The Space of Possibilities: Josiah Warren and the Anarchist Imagination

Throughout American history, there have been visionaries from all walks of life who have understood that something isn’t quite right, and that it is possible to mount a serious critique of the existing order not only on paper but through living, breathing societies. Today’s United States allows no experiments. It can admit of no rivals to the barren monoculture throttling the masses and threatening the viability of the planet for the sake of an ever-shrinking ruling class. Western elites, whatever they actually believe, accept the idea that we have reached the end of history, and that serious people have nothing to do but press the case for uniform state-corporate hegemony. But there is no end of history, and there is no uniform set of ideas guaranteed to work everywhere, at all times, for all peoples. The pursuit of such certainty has produced a succession of crimes and crises. Against this onslaught stands a human heritage of beautiful, irreducible diversity. Diversity—of belief, opinion, lifestyle, culture, faith, and language—is the insurmountable truth, if ever there was one.

One of American history’s great social visionaries was Josiah Warren (1798-1874), often called the first American anarchist. A seventh-generation American born in Boston, Warren moved to Cincinnati as a young man; he started a family and taught music before finding noteworthy success as the inventor of a novel lard-burning lamp. Warren was undoubtedly brilliant and would later invent a system of stereotyping adopted by the Smithsonian Institution, an Annual Report of which noted that the process “promises to form an era in the art.” Warren became “one of the great creative thinkers within the anarchist movement.”[1] George Woodcock went so far as to say that he was “undoubtedly the most important of the American individualist anarchists,” no small compliment given that this group includes luminaries such as Lysander Spooner, Stephen Pearl Andrews (on whom more below), Ezra Heywood, and Benjamin Tucker.

Warren gives contemporary radicals an example of a thinker who treated his life and work as in unity with and extending from his ideas, with no clear separation between the thinking and the doing of practical freedom. Warren comes to the world of social ideas first through his encounters with Robert Owen. Among the early leading lights of nascent socialism, Owen was a Welsh industrialist who found wealth through textile mills in Scotland and set out for America to invest his fortunes in the foundation of an experiment in cooperative living. After hearing Owen speak, Warren was so captivated by Owen’s ideas that he resolved to move his family to Owen’s planned community in New Harmony, Indiana. The social project was beset by the practical difficulties of attending a community of ownership, where the personalities and interests of the group were diverse and frequently in conflict. Warren regarded the short-lived community as an abject failure, developing radical ideas of his own while retaining some of the salient features of Owen’s socialist thought. Warren had found that the fusing of economic interests and concerns had produced something like the opposite of its intended effect, turning the members of the commune against one another in an endless cycle of arguments and disagreements, exceeding even those of “common society.”

Conditions in the second quarter of the nineteenth century made it fertile ground for the ideas of social reform and intentional utopian communities, with a cholera pandemic, economic upheavals and transformations driven by industrialization, and the religious movements of the Second Great Awakening opening the way for a wide range of new and experimental social ideas. Another, more famous Warren, the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren, would write that the period from 1826 to 1861 was “a time of frenetic passion for reform,” when “established faiths—both political and religious–were breaking up, and men, the ignorant and the learned, were reaching out in all directions for meaning in life and for solutions for the problems of society.”[2]

For Warren, the goal was the invention of social “modes by which all these connections and amalgamated interests can be Individualized, so that each can exercise his right of individuality at his own cost, without involving or counteracting others.”[3] He was a radical individualist in that he asserted “the right of supreme Individuality,” but he remained a committed socialist in that he understood the system of the capitalists to be one of dishonesty, special privilege, and theft from the industrious. Given his experience as an accomplished inventor and businessman, Warren might well “have lived and died a rich man,” as his son recounted, were it not for “his convictions as to the rights and liberties of the laboring classes.” We may regard Warren’s philosophy of equitable commerce as “both an extension and repudiation of Associative socialism.”[4] Warren’s thought transcends the false choice of individualism versus socialism, pointing to an equitable system in which individuals would be empowered proprietors, trading equal values on equal footing—and thus freed from the exploitative grip of state-privileged capitalists. Warren held that cost should be the upper limit of price, his Cost Principle, and that with this principle in place the competition of a free and open marketplace would be rendered fair and beneficial for the whole of society. Warren’s most famous acolyte, the publisher and writer Benjamin Tucker, later expounded on this idea, identifying the state’s protection of capital as the source of the exploitative difference between cost and price under capitalist relations.

