Blogs > Liberty and Power > How Victor Yarros Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

Mar 26, 2006 3:59 am

How Victor Yarros Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

There is no danger of my finding Anarchism ridiculous and abandoning it.
– Victor S. Yarros, Liberty, 13 August 1887

Victor Yarros, who now parades in the role of a mere observer, was for years my most active participant in Anarchistic propaganda, – a fact which he is now at pains to conceal. I once admired him; I now despise him.
– Benjamin R. Tucker, Free Vistas 2 (1937)

Victor Yarros – our mystery philosopher from a few weeks back – was one of the leading figures of 19th-century American anarchism: disciple of Herbert Spencer, populariser of Lysander Spooner, and sometime co-editor of Benjamin Tucker’s periodical Liberty.

In the 20th century, however, Yarros eventually repudiated anarchism in favour of social democracy – becoming an admirer of the policies of Wilson and FDR, waxing enthusiastic about the T.V.A., and apparently even making his peace with the Soviet Union, though he remained skeptical of Marxism. (He also became an adherent to logical positivism, though oddly still combining this with a kind of ethical naturalism à la Spencer. He had already long since repudiated his brief flirtation with Tucker’s Stirnerite egoism in favour of a more Spencerian natural-rights position; for my own take on the Stirnerians-versus-Spencerians controversy, see my blog post Egoism and Anarchy.)

I’ve just posted, on the Molinari site, three articles in which Yarros discusses individualist anarchism and explains the origins of his increasing dissatisfaction with it. In Benjamin R. Tucker and Philosophical Anarchism, Yarros gives a somewhat sympathetic account of the position he no longer holds, but in Adventures in the Realm of Ideas he is rather more hostile to Tucker’s ideas, and in The Persistence of Utopian Thinking he extends the same critique inter alia to Albert J. Nock.

Yarros accuses his former anarchist colleagues of “utopianism,” by which he means any attempt to “plan societies and civilizations in complete ignorance of, and indifference to, the human materials and instruments involved.” Yarros’s description is reminiscent of Adam Smith’s portrait of the “man of system,” who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board,” neglecting to consider that while “the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them,” yet “in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.”

Now this might seem an odd indictment to make of the anarchist, who proposes to leave people alone rather than impose any legislative blueprint on them. But Yarros believes that those who agitate for the abolition of the State have “no conception of human nature as it is.”

Now Yarros is certainly right in condemning attempts to realise a political program without taking into account “[t]ime, place, conditions, [and] realities.” (Chris Sciabarra has likewise offered an excellent critique of this sort of utopianism in his book Total Freedom, where he too suggests that the critique may apply to anarchism – though I should add that Chris’s distance from anarchism, if distance it be, is far shorter than that of Yarros in these essays. My review of Chris’s book will be online eventually, i.e., as soon as I get around to it; in the meantime, see the summary and Chris’s reply.) But are anarchists really guilty of the error in question? Yarros writes:

Of all the possible and impossible Utopias, that of the Philosophical Anarchists is, of course, the most preposterous one. How many persons of the world today can even imagine a society without the State? The first thing people do under pioneering conditions is to organize a government. The first thing people in distress do at any time is to appeal to the State for aid.
Now if all that Yarros means is that most people nowadays are not anarchists, and that converting them to anarchism will likely be a long and difficult process, that’s not news to the anarchists; and merely embracing a long-term program can’t be sufficient to earn one the title of utopian. Nor, despite occasional gestures in this direction, can Yarros really mean that anarchism’s focus on a long-term ideal prevents them from supporting any short-term reformist measures; for he himself notes that the Tuckerites “knew very well that progress toward their goal would be slow,” and “rejoiced in small steps toward their goal” so long as none of these intermediate measures “in any degree extended the sphere of government or compulsion.” And if Yarros means that getting people to accept a stateless social order is not just a long-term but an impossible goal, we may simply point to the evidence collected by libertarian historians (see, e.g., Tom Bell’s bibliographical essay) to demonstrate that such stateless orders have in fact developed frequently through history, including “under pioneering conditions.”

