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Mar 19, 2018

Benjamin Tucker, Libertarian

Often claimed by modern socialist anarchists, Benjamin Tucker fits better in the libertarian tradition.

There existed, for a time, an alignment between labor reform and socialism on the one hand and individualism and free-market libertarianism on the other. Benjamin Tucker famously called socialists and anarchists “armies that overlap.” Today, however, the idea that anti-statism and socialism are somehow related is likely to strike most readers as deeply confused, for government ownership and management seem to be at the heart of socialism. We have examined Tucker’s voluntary or libertarian socialism, which explains this idea of “armies that overlap”; the unique case of Tucker is also of interest in our consideration of the relationship between anarchism and libertarianism as historical phenomena and movements. The question naturally arises: were Tucker alive today, would we find him at libertarian conferences or anarchist book fairs?1 While we will never know for sure, Tucker’s words offer clues, many of them quite clear, given his deliberate style of communication. As we shall see, once we properly account for the nuances of Tucker’s individualist anarchism, many of the putative distinctions between it and contemporary “capitalist” libertarianism—the distinctions that render it intolerable to today’s social anarchists—either break down completely or else don’t seem capable of bearing the weight anarchists would place upon them.

Contemporary social anarchists have been willing to claim Tucker as one of their own insofar as he was “squarely in the libertarian socialist tradition,” opposed to both the state and capitalism. The authors of the Anarchist FAQ commendably took the time to understand Tucker’s thought and his view of markets: “Once capitalism was abolished, the market would be able to reach its full promise and become a means of enriching all rather than the few.” The Anarchist FAQ states, “the fundamental socialist objection to capitalism is not that it involves markets or ‘private property’ but that it results in exploitation. Most socialists oppose private property and markets because they result in exploitation and have other negative consequences rather than an opposition to them as such.” This matter-of-fact claim—that private property and free markets result in exploitation—is extremely tendentious (especially insofar as we’ve never had anything like the system of private property and free markets that either the individualist anarchists or today’s libertarians espouse); as it happens, so is Tucker’s inverse claim that free competition would necessarily destroy the supposedly exploitative economic phenomena of which he disapproved. All parties seem to be overselling their predictions about the kind of world and social relationships a free market system would produce, the predictions always seeming to align with the predictor’s normative goals and preferences.

As we have seen, the substance of Tucker’s “socialism” is Josiah Warren’s idea that cost ought to be the limit of price, and accordingly that the just reward of labor is roughly the exact equivalent of its product. But as we find it developed in Tucker’s work, the labor/cost theory of value is much less a normative position than it is a prediction as to the likely effects of free competition. Supremely confident that rent, interest, and profit were contrary to the natural operation of economic law—that “a that a free market will kill interest”—Tucker insisted that no attempts be made to proscribe them by positive law.2 Many of his free market-advocating contemporaries believed that Tucker’s prediction was wrong. Debating the voluntaryist Auberon Herbert, Tucker writes, “If [Herbert] gives answers which he can show to be sound, and which demonstrate that interest can persist where free competition prevails, he will close my mouth forever.” Depending on how we define socialism and capitalism (on which more below), such statements present a significant wrinkle, raising the question of just how socialistic Tucker’s ideas actually were. Indeed, Tucker went so far as to say that “[t]he practice of usury is a sacred and inviolable prerogative of” the individual, perfectly within the individual’s rights. He believed that through the universalization of this prerogative, resulting from the abolition of all anti-competitive privilege, “usury would devour itself.” But if he were wrong about the ability of economic means to end usury, then he wouldn’t use political means. In this, Tucker followed his teacher, Proudhon, who always maintained his opposition to all attempts to “forbid or suppress, by sovereign decree, ground rent or interest on capital,” or “to place any obstacle” in the way of the free acquisition and exchange of property. “I think,” writes Proudhon, “that all these manifestations of human activity should remain free and optional to all,” subject to no limitations beyond those resulting from the extension of “the principle of reciprocity.” Tucker’s statements are telling: when his socialism (Josiah Warren’s cost principle) collided with his libertarianism (the sovereignty of the individual), he consistently chose the latter. Moreover, Tucker frequently questioned whether free market competition would suffice to fully abolish the trinity of usury and nonetheless put individual liberty, and thus markets, first.

