Josiah Warren





These are some excerpts from one of Josiah Warren's most famous writings. The central idea is that, in order to implement a harmonious organization among people, it is necessary to distinguish between the functional power of direction and coordination (limited and specific) and the sovereign power to take decisions (unlimited and general). The latter is the responsibility of each individual and must in no way be the prerogative of either an individual or a group that prevails over all.

Source: Josiah Warren, True Civilization, Boston, 1863.



Let us proceed to examine our germs of true or harmonic organization.

A man wants to raise a house; he cannot do it alone, and invites his neighbors to help him. They are willing to do so, either from sympathy, for the enjoyment of the companionship of the occasion, or for pecuniary compensation, or without any particular conscious motive. Whether they are moved by one motive or another, their movement is voluntary, and the raising of the house is the point of coincidence between them - the object which brings them together, and which gives rise to the co-operation between them.

Twenty men assemble on the ground, but they can do nothing, if the whole twenty undertake to give directions.

Even two cannot do so, without leading directly to confusion and counteraction. Primitive or Divine law does not tolerate anything more or less than INDIVIDUALITY in any lead. Who should be the lead on this occasion but he who takes the risks and bears all costs ? He may prefer to delegate his function, but may with propriety resume it at any moment.

Ten men are requested to lift a timber; they all get ready to do so, but they cannot lift together till some word or sign is given. Select three of the wisest or most experienced of the company to give that word or sign, and confusion would result, but let only one, though a mere child, give the word, and the timber moves.

This I understand to be the philosophy of leadership, and also of Monarchy and despotism. But why have they proved so destructive of the ends proposed by them ? It is because of the unconscious attempt to unite or combine the lead and the deciding power or sovereignty in one person ! Let us see.

The twenty men had each a mind and a motive of his own to help at the raising, and though the motives were different, this difference did not prevent their coinciding or co-operating action in that one individual thing to be done. The owner of the house did not undertake to decide that these men should help him. Each decided for himself supremely (sovereignly) that he would help, and these coinciding, individual sovereign decisions only wanted a lead, and all was well.

I repeat that the great error has been in the attempt to combine the lead and the deciding or sovereign power IN ONE PERSON! instead of recognizing the deciding power where divine law has irrevocably fixed it, in every individual of the race.

Coincidence must be had before anything requiring the co-operation of numbers can be properly done. It is on this account that diversity of views or motives has been looked upon and treated as an evil, because it tends to neutralize the desired "Unity" of action. Therefore, as intellectual culture and expansion give rise to this dreaded diversity, culture is looked upon as dangerous, and the expression of opinions adverse to the governments are forbidden and punished with heavy penalties or cruel deaths.

Thus order becomes converted into chaos by trampling the end under foot in pursuit of the means! The professed end is security and protection of person and property, and the means adopted destroy both!

These penalties inflicted for diversity are practical acknowledgments that the deciding power is inevitably fixed in, and inseparable from, each individual, who is therefore presented with an assortment of evils to choose from and decide upon! If he desires to disobey orders, he may calculate the value of his life to himself or others, his repugnance to pain and death, his chances of escape, and on these calculations he decides for himself (sovereignly) at last. Where, then, does the sovereign power rest ?

The sovereign power (or the instinct of selfpreservation) can never be wrested from the multitude, nor from a single Individual - it is "INALIENABLE; " and to make the attempt to alienate it is one of the most fatal political fallacies ever attempted. And a fallacy equally fatal is that of supposing that this deciding power can successfully be vested in a majority over a minority, or over a single person.


It is worse than useless, it is calamitous, to legislate as if it were possible to divest ourselves of this involuntary instinct of self- preservation or self-sovereignty, and those who accept or act on such pledge commit as great an error as those who give it, and all contracts to this effect being impossible of fulfilment are null and void. We may delegate the leading function often with advantage, but it is folly, blindness, self-deception, and may be ruin, to commit ourselves unqualifiedly to implicit and unhesitating obedience to any personal lead for a single hour.

For true order and civilization, then, let us realize that, though any successful lead must be an Individuality, this lead should be only a lead, like the child at the raising - one individual function by itself, and no attempt should be made to combine it with the deciding or sovereign power.

