceremonies, he was right. They had neither seriousness nor science after those patterns. “But we have,” he said, “a stability of purpose born of our mutual attractions and necessities, and a scientific adjustment, we think, of all our difficulties as well as of our varied enterprises. Always respecting each other’s individuality, we apply common sense to every situation, so far as we are able.” [1]

What is Mutualism? It is a question that even self-proclaimed mutualists may hesitate to answer. Since 1826, when the term mutualist first appeared in print, there have, in fact, been only a handful of attempts to present mutualism in systematic form. The most important of these, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières (1865), has yet to be translated into English. The most accessible, Clarence L. Swartz’ What Is Mutualism? (1927), dates from a period when mutualism had, by most accounts, waned almost to insignificance as a political force.

Proudhon’s mutualism is still enshrined in the histories as “the original anarchism,” though Proudhon and other key figures commonly associated with the tradition (or traditions)—John Gray, Josiah Warren, the Mutualist of 1826, William Batchelder Greene, Joshua King Ingalls, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Benjamin R. Tucker, Alfred B. Westrup, Dyer Lum, Edward H. Fulton, Clarence L. Swartz, etc.—remain virtually unread. [2] The majority of Proudhon’s work remains untranslated and until recently, when the creation of digital archives of various sorts changed the equation, nearly all the major works have been unavailable to most readers.

Still, there are mutualists, and lately there seem to be a lot more of us. Mutualism has persisted as “the other anarchism,” drawing those unsatisfied with the conventional divisions within anarchism. While nearly all anarchists, whatever their label of choice, have embraced some mixture of individualism with social solidarity and reciprocity, compromise in the economic realm has been tougher sledding. Particularly since the emergence of Rothbardian “anarcho-capitalism,” struggles over the place of market economics in anarchism have been fierce and polarizing. This has created an increased interest in the historical figures associated with mutualism, but it has not necessarily made it any more acceptable to espouse their ideas. When confronted, for example, with Proudhon’s lengthy and complex engagement with the notion of “property,” social anarchists tend to emphasize the claim that “Property is theft!” Anti-state capitalists point to the later association of property with liberty—and, as often as not, treat it as a progressive move, claiming that Proudhon “got over” his initial analysis of property (and the rest of us ought to as well.) Mutualists have tried to work within the space created between the two apparently contradictory statements. (This attempt, as much as anything, is probably what currently defines mutualism within the broader realm of anarchism.) Recent formulations, such as the “free-market anti-capitalism” of Kevin Carson, foreground the apparent contradictions, trying to signal that there is really something to be clarified there.

The current interest in mutualism has largely been driven by concerns that were not initially mutualist, and the mutualist and neo-mutualist positions that have emerged have been grounded very loosely in most instances in the historical tradition. While mutualism has never entirely died off as a tendency, there has been very little continuing structure by which specific mutualist doctrines could be passed along. That means that, among those who currently call themselves mutualists, there is very little orthodoxy and more than a bit of inconsistency.

That’s probably entirely consistent with the mutualist tradition as a whole—and, ultimately, I think we can talk about a “tradition” in that way. Mutualists have tended to reject systemization and to value experiment. In “Liberty and Wealth,” one of the true “lost classics” of the broad mutualist tradition, Sidney H. Morse engaged in a bit of alternate history, telling how the Owenite colony at New Harmony, Indiana was saved, after an initial failure, by hard work and common sense. Joseph Warden was obviously meant to invoke Josiah Warren, but the philosophy expressed was probably meant in large part as a counter to the various factions who, in the 1880s, questioned whether anything more than a commitment to liberty and reciprocity was necessary for radicals. It may, in fact, have been aimed in part at Benjamin R. Tucker, with whom Morse engaged in a series of friendly arguments. Tucker is perhaps better known for his not-so-friendly controversies, for the odd mix of generosity and intolerance with which he interacted with other radicals, and for the “plumb-line,” which led him, despite himself and his own best counsels, at times, towards inflexibility.

Now, everything we could say in this regard about Tucker could, with equal justice, be said of Proudhon, or Greene, or Warren. Whatever our reputation as “neither fish nor flesh,” as the school of compromise within anarchism, controversy has been our heritage nearly as often as conciliation. Morse’s New Harmonists capture one aspect of mutualism, the experimental, “tactical” approach that contemporary critics fail to recognize in “classical” anarchisms. But we should hope that mutualists will continue to send “fine hard shafts among friend and foe” alike. The question remains, though, what is our particular heritage?