Anarchists, of course, disagree amongst each other as to whether anarchism can coexist with markets, whether “market anarchism” is a contradiction in terms (much as libertarians disagree amongst each other as to whether free market anti-capitalism as a contradiction in terms). For example, in “Examining the History of Anarchist Economics to See the Future,” Chris Spannos concludes that, for several reasons, “markets are antithetical to anarchism.”3 Tucker, of course, disagreed, binding what it means to be an anarchist to the acceptance of free trade: “To be a consistent free trader is to be an Anarchist; to be a consistent protectionist is to be a State Socialist.” Statements like Spannos’s, excluding market anarchists from real anarchism, are not at all uncommon. And free market libertarians have been reluctant to embrace the anarchist designation for similar reasons, worried that anarchism implies socialism and economic illiteracy. Murray Rothbard admitted that he was tempted to call himself an individualist anarchist, but could not insofar as “Spooner and Tucker have in a sense preempted that name” for their anti-capitalist doctrine. Earlier, in an unpublished article exploring the question, he writes, “Considering the dominant anarchists, it is obvious that the question ‘are libertarians anarchists?’ must be answered unhesitatingly in the negative.” Just as anarchists worry about libertarians’ acceptance of markets (and thus, assumedly, capitalism), Rothbard worried about the “grievous economic error” into which anarchists—even the individualist anarchists—had fallen.

Iain McKay calls the idea “that markets equate to capitalism” a “basic misunderstanding,” arguing that “it is possible to support markets while being a socialist,” and adding that the key feature of capitalism is the wages system. This is a commonly held view among anarchists (really among social anarchists, but today those groups are roughly coterminous). Peter Kropotkin for example said that the wages system was “[t]he most prominent feature of our present capitalism.” Here, once more, Tucker is an uneasy fit with the contemporary anarchist movement. And the authors of the Anarchist FAQ, for their part, acknowledge that Tucker is exceptional among “most other socialists” for his acceptance of wage labor. They wave away his unflinching support for wage labor by claiming that his system “logically requires” workers’ control and necessarily “would eliminate the top-down structure of the firm”—again, extraordinarily tendentious claims. In any case, the lines today’s anarchist movement chooses to draw around its philosophy seem hopelessly arbitrary and inexact if that movement at once claims Tucker and condemns wage labor in all of its forms. To be clear, the point here is neither to deny that Tucker was a kind of socialist nor to argue that he would fit perfectly within today’s libertarian movement—only to observe the shortcomings in our attempts to pigeonhole complicated thinkers and the inconsistencies in the rules used to do the categorizing.

If we must categorize Tucker, however, we ought not give short shrift to his own testimony as to those of his contemporaries with whom he most identified. As Roderick Long writes, “Tucker’s views on Molinari and the radical Spencerians seem like the best guide we could have to what his views would most likely have been on Rothbard, Friedman, etc.” Tucker’s work, by his own estimation, has a much closer affinity with that of this group of individualists and voluntaryists than with anarchist communism or any other form of collectivism. While he was never shy about criticizing them, Tucker saw avowed anti-socialists like Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, J.H. Levy, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe, among others, as the closest allies of his cause—in spite of their pronounced anti-socialist attitudes. He regarded the English individualists’ Personal Rights Journal as championing “the same political faith” as Liberty, indeed as its English counterpart. These English libertarians anticipated the contemporary libertarian movement in that they treated socialism as the hated antithesis of their voluntaryist and individualist principles. That Tucker and this group of Englishmen around the Personal Rights Association and the Liberty and Property Defence League had essentially opposite opinions of socialism while advancing almost identical normative political theories speaks to the ambiguity of the term socialism at this time. His idiosyncratic use of “socialism” notwithstanding, Tucker’s enthusiasm for the sovereignty of the individual, unbridled free market competition, and private property (even if he limited it to possession) makes him, at the very least, an important precursor of today’s libertarian. Much of the vocabulary libertarians use to explain the philosophy of liberty is traceable directly to Tucker and his influence.

Perhaps what is important to social anarchists is the fact that Tucker’s own account of his ideas treats them as a form of socialism. But, again, would social anarchists embrace a thinker with substantively identical ideas, but who emphatically rejects the socialist label? The individualist anarchist economic theorist Henry Meulen, who, for example, frequently contributed to The American Anti-Socialist, comes to mind. Meulen’s ideas are even closer to Tucker’s than those of the English individualists mentioned above (for example, Meulen shares Tucker’s mutualist free banking proposals and his views on land ownership). Would the authors of the Anarchist FAQ claim him? It was likewise less than obvious even to many of Tucker’s fellow individualist anarchist contemporaries that the project in which they were engaged was a socialist one.4 Tucker had obviously been questioned about his use of the term, for he dedicates space in Liberty to a defense of the term’s use among anarchists, setting out his thoughts on how the term might be saved from those who would “wed it to authority.” Still, several of Liberty’s contributors made use of a definition of the term much like (if not identical to) the one with which we are familiar today, to mean a system of state ownership and allocation of natural resources and capital goods and state management of the economy. They thus seem not to abide Tucker’s proposed distinction between socialism and state socialism. Neither have many historians, past or present. In his study of Boston Anarchism, for instance, John Rae calls it “the doctrine of a disenchanted socialist,”5 rather, that is, than seeing his subject as just another species of socialism.

