Liberty on Violence

A version of this article was published under the title "The Schism Between Individualist and Communist Anarchism in the Nineteenth Century," in The Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 15, no. 1 (Fall 2000).

By Wendy McElroy

Individualist anarchism repudiated the use of violence as a strategy to achieve any political or personal end other than self-defense. Indeed, in the mid-nineteenth century, the ideology was criticized as being so peaceful that its communities would be defenseless against aggressors. By the late 1800s, however, the public image of anarchism had changed drastically. In the decades preceding the Russian Revolution, several communist anarchist groups repeatedly committed acts of brutal and almost random violence as a strategy to topple capitalism. These acts, called "propaganda by deed," were directed against people who belonged to the capitalist class, and included throwing bombs into crowded restaurants on the assumption that only capitalists could afford to eat there.

Violence erupted in America as well. On May 4, 1886, labor protesters and the police clashed in the streets of Chicago, during a meeting whose organizers included communist anarchists. The event, known to history as the Haymarket affair or incident, left dead bodies on both sides. Although the eight radicals who were arrested and tried thereafter were demonstrably innocent, the Haymarket affair cemented the connection between anarchism and violence in the mind of the American public. Anarchists became the enemies of society and of civilization. During the Haymarket proceedings, the prosecutor declared:

"Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected...because they are leaders.... [C]onvict these our institutions, our society."

The radical community reacted with outrage. Yet throughout the arrest and the trial of the Chicago martyrs, and even upon the execution of four defendants and the suicide of one, Benjamin Tucker was reserved in his support of the accused. Tucker wrote:

"It is because peaceful agitation and passive resistance are weapons more deadly to tyranny than any others that I uphold them....[B]rute 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."

The Haymarket incident was the proximate cause of a deep schism that occurred in America between individualist anarchists and communist anarchists with whom they had formerly aligned, but it was actually the last of a series of events. The schism was rooted in ideology, specifically in the question of whether force could be employed as a political strategy.

Liberty and Violence as a Strategy

To judge from the first page of the first issue of Liberty on August 6, 1881, Tucker celebrated both violence as a strategy and the people who employed it for political ends. At the head of the middle column, and dominating the text, was a handsome engraving of the Russian nihilist Sophie Perovskaya -- "Liberty's Martyred Heroine" -- who was proclaimed to have been "Hanged April 15, 1881, For Helping to Rid the World of a Tyrant [Czar Alexander II]". Tucker declared the engraving to be "the first authentic likeness published in America of the most famous and heroic of the little Russian band...Sophie Perovskaya." A memorial poem by Joaquin Miller followed.

Three issues later, Tucker continued to praise the Russian nihilists for their violent resistance to tyranny "...which the Nihilists alone are prepared to tear out by the roots and bury out of sight forever. Success to the Nihilists!" Nevertheless, on the same page, an article by Tucker entitled "Liberty's Weapons" began, "Our methods are the methods of peace. Liberty is not the advocate of force..."

Realizing that such a jarring juxtaposition of articles might confuse his readers, or lead them to accuse him of inconsistency, Tucker voiced what he imagined to be their reaction, "And yet Liberty finds words of approval for the...tyrant-slayers who in secrecy plot the revenges of fate. Why? Because Liberty is forced to choose between one class that slays to oppress and another that slays to free." To those who still expressed confusion, he urged patience in their "great hurry for a full and systematic explanation of Liberty's philosophy and purposes....Patience, good friends, patience!"

Almost thirty issues later and still without the promised 'systematic explanation', Tucker commented upon the assassination of the French politician Leon Gambetta with the words, "It is a fitting ending to the life of one of the most dangerous characters of Europe, over whose disappearance Liberty, not in a spirit of triumphant revenge, but simply voicing a sincere desire for the public welfare, can only rejoice."