Attempting to summarize over one hundred and eighty years of rather disparate history is unquestionably a daunting task. There is no present advantage to downplaying the diversity of the movement. Contemporary mutualists consider themselves such because they found some portion of our rather obscure tradition compelling, whether through direct contact with the original texts, through the earlier historical work done by James J. Martin, Enid Schuster, Joe Peacott and others, through Kevin Carson’s recent work, the commentary in An Anarchist FAQ, or historical spadework such as my own. Anarchist mutualists of the present day hardly need the sanction of an earlier tradition to engage in present-day activism, to carry on our own controversies and make our own alliances. Still, to the extent that we can claim to be part of a modern mutualist movement or current, much of what has brought mutualists together has been a shared concern with recovering mutualist history.

It’s in this particular, and presentist, context that I offer a series of examinations of the mutualist tradition, summaries and syntheses that I hope do some justice to both past diversities and present needs. Because, like most present-day anarchists, we are inheritors of a tradition which we really know only in part, there are likely to be surprises—not all of them necessarily welcome—in what follows. I have attempted to be very open to such surprises, as I’ve struggled through the writings of Proudhon and Pierre Leroux in French, or through the metaphysical concerns of Greene. I’ve tried not to force-fit any of these earlier writers to any present-day model. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking for connections to my own concerns, to those of my comrades in the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, or to those of my friends in other anarchist currents. Fortunately, very little fudging of the historical facts, as far as I can ascertain them, has been necessary. It seems that mutualism has always had a basic core of values, and that those values may serve contemporary anarchism well.

I’ll be following this introductory text with a number of different summary texts, addressing consistent philosophical concerns, mutualist keywords, representative figures, and the like. All of these texts, including this one, should be considered rough drafts for a more complete mutualist synthesis, and I welcome any and all suggestions and criticisms.

[1] H [Sidney H. Morse]. “Liberty and Wealth, V,” Liberty 2 no. 21 (July 26, 1884): 5. Morse’s story was serialized in eight parts in Liberty, between May 31 and September 6, 1884.

[2] The question of whether all of these figures should be considered part of one mutualist tradition or whether there have been, in fact, multiple traditions, is one we must face.


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


  1. I’ve also been thinking about what mutualism is and has been. Some of my rambling thoughts:

    Historically, mutualism predates anarchism, e.g. the mutualist of 1826. It begins with – not lasting contradictions but – productive antinomies: e.g. the idea that neither individualism nor socialism can fully develop without the other.

    As new schools – communism, individualism, collectivism, etc. have emerged, each emphasizing anarchism, and other implications of original mutualism, they have narrowed the meaning of mutualism to exclude communism, individualism, collectivism, etc. However, market anarchists who found the individualist label less than completely suitable periodically revived the mutualist one.

    I think mutualism is more closely comparable with anarchism without adjectives than with individualist anarchism. Like anarchism without adjectives, it focuses on core ideas and their open development. Unlike anarchism without adjectives, it offers specifics.

    It most often interprets this open development in terms of market interactions between individuals, instead of panarchistic movements between communities, but these are the same thing.

  2. Anarcho-capitalists point to the later association of property with liberty—and, as often as not, treat it as a progressive move, claiming that Proudhon “got over” his initial analysis of property (and the rest of us ought to as well.)

    Except, of course, Proudhon’s position in his latter work was premised on a defence of small scale property as a counter-force to the state. In other words, Proudhon had become a liberal-socialist rather than an anarchist. Nor, of course, did he deny that capitalist property was still theft and despotism. He was constantly to the end opposed to wage labour and private property in land.

    Still, few “anarcho”-capitalists actually know much about anarchism nevermind Proudhon.

    Good post, though. I have become very interested in mutualism since I started An Anarchist FAQ. Proudhon really did deserve to be considered one of the leading socialists of the nineteenth century. Anarchism cannot be fully understood without understanding Proudhon, imho.

    I should also plug the fact that the section on individualist anarchism has been revised. Unfortunately, the infoshop mirror has not been updated yet.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  3. Thanks, Iain. My point, of course, is that very few anarchists of any stripe want to tackle Proudhon’s full program, which was one of dealing with “economic contradictions.”

  4. Personally I tend to feel that one of the real attractions of Mutualism is that it is quite fuzzy edged.

    It seems to represent a fairly open minded and theory-orientated body of anarchist thought (and consist of those who take that approach to it).

    I can’t find the exact quote I want, but to paraphrase:

    “Respect those who seek the truth, distrust those who have found it.”

    Mutualists seem to tend towards being seekers rather than believers. [not, I hasten to add The Seekers 😀 ]

    A lot of ideological politics theory seems founded on the idea that there is a ‘correct’ answer to how best a society can be formulated (and that it is foolish to countenance any contrary ideas).

