Back to Basics (now that we may know a few of them)

Welcome to the new, the last of my old Blogger sites to be integrated into the new Libertarian Labyrinth. It’s been just over a decade since I launched the blog In the Libertarian Labyrinth, which was not my first blog, but was the first dedicated primarily to anarchist history and theory. The site has had a number of other names along the way (Out of the Libertarian Labyrinth, Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule and Contr’un) and has migrated once, but the overall project has developed steadily, if sometimes in directions that couldn’t have been predicted ten years ago. The unpredictability was, however, something that I could predict at the time, as it was clear that, whatever we knew about mutualism at the time, it was undoubtedly dwarfed by what we didn’t know and still had to learn.

Let’s go back to almost the beginning of that blog, to Wednesday, June 22, 2005 and a post called “Confessions of a latter day mutualist:”

What is this Mutualism of which you speak?

I see that Kevin Carson has given me a rousing welcome to the neighborhood. I’ll try not to let him down. I see he counts me among the “free market anti-capitalists.” It’s a label i’ll happily embrace – at least as a partial description of my position. But the truth is that i’m a whole lot less interested in economics than some of my friends and comrades – and maybe a bit less interested than i should be, though i have done my fair share of slogging through the stuff – so defining myself in those terms seems like a little bit of an imposture. All labels have their limits. I’m a christian individualist poststructuralist socialist green market anarchist – i guess. Or something. . . .

Mostly, i call myself an anarchist, or a mutualist – depending on who i’m talking to, and how confusing or distracting the terms are likely to be in the context. There was a time, not all that long ago when mutualist was a term used very little among the generally left-anarchist company i was keeping. It struck me as a term used to keep folks like Proudhon carefully suspended about half in and half out of “proper anarchism.” It was also a nice way to say “individualist anarchism” without starting quite as many fights. There still aren’t very many of us who call ourselves mutualists, but at least now when we do so we only have to explain why we’re not automatically enemies of anarchism about half the time. Let’s hear it for progress.

I’m being a bit facetious, but, whatever you call them, the more individualistic and market-friendly early forms of anarchism pose all sorts of problems for contemporary anarchist ideologies – both right and left. Engaging with them takes us back to a time before the marxian coup in the First International remapped the political terrain, when socialism still meant little more than simultaneous concerns with social science and social justice. It’s hard to grasp the diversity of that International. Beyond the familiar assortment of folks from the labor movement, the cooperatives, Proudhonists, Marxists, Bakuninists and such, Stephen Pearl Andrews and the Woodhull sisters were part of an American section grounded in part in Andrews’ pantarchy and universology. William Batchelder Greene, the “American Proudhon,” was a member of a French-speaking Boston chapter which understood the work of the International as a continuation of that of the Knights Templar. Cabet’s Icarians were represented as well. You can imagine Marx tearing out his hair, wondering how he could get rid of half this crew. He worked it out eventually, of course, expelling the American English-speaking sections before he and Bakunin had a chance to duke it out. And while he was at it, Andrews and Greene continued to translate and disseminate Marx and Engels’ Manifesto.

I’ll be honest. The strange, promiscuous character of that First International fascinates me. All of the work that i’ve been doing on the history of anarchism and mutualism is aimed at getting a glimpse of some of the roads not travelled from that point to the present. It’s tempting to say that the breakup of the International was a sort of Tower of Babel incident for the broad socialist movement. Certainly, some form of common language was lost, as it rapidly became almost impossible to speak of a broad socialist movement – and largely remains so today. But the incident is also, and perhaps more compellingly, a sort of Babel-in-reverse. First, there was a clamor of voices, but there was also this fragile joint project, the International. And then there was a different sort of clamor, but not within the joint project, which had become rather narrow and German. We’ve played out at least some of the possible outcomes of this change in relations. And the historical debates about anarchism, socialism and capitalism have helped us to make some judgments about the inevitability of some of the less pleasant outcomes. There’s still a lot of historical spadework to be done to flesh out the genealogies of the various current anarchistic and socialistic currents, but there’s also the very difficult job of trying to grasp the character of the International in that earlier moment.

I guess i’m happy to call myself a mutualist because it positions me within a story that must reach back before the marxian takeover – to the extent that it’s possible to do so. Mutualism, for me, is necessarily identified with the sort of chaos-in-concert that seems to have characterized that early, broad socialism. My intuition is that if there are going to be mutualists again, in a sense that is meaningful – that gets some work done – we’ll have to learn to be pluralists, to relate to others despite the confusions of voices.

Right now, being a mutualist seems to involve being open, being committed to an experimental approach, embracing multiple, partial projects while we look for common ground. For that reason, the writing here will swoop wildly from high theory to minute concrete details. Hopefully, it will make for an interesting ride for all involved.