Yet, whenever acts of violence against politicians occurred within the United States, Liberty reacted in a markedly different manner than it did toward similar attacks in Europe. For example, when President Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau in 1881, Tucker declared, "As to the act committed by Guiteau all sensible men agree. Nothing but its insanity saved it from being dastardly, bloodthirsty, and thoroughly devilish, without reason, proper motive, or excuse." Tucker's criticism of the American assassin Guiteau occurred two issues after his idolization of the Russian assassin Sophie Perovskaya. Some two dozen issues thereafter, Tucker expressed joy at the death of the French politician Gambetta, thus eliminating the possibility he had changed his attitude toward violence as a political strategy in the brief interval between praising Perovskaya and repudiating Guiteau.

The explanation of this apparent inconsistency lay in Tucker's view of violence as a last resort strategy that could be justified only when freedom of speech and freedom of the press had been destroyed, as they had been in Perovskaya's Russia. As long as radicals in America could speak out and publish, however, they could educate the public toward "the Anarchistic idea" and inspire rebellion.

Although Tucker was acutely aware of the restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of the press within the United States, he insisted that newspapers, "if not allowed to say everything they would like to, are able to say all that is absolutely necessary to say in order to finally achieve their end, the triumph of liberty." Then, and only then, with the solid foundation of an educated citizenry could an anarchist society succeed. Until that foundation had been laid, Tucker counseled radicals in America to eschew violence against the State and to prefer peaceful means of agitation.

Liberty's rejection of tactical violence in the United States was part of a systematic view of strategy. The reasons for this rejection were well expressed in an article entitled "Violence Breeds Violence" written by Florence Finch Kelly, under the initials 'F.F.K.' Kelly flatly stated that no "permanent good" could be achieved through the use of violence. She asked every radical to "stop and study well" the effect of State brutality upon his own heart. She argued: the violence had not convinced him to accept the State or to embrace it as legitimate. The violence had only hardened his beliefs and angered him to respond in kind. So, too, would a strategy of violence impact the American people: the bomb-throwing revolutionary could only "terrify them, and in their terror they can only strike back and hug their beliefs all the closer." The use of violence would result in "nothing but a brute battle for physical supremacy with a rabid determination on each side to exterminate the other. And it happens that the probabilities of extermination are all on the wrong side."

By insisting upon peaceful agitation within the United States, the individualist anarchists placed themselves at odds with the communist anarchists, some of whom, as immigrants, had imported political strategies of violence with them from Russia and Germany. For example, the communist anarchist leader Johann Most arrived in New York from Germany in 1882 where he began publication of the German language paper Die Freiheit, in which he openly called for workers to commit acts of violence against the State. Liberty offered a sense of the urgency with which Most called for insurrection through a translated excerpt from Die Freiheit. Most cried out, "The existing system will be quickest and most radically overthrown by the annihilation of its exponents. Therefore, massacres of the enemies of the people must be set in motion." Because of his preferred method of explosive 'resistance', the editor of Die Freiheit was nicknamed Dynamost.

With such profound theoretical differences between the traditions of individualist and communist anarchism, it was inevitable that a bitter schism would eventually separate them. Nevertheless, Tucker's strong links to European Anarchist periodicals and personalities, as well as his championing of Proudhonian economics had forged a bond that resisted severing. For example, on July 16, 1881, when the moribund International Working People's Association revived in London, Tucker had been ecstatic. In an article entitled "Vive l'Association Internationale", Tucker enthused, "To this momentous event, which marks an epoch in the progress of the great labor movement...Liberty, in the present issue, devotes a large portion of her space."

As the historian Margaret S. Marsh observed in her book Anarchist Women, there had initially been good will and co-operation between the individualist and communist anarchists. "Their conflict...came after a brief period of harmony. Tucker and the Individualists had wanted initially to cooperate with the European anarchist movement. In 1881 the editor of Liberty hailed the creation of the anarchist 'Black International,' proposing that his paper serve as its English-language organ."

