Socialism: the Great Anti-Theft Movement

Photograph Source: frankieleon – CC BY 2.0

In his 1869 essay Yours Or Mine, the radical American writer and publisher Ezra Heywood argued that capitalists had made stealing a fine art. Heywood had no problem in principle with a competitive market economy. But he saw state power as serving the interests of the capitalists, and he called the state “one great embodiment of speculative piracy.” “Since legal sanction makes stealing popular, respectable and possible,” he wrote, “the great anti-theft movement, known as Labor Reform, involves the abolition of the State.” Fifteen years later, in the pages of the famous anarchist journal Liberty, Heywood’s former assistant editor, Benjamin Tucker, borrowed Heywood’s phrase, writing, “Socialism, practically, is war upon usury in all its forms, the great Anti-Theft Movement of the nineteenth century … .” If Heywood and Tucker’s brand of free market anti-capitalism seems strange today, then it is important to revisit the past: the whole criticism of capitalism advanced by nineteenth century libertarians was that it was a system of state-created legal privilege designed and used to steal labor power, to create a space of difference and monopoly in which the owners of capital could exploit workers. Even the period’s classical liberals generally regarded themselves as critics or outright opponents of the capitalistic system.[1] Still later, in 1909, the great Irish socialist, freedom-fighter, and martyr James Connolly notably adopted this formulation of socialism from Heywood and Tucker, writing, “This Socialist movement is indeed worthy to be entitled The Great Anti-Theft Movement of the Twentieth Century.”[2]Because Heywood and Tucker seem to have been the only others to describe socialism in this way up to that point in time, it is almost certain that Connolly’s socialist ideas and practices were informed by those of the American anarchists, who emphatically denied any practical difference between socialism and libertarianism. Famous for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916, for which he was executed just weeks later, Connolly is an unforgettable hero in the struggle for Irish freedom and independence. Growing up in Greater Boston in the ‘90s, Connolly was practically a religious figure.

Tucker understood his audience and believed that people recoiled from the word socialism because they quite justifiably feared the power of the ascendant Westphalian state, and they associated socialism with its growth. Those with an interest in reacting against the claims and demands of the socialist movement—the appeal of which was obvious to all working people—had to recast its goals in the terms of wealth redistribution: its enemies wanted to characterize socialism as, in principle, an attack on owning things and on improving one’s lot. This was, of course, not a true reading of the socialists, who had chosen capitalist privilege as their target precisely because it allows the idle to steal the products of labor. Those who criticize capitalism as a system of theft from the industrious owe a great deal to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first to identify himself as an anarchist; he famously declared in 1840 that “property is robbery” and  identified capitalism (still decades away from being a term in widespread use) with an arbitrary “right of increase.” Capitalism historically is a system that exalts and privileges the owners of capital and allows them to systematically underpay the people whose actual work creates economic value. Under capitalism, the products of labor are owned by capital, treated as owed to capital. Contrary to the propaganda efforts of its defenders, you don’t have to be an authoritarian to oppose this system—in fact, this system is itself deeply and intrinsically authoritarian and hierarchical. Genuine socialism would mean a decentralized, locally-owned and -operated economic system in which real communities of people work for themselves on a small, human scale, without needless overlords extracting from the process and imposing arbitrary hierarchies and strictures. This was remarkably well understood when what we know as liberalism, socialism, and anarchism were developing alongside one another, particularly during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps surprisingly, Proudhon’s critique of capitalism and the “right of increase” did not lead him to damn commerce itself along with it, but to establish a clear distinction between commerce as genuine agreement and exchange and capitalism as a system of private property and legal privilege. He thus creates the framework within which so many subsequent anarchists developed their side-by-side critiques of capitalism and the state; as so many historians of the movement have noticed, they advanced a liberal critique of socialism, and a socialist critique of liberalism. Proudhon—along with acolytes such as William B. Greene, Ezra H. Heywood, and Benjamin R. Tucker—was able to articulate a way of thinking about commerce and market relations in which they were not necessarily exploitative. He writes that “the exercise of the right of increase, the art of robbing the producer, depends—during this first period of civilization—upon physical violence, murder, and war.” In making this claim, Proudhon sets out the basic anarchist premise about the relationship between state power and economic exploitation. Anarchists have argued that the power of the capitalists rests ultimately on the state, the final monopoly within a given geographical area. They have thus suggested that political decentralism and anti-authoritarianism are the natural concomitants of anti-capitalism in theory and practice. This is against the idea that socialism must be accomplished by and through the seizure of the state apparatus, a violent revolution replacing a bourgeois government with a proletarian one. For making such arguments about the relationship between decentralism and socialism, Proudhon was called reactionary and bourgeois.[3]

