[McElroy's 1981 speech on Individualist Anarchism, transcribed


Individualist Anarchism v. Communist Anarchism and Libertarianism

I considered entitling this "Individualist Anarchism, Nowhere at Home" but I realized in time that alienation as a political theory has been done already by Karl Marx. If I had used that title, however, the point I would have been making is that the two movements which seem to be natural homes of individualist anarchism -- libertarianism (for which it used to be a synonym) and the anarchist tradition (of which it is a subset) -- are now uncomfortable places. This wasn't always true.

For example, although the Workingman's International (that touchstone of 19th century radical chic) is usually associated with Marxism, the First International consisted largely of Bakuninists (communist anarchists) and individualist anarchists. In other words, individualist anarchism as a radical political philosophy was taken seriously back then by other anarchists; it had credentials behind its name. This credibility came basically from two things. First, it came from the almost herculean efforts of libertarian figures such as Benjamin Tucker, who were not only active in labor organization but who were also responsible for the input of new, dynamic theory into anarchism, for example by translating the works of Max Stirner. In short, individualist anarchism had life and motion.

Secondly and, I think, more significantly, the credibility came from points of theory which individualist anarchism used to share with communist anarchism. Over the last century, however, the theory of individualist anarchism has changed dramatically and it has drifted far away from the other schools of anarchism: by which I mean communist anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, and Christian anarchism.

The main school I will be contrasting with individualism is communist anarchism -- the theory of which I'll go into shortly. But I want to take a minute to comment on the syndicalist and Christian anarchism since I won't be discussing them in any detail. Anarcho-syndicalism is theoretically close to communist anarchism even though, historically, there has been hostility between them. The hostility is largely the result of the anarcho-syndicalist belief that change should come through a reorganization of labor into a loose federation of collectively owned and operated factories whereas communist anarchists advocated other means. In other words, they both wanted an anarchistic worker's society, but they disagreed on how it was possible to get there. The most popular example of an American anarcho-syndicalist organization is the early I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World], also known as the Wobblies.

Christian anarchism, as a movement, is usually attributed to Leo Tolstoy and its name is fairly self-explanatory. Christian anarchism does not recognize the right to use violence for any purpose. It is a type of pacifism and its rejection of the use of force in self defense is the most significant difference it has with individualist anarchism. Generally speaking, however, Christian and individualist anarchism get along quite well and Tolstoy's work used to be advertised for sale in Benjamin Tucker's Liberty, the main forum of individualist anarchism in the late 19th Century.

As I mentioned before, in the days of Tucker individualist anarchism and libertarianism used to be synonymous. The schism occurred because the meaning of libertarianism has undergone separate changes which have taken it in a different direction so that the goals and strategy of libertarianism are often antagonistic to individualist anarchism.

These are the two points around which my speech revolves and to which I will return: changes within the theory of individualist anarchism that have alienated it from other forms of the philosophy; and, changes within libertarianism that have made it antagonistic to individualist anarchism.

But, first, I want to give you some background on individualist anarchism so you have the inestimable benefit of knowing what I am talking about.

In 1833, the American libertarian Josiah Warren began publishing The Peaceful Revolutionist which was perhaps the first anarchist periodical and certainly the first individualist anarchist one. Warren didn't call himself an anarchist; in fact, no one used that word very much, except as a term of opprobrium to hurl at an opponent, until Pierre-Joseph Proudhon applied it to himself and made it "honorable." Nevertheless, it is clear that Warren was an anarchist. He called for a voluntary society organized around the individual as the basic unit. His approach was expressed in a report he wrote of the libertarian community, Utopia, in the May 1848 issue of The Peaceful Revolutionist. Warren wrote:

"Throughout the whole of our operations . . . everything has been conducted so nearly upon the Individual basis that not one meeting for legislation has taken place. No Organization, no indefinite delegated power, no "Constitutions," no "laws" or "bye [sic] laws," "rules" or "regulations" but such as each individual makes for himself and his own business. "

Now, the two key ideas in Warren's philosophy which became the two key concepts of individualist anarchism for over a century were the Sovereignty of the Individual, and Cost is the Limit of Price or the labor theory of value.

