Should labor be paid or not? part 1

I’ve been involved in a number of discussions recently on the issue of wages, as it was understood by the mutualists and their successors among the Liberty group. There seems to be a widespread sense, among social anarchists, but also among some who consider themselves of the mutualist-individualist school, that wages per se are a Bad Thing. Very few anarchists of any stripe would disagree that waged labor, under present conditions and under any conditions where large accumulations of capital, what we used to call “monopoly power,” and state-backed privilege exist, is unlikely to return to labor its fair share of its production. (There are some rather “vulgar” libertarians who seem to believe that markets are currently free for labor, but somehow not for capital, when the neoliberal norm seems to be rather the opposite, but it’s hard to take them too seriously.)

“Should labor be paid or not?” Benjamin Tucker asked the question in Liberty (April 28, 1888), and answered in the affirmative. Here is the article:

Should Labor Be Paid Or Not?
from ‘Instead of a Book’
By Benjamin R. Tucker

In No. 121 of Liberty, criticizing an attempt of Kropotkine to identify Communism and Individualism, I charged him with ignoring “the real question whether Communism will permit the individual to labor independently, own tools, sell his labor or his products, and buy the labor and products of others.” In Herr Most’s eyes this is so outrageous that, in reprinting it, he puts the words “the labor of others” in large black type. Most being a Communist, he must, to be consistent, object to the sale and purchase of anything whatever; but why he should particularly object to the purchase and sale of labor is more than I can understand. Really, in the last analysis, labor is the only thing that has any title to be bought or sold. Is there any just basis of price except cost? And is there anything that costs except labor or suffering (another name for labor)? Labor should be paid! Horrible, isn’t it. Why, I thought that the fact that it is not paid was the whole grievance. “Unpaid labor” has been the chief complaint of all Socialists, and, and that labor should get its reward has been their chief contention. Suppose I had said to Kropotkine that the real question is whether Communism will permit individuals to exchange their labor or products on their own terms. Would Herr Most have been so shocked? Would he have printed that in black type? Yet in another form I said precisely that.

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 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 much opposed as anyone. 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 usuary. 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 usuary.
But, says Herr Most, this idea of a free labor market from which privilege is eliminated is nothing but “consistent Manchesterism.” Well, what better can a man who professes Anarchism want then that? For the principle of Manchesterism is liberty, and is consistent adherence to liberty. The only inconsistency of the Manchester men lies in their infidelity to liberty in some of its phases. And this infidelity to liberty in some of its phases is precisely the fatal inconsistency of the Freiheit school- the only difference between its adherence and the Manchester men being that in many of the phases in which the latter are infidel the former are faithful, while in many those in which the latter are faithful the former are infidel. Yes, genuine Anarchism is consistant Manchesterism, and Communistic or psuedo-Anarchism is inconsistent Manchesterism. “I thank thee, Jew, for teaching me that word.” [text from Listen Liberty!]

Tucker says some startling things. The notion of making “every man dependent upon wages” doesn’t sound all that libertarian at first listen. Neither, of course, does it sound like a situation with much room for monopoly power or privilege. What does this generalized dependence mean? It means mutual dependence, labor exchange, complex barter of sweat and skills on the cost principle, according to the principle of the division of labor.

There is obviously a conceptual transformation at work here, but we would hardly expect anything else from the mutualist-individualist tradition. Unsuprisingly, there is no lexical orthodoxy among the mutualists. Ingalls strongly opposed wage labor, calling the wage relation “false and immoral.” (See “The Wage Question,” 1877, as well as his contributions to The Spirit of the Age.) But he became a great advocate of the labor exchange concept. For Ingalls, as for some contemporary critics, “wages” seems to imply something “false and immoral,” closely connected to privilege or to the old enemies “force and fraud.” Tucker clearly does not.

William B. Greene addressed the question in The Word, in letters to Rev. Jesse H. Jones.

BOSTON, MASS., Sept. 29, 1874.

REV. JESSE H. JONES. Dear Sir,—Your letter of yesterday, to me, has been duly received. Contents noted. Please find enclosed a check for the money called for. You say, “As to banking, is not what men want, the willingness to work together, instead of to lend to each other?” I reply, that, so far as my experience goes, the willingness of John to help Thomas and Peter in their work usually takes the form of a willingness to lend money to them to help them along. The application to me for help in any work, almost always, perhaps always, assumes the shape of a request for a loan, or, perhaps, a gift, of money. So long as services are estimated in money values, the man who lends money lends aid and service. Money honestly acquired is the representative of services performed, for which the community is still in debt; and the transfer of money from Peter to John is the transfer of claim for wages due, and not yet paid in kind. I don’t believe in the Christian communism you advocate. I repudiate it. I believe in work and wages. The apostles tried Christian communism, and failed. We to-day are no better, to say the least, than the apostles were, and no more competent to command success.


