Victor S. Yarros, "Philosophical Anarchism: Its Rise, Decline, and Eclipse," The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 41, No. 4. (Jan., 1936), pp. 470-483.




Philosophical anarchism was an American phenomenon propounded by Benjamin R. Tucker of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who was influenced by Proudhon's What Is Property? He founded the journal Liberty in 1882 and continued to edit it for nearly thirty years. He was a pacifist and advocated an absence of all compulsion even in government. From American associates he came to advocate extreme individualism, holding that all coercion was immoral. The four major monopolies which he attacked were land, money and banking, trade, patents and copyright. He held that to abolish these would abolish poverty. He had great difficulty with the problem of the punishment of criminals, but believed that crime would tend to disappear under an anarchistic society. He opposed all paternalistic reform movements; believed in labor unions, but opposed their legislative programs. His journal had several imitators. His following was never large, and he alienated the followers of Herbert Spencer as well as his religious disciples. The growth of trusts and syndicates in America and the increasing development of socialistic forms of organization were, perhaps, most influential in causing the decline of philosophical anarchism.

Occasionally, in the more scientific of contemporary political discussions, someone calls himself, or is called, a "philosophical anarchist," or an individualist-anarchist. The younger generation of students and professors is unfamiliar with this variety of political or economic radicalism. An account of the nature of the doctrine, its origin, development, and decline should be of interest to students of social thought.

Philosophical anarchism was as American a contribution as pragmatism. The man who evolved it and decided to devote himself to its propagation was Benjamin R. Tucker of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Tucker was the son of a banker of Quaker descent and affiliations. He received a conventional education, and planned, with his parents, to make civil engineering his profession and attended the Boston Polytechnical Institute for a period of two years. Several causes or accidents then led him to abandon engineering and turn to radical journalism. He informed his parents of his decision and asked them to finance a year's travel and study in Europe, pointing out that the cost of such travel would not exceed that of a third year in Boston. The parents readily acceded to his request, and that ended his academic or formal education. [471]

In Europe he read much, attended meetings and lectures, and became an admirer of P. J. Proudhon and his works. In Proudhon's What Is Property? Tucker first encountered the terms "anarchism" and "anarchist" and Proudhon's own original, not to say whimsical, definition of those terms. In later years, Proudhon admitted that this definition was a jeu d'esprit, not to be taken too seriously, but Tucker took it very seriously indeed.

Upon his return to America and Boston, he decided to start a fortnightly journal for the aggressive propaganda of anarchism. He also hoped and planned to translate into English all of Proudhon's major works. He did translate two, What Is Property? and A System of Economical Contradictions, but lack of time and of money prevented him from completing his self-imposed task.

In 1882 he launched Liberty, a journal which, with not a few interruptions and suspensions, he continued to edit and publish till 1910. He doubtless would have continued to publish it, since his views underwent no substantial change, had not a fire destroyed his printing shop and equipment. He had never insured his assets, declaring that the insurance companies were charging unwarranted and exorbitant rates.

Tucker lost his religious faith very early in his life, and became a militant atheist. He translated, from the French, Michael Bakounine's pamphlet, God and the State. But he never quite lost his Quaker sentiments. He remained a pacific and philosophical anarchist. Although he hated and denounced government, and took keen pleasure in calling the plutocrats and capitalists "the brotherhood of thieves," he never advocated violence, physical force, or armed revolt. Resistance to government was to be passive -- taking such forms as refusal to pay taxes, evasion of jury service and military duty. Resistance to plutocracy was likewise to be purely passive. There were to be individual and collective strikes against landlordism and rent, for example. There was to be organized competition with the commercial and other banks on the part of mutual, cooperative banks as well as co-operation in industry and trade on a voluntary basis in opposition to the profit system.

Tucker's personal life was almost monastic. He worked hard, slept little, ate simple and frugal meals, and allowed himself little [472] recreation. He was fond of the theater and of music, but he seldom attended plays or concerts. He practiced the gospel of simple living and high thinking. He was a severe and austere critic, and demanded rigorous consistency of himself and of others. Compromise and opportunism he detested and fought with a fanaticism which reminded some of his friends of his remoter witch-burning and heresy-hunting ancestors. He had few, if any, intimate friends, and was reserved, cold, aloof in all his personal relations.