In any case, one fundamental reason for rejecting the charge of utopianism is that the institutions and incentives to which anarchists look as the basis for social order in a stateless future are not imaginary constructions which might or might not work in practice; they are already here and already functioning. Thomas Paine made the point in The Rights of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. ... In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.
Or, as Rothbard observed in “The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View” (which is scheduled be reprinted in the next issue of JLS), the market anarchists of the 19th century not only “advanced libertarian individualism from a protest against existing evils to pointing the way to an ideal society toward which we can move,” but “correctly located that ideal in the free market which already partially existed and was providing vast economic and social benefits”; in this respect, Rothbard argues, the anarchists “greatly surpassed previous ‘utopians’ in locating [their] goal in already-existing institutions rather than in a coercive or impossible vision of a transformed mankind.”

Yarros’s real objection to anarchism, it transpires, is not that it rejects all intermediate measures simpliciter, but rather that it rejects all intermediate measures that increase State power. By opposing the growth of the State, Yarros charges, the anarchists have “played into the hands of the Bourbons and Tories” and given “aid and comfort to plutocracy,” since “the defenders of plutocracy and monopoly have talked and written exactly as the Anarchists have.”

Well, it is certainly true that plutocratic conservatives have often invoked the same sort of anti-government rhetoric that free-market anarchists use. But the conservative employment of such rhetoric is manifestly insincere – as Yarros is well aware. For as he goes on to explain, the corporate elite’s opposition to government intervention is selective; they “hate government when it makes too many concessions to labor or to progressivism, or undertakes to curb greed and tyranny on the part of capital and finance,” but to “special privilege, of which capital and Big Business are the beneficiaries, there is never any objection from that quarter.” There’s nothing new about bad guys aping the rhetoric of good guys; their doing so is no argument against the good guys. There must be more to Yarros’s objection than this.

And indeed there is; for along with his increased pessimism about anarchy went increased optimism about the state. In particular, Yarros had come to reject the view that the state is necessarily a tool of the ruling class:

The American farmers do not regard the State as their enemy. They are grateful to it for small favors; and organized labor is equally grateful for like favors. If the State is the enemy, what is Plutocracy, and what is predatory big business? ...

[W]hatever the origin of the State, it was absurd to assert that it was always and inevitably the instrument of privilege and monopoly, and must remain such under all conditions. The evidence glaringly contradicted that conception. The democratic governments have increasingly yielded to the pressure of farmers, wage workers, and middle-class reformers.

The hatred of our plutocrats and reactionaries for the New Deal is alone sufficient to dispose of the charge that the State is simply the tool of the economic oligarchy. In the past, the same interests bitterly fought Woodrow Wilson’s reform program, and fought in vain.
Yarros concludes that state power is now a viable tool in the struggle against plutocracy: “Where democracy is strong and mature, the State serves the interests of the masses, not of the classes.” Here, once again, Yarros’s theories run up against historical facts. As libertarian and New Left historians have exhaustively demonstrated (see, for example, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, Butler Shaffer’s In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918-1938, and other sources cited here), big business interests were the chief beneficiaries of Wilson’s and Roosevelt’s economic programs, whose cartelising measures functioned to insulate the corporate elite from upstart competition. By supporting such measures, it was Yarros, not Tucker or Nock, who was playing into the hands of the plutocracy.

Does this mean that the business lobby’s hostility to the New Deal was pure fakery? No, not entirely; but Yarros misunderstands its significance. As I wrote in my Rothbard Memorial Lecture:

We might compare the alliance between government and big business to the alliance between church and state in the Middle Ages. Of course it’s in the interest of both parties to maintain the alliance – but all the same, each side would like to be the dominant partner, so it’s no surprise that the history of such alliances will often look like a history of conflict and antipathy, as each side struggles to get the upper hand. But this struggle must be read against a common background framework of cooperation to maintain the system of control.
Yarros allowed himself to be taken in by the populist veneer of the New Deal, but in fact the struggle between FDR and the business lobby was merely (with a few honourable exceptions) a squabble between two different flavours of fascism – with each faction far preferring the victory of its rival to any genuine liberalisation. And as for the gratitude of “organized labor” for governmental “favors,” the true legacy of New Deal labour legislation was to defang the labour movement by co-opting it into the corporate establishment.

