Individualist Anarchism v. Communist Anarchism and Libertarianism


Anarchism, in general, has received bad PR with regard to violence and the bomb-throwing demented anarchist is as much a cultural caricature as the dumb blonde. Unfortunately, as with most caricatures, there is some grain of truth in the picture. And, unfortunately, critics have made no attempt to distinguish the truth, to distinguish one form of anarchism from another to ascertain who is the guilty party. Overwhelmingly, the violence attributed to anarchists came either from communist anarchism or from the State's attempt to discredit the anarchist tradition. It is ironic that one of the charges that used to be brought against individualist anarchism in the 19th Century was that it was too peaceful; an anarchist community would have no defense against those willing to use violence to conquer it. Needless to say, this view of anarchism changed drastically and it is possible to point to several events which were pivotal in changing this attitude.

One of these events was the Russian Revolution, or rather the period preceding the Revolution during which several communist anarchist groups openly and repeatedly committed violence as a strategy against capitalists and the State. Part of this strategy included throwing bombs into crowded restaurants on the assumption that only capitalists could afford to eat in that restaurant and all members of the capitalist class were deadly enemies. Although Russian anarchists did not originate the idea of "propaganda by deed," they became famous for using that method. And even though Russia was also the home of Christian anarchism and although the violence committed by communist anarchists was minuscule compared to the violence committed by the State or by the non-anarchist revolutionaries who followed, the Russian Revolution helped to cement the association between anarchism and violence.

In America, the Haymarket incident and the assassination of President McKinley had a similar effect. The Haymarket incident occurred in 1886, in Chicago which was a stronghold of communist anarchism. A group of anarchists, most prominently Albert Parsons, held an open door labor meeting; as it began to break up police converged on the peaceful crowd. A bomb was thrown at the police who opened fire on the crowd. Seven demonstrably innocent men were arrested and tried: one committed suicide, four were hanged, two were subsequently pardoned. I don't have time to go into the Haymarket incident other than to point out three things: first, the men involved in the Haymarket affair were communist anarchists who openly advocated violence, which is not to say they were guilty of any crime or to reduce their status as anarchist martyrs. Second, the Haymarket incident and the public furor that followed it changed the public perception of anarchism by associating it firmly with violence.

Third, individualist anarchists did not enthusiastically support the Haymarket martyrs. For example, although Benjamin Tucker condemned the State and recognized it as the true villain of the event, he criticized the Haymarket Seven for consciously promoting violence and he was reluctant to raise them to the status of anarchist heroes. In the July 31, 1886 issue of Liberty, he wrote: "It is because peaceful agitation and passive resistance are weapons more deadly to tyranny than any others that I uphold them ... brute force strengthens tyranny... War and authority are companions; peace and liberty are companions... The Chicago Communists I look upon as brave and earnest men and women. That does not prevent them from being equally mistaken." This reluctance on the part of individualist anarchists, whose stronghold was Boston, outraged other anarchists who began to refer to anyone who criticized the Haymarket martyrs as 'a Boston anarchist' regardless of where the critic lived. (Tucker's Liberty was published from Boston.)

The assassination of President McKinley in 1901 by a self- professed anarchist who claimed to have been inspired by hearing Emma Goldman speak almost destroyed the anarchist movement. The deportations and hideous laws that followed were the most obvious repercussions. But perhaps as importantly, it absolutely cemented the association between violence and anarchism, all forms of anarchism. The movement declined sharply past the turn of the century. And individualist anarchism virtually died in 1908 when the offices of Tucker's Liberty and bookstore burnt to the ground.

So, if those were the days when communist and individualist anarchism had a lot in common, what constitutes a real difference of opinion? A real difference is contained in the changes individualist anarchism went through in the 1950s. What happened? In my opinion, the most significant changes can be analyzed by referring to one man, Murray Rothbard. Rothbard and the circle of scholars who met in his parlor in the 1950s -- e.g. Leonard Liggio, Ralph Raico, and Ron Hamowy -- did something astounding. Rothbard took three traditions, three themes which were considered antagonistic to each other and wove them together to produce the philosophy that dominates modern individualist anarchism.

The first tradition was Austrian economics. As a specialist in economic theory, Rothbard became an admirer of Ludwig Von Mises and adopted Austrian economics, a radical and sophisticated defense of the laissez-faire capitalism.

