Laurance Labadie, Gloomy Keeper of the Flame
From Libertarianism - by David S. D’Amato
Laurance Labadie was the last true exponent of ninteenth-century Tuckerite anarchism.
Laurance Labadie was born in Detroit, in the summer of 1898, the son of the famously affable anarchist Joseph A. Labadie. Jo, as he was called, neither pressed anarchism on his children nor seems to have done very much pressing or parenting at all, preferring to allow the Labadie brood space to learn and grow on their own terms. That they, to his disappointment, never found much happiness or success suggests, perhaps, that the anarchist’s aversion to hierarchical relationships is ill-suited to the business of raising children into content and independent adults. Though certainly independent of thought and action, Joseph’s son Laurance was anything but content. Even to those who loved him and considered him family, the younger Labadie did not inherit his father’s easy, obliging way. In her book All-American Anarchist: Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement, Laurance’s niece, Carlotta Anderson, writes that he “bitterly disappointed both parents,” never marrying or achieving career or financial success.
Laurance was, by all accounts, a classic curmudgeon, quick to find fault and disinclined to suffer fools gladly. Marked by a deep and pronounced contempt for his fellow man, Labadie’s political writings reflect his apparently lifelong feelings of depression and detachment. Aspects of Arthur Schopenhauer’s thought seem to have penetrated Labadie’s psyche rather deeply. Schopenhauer’s work emphasizes the human will, its arbitrariness and irrationality, from which came Labadie’s conclusion that individual lives and the projects attached thereto are pointless. Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation brought to Labadie’s attention the rather “precarious position,” in Schopenhauer’s words, of being stranded “on one of those numberless spheres freely floating in boundless space.” Labadie wondered how human beings, products of a “moldy film” budding on one of these many planets, could have any significance at all, any cosmic importance. Labadie regularly returned to this, the nagging feeling that nothing matters or could matter.
When historian Paul Avrich interviewed him just months prior to his death, holed up in a disheveled stone house with only a stove for heat, Labadie referred to himself as a recluse and reiterated his lack of faith in the prospects for liberty and humanity. Despondent to the last, Labadie told Avrich that “anarchism is a pipe-dream,” unattainable for a human animal that is, in Labadie’s estimation, merely “an animated alimentary canal,” different “from the worm only by the appendages which have developed on him.” Labadie had always placed a high premium on solitude, owing to his misanthropic tendencies. He favorably paraphrased Schopenhauer as stating that only the man who is alone is really free, even while he advanced common libertarian arguments about the need for and value of voluntary social organizations of various shapes and sizes. We can reconcile these ideas by understanding the importance of choice and independence, premised on the individual’s right to own private property, in Labadie’s thought. “To be free,” he writes, “means to be independent—not forced interdependence. Independence implies exclusion, hence a libertarian economy will involve property rights.”1 Labadie characterized “collectivists of all shades” as “immature,” “infantile,” and “childish,” unable to understand the necessity of free-market exchange and private property to genuine economic freedom.
Though he was a fervent critic of capitalism, he attacked it as a system of “government protection and coddling,” its defect being the want of competition. Labadie was an exponent of an anti-capitalist individualism associated with Benjamin Tucker and earlier libertarians like William B. Greene, Ezra Heywood, and Lysander Spooner, to name just a few notable examples. It is fitting that Labadie should have inherited Tucker’s desk from the latter’s daughter, for his written efforts to proselytize for Tucker’s individualist variety of anarchism are some of the only specimens of their kind from the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, the historian and expert on individualist anarchism James J. Martin2 called Labadie “the last direct link to Benjamin R. Tucker.” Labadie himself acknowledged that the individualist school was “quite dead,” all but overtaken by the better-known communist and socialist3 strains of anarchist thought. While today’s libertarian movement is defined in no small part by its round denunciations of the anti-capitalist mentality, Carlotta Anderson grants that left-wing individualist anarchists like Tucker and Labadie “were, nevertheless, philosophical ancestors of the new breed.” The old libertarianism of the Labadies and the Liberty crowd shares with the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard and his smartly-dressed followers its “basic theoretical underpinnings.” In terms similar to liberal economists like Ludwig von Mises,4 Labadie firmly refused to abide the popular false dichotomy that sets competition in opposition to cooperation. Continuing in Tucker’s mutualist tradition, Labadie argued that “competition, when free, is in the broadest and largest sense (i.e. in the societary sense), cooperative.”
Labadie followed both Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Benjamin Tucker in his conviction about the untapped potential of money and credit reform, certain that a privilege-free, competitive market in circulating media was the key to solving “the social problem.” The invention of money, Labadie held, “was the greatest cooperative and liberative element in history,” opening the way to the spontaneous order of “a cooperative society, without any direct supervision” (emphasis in original). This deep appreciation of money and its importance in the collection of peaceful, unplanned processes we call the market stands in stark contrast to the ideas of today’s anarchists in general. Social anarchism, as it is called (to distinguish it from individualist anarchism), generally regards money as a feature of capitalism and thus as an authoritarian phenomenon that must be abolished in order for a free society to exist. Mutualists and individualists like Proudhon, Lysander Spooner, William B. Greene, and Benjamin Tucker rather fetishized money and credit; they, and Labadie along with them, contended that the universalization of access to them, not their abolition, was the proper goal. All monopolies—their power rooted in that of the greatest monopoly, the state—were to be combatted, free-market competition promoted.
