The Historical Character of Mutualism


Contr’un Revisited: I asked some of the same questions you’ll find here in the chapter on mutualism that I just completed for the Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism. I’ve finally decided that the right answers are the ones that are useful in the present situation, provided they’re backed up by a solid understanding of the history. The “mutualist tradition” has really been the battle over “mutualism,” and that’s a battle that a truly surprising number of individuals and tendencies have felt the urge to fight. As it result, it’s hard for any new analysis to be anything but yet another campaign in the ongoing war. But that certainly doesn’t diminish the value of the sort of “speculative stuff” we find here.

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I talk blithely sometimes about a “mutualist tradition,” but it’s worth asking whether mutualism isn’t more like a tendency that asserts itself here and there, usually while something else is happening.

I remember the day I was finally able to email Kevin Carson with an unbroken chain of personal and political connections linking Josiah Warren more or less to the present. We hadn’t been sure it could be done. The story told in so many of the histories of anarchism was that the individualist and mutualist forms pretty well died off. This is one of the few things you can find anarchist communists and anarcho-capitalists agreeing on with some frequency. Individualist libertarian socialism shows up as the Neanderthal of the anarchist evolutionary accounts. The real history looks a little different. There’s really no shortage of mutual aid and counter-economics in the historical record. But mutualism has a tendency to show up on the edges — fringe or silver lining, as you prefer — of other movements and traditions. It has had very little organizational continuity — little infrastructure of its own. Finding a direct line of descent and transmission of ideas is valuable, for a variety of reasons. If nothing else, it gives us one fairly strong thread around which to weave the rest of our historical tapestry. And, as I think I’ll be able to show gradually, there are multiple strong threads. But we mustn’t overestimate the importance of any of them.

Mutualism shows up early at the edges of Owenism and Unitarianism. It might actually have been the core of the First International, had Marx & Co. not pushed it aside. It’s a radical tendency among agrarians and land-reformers, as well as the refuge of rogue single-taxers. It’s one of the more consistent expressions of progressive social gospel Christian reformism, as in the case of Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones.

I want to float some speculative stuff here: in the early 19th century, the folks we honor as early mutualists were part of an extremely complex culture of reformers, most driven by a sense that some “science of society” could orient practical social change. We see “scientific” approaches to language, to dress, to music notation (Warren), etc, and we see lots of amateur social scientists working away at their own little bit of “the social problem.” We see a few folks who are generalists — and many of the struggles within socialism amount to “science wars” between the more aggressive generalizers. The general emphasis on “science” is important, particularly since even anarchist history has been colored by Engels’ assertions about the differences between “scientific” and “utopian socialism.” Fourier doesn’t differ from Marx because he’s not “scientific” in his orientation. Granted, Fourier’s science is pretty odd stuff, with his taxonomy of passions and predictions that the seas will turn to lemonade. It’s probably not “as scientific” by contemporary standards as the work of Marx. But that’s a different issue. We won’t get a handle on this stuff if we don’t acknowledge that mutualism rises out of a period of optimism about human potential, before the American Civil War, before the splintering of the International, before Haymarket and propaganda by the deed. It is, therefore, associated in its origins with a kind of scientism, but, again, there are different kinds — and the mutualist variety seems to be practical and experimental. At some point, I’ll post some of the results of a study I’ve been doing on libertarian socialists who were also inventors. There have been a lot of them. We understand Engels better when we realize that what he is objecting to in the “utopian” is precisely its practical, experimental character — its blueprints. The criticism has its points, as I’ve said, but the elevation of “history” and “dialectical processes” over the socialism of communes and technologies ought to at least give us a moment’s pause.

I’m leaning towards a characterization of early mutualism as the most open and experimental of the early socialist “sciences” — one without a master plan, open as a marketplace of small, practical solutions — linked to the rest of the broad socialist movement, and to much of the culture around it, by a shared faith and optimism. We shouldn’t overstate this. We’re talking about the ante-bellum era, rather than the prelapserian one. But we can probably usefully contrast this earlier orientation, and the mutualism that grew out of it as one of its more consistent expressions, to the kinds of radical political expressions that characterized later eras. There’s a long story to tell, involving the changing status of “socialism” and “science,” but the first thing we can say is that the status of those things keeps changing. One of the questions for a mutualist historian is whether or not mutualists change as well.