Sovereignty of the Individual is fairly self-descriptive and more commonly goes under the label of self-ownership which was the term used by the anti-slavery crusader and libertarian William Lloyd Garrison, a contemporary of Warren. Sovereignty of the Individual or self-ownership refers to the moral claim that every human being has to his or her own body. As Warren expressed it in his book, Practical Details:

"Society must be so converted as to preserve the SOVEREIGNTY OF EVERY INDIVIDUAL inviolate. That it must avoid all combinations and connections of persons and interests, and all other arrangements which will not leave every individual at all times at liberty to dispose of his or her person, and time, and property in any manner in which his or her feelings or judgment may dictate, WITHOUT INVOLVING THE PERSONS OR INTERESTS OF OTHERS. "

Now, self-ownership is still fairly common in libertarianism, although, as electoral politics prevails, the principle's popularity seems to be on the decline. Individualist anarchism opposes -- as libertarianism used to -- the very idea of anyone holding a position of unjust (that is, undelegated) power over someone else's life. It opposes anyone holding political office. There is a great tension between saying on one hand "your peaceful actions are sacrosanct and no one else's business", while on the other hand attempting to place someone in a position of unjust power over those activities. And the concept which is being stretched out of shape by this tension is self- ownership, Sovereignty of the Individual.

The second mainstay of 19th century individualist anarchism was Cost the Limit of Price, a version of the labor theory of value. This theory states that value results from labor and can come from nowhere else. If I work to produce something and sell it for $1.00, it is assumed that I have received the full, just value of my labor. However, if an entrepreneur who paid me $1.00 turns around and sells the product for $1.50, the question arises: where did the extra 50 cents, the extra value come from? Since all values under my theory comes from labor and since I provided all the labor that went into the product, the extra 50 cents of value obviously represents my labor which the entrepreneur (read capitalist) stole by giving me less than the full value of what my labor produced. In other words, profit is theft. Or as Sam Konkin put it so well in his last S.L.L. talk, the labor theory of value recognizes no distinction between profit and plunder. As another example, imagine that $1.00 is the just reward of my labor and I lend that dollar to you on the condition that I receive back $1.10 at the end of a year. Where did the 10 cents come from? Certainly not from my labor since I have already been paid in full. The 10 cents must result from your labor which I am stealing through interest. All profit was theft. Not metaphorically, but literally theft and the fact that people willingly paid interest and willingly sold their labor to capitalists did not mitigate the fact that a theft had occurred.

Now, the labor theory of value, which derives from Adam Smith, was an extraordinarily popular theory in 19th century radical movements, including libertarian ones. There were exceptions, for example the Classical Liberals in England and the Loco Focos in 18th Century America but, if you are dealing with American libertarianism in the 19th Century, you will find that the movement accepted the labor theory of value almost as completely as the modern movement accepts the free market.

This acceptance of Cost the Limit of Price was a strong tie between individualist anarchism and the other forms of anarchism. Communist anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, especially, viewed capitalism as institutionalized force. From beginning to end, capitalism was profit which was theft committed against the workers; that's where you get the propaganda posters of capitalists as bloated parasites sucking the blood of the laborers. They sought to destroy such profit taking by force.

Individualist anarchists approached the situation differently. Although they agreed that profit was theft, their primary commitment was to a voluntary society and to the right of contract. In fact, Benjamin Tucker described the ideal society as "society by contract." In essence, they came to the conclusion that if you wanted to invite people to steal from you by contracting to pay interest or rent, it was your business. They might try to show you the error of your ways, but the bottom line was that everyone had the right to make a foolish, self-destructive contract and that no one had the right to interfere in that voluntary process. So, although there was theoretical agreement on the labor theory of value between individualist anarchists and their communist cousins, the added element of respect for contract within individualist anarchism led to radically Different practical consequences. For example, whereas communist anarchists would put a gun to the head of landlords, individualists would leaflet all the tenants. And both would attack the State, because they believed that destroying the State would virtually eliminate such practices as charging interest. But, again, the individualists embraced non-violence as a political strategy.