He was a forceful and clear writer, but a poor speaker. He had marked journalistic ability, but he never wrote a sentence or line which did not express his own convictions. To write for capitalistic or bourgeois newspapers was, in his eyes, the worst form of prostitution. Although he was a member of the editorial staff of the Boston Globe for several years, his duties were limited to the re-writing and editing of news items and reports. His honesty and consistency commanded the respect and admiration of his associates on the paper, few of whom had the slightest sympathy with his ideas. It is interesting to note that in the eighties and early nineties of the last century the publisher and editor, as well as the stockholders, of the Boston Globe were not afraid of philosophical anarchism and not unwilling to give employment to the leader of the anarchistic movement in America.

As already indicated, Proudhon gave Tucker the terms he used as well as certain basic concepts. But other men and other ideas -- or, perhaps, ideas differently formulated or expressed -- had also influenced his thinking. Among these were Josiah Warren, the grandson of the Warren who fell at Bunker Hill; Lysander Spooner, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and Col. William B. Greene. Warren, Tucker wrote, first opened his eyes to economic and political truth by advocating and elucidating two important principles, "the sovereignty of the individual" and "cost the limit of price." Warren's principles were elaborated and defended, in various ways and from various points of view, by Spooner, Andrews and Greene.

Tucker's teachings grew and evolved and in their final phase and form, as he acknowledged, they embodied a sort of synthesis, of which the doctrines of John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Auberon Herbert were significant ingredients. [473]

The individualistic anarchist, wrote Tucker, was simply "an unterrified Jeffersonian democrat.'' Government, according to the Jeffersonians, was a "necessary evil," and its encroachments and aggressions could be prevented, or controlled in part, only by an attitude of profound distrust and by frequent revolutions. Well, if this was true, then why not draw the inevitable conclusion that government ought to be gradually abolished and voluntary co-operation established in its place? The process, of course, would require time, but the point was that if one knew the goal to be reached, one also had a tolerably exact idea of the steps to be taken, the tactics to be adopted, with the view of moving steadily toward the objective.

Again, all thoughtful democrats and advanced liberals believed, with Macauley, that the remedy for the ills of liberty was to be found in greater liberty. Anarchism, then, boldly took a stand for the maximum of liberty, or the abolition of the state with its compulsions and invasions. Further, all good democrats insisted on government "by the consent of the governed." But few ever stopped to ask whether the consent of the governed, as a fundamental principle, was realized by institutions built on the principle of majority rule. The consent of majorities, nominal or actual, was certainly not the consent of all the governed. Government by consent of all the governed was anarchism, and therefore the pumb-line democrat must accept anarchism as his own conscious ideal, and not shrink from it. Moreover, had not Herbert Spencer asserted and proved that the state was conceived in aggression, founded upon aggression, and maintained by aggression, and that majority rule was the great political superstition of modern times? If we are to discard majority rule as well as rule by tyrants, oligarchies, and dictators, then we are logically forced to make anarchism our goal.

Finally, Proudhon had argued that liberty was the mother, not the daughter, of order, and Sir Henry Maine had demonstrated that social progress had represented a definite movement away from "status" and toward "contract," or free and voluntary association. There was no reason, Tucker contended, why this march or trend should stop short of anarchism.

To these arguments the still small voice of Quakerism added that its was absolutely immoral to coerce other individuals, whether [474] directly or indirectly, by supporting the state, by voting, by helping to place power in the hands of officials, tax-collectors, jailers, and executioners. The conscientious and loyal man must never cast a ballot for any candidate for public office, or for any measure or proposal involving coercion of non-consenting individuals. Thus the dictates of the highest ethics enjoined the high-minded individual against taking part in the processes and activities of the state.

