LeftLiberty extra: Individualism vs. Socialism, c. 1900

The historical material in LeftLiberty #1 will be drawn primarily from the individualism/socialism debate of the mid-19th century, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that, if we take our cues from any much later iteration of the debate, we find ourselves faced with the sort of simple opposition of entrenched positions that I suspect many of us would like to get past. However, in the interest of completeness, I offer what is perhaps the exemplary “exchange” of the Talking Past One Another Era: Ernest Belfort Bax, sometime collaborator of William Morris, vs. Henry Wilson, of the Liberty and Property Defense League. Bax, with Henry Quelch, published A New Catechism of Socialism in 1900; Wilson responded with his A Catechism of Individualism in 1902. If you’re a regular in these circles, chances are that there will be very few real supprises for you. You know the drill. But I think these are valuable documents precisely as exemplars of the positions that left-libertarians, and all anarchists and libertarians interested in the possibilities of broad coalition, need to move beyond. I think part of that process is, perhaps, some final coming to terms with the polar positions. And the positions are pretty polar. From Wilson:

What do you understand by Individualism ?

It is the opposite of Socialism.

Why do you give this negative definition ?

Because Individualism is the natural system, and would never have got a distinctive name, or have had to search for its principles, and the reasons on which they are founded, but for the rise of the artificial system of Socialism.

Am I to understand, then, that Individualism is the earlier of the two systems ?

No. Modern Socialism is an attempt to give a scientific justification for a barbarous stage through which men passed in their upward struggle to their present happier state.

And so on. . . Bax and Quelch boil individualistic ethics down to “The devil take the hindmost,” etc. This is the Wikipedia talk-page squabble as relatively high art, well worth the time it will take to read through.

Of course, the earlier debate, as I’ve begun to show, looked very different, and perhaps more useful, at least to those interested in left-libertarian alliance.

Coming up: in preparation for both LeftLiberty and the What Is Property?open classroom event,” some background on Proudhon’s philosophy and on that “creepy” motto I stuck on the ‘zine.

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