So, what is the real difference here? Is it merely that individualist anarchists are nice people who won't use force to implement their theories whereas communist anarchists are evil? I think the real distinction is less ad hominem and more theoretically significant; and that is, they each define aggression in fundamentally different ways. To the individualist anarchist, aggression is defined with reference to property titles. For example, if a man snatches a dollar I earned from my hand, it is theft for two reasons: first, it is my dollar, I have title to it; and second, he has taken it without my consent. If, however, the man snatches a dollar I had previously stolen from him out of my hand, it is not theft for two reasons: it is not my dollar because he has title to it; it is his property and, therefore, my consent is unnecessary. So, the definition of aggression within individualist anarchism rests on two concepts: title and consent. Whose property is it and does the owner agree to what is going on?

Although the most important present disagreement between individualist and communist anarchism is the definition of property, I don't think this was the most significant point in the 19th Century. Since they both accepted the labor theory of value and condemned capitalism, the most important disagreement was in how they approached consent. With individualist anarchism consent was a fairly straightforward matter. You agreed or you didn't, you said "yes" or "no. " And, so long as you are saying "yes," it is in principle impossible to aggress against you. Not so with communist anarchism.

Communist anarchism contains the notion of economic coercion; that is, even if a worker consents to a certain wage, consents to have a portion of his labor stolen by the capitalist, the consent doesn't count because it was obtained through duress. The economic situation created by the capitalist is the equivalent of a gun pointed at the head of the worker: the capitalist says: work on my terms or starve. Allow me to steal from you or let your children go hungry. And the consent, the freedom venerated by the individualist anarchist is dismissed as a fraud. As the sort of freedom that says to the beggar and to the millionaire that they are both free to sleep under a bridge in the driving rain. In short, the communist anarchist does not recognize the possibility of such things as interest or rent existing under contract; by definition, they are acts of force and cannot be otherwise. Using force against those who charge interest or rent was, therefore, nothing more than self-defense.

This notion of economic coercion has dramatic implications for another key difference between these forms of anarchism: namely, how they define "justice" a not insignificant concept. Now, very briefly, an important difference is that communist anarchism approaches justice as an end state; by which I mean, it provides a specific picture of what constitutes a just society. It would be a society without a State or any capitalist practices in which the means of production are collectively owned and every worker receives the full reward of his labor. In other words, justice resides not only in the absence of institutionalized force (the State) but in the establishment of a specific economic arrangement.

In contrast, the individualist anarchist approach to justice is means oriented. It provides no end product, no particular social arrangement which constitutes justice, but says only "anything that's peaceful is just." Under individualist anarchism, you could have communist communities existing beside capitalist ones and, so long as membership was voluntary, the arrangement in each would be just. So, again, to the communist anarchist justice is an end state (a specific economic system); to the individualist anarchist, it is means oriented (anything that's peaceful) with no hard vision of what would result.

They differ as well on the concept of class. Since communist anarchism fundamentally opposes capitalism, often considered to be inextricably a part of the State, it defines class in economic terms, in relation to ownership of the means of production. You are a capitalist or you are a worker. If you are a capitalist, you live off the sweat and blood of the worker regardless of whether or not you know it or whether you are simply the thoughtless, apolitical wife of a banker. You are part of the capitalist class. Since individualist anarchism fundamentally opposes only one thing -- aggression and the State as institutionalized aggression -- it defines class in political rather than economic terms. It defines class in terms of one's relationship to the State. You are a member of the economic class which lives through voluntary exchange or you are a member of the political class which lives off theft and tribute from the economic class. This is the basis of the classic libertarian distinction made by Franz Oppenheimer between the political and the economic means.

So, returning to the use of violence. These conflicting concepts of justice and class are key and contributed heavily to the different historical paths taken by communist and individualist anarchism. Ponder for a moment, who is more likely to use violence a man who is committed to peaceful means whatever those means may bring, or a man who is committed to a specific form of society with no moral commitment to any specific strategy, short of not using the State? As you might suspect, communist anarchists have been far more willing to use violence to implement their form of justice than have individualist anarchists. For one thing, the communist anarchist ideal can be implemented through violence. You can enforce a specific economic arrangement on people. But you cannot use force to create and maintain a society without force.


Proceed to Part Two

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