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Adventures in the Realm of Ideas (1947)

by Victor S. Yarros (1865-1956)


[Chapter 19]
Benjamin R. Tucker and Philosophical Anarchism

[Online editor’s note: for more of Yarros’s comments on Tucker, see his My Association With Benjamin Tucker
and Philosophical Anarchism: Its Rise, Decline, and Eclipse (access restrictions may apply to the latter),
as well as Chapter 1 of the present work. – RTL]


ARI-19.1 Not long ago [Online editor’s note: 22 June 1939. – RTL], at Monaco, an American thinker passed away and was buried “unwept, unhonored, and unsung.” He was 85 years old when he thus died in obscurity, and for about 30 years his name had hardly appeared in print or been mentioned in advanced liberal or radical circles. That man was Benjamin R. Tucker, the father of the American school of individualistic, pacific and philosophical anarchism, and for 30 years the editor of Liberty, the leading organ of that school of social thought.
ARI-19.2 Tucker was 50 years of age when, owing to unfortunate financial circumstances (a fire which destroyed his printing shop, a reduction in income from his investments, etc.), he decided to suspend publication of Liberty and retire from active propagandist activity. He went to Europe, settled in Nice with his small family, and led a quiet life, reading, carrying on some correspondence, and gambling a little at Monte Carlo. He seldom published anything of consequence, but it appears that he never appreciably modified his philosophy.
ARI-19.3 Despite the world war, the Russian revolution, the rise and spread of fascism, the collapse of the German republic and the emergence of Hitlerian barbarism, Tucker remained a philosophical anarchist. In that philosophy alone humanity might find salvation – and some day, he was convinced, will and shall find it. Socialism may be tried, but it will fail. Compromise, half-measures, palliatives, were certain to be adopted, but none of them would avert catastrophe. The world must, after tragic and costly blunders, reach the conclusion that only philosophical anarchism provides a firm foundation for a stable, just and progressive social, political and economic system.
ARI-19.4 Professor Paul Douglas of the University of Chicago [Online editor’s note: American economist Paul Douglas (1892-1976), one of the architects of the “New Deal.” – RTL], who in his student days interested himself in the literature of philosophical anarchism, told the present writer a few years ago that Tucker and his school were a characteristic product of the last two or three decades of the 19th century, and have no message for our period and our society. No doubt many educated persons share his opinion. It is a plausible one, but one wonders whether it is the last word on the subject. May not time and tide qualify it, perhaps even reverse it?
ARI-19.5 At any rate, now that Tucker is dead; that no movement labeled philosophical anarchism exists anywhere, it may be instructive and useful to tell briefly the story of philosophical anarchism, and in the light of the facts of this story ask ourselves whether or not the essential doctrines and ideas of that American school are today, in truth, irrelevant and immaterial.
ARI-19.6 Herbert Spencer asserted in his famous essay, “Man versus the State,” that the state was “conceived in aggression and maintained by aggression,” and that majority rule was as crass a superstition as autocracy. There Spencer stopped. To a minimum of government he did not object, regarding it, with Jefferson, as a necessary evil. Tucker refused to stop at that point. He would not, he declared, palter with evil. He would improve upon Jefferson and Spencer and repudiate all government of man by man. He would not under any circumstances coerce the non-invasive individual. All forms and types of social organization ought to be wholly voluntary. Taxation and national defense should not be treated as exceptions to that sovereign principle.
ARI-19.7 Tucker therefore demanded the gradual abolition of the state and the substitution for it of voluntary cooperation for all purposes found necessary or desirable. The last state function to go, he conceded, would be the protective or police function. The first, in all probability, would be the protective tariff system.
ARI-19.8 Tucker asserted that he was an “unterrified Jeffersonian democrat.” He quoted Sir Henry Maine to the effect that historical political evolution was at bottom the process of doing away with status and establishing instead the regime of free contract. [Online editor’s note: English jurist Sir Henry Sumner Maine (1822-1888), in his Ancient Law (1861), Chapter 5; see also Spencer. – RTL] In progressive societies, he argued, religion, art, letters, ad social intercourse were not in any way controlled by the state. In these vital fields men were free to cooperate or to decline to cooperate. Anarchy prevailed therein, and the effects were splendid. Hence it was irrational to affirm that in other spheres compulsion was necessary, and voluntary cooperation unsafe and insufficient.
ARI-19.9 It should be noted here that Tucker’s Quaker upbringing and environment led him, perhaps unconsciously, to go beyond his masters and guides in abjuring not only direct coercion but also indirect use of compulsion. He was of course opposed to revolution, but he was equally emphatic in condemning all participation in or collaboration with the state and its activities. To vote at any election was immoral. To vote is “to govern.” Behind the ballot box is the constable and the soldier. Boycott the state; let the dead bury the dead. [Online editor’s note: Matthew 8:22, Luke 9:60. – RTL] The consistent logical anarchist must choose superior or more ethical methods of furthering his ideal.


