Reflections on Anarchist Tendencies and Mutualist History

What follows is a long Twitter thread, originally intended for the audience there as a response to certain criticisms of the historical account developed by myself and others regarding mutualism. It’s a mix of reflections on our search for the perhaps ultimately illusory core of “the mutualism tradition” and thoughts on how to apply the lessons learned in the course of that exploration.

So much energy is wasted in debating anarchist labels that we imagine designate historical tendencies with clear programs, but mostly emerged from contexts where the rich diversity of anarchist ideas was reduced to forms appropriate for some earlier round of sectarian debate.

Most of the keywords we fight over in anarchist circles are neither that sort of label nor anti-concepts. They are the sort of obvious constructions (individualism, socialism, mutualism, capitalism, feminism, etc.) that you would to be contested in ideology-centered discourse.

They tend to lack single origins. Their histories are characterized by conflict, schism, attempts at definition from rivals and opponents. Narrowly ideological approaches, including some accepted in history of ideas circles, have trouble capturing the real and specific pluralism.

In anarchist circles, most of these labels function primarily as place-holders for diverse histories that anarchists might explore—or they function as excuses for not exploring further.

There is seldom anything like an orthodox position available to adopt—and the strongest claims regarding the orthodoxy of any of these broad currents are almost certain to come from those rivals and opponents.

“Anarchism” is interesting in this context, simply because it was such a late addition to the modern political lexicon. The conditions of its emergence make the relations between tendencies that adopted the label seem more arborial in structure.

It would be tempting to treat “anarchism” as largely a libertarian communist invention, driven by events in the International, then almost immediately contested by anarchist individualists and anti-authoritarian collectivists.

ut the early accounts, like Kropotkin’s “On Order” and the fanciful framing of Bakunin’s “God and the State,” complicate the picture, as the anarchist communists obviously understood their task as a kind of entry into an already existing current.

The complex, ambiguous relationship between “anarchism” and the ideas of anarchists like Proudhon, Bakunin, Déjacque, Bellegarrigue, etc. is, at this point, probably a permanent element in these discussions.

But if we were honest with ourselves, I suspect we might conclude that complexity and ambiguity are the main qualities of anarchists’ relations to “anarchism” and of all the manifestation of “anarchism” to itself. These only seem to be real problems when we pretend otherwise.

So what would it be like if our anarchist tendencies were, in fact, active currents of deeply engaged with the thought of the historical figures routinely associated with the labels? Could the labels continue to function as they do now?

Or would we find the details rapidly destroying our generalizations, forcing us to wrestle with the richness of the anarchist tradition(s) in quite different ways?

Another way to think about the anarchist label/history/tendency relation is to imagine what it would be like to really have active currents of anarchists deeply engaged with the thought of the historical figures we sort of gesture towards.

Mutualism seems to go further down this rabbit hole than most tendencies, having been reborn in the ashes of 90s flame-wars over anarchist history, but we’re a pretty pale shadow of pretty much any and all of our mad and maddening predecessors.

It is a commonplace that anarchists are not Bakuninists or Kropotkinists. We present this as evidence of our independence and resistance to ideology. “Kill your idols” and all that. There are ways in which this is clearly not true and senses in which it is, but for other reasons.

If anarchists have avoided capture by the few bodies of really systematic anarchist theory out there, we haven’t always been successful in avoiding getting carried away by an interesting anecdote or off-hand remark — even if those influences run counter to anarchist principles.

A bit of loose talk from Chomsky is demonstrably sufficient to make large numbers of anarchists doubt whether they are really against authority and hierarchy. We latch onto the most anomalous bit of Bakunin to excuse the lapse.

Fidelity to anecdotes, coupled with a certain disregard for larger projects, is arguably not the way to avoid capture by ideology. Quite the contrary.

But we spend tremendous amounts of energy matching anecdotes to labels, imagining that we have discovered the heart of traditions through this process and then arguing about fidelity to these traditions on the basis of more or less opportunistic manipulation of the anecdotes.

So what would it be like if our anarchist tendencies were, in fact, active currents of deeply engaged with the thought of the historical figures routinely associated with the labels? Could the labels continue to function as they do now?

