What Mutualism Was – I: Prehistories


Contr’un Revisited:

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[This post seems to have been lost at some point, but there was a draft preserved in my Blogger account.]

This is the first of a series of explorations of the mutualist tradition—or, perhaps more appropriately, traditions. The particular perspective they present is, I’m afraid, somewhat revisionist in a variety of ways. It is also a work in progress, so if anyone out there thinks they can set me straight, I would welcome the attempt. Anyway, to begin…

As anyone who has explored the matter—or perhaps fought about it on the Wikipedia talk pages—knows, the history of the terms mutualist and mutualism is a bit complex. Mutual is a good old word with ancient origins. The Oxford English Dictionary finds mutual in printed sources in the 15th century and the phrase mutual aid in the 16th. The French equivalents seem to have occured equally early. The terms that we are more directly concerned with appear in the early 19th century, in the midst of the explosion of similar terms that marks the emergence of the various schools of socialism. Anyone wishing to explore this broader field should consult Arthur E. Bestor, Jr.’s “The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary” in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jun., 1948), 259-302. (If you have access to an institution subscribed to the JSTOR electronic journals, you should be able to read the article here.”)

In 1822, Fourier used the term mutualism in his Traité de l’association domestique-agricole, but only as one of dozens of neologisms he created to explain his complex form of associationism. In 1826-7, five columns appear in the New Harmony Gazette, under the byline “A Mutualist” (also identified as “a member of the community.”) These advocate mutual-aid experiments within existing cities, rather than in separate experimental communities. (From institutions subscribe to APS Online, go here for the columns and debate surrounding them.) Around 1833, in France, the Company of “Mutuellistes” are active as a labor organization in Lyons. In What Is Mutualism?, Clarence Lee Swartz gives his own account of the origin of the term, claiming that “[t]he word “mutualism” seems to have been first used by John Gray, an English writer, in 1832.” This may be true, although I have yet to confirm it. Certainly, Gray uses terms from the same family, and proposes reforms that resemble those associated with mutualism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives credit for the first use of mutualism to Charles A. Dana, in his 1849 Proudhon and his Bank of the People. Dana talks about “the principle of reciprocity or mutualism, if we may use a new word.” The OED dates mutualist to 1848 and an English translation of a French work, where the subject is the weavers’ company of Lyons.

All of this is, of course, prehistory for the tradition of explicit anarchist mutualism. It is of some importance because it demonstrates the extent to which the ideas connected with the specific terms were “in the air” in the middle of the 19th century, and it gives us some clues as to the “near neighbors” of the mutualisms of Proudhon and William B. Greene. Curiously, it locates the first known American Mutualist as an actual neighbor of the man generally regarded as “the first American Anarchist,” Josiah Warren. For a broader look at these “prehistories,” check out the sections in the Mutualist FAQ on the origins of mutualist theory and organization. It’s specifically worth noting, given the development of the term mutualism, that the key projects later associated with the movement, the labor dollar and the mutual bank, both appeared prior to their emergence in the context of what I’m calling explicit anarchist mutualism, as well as before the period of Warren’s experiments. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the land-based mutual bank dates to The Fund of 1681 in America, and, according to J. F. C. Harrison (Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. London: Kegan and Paul, 1969. p202), labor notes circulated at New Harmony as early as 1826.

When we pick up the story again, it will be to look at what Greene and Proudhon meant when they identified themselves as mutualists. My general contention in this series is that both men presented systems that in some ways went beyond anarchism, and which certainly encompassed more than their inheritors were always willing to own. It is common now to speak of mutualism as if it were simply an economic system, or the sum of practical projects of Proudhon, Greene and Warren (who becomes a mutualist retrospectively.) It isn’t clear, however, if the economic projects of a William B. Greene can be married to egoism (as in the case of Tucker) without rendering those projects in some ways unrecognizable. Nor is it clear that the antinomic system of Proudhon, particularly in its final form of ultimately unsynthesizable dialectics, can be reconciled to the “plumb-line.” There appear to be a series of discontinuities in anarchist history, as the “original anarchism” of mutualism has been repeatedly redefined by successors among both individualist and collectivist anarchists. And while there are undoubtedly elements of the thought of these earliest anarchists of which we might happily let go, there are perhaps others we might wish to go back and reclaim.


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