Anarchy 85/Josiah Warren: the incompleat anarchist

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Josiah Warren:
the incompleat anarchist


Josiah warren has been pre­sen­ted to the world by his various inter­pre­ters as an indi­vidu­alist anar­chist and as the first Ame­ri­can anar­chist. His bio­graph­er, W. Bailie, en­tit­led his work, Josiah Warren: The First Ame­ri­can Anar­chist (1906). Two recent antho­lo­gies of anar­chist wri­tings, I. L. Horo­witz’ The Anar­chists (1964) and L. I. Krimerman and Lewis Perry’s Patterns of Anarchy (1966), each have selec­tions from Warren. George Wood­cock in his survey of anar­chism devotes several para­graphs to Warren and writes: “… he deve­loped the theory of the sove­reign­ty of the indi­vidu­al which has led to his being regar­ded, rightly, I think, as the first Ame­ri­can anar­chist” (1962, p. 456).

  A recent reading of True Civi­liza­tion (1863) and Prac­tical Details of Equitable Commerce (1852) has led me to ques­tion how far one should clas­sify Warren as an anar­chist and to suspect that cer­tain­ly as he grew older he assumed a posi­tion like that of Thoreau, or even Jef­fer­son, which is more accu­rate­ly des­cribed as de­cen­tra­list demo­crat and, indeed, seems to form a sig­ni­fi­cant link between various ele­ments of the con­tem­po­rary radical right (such as the Rampart College group at Lark­spur, Colo­rado) and the anar­chist left.

  Josiah Warren (1798-1874) was born in New England and, after an early mar­ri­age, drifted west­ward even­tu­ally sett­ling in Ohio. By pro­fes­sion an or­ches­tra leader and music teacher, he pursued these enter­pri­ses spo­ra­di­cally through­out much of his life. Warren early gave indi­ca­tion of a prac­ti­cal and in­geni­ous turn of mind with his inven­tion of a lard fed lamp, much cheaper to operate than the usual oil type lamp. Later in his life he turned at dif­fer­ent times to produce other in­ven­tions. His desire to pro­pa­gate his social theo­ries led to an inte­rest in prin­ting and the deve­lop­ment of a cylan­der press which, however, was not accep­ted by printers until rein­ven­ted by another indi­vidu­al a gene­ra­tion later. He, also, deve­loped a nota­tio­nal system for music and a ste­reo­ty­ping process which brought him $7,000, a sum he in­ves­ted in his second expe­ri­men­tal com­mu­nity of Utopia. All in all Warren appears to fit the ste­reo­type of the in­geni­ous Yankee tin­ker­ing among a variety of gadgets and pro­du­cing the most prac­ti­cal tech­no­logi­cal inven­tions. But Warren was more than a creator of new gadgets.
His main claim to fame, of course, is as an inno­va­tor and ex­peri­men­ter with social systems. J. S. Mill called Warren a “remar­ka­ble Ame­ri­can” and it is a sad com­men­tary on the En­cyc­lo­pae­dia Bri­tan­nica and not on Josiah Warren that the en­cy­clo­pae­dia con­tains not a single refe­rence to so crea­tive and unique an indi­vi­dual.

  Martin sug­gests that had it not been for his asso­cia­tion with Owen, Warren might have devoted the rest of his life to busi­ness under­ta­kings and “become one of the early men of wealth in the growing Midwest” (1957, p. 14). Between 1825 and 1827 Warren was asso­cia­ted with Owen at the New Harmony colony. He saw its major defects as ex­ces­sive orga­niza­tion and cen­tra­liza­tion and left the com­mu­nity intent upon testing Owen’s idea of eco­no­mic ex­change through pro­mis­sory notes based upon labour time. Like Thoreau who em­barked upon his Walden stay as an expe­ri­ment, Warren, too, opened a “time store” in Cin­cin­nati in 1827 to test the prac­tica­lity of Owen’s labour note theory. After three years of opera­tion Warren closed his store con­vinced of its fea­sibi­lity and invited others to join him in foun­ding a com­mu­nity based on what he called the prin­ciple of equity, namely, that cost of an item was the labour time in­volved in bring­ing it to the con­su­mer. Ex­change was to be in the form of notes indi­ca­ting a promise to give on demand so much labour time. In addi­tion the com­mu­nity was to be “based on volun­tary assent and lacking the for­ma­li­ties of majo­rity rule” (Martin, 1957, p. 43). Thus, he founded Equity which lasted less than three years and was the shor­test lived of his com­mu­ni­ties. Actu­ally Equity was forced to close not because of the failure of the ap­pli­ca­tion of the social theo­ries but because “Faulty judg­ment had re­sul­ted in loca­ting the set­tle­ment on land in a low-lying area, which sub­jec­ted the resi­dents to a variety of ill­nes­ses. The prin­ci­pal one … was malaria” (Martin, 1957, p. 42). Following the Equity expe­ri­ment Warren vari­ous­ly worked on a new prin­ting press, ran a short­lived manual trai­ning school, edited a peri­odi­cal, and opera­ted for two years another time store. In 1847 he estab­lished his second com­mu­nity of Utopia and in 1851 still a third called Modern Times. Both were orga­nized ac­cor­ding to the same prin­ciples as those of Equity and even­tu­ally suf­fered from the ill-effects of the Civil War and the avai­labi­lity of cheap lands further west. Both, however, managed to con­tinue on after Warren’s death in 1874. Members gra­du­ally and quietly aban­doned the prin­ciples of equity and the com­muni­ties even­tu­ally wi­thered away after a few secular Utopian ex­peri­ments of the nine­teenth century. And this is a point worth bearing in mind, namely, that of all the secular ex­peri­ments of this nature the two which sur­vived the longest were the ones which were the most liber­ta­rian.

