Individualist anarchism


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Austrian School
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Individualist anarchism


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Individualist anarchism is a philosophical tradition, appearing primarily in the United States, that emphasises the autonomy of the individual, most noteably in regard to its advocacy of private property rather than collective property. Individualism contrasts with collectivism. While individualist anarchism's roots includes Europeans such as Max Stirner (who is also connected to the existentialist philosophy), the individualist anarchist tradition draws heavily on American independant thinkers, including Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Josiah Warren, Ezra Heywood, and Henry David Thoreau. Noteworthy anarchist writer and poet John Henry Mackay is also considered an individualist anarchist. Contemporary people who claim the the individualist anarchist title include Robert Anton Wilson, Joe Peacott, and Wendy McElroy.



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Josiah Warren is widely regarded as the first individualist anarchist

Both individualist and collectivist anarchism arose from the tradition of mutualism, in which the importance of ensuring worker control of their own product was considered essential to human liberty, and thus a foundation of the economic aspects of anarchism. The two traditions diverged, however, in the methods of how to ensure worker control and autonomy. While collectivist anarchists hold that property should be in the control of the society at large in various forms of worker collectives, the individualists argued for a right of private property and a right to trade that property in a "free market." The individualists espoused a labor theory of value that holds that the value of a commodity is equal to the amount of labor required to produce or acquire it. From the acceptance of this tenet, they argued that it was therefore unjust for laboring individuals to be paid anything other than an amount equivalent to what the same amount of labor of someone else produced. Therefore, equal amounts of labor would receive equal pay; those that did not labor would not be paid. This would obviate the possibility of an employer profiting from the labor of an employee, which they opposed as being exploitative, since the employee would receive the "full produce" (Tucker's words) of his labor. They believed an employer should not be paid if he does not labor. This led to their position that private ownership land should be supported only if the possessor of that land is using it, otherwise, the possessor would be able to charge rent to others without laboring to produce anything. Most of the characteristics of individualist economics, such as tendency to reject interest, rent, and profit as forms of usury, and the advocation of possession as the only legitimate form of private property, arose from this concern for labor. However, the individualist anarchists opposed employing coercion to end such practices, preferring instead to compete through alternative business models that adhered to their labor theory of value. The split between the collectivists and the individualists was characterised by various degrees of antagonism and harmony between the two groups, with individualists like Tucker on the one hand translating and reprinting the works of collectivists like Mikhail Bakunin, while on the other hand rejecting the economic aspects of their politics as incompatible with anarchist ideals.

The question of property

Individualist anarchists do not all agree in regard to private property. Max Stirner, while rejecting Proudhon's ideas about property as a collective good, also rejected all kinds of liberalism and held that the "right" to personal property was an illusion, or "ghost". He held that there were neither natural principles, nor moral obligations attached to property, as elaborated in his early work of the individualist tradition, The Ego and Its Own. Stirner takes an existentialist viewpoint of the social world: we are all subject to ideologies which try to occupy and control our minds so that we become followers of certain ideas. He makes no difference between socialism, liberalism or humanism in this regard (communism was not yet invented but would have been treated the same way). He claims the effect of such ideologies is that those who further them confuse them for their own ideas and they become "ghosts" or "wheels in the head", much different from the true interest of the individual. In this way, the idea of obligations attached to property is nothing more than yet another idea external to the individuals interests.

Other individualist anarchists, such as Lysander Spooner, support a right to individual ownership of property. He claimed that, "any article of wealth which a man creates or produces by the exercise of any portion of his wealth producing faculties is...clearly his rightful property." And, in 'Natural Law, he asserted that, "each man...shall make reparation for any injury he may have done to the person or property of another." Spooner also ran a successful business for a short time called The American Letter Mail Company, challenging the government's monopoly and privatizing mail delivery illustrating his belief that "each man should be his own employer, or work directly for himself..." as well as his support of private ownership of capital (see Poverty). Moreover, he stated a belief in "free competition" [1] ( In No Treason [2] (, Spooner upholds the right of the individual to enter into and leave any agreement as they see fit, including their relationship with the state.

Benjamin Tucker considered himself a socialist, while rejecting the notion of collective ownership of resources. He argued that the essential aspect of socialism was that, "labor should be put in possession of its own." [3] ( As such Tucker supported a right of individual to own all of the produce of their labor, but maintained that it is exploitative for an employer to retain part of produce as profit. Whereas Stirner calls a right to private property a "ghost," Tucker calls a collective that would own property a "non-entity." In Liberty, he says: "That there is an entity known as the community which is the rightful owner of all land, Anarchists deny. I . . . maintain that ‘the community’ is a non-entity, that it has no existence, and is simply a combination of individuals having no prerogatives beyond those of the individuals themselves.” Tucker believed in individual private ownership of land, but only as much as what one could put into use, opposing titles to unused land and income generated from rent. Tucker held that a right of private property along the mutualist model was essential to liberty: "Anarchism is a word without meaning, unless it includes the liberty of the individual to control his product or whatever his product has brought him through exchange in a free market—that is, private property. Whoever denies private property is of necessity an Archist" (The New Freewoman, November 15th, 1913). Tucker also opposed wage labor except for those cases in which all labor was paid equally.

