Benjamin Tucker, Liberty And Individualist Anarchism

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, these three; but the greatest of these is Liberty. Formerly the price of Liberty was eternal vigilance, but now it can be had for fifty cents a year.”(2) So wrote Benjamin Ricketson Tucker (1854-1939) on the first page of the first issue of Liberty.(3)(4)

The American periodical Liberty , edited and published by Tucker from August 1881 to April 1908, is widely considered to be the finest individualist-anarchist periodical ever issued in the English language. Over its twenty-seven year life span, during which it issued first from Boston and then from New York (1892), Liberty chronicled the personalities and the shifting controver- sies of radical individualism in the United States and abroad.

It also fostered those personalities and controversies. The scroll of contributors to Liberty reads like an honor roll of nineteenth-century individualism: Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, Joshua K. Ingalls, John Henry Mackay, Victor Yarros, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe are only a partial listing. Speaking with a cosmopolitan and avant-garde voice, Liberty also published such items as George Bernard Shaw’s first original article to appear in the United States, the first American translated excerpts of Friedrich Nietzsche , and reports from economist Vilfredo Pareto on the political conditions in Italy.(5)(6)

Of seminal importance in the history of individualist ideas, Tucker’s periodical also served as the main conduit of Stirnerite egoism and of radical Spencerian thought from Europe to America. As such, Liberty was both an innovator in individualist theory and a mainstay of that tradition.(7)

The periodical was also remarkable for the consistently high quality of its content and for the clarity of its style. The issues debated within its pages have a sophisticated, almost contemporary, ring, and the discussions ranged from radical civil liberties to economic theory — from children’s rights to ques- tioning the basis of rent and interest. Contributors to Liberty, as well as other individualists who published articles elsewhere, often found themselves on the defense against Tucker’s intransigent demand for ‘plumb line’ consistency in all things.

As a professional journalist , Tucker also insisted upon a clear, precise style and he took great pride in raising Liberty far above the standards for layout and grammar that were employed by most other radical periodicals of the day.(8)

Tucker’s Background

On April 17, 1854, Tucker was born in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.(9) Coming from both a Quaker and a radical Unitarian background, Tucker grew up in an atmosphere of dissent and free inquiry, and attended the Friends Academy in New Bedford, a nearby seaport. At his parents’ prompting, he later attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts for three years.

In Boston, Tucker became politically involved with the 1872 presidential campaign of Horace Greeley, and made the acquaintance of the veteran individualist anarchists Josiah Warren and William B. Greene through attending a convention of the New England Labor Reform League in Boston, a veritable hotbed of individualists. Greene, who served as the chairman, made an immediate and deeply favorable impression upon the young M.I.T. student.(10) The introduction to both Greene and Warren had been facilitated by the abolitionist and labor reformer Ezra Heywood. Tucker would later look back upon these initial encounters as the pivotal point in his career as a radical. At the convention, Tucker purchased Greene’s book entitled MutualBanking and Warren’s True Civilization, along with some of Heywood’s pamphlets.

An ongoing association with Heywood, the publisher of the Princeton labor reform periodical The Word, soon followed.(11) From his involvement in the labor reform movement, Tucker became convinced that economic reform must underlie all other steps toward freedom. From a later admiration of the radical abolitionist Spooner, Tucker’s voice acquired a radical anti-political edge as well. To these influences were added the European flavor of Herbert Spencer, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Max Stirner, and Michael Bakounine.

In editing Liberty, Tucker both filtered and integrated the theories of such European thinkers with the uniquely American labor, freethought and free love movements in order to produce a rigorous system of individualist anarchism which subsequently became identified with him.(12) It became known as “philosophical anarchism” or, in a phrase that was often applied derogatorily, “Boston Anarchism.”

In 1876, in what may be considered Tucker’s debut into radical circles, Heywood published Tucker’s English translation of Proudhon’s classic work What is Property?. Shortly afterward Tucker commenced the publication of a freethought publication entitled Radical Review (New Bedford, Mass, 1877-1878), which lasted only four issues. A substantial portion of the four issues, however, were devoted to publishing a partial translation of Proudhon’s Systems of Economical Contradictions, also translated into English by Tucker.

Although Tucker was a prolific writer, virtually the entire body of his work, other than those titles constituting translations, appeared as articles in Liberty; some of these articles were subsequently issued as pamphlets. Tucker’s key work, entitled Instead of a Book by a Man Too Busy to Write One (1893), was a selected compilation of articles from Liberty with the subtitle, A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anar- chism.

