Individualist Anarchism in Late Victorian Britain

By Ryley, Peter | Anarchist Studies, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Individualist Anarchism in Late Victorian Britain

Ryley, Peter, Anarchist Studies


This article argues for the recognition of individualist anarchism as an important part of the radical milieu of late Victorian Britain. Through the writings of its main exponents and a reading of the radical press of the day, a picture emerges of a small but vibrant intellectual movement that rivalled the more widely recognised anarcho-communism. The article is a piece of intellectual history. It examines individualist ideas on political economy and anti-statism, particularly those of Henry Seymour and Albert Tarn, together with individualists' distinctive take on sexual and social freedom. The individualist anarchism of this period is best described as a form of free market anti-capitalism; based on extensive property rights, free currencies, universal self-employment and a consistent opposition to monopolies, including the state monopoly of money. This was augmented by an advocacy of individual liberty based on the notion of self-ownership. Though not without its idiosyncrasies, individualist anarchism is insightful and without it our picture of the remarkable radical milieu of nineteenth-century Britain would not be complete.

Keywords: individualism, Henry Seymour, Albert Tarn, free exchange, free currencies, property rights, free love, gender equality.


David Goodway has a neat way of describing the anomalous position of anarchism as a critical response to industrial capitalist society:

A fruitful approach to understanding anarchism is to recognize its thoroughly socialist critique of capitalism, while emphasizing that this has been combined with a liberal critique of socialism...1

This clever aphorism somehow fails to quite capture the nature of anarchism in Victorian Britain. Instead, it would be fairer to argue that there were two varieties of anarchism. Both shared a critique of the state as an instrument of class oppression and whilst one had a socialist critique of capitalism, the other opposed both capitalism and collectivist socialism from an individualist perspective. Despite sharing a commitment to individual liberty, together with social and sexual freedom, they diverged on political economy, especially over the nature of property and exchange. Whereas anarcho-communism sought a propertyless society with distribution according to need, individualism advocated the right of possession through use and labour, together with a freely negotiated system of exchange and trade.

Historians of anarchism in Britain have given the individualist variant scant attention; anarcho-communism dominates. However, a reading of the contemporary material, especially the anarchist press, gives a different impression. Here, individualism appears to be a significant rival. Freedom, the most prominent of the anarcho-communist periodicals, founded by the group gathered around Peter Kropodcin, took it seriously enough to launch its first issue with a sustained attack on individualist anarchism.2 The debate between the two anarchisms was a continuing theme in the anarchist press. Elsewhere, the pain of the strained personal relationships caused by the divergence of the two is dramatically captured by John Henry Mackay in his novel The Anarchists? based on his experiences in London in the 1880s and used as a vehicle for expressing his own individualist views. And it is unsurprising that this should be so; individualism had deep intellectual roots in Britain.

In discussing the genealogy of individualist ideas, more attention has been paid to the United States. Individualist anarchism was certainly prominent there, extending from the work of Ezra Heywood through to Benjamin Tucker's newspaper Liberty, the high point for tradition. Indeed, individualism is often seen as being mainly American,4 despite the strong European foundations provided by Proudhons mutualism and, to an extent, Stirner's egoism. John Quail, the British movement s first historian,5 saw Liberty as the starting point for the English anarchist movement, being the first English-language anarchist paper available in Britain, introduced in 1881. …

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