Benjamin R. Tucker, “Anarchism or Anarchy” (1881)

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Sometimes very interesting material stares us in the face for a while before we recognize just how interesting it really is. This particular publication by Benjamin R. Tucker has not been a particular high priority for inclusion in the archive. It is, in some ways, a bit of a tempest in a teapot, as W. J. Potter observes, with Tucker demonstrating his capacity for getting riled up over small points. It is also the sort of formatting challenge that calls for an hour or two with absolutely nothing else pressing in the pile. But one thing led to another today and I began to work of it. As I did, I took a closer look than perhaps I had when I first encountered it—and suddenly I was very interested. 

At the center of this pamphlet is a disagreement about the use of the terms anarchy and anarchism—a topic that has grown in interest for me in recent years. W. H. Tillinghast accuses Tucker of “misusing words” when he uses the term anarchism to describe anarchist beliefs. The proper word, he claims, would be anarchy—or, more specifically, an-archy (from Proudhon’s occasional spelling, an-archie.) He would seem, from a modern perspective, to be a bit confused and Tucker’s response would be correct, if perhaps a bit excessive. It is easy to forget that in 1881 anarchism was still a “rare” word, whether in English or French. How rare was it? How interchangeable were anarchy and anarchism in common anarchist usage? Those are questions that probably need more looking into as I continue to work on A Good Word. But this will certainly be one more good reference point in that continuing study.

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Rev. Wm. J. Potter: —

Sir,—The publication of the two newspaper articles that form the body of this little pamphlet needs some explanation. That explanation, it happens, can be most readily made through an open letter to you. It shall be a brief recital of facts. Some weeks ago Mr. D. A. Wasson published in your journal, the “Free Religious Index,” an article violently denouncing the assassination of the Czar and condemning the Nihilists by the wholesale. A fortnight later you printed a letter from me in reply to Mr. Wasson, in which I had occasion to refer, as he had done, to the European revolutionary party known as the Anarchists, and to their political theory of Anarchy. In turn I was answered, in the “Index” of May 19, by Mr. Wm. H. Tillinghast of Cambridge, your nephew, who is connected in some way, I believe, with Harvard University. His article, which I reprint in these pages, contained what seems to me a trivial criticism, and closed with some advice to myself, administered in a rather professorial style. In replying to such an article I deemed it not improper to drive home fact and argument with ridicule and sarcasm, and to administer a little earnest advice to my adviser in his own style somewhat intensified. My reply, which I promptly forwarded to you, was, in my judgment, entirely within the limits of legitimate discussion, but, to my great astonishment, you declined, in the following letter, to print it:—

New Bedford, May 23, 1881.

DEAR MR. TUCKER:— No possible chance for your article this week; nor any chance at all, unless you can make some changes. As it stands, I think it goes beyond the verge of respectful discussion. Of course I am ready to admit the argument of the reply, but not personal epithets nor the tone of contempt that pervades a part of the article,— at least it so strikes me at a first reading. The article is much longer, too, than the occasion demands, in my judgment. You begin by speaking of your critic’s point as almost too trifling to be noticed, and then go on to write more than twice as much as he wrote.

If you can get time to come into the “Index” office to-morrow (Tuesday), at 12 o’clock say, can explain my objections more fully. If you do not come, I will leave the article there for you to take at your convenience, unless you choose to trust me to make the changes,—which, in that case, would be chiefly certain omissions,—for instance, the closing three pages, — and a change of the title.

