Mutualism has held a unique position in being both egalitarian and anti-collectivist. Rather than collectivizing economic resources and making people dependent on the collective, it has sought to empower the poor and working class by making them property owners, and making property ownership widespread enough that everyone can participate in a market economy without being subservient to others. The ultimate goal is an economy in which individuals have ultimate autonomy, working with resources that they themselves own, individually or as voluntary associations, in which economic and political power is distributed equally enough that no one holds authority over others.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) was the first philosopher to label himself an "anarchist".

Proudhon opposed government privilege that protects capitalist, banking and land interests and the accumulation or acquisition of property (and any form of coercion that led to it) which he believed hampers competition and keeps wealth in the hands of the few.

Proudhon favoured a right of individuals to retain the product of their labour as their own property, but believed that any property beyond that which an individual produced and could possess was illegitimate. Thus he saw private property as both essential to liberty and a road to tyranny, the former when it resulted from labour and was required for labour and the latter when it resulted in exploitation (profit, interest, rent and tax). He generally called the former "possession" and the latter "property". For large-scale industry, he supported workers associations to replace wage labour and opposed the ownership of land.

Proudhon maintained that those who labour should retain the entirety of what they produce and that monopolies on credit and land are the forces that prohibit such. He advocated an economic system that included private property as possession and exchange market, but without profit, which he called mutualism.

Proudhon said that "communism [...] is the very denial of society in its foundation" and famously declared that "property is theft!" in reference to his rejection of ownership rights to land being granted to a person who is not using that land.

Mutualist anarchism is concerned with reciprocity, free association, voluntary contract, federation and credit and currency reform.

Many mutualists believe a market without government intervention drives prices down to labor-costs, eliminating profit, rent and interest according to the labor theory of value. Firms would be forced to compete over workers just as workers compete over firms, raising wages.

Mutualists like Benjamin Tucker rejected the economic aspects of collectivist anarchism and anarcho-communism as incompatible with anarchist ideals.