  Warren’s views may be broadly des­cribed as indi­vidu­alist, ra­tio­na­list and prag­ma­tic and his earlier writing, e.g., Equi­table Commerce, as more spe­ci­fi­cally anar­chist. There is a certain affi­nity between Warren and Paul Goodman: Warren could well have au­thored a Utopian Essays and Prac­tical Pro­po­sals. The central theme of Warren’s wri­tings is the “sove­reign­ty of the indi­vi­dual”, by which he meant that the star­ting
place of any philo­sophy is with the indi­vi­dual who by im­pli­ca­tion is above all a ratio­nal being. The primi­tive con­di­tion of man re­qui­ring self-pre­serva­tion pro­duced clan orga­niza­tion which stressed the su­pre­macy of the group over the indi­vi­dual, the dis­solu­tion of indi­vi­dua­lity in the group, and dis­cou­raged all indi­vi­dual res­pon­sibi­lity. The clan idea has been per­petu­ated in modern times in the concept of na­tion­hood, in the “Union of states” and in com­mu­nism. True civi­liza­tion is based on the sove­reign­ty of the indi­vi­dual not of the group.

  Before des­cri­bing the doc­trine of self-sove­reign­ty further and its spe­ci­fic rela­tion­ship to the idea of go­vern­ment—which is the main burden of this paper—it should be pointed out that Warren saw true civi­liza­tion as a pos­sibi­lity only when indi­vi­dua­lity and self-sove­reign­ty ope­rated in concert with what he called the prin­ciple of equi­va­lents and the prin­ciple of equi­table money. The prin­ciple of equi­va­lents holds that the price of an item is go­verned by its cost which in turn amounts to the labour of pro­ces­sing and deli­ve­ring the item to the con­su­mer. Cost should not be con­fused with value; to base price on value is an ini­quity. One cannot deter­mine value, but one can deter­mine cost by labour exerted. Skill or talent which cost nothing are natural wealth and should be ac­ces­sible to all without price. Warren, fol­low­ing Owen, advo­cates the equa­lity of labour: the labour time of the phy­si­cian is equal to that of the store clerk. This raises the ques­tion that if cost of an item varies ac­cor­ding to labour time why doesn’t the “cost” of the labour time vary ac­cor­ding to the amount of energy and the in­vest­ment of past trai­ning. In other words, should not past pre­para­tion and ex­pen­di­ture of energy make the sur­geon’s hour more costly than the shop­kee­per’s?

  With the prin­ciple of equi­va­lents usury dis­ap­pears and a bor­row­er is charged, as Warren charged his bor­row­ers, for the labour time it takes the lender to arrange for and ulti­mate­ly collect the loan. The capi­ta­list obtains, under Warren’s scheme, only payment for the time in­ves­ted in over­see­ing and other similar duties. Warren men­tions two factors which will prepare the way for the estab­lish­ment of this prin­ciple. First, stres­sing the ra­tio­nal nature of man, is the ob­ser­va­tion that men, capi­ta­list and non-capi­ta­list alike, will see that this ap­proach is most rea­so­nable. Those who do not will, by the opera­tion of “equi­table com­peti­tion”, even­tu­ally be forced to engage in “equi­table com­merce”. Another es­sen­tial ingre­dient of true civi­liza­tion is equi­table money where notes indi­ca­ting a promise to pro­vide a stated amount of labour time on demand are used for all com­mer­cial trans­ac­tions. Such a system was ap­plied by Warren in his time stores and in his com­muni­ties where it appa­rent­ly met with some success, suf­fe­ring little from what one might con­sider its most obvious draw­backs, namely, an ina­bi­lity to redeem the notes and depre­cia­tion as a result of over-issue.