There is a great deal that has changed in the way that I talk about my project, but there is a lot there that is still very true about the work that I’m doing. For example, that “strange, promiscuous character” of the First International still fascinates me, and all the more as my work on Bakunin, Nettlau and the question of “anarchy without adjectives” has fleshed out my understanding of the issues. And the project of “reaching back” before the events that mark the start of so many anarchist histories is certainly well under way, as evidence by my work on “the Era of Anarchy.” But it has taken a long time to dig deeply enough into the early phases and later margins of anarchist history to give “mutualism” anything like the sort of definition and doctrinal elaboration that many people have expected. Indeed, in July, 2012, when I launched the original blog, the focus was still on what I was calling “The Mutualist’s Dilemma:”

People frequently tell me that they have trouble understanding what mutualism is, and how it relates to the rest of the anarchist tradition. I can sympathize. Mutualism is, at once, the earliest form of the explicit, continuous anarchist tradition, and one of its newest variations. In between its first flowering and its most recent rediscovery, most of what we think of as the history and development of anarchism has occurred.

To call ourselves “mutualists” in the early 21st century is to take our place in a tradition which reaches back into the mid-19th century, the roots of which are the roots of the anarchist tradition, but the anarchist tradition has been rather ambivalent and forgetful about its roots, so rather than grounding the modern mutualist somewhere near the heart of the anarchist project, I think many of us feel we’ve climbed out onto a rather slender limb.

In the mutualist revival of the last ten years, mutualists have had to reach back to uncover and explain the original foundations and subsequent development of their traditions, and simultaneously show how this original anarchism responds to contemporary concerns. With the number of active mutualist theorists being small, and their backgrounds diverse, the natural division of that already-complex labor has given rise to at least two divergent trends in the revival.

The first, exemplified by Kevin Carson’s work, is reconstructive, a fairly conscious attempt to stitch back together a number of the narrower tendencies which have formed as anarchism developed. It has naturally become a focus for “big tent” coalitions like the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. Because the historical mutualism which Carson most closely identifies may be best understood as the economic component of Benjamin R. Tucker’s individualist anarchism, with its plumb-line focus on removing key monopolies, this mutualist tendency has emerged as a “free-market anti-capitalism.”The second tendency looks back to the earliest elements of the mutualist tradition, drawing on the extensive and largely neglected work of Proudhon, but also on influences (from Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux, etc) which Proudhon did not fully integrate into his work, and on the work of a variety of writers from those early days of anarchism. It combines a sort of archaeological process of rediscovering mutualism’s roots with attempts to refine, complete and update its early forms. My own “two-gun mutualism” is an example of this explicitly neo-Proudhonian mutualism.

Both tendencies share the sort of unfinished character you might expect from revivals of long-dormant traditions, which poses problems for us, accustomed as we tend to be to well-established ideologies, amenable to treatment in FAQ form. There is a lot of work to be done—researching, translating, interpreting and updating—before a lot of the most common questions about mutualism can be answered in anything like a definitive form, and before we know if the various revivalist tendencies are destined ultimately to converge or diverge.

To some extent, we can expect the definitive to continue to elude mutualism. Proudhon emphasized the fact that social progress is a matter of experimentation and approximation. While our principles—key among them the ethic of mutuality or reciprocity—may remain fixed, our contexts constantly change, so practical answers to our most frequently answered questions are likely to change as well. Hopefully, we will just get better at applying our principles, and gradually perhaps our questions and concerns will change.

In the meantime, however, there are some things that can be said with some degree of certainty, and some speculations that can be made on the basis of those basic principles. While I pursue more complex, conditional and partisan projects elsewhere, this blog will focus on those bits of truth and certainty that perhaps we can share now. My hope is that it will serve as a useful introduction as well, in the absence of the sort of certainty or presumptive authority of an FAQ.

The road did not necessarily get smoother from there. There have been struggles over the “mutualist” label, and I personally set it aside for a year, just in order to see what, if anything, a connection to such a troublesome, elusive, contested notion was really buying me. More recently, I’ve been wrestling with the question of what any of our troublesome, contested labels really buy us. But, at the same time, the research and theory-building has gone steadily on, and some very important resources, like Proudhon’s unpublished manuscripts, have become more widely available, and enough of the pieces have come together recently to perhaps move beyond the wait-and-see attitude that was so necessary to get to this point without simply settling for something very much at odds with the original mutualisms.

What that means is that perhaps now, finally, we can begin to wrestle with the most basic principles and possible practices of mutualism, rather than simply ape or adapt aging approximations. So the reboot here will take up that task, gathering and updating existing commentary, as well as adding to a selections of answers to frequently asked questions, responses to criticism, debunking of partisan myths, etc. There is still nothing terribly easy about the task, so things will roll out slowly, but at least now I think that the task is indeed something that can be accomplished.