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Benjamin Tucker, Boston Anarchist

The Civil War caused a huge schism in the American libertarian movement from which it wouldn’t recover for decades. Inner conflicts between abolitionists who favored the war and the invasion of the South, ones who saw the war as inevitable and required to end slavery, and those who thought the war was an egregious moral wrong in and of itself and unnecessary to end slavery caused the libertarian movement to faction off into other radical social movements, such as freethought, free love, and the labor movement. After 1865, the individualist tradition lived on, not in a distinct libertarian movement, but as a radical faction within these broader social causes. Considering the astronomical growth in the state due to the war and the growing decline of radical individualist thought, it seemed the flame of liberty had burned out.

Born on April 17, 1854 in Massachusetts, Benjamin Tucker grew up in a Quaker and Radical Unitarian family. Tucker enrolled in MIT, but after a fateful encounter with three prominent individualist anarchists (Ezra Heywood, William Greene, and Josiah Warren), at a New England Labor Reform League convention in Boston in 1872, Tucker would go on to become an anarchist activist, journalist, and essayist. He would align strongly with the labor movement and had some connections to the freethought and free love movements (as did his fellow radicals). The common strain in all his thought, however, was individualism.

Tucker built his theory of individualist anarchism (or what he called “Boston Anarchism” to distinguish him from “Chicago Anarchists” who were generally less favorable to markets and more favorable to violence as a means for social change) out of the principles of individual sovereignty and the labor theory of value (which was commonly accepted by mainstream economists dating back to Adam Smith, but was later thrown out by the profession after the marginal revolution led by early Austrians, such as Carl Menger and Eugene Böhm von Bawerk). For 19th century anarchists, the labor theory of value, or “cost limit of price,” was the natural extension of the individual’s absolute sovereignty over themselves. Labor was seen as the source for all wealth, and the laborer naturally owns the fruits of their labor as an extension of their self-ownership. Tucker’s theory of value was intimately related to his ethical views based on each individual having sole dominion over their body and their justly acquired property, which required labor mixing.

Tucker and his fellow individualist anarchists were anti-capitalist, but pro-free market [PDF]. They viewed capitalism as representative of a statist economy that artificially benefited capitalists at the expense of laborers by extracting surplus value through artificial rents. Tucker thought the fruits of the laboring classes are systematically and coercively taken by the elites under statism. He viewed the State as propagator of the ruling class. Tucker identified the four big monopolies: money, land, patent, and tariff (Charles Johnson has identified even more). The role of these monopolies are to concentrate capital in the hands of a few and create a wage system. But the origin of these monopolies lies, not in the free market, but in the State.

Instead of adopting pro-capitalist rhetoric, since the American anarchists saw capitalists as largely arms of the State, they were very friendly to “Socialism” (Some modern individualist anarchists want to reclaim the term “socialism” from the monopoly statists now have on the term). Tucker saw the strain of thought that tied all socialists together, from Warren to Proudhon to Marx, as the view,

…that cost is the proper limit of price – these three men made the following deductions: that the natural wage of labor is its product; that this wage, or product, is the only just source of income (leaving out, of course, gift, inheritance, etc.); that all who derive income from any other source abstract it directly or indirectly from the natural and just wage of labor; that this abstracting process generally takes one of three forms, — interest, rent, and profit; that these three constitute the trinity of usury, and are simply different methods of levying tribute for the use of capital; that, capital being simply stored-up labor which has already received its pay in full, its use ought to be gratuitous, on the principle that labor is the only basis of price; that the lender of capital is entitled to its return intact, and nothing more; that the only reason why the banker, the stockholder, the landlord, the manufacturer, and the merchant are able to exact usury from labor lies in the fact that they are backed by legal privilege, or monopoly; and that the only way to secure labor the enjoyment of its entire product, or natural wage, is to strike down monopoly.

Tucker distinguished between state socialism and market socialism. His individualistic socialist program consisted, “in the destruction of these monopolies and the substitution for them of the freest competition… [which] rested upon a very fundamental principle, the freedom of the individual, his right of sovereignty over himself, his products, and his affairs, and of the rebellion against the dictation of external authority.” Abolishing the monopolies (i.e, economic reform) became the central goal for Benjamin Tucker and his mission to be an, “advocate for the justice of labor.” Of his two biggest influences, Warren and Proudhon, Tucker wrote,

…in prosecuting their search for justice to labor, came face to face with the obstacle of class monopolies, the saw that these monopolies rested upon Authority, and concluded the thing to be done was, not to strength this Authority, and thus make monopoly universal, but to utterly uproot Authority and give full sway to the opposite principle, Liberty, by making competition, the antithesis of monopoly, universal.

Tucker rejected the view of Marx and the state socialists as “the doctrine that all affairs of men should be managed by the government regardless of individual choice,” and instead followed the individualists (primarily Warren and Proudhon):

Just as the idea of taking capital away from individuals and giving it to the government started Marx in a path which ends in making the government everything and the individual nothing, so the idea of taking capital away from government-protected monopolies and putting it within easy reach of all individuals started Warren and Proudhon in a path which ends in making the individual everything and the government nothing. If the individual has a right to govern himself, all external government is tyranny. Hence the necessity of abolishing the State.

It is precisely the state-created barriers to entry and economic regulations that prevent competition and therefore concentrate economic power and resources into the hands of a few, politically entrenched elites. It is the Authority of the State that Tucker objected to that capitalist exploitation, which Marx rightfully objected to, rests upon. Rejecting that authority means embracing, “Anarchism, which may be described as the doctrine that all affairs of men should be managed by individuals and voluntary associations, and that the State should be abolished.”

Tucker and his “Unterrified Jeffersonianism” gave rise to a new libertarian movement in 1881 when he founded Liberty: Not the Daughter but the Mother of Order, a periodical that served as a conduit for what Tucker called philosophical anarchism, specifically his own flavor, which incorporated pro-labor, pro-market, egoist thought and drew heavily on Josiah Warren, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (the author of Liberty’s sub-heading), Herbert Spencer, and Max Stirner, in the American radical political scene as well as a platform for discourse that would shape the individualist tradition and libertarian movement forever.

The individualists among freethought, free love, and the labor movement were brought together with Tucker’s Liberty, which published such influential radicals as Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, Joshua K. Ingalls, John Henry Mackay, Victor Yarros, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe. The magazine chronicled and created all the in debates and controversies of the radical individualist tradition for over three decades and, according to Wendy McElroy, “provided a core around which a revitalized movement could sprout and grow.” By bringing together the remaining individualist factions left over from the Civil War schism, Tucker and Liberty were instrumental in the revival of the American libertarian movement and vital for it’s success and growth in the 20th century.

The Freethinking Boston Investigator welcomed the first issue of Liberty in 1881 by saying, “Mr. Tucker has ability and industry, radicalism and independence, he will make an interesting and suggestive paper.” The periodical clearly surpassed expectations.

By 1908, though, Liberty had run its course and by 1930, my favorite Boston Radical thought liberty itself had as well:

…the insurmountable obstacle to the realization of Anarchy is no longer the power of the trusts, but the indisputable fact that our civilization is in its death throes. We may last a couple of centuries yet; on the other hand, a decade may precipitate our finish. … The dark ages sure enough. The Monster, Mechanism, is devouring mankind.

Nine years later, Benjamin Tucker passed away believing the flame of liberty was permanently burned out. I hope almost a hundred years later, the libertarian movement that owes its revival and existence to Tucker’s inner spark in 1881 doesn’t let its radical and independent flame ever burn out.

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