The Social Context of Liberty

In the late nineteenth century, Tucker and Liberty were the vital core around which a radical individualist movement reconstituted itself and grew. In a wider social and cultural context, however, Liberty was merely one of a flood of radical periodicals published in America near the turn of the nineteenth century.

The post Civil War decades were a time of social turmoil and erratic growth, with many voices calling for reform. The ideologies expressed ranged from state socialism, to populism, progressivism, and anarchism. A jumble of issues fought for space in newsprint: single-tax, temperance, women’s suffrage, labor unions, land reform, birth control, state funded education… A wide and deep range of movements offered different solutions to societal problems. Few of these movements were individualistic.

True to the maxim “War is the Health of the State,” the Civil War had nearly killed the radical individualist movement in America. The rampant growth of government caused by the War and its aftermath had established an environment that was increasingly hostile to individual rights. Moreover, the groups and personalities who had constituted the driving core of the individualist movement — such as William Lloyd Garrison and his abolitionist cadre — had been badly divided by internal conflicts, largely caused by the question of whether or not to support the Civil War.

After the devastation, radical individualism had been basically expressed, not as an integrated movement in its own right, but as an extreme faction within other movements, particularly within labor reform, freethought and free love. It is against this broader social and political backdrop that Liberty began its career, and became the point around which a distinctive individualist movement coalesced and revitalized.

Major Themes

Radical individualism in 19th century America is commonly called individualist anarchism. As part of this continuing ideo- logical tradition, Liberty did not emerge from nor did it operate within an intellectual vacuum. The tradition from which Liberty arose revolved around two fundamental themes.

The first theme of 19th century American individualist anarchism is called ‘the sovereignty of the individual’, which is sometimes expressed by the term ‘self-ownership’ — a term popularized by Garrisonian abolitionism. Self-ownership is the tenet that every human being — simply by being a human being — has an inalienable moral jurisdiction over his or her own body and over what he or she produces. This universalizable right, or claim, was what Tucker meant whenever he used the Spencerian phrase ‘the law of equal liberty’.

As Tucker phrased it, “Equal liberty means the largest amount of liberty compatible with equality and mutuality of respect, on the part of individuals living in society, for their respective spheres of action.”(13)

The second theme of individualist anarchism was economic: in general, the movement espoused a version of the labor theory of value, which it often expressed through the phrase “cost 14 the limit of price”.(14) The labor theory of value claimed that all wealth is created by labor and usually implied that, therefore, all wealth belongs unquestionably to the laborer. Individualist anarchism considered this concept to be a direct extension of self ownership. As Tucker phrased it: “It will be seen from this definition that Anarchistic property concerns only products. But anything is a product upon which human labor has been expended. It should be stated, however, that in the case of land, or of any other material the supply of which is so limited that all cannot hold it in unlimited quantities, Anarchism undertakes to protect no titles except such as are based on actual occupancy and use.”(15)

Liberty Appears

Liberty first issued on August 6, 1881 from Boston with an introduction that was typical of Tucker, then a journalist in the editorial department of the Boston Globe.(16) “It may be well to state at the outset,” he declared of Liberty, “that this journal will be edited to suit its editor, not its readers.”(17) Despite this caveat, Liberty was a relatively open forum for radical individualist debate with many of the early unsigned editorials, which are often ascribed to Tucker, being actually written by Spooner or Henry Appleton.

Fittingly, the subtitle of Liberty was a quotation from Proudhon — “Liberty: not the daughter but the mother of order” — and the journal’s primary commitment was to economic reform. The periodical was broad enough in its interests, however, to feature a portrait of Sophie Perovskaya, a Russian nihilist martyr, in the center of its front page. The first page, as in issues thereafter, was entitled “On Picket Duty” and presented a survey/commentary upon contemporary periodicals, events, and personalities. The remainder of the issue dealt with labor, freethought, rights theory, and other anti-statist issues.

Liberty served as a clearing house for contemporary individualist periodicals, with Tucker ever alert to the appearance of a relevant new journal in America or abroad, ever poised to jump on the deviations of an established one. He re- printed appropriate or egregious articles, and often praised or engaged in debate with editors and contributors. Debates were especially common with British individualists such as J. Greevz Fisher, with whom Liberty disputed economic theories of interest and the tangled question of children’s rights.(18)

Debating Egoism and Natural Rights

Chronologically, Liberty‘s first major debate was an internal one among its own regular contributors over the newly emerging ideology of Stirnerite egoism. The debate was sparked by Stirner’s pivotal work on law, property, and the State, which was entitled The Ego and His Own. Sketching this debate provides a window into the tone and level of intellectual discussion which Liberty promoted.