While not all individualist anarchists agree that individuals have should have a right to private property, they all agree that practice of an employer profiting from the labor of an employee is unjustifiable. While individualists such as Tucker and Spooner asserted that it is the individual that should retain the rights to the entire produce of his labor, others like Stirner make this assertion in regard to the collective. For the most part, individualist anarchists firmly stated that they would not forcibly intervene in a "capitalist" profit-making employer/employee relationship, prefering instead to set up alternate forms of business known as "mutualism." However, Tucker eventually argued that some form of revolution or political force would be required to break up the vast concentrations of wealth created by state monopolies before economic forces would be able to stem the rise of further monopolies.

The charging of interest

Historically, there was disagreement amongst individualist anarchists concerning the charging of interest for lending capital. While all agreed that interest should be kept as low as possible, they varied in arguing whether it should be strictly capped at cost or if it could legitimately go slightly above cost. However, they universally agreed in opposing any government-backed monopoly on banking and currency, which they believed kept interest rates artifically high and gave banks an opportunity to unjustly reap profit. They believed that any individual or group of individuals should be allowed to start their own bank and print their own currency without having to obtain permission from government. Some proposed banks based on the mutualist model. They believed that if the banking monopoly were open to competition from mutualist banks that interest rates would be reduced to their "natural" rate --a rate which Benajamin Tucker believed would not include profit. Profiting from charging interest, charging beyond cost, was regarded as a form of usury by Tucker. As with all anarchists, individualist anarchists opposed all limitations on interest rates imposed by government. Lysander Spooner says, in Poverty: "All legislative restraints upon the rate of interest, are, therefore, nothing less than arbitrary and tyrannical restraints upon a man's natural capacity amid natural right to hire capital, upon which to bestow his labor."

Individualism and Anarcho-capitalism

Eventually, after the first generation of individualists had passed away, another philosophy arose to claim the influence of individualist anarchism. Though anarcho-capitalism grew from the traditions of anti-state liberalism, rather than those of anarchism, it became influenced by several of the works of individualists. The anarcho-capitalists disagreed with the previous traditions of anarchism, arguing that worker control of their entire product was not essential to human liberty. While the individualists had seen the protection of private property as a means to ensure worker control of their product, anarcho-capitalists instead argued for strict private property enforcement as a means to liberty in itself. Anarcho-capitalists regard an employee being paid less than his "full produce," not as unjust, but a matter of contractual agreement between parties. Anarcho-capitalists disagree with the early individualists position that the value of a thing is equal to the labor required to produce it; in contrast they may argue that the value of a thing is how much labor one is willing to exert to purchase it, or alternatively, that value is entirely subjective. Despite this disagreement over fundamentals, many of the conclusions of anarcho-capitalists and individualists were similar, due to the fact that both groups agreed that property distribution and control should ultimately fall to the level of the individual rather than to that of the society. As such, both anarcho-capitalists and individualists advocated private ownership of property, though the private ownership advocated by individualists was much more narrow in its claims due to its origin in mutualism. Further, both philosophies argued for a free market to determine the distribution of goods, though the individualists tended to reject institutions such as interest, rent, and profit as being anti-thetical to a free market relations since they allowed the generation of capital without labor, whereas the anarcho-capitalists embraced such institutions as legitimate and even praiseworthy. In modern times there is much controvesy over the legitimacy of various claims to the tradition of individualism. Collectivists argue that individualism is another side of the anarchist coin which both traditions share, since individualists argued so passionately for worker autonomy and control, and that anarcho-capitalist interpretations of the individualist tradition are misleading at best. They also point to some evidence, such as Tucker's repeated referances to himself as a socialist, and his stated rejection of capitalism, and his belief that capitalism interfered with the free-market, as compelling reasons to reject anarcho-capitalist claims to the individualist tradition. Anarcho-capitalists, on the other hand, argue that worker control of their product is not an essential aspect of the individualist tradition, and that individualist rejection of both collective property and expropriation are evidence that anarcho-capitalist claims to the individualist tradition are legitimate. There is disagreement amounts contemporary individualists as to the place of anarcho-capitalism in relation to their tradition. One individualist anarchist who opposes capitalism, Joe Peacott, nonetheless regards anarcho-capitalists to be individualist anarchists [4] ( On the other hand, many anarcho-capitalists place themselves within the tradition of individualism.

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