Herr Most on Libertas.

Herr Most on Libertas.

[Liberty, April 14, 1888.]

It is due to John Most to say that, in his paper Freiheit, he has greeted the appearance of Libertas in a spirit of entire fairness and liberality, at the same time that he has not hesitated to point out those of its features to which he cannot award approval. Besides giving liberal extracts from the first number, duly credited, he devotes nearly a column and a half to a review of its merits and demerits, which is hearty in its commendation and frank in its criticism. Barring the use in one sentence of the word hypocritical, his article is free from those abusive epithets of which he has heretofore made me a target. With this preface of thanks for both his praise and his censure, I propose to briefly examine the latter in the same spirit in which it is offered.(128 ¶ 1)

Herr Most’s opinion of Libertas may be thus summed up,—that it is thoroughly sound in its antagonism to the State and utterly unsound in its championship of private property. Whether Libertas champions private property depends entirely on the definition given to that term. Defining it with Proudhon as the sum total of legal privileges bestowed upon the holders of wealth, Libertas agrees with Proudhon that property is robbery. But using the word in the commoner acceptation, as denoting the laborer’s individual possession of his product or of his proportional share of the joint product of himself and others, Libertas holds that property is liberty. And whenever Proudhon, for the time being, uses the word in the latter sense, he too upholds property. But it is precisely in this sense of individual as opposed to communistic possession that Herr Most opposes property. Hence, when he prints as a motto (as he often does) Proudhon’s phrase Property is robbery, he virtually misrepresents that author by using his words as if they were intended to mean diametrically the opposite of what the author himself declared them to mean. If property, in the sense of individual possession, is liberty, then he who opposes property necessarily upholds authority—that is, the State—in some form or other, and he who would deny both the State and property at once becomes thereby inconsistent and guilty of attempting the impossible.(128 ¶ 2)

The principal argument used by Herr Most against Libertas is that it ignores the necessity of production on the large scale now and hereafter,—a necessity which, in Herr Most’s view, involves the exploitation of labor by capital wherever private property prevails. There is no foundation for this statement. Libertas does not for a moment deny or ignore the necessity of production on the large scale. It does, however, seriously question the claim that such production must always involve large concentration of capital, and emphatically denies that it necessarily involves labor’s exploitation unless private property is abolished. As I had already said in these columns, the main strength of the argument for State Socialism and Communism has always resided in the claim, till lately undisputed, that the permanent tendency of progress in the production and distribution of wealth is in the direction of more and more complicated and costly processes, requiring greater and greater concentration of capital and labor. But the idea is beginning to dawn upon minds—there are scientists who even profess to demonstrate it by facts—that the tendency referred to is but a phase of progress, and one which will not endure. On the contrary, a reversal of it is confidently looked for. Processes are expected to become cheaper, more compact, and more easily manageable, until they shall come again within the capacity of individuals and small combinations. Such a reversal has already been experienced in the course taken by improvements in implements and materials of destruction. Military progress was for a long time toward the complex, requiring immense armies and vast outlays. But the tendency of more recent discoveries and devices has been towards placing individuals on a par with armies by enabling them to wield powers which no aggregation of troops can withstand. Already, it is believed, Lieutenant Zalinski with his dynamite gun could shield any seaport against the entire British navy. With the supplanting of steam by electricity and other advances of which we know not, it seems more than likely that the constructive capacity of the individual will keep pace with his destructive. In that case what will become of State Socialism and Communism? It behooves their advocates not to be so cock-sure as they have been heretofore of the correctness of this major premise of all their arguments.(128 ¶ 3)

But Herr Most may claim that in this reasoning the element of speculation and uncertainty is too large to warrant the placing of any weight upon it. Very well, then; simply reaffirming my own confidence in it, I will let it go for what it is worth, and consider at once the question whether large concentration of capital for production on the large scale confronts us with the disagreeable alternative of either abolishing private property or continuing to hold labor under the capitalistic yoke. Herr Most promises that, if I will show him that the private property régime is compatible with production on the large scale without the exploitation of labor, he will stand by the side of Libertas in its favor. This promise contains a most significant admission. If Communism is really, as Herr Most generally claims, no infringement of liberty, and if in itself it is such a good and perfect thing, why abandon it for private property simply because the possibility of the latter’s existence without the exploitation of labor has been demonstrated? To declare one’s willingness to do so is plainly to affirm that, exploitation aside, private property is superior to Communism, and that, exploitation admitted, Communism is chosen only as the lesser evil. I take note of this admission, and pass on.(128 ¶ 4)

Right here, however, Herr Most qualifies his promise by placing another condition upon its fulfilment. I must not only demonstrate the proposition stipulated, but I must also do so otherwise than by pointing to Proudhon’s banking system. This complicates the problem. Show me that A is equal to B, says Herr Most, and I will uphold A; only you must not show it by establishing that A and B are equal to C. But perhaps the equality of both A and B to C is the only proof I have of the equality of A to B. Am I to be debarred, then, from making the demonstration simply because this form of logic is not agreeable to Herr Most? Not at all; he is bound to show the flaw in the logic, or else accept its conclusion. His stipulation, then, that I must not point to Proudhon’s banking system is ridiculous, inasmuch as this banking system, or at least its central principle, is essential to the demonstration of my position. I offer him this principle as conclusive proof; he must show its error, or admit the claim. It cannot be brushed aside with a contemptuous wave of the hand.(128 ¶ 5)

Now, what is this principle? Simply the freedom of credit and the resultant organization thereof in such a way as to eliminate the element of the reward of capital from the production and distribution of wealth. Herr Most will not dispute, I think, that freedom of credit leaves private property intact and even increases the practicability of production on the large scale. The only question, then, is whether it will abolish usury; for, if it will abolish usury, my position is established, usury being but another name for the exploitation of labor. The argument that it will effect such abolition, and the argument therefore which Herr Most is bound to destroy, he will find set forth in the latter half of my paper on State Socialism and Anarchism, printed in the first issue of Libertas. If he makes no answer, the private property plank in the platform of Libertas remains unimpaired by his criticism; if, on the other hand, he attempts an answer, then we shall see what there is further to be said.(128 ¶ 6)

But Herr Most’s criticism is not aimed at the platform alone; he is especially severe upon the tactics of Libertas. It is here that he crosses the line of courteous criticism, and becomes abusive by characterizing as hypocritical the declaration of Libertas that, as long as freedom of speech and of the press is not struck down, there should be no resort to physical force in the struggle against oppression. That Libertas is hypocritical in this position he infers from the fact that it now discountenances physical force, although five men have been murdered, others are in prison, and still others are in danger of imprisonment, for having exercised the right of free speech. Herr Most apparently forgets that Freiheit is still published in New York, the Alarm in Chicago, and Liberty and Libertas in Boston, and that all these papers, if not allowed to say everything they would like to, are able to say all that it is absolutely necessary to say in order to finally achieve their end, the triumph of liberty. It must not be inferred that, because Libertas thinks it may become advisable to use force to secure free speech, it would therefore sanction a bloody deluge as soon as free speech had been struck down in one, a dozen, or a hundred instances. Not until the gag had become completely efficacious would Libertas advise that last resort, the use of force. And this, far from showing hypocrisy, is the best evidence of the sincerity of this journal’s utter disbelief in force as a solution of economic evils. If there is hypocrisy anywhere, it is on the side of those who, affecting to think force a deplorable thing only to be resorted to for purposes of defence, are eagerly watching for the commission of offences in the hope of finding a pretext for the inauguration of an era of terror and slaughter hitherto unparalleled in history.(128 ¶ 7)