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Benjamin Ricketson Tucker, Part 2

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Liberty first appeared on August 6, 1881, from Boston, where Tucker worked as a journalist with the Boston Globe; later, in 1892, Liberty moved to New York City, where it was published until its demise in 1907.

Fittingly, Liberty’s superscript was a quotation from Proudhon — “Liberty: not the daughter, but the mother of order.” The maiden issue dealt with free thought, rights theory, and other anti-statist topics. Its commitment to connecting to the international community of radicals was evidenced by a portrait of the Russian nihilist martyr Sophie Perovskaya in the center of the front page. As in issues thereafter, the first page was entitled “On Picket Duty” and presented a survey of periodicals, events, and personalities in both America and abroad.

From the beginning, Tucker introduced readers to a powerful class that robbed the average man with impunity: politicians and their associates. But how? He answered, “Monopoly.” Specifically, theft occurred through “two great monopolies, — the monopoly of land and the monopoly of credit.”

The monopolies were created and maintained by the state, which allied with business against the common man. Freedom required opposing this alliance, especially in its monopoly over issuing money — that is, banking. Remove the power of the state and monopolies would fall, leaving individuals economically free.

Tucker’s economic views established him in labor ranks. He staunchly advocated strikes as a strategy as long as force was eschewed. But he also opposed the call from mainstream leaders for pro-labor legislation, which he viewed as another form of violence and an acknowledgement of state authority. His antipathy toward legislation led to conflict with some popular labor organizations, such as the Knights of Labor.

His rejection of violence did not spring from a faintness of heart. His youthful zeal had led him into almost rash acts of civil disobedience — the sort of approach an older Tucker would later criticize.

For example, in 1881, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass appeared. Several poems were judged “obscene” and, so, unmailable under the law. Tucker bought a stack of copies and advertised them for sale through the mail. No action was taken against him. As a result, Boston booksellers resumed selling the book. Whitman later wrote,

Tucker did brave things for Leaves of Grass when brave things were rare. I couldn’t forget that.

An opposition to violence

Tucker rejected violence because, until all peaceful avenues of social change had been exhausted, violence only turned the average person away from whatever cause used it. Moreover, violence legitimized state authority because the backlash of repression unleashed by the violence would be seen as legitimate; the state gained rather than lost credibility.

Thus, Tucker did not use the state or other violence to achieve social change. Indeed, he so staunchly opposed violence as a strategy that he “outed” those who used it. In March 1886, through an article entitled “The Beast of Communism,” Tucker became a target of many fellow-radicals for breaking a scandal; he revealed that “members of the German Group of the International Working People’s Association in New York City, and of the Social Revolutionary Club” were setting fire to their own property in order to collect on insurance policies, even though the properties were sometimes tenements with hundreds of occupants.

In May 1886, the most famous clash between anarchists and the state occurred in the Chicago Haymarket incident, which left seven policemen and in excess of 20 protesters dead. Tucker drew widespread condemnation for criticizing the tactics of the Haymarket “martyrs” as well as those of the police.

First and foremost, however, he opposed violence in its most common social expression — state authority. He defined unjust authority as “any coercive force not developed spontaneously and naturally out of the constitution of the individual himself or herself.” He defined the state as “invasion, nothing more or less.” It stripped the individual of self-ownership.

As a strategy, Tucker stressed psychological rather than physical disobedience; he urged people to withdraw the consent upon which the authority of the state rested. The concept of the state with its illusion of legitimacy was what commanded respect and obedience from people. He wrote, “The state is a principle, a philosophical error in social existence.” Correcting the error required education in its many manifestations.

Here, Tucker drew heavily upon Lysander Spooner in both theory and tone. His extreme admiration of Spooner was such that, upon his mentor’s death, he purchased all of Spooner’s printed pamphlets and unpublished works. He offered the pamphlets for sale within Liberty, and donated the proceeds to the Spooner Publication Fund, established to issue the unpublished works.

In only one area did Tucker flatly reject Spooner: intellectual property. Copyright and patents was one of several lengthy debates that Tucker conducted in Liberty, which became a testing ground for shaping radical individualist theory. Tucker rejected ownership in ideas except as it arose from an explicit contract between individuals; later libertarians called this concept “free-market copyright and patents.”

Other debates within Liberty included “children’s rights” (during which Tucker argued that parents owned a child until the offspring was capable of making a contract) and “egoism versus natural rights” (during which Tucker split the individualist movement into warring camps by renouncing natural rights).

Egoism versus natural rights

Egoism versus natural rights was arguably the most significant debate. Historically, the radical individualist tradition has embraced a theory of natural rights; the term refers to the enforceable claims that one person has in regard to others in society. The substance of these claims is generally stated as a right to person, property, and peaceful behavior. Each right is accompanied by a corresponding duty. Until 1886, both Tucker and “the Liberty circle” were zealous advocates of natural rights.