Stirner, whose real name was Johann Kaspar Schmidt, had published Der Einzige in German in 1845 to widespread but short-lived acclaim. In the late 1880s, interest in Stirner among American intellectuals was stirred by the translations and popu- larization provided by James L. Walker, Steven T. Byington , and John Beverly Robinson.(20) Walker published the first twelve chapters of his pioneering work, Philosophy of Egoism, in the May 1890 to September 1891 issues of the anarchistic Egoism.(21) Even before this series, however, Liberty had introduced egoism through the articles of Walker and George Schumm, a close associate of Tucker who spent much of his life as a proof reader for the liberal weekly The Nation. The debate that ensued centered on whether egoism or natural rights formed the proper basis of radical individualist theory.

The March 6, 1886 issue of Liberty printed an article by Walker, who often wrote for Tucker under the pseudonym of Tak Kak. With his pivotal article, entitled “What is Justice?”, the debate was afoot. Walker referred to such ideas as “right,” “wrong,” and “justice” as “merely words with vague, chimerical meanings.”(22) Up to this point, natural law had been widely assumed to be the foundation of individualism, radical or not. Now egoism rejected the concept of ‘ought’ as a proper factor in governing man’s emotions or behaviour, and claimed instead that enlightened self-interest was the only realistic basis for human conduct.

Natural rights theorists — John F. Kelly, Gertrude Kelly, Sidney H. Morse, William J. Lloyd — claimed there was an objective right and wrong to human behaviour which was based on the nature of man and of reality. Only by having an objective standard of values could people have a framework against which to judge whether or not government laws were just.

The Stirnerite egoists were no less anti-government than their natural rights counterparts. They merely constructed anarchism along different lines. They rejected the State because it sought to chain the individual to the general will. This argument was not a rejection or society, or of its value, which Stirner called ‘union by advantage’. Society provided true and invaluable benefits to the individual, benefits which the State disrupted.

But the egoistis rejected more than natural rights: they abandoned the concept of ‘principles’ itself. Tak Kak declared that “the devotee of a fixed idea is mad. He either runs amuck, or cowers as mesmerized by the idea.”(23)

In early 1887, John Kelly, who was a staunch Spencerian, accurately assessed Tak kak as saying, “…that the idea of right is a foolish phantasy, or that there are no rights but mine,–that is to say, that there are not rights, only mights.”(24) The natural rights side of the debate accused the egoists (Tak Kak, Tucker, Schumm) of destroying not only natural rights but also individualist anarchism.

The egoists argued that they were merely reducing the concept of rights to its proper place as an artificial, useful construct with which to organize society. Converted to egoism, Tucker continued to believe in what he called ‘society by contract’, but he came to view rights as by-products of contracts between individuals, not as entities existing on their own. Tucker suggested that rights were “…a tacit agreement or understanding between human beings…as individuals living in daily contact and dependent upon some sort of cooperation with each other for the satisfaction of their daily wants, not to trespass upon each other’s individualism, the motive of thes agreement being the purely egoist desire of each for the peaceful preservation of his own individuality…”(25)

John Kelly leaped to attack Tucker’s version of rights as springing full grown from the act of contracting as being self-contradictory. He wrote, “What I contend is that it is impossible to base a society upon contract unless we consider a contract as having some binding effect, and that the binding effect of a particular contract can not be due to the contract itself…”(26)

By this statement, Kelly pointed out what he believed to be the major philosophical flaw of egoism. A contract presupposed a moral system — for what does it mean to contract if not to voluntarily exchange what is mine for what is yours? Embedded in the very idea of contract is the concept of a voluntary versus a forced exchange, and the concept of property — of something being mine rather than yours. And property, the natural rights advocates maintained, was a moral concept.

Otherwise stated, the simple act of contract presupposes a context in which things are owned and, thus, can be exchanged voluntarily. To claim that rights spring from contract is to invert the logical order. Contracts can occur only due to the context of rights, not vice versa.

From this tantalizing point of division, the debate became more heated and complex. Eventually, the controversy polarized the contributors to Liberty, prompting many of the natural rights advocates to withdraw permanently from its pages.

Thereafter, Liberty decidedly leaned toward egoism though the content changed little as a result. The first English translation of Stirner’s The Ego and His Own was published by Tucker and given such priority that he decided not to issue the February 1907 Liberty in order to concentrate upon that work. “Thanks to Mr. Byington, the translator,” Tucker wrote, “it is superior to any translation that has appeared in any other language and even to the German original.”(27) Tucker’s commitment to egoism may be judged by his statement, “I have been engaged for more than 30 years in the propaganda of Anarchism, and have achieved somethings of which I am proud; but I feel that I have done nothing for the cause that compares in value with my publication of this illuminating document.”