Mar 23, 2020
Josiah Warren, the Most Practical Anarchist
Defying categorization as a socialist or capitalist thinker, Josiah Warren was staunchly individualist—distrustful of institutions like states that subsumed individuals into “combinations.”
Josiah Warren was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1798. His biographer, the anarchist writer William Bailie, notes that he was “of historically famous Puritan stock”—a relative of General Joseph Warren, one of the heroes of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Historian James J. Martin states that this relation “appears to be a romanticism unfounded on available sources Warren’s own son, George, leaves mention of any such relation out of his account. In any case, Warren became deservedly famous in his own right, as we shall see. Warren was “our most practical anarchist,”1 “a genuinely universal man” whose “philosophy had always been that the best way to understand a process was to learn to do it.”2 He was a talented professional musician, a successful inventor, a teacher, an entrepreneur, and a social theorist and experimenter. Often credited as the first American anarchist, Warren articulated a libertarian vision that married his arch-individualism to what he called “equitable commerce,” in which smallholders and craftspeople would exchange equal values—those values being defined by the amount of labor time invested.
The story of Warren’s political awakening finds the Welsh industrialist-turned-reformer Robert Owen, called “the father of English socialism,”3 a central figure. Along with notable contemporaries such as Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, he is among the early utopians, so-called, who in the first half of the nineteenth century founded self-contained model communities to test and demonstrate their ideas, arguably touching off the modern socialist movement. The young Warren was captivated by Owen’s ideas and optimism, so much so that he sold his lamp factory and followed Owen to New Harmony, Indiana. There Owen established his new community, having purchased the land and structures from a settlement of Rappites (which had been called Harmony). As Crispin Sartwell observes, it is a testament to Owen’s skill as an orator that so many did as Warren did, uprooting their lives, families, and careers to join Owen in his uncertain exercise in social experimentation. In Owen’s thought, we find “the belief in complete environmental determinism,”4 or, as Warren (favorably, it should be noted) quotes him as saying: “we are effects of causes, and therefore cannot deserve praises [or] blame.”5 Owen’s socialism entailed the idea that human beings are more or less perfectible, susceptible to reshaping with the right background conditions. But if Warren held onto Owen’s determinism, then he ultimately came to depart sharply from Owen in his opinion as to the conditions most likely to bring about perfect human relations. Owen’s utopian socialism seemed to Warren to require a wholesale restructuring of human nature, premised on the idea that the individual person could and would be made to disappear into an altruistic collective. Warren came to see this as wrong for both ethical and practical reasons; he believed that New Harmony’s downfall was its obliteration of the individual and her rights. Warren writes, “[T]he difference of opinion, tastes and purposes increased just in proportion to the demand for conformity… . It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us.”
Owen’s socialism, while permanently imprinted on Warren, had taken on a new character in Warren’s own thought: a decentralist and libertarian socialism committed to individual choice and to “[d]isunion, disconnection, [and] the dissolving of associated interests.”6 Warren had become thoroughly convinced that compulsory “political and social combinations” were doomed to produce confusion and failure, that “one or a few” would always govern such combinations as a matter of fact, all others compelled to yield their individual sovereignty. He predicated his social philosophy “on a principle exactly opposite to combination,” that of Individuality (frequently capitalized in Warren’s writings), arguing that “combinations and all institutions built upon them” reduce the individual “to a mere piece of a machine.”
By “combinations” Warren did not mean voluntary, cooperative social endeavors, but compulsory schemes that destroy individual initiative and the incentives necessary for social flourishing. Warren saw in Owen’s New Harmony project something like the tragedy of the commons problem: if everyone, as the collective, owns everything, then as a practical matter, no one owns anything, all things (and society itself) thus inevitably falling into disrepair and decay. Warren’s political economy does contemplate a more egalitarian society, but it is one leveled by an absence of special privilege rather than by state action or arbitrary collective interference in the affairs of the individual. Warren clearly anticipates present-day libertarians in arguing that society and the state (and other collective entities) are not conscious actors or ends in themselves, but merely amalgamations of their constituent members. “[S]ociety,” he writes, “will have to dissolve its imaginary masses and resolve itself into individuals before liberty can be anything but a word.” For Warren, the rugged individualism of his individual sovereignty doctrine is not a green light for greed and capitalistic accumulation; it is, in a sense, a socialism, market competition eroding the power and position of the rich and giving way to a fundamentally fair economy in which individuals stand on equal footing and exchange equal values. For Warren, fundamentally, economic equity does not mean perfect economic equality. Individuals are unique, with different talents and aptitudes, aversions or attractions to various types of work, and plans for their lives. Equality of opportunity and open, competitive markets would, Warren believed, function to effect a system “in which returns would be measured by the amount of work performed,”7 the individual unable to achieve economic gain without rendering equivalent service.
The relationship between liberalism, with its ennoblement of the unconstrained individual, and anarchism, characteristically socialist and anti-capitalist, has ever been contested ground. In Warren, we arguably find a point of intersection between liberalism, socialism, anarchism, and libertarianism as it is understood today. “As a foe of exploitation,” writes historian Roger Wunderlich, “Warren can be called socialistic; as a defender of private ownership, he is in the tradition of Locke; and as the advocate of everyone’s being his or her own church and state, on condition of not denying the same right to others, he is the first American philosophical anarchist.” Though frequently called “the American Proudhon,”8 Warren developed his ideas independently—and indeed before the publication of Proudhon’s landmark work What Is Property?. Carlotta R. Anderson, the granddaughter and biographer of Joseph Labadie, goes as far as writing that “Warren was the first to put together a coherent libertarian philosophy.” Comparing Proudhon and Warren, the labor organizer and activist Albert Weisbord writes, “Both identified labor with the agrarian toiler or handicraftsman who, although a petty owner, worked directly at his own means and tools of production.” Weisbord nevertheless sees Warren’s thought as having a closer kinship to liberalism than to anarchism, as “simply an extreme formulation of typical American Liberalism”—“rugged individualism running rampant.” Other students of anarchism have frequently shared Weisbord’s observation, treating the “bourgeois anarchism” (or “bourgeois liberal-anarchism”) of Warren—and others like Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker—as something fundamentally unlike the “co-operative” anarchism endemic to Europe.
