Voltairine de Cleyre, Anarcho-Capitalist?

[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.)

Voltairine de Cleyre 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.

Rachelle Yarros AKA Rosa SlobodinskyToo 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.

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0 Responses to Voltairine de Cleyre, Anarcho-Capitalist?

  1. Rich Paul November 12, 2007 at 7:49 pm #

    This has nothing to do with the Misesean definition of “socialism”. You don’t have to accept the Misesean definition of “socialism” in order to make use of Mises fundamental economic insights.

    Q: If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?

    A: Four. Doesn’t matter what you call it, a leg is a leg and a tail is a tail.

    I would suggest using another word. If your system is not based on Marx’s ignorance and brutality, the unfettered slavery of all to all, and the complete destruction of the individual, you might not want to call it by the name of a system which is.

  2. Rich Paul November 12, 2007 at 7:56 pm #

    Yet Rothbard’s contributions to individualist anarchist theory are perfectly legitimate ideas about the nature of a stateless society, and they have astonishingly “anti-capitalist” (anti-”statist monopoly of capital”) implications.

    There is nothing in the capitalist philosophy which requires a monopoly of anything by anybody, except that each individual has an inalienable “monopoly” on the use of his own body and people have an alienable “monopoly” on the use of their other property. The right to property follows from the right to self ownership … if you cannot claim the fruits of your labor, you are not free.

    There are only two requirements to implement a capitalist system:

    Private Property
    Free Trade

    As for the labor theory of value, it is simply wrong. If I am a bad craftsmen, I can take perfectly good flour, and shortening, and apples, and sugar, and make a completely inedible pie. But the value of the ingredients have been “increased” by one hour of labor. This is no consolation to anybody who actually has to eat my worthless pie.

  3. Rich Paul November 12, 2007 at 8:18 pm #

    1) That the current opportunities for “trade” are coercive or framed within coercive conditions. So we need to abolish those coercive conditions (ie equalize wealth so that everyone can start over).

    The current distribution of wealth in America, and probably even more so in Europe, is certainly more related to political power than to productive ability. I personally don’t care, so long as the government crippled market which allowed these conditions to develop is put out of it’s misery, so that the incompetents will lose their money and the competent will make money. Fix the market, and wealth will redistribute itself.

    -”I’m really curious about this. Socialism is about taking power from individuals and giving it to central planners, who then use force, instead of persuasion and reward, to get the individual to follow their edicts.”

    I may throw such accusations at my friends when I’m feeling like being a dick, but NO ANARCHIST ACTUALLY SUBSCRIBES TO THAT. If they call themselves “socialist” they mean it in the sense that being social and working together with others is a good thing, and that we should look out for the common welfare.

    Working together with others is a fine thing. Socialism, however, implies being forced by violence or the threat of violence to work together with your slave-masters. These are rather different things.

    If you’re a CEO and you “have” a dozen factories under Corporate State Capitalism, they’d turn the factories over to the workers and on-the-floor administrators who ran them. If you tried to continue ordering about the workers or imposing your will on the factories, there’d probably be some collective force applied to evict you and your cops.

    If you’re a boss of a small business then they’d try to talk to you and work out some new form of more equal and fair workplace democracy. People from the rest of the community would mediate.

    But what happens if, under the ensuing “anarchy”, if somebody is more successful than somebody else. It may well be that Joe is extremely good at what he does, and that he is able to offer more money to his employees than they are able to make on their own. This, of course, only holds if he is actually able to make his own decisions. If he is forced to let his employees decide how they will use his property to make money, then their incomes will be limited to what they are able to produce. If that is what they want, of course, there is nothing to stop them from going into business themselves. But many people are not interested in doing the work, and taking the risks, associated with entrepreneurship.

    If you add up all the union dues collected by General Motors employees, and image that each month, rather than spending the money on leg breakers or sending it to the Mafia or their spiritual brothers in government, they had spent the money on General Motors stock, and that they had reinvested the dividends from that stock in buying more stock, they would own General Motors several times over. Why did they not do this? Because they were incapable of running General Motors, and either

    (a) they knew they were incapable

    (b) they didn’t know it was possible to buy the company, which would rather prove my belief that they were incapable of running it.

    Their ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. If you depend for your survival on plundering the productive, there will eventually remain nobody who is productive to plunder.

  4. Brad Spangler November 12, 2007 at 9:28 pm #


    Regarding “the capitalist philosophy”. There is no singular “the” applicable in such matters when the word “capitalism” has multiple operative definitions. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, ask a few questions before presuming to lecture me on stuff I was explaining to people over a decade ago.

  5. william November 12, 2007 at 11:46 pm #

    “Socialism, however, implies being forced by violence or the threat of violence to work together with your slave-masters.”

