From the archives of The Memory Hole

Individualist Anarchism: Lacunae Department

A former history professor at SUNY Rochester provided the following introduction taken from Greenwood Press' facsimile reproduction of the Liberty broadsheet published by Benjamin R. Tucker between the American Civil War and the First World War; a period, as the writer points up, largely neglected by historians of native American radicalism.


In January, 1908, a severe fire ended Benjamin R. Tucker's career as a publisher. It destroyed his entire stock of publications and manuscripts, as well as nearly all of his publishing plates. A few months later, Tucker, then fifty-four, published the final issue of Liberty. In spite of occasional irregularities and even suspensions, the anarchist magazine had appeared since August, 1881. Tucker's friends tried raising money to help him but did not gather sufficient funds to keep the journal alive and its editor in New York City. With a female friend and their newly born child, Tucker quit the United States to live in France. An annuity from his mother's estate allowed him some regular income and encouraged renewed publishing ambitions. "It is my intention," Liberty's few readers learned from its editor in the last issue (April, 1908), "to close up my business next Summer, and, before January 1, 1909, go to Europe, there to publish Liberty (still mainly for America, of course) and such books and pamphlets as my remaining means enable me to print. In Europe the cost of living and of publishing is hardly more than half as much as here." Tucker never resumed putting out Liberty. And he never returned to the United States. Born six years before the American Civil War started, he died an expatriate some months after the Munich Pact was signed and in the year that saw the beginning of World War II.
The republication of Liberty, is welcome because it restores to our time this most important American philosophical anarchist magazine and, more significantly, its editor, Benjamin Tucker. Except in it few histories of American anarchism (Such as Eunice M. Schuster's Native American Anarchism, James Martin's Men Against the State, and Charles Madison's essays in Critics and Crusaders), Tucker has been almost entirely neglected by historians of American radical thought and social movements. Part of this results from the fact that historians have given excessive attention to Socialist radicals and few others. Among the anarchists, for example, only Emma. Goldman and those who participated in the Haymarket Affair have found historians to weave them into a larger radical fabric. Other anarchist theorists and propagandists remain buried in their polemical journals and await the probing historian who will relate their significance to the larger meaning of their times.
Tucker himself was partly to blame for his own subsequent neglect. He worked hard as editor of Liberty and did much else to spread anarchist literature, but he never published a systematic work of his own. In 1893, he penned Instead of a Book By a Man Too Busy To Write One. It was just what its title suggested. A devoted admirer admitted that it was no more than a collection "culled from his writings in his periodical, Liberty" and it "closely printed Volume of nearly 500 pages ... composed of questions and criticisms by his correspondents and by writers in other periodicals, all answered ... in that keen, clear-cut style that was the delight of his adherents and the despair of his opponents." Instead of a Book ... went Out of print in 1908, and even its original publication was somewhat unusual. Tucker agreed to publish it only after disciples had ordered 600 advance copies. In 1926, Vanguard Press published Individual Liberty: Selections from the Writings of Benjamin Tucker, a selective collection of essays mostly from Liberty edited by "C.L.S.," a, close friend of Tucker who had helped edit and frequently contributed to Liberty. C.L.S. greatly admired Tucker as his introductory words made clear:

