Putting liberty in context

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  • Putting Liberty in Context*

    Frank H. Brooks

    T he American individualist anarchist newspaper, Liberty, Not the Daughter But the Mother of Order (1881-1908), edited by Benjamin R. Tucker, was "the long- est-lived of any radical periodical of economic or political nature in the nation's history and certainly one of the world's most interesting during the past two cen- turies." It provided "a forum for native American radicalism.., which earned the admiration of H.L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman. "1 Besides the writings of its editor, Liberty published writers of high quality, including Ber- nard Shaw and Vilfredo Pareto, as well as a host of lesser-known individualists. The recent resurgence of interest in anarchism has led to renewed appreciation for Tucker and his journal. Liberty is now generally acknowledged to have been the most important anarchist periodical to appear in the United States: "It is impos- sible to overemphasize the influence Liberty had over the development of libertar- ian thought in America"; "arguably the finest libertarian periodical ever published in the English language. "2 Benjamin Tucker's own writings, after appearing in Liberty, were reprinted as pamphlets and in book form and have recently surfaced in anthologies of anarchism? Modern libertarians have been particularly inter- ested, so much so that Stephen Newman, an analyst of libertarianism, refers to Tucker and his followers as their "true culture heroes. "4 Libertarians trying to reappropriate the radical thrust of classical liberalism naturally find historical al- lies in the individualists of late nineteenth-century America. Tucker and the con- tributors to Liberty confronted the early development of the centralized American state and the complicity of mainstream liberalism in this development by discuss- ing and criticizing laissez-faire economics, political reforms, and such theoretical issues as natural rights. Their critiques of reformers' reliance on the state have become newly relevant as the welfare state is increasingly criticized and Soviet- style communism continues to fragment.

    Yet to locate Liberty's significance merely in its prophetic criticisms dramati- cally curtails and ultimately distorts the nature of the ideology it helped to de- fine. Liberty was not just a treasure trove of protol ibertarianism, but the culmination of fifty years of radical individualism and labor reform. The pre- eminent analyst of American individualist anarchism, James J. Martin, refers to Tucker's newspaper as "theoretical anarchism matured. "s Even recognizing its historical roots, however, is insufficient, for Liberty also reflected, and partici-

    * Reprinted in part from the book The Individualist Anarchists, edited by Frank H. Brooks. Copy- right 9 1994 by Transaction Publishers.

  • Brooks 55

    pated in, the dramatic political and intellectual changes occurring around the turn of the century. The same newspaper that popularized the decades-old theo- ries of Josiah Warren, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Max Stirner was also one of the first American journals to print works by and about Bernard Shaw, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Henrik Ibsen. Tucker and his associates wrote perceptively about the Russian nihilists of the 1880s and the French bombthrowers of the 1890s, the development of anarchist communism, reformers such as Henry George and Edward Bellamy, and the temptations of Populist politics. Rooted in a radical past, reacting to (if not notably shaping) a dramatic present, and bearing lessons for the future, Liberty must be considered in several temporal contexts.

    As the topics indicated above show, Liberty also cannot be constrained by its obvious connections to American life or to liberal theory. Although individualist anarchism was nowhere larger in scale than in the United States, the anarchism expressed in Liberty owed only a general debt to individualist thinkers in America such as Thoreau or Jefferson and a substantial debt only to one American thinker, Josiah Warren. 6 The major intellectual influences were British, French, and Ger- man: the "law of equal freedom" from Herbert Spencer, mutualist economics (especially the mutual bank) from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and egoist ethics from Max Stirner. Liberty's connection to liberalism is also more apparent than real, or rather more critical than thankful. Individualist anarchism shared liberalism's concern with individual liberty, but took that to extremes that liberals could not contemplate. For instance, under the influence of Proudhon, the labor theory of property became a critique of state-enforced property rights, while, under the influence of Stirner, contract became the basis for creating "rights," not the mecha- nism for enforcing preexisting natural rights. The economic and political fixa- tions of classical liberalism were transcended in Liberty as it went beyond even J.S. Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft in addressing the problems of women, chil- dren, and education in individualist terms.

