The Mutualist #1 – Intro

I’m putting the finishing touches on issue #1 of The Mutualist, and will start shipping orders over the next couple of days. Here is the introduction to that issue:

Out of the Labyrinth

This first issue of THE MUTUALIST continues the work begun in the two issues of LEFTLIBERTY, but with significant difference in context and approach. The earlier works were part of a tentative, exploratory phase of my work, a kind of preliminary mapping of the “Libertarian Labyrinth,” where the focus was really on establishing the radical diversity of our anarchist/libertarian heritage. There is certainly much, much more exploring to do, but I’ve come to feel that the argument about diversity has pretty well been made. There are plenty of folks out there willing to deny the legitimacy of some or all of the lesser-known varieties of anti-authoritarian thought, but their existence is hardly in question. And among the historically-minded radicals that I meet, it appears that there is actually an emphasis on these previously marginal figures and schools.

Barring unforeseen problems, we should see anthologies this year of the works of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (from AK Press, edited by Iain McKay) and Josiah Warren (from Fordham University, edited by Crispin Sartwell), two anarchist pioneers more often cited than actually read. With a little luck, my Corvus Editions project will have made all of William Batchelder Greene’s major works available in pamphlet form by year’s end. Translators working on the Proudhon anthology and at the Collective Reason site have already made this a banner year for new “classical anarchist” material available in English, and there’s a lot of year left. At the pace they have been producing things, I would expect some more Ukrainian material from Black Cat soon as well. Anarchist/libertarian bibliography seems to have sprung back into very healthy life, with important work being done by Ernesto Longa and John Zube—and I’m gearing up to focus on bibliographic work for much of the remainder of the year. New digital archives, such as the Anarchist Library and the various online sites inspired by the Proudhon anthology, are making historical material increasingly easy to access. I hope the Corvus Editions project is contributing to that as well.

That’s a lot of progress, but even if we were able to suddenly make all the “lost classics” and fascinating ephemera available, there remains the labor of making sense of it all and applying it to present-day concerns. Acknowledging the vast extent and imposing complexity of our heritage has been a necessary step—a useful antidote to certain over-simplistic understandings of our histories—but to the extent that it changes our understanding of the anarchist and libertarian traditions, it also presses on us the need to rethink the whole application-of-tradition part of anarchist practice. To the extent that our sense of theoretical and practical alternatives has been expanded, the complexities involved in our present choices have been increased. And, given the exigencies of the present day, we probably need to get to it. For myself, after some years of (very useful) wandering “In the Libertarian Labyrinth,” it feels very much like time to get out. There is undoubtedly no straight-and-narrow path, out there beyond the exit signs—and certainly not for an advocate of the mutualist “anarchism of approximations”—but there’s a different kind of complexity to deal with.

The change in title, from LEFTLIBERTY to THE MUTUALIST, marks, on the one hand, a narrowing of focus, from the nominally “big-tent” approach of the first issues—which never really panned out anyway—to a much more programmatic attempt to elaborate a roughly “neo-Proudhonian” mutualism adapted to contemporary issues. LEFTLIBERTY was named, in part, as a tribute to Benjamin R. Tucker and his magnificent paper, LIBERTY, at a time when I was very deeply involved in market-anarchist coalitions very similar to the theoretical alliances Tucker sought to establish. Tucker remains an important touchstone for me, and the preservation and dissemination of the work published in LIBERTY remains a top priority. Tucker’s broad interests have influenced my own, and his example has been one of my key inspirations as a translator. But, ultimately, having compared Tucker to his influences, he comes up wanting—in my mind, at least. In many ways, the “plumb-line” approach that he advocated was a rejection of the central principles of Proudhon and Greene, and is arguably not the most faithful adaptation of Warren’s thought. Though Tucker sometimes spoke of “mutualism,” and while his various approaches to the question of liberty emphasized reciprocity in one sense or another, he was almost certainly not a “mutualist” in the same sense as any of his predecessors. THE MUTUALIST is not an organ of Tuckerite individualist anarchism, nor of the broad “mutualism” which makes no distinction between Proudhon and Warren and Tucker—and a host of others—nor even of the modern “Carsonian synthesis”—despite the great respect and admiration as I have for Kevin Carson’s work. It is, as I have said, “neo-Proudhonian” in its emphases, and hopes to demonstrate both the sense of Proudhon’s social philosophy and its application to the present.

But—and here is the “on the other hand,” so inevitable for anyone involved with Proudhon’s antinomies—refocusing on the work of Proudhon immediately gives us pressing reasons to engage with all sorts of other figures—influences, followers, colleagues, antagonists, etc.—who impose themselves on us as we try to understand that work and its context. Indeed, almost everyone and everything excluded with the first move rushes back in with the second, but the work is not a matter of mere gestures. What I hope to accomplish in THE MUTUALIST, and related works, is a reexamination of the broad mutualist tradition, including the works of Proudhon himself, but with a sort of “neo-Proudhonian eye.” Indeed, this is what I have already been attempting in works like “The Gift Economy of Property,” where it has been a question of completing Proudhon’s stated projects and exploring alternate routes to his stated ends. There is no question that Proudhon’s work was unfinished and unevenly developed, and then adapted by a variety of followers and intellectual heirs in an equally uneven manner. Those adaptations included significant advances, as well as significant misunderstandings—and they inform large portions of the spectrum of anarchisms and libertarian philosophies, in one way or another.