Greene, like Tucker, was differentiating himself from communists, insisting on the need for markets and exchange, credit and currency.

What is at state here, really? Greene and Tucker were advocating specific, individual compensation for the “cost” (calculated subjectively by the laborer, following Warren’s model of “cooperation without combination”) of specific labors, as opposed to any scheme which lumps or otherwise collectivises labor or remuneration. The mutualist labor market, like the mutualist commodity market, was to be a matter of complex barter, free from usury, with “profit” appearing only as a general effect of the community’s cooperative efforts.

[to be continued…]

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


  1. I suppose it makes sense to be clear that “wages” means many different things to different people. As such, it is a very unclear concept.

    Thus we find Proudhon (in The general idea of the revolution) expressing opposition to the “wages system” while stating that workers associations paid themselves “wages”. Obviously, by the former he meant “wage labour” (as other translations put it) and by the latter “labour income” (aka, “wages” in common useage).

    Thus we can have opposition to “wage labour” (having a boss to whom you sell your labour/liberty) but support for “wages” (in the sense of labour income, money in exchange for labour done).

    The key to the communist/mutualist position can be found in Proudhon where he argued that joint work produced a “collective force” over and above that of the individual labour. The capitalist, due to their monopoly of power within the workplace, keeps that “collective force”.

    From this it follows that the only way that the use value of a worker’s labour equalled its exchange value would be for the workers’ to own the means of production they used. Thus Proudhon’s support for co-operatives — the “collective force” would be owned by those who produced it because they owned the workplace and the product of their labour.

    The difference between Proudhon and Kropotkin was that the latter thought that associations should share their produce with others rather than sell it on a market. But the analysis of exploitation is basically the same.

    Part of the problem is that opposition to markets got confused with opposition to wage labour. This was not helped by Kropotkin attacking the “wages system” as such, so confusing payment for labour with selling your labour to a capitalist/landlord.

    Tucker, obviously, supported both “wages” and “wage labour” but he did not seem to address Proudhon’s (and Marx’s) argument that there is a difference between the use value and exchange value of labour, a difference which capitalists use to exploit labour due to their position of authority in the workplace.

    Anyways, hope that helps the discussion.

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. Iain, thanks, as always, for the thoughts. I’m busy working through Proudhon’s later work in the original, but in lieu of a real second installment, let me give a few more thoughts:

    After 1846, Proudhon’s thought on all of these questions is inescapably dialectical, progressive, and involves balancing the critique of present relations with the advocacy of presently-inequitable institutions on the basis of their “aims.” For instance, in “The Theory of Property,” Proudhon again lays out all of his objections to existing property relations, as well as to the authoritarian tendencies within the very notion of property itself, and he says, in essence, “I still believe all that stuff about property. I’ve only changed one element in my approach to the question: I now embrace property, warts and all, completely, because institutions of property aim to provide shelter for the weak against the strong, and because it possible to push institutions of property right up to that end, assuming we do away with privilege, which the state supports.” (And then he ends with a truly glorious rant against fences and “private property” signs.) The mutualist approach, from Proudhon on, is that flawed institutions with laudable aims can (indeed must) be supported to the extent that they can be universalized. If everyone participates in property, then its evils are minimized, largely erased.

    Proudhon makes a similar argument about the power of the state, which always hovers in potentia over human social relations. He suggests that we can take hold of those aspects of the state which serve our aims, and, as long as everyone can participate, we can build the basis of a free society. Most importantly, by grasping control of both the institutions of property and of the state (transformed in these equitable ways), we take control of countervailing forces which rein in the worst of one another.

    The cost principle was an attempt to address something like the collective force. I think Greene addresses this directly when he assigns “profit” to the social realm. Occupancy and use conventions would also be a limitation on the ability of privilege to reassert itself in a mutualist society.

    The “problem of the transition” was what kept Tucker up at night, since he was perhaps excessively dainty about questions of expropriation and the disposal of ill-gotten “property.” But that’s a different set of issues…

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