Mutual Benefit Society

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'As Kropotkin showed in Mutual Aid, voluntary association for mutual aid is as old as the human race, and resurfaces whenever the authoritian state is at an ebb: " soon as the States relax the iron laws by means of which they have broken all bonds between men, these bonds are at once reconstituted...." [p. 249] And innumerable examples can be found in every country and culture. But as our concern here is with the rise of mutualism as an organized and self-conscious movement, we start with its origins in England and Western Europe, and restrict ourselves to organized mutualist bodies.

The typical form of mutualist organization for English laborers was the friendly society, or mutual benefit society. Friendly societies did not suddenly spring up in the 1790s, of course. Their origins have been traced back at least to the Seventeenth Century. The first English friendly society, according to M. F. Robinson (The Spirit of Association p. 142) was organized in 1634. A group of French Protestant refugees formed a London Friendly Society in 1666. The Oddfellows, one of the most famous fraternal orders, was formed early in the following century. (Ibid. p. 146) Such societies were remarked on favorably by Daniel Defoe. (Ibid. p. 141)

Of course if we ignore the artificial distinction between friendly societies, guilds and unions, they go back much further into the High Middle Ages, and last into the twentieth century. (Ibid. p. 107) Indeed such forms of organization are arguably at the root of our liberties. According to G. Unwin, "[t]he political liberty of Western Europe has been secured by the building up of a system of voluntary associations, strong enough to control the State..." (The Guilds and Companies of London, quoted in Robinson p. 6) (Cf. Nisbet on intermediate organizations)

But despite the antiquity of its origins, the friendly society came into its own as a dominant form of working class radicalism and self-organization only in the 1790s. The correspondence society, for example, made its first appearance around this time, in the atmosphere of revolutionary contagion emanating from France. E.P. Thompson described the corresponding societies as the first specifically working class political organizations in history. They were a break with the past tradition of working class mobs organized (like the Wilkesite mobs), not by themselves, but by outside interests." (