Any comment on the discourse on capitalism as a system of theft and upward wealth redistribution must highlight the contributions of Thomas Hodgskin. Hodgskin is one of the most interesting figures in the history of modern political economy, a journalist and self-taught economist who both criticized capitalism as a system of extraction and rent-seeking and defended individual rights, the freedom of trade, and even private property. Whereas state socialists have explicitly set their doctrine up in contradiction to “the natural operation of economic law,” Hodgskin and a host of similar thinkers preferred to see socialism as quite aligned with the laws of trade, with capitalism being a system of coercive power that preempts voluntary trade in order to protect the benefits and rent streams of a privileged ruling class. Hodgskin therefore resembles today’s market libertarians in favoring a “destroying legislature” that would move toward “the abolition of all restrictions of whatever kind,” even as he resembles today’s socialists in damning capitalists as thieves and calling for labor to be rewarded with its product. A Lockean and outspoken free trader, Hodgskin argued that “the idle capitalist” enjoyed government-granted privileges at the expense of the freedom of competition and trade in the normative, philosophical sense. He saw his anti-capitalism as completely consistent with his free-market libertarianism and individualism. In his thought, capitalism is a violation of natural rights and individual freedom. Capitalism was not a competitive, free-market economic system, but a system under which the force of law effects “the slavery of industry to idleness.” Hodgskin remains one of our most clear-sighted writers on the nature and workings of capitalism, and he anticipated many of the most destructive political and economic trends of our time. Today, this alignment between his ardent anti-capitalism and market individualism is regarded as curious or unusual: anti-capitalists are generally supposed to look askance at market relationships and strong philosophical individualism.

Professor Daniel Layman reflected this thinking when he wrote in the Prologue to his 2020 book Locke Among the Radicals, there is “something enticing about the sheer weirdness of this discovery: A coterie of nineteenth-century radical Lockeans with a penchant for anarchy and anti-capitalism—a thing like that!” And yet for anarchists, particularly those influenced by the individualist and mutualist traditions, Hodgskin’s unique thought is much less strange and surprising. Indeed, for many anti-authoritarians, it is intuitive: it is clear that today’s dizzying inequalities of wealth and income are not natural upshots of legitimate individual rights and market competition; they are rather the expected results of pervasive legislative and regulatory regimes that unfairly privilege organized and accumulated capital. Hodgskin anticipated Proudhon and the self-styled anarchists in being a committed anti-capitalist who nonetheless despised the state and argued that “the prosperity of every nation is in an inverse proportion to the power and to the interference of its government.” As Layman correctly points out, Hodgskin (along with John Bray, Lysander Spooner, and Henry George) is “far more important than the scant scholarship on [his] texts suggests.”[4]