A key feature of Warren’s political economy—passed onto Tucker, and shared in many basic features by his European counterpart Pierre-Joseph Proudhon—is his understanding of the relationship between capital and the state, where the power of the former depends decisively on the latter. Like today’s anarchists, Warren did not have conversion or unwavering commitment to his proto-anarchist normative philosophy as his principle goal; he instead sought to demonstrate the viability of these ideas and their capacities to open new spheres of individual autonomy and social possibility. He wanted to empower individuals to think and act independently, beyond the reaches of bosses, politicians, and other would-be rulers, to probe their own existing capabilities to build alternative worlds.

Warren held that human labor was the ultimate source of economic value and sought to capture this truth in a proposed system of labor currency, an idea sketched in one of Owen’s lectures. Never one to merely philosophize from the armchair, Warren resolved to test his idea of labor exchange on the Cost Principle by instituting the first “Time Store.” The store opened in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 18, 1827, and it quickly became “the most popular mercantile institution in the city.”[5] The Time Store’s customers could pay for their goods in ordinary legal tender, with a clock running to calculate the amount of time the shopkeeper spent “in purchasing, stocking, weighing, selling, and so on”—that portion being compensable in an exchange of labor through a note.[6] As the pool of participants grew and labor notes proliferated and spread, trust in the notes and knowledge of their value would grow accordingly, becoming “the basis of a local cooperative economy.”[7] In general, the Time Store “experiment was a dramatic success”[8]

Rather than being left disillusioned by his time at New Harmony with the Owenites, Warren took from it several lessons for the development of more effective social engineering—or perhaps the lack of such engineering. He brought these lessons to the foundation of his first experiment in building a working community on the premise of his equitable commerce framework. Warren established the village of Equity on several hundred acres in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, though misfortune in the form of malaria and the flu made the project short-lived. Nevertheless, in his seminal history of anarchism, Woodcock writes that Equity holds the historical place of honor as the first anarchist community since Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers settled upon St. George’s Hill in 1649, with the goal of creating their own free and egalitarian community.

Warren’s second community, at Utopia, Ohio, was first the Clermont Phalanx, founded in 1844 by devotees of Charles Fourier and situated about 35 miles up the Ohio River from Cincinnati on 1,140 acres.[9] To the eager Fourierists, Warren had offered words of warning based on his experiences with Owen’s utopian program at New Harmony. He cautioned against the collectivization of property and the combination of economic interests, predicting increasing conflict before inevitable social breakdown. According to William Bailie’s biography of Warren, one member of the dissolved Phalanx admitted that if Warren had been a prophet, he could not have predicted the outcome more accurately. Just as Owen had succeeded the Rappites (followers of George Rapp) and their community in Harmony to create New Harmony, so did Warren gather the remaining families of the Clermont Phalanx to organize a new equity community in Utopia. The community at Utopia was a success, firmly rooted in the practice of individual sovereignty, with, as Warren later chronicled, no resort to officers, priests, or prophets—and without the need of legislation, organization, delegated power, constitutions, laws, rules, or regulations.[10] Even lectures on the village’s mutualistic principles were unnecessary, as they were so much a part of the village’s day-to-day life. It endured this way for about twenty years, carrying on even after Warren himself had left to continue his mission for equitable commerce and the sovereignty of the individual.