    While it may personally imply that TO YOU, it actually means no such thing. There are still old definitions where it just means WORKING TOGETHER WITHOUT COERCION.

    Why the hell do you get the right to impose your definition on the different one they’re using?

    “Fix the market, and wealth will redistribute itself.”

    The starving need food today. Those who have been fucked over badly by the state/capitalism need recompense.

    “If you depend for your survival on plundering the productive, there will eventually remain nobody who is productive to plunder.”

    You presume that even a minority of people today who have wealth and would get that wealth stolen, have it because they are more productive. This is just ridiculously laughable. The smartest people I’ve ever known were well below poverty line, they became smart because they had to be in order to stay alive. But they never, ever, ever made it out of poverty, the costs were just too high. My time with the rich or middle-class has been infuriating because they’re dumb as sheep.

    “…they had spent the money on General Motors stock, and that they had reinvested the dividends from that stock in buying more stock, they would own General Motors several times over. Why did they not do this?”

    Because they were too busy trying to get by?

    “Their ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

    Actually there is. Of a sort. Read up on Gift Economies.

    “It may well be that Joe is extremely good at what he does, and that he is able to offer more money to his employees than they are able to make on their own. This, of course, only holds if he is actually able to make his own decisions.”

    So then they’d let him make those alone. Duh. Free association.

    “If he is forced to let his employees decide how they will use his property to make money, then their incomes will be limited to what they are able to produce.”

    Why would they force him to accept their decisions? Rather they’d just VOLUNTARILY leave certain tasks to those best suited to deal with them. But they’d be pretty pissed if he kept such skill as an absolute secret to himself. Because he’d be monopolizing and conspiring against them to keep his power.

    “But many people are not interested in doing the work, and taking the risks, associated with entrepreneurship.”

    Many people are UNABLE to take the risks. And few entrepreneurs are willing to do the work that many if not most of the workingclass and those in poverty take upon themselves just to survive.

    To clarify for you this ridiculous fear. No Anarcho-Communist (the most red of Red Anarchists) would ever have a problem with someone striking it out and being individually more successful if that success was not dependent upon anyone else’s subjugation.

    They just can’t really imagine any one person ending up being radically more successful than any other person in a free world.

    Social Anarchists are mostly worried about passive forms of social and psychological domination. They won’t use coercion to fight a person they feel is trying to non-coercively get a leg up over others in bad faith. They just would want to talk to him and work things out. Usually using free association to “punish” him.

  6. Kevin Carson November 13, 2007 at 1:30 am #

    Gene Callahan,

    I think Rothbard mistakenly classified the Greene-Tucker model of mutual banking as a system based on fiat money and currency inflation. In fact, the central point of Greene’s and Tucker’s analysis of capitalist banking was exactly the same as Rothbard’s analysis of the effect of legally mandated capitalization requirements for life insurance. In both cases, the state requires capitalization at levels far higher than required by risk considerations alone, and thereby raises entry barriers and reduces the number of firms competing to supply life insurance–or credit. So it’s odd that he missed Tucker’s point, when he himself was making the very same point in a different context.


    You resurrect a version of the old “mud pie” canard as proof that the labor theory of value is “false.” Apparently you are unaware that Marx *invented* that argument, in the context of his debates with Proudhon. It has no bearing whatsoever on what the proponents of the labor theory (either the classical political economists, anarchists, or Marxists) actually believed. I’m amazed at the number of people who smugly assert that Bohm-Bawerk, or Mises, or somebody “disproved” the LTV, who are almost completely unaware of the actual points of contention between the two sides. Bohm-Bawerk welcomed any attempt by LTV proponents to continue the debate, but expressed his hope that they would abandon the appeals to authority that so many relied on in favor of a reasoned argument based with an explicit explanatory mechanism for the LTV. Now, over a century later, the shoe is on the other foot, with marginalists and subjectivists regurgitating poorly understood third-hand arguments and appealing to the authority of Bohm-Bawerk (“everybody knows…”).

    Re your question about the UAW and GM stock, the answer is that the U.S. government specifically outlawed (in the same package of legislation as Taft-Hartley) the buyup by union pension funds of voting shares of stock in their own employers. Congress feared that they would do exactly what you mention, and the country would wind up under some sort of CIO syndicalism.

  7. Administrator November 13, 2007 at 1:45 pm #

    A quick point about the labour theory of value (as I understand it): in the form that Kevin Carson defends (which he takes to be what most advocates of that theory traditionally meant; I’m not sufficiently up on the history to say yea or nay on that point), the price of a (reproducible) good brought to the market will tend, under free competition, to be governed by the subjective cost to the producer of the labour of making it, because if the good brings less to the producer than that cost, the producer will stop making it, and if the good brings more to the producer than that cost, the price will be whittled down by competition (assuming, I guess, that other producers’ subjective costs are comparable — perhaps a debatable assumption?). Hence if price and labour cost systematically diverge, that implies the existence of some sort of illegitimate intervention in the market.

