An Introduction to the Book of James

An Introduction to the Book of James.

So far as I know, C. L. James's Vindication of Anarchism is the most pretentious thing that has ever been written in this country in the name of Anarchism. I do not know that it is bulkier than Instead of a Book; but that was professedly a mere collection of what Andrew Lang calls lost leaders, while this lays conspicuous claim to being a scientifically-ordered work. Besides, though, Instead of a Book now and then speaks favorably of its author. I do not remember that it anywhere contains a passage parallel to this:*

I have read and digested all previous speculations on the nature of beauty; as well as all human history.

This information is not only interesting and valuable in itself, but it is most timely, coming directly after the publication of an assertion that Mr. James had failed to digest all his reading. His own direct testimony ought to put an end to such stories. He would be a very valuable man to have about, if it were not that, after reading and digesting all human history, he has forgotten some of it. For instance, when he says that Tolstoï is probably the first Christian who found Anarchism in the teachings of Jesus, he obviously forgets how some of the founders of Rhode Island turned professed Anabaptists, and would not wear any arms, and denied all magistracy among Christians.*

He has also—strange as it may seem to those who have watched the prolonged coming-out of his serial—forgotten to insert part of what he might have said. At least, he has been saying up and down that he had historic instances to prove that an organization formed for exclusively non-invasive defence was bound to become invasive; his recent debate with A. H. Simpson would have gone all to pieces, if it had not been for this claim of his; nothing could have been more pertinent to his present purpose; and I certainly thought he had half promised that we were to be shown these instances, or at least a selection of them, in his Vindication. I was looking for those instances as the most interesting part of the whole treatise—and they did'nt appear. He must certainly have forgotten to put them in.

I must confess that I always find it hard to write about Mr. James's work without speaking in the most personal way of the author. (The same difficulty seems to beset every one else who writes about Mr. James's work; it besets Mr. James himself.) And I find it no less hard to let him alone; for, despite his invariable untrustworthiness, he is one of the most brilliant and suggestive writers I know. As long as he is talking about things in general, which are Nothing in Particular, and about everything which he calls Metaphysics, he coruscates with a pyrotechnic light that strikes into all sorts of unexpected corners of the brain. It is only when he gets down to things concrete and practical, to points where it is possible to prove whether he is right or wrong, that he talks plain nonsense. Even then it often pays to look and see what truth there may be which he has twisted up into this unrecognizable shape. Really this ought to be one of the valuable points of his work, if people would only treat it so. One of the most necessary foundations for the study of science in general, and social science in particular, is this habit of regarding every statement you see as needing verification; and where can this habit be better acquired than in reading James? I believe he is aiming to teach the Anarchist-Communists scientific method. Well, if they would use this treatise of his for a drill-book, making sure at every point whether he rightly represents his authorities or misrepresents them, and also whether the authorities themselves know what they are talking about,—and holding fast whatever valuable truth they thus prove for themselves, he would have a triumphant success; they ought to come out the best-drilled scientists in the whole radical movement, case-hardened against being fooled by anybody.

At least his remarks deserve that sort of attention when they related to the topics on which he has read and digested so much,—human history in the broadest sense, including anthropology and sociology. About these his worst enemies admit that he knows a lot. It is different in the natural sciences. Of these, so far as I know, he has never given any evidence of knowing more than may be picked up from reading the Popular Science Monthly and such periodicals. Consequently he is at the mercy of whatever he is told, and accepts as practically conclusive what he has heard to be the general judgment of scientific men. He would know too much to trust anybody's historical scholarship in the same way; but he has forgotten that part of human history which tells us how in the middle of the nineteenth century the medical profession in general and its foremost representatives in particular, after abundant discussion, denied the existence of any such thing as hypnotism or hypnotic phenomena, by whatever name called. This attitude of his is amusingly illustrated in the following:

...... to pick up a stone, and ask triumphantly what has become of the force employed in raising it from the earth? Of course, a babe in science could reply that the force has increased the distance of the stone from the earth; that, in so doing, it has altered their common centre of gravity, produced a perturbation (though an infinitesimal perturbation) in the earth's orbit, affected the course of all the planets and all the suns.

A babe in science is just about right. Any one who has studied the first chapter of any textbook of mechanics might answer that, if the stone weighed one septillionth as much as the earth, and was lifted one foot, the force which lifted it has therein pushed the earth away one septillionth of a foot in the opposite direction, and has thereby left the common centre of gravity of the two precisely where it was, together with the orbits of the earth and the planets and the suns so far as these depend on the centre of gravity of the earth with its stone. But this about affecting the courses of the planets has been a part of newspaper expositions of popular science for several dozen years, and consequently it is current coin with James.

With the same lack of any independent thought or observation he repeats the statement that the principles laid down by Malthus are found to hold true of the lower animals. This has (I should like to know how) become a current scientific dictum; yet any one who uses his eyes in the woods and fields must see for himself that all the most conspicuous plants live under Malthusian conditions, but it is very hard to find an animal of which the same can be said. The description of a few foreign species, like the springbok and the lemming, seem to show that their increase is limited by the limited supply of certain necessaries of life—especially food—of which the individual creature could have a more adequate supply if the numbers of the race were less; but I do not know the name of any vertebrate animal in North America, bar man, of which the like has ever seemed to be true.

