Varieties of Mutualist History


Contr’un Revisited: Looking at this material in the context of more recent work, it’s hard to miss the extent to which a process of extrication is already central to the project. A decade ago, there was nothing particularly controversial about treating mutualism as something that might need to be pulled apart before we really understood what it was. Even the folks who objected more-or-less loudly to talk about splitting mutualism into rival camps were engaged in some splitting of their own. Now, when it is a question of pulling apart anarchism, well, a large number of anarchists seem firmly committed to the task. We should probably try to seize the moment, if we can, to at least make our dissection methodical, even if that dissection is also a sort of escape.

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In response to the previous post, Kevin Carson and Larry Gambone raise a useful distinction between “mutual practices and mutualism as an ideology.” I was gesturing at the presence of that distinction as well, when i observed that “there’s really no shortage of mutual aid and counter-economics in the historical record.” But it’s something we should really come to careful grips with, as it complicates everything we have to say about mutualism. The Mutualist FAQ makes a distinction between mutualist theory and mutualist organization, giving separate, overlapping accounts of their origins, and suggesting, in the context of the cooperative movement:

. . . mutualism is a set of general principles and the co-ops are one of the practical forms that these principles have taken. Historically, the practical forms were developed by the working class before the general principles were propounded by political philosophers. The problem today is the loss of consciousness of cooperatives as the embodiment of a form of mutualist practice.

One of the things i was suggesting in the last post was that this process of generalizing mutualism from practical experiment appears to have happened again and again, in different contexts, though we can find enough continuity between ideological mutualist episodes to talk about a movement.

We’re really dealing with several connected histories here, including at least:

  • A general practical history of voluntary cooperative practices and instances of mutual aid, some of which come from specific political commitments, but many of which come out of a direct response to current shared needs. We know that many practices consistent with anarchism continue to take place even under capitalism and the rule of the state, and the persistence of this sort of piecemeal mutualism is both an encouragement and a caution to us. This history reaches back much farther than the histories of anarchism or mutualism as conscious ideologies.
  • A specific institutional history of specific mutualist experiments, ranging from friendly societies to modern mutual banks. Along with this, there are also histories of personal connections and influences, such as the connections we have drawn from the 19th century individualists anarchists towards the present. It’s in these histories that we find the stability and continuity (such as it is) that those who dismiss mutualism have missed or denied.
  • An ideological and philosophical history, inseparable from the rest, of the expressions of mutualist theory that have accompanied mutualist practice.

And, last but surely not least, we have:

  • A set of presentist accounts, through which we assert our various claims to membership in a living movement, and within which we construct a tradition.

We’re also forced to deal with any number of contextual histories. Nobody has had anything to say about my characterization of (some) mutualism as “experimental social science,” but it seems to me that the struggles over broadly scientific issues, and the changes wrought in what could count as science, are probably as important as issues related to political economy.

Mutualism seems to be a bit more visible and respectable these days, with the result that we’re probably more free to explore this stuff in a range of forums. But that also means we have a little extra pressure on us to clarify just what it is we’ve been going on about for so long. I suppose it’s a good thing the process is so appealing.


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