In the pages of Benjamin Tucker’s periodical Liberty, James L. Walker defended a brand of egoism similar to Max Stirner’s.
The anarchist writer James L. Walker lived a life as remarkable and unique as his egoist ideas, yet as E. Armand wrote, “information on his life and activities has not been easy to gather.” He has regrettably remained a little‐known figure in the history of libertarian ideas.1 Born in Manchester, England, in June of 1845, to an apparently wealthy family, Walker was educated in England, France, and Germany before moving to the United States as a young man. Evident throughout Walker’s life story is a pronounced polyhistoric inclination: a journalist, physician, and lawyer, he taught himself multiple languages, including Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit.2 Upon his death, he was recognized as an “intellectual giant,” able to speak “with the greatest fluency” on any topic, current or historical.3 Usually writing under the pseudonym Tak Kak,4 Walker became a central figure in some of Liberty’s most important debates, on subjects ranging from natural rights to copyright.5 In his preface to the first English‐language translation of Stirner’s book, Liberty’s founder and editor Benjamin Tucker calls Walker “the most thorough American student of Stirner.” Like Stirner, Walker resists all ideologies and systems of thought that “make a virtue of sinking self before that which is external to the self.” Walker sees a parade of fixed ideas dominating and neutering the very individuals who have generated these ideas. The remarkable similarities between Stirner’s ideas and Walker’s notwithstanding, Walker apparently arrived at his egoist conclusions quite independently.6
Walker was an insightful thinker and a clear writer, practicing “exactitude in the use of words,”7 careful to avoid jargon and technical terminology in favor of substance. The clarity of Walker’s writing means that his monograph, The Philosophy of Egoism, provides an accessible entree to the world of egoist ideas for those who find themselves disinclined to grapple with Stirner’s frequently opaque language (Stirner was, after all, a Hegelian of one or another kind). Several chapters of The Philosophy of Egoism were first published as a series of columns in Egoism, a small magazine out of Oakland, California, that ran for eight years at the close of the nineteenth century (1890–1898). The publishers of Egoism, Georgia and Henry Replogle, carried on correspondence with Walker for several years and became his friends. The work was first published in its entirety a year after his death, in a private printing by his wife.
Like Tucker, Walker anticipated the often unhelpful debates between anarchists and minarchists (those libertarians who favor an ultra‐minimal nightwatchman state), remarking that a government based on consent and voluntary contributions could be perfectly “compatible with Anarchism” and the law of equal liberty. As we shall see, he also opined on a number of other issues and debates with which today’s libertarians will be familiar. Though, as Stirner scholar John F. Welsh notes, Walker’s egoist thought “does not accept Tucker’s notion of ‘equal liberty’ based on natural rights or moral absolutes,”8 it nevertheless arrives as the Spencerian law of equal liberty by another route. Praising the periodical the Truth Seeker in 1887, Walker describes his politics thusly: “liberty for every one to think, express his thought, and act as he pleases so long as he infringed upon no other’s equal right, and curtails no other’s equal liberty.” Today’s libertarians will recognize this formula. “Anarchism,” Walker writes similarly, “comes before the people as the science of living and letting live.” To this “egoistic anarchism” was contrasted the anarchism “of the physical force revolutionists.”9 Like many other individualist anarchists orbiting Liberty, Walker saw revolutionary violence and attempts at the immediate overthrow of governments as fundamentally misguided, though not immoral.
Walker is a moral anti‐realist, holding that there is no mind‐independent moral reality—that moral systems are created by human beings; this is important for Walker, as it was for Stirner. If human beings are the ultimate progenitors of all moral frameworks, then they are not really duty bound to adhere to such frameworks. Walker says that we needn’t “inconvenience ourselves” for the sake of standards we ourselves have invented; we may discard them as readily as we have conjured them, without any guilt or trepidation. To be a genuinely self‐conscious egoist, for Walker, one must not only cast aside “the cheat of Moralism,” but also outgrow the “habitual sway” of its superstitions, free of the social conditioning under which she was raised. We may regard Walker’s conception of an anarchism without appeal to objective, external moral laws as an amoral form of rule utilitarianism: concerned with prudence, with the discovery of principles that will most effectively promote his own long‐term interests, Walker arrives at and defends a set of rules that is today most clearly associated with libertarianism. Walker seems to have given Tucker his introduction to Stirner’s egoist ideas,10 winning him over from an anarchism grounded in justice and natural rights. The debate that Tucker hosted on questions of egoism versus morality became one of the defining moments of Liberty’s run. One proponent of the natural rights position, Gertrude B. Kelly, pleads in Liberty’s pages, “My friends, my friends, have you completely lost your heads? Cannot you see that without morality, without the recognition of others’ rights, Anarchy, in any other than the vulgar sense, could not last a single day?” This controversy proved to be among the most momentous in the history of Liberty, so arousing the anger of several key contributors (Kelly and her brother among them) that they cut ties with Tucker and the publication. Walker’s writings frequently associate egoism with sanity and altruism with insanity, arguing that the illusions of duty and morality impair the mental faculties of those under their spell. “Egoism,” he writes, “is sanity. Non‐Egoism is insanity.”11 He argues that even if all acts are ultimately and necessarily egoistic, this does not render egoism practically meaningless or superfluous, as the understanding of that fact is central to egoist thought. After all, that scientific facts have always explained natural phenomena does not render scientific facts meaningless, or else there would have been no “progress made from the time when men believed in miracles.”