For a while, Liberty served this function. The November 12, 1881 issue carried a report by J.H. Swain who, as a representative of individualist anarchism, had attended a follow-up conference in Chicago where he was extremely well received even though the majority of attendees were socialists. A year later, the two factions of anarchism became bitter enemies.

The schism was sped along not only by theoretical differences but also by three specific events: the second Congress of the International held in 1883; Liberty's expose of the 'New York firebugs'; and, the Haymarket incident.

Second Congress of the International

After welcoming Most to America, Liberty soon became a vocal critic of the communist anarchist leader. Henry Appleton, writing under the pseudonym 'X' led the assault on Most, whom he labeled a "State Socialist" rather than an "Anarchist." Appleton pressed Most to answer one question: under the social system he proposed, what would become of a peaceful individual who did not agree to live by his economic theories? Appleton demanded to know "whether Communistic Anarchists propose to let me severely alone, provided I decline to take any part in their schemes, but choose to paddle my own canoe, at my own cost"?

It seemed clear to Appleton that if he withdrew from Most's society and happened "to be personally occupying, cultivating, and using forty acres of land, upon which I have built a home, a barn, and bought tools, domestic animals" that it would be only a matter of time before he was "torn from my bed and cleaned out to make room for one of Herr Most's elect." All he had built and cultivated would be "declared the property of the Commune." For this reason, Appleton concluded, "these Communists are not Anarchists, but, when crowded back upon their basic resources, are at war with Liberty, whose very incarnation true Anarchy is."

In 1883, Chicago anarchists -- many of whom were communists -- organized a conference to be held in Pittsburgh. Its purpose: to establish a platform on which radical agitators of all ideologies, from Marxism to Individualism, could agree. Dominated by Most, the planned conference managed to alienate both the Marxists who refused to attend and the individualists who broke off all official co-operation with the conference.

On October 6, 1883, on the first page of Liberty, Tucker denounced the scheme to promote a latitudinarian platform for radicals which was to be introduced at the October 14th conference. The scheme itself was embodied in a document prepared by the communist anarchist Burnette J. Haskell, editor of the San Francisco Truth. Tucker flatly declared the document to be a failure. Moreover, he considered it to be "specious and implausible", calling it "perhaps the most foolishly inconsistent piece of work that ever came to our notice."

In the same issue, Tucker published an open letter to Haskell, upbraiding the Truth for being inconsistent and for losing the passion of its first issues. On a more personal note -- and, perhaps, the more important one -- Tucker professed surprise at reading of Haskell's intention to serialize an English translation of Bakounine's book God and the State in the Truth. Tucker was curious because he had been the first person to "introduce Bakounine to America in any marked way". He had already announced his own intention to translate and publish an English edition of the referenced work.

In a proprietary tone, Tucker asserted, "I was deeply adverse to having this author first introduced in English handicapped by misleading associates". In short, Tucker did not want the first English translation of God and the State to issue from Haskell. Instead, he "hurried to completion" his own translation, "placed it in the hands" of printers, and dispatched an advertisement of the work to the Truth. The ad was rejected, purportedly because it included the words, "monstrous schemes of Karl Marx and Lassalle". Haskell explained that he was attempting to reconcile all the forms of Socialism, and to form "common ground for unity between Socialists and Anarchists". The wording of Tucker's advertisement ran counter to this goal.

Tucker responded with characteristic bluntness, "In addition to the eyes of Beelzebub, have you acquired the smooth tongue of Mephistopheles?... How gauzy your excuse! Frankly, now, was not the real reason for the rejection of my advertisement a desire to prevent your readers from knowing that I was before you in the publication of 'God and the State'..." As for Haskell's attempt to unify Socialism and Anarchism, Tucker expressed the deepest of skepticism.

