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After Nestor: Fetishizing Ballots & Bombs

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Tucker advised anarchists to stay away from both ballot boxes and cartridge boxes. Using force only ever causes more trouble and weakens liberty.

Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One

Part Seven: Methods


Labor’s New Fetich [sic]. 

(published in Liberty on August 23, 1884)

General Butler’s long-expected letter [in acceptance of the nomination for the presidency given him by the labor party] is out at last. The question now is how many it will hoodwink. Among these at least will not be Liberty. Would that as much could be asserted of all who think they believe in Liberty. But the political habit is a clinging one; the fascinations of political warfare seldom altogether lose their charm over those who have once been under its influence; traces of faith in its efficacy still linger in the minds of those who suppose themselves emancipated; the old majority superstition yet taints the reformer’s blood, and, in face of the evils that threaten society’s life, he appeals to its saving grace with the same curious mixture of doubt and confidence that sometimes leads a wavering and timorous Infidel, when brought face to face with the fancied terrors of death, to re-embrace the theological superstition from which his good sense has once revolted and to declare his belief on the Lord Jesus, lest, as one of them is said to have profanely put it, “there may be, after all, a God, or a Christ, or a Hell, or some damned thing or other.” To such as these, then, Butler will look for some of his strength, and not be disappointed.

The audacity of this demagogue’s utterances, the fearlessness with which he exposes such shams and frauds and tyrannies as he does not himself champion, the fury of his onslaught on those hypocrites in high places to dislodge whom for his own benefit and glory he himself hypocritically espouses the cause of the people, all tend to fire such radical hearts as have no radical heads to guide them, and accordingly we see on every hand reformers of every stripe, through their press and on their platforms, enlisting in the service of this incarnation of reaction, this personification of absolutism, this total stranger to the principle of Liberty, this unscrupulous plunderer of labor, this servant of the fearful trinity of the people’s enemies, being at once an insincere devotee of the Church, a steadfast lover of a mammoth and omnipotent State, and a bloated beneficiary of the exactions of Capital.

The platform announced in his letter is a ridiculous tissue of contradictions and absurdities. Anti-monopoly only in name, it sanctions innumerable monopolies and privileges, and avowedly favors class legislation. As far as it is not nondescript, it is the beginning of State Socialism,—that is, a long step towards the realization of the most gigantic and appalling monopoly ever conceived by the mind of man. One sentence in it, however, commands my approbation: “The laboring man votes for his Fetich, the Democratic party, and the farmer votes for his Fetich, the Republican party, and the result is that both are handed over as captives to the corruptionists and monopolists, whichever side wins. Mark this: the laborers and the people never win!” True, every word of it! But why not go a little farther? Suppose both laborer and farmer vote for their new Fetich, Ben Butler and his party of State Socialism, what will be the result then? Will not both be handed over as captives to a band of corruptionists as much larger and greedier as the reach and resources of the government are made vaster, all in the service and pay, not of a number of distinct and relatively weak monopolies, but of one consolidated monopoly whose rapacity will know no bounds? No doubt about it whatever. Let those who will, then, bow before this idol,—no Anarchistic knee shall bend. We Anarchists have not come for that. We come to shatter Fetiches, not to kneel before them,—no more Fetich Butler than Fetich Blaine or Fetich Cleveland or Fetich St. John. We are here to let in the light of Liberty upon political superstition, and from that policy can result no captivity to corruption, no subserviency to monopoly, only a world of free laborers controlling the products of their labor and growing richer every day.

If Liberty has a weak-kneed friend who is contemplating a violation of his Anarchistic principles by voting just for once, may these golden words from John Morley’s work on Compromise recall him to his better self:

A principle, if it be sound, represents one of the larger expediencies. To abandon that for the sake of some seeming expediency of the hour is to sacrifice the greater good for the less on no more creditable ground than that the less is nearer. It is better to wait, and to defer the realization of our ideas until we can realize them fully, than to defraud the future by truncating them, if truncate them we must, in order to secure a partial triumph for them in the immediate present. It is better to bear the burden of impracticableness than to stifle conviction and to pare away principle until it becomes mere hollowness and triviality. What is the sense and what is the morality of postponing the wider utility to the narrower? Nothing is so sure to impoverish an epoch, to deprive conduct of nobleness and character of elevation.


VII.9 Mr. Pentecost’s Belief in the Ballot. 

(published in Liberty on January 19, 1889)

I certainly admire Hugh O. Pentecost. He is a growing and a fair-minded man. His Twentieth Century, now published weekly in an enlarged form, is doing a useful work. He already accepts Anarchy as an ultimate, and the whole tenor of his writings is leading him on, it seems to me, to a casting-off of his devotion to the single-tax movement and to reforms still more distinctly State Socialistic, and to a direct advocacy of Anarchistic principles and methods. It is because I believe this that I feel like reasoning with him regarding a vital inconsistency in his discourse of January 13 on Ballots or Bullets? in which, moreover, the tendency referred to is marked.