The fact that Hodgskin’s political philosophy strikes so many today as surprising or even paradoxical points to the impoverished state of our political and economic discourse. Many cannot imagine a politics that is both genuinely anti-capitalist and consistently anti-statist. For his part, Professor Layman ultimately concludes that “Hodgskin’s opposition to non-laboring owners of land and capital is both superficial and unsuccessful,” his fundamental principles “push[ing] strongly in the direction of what we would now recognize as traditional right-libertarianism.”[5] This is not an uncommon misframing of Hodgskin (or Spooner, Heywood, Tucker, and the list goes on), based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between capital and the state in Hodgskin’s thought. If one believes that capital’s power over labor arises from essentially free market mechanisms, and that the state reins in capital and protects workers, then he will likely see Hodgskin’s anti-capitalism as superficial. But we know well that this accurately describes neither real-world conditions nor the practical interdependence between the capital and the state. To Hodgskin, it was clear that the suite of conditions and relationships we call the capitalist economy did not arise naturally from the due recognition of property and free trade. Artificial rights and privileges granted to capital by the state “sever[] the natural connection between labour and its rewards,” allowing the capitalist to steal. The capitalist enjoys this power precisely because the state has advantaged him, elevating him above the pressures of an authentically free, fair, competitive market system. Anti-monopoly sentiment was in the air on the left during Hodgskin’s active period, and he believed that all monopoly power should be opposed as the source of capitalist exploitation and conditions of social domination generally.

Hodgskin understood what seems so elusive to so many today, but is so clear empirically and historically: capitalism and corporate power as we know them are creatures of the state and positive law. Under capitalism, land and natural wealth, the inheritance of humankind, are hoarded and monopolized, natural opportunities foreclosed. Capitalism is fundamentally and historically a system of special dealing and special privilege. It is a political (as opposed to purely economic) system in which the owners of capital enjoy special rights in both the political and economic spheres—that is, it is a plutocratic and oligopolistic system. Hodgskin and similar thinkers observed deep contraventions of free market individualism all around them. But as always, our terminological shorthand hides a good deal of diversity and complexity, and it is clear that Hodgskin and the American individualist anarchists hold ideas about free markets, private property, and individual rights that are substantively very different from the ideas associated with “traditional right-libertarianism.” Hodgskin was very sensitive to the uses of language in this service of obfuscation and deception.[6] He recognized a difference between, for example, one’s natural right to own property in principle and private property as a defense of power and privilege in the real world. His thought bears a striking resemblance to that of his contemporary, the American inventor and radical social reformer Josiah Warren, who was about 11 years his junior (Hodgskin was born in December 1787, Warren June 1798). Both concluded that political and economic centralization would not serve the goals of the labor movement, but would further consolidate wealth and power in the hands of those with access to and connections with political power. Both saw most interventions of positive law as artful attempts to secure special treatment for capital (through the creation of charters and special monopolies; the coercive enclosure of open lands and protection of large-scale absentee land ownership; the creation of intellectual property rights; direct and indirect subsidies and preferential tax treatment; government contracts and grants; and the creation of legal and regulatory barriers to competition, among others). “[T]he law,” writes Hodgskin, “is extremely punctilious in defending the claims and exactions of the capitalist.” Warren similarly regarded the business of legislating as an inherently suspect and frequently criminal one, seeing the individual as in a position to judge the merits of laws.

If a decentralist, libertarian anti-capitalism appears quixotic or self-contradictory to us, then we may consider more closely the track record of our era’s colossal institutions. It is not clear why we should continue down monopoly capitalism’s path of self-destruction. What is somewhat more clear is that going forward, socialism cannot be centralized, hierarchical, and authoritarian. It must return to the tradition of anti-authoritarian visionaries such as Thomas Hodgskin and Ezra Heywood in counseling the decentralization and localization of the political and economic system, with an equitable and cooperative economy that would open the salutary effects of market competition to all people.


[1] The term capitalism does not come into widespread use until later

[2] Shaun Harkin, Ed., The James Connolly Reader (Haymarket Books 2018).

[3] These remain common charges against anarchists from many state communists.

[4] Daniel Layman, Locke Among the Radicals: Liberty and Property in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press 2020), page xii.

[5] Daniel Layman, Locke Among the Radicals: Liberty and Property in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press 2020), page 98.

[6] David Stack, Nature and Artifice: The Life and Thought of Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) (The Boydell Press 1998).

David S. D’Amato is an attorney, businessman, and independent researcher. He is a Policy Advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation and a regular opinion contributor to The Hill. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, Investor’s Business Daily, RealClearPolitics, The Washington Examiner, and many other publications, both popular and scholarly. His work has been cited by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, among others.