In their lack of prescriptive codes and prohibitions, Warren’s utopian communities distinguished themselves from those of contemporaries such as, for example, Adin Ballou and John Humphrey Noyes. The notable historian of the individualist anarchists, James J. Martin, is even willing to call the communities of Ballou and Noyes “authoritarian establishments,” though their memberships were voluntary. There is, in any case, some evidence that both men regarded Warren’s far more libertarian conception of socialism at best misguided and at worst dangerous.[11] Warren also differed from other founders of utopian communities in his self-conscious, deliberate refusal to embrace the role of leader or figurehead; he gave the ideas and the practice thereof center stage and, owing in no small part to his experience with Owen, held a pronounced skepticism toward “benevolent tyranny based on charismatic leadership.”[12] Warren was a true anarchist in that he recoiled from the exercise of power and indeed found it repulsive, preferring to present liberatory ideas and to open a space for individuals to flourish, following their own natural interests and inclinations. Warren wrote, “my constitution is within me. The right of self-sovereignty in every individual is my constitution.” Warren was an arch-individualist who countenanced no intermediaries or authorities standing between each person and her social, political, and economic freedom and participation.[13] His philosophy of education, too, reflected this resistance to coercive hierarchy. He believed that children should be free to learn according to their own interests and inclinations, in his own words, “thinking and deciding for themselves.”[14] Warren had visited Joseph Neef’s Pestalozzian school, and shared his philosophy of pupil-centered education that emphasized the child’s autonomy and rights.[15] Like so many anarchists to follow, Warren took an interest in education and pedagogical philosophies and methods, writing of “the narrowness, the imbecility, injustice, and cruelty of the prevailing modes of education.” He was far ahead of his time in recognizing and respecting the rights of children and treating them as co-equal human beings: “I shall act as their friend rather than as their master; or, as one member of society should act towards another, strictly respecting their individual rights and thus teaching them by example to respect those of other people.” Warren’s personal notebook illustrates his respect for children and their feelings and free will: when his son tells him he is unwell and can’t work that day, Warren remarks on how cruel it would be “to doubt his account of his own feelings.”

Warren’s final venture into the world of experimental communities emerges from his friendship and partnership with another reformer and renaissance man, Stephen Pearl Andrews, whom he met in 1850. A lawyer, linguist, and general polymath, Andrews was a self-assured and capable communicator of Warren’s revolutionary ideas.[16] Attracted to radical social causes of all kinds, he had already established himself as an active proponent of slavery abolition—which nearly cost him his life—and would later become the very first American to translate and publish Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.[17] Though more learned and refined than his partner (and far more comfortable proselytizing in a crowded hall), Andrews saw in Warren’s social thought a profound genius. He almost immediately became committed to spreading Warren’s ideas and became their enthusiastic exponent in a number of lectures, which became his most important work. With this work, The Science of Society, Andrews had “produced a sociological masterpiece at a time when sociology had scarcely been heard of.”[18] When these two great libertarians founded their community, Modern Times, on Long Island, 41 miles from New York City, they believed they were also inaugurating a new “Utopian Era.”[19]

All ways of life and all kinds of people were welcome at Modern Times “so long as they did not invade the rights of others.” All residents were expected to respect one another, mind their own business, and carry the costs and consequences of whatever lifestyles and actions they chose to pursue. Modern Times was therefore extremely advanced and open for its time, drawing attention and criticism from the press. Horace Greeley, for example, slammed the community as a hotbed of “impurity and adultery.” Whatever the attitudes of contemporary onlookers, Modern Times was, as historian Roger Wunderlich put it, “[a] crack in the wall of Victorian morality.” For Warren, whose philosophy and practical experiments had always focused on the labor question, the eclectic picture of Modern Times and the public controversies thus courted were an unwelcome annoyance, though he remained a principled libertarian on questions of love, sexuality, marriage, dress, and religion. These, he thought, should be beyond the ambit of coercion or proscription or any kind, matters of individual choice and conscience. His comrade Andrews embraced the free love question much more enthusiastically, writing, “Our whole existing marital system is the house of bondage and the slaughterhouse of the female sex.” It would be difficult to overstate just how advanced the social ideas present in Modern Times were for their day. The community existed at a time when the mere wearing of bloomers created something of a national scandal, so the idea of attacking the institution of marriage and suggesting the equality of men and women was well beyond the pale. How much to emphasize questions of marriage, gender roles, and sexuality remained a point of contention within anarchist circles: when a young Benjamin Tucker resigned his associate editorship of Angela and Ezra Heywood’s The Word in 1876, his reason was the paper’s focus on free love and surrounding topics. Though his views aligned with theirs, he, like Warren, preferred to focus on questions of labor, currency, and exchange.