    Whatever the merits of this view, it’s not vulnerable to the mud-pie objection, and it’s at least not obviously incompatible with subjectivism or marginal utility. To the extent that Austrians disagree with it, the disagreement seems to have more to do with how fundamental an explanation it is rather than whether it’s blankly wrong. See Bob Murphy’s Austrian critique of Carson, and Carson’s reply.

  8. Rich Paul November 13, 2007 at 10:18 pm #

    It is true that in general the market price of a think will tend to approach the cost of producing that thing. This is not, however, limited to labor. Producing a thing may also deplete land resources. Consider an iron mine. There are no “iron gnomes” replenishing the mine through their labor and iron making prowess. When the iron is gone, it is gone.

    Thus if you value a thing at the sum of the labor that has gone into a thing, and have no private property in land, you will undervalue the land itself, over-exploit it, and leave nothing behind. (see: the environmental disaster of the Former Soviet Union or Red China).

    Under a capitalist system of private property, however, land, once it has been claimed by “mixing labor with it”, will be privately held. The value of the iron in the present market will have to be compared to the predicted future value of that same iron, discounted for time preferences. If the time preferences of the population as a whole do not match the owners’ time preferences, entrepreneurs can buy the land at an amount which satisfies the current owners’ preference for a smaller amount of money sooner, and the satisfy the (future) publics predicted desire for iron, while making money. This might not be in the form of not mining at all … they may just decide that they can work the mine more slowly and more efficiently (never forget the law or diminishing returns).

    The end result is the reverse of the theory that costs determine price. Prices determine costs. The market price of the output, over time, determines the market prices of the inputs. This is called “imputation”.

    As for the definition of capitalism, it seems that you guys have the same tendency as I … you want to use (and to have me use) your definitions of both socialism and capitalism. No anarcho-capitalist would ever say that he desires a system in which there is some kind of monopoly on ownership of capital. As a matter of fact, one of the major arguments against our crippled market is that regulation prevents people from becoming owners of capital. I did not know about the union regulation, but it fits the pattern. Of course, if the union had ceased to operate as a union, or if the workers had organized a “stock buying club” instead of a union, they would have been much better off. The “they were spending their money trying to get by” argument does not work … they lost the use of that money when they paid it in union dues, and it did not help them “get by”. The Mafia spent that money “trying to get by”, the workers just lost it.

  9. Brad Spangler November 13, 2007 at 11:41 pm #


    Regarding “No anarcho-capitalist would ever say that he desires a system in which there is some kind of monopoly on ownership of capital.”

    Uhh, yeah, I know this. I have been a Rothbardian since 1990. You seem to be arguing in a reflexive pattern instead of responding to what I’m actually saying.

    I said, essentially, that Rothbardian market anarchism is “anti-capitalist” in the sense that the word “capitalism” is sometimes used to refer to a statist monopoly of capital.

    You just indirectly confirmed that yourself (not that I needed your validation, but heh…).

    I didn’t once assert which is a more correct defintion of capitalism or socialism. I merely showed awareness of the differtent usages and indicated which I was referring to. You’re the one who metaphorically stomped his feet and pouted.

    So, with regard to:

    “it seems that you guys… want to use (and to have me use) your definitions of both socialism and capitalism.”

    No, you’re projecting that. I’m aware of multiple definitions and proficient in switching back and forth between them in an intellectually honest manner. You’re only perceiving the parts I disagree with you on and blanking out the rest, as I have to make the case for THAT part of what I say. You don’t challenge me on my usage of words where my usage is in accord with your own. so of course it seems like I’m just as militant about definitions as you are. I’m not, though. You’re just not paying attention.

    I’m a Rothbardian socialist in the sense that Benjamin Tucker was a “socialist” — by which I mean I advocate a completely free market, devoid of even the subsidies to Capital found in the fake laissez faire of the late 19th century US. In fact, I’ve commented at length elsewhere over a lengthy period of time about how Rothbardian property theory’s potential as a clearer basis for revolutionary redistribution of property arguably makes Rothbard “redder” than Tucker.

    If by “capitalism” we mean legitimate property rights and a free market, I’m a “capitalist”.

    If by ‘socialism” we mean the revolutionary seizure of the property illegitimately held by the ruling class and the end of worker exploitation by monopolists of capital (who can only succeed in doing so via market intervention), then I’m as Red as they come, baby.

