What is Mutualism?

What is Mutualism?
by Clarence Lee Swartz

In collaboration with The Mutualist Associates (1927)


Bio-Bibliography — by Clarence Lee Swartz

Through the ages men have longed for freedom and struggled for it. Usually this struggle has been an effort to escape the oppression of the State or of some other form of organized authority that pretended to protect them. This aspiration has been present in all races and in all nationalities; and, as far back as history records, the great minds of all times have transmitted to use the result of their labors. They were recruited from men of leisure, from those in the professions and in the trades, from peasants, and even from humble slaves. Their words have been given to us in Greek, German, French and many other languages as well as in English; but their golden words prove their kinship with each other and with us, for they all shared the same hunger for liberty.

Aristotle, the Greek "father of philosophy," and perhaps the greatest mind of all time, is, after twenty-two centuries, a potent influence in the shaping of human thought. In his discourse on politics, he says:  "Acquiring money by usury is unnatural. ... Profit comes from exchange, but usury makes it grow. … Usury comes from the barren metal itself."

Epictetus, the slave-philosopher, who lived in the first century A. D., was at that time already discussing freedom, urging people to achieve it, and pointing out that no fugitive slave ever died of hunger. Even in those days he could see, as he said, that
"he is free who lives as he wishes to live; who is neither subject to compulsion nor to hindrance, nor to force; whose movements are not impeded, and whose desires attain their purpose."

If China had given the world nothing but Confucius and his real golden rule, she would be a great nation for that reason alone, for Confucius left a legacy that has not been dissipated in the twenty-five centuries that have succeeded him.

Of the moderns, John Ruskin (1819-1900), the great English philosopher, wrote much attacking usury and the present social system in general; but the British public, although it listened to his art criticisms, would have none of his economics. England - that great nation of money lenders - was not interested.

Where the real battle for freedom began may hardly be said, but the idea as it exists in modern times finds early expression in the plea of John Milton (1608-1674), English poet and publicist, for the liberty of unlicensed printing, during the period of the Commonwealth in England.

A century later, Rousseau and Turgot, in France, wrote of freedom for the common man, and Burke and Godwin followed in England. The latter's Reflections on Political Justice remains a classic.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Buckle's History of Civilization in England appeared, and in it there was gathered a great mass of facts showing the evils of tyranny and oppression in all lands.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), the English philosopher, began writing about the same time, and he deduced the idea of political freedom as a matter of evolutionary growth. His Principles of Sociology is a masterly and exhaustive work, but Social Statics and The Coming Slavery are more vital, the latter showing what the multiplication of the activities of the State is leading to.

In Germany, Max Stirner (pen name of Johann Kaspar Schmidt, 1806-1856), in The Ego and His Own (London: A. C. Fifield), brought forth the idea of the mental freedom of the individual, his emancipation from superstitions of all kinds, including the self-imposed ones.

But it was in America that the principle of freedom in the economic field was first developed, combining freedom from authority with freedom from usury. This was done by Josiah Warren, in his book, True Civilization. A good history of his life, Josiah Warren (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company), has been written by William Bailie, of Boston. Warren's "cost principle" was extensively developed by Stephen Pearl Andrews, in his Science of Society.

Pierre J. Proudhon, in France, worked out all these theories at great length in a series of books written between 1840 and 1865. Here freedom and Mutualism received full treatment with incomparable strength and vigour; and the coming of the power of the financial masters was accurately foretold. Those of his works now in English are: What is Property ? (London: A. C. Fifield); System of Economical Contradictions (Volume I), and General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (London: Freedom Press). The first two were translated by Benjamin R. Tucker and the latter by John Beverly Robinson. Proudhon's Solution of the Social Problem (New York: Vanguard Press) has in it the best of these other works together with much additional material giving his whole proposed solution in its relation to the present.

A clarion call to the spirit of independence and personal responsibility is Henry David Thoreau's Duty of Civil Disobedience. This and his Walden show the nearness of his thought to Mutualism. All of Thoreau's writings, however, important as they may be, are less stimulating than his own life, with its clear-cut exemplification of the power of an honest and resolute man to abstain from the iniquities of the State and at the same time to live at peace with his fellows.

Edward Carpenter's Non-Governmental Society (London: A. C. Fifield) is a thought-provoking pamphlet along the lines of Mutualism. He shows how the trade unions and cooperatives are tending to make un-necessary many governmental activities.

The progress of voluntary cooperation is vividly set forth in Cooperative Democracy, by J. P. Warbasse (Macmillan), and in the same author's What Is Cooperation ? in the series of outlines published by the Vanguard Press.