Whether Modern Times counts as a success or failure for Warren and Andrews turns on how one defines those terms and perhaps on how one regards the merits of their ideas. Anarchists could do much worse than following Warren’s lead, adapting his principles, of course, to the challenges of the twenty-first century. He explicitly preferred “beginning with the practical and letting theory follow,” “leaving each mind to theorize for itself.” John Mohawk, the great activist, scholar, and writer, offered the trenchant observation that today “the average individual has been socialized to believe that all the thinking necessary to the great mysteries of life is being done for him or her.” The authoritarian, hierarchical systems imposed by the state depend on our distraction and preoccupation, our inability to imagine the universe of possible alternatives. Warren clearly anticipated the further development of the modern industrial era’s trend in the direction of centralized, compelled uniformity of thought and action, and the accompanying atrophy of the creative mind and dependence on huge, hierarchical institutions. Though he certainly had clear normative principles, Warren’s fundamental one was the appreciation of difference as a source of social and economic strength and dynamism. Decentralism may indeed be the fundamental philosophical attribute of anarchism,[20] and we can see it clearly in Warren’s approach to the social question. This is in stark contrast to the notion that there is one ideal way of doing things, our best and brightest have figured it out, and everyone else should quietly and obediently acquiesce and fall in line. This latter doctrine is the one underpinning statism, empire, and capitalism. It has been the rationale, stated or otherwise, behind the various colonial projects of the modern world, constituted upon the idea of the unquestioned superiority of one way of thinking and looking at the world. There is no more anti-science, anti-reason idea than this kind of myopic chauvinism, yet it has reached its high point in our current age in the supposedly enlightened West, where elites can apparently imagine nothing but the never-ending reign of the American Empire and totalizing, reductionist worldview.

Against the centralization and gigantism of today, anarchism has as its goal the division of power and the multiplication of effective social forces, premised on the idea that people and communities are capable of governing themselves—indeed that only they are capable and that only they should. “If there is an underlying principle of action it is that we need to cultivate the habits of freedom so that we constantly experience it in our everyday lives.” Revolutionary aspirations will remain impotent words and ideas without the demonstration of workable, organized alternatives to the state and the global monopoly capitalist system. Economist Robin Hanson recently remarked that our “key failing” socially is our failure to explore the “vast space of possible institutions” that is open to us, the failure to act on the many existing proposals for alternative social and economic arrangements. Hanson contends that were we to try them out on small scales, testing and examining them in real life, we would naturally discover ways of organizing social and economic life far superior to the status quo. If he were alive today, Josiah Warren might agree. Warren named his short-lived periodical The Peaceful Revolutionist as as signal that he would not wait for a moment of revolution or social cataclysm, that he would neither meekly participate in the empty show of representative politics nor resort to violent destruction—that instead he would work in the present to build new worlds within the existing order. In doing so, Warren became one of the great, early pioneers of anarchist prefigurative politics. He understood that radical prefigurative projects require the active alignment of means and ends; a free and just world cannot arise except through a diverse federation of human institutions that are libertarian, cooperative, horizontal, and genuinely participatory. It cannot and will not arise through violent, authoritarian, hierarchical means. Anarchists look forward to, in Theodore Roszak’s words, “a world awakened from its sick infatuation with power, growth, efficiency, progress as if from a nightmare.”

