What Mutualism Was – II: The Kernel(?) of the Problem(?)


Contr’un Revisited:

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This is the second in a series of explorations of the mutualist tradition—or, perhaps more appropriately, traditions. The particular perspective they present is, as I’ve said, somewhat revisionist. It is also a work in progress, so if anyone out there thinks they can set me straight, I would welcome the attempt. To continue…

Wikipedia is my current touchstone for contemplating everything that can go wrong (and, to be fair, a handful of things that can go right) on the way to a definition, or a history. I got started doing some editing there when I found that the William Batchelder Greene page (as it then appeared) was full of incorrect facts and included a long quotation, attributed to Greene, that was actually by the editors of the 1946 Indian edition of Mutual Banking (later reprinted by Gordon Press.) There was not a single error on the page that I couldn’t source by Wikipedia standards, and some of you have been around long enough to remember when I had the widely-reported-but-incorrect birth-year of 1818 (not, correctly, 1819) prominently displayed in the URL for my main Greene page. It’s not that Wikipedia is subject to more problems than most other kinds of scholarly work. It’s just that it always seems to be subject to all of them, all of the time, if the entry is of any interest at all. If you can stand it, that fact makes for a very interesting, and occasionally rewarding experience, although I’m inclined to think it’s more likely to sharpen the skills of individuals than it is to result in particular solid, profound entries. Anyway, as a way of highlighting some of the questions that an analysis of mutualism needs to address, it might be worth looking at the page at Wikipedia for Mutualism (economic theory).

I guess the first question to ask is: Is mutualism an “economic theory”? On Wikipedia, it’s important to distinguish between the biological term and the one related to anarchism. The OED describes mutualism simply as a “doctrine” based on “mutual dependence,” and then cites Proudhon and the Lyons weavers, emphasizing practical projects such as the Bank of the People. Clarence Lee Swartz, in What Is Mutualism? (1927), describes mutualism in this way:

MUTUALISM — A Social System Based on Equal Freedom, Reciprocity, and the Sovereignty of the Individual Over Himself, His Affairs, and His Products; Realized Through Individual Initiative, Free Contract, Cooperation, Competition, and Voluntary Association for Defense Against the Invasive and for the Protection of Life, Liberty and Property of the Non-invasive.

Perhaps the Wikipedia entry should be “Mutualism (social theory).” Or, perhaps, given the tendency of market anarchists to pull damn near everything into the economic realm, the distinction is not all that important. But, to be honest, I can’t ever read the first line of that Wikipedia entry without flinching just a little. Bear with me, as I work down towards what seem to be some critical questions facing anyone attempting to pick up the standard of mutualism at this late date.

In the first entry in this series, I ended with the observation that “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.” Let me get my cards on the table: it appears to me that the mutualism of Proudhon and Greene (who had differences, but shared a general philosophical orientation) differed substantially from the individual sovereigntyism of Josiah Warren. While I admire Warren immensely, and while my particular (neo-)mutualism undoubtedly inherits from all three of these figures, I suspect that there is something very basically wrong about treating Proudhon, Warren, and Greene together as mutualists in their own time. It seems to me that we can treat mutualism in a relatively presentist sense, working from our own concerns, and retrospectively incorporate all of these figures into a tradition we then choose to inherit. But such an approach tempts us with the kind of broad-brush treatment that we see on Wikipedia. All of the interesting, potentially troubling, differences and details get wiped out.

Long-time readers will see me circling back here to some of the very earliest posts I made on this blog, almost a year ago: “The Historical Character of Mutualism” and “Varieties of Mutualist History,” where I began to argue for a “mutualist history” as plural and frequently discontinuous.

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.


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.

I stand by most of this, but one of the things that a years’ work on these questions has done is refocused my concerns, at least for the time being, on the particular rethinking that occured in the late 19th century, as anarchist came into common use and the mutualist baton was handed from the generation of Greene, Proudhon and Warren to that of Tucker.

As I said in Part I: “It isn’t clear. . . if the economic projects of a William B. Greene can be married to egoism. . . 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.”” If the mutualism of Proudhon and Greene was, like the system of Warren, based on the notion that “Disconnection, division, individuality [is] the principle of order, harmony, and progress” [see Equitable Commerce], then perhaps there wouldn’t be a problem, but Greene and Proudhon, no matter how “sacred” the principle of individualism may be to them, are essentially dialectical thinkers, and both are fundamentally concerned with “solidarity” and “humanity.” In Equality, Greene writes:

INDIVIDUALISM is, therefore, a holy doctrine. The individual man is a mysterious and holy force—placed on the earth in accordance with the mysterious designs of a holy Providence—touch him not, therefore, seek not to guide him by indirect influence, for he is holy! Man is the temple of God, and his heart is the altar from which the Almighty deigns to reveal his presence. He that contends against the right of an individual man, contends against God; for it is the indwelling of God in every individual soul, that is the origin and foundation of all human rights.