The most perfect lead would be that which was best adapted to the particular occasion for it; and as every occasion may be peculiar in itself, no one personal lead may be equally adapted to various occasions. A child might lead the lifting of the timbers of the house, but could not lead in the framing of it. The president of a railroad company may lead its affairs very satisfactorily, but might not be equally adapted to lead a child in the study of music.

A very common mistake is made in taking it for granted that, because a man has shown great capacity to lead in one direction or department, he is, therefore, most likely to prove a good lead in other directions! The contrary is most likely to be the fact, inasmuch as that the more time he has spent in qualifying himself for one function, the less he would have to bestow in others; as illustrated by the very profound Conchologist who thought that the beans in his garden had come up " the wrong end first."

The most effectual lead is not necessarily always a person. It may be a thing, an idea, or a principle. A clock or a watch leads or " governs " the movements of many of us more than men do. But two clocks which should differ widely from each other would neutralize the lead, and make only confusion. If they harmonized with each other, one would be superfluous. But a plurality of men to lead any one movement, having more elements of diversity within them than unintellectual clocks, are more likely than they to differ, and lead to confusion.

Primitive nature insists on an Individuality in a personal lead, and it is in vain for us to contend against it.

A single man may lead the whole race, as is already demonstrated by the inventor of railroads, of steam power, etc.; but if he undertakes to decide that the public shall patronize or follow him, he will find himself at once in conflict with the third party - a divine law, from which, sooner or later, he will be obliged to retire.

The sphere of lead may harmlessly extend over the whole earth; but the sphere of sovereignty cannot harmlessly be extended beyond the person, time, property, and responsibilities of the one person who exercises that sovereignty.

What, then, is invasion?

If you come into my house, against my will, this is an invasion of my property certainly; but if you have heard screams within, and calls for help, and you have come in to restrain me from invading the life of an inmate, though it be my own child, you have made a justifiable and legitimate choice of evils in violating my right of property to prevent me from violating greater rights. If I would have my absolute rights of property and person held inviolate, I must observe and hold sacred all the rights of others.


We have seen that the lead and the deciding or sovereign power are two very distinct elements; that for true order, they must be disintegrated from each other, the one having unlimited scope, and the other confined to the person, time, property, and responsibilities of one Individual.

Beyond this individual sphere no one, no number of men have a right of absolute sovereignty. We all have a right to sympathize with the distressed in any part of the world with but not against their consent or will.

I speak with decision, because, after forty years' study and experiments on these subjects, I have arrived at decisions for myself, and because I think the reader will prefer it as the most convenient language for him as well as for me, and because I think he will prefer the assurance which is afforded by placing myself under the responsibility of definite and positive assertions, rather than that I should give out vague hints and throw the responsibility of conclusions upon him. And after and in the midst of continuous reiteration of the sovereign right of every individual to decide for himself, he will not suspect me of attempting to decide for him against his consent.

While the deciding or sovereign power is understandingly left undisturbed where it really is (in the heart or head of every Individual for himself), it matters but little who undertakes to lead. He who most addresses himself to the largest coincidence or most pressing wants of the time will have the most followers.


We see that Primitive or Divine law demands Individuality in a lead. This lead is sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, a child, or a thing; it is also sometimes an idea. This latter has always been practically admitted by those who have attempted to generalize the experience of mankind into axioms, rules, written statutes, or (so called) laws, Constitutions, etc. They intended these ideas as points of coincidence to lead or force the people into certain modes of action.

But in all these there has been the same fatal error: DEFECTIVE GENERALIZATION.

A rule (or "law") which may be good for the case in which it originated may not apply to any other case as well. New cases give rise to other rules which conflict with the first; which conflict, like that of the two different clocks, destroys the power of either to lead.

Then, again, arises (from the inevitable Individuality of different minds) the different interpretations of the same rules or generalisms. Witness the different interpretations of the Constitution of the United States and all other constitutions.

They are liable to so many different constructions, that this diversity not only neutralizes their power to lead, but they become positive elements of antagonism and violent dissensions and mutual destruction, because their latent faults are too subtle for ready detection. They would be harmless and might be beneficial if there was no attempt to combine in them the sovereign power. To remedy this fatal defect, the word " shall" should be expunged, and the word may substituted.


[Home] [Top]