His rejection of all moral systems notwithstanding, Walker’s egoism carries him again and again to conclusions shared by what might be called ethical libertarianism. It is perhaps interesting to observe at this point that despite their apparently radical doctrine, egoists often arrived at positions shared by moralists. The egoist anarchist John Beverley Robinson writes, “But the strangest thing of all is that, with our totally varying tastes, as it would seem, my moral friends and I lead very much the same kind of lives.” Of torture, for example, he remarks that it “does not minister to any demand of enlightened self‐interest,” meaning that it is incompatible with his philosophy of self‐conscious egoism. Walker believed that fully conscious egoists could and would enter into agreements and cooperative communities with one another, seeing the manifold benefits of doing so without having to accept any notion of natural rights or justice. He writes, “if there is to be any use for the word justice, it must mean the rules of a union of egoists with benefits to at least balance duties; and these duties are simply [a] matter of contract.” Like Stirner, he contemplates a union of egoists as against a society of men; in the latter, one is granted rights due to her status as a member of humankind, as a mere carrier of the essence that is humanity.
Walker also understood the manifold benefits of trade and the division and specialization of labor. Anarchism today is often associated with vehement opposition to free trade, which opposition is itself premised on the idea that globalization has been driven by multinational corporations that exploit and steal from local populations. In a column dispraising the Democratic Party for its change of position on the issue, Walker notes that anarchists favor the freest possible conception of free trade, a position shared by Tucker, who famously thought of his “philosophical anarchism” as the apotheosis of the Manchester School free trade doctrine. Walker did not see his defense of laissez faire as a defense of capitalists or the capitalistic system; he regarded the capitalist economy as a system of monopoly and “organized plunder,” possible only due to the weakness and ignorance of the masses, their deluded submission to various spooks. Yet Walker did not indulge in a moralistic condemnation of the capitalists. He instead argued, like Stirner, that everyone has a right to whatever he can take and hold—and accordingly that everyone else has a right to take it from him. To Walker, the few who rule the world—“popes, kings, presidents, legislators, judges, and generals”—are the true “self‐conscious egoists,” able to rule only because “other people are in confusion,” afraid and ensnared by the idea that they must obey. Reformers, he said, “render themselves ridiculous by complaining of monopolists and tyrants,” meekly pleading for their rights rather than simply asserting them. Of professional associations and trade unions, Walker said, “They are respectable till they take the law or any other invasive weapon to beat down competitors.” Here, he offers a classic libertarian argument against professional licensure, noting that while such protections are advanced under “pretext of protecting the public health,” they are “soon abused for professional interest.” Ever opposed to monopoly privileges and protections, Walker offers familiar libertarian broadsides against intellectual property; he argues that private property protections for ideas in fact entail violations of others’ rights, that one’s copyright means he can “invade our houses, stop our printing‐presses, and seize our books.” Once an idea is shared, it becomes the property of anyone who hears and understands it; it can be shared ad infinitum without any depletion or any cost to the idea’s originator. Yet even to suggest that a given idea has a single identifiable originator is, to Walker, a deep error, for every discrete “original” idea depends for its existence on a whole history of precedent ideas from a host of sources, many of whom came to the same idea independently. Thus Walker skillfully exposes the absurdities that define intellectual property law, its lack of any ascertainable limiting principle.
Walker lived out his final years in Mexico, where he practiced medicine and contributed to the local newspaper. His obituary in the Galveston‐Dallas News notes that “[o]wing to his quiet mode of life, few knew of him personally. He was a man who had little to say about himself individually.” His unique brand of anarchism, though it may appear today to be only an historical curiosity, offers today’s readers an interesting defense of individual liberty and freethought, one that arrives as recognizably libertarian positions without accepting moral claims. He regarded his as a “rational utilitarian philosophy” calculated to allow him to see things as they are and thus to thrive. Whether or not Walker’s readers ultimately accept his egoism, they will come away from his writings will a fuller understanding of both their own positions and libertarian ideas.
1. An article about Walker, written today, would be practically impossible without the work of Shawn P. Wilbur, carried on through The Libertarian Labyrinth and many other such projects. Wilbur’s tireless work on anarchist history has produced several resources critical to the development of the author’s own libertarian education.
3. Henry Replogle, “Biographical Sketch” in James L. Walker, The Philosophy of Egoism (Ralph Myles Publisher 1972), page 5.
4. Stirner biographer (indeed, Stirner’s only biographer), the individualist anarchist John Henry Mackay, writes that Tak Kak is the “Russian for ‘as’ or ‘since.’”
5. See, in general, Wendy McElroy’s The Debates of Liberty: An Overview of Individualist Anarchism, 1881–1908 (Lexington Books 2003).
6. James J. Martin, Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827–1908 (Ralph Myles Publisher 1970), page 250. In The Philosophy of Egoism, Walker writes that “until the spring of 1872 I had no knowledge of Max Stirner’s work.”
7. John F. Kelly, “Morality and Its Origin,” Liberty, whole no. 94, page 7.
8. Tucker eventually came around to Walker’s egoist position, as is discussed below.