Mr. Tucker is an educated and cultured man. His literary style is both fluent and elegant, his statements concise and accurate, his arguments logical and convincing, and his replies terse and yet courteous. This reader is never at it loss to know what he means. There is not a word too much or too little. Every sentence is rounded and complete--not a redundant syllable or a missing punctuation mark. What he writes is a joy to read, even when the reader is himself the victim of his withering sarcasm or caustic satire.
C.L.S. celebrated his mentor as a significant American exponent of individualist anarchism.
Few others since that time have shown Such devotion or even ordinary concern for Tucker and his ideas. Between 1926 and 1966, only specialists on anarchism and disciples paid him attention. More recently, however, collections of anarchist writings have displayed renewed interest in the man and his work. Staughton Lynd's collection, Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History (Indianapolis, 1966), includes portions of Tucker's 1890 Salem, Massachusetts, address, "The Relation of the State to the Individual," and Patterns of Anarchy: A Collection of Writings on the Anarchist Tradition (New York, 1966), edited by Leonard I. Krimmerman and Lewis Perry, contains a typical Tucker thrust against the dangers of "State Socialism" as well the editors' brief reminder that Tucker "wrote with gritty lucidity on a vast range of subjects ......"
Hardly enough is yet known to assess Tucker's precise influence and importance, and readers of Liberty can judge the quality of Tucker's mind and arguments for themselves in the pages that follow. Here I shall give brief attention to the man who edited the magazine, to the milieu that produced him, and to the problem of assessing anarchist and nonviolent philosophy and doctrine in Gilded Age and Progressive America.
A belated by-product of the New England Renaissance, Benjamin Tucker nevertheless differed from the pre-Civil War generation of radicals and reformers. Tucker's outlook was early shaped by both native American and European anarchist and other radical critics of early industrial society. Pierre Proudhon was as important to Tucker as was Josiah Warren, and it is of interest to note that Tucker mixed the critical writings of a major French adversary of Karl Marx with those of a direct descendant of a Patriot hero in the American Revolution.
An only child, Tucker was born in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1854, to a Quaker father who first outfitted whaling ships and later ran a, New Bedford grocery store. A Unitarian mother, herself the daughter of "'a pronounced admirer of Thomas Paine," made for an unusual household by even reformist New England standards. (Both parents, incidentally, later dissociated themselves from Tucker's mature anarchist outlook.) Not much is known about Tucker's childhood, but admirers hinted at prodigal capacities. "At two years," C.L.S. insisted, "Tucker was reading English fluently and at four gleefully discovered that the Episcopal Prayer Book had misquoted the Bible." This seems exaggerated, but Charles Madison tells that Tucker became "a daily devourer of the New York Tribune from the age of twelve." The New Bedford Lyceum helped broaden his learning, as did a local Unitarian minister. In 1870, he graduated from the Friends' Academy and then with some hesitation (and much pressure from his parents) spent two or three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In ways unknown and for reasons unclear, Tucker found a lecture by pioneer anarchist Josiah Warren and contact with Colonel William B. Greene, the American disciple of Proudhon, more meaningful than formal college training. One strain of Gilded-Age American radicalism (a small but significant and little studied strain) had found a ready convert. Tucker later remembered:
I ... cherished a choice collection of chaotic and contradictory convictions, which did not begin to clear until I reached the age of eighteen, when a lucky combination of influences transformed me into the consistent anarchist that I have remained until this day. In the meantime, I had been an atheist, a materialist, an evolutionist, a free trader, a champion of the legal eight-hour day, a woman suffragist, an enemy of marriage, and a believer in sexual freedom.

