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Benjamin Tucker

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Benjamin Tucker (April 17, 1854 - 1939) was America's leading proponent of individualist anarchism in the 19th century.


Benjamin Ricketson Tucker's contribution to American anarchism was as much through his publishing as his own writing. In editing and publishing the anarchist periodical, Liberty, Tucker both filtered and integrated the theories of such European thinkers as Herbert Spencer and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon with the thinking of American individualist activists, Lysander Spooner, William Greene and Josiah Warren, as well as the ideas of the free thought and free love movements in order to produce a rigorous system of philosophical- or individualist anarchism.

Tucker shared with the advocates of free love and free thought a disdain for prohibitions on non-invasive behavior and religiously-based legislation, but he saw the poor condition of American workers as a result of four state-maintained monopolies:

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

For several decades, his focus became the state's control over trade and currency; he saw interest and profit as forms of exploitation that resulted from state protection of the four monopolies. Although he held that profit and interest were not themselves matters of coercion (or "invasion" as Tucker preferred to say), they were nevertheless artificially inflated by the coercive state-sponsored banking monopoly. Any such state-sponsored interest and profit, Tucker called "usury" and he saw it as one of the bases of workers' oppression.

He 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.

Liberty published the original work of Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, Victor Yarros, and Lillian Harman, daughter of the free love anarchist, Moses Harman.

Liberty 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.

Tucker's periodical also served as the main conduit of Stirnerite Egoism, of which Tucker became a proponent. This led to a split in American Individualism -- between the growing number of Egoists and the old guard of Spoonerian "Natural Lawyers". Both Egoists and Natural Law theorists rejected coercive authority, involuntary legislation, and the notion of a "social contract." However, they differed over the philosophical basis for their individualism: Natural Law theory derived it from a conception of a natural individual right to be free from coercion, whereas Egoism defended anarchism as a pragmatic compromise in a system where each individual sought only self-interest. Having abandoned the moral philosophy of Lysander Spooner (as well as of Warren and Proudhon, who Tucker considered to have been the first anarchists), Liberty also abandoned the remaining advocates of natural rights, now considering their moral philosophy to be old-fashioned and superstitious.

Dates, Places and Events[edit]

Born April 17, 1854 in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Died at age 85, June 22, 1939 in Monaco.

1872 -- While a student at M.I.T., Tucker attended a convention of the New England Labor Reform League in Boston, chaired by William Greene, author of Mutual Banking (1850).

Free-love anarchist, Ezra Heywood introduced Tucker to William Greene and Josiah Warren, author of True Civilization (1869).

At the convention, Tucker purchased Mutual Banking, True Civilization, and a set of Ezra Heywood's pamphlets.

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 4 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.

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!'" J. William Lloyd wrote that "There was nothing he hated more than communism, and the Communist-Anarchists used to call him "the Pope"."

Benjamin Tucker: Capitalist or Anarchist?[edit]

Benjamin Tucker was against "capitalism" in the sense in which he defined it: namely, as a state-supported monopoly of social capital (tools, machinery, etc.) which allows owners to avoid paying workers the full value of their labour [see Instead of a Book]. Indeed, he thought that the "labouring classes are deprived of their earnings by usury in its three forms, interest, rent and profit." [quoted by James J. Martin, Men Against the State, p. 210f] This stance puts him squarely in the libertarian socialist tradition.

Indeed, Tucker referred to himself many times as a socialist. It is true that he also sometimes railed against "socialism," but in those cases it is clear that he was referring to state socialism. As he argues himself there are two kinds of socialism based upon two different principles:

"The two principles referred to are Authority and Liberty, and the names of the two schools of Socialistic thought which fully and unreservedly represent one or the other of them are, respectively, State Socialism and Anarchism. Whoso knows what these two schools want and how they propose to get it understands the Socialistic movement. For, just as it has been said that there is no half-way house between Rome and Reason, so it may be said that there is no half-way house between State Socialism and Anarchism." [The Anarchist Reader, p. 150]

He also made it clear that he was against private property and so supported Proudhon's argument that "property is theft," and even translated Proudhon's "What is Property?", where that phrase originated. Tucker advocated possession but not private property, believing that empty land, houses, etc. should be squatted by those who could use them, as labour (i.e. use) would be the only title to "property" (Tucker opposed all non-labour income as usury).

This was because Tucker did not believe in a "natural right" to property nor did he approve of unlimited holdings of scarce goods. He clearly recognised that allowing "absolute" rights to private property, when land was scarce, would result in the liberty of non-owners being diminished. As he put it:

"It should be stated, 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 on actual occupancy and use." [Instead of a Book, p. 61]

This, he thought, would reduce the evils of capitalism and increase liberty. For those who own no property have no room for the soles of their feet unless they have the permission of those who do own property, hardly a situation that would increase, nevermind protect, freedom for all.

Therefore, Tucker considered private property in land use (which he called the "land monopoly") as one of the four great evils of capitalism. According to Tucker, "the land monopoly. . . consists in the enforcement by government of land titles which do not rest upon personal occupancy and cultivation. . .the individual should no longer be protected by their fellows in anything but personal occupation and cultivation of land" [The Anarchist Reader, p. 150]. The other capitalist monopolies were based on credit, tariffs and patents and all where reflected in (and supported by) the law.