  Warren uses the model of equi­table com­merce as the basis for his ap­proach to edu­ca­tion and all social rela­tions. At one point in his work such eco­nomic empha­sis is ex­pressed in a naive eco­no­mic deter­mi­nism.

“Pecu­ni­ary affairs are the very basis of society. When we change


these we change all insti­tu­tions, for all are built, di­rect­ly or indi­rect­ly upon pro­per­ty consi­dera­tions. … The great excuse for laws and go­vern­ment is, the pro­tec­tion of persons and pro­per­ty, but were it not for pro­per­ty, persons would not be in danger.” (Prac­tical Details, p. 71.)

When methods of ac­qui­ring pro­per­ty are so altered that each may share in an abun­dance “with less trouble than it will cost him to invade his neigh­bour”, we shall be able to dis­pense with rules (Prac­tical Details, p. 71). Warren makes, then, in this one in­stance what today would be consi­dered a vulgar Marxist ex­pla­na­tion, but both Prac­tical Details and True Civi­liza­tion are per­mea­ted with an intel­lec­tua­lis­tic causal theory inti­ma­ting that the real dynamic force in society is the ra­tio­nal man who comes to realize his own self-inte­rest.

  While Warren conti­nued through­out his life a faith in the prin­ciples of equi­table com­merce, he appa­rent­ly modi­fied his views con­cer­ning the prin­ciples of indi­vi­dua­lity and self-sove­reign­ty as they relate to the role of go­vern­ment. Thus, Martin writes:

“Agita­ted by the violence and dis­rup­tion which was beco­ming a part of the exis­tence of many in all parts of the land, Warren pub­lished a curious tract, Modern Go­vern­ment and Its True Mission, A Few Words for the Ame­ri­can Crisis which advo­cates expe­di­ents greatly at vari­ance with prin­ciples which have un­alter­able status among anar­chists. A study of the work reveals a re­gres­sion to func­tio­nal aspects long taught by Robert Owen” (Martin, p. 82).

Martin does not elabo­rate further, but when one ex­plores True Civi­liza­tion, written a year after (1863), his meaning becomes more appa­rent. Warren here has become the advo­cate of a form of limited go­vern­ment much in the tra­di­tion of Thomas Jef­fer­son.

“The true func­tion of go­vern­ment deals only with the of­fen­sive en­croach­ments upon persons or pro­per­ty—

an expe­di­ent choice of evils where there is nothing but evil to choose from—

to prevent un­neces­sary des­truc­tion of life or pro­per­ty” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 28).

True civi­liza­tion never uses vio­lence “un­neces­sa­rily” ac­cor­ding to Warren. At other places in True Civi­liza­tion he states:

“The Modern Mili­tary, as a Go­vern­ment, will be neces­sary only in the tran­si­tio­nary stage of society from confu­sion and wanton vio­lence to true order and mature civi­liza­tion” (p. 33).

And in the con­clu­ding pages of the same volume he is appa­rent­ly not ob­jec­ting to go­vern­ment so much as he is oppo­sing “Ag­gres­sive Go­vern­ment”.

“And when­ever a Go­vern­ment governs an iota more than is abso­lute­ly neces­sary to res­train or repair un­neces­sary en­croach­ments on ag­gres­sion, it then becomes ag­gres­sive, and should itself be go­verned and res­trained” (p. 179).

  Some hints of this inter­pre­ta­tion of the role of go­vern­ment appear in Prac­tical Details which Warren pub­lished more than ten years before True Civi­liza­tion. Thus,


“There are some cir­cum­stan­ces under which orga­niza­tion and laws seem to be jus­tifi­able which ought to be a tem­po­rary expe­di­ent, has been created into a uni­ver­sal rule, to which even the objects aimed at have become sub­ordi­nate!” (Prac­ti­cal Details, p. 54).

