The Anarchist Individualists

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In the latest installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss individualist anarchism in the United States and Europe prior to the Russian Revolution.

Individualist Anarchism

In addition to the various revolutionary currents that existed within the anarchist movement prior to the outbreak of World War I, individualist anarchism began to emerge as a distinct current in the United States and Europe. In contrast to many contemporary individualists, particularly in the United States, who sometimes identify themselves as “anarcho-capitalists,” a concept most anarchists would regard as hopelessly self-contradictory (Volume Three, Chapter 9), the individualist anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were anti-capitalist.

Benjamin Tucker

Benjamin Tucker

The leading individualist anarchist in the United States was Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939). Tucker was a great admirer of Proudhon, translating What Is Property (1876) and Volume One of The System of Economic Contradictions (1888) into English. Nevertheless, when describing Proudhon’s anarchism, Tucker in reality set forth his own view of anarchism as “the logical carrying out of the Manchester doctrine; laissez faire the universal rule,” a position which Proudhon would have rejected. Tucker was opposed to compulsory taxation, state currencies, regulation of the banking system, tariffs, patents, and the large corporations, the “trusts,” that were building their own monopolies on the basis of these state “monopolies.” He denounced revolutionary anarchists, such as Kropotkin and Johann Most, as “Communists who falsely call themselves anarchists,” particularly for their advocacy of expropriation, which Tucker regarded as inconsistent with anarchist ends (Tucker, 1888).

Yet despite Tucker’s discovery of Max Stirner’s egoism in the late 1880s (Martin: 249-254), Tucker remained a self-righteous ideologue disapproving of those anarchists who advocated armed struggle, expropriation and social revolution. Stirner, on the other hand, would have had no reason to condemn expropriation or the use of force, having suggested that the dispossessed simply take from the rich because “I give myself the right of property in taking property to myself.” In fact, Stirner can be seen as the original advocate of anarchist “illegalism,” when he argued that “in all cases where [the egoist’s] advantage runs against the State’s,” the egoist “can satisfy himself only by crime” (Volume One, Selection 11). It was this aspect of Stirner’s egoism that was seized upon by individualist anarchists in Europe around the turn of the century, who articulated and sometimes put into practice a much more radical conception of individualist anarchism than had been developed in the United States by Tucker and his associates, one which did not shy away from violence and which regarded itself as revolutionary.

Victor Kibalchich (Serge)

Victor Kibalchich (Serge)

In 1909, the then individualist anarchist, Victor Kibalchich (better known by his later moniker, Victor Serge (1890-1947), after he went over to Bolshevism), wrote in France that the anarchist “chooses the methods of struggle, according to his power and circumstance. He takes no account of any conventions which safeguard property: for him, force alone counts. Thus, we have neither to approve or disapprove of illegal actions… The anarchist is always illegal—theoretically. The sole word ‘anarchist’ means rebellion in every sense” (Perry: 50).

Kibalchich was associated with some of the future members of the “Bonnot Gang,” which conducted the first bank robbery using getaway cars in late December 1911. Soon after the robbery, during which a bank clerk was shot, Kibalchich wrote that the shooting “proved that some men have at least understood the virtues of audacity. I am not afraid to own up to it: I am with the bandits” (Perry: 90). However, after Bonnot was killed in a shoot out and Kibalchich was put on trial along with survivors of the gang, he tried to distance himself from the “bandits,” claiming that he was merely an anarchist “propagandist” who did “not pretend to defend” his former comrades, “for a gulf separates philosophical anarchists” from those who seek to justify their crimes in the name of anarchism (Perry: 158-159).

It was the kind of betrayal Kibalchich was to repeat in Russia after the 1917 Revolution when he renounced anarchism altogether, throwing his support behind the Bolshevik dictatorship. When justifying the Bolsheviks’ violent suppression of the anarchist movement, Kibalchich (now Serge) again drew a distinction between “counter-revolutionary” armed anarchist groups who hid common criminals within their ranks, and “ideological” anarchists, who were allegedly left alone to make their “ineffective” propaganda (Serge, 1930). It was a distinction Lenin and the Bolsheviks were happy to make, but never honour (Berkman, 1925: 91 & 142-151).