Then Tucker converted. The proximate cause was the German philosopher Max Stirner’s book on law, property, and the state entitled The Ego and His Own. Stirner argued that “right was might” and vice versa; whatever a man had the might to do, he also had the right to do. A man’s own welfare should be his highest value and the only law he respected. If an egoist respected his own contract, it was only because establishing reciprocity with fellow human beings was in his enlightened self-interest. As for traditional concepts of good and evil, the enlightened egoist realized that these were merely words with no reality behind them.

Natural-rights theorists embraced an objective right and wrong in human behavior, a morality that was based on the nature of man and of reality. Only by having an objective standard of values, they argued, could people have a framework against which to judge whether or not laws were just.

By the end of 1887, Liberty and Tucker were advocates of Stirnerite egoism. Some of the best minds abandoned Liberty and the individualist movement itself. Yet Tucker’s commitment to enlightened egoism persisted. In Liberty’s last year of publication, he proudly announced that he was publishing the first complete English translation of The Ego and His Own. He stated,

I have been engaged for more than 30 years in the propaganda of Anarchism, and have achieved some things of which I am proud; but I feel that I have done nothing for the cause that compares in value with my publication of this illuminating document.

If Tucker had written an integrated overview of individualist anarchism, then his main pride may have been located elsewhere. As it was, he translated and facilitated other writers. He shone a bright spotlight on books of cultural importance of his day. For example, when Max Nordau published his pivotal anti-modernist work, Degeneration (Entartung), Tucker was discerning enough to solicit a critique from the one man best able to deliver it — George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s essay, “A Degenerate’s View of Nordau,” was the first original article Shaw wrote specifically for an American audience. Tucker’s fascination with cosmopolitan literature led him to publish a short-lived biweekly literary magazine, The Transatlantic (1889–1890). His own publishing venture issued literally hundreds of books, pamphlets, and translations by others.

Some of Tucker’s essays have become classics within the anarchist tradition: for example, “State Socialism and Anarchism: How Far They Agree, and Wherein They Differ” (1899). Nevertheless, only two books by Tucker appeared and both were compilations of earlier writing: Instead of a Book, by a Man Too Busy to Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism (New York: B.R. Tucker, 1893); and Individual Liberty (New York: C.L.S. [Clarence Lee Swartz], editor, 1926).

A personal and literary tragedy

Liberty came to a sudden, tragic end. In 1907, Tucker rented a ground floor space at 502 Sixth Avenue in New York City, which housed “Benj. R. Tucker’s Unique Book Shop.” Some blocks away, at 225 Fourth Avenue, in a structure known as the Parker Building, he stored the massive stock of the books he published and the equipment required to set print for Liberty. In January 1908, the Parker Building was consumed by fire.

Tucker deliberately held no insurance in order to protest the artificially high premiums that were propped up by law. To offset the total loss, friends of Liberty launched a fundraising drive, and Tucker continued to sell the scant stock that had survived by virtue of being at the bookshop.

The efforts were not successful, however, and Tucker was forced to conclude,

It is my intention to close up my business next summer, and, before January 1, 1909, go to Europe, there to publish Liberty (still mainly for America, of course) and such books and pamphlets as my remaining means may enable me to print.

The plans to publish never materialized. The April 1908 issue of Liberty was its last. Tucker moved to Europe, living first in France until World War I erupted, then settling in Monaco where he died at the age of 85 on June 22, 1939. Born seven years before the start of the Civil War, he died the same year that World War II began. For the last decades of his life, his writing efforts were largely limited to correspondence with friends and acquaintances.

Tucker exemplified the golden age of individualism, which faltered in the face of growing statism and militarism. Like other individualists, he watched the state spread across every facet of life and he became pessimistic. From Europe he wrote, “I hate the age in which I live, but I do not hate myself for living in it.”

It was no longer clear to Tucker that economic freedom alone could overcome government monopoly. In a letter to his old friend C.L. Swartz, Tucker opined that civilization was in its death throes. When asked what he had achieved of lasting value, he replied,

“Nothing” is the only truthful answer. I aimed to contribute a stone to the social edifice, a cathedral if one may call it so. I have contributed that stone. But I see now that the cathedral will never be finished, and that the portion already built is destined soon to tumble into ruins.

Perhaps it was this despair, coupled with his love of French culture, that led Tucker to support the Allies in World War I.

Benjamin R. Tucker died on June 22, 1939, in the presence of his long-time companion and lover, Pearl Johnson, and their daughter, Oriole. He was buried in Monaco in a private, civil ceremony.

His death marked the end of an era; perhaps it had ended in the flames that consumed Liberty. Radical individualism as an organized movement would not appear in America again until the mid 1950s. The movement was due in no small part to a rediscovery of individualism’s uniquely American roots — roots that still lived and breathed through the efforts of zealots such as Tucker. An energetic new generation discarded antiquated ideas, such as the labor theory of value. But they also recognized the vast areas of theory in which Tucker sparkled across the decades.

By integrating the political theories of Tucker into the economic framework of Austrian economics, the modern libertarian movement was born.

Part 1 | Part 2

This article originally appeared in the September 2007 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).