Another record of what has been in that direction is contained in Consumers' Cooperative Societies, by Charles Gide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), a translation from the French.

Finally, the United States government has published, in the 1925 report of the Federal Trade Commission, under the title of Cooperation in Foreign Countries, a striking account of the accomplishments of the movement across the seas.

Following Proudhon, Col. William B. Greene, of Massachusetts, published a series of articles called Mutual Banking, adapting Proudhon's ideas to American conditions as they then existed (included in Proudhon's Solution of the Social Problem; Vanguard Press).

Lysander Spooner, a Boston lawyer, treated these subjects, from the standpoint of the law and economics, in a large number of pamphlets.

In 1881, Benjamin R. Tucker, of Boston, began publishing a periodical called Liberty, which for twenty-seven years advocated these doctrines with unrivaled ability and exceptional courage. The best of his writings have just been published under the title Individual Liberty (New York: Vanguard Press).

Hugo Bilgram, of Philadelphia, has for many years expounded the financial ideas mentioned above. His book, The Cause of Business Depressions (Lippincott), written in collaboration with L. E. Levy, is the greatest contribution to the subject in recent years. He overthrows the "quantity theory" of money, and Boehm-Bawerk's theory of interest.

Charles P. Isaac, of London, in The Menace of the Money Power (London: Jonathan Cape), has written well for free banking, and has gathered and presented a great deal of historical data concerning English banking and industry.

Professor Frederick Soddy, of Oxford, a great authority on chemistry and physics, treats economics from the standpoint of the physicist, and shows, in his pamphlet Cartesian Economics (London: Henderson's) and in his book, Wealth, Virtual Wealth, and Debt (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company), that capital cannot be saved; that all wealth is a flow instead of a store. He also destroys the pretense that interest is necessary.

Treating of Freedom in its whole scope, Charles T. Sprading, in Freedom and its Fundamentals (Los Angeles: Libertarian Publishing Company) has brought the question of human liberty up to date, adducing incontrovertible arguments in favor of equal liberty and contending that that principle is workable in every department of political and social life. This book helps to lay the foundation for Mutualism.

Out of the turmoil in Russia there has come one striking figure, shot by the Communists in 1921 on account of his opposition to Lenin. He has left a book (not yet translated into English), in which he lays stress on the associational side of freedom and on a new sociological conception which he calls "Sociometry." He divides all systems of human relationship into three types, disfavoring the first because it represents enslavement through Communism; rejecting the second, because it represents the slavery of industrial exploitation; lauding the third, because it represents freedom and Mutualism. This agitator was Lev Tchorny; but there was no room for him in Russia.

A book containing many of the elements of Mutualism is Voluntary Socialism, by Francis D. Tandy, who tried to develop the associational side of the principle of equal liberty. He, unfortunately, died a few years ago in the fullness of his powers.

Hertzka, in his Freeland [and in Travel to Freeland and in some other writings. - J.Z.], presented what he termed ''a social anticipation," developing a plan of "open group" ["open cooperative" - J.Z.] organization of industry that is unique and promising. His plan contains many ideas that are both libertarian and Mutualistic, but its detailed application has never generally appealed to those who base their philosophy rigidly on the principle of equal liberty.

John Beverly Robinson was a translator of Proudhon and author of The Economics of Liberty. His death, also a few years ago, removed a tireless worker for freedom.

Alfred B. Westrup was a faithful worker for freedom in finance, and his New Philosophy of Money has many valuable points, but his theories are vitiated by his rejection of the idea of a standard of value.

Wordsworth Donisthorpe and Auberon Herbert were two Englishmen of the old individualist school, who were, however, not especially emphatic about the constructive libertarian philosophy, although the latter does, in his A Politician in Sight of Heaven, favor voluntary taxation, and the former, in Individualism: a System of politics, convicts Herbert Spencer of deviations from his own principle of equal freedom.

Finally, Ezra H. Heywood should not be overlooked as one of the old types of American labor reformers, whose periodical, The Word, was unique. He was, at times, a forceful advocate of libertarian and Mutualistic principles.

Carrying on the active work for Mutualism and presenting, in addition to weighty arguments in favor of the doctrine, comment on and criticism of the movement from every quarter, is The Mutualist, a magazine, published by Edward H. Fulton at 1227 Prospect Avenue, Clinton, Iowa.

Some Web Sites and Documents on Mutualism

First of all, hear an audio version of this book on Youtube.


More Mutualism Links