Progress and Premises, continued

By the time he started Liberty, Benjamin R. Tucker had his trial by fire as a controversialist in the pages of The Index, where he also debated Stephen Pearl Andrews about the merits of Proudhon, had edited The Word for Ezra Heywood and The Radical Review for himself. He was obviously reading voraciously, and making (and breaking) connections with radicals of all stripes. Reading Liberty is, in large part, reading the public record of his reading, or his connections and disconnections. By the end of 1881, the first debates are beginning to take off in the letters section of the paper, but the rest is all Tucker: translations, digests of his readings, comments on friends and foes, plumb-line epigrams.

Wages is not slavery. Wages is a form of voluntary exchange, and voluntary exchange is a form of Liberty.

Etc. These are the sorts of statements that have gone on to feed a thousand Usenet, blog, and Wikipedia debates, mere quibbles sometimes, certainly pithy and suggestive, but always requiring some real work to figure out exactly what the pith is. One of the reasons for a complete survey of Liberty is to see what all these pithy bits ultimately add up to.

More open questions: To what extent was Tucker consciously a controversialist? There are times when he genuinely does not seem to see what his antagonists are driving at, and he just keeps driving, sometime to the detriment of Liberty‘s connections with other radicals. In his Reminiscences, Joshua King Ingalls ends his treatment of a debate with Tucker over the merits of mutual banking with these comments:

Mr. I. not being a metaphysician or “master of logic,” like his opponent, was slow to apprehend the little game, which had been put up on him; “this little campaign of question and answer for the purpose of silencing this gun,” which had been annoying Mr. T. so long. . . . But there can be no doubt as to the silence of the gun, so far as the columns of Liberty are concerned. My name has not appeared in its columns, but once for two years, and that only to designate as “nonsense,” a little notice I sent it commending Labadie’s lecture at Detroit, one word of which, it was not allowed the readers of Liberty to see.

Interestingly, one point which was never addressed, as the debate was never resumed, was a claim made by Ingalls that:

Col. W. B. Greene informed me forty-five years since that he was pressed by borrowers to form his mutual bank, but found no lenders, except a few philanthropists who would lend their money without interest anyway, and these he was unwilling to risk sacrificing in an untried experiment.

Tucker considered the claim “extraordinary.” In 1895, Tucker, debating Alfred B. Westrup, appealed again to his personal acquaintanceship with Greene, in an attempt to settle a point in the “standard of value” debate. I mention them here because I am not sure, in either case, that Tucker was correct about Greene’s thought.

Tucker appears to me a paradoxical character, more than a bit fixated on a few principles he considered key, and willing to sacrifice personal connections in philosophical debate. He seems to have been charming and insufferable by turns. That, of course, would make him an almost perfect heir of Proudhon, Greene, and Warren.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2627 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. I have to wonder what Tucker would have thought of Proudhon’s position on wage labour. As he put it in The General idea of the revolution:

    “either the workman. . . will be simply the employee of the proprietor-capitalist-promoter; or he will participate. . . he will become an associate . . . in the first case the workman is subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience.”

    Proudhon actually compared working for a boss with slavery, arguing that in an association “he resumes his dignity as a man and citizen. . . he forms part of the producing organisation, of which he was before but the slave; as, in the town, he forms part of the sovereign power, of which he was before but the subject.”

    He ends by stating “we need not hesitate, for we have no choice. . . it is necessary to form an ASSOCIATION among workers . . . because without that, they would remain related as subordinates and superiors, and there would ensue two . . . castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society.”

    In this, Johann Most was closer to Proudhon than Tucker — ironically enough. While Tucker always went on about Proudhon and following his ideas, he was pretty selective about it at time…

    Needless to say, I side with Proudhon on this. Freedom within an association counts, not just freedom to join and leave it. What I find surprising is that Tucker rejected Proudhon’s sensible position on this.


  2. Hey, Iain. Good to see you’re following along.

    Tucker probably thought he was in agreement with Proudhon, though one of my “open questions” is just how much Tucker projected his own conceptions on his influences along the way.

    Nov. 11, 1882: “It is the fundamental maxim of radical political economy, as Proudhon so often insists, that the laborer’s wage should repurchase his product, and it is the fundamental crime of conservative political economy that the usurer—that is, the monopolist—is privileged to keep back a percentage of that product. Usury slavery, then,—not wage slavery,—is the land of bondage out of which Liberty, Labor’s Moses, is destined to guide the children of Industry.”

    April 14, 1883: Tucker says, favorably, “Marx would nationalize the productive and distributive forces; Proudhon would individualize and associate them.”

    Tucker’s ideal seems to have been a situation under which all would be equally dependent on wage labor, effectively eliminating “bosses”—except perhaps in the sense of temporary, supervisory roles—and stable hierarchies.

    April 14, 1888 (“Should Labor Be Paid or Not?”: “If the men who oppose wages – that is, the purchase and sale of labor – were capable of analyzing their thought and feelings, they would see that what really excites their anger is not the fact that labor is bought and sold, but the fact that one class of men are dependent for their living upon the sale of their labor, while another class of men are relieved of the necessity of labor by being legally privileged to sell something that is not labor, and that, but for the privilege, would be enjoyed by all gratuitously. And to such a state of things I am as much opposed as any one. But the minute you remove privilege, the class that now enjoy it will be forced to sell their labor, and then, when there will be nothing but labor with which to buy labor, the distinction between wage-payers and wage-receivers will be wiped out, and every man will be a laborer exchanging with fellow-laborers. Not to abolish wages, but to make every man dependent upon wages and secure to every man his whole wages is the aim of Anarchistic Socialism. What Anarchistic Socialism aims to abolish is usury. It does not want to deprive labor of its reward; it wants to deprive capital of its reward. It does not hold that labor should not be sold; it holds that capital should not be hired at usury.”

    That, of course, is the paragraph just preceding Tucker’s quip about “consistent Manchesterism.”

    On “association,” Tucker starts early (August 6, 1881, issue #1) with the following: “The law of liberty is spontaneous association by natural selection. The first condition of its normal operation is that the basic factor of social existence, the individual, shall be left entirely and absolutely free to regulate his life as experimental contact with other equally free individuals may seem to direct.”

  3. Yes, Tucker argues that he is following in Proudhon’s footsteps. Yet, at the same time, he maintains a position on wage labour which is the direct opposite of Proudhon’s.

    Yes, he is right to say that Proudhon “would individualize and associate them.” But by associate Proudhon meant that literally, in the sense of co-operatives for large-scale industry. Tucker did not.

    “Tucker’s ideal seems to have been a situation under which all would be equally dependent on wage labor”

    well, wages at least. But I would suggest that Tucker simply abolishes profits by simply calling them “wages.” This is because income from owning capital and actually managing is hard to separate. It can only, really, be ended by means of co-operatives.

    This, i think, is the core of proudhon’s argument that bosses monopolise the benefits of co-operation derived from the division of labour. By hiring individual workers, they keep the product of their (joint) labour. hence Proudhon’s support for self-managed workplaces.

    As for “stable hierarchies”, well, yes, that is the issue. Is anarchy really compatible with non-state hierarchies? Surely this is inconsistent anarchism, like proudhon’s support for patriarchy?

    Do I think that part of the problem is that Tucker was critiquing Most’s *communism* rather than his opposition to wage labour — not the same thing. As I said, the communist-anarchist position on self-management seems closer to proudhon’s than Tucker’s (ironically enough).


    PS I cannot promise to be that frequent a contributer. I’m pretty busy just now. But rest assured I wish you good luck in your very important task!

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