Liberty Matters

Lysander Spooner’s Theory of Class


Modern theories of class struggle come in three principal forms. The best known is the theory, famously associated with Karl Marx, according to which the ruling class is distinguished from the ruled class by its differential access to the means of production. In other words, the power of the rulers derives from their having monopolized the land, factories, capital equipment, etc., forcing the class lacking such possessions to work for the rulers on the rulers’ terms, or die.
Although the official Marxist account of how this state of affairs arose appeals to systematic violence, including state violence, Marxists nonetheless tend to view this as inessential, treating class rule as an inevitable consequence of even peaceful private commodity production, and regarding the ruling class’s control of the state as more an effect than a cause of its power. In effect, when Marxists are replying to those who defend economic inequality on the grounds that it arose from private property and free exchange, Marxists stress, by contrast, the historical role of state violence in originating and subsequently maintaining such inequality; but when it comes time to evaluate private property and free exchange themselves, Marxists tend to switch hats and condemn private property and free exchange as the basis of existing economic inequalities.[113]
A different approach was pioneered by the classical liberals of early 19th-century France.[114] For these thinkers, the key to explaining the division between ruling and ruled classes was not differential access to the means of production, but rather differential access to political power and privilege. For Adolphe-Jérôme Blanqui, for example, the two great parties are “those who wish to live by their own labour, and those who wish to live off the labour of others.”
Thus, in one country it is by means of taxes that one strips the worker, under the pretext of the good of the State, of the fruit of his sweat; in another, it is by means of privileges, declaring labour the object of royal concession, and charging a heavy price for the right to engage in it. The same abuse is repeated under more indirect but no less oppressive forms when, by means of customs duties, the State shares with privileged industries the proceeds from taxes imposed on all those that are not thus privileged.[115]
Similarly in England, James Mill divided society into “the ruling Few,” or “Ceux qui pillent” (those who pillage), and “the subject Many,” or “Ceux qui sont pillés” (those who are pillaged).[116]
But these liberal class theorists, for the most part, saw differential access to the means of production as a harmless byproduct of free exchange, not something to be condemned. Charles Comte, for example – one of the pioneers of liberal class theory – writes that while the division of society into “a large number of men who live off the products of their lands” and “a still larger number who have nothing to live on but the products of their daily labour” initially seems unjust, we ought to be reconciled to the situation once we recognize that it is primarily the product of private property and free exchange, rather than force or fraud.[117] James Mill likewise defended the rights of existing capital owners,[118] and described those who criticized differential access to the means of production as purveyors of “mad nonsense” who sought “the subversion of civilised society.”[119]
A third approach was offered by the British political economist Thomas Hodgskin. Hodgskin, like Marx after him, criticized the division of society into owners of land and capital on the one hand, and proletarian wage-earners on the other;[120] but he, much more consistently than would Marx, saw this division as one arising primarily from state privilege, and so his proffered solution was not to suppress private property and free exchange, but rather to embrace and extend them.[121]
In short, Hodgskin’s theory of class could be described (albeit anachronistically, since it preceded Marx) as a fusion of the Marxist approach and the classical-liberal approach: his criterion of class division was neither differential access to political power per se nor differential access to the means of production per se, but rather differential access to the means of production rooted in differential access to political power. Thus if “capitalism” refers to a system based on private property and free exchange, then Hodgskin was an ardent capitalist; but if it refers to the division of society into a class of capital owners on the one hand and a class of wage workers on the other, then Hodgskin was an ardent anti-capitalist.