Yours sincerely,


Owing to absence from home, I did not receive your letter in time to call at your office as you suggested; so I wrote to you that, while willing to change the title of my article, I could not allow it to be mutilated in the other respects necessary to secure its publication in your journal, and thereupon I withdrew the manuscript from your hands. A few days later I sent the following card to you, with the request that you should print it among your communications:—


To those interested I wish to say that I promptly forwarded to the editor of the “Index” a reply to Mr. Wm. H. Tillinghast’s criticism printed in the “Index” of May 19, but that it was rejected as containing “personal epithets,” as pervaded in parts by a “tone of contempt,” and as longer than the subject warranted. The editor offered to print what he styled the argument of my article; but I, not caring to state my points in any other than my own way, declined to make the changes necessary to secure their publication. The rules adopted for the government of the “Index” are not those that I should adopt, but I fully recognize the right of an editor to adopt his own rules, and respect him the more who faithfully and consistently enforces them. Therefore, not wishing to give consent by silence to Mr. Tillinghast’s criticism, I have printed, in tract form, the rejected article precisely as originally written; and the editor of the “Index” kindly allows me to take this method of announcing that I will send a copy to any one furnishing me his or her address.


P.O. Box 3,366, Boston, Mass.

You answered me thus:—

New Bedford, June 3, 1881.

DEAR Mr. TUCKER: — Having declined, for the reasons given, to print your article in the form presented, it strikes me that it would be very inconsistent for me to use the “Index,” in so conspicuous and exceptional a way as you suggest, to call attention to it printed elsewhere. I would, in fact, quite as lief print the article as insert the card specially advertising it. I am sorry to seem to you to do you an injustice, but this is the only course that seems from my point of view defensible… A statement containing the pith and substance of your reasoning I would very gladly print. It is not the opinions that I would exclude, but only the way in which you have expressed them.

Yours sincerely,


Your second letter astonished me even more than your first. But, persevering in my purpose, I enclosed in a letter to you an advertisement, which, as nearly as I can remember, was worded thus:—



An Article written in Reply to Mr. Wm. H. Tillinghast on “The Misuse of Words” in the “Index” of May 19.


Mailed free to any one sufficiently interested to send his or her address to

BENJ. R. TUCKER, PO. Box 3,366, Boston, Mass.

I asked you to print this in your advertising columns, offering to pay your regular rates for the same, and suggesting that my article was certainly not of so outrageous a nature as to bar out a simple advertisement of it from the advertising columns of a respectable journal. I also reminded you that you would not decline an advertisement of Carlyle’s “Reminiscences,” which go much further than I in personalities and expressions of contempt. For some days I did not hear from you. Meanwhile, in the “Index” of June 9, appeared the following inadequate, incomplete, partially erroneous, and altogether unsatisfactory editorial abstract of the rejected article:—

Mr. Benj. R. Tucker sends us a reply to Mr. E. H. Tillinghast’s Criticism of his use of the word “anarchy,” stating first that the Criticism should have been made first against Mr. Wasson, who, in the “Index” discussion on Nihilism, was the first offender in this way; second, that, in spite of what the dictionaries may say, usage among the believers in the anarchistic doctrines warrants the application of the word which he and Mr. Wasson made, and that usage is an authority above dictionaries; third, that the use of familiar words in strange senses, so long as there is no intent nor effort to deceive, is justifiable by the fact that attention is thus fastened upon novel but important views, which might not otherwise get a hearing.

To-day I receive from you a letter explaining satisfactorily your delay in answering me, and continuing thus:—

Meantime I have printed in the “Index” a brief editorial note announcing that you had sent a reply to W. H. T., and giving, as I remembered, the main points of it. Possibly this fact may affect your proposition of Saturday. I did this because I thought it was due to you that the “ Index readers should know you had made a reply.

As to this last proposition, if you still hold to it, my answer is, that I cannot print as an advertisement to be paid for what, for such reasons as I have given in this case, I would not print free. But, what you will probably think better, I will print in an editorial note what you have sent as an advertisement, introducing it by reference to my note of this week. This is some concession from my decision a must printing your “card” sent last week, but a concession which I am willing to make, because this statement which you now send does not seem to me to call such exceptional attention to the matter as did the “card,” and because, too, the difference between us is not of such supreme moment that it may not be bridged.

At the same time I want to repeat that I should much rather publish your article itself, with all the strength of its argument and all its mental spirit, if you could only consent to take the discourtesy out of it; and I must add — what I believe I only added before orally — cut out also that wretched slang use of the word “tumble.” Even if in all other respects the article had been wholly unobjectionable, I could not have printed it with that blot on its otherwise excellent English.

