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Benjamin Tucker

Benjamin Ricketson Tucker (April 17, 1854June 22, 1939) was a leading proponent of American individualist anarchism in the 19th century, and editor and publisher of the individualist anarchist periodical Liberty.

Summary

Tucker's contribution to American individualist anarchism was as much through his publishing as his own writing. Tucker was the first to translate into English Proudhon's What is Property? and Max Stirner's The Ego and Its Own — which Tucker claimed was his proudest accomplishment. In editing and publishing the anarchist periodical Liberty, he published the original work of Stephen Pearl Andrews, Joshua K. Ingalls, Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, Victor Yarros, and Lillian Harman, daughter of the free love anarchist Moses Harman, as well as his own writing. He also published such items as George Bernard Shaw's first original article to appear in the United States and the first American translated excerpts of Friedrich Nietzsche. In Liberty, Tucker both filtered and integrated the theories of such European thinkers as Herbert Spencer and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; the economic and legal theories of the American individualists Lysander Spooner, William B. Greene and Josiah Warren; and the writings of the free thought and free love movements in opposition to religiously-based legislation and prohibitions on non-invasive behavior. Through these influences Tucker produced a rigorous system of philosophical or individualist anarchism that he called Anarchistic-Socialism, arguing that "[the] most perfect Socialism is possible only on the condition of the most perfect individualism."

According to historian of American individualist anarchism, Frank Brooks, it is easy to misunderstand Tucker's claim of "socialism." Before Marxists established a hegemony over definitions of "socialism, "the term socialism was a broad concept." Tucker (as well as most of the writers and readers in Liberty) understood "socialism" to refer to any of various theories and demands aimed to solve "the labor problem" through radical changes in the capitalist economy; descriptions of the problem, explanations of it causes, and proposed solutions (e.g., abolition of private property, cooperatives, state-ownership, etc.) varied among "socialist" philosophies. Tucker said socialism was the claim that "labor should be put in possession of its own, holding that what "state socialism" and "anarchistic socialism" had in common was the labor theory of value. However, "Instead of asserting, as did socialist anarchists, that common ownership was the key to eroding differences of economic power," and appealing to social solidarity, Tucker's individualist anarchism advocated distribution of property in an undistorted natural market as a mediator of egoistic impulses and a source of social stability. Tucker said, "the fact that one class of men are dependent for their living upon the sale of their labour, while another class of men are relieved of the necessity of labour by being legally privileged to sell something that is not labour. . . . And to such a state of things I am as much opposed as any one. But the minute you remove privilege. . . every man will be a labourer exchanging with fellow-labourers . . . What Anarchistic-Socialism aims to abolish is usury . . . it wants to deprive capital of its reward."

Tucker first favored a natural rights philosophy where an individual had a right to own the fruits of his labor and not to be aggressed against, then abandoned it in favor of "egoism" influenced by Max Stirner, where he then believed that only the "right of might" exists until overridden by contract.

He objected to all forms of communism, believing that even a stateless communist society must encroach upon the liberty of individuals who were in it.

The Four Monopolies

Tucker argued that the poor condition of American workers resulted from four legal monopolies based in authority:

  1. the money monopoly,
  2. the land monopoly,
  3. tariffs, and
  4. patents.

His focus for several decades became the state's economic control of how trade could take place, and what currency counted as legitimate. He saw interest and profit as a form of exploitation made possible by the banking monopoly, which was in turn maintained through coercion and invasion. Any such interest and profit, Tucker called "usury" and he saw it as the basis for the oppression of the workers. In his words, "interest is theft, Rent Robbery, and Profit Only Another Name for Plunder." Tucker believed that usury was immoral, however, he upheld the right for all people to engage in immoral contracts. "Liberty, therefore, must defend the right of individuals to make contracts involving usury, rum, marriage, prostitution, any many other things which is believes to be wrong in principle and opposed to human well-being. The right to do wrong involves the essence of all rights.

He asserted that anarchism is meaningless "unless it includes the liberty of the individual to control his product or whatever his product has brought him through exchange in a free market — that is, private property." He acknowledged that "anything is a product upon which human labor has been expended," but would not recognize full property rights to labored-upon land: "It should be noted, however, that in the case of land, or of any other material the supply of which is so limited that all cannot hold it in unlimited quantities, Anarchism undertakes to protect no titles except such as are based upon actual occupancy and use. Tucker opposed title to land that was not in use, arguing that an individual would have to use land continually in order to retain exclusive right to it. If this practice is not followed, he believed it results in a "land monopoly."

Tucker also opposed state protection of the banking monopoly, the requirement that one must obtain a charter to engage in the business of banking. He hoped to raise wages by deregulating the banking industry, reasoning that competition in banking would drive down interest rates and stimulate entrepreneurship. Tucker believed this would decrease the proportion of individuals seeking employment and therefore wages would be driven up by competing employers. "Thus, the same blow that strikes interest down will send wages up. He did not oppose individuals being employed by others, but due to his interpretation of the labor theory of value, he believed that in the present economy individuals do not receive a wage that fully compensates them for their labor. He wrote that if the four "monopolies" were ended, "it will make no difference whether men work for themselves, or are employed, or employ others. In any case they can get nothing but that wages for their labor which free competition determines.

