[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
William Gillis is putting together a left-oriented (he doesn’t like the term “left” but I can’t think of a better short way to describe it) series of market anarchist pamphlets in PDF form, reprinting various “historical articles from our tradition that highlight our relation to the revolutionary left and explain Market Anarchist theory in general terms.” There’s one in there by me – and how my piece got in there with classics by Murray Rothbard and Voltairine de Cleyre beats me, but I’m not complaining! Check out the first five.
The de Cleyre piece – co-authored with one “Rosa Slobodinsky,” who, according to Shawn Wilbur, was actually Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros, wife of Victor Yarros – may be especially controversial. It was written while de Cleyre and Slobodinsky were still in their individualist anarchist phase, and represents a defense of individualist anarchism against the anarcho-communist alternative. (De Cleyre later repudiated individualist anarchism, though without embracing the communist version either; instead she came to favour a more pluralistic vision of anarchism where different economic arrangements, whether individualistic or communistic, would coexist. I’m happy to call that view individualist anarchism even if she wasn’t. Slobodinsky’s later “apostasy” was more serious; she seems to have agreed with her husband in renouncing anarchism entirely, or so at least I infer from this write-up, which portrays her as a self-described “half apologetic pragmatist” who “admired the Soviet Union.” Ah well.)
The “especially controversial” part comes in the individualists’ willingness to use the term “capitalistic” to describe their system. As I’ve discussed before, anarcho-socialists tend to go ballistic when anarcho-capitalists claim the legacy of individualist anarchists like de Cleyre. (See for example this review – whose author incidentally appears to think that Crispin Sartwell is an anarcho-capitalist!) Yet to the charge, on the part of anarcho-communists, that individualist anarchism amounts to a form of capitalism, de Cleyre and Slobodinsky reply:
Capitalistic Anarchism? Oh, yes, if you choose to call it so. Names are indifferent to me; I am not afraid of bugaboos. Let it be so, then, capitalistic Anarchism.
I can predict the likely reactions from both sides. Anarcho-capitalists will say: “See, de Cleyre was a defender of capitalism after all! So much for those lefty anarchists who told us that the hem of the individualist anarchist tradition was too purely anti-capitalist for us benighted capitalists to touch. Now we have the individualist anarchists’ own word for it that they were happy to be called capitalist anarchists!” And anarcho-socialists will respond: “De Cleyre and Slobodinsky are clearly using the term tongue in cheek! They’re responding to a smear by insisting on talking about substance rather than labels. They’re not really endorsing capitalism the way you pseudo-anarchists do.”
Let me try to say something to moderate both reactions. What the 19th-century individualist anarchists advocated under the name of a “free market” has both similarities with and differences from what the mainstream of 20th-century anarcho-capitalists have advocated under that name. Anarcho-capitalists tend to stress the similarities and ignore the differences; anarcho-socialists tend to stress the differences and ignore the similarities. It would be a mistake on the part of anarcho-capitalists to seize on de Cleyre’s and Slobodinsky’s use of the term “capitalistic Anarchism” to elide the genuine differences that exist between the two traditions. But by the same token, it is a mistake for anarcho-socialists to seize on anarcho-capitalists’ use of the term “capitalism” as though it implied agreement with existing corporatist capitalism.
Too often anarcho-socialists have treated anarcho-capitalists’ mere willingness to use the term “capitalism” as though this terminological choice by itself committed anarcho-capitalists to all sorts of awful things incompatible with the anarchist tradition – and this passage from de Cleyre and Slobidinsky is a useful corrective to that tendency. Anarcho-capitalists likewise tend to downplay, while anarcho-socialists tend to exaggerate, the extent to which the individualist anarchists called themselves “socialists” – as though the choice of terminology were the crucial one. (Tucker, for example, tended to use the term “socialism” favourably in his early writings and pejoratively in his later ones; anarcho-capitalists rarely quote the earlier usage and anarcho-socialists rarely quote the later. I myself have pretty much given up using either “socialism” or “capitalism” to mean anything at all, for reasons I explain here.)
And along with the terminological blinkers come substantive blinkers. You’d never guess, from reading some of the anarcho-capitalists’ attempts to claim the mantle of the individualist anarchists, that most of those individualist anarchists saw the anarchist cause as inextricably bound up with “socialist” causes like worker empowerment and the abolition of the wage system – causes that many anarcho-capitalists in vulgar-libbin’ mode regard as anathema. But then you’d likewise never guess from reading anarcho-socialist critiques of anarcho-capitalism that there have nevertheless been self-described anarcho-capitalists, and prominent ones, who themselves favoured worker empowerment and the abolition of the wage system. All these details call for studying similarities and differences carefully and using the sledgehammer sparingly.
So, how significant is it that a figure like Voltairine de Cleyre was willing to call her position “capitalist”? I say: less than some anarcho-capitalists may be tempted to claim, yet more than some anarcho-socialists may care to admit.