Benjamin R. Tucker:
A Fragmentary Exposition
[Reprinted from Fragments, January-March,
1981 marks the 100th anniversary of Liberty, the major
American (if not English-language) journal of individualist anarchism.
It was published from 1881 to 1908 on a regular fortnightly, or
monthly, basis (with one two-year hiatus), first in Boston, and later
in New York City. In January, 1908 Liberty's publisher met
with disaster: a fire destroyed his publishing establishment. One last
issue was put out in April, and then its publisher left, with his mate
and their only child, for France, never to return to America. He died
in the tax-free principality of Monaco in 1939, on the eve of the
worst bloodbath (yet) in history.
The man was Benjamin R. Tucker. And in many ways he was a one-man
movement on behalf of individual liberty. In addition to Liberty,
which he subtitled "not the daughter, but the mother, of order"
after Proudhon), he was the publisher and translator of many
avant-garde books of his day. He translated many of Proudhon's
writings, and published the first English-language edition of Max
Stirner's Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and His Own).
Both Proudhon and Stirner were early Iibertarian opponents of the
rising authoritarian socialism taken over by Marx in the
Beni. R. Tucker's Unique Catalogue of Advanced Literature
featured "the literature that makes for Egoism in philosophy,
Anarchism in politics, Iconoclasm in art. With now and then a book
that makes the other way." Among these were Whitman's Leaves
of Grass, which Tucker had sold in open and stated defiance of
government censor Anthony Comstock, and Oscar Wilde's The Ballad
of Reading Gaol. When Wilde was sentenced to two years in prison
for homosexual behavior, Tucker defended the man in print as a person
whose life was "one of strict conformity with the idea of equal
liberty." (Liberty, June 15, 1895) Tucker was not afraid
to take an unpopular stand, and did it more often than most
Tucker introduced his generation to the thoughts of earlier champions
of "individual sovereignty," such as Josiah Warren, Stephen
Pearl Andrews, and Lysander Spooner. And he gathered around him men
and women of talent and skill who labored for the cause of Liberty.
Tucker did not introduce me to the idea of individual sovereignty;
Emerson and Thoreau did that. But he did open wide the gates to a vast
territory whose farther reaches I have still to explore. This
territory, call it individualism, anarchism, or what you will, is by
nature open-ended and never fully explored. Yet, one can get a general
idea of its content by turning to the essays and dialogues of Tucker,
scattered throughout Liberty, or gathered together in his "Fragmentary
Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism," titled Instead of a
Always an individualist, Tucker distinguished his position from the "survival
of the fittest" school of "rugged individualism" that
defended special privileges enforced by the State, in particular the
monopolies of money and land. Tucker supported the "voluntaristic"
issue and security of money, and the equally voluntaristic "ground"
rules of land-tenure. Tucker believed that labor produced all wealth,
and that only labor ought to be rewarded in the distribution of
wealth. Interest and rent were monopoly incomes. Thus, Benjamin R.
Tucker, an individualist, placed himself in the socialist camp!
Tucker, however, claimed to discern two types of socialism. The
first, State Socialism, was "the doctrine that all the affairs of
men should be managed by the government, regardless of individual
choice." That he bitterly opposed. The second type he vigorously
championed. He called it Anarchistic Socialism, or "the doctrine
that all the affairs of men should be managed by individuals or
voluntary associations, and that the State should be abolished."
(Instead of a Book, 1969 reprint, pp. 7 and 9)
Tucker was very specific about what he meant by the State. The raison
d'etre of the State is not defense, but aggression, or "the
subjection of the non-invasive individual to an external will."
Tucker asserted that "the essence of government is control, or
the attempt to control." (Instead of a Book, p.23) Both
State and government stood equally condemned, as defined by Tucker,
since the State was the embodiment of government. Self-defense against
aggression could never be government. Because aggression is
government, defense is anti-government. And it does not matter whether
the aggressors are a majority or not, or duly elected or not. Their
right to rule is simply the "right" of the strongest.
Tucker did not busy himself constructing theories of individual or
social rights. He supported Stirner's observation that "right"
is an illusion that follows might. Tucker based his hopes on
individual liberation, and of the dissolution of the State, on a
gradual awakening of the Self to its own ability to do without the
State. He trusted, after Thoreau, in nonviolent resistance; in civil
disobedience; in widespread refusal to render taxes to the State, and
rent to its privileged class.
While denying rights, Tucker affirmed the idea that there are social
laws, discoverable by experience and reason, which are to the benefit
of the individuals who compose society. If society is to prosper, then
it must be based on "the greatest amount of individual liberty
compatible with equality of liberty." (Instead of a Book,
p.24) Tucker had no qualms about advocating voluntary associations
enforcing the law of equal liberty by any means necessary. He thus
opened himself up to the charge of advocating government under a
different label. But Tucker challenged his adversaries to show how any
government could be a consistent defender of equal liberty so long as
it collected taxation by force.
I have learned much from Tucker. Whether or not I agree with all of
his positions is of little importance. It is his willingness to
challenge any accepted idea, his iconoclasm rather than his
constructive proposals, that I appreciate most. He attacked, with
Stirner, all ideas for which he saw no evidence. He was of and for
this earth -- and did not long for heavenly perfection. He based his
anarchist individualism not on the right, but on the happiness of
flesh-and-blood people. The principle of equal liberty is valid
because it makes for the happiness of individuals. We do not have to
strive to make ourselves worthy of our principles; rather, let's
choose only those principles worthy of us Thus we can free ourselves
from the yoke of Duty-to Society, the State, the Deity, and all the
"Consequence is the only god," proclaimed Benjamin R.
Tucker. All of experience, all of science, all of nature and natural
law, are summed up in these five words. And all of individual