Anarchistic Small Fry.
The subject of plumb-line and cork-screw seems to dwell so persistently in the minds of some of Liberty's leading spirits that I am tempted to take one more hand in this rather trivial matter, and then I am done.
Two very important facts seem to escape the one-sided moralists who are anxious to keep me in good Sunday-school trim. The first is that the cork-screw is just as useful and legitimate a tool as the plumb-line. Though Friend Tucker has little use for the former, his great reasoning powers will yet be able to comprehend it. Whether the world has been more benefited by the one or the other of these two devices would be a difficult question to decide. The auger, the screw, and that class of tools are indispensable. If Tucker and Miss Kelly insist on throwing them away and driving nothing but plumb-line bolts with their sledge-hammer intellects, let them do so. But they must not call me a dishonest mechanic because I choose to keep my augers, or use a cork-screw instead of knocking the neck clean off the bottle, with great danger of spilling much of the wine of truth within.
The second fact is that a cork-screw can move in a plumb-line just as truly as a steel bolt, driven by these mighty sledge-hammer intellects of my critics. When a carpenter wishes to be dead sure of driving his bolt in a plumb-line, he takes his auger. This instrument, moving on the cork-screw principle, does not make so much noise and pretension as the sledge-hammer device, but it gets to the plumb-line point, where the steel bolt and sledge-hammer system fails. Tucker is thinking of a crooked auger and a bent cork-screw, and Miss Kelly's eye is following the worm of the cork-screw instead of its central line of motion, which is a true compromise with its spiral circumference and is on the plumb. Before my good friends spend much more time in prayerful anxiety for my soul's salvation, they need to ponder with their terrible intellects these simple laws of moral mechanics.
But these shortcomings of theirs are nothing compared with the vital point they seem to forget, viz., that as individualists they are bound to give full faith  and credit to every man's methods, provided these are on a plumb with his best judgment and conscience. The data of all true ethics reside alone in the individual. To seek for the plumb-line in the act and not in the sovereign individual is direct treason to all that individualism stands for. When the individual is on the plumb with himself, he cuts a square figure by all the vital canons of our philosophy, and for one individual to assume to plumb another is in the direct line of authoritarianism. As for compromise, it can only be predicated on the individual, and not on the acts of the individual. I can only compromise as an individual, under our philosophy, when I compromise with myself,—that is, when I do something opposed to my own convictions and conscience. On this matter I am sole judge and tribunal, and cannot possibly compromise where the sovereign within approves, no matter what I may do. Tucker may be dead plumb with himself, and call himself a plumb-line. I, when dead plumb with myself, am a plumb-line too. Yet in Tucker's eyes I may be a cork-screw, and he in my eyes an intellectual pollywog. The fact is that we are both what we are, and each is alone constituted to plumb his individual self. The moment he assumes to plumb me, he violates his whole philosophy, if he has any as an Anarchist.
A broad and all-comprehensive philosophy is this of individualism, of which Anarchy only represents one side of a protest. Either my good critics do not understand it, or else only a few scattering seeds of authority have been killed out of them. Bear this severely in mind,—viz., that by all that is high and holy in our sysetm I am on the dead plumb when I plumb with myself, though I may be cork-screw, jig-saw, or crooked wormer to all the world. From this there is no appeal, and all attempts to force one are conceived in the spirit and unreason of despotism and authority. This persistent small talk on other people's conduct is rather cheap business for anarchists.
Comments on the Foregoing.
In the last issue of Liberty Mr. Appleton wrote as follows:
When I am mentally plumb sober, I stand for radicalism, the whole of radicalism, and nothing but radicalism. But now and then the temptation to be seduced into faith in the possible virtue of pretentious superficial movements, having no sound radical basis, but imposing in numbers, noise, and passing respectability, gets something of a hold on me. When this sensational will o' the wisp has suddenly vanished as quickly as it came, I sober back into the standing conviction that all essential reform muts develop out of an understanding of the true roots of social evil.
These words were a virtual confession that the burden of the criticism passed by me upon their writer is true. I did not expect that this confession would stand; neither did I expect that it would be so soon retracted. Who or what caused this present lapse from sobriety bless me if I know.
Let us look back a little at this controversy. Miss Kelly delivered in Boston an entirely impersonal lecture in opposition to the policy of compromise. No person was mentioned by the lecturer, and I think I may safely say that her remarks were aimed at no particular individual. Mr. Appleton, however, thought that she was aiming at him, and in defence of himself he made a grossly personal attack on Miss Kelly in Liberty. For some reason thath as never yet developed itself, he made me, equally with Miss Kelly, the object of this attack. Almost all that he had to say was based on the alleged success of his personal career and methods, which he thereby offered for criticism. He expressly said:
I rise for prayers, and ask Sister Kelly and Brother Tucker to keep me from going astray. I accepted this challenge to a personal controversy, as I saw that Mr. Appleton was determined on it, and I subjected his career and methods to a somewhat searching examination. He being tender and my criticism being true, some soreness resulted, which, it now appears, is not healed yet. But his soreness will heal in time, if I and other writers for Liberty do not innocently happen to touch him too frequently on the raw.
I presume that in some way I have touched him on the raw, and for that reason he cries out in pain. This may be pardonable. But that he should accuse me, whose criticism he invited, of attempting to force him or
assuming to plumb him is decidedly cool. That he, who declared that he had risen for prayers, should complain of the time that I spend in prayerful anxiety for his soul's salvation is another of the shuffles at which he is so adept. When he took occasion in the last issue of Liberty to denounce Powderly as a
skunk, was he
seeking for the plumb-line in the act or
in the sovereign individual? In thus
assuming to plumb Powderly, was he
in the direct line of authoritarianism? In inquiring into Powderly's convictions and conscience, was he passing upon a matter in which Powderly is
sole judge and tribunal? According to Mr. Appleton's conception and practice of Anarchism, it should allow him to unsparingly criticise the acts and motives, but should protect him from their criticism even when he invites it himself. Mr. Appleton's present article either means that to criticise another is to attempt to force or govern him, or it means nothing. The former meaning is too silly to be ascribed to Mr. Appleton; I must therefore think that he means nothing.
Mr. Appleton is done, and I am done. He, with his usual elegance, concludes by calling me an
intellectual pollywog; I, with my usual coarseness, conclude by declining to vie with him in the exchange of that class of epithets. The phrases by which I have characterized Mr. Appleton may not be as refined as that, but are more intelligible.
This article is part of a debate: Plumb-Line or Cork-Screw.
- « Gertrude B. Kelly, Justice or Force, Which? (July 3, 1886)
- This is the last instalment.