The recuperation of mutualism has to meet the criticism that it is simply obsolete, born from and only useful in contexts which no longer exists. Tucker was essentially defeated by his sense that mutualism, as he understood it, could not move forward without recourse to violent struggle. One of the questions we face is whether Tucker’s understanding was sufficient. Is it enough to be a “consistent Manchesterian,” or do we need to rethink things a bit. My tendency to emphasize the early stages of mutualism comes from a sense that we have lots of other options when it comes to inheriting mutualism.


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


  1. Great post. I’ve still got a printout of the email you mentioned. I found it in a stack of papers I sorted through while moving. I’m glad I’ve still got it, because I lost all the stuff on my hard disk when Windows locked up on me a couple of years ago.

    The material and commentary you sent me then was excellent–hopefully it won’t be too long before I can get back to doing something on the FAQ. I’ll at least try to flesh out the “What Happened to Mutualism?” section.

    Regarding your comments here, I guess it’s important to distinguish between mutual practices and mutualism as an ideology. The sorts of *practices* mutualists favor are common not only to the entire anarchist movement, but to human beings: they’re described by both Kropotkin and E.P. Thompson, neither of them anybody’s idea of a “petty bourgeois socialist.”

  2. So pleased to find this blog thanks to Kevin. Good postings! I would like to add to what Kevin mentioned about the differences between pratical mutualism and ideological mutualism. The ideological mutualists of the mid-19th Century started a great number of practical movements, which became mass movements and then sort of lost their connection to anarchism. There is, as but one example, the contempoirary French Mutualist movement with roots going back to Proudhon’s day, which has millions of members, yet I bet, few of these would make the connection. Mutualism’s sucess as a pratical movement, perhaps was its undoing as an ideological movement?

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Larry. I’ve admired your work for a long time. I’m pressed for time, finishing a move/liquidation this week, but i’ll certainly pursue these question in a couple of days.

    As the post should have made clear, i’m aware of the difference the two of you point to, and i suspect there’s some truth to the notion that practical “success” has contributed to ideological failure. But the dynamic seems complex. I’m just feeling my way around some new thoughts about the contexts of various sorts of mutualist success.

    Larry, can you tell me a little more about French Mutualism?

  4. Shawn wrote:

    “The recuperation of mutualism has to meet the criticism that it is simply obsolete, born from and only useful in contexts which no longer exists. Tucker was essentially defeated by his sense that mutualism, as he understood it, could not move forward without recourse to violent struggle. One of the questions we face is whether Tucker’s understanding was sufficient. Is it enough to be a “consistent Manchesterian,” or do we need to rethink things a bit. “

    catholic distributists struggle with many of the same problems…what is the mechanism or pressure point to start the ball rolling in the right direction?

    what are your thoughts on whether Peak Oil can be that impetus which people are postulating a mass re-localization effort that will cause a lot of pain?

  5. sir , what owen said about scientific and utopian socialism , can you explain? as i read your post i do find that practical success has contributed to ideological failure. mere thinking and then not applying does not work. indeed your post have helped to enlighten me on characters of mutualism.

  6. kili,

    It was Engels who wrote “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.”

    In it, he wanted to distinguish the dialectical and historical materialism of Marx from the approaches of Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier. According to Engels:

    “[T]o our three social reformers, the bourgeois world, based upon the principles of [16th and 17th century rationalist] philosophers, is quite as irrational and unjust, and, therefore, finds its way to the dust-hole quite as readily as feudalism and all the earlier stages of society. If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been the case only because men have not rightly understood them. What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth. That he has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chains of historical development, but a mere happy accident. He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500 years of error, strife, and suffering.”

    The last sentence is a condemnation of the a-historical character Engels sees in the “utopians.” It’s not entirely a just criticism, but Marx and Engels had staked out “history” for their own turf.

    The issue of success-breeding-failure is really one of mutual aid being successful enough in bad times to help bring good times again, at which point it doesn’t seem so necessary. Rather than an action vs. theory situation, we’ve got a contrast between committed mutualists and those mutualists of necessity that every crisis seems to create.

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