Emile Armand

Emile Armand

Emile Armand (1872-1962), a more consistent individualist anarchist writing in France in 1911, supported “illegalism… with certain reservations.” For him, the individualist “anarchist seeks to live without gods or masters; without bosses or leaders; a-legally, bereft of laws as well as of prejudices; amorally, free of obligations as well as of collective morality.” The European individualists shared the anti-organizationalist critique of all formal organization but, as with Tucker and his associates, opposed anarchist communism. The individual, Armand wrote, “would be as much of a subordinate under a communist system as he is today.” Armand believed that individual autonomy could only be guaranteed by individual ownership of the means necessary to support oneself, the product of one’s own labour, and the goods one receives in exchange with others. He was much clearer than Tucker in opposing “the exploitation of anyone by one of his neighbours who will set him to work in his employ and for his benefit” (Volume One, Selection 42).

Both Tucker and the European individualists developed a conception of anarchism representing an incoherent amalgam of Stirnerian egoism and Proudhonian economics, although the European individualists were more consistent in their extremism. The problem for both is that while an egoist will not want to be exploited or dominated by anyone else, there is no reason why he or she would not exploit or dominate others. If the egoist can use existing power structures, or create new ones, to his or her advantage, then there is no reason for the egoist to adopt an anarchist stance. Furthermore, when each person regards the other simply as a means to his or her ends, taking and doing whatever is in his or her power, as Stirner advocated, it would seem unlikely that a Proudhonian economy of small property holders exchanging their products among one another would be able to function, for Proudhon’s notions of equivalent exchange and economic justice would carry no weight, even if they were feasible in a modern industrial economy.

Armand rejected Proudhon’s notion of contract, arguing that “every contract can be voided the moment it injures one of the contracting parties,” since the individual is “free of all obligations as well as of collective morality.” At most, the individualist “is willing to enter into short-term arrangements only” as “an expedient,” being “only ever answerable to himself for his deeds and actions” (Volume One, Selection 42).

Tucker, despite his attempts to base his anarchism on Stirner’s egoism, believed that contracts freely entered into should be binding and enforceable. In addition, he advocated the creation of “self-defence” associations to protect people’s property, opening the way, Kropotkin argued, “for reconstituting under the heading of ‘defence’ all the functions of the state” (1910: 18). Anarchist communists, such as Kropotkin, did not “see the necessity of… enforcing agreements freely entered upon” by people in an anarchist society, for even in existing society the “simple habit of keeping one’s word, the desire of not losing confidence, are quite sufficient in an overwhelming majority of cases to enforce the keeping of agreements” (1887: 47 & 53). Force is only necessary to maintain relationships of subordination and exploitation, “to prevent the labourers from taking possession of what they consider unjustly appropriated by the few; and… to continually bring new ‘uncivilized nations’ under the same conditions” (1887: 52).

Robert Graham

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Olympian Follies (or Intellectual Property is Theft)

Political and media commentary on the economic meltdown in Greece rarely refer to either the enormous costs of Greece hosting the Olympics in 2004 or the 2008  world economic crisis as major factors in the collapse of the Greek economy, preferring to blame the Greek people for their own misfortune. Now we are hearing about the lack of economic “spinoffs” for London during the 2012 Olympics, as tourists stay at home or go elsewhere.

As usual, there are also stories about “crackdowns” on people making unauthorized use of the Olympic name and logo, even if they have used them for decades prior to London hosting the Olympic games. Since the time of Proudhon, anarchists have denounced property as theft (see Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas), including so-called “intellectual property,” such as copyright and patents. 

In the excerpts below, taken from a pamphlet published in 1903, the American individualist anarchist, Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939), who was influenced by Proudhon but approved of some form of property rights, sets forth his argument against intellectual property, or “property in ideas.”

Benjamin Tucker

Benjamin Tucker: Intellectual Property is Theft

…the question of property in ideas is a very subtle one. The defenders of such property set up an analogy between the production of material things and the production of abstractions, and on the strength of it declare that the manufacturer of mental products, no less than the manufacturer of material products, is a laborer worthy of his hire. So far, so good. But, to make out their case, they are obliged to go further, and to claim, in violation of their own analogy, that the laborer who creates mental products, unlike the laborer who creates material products, is entitled to exemption from competition. Because the Lord, in his wisdom, or the Devil, in his malice, has so arranged matters that the inventor and the author produce naturally at a disadvantage, man, in his might, proposes to supply the divine or diabolic deficiency by an artificial arrangement that shall not only destroy this disadvantage, but actually give the inventor and author an advantage that no other laborer enjoys – an advantage, moreover, which, in practice goes, not to the inventor and the author, but to the promoter and the publisher and the trust [capitalist conglomerates]…