Predictably, Haskell answered within the pages of his own paper, thus prompting Tucker to pen yet another open letter to him in Liberty. Although the second letter added no substance to the former, clearly the relationship between the two editors had deteriorated into bitterness and ad hominem attacks. When Haskell wrote privately to Tucker years later asking him for a favor, Tucker declined to accommodate him in a letter published within Liberty. He prefaced the public rejection with the observation that "[Haskell] once called frantically and in vain for a Brutus to plunge his dagger into the Anarchist Caesar who sits on the editorial throne of Liberty..."

Where Tucker had expressed good will toward both Most and Haskell, the opposite sentiment now existed in perpetuity.

The New York Fire Bugs

In the March 27, 1886 issue of Liberty, in an article entitled "The Beast of Communism", Tucker took the remarkable step of publicly airing a 'movement' scandal. He named names, and one of them was John Most. Tucker began by condemning Most and the "New York Germans" for converting the word 'anarchist' in the public mind into a term synonymous with criminal activity, violence, and destruction. He wrote, "...the word has been usurped, in the face of all logic and consistency, by a party of Communists who believe in a tyranny worse than any that now exists..." Tucker labeled this hard core of communism as "a gang of criminals whose deeds for the past two years rival in 'pure cussedness' any to be found in the history of crime."

Liberty usually reserved such strong language for politicians and other agents of the State. Tucker proceed to explain why he now directed this language toward fellow radicals. He declared that "a large number of the most active members of the German Group of the International Working People's Association in New York City, and of the Social Revolutionary Club" were setting fire to their own property in order to collect on insurance policies, even though those properties were sometimes tenements with hundreds of occupants. In one such fire, a mother and a newborn baby had burned to death. In another, a mother and two children lost their lives. Tucker listed fire after fire, death after death.

Moreover, Tucker expanded his accusations to include "well-meaning editors of leading journals of so-called Communistic Anarchism." These editors knew of the death of innocents, but they held their silence out of "mistaken party fealty." Tucker pointed his finger specifically at Most, whom he said was shielding the criminals from detection. "[A]fter he was made aware of these acts," Tucker continued, "he not only refused to repudiate them, but persisted in retaining as his right-hand men some of the worst of the gang."

After consulting with some of the most prominent Anarchists in the country, Tucker felt impelled to expose the murderous crimes that were being committed in the name of class justice. One event spurred him on. While he had been debating the matter, a mother and her baby had perished in another fire. Tucker bitterly reproached himself: had he published his expose earlier, the fire would not have been set, and the mother and child would still be alive. Berating himself, Tucker made an overt show of remorse in the pages of Liberty.

Then, in a move considered treasonous by many fellow radicals, he called upon "every honorable newspaper in America to lay these facts before its readers, placing the blame where it belongs and distinguishing the innocent from the guilty. And especially do I address the Anarchist press. Every Anarchistic journal ought to copy this exposure and send it forth with the stamp of its approval..." Many papers acceded to his request: the respectable mainstream ones did so with glee.

A furor broke out in radical circles, exacerbated by the fact that many "honorable" papers grabbed onto the scandal as a means of discrediting Anarchism. The radical Der Arme Teufel -- a German weekly published from Detroit by Robert Reitzel -- lamented "these charges are published by the capitalistic press with great gusto and satisfaction." Forced by publicity to respond, Most denied any knowledge of the insurance fires, and denounced Tucker's motives in exposing the alleged crimes.

Tucker refused to back down. In an article entitled "Time Will Tell", he reiterated the charges and declared, "I have done what I could to save the lives and possessions of unoffending people and to save Anarchy from being smirched by association, even in name, with crime and criminals." He printed two letters which tended to support his original charges: one from Reitzel, the other from Justus H. Schwab, a prominent member of the International Working People's Association whom Tucker had mentioned favorably for having registered a protest against the fires. Meanwhile, in Die Freiheit Most promised to clear up the matter in future issues. Unfortunately for him, subsequent investigations substantiated most of the charges Tucker had brought against the communist anarchists.

