Monday, March 26, 2007

The Other Mutualisms of 1849-50: Albert Brisbane

In early 1850, The Spirit of the Age featured two proposals for a "mutualist township." One, by Joshua King Ingalls, was a practical follow-up to his Method of Transition. The other was by Albert Brisbane, the well-known popularizer of Charles Fourier. Brisbane was also an acquaintance of Proudhon, having visited him in prison in France. In this sense, Brisbane had the most direct connection to the French mutualist tradition of any of the American writers in 1850. Greene would eventually meet Proudhon, later in the 1850s.

What follows is, in a sense, Brisbane's mutualist resumé, including his account of his visits to Proudhon, from his Mental Autobiography, and links to the "mutualist township" proposal from The Spirit of the Age.


Proudhon, one of the boldest and most original thinkers of France, was among the habitués of that time. He was then editing “La Voix du Peuple,” which had a circulation of some 200,000, and endeavoring to convince the upper classes, as well as the masses, that the real cause of the existing troubles was the usurpation and monopoly of the landed property with the capital and credit institutions of the country by the bourgeoisie. He advocated a new theory of political economy: the supremacy of labor, of industrial rights, of justice and equality in the great domain of production, exchange and credit; and, attacking the old system of political economy, he showed the false principles on which it rests, namely: the supremacy of capital (the creation of labor) over labor; the rights of property based on conquest or usurpation, and the sanctioning of the wages system as the normal state of industry. These ideas were very new to the masses of the people, and to the democratic leaders as well. They made their way but slowly. It was Proudhon, however, who really began in France the advocacy of what may be called the political economy of labor—or modem Socialism. He meditated a complete change in the credit system—one of his leading ideas being to reform the Bank of France and render it a national bank, securing credit to ail who could give reliable security.

I knew Proudhon very well, and had frequent conversations with him on the currency question. I used to visit him at Mazas, the prison in which political miscreants were detained at that time. For having written disrespectfully of the conservatives in office, the reactionary government had arraigned Proudhon and condemned him to several months’ imprisonment.

I would like to say just here that the manner of treating political prisoners in France presents a marked contrast with the way in which the same class of offenders are treated in England. The prisoners at Mazas had clean, airy rooms, where their friends were allowed to visit them, and in every respect their treatment differed from that of the ordinary malefactor; whereas, in England no distinction is made between crimes of an intellectual and a moral character—except occasionally where the culprit happens to be a wealthy and influential person. On the occasions of my visits to Mazas I was courteously received by the officials and allowed free intercourse with their prisoner, whom I found located in a large, comfortable room, opening on a pleasant corridor overlooking the court. He received bis meals from outside, and any other thing contributing to bis comfort sent in by bis friend: his punishment, consequently, was scarcely more than forced seclusion.

In this prison I used to discuss the money question with Proudhon by the hour. It is very rarely that one finds a mind capable of handling the complex question of Credit; but when it shall be better understood and scientifically dealt with, governments will bring about more beneficent results in the commercial and industrial life of nations. I was glad to find that Proudhon and I agreed perfectly as to its principles, which in our opinion could be applied practically in various ways, even in the present state of society. Proudhon combined great clearness of insight and intellectual power with firmness of character. He was a man who feared nothing, and who was endowed with immense moral energy. lie endeavored to call the attention of France to economic reforms, but his vigorous propaganda was only dimly comprehended by the people, and did not, consequently exercise any great influence.

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