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Saturday, April 1, 1995

The Individualist Anarchists: An Anthology of Liberty (1881-1908)

Individualist Anarchism Was a Genuine Outburst of American Radicalism

Anarchism is often associated with the extremes of either capitalist apologetics or communism, particularly by those without even passing familiarity with the subject. Yet, the individualist anarchists defied simplistic categorization from the start. The vast majority of the individualist anarchists did consider themselves to occupy a pole of the socialist movement. At the same time, they variously identified with the egoism of Max Stirner, the individualism of Nietzsche, the anarcho-communism represented by the famous Russian theorist Bakunin, and even the conservatism of Herbert Spencer.

The Individualist Anarchists is a wonderful introduction to this diversity of thought and will be of interest to advocates of limited government as well as students of intellectual history. It consists of representative selections from the principal organ of nineteenth-century individualist anarchism, Liberty, which was edited by the best known of the individualist anarchists, Benjamin Tucker. The collection is also an excellent companion to James J. Martin’s definitive historical study of early individualist anarchism, Men Against the State.

The book is divided into four major sections, each structured to provide a comprehensive exposition of the trends in thought and positions staked out in the pages of Liberty. The first section, which occupies a full third of the text, deals with issues of political ideology. The theory of individualist anarchism is based on the principle of” equal liberty,” which is described by Tucker as “the greatest amount of individual liberty compatible with equality of liberty.” The authors grounded their defense of property rights in a conception of property tied to labor, a position derived from Locke. There is also a substantial amount of space dedicated to the praises -of the free market.

Yet this is hardly the anarcho-capitalism that it seems to be. The writers of this genre were largely preoccupied with the “labor question,” and as such an interest might suggest, they saw themselves primarily as socialists. They subscribed to the labor theory of value, and often presented fiery polemics against the bourgeois class.

The second section of the book examines the economics of the individualist anarchists, which dwells on the general theme of labor concerns. However, the individualist anarchists thought that the liberation of the proletariat would be best achieved by the abolition of the “four monopolies”: the money monopoly, the land monopoly, the tariff, and the patent or copyright. In practice, this would have meant the elimination of ownership of land by those not occupying and using the soil, and the abolition of intellectual property. Such “evils” as rent and interest would be eliminated, thus bringing the worker into his own. This deviates from the contemporary conception of a free order, in which land functions as property subject to the dictates of the market. Obviously, interest serves an important market function as well.

It is important to emphasize the salient characteristics of libertarian socialism that set it apart from state socialism. To his credit, the editor dedicates a substantial portion of the section on political theory to this issue. For Tucker, the two types of socialism differ in the battle between liberty and authority. State socialism is “the doctrine that all affairs of men should be managed by government,” vis-à-vis state monopoly. The anarchist position holds to “the doctrine that all the affairs of men should be managed by individuals and voluntary association.” Other distinctions were made as well. The writer A. H. Simpson held that “Anarchism is egoism; Communism is altruism.” Within the sphere of socialist or labor concerns, the anarchists, as advocates of freedom and self-interest, considered themselves always to be aligned in an antipodal relationship to the state socialists.

The individualist anarchists also carried their conception of freedom into the social sphere. Again, there was consensus, this time in the direction of what is euphemistically known as “free love.” In at least one case, a more moderate position of cohabitation with commitment is commended. Many of the writers espoused what might loosely be described as feminist views, although positions on women’s suffrage were not taken, as is consistent with a general opposition to the existence of the state. These authors were also generally hostile to religion. Social questions, however, were discussed minimally in the pages of Liberty.

Some space, also, was dedicated to the question of strategy (section four), although this too garnered less attention than questions political and economic. It is clear that the individualist anarchists favored nonviolence and persuasion as a route to their desired ends. Consequently, they feared “guilt by association” in the wake of the violence at Haymarket Square, Chicago, in 1886 when a police contingent was bombed while attempting to close down a meeting of anarchists. Tucker, for one, attempted to carefully delineate the differences between the violent, “communistic” variety of anarchism and his own concerns with liberty. Whatever the acumen of the individualist anarchists’ strategic recommendations, the movement faded, and settled into an illdeserved obscurity.

Much more complex than a simple precursor to libertarianism or an extension of liberalism, individualist anarchism was a genuine outburst of American radicalism. This volume is recommended to dispel the miasma of disinformation surrounding the movement dealt with in its pages, and as a worthy purchase for any reader with an interest in political theory, American or otherwise.

Mr. Pavlik is assistant editor and director of The Freeman Op-Ed program.

  • Mr. Pavlik was director of The Freeman Op-Ed Program at The Foundation for Economic Education. He was editor of Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays of John T. Flynn, to be published by FEE next month.