Most standard histories of the labor movement in the United States discuss Samuel L. Gompers and the founding of the AFL. They portray this branch of the labor movement as moderate and well suited to American values, while the few studies that portray dissident traditions in American labor history tend to focus on small Marxist or utopian groups. Few are today aware that for much of the 1800s, radical labor was not wedded to statism but instead supported what would be today considered a radical libertarian perspective. The foremost exponent of this distinctly American "philosophical" anarchism was Benjamin R. Tucker, editor of the periodical "Liberty" from 1881 to 1908.
Tucker began his radical career by following Victoria Woodhull, the radical feminist candidate for President in the 1870s. Later, however, he drew on a radical American tradition of voluntary cooperation and free (from state control) money to promote a labor agenda. Creatively mixing the ideas of P.J. Proudhon, Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews and later the German existentialist philosopher Max Stirner, Tucker for nearly 30 years provided a consistent voice for liberty and against oppression. He opposed the Spanish American War (imperialism), the rise of the trusts, predecessors to today's corporations, and supported such causes as ending censorhip and birth control. Indeed, he once published the then banned Walt Whitman classic, Leaves of Grass, and dared the Post Office to prosecute him. And all the while, his journal Liberty remained one of the most powerful and intellectually stimulating journals of the era.
Tucker was often asked to write a book describing his political thought, but his commitments never gave him the time he felt the project deserved. Instead of a Book was his offering in lieu of an actual treatise. It is a collection of columns and debates from Liberty, as well as a few speeches Tucker delivered in various labor settings. Modern libertarians tend to dismiss Tucker's economics, but they are foolish to do so. Tucker's keenest insight is that socialists are correct: workers do not receive the full value of their labor, but Tucker recognized what they did not, namely that the full value of one's labor is a property right claim. He recognized, long before the criticisms leveled by von Mises and others, that socialism involved an inherent contradiction and that abolishing private property and communalizing the means of production would lead to tyranny. He was, of course, correct and the history of the 20th century has vindicated his position. But Tucker was no apologist for state capitalism either. He correctly noted that state granted monopolies assist big business by creating profits where none would otherwise exists. He was therefore, unlike many modern libertarians, intensely concerned with giving workers their due and the bulk of this book focuses on this point.
Late in life, Tucker began to question his commitment to anarchism, at least in the short term. By the time of WWI he felt corporations were so powerful that the state may be necessary to offset their gains. Since his death in 1939, the situation has turned out even worse than the then pessimistic Tucker could have imagined. Today the state itself is so powerful that one could almost argue we need large corporations to protect ourselves from the predation of the government. And indeed, an Ebay or even Microsoft does more to empower people than any number of government "health care" initiatives and other bread and circus displays. But to take such a line of argument, though tempting, is also foolish. Corporations themselves exist only through government grants, and they are easily controlled to benefit the state. It seems then unlikely that we will ever recover from the statist direction Gompers took the labor movement in the late 19th century.
That does not mean we should not still read Tucker. Instead of a Book is as engaging as it was a century ago. And it reminds us of the potential future we might have had. One of the more amusing exchanges in the book involves a letter from the English anarchist Woodsworth Donisthrope, who writes a satirical letter making fun of all the petty complaints that lead people to beg for state intervention. Tucker dutifully printed the letter, between tears from laughter, but then noted, "As a choice of blessings, liberty is the greater; as a choice of evils, liberty is the smaller. Then liberty always, say the anarchists." A more concise and clear sighted vindication of the anarchist position will not be found elsewhere. Read it, and see what America could have been.