BENJAMIN TUCKER AND HIS PERIODICAL: LIBERTY Part II

CARL WATNER

Baltimore, Maryland

Liberty truly touched on nearly all of the pressing social questions of its era. Space was devoted to articles about free love, marriage and divorce, and sexual relations among men and women. Even the woman suffrage movement came under attack: “Women are human beings, and-consequently have all the natural rights that any human beings can have. They have just as good a right to ‘make laws’ as men have, and no better; AND THAT IS JUST NO RIGHT AT ALL.” (22-4) Mormon polygamy, pornography and postal censorship were also discussed. The Chinese immigration issue was mentioned at times. Freethought was always advocated and the tyranny and cultism of religion nearly always denounced. Tucker proudly reprinted in Liberty and his private press the English Anarchist classics, such as Spooner’s Natural Law, Letter to Thomas Bayard, and A Letter to Grover Cleveland, Auberon Herbert’s A Politician in Sight of Haven, Edmund Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society, Stephen Pearl Andrews’ Science of Society and his discussion of Love, Marriage, and Divorce, as well as quoting excerpts from such writers as Nietzsche, Proudhon, and Stirner. Tucker also made Liberty serve as a forum for publishing and publicizing what he called “advanced literature”, by which he meant “the literature which, in religion and morals, leads away from superstition, which, in politics, leads away from government, and which, in art, leads away from tradition”. (391-4)

Tucker was ambitious and promoted many literary ventures alongside his Anarchist journalism. He had agents in different parts of the world selling Liberty and his other literary wares. He had occasional foreign correspondents, such as Vilfredo Pareto, George Bernard Shaw, and John Henry Mackay, submit their evaluations of Anarchist developments to Liberty’sreaders. He maintained especially close contact with the English Individualist-Anarchist movement and carried on extensive correspondence with the main English figures, such as Auberon Herbert, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, John Badcock, J. H. Levy, and J. Greevz Fisher Other American associates and correspondents of Liberty, such as Henry Appleton, James L. Walker, Joseph Labadie, Victor Yarros, Stephen Byington, Alan and Florence Kelly, John Kelly, Gertrude Kelly, George and Emma Schumm, Francis Tandy, Henry Cohen, and J. Wm. Lloyd formed the often changing nuclei of Tucker’s circle.

Among Tucker’s other notable projects were the publication of Instead of a Book in 1893 and the publication of Liberty in German for a short time. He promoted the formation of an Anarchist Letter Writing Corps under the auspices of Byington and sold and printed sheets filled with Anarchist slogans. He published such books as Zola’s Modern Marriage, Eltzbacher’s Anarchism, and not coincidentally Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. The appearance of this later book was, in Tucker’s opinion, the most notable contribution on behalf of Anarchism that he had made in his 30-year career. (397-1) Stirner was one of the three great Anarchists in 19th century literature, according to Tucker; the other two being Proudhon and Ibsen. He constantly strived to call attention to all three both in Liberty and wider literary circles. (393-11) His New York bookstore eventually came to house a large collection of literature that made for “Egoism in Philosophy, Anarchism in Politics, and Iconoclasm in Art.” (399-2)

Yet for all his boldness and greatness, Tucker and Liberty still leave something to be desired. Did Tucker and his editorial columns in Liberty present a true and consistent version of Anarchy? Of course it is easy to criticize doctrine nearly a century old, but there is much in Tucker that is still valid, as well as much that is still as wrong as the day it was published. In spite of Tucker’s eventual deviations, his life-long emphasis on individual sovereignty and the non-invasive individual is well-founded.

As Libertarians and Anarchists today we might accept the philosophy of egoism that Tucker came to espouse (namely, that might makes right in the absence of mutual agreement). Tucker, himself, recognized the law of equal liberty as being the essence of Anarchism; but his own defense of this social convention seems circular, for it amounts to the statement that we are Anarchists because we are Anarchists. (123-5) Or else we might adopt an alternative defense of Anarchism, such as one which has been outlined by Murray Rothbard in his writings and which hinges on the twin axioms of self-ownership (the absolute right of each person to own his or her own mind and body) and homesteading (the absolute right of each person to own previously unused natural resources which they have in some way occupied or transformed). Tucker’s main challenge to the moralists was to demand to know why one is bound not to injure or invade another. What obligation exists, in the absence of any mutual agreement, to refrain from initiating violence? I think the answer is primarily logical and epistemological in nature. Invasion violates the axioms of self-ownership and homesteading. The invader clearly acts on the axiom that he controls his own life, yet in coercing others he plainly denies it. The resort to violence is a confession of imbecility. Invasion is anti-life and the invader, under the moralist’s theory, loses his own rights (to life and property) to the extent that he has committed an aggression. Thus to answer Tucker, the obligation to refrain from initiating violence is found in the real world around us. Anyone who acts so as to deny the validity of these axioms must sooner or later fail and suffer disaster. As Tucker himself wrote, early in his career, “It is better to suffer great inconveniences than the evils engendered by the violation of individual rights.” (37-4)

Of course, Tucker came to disagree with this position. He called that person who would enforce the drowning man’s contract a person “with justice on the brain, a man who would do justice though the heavens fall.” (344-4) We can only speculate as to whether his rule of expediency would succeed or not, but as applied to individual lives we can make a comparison, which however may be an unfair one. Tucker retired to Europe soon after the fire of 1908 and spent the next 30 years of his life mostly apart from the Anarchist movement. In fact we might say that while Liberty existed Anarchism blazed in glory, but when Tucker retired the flames soon returned to embers. By contrast, Lysander Spooner, definitely a moralist and natural right defender of Anarchism and therefore an opponent of Tucker’s, became steadily more radical and libertarian as he grew older. Each person must be left to judge the effect of historical circumstances on these two individuals, hut their differing philosophies of Anarchism must also be taken into consideration when viewing the outcome of their lives.

To evaluate Tucker in terms of current day libertarian thinking, we would have to say this: We concur with Tucker that no living person owes any other living person any thing in the absence of voluntary agreement; hut tile obligation to refrain from initiating violence is not a positive duty. It is a negative one. It is something which we should not do, not something we should do. We can stand by and see a man murdered or a woman raped (170-4); but we cannot claim that there are times when it is necessary for the Anarchist to become Archist, and to abandon the guiding rule of his life and to coerce the noninvasive individual. (307-3)

NOTES

*All parenthetical footnotes refer to Liberty by Whole Number (issue number) and then page number.

I. Benjamin R. Tucker, Instead of a Book (New York: Haskell House, 1969), p. ix.

2. William 0. Reichert, Partisans of Freedom (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976), p.146.

3. James J. Martin, Men Against the State (Colorado Springs, CO: Ralph Myles, 1970), p.220.

4. Murray N. Rothbard, “The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View,” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays(Washington, DC: Libertarian Review Press, 1974), pp.129-33.

Scroll to Top