Notes on the origins of the term “mutualism” (1822-1850)

I contributed most of the following to Wikipedia, so we can just make use of it here to get started on a bit of basic mutualist history:

Mutualism, as a term, has seen a variety of related uses. Charles Fourier first used the French term “mutualisme” in 1822, although the reference was not to an economic system. The first use of the noun “mutualist” was in the New-Harmony Gazette by an American Owenite in 1826. In the early 1830s, a labor organization in Lyons, France, called themselves the “Mutuellists.”

Pierre Joseph Proudhon was involved with the Lyons mutualists and later adopted the name to describe his own teachings. 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.” When John Gray’s 1825 Lecture on Human Happiness was first published in the United States in 1826, the publishers appended the Preamble and constitution of the Friendly Association for Mutual Interests, located at Valley Forge. 1826 also saw the publication of the Constitution of the Friendly Association for Mutual Interests at Kendal, Ohio.

By 1846, Pierre Joseph Proudhon was speaking of “mutualité” in his writings, and he used the term “mutuellisme,” at least as early as 1848, in his “Programme Révolutionnaire.” William B. Greene, in 1850, used the term “mutualism” to describe a mutual credit system similar to that of Proudhon. In 1850, the American newspaper The Spirit of the Age, edited by William Henry Channing, published proposals for a “mutualist township” by Joshua King Ingalls and Albert Brisbane, together with works by Proudhon, William B. Greene, Pierre Leroux, and others.

What the rules of play at Wikipedia didn’t allow me to say, except on the Talk page, was that the oft-repeated account of John Gray using the term is probably incorrect. Let me include the full note, just to indicate some of the difficulties and possible pitfalls involved in tracking this sort of information down.

Swartz’ reference to John Gray in What Is Mutualism? is puzzling. He says mutualism “seems to have been first used by John Gray, an English writer, in 1832,” but does not name the work. The only book or pamphlet from 1832 is Production the cause of demand being a brief analysis of a work entitled “The social system, a treatise on the principle of exchange, by John Gray : with a short illustration of the principles of equitable labour exchange,” which probably isn’t by Gray at all, although it relies on long passages from The Social System. It appears to have been assembled by “an Association for the Dissemination of the Knowledge of the Principles of Equitable Labour Exchange.” (More than one of the pamphlets listed in OCLC under Gray’s name is actually a response to Gray.) In any event, it does not appear to have been the book in which the word mutualism was used, and it seems a strange title to cite in preference to the 1831 book from which it was drawn. Looking for the source of Swartz’ reference, the logical choice is Max Nettlau’s “Anarchism in England Fifty Years Ago,” which contains the line: “The mutualism of John Gray (1832, 1842, 1848) is logical, but dry, uninspiring, and anything but revolutionary.” Note the dates. Nettlau skips the influencial Lecture on Human Happiness, and references, if only by date, An efficient remedy for the distress of nations (1842), Lectures on the nature and use of money (1848), and probably The Social System, but missing the date by one year. If Swartz (who, as a contributor to Liberty in the same years, certainly would have had access to Tucker’s reprint of the Nettlau essay) simply relied on Nettlau as a source, it is understable how he might have written that mutualism “seems” to have been used in 1832.

In any event, setting aside the use by Fourier, we have two early traditions that used words like “mutualism”—the Owenites from England, starting in the 1820s, and the French workers in Lyon in the 1830s. The first tradition influenced Josiah Warren, who never called himself a mutualist, but became one of the chief influences on those who used the term in the late 19th century. The second directly influenced Proudhon, who adopted the term to describe his anarchism.

Prior to the period when Benjamin R. Tucker and his circle brought the influences of Warren’s equitable commerce and the explicit mutualism of Proudhon and Greene together in his own individualist anarchism, there would have been no particular reason to think of the two currents as one.