Tucker believed that bankers' monopoly of the power to create credit and currency is the linchpin of capitalism. Although he thought that all forms of monopoly are detrimental to society, he maintained that the banking monopoly is the worst, since it is the root from which both the industrial-capitalist and landlordist monopolies grow and without which they would wither and die. For, if credit were not monopolised, its price (i.e. interest rates) would be much lower, which in turn would drastically lower the price of capital goods, land, and buildings -- expensive items that generally cannot be purchased without access to credit. The freedom to squat empty land and buildings would, in the absence of a state to protect titles, further contribute to the elimination of rent: "Ground rent exists only because the State stands by to collect it and to protect land titles rooted in force or fraud. Otherwise land would be free to all, and no one could control more than he used." [quoted by James J. Martin, Op. Cit., p. 210]

Following Proudhon, Tucker argued that if any group of people could legally form a "mutual bank" and issue credit based on any form of collateral they saw fit to accept, the price of credit would fall to the labour cost of the paperwork involved in issuing and keeping track of it. He claimed that banking statistics show this cost to be less than one percent of principal, and hence, that a one-time service fee which covers this cost and no more is the only non-usurious charge a bank can make for extending credit. This charge should not be called "interest," since, as it represented the labour-cost in providing, it is non-exploitative.

Tucker believed that under mutual banking, capitalists' ability to extract surplus value from workers in return for the use of tools, machinery, etc. would be eliminated because workers would be able to obtain zero-interest credit and use it to buy their own instruments of production instead of "renting" them, as it were, from capitalists. Easy access to mutual credit would result in a huge increase in the purchase of capital goods, creating a high demand for labour, which in turn would greatly increase workers' bargaining power and thus raise their wages toward equivalence with the value their labour produces.

It's important to note that because of Tucker's proposal to increase the bargaining power of workers through access to mutual credit, his individualist anarchism is not only compatible with workers' control but would in fact promote it (as well as logically requiring it). For if access to mutual credit were to increase the bargaining power of workers to the extent that Tucker claimed it would, they would then be able to: (1) demand and get workplace democracy; and (2) pool their credit to buy and own companies collectively. This would eliminate the top-down structure of the firm and the ability of owners to pay themselves unfairly large salaries as well as reducing capitalist profits to zero by ensuring that workers received the full value of their labour. Tucker himself pointed this out when he argued that Proudhon (like himself) "would individualise and associate" workplaces by mutualism, which would "place the means of production within the reach of all." [quoted by Martin, Op. Cit., p. 228] Proudhon used the word "associate" to denote co-operative (i.e. directly democratic) workplaces (and given Proudhon's comments - quoted in section <a href="secG2.html">G.2</a> - on capitalist firms we can dismiss any attempt to suggest that the term "individualise" indicates support for capitalist rather than artisan/peasant production, which is the classic example of individualised production).

Thus the logical consequence of Tucker's proposals would be a system equivalent in most important respects to the kind of system advocated by other left libertarians - a system without wage slavery (and so exploitation) and with "the greatest amount of liberty compatible with equality of liberty." [Tucker, Instead of a Book, p. 131]

Tucker's ideal society was one of small entrepreneurs, farmers, artisans, independent contractors and co-operative associations based around a network of mutual banks. He looked to alternative institutions such as co-operative banks and firms, schools and trade unions, combined with civil disobedience in the form of strikes, general strikes, tax and rent strikes and boycotts to bring anarchism closer - "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." [Tucker, Liberty, 15/4/1881] Echoing Bakunin's thoughts on the subject, Tucker maintained that strikes should be supported and encouraged because "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, Liberty, #19, 1882]

Like the anarcho-syndicalists and many other social anarchists, Tucker considered Labour unions as a positive development, being a "crude step in the direction of supplanting the State" and involved a tendency "for self-government on the part of the people, the logical outcome of which is ultimate revolt against those usurping political conspiracies" and so "a potent sign of emancipation." [Ibid., pp. 231-232] Hence we see the co-operative nature of the voluntary organisations supported by Tucker.

In this way working people would reform capitalism away by non-violent social protest combined with an increase in workers' bargaining power by alternative voluntary institutions and free credit. Exploitation would be eliminated and workers would gain economic liberty (i.e. the full value of their labour and workers' control). He firmly believed that the "most perfect Socialism is possible only on the condition of the most perfect individualism." [cited by Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible, p. 390] In other words, Tucker "remained a left rather than a right-wing libertarian." [Peter Marshall, Op. Cit., p. 391]

There are, of course, many differences between the anarchism of, say, Bakunin and Kropotkin and that of Tucker. Tucker's system, for example, does retain some features usually associated with capitalism, such as competition between firms in a free market. However, the fundamental anarchist objection to capitalism is not that it involves markets but that it involves private property and wage slavery. Tucker's system was intended to eliminate both, which is why he called himself a socialist. This fact is overlooked by "anarcho"-capitalists who, in seeking to make Tucker one of their "founding fathers," point to the fact that he spoke of the advantages of owning "property." But it is apparent that by "property" he was referring to simple "possession" of land, tools, etc. by independent artisans, farmers, and co-operating workers (he used the word property "as denoting the labourer's individual possession of his product or his share of the joint product of himself and others." [Tucker, Instead of a Book, p. 394]. For, since Tucker saw his system as eliminating the ability of capitalists to maintain exploitative monopolies over the means of production, it is therefore true by definition that he advocated the elimination of "private property" in the capitalist sense.

Therefore, as can be seen, his views are directly opposed to those of right libertarians like Murray Rothbard, who advocate "absolute" property rights which are protected by laws enforced either by private security forces or a "night watchman state." This clearly indicates that Rothbard's claim to have "modernised" Tucker's thought is false - "ignored" or "changed" would be more appropriate.

Thus, it might seem that Tucker comes to what today would be called a market socialist, albeit a non-statist variety. However, his own clarification on the matter indicates otherwise, as he stated that Capitalism is at least tolerable, the same cannot be said of Socialism or Communism.

Works by Tucker[edit]

Further reading[edit]

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