I have been querying whether it might not be better for both of us, in the proposed note, to have it say briefly why your article did not appear in the “Index,” as thus: “The article by Mr. Benj. R. Tucker, to which we referred last week, was not printed in the “Index” because, in the judgment of the editor, it transcended the limits of courteous discussion. Mr. T. has printed it on his own responsibility, entitling it, etc.” I should like to know your opinion on the point of adding such a statement, though at present my judgment inclines to letting the announcement go without it, especially as it does not quite cover the whole reason, and to cover the whole necessitates going into too much detail for the importance of the matter.

Yours sincerely,


Your third letter astonishes me more than the first and second together. At last, then, you are on the point of saying, editorially, what you declined to let me say over my own signature. By doing this you qualify your rejection Of my advertisement, which you could not unqualifiedly reject without making yourself ridiculous, and appear to magnanimously confer a favor upon me by gratuitously announcing what, under your printed rules governing advertisements, I have a right, by paying for it, to say in your advertising columns. Truly, if, as I say, Mr. Tillinghast’s distinctions are worthy of Maupertuis, this of yours is worthy of Mr. Tillinghast.

But this last letter of yours not only astonishes, it amuses me. Your objections to the word “ tumble” make the situation absolutely funny. No one but a clergyman could possibly have urged them. I cannot refrain from laughing when I picture to myself the state of mind in which the reading of the daily papers must leave you every twenty-four hours. Or do you confine yourself to the “Advertiser” and “Transcript”? Even then I should think the frequent recurrence of slang and personality would be very wearing upon your nerves. Seriously, such sensitiveness seems to me unnatural, unhealthy, born of seclusion. It is this excessive fastidiousness, this stifling punctiliousness, that keeps the “Index” gasping for breath and begging for life. Indeed, I had two purposes in telling this story, — one, to put before the readers of the “Index” my rejected reply to Mr. Tillinghast; the other, involved in the first, to let them have a taste of the kind of mental food, even though a poor sample, that is denied them by the steward whom they employ to prepare their weekly bill of fare. I make no doubt you have a system of moral hygiene by which you justify these prohibitions, but hygienic diets are generally unsavory, not to say flat.

Yours for seasoning,


Boston, June 9, 1881.





[From the ” Free Religious Index ” of May 19.]


To the “Index” of April 28, Mr. Benjamin R. Tucker contributes an excellent protest against “Innuendo as a Method of Argument.” While I give cordial assent to much that he says, I wish to take exception to a kind of argument in which Mr. Tucker, perhaps inadvertently, indulges, — a kind of argument as exasperating and as blameworthy as it is common. I refer to the misrepresentation of words; to the use, without explanation, of common words in an uncommon sense, — in a sense entirely different from that in which they are understood by the great majority of people.

Praising, but none too highly, Mr. Wasson’s words, “He has entered on the road to hell who has once set a form of government above the everlasting laws of morals,” Mr. Tucker says, “First-class anarchistic doctrine, that! For what is anarchy? Ask Pierre Larousse, whose encyclopaedia is even a higher standard than the Britannica itself. ‘L’anarchisme est un système politique d’après lequel la société pourrait se gouverner sans gouvernement établi,’ — ‘Anarchy is a political system by which society would be able to govern itself without an established government.’” As commentary, I submit the following: L’anarchisme is not the French equivalent for anarchy. The French word for anarchy is l’anarchie, and it means exactly what its English representative does. L’anarchisme is a rare word in French: it will not be found in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française nor in Litrè, and when found it does not mean anarchy. In Poitevin’s Nouveau Dictionnaire, it is given: “Anarchisme,—Systéme des Anarchistes.” It is, in short, the name applied by a certain school of social reformers to their theory of society. No one has a right to use such a special name as the equivalent of our anarchy. The tendency is to induce a belief either that Larousse holds anarchy to be the harmless, though somewhat unintelligible, thing set forth in the above definition, or that our English anarchy denotes a desirable state of society. In either case, the tendency is wrong, the belief is false. What anarchy means, and has long meant, every intelligent person knows. What Larousse understands by l’anarchie any one may see by looking into his encyclopaedia, where over a column is devoted to the name and the thing. I insert a few extracts:—

