The Early Days of Mutualism

The execution of Eugen Varlin

It's been argued that contemporary mutualism is largely an Internet based movement and has lacked any relevance since the mid-19th century. However, it is worth remembering that if it wasn't for Mutualism, there would be no worker unions or co-operative federations.

To begin with, in 1857, Eugene Varlin founded a bookbinders' mutual aid society, becoming the nucleus of a bookbinders' trade union + he founded the bookbinders' mutual savings and credit association, organised along Proudhonist lines. Believing in sexual equality, he promoted the anarchist feminist Nathalie Lemel within the credit union. The Workers' Mutual Help Association was formed in Bologna, 1860 to safeguard employment, education, right to strike and universal suffrage. The International Workingmen’s Association was established by the Proudhonist Henri Tolain in July 1863, of which Varlin was a member.

Varlin organised the very first strike of the Parisian bookbinders in 1864 which was a success. In 1867 he and Nathalie Lemel started a co-operative La Ménagère. In 1868 Varlin and Lemel co-founded the co-operative restaurant La Marmite, which remained in business until after the Paris Commune. Varlin believed that trade unions should overcome their professional, local and national sectarianism to form a united international labour movement, dedicated, "to the constant improvement of the conditions of existence of ... the workers of all professions and all countries and to [bringing] workers into possession of the instruments of their labour", as the statutes of his bookbinders' union put it.

On November 14, 1869, Varlin helped found the Federation of Parisian Workers' Associations, a confederation of trade unions that became the nucleus of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT). Varlin laid the foundations for worker co-operative federations and trade unionism. On 7 January 1869, the Company for Mutual Aid for Handicraft and Factory Workers in Bologna was founded. With trade unions not completely legal and the International seen as a dangerous conspiracy, Varlin was arrested many times. Fearing political persecution in 1870, he fled to Belgium and returned to Paris after the September 4 revolution overthrew Napoléon III.

Varlin became secretary for the French section of the First International and was elected by a landslide to the Council of the Paris Commune, representing the sixth, twelfth and seventeenth districts in March 26 1871 as the Commune's commissioner of finance and advisor on labour relations, and was a popular figure in many quarters. The Proudhonist, Benoit Malon, was also elected to the Council of the Commune serving the Committee on Labour and Trade.

In "The Commune, The Church and The State", Bakunin wrote, "Anarchist ideas of Joseph Pierre Proudhon which have educated the proletariat of the Latin countries and led them intellectually to the last consequences of Proudhon’s teachings. This latter revolutionary or libertarian socialism has now for the first time, attempted to put its ideas into practice in the Paris Commune". Given the importance of Varlin, Pierre Denis (who wrote the Manifesto of the Paris Commune, "Le Manifeste du 26 mars 1871") and other cooperative advocates it is hard to understand why some hardcore Marxists like to dispute the influence of Mutualists in the Commune, let alone attempt to hijack the Commune flag for Marxism. The end of the Commune meant that Marxists would take over the global labor movement, which was mostly Proudhon-influenced at that time. In a letter from Marx to Engels on July 20, 1870, Marx expressed the hope of a German victory against the French in the following terms:

"The French need a thrashing. If the Prussians win, the centralisation of the state power will be useful for the centralisation of the German working class. German predominance would also transfer the centre of gravity of the workers' movement in Western Europe from France to Germany, and one has only to compare the movement in the two countries from 1866 till now to see that the German working class is superior to the French both theoretically and organisationally. Their predominance over the French on the world stage would also mean the predominance of our theory over Proudhon's, etc."

The intention was not competition but the result of severe irritation when people dispute the existence or history of Mutualism/Mutualists, many of whom were doers, and put what was mostly just ideas previously, into practice to produce economic and political empowerment of those involved (Mutualist or other). The success is usually called failure and yet those who oppose Mutualism, use its success to push their own ideas.

In Spain, the Workers Co-operative Society for the Chocolate Factory D. Matías López (Cádiz) was established by 1874 in Madrid. The Historical Archive in Madrid specified that by 1 January 1887, there were 32 co-operatives in Madrid (9), Valencia (7), Murcia (7), Oviedo (5), Catalonia (4) and Barcelona (0). Two co-operatives in Tarragona consisted of sailors. Most of Valencia’s cooperatives were for consumption and production. Madrid co-operatives included organizations for teachers, private-school teachers and for employees of the Stock Exchange. Murcia had two medical and pharmacy cooperatives. In 1895, economist J. Díaz de Rábago compiled co-operative statistics through copies from provincial government’s enterprise registers.

In that year, Spain had 138 cooperatives of which there were 87 consumer, 39 worker and 12 banking co-operatives. This was a considerable increase from the 1887 figures. Valencia had 32 cooperatives, Catalonia had 19, Andalusia had 18 and Madrid had 12. The Workers Cooperative Society in Barakaldo (1884), Consumer Cooperative Sestao (1887) and the Workers' Cooperative Union of Araya Hermua (1887) were operating in the Basque country, even though they do not appear to be in Díaz de Rábago’s count (Rousell; Albóniga, 1994). By 1931 most cooperatives were in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Catalonian consumer co-ops were very successful but the region’s economic development is shown in many new types of co-ops suited to assisting members in their various businesses.

Basically all the work of Mutualists were hijacked, relabeled, repackaged and sold under a different name, and as a result, Anarchism has become more fringe-left extremism, out of touch with the reality of productive classes made up of conservatives, liberals and socialists. I fear that the IWW wont grow to 100,000 members and their dream of a synchronized global worker uprising is just a dream, because workers ruling themselves now is called "self-managed capitalism" although it was the whole point of anarchism, and had nothing to do with capitalism. They speak of fairy tales which has nothing to do with the aspirations of productive people, and will remain a fringe left-wing dream tank, unless they drop the lunacy and return to the point.

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