    Thus, if one examines Liberty closely, a complex, interesting, and potentially confusing phenomenon emerges: an American newspaper with European sen- sibilities and concerns, an individualist organ whose primary concern was with the "labor problem," and an anarchist project that aimed not to destroy the state, but rather, in Proudhon's suggestion, to dissolve it within a transformed economy. The standard selections from Benjamin Tucker's work only hint at this complexity, while his own anthology, Instead of a Book, represents only the first twelve years of Liberty's publication and, as James Martin points out, is unacceptable as a representative collection because "significant material was omitted from its contents. "7

    Liberty and American Individualist Anarchism

    While Liberty was the most interesting and significant of American anarchist newspapers, it was neither the first one nor the only one in existence at the time.

  • 56 Publishing Research Quarterly / Winter 1994/95

    The first explicitly anarchist newspaper in the United States, The Peaceful Revolu- tionist, was published fifty years before by Josiah Warren. Even Warren, how- ever, was not the first reformer to demonstrate anarchistic tendencies. Religious dissidents like Anne Hutchinson exhibited such tendencies already in the sev- enteenth century, and political radicals such as Thomas Paine verged on anar- chism in their thoroughgoing liberal critiques of government. Analysts of American anarchism such as Reichert, Schuster, DeLeon, and Rocker s have made much of these early roots of the anarchist movement. However, American anar- chism, like its European counterpart, is best seen as a nineteenth-century devel- opment, an ideology that, like socialism generally, responded to the growth of industrial capitalism, republican government, and nationalism. Although this is clearest in the more collectivistic anarchist theorists and movements of the late nineteenth century (Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, communist anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism), it also helps to explain anarchists of early- to midcentury such as Proudhon, Stirner and, in America, Warren. For all of these theorists, a primary concern was the "labor problem"--the increasing dependence and immiseration of manual workers in industrializing economies. Thus, as James Martin insists, while it is interesting to point out anarchist tendencies in reli- gious and political radicalism, American anarchism as a movement and an ide- ology was primarily directed toward economic reform and thus did not come into its own (in Europe or America) until the 1830s, when Warren and Proudhon began developing the theory. 9

    The initial concerns of American anarchism were money and land reform, issues that were addressed by antebellum anarchists such as Warren, Will- iam B. Greene, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and Joshua K. Ingalls. Their concerns were part of the broader labor movement and continued to be promoted af- ter the Civil War in the New England Labor Reform League. In the 1870s, anarchists were also prominent in the "free love" movement, which criti- cized the institution of marriage (with its legal and social barriers for women) and insisted on the availability of birth control. It was into this milieu that Benjamin Tucker, born in 1854 near New Bedford, Massachusetts, was intro- duced. Raised in a liberal Unitarian environment and falling under the spell of Victoria Woodhull (a controversial free-love speaker, member of the First International, and spiritualist), Tucker met several of the antebellum anar- chists at meetings of the New England Labor Reform League. He began to write for The Word, edited by Ezra Heywood (an officer of the NELRL and a free-love activist), and became its associate editor in 1875. By December of 1876, however, Tucker resigned from the Word, complaining that it was more interested in love reform than labor reform. He established his own newspa- per, the Radical Review, which in its short run (1877-78), featured articles by most of the major American anarchists. He quit his own venture in order to take charge of the Word when Heywood was jailed for running afoul of the rampaging censor, Anthony Comstock, in August 1878. Between 1879 and

  • Brooks 57

    1881, however, Tucker was not directly engaged in anarchist publishing, work- ing instead as a journalist in Boston.