After laying it down as a principle that force is never justifiable (and, by the way, I cannot accept so absolute a denial of force as this, though I heartily agree that force is futile in almost all circumstances), he goes on as follows: “If it is not justifiable for the establishment and maintenance of government, neither is it justifiable for the overthrow or modification of government.… The intellectual and moral process of regeneration is slower than force, but it is right; and when the work is thus done, it has the merit of having been done properly and thoroughly.” So far, excellent. But mark the next sentence: “The ballot is the people’s agency even for correcting its own evils, and it seems to me a social crime to refrain from its use for regenerative purposes until it is absolutely demonstrated that it is a failure as an instrument for freedom.”

Now, what is the ballot? It is neither more nor less than a paper representative of the bayonet, the billy, and the bullet. It is a labor-saving device for ascertaining on which side force lies and bowing to the inevitable. The voice of the majority saves bloodshed, but it is no less the arbitrament of force than is the decree of the most absolute of despots backed by the most powerful of armies. Of course it may be claimed that the struggle to attain to the majority involves an incidental use of intellectual and moral processes; but these influences would exert themselves still more powerfully in other channels if there were no such thing as the ballot, and, when used as subsidiary to the ballot, they represent only a striving for the time when physical force can be substituted for them. Reason devoted to politics fights for its own dethronement. The moment the minority becomes the majority, it ceases to reason and persuade, and begins to command and enforce and punish. If this be true,—and I think that Mr. Pentecost will have difficulty in gainsaying it,—it follows that to use the ballot for the modification of government is to use force for the modification of government; which sequence makes it at once evident that Mr. Pentecost in his conclusion pronounces it a social crime to avoid that course which in his premise he declares unjustifiable.

It behooves Mr. Pentecost to examine this charge of inconsistency carefully, for his answer to it must deeply affect his career. If he finds that it is well-founded, the sincerity of his nature will oblige him to abandon all such political measures as the taxation of land values and the government ownership of banks and railroads and devote himself to Anarchism, which offers not only the goal that he seeks, but confines itself to those purely educational methods of reaching it with which he finds himself in sympathy.


A Principle of Social Therapeutics. 

(published in Liberty on January 22, 1887)

The idea that Anarchy can be inaugurated by force is as fallacious as the idea that it can be sustained by force. Force cannot preserve Anarchy; neither can it bring it. In fact, one of the inevitable influences of the use of force is to postpone Anarchy. The only thing that force can ever do for us is to save us from extinction, to give us a longer lease of life in which to try to secure Anarchy by the only methods that can ever bring it. But this advantage is always purchased at immense cost, and its attainment is always attended by frightful risk. The attempt should be made only when the risk of any other course is greater. When a physician sees that his patient’s strength is being exhausted so rapidly by the intensity of his agony that he will die of exhaustion before the medical processes inaugurated have a chance to do their curative work, he administers an opiate. But a good physician is always loth to do so, knowing that one of the influences of the opiate is to interfere with and defeat the medical processes themselves. He never does it except as a choice of evils. It is the same with the use of force, whether of the mob or of the State, upon diseased society; and not only those who prescribe its indiscriminate use as a sovereign remedy and a permanent tonic, but all who ever propose it as a cure, and even all who would lightly and unnecessarily resort to it, not as a cure, but as an expedient, are social quacks.


The Morality of Terrorism. 

(published in Liberty on May 7, 1887)

E. Belfort Bax has an article on Legality in the London Commonweal, which for the most part is by no means bad. He denies the obligation to respect legality as such, and in the light of this denial discusses the policy of terrorism and assassination. Respecting this policy, he declares, as Liberty has frequently declared before him, that it should be used against the oppressors of mankind only when they have succeeded in hopelessly repressing all peaceful methods of agitation. If he had stopped there, all would have been well. But not satisfied with characterizing the policy as inexpedient save under the conditions referred to, he must needs go further and brand it as immoral. Then he becomes ridiculously weak. He is led to the conclusion that in Russia terrorism is both morally justifiable and expedient; that in Germany, though morally justifiable, it is for various reasons inexpedient; and that in England it is neither morally justifiable nor expedient. Liberty agrees that terrorism is expedient in Russia and inexpedient in Germany and England, but it will be many years older than now before it assumes to set any limit on the right of an invaded individual to choose his own methods of defence.

