Liberty and Compromise

Liberty and Compromise.

The longer I live and the more I see, the more firmly do I become a believer in religion. For what is the essence of religion, after all, but strong reliance in the conviction that the central principle of the universe is perfection? Call it God, natural law, or whatever you will, the aggregate of all is towards the good, the true, and the just. He whose moral nature is so diseased as not to feel this is the only infidel I can conceive.

Never has the interest in politics been at so low an ebb in the history of this country as now, said a leading politician to me the other day, and yet, he added, never before have such momentous issues been before the country as now.

In the above admission I see a sign of the times having the deepest and most gratifying significance. The so-called labor question is before the country. The papers are full of it. It floods the pulpits and surges upon every hearthstone. Railroad men and merchants tremble. It overflows into congress. The president messages upon it. Everybody is stirred. And yet never in the history of this country were politics at so low an ebb as now.

The fact is that the industrial question is a social question, and that there is sufficient overweight of intelligence among the workingmen to conduct it largely upon social methods, without calling upon politics. Though it be true that the boycott and other of these social methods grievously violate individual right, I confess that to my mind the penalty which liberty must pay to ignorance in this case is very tolerable beside the steady drift towards social methods in place of political.

The great issues that are coming to shake society will be social rather than political. This can mean nothing else than a great tidalwave is in motion towards Anarchism. In its first stages there will naturally be cardinal crimes against individual liberty; but let us not lose temper on this account, and ignore the great revolution that is slowly developing in the methods of social amelioration.

The Knights of Labor are the first crude expression of the new social drift in this country. The order needs seasoning with ideas, and its platform in many respects proclaims a square assault upon individual right. Yet, taken for all in all, it is farther divorced from politics than any other reform organization in history. Whether politics will yet overshadow and capture it is the critical issue in its life. Possibly such will be its fate; but no matter. Profiting by experience, the next great labor organization that rises from its ashes will take a farther step away from politics.

Ideas permeate the masses slowly. It is the individual who impregnates the mass with true germs. The aggregate expression of liberty will long be cumbrous and contradictory, but the germ lives. He who holds a large-rounded faith in an irrepressible drift towards true foundation principles will not fly off and proclaim a sweeping repudiation of an organization which must first creep and get off its swaddling clothes before it can stand erect upon the eternal foundation rock of Individual Sovereignty. A steady inoculation with true [5] germs, wherever the opportunity offers, is the duty of the Anarchist, but we should not rashly cast away from us the body because it was not born whole.

Such a course I do not regard as compromise, in the sense of denying one's principles and acting the rôle of a studied liar and hypocrite. The present collectivized character of society is such that, wherever social aggregations exist, a conglomerate alloy of liberty and despotism is found jumbled together. The most that an Anarchistic reformer can be able to accomplish in one short life is to diligently impregnate the mass with the true germ of liberty, and gradually the gold will separate from the alloy. In how far he himself becomes corrupted by the process of temporizing with despotism must rest upon his own individual character. The result upon his individual integrity measures his manhood and is the test of his moral weight. Without such tests no man can demonstrate what he amounts to as a factor for good.

But all men are differently organized. In the last analysis the only definition of a true man is one who acts out his own nature,—is true to his own instincts. The radical weakness of men is that one nature, seeing truth and consistency through its own glass, is prone to rash and uncharitable interpretations of the conduct of another. If liberty bears upon its saving wings one glory above all others, it is that unlimited largeness which accords full faith to all creeds, judgments, and acts of men which are honest results of the fidelity of the Individual Sovereign to himself. And who is constituted the final judge but the Individual himself?


Comments on the Foregoing.

Mr. Appleton having abandoned the personalities with which he began this discussion, it is my pleasure to follow his example. What he calls the steady drift towards social methods is a source of greater gratification to no one than to myself. Having been engaged for years in working with others to help in creating that drift, it would be strange indeed were I to look upon its progress as other than a most encouraging sign of the times. But it would be equally strange were my comrades and I to now abandon the methods that have proved so potent in creating the drift. The question now is not whether the penalty which liberty must pay to ignorance is tolerable,—the word must begs the question,—but whether this ignorance can be dissipated, and whether the same methods that dissipated so much of ignorance as has gone will not best dissipate that which remains. Why should we treat the ignorance that now retards the progress of this drift otherwise than we treated that which so long prevented it from starting? Why adopt the cork-screw when the plumb-line has served so well? Having held up truth in all its splendor as a beacon for wanderers sailing in the dark, why dim its lustre by accepting an admixture of error before wanderers have reached port?

If the next great labor organization that rises from the ashes of the Knights of Labor shall take a farther step away from politics, it will do so only because more men than ever before see the folly of compromising. The power that will influence the Knights of Labor or their successors to take such a step will be by so much weakened whenever a man who knows the truth compromises with the Knights of Labor. And, by the way, the statement that the Knights of Labor is farther divorced from politics than any other reform organization in history is a most loose and thoughtless one. Scores of exceptions to it might be cited. For the present, let the Anti-Slavery Society prior to the war and the Irish Land League in its earlier stages suffice. The demands of the Knights of Labor, if realized, would extend the sphere of government an immense distance beyond its present limits? Is that divorce from politics?

In his concluding paragraphs Mr. Appleton drops his defence of the wisdom of compromise to champion the liberty of compromise. That is the last liberty that I should ever have thought of as needing vindication. I have never assailed it, and I never knew it to be assailed. It is the one liberty that, from time immemorial, men have enjoyed in its completeness. It is the one liberty that the oppressors of mankind have always rejoiced to see the people utilize. It may be exercised with impunity. The compromiser has not to fear the dungeon or the rack or the stake. To his conduct attaches but one penalty,—that of criticism. However much an individual sovereign he may be, that he cannot escape. He may act as he pleases and compromise as he pleases, but others will always think what they please and say what they please concerning the wisdom of his conduct. Unless, indeed, after publicly inviting them to do so, he privately begs them not to. In such cases the love of mercy and of peace will sometimes prevail.