    Tucker continued to work at least part-time as a mainstream journalist through- out the period that he published Liberty, whose first issue came out on August 6, 1881. From the beginning, Liberty was under the firm editorial direction of Tucker, who sought to make it a "plumb-line" journal of individualist anarchism:

    It may be well to state at the outset that this journal will be edited to suit its editor, not its readers. He hopes that what suits him will suit them; but if not, it will make no difference. No subscriber, or body of subscribers, will be allowed to govern his course, dictate his policy, or prescribe his methods. Liberty is published for the very definite purpose of spreading certain ideas, and no claim will be admitted on any pretext of freedom of speech, to waste its limited space in hindering the attainment of that object. 1~

    Actually, this statement was more bark than bite, for Tucker allowed a wide variety of views to be expressed in Liberty, always reserving, and often exercis- ing, his editorial right to criticize, amplify, or clarify any that did not suit him. Tucker's theoretical views were probably mature by the time he began publish- ing Liberty, but there is still a discernible hardening of the "plumb-line" over the years. Partly this was because Tucker's own attitudes became more fixed, but the radical movement also underwent significant changes. For this reason, Liberty's stable of writers also shifted several times over the years, reflecting the broader shifts in the reform, radical, and anarchist movements.

    In the first three or four years, there was considerable ideological fluidity in Liberty, as the socialist and labor parties that had been active in the late 1870s gave way to a smaller radical movement overall, but one with a growing anar- chist tendency. In 1881, Liberty was officially designated as the English-language journal of a nascent anarchist federation21 Although not controlled by this fed- eration, Tucker allowed wide, and often sympathetic, coverage of anarehism's various tendencies, notably to the communist anarchism of Kropotkin. Liberty was also quite favorable to quasi-anarchistic movements such as the Russian nihilists and the Irish No-Rent movement.

    By the time of the Pittsburgh organizing congress of the International Work- ing-People's Association (the anarchist successor of the First International) in 1883, however, Tucker had become estranged from the organized anarchist:move- ment. Liberty began to sharpen its line against the left of the anarchist move- ment, insisting on the inviolability of private property and criticizing the authoritarianism that it saw as inherent in communism. By the mid-1880s, there were several major anarchistic newspapers in the field, in several languages. On the west coast, Burnette Haskell published Truth, a rather confusing amalgam of Marxism and anarchism. In Kansas, Moses Harman published Lucifer, the Light Bearer, a free-love paper with significant anarchist leanings. In Chicago, the En-

  • 58 Publishing Research Quarterly / Winter 1994/95

    glish-language paper of the IWPA, the Alarm, supplemented a German-language paper, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung and a Bohemian paper, Budoucnost. In De- troit, Robert Reitzel was publishing Der Arme Teufel and in New York, Johann Most published Freiheit. Of course, Ezra Heywood continued to publish the Word. In this expanded universe of anarchist journalism, Tucker tried to define indi- vidualist anarchism more narrowly in order to distinguish it from its cousins, or in some cases, its pretenders. This process was hastened by the uproar surround- ing the Haymarket incident in 1886. Although the fatal bombing of a police con- tingent about to break up an anarchist meeting in Chicago brought unprecedented interest in anarchism, the public tended to identify anarchism with violent, for- eign, communistic bombthrowers. Tucker and his writers tried to differentiate individualist anarchism theoretically, economically, and strategically from the "Chicago anarchism" represented by the defendants in the Haymarket case.

    By 1888 or so, a third stage in the "plumb-line" had been reached, where the theoretical uniqueness and consistency of individualist anarchism had been es- tablished, but still had to be defended against narrower, and more theoretical, objections. Typically, these objections were raised by reformers, such as Hugh Pentecost, editor of Twentieth Century, who claimed to be anarchists, or by indi- vidualists, such as Wordsworth Donisthorpe or Auberon Herbert, who were al- most anarchists. Other objections came from those who were not convinced by details of Liberty's economic reforms, such as Hugo Bilgram's criticisms of the theory of money it espoused. Still others objected to the implications of the ego- ist theory of ethics which had effectively become doctrine in Liberty in the mid- 1880s. In short, Liberty after 1888, with the exception of reactions to incidents such as Alexander Berkman's attempted assassination of Henry Frick or to newly emerging movements such as Populism or Bellamy's Nationalism, became pri- marily a theoretical journal for clarifying the fine points of individualist anar- chism. The only major exception to this trend was Tucker's growing interest in European avant-garde literature and drama, which were increasingly discussed in Liberty and sold by Tucker in his capacity as a publisher and bookseller.

    These shifts in Liberty's emphases must be borne in mind when considering the arguments in any particular selection from...