Tucker realized that the issues of the period in which he carried on his work were mainly, if not almost exclusively, economic, not political. Anarchism, therefore, needed an economic program and a set of economic principles to justify and sanction that program. The individual does not live by bread alone, but neither does he live by logic and political metaphysics alone. How would anarchism solve the economic problems -- the problem of human exploitation, of monopoly, of special privilege, of low wages, or unemployment, of poverty and slavery?

Tucker answered this all-important question by affirming that the state was responsible for the existence of the economic problems just mentioned. The state created and backed the monopolies and the unjust privileges which, singly and in combination, caused unemployment, miserable wages, and cruel exploitation of labor. "The State -- that is the enemy" -- the enemy of the poor, the disinherited, the downtrodden. Abolish the state, and the monopolies will disappear.

The four major monopolies which Tucker attacked and held responsible for poverty and economic slavery were: land, money and banking, trade, and patents and copyright. The abolition of these monopolies, he argued, would solve all our economic problems, Full and real equality of opportunity -- the original American promise and ideal -- would be achieved; land would be free again; the only title to a farm or home in a city would be one based on occupancy and use, and millions now idle and jobless would gladly take up land and cultivate it. In the cities and towns slums would be reclaimed and rehabilitated, since no rent to landlords would have to be paid, and interest on capital would be unprecedently low. Interest rates would fall to 2 per cent, and eventually to 1 per cent, since banking would be freed from monopolistic control, state banks would [475] regain their right to issue circulating notes or currency under a few reasonable regulations designed to prevent deliberate cheating and wild inflation, and mutual, co-operative banks would spring up everywhere under the auspices of labor and consumer organizations. Customs duties would be abolished, and trade and commerce would be free. Patent and copyright privileges would be done away with, and invention would be stimulated rather than checked, since the only advantage an inventor or a purchaser of a new device would enjoy would lie in the chance of building up good-will by an early start.

In short, according to the argument, all our multi-millionaires and millionaires, all our predatory capitalists owe their ill-gotten wealth to monopoly and the plunder and ruthless exploitation licensed by monopoly. The gross and disgraceful inequalities in modern society are due not to competition, but to legal robbery. The state is the servant of the robbers, and it exists chiefly to prevent the expropriation of the robbers and the restoration of a fair and free field for legitimate competition and wholesome, effective voluntary co-operation.

Anarchism, Tucker emphasized again and again, is not synonymous with individual isolation, selfishness, primitive forms of industry, failure to utilize the potentialities of science and technique. What anarchism objects to is compulsory co-operation, not to intelligent, free, experimental co-operation.

Tucker was often asked what he, or his system, would do with the criminal elements of a community. Does anarchism involve the freedom to commit murder, burglary, arson, theft, and like offenses against person or property? If so, it is Utopian and unworthy of serious consideration. Does it imply non-resistance to all forms of evil? If so, human nature would reject it with scorn and contempt. If it contemplates and permits the punishment of crime, then it believes in government and all the paraphernalia of so-called justice and repression.

Tucker never encountered a more stubborn difficulty than this -- of satisfying critics and doubters of the soundness of his distinction between crime in the sense of harmful anti-social behavior and crime in the sense of violation of conventions and rules adopted by [476] accidental majorities and not at all essential to social security and social solidarity.

But his position was this: No individual or group of individuals should ever be punished or penalized merely for refusing to work with the community. The individual has a perfect right to ignore the state -- as indeed Spencer had argued in the first edition of his Social Statics -- and do as he wills, provided he does not infringe upon the equal liberty of all other individuals. But if he becomes aggressive and "invasive"; if he violates the principle of equal freedom, then he merits restraint and punishment. But to punish him for injuring others is not to "govern" him. For, by definition, government means interfering with and controlling the non-invasive and non-aggressive individuals.

The question at once arises, How is the proper punishment for crime to be determined, and by whom? After some hesitation and uncertainty, he met this serious question by adopting the ideas of Lysander Spooner -- a very keen lawyer and student of legal history -- concerning trial by jury. His final statements on the subject may be summed up thus: The issue of guilt and innocence in any actual case would be decided by an authentic common-law jury -- that is, by twelve persons selected by lot from the entire list of the adult members of the community. Before this jury the facts and the principles of the case would be argued informally and thoroughly; all technicalities and jargon would be eschewed; the appeal would be the fundamental doctrine of equality of liberty and opportunity. The jury's verdict would be final.

