The question of whether the Individualists were socialists is a thorny one, muddled by just how many very distinct currents can be (and have been) brought under the broad category of “Socialism.” Rather than attempting any definitive or definite answer as to whether the Individualists really were socialists, it might prove more useful to delve into the reasons why some identified as such. The Individualists believed that labor was entitled to its full product, and asserted that the prevailing economic system allowed a privileged class to steal a large portion of the value owed to labor.
At this point, it is important to make clear that the Individualists unequivocally opposed any attempt by law, fiat, or other coercive apparatus to command or dictate that, in each and every exchange, exact equivalents of value (if indeed there were some way to determine that) be traded. Indeed, they emphatically denied both the necessity and desirability of such a scheme. It was their position that, privileges removed and genuine free markets obtaining, the exchange of approximately equivalent values would become a matter of course. Other kinds of exchange (i.e., trades that involved “usury” in the form of rent, interest, or profit) would not be proscribed to those who freely and voluntarily undertook them.
Today, the Individualists’ economic ideas are associated with labor and (more broadly) cost theories of value, a framework that was delineated in the works of classical political economists like Adam Smith. One way to state the idea generally is that the amount of labor invested in the production of an article is — as a general rule — the best bellwether of the value of that article. Insofar as the Individualists’ arguments as to labor’s proper reward accorded with the classical notion of value, many today dismiss the whole of their economic argument. The marginal utility (“subjective”) theory, it is asserted, successfully dispatches the economics of the Individualists.
The “Socialism” of the Individualists, though, doesn’t necessarily depend on any real rejection of marginal utility as an idea. In their own day, the Individualists attended to many of the same critiques of their arguments as are made by today’s proponents of subjective theories of value. The Individualists attempted to demonstrate that those of their contemporaries who defended rent, interest, and profit on free market grounds in fact woefully underestimated the effects of state-granted privilege in creating those phenomena; they failed to see just how sweeping the economic consequences of true freedom would be. The Individualists saw that those consequences would more than suffice to solve “the Labor Problem” and “the Industrial Problem,” etc. Here are the Individualists in their own words...
"[T]he fact that State Socialism during the last decade or two has overshadowed other forms of Socialism gives it no right to a monopoly of the Socialistic idea.
"Socialism, as such, implies neither liberty nor authority. The word itself implies nothing more than harmonious relationship. In fact, it is so broad a term that it is difficult of definition. I certainly lay claim to no special authority or competence in the matter. I simply maintain that the word Socialism having been applied for years, by common usage and consent, as a generic term to various schools of thought and opinion, those who try to define it are bound to seek the common element of all these schools and make it stand for that, and have no business to make it represent the specific nature of any one of them. . . . Socialism is the belief that the next important step in progress is a change in man's environment of an economic character that shall include the abolition of every privilege whereby the holder of wealth acquires an anti-social power to compel tribute." - Benjamin R. Tucker
"It is rather a sad commentary on the understanding of socialists that they are utterly unable to conceiv of individuals combining voluntarily. Every socialist, (even the most scientific) subscribes by inference if not forthrightly, that persons who ar not compeld to do so wil not or cannot associate." - Herman Kuehn
"For there are at bottom but two classes,—the Socialists and the Thieves. Socialism, practically, is war upon usury in all its forms, the great Anti-Theft Movement of the nineteenth century; and Socialists are the only people to whom the preachers of morality have no right or occasion to cite the eighth commandment, Thou shalt not steal! That commandment is Socialism's flag." - Benjamin R. Tucker
"[T]rue socialism must be voluntary — not coerced. Even in the most complete system of society we can conceive the individual must still have rights and property. He must appropriate food to sustain his life. He must wear clothes which are his. He must have his private and exclusive apartment, and must have the right to be in some place on God's earth from which he cannot be evicted by landlord of society." - Joshua K. Ingalls
"What is Socialism? There have been so many definitions given of it that the minds of those who are not persistent in its study become confused, and they finally cry out in despair: 'What in the world do these people want anyway?—what in the world is Socialism?' One school calling itself Socialist wants to abolish the State, and contends that government is tyranny; another school wants the State to assume control of all the means of producing and distributing wealth and give to each according to his deeds; and still another wants all property to be common and each to receive according to his needs. One wants cooperation by the State, another wants absolute free competition. One wants all taxes raised on land values, and the taxes so high as to absorb rent; another wants to abolish taxes entirely, and contends that rent is robbery . . ." - Joseph A. Labadie
"[Socialism] is a glorious word, much abused, violently distorted, stupidly misunderstood, but expressing better than any other the purpose of political and economic progress, the aim of the Revolution in this century, the recognition of the great truth that Liberty and Equality, through the law of Solidarity, will cause the welfare of each to contribute to the welfare of all. So good a word cannot be spared, must not be sacrificed, shall not be stolen." - Benjamin R. Tucker
"The progress of the human race is effected by the operation of two forces which correspond in most respects to what in physics are often called, for want of better terms, the centripetal and centrifugal forces. These are the forces of convergence and divergence, the one tending to concentration of powers and properties, and the other to their separateness or the independence of parts. Socialism and Individualism are to appearance conflicting, though in reality complemental, in their relations to the societary movement." - Joshua K. Ingalls