Anarchie,—Etat d’un peuple qui n’a plus de chef, plus d’autorité a laquelle il obéisse; ou le pouvoir gouvernement est entravés ou suspendu…. L’anarchie est caractérisée par la division d’une société’ en fractions hostiles les unes aux autres, et par l’instabilité des pouvoirs publics, conséquence de cette division. Dans l’ordre économique, l’anarchie, en diminuant, en détruisant la sécurité, tue le crédit, tarit les sources du travail, arrête la formation des capitaux; dans l’ordre moral, elle obscurcit les notions du bien et du mal, du juste et du injuste, et trouble plus ou mains profondément la conscience publique.

[Anarchy, — Condition of a people which has no longer leader or authority which it obeys; where the governing power is impeded or suspended…. Anarchy is characterized by the division of society into hostile factions, and by the instability of public power in consequence of this division. . . Considered economically, anarchy, by diminishing and destroying security, kills credit, exhausts the sources of labor, arrests the formation of capital; morally, it obscures the ideas of good and evil, of justice and injustice, and disorders more or less deeply the public conscience.]

Such a society hardly rests on the “ everlasting laws of morals,” even though it pays small regard to forms of government! The following also invites attention:—

M. Proudhon a donné le nom, paradoxal en apparence, d’un “l’an-archie” a une théorie sociale qui repose sur l’idée de contrat, substituée a celle d’autorité. Il faut bien comprendre que l’an-archie Proudhonienne n’a rien de commun avec celle dont nous avons parle’ plus haut.

[M. Proudhon has given the name, paradoxical in appearance, of “an-archy” to a social theory which rests on the idea of contract, substituted for that of authority. It must be well understood that Proudhonian an-archy has nothing in common with that of which we have spoken above.]

There follows a brief sketch of M. Proudhon’s system, with which I have here nothing to do.

It is not the object of this article to attack Mr. Tucker’s social theories. I wish simply to protest against the abuse of words in argument, to protest against the usurpation by which thinkers who differ in aught from the majority seize on the words which belong to the majority, saddle them with peculiar meanings, and then use them in argument without warning or explanation. New systems should have new names. Anarchisme is not anarchy; and to use one for the other breeds confusion of thought, which may be sometimes useful, but is always unworthy of an honorable cause, and will in the end return to plague its producers. If Mr. Tucker wants a word for anarchisme, an-archy is ready to his hand. That is bad enough, but better than the undivided word. Its strange look puts people on their guard, and the explanation of it is already widely known; or better yet it might be to appropriate the rare word anarchism to this special use.

Wm. H. Tillinghast.

Cambridge, Mass, May 12, 1881.


[Rejected by the “ Free Religious Index.”]


I was reading the advance sheets of James Parton’s admirable “Life of Voltaire” when I received the “Index” of May 19 containing Mr. Wm. H. Tillinghast’s objections to my use of the word anarchy instead of anarchism. Stopping long enough to finish his article, I then resumed my Voltaire. Almost the first sentences that I struck were these. “The words employed by Dr. Franklin in describing a very ‘unclubbable’ member of the Philadelphia junto remind us of Maupertuis: ‘Like most great mathematicians I have met with, he expected universal precision in everything said, or was forever denying or distinguishing upon trifles, to the disturbance of all conversation.’ Frederic speaks of him, in one of his letters, as ‘fecond in inquietudes.’” If Maupertuis were living, I should be quite willing to match my critic against him for all that I am worth; for I judge Mr. Tilling- hast to be a person whose fecundity in inquietudes is extreme, so extreme that I doubt if he could have refrained from disturbing my conversation with Mr. Wasson, had that gentleman been mentally disposed and physically able to continue it. So trivial is his point that it would be not far from a fair retort were I to find fault with his spelling of Littré With but one “t.” But being a patient man and willing to consider even trifles, I will not resort to that.

