Socialism & the "Yankee" Anarchists
We disagree, as anarchists, about what exactly it is that we’re up to. It isn’t just the question of why to embark on such a project—it’s the question of what our opposition to authority and domination means as a practice and way of life. One of the things we’ve enjoyed doing since anarchism became a self-conscious philosophy and (if I may) movement with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous “I am an anarchist” is reading one another out of the movement. And not only our own movement, but the broader socialist one. Just in putting it that way, I’ve already fallen into suggesting that anarchism is inseparable from socialism in some way practical or theoretical—students of the question may find my paper, “Transcending Leftist Politics: Situating Egoism within the Anarchist Project,” to be of some interest. George Woodcock, the eminent historian of anarchism, frames the question thusly:
Everything is involved in the question: Having decided that government is undesirable, can we—and how can we?—make the further step and show that it is unnecessary as well, and that there are alternative means of human organization that will enable us to live without it?
Anarchists submit to our successors, somewhere in the future: change our formula, remix it, reshape it, even abolish it if you will—if doing so serves the concrete needs of free people within contexts of a future we, the dead, cannot foreknow. You owe us nothing; you owe yourselves and your present moment everything. The truest way to honor the anarchists of the past is to create your freedom in your now. Yet we return to the question of our parentage, to what we owe socialism and what it means today, after a twentieth century during which socialism betrayed the spirit of Proudhon, Warren, Tucker—even, perhaps, of Marx (so much depends on the Marxists with whom one talks). The writings of Henry Meulen highlight this complicated relationship with the term socialism, the apparently confusing tendency among individualist anarchists to both embrace and denounce it. Meulen writes, “It must emphatically be denied that Socialism offers a safe way to industrial salvation. On the contrary, there is no single instalment of nationalisation which does not bring greater evils in its train than those it seeks to remedy.” Like others in the individualist anarchist tradition, Meulen believed that most socialists, though correctly opposing capitalism and identifying the social ill of exploitation, had chosen the very worst way to address the problem. In their embrace of nationalization as a remedy, they showed “the tendency to set up means into an end.” They wanted to use dominative authority and hierarchy to treat problems caused by just these social constructs
Thanks for reading The Peaceful Revolutionist! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Thus do we find in his work the characteristically equivocal use of the terms “socialist” and “socialism”—he embraces the decentralist socialism of Benjamin Tucker wholeheartedly, even as he writes for avowedly anti-socialist organs. We as anarchists in the individualist vein have always been confused about this question of affiliation and parentage, and it serves us well to acknowledge that fact. It serves us because we don’t need to accept a false choice that pits community and solidarity on the one hand against freedom and individualism on the other, as if it could ever be possible for beings such as we are to separate these. It is a question that we have it in our power to test and answer: who would care more about the stewardship of your tax dollars, your friends and neighbors, or a tiny elite a faraway capital? Only consider how many dollars, how much of our labor and wealth, has been poured into the war industry, for that’s all it is.
Individualist anarchists were cleverer and more observant than other opponents of capitalism, the anti-market, pro-nationalization aspect of the socialist movement. They wouldn’t permit the authoritarians and exploiters to state, without being challenged, that the only safe and secure way for human civilization to advance was to empower a small few sitting atop dizzying hierarchies. They wouldn’t permit such bullies to damn competition, even as they used every coercive legal tool to strangle it. Laurance Labadie, for example, defined competition as “free and equal access to the means of production, to the raw materials, and to an unrestricted market.” Here, importantly, access and natural opportunity are horizontally scaled and distributed—not cordoned off for the benefit of a small ruling class, which is the modus operandi of both capitalism and communism.
Decades before the younger Labadie wrote, we find the American libertarian movement worrying about the tension between socialism as a libertarian, federalist, decentralist notion and socialism as a reimagining of the pyramidal social structures that have defined our species since we were forced to settle down and toil, rather than allowing Mother Earth to provide for us in a way more consistent with what we are. “It is not pleasant to see Dr. Marx and other leaders of this great and growing fraternity lean so strongly towards compulsory politics,” declared The Word in May 1872. “Let us be governed by the laws of nature until we can make better.” Angela and Ezra Heywood wrote a century and a half ago more clearly than our “explainers” and “public intellectuals” can today. We have allowed our arbitrary categories to lord over us. The Heywoods understood as much in the first issue of The Word, as James J. Martin, Paul Avrich, and other historians of anarchism have also recalled:
If the International would succeed it must be true to its bottom idea—voluntary association in behalf of our common humanity. If they would strike a telling blow they should—1st, resist passively military drafts and conscriptions in all countries: 2, declare for the immediate and unconditional repudiation of all war debts.
The libertarian and socialist elements were inextricable for the Heywoods. The notion of a socialism that was not vehemently anti-statist and decentralist was incoherent to them. We must follow them in doing our best to avoid pigeonholing radicals, misunderstanding them and the social contexts in which their ideas and activist endeavors emerged. As labor movement historian Timothy Messer-Kruse argues, scholarship has tended to slight the American members of the First International, treating them, as did Marx himself, as individualistic members of the bourgeoisie, at best sentimental, at worst opportunistic.1 Messer-Kruse sees this treatment of the American radicals of the period as the concomitant of “categories of analysis derived from European history.” These categories tend toward “a simple dichotomy of class,” a blunt model incapable of understanding or explaining, for example, “the promarket American labor leader.”2 Messer-Kruse has in mind a number of under-appreciated American anarchists with whom many of my brilliant and well-read readers are quite familiar; he mentions by name three of the giants of nineteenth century radicalism in America, three of my personal heroes, Josiah Warren, Ezra Heywood, and Benjamin Tucker.3 Critical and clear-eyed reappraisals like Messer-Kruse’s are important in helping us rediscover still largely untapped radical traditions. We need critical distance to avoid the pitfalls associated with placing radical figures into categories that don’t fit their ideas and ideological milieus, to avoid, that is, the kinds of decontextualization that characterizes too many histories of nineteenth century American radicals. More narrowly, perhaps, they shed light on intra-radical conflicts that persist to this day. We find, in the earliest days of the International, American libertarians like Heywood damning it with faint praise, their hope tempered by a prescient awareness of the dangers latent in Marx’s communism. And so do we likewise find Marx deriding and dismissing its American members as “Yankees,” unworthy perhaps to participate in the workers’ revolution.
Here, the Buddhist concept of tathātā can aid us in going beyond or getting beneath the limits of our terminologies and ideologies. While it is necessarily and by its nature an indescribable idea, we may posit tathātā as “the true essence of all things,” the pure, ultimate nature of reality “empty of all relative predicates.”4 Tathātā is, perhaps, defined in contrast to samsara; if the former denotes that which is always true—stably and unendingly true, the pure nature of things—then samsara returns us to the contextual and indexical nature of all things in our world. This orientation pushes us into deeper insights that are not served by existing language. Anarchists should insist on this pushing deeper, this rejecting of the linguistic constructs that lead to socially oppressive and exploitative ones. We have no choice, if we take our ideas seriously.
Timothy Messer-Kruse, The Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 (University of North Carolina Press 1998), pp. 3-4.
Ibid at 3.
Ibid at 4.
Cite to Yong Choon Kim, Oriental Thought: An Introduction to the Philosophical and Religious Thought of Asia (Rowman & Littlefield 1973), page 35.