The invader, whether an individual or a government, forfeits all claim to consideration from the invaded. This truth is independent of the character of the invasion. It makes no difference in what direction the individual finds his freedom arbitrarily limited; he has a right to vindicate it in any case, and he will be justified in vindicating it by whatever means are available. The right to take unoccupied land and cultivate it is as unquestionable as the right to speak one’s thoughts, and resistance offered to any violation of the former is no less self-defence than resistance offered to the violation of the latter. In point of morality one is as good as the other. But with freedom of speech it is possible to obtain freedom of the land and all the other freedoms, while without it there is no hope save in terrorism. Hence the expediency—yes, the necessity—of terrorism to obtain the one; hence the uselessness and folly of employing it to obtain the other. So, when Mr. Bax says that the Russian who shall kill the Czar will act wisely, but that the Englishman who should kill Salisbury would act foolishly, he wins Liberty’s approval; but when he makes this Russian a saint and this Englishman a knave, this approval must be accompanied by protest.


The Beast of Communism. 

(published in Liberty on March 27, 1886)

Henri Rochefort is reported to have said in an interview the other day: “Anarchists are merely criminals. They are robbers. They want no government whatever, so that, when they meet you on the street, they can knock you down and rob you.” This infamous and libellous charge is a very sweeping one; I only wish that I could honestly meet it with as sweeping a denial. And I can, if I restrict the word Anarchist as it always has been restricted in these columns, and as it ought to be restricted everywhere and always. Confining the word Anarchist so as to include none but those who deny all external authority over the individual, whether that of the present State or that of some industrial collectivity or commune which the future may produce, I can look Henri Rochefort in the face and say: “You lie!” For of all these men I do not recall even one who, in any ordinary sense of the term, can be justly styled a robber.

But unfortunately, in the minds of the people at large, this word Anarchist is not yet thus restricted in meaning. This is due principally to the fact that within a few years the word has been usurped, in the face of all logic and consistency, by a party of Communists who believe in a tyranny worse than any that now exists, who deny to the laborer the individual possession of his product, and who preach to their followers the following doctrine: “Private property is your enemy; it is the beast that is devouring you; all wealth belongs to everybody; take it wherever you can find it; have no scruples about the means of taking it; use dynamite, the dagger, or the torch to take it; kill innocent people to take it; but, at all events, take it.” This is the doctrine which they call Anarchy, and this policy they dignify with the name of “propagandism by the deed.”

Well, it has borne fruit with most horrible fecundity. To be sure, it has gained a large mass of adherents, especially in the Western cities, who are well-meaning men and women, not yet become base enough to practise the theories which they profess to have adopted. But it has also developed, and among its immediate and foremost supporters, a gang of criminals whose deeds for the past two years rival in “pure cussedness” any to be found in the history of crime. Were it not, therefore, that I have first, last, and always repudiated these pseudo-Anarchists and their theories, I should hang my head in shame before Rochefort’s charge at having to confess that too many of them are not only robbers, but incendiaries and murderers. But, knowing as I do that no real Anarchist has any part or lot in these infamies, I do not confess the facts with shame, but reiterate them with righteous wrath and indignation, in the interest of my cause, for the protection of its friends, and to save the lives and possessions of any more weak and innocent persons from being wantonly destroyed or stolen by cold-blooded villains parading in the mask of reform.

Yes, the time has come to speak. It is even well-nigh too late. Within the past fortnight a young mother and her baby boy have been burned to death under circumstances which suggest to me the possibility that, had I made this statement sooner, their lives would have been saved; and, as I now write these lines, I fairly shudder at the thought that they may not reach the public and the interested parties before some new holocaust has added to the number of those who have already fallen victims. Others who know the facts, well-meaning editors of leading journals of so-called Communistic Anarchism, may, from a sense of mistaken party fealty, bear longer the fearful responsibility of silence, if they will; for one I will not, cannot. I will take the other responsibility of exposure, which responsibility I personally and entirely assume, although the step is taken after conference upon its wisdom and with some of the most trusted and active Anarchists in America.

Now, then, the facts. And they are facts, though I state them generally, without names, dates, or details.