It was this Hodgskinian approach that would become dominant among the 19th-century individualist anarchists, including Ezra Heywood and Benjamin Tucker, and in particular it was the approach of Lysander Spooner, who holds that “substantially all the legislation of the world has had its origin in the desires of one class of persons to plunder and enslave others.” Spooner elaborates:
In process of time, the robber, or slaveholding, class – who had seized all the lands, and held all the means of creating wealth – began to discover that the easiest mode of managing their slaves, and making them profitable, was not for each slaveholder to hold his specified number of slaves, as he had done before, and as he would hold so many cattle, but to give them so much liberty as would throw upon themselves (the slaves) the responsibility of their own subsistence, and yet compel them to sell their labor to the land-holding class – their former owners – for just what the latter might choose to give them.Of course, these liberated slaves, as some have erroneously called them, having no lands, or other property, and no means of obtaining an independent subsistence, had no alternative – to save themselves from starvation – but to sell their labor to the landholders, in exchange only for the coarsest necessaries of life....The result of all this is, that the little wealth there is in the world is all in the hands of a few – that is, in the hands of the law-making, slave-holding class; who are now as much slaveholders in spirit as they ever were, but who accomplish their purposes by means of the laws they make for keeping the laborers in subjection and dependence....[122]
According to Spooner, the “very unequal proportions” in which “property ... is now distributed” are, contrary to the claims of apologists for the present system, “not the result – except in a partial degree – of the superior mental capacities, which enable some men, consistently with honesty and fair competition, to compass more of the means of acquiring wealth than others,” but are rather “the result, in a very important measure, of arbitrary and unjust legislative enactments, and false judicial decisions, which actually deprive a large portion of mankind of their right to the fair and honest exercise of their natural powers, in competition with their fellow men.”[123] Where Marxists on the one hand, and classical liberals like Charles Comte and James Mill on the other, are often in agreement in regarding differential access to the means of production as a natural byproduct of differential access to political power, and differ only in the evaluation, Spooner anticipates today’s “free-market anti-capitalists”[124] in resembling socialists in their goals (according to one source, Spooner was even a member of the socialist First International)[125] but free-market libertarians in their means. As an adherent of the same viewpoint, I take this aspect of Spooner’s thought to be a point in his favor.
[113.] For Marxist inconsistency on this question, see Kevin A. Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Charleston SC: BookSurge, 2007), pp. 89-164; online at: <>.
[114.] See, e.g., David Hart, Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814-1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer (1994); online at: <>.
[115.] Adolphe-Jérôme Blanqui, Histoire de l'économie politique en Europe [1837] (Paris: Gauillaumin, 1860), pp. 4-5; translation mine.
[116.] James Mill, “State of the Nation,” London Review I.1 (April 1835), pp. 1-24; online at: </titles/2520#Mill_1624_2954>.
[117.] Charles Comte, Traité de la Propriété, vol. I (Paris: Chamerot, Ducollet, 1834), pp. 159-60; translation mine. Online: <>.
[118.] James Mill, Elements of Political Economy, 3rd ed. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1844); online at: </titles/302>.
[119.] Quoted in Alexander Bain, James Mill: A Biography (London: Longmans Green, 1882), p. 365.
[120.] Thomas Hodgskin, Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, or, The Unproductiveness of Capital Proved With Reference to the Present Combinations of Journeymen (London: Knight and Lacey, 1825); online at: <>.
[121.] Thomas Hodgskin, The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (London: B. Steil, 1832).; online at: </titles/323>.
[122.] Lysander Spooner, Natural Law; or the Science of Justice: A Treatise on Natural Law, Natural Justice, Natural Rights, Natural Liberty, and Natural Society; Showing that All Legislation Whatsoever Is an Absurdity, a Usurpation, and a Crime, Part First (Boston: A. Williams & Co., 1882), pp. 19-20.
[123.] Lysander Spooner, Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure, Part First (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1846), p. 7.
[124.] See, e.g., Kevin A. Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, op. cit.; Carson, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective (Charleston SC: BookSurge, 2008), online at: <> ; Gary Chartier and Charles W. Johnson, eds., Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Poverty (London: Minor Compositions, 2011), online at: <> ; and Roderick T. Long, “Left-Libertarianism, Market Anarchism, Class Conflict and Historical Theories of Distributive Justice,” Griffith Law Review 21.2 (2012), pp. 413-431.
[125.] George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (Melbourne: Penguin, 1962), p. 434. Certainly several of the American individualist anarchists – including Josiah Warren, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and William Batchelder Greene – are indeed documented as having been members of the First International. However, the only source I’ve thus far come across for Spooner’s membership is this Woodcock citation; so until I find an earlier corroborating source I’m inclined to reserve judgment.