First, however, let me ask why I am singled out for attack? Mr. Wasson. was the first offender. Speaking of the “school of social reformers” in question, he said: “They believe in anarchy.” He did not say anarchism. He did not even put in a hyphen. Yet Mr. Tillinghast was dumb. Perhaps, not having ransacked Larousse, Littré, Poitevin, and the French Academy’s dictionary, he had not then tumbled to this wonderfully subtle distinction. (Now, Mr. Tillinghast, please do not pick me up for using the common word “tumble” in an “uncommon sense.” I know very well that you will not find my use of it sanctioned by either Webster or Worcester. One step, however, will suffice to justify me, — from the college library to the college yard. These audacious students, you, of course, will declare usurpers who have “seized on the words which belong to the majority and saddled them with peculiar meanings,” but that will not prevent the next edition of the “Unabridged” from recognizing their right of domain.) But the moment I adopt Mr. Wasson’s terminology Mr. Tillinghast’s brain is seized by an “inquietude,” and he flings the dictionaries at my head. Even if wrong, then, I might plead the right to shield myself behind Mr. Wasson. But being a chivalrous and somewhat belligerent man, and as Mr. Wasson’s eyes are in danger while I still have a good pair, I will plant myself in his shoes and take what blows I cannot dodge.

And my first dodge is not a dodge, but a square denial, which, meeting the dictionaries in mid-air, precipitates them perpendicularly to the ground. L’anarchisme, the system of the Anarchists, is a French equivalent for anarchy, as much so as l’anarchie is: Here I might presume to speak as an authority, whether contradicted by Larousse, Littré, Poitevin, or Tillinghast. I am one of the Anarchists, and know their ways. They use l’anarchisme and l’anarchie without any discrimination whatever. But Mr. Tillinghast need not take my word for it. Today everything seems to come luckily to my hand. The mail just brings me my latest number of Le Revolté, published in Geneva and edited by the Russian Prince Kropotkine and the great French geographer, Elisée Reclus (readers of the “Index” will well remember his brother Elie, who visited us in 1877). These two men are among the most prominent Anarchists of Europe, and their paper is the most scholarly Anarchistic journal in existence. Only from such sources as these can Larousse and the others obtain authoritative information on these subjects, just as an old English lexicographer could have got nothing satisfactory about gravitation from anybody but Newton. From Le Révolté’s leader dealing with the present advantages in Russia of militant over peaceful agitation I quote as follows (small capitals my own):—

C’est qu’il faudrait, avant tout, commencer par savoir cc qu’on entend par anarchie. L’absence de tout pouvoir, de toute autorité; de toute hiérarchie, l’autonomie des individus, des groupes, des communes, des régions, etc., la grande fédération humaine, la vraie liberté. Parfaitement, tout cela est pour la société future ; mais aujourd’hui anarchie est attaque incessante et guerre éternelle à tout pouvoir constitué, à toute autorité, à l’organisation civil, religieuse, militaire, économique, judiciaire, etc., dont se compose cette société pourrie out a fait son temps et qui sera la victime de la prochaine révolution sociale. Eh quoi! Voudrait-on faire de l’anarchisme un synonyme de quiétisme ?

[Translation -— It is necessary, first of all, to understand what is meant by anarchy. The absence of all power, of all authority, of all hierarchy, the autonomy of individuals, groups, communes, departments, etc., the grand human confederation, true liberty. To be sure, all that is for the future; but, to-day, anarchy is an incessant attack and an eternal war upon all established power, upon all authority, upon the organization, civil, religious, military, economic, judicial, etc., of which is composed this rotten society whose day is done and which is to be the victim of the next social revolution. What? Is anarchism to be made synonymous with quietism?]