The turbulence caused by Tucker's expose had barely subsided before the most significant event to rock 19th century Anarchism occurred: the Haymarket incident. Again, Tucker found himself at odds with the communist anarchists.

The Haymarket Incident

The city of Chicago seemed to act as a magnet for immigrant radicals, most of who were communist or socialist, and many of whom were deeply committed to the labor movement. The most popular labor organization, the International Working People's Association, published five papers out of Chicago alone, three of which were in German. Indeed, Chicago sent more delegates than any other city to the Second Congress that Tucker had denounced earlier. The large and vocal population of radicals seemed to inspire extreme brutality within the Chicago police force who made a point of violently breaking up even the most peaceful of labor assemblies.

Perhaps in response to police brutality, the Chicago anarchists openly embraced violence as a political strategy. August Spies, the editor of Die Arbeiter Zeitung -- and one of the Haymarket defendants who was executed -- penned a resolution that was passed by the Central Labor Union in that city. It read in part, "We urgently call upon the wage-class to arm itself in order to be able to put forth against their exploiters such an argument which alone can be effective--Violence!"[Emphasis in original]

The native American Albert Parsons, editor of the Alarm, was no less passionate in his call for armed resistance. He wrote, "The Communist and anarchist urges the people to study their schoolbooks on chemistry and read the dictionaries on the composition and construction of all kinds of explosives and make themselves too strong to be opposed with deadly weapons."

With the emergence of the Eight-Hour Movement in spring of 1886, 65,000 workers in Chicago either went on strike or were locked out by their employers. As May Day drew near, violent encounters between laborers and the police increased. On May 3rd, the police fired upon a crowd of laborers, killing several people. The next day, on May 4th, a protest meeting was held in the Haymarket Square. As the crowd began to break up peacefully due to rain, the police interrupted a speech being delivered by Samuel Fielden, a leader of the demonstration. From the sidelines, someone threw a bomb toward the police, who opened fire. The shots were returned. In the final count, seven policemen died: the death toll of the crowd has never been established, but it has been estimated to be in excess of twenty people.

The city of Chicago was gripped by hysteria. Businesses closed their doors. Respectable society demanded blood for blood. Anarchists were rounded up with no concern displayed for whether or not they had been actually involved in the incident. Thirty-one people were indicted for murder, sixty-nine for lesser crimes. Eventually, eight men remained accused and were tried for murder in a court case that was a travesty of justice and of just procedures. For example, the jury was not chosen in the normal manner: a bailiff was instructed to go out into the street and select whomever he wished to serve. The Haymarket incident and the backlash it inspired in the consciousness of the American public was the beginning of an ongoing prejudice against and hatred of Anarchism. The impact of the incident on radicalism can hardly be overstated, and may be best understood by considering two personal examples.

The individualist anarchist and feminist Voltairine de Cleyre, upon reading a newspaper headline announcing that anarchists had thrown a bomb into a crowd, had exclaimed "They ought to be hanged!" She regretted the words instantly. Her regret became more bitter as she learned, shortly thereafter, the true circumstances surrounding the Haymarket affair. Fourteen years later de Cleyre was still haunted by her imprudent words, "For that ignorant, outrageous, blood-thirsty sentence I shall never forgive myself..." Much of de Cleyre's anarchistic activity in the ensuing years can be seen as an attempt to expiate her sin, and her most passionate addresses were the ones she delivered at the yearly memorials held for the Haymarket martyrs.

The communist anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman described her reaction in her autobiographical Living My Life. After becoming hysterical, Goldman fell into a deep sleep. Upon awakening, she discovered something new and wonderful within her soul. It was "a great ideal, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the memory of my martyred comrades, to make their cause my own..." Goldman abandoned her newly wed husband and proceeded to New York to prepare herself for the radicalism that would consume the rest of her life.

Against this backdrop of passionate and profound reaction, Tucker became the main voice for prudence within the radical community.