Mutualism began in 18th-century English and French labour movements before taking an anarchist form associated with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France and others in the United States. Proudhon proposed spontaneous order, whereby organisation emerges without central authority, a "positive anarchy" where order arises when everybody does "what he wishes and only what he wishes" and where "business transactions alone produce the social order." It is important to recognize that Proudhon distinguished between ideal political possibilities and practical governance. For this reason, much in contrast to some of his theoretical statements concerning ultimate spontaneous self-governance, Proudhon was heavily involved in French parliamentary politics and allied himself not with Anarchist but Socialist factions of workers movements and, in addition to advocating state-protected charters for worker-owned cooperatives, promoted certain nationalization schemes during his life of public service.
Mutualist anarchism is concerned with reciprocity, free association, voluntary contract, federation, and credit and currency reform. According to the American mutualist William Batchelder Greene, each worker in the mutualist system would receive "just and exact pay for his work; services equivalent in cost being exchangeable for services equivalent in cost, without profit or discount." Mutualism has been retrospectively characterised as ideologically situated between individualist and collectivist forms of anarchism. Proudhon first characterised his goal as a "third form of society, the synthesis of communism and property."