An Anarchist FAQ - Section G - Introduction

An Anarchist FAQ
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LINKPDF version of Section G.

Section G - Is individualist anarchism capitalistic?

The short answer is, no, it is not. While a diverse tendency, the individualist anarchists were opposed to the exploitation of labour, all forms of non-labour income (such as profits, interest and rent) as well as capitalist property rights (particularly in land). While aiming for a free market system, they considered laissez-faire capitalism to be based on various kinds of state enforced class monopoly which ensured that labour was subjected to rule, domination and exploitation by capital. As such it is deeply anti-capitalist and many individualist anarchists, including its leading figure Benjamin Tucker, explicitly called themselves socialists (indeed, Tucker often referred to his theory as "Anarchistic-Socialism").

So, in this section of our anarchist FAQ we indicate why the individualist anarchists cannot be classified as "ancestors" of the bogus libertarians of the "anarcho"-capitalist school. Rather, they must be classified as libertarian socialists due to their opposition to exploitation, critique of capitalist property rights and concern for equality, albeit being on the liberal wing of anarchist thought. Moreover, while all wanted to have an economy in which all incomes were based on labour, many also opposed wage labour, i.e. the situation where one person sells their labour to another rather than the product of that labour (a position which, we argue, their ideas logically imply). So while some of their ideas do overlap with those of the "anarcho"-capitalist school they are not capitalistic, no more than the overlap between their ideas and anarcho-communism makes them communistic.

In this context, the creation of "anarcho"-capitalism may be regarded as yet another tactic by capitalists to reinforce the public's perception that there are no viable alternatives to capitalism, i.e. by claiming that "even anarchism implies capitalism." In order to justify this claim, they have searched the history of anarchism in an effort to find some thread in the movement that can be used for this purpose. They think that with the individualist anarchists they have found such a thread. However, such an appropriation requires the systematic ignoring or dismissal of key aspects of individualist-anarchism (which, of course, the right-"libertarian" does). Somewhat ironically, this attempt by right-"libertarians" to exclude individualist anarchism from socialism parallels an earlier attempt by state socialists to do the same. Tucker furiously refuted such attempts in an article entitled "Socialism and the Lexicographers", arguing that "the Anarchistic Socialists are not to be stripped of one half of their title by the mere dictum of the last lexicographer." [Instead of a Book, p. 365]

Nevertheless, in the individualists we find anarchism coming closest to "classical" liberalism and being influenced by the ideas of Herbert Spencer, a forefather of "libertarian" capitalism (of the minimal state variety). As Kropotkin summarised, their ideas were "a combination of those of Proudhon with those of Herbert Spencer." [Anarchism, p. 296] What the "anarcho"-capitalist is trying to is to ignore Proudhon's influence (i.e. the socialist aspect of their theories) which just leaves Spencer, who was a right-wing liberal. To reduce individualist anarchism so is to destroy what makes it a unique political theory and movement. While both Kropotkin and Tucker praised Spencer as a synthetic philosopher and social scientist, they were both painfully aware of the limitations in his socio-political ideas. Tucker considered his attacks on all forms of socialism (including Proudhon) as authoritarian as being, at best, misinformed or, at worse, dishonest. He also recognised the apologetic and limited nature of his attacks on state intervention, noting that "amid his multitudinous illustrations . . . of the evils of legislation, he in every instance cites some law passed ostensibly at least to protect labour, alleviating suffering, or promote the people's welfare. But never once does he call attention to the far more deadly and deep-seated evils growing out of the innumerable laws creating privilege and sustaining monopoly." Unsurprisingly, he considered Spencer as a "champion of the capitalistic class." [quoted by James J. Martin, Men Against the State, p. 240] As we will discuss in section G.3, it is likely that he would have drawn the same conclusion about "anarcho"-capitalism.

This does not mean that the majority thread within the anarchist movement is uncritical of individualist anarchism. Far from it! Social anarchists have argued that this influence of non-anarchist ideas means that while its "criticism of the State is very searching, and [its] defence of the rights of the individual very powerful," like Spencer it "opens . . . the way for reconstituting under the heading of 'defence' all the functions of the State." [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 297] This flows, social anarchists argue, from the impact of liberal principles and led some individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker to support contract theory in the name of freedom, without being aware of the authoritarian social relationships that could be implied by it, as can be seen under capitalism (other individualist anarchists were more aware of this contradiction as we will see). Therefore, social anarchists tend to think of individualist anarchism as an inconsistent form of anarchism, one which could become consistent by simply logically applying its own principles (see section G.4). On their part, many individualist anarchists simply denied that social anarchists where anarchists, a position other anarchists refute (see section G.2). As such, this section can also be considered, in part, as a continuation of the discussion begun in section A.3.

