Exploring intellectual history with Benjamin R. Tucker


Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]

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There is probably no figure in the history of anarchism about whom I am as, well, “passionately ambivalent” as Benjamin R. Tucker. He was the great popularizer of Proudhon, Greene and Warren, and an important partisan of Stirner, but also, in each case, something of a bowdlerizer. The plumb-line approach was worlds away from Proudhon’s notion of truth-in-relations, and his wholly “negative” understanding of anarchism ultimately at odds, to some degree at least, with the projects of all of his mutualist predecessors. He was the prototype for every left-libertarian who has trouble “reaching left” but somehow manages to find common ground in the most unlikely sectors of the right. His ambivalent embrace and very partial understanding of the generation that came before him is the basis of nearly all the contemporary confusions about “mutualism,” “individualist anarchism,” and the relations of those currents to each other and to the anarchist tradition as a whole. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t curse old Ben Tucker for some roadblock he unwittingly set in the path of latter-day Proudhonians.

All that said, Tucker remains one of my favorite figures in the tradition as well. If he did not precisely share the ideas of Proudhon or Greene or Warren, he shared a lot—including their sometimes eccentric individuality, their curiosity, their ability and willingness to draw from unexpected and unconventional sources, and, of course, their combative tendencies. Tucker was at his best and worst as a controversialist, but the same might well have been said of all his major influences. Tucker was a real, live anarchist, with all the merits and defects that tend to come with that distinction. And, of course, he was among the most productive workers in anarchism of his, or most any other, generation.

It’s Tucker the worker-in-anarchism that keeps me coming back to him, not least because his various projects brought him into contact with a remarkably large portion of the anarchist movement as a whole. In his day, two or three degrees of separation from Benjamin Tucker would take you a long way across the ideological landscape. As a mutualist theorist, Tucker confronts me with problems, but as an intellectual historian, he constantly provides pathways and connections. Sometimes they are negative connections, as the personally genial Tucker was as often as not a fighter in public, but there is no denying that one of the most gratifying aspects of my work on Tucker, his periodicals and his circle has been that the line of his career has served, again and again, as a kind of “spine” around which I’ve been able to build a much more coherent account of “radical American culture” than I had previously.

The unfinished nature of my archives of Liberty and The Radical Review—though understandable, given my current economic precarity and lack of institutional support—has been gnawing at me a bit more insistently lately, in part because, whatever my ideological beefs with Tucker, I still feel strongly that there is a wealth of material largely trapped in hard-to-navigate pdfs. Wendy McElroy was generous enough to lend me the use of her indexes, but it’s been hard to steal the time from other projects to complete the translation to wikitext—and preparing the text-archive is long, slow, relatively boring work, with no compensation on the horizon. And, honestly, my passion (the sort of passion that gets you through major volunteer projects) has largely been drawn elsewhere, to the parts of the anarchist tradition still unexplored by me (and in some cases, still largely unexplored by much of anyone very recently.) From the first, the primary purpose of the Libertarian Labyrinth archives has been to illuminate the margins of the tradition, to deal with the figures and ideas I was pretty sure nobody else would get around to. Benjamin Tucker has become a surprisingly mainstream figure in recent years, and, for me, some of the urgency regarding his work has waned. Still, the basic work of full-text digitization hasn’t happened…

A lot of passion and urgency flooded back recently, as I discovered that a fairly obscure, but also key, Tucker-related source had become available online. Volumes of The Index: A Weekly Paper Devoted to Free Religion, have appeared at both Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library. Between the two archives you can piece together a fairly complete run of the paper. Long-time readers of this blog may remember a series of posts from late 2006, documenting my first looks at The Index, and presenting a series of texts from the paper:

Since discovering the online archives, and being able to fill a couple of holes in the collection of 11″x17″ photocopies I’ve been dragging around for years, I’ve been able to add Dyer D. Lum’s “Buddhism Notwithstanding” to the archive, and assemble all 36 chapters of Stephen Pearl Andrews’ bizarre “The Science of Universology.” There are still some anarchist contributions not available, but I know what is missing at this point, and it is simply a matter of making the interlibrary loan requests or convincing friends and colleagues to photocopy a few things.

Given that “free religionism” is no longer a term that conjures up much of anything for most people, it is a little odd to recall that, not only was The Index the place where Benjamin Tucker got his first experience as a published controversialist, but it was a paper filled with familiar names: Sidney H. Morse, E. D. Linton, Austin Kent, J. Wm. Lloyd, Henry Appleton, Rev. Jesse H. Jones, Burnette G. Haskell, Dyer D. Lum, Ezra Heywood, William B. Greene, C. L. James, and almost everyone who wrote for The Radical Review appeared in its pages. Tucker’s first Proudhon translations appeared there. And anyone who has read the early issues of Liberty will have encountered Tucker’s sniping at The Index, which he felt has taken a real turn for the worse. Encountering all of that again reminded me why I went to the trouble of scanning Tucker’s periodicals in the first place.

The time seems right for a serious return to the Tucker archive project. I’ve been working slowly on the text of The Radical Review for six months or so, but filling the gaps in the anarchist material from The Index means I can give that text the context it both needs and deserves, and, together, the material from the two earlier periodicals can provide an important part of the context for Liberty. There are other concerns as well: members of the North American Anarchist Studies Network have begun a sort of distributed library project, and I have been designing new versions of the Libertarian Labyrinth archive and still-newborn Proudhon Library site in Omeka and Semantic Mediawiki, so that I can incorporate adequate metadata, accommodate Open Archive Initiative projects and generally improve the presentation of the archives, which have always pretty much been an online version of my file cabinets and not much more. I want to be able to contribute more to projects like The Anarchist Library, and absolutely need to establish a little different focus for Corvus Editions, which has been a great occasion for me to learn a whole bunch of new skills, but always hovers somewhere just below the level where it could be said to be sustaining either me or itself.

My plan is to propose a crowd-funded project in the fairly near future, to complete the first stage of a Benjamin R. Tucker archive, covering The Radical Review, related material from The Index, Index-related material from Liberty, and a few related odds and ends, with the online result (after six months or so) being a nice Omeka-based exhibit and no-frills Mediawiki-based text archive, and the premiums being reprints of The Radical Review and a variety of related materials. (There are a variety of other materials that are part of the “prehistory of Liberty” that it would be useful to assemble at this point.) If this first stage is successful, then it would be possible to move on into the run of Liberty. Starting largely from scratch with the new archives, I would like to gradually do the thing that I didn’t have all the pieces to do ten years ago—to construct the anarchist-history frame around which could be built a much more inclusive intellectual history, within which characters like Benjamin Tucker, William B. Greene, Josiah Warren, J. K. Ingalls, etc., could appear in more than just their roles as anarchist ideologues.

At this stage, any feedback would be welcome.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.