Joseph A. Labadie, “The Meaning of Anarchy” (1896)

The Meaning of Anarchy.

This is a good time, it seems, to enter a protest. You have heard, no doubt, the expression of being killed by kindness. Well, I am not exactly being killed by kindness, but am being put in a false light by friends and foes alike. J. T. Small of Provincetown, Mass., says I am “one of the ablest exponents” of Anarchism; Professor Raymond, of Detroit, calls me “one of the most intelligent philosophical Anarchists in the country”; Rev. E. J. Riggs, of Provincetown, asserts that I am “the high-cockalorum of philosophical Anarchism”; Dr. Maryson declares that I am “an eminent individualist Anarchist,” and so on. The simple truth is that I do not fill the requirements of any of these statements. Because I know that two and two make four, it does not follow that I am an eminent mathematician, or a high-cockalorum of mathematics, or one of the most intelligent or one of the ablest mathematicians in the country. Those who read these extravagant statements and are not personally acquainted with me expect of me more than I can give; and this puts me in an embarrassing position. If this sort of thing occurred only occasionally, it would not be so bad, but it is coming so thick and fast lately that it puts me in the position of a poor actor being petted with bouquets by his friends and cabbages and over-ripe eggs by his enemies, until he is overwhelmed and takes to his heels, and, when behind the scenes, wonders whether the demonstration was intended for approbation or the contrary.

For the benefit of those who read my simple contributions to the public journals, let me say that I never had the advantages of even the public schools; that pinching poverty drove me early to work, so that, at the age of thirteen, I was doing a man’s work on farm and in forest; that I became a printer’s devil at sixteen, and followed some branch of newspaper-making up to about three years ago; and now occupy a very modest clerkship in a public department. In politics I have been successively Democrat, Greenbacker, State Socialist, and Anarchist. Not “philosophical” Anarchist, please; just plain Anarchist. I have not been a great reader. My conclusions have been arrived at from reading Herbert Spencer, Tucker, Yarros, Andrews, and a few others, and from my own observations and experiences. The best schooling I had was in printing office and trade-union. So, you see, nothing here to make one “eminent” or “able,” or even what the preacher elegantly terms “highcockalorum.”

My last article in Liberty seems to have satisfied both Mr. Tucker and Dr. Maryson. Am I, then, to be the instrument through which the radical reform elements are to be brought together? Be that as it may. The fact, however, that there is still a difference between Mr. Tucker and Dr. Maryson as to the exact meaning of my language leads me to the conclusion that it must be ambiguous. May be I can make my position clearer.

Anarchy means no ruler, no government. That is to say, no one—minority or majority—shall have the right to make me do what I do not want to do, so long as I do not injure him, so long as I do not trespass on his just rights.

For example: We have Anarchy in religion. How so? Because no one has a right to compel me to go to church; to worship God or not worship God; to support the church or not support the church. What another has no right to do I have no right to do. Any one may go to whatever church he likes, providing the members permit him. If no church now established wants him, he may establish a church of his own, from which he may exclude any one he does not want in it. But the exclusion of a non-member from a church is not an invasion of his right. This is what I understand to be Anarchy in religion. You see I am not obliged to determine which is the “true” religion, or whether any of them be true, or whether they are all “false.” There was a time when this was not so.

Further: We are reaching close on to Anarchy in dress. True, no man has yet the right to wear skirts, and no woman has the right to wear the ordinary clothes of a man. But we are fast coming to that. Note the bloomers. Otherwise, however, we have Anarchy in dress and in fashions. One may wear whatever kind of cloth he chooses, cut in almost whatever shape he likes, dyed in whatever color that suits his fancy. There was a time when this was not so. But the existence of Anarchy in dress and fashion does not determine which is the most becoming or economical.

Further still: Between the States within the boundaries of the United States we have Anarchy in trade,—in commerce,—in so far as the mere exchange of products is concerned. In other words, we have free trade between the States. Every one who aims to extend this principle of free trade to other countries is in so far an Anarchist. He denies the right of government interference in trade. But this does not compel him to say which is the best way to trade, or whether two bushels of corn is worth three bushels of potatoes, etc. Each individual trader must determine that for himself.

And still other examples: One in the United States may come and go as he pleases, without let or hindrance, except in those few insignificant localities where prevail the notions of right and wrong only a little removed from the rudest barbarians, and where we find the “modern” tramp laws. This has not always been so. In some countries even to-day one must have a little piece of paper, on which are written words by government authority, to permit one to go from place to place. In the United States we have Anarchy in travel.

The individual workman in this and many other countries may now work for whoever will employ him and take whatever wages he can get. This was not always so. Here, then, is another phase of Anarchy.

Anarchy in so many things has proven such a boon to the human race that we who have learned and observed its effects think it would be a good thing to extend the principle to other fields of human activity, and, if the benefits increase in proportion as the principle is adopted, we see no reason why it should not in time be applied to everything.

I want Anarchy because it will beneficially affect my economic as well as social conditions. The idea of my being subject to some one else’s will in my actions in whatever walk of life I may be is irksome to me. The fact that I must ask some fellow-worm for leave to toil, and that he has the power to grant or refuse the request, is galling in the extreme. The slave who fully recognizes his condition feels his disgrace more than one who believes slavery to be his normal condition.

There is authority now in the titles to land. Government assumes, as one of its functions, to see that the ownership or use of land will be just and equitable. This is the theory. But what is the practice? I believe the ownership, the occupancy and use, of land could be better determined if the government had nothing to do with it. Hence I want Anarchy as to landholding.

Government has for hundreds of years assumed the function of making money. It has never done so to my satisfaction. I believe that, if government will permit us to make our own medium of exchange, we can do so with less expense than is imposed, and greater security than is furnished, by the money issued under government authority and monopoly.⁂

I want the principle of Anarchy pushed wherever it can be and as fast as it can be. Under Anarchy I may join with others and form a community where Communism prevails, and no one has the right to prevent me. On the other hand, I may go away by myself and live isolated from my fellows. I may live in a thickly-populated locality without invading the right of others to be either Communists or Individualists. My opinion now is—and it is well verified by facts—that personal reponsibility and private enterprise in business and industry produce the best results.

I deny that the community has rights in equity which do not belong to the individual.

There is no doubt at all in my mind that liberty has a good effect upon economics. Free competition is the soul of progress.

Joseph A. Labadie.


Joseph A. Labadie, “The Meaning of Anarchy,” Liberty 11 no. 25 (April 18, 1896): 7.

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