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.
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.