Anarchy 85/Josiah Warren: the incompleat anarchist
the incompleat anarchist
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.
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-
Before describing the doctrine of self-
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-
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 change93
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-
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-
“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
“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—
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—
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?