“Roots of American Anarchism” course, and Beyond(?)

Well, it looks now like a fairly sure thing that I’ll be teaching a graduate-level course on “The Roots of American Anarchism.”

This course is really concerned with the roots of the American anarchist traditions, and with their earliest flowerings. I’ve been half-joking that I would follow the development only up to about the time that the term “anarchism” came into widespread use. In realtity, I’ll go a little further than that, but not a lot. The course is for students of American Culture Studies, but we’ll also spend quite a bit of time looking at European sources.

I’m pretty excited about the course. It will be a first chance to work in a academic setting on the understanding of mutualism and its history that I’ve been developing over the last few years. I’ve been working with a single student this semester, in an unpaid directed reading, and we’ve been drawing together a lot of threads. There is a lot of material that it would be nice to cover, for which there is no time. A week or two, for instance, on libertarian experiments in the colonial period would be very useful. I could use a few extra weeks to take things up to 1920 or so, and explore the emergence of anarchist-communism in the U. S., and the effects of the rise of anti-communism as an ideology. There’s an enormous literature of libertarian schemes which found at least some purchase in anarchist circles, and there are lots of fairly radical libertarians who are such outliers in the history that it is hard to make space for them. All of that is to be expected, since the course has to be at once a kind of high-level survey and an examination-in-depth. I’m happy with what I’ve pulled together as a first step. The problem is that I am very unlikely to get a chance to do much in the way of subsequent steps in the classroom and at a traditional university.

If anyone is ready to start an Anarchist Studies Program somewhere, and wants a slightly under-credentialled and perhaps over-obsessive intellectual historian, I’m here. . . .

Hmmm. Apparently not.

I suppose that leaves unconventional educational institutions, counter-institutions even, as the place where we might be able to make some space for an Anarchism Curriculum of some breadth and depth. And I’ve been talking with a number of collaborators in left-libertarian circles about beginning to develop just such a curriculum. Anarchists and radical libertarians have no shortage of concerns, whether historical, theoretical, or practical, which might be addressed by their own educational institutions, and, most certainly, the movements have no lack of expertise and knowledge floating around. We have been building our archives, our think-tanks, our forums, and our media centers online. I want to start exploring the possibility of constructing an online school of sorts, with the hope that it might become part of something bigger, a kind of anti-authoritarian “university,” or perhaps pluriversity. As a start to that, there are tentative plans afoot for an online version of the course I’m currently developing. I would love to hear from anyone at all interested in taking such a class online. Tell me:

  • What sort of instruction would you prefer?

Do you want self-paced, programmed study, or some more direct interaction with an instructor. It’s not hard to imagine a range of styles and levels of instruction:

  1. Annotated “Readers’ Editions” of key texts, downloadable or available from print-on-demand sources.
  2. Programmed self-study courses, allowing students to work through material at their own pace, with quizzes along the way to help them monitor their progress and understanding.
  3. Similar courses, with more direction from, and interaction with, instructors.
  4. Conventional group sections, with active involvement by an instructor or instructors.
  5. Advanced seminars.
  6. Negotiated individual consultations.
  7. etc. . .

Think then about:

  • What sort of evaluation you would want?
  • What sort of tuition would you be willing to pay?
  • What other material would you like to see covered, whether or not this particular history class interests you?
  • etc. . .

In one form or another, I expect that this project will go forward. Any input from potential users of the service would naturally be very, very welcome at the stage where we’re wrestling with software choices and course design. for now, though, here is a tentative, slightly unfinished list of readings proposed for the intial version of my course. Any comments on that are, of course, welcome as well.


Week 1: Anarchism and American Traditions

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Anarchism and American Traditions”
The Declaration of Independence

What has been called “native American” anarchism can be seen as merely an extreme manifestation of the “tradition of Paine and Jefferson,” a minor expression (in Deleuze’s sense) of the most fundamental, hegemonic American discourses. Unsurprisingly, it is sometimes difficult to determine if this anarchism represents the most radical, or perhaps the most conservative, of American political ideologies.