The second tradition was individualist anarchism. Now remember, Tucker attacked capitalism as theft and he was considered a moderate on the question, as anarchists go. The genius of Rothbard lay in taking the value of individualist anarchism namely, the theoretical roots of "self-ownership" and its radical civil liberties, while discarding its excess baggage namely, the labor theory of value. He replaced this economic theory with a defense of the free market. The result was something entirely new under the sun: an anarchist movement that championed capitalism. It is difficult to even come up with a parallel to give you a sense of how incredible a hybrid capitalism and anarchism make. If you can imagine someone proving that not only are Freudianism and Behaviorism both correct but that both are nd always have been compatible, you might get the flavor of it all.

For better or worse, this moral and sophisticated defense of capitalism has greatly distanced individualist anarchism from the general anarchist movement which still considers capitalism to be an evil on the level of, if identical with, the State. And when you talk to communist anarchists, if they don't get immediately hostile, they are likely to express total bewilderment at this bizarre combination of beliefs.

The third tradition Rothbard and his circle incorporated into this system was isolationism, Old Right foreign policy. And by incorporating it into a system of economics and civil liberties, he created the synthesis that dominates the theory of individualist anarchism as it exists today.

Rothbard is also often credited with modern libertarianism, which I consider to be a movement separate from individualist anarchism: that is, I believe they have distinct and often antagonistic goals and strategies. When Tucker referred to himself as a libertarian, it meant individualist anarchist, but words have lives of their own and meanings change. As Murray once said to me when I commented on his many strategic alliances: "It's a fast moving world, sweetie." The word liberal once referred to an individualist who defended the free market; now, it means almost the opposite and libertarians need to use the term "classical liberal" if they want to be clear. Similarly, the word "libertarian" has changed due to the fairly successful efforts of the Libertarian Party to associate libertarianism with political goals and the political means, both of which are anathema to individualist anarchist theory.

The integrating theme behind individualist anarchism was the primacy of the individual and the commitment to rid society of all but defensive force. And the kind of force they most loudly opposed was political activity, i.e., voting and electoral politics. They considered any participation in electoral politics to be a violation of libertarian principles. In Tucker's words: "If Liberty has a weak-kneed friend who is contemplating a violation of his anarchist principles by voting just for once, may these golden words from John Morley's 'Compromise' recall him to his better self: 'A principle, if it be sound, represents one of the larger expediencies. To abandon that for the sake of some seeming expediency of the hour is to sacrifice the greater good for the less on no more creditable ground than that the less is nearer.'"

On the issue of holding political office, Lysander Spooner was one of the clearest of the individualist anarchists. In A Letter to Thomas Bayard, he framed his objection to the holding of political office, irrespective of who the particular holder may be. By what right, Spooner asked, can one person occupy a position of power over another's life? What circumstance would make this a proper situation? If you have the natural right to protect your life and property and if you delegate this right to another person, then his position is contractual and thereby in accord with libertarian principles.

But what does this delegation entail? It means, according to Spooner, that you possess the right which is being delegated; that the delegation was explicit and not merely assumed, for a contract may not be assumed; and, that you can withdraw your delegation and reclaim the exercise of your natural rights, for to say that you cannot withdraw your delegation is to say that you have given away not the exercise of a particular right but your entire liberty. In Spooner's words: "No man can delegate, or give away his own natural right to liberty. . . or to give to another, any right of arbitrary dominion over himself; for that would be giving himself away as a slave. And this no one can do. Any contract to do so is necessarily an absurd one and has no validity. "

Voltairine de Cleyre expressed a similar view in a lecture delivered before the Boston Secular Society in 1890 and subsequently reprinted in Liberty. "I go to the White House' de Cleyre stated, "I say '"President] Harrison, are you the government?' 'No, madam, I am its representative.' 'Well, then, where is the principal? Who is the government?' 'The people of the United States.' 'The whole people?' 'The whole people.' 'You, then, are the representative of the people of the United States. May I see your certificate of authorization?' "

De Cleyre went on to define what she meant by authorization and why she morally opposed political office and the process of voting. "A body of voters cannot give into your charge any rights but their own. By no possible jugglery of logic can they delegate the exercise of any function which they themselves do not control. If any individual on earth has a right to delegate his powers to whomsoever he chooses, then every other individual has an equal right; and if each has an equal right, then none can choose an agent for another, without the other's consent. Therefore, if the power of government resides in the whole people and out of that whole all but one elected you as their agent, you would still have no authority whatever to act for that one. "

