Progress and Premises

At this point, I’m putting together “dummy” issues, with titles for all the major articles, and typing or scanning the bits that I think are most significant. I plan to put random free moments to work filling in the blanks in the early issues, while pushing ahead with the general reading and analysis. If anyone would like to help with the project, let me know and I’ll add you to the team.

I’ve read through the issues for 1881 several times now, and am starting to get a feel for Liberty‘s beginnings. As I’ve mentioned before, the state of The Index and the “Free Religion” movement generally occupied a good deal of Tucker’s attention in those days, as did the consequences of the Garfield assassination. What’s apparent in these early issues is that Tucker is in the process of differentiating himself from the socialistic schools that surround him, and distancing himself from the religiously-grounded reformers of an earlier generation. He is also in the midst of a very delicate process of maintaining connections with the mutualists of an earlier generation—Proudhon, Greene, and Warren—while elaborating a “plumb-line” individualism that diverges quite radically in some ways from that earlier mutualism. One of the most interesting questions facing us in the pages of Liberty is to what extent Tucker was able to stay on the tightrope, and to what extent his individualist anarchism was a real break with that of his mentors and influences.

A little review may be in order, though I’ll be the first to admit that this “review” contains a good deal of interpretation on my part.

Proudhon is the well-spring. Tucker gets Proudhon first through William Batchelder Greene, and then straight from the source. We know a good deal about Greene’s reading of Proudhon, and we have his own account of their meetings. We know that Greene was in many ways as much a partisan of Pierre Leroux’s philosophy as of Proudhon’s, and that he adapted his own work as the debates between them played out in the wake of the February Revolution in 1848. In those days, Proudhon was clearly committed to some kind of harmonizing of “communism and property,” and, influenced by Leroux’s “triad,” Greene aimed at a similar harmonization of “communism, socialism, and capitalism.” Greene was much more immersed in European political thought than his biographers have generally given him credit for, and we can see the influence of the Saint-Simonians (and ex-Saint-Simonians) nearly everywhere in his work, assuming we know to look for it—nearly everywhere, that is, except in the later mutual banking works, which gradually lose the flavor of ’48. (As I’ve previously noted, they also lose the explicit criticisms of Proudhon.) Greene’s final writings don’t seem to differ substantially from his early ones, when it comes to his religious commitments. He was a radical heretic early, and seems to have remained one. The atheistic tendencies of the anarchist movement pained him, and he said so, late in life, in the page of The Word. He also remained involved in his researches on “universal history,” based in the works of Auguste Ott, Philippe Buchez, and others. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that these aspects of Greene’s thought, however much they had been the underpinning of his understanding of mutualism, simply made little or no impact on his many disciples in the mutual bank propaganda. As egoism became part of the core of the Liberty group’s individualism, many of the philosophical ties between generations were pretty thoroughly snapped. What that means in terms of our understanding of “mutualism” as a continuing tradition is a question I have to leave open for now.

In any event, Tucker also had his direct encounter with Proudhon, and intended to translate his works in their entirety. It would be interesting to know what combination of financial, ideological and philosophical reasons there were for the very limited amount of Proudhon’s work that was actually translated. We’re over a century down the road from Tucker’s announcement of the Proudhon Library, and there have been very few new additions to the translated works, so there’s reason to suspect that the “father of anarchism” has been rather systematically neglected by his own tradition. Perhaps it is not merely cynical of me to think that some of this neglect has come from the fact that “property is theft” has considerable value as a slogan, but that Proudhon’s full body of work is demanding, and not always reassuring to any of the ideologies that have been built upon its fragments. My own reading suggests that Proudhon was remarkably consistent in his thinking about economic issues, but that his rhetoric changed considerably over the years, and that the tactics he adopted in dealing with an understanding of “property” as always somewhat “impossible” shifted slightly. I’m still wrestling with Proudhon, working on a number of translations. I can only speculate on how far Tucker pursued his thought, or to what extent his failure to translate more reflected a divergence from that influence. This, too, is one of the open questions we’ll return to as we work through Liberty.

Josiah Warren was the other obvious influence from the earlier generation. I’ve quibbled at various times about whether Warren should be considered a “mutualist.” He differed quite radically from Proudhon and Greene in his basic philosophy, and professed an opposition to Proudhon’s ideas even late in life (again, in the pages of The Word.) But he may, if James J. Martin’s sources are correct, have been among the petitioners for a mutual bank in Massachusetts during the ferment of 1850-1. In many ways, he closely resembled the explicit mutualists. Like them, he was philosophically grounded in the thought of the “utopian” socialists. Warren never seems to have repudiated the philosophy he shared with Robert Owen, however much he eventually dissented from his social schemes. He also continued in the experimental pursuit of anarchism now, a much more practical proponent of statelessness than the “philosophical anarchists” who came after. Greene had attempted to describe actual mutualism in this way:

Under the mutual system, each individual will receive the just and exact pay for his work; services equivalent in cost being exchangeable for services equivalent in cost, without profit or discount; and so much as the individual laborer will then get over and above what he has earned will come to him as his share in the general prosperity of the community of which he is an individual member. (“Communism vs. Mutualism,” originally in The Word.)

He expected that extention of credit and freeing of markets would accomplish this. Note the way in which a “cost system” (more precisely, for Greene, a cost effect) generates profit as “general prosperty.” That’s the “mutual” in mutualism, in the realm of economics. For Greene, there was a social-psychological mutualism as well, based in the “doctrine of life” that “life is always objective and subjective.” It was, in essence, his recognition of basic “solidarity.” But perhaps the two, so tightly bound together in Greene, are ultimately separable, in which case the outcomes of Warren’s “cooperation without combination” start to look quite a bit like the “harmonizations” of Proudhon and Greene. Perhaps we can say that, with his philosophy of individualization—”Disconnection, division, individuality the principle of order, harmony, and progress. . .”—he was trying to think himself out of certain “communistic” assumptions that had held sway in New Harmony, while Greene was trying to think himself into humanity, and on much more philosophical terrain. Warren cuts to the chase, and lays down a cost principle. His approach is all practical ethics, grounded in a faith that equitable behavior can compete.

Tucker is, perhaps, more like Greene in his personality, but ultimately closer to Warren in his desire to lay down principles.

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

1 Comment

  1. “My own reading suggests that Proudhon was remarkably consistent in his thinking about economic issues, but that his rhetoric changed considerably over the years”

    I would tend to agree, based on my own readings of his work. There are slight changes towards the end, in “The Theory of Property” but as this was published after his death it is hard to say whether it would have remained as it did. Moreover, as the changes are trivial I get sick of right-“libertarians” quoting it out of context.

    Unfortunately, “Political Capacity of the Working Classes” is not available — given he was working on it on his death bed, that should be the definite “last word” so to speak.

    One of my favourite experiences of working on “An Anarchist FAQ” has been discovering what a great thinker Proudhon was. I think that is partly due to Marx’s attacks and the lack of availablity of the original texts. And needless to say, Marx had an interest in rubbishing Proudhon as got quite a few of his ideas from the French man.

    I would agree with Shawn in that he does not fit in exactly with the schemes of those who proclaimed themselves his followers.

    I would suggest that this applies more to Tucker, as Proudhon may have favoured markets but he was more aware of their failings than him. Indeed, Proudhon seemed to have sough regulated (by worker federations) markets rather than totally free ones.

    But you can see the links and the divergence, with individualists emphasising certain aspects of Proudhon and the social anarchists others. I think Kropotkin had it right in saying that the individualists ideas were a combination of Proudhon and Spencer. Get rid of Proudhon and you get rid of the anarchism!

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