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A one-sentence answer is that mutualism consists of people voluntarily banding together for the common purpose of mutual assistance. Clarence Swartz, in What is Mutualism?, defined it this way:

A Social System Based on Equal Freedom, Reciprocity, and the Sovereignty of the Individual Over Himself, His Affairs, and His Products, Realized Through Individual Initiative, Free Contract, Cooperation, Competition, and Voluntary Association for Defense Against the Invasive and for the Protection of Life, Liberty and Property of the Non-invasive.

A character in Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction gave a description of socialism that might have come from a mutualist:

...what we always meant by socialism wasn't something you forced on people, it was people organizing themselves as they pleased into co-ops, collectives, communes, unions.... And if socialism really is better, more efficient than capitalism, then it can bloody well compete with capitalism. So we decided, forget all the statist s**t and the violence: the best place for socialism is the closest to a free market you can get!

Mutualism means building the kind of society we want here and now, based on grass-roots organization for voluntary cooperation and mutual aid-- instead of waiting for the revolution. Because mutualism emphasizes building within the existing society, and avoiding confrontation with the state when it is unnecessary, it is sometimes identified with "Evolutionary Anarchism," and sometimes criticized as "reformist."

The idea was expressed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century) as the mutualist economy growing within the statist one until the former eclipsed the latter. The political would eventually be absorbed in the economic, and the distinction between public and private would wither away. Although the phrase was not invented by Proudhon, the command of people would be replaced by the administration of things.

One of the best descriptions of mutualism, believe it or not, is this summary of Proudhon's philosophy by G. Ostergaard, a contributor to A Dictionary of Marxist Thought:

... he argued that working men should emancipate themselves, not by political but by economic means, through the voluntary organization of their own labour--a concept to whch he attached redemptive value.  His proposed system of equitable exchange between self-governing producers, organized individually or in association and financed by free credit, was called 'mutualism'.  The units of the radically decentralized and pluralistic social order that he envisaged were to be linked at all levels by applying 'the federal principle'. [p. 400]

Note--In this FAQ, mutualist and individualist anarchism are treated as more or less synonymous, unless otherwise noted. The Anarchist FAQ at Spunk divides anarchism into two main branches, social and individualist anarchism, and treats mutualism as a subset of social anarchism. We prefer to treat individualism as a distinctly American form of mutualism, developed under peculiarly American conditions. The most famous American individualist, Benjamin Tucker, was more affected by free market liberalism than other mutualists. (Although this has caused him to be claimed as a predecessor by right-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, he regarded himself as a libertarian socialist.) When this puts him at odds with the rest of the broader mutualist movement, we acknowledge it. In our terminology, therefore, mutualist anarchism will be contrasted to various forms of communal anarchism: anarcho-communism, anarcho-collectivism, anarcho-syndicalism.

Literary Source : Read "Mutual Aid" by Petr Kropotkin.


External Resources[edit]

  • (website) Excellent resource for Kevin Carson's mutualist theory.