Just how this all came about is not at all clear, but the young Tucker associated himself with the New England Labor Reform League, a brief venture that brought together some former abolitionists, labor reformers, advocates of women's rights, disciples of Proudhon, utopian Socialists, currency reformers, and others who were discontented and drawn to radical gestures or philosophies. Efforts by Massachusetts town authorities to suppress her right to lecture on "The Principles of Social Freedom" brought Victoria Woodhull, the arch symbol of radical sexual doctrine, to Tucker's attention. The young man helped her win the right to speak, and soon after, when she visited Boston, "she invited him to call on her and promptly seduced him." according to Madison's account. A trip to New York City renewed "his intimacy with Victoria." So did his father's insistence that he study abroad. Victoria and her family went with Tucker, and they all remained together for a short time.
Tucker did not wed Victoria Woodhull, but in these years he married the thought of the American Warren to that of the Frenchman Proudhon. Settled in Boston in the mid-seventies, he translated from the French Proudhon's What Is Property?, helped edit Ezra Heywood's short-lived The Word (Heywood went to prison for Publishing material about birth control), and founded the equally ephemeral Radical Review, which printed the writings of important New England radicals such as Lysander Spooner and Stephan Pearl Andrews as well as acute and angry commentary about such contemporary social crises as the great railroad strikes and "riots" of 1977. But, like Heywood's Word, it had few readers and a still briefer life. Tucker's anarchism did not deter the editors of the Boston Daily Globe from hiring him in 1878 as an editorial writer. "Although," Madison notes, "he refused to write on any topic that might compromise his anarchistic principles," Tucker remained with the Globe for eleven years. During that time, he started Liberty (August, 1881), and he continued to edit and publish it after moving to New York City in 1892 to take an editorial position on The Engineering Magazine. Tucker and Liberty remained in the great metropolis until the1908 fire.
Tucker gave most of his time to editing and publishing Liberty, but there was more to his productive American years than just this work. Twice in the late eighties and early nineties, he started literary magazines: The Transatlantic and Five Stories a Week. Neither got off the ground. Started in 1900, the Tucker Publishing Company lasted less than a year. Liberty itself was hardly a mass publication. Madison estimates that its circulation "never exceeded six hundred subscribers." Tucker's importance as a conveyor of international avant-garde literature and anarchist and libertarian books and pamphlets however, extended far beyond the publication of Liberty and other magazines. Madison summarizes some of his work for us:
He translated and published Felix Pyat's The Rag Picker of Paris, Claude Tellier's My Uncle Benjamin, Zola's Money and Modern Marriage, Octave Miirabeau's A Chambermaid's Diary and Alexandre Arsene's The Thirty-Six Trades of the State. He also translated and published French versions of Bakunin's God and the State, Chernishevsky's What Is to Be Done? and Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata. In addition, he issued many books and pamphlets by American and English libertarians such as Stephen Pearl Andrews's The Science of Society, William B. Greene's Mutual Banking, Lysander Spooner's Free Political Institutions, Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism and The Sanity of Art, and Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol. One of his last ventures was to bring out an English translation of Paul Eltzbacher's Anarchism.
Just how widely these and other books and pamphlets circulated and who read them remain to be studied, but their mere issuance suggests a sensitivity and critical mind that deserve the attention of readers preparing to pore over the pages of Liberty. That magazine's editor was not an insular and parochical nineteenth-century American radical.
Tucker's mixture of Warren and Proudhon and his profession of a version of philosophical anarchisin that insisted that "all the affairs of men should be managed by individuals or voluntary associations" fills the pages of Liberty and infuses its content time and again. How Tucker developed these insights together with their strengths and weaknesses will be discovered by individual readers and need not be summarized for them, but certain points should be made. Much of the economic "theory" that filled the magazine is antiquated and often tedious and repetitive. Nevertheless, much else is less dated and still retains a freshness. Tucker's bitter quarrels with the "State Socialists" reveal a keen sensitivity to the dangers of centralized power and bureaucracy. His regular defense of voluntary associations as a key organizing principle in his stateless society retains contemporary relevance. So, too, do his attacks on "military discipline" and the use of "force"' as a means of repression or as a way of social improvement, as well as his arguments for "passive resistance" as a form of organized protest and as an instrument for collective betterment.
The pages of Liberty have important historical value beyond what they tell about American anarchist thoughts and Tucker and his philosophy. Incisive comments on matters of public interest such as the Irish Land League, the Haymarket Affair, and the Homestead Lockout, to cite a few examples, fill its pages. So do the recurrent polemics between anarchists, between Tucker and his Socialist critics, and between Tucker and the significant conservative theorists of his time. Hardly a friend, George Bernard Shaw found reason to compliment Tucker for his toughness as a combatant. "An examination of any number of this Journal will show," Shaw observed, "that as a candid, clearheaded and courageous demonstration of Individualist Anarchism by purely intellectual methods, Mr. Tucker may safely be accepted as one of the most capable spokesmen of his party."
There is yet a more important reason to study the pages of Liberty. No one can argue that it had a large following or affected significant popular movements. It always had just a small and probably quite select following. But its significance cannot be assessed in mere quantitative terms. Except for dramatic events like the Haymarket Affair and national figures like Emma Goldman, little is yet actually known about native American anarchism in Gilded-Age and Progressive America. In his introduction to Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History, Staughton Lynd quickly passes over the decades that separated the nonviolent abolitionists from the pacifists of the World War 1. "Nonviolence," Lynd writes, "was quiescent for a generation after 1861, just as it had been after 1776.... Anarchism formed an important connecting link between nineteenth and twentieth-century nonviolence in America." Just how these links worked themselves out remains the subject of detailed study of isolated men and women, odd journals, and scattered local "movements" between 1860 and 1910. Liberty is a good place to start such studies, and I suspect that the careful tracking down of such men, women, journals, and movements will produce findings that might surprise even historians of American radicalism.

Herbert G. Gutman
Rochester, New York, 1969

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