As we have noted, prevailing opinion in the anarchist movement tends to define anarchism as having two elements: not only opposition to the state (the libertarianism prong), but opposition to capitalism (the socialism prong). Tucker denied this too, stating, “Anarchism is for liberty, and neither for nor against anything else.” His political philosophy boils down to “anything that’s voluntary,” even including social and economic practices (such as rent, interest, and profit) for which he had a decided distaste. Lest there be any confusion yet remaining, Tucker even contended, contra today’s anarchist movement, that “an Anarchist may or may not be a Socialist.” In fact, Tucker readily granted the anarchist title to the dedicated anti-socialist Auberon Herbert,6 who did not want it for himself, and denied it to the anarchist communist Johann Most. Thus, as Charles W. Johnson observes, “it would seem that Tucker would have accepted anarcho-capitalism, but not many forms of social anarchism, as legitimately anarchistic.” Today’s anarchists, fastidiously policing the boundaries of the label with their fussy definitions, are likely to reject Tucker’s simple, libertarian-sounding test, which asked only whether one believes “in any form of imposition upon the human will by force.”

Still, parochialism (from both sides) seems an unnecessary and unhelpful impediment to dialogue. After all, who really doubts that both camps advocate their respective ideas as good faith attempts to promote freedom? If we, as free market libertarians, believe that social anarchists are wrong about markets, competition, and private property, then we ought to encourage well-mannered conversation by emphasizing our similarities, not our differences. And certainly there are many such similarities, even between libertarian thinkers as different as Herbert Spencer and Peter Kropotkin. As J.D.Y. Peel observed, “There are passages in Mutual Aid which would not have been out of place in Social Statics.” Kropotkin even advertised the writings of Spencer’s disciple, Auberon Herbert, in Freedom, the socialist/communist journal he co-founded in London. Furthermore, following Roderick Long, libertarians might just come to terms with the fact that both socialism and capitalism are both too ambiguous and too internally diverse to hold any kind of definite shape on their own. Long writes that he has all but given up using either term “to mean anything at all.” Tucker’s distinctive work teaches us that these words should not be lazily applied. Rather than submitting to their stifling power, libertarians of all kinds should seek to get behind (or, perhaps, beyond) them, to explore their meanings in context.


  1. Of course, this is not to say that one could not attend both or engage in both libertarian and anarchist activism.
  2. Tucker writes, “If the cost principle of value cannot be realized otherwise than by compulsion, then it had better not be realized. For my part, I do not believe that it is possible or highly important to realize it absolutely and completely. But it is both possible and highly important to effect its approximate realization. So much can be effected without compulsion,—in fact, can only be effected by at least partial abolition of compulsion,—and so much will be sufficient.”
  3. The Accumulation of Freedom, Anthony J. Nocella II, Deric Shannon, John Asimakopoulos, eds. (2012 AK Press).
  4. Liberty contributor and Josiah Warren biographer William Bailie writes, “The glorification of the State as a kind of all-wise providence has neither historic nor logical foundation. The quixotic belief of the Socialists that the State can be captured by the proletariat and used to expropriate the capitalists, then afterwards carry on all the industrial functions of society on collectivist principles, is economically unsound as it is chimerical.” Here, Bailie uses the term socialism as Tucker used the term state socialism, as did many other individualist anarchists of both Tucker’s generation and the preceding one.
  5. By which he meant Josiah Warren, who had been a follower of the socialist Robert Owen.
  6. In his obituary for Herbert, Tucker writes, “Auberon Herbert is dead. He was a true Anarchist in everything but name. How much better (and how much rarer) to be an Anarchist in everything but name than to be an Anarchist in name only!” It isn’t difficult to imagine who Tucker had in mind when he referred those who are anarchists in name only. He had consistently contended that communists like Johann Most and Albert Parsons were not anarchists at all.