Week 2: The “First Mutualist Moment,” 1825-7 (1/15)

Robert Owen, “Fundamental Laws of Human Nature and of Government”
“Preamble and Constitution of the Friendly Society for Mutual Interests.”
Paul Brown, “The Substance of a Lecture delivered at New-Harmony, on Sunday, May 26th, 1826”

Josiah Warren, “From The March of Mind”
—. “The Motives for Communism, and What It Led To”

The period of the Owenite enthusiasm in the United States makes up the immediate pre-history of American anarchism. Josiah Warren, “the first American anarchist,” was initially energized by Owen’s propaganda in favor of a scientific “social system,” by which the problem of poverty and associated social ills could be solved. However, once at Owen’s community at New Harmony, Indiana, Warren found that the “communism” (presumption of joint interests) at the heart of the project doomed it to failure. None of the dozen or so American Owenite communities prospered, but the debate surrounding them set the agenda for much of what followed in radical circles. Most significantly, for our purposes, it was the occasion for a first set of debates about “mutualism,” which in this pre-anarchist context generally meant the more individualized forms of “socialism” (itself an Owenite coinage.)

Week 3: Josiah Warren and Equitable Commerce

Josiah Warren, Equitable Commerce (Utopia, OH, 1849)
—. Practical Details in Equitable Commerce
—. “Letter to Kossuth”
“Report of the Thomas Paine Birthday Celebration at Modern Times, NY”

Josiah Warren is generally considered “the first American anarchist,” and he developed his radically individualistic version of Owenite socialism at one of the earliest moments out of which we might have expected anything like a modern libertarian philosophy to emerge. Warren himself passionately disliked labels, and considered his own theories entirely distinct from the French anarchism of Proudhon. Nevertheless, his principles of “sovereignty of every individual” and “cost the limit of price” remain key concepts for individualist anarchism, even up to the present day.

Week 4: Orestes Brownson (1/29)
Happy Thomas Paine’s Birthday!

Orestes Brownson. “Chartism” [38 pages]
—, “The Laboring Classes” [93 pages]
—, “The Mediatorial Life of Jesus” [17 pages]
—, “The People’s Own Book” [11 pages]
Various. [responses to Brownson]

Orestes Brownson eventually became a staunchly conservative Catholic, but his early career spanned most of the radical movements of the time. He was involved with Universalism, with the New York Workingman’s Party, and with Boston’s free thought movement. He was one of those responsible for introducing French socialist thought into New England intellectual circles, and was a friend and mentor to American mutualist William Batchelder Greene.

Paine’s Birthday was a popular occasion for celebration among American radicals and freethinkers. Hundreds—probably thousands—of poems were composed and read for the occasion, and toasts were offered to figures considered representative of America’s revolutionary tradition.

Week 5: The Second Mutualist Moment—Association, Saint-Simonism and the Spirit of ’48 in America

Henri de Saint-Simon, “The New Christianity”
Charles Fourier, “Note A”
Pierre Leroux, “Aphorisms”
—, Of Humanity [excerpts]
P.-J. Proudhon, “A Toast to the Revolution”
William B. Greene, “The Doctrine of Life”
—, A Priori Autobiography [excerpts]
—, “International Address”

Warren’s experiment at Utopia, OH coincided with the American response to the French revolution of 1848. Papers such as The Spirit of the Age and The Harbinger attempted to adapt the thought of the major French socialist currents to American contexts. William B. Greene, William Henry Channing, Albert Brisbane and the Brook Farm colonists developed their own home-grown responses. “Mutualism” appears in this period as the most libertarian of synthetic, harmonian philosophies, and had in America a much broader base than in Europe.

Week 6: William B. Greene and Mutual Banking

P.-J. Proudhon, [selections on property, etc]
William B. Greene, Equality
—, Mutual Banking (1850)
—, “Communism vs. Mutualism”
Various, [responses to Greene]

William B. Greene attempted to synthesize the thought of Proudhon and Leroux with native currency-reform traditions. His version of Proudhon’s credit currency scheme has been so popular, despite its lack of success (or even trial), that mutualism has come to be largely identified with it. Greene’s early writings, however, suggest a broader program.