What more need I say? But suppose I were to follow Mr. Tillinghast’s advice and use the word anarchism; how would that help matters as regards “confusion of thought”? I go to Webster and find the following definitions: —

Anarchism. — Confusion; anarchy.
Anarchy. — Want of government; political confusion.

According to these definitions anarchy seems to be the word of the two which expresses the idea of no government. Whom shall I follow, Webster or Tillinghast? Shall I not confuse more thoroughly by following the latter?

Now, as to the right of promulgators of new thought to choose their own nomenclature. Mr. Tillinghast says it is “usurpation,” and that “new systems should have new names.” Well, that’s according to circumstances. If a writer, simply by using a word in its primitive rather than its derivative meaning, can call attention to his thought and thereby spread it more rapidly, he seems to me perfectly justified. For who, in the present case for instance, is confused? Not those who habitually think; they see the point at once, and accept or reject according to the dictates of their reason. Not those who can think, but do not; they are aroused to think, and then fall into the first category; there’s the advantage of the policy. Only those who cannot think; they, horrified in their ignorance, oppose the new doctrine. What writer would not prefer them as enemies? If some alluring word were used as a trap to catch the unwary, then the case would be different, and Mr. Tillinghast’s objection would be a good one. But if the word is one that repels those whom it deceives, and, by first astonishing, attracts only those who study and understand it, where’s the harm? Why, the plan works to perfection! Mr. Tillinghast proves it himself. If Mr. Wasson and I had not said anarchy, Mr. Tillinghast would not have written a column about it in the “Index,” I should not be replying to him, the intellectual dead-level would not have been disturbed, and things would have remained where they were. Reforms are not accomplished thus. As it is, some of the readers of the “Index” may seek out the writings of Proudhon and other anarchists and get waked up (church people are not the only ones who sleep in broad daylight). Speaking of Proudhon, see what he has accomplished by this policy. He was the first to use the word anarchy in its new, or rather old, sense, and without a hyphen either, Larousse to the contrary notwithstanding. In 1840, he launched upon the world these two phrases, Property is robbery and Society tends towards anarchy. If he had said Liberty and Equality, which are precisely what he meant, nobody would have listened to him for years. But a perfect hornet’s nest swarmed about his ears, and now an army of Proudhonians is organized in Europe so vast that tyrants on their thrones are combining to destroy it; and again, following Jacques Danton’s advice a second time, “ at the feet of the coalesced kings of Europe has been thrown, as gage of battle, the head of a king,” The great economist’s prediction seems likely to be verified. Some years later, answering Michelet who had said, “ If, to use the Words of some one of this school, property is robbery,” Proudhon wrote thus: “ The author of this persiflage is M. Michelet, professor in the college of France, member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences; and the some one to whom he alludes is myself. M. Michelet may name me; I shall not blush. That definition of property is mine, and my whole ambition is to prove that I have comprehended its meaning and breadth. Property is robbery! the last two thousand years have not heard two words like those. I have no other wealth on earth than this definition of property; but I hold it more precious than the millions of the Rothschilds, and I dare to say that it will prove the most important event of the reign of Louis Philippe.”

The trouble with you, Mr. Tillinghast, is that you have ventured on a subject that has not yet found its way into the Harvard library and the Harvard curriculum. You are not to blame for knowing nothing about it. Professor Dryasdust has not even heard of it. But he will hear of ‘it, and you will hear of it, and the whole wide world will hear of it, more and more, doubtless to your sorrow, perhaps to Alexander III.’s, and, in a partial sense, to mine, but to the eternal gladness of your and my and his descendants forever more. You cannot prevent it unless you cast aside “inquietudes,” quit the company of Professor Dryasdust, and show, by reason and experience, logic and history, that Liberty and Equality are mere “glittering generalities.” And when you are ready to do that, I shall be ready to meet you again. And being in many things a very accommodating man, I promise in advance that always, in discussion with you, I will say anarchy-with-a-hyphen.


Boston, May 20, 1881.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.