Labadie argued that state-granted privileges of various kinds enabled the exploitations characteristic of capitalism. Contemplating the prehistoric origins of government, Labadie argued that in violent struggles between tribes “the conquerors became the rulers and the conquered the slaves,” the latter held as, in Franz Oppenheimer’s words, “labor motors.” The state, then, was established not in the furtherance of law, order, and social cohesion, as suggested by social contract theory, but as a mechanism of slavery and class rule. This idea, present in the work of Tucker and another important influence, Herbert Spencer, informed all of Labadie’s thinking about economics and politics. For Labadie, looking to the state, a glorified criminal organization, to solve any social problem was to completely misunderstand its historical role, to look for cures in the disease itself. Labadie writes, “That the State machine should be the effective cause of [our] difficulties seldom enters the heads of the populace.”
Labadie was responsible for introducing this rich individualist anarchist tradition to the agrarian Ralph Borsodi, a devotee of Henry George who spearheaded a remarkable back-to-the-land movement. Borsodi’s whole life was an expression of his radical distrust of the monolithic institutions of modern industrial life, his search for “a way out” (which became the title of a journal published by his School of Living). Perhaps like Labadie’s anarchism, Borsodi’s agrarian decentralism can find no place in the political categories of the present moment. In 1934, he established his School of Living—part functioning commune, part publisher, part educational institution—as an alternative to the congestion and filth of America’s cities, an opportunity for genuine independence and a healthier lifestyle. Borsodi’s unique thought anticipated today’s environmentalist, minimalist, and natural food movements, among others, combining a romanticized vision of the homestead with certain libertarian impulses. Long before he encountered more explicitly libertarian thinkers like Labadie, Borsodi was already suspicious of politics and critical of the large corporation. In a speech in 1943, Borsodi encouraged the Friends of the School of Living to “stop looking to Washington for salvation.” For Borsodi, freedom meant not “the infinitesimal fraction of the political power represented by a vote,” but the ability to deal with both government and other individuals on relatively equal footing, a freedom attainable only through self-sufficient homesteading.5 Putting aside Borsodi’s underappreciation of the benefits delivered by the specialization of labor in the modern economy, his decentralism and its anti-political strands make him at least a cousin of the contemporary libertarian; they also help to explain why Labadie might have wanted to purchase the Suffern, New York property that had been home to the School of Living. Both possessed of unconventional and anachronistic ideas, Labadie and Borsodi were frequent interlocutors, even friends, Labadie staying for a time at the homestead of Borsodi’s close associate, Mildred Loomis. There, Labadie became the channel through which the individualist anarchism of Benjamin Tucker continued—or perhaps resumed—its influence, finding a new audience in Borsodi, Loomis, and notable associates like Robert Anton Wilson.
Labadie, “Keeper of the Flame” as he was called by Loomis and Mark A. Sullivan, presents the contemporary libertarian reader with a pugnacious critique of collectivism unlike any other. Labadie worried about a politics that would reduce humanity to “a large blob of protoplasmic homogeneity,” “some sort of well greased squirming mass,” in which all individuality has been obliterated. His anti-monopolistic free-market thinking offers libertarians an answer to progressives who uncritically hold free-market principles responsible for today’s economy of cronyist state capitalism. His dark, unrelenting defeatism is a guilty pleasure for any libertarian who tires of hearing just how wonderful life on earth has become, a razor-edged, cynical counterbalance to blind optimism.
- Labadie writes, “For so-called ‘communist anarchists’ or any other brand of collectivists to speak of complete denial of private property and liberty at the same time exposes with what idiocy the human mind can indulge in absurdities.” ↩
- The whole of this profile relies on Martin’s “We Never Called Him ‘Larry,’” which the author recommends most enthusiastically. ↩
- “Socialist,” that is, in the standard, anti-market sense. Tucker, in contrast, had insisted rather forcefully that his free-market anarchism was in fact a form of socialism, being an attack on capitalist privilege in the form of rent, interest, and profit. By Tucker’s active period, this definition of socialism was already idiosyncratic, with many of his individualist acolytes alternating between damning and praising “socialism.” Even before Tucker, other mutualist thinkers such as William B. Greene had presented their mutualism as something other than both capitalism and socialism. ↩
- Mises faithfully celebrates cooperation; in Liberalism, he writes, “The starting point of liberal thought is the recognition of the value and importance of human cooperation, and the whole policy and program of liberalism is designed to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing state of mutual cooperation among the members of the human race and of extending it still further. The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction.” ↩
- Allan Carlson, The New Agrarian Mind: The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Transaction Publishers 2000). ↩