I take it that, if it were possible, and if it had always been possible, for an unlimited number of individuals to use to an unlimited extent and in an unlimited number of places the same concrete things at the same time, there never would have been any such thing as the institution of property. Under those circumstances the idea of property would never have entered the human mind, or, at any rate, if it had, would have been summarily dismissed as too gross an absurdity to be seriously entertained for a moment. Had it been possible for the concrete creation or adaptation resulting from the efforts of a single individual to be used contemporaneously by all individuals, including the creator or adapter, the realization, or impending realization, of this possibility, far from being seized upon as an excuse for a law to prevent the use of this concrete thing without the consent of its creator or adapter, and far from being guarded against as an injury to one, would have been welcomed as a blessing to all, – in short, would have been viewed as a most fortunate element in the nature of things. The raison d’être of property is found in the very fact that there is no such possibility, – in the fact that it is impossible in the nature of things for concrete objects to be used in different places at the same time. This fact existing, no person can remove from another’s possession and take to his own use another’s concrete creation without thereby depriving that other of all opportunity to use that which he created, and for this reason it became socially necessary, since successful society rests on individual initiative, to protect the individual creator in the use of his concrete creations by forbidding others to use them without his consent. In other words, it became necessary to institute property in concrete things.

But all this happened so long ago that we of today have entirely forgotten why it happened. In fact, it is very doubtful whether, at the time of the institution, of property, those who effected it thoroughly realized and understood the motive of their course. Men sometimes do by instinct and without analysis that which conforms to right reason. The institutors of property may have been governed by circumstances inhering in the nature of things, without realizing that, had the nature of things been the opposite, they would not have instituted property. But, be that as it may, even supposing that they thoroughly understood their course, we, at any rate, have pretty nearly forgotten their understanding. And so it has come about that we have made of property a fetish; that we consider it a sacred thing; that we have set up the god of property on an altar as an object of idol-worship; and that most of us are not only doing what we can to strengthen and perpetuate his reign within the proper and original limits of his sovereignty, but also are mistakenly endeavoring to extend his dominion over things and under circumstances which, in their pivotal characteristic, are precisely the opposite of those out of which his power developed.

1895 Patent

All of which is to say in briefer compass, that from the justice and social necessity of property in concrete things we have erroneously assumed the justice and social necessity of property in abstract things, – that is, of property in ideas, – with the result of nullifying to a large and lamentable extent that fortunate element in the nature of things, in this case not hypothetical, but real, – namely, the immeasurably fruitful possibility of the use of abstract things by any number of individuals in any number of places at precisely the same time, without in the slightest degree impairing the use thereof by any single individual. Thus we have hastily and stupidly jumped to the conclusion that property in concrete things logically implies property in abstract things, whereas, if we had had the care and the keenness to accurately analyze, we should have found that the very reason which dictates the advisability of property in concrete things denies the advisability of property in abstract things. We see here a curious instance of that frequent mental phenomenon – the precise inversion of the truth by a superficial view.

Furthermore, were the conditions the same in both cases, and concrete things capable of use by different persons in different places at the same time, even then, I say, the institution of property in concrete things, though under those conditions manifestly absurd, would be infinitely less destructive of individual opportunities, and therefore infinitely less dangerous and detrimental to human welfare, than is the institution of property in abstract things. For it is easy to see that, even should we accept the rather startling hypothesis that a single ear of corn is continually and permanently consumable, or rather inconsumable, by an indefinite number of persons scattered over the surface of the earth, still the legal institution of property in concrete things that would secure to the sower of a grain of corn the exclusive use of the resultant ear would not, in so doing, deprive other persons of the right to sow other grains of corn and become exclusive users of their respective harvests; whereas the legal institution of property in abstract things not only secures to the inventor, say, of the steam engine the exclusive use of the engines which he actually makes, but at the same time deprives all other persons of the right to make for themselves other engines involving any of the same ideas. Perpetual property in ideas, then, which is the logical outcome of any theory of property in abstract things, would, had it been in force in the lifetime of James Watt, have made his direct heirs the owners of at least nine-tenths of the now existing wealth of the world; and, had it been in force in the lifetime of the inventor of the Roman alphabet, nearly all the highly civilized peoples of the earth would be today the virtual slaves of that inventor’s heirs, which is but another way of saying that, instead of becoming highly civilized, they would have remained in the state of semi-barbarism. It seems to me that these two statements, which in my view are incontrovertible, are in themselves sufficient to condemn property in ideas forever.

From “The Attitude of Anarchism Toward Industrial Combinations,”  a speech at the Chicago Civic Federation Conference on Trusts, September 14, 1899