Tucker opposed protectionism, believing that tariffs cause high prices by preventing national producers from having to compete with foreign competitors. He believed that free trade would help keep prices low and therefore would assist laborers in receiving their "natural wage." Tucker did not believe in a right to intellectual property in the form of patents, on the grounds that patents and copyrights protect something which cannot rightfully be held as property. In "The Attitude of Anarchism toward Industrial Combinations," he wrote that the basis for property is "the fact that it is impossible in the nature of things for concrete objects to be used in different places at the same time." Property in concrete things is "socially necessary." "[S]ince successful society rests on individual initiative, [it is necessary] to protect the individual creator in the use of his concrete creations by forbidding others to use them without his consent." Because ideas are not concrete things, they cannot be held and protected as property. Ideas can be used in different places at the same time, and so their use should not be restricted by patents. This was a source of conflict with the philosophy of fellow individualist Lysander Spooner who saw ideas as the product of "intellectual labor" and therefore private property.

According to Victor Yarros: Tucker rejected the legislative programs of labor unions, laws imposing a short day, minimum wage laws, forcing businesses to provide insurance to employees, and compulsory pension systems. He believed instead that strikes should be composed by free workers rather than by bureaucratic union officials and organizations. He argued, "strikes, whenever and wherever inaugurated, deserve encouragement from all the friends of labour. . . They show that people are beginning to know their rights, and knowing, dare to maintain them." and furthermore, "as an awakening agent, as an agitating force, the beneficent influence of a strike is immeasurable. . . with our present economic system almost every strike is just. For what is justice in production and distribution? That labour, which creates all, shall have all." Tucker envisioned an individualist anarchist society as "each man reaping the fruits of his labour and no man able to live in idleness on an income from capital....become[ing] a great hive of Anarchistic workers, prosperous and free individuals [combining] to carry on their production and distribution on the cost principle." rather than a bureaucratic organization of workers organized into rank and file unions. However, he did hold a genuine appreciation for labor unions (which he called "trades-union socialism") and saw it as "an intelligent and self-governing socialism" saying, "[they] promise the coming substitution of industrial socialism for usurping legislative mobism."

Private defense

Tucker did not have a utopian vision of anarchy where individuals would not coerce others. He advocated that liberty and property be defended by private institutions. Opposing the monopoly of the state in providing security, he advocated a free market of competing defense providers, saying "defense is a service like any other service; ... it is labor both useful and desired, and therefore an economic commodity subject to the law of supply and demand." He said that anarchism "does not exclude prisons, officials, military, or other symbols of force. It merely demands that non-invasive men shall not be made the victims of such force. Anarchism is not the reign of love, but the reign of justice. It does not signify the abolition of force-symbols but the application of force to real invaders. Tucker expressed that the market-based providers of security would offer protection of land that was being used, and would not offer assistance to those attempting to collect rent:"The land for the people' . . . means the protection by . . . voluntary associations for the maintenance of justice . . . of all people who desire to cultivate land in possession of whatever land they personally cultivate . . . and the positive refusal of the protecting power to lend its aid to the collection of any rent, whatsoever."

Embrace of "egoism"

Tucker abandoned natural rights doctrine and began a proponent of what is known as "Egoism." This led to a split in American Individualism between the growing number of Egoists and the contemporary Spoonerian "Natural Lawyers". Tucker came to hold the position that no rights exist until they are created by contract. This led him to controversial positions such as claiming that infants had no rights and were the property of their parents, because they did not have the ability to contract. He said that a person who physically tries to stop a mother from throwing her "baby into the fire" should be punished for violating her property rights. He said that children would shed their status as property when they became old enough to contract "to buy or sell a house" for example, noting that the precocity varies by age and would be determined by a jury in the case of a complaint.

He also came to believe that aggressing against other was justifiable if doing so led to a greater decrease in "aggregate pain" than refraining from doing so. He said:

Tucker now said that there were only two rights, "the right of might" and "the right of contract." He also said, after converting to Egoist individualism that ownership in land is legitimately transferred through force unless contracted otherwise. In 1892, he said "In times past...it was my habit to talk glibly of the right of man to land. It was a bad habit, and I long ago sloughed it off. Man's only right to land is his might over it. If his neighbor is mightier than he and takes the land from him, then the land is his neighbor's, until the latter is dispossessed by one mightier still. However, he said he believed that individuals would come to the realization that "equal liberty" and "occupancy and use" doctrines were "generally trustworthy guiding principle of action," and, as a result, they would likely find it in their interests to contract with each other to refrain from infringing upon equal liberty and from protecting land that was not in use. Though he believed that non-invasion, and "occupancy and use as the title to land" were general rules that people would find in their own interests to create through contract, he said that these rules "must be sometimes trodden underfoot.