In the last analysis, the penalties inflicted would depend on the intelligence and humanity of the community, which a representative jury would reflect and translate into specific judgments. Some communities might inflict capital punishment in certain cases; others might reject that degree of punishment as barbarous or ineffectual. Science and experience would suggest, from time to time, changes or improvements in the anarchistic codes of criminal procedure and criminal law. In any event, the wilful offender, the antisocial individual, would have no one but himself to blame.

It should be added that Tucker and his followers did not believe that an anarchistic society would be embarrassed and troubled by [477] much crime. Economic justice and equality of opportunity, they held, would remove most of the causes of crime. Contracts would be broken now and then, owing to misunderstanding, individual perversity, arrogance or folly, and the principal duty of juries would be the interpretation and enforcement of contracts.

According to Tucker, anarchism would evolve gradually and not be precipitated by a sudden revolution. Therefore, in all probability, the police, or protective, functions of the state would be the last to go -- that is, to be taken over by voluntary associations. There would doubtless be considerable competition in the field of protection against crime as there is in the field of life, property, and accident insurance, and the fittest would survive. But conflicts of opinion among these protective associations might be expected; and, again, juries would have to pass upon such conflicts and apply the will of the entire community. True, the community might not reach a strictly unanimous opinion in a given case, and this lack of agreement, ordinarily, would be reflected in the jury's deliberations. Compromise verdicts would perhaps follow, but it was the contention of Lysander Spooner that compromise verdicts are fair and reasonable. Trial by jury, under the common law, was supposed to be, and meant to be, "trial by the county," or trial by the whole community. Exemptions from jury service on account of differences in mere opinion were wrong in principle, since any offender facing trial was entitled to benefit of the fact that such differences existed.

Many socialist and other critics of Tucker's philosophy insisted that a voluntary association was a sort of government, and that complete anarchism was an impossibility. His invariable reply was that the critics failed to appreciate the significance of the definitions of the terms they pretended to discuss. All that anarchism involved was the abandonment of the element of compulsion in government. To recognize the right of the individual to join, or decline to join, the state, as well as resign his membership, or secede, after fulfilling his contractual obligations, was "complete anarchism." The members of a voluntary association might enact any constitution or bylaws they deemed sensible and expedient; no outsider had any right to protest. The dissatisfied member had the right to resign.

The better to illustrate these principles, Tucker and some eight or [478] ten followers organized the Boston Anarchist Club. This was a purely educational body. It held meetings, arranged debates, invited speakers, hired halls, and collected funds. One of its by-laws provoked much surprise and ridicule. It provided that the president of the club should preside over the meetings and rule, without appeal, on all matters of procedure, such as the time to be allowed for questions, remarks, etc., or on points of order. What despotism! many exclaimed. Here is your notion of liberty, Messrs. Anarchists! But, Tucker argued, there is not the slightest violation of liberty in that by-law. It was adopted unanimously because it seemed expedient and businesslike. It was experimental. The members had the right to change it at any of their meetings. The delegation of power for certain purposes by a voluntary association, and for a limited period, was wholly compatible with anarchistic principles.

In fighting the state and government, Tucker tried to make it clear that he was fighting a certain principle, not a special institution, and that he would fight the same principle wherever it found expression. He opposed savagely any and all reform movements that had paternalistic aims and looked to the state for aid and fulfillment. He believed in labor unions, but he fought their legislative programs. He believed in a short day, but not in a law imposing a short day. He had no patience with minimum-wage-law proposals, compulsory pension systems, compulsory insurance. For the same reason, consistent, unrelenting opposition to compulsion, he combatted "populism," "greenbackism," the single-tax movement, and all forms of socialism and communism. He denounced and exposed Johann Most, the editor of Freiheit, the anarchist-communist organ. The end, he declared, could never justify the means, if the means were intrinsically immoral -- and force, by whomsoever used, was immoral except as a means of preventing or punishing aggression.