ARI-19.10 In his economic teaching Tucker follows Proudhon for the most part, but Josiah Warren and Spencer also contributed thereto. Warren, who was not a scholar, had independently worked out the Marxian theory of surplus value. He was familiar with the labor theory of value, but, unlike the classical economists, he advocated the abolition of rent, interest and profits. Cost should be “the limit of price.” Cost to Warren meant average labor cost, and anything above that was in Proudhon’ís words “robbery,” – exploitation of labor by some form of state-protected monopoly. Spencer, in his radical days, favored the abolition of landlordism, protective tariffs and banking and currency restrictions. Proudhon, like Marx, denounced as robbery all monopoly rent and all interest on capital. He proposed, and even organized, experimental, mutual banks for the financing of cooperative industry. Proudhon, it will be remembered, contended that the present capitalistic system could be undermined an gotten rid of by the proper and scientific organization of credit, or by free and mutual banking. That, he held, was to be the real, the authentic “revolution of the 19th century.”
ARI-19.11 Tucker’s platform, in accordance with these views, called for free trade, free banking, free land, free industry and the repeal of all patent and copyright statutes. Monopoly would thus be overthrown at its sources, and keen competition would take its place and make for ever increasing efficiency. Poverty, Tucker argued, was caused by monopoly, not by competition, and monopoly was deliberately created and fostered by the state. The government, he insisted, was, to use Marx’s words, the executive committee of the monopolies, the plutocrats. [Online editor’s note: Communist Manifesto, ch. 1. – RTL] He liked to brand the monopolists as “the brotherhood of thieves.” He thoroughly agreed with Proudhon that under capitalism and monopoly, property was robbery.
ARI-19.12 Again, therefore, abolition of the state was necessary if economic justice and economic democracy were to be brought about by intelligent and systematic efforts. Not new legislation, but repeal of all existing legislation by and for the monopolies was the only effective remedy for present iniquities and inequalities.


ARI-19.13 Since Tucker was opposed to violence, to political action, and to legislation of a positive kind it was incumbent upon him to propose newer and different methods. He cheerfully assumed the burden of proof.
ARI-19.14 In the first place, he never failed to emphasize the need for education, the “spreading of the light.” The state existed in the minds of the masses. It had to be discredited and ousted from those minds. Hence education was a primary and all-important weapon in the fight against the state.
ARI-19.15 In the second place, passive resistance to the government could be offered by various small groups and even by individuals, without waiting for the conversion of the majority. This involved refusal to pay taxes and going to jail, if necessary. (Tucker never paid taxes on personal property.) However, the refusal to pay taxes should be proclaimed fearlessly and accompanied by a clear, vigorous statement of the reason for such action. This would be a most daramtic [sic] form of public education, or “propaganda by deed.”
ARI-19.16 What is true of education is true also of military service, of quasi-military duties and even of trial by jury. The anarchist should allege conscientious objections to the performance of all such duties, and should go t oprison [sic], if necessary. Such non-cooperation with the state, such civil disobedience, such non-violent resistance would naturally challenge public attention and excite sympathy in circles which might not approve of force.
ARI-19.17 In time, anti-rent strikes on the Irish model of the last century would become feasible and expedient. A strike against land monopoly and rent is at once a strike against the landlords and a protest against the laws which sanction monopoly in land and other natural resources.
ARI-19.18 Interest on capital cannot be successfully fought by any kind of strike or boycott. It can be fought by or through the organization and patronage of mutual, cooperative banks and credit institutions. Trade unions, cooperatives and other associations should operate banks and extend credit on non-capitalistic terms and conditions.
ARI-19.19 Patent and copyright privileges, finally, can be attacked by disregard of all the legislation creating them and by repeated infringements. The beneficiaries of these legal privileges would thus be forced to institute ruinous law suits.