People around the world are crying out desperately for life-affirming alternatives to the annihilatory meta-institutions of capitalism and the state. At a time when it seems the United States government has never had less legitimacy, when there has never been a wider gulf separating the people from the power elite, “the creative work of envisioning that which does not yet exist” has never been more important. Those interested in undertaking that creative work may revisit Josiah Warren’s story not as a fixed template, but as a source of inspiration, a do-it-yourself pioneer who knew that a truly human society was possible and dared to try his hand at building it. Putting Warren’s ideas into a dialogue with contemporary anarchism and socialism opens opportunities to reimagine both as dynamic answers to today’s social and economic crises.


[1] Harold B. Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy (revised edition, Kahn & Averill 1990), page 115.

[2] Charlotte H. Beck, Robert Penn Warren, Critic (University of Tennessee Press 2006), page 134.

[3] Peter Kropotkin writes, “[Mutualism] had also its precursor in America. Josiah Warren, who was born in 1798 (cf. W. Bailie, Josiah Warren, the First American Anarchist, Boston, 1900), and belonged to Owen’s ‘New Harmony,’ considered that the failure of this enterprise was chiefly due to the suppression of individuality and the lack of initiative and responsibility. These defects, he taught, were inherent to every scheme based upon authority and the community of goods. He advocated, therefore, complete individual liberty.”

[4] Adam Tuchinsky, Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune: Civil War-era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor (Cornell University Press 2009), page 113.

[5] William Bailie, Josiah Warren, the First American Anarchist: A Sociological Study (Small, Maynard & Co. 1906).

[6] Crispin Sartwell, ed., The Practical Anarchist: Writings of Josiah Warren (Fordham University Press 2019), page 18.

[7] Id.

[8] Crispin Sartwell, ed., The Practical Anarchist: Writings of Josiah Warren (Fordham University Press 2019), page 255.

[9] Toby Widdicombe, James M. Morris, and Andrea Kross, Historical Dictionary of Utopianism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2017), page 107.

[10] James J. Martin, Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827-1908 (Ralph Myles Publisher 1970), page 60.

[11] Noyes seems to have criticized Warren and Stephen Pearl Andrews in the periodical associated with his community at Oneida, and Roger Wunderlich, in Low Living and High Thinking at Modern Times, New York, recounts a contentious exchange between Warren and Ballou over their ideological differences. Warren would undoubtedly have been uncomfortable with the extreme religiosity and moralism of both men. Further demonstrating the divide between Warren’s individualist anarchism and the utopian socialisms then percolating around him, Warren and Modern Times also drew the ire of George Ripley, the former president of the Brook Farm Association (see Martin’s Men Against the State).

[12] Crispin Sartwell, ed., The Practical Anarchist: Writings of Josiah Warren (Fordham University Press 2019), page 24.

[13] Sartwell writes, “Like many individualists, Warren almost ritually invoked Luther, though Warren was not a Christian: ‘We want a Luther in the political sphere, and another in the financial sphere, another in the commercial, another in the educational sphere, to rouse people to use their own experience.’”

[14] Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (Princeton University Press 2014), page 53.

[15] Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (Princeton University Press 2014), page 53.

[16] See Madeleine B. Stern, The Pantarch: A Biography of Stephen Pearl Andrews (University of Texas Press 1968), passim.

[17] Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 (University of North Carolina Press 2000), page 170.

[18] Madeleine B. Stern, The Pantarch: A Biography of Stephen Pearl Andrews (University of Texas Press 1968), page 75.

[19] Crispin Sartwell, ed., The Practical Anarchist: Writings of Josiah Warren (Fordham University Press 2019), page 40.

[20] Dennis Hardy, Utopian England: Community Experiments 1900-1945 (E. & F.N. Spon 2000), page 10.

David S. D’Amato is an attorney, businessman, and independent researcher. He is a Policy Advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation and a regular opinion contributor to The Hill. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, Investor’s Business Daily, RealClearPolitics, The Washington Examiner, and many other publications, both popular and scholarly. His work has been cited by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, among others.