On the other hand, Tucker was always happy and delighted when any political party or other powerful organization espoused the principle of liberty and recommended the repeal of an obnoxious, tyrannical, restrictive law. Anti-tariff planks, anti-monopoly planks, law-repeal planks always pleased him. He expected little, to be sure, from political action, but he welcomed the educational effects of "libertarian" moves or declarations. [479]

At no time had Tucker's Liberty more than a few hundred subscribers. But among these were eminent and remarkable men and women -- distinguished lawyers, Wall Street financiers, men of letters, journalists, liberal ministers. Through his exchange list he influenced editors of labor and reform journals. Several prominent trade-union leaders read Liberty faithfully and shared some of its central ideas. The president of the Boston central labor union, a man named Gibbs, resigned that office and joined the anarchist club. It was believed that Samuel Gompers, in his opposition to independent political action by organized labor and to compulsory unemployment insurance, was in some degree guided by Tucker and his disciples, one of whom wrote the editorials for the American Federationist during a decade or more.

Liberty was not long in inviting emulation and imitation. Several other anarchistic journals were launched to support Tucker's propaganda: Lucifer in Kansas, edited by Moses Harmon; Fair Play in New York, edited by E. C. Walker; and others. In appearance, in style, and in the character of its contents, Liberty was a paragon. Bernard Shaw, although a socialist, wrote for it and praised its intellectual and literary tone and quality. Vilfredo Pareto sent it an article, which Tucker printed with much satisfaction.

Tucker's economic and political views remained essentially the same throughout his career as anarchistic editor, teacher, and writer. But his ethical and philosophical ideas, rather unfortunately, were completely revolutionized by "Max Stirner," or Caspar Schmidt, the German pedagogue and author of a singular book, Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum -- available in an English translation under the title, The Ego and His Own, Tucker was introduced to this volume by John Henry Mackay, the Scotch-German poet and novelist, whom Tucker had converted to anarchism. Stirner was a sort of political metaphysician. He repudiated the ideas of the philosophers of social and moral evolution. The individual or ego, he argued, owed no allegiance to anyone. He was supreme, and, if intelligent, governed himself entirely by utilitarian considerations. He might or might not co-operate with others; self-interest and expediency were his only guides. A society composed of conscious egoists would be based on contract, and on nothing else. There would be nothing [480] mystical or supernatural about it. Men want peace, and peace can be achieved by discussion and agreement. Altruism was nonsense, a figment of the romantic imagination. All men are selfish, but selfishness assumes different forms and manifestations. It is selfish to please one's self; it is just as selfish to please others whom one likes to please, or whom one loves; it is selfish to devote one's life and abilities to a cause; it is selfish to give up one's life for an ideal. One's kind of selfishness is determined by environment, by books, by accidents, by temperamental traits. But no selfishness is "higher" than any other selfishness.

These crude, naive notions were adopted by Tucker and some -- but not all -- of his disciples as the height of wisdom, science, and realistic psychology. Tucker renounced ethics and all lines of ethical reasoning. He resolved to make his appeal exclusively to self-interest and the supposed instincts, desires, and aspirations of the "emancipated ego." He became the champion of egoism as well as of anarchism.

He no longer condemned government, politics, and voting as "immoral." He no longer spoke of the duty of the self-respecting and upright individual to do the right thing, or of the "augustness" of the thing felt to be right. He knew that all his masters and teachers -- Proudhon, Warren, Spooner, Spencer -- had written in terms of morality and right, but he dismissed that fact as unimportant and irrelevant. Anarchism was to be brought about by conscious and enlightened egoists, and from a rigorously utilitarian point of view. The social contract of Rousseau was to become a fact, because free men would throw overboard all religious and moral sanctions and reorganize life on the basis of mutual advantage.

This pseudo-realistic gospel irritated and alienated those of Tucker's followers who had come to him via Spencer and who accepted evolutional ethics. It also offended the few sincerely religious Christians who saw no conflict between the teachings of Jesus and pacific and democratic anarchism. The movement was bound to suffer from these losses. It could not but be adversely effected, too, by the emerging school of social psychology, which made hash of Stirner's arbitrary and verbal distinctions. But these, doubtless, [481] were minor factors in the decline and virtual disappearance of anarchism. Far more potent factors and forces tended to undermine and discredit that movement.