ARI-19.20 No attempt will be made in this paper to state and answer all the major objections which Tucker had to meet and dispose of in the three decades of his propagandist activity. Only a few of such objections can be considered here.
ARI-19.21 “How would you prevent and punish crime under anarchism?” was a question often put to him by all manner of persons. The answer in general terms, was this: Voluntary protective societies would be organized to insure members against loss through crime. Private police forces would be organized to apprehend and detain men guilty of crime, and impartial juries would try them. The private protective organizations could compete with one another for members, and thus develop efficiency. In the long run, in all probability, pone such society would meet the requirements of the community. Trial by jury would mean trial by a certain panel representing the whole community. The jury would determine the penalty to be imposed in any case. Crime would be reduced to a minimum, chiefly because poverty would have been eliminated, but the few persons who, by reason of moral instability or low mentality, would commit anti-social acts, would be fairly tried and adequately punished.
ARI-19.22 What is crime under anarchism? Nothing but deliberate violation of the law of equal freedom. The criminal code would be simple and reasonable. Legal procedure would be rational and intelligible. Convicted persons would be treated humanely and most first offenses would be overlooked. No normal person could take exception to the criminal code as conceived by philosophical anarchism.
ARI-19.23 But is not punishment another name for government, and is not the anarchist glaringly inconsistent in professing to dispense with all government of man by man if he believes in restraint and punishment of persons deemed anti-social?
ARI-19.24 These objections were raised persistently in many quarters, radical as well as conservative. Tucker always patiently explained that they were based on a fundamental misapprehension. The objectors failed to bear in mind his definition of government. He employed the term government to denote interference with and compulsory control of the peaceful, non-invasive and well-behaved individual. The restraint and punishment of a willful invader or violator of the law of equal freedom was not what he called government. He did not oppose resistance to aggression. He did not reject all compulsion. But under anarchism the use of compulsion was limited to instances where the principle of equality of freedom was deliberately violated.
ARI-19.25 Another question frequently raised was this: – that anarchism practically precluded and frowned upon all forms of social organization, and that to contemplate and plan organizations for all sorts of purposes was tantamount to sacrificing individual sovereignty and complete freedom of action.
ARI-19.26 Again, Tucker pointed out, such an objection ignored his definition of anarchism. Anarchism condemns compulsory organization only; it fully recognizes the need and utility of voluntary organization for many purposes – protective, economic, cultural and recreational. A free individual does not renounce his sovereignty by entering in to contracts with other free individuals. The free individual is not necessarily a recluse or hermit. He may and will join any association which enables him to enrich his life, to save time or energy, and to enjoy things which are inaccessible to isolated individuals. He will submit to rules and regulations which a society of free men find expedient for the transaction of business. He will abide by the decisions of a majority, or a chairman, while retaining his membership in an organization. Should he conclude, however, that the constitution and by-laws of a society he has joined unduly restrict his freedom; if the game is not worth the candle, in short, he will resign. The test in any given case is the right to resign or to secede. The state does not recognize the right of secession or of resignation. Thus there can be no anarchistic state, but there is ample room for cooperation and organized action under anarchism.


ARI-19.27 Tucker’s following was never large, but it was impressive for its quality. Lawyers of distinction, writers, journalists, ministers, physicians, engineers, and labor leaders embraced his gospel and declared that he was giving expression to their own half-formulated sentiments. Not all of them quite approved of the term anarchism. The popular and dictionary definitions of that term, they believed, rendered it inadvisable to use it. Why, they asked, court misunderstanding and waste time on futile controversies when a more acceptable term – namely Individualism – was available? But Tucker remained adamant. He had no patience with timidity. He defied popular superstition and fallacies. He would stoop to no compromises. Anarchism, as Proudhon first used the term in his book, What Is Property?, was in every way satisfactory to him. He said that it was accurate and scientific.
ARI-19.28 From England, from France, from Germany, from Australia and from Russia, letters, messages and subscriptions came to encourage Tucker and give him confidence. A British disciple of Spencer, Auberon Herbert, sent him a remarkable pamphlet entitled A Politician in Sight of Heaven [Online editor’s note: sic; should be Haven. – RTL], in which this wealthy and respected ex-member of Parliament indicted republican and democratic forms of government and declared compulsory taxation to be the taproot of graft, corruption, and inefficiency in government, and advocated voluntary taxation and voluntary military service under all circumstances. The eminent French geographer, Elisee Reclus, sent Tucker a pamphlet of his in which anarchistic ideas were ably and forcefully set forth.
ARI-19.29 Several anarchistic journals were launched in America and in England to preach anarchism, but Liberty remained until the end a journalistic paragon. It was admired by Bernard Shaw, who sent it a brilliant article; by Wordsworth Donisthorpe, the editor of Jus, an organ of rather conservative British individualism and by John Henry Mackaye [Online editor’s note: sic; should be “Mackay”. – RTL], the Scottish-German poet and novelist, who espoused anarchism and preached it in Germany.