To drive my point into the ground...The individualist anarchists overwhelmingly believed that voting and the holding of political office were direct violations of libertarian morality. This issue was debated only twice in Liberty. The first instance occurred when Henry Appleton attempted to infiltrate and use the Knights of Labor to achieve certain labor goals through that organization's participation in politics. Appleton accepted political activity as compromise. He wrote: "Tucker has yet to learn that compromise is a true scientific principle under Anarchism. " He then proceeded to defend compromise against the rigid "plumb-line" approach of Tucker. Tucker's harsh reply was entitled "Plumb-line or Corkscrew?" Although Appleton's integrity was never questioned, the ensuing dispute was so bitter that Appleton, hitherto Liberty's most frequent contributor, chose to disappear from its pages.

Victor Yarros also locked horns with Tucker. In one of his many articles for Liberty, Yarros opposed voting on strategic rather than on moral grounds. He wrote: "A friend and reader of Liberty recently put this query to me: When some practical, immediate good can be accomplished by the election of a particular man or the victory of a particular party, is it not the part of wisdom and propriety . . . to aid and abet such election?"

Yarros replied: "The real question is whether the immediate and practical good which, by our hypothesis, can be secured is not overbalanced by indirect and remote injury to the essential aims and purpose of Anarchism. Answer this question in the negative, and all reasons for boycotting politics vanish .... Anarchists have no religious or moral objection to voting and party warfare." Tucker responded: "For my part, when I say that I would use the ballot if I thought thereby I could best help the cause of freedom, I make the declaration in precisely the same sense . . . as when I declare . . . that I would dynamite if I thought that thereby I could best help the cause of freedom."

Although he didn't disappear from Liberty as Appleton did, Yarros backed down from the issue. The point here is that 19th century Individualist anarchism/libertarianism was overwhelmingly anti-political. One of Liberty's themes was "power corrupts" and one of its regular columns, "The Beauty of Government," was devoted to this theme. If libertarianism of the late nineteenth century stood for any one social principle it was opposition to the political solution (a form of force) to social problems.

Unfortunately, perhaps because it was such a basic aspect of individualist anarchism, the anti-political position was often been assumed as self-evident rather than worked out in hard detail. And if individualist anarchism has contributed to its own decline, it has been in this respect. Individualist anarchists have naively assumed that, because libertarians flatly condemned the political means, the State and politicians, this condemnation meant that libertarians had some fundamental objection to electoral politics itself. A mistaken assumption. More and more, libertarianism has become identified with the Libertarian' Party. More and more, the goal of libertarianism has changed from dismantling the State to joining the State and replacing the face behind the desk of power as though it were the particular face and not the desk -- the position of unjust power itself -- that was the enemy. But to an individualist anarchist, the enemy is anyone who assumes political power and anyone who aspires to it. And the onus of proof is not on the anarchist to explain why he objects to someone fighting for vast power over his life, it is on the politician and the libertarian who supports him to explain how such power is justified.

Nevertheless, whoever logically carries the burden of proof, it has become necessary for individualist anarchism to develop a comprehensive defense of anti-political theory in order to counter the grotesque spectacle of anarchists running for President. Fortunately, there is wonderful work being done to fill in the gaps of anarchist theory in which political weeds have grown. The Voluntaryist has been running a series of articles enticed the Ethics of Voting by George H. Smith in which Smith breaks new ground by delineating an institutional analysis of the State. Because anarchism is more than just a commitment to non-aggression; it is the principled rejection of the State.

It is commonly assumed that individualist anarchism and libertarianism are two points along the same road, chat we are fellow travelers and, frankly, I feel tremendous goodwill toward many of the people within the LP. But this goodwill does not affect the fact that they and I are on fundamentally different and antagonistic paths. And anarchists who are working within the Party in order to smash the State are fooling themselves. They are donating their time, money, and sanction to the political process with the stated goal of creating yet another politician. Only this time it is a "good" politician--their politician. And where have we heard this before?

As libertarianism becomes increasingly political, it will become increasingly hostile to individualist anarchism, because anarchism poses as great a threat to the political ambitions of the LP as it does to the conventional defenders of government. I have no intention of amending the slogan "Smash the State" to read "Smash the State Except for the LP." And if the LP is ever successful they will quickly turn on the anarchists, turn on their supposed fellow travelers. The anarchists will then learn from political libertarians the same lesson that the Russian anarchists learned from the Bolsheviks -- we are fellow travelers no more.


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