According to Yarros, the “paternalistic and bureaucratic” character of statist collectivism, and its regrettable focus on “economic improvement” to the detriment of spiritual progress, are necessary byproducts of a temporary ’phase“ through which the struggle against plutocracy must pass; accordingly he counsels “opportunism,” “pragmatism,” and “cheerful acceptance of the unavoidable.” It’s not clear whether he’s talking about the Soviet Union or the New Deal; but “paternalistic” seems an odd term for Stalin’s reign of terror and democide, while Roosevelt’s corporatist policies – as Rothbard, Higgs, and others have shown – worsened economic misery rather than remedying it.

The individualist anarchists may not have been Austrians, but they certainly understood economics well enough to understand why the New Deal would be economically disastrous; Yarros seems to have forgotten much that he had once known. As for the Soviet Union, Yarros traveled there several times – but unlike Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Rose Wilder Lane, and Bertrand Russell, he does not seem to have profited from the experience.

Yarros’s work – even his later, post-anarchist work! – contains much that is interesting and valuable, and I will probably post more congenial fare from him in the future. But against anarchism Yarros’s charge of utopianism misfires; in seeking to obtain libertarian goals by increasing the power of the centralised coercive state, Yarros proved himself to be the true utopian.

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More Comments:

Kenneth R. Gregg - 3/30/2006

Sheldon, I recall your fine essays in the JLS. During the early '70's, I read two books, which combined, gave me a perspective on the American Liberty League and its background, Fletcher Dobyns' "The Amazing Story of Repeal" (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co, 1940) and George Wolfskill's "The Revolt of the Conservatives (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). Reading these two together was like reading two chapters of the same work.

Essentially, the AAPA (Association Against the Prohibition Amendment), topic of the first work, closed its doors for a day and scraped off the moniker and painted "American Liberty League" on the door: same address, same people, same background. No recognition in either work of the connection.

From then on, I was hooked on the study of American classical liberalism and the links which none recognized.

On another note, Sheldon: You did a JLS piece on antiwar libertarians of the Civil War. I'm working on a piece on Stephen Pearl Andrews and will be touching on his magnificent effort which, almost singlehandedly, would have prevented the Civil War. As a Southern abolitionist, he led the effort (failed, unfortunately) to have the independent Republic of Texas ally themselves with Great Britain rather than the U.S., with British money provided to recompense Texas citizens for their slaves (how most countries became "free" countries). This would have created a "Southern Canada" rather than a pro-slavery state, which would prevent the progression westward of slavery in Continental American and have a strong incentive for the Southern States to loosen the bounds of slavery.
It was a very interesting episode in S.P. Andrews' life.
Just Ken

Sheldon Richman - 3/29/2006

Thank you, Roderick. My work on the American Liberty League, published in JLS in the 1980s, confirms what you say about big business and the New Deal.

David T. Beito - 3/27/2006

Here is a reference on Rachel, Victor and the USSR:

David T. Beito - 3/27/2006

I came across Rachel Yarros's name in some of my rearch on the white slavery hysteria during the progressive era. She was associated with the feminists who wanted to suppress all prostitution.....though I don't recall that she was a leader on that issue.

Interestingly, both Rachel and Victor, much to their discredit, were admirers of the Soviet Union during the late 1930s (when Stalin's excess were becoming obvious to anyone who bothered to care).

Kenneth R. Gregg - 3/26/2006

Excellent post. It clearly follows up on a lot of reading of the later Yarros writings, which are difficult to find. Some of his major journal essays are online, but his E. Haldeman-Julius "Big Brown" and "Little Blue" books are not, regretfully.
I do think that his wife had something to do with the philosophical change as well, although I don't believe that this can be substantiated. She was a major player with the Hull House efforts, Illinois and National health efforts.
You are also correct in point out the central issue of cooptation with the Franklinstein Administration. I have done work on the cooperative movement of the 1920's-30's which held a fairly strong libertarian dominance and the evolution by the '40's into virtually a wing of FDR's minions.
I do not know if this was a conscious effort on the part of the administration, but it was clearly a policy, intentional or not.
Just a thought.
Just Ken

Mark Brady - 3/26/2006

Just one thought. Let's not forget that Benjamin Tucker took sides during the First World War. He supported the Allies. Hardly what we might expect of an individualist anarchist.