That’s probably the way Proudhon—or our speculative “neo-Proudhon”—would have wanted it. He understood progress as a matter of “approximation” and adaptation, of conflicts between more-or-less absolutist projects. And he understood liberty as growing out of more and more complex associations—in the realm of thought, as well as in the social realm. One of the goals of THE MUTUALIST will be to “open up” Proudhon’s own writings, to show his influences, to engage with criticisms in a way that he never did, and to attempt to make explicit and useful that history of choices, adaptations and approximations that is marked by the changing nature of “mutualism,” from the pre-anarchist friendly societies to the various modern variants. I’m starting with a fairly well-researched intuition about the mutualist “big picture”—none of which will be particularly new, probably, to readers of my blogs and of LEFTLIBERTY—and we’ll see how the details work themselves out. But expect, in general, that while I have narrowed my focus with regard to what I will call “mutualism,” the result is likely to be a considerably broadening of what I consider related to the discussion of it.

Two-Gun Mutualism?

I’m starting in this issue with what may seem a classic mutualist provocation. The tradition that has given us “property is theft” and “free market anti-capitalism” may perhaps be excused for dressing up the Golden Rule in wild-west drag. But there’s more at stake than just a family tradition or a dubious gag. There’s frankly very little point in going to all this trouble reimagining mutualism if readers persist in thinking of it as a kind of squishy place midway between social anarchism and market anarchism—when, in fact, its original project, the “synthesis of community and property,” was intended to encompass all the ground ultimately covered by those schools, along with all of the complications that come from tackling both individual and social emphases all at once.

That’s a pretty big project, and, let’s face it, even the mutualist tradition itself has not managed to remain focused on it—gravitating instead towards particular approximations, like the mutual bank, in some instances long after those particular institutions offered much in the way of promise.

But, big project or not, it appears to be mutualism’s project, the “solution of the social problem” or, as Claude Pelletier put it, the workers’ freedom. (Talk about your “big f***ing deals”…) The trouble for us seems to be that we are a little jaded about this sort of thing, and, frankly, we’re also pretty seriously out of practice at tackling the sort of complexities involved. Mostly, we live in a much simpler—if not simplist—world, where the established relation between individualism and socialism is pretty close to “never the twain shall meet, and where embracing both looks like a sort of intentional folly.

I hope, in the pages of THE MUTUALIST, to demonstrate a number of reason why the full mutualist project is neither as daunting nor as foolish as it may appear. But I have no intention of suggesting that something like “the solution of the social problem” is going to be easy—and I’m going to have to spend some time, at this stage in the investigation, focusing on the very antagonistic forms in which we have inherited individualism and socialism. Taking up our tools where, and in the condition in which we find them, there will undoubtedly be some initial dangers, even mishaps perhaps. Hence “two-gun” mutualism, picking up a metaphor from Pierre Leroux’s “Individualism and Socialism,” in which the two isms are likened to, among other things, “charged pistols.” After all these years, let’s acknowledge that they are old pistols, and that perhaps we have taken as good care of them as we might have, so that picking them up poses all sorts of potential hazards.

“Two-Gun Mutualism” is intended as a sort of transitional engagement. Ultimately, our goals are of a relatively peaceful sort, the sort where pistols will be of little use to us. But one of the shared assumptions of virtually all of the early anarchists seems to have been that real peace arises only from the “perfection” of conflict. We will have to really take up these two “charged” concepts, and engage with them as they come to us, before we can transform them into tools more suitable to an anarchist future. When it comes right down to it, snake-handling might be safer, and more fun. But here we go…


The goal for the year is to put together a set of essays introducing most of the key aspects of a “neo-Proudhonian” mutualism. The second issue will most likely be built around the conclusion of “Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule” and an essay called “Owning Up,” about mutualism, egoism and Walt Whitman. Beyond that, future issues will contain the remainder of “The Anarchism of Approximations: Philosophical Issues” (which began in LeftLiberty), more on “the gift economy of property,” a discussion of value theories, thoughts on ecology, micro-enterprise, and the relationship between mutualism and syndicalism, plus notes towards a comprehensive history of the mutualist tradition. By the time 2011 rolls around, I hope to have the cards pretty well on the table—at which point it should be possible to talk much more seriously and concretely about what comes after the “two-gun” transition.

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


  1. Just a wee note to say I agree with you on Tucker and Proudhon, but I’m sure you know that already given the introduction to the Proudhon Reader.

    The other thing is if you want any of the new translations of Proudhon I’ve had made for the anthology for the Mutualist then let me know. While I plan to put material on the webpage regularly, you may wish to have it sooner. If so, let me know.

    Good luck with the Mutualist! While a communist-anarchist, I appreciate Proudhon’s contribution to anarchism and the wider socialist movement.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. Thanks, Iain. I’ll keep the translation offer in mind, though it looks like I have a lot of what I expect to use will be from the works that didn’t find their way into the anthology. I’m concentrating on early context right now, but I’ve also started to work on some of the mutualist-collectivist transitional works.

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