    This doesn’t really seem very likely.

  5. If the central theme of mutualism is Proudhon’s attempt to unify contradictions, then Greene’s “Fragments” seems to tie in with that theme pretty well.

    I’ve always thought of mutualism as “individualism plus.” A good example is Swartz’s work, which took Tuckerite individualism’s economic analysis as a given; at the same time, he went beyond Tucker’s unwillingness to speculate on organizational forms in a society without the four monopolies, and made cooperation the positive organizing principle of a future society.

    If I had to select one unifying theme for mutualism, it would be the principle of reciprocity which you mentioned in your emailed text on the Anarchism of Approximates (to which I will reply soon). Reciprocity is at the heart of a proper, mutualistic understanding of markets. That’s a theme I’m trying to use to tie a lot of material together in my chapter on the abolition of privilege, but it hasn’t completely come together in my head yet.

    Damn! Writing this comment caused a lot more stuff to gel together around that unifying theme. I’ll get back to you in the next few days when I manage to get it in coherent form.

  6. Re: unifying themes. Proudhon himself made a stab at identifying his primary concern on a couple of occasions. He came up with, at various times, justice, reciprocity, progress and opposition to the absolute. (There are probably some others I haven’t run across yet.) For Proudhon, of course, these all bleed one into another. I’m having a lot of trouble organizing the text I sent you, Kevin, because elaborations on any one of the theses rapidly tends to become elaboration of one or more of the others.

    Iain, I suspect you’re wrong about Proudhon’s politics changing from “anarchist” to “liberal-socialist.” Anarchism was always for Proudhon a limit toward which we could strive, an “approximation” in the later formulation. Maybe, according to the definitions of those who insist that we can, once and for all, establish anarchy (as opposed to committing ourselves to an ongoing anarchism), Proudhon was never an anarchist. In that case, neither am I. But, as no school of anarchism has shown me a model for a society in which whatever institutions we evolve will not have to constantly be revised and renewed, or a model for doing without institutions at all, I’ll keep calling myself an anarchist, believing that anarchism will be an ongoing struggle against the solidification of institutional power. And I’ll continue to believe that some form of counterbalancing of forces is most likely to bring us a maximum of liberty.

  7. “Iain, I suspect you’re wrong about Proudhon’s politics changing from “anarchist” to “liberal-socialist.” Anarchism was always for Proudhon a limit toward which we could strive, an “approximation” in the later formulation.”

    If you compare, say, The General Idea of the Revolution to The Principle of Federation there is a distinct shift.

    The former saw him proclaim that the abolition of authority, the state, was possible and could be achieved by means of his reforms. The latter argued that it was impossible to do so, arguing that some sort of authority/state was required.

    It seems a clear change to me. Of course, his liberal-socialist position was not that far removed from his old vision, so I doubt it amounted to a significant change in his politics but I feel it was sufficiently so to mention. Although, I have not read The Political Capacity of the working class so perhaps he became more optimistic again.

    Also, I know that Tucker wrongly denied Dana’s claim that Proudhon supported what Proudhon later termed his “agro-industrial federation” but have other mutualists discussed this aspect of Proudhon’s mutualism?

  8. Iain, there is indeed some sort of change, which is why I said I “suspect” that you’re wrong. I’ve been through a lot of the material in between those two texts, and there’s a lot that still isn’t clear to me. Some changes are substantive, while others are clearly rhetorical. The obvious change is in the way Proudhon talks about “The State.” And I have yet to find any place where he clarifies his use of that term/concept in the way that he deals with “property” in “Theory of Property.” My suspicion, however, is based in an analogy to that treatment of “property,” and in Proudhon’s own testimony that anarchy (or its approximation) remained among his goals.

    This is one we’ll have to return to, but I wanted to clarify my present position just a bit.

    Just one more thought, partially in response to Mike and Kevin: If I had to pick one principle of mutualism, broadly defined, that was most defining, it would have to be Reciprocity. But reciprocity has consistenty been understood in terms of differentiated individuals, and the consistent claim has been that reciprocity emerges from a consistent, insistent emphasis on individualization. In a sense, all the other characteristics of mutualism, philosophical, economic or political, emerge from the resulting dynamic. I’ll quibble with Kevin’s “individualism, plus,” and suggest merely (following Tucker) “consistent individualism.”

    Good stuff, folks. I wish the infoshop discussion (contributions of present company excluded) was as interesting.

  9. Iain, let me do some research on agro-industrial federation. But you’re correct that it hasn’t been discussed much among American mutualists. We can add it to the long list of things in Proudhon that could use a good public airing.

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