Wendy McElroy on the Schisms Between Individualist and Left Anarchism (2000)

Anarchy142When researching the history of american right-libertarianism, its almost unavoidable to read the writings of Wendy McElroy and her associates such as Carl Watner. Their work on the history of Individualist Anarchism and it’s relationship with left-anarchism, I would argue, are absolutely vital to an understanding of how modern libertarianism came to be. Though other events arguably had bigger influences (such as the eventual libertarian acceptance of Ayn Rand despite decades of conflict or the libertarian alliance with right-wing populists in the early 1990s) it is hard to deny that the divide between individualist and left anarchism helped shape libertarianism.

Though an individualist anarchist herself (making some of her conclusions suspect), her book The Debates of Liberty is a good historical examination of individual anarchism.  Her article The Schism between Individualist and Communist Anarchism in the Nineteenth Century is a must read too. McElroy’s documentation of the conflict between Chicago Left-Anarchists and Benjamin Tucker’s Individualism is pretty comprehensive. She argues that anarchist responses to Haymarket Affair solidified the difference between left and right anarchism. The controversy surrounding the Haymarket Affair was the beginning of the end of the word “libertarianism” being associated with left-wing movements and a gradual march in a rightward direction.

Some thoughts of mine after reading the article:

  • Individualist anarchists were divided over the use of violence, while left anarchists generally accepted it.

violnce anarchism

The tension over strategy resulted in Tucker exposing fellow anarchists who he saw as violent.


  • Tucker, through his publication Liberty, vigorously defended those on trial for the Haymarket bombing. Tucker believed them to be innocent.


  • Individualist anarchists still saw a place for labor organizing and still had sympathy for a labor theory of value. In fact, he was a proponent of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mutualism, who believed that property was theft.

“With such profound theoretical differences between the traditions of individualist and communist anarchism, it was inevitable that a bitter schism would eventually separate them. Nevertheless, Tucker’s strong links to European anarchist periodicals and personalities, as well as his championing of Proudhonian economics, had forged a bond that resisted severing. For instance, on July 16, 1881, when the moribund International Working People’s Association revived in London, Tucker had been ecstatic. In an article entitled ‘Vive l’Association Internationale,’ Tucker enthused, ‘To this momentous event, which marks an epoch in the progress of the great labor movement . . . Liberty, in the present issue, devotes a large portion of her space.'”

So what conclusions can be drawn out of this? Clearly 19th century individualist anarchism had significant differences from 20th century anarcho-capitalism. Clearly, there was significant evolution from the time of Tucker to the time of the official Libertarian Party. I personally would argue that modern american right-libertarian is the product of several different lineages, not just 19th century anti-statism. Despite this, McElroy seems to be correct in that Tucker’s split with the rest of the anarchist community made the space from which later free-market theories of anarchism would later arise. So in this way, the Haymarket Affair is even more poetic than previously believed. It simultaneously represents the execution of left anarchists but also the beginning of the end of left-anarchism being a player in US politics. It would eventually be replaced by free-market anti-statism.


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