Late life

In 1908, a fire destroyed Tucker's uninsured printing equipment and his 30-year stock of books and pamphlets. Tucker's lover, Pearl Johnson — 25 years his junior — was pregnant with their daughter, Oriole Tucker. Six weeks after Oriole's birth, Tucker closed both Liberty and the book shop and retired with his family to France. In 1913, he came out of retirement for two years to contribute articles and letters to The New Freewoman which he called "the most important publication in existence."

Late in life, Tucker became much more pessimistic about the prospects for anarchism. In 1926, Vanguard Press published a selection of his writings entitled Individual Liberty, in which Tucker added a postscript to "State Socialism and Anarchism", which stated "Forty years ago, when the foregoing essay was written, the denial of competition had not yet effected the enormous concentration of wealth that now so gravely threatens social order. It was not yet too late to stem the current of accumulation by a reversal of the policy of monopoly. The Anarchistic remedy was still applicable." But, Tucker argued, "Today the way is not so clear. The four monopolies, unhindered, have made possible the modern development of the trust, and the trust is now a monster which I fear, even the freest banking, could it be instituted, would be unable to destroy. ... If this be true, then monopoly, which can be controlled permanently only for economic forces, has passed for the moment beyond their reach, and must be grappled with for a time solely by forces political or revolutionary. Until measures of forcible confiscation, through the State or in defiance of it, shall have abolished the concentrations that monopoly has created, the economic solution proposed by Anarchism and outlined in the forgoing pages – and there is no other solution – will remain a thing to be taught to the rising generation, that conditions may be favorable to its application after the great leveling. But education is a slow process, and may not come too quickly. Anarchists who endeavor to hasten it by joining in the propaganda of State Socialism or revolution make a sad mistake indeed. They help to so force the march of events that the people will not have time to find out, by the study of their experience, that their troubles have been due to the rejection of competition."

In private correspondence, he wrote: "Capitalism is at least tolerable, which cannot be said of Socialism or Communism. Susan Love Brown claims that this private letter served in "providing the shift further illuminated in the 1970s by anarcho-capitalists, although he remained a market socialist for the rest of his life. .

By 1930, Tucker had concluded that centralization and advancing technology had doomed both anarchy and civilization. "The matter of my famous 'Postscript' now sinks into insignificance; the insurmountable obstacle to the realization of Anarchy is no longer the power of the trusts, but the indisputable fact that our civilization is in its death throes. We may last a couple of centuries yet; on the other hand, a decade may precipitate our finish. ... The dark ages sure enough. The Monster, Mechanism, is devouring mankind.

Tucker died in Monaco in 1939, in the company of his family. His daughter, Oriole, reported, "Father's attitude towards communism never changed one whit, nor about religion.... In his last months he called in the French housekeeper. 'I want her,' he said, 'to be a witness that on my death bed I'm not recanting. I do not believe in God!"

Dates, places and events

Born April 17, 1854 in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

  • 1872 — While a student at M.I.T., Tucker attended a convention of the New England Labor Reform League in Boston, chaired by William B. Greene, author of Mutual Banking (1850). At the convention, Tucker purchased Mutual Banking, True Civilization, and a set of Ezra Heywood's pamphlets. Furthermore, Free-love anarchist, Ezra Heywood introduced Tucker to William B. Greene and Josiah Warren, author of True Civilization (1869). He also started a relationship with Victoria Woodhull at this time, lasting for 3 years.
  • 1876 — Tucker's debut into radical circles: Heywood published Tucker's English translation of Proudhon's classic work What is Property?.
  • 1877-1878 — Published his original journal, Radical Review, which lasted four issues.

August 1881 to April 1908 — published the periodical, Liberty, "widely considered to be the finest individualist-anarchist periodical ever issued in the English language."

  • 1892 — moved Liberty from Boston to New York
  • 1906 — Opened Tucker's Unique Book Shop in New York City — promoting "Egoism in Philosophy, Anarchism in Politics, Iconoclasm in Art".
  • 1908 — A fire destroyed Tucker's uninsured printing equipment and his 30-year stock of books and pamphlets. Tucker's lover, Pearl Johnson — 25 years his junior — was pregnant with their daughter, Oriole Tucker. Six weeks after Oriole's birth, Tucker closed both Liberty and the book shop and moved his family to France.
  • 1913 — Tucker comes out of retirement for two years to contribute articles and letters to The New Freewoman which he called "the most important publication in existence"
  • 1939 — Tucker died in Monaco, in the company of his lover Pearl Johnson and their daughter, Oriole, who reported, "Father's attitude towards communism never changed one whit, nor about religion.... In his last months he called in the French housekeeper. 'I want her,' he said, 'to be a witness that on my death bed I'm not recanting. I do not believe in God!"

Online publications

References

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