The main fact is this: that for nearly two years a large number of the most active members of the German Group of the international Working People’s Association in New York City, and of the Social Revolutionary Club, another German organization in that city, have been persistently engaged in getting money by insuring their property for amounts far in excess of the real value thereof, secretly removing everything that they could, setting fire to the premises, swearing to heavy losses, and exacting corresponding sums from the insurance companies. Explosion of kerosene lamps is usually the device which they employ. Some seven or eight fires, at least, of this sort were set in New York and Brooklyn in 1884 by members of the gang, netting the beneficiaries an aggregate profit of thousands of dollars. In 1885 nearly twenty more were set, with equally profitable results. The record for 1886 has reached six already, if not more. The business has been carried on with the most astonishing audacity. One of these men had his premises insured, fired them, and presented his bill of loss to the company within twenty-four hours after getting his policy, and before the agent had reported the policy to the company. The bill was paid, and a few months later the same fellow, under another name, played the game over again, though not quite so speedily. In one of the fires set in 1885 a woman and two children were burned to death. The two guilty parties in this case were members of the Bohemian Group and are now serving life sentences in prison. Another of the fires was started in a six-story tenement house, endangering the lives of hundreds, but fortunately injuring no one but the incendiary. In one case in 1886 the firemen have saved two women whom they found clinging to their bed-posts in a half-suffocated condition. In another a man, woman, and baby lost their lives. Three members of the gang are now in jail awaiting trial for murdering and robbing an old woman in Jersey City. Two others are in jail under heavy bail and awaiting trial for carrying concealed weapons and assaulting an officer. They were walking arsenals, and were found under circumstances which lead to the suspicion that they were about to perpetrate a robbery, if not a murder.

The profits accruing from this “propagandism by deed” are not even used for the benefit of the movement to which the criminals belong, but go to fill their own empty pockets, and are often spent in reckless, riotous living. The guilty parties are growing bolder and bolder, and, anticipating detection ultimately, a dozen or so of them have agreed to commit perjury in order to involve the innocent as accomplices in their crimes. It is their boast that the active Anarchists shall all go to the gallows together.

It is only fair to John Most, editor of the Freiheit, to say that he had nothing to do with originating the plots of these criminals, and for a long time was unaware of what was going on; but it is none the less true that, after he was made aware of these acts, he not only refused to repudiate them, but persisted in retaining as his right-hand men some of the worst of the gang. The facts have been coming to light one by one for some time, and the knowledge of them has been a torture to all decent men who have had any connection with the Communists. Justus Schwab, who is an exceptionally honest man, sickened long ago. He abandoned the business management of the Freiheit, summarily ejected all the criminals from his saloon with a warning not to visit it again, and served notice on his friend Most that he (Most) must entirely sever his connection with the villains or he (Schwab) would sever his connection with him. Thus called upon to choose, Most elected to lose Schwab and keep the criminals as his lieutenants. Perhaps he was too dependent on them to do otherwise. Now Schwab is posted in the Freiheit as a man with whom no Socialist should have anything to do. An erroneous conception of party duty has kept Schwab quiet so far as the public are concerned. I trust he will realize ere long that he cannot truly serve his party in any such way. It is high time that he threw off this yoke of party loyalty and spoke out like a man.

One of the most astonishing features of this abominable business has been the blindness of the police, the press, and the insurance companies. Although in a number of cases the criminals have been detected and arrested, the fact that these men all belong to one or two organizations and are acting in accordance with a course agreed upon has not dawned upon the mind of any detective or reporter, although it is an open secret among the German-speaking Socialists of New York. So far as the authorities or the newspapers have hitherto suspected, each of these offences is simply an isolated case of crime. How vigilantly our lives and possessions are protected by this government of ours! One would think that the interests of the insurance companies would prompt them at least to greater vigilance. But they have been as blind as the rest, and paid this extraordinary series of losses seemingly without a question.

The attempt will doubtless be made in some quarters to vindicate these horrors as so many revolutionary acts. It will fail. Private greed and popular vengeance have nothing in common. Even so rigid a Communistic journal as La Révolté pointed out some time ago that the Revolution can have no solidarity with thieves. It was one thing to kill the Czar of Russia; it is quite another to kill and rob an innocent old woman; it was one thing for the striking miners of Decazeville to take the life of the superintendent who had entered into a conspiracy with the corporation to reduce the miners’ wages in consideration of a percentage, it is a far different thing for lazy, selfish, cowardly brutes to set fire to a tenement house containing hundreds of human beings. There are certain things which circumstances justify; there are certain others which all lofty human instincts condemn. To the latter class belong these deeds of John Most’s followers.

John Most has a great deal to say about the “beast of property.” Property as it now exists, backed by legal privilege, is unquestionably a horrible monster, causing untold and universal suffering; but I doubt if it can equal in essential cruelty the act of a father who will insure the lives of his wife and boy and conspire to cause their death that he may fill his pockets with a few paltry dollars. Of such acts as that the Beast of Communism seems to have a monopoly.

In conclusion, I appeal to every honorable newspaper in America to lay these facts before its readers, placing the blame where it belongs and distinguishing the innocent from the guilty. And especially do I address the Anarchistic press. Every Anarchistic journal ought to copy this exposure and send it forth with the stamp of its approval. The cause is entering upon a serious crisis. The malicious and the ignorant will do their utmost to damage it. Much will depend upon the promptness with which good men and true separate themselves from common criminals. He who is not against their crimes is for them.

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