In the first place, the amazing growth of trusts and syndicates, of holding companies and huge corporations, of chain banks and chain stores, gradually and insiduously shook the faith of many in the efficacy of mutual banks, co-operative associations of producers and consumers, and the competition of little fellows. Proudhon's plan for a bank of the people to make industrial loans without interest to workers' co-operatives, or other members, seemed extremely remote and inapplicable to an age of mass production, mechanization, continental and international markets.

In the second place, the whole trend in politics and economics since the end of the last century had been away from individualism and laissez-faire-ism. The state, obviously, was not dying of inanition or making room for voluntary institutions. Union labor was becoming more and more paternalistic, and so were the individualistic and self-reliant farmers. Everybody, in short, was looking to the state for aid and support. State lines were vanishing lines; democracy had forgotten Jefferson. Cleveland had called protection "the communism of pelf," and the democratic party was finding low-tariff planks and free-trade principles serious handicaps.

In the third place, thinkers and reformers of distinctly libertarian, not to say anarchistic, sympathies, were saying that, whatever the ideal society of the future may retain of compulsion in government, it is practically certain that the next several decades will witness a radical extension of governmental functions and responsibilities, notably in connection with industry, finance, and commerce. In other words, we are to reconcile ourselves to a great deal of collectivism, whether we relish the prospect or not, and anarchism may be a post-collectivist stage of social development. Bertrand Russell and others, who are not enamored of government, have reached the definite conclusion that some form of socialism is inevitable, and coming rather fast. Under socialism the individual, the minority, and the heretical groups generally may enjoy much less freedom than capitalism has tolerated, and the struggle for liberty may [482] have to be carried on with redoubled vigor. At all events, the task of abolishing compulsion in favor of voluntary co-operation and a regime of contract is not one for the present generation or even the next.

The Marx-Proudhon contention that the state is merely the tool of the class in power economically and financially, the protector of privilege and ill-gotten property, has not been verified under Republican-Democratic regimes. The dominant classes have had to make concessions again and again to the dominated and exploited elements of society. Agrarian reforms have been wrested from the industrial lords; labor has managed to gain the right to organize, strike, and boycott. There has been some democratization of financial power, some regulation of rent, interest, and profits. Plutocracy has not had its own way, and Burke's formula, government is compromise, has encouraged the masses to force reforms in their own interest.

In fine, conditions, not theories, have directed the efforts and struggles of the victims of plutocracy and privilege. The state has not been boycotted; on the contrary, it has been courted, cajoled, used, occasionally even captured, in part, by the spokesmen of labor and agriculture, and by the intellectual groups who have deserted their own class and made common cause with the masses.

Thus individualistic and philosophic anarchism has been relegated to the limbo of abstractions and dreams. It has become irrelevant and devoid of vital content. The streams of tendency have deprived it of reality and significance. They have had the same effect, as we all know, on the old type of liberalism, of laissez-faire-ism, which, as Professor John Dewey has pointed out, forgetting relativity, has pedantically identified itself with the narrow concepts of a particular era and a particular economic situation.

The anarchists have adjourned, finding their occupation gone. But they claim to have made important contributions to political science and to have rendered progress valuable services. Society, they are satisfied, will have to recur to the principles they have stressed -- the principles of equal freedom, of full economic opportunity, of voluntary co-operation, of occupancy and use as the only [483] valid title to land, of the extension of the co-operative principle to banking and credit, of simplified and rationalized legal procedure, and trial by genuinely representative juries. Even the talk of the absolute sovereignty of the individual, pedantic and academic as it sounds, may be sobering and refreshing during a period of naked reaction, of fascist regimentation, of the revival of the mystical, all-powerful state, of the unity and peace of death, of the divine mission of dictators ignorant and contemptuous of the clearest lessons of history.

Lewis Institute, Chicago