Benjamin R. Tucker:
A Fragmentary Exposition

Mark Sullivan

[Reprinted from Fragments, January-March, 1981]

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 mid-nineteenth century.

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 publishers.

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 Book.

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 lesser gods.

"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 liberation, too.