ARI-19.30 For more than a decade Tucker carried on his propaganda in orthodox ethical terms. One could feel the Quaker in all his utterances. He was an Atheist, but his utilitarianism was touched with high moral fervor. He spoke earnestly of right and wrong. Human rights, he declared, were “an august thing.” It was a sin to support government. It was the duty of the right-thinking person to work for the gradual overthrow of the state.
ARI-19.31 Suddenly a great and unfortunate change came over the spirit and manner of Tucker’s propaganda. This change was the result of his acquaintance with a book at that time scarcely known in America – Max Stirner’s “Der Einzige und Seine Eigenthum.” [Online editor’s note: sic; “Eigenthum” is the correct older spelling of “Eigentum,” but “Seine” should be “sein.” – RTL] Tucker read it in an English translation and swallowed its thesis as thouygh it were a revelation from heaven. Stirner dismissed all ethical concepts with utter contempt. Right and wrong were to him meaningless terms. Nothing was moral and nothing immoral. We should all be ashamed [Online editor’s note: sic; presumably “unashamed” is meant. – RTL], unrepentant egoists. A thing was either useful to us or useless. We like a thing or we dislike it. We should always please ourselves and pursue our own happiness, albeit with prudence and care. To Stirner utilitarian ethics was only a little less superstitious than theological ethics. Altruism was egoism in a different form. One did a thing because it yielded him pleasure or averted anticipated pain. The anarchist wanted a different social order not because he was better or nobler than the non-anarchist, but because he and others would be more comfortable, freer and happier in that new order. The anarchist’s aims, as well as his methods, were dictated by consideration of enlightened expediency. Liberty thus became an organ of egoism as well as of philosophical anarchism.
ARI-19.32 Max Stirner’s crude and over-simplified view of human behavior is scarcely entertainable today. Social psychology and social philosophy, particularly as developed in the last 20 years, render it childish and grotesquely inadequate. Tucker’s impulsive acceptance ofit astonished and alienated some of his most enlighetend and cultured adherents. He parted with them in sorrow, even in anger. He deplored their lingering “supertstitions.” [Online editor’s note: sic. – RTL] To be a consistent and logical anarchist, you have to be a complete egoist.


ARI-19.33 ItI [Online editor’s note: sic. – RTL] is wonderfully easy to point out flaws and fallacies in the foregoing complex of ideas. To most contemporary thinkers, philosophical anarchism is distinctly unphilosophical and unscientific. It is of the utopian variety of radicalism – visionary, arbitrary, metaphysical and without foundation in history. Human nature, as we know it today, mocks all efforts to prescribe for it this or that abstractly wise course. It is indifferent to logic, and it is idle to quarrel with it. As Spinoza said, it is foolish to groan over it, or to exult in it; our business is to understand it.
ARI-19.34 Today it is clear to all sober-minded thinkers that the new social order – and a new order is actually emerging – will be socialistic or collectivistic in character. For a time socialism apparently is bound to be paternalistic and bureaucratic. Many liberals and radicals are not at all enthusiastic about that phase of socialism. It sacrifices value which we cherish. It stresses economic improvement and minimizes cultural and spiritual needs. It makes for greater equality but not for greater freedom. But this phase of socialism is not likely to last. The ideal of human freedom is not dead. Economic democracy and political and intellectual freedom are not irreconcilable. Socialism will gradually free itself of the bureaucratic and paternalistic elements. The philosophy of anarchism will be revived. Many contemporary thinkers are in fact anarchists without knowing it, or at least, without using that name or label. They believe in individual sovereignty. They refuse to worship and deify the state, or to bow to the mythical “collective will.” They accept majority rule and work with or under governments which they know to be imperfect – incompetent, wasteful, confused and tyrannical, but they will work and fight for the maximum of liberty compatible with social peace and social harmony. They will work pragmatically to raise the standards of government and to make it more democratic as well as more efficient.
ARI-19.35 Meantime it is the duty and privilege of libertarians to preserve as much individual, group and local freedom as possible under any regime. Totalitarianism, so-called, which is simply another name for absolute tyranny, must be fought and discredited. Liberty is a principle, not a dogma. The amount of it at any given time depends on conditions, but it must never be lost sight of. War or revolution, as a rule, destroys liberty. But war and revolution are at times inevitable, hence the necessity of cherishing the ideal of maximum liberty.
ARI-19.36 In France, it is interesting to note, there has been of late a marked revival of interest in Proudhon’s teachings. They are preferred by the younger thinkers to syndicalism, which is undergoing a decline. In England, Fabianism is apparently in a state of eclipse. It is too provincial. As H. G. Wells once observed, it is the philosophy of civil servants who are notoriously timid and disinclined to uncertainty and adventure. Guild socialism has largely superseded it, and guild socialism is more libertarian and more congenial to independent spirits. In the United States, independent, non-dogmatic radicalism is widespread nowadays, while the dogmatic schools of socialism make little progress and remain alien to the American temperament. The American, it has been truly said, is a born pragmatist. American collectivism is certain to be less rigid, less mechanical, and less bureaucratic than that of any other country.
ARI-19.37 American philosophical anarchists may – and doubtless will – acquiesce in large concessions to collectivism, but on the other hand, the collectivists and socialists who wish to wield influence and to be more than isolated sectarians will have to embrace the basic concepts of philosophical and individualistic anarchism.



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