Warren holds this condi­tion is wrong, since, again stres­sing his prag­ma­tism, he be­lieves each case must be exa­mined on its own. Later in this short book, he dis­cus­ses his ex­peri­ences in opera­ting a manual trai­ning school. He pre­sents views on edu­ca­tion which are a nine­teenth century pre­vi­sio­ning of the phi­loso­phy of A. S. Neill as well as a further appli­ca­tion of his prac­tical, liber­ta­rian and ra­tio­nalis­tic ap­proach. In brief, he be­lieves chil­dren should be moti­va­ted to obey not by com­mand, threats, or pu­nish­ment, but by the prin­ciple of labour for labour, love for love, i.e., the mutua­list ideal. Children “have their own sove­reign­ty as much as adults and it should be exer­cised in the same limits at their own cost” (Prac­tical Details, p. 64). On the other hand, and this point is rele­vant to his remarks on go­vern­ment, “I cannot allow my child to exer­cise his sove­reign will in all things, until, in all things, he can take the conse­quen­ces on himself” (p. 68). In other words, I would submit that even in Prac­tical Details written by Warren in 1852 there are indi­ca­tions of a trend that finally cul­mina­ted in True Civi­liza­tion and appa­rent­ly also in his essay Modern Go­vern­ment and Its True Mission.

  It is inte­res­ting to look for a moment at the type of go­vern­ment Warren envi­saged. If indi­vidu­als are unable to settle their affairs by mutual and volun­tary contract Warren advo­cates appeal to deli­bera­tive coun­cils com­posed of members who volun­teer their servi­ces and are, of course, recog­nized in their role by the various sove­reign indi­vidu­als. These councils are to act as medi­a­tors, but

“when an issue has already been raised and no one of these deci­sions is ac­cep­table to both parties, the deci­sion may be laid before the mili­tary (or go­vern­ment) to act at its dis­cre­tion, selec­ting that course which pro­mi­ses the least vio­lence” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 30).

  Warren tends to iden­tify go­vern­ment with the mili­tary estab­lish­ment and, hence, in line with his thin­king, it is neces­sary to create a mili­tary or “home guard” com­posed of sove­reign indi­vidu­als. Thus, he sug­gests that the idea of com­man­ding or go­ver­ning be re­placed by the prin­ciple of gui­dance or direc­tion. “Men may lead and men must execute but intel­li­gence, prin­ciple, must regu­late” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 22). An essen­tial part of the trai­ning of the mili­tary is in instil­ling the idea of indi­vi­dual sove­reign­ty and the pro­tec­tion of the person and pro­per­ty.

“Part of the drill for such a force would be to give orders to do some un­neces­sary harm on purpose to be diso­beyed in order to accus­tom the sub­ordi­nate to ‘look before they leap’ or strike!” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 27).

Such a home guard would be “within but not under disci­pline”, or, in other words the Sab­bath is made for man and not man for the Sab­bath.

  When the “coun­sel­lors” have re­ferred an issue to this mili­tary
orga­niza­tion of sove­reign indi­vidu­als “… of course members of the mili­tary may them­selves assert their ina­lie­nable right to decline to act!” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 23).

“The most intel­li­gent people always make the best sub­ordi­nates in a good cause, and in our modern mili­tary, it will require more true manhood to make a good sub­ordi­nate than it will to be a leader: for the leader may very easily give orders, but they take the res­pon­sibi­lity of that only, while the sub­ordi­nate takes the res­pon­sibi­lity of exe­cu­ting them, and it will require the great­est and highest degree of manhood, of self-

go­vern­ment, pre­sence of mind, and real heroism to dis­crimi­nate on the instant and to stand up indi­vidu­ally before all the corps and future criti­cism, and assume, alone, the res­pon­sibi­lity of dissent or diso­bedi­ence. His only support and strength would be in his cons­cious­ness of being more true to his pro­fessed mission than the order was, and in the assu­rance that he would be sus­tained by public opinion and sym­pathy as far as that mission was under­stood” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 23).

“When a high degree of intel­li­gence, great manhood, self-

go­vern­ment, close dis­crimi­na­ting real heroism and gentle huma­nity are known to be neces­sary to mem­ber­ship in our mili­tary corps (or go­vern­ment), these quali­ties will come into fashion, and become the cha­rac­teris­tics of the people; and to be thought desti­tute of them, and un­wor­thy of mem­ber­ship in the mili­tary would cause the great­est morti­fica­tion: while to be known as a member in good stan­ding would be an object sought in the highest honour” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 24).

If this rea­so­ning is correct Warren be­lieves we have the clue to the

“true mission and form of Go­vern­ment—

to the most perfect, yet harm­less sub­ordi­na­tion—

the recon­cili­ation of obe­di­ence with FREEDOM—

to the ces­sa­tion of all hos­tili­ties between parties and Nations—

to uni­ver­sal co-

opera­tion for uni­ver­sal pre­serva­tion and secu­rity of person and Pro­per­ty” (True Civi­liza­tion, p. 24).