If indeed Warren can be accurately regarded as a socialist, then his socialism is contained in the idea that labor ought to be exchanged for labor—that cost should be the limit of price. Here, Warren’s ideas reflect the labor theory of value. As Sartwell observes, the labor theory of value “was already something of a commonplace when [Warren] wrote,” having been articulated in works as far back as William Petty’s and as important as those of Hume, the Physiocrats, and of course Adam Smith. “Indeed, one supposes that it is an ancient insight, a kind of inevitable conclusion,” its obvious analytical limitations notwithstanding. Warren’s invention of the Time Store was the practical embodiment of his economic program, labor being exchanged for labor and price being limited to cost. Patrons in Warren’s store would make payment in notes entitling the recipient to a certain amount of their labor, measured in hours. Warren would start a timer when he began assisting a customer, adding to the price of products he sold that customer based on the amount of time he assisted.
Having refined Owen’s vision by accounting for and incorporating the sovereignty of the individual, Warren set out to found his own model community, called Modern Times (sited on Long Island). Modern Times was actually the last and the most long-lived of Warren’s three attempts to inaugurate an “equitable village,” the first two being Equity (1835-1837) and Utopia (1847-1851), both in Ohio.9 Where other such American utopias espoused community ownership and collectivism in pointed rejection of private property, individualism, and market-style exchange, Modern Times embraced these in their most radical, principled forms.10
Instrumental to the dissemination of Warren’s political-economic philosophy and the founding of Modern Times was another renaissance man, Stephen Pearl Andrews.11 An anarchist and Massachusetts native like Warren, Andrews was a lawyer of some prominence who became an active and outspoken abolitionist early in life. He and his young family were even run out of Texas on account of his abolitionism, fugitives from the law forced to return to the northeast. Warren and Andrews happened to meet at one of Warren’s Boston lectures on his equitable commerce ideas. Warren became to Andrews the “Euclid of the Social Sciences,” a visionary genius who had pinpointed the source of social and economic strife, ready to lead to a better way. The experiment of Modern Times was confounded by several factors, both internal and external, and it eventually became present-day Brentwood, New York. Andrews, much more than Warren, emphasized the free love aspects of his social thinking, and Modern Times attracted unwelcome and frequently unfair attention as a haven for eccentrics.
It is difficult to place Warren on today’s political spectrum or within its categories. He is undoubtedly a poor fit within a libertarianism that celebrates capitalism and that correctly rejects obsolete labor theories of economic value, yet he is a perhaps still poorer fit within a socialism that abhors market exchange, property rights, and individualist ideology and makes the all-embracing modern state the savior of the worker. Though a firm friend of labor, Warren decidedly did not advocate for “expropriating the expropriators.” Writing to a friend, he remarked that the proposition of “restor[ing] all existing wealth to its proper owners” was among the ideas most damaging to labor reform, and particularly ridiculous “from an Anti-war-under-any-circumstances man.” Warren was of the mind that the apostles of the labor movement were frequently their own worst enemies, their “wild denunciations” of businessmen “tend[ing] to repel many of the best of men.” He bristled at being “classed as a Reformer” and forcefully rejected socialists’ “direct and persistent war on the ownership of land.” Warren recoiled at the idea of violence and maintained skepticism toward mass political movements. This philosophy is perhaps captured in the title of his paper, The Peaceful Revolutionist, which Warren began publishing in 1833. Similarly, Andrews, in his book on Warren’s ideas, made direct appeal to “those who are denominated Conservatives.”
Contemporary academic work on both libertarianism and anarchism contains precious little meaningful discussion of Josiah Warren’s thought or practical experiments, preferring to dismiss him as a marginal figure; he is usually mentioned, if at all, as a footnote to the discussion of the more influential and well-known Benjamin Tucker, himself either minimized as not a True Anarchist or else mischaracterized to fit the anti-market, anti-property anarchist mainstream. It is perhaps especially important for contemporary libertarians to study Warren given this relative obscurity; his thought presents a principled vindication of individual sovereignty while suggesting that libertarian ideas would actually effect more egalitarian outcomes than the monopoly capitalist version of “free markets” we find around us today.
- Crispin Sartwell, The Practical Anarchist: Writings of Josiah Warren (Fordham University Press 2011). ↩
- Kenneth Rexroth, Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (Seabury Press 1974). ↩
- John Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America: The Quest for the New Moral World (Taylor & Francis 2009). ↩
- Nicholas Capaldi, John Stuart Mill: A Biography. ↩
- Sartwell, The Practical Anarchist. ↩
- William Bailie, Josiah Warren: The First American Anarchist, A Sociological Study (Small, Maynard & Company 1906). ↩
- James J. Martin, Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827-1908 (Ralph Myles Publisher 1970). ↩
- See for example, Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible and Rudolf Rocker’s Pioneers of American Freedom: Origin of Liberal and Radical Thought in America. ↩
- Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America. ↩
- Carol Faulkner, Unfaithful: Love, Adultery, and Marriage Reform in Nineteenth-Century America. ↩
- For more information on Andrews, see Madeleine B. Stern’s The Pantarch: A Biography of Stephen Pearl Andrews. ↩