A sharp look, from a radical and libertarian socialist perspective, at the limitations of conservative trade-unionism and business union reformism. The essay first appeared as a three-part serialized review of George Gunton’s book Wealth and Progress, written for the Boston radical newspaper Liberty, . This edition collects the serialized articles together in print for the first time.
“FOR A SHORT TIME IT REALLY SEEMED AS IF THE DAY OF conservative ‘labor reform,’ trades-unionism, strikes, and boycotts, was over, and the emptiness of the talk about ‘fair wage,’ ‘harmony between capital and labor,’ arbitration, profit-sharing, and ‘the American way of adjusting difficulties’ demonstrated beyond a doubt. Today the fact which most impresses every student of the labor movement is that nearly all the able and influential leaders and tribunes of organized labor are, if not professedly Anarchistic or Socialistic, at least very pronounced in their tendencies and inclinations to either one or the other of these schools of radical and revolutionary reform … . Little is now heard about ‘fair wages,’ but the propositions that labor is entitled to its full natural reward, that usury must be abolished, and that capital must be dethroned, are everywhere being discussed.”
“SOCIALISTS KNOW THAT THE PRESENT CONFLICT BETWEEN capital and capital and capital and labor, this three-cornered fight, is the inevitable and direct effect of the inherent and fundamental vice of usury, which dooms the capitalistic system to an early
extinction. Because of this knowledge they pronounce all ‘moderate’ measures futile and ridiculous, and regard eight-hours and kindred remedies as about as efficacious as fasting and prayer. Socialists arrive at the conclusion that usury and equity, capitalism and social order, reward of capital and justice to labor, are mutually exclusive. Consequently they do not flatter, delude, or ‘pacify’ the laborer; neither do they waste any efforts on the humanization of capitalists. They declare that the capitalistic order must be wiped out. And all who desire progress without poverty must prepare to bury the whole system of usury forever. And labor, to secure equity, needs freedom, full freedom, and nothing but freedom… .”
Victor S. Yarros (1865–1956) was a Russian-American anarchist, one of the most prolific writers and speakers of the American individualist anarchist milieu. Yarros was originally attracted to communist anarchism but later became an individualist, stressing Spencer’s evolutionary theory and ‘law of equal liberty.’ Yarros was a close friend and co-worker of Benjamin Tucker’s, an editor and popularizer of the works
of Lysander Spooner, and sometime co-editor and frequent contributor to the individualist anarchist newspaper Liberty.
… Freedom Versus Tyranny
The issue, I repeat, is not between socialism and capitalism, in any meaningful sense of the words. In the broadest sense, it is between freedom and tyranny. As regards capital, it is between whether men shall be able to keep the fruits of their labor and dispose of accumulations of it as they think best, or have it confiscated and used for politically determined ends. It is between the free market and the hampered market. It is between free enterprise and state-controlled activity under the direction of a vast bureaucracy. It is between dispersed wealth under individual control and concentrated wealth used to augment the power of the state. It is between the right to private property and the might of centralized government thrusting for total power. There are other dimensions, moral and social, to the contest, but the above are the major economic ones. Capitalism, as currently used, tends to act as a red herring to draw us off the scent and draw attention to largely extraneous issues. …
… Beyond Semantics
So, in short, I’m not sure that using “socialism” as the label for a particular sort of market anarchist project, or of “capitalism” for what that project opposes, has to be seen as just an exercise in semantic game-playing.
1. Emancipatory intent. For instance: labeling a particular sort of market anarchist project “socialist” clearly identifies its emancipatory intent: it links that project with the opposition to bossism and deprivation that provide the real moral and emotional force of socialist appeals of all sorts.
2. Warranted opposition to “capitalism.” Thus, identifying one’s project as “socialist” is a way of making clear one’s opposition to “capitalism”—as that term is understood by an enormous range of ordinary people around the world. The “socialist” label signals to them that a market anarchist project like Kevin’s is on their side and that it is opposed to those entities they identify as their oppressors.
3. Forcing the state-socialist to distinguish between her attachment to ends and her attachment to means. A final rationale: suppose a market anarchist like Kevin points out to the state-socialist—by sincerely owning the “socialist” label—that she or he shares the state-socialist’s ends, while disagreeing radically with the state-socialist’s judgments about appropriate means to those ends. This simultaneously sincere and rhetorically effective move allows the market anarchist to challenge the state-socialist to confront the reality that there is an inconsistency between the state-socialist’s emancipatory goals and the authoritarian means she or he professes to prefer. It sets the stage for the market anarchist to highlight the fact that purported statist responses to bossism create more, and more powerful, bosses, that the state is much better at causing deprivation than curing it.
Thus, the market anarchist’s use of “socialism” creates an occasion for the state-socialist to ask her- or himself, perhaps for the first time, “Am I really more attached to the means or to the end?” I realize that what I intend as a rhetorical question may not—if the state-socialist cares more about power than principle—elicit the intended answer. But it seems to me that, for many state-socialists, the recognition that the left-wing market anarchist sought socialist goals by non-statist means provides the state-socialist with good reason to rethink her attachment to the state, to conclude that it was pragmatic and unnecessary, and that her genuinely principled attachment was to the cause of human emancipation.
This means there’s a meaningful opportunity for education—to highlight the existence of a credible tradition advancing a different meaning of “socialism.” …
… State socialism has attempted to realize socialism through the power of the state. Not surprisingly, given everything we know about states, state socialism has proven in most respects to be a disaster. Coupled with the economic inefficiencies associated with central planning, the secret police, the barbed wire fences, and the suppression of dissent are all elements of state socialism’s disastrous record.
If you want to define socialism as state socialism, be my guest. Many people do so. But the history of the term makes clear that many people have not meant state control or society-wide ownership of the means of production when they have talked about socialism.
… History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine. One such theory is that society evolves because people’s relationship with nature tends to change more radically and rapidly than their relationships with each other. Technology outpaces law and custom. From this mismatch, upheavals ensue. Society either moves up to a new stage with more scope for the new technology, or the technology is crushed to fit the confines of the old society. As the technology falls back, so does the society, perhaps to an earlier configuration. In the main stream of history, however, it has moved forward through a succession of stages, each of which is a stable configuration between the technology people have to work with, and their characteristic ways of working together. But this stability contains the seeds of new instabilities. Proponents of this theory argue that the succession of booms and slumps, wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions, which began in August 1914 and which shows no prospect of an end, indicates that we live in just such an age of upheaval. …
… Today socialism means only State, not social, control. But for many people here and abroad, capitalism means not laissez faire, but rather corporatism, or what the great libertarian Albert Jay Nock called the “Merchant-state.” It behooves us to make sure our labels communicate clearly. Otherwise we will never bring the mass of people to the cause of liberty.
… Socialism, as such, implies neither liberty nor authority. The word itself implies nothing more than harmonious relationship. In fact, it is so broad a term that it is difficult of definition. I certainly lay claim to no special authority or competence in the matter. I simply maintain that the word Socialism having been applied for years, by common usage and consent, as a generic term to various schools of thought and opinion, those who try to define it are bound to seek the common element of all these schools and make it stand for that, and have no business to make it represent the specific nature of any one of them. …