Few thinkers are completely consistent. Given Tucker's adamant anti-statism and anti-capitalism, it is likely that had he realised the authoritarian social relationships which contract theory tends to produce (and justify) when involving employing labour, he would have modified his views in such a way as to eliminate the contradiction (particularly as contracts involving wage labour directly contradicts his support for "occupancy and use"). It is understandable why he failed to do so, however, given the social context in which he lived and agitated. In Tucker's America, self-employment was still a possibility on a wide scale (in fact, for much of the nineteenth century it was the dominant form of economic activity). His reforms were aimed at making it easier for workers to gain access to both land and machinery, so allowing wage workers to become independent farmers or artisans. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he viewed individualist anarchism as a society of workers, not one of capitalists and workers. Moreover, as we will argue in section G.4.1, his love for freedom and opposition to usury logically implies artisan and co-operative labour -- people selling the products of their labour, as opposed to the labour itself -- which itself implies self-management in production (and society in general), not authoritarianism within the workplace (this was the conclusion of Proudhon as well as Kropotkin). Nevertheless, it is this inconsistency -- the non-anarchist aspect of individualist anarchism -- which right "libertarians" like Murray Rothbard select and concentrate on, ignoring the anti-capitalist context in which this aspect of individualist thought exists within. As David Wieck pointed out:


"Out of the history of anarchist thought and action Rothbard has pulled forth a single thread, the thread of individualism, and defines that individualism in a way alien even to the spirit of a Max Stirner or a Benjamin Tucker, whose heritage I presume he would claim -- to say nothing of how alien is his way to the spirit of Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, and the historically anonymous persons who through their thoughts and action have tried to give anarchism a living meaning. Out of this thread Rothbard manufactures one more bourgeois ideology." [Anarchist Justice, pp. 227-228]


It is with this in mind that we discuss the ideas of people like Tucker. As this section of the FAQ will indicate, even at its most liberal, individualist, extreme anarchism was fundamentally anti-capitalist. Any concepts which "anarcho"-capitalism imports from the individualist tradition ignore both the theoretical underpinnings of their ideas as well as the social context of self-employment and artisan production within which those concepts arose, thus turning them into something radically different from what was intended by their originators. As we discuss in section G.1.4 the social context in which individualist anarchism developed is essential to understanding both its politics and its limitations ("Anarchism in America is not a foreign importation but a product of the social conditions of this country and its historical traditions," although it is "true that American anarchism was also influenced later by European ideas." [Rudolf Rocker, Pioneers of American Freedom, p. 163]).

Saying that, it would be a mistake to suggest (as some writers have) that individualist anarchism can be viewed purely in American terms. While understanding the nature of American society and economy at the time is essential to understanding individualist anarchism, it would be false to imply that only individualist anarchism was the product of America conditions and subscribed to by Americans while social anarchism was imported from Europe by immigrants. After all, Albert and Lucy Parsons were both native-born Americans who became communist-anarchists while Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman only become anarchists once they had arrived in America. Native-born Voltairine de Cleyre moved from individualist to communist anarchism. Josiah Warren may have been born in Boston, but he developed his anarchism after his experiences in a experimental community set up by Welsh socialist Robert Owen (who, in turn, was inspired by William Godwin's ideas). While Warren and Proudhon may have developed their ideas independently, American libertarians became aware of Proudhon and other European socialists as radical journals had correspondents in France during the 1848 revolution and partial translations of radical writings from Europe appeared as quickly as they could be transmitted and translated. Individualist anarchists like William Greene and Tucker were heavily influenced by the ideas of Proudhon and so imported aspects of European anarchism into American individualist anarchism while the likes of the French individualist E. Armand brought aspects of American anarchism into the European movement. Similarly, both Spooner and Greene had been members of the First International while individualist anarchists Joseph Labadie and Dyer Lum where organisers of the Knights of Labor union along with Albert and Lucy Parsons. Lum later joined the anarcho-communist inspired International Working People's Association (IWPA) and edited its English language paper (the Alarm) when Parson was imprisoned awaiting execution. All forms of anarchism were, in other words, a combination of European and American influences, both in terms of ideas and in terms of social experiences and struggles, even organisations.