    I am simultaneously to the right of Reagan and to the left of Lenin. Such is the non-Euclidean geometry of zero-state space.

  10. Rich Paul November 14, 2007 at 7:01 am #

    Before I discovered the Libertarian party, I used to say “No party will have me … I’m to the left of the democrats and to the right of the republicans”.

    Gotta go to work and get exploited, more later.

  11. Venus Cassandra November 15, 2007 at 6:56 pm #

    I am a bit late in adding my two cents to this comment thread, but I figure that Roderick will get an email announcing my comment or something.

    Speaking as an “ex” (I still have some anarcho-socialist tendencies) – communist anarchist type who now considers herself a left-libertarian mutualist or mutualist friendly anarchist, I would point out that communist anarchists generally have a different view of what constitutes exploitation than free market libertarians. The left-communist anarchist view of the state focuses on hierarchy as its defining exploitative feature and thus views any hierarchical economic entities as also being exploitative. The capitalist system’s essential feature is viewed as the hierarchy involved in work done for someone else that is paid in wages. This is obviously different from the aggressive use of force as the standard practice of taking advantage of people.

    So, a communist anarchist might not view it as exploitative to render the factory owner factory-less, and committing acts of violence to usurp them of ownership, as constituting a violation of their rights. It would be seen as carrying out justice for the victimized wage workers. As a fight against unjust authority, power, and wealth. The third part of the equation dealing with some kind of LTV.

    Of course, even the ardent communist anarchist FAQ at Infoshop.org will tell you that individualists would be left alone to pursue their own economic dreams, so it’s not an all or nothing affair. They would disagree that the competitive marketplace is likely to reduce concentrations of wealth or disperse economic power though, and would probably see any major inequalities of income as leading to a situation where a smaller number of people held real power in society.

  12. Administrator November 15, 2007 at 8:54 pm #

    For some excellent discussion of how left-wing market anarchists should think about exploitation, see this exchange between Matt MacKenzie and Charles Johnson.

  13. Sheldon Richman November 17, 2007 at 9:36 am #

    Fascinating discussion. My venture into the label wars is here:

  14. Sheldon Richman November 17, 2007 at 9:37 am #

    Oops. I forgot that I have a question. Would someone formally state The Social Question? Much seems to hang on this. Thanks.

  15. Sheldon Richman November 17, 2007 at 10:33 am #

    Apropos of value theories and mud pies:

    “A thing cannot have value, if it is not a useful article. If it is not useful, then the labor it contains is also useless, does not count as labor and hence does not create value.”

    That could have been written by Carl Menger, but it was written by Karl Marx (Capital, vol. 1; quoted in E. von Bohm-Bawerk, Capital and Interest, vol. 1, Chapter XII, “The Exploitation Theory,” note 75).


  1. Rad Geek People’s Daily 2007-12-01 – Benjamin Tucker on Anarcho-Capitalism - December 2, 2007

    […] Social anarchists and anarcho-capitalists spend quite a bit of time fighting with each other over who gets to claim the individualist anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century. The anarcho-capitalists point out the Liberty circle’s relentless emphasis on free markets, free competition, individually-held property, and opposition to communism. The social anarchists point out Tucker et al.’s self-identification as socialists, their relentless explicit attacks on the capitalist and landlord classes, their identification with nonviolent forms of labor militancy, and their analysis of interest on loans, rent on land, profits from the hiring out of capital, etc. as the creatures of state-fabricated privileges to the propertied classes. I don’t want to get too deep into these exegetical arguments right now; I’ve already discussed some of the semantic difficulties involved elsewhere (1, 2, 3, etc.), and Roderick has a couple of excellent posts on the topic at Austro-Athenian Empire (2007-04-01): Against Anarchist Apartheid and more recently Austro-Athenian Empire (2007-11-11): Voltairine de Cleyre, Anarcho-capitalist? For now, suffice it to say that both sides of the argument are substantially right, and substantially wrong; many anarcho-capitalists have been maddeningly selective, and substantially distorted the individualists in order to obscure or neglect the socialistic bite of the individualist understanding of class, privilege, and exploitation. But the social anarchists have also cut a lot of corners in explaining the individualists’ positions, which mostly serve to make Tucker, Spooner, Yarros, de Cleyre, etc. seem much more monolithic than they actually were, and to make them seem significantly less propertarian, and more friendly towards collectivistic and communistic socialism, than they actually were. Meanwhile the social anarchists’ reconstruction of anarcho-capitalist theory is so ferociously uncharitable, and so far out of touch with the versions of anarcho-capitalism espoused by central figures such as Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard in the period of Left and Right and Libertarian Forum, that frankly they ought to be embarrassed to show it in public. […]

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