Taking Proudhon (and controversy) out of “Mutual Banking”

A funny thing happened on the way to the modern edition of William B. Greene’s Mutual Banking. We know that with Mutual Banking, as was so often the case with Greene’s work, the editorial refinement process over the years consisted largely of whittling away at his early works, Equality (1849) and Mutual Banking (1850), cutting down towards the kernel of occasionally sprawling explorations. The editors of Proudhon’s Solution to the Social Problem, who gave us the modern edition of Mutual Banking, only continued that trend. The result is a bit peculiar. While modern critics have at times taken pains to make it clear that Greene was more than just a proudhonian imitator, and while he is still best known as an “American Proudhon,” and while the mutual bank is obviously derived in part from Proudhon’s “Bank of the People,” there are only two references to Proudhon in the entire modern text. One of those is in a paragraph at the end of the text, which may not have been written by Greene at all. The other sits in the middle of the section on William Beck’s Money and Banking:

“Mr. Beck thought out a Mutual Bank” by generalizing credit in account; Proudhon, by generalizing the bill of exchange.”

All of the editions published in Greene’s lifetime included, in the section on “Mutual Credit,” a long excerpt from Proudhon, on the functioning of the People’s Bank, followed by “Remarks” critical of some aspects of Proudhon’s plan. When Proudhon’s Solution to the Social Problem was compiled, the editors included a much larger chunk of Proudhon’s plan, and deleted the now-duplicated text in Greene’s work. Unfortunately, the deletion is unmarked and the critical material was deleted as well.

These are small details, in some ways, but unfortunately they work to make even more obscure elements of Greene’s work that have been badly understood. Greene was not only not imitating Proudhon in much of what he wrote–he was repeating some of the criticisms of philosophical opponents such as Pierre Leroux. I hope to post soon a translation of an 1849 open letter from Leroux to Proudhon, in which Leroux criticizes Proudhon’s bank scheme, his individualism and his atheism. The letter sheds some light on the complexities of the position that Greene eventually took, drawing important elements from both Proudhon and Leroux. To a large extent, Greene sided with Leroux in all three of his critiques, without in any way compromising his basic anarchism, just as he sided (more or less) with the non-anarchist Leroux on the question of women’s suffrage.

We are in deep waters. . .

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