While red-baiting and cries of "Un-American" may incline some to stress the "native-born" aspect of individualist anarchism (particularly those seeking to appropriate that tendency for their own ends), both wings of the US movement had native-born and foreign members, aspects and influences (and, as Rocker noted, the "so-called white civilisation of [the American] continent is the work of European immigrants." [Op. Cit., p. 163]). While both sides tended to denounce and attack the other (particularly after the Haymarket events), they had more in common than the likes of Benjamin Tucker and Johann Most would have been prepared to admit and each tendency, in its own way, reflected aspects of American society and the drastic transformation it was going through at the time. Moreover, it was changes in American society which lead to the steady rise of social anarchism and its eclipse of individualist anarchism from the 1880s onwards. While there has been a tendency to stress individualist tendency in accounts of American anarchism due to its unique characteristics, only those "without a background in anarchist history" would think "that the individualist anarchists were the larger segment of the anarchist movement in the U.S. at the time. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The collectivist branch of anarchism was much stronger among radicals and workers during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century than the individualist brand. Before the Civil War, the opposite would be true." [Greg Hall, Social Anarchism, no. 30, pp. 90-91]

By the 1880s, social anarchism had probably exceeded the size of the "home-grown" individualists in the United States. The IWPA had some five thousand members at its peak with perhaps three times as many supporters. [Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, p. 83] Its journals had an aggregate circulation of over 30,000. [George Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 395] In contrast, the leading individualist newspaper Liberty "probably never had more than 600 to 1000 subscribers, but it was undoubtedly read by more than that." [Charles H. Hamilton, "Introduction", p. 1-19, Benjamin R. Tucker and the Champions of Liberty, Coughlin, Hamilton and Sullivan (eds.), p. 10] The repression after Haymarket took its toll and the progress of social anarchism was hindered for a decade. However, "[b]y the turn of the century, the anarchist movement in America had become predominantly communist in orientation." [Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices, p. 5] As an added irony for those who stress the individualist nature of anarchism in America while dismissing social anarchism as a foreign import, the first American newspaper to use the name "An-archist" was published in Boston in 1881 by anarchists within the social revolutionary branch of the movement. [Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, p. 57] Equally ironic, given the appropriation of the term by the American right, the first anarchist journal to use the term "libertarian" (La Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social) was published in New York between 1858 and 1861 by French communist-anarchist Joseph Déjacque. [Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, pp. 75-6]

All this is not to suggest that individualist anarchism does not have American roots nor that many of its ideas and visions were not significantly shaped by American social conditions and developments. Far from it! It is simply to stress that it did not develop in complete isolation of European anarchism during the latter half of the nineteenth century and that the social anarchism which overtook by the end of that century was also a product of American conditions (in this case, the transformation of a pre-capitalist society into a capitalist one). In other words, the rise of communist anarchism and the decline of individualist anarchism by the end of the nineteenth century reflected American society just as much as the development of the latter in the first place. Thus the rise of capitalism in America meant the rise of an anarchism more suitable to the social conditions and social relationships produced by that change. Unsurprisingly, therefore, individualist anarchism remains the minority trend in American anarchism to this day with such comrades as Joe Peacott (see his pamphlet Individualism Reconsidered), Kevin Carson (see his book Studies in Mutualist Political Economy) and Shawn Wilbur (who has painstakingly placed many rare early individualist and mutualist anarchist works onto the internet) keeping its ideas alive.

So like social anarchism, individualist anarchism developed as a response to the rise of capitalism and the transformation of American society this produced. As one academic put it, the "early anarchists, though staunchly individualistic, did not entertain a penchant for . . . capitalism. Rather, they saw themselves as socialists opposed to the state socialism of Karl Marx. The individualist anarchists saw no contradiction between their individualist stance and their rejection of capitalism." She stresses that they were "fervent anti-capitalists" and thought that "workers created value through their labour, a value appropriated by owners of businesses . . . The individualist anarchists blamed capitalism for creating inhumane working conditions and for increasing inequalities of wealth. Their self-avowed 'socialism' was rooted in their firm belief in equality, material as well as legal." This, however, did not stop her asserting that "contemporary anarcho-capitalists are descendants of nineteenth-century individualist anarchists such as Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker." [Susan Love Brown, pp. 99-128, "The Free Market as Salvation from Government", Meanings of the Market, James G. Carrier (ed.), p. 104, p. 107, p. 104 and p. 103] Trust an academic to ignore the question of how related are two theories which differ on such a key issue as whether to be anti-capitalist or not!

Needless to say, some "anarcho"-capitalists are well aware of the fact that individualist anarchists were extremely hostile to capitalism while supporting the "free market." Unsurprisingly, they tend to downplay this opposition, often arguing that the anarchists who point out the anti-capitalist positions of the likes of Tucker and Spooner are quoting them out of context. The truth is different. In fact, it is the "anarcho"-capitalist who takes the ideas of the individualist anarchists from both the historical and theoretical context. This can be seen from the "anarcho"-capitalist dismissal of the individualist anarchists' "bad" economics as well as the nature of the free society wanted by them.

It is possible, no doubt, to trawl through the many issues of, say, Liberty or the works of individualist anarchism to find a few comments which may be used to bolster a claim that anarchism need not imp