Warren’s views about the trans­for­ma­tion of the mili­tary into a body of sove­reign and ratio­nal indi­vidu­als appear almost fan­tas­tic, parti­cu­larly in our day when we have been made so much more aware of the nature of mili­tary orga­niza­tion—as the epitome of auto­cracy and autho­rita­rian struc­ture. Indeed, such ideas appear more the despe­rate efforts of a man fran­ti­cally sear­ching for means to salvage his liber­ta­rian phi­loso­phy in the face of a hither­to harmo­ni­ous world now shat­tered by the vio­lence of the Civil War period.

  In descri­bing Warren’s later views as only peri­phe­rally anar­chis­tic, I do not wish thereby to imply some doc­tri­naire defi­ni­tion of anar­chism. I con­ceive of anar­chism essen­tial­ly as being at one end of a pole oppo­site to abso­lute des­po­tism, or, to put it diffe­rent­ly, at one end of a con­tinu­um is a condi­tion in which all power is equally dif­fused among all members of society and at the other end is a condi­tion under which all power is vested in a single person. There are “ideal types” and it is hardly con­cei­vable that either has ever existed or ever will exist, al­though certain systems ap­proach one or the other poles and various pres­sures produce in a social system a dia­lec­tic process pushing society in one direc­tion or the other. Obvi­ously, Warren’s thoughts fit on the anar­chis­tic side of con­tinu­um. If Warren was an anar­chist in the first half of his life as is evi­denced by the nature of his expe­rimen­tal com­muni­ties, his cri­tique of the Owenite expe­ri­ments, and by the writings of this period, he had taken towards the close of his life a position which does not appear to fall within that minimal defi­ni­tion of anarchy as the absence of go­vern­ment. Cer­tain­ly, the anar­chist society is to be free of the coer­cive forces of go­vern­men­tal insti­tu­tions even though nume­rous other coercive forces will inevi­tably persist. (And as some have pointed out these latter can become more of a threat to indi­vi­dual sove­reign­ty than go­vern­ment.) By placing the mili­tary as the ulti­mate aribter and per­mit­ting indi­vidu­als within that body to refuse to act, Warren per­petu­ates autho­rita­rian elements of the present social order and, in addi­tion, enhan­ces the pos­sibi­li­ties of “civil war” between rival fac­tions of the mili­tary. Warren, of course, neg­lec­ted or at least totally under­esti­mated the role of the irra­tio­nal in man and the effect of cul­tural forces in moul­ding men.

  Warren was not the only anar­chist who did not con­sis­tent­ly follow an anar­chist posi­tion. Proudhon, who in so many ways is similar to Warren and made many keen in­sights into the nature of go­vern­ment, at various points in his life was elected to the Chamber of Depu­ties, saw Louis Napoleon as a vehicle for ini­tia­ting the Revo­lu­tion, and sought to legis­late a society of free con­tract. Such diffi­cul­ties or contra­dic­tions as pre­sen­ted by Warren and Proud­hon—namely, their inci­sive cri­tiques of go­vern­ment, their plea for freedom and the indi­vi­dual coupled with what is pro­bably best des­cribed as a naivete about the essen­tial nature of power, of go­vern­ment and of the mili­tary, espe­cial­ly—suggest the source of their problem. Neither, I suspect, had the ana­lytic and theo­retic turn of mind—more cha­rac­teris­tic in a Marxto dig down to the roots of these insti­tu­tions and clearly per­ceive their full im­pli­ca­tions. Obvi­ously, the Civil War dis­tur­bance caused Warren to re­consi­der and re­for­mu­late his earlier posi­tion. Yet had he more fully com­pre­hen­ded the nature of go­vern­ment and the mili­tary, as well as the limits of the ratio­nal in man, even in the new light of this crisis, it is dif­fi­cult to see his rea­ching the ambi­gu­ous and naive con­clu­sions ex­pressed in True Civi­liza­tion.

  If any­thing Warren’s and, one can include here as well, Proud­hon’s strug­gle to for­mu­late a con­cep­tion of the free society is only a review of the basic problem facing all liber­tari­ans: How can a free society recog­nize the use of vio­lence as a legi­ti­mate tech­nique for resol­ving issues? Cer­tain­ly, if anar­chists are to have an army in their society it would have to be the kind por­trayed by Warren, but as I have sug­ges­ted above, in light of what we know today of human psy­cho­logy and of the nature of the mili­tary struc­ture, the pos­sibi­li­ties of such an army appear sheer fantasy. The problem in effect comes down to the ques­tion can anar­chists hold that the threat or use of vio­lence is in any case legi­ti­mate? Con­verse­ly can those who call them­selves paci­fists sub­scribe to the poli­ti­cal theory of the legi­ti­macy of the state?