Which sounds a bit like a Christianized Warren, but Mutual banking gives us the other side of the coin:

. . . the human race advances like a single man in its joint life and experience—dispensation follows dispensation; each dispensation being adapted to its peculiar stage of human progress. New light will soon break forth from the Gospel, and the NEW CHRISTIANITY will establish itself in the world—a Christianity as much transcending the one now known in the Churches, as this last transcends the religion of types and shadows revealed through Moses.

This is the order of the dispensations:—the Covenant with Noah; the Covenant with Abraham; Mosaic dispensation; CHRISTIANITY; Christian Mutualism.

Influenced by Pierre Leroux, and a Baptist-turned-Unitarian, Greene is prone to balancing “trinities” (as in the piece “COMMUNISM—CAPITALISM—SOCIALISM,” which I introduced here.) Proudhon, as we’ll see in the next few parts of this series, grew more and more convinced that philosophy and politics alike were based in balancing ultimately unreconcilable opposites. In that regard, these thinkers seem very contemporary, very “postmodern,” at least until you dip into Greene’s Bible-based racial history or try to follow Proudhon’s explanation of “the Revolution of the 19th century.” From the perspective of Tucker, however, things probably looked different, as they did for Swartz decades later. Tucker, trying to build common ground around simple principles, wasn’t likely to have had much patience for the fuzzier aspects of his predecessors’ thought. As he moved towards egoism, the attractiveness of much of Greene and Proudhon’s work must have diminished sharply. It’s probably no coincidence that English-speaking anarchists have simply never got around to translating much of Proudhon’s work, despite Tucker’s announced intention to translate all of it, or to dig up the earlier versions of Greene’s mutual bank writings. They pose problems. . .

We can see the problems, or an avoidance of them, in the mutualism entry. The Wikipedia understanding of mutualism sees common practical ground, and doesn’t fuss too much about the philosophical underpinnings. Anyone who has been in a philosophical discussion on a Wikipedia talk page can probably sympathize with the approach. In another context, on the comments page for a mostly unrelated blog post, Kevin Carson, Ken Gregg, and I got into a brief discussion of the problem. Kevin commented:

I’ve instinctively avoided much dealing with metaphysical and epistemological theory—perhaps an overreaction to the vulgar Marxists’ cartoonish use of “dialectics.”

and I responded:

There’s a reason none of the folks writing about the mutualists and individualists have pursued their philosophical and psychological underpinning much—the stuff can be nightmarishly hard, and flat out weird.

Ken said:

one of the problems that I have had with following too deeply into the more metaphysical aspects of Andrews is my own personal dislike for the failed spiritualist movement which he followed. He took it far too seriously for my taste.

And there’s one “kernel” of the “problem” of mutualist history. It takes a lot of slogging through odd sources, dated arguments, contexts (like 19th-century Christian theology) that are unfamiliar or unwelcome, translation tasks, old journals, neologisms and such, to get a handle on philosophical and scientific “foundations” that may be as good an argument for abandoning these old systems as it is for understanding and sustaining them. Every few months, I dip into either Stephen Pearl Andrews’ “universology” or the sources of Greene’s “science of history.” Slowly but surely, I’m learning to distinguish the races descended from Noah’s three sons, and I know the difference between the ARTISMUS (“the Domain or Realm of Being, Evolution, or Progress, in which the Spirit or Principle of Art, or of that which is Cognate or Analogical with Art, predominates or prevails”) and the NATURISMUS (“the Domain or Realm of Being, Evolution, or Progress, in which Naturism, the Spirit or Principle of Nature, or of that which is cognate or analogical with Nature, predominates or prevails.”) And it helps, at least a bit, when I’m trying to figure out the fine points in “Mutual Banking” or “The Science of Society.” In a certain sense, I think these texts are almost unreadable without at least some awareness of this “metaphysical” stuff. But maybe awareness is something we can share without all of us learning exactly which racial culture dominates in modern marriage customs or which Alwato syllable denotes sharpness (and, of course, its opposite.)

In the rest of the posts in this series, I’m going to wade, with whatever good speed I can manage, through work by Proudhon, Greene, their sources and some of those they influenced, trying to paint a general picture of the character of this early mutualism that was as obsessive about “the collective Adam” as it was the “holy principle” of individualism. I’ll try, in the process, to clarify the progression of Proudhon’s thought—and rhetoric—on “property.” I’ll be finishing up the scanning of Greene’s Fragments, and assembling a MutualSchool course on Greene’s relation to Orestes Brownson and William Ellery Channing, and we’ll see if we can pick out what in Greene’s theological writings is essential to understanding mutual banks. Some of my aims will be those of a historian, setting things straight as much as possible, but others are more activist and presentist. I want to argue, for example, that Greene’s “doctrine of life” is a naturally “ecological” philosophy, and perhaps one preferable, in a number of ways, to Tucker’s egoism, if we’re looking for values to bring to a free market society.

Next up: a Proudhon chronology


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