Individualist anarchism in late Victorian Britain.

Author:Ryley, Peter


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 Kropotkin, 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, (3) 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 Proudhon's 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. A case can be made that British individualism was a combination of mainstream European ideas with this emerging atlanticism, especially as British individualists were regular contributors to Tucker's journal. (6) However, to do so ignores a strong native tradition, a radical liberalism and proto-socialism that emerged from, and spoke to, the concerns of the artisan class, (7) something that, as Noel Thompson has written, should be seen as part of a distinctive working class political economy. (8)

This political economy rooted its analysis in two main concepts. Firstly, there was the idea of just and unjust property. This was based on a radical reading of Locke's notion that the right to property rested on labour alone. Therefore, logically, property without labour could only exist through legalised theft, sanctioned and protected by the state. Secondly, it offered a class analysis based on the idea of the productive and unproductive classes, whereby the unproductive classes lived off the wealth created by those who actually did the work whilst remaining in penury themselves. However, the radicals who adopted these ideas did not draw the same conclusion from them as later socialists, namely, that private property had to be collectivised. Instead they asserted the primacy of direct ownership, self-employment and equitable exchange; the very concerns of the late nineteenth-century individualists.

After the 1830s this radical strand seemed to disappear in Britain, apparently swamped by the growth of a mass industrial society. However, some tantalising glimpses of its persistence remained. For example, Max Nettlau was much taken with Ambrose Custon Cuddon, (9) whose few extant pamphlets can be found solely amongst the Nettlau papers, though he too felt that Cuddon took his influences from America, specifically,

the correspondence between Josiah Warren and the Owenites. (10) The remnants of radicalism can also be spotted in elements of Chartism. However, the main vehicle for this artisanal radicalism was the sceptical freethought movement. (11)

When the radical tradition re-emerged as British anarchism in the latter part of the nineteenth century, many of the activists' roots were in freethought. Working class revolutionaries, such as Joseph Lane and the remarkable Dan Chatterton, (12) were ardent atheists - a hallmark of freethought - and the poet and anarcho-communist, Louisa Bevington is first seen in print attacking religion. (13) Moreover, of prime importance for this article, the leading individualist, Henry Seymour, was radicalised through freethought. Arguably, freethought provided the conceptual toolbox for the anarchists' social critique that augmented their political economy.

The study of individualism also raises a methodological problem. Sharif Gemie makes a pertinent point about anarchist history:

Two forms of writing have prevailed: firstly, the reduction of anarchism to a political philosophy, centred on the works of great men of genius. More recently, a second form has emerged: an analysis of anarchism as organisation or institution ... In place of an anarchism viewed from the philosopher's library, we move to anarchism seen from the general secretary's desk. (14) However, this distinction is not as sharp as it might appear to be, especially in the nineteenth century. David Goodway points out that there was little coherent organisation, 'mass, proletarian anarchism failed to erupt in the British Isles'. Instead there was a 'distinguished minority intellectual, overwhelmingly literary, anarchist ... tradition'. (15) Benjamin Franks reinforces this claim by making the point that 'the distinction between deeds and words does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny'. (16) He continues, '[p]ublication and distribution of tracts by the classical anarchists was originally part of popular agitation'. (17) There was nothing like the distinction between an intellectual and a popular readership as there can be today where there is a specialised academic audience.

Despite this, Gemie makes a valid point when he suggests that an organisational focus misses one of the key features of anarchism in that it interacted with a wide range of radical thought and was part of a broader movement of thought and action. He writes, '... the focus for anarchist historians should be a milieu, or a political culture, whose centre is in informal, lived relationships'. (18) This article follows Gemie's lead.

Any study of a milieu can never be complete if it excludes sections of society or movements. Anarchism itself, for a time, suffered from such a process of exclusion. Within the smaller world of the study of anarchist ideas and movements in nineteenth-century Britain, individualism has suffered from neglect and misunderstanding. In the late nineteenth century, Britain was home to iconic exiles, the centre of radical and libertarian writing and action, the scene of labour organisation and agitation and a centre for the advocacy of advanced lifestyles, of gay rights and of feminist thought. It was a locus for secularism and mysticism, for radical religious thought and for atheist agitation. Anarchism was an influential part of this milieu. However, the historical record of the anarchism of this time has largely neglected individualism in favour of the dominant and historically noisier anarcho-communism.

In many ways, this is unsurprising. Unlike the pivotal thinkers and writers in the collectivist camp, British individualist anarchists did not feature amongst Gemie's 'great men of genius'. Instead individualism produced some interesting, energetic and often idiosyncratic writers, but not ones in the first rank of literary or philosophical excellence. This lack points to the importance of Quentin Skinner's (19) approach to intellectual history, emphasising minor literature as well as major texts, particularly, in this case, those published in the extant anarchist journals and newspapers. The aim of this article is to recover the history of individualist anarchist ideas as propagated in the UK by British activists in late Victorian Britain. It does not attempt a comprehensive history of individualism nor a critical analysis of the ideology and its wider interactions with radical circles. Instead, it is designed to uncover the main writers and their work in the UK alone, placing them on view, thereby augmenting broader studies of the extraordinary intellectual ferment that was nineteenth-century Britain.


The bulk of the publications to emerge from the individualist anarchist movement in Britain were produced by a small group of diverse writers and activists, notably John Badcock, John Armsden, John Basil Barnhill, Albert Tarn, Henry Seymour and Lothrop Withington.

John Badcock, an accountant who later became a dealer in Chinese art, (20) was a Stirnerite egoist. Egoism and individualist anarchism are not synonymous although this article is not the right place for an in-depth discussion of the differences. It could seem that, for example, Stirner's use of 'ownness' as a...

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