Often claimed by modern socialist anarchists, Benjamin Tucker fits better in the libertarian tradition.
There existed, for a time, an alignment between labor reform and socialism on the one hand and individualism and free-market libertarianism on the other. Benjamin Tucker famously called socialists and anarchists “armies that overlap.” Today, however, the idea that anti-statism and socialism are somehow related is likely to strike most readers as deeply confused, for government ownership and management seem to be at the heart of socialism. We have examined Tucker’s voluntary or libertarian socialism, which explains this idea of “armies that overlap”; the unique case of Tucker is also of interest in our consideration of the relationship between anarchism and libertarianism as historical phenomena and movements. The question naturally arises: were Tucker alive today, would we find him at libertarian conferences or anarchist book fairs?1 While we will never know for sure, Tucker’s words offer clues, many of them quite clear, given his deliberate style of communication. As we shall see, once we properly account for the nuances of Tucker’s individualist anarchism, many of the putative distinctions between it and contemporary “capitalist” libertarianism—the distinctions that render it intolerable to today’s social anarchists—either break down completely or else don’t seem capable of bearing the weight anarchists would place upon them.
Contemporary social anarchists have been willing to claim Tucker as one of their own insofar as he was “squarely in the libertarian socialist tradition,” opposed to both the state and capitalism. The authors of the Anarchist FAQ commendably took the time to understand Tucker’s thought and his view of markets: “Once capitalism was abolished, the market would be able to reach its full promise and become a means of enriching all rather than the few.” The Anarchist FAQ states, “the fundamental socialist objection to capitalism is not that it involves markets or ‘private property’ but that it results in exploitation. Most socialists oppose private property and markets because they result in exploitation and have other negative consequences rather than an opposition to them as such.” This matter-of-fact claim—that private property and free markets result in exploitation—is extremely tendentious (especially insofar as we’ve never had anything like the system of private property and free markets that either the individualist anarchists or today’s libertarians espouse); as it happens, so is Tucker’s inverse claim that free competition would necessarily destroy the supposedly exploitative economic phenomena of which he disapproved. All parties seem to be overselling their predictions about the kind of world and social relationships a free market system would produce, the predictions always seeming to align with the predictor’s normative goals and preferences.