16. Josiah Warren

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

Of all the remarkable people associated with New Harmony, the most remarkable by far was Josiah Warren. Had he been a general, a politician, or a capitalist, he would have been one of the most famous of all Americans. He was a genuinely universal man — a talented musician accomplished on several instruments, a craftsman skilled in several crafts, an important inventor, an economist, philosopher, and founder of American individual anarchism — as a movement at least, since Thoreau was too individualistic to be the founder of a movement.

Warren was born in Boston in 1798 of a well-known Pilgrim family. Not much is known of his early life, but in his teens he was making a living as a professional musician. At twenty he married and migrated to Cincinnati, the capital of the frontier, where he worked as an orchestra and band leader and teacher of music. Tallow and oil were in short supply, so he invented a lamp that burned lard and gave better light; soon he was running a lamp factory and became a moderately well-to-do man. In 1825 he sold the factory and accompanied Owen and his first settlers to New Harmony, where he became the leader of the band and taught music in the school — the community’s only two successful institutions. He also functioned as a general technical adviser and troubleshooter. Moreover, he was one of the few persons in the colony with any mechanical knowledge or skill. His philosophy had always been that the best way to understand a process was to learn to do it. At New Harmony he began his interest in printing. In 1827, as New Harmony disintegrated, he returned to Cincinnati. Of all the colonists, he was the only one, at least in a leading position, who seems to have learned anything. Most of them, like Frances Wright, were doomed to repeat the same mistakes and follies and end in the same disasters. Almost all critics of New Harmony have said that what it lacked was strong leadership, discipline, and commitment — strong government. Warren came to exactly the opposite conclusion. New Harmony had suffered from the disorderly exercise of freedom and the instability of Owen’s authority. On the principle of like cures like, he was convinced that the basis of all future reform must be complete individual liberty. “Man seeks freedom as the magnet seeks the pole or water its level,” he wrote, “and society can have no peace until every member is really free.” But such a condition was not realizable under the existing organization and ideas of society. New views had to replace those of the past. For the future society new principles were needed. The first of these was “individual individuality.” The sovereignty of every individual at all times had to be held inviolable. Everyone necessarily was free to dispose of his person, his time, his property, and his reputation as he pleased — but always at his own cost.

Warren had evolved a fairly comprehensive system of economics based on a labor theory of value, at first of the strictest interpretation, something like Marx’s, or rather Engels’s theory of labor power as distinguished from labor — all labor time was considered equivalent. Later, learning from what was in a sense a controlled scientific experiment, he came to believe in a limited scale of values based on skill. Warren’s was the mind of a scientist and inventor. He immediately put the ideas he had evolved from his New Harmony experience into practical application.

On May 18, 1827, an historic date, he opened a little general store at the corner of Fifth and Elm Streets in Cincinnati. He called it the Equity Store, but as soon as people found out about it, this became the most popular retail business in the city, and was known because of its method of computing price as the “time store.” Price was based on the principle of equal exchange of labor, measured by time occupied and exchange with other kinds of labor. All goods were marked with their cost plus overhead, usually about four percent. It was, incidentally, the first self-service business. The customer selected what he wished, brought it to the counter, the clerk computed the time spent in service, and the customer gave a labor note, “Due to Josiah Warren on demand, thirty minutes in carpenter work, John Smith” or, “Due to Josiah Warren on demand, ten minutes in needlework, Mary Brown.”

Customers left orders for their needs, and these were posted each morning. Craftsmen and farmers brought their goods in accordance with the list of needs and exchanged them for other goods or for labor notes, in accordance with a list of the cost and labor time for all staple articles. Beyond these simple arrangements there were practically no other rules and regulations. The store functioned automatically as a cooperative market for both buyers and sellers and as a labor exchange and employment bureau. The first week it did only five dollars’ worth of business, but in a short time the store was thriving. And the remarkable thing was that highly skilled craftsmen and professional men were willing to exchange their labor with others on a simple time basis, although later Warren would modify this arrangement somewhat. The store soon came to function also as an interest-free credit union, and loans in labor and commodities and eventually money, if absolutely necessary, were made without interest and no other charge than the labor cost of handling. Warren was eventually able to embark upon a moderate cooperative real-estate venture, based on the funds in labor and money of the time cost. All this was done when Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the generally considered founder of individual anarchy, mutual credit, and cooperative labor exchange, was still a schoolboy. Warren not only anticipated Proudhon, but he was a far clearer thinker and writer, and a man who believed in testing all of his theories in practice. Marx was right about Proudhon. He was a confused thinker and a confusing writer and far from being a practical man.

After three years of most successful operation of the Time Store, Warren decided that he had proved his point, the scientific experiment had justified the hypothesis, and in 1830 he closed out the business and went to New York to work with Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright on The Free Inquirer. In about six months he returned to Ohio. In the next few years he attempted to found communes, which never got started, due to factors beyond his control. He ran another “time store” at New Harmony, and on the side, as it were, made several profitable inventions in printing machinery, culminating in the first rotary press. In 1847 he took over the leadership of a Fourierist phalanstery on the Ohio, about thirty miles above Cincinnati, which he renamed Utopia. It operated for about four years until the settlers sold out at a profit and migrated to Minnesota, where they disappear from history.

In 1850 Warren moved to New York City and joined forces with Steven Pearl Andrews, who became the chief propagandist for Warren’s principles. These included the sovereignty of the individual, cost the limit of price, equitable commerce, and, eventually, mutual banking: in other words, the well-developed theory of individual anarchism or mutualism, which would survive as a small movement until well into the twentieth century, and which was certainly a much better worked-out general theory of free association than Proudhon’s similar system.

In the same year Warren, Andrews, and others began the community of Modern Times, now called Brentwood, on Long Island about forty miles from New York. Due to Warren’s principles, it is easy to confuse Modern Times with a cooperative real-estate development. Each family owned its own house and there was no regular form of government. Where New Harmony had failed, due to its open-door policy and the long struggle between Owen’s authority and the factionalism of cranks and the parasitism of loafers, Warren’s Modern Times solved these problems by ignoring them, by exercising no authority whatever. The cranks and loafers came, but in a short time eliminated themselves. Communism of consumption was ensured by a “time store,” but the colony was never able to achieve communism of production except in agriculture. There was never sufficient capital to start a successful manufacturing business. A paper-box factory was attempted and was quite successful for a few years but was wiped out in the financial panic of 1857. The colony never really died, but slowly withered away to become a model village suburban to New York. In his old age Warren moved to Boston and died there in 1874 at the age of seventy-six. For another generation the movement he founded was a small but significant factor in American radicalism. The principal voice of individual anarchism and mutualism was Benjamin R. Tucker (author of In Place of a Book, by a Man too Busy to Write One, the best exposition of individual anarchism), whose magazine Liberty lasted into the twentieth century; and Warren’s principles of community organization were adopted in modified form by various communalist villages in both Great Britain and America. Mutual banking associations survive to the present day.