Or would we find the details rapidly destroying our generalizations, forcing us to wrestle with the richness of the anarchist tradition(s) in quite different ways?

Let’s back up and talk specifically about the emergence of 21st-century conceptions of mutualism in this context.

As recently as twenty-five years ago, “mutualism” was still largely a placeholder—and the first phase of attempting to establish a modern mutualism was a fairly ambitious attempt at historical synthesis, drawing largely on North American sources.

The first problem was the obscurity of the source material. The Libertarian Labyrinth archive was established to provide a place online for those sources and the net was cast wide enough that an archive separate from projects like Spunk Press seemed necessary at the time.

We had a list of names to explore and that list suggested anything but a single “mutualist” orthodoxy—but I think it would be hard to fault the interpretive modesty with which we explored it, looking for the synthesis implied by the label we had inherited.

Quite a few of the figures on that list found their way into the pages of “Liberty,” as did a few more of the names. The constellation of New England reform leagues, with the Heywoods generally somehow involved, also featured as centers of attention.

Research was necessarily shaped by the accessibility of sources, which unquestionably distorted our developing sense of what “mutualism” had been and how we might connect to the tradition. Not all of the conclusions we came to 20 or even years ago hold up to much scrutiny today.

We recognized real affinities with a very broad range of largely non-communist, primarily anglophone anarchisms and near-anarchisms, but there were limits to how far our explorations could go without an intensification of research and an abandonment of the English-only approach.

I will admit, as I have admitted elsewhere, that even when I took up French again in order to explore the roots of mutualism, Proudhon was not yet the focus of my interest. I was approaching his work through the lens of a very dismissive English-language anarchist literature.

I was focused on William Batchelder Greene’s borrowings from Pierre Leroux and others, always widening the circle of references around our new mutualism, just as I was doing in the hours spent scanning microfilm of likely sources for familiar names and phrases.

As it turned out, however, I had better access to short bits of Proudhon to translate than I did to articles by Leroux, so my course of research was once again changed by the uneven availability of resources. It was, in retrospect, the happiest of accidents.

Looking back, I’m sometimes surprised at how quickly Proudhon became integrated into the account of mutualism that was forming, but I’m also a bit surprised by the details. “The Anarchism of Approximations,” my first unfinished attempt at mutualist synthesis, references “Theory of Property,” easily one of the most controversial of Proudhon’s works at the time, but one that I had already started to translate, precisely because much of the resistance to Proudhon, including some of my own, centered around the “new theory” of property in that text.

I abandoned “The Anarchism of Approximations” because, despite making useful generalizations, it wasn’t a rigorous enough synthesis to suit me. With research ongoing, it has become normal to have it outstrip summaries before they could be completed.

Interpretive modesty with regard to the tradition has not always been a popular strategy, nor has historical synthesis, when the costs involved have become clear. There have been times and places when laying down the law in some programmatic way would probably have been welcomed.

Instead, we have embraced the internal diversity of both historical and present-day mutualism, however awkwardly at times, trying to underline real distinctions without spoiling everyone’s fun. Those looking for market-platformism have generally moved on to greener pastures.

In this, I think we have been, however accidentally, faithful to the organizational history of anarchist mutualism. The reform leagues and the first, more or less “mutualist” form of the International were really consultative bodies, rather than platform-oriented associations.

In the end, we were simply mistaken in thinking that we would discover a programmatic unity as we rediscovered the mutualist tradition. Mutualism, like most major isms, has been the product of conflict much more than design.

We were not, however, mistaken in zealously looking for that sort of unity, which necessarily involved deep engagements with the details of the works of the historical figures associated with the label. There was no hope of clarity without the deep dive into the details.

The clarity that emerged was respectful of the real work of those figures—just as it can be respectful of continuations of that work by others in the present—rather than requiring a reduction of those figures and their work to the anecdotes that fit some predetermined fixed idea.

The process of rediscovery led modern mutualists into a series of encounters with their predecessors that were not bounded by a narrow, fixed program and so we encountered them in all of their diverse, sometimes cranky, but truly individual glory.