Week 7: Joshua King Ingalls

Joshua King Ingalls, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian
—, “Chapters on Rights”
Albert Brisbane, “A Mutualist Township”

Ingalls is now best remembered as an advocate of land-reform, associated with George Henry Evans. He was actually another wide-ranging reformer, author, and inventory. We’ll get a first-hand look at a range of reforms in his autobiography, and also examine his analysis of natural rights, which originally appeared in The Spirit of the Age.

Week 8: Abolitionists and Non-Resistants

William Lloyd Garrison, “Declaration of Sentiments Adopted by the Peace Convention, September 28, 1838”
Ezra H. Heywood, “The War Method of Peace”
Adin Ballou, Christian Non-Resistance
[Lysander Spooner vs. Wendell Phillips in The Liberator]

Although split on the question of whether or not they were “no-government men,” the non-resistant wing of the abolition movement strongly challenged secular government.

Week 9: Calvin Blanchard and the Freethinkers of The Boston Investigator

Calvin Blanchard, “A Crisis Chapter on Government”
—, “My undertaking and Its Auspices”
—, “The Life of Thomas Paine”
Eliphalet Kimball
Lewis Masquerier
Peter I. Blacker

Week 10: Stephen Pearl Andrews, Universology and the Pantarchy

Stephen Pearl Andrews, Organic Basis or Constitution of the Panarchy
—, Constitution of the New Catholic Church
—, [Weekly Bulletins of the Pantarchy]
Various, [responses to Andrews]

Week 11: The Emergence of Individualist Anarchism

[debates from the pages of the free religionist journal, The Index]

Week 12: Benjamin R. Tucker and Liberty

Benjamin R. Tucker, Instead of a Book, by a Man Too Busy to Write One

Week 13: The Twentieth Century, Lucifer the Light-Bearer, Free-Love, and Eugenics

William H. Van Ornum, Mating or Marrying, Which?
Voltairine de Cleyre, “Bastard Born”
—, “Those Who Marry Do Ill”
Lillian Harman

Week 14: Social Mutualism, Communism, etc…

Dyer D. Lum
Peter Kropotkin, “Anarchism”
Emma Goldman
Voltairine de Cleyre

Week 15: Wrap-Up

Anarchist Obituaries and Elegies

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2619 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. What would be ideal is if one could develop a course on theory of polycentric law for pre-law undergrads or as a law school elective. Perhaps it could eventually be expanded into a bundle of courses for a special minor for poli-sci majors. The point being, though, that the course should be a self-conscious examination of advocacy and deliberation of the details of stateless law — in that such scholars would be prefigurative of the legal services & arbitration industries in the stateless society to come.

    Besides, anybody who has read the debates over land property theory on the LL2 list must have suspected by now that anarchism is really just a full employment program for lawyers. 🙂

  2. Dear Wilbur,

    Don’t you came to Brzail to teach us about the American Anarchism?

    This kind of seminar is very good to us !

  3. Excellent!

    This is all fascinating stuff here.

    I’d be willing to pay about 25 per week for an “email-level” interactive course on the subject, with occasional chat/IM type discussions. My time is very constrained, which is why I don’t think I could participate in anything more strenuous.

  4. I’m a community college student right now and I’m working on my general eds. It’d be great if I could get credit for for studying these studies at my college for my required “Government” class ;), or perhaps one of the histories.

  5. I’d be interested in taking the course online, and I’d be willing to pay $100 for the course, and more if that’s far below the standard price. I really like taking courses like this for the discussions that happen, which really helps these concepts sink in for me. So some sort of group chat on this stuff would be great. Also, we should do a lot of our “assignments” i.e. writing about this stuff through our blogs, just because they’re great venues for the type of discussion that follows, and we own our work more that way.

    I think there should also be a discussion at the end of the course on modern anarchist thought in the historical context we’ve just explored. That would help ideas sink in, though you’d have to be careful not to propagandize 🙂

  6. I’d be interested and willing to pay in the vicinity of $100 for an online seminar sort of course. These are fairly easy to run through a listserv.

    One person you might contact for information and thoughts is Chris Sciabarra. A few years ago he ran some “CyberSeminars” on his Dialectics and Liberty series, which usually had about 10-15 students. He may have some insights to offer on this sort of project.

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