"The forms of society proposed by Socialism are the mere shell of the doctrine—means to the end—a platform upon which to place the Individual, in order that he may be enabled freely to exercise his own Individuality, which is the end and aim of all. We have seen that the shell is one which may be inhabited by despotism. Possibly it is unfit for the habitation of any thing else than despotism, which the Socialist hopes, by ensconcing himself therein, to escape. It is possible, even, that Socialism may have mistaken its measures altogether, and that the whole system of Association and combined interests and combined responsibilities proposed by it, may be essentially antagonistic to the very ends proposed. All this, however, if it be so, is merely incidental. It belongs to the shell, and not to the substance—to the means, and not to the end. The whole programme of Socialism may yet be abandoned or reversed, and yet Socialism remain in substance the same thing. What Socialism demands, is the emancipation of the Individual from social bondage, by whatever means will effect that design, in the same manner as Protestantism demands the emancipation of the Individual from ecclesiastical bondage, and Democracy from political. Whosoever makes that demands, or labors to that end, is a Socialist. . . . This definition of Socialism may surprise some into the discovery of the fact, that they have been Socialists all along, unawares. Some, on the other hand, who have called themselves Socialists, may not at once be inclined to accept the definition. They may not perceive clearly that it is the emancipation of the Individual for which they are laboring, and affirm that it is, on the other hand, the freedom and happiness of the race." - Stephen Pearl Andrews
"I make no mistake in identifying socialism with the purpose to make the abstraction calld [sic] the State the universal employer, the universal landlord and the universal banker. Holmes and others who overlook that identity are mistaken." - Herman Kuehn
"Individualism is good in its place, as qualified and balanced by socialism; but the experience of the world shows clearly that individualism unbalanced by socialism, and socialism unbalanced by individualism, lead always to disastrous social and political crises." - William B. Greene
"It must emphatically be denied that Socialism offers a safe way to industrial salvation. On the contrary, there is no single instalment of nationalisation which does not bring greater evils in its train than those it seeks to remedy." - Henry Meulen
"'How are we to remove the injustice of allowing one man to enjoy what another has earned?' I do not expect it ever to be removed altogether. But I believe that for every dollar that would be enjoyed by tax-dodgers under Anarchy, a thousand dollars are now enjoyed by men who have got possession of the earnings of others through special industrial, commercial, and financial privileges granted them by authority in violation of a free market." - Benjamin R. Tucker
"The question of Anarchism is not the concern of a single class, consequently also not of the laboring class, but it is the concern of every individual who values his individual liberty." - John Henry Mackay
"These views of the industrial problem beget no feeling of hostility against the wealthy, for many of them are useful workers; nor of especial interest in those who work for wages, merely on that account. Many of them are employed not in adding to the genuine wealth of society, but in pernicious and destructive pursuits. They do, however, awaken an interest in those who produce in contradistinction to those who merely absorb and consume the labor-product of society. No especial blame attaches to any class. No one with true manly feeling can contemplate occupying the position of a hireling all his life without disgust. Nor can any true man feel that the account is wholly settled between him and his life-long helpers when he has merely paid them the current wages during his prosperity and business success." - Joshua K. Ingalls
“Indeed Socialism is virtually established in this State already. The values produced by labor are, even now, to a great extent distributed under the form of dividends by incorporated companies—that is, they are divided according to artificial methods established by the legislature. Society interferes even now in the distribution of wealth, diverting it from its natural, into artificial channels. What is socialism? it is precisely this intervention of Society for the distribution of wealth in some order other than that which would follow from the prevalence of FREE COMPETITION. We freely confess that in our corporation system there seems to be a want of the generosity and sentiment of justice, which we are accustomed to look upon as necessary ingredients of Socialism: but the existing egoism is accidental merely, and may be made, by an intervention of the people, to disappear at any time. Our government recognizes the essential element of Socialism; for, through the agency of the corporations, it apportions the wealth of the State, where, and as, it pleases. Scientifically speaking, the government of Massachusetts is socialistic; practically, however, it is plutocratic. The central principle is opposed to the superficial appearance; and, in the long run, the central principle must carry the day, and change the appearance of the surface.” - William B. Greene
"The defenders of the present system simply protest that socialism would set up greater evils than those it proposes to remedy. In naming myself an Individualist, however, I wish to show that I desire reform of the present system, and I hope to attract the sympathy of all those who desire that the individual shall receive a just rewards for his labour.
"Those Socialists who have not yet assumed a 'nationalizing bias' will perceive that the basis of their objection to the present system is, not that one man is rich and another poor, but that riches do not on the whole come to the man who serves society most. Yet, one of the most common of human weaknesses is the tendency to set up means into an end. I find everywhere, among my socialist friends, men who have for so long insisted that the only way to remedy unmerited poverty is to nationalize the means of production, that they now advocate nationalization for its own sake, and condemn competition, 'private profit', and individual ownership, as things pernicious in themselves. Among these men has grown up an entire philosophy of history, setting up nationalization of industry as the consummation of a tendency discovered by them in social progress of all times." - Henry Meulen
“No proper solution to the problem of social industry and wealth can ever be reached while deferring to the traditions and institutions of barbarous ages, or to the prejudices and sordid maxims of the very rich and powerful. To consider the interests of only the class of employers or business men is quite as ineffectual, and to vindicate the interests of the wage-workers, as a class, leads to no permanent improvement in human conditions. Neither the pronounced Communist nor the State Socialist can make an impartial investigation, since each is committed to an ultimate conclusion.” - Joshua King Ingalls
"Mutualism, the ultimate outbirth of civilization, the triumph of the human element in man over the animal element, is the opposite of the communism which 'The Equity' advocates. I go for mutualism, and am against communism and socialism." - William B. Greene
"The Socialist who has got deeper into his subject than the mere discussion of abstract equality, perceives that the fundamental cause of the present industrial evil is the tendency for machinery to get into the possession of the few, together with concomitant unemployment." - Henry Meulen