When modern mutualists are criticized for allegedly reshaping the tradition in their own image, I suppose the first response is to recognize that this is SOP for traditions, something we see in the development of mutualism itself. Tucker and the Mutualist Associates come to mind.

But if reshaping is your concern, then presumably you would prefer to see the pioneering figures incorporated in all their messy, individual specificity, rather than subordinating them to some ideological vision—and I think that is what modern mutualism has perhaps done best.

It is much easier, when you focus on the details, to find the various figures associated with mutualism disagreeing with one another—sometimes breaking ties with one another—than it is to find them incorporating one another’s ideas in any very complete way.

That’s a problem if we imagine mutualism as an ideological program, but not if we understand mutualism as a product of collective force and collective reason—a current into which we can pour our own contributions, which individuals can hope to shape only within certain limits.

None of these figures or bodies of work need, of course, to be understood in terms of mutualism. Faced with a clearer sense of how the tendency was shaped, we could choose other means of addressing the individuals and works in question. Sometimes, we have in fact done just that.

But we have had options—and options derived directly from the mutualist tradition. The Proudhonian sociology, but also important elements of the ego-mutualist anarchist individualism of the 20th century, provide us with the means of accommodating the great names as individuals.

This sort of self-referential treatment of the mutualist tradition with the tools of mutualist analysis could probably only have emerged from the long period of seeking programs that ultimately weren’t there—a process shaped by interpretive modesty and one sort of conservatism.

I will admit that I am personally a bit of a hoarder when it comes to the idiosyncratic details that more conventional accounts might leave out of intellectual and ideological histories. I am not at all certain that we can really understand mutualism without the disagreements, whether they produced clarity or just rancor at the time, but the same is arguably true of the inventions, from tallow lamps to perpetual-motion machines, of the associations, from reform leagues to free-love sects, and of the scientific theories, both mundane and half-mad.

What! You didn’t know about the perpetual-motion machines? Apparently Josiah Warren traded the publication rights to “Equitable Commerce” to Stephen Pearl Andrews, in exchange for Andrews’ share in what was essentially a perpetual motion scheme.

These are the details that let us really know historical figures and place their other intellectual productions in a fuller context. And there are surprisingly—or perhaps unsurprisingly—few figures in the anarchist canons that didn’t straddle the visionary/crank line at times.

So, anyway… this thread has gone on and on, but we don’t necessarily talk in other contexts about the ways in which modern mutualisms have incorporated historical elements. There may be accusations and defenses, but almost always in narrow ideological, programmatic contexts.

When neo-Proudhonians are accused of excluding historical elements, it is almost always a matter of elements that we have, in fact, incorporated, but not accepted as definitive. Our “exclusions” somehow tend to include broader incorporations, relevant criticisms, etc.

As a historian of mutualism, I’m happy to have the Palgrave handbook chapter out there. I think it ought to be an important corrective to those perspectives which still hope to find programmatic unity in either historical or modern tendencies. But the work is hardly done.

There are three projects that seem like logical and useful extensions of that summary chapter. One would simply be an account of the uses of the language of mutualism and mutuality, within anarchist circles and within adjacent tendencies.

A second would be a kind of explicitly revisionist ideological synthesis, starting perhaps from cues in those uses and tracing the real, specific aspects of agreement and patterns of development among nominally mutualist and adjacent texts and tendencies.

he third project that comes to mind—third in terms of conceptual complexity and distance from conventional anarchist history—is the sort of broad, anecdote-rich survey that I have been gradually working towards under the title “What Mutualism Was.”

have half-seriously referred to this project in the past as a kind of elegiac celebration of the tradition as we imagined it before we had really come to know it in its details and I have thought of it as, at least in part, a tribute to lost illusions.

But as I have come to recognize that what is true of mutualism is also true of most significant isms, it seems more and more possible to approach the work as a kind of celebration of the anarchy of this particular anarchist tendency.

There is an opportunity, I think, for a fairly novel sort of re-embrace, on modern and explicitly anarchistic terms, of a tradition that was, in fact, a bit less than that when we found it.

That seems like something to aim for as I start to work actively again on “What Mutualism Was.” And if it’s possible on that scale, it might be an appealing way to think about more general anarchist history and “Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back.”

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