But such skirmishing in Saul's armor is not the main texture of the book. He keeps mostly to his own extensive ground, and says a host of smart things, if he would not let smartness take the place of evidence. He has lately complained that, in a passing reference to this Vindication I charged him with introducing an important, but unlikely, statement with his words my readers will believe without proof, but do not tell him where to find the passage in question. He will find it in the middle of the second column of the concluding instalment of his first section; and the statement (of which he now promises to try to give me physical proofs) is that taboo is an invention of the priests. I am glad to call attention to it here, because it is a representative case of one of the leading fallacies which run through the whole thing—to wit, the disposition to assume that institutions and the like have been invented by those who derive the most obvious profit from them. His disposition to find a plot everywhere is worthy of a newspaper reporter in a time of assassination. Nothing shall be due to blind blundering, if it is a result at which a plot might have aimed. If agitators against cruelty to animals devote their attention to vivisection, to the abandonment of more profitable lines of agitation, this shall prove that they are guided by somebody's purpose to hinder the advancement of science; it would not do to explain that, of the different cruelties in sight, they chose the one which lent itself most readily to sensational treatment, for such an explanation would be too simple and obviously true.* To keep him from ever perceiving the likelihood that an institution was got up by those whom it injures, he is subject to the most especially delusive delusion which asserts that John Doe is too intelligent to believe what John Doe professes to believe and acts as if he believed. He ought to learn better by seeing that such an intelligent man as C. L. James is capable of believing that the Jesuits sent Czolgosz to shoot McKinley.

Another of his pet fallacies is his disposition to take a thing as proved when it is supported by a very weak chain of circumstantial evidence, particularly when it relates to some remote part of history where direct evidence on the point in question is unattainable or of disputable authenticity, and when the argument in question has been set down in a big book by a man with education enough to know better. For direct evidence, particularly for hearsay direct evidence, he has abundant distrust; doubtless he has observed his own incapacity to report correctly what anybody has said on any subject, and expects the same inaccuracy from others. But the smartness of a demonstration from an utterly unexpected source—a prehistoric migration proved by an etymology, or an international balance of power proved by the probable date of composition of a romance—appeals to his sense of literary effect, and skepticism goes by the board. The whole thing might appropriately be called the Sherlock Holmes fallacy, for it was Sherlock Holmes who most unblushingly formulated the claim that he could think of all possible explanations of a given set of facts, and, if only one of them would fit the further observed facts, then that one was the truth. Yet Sherlock Holmes, with all his intolerable conceit, had at least made a thorough study of the causes which have been observed to produce the various circumstances likely to be associated with a detective mystery; but these people who deduce an extinct form of marriage from the non-existence of a word for a certain relationship don't always take the trouble to learn half a dozen of the commonest causes for the non-existence of a word in a given language.

Such things vitiate a large and uncertain share of his statements of fact, and thereby vitiate the whole argument. Yet there is a good deal to be caught by the way that is profitable. I know enough about history and anthropology to keep track of James's aberrations in these; but I know so little penology that I had been taking a good deal of James's penology on trust, only noticing his naïve way of presenting the conclusions of the great authorities with a few obvious emendations and then claiming the sanction of the great authorities for his result.* so I had been believing his story that criminals of the Jesse Pomeroy type consented to being kept in jail for fear that people would kill them for their crimes if they were at large. But now, in his Vindication, he gives Pomeroy's words, from which I see (1) that Pomeroy was apparently just repeating parrot-fashion the general judgment of society that it is right and proper that criminals should be punished—not expressing any consent that what is right and proper be done, nor, so far as appears, thinking very definitely of any motive for the imprisonment; (2) that Pomeroy was apparently not trying to tell what he thought, but to say what he expected would suit his keepers; (3) that there is no very strong presumption that another criminal of Pomeroy's class would have talked the same way in his place. So, among Mr. James's various theories of Anarchism, that one which rests on his penological studies falls to pieces; and this is indeed a vindication of Anarchism—against a caricature thereof.

But, when Mr. James gets to writing extensively, the only limit to an exposition of his missteps is the limit of the editor's patience. Let me close with saying that I hope to bu a copy of his Vindication in bok form; that I hope to learn much more from its author; and that I hope Anarchism will survive being vindicated.

Steven T. Byington

* Mr. James not only uses the words quoted, but uses them in a connection which does not suggest, nor even appear to permit, the assumption that they mean less than their full face value. It was probably necessary that I should state this explicitly.

* Winthrop's Journal, II, 38. I quote at second hand from Dexter's As to Roger Williams,—a book worth reading, and much shorter than it looks. Williams himself does not seem ever to have been an Anarchist, though he was much in advance of his time.

I don't know whether Mr. Tucker will be willing to print this word over my signature; for he has succeeded in convincing the rest of the world that I object to its use, and I suppose he has convinced himself.

I will not be too positive, however, of my impressions of what he has said: for he tells me I did him great wrong in charging him with the opinion that all Anarchistic progress must be based on induction. I humbly beg his pardon.

* To New England readers what he says about the self-constituted defender of animals (by the way, by whom might a defender of animals be better constituted than by himself?) will appear as another instance of his inability to observe correctly what goes on before his eyes; for Mr. Angell's publications, which are what we mostly see, are mainly devoted, not to vivisection, but to more every-day matters. But perhaps the Eau Claire zoöphilists are of a different stripe.

* It is a pity that James should have a monopoly of penological study among Anarchists. Some of the results of modern penology are in the highest degree pertinent to Anarchism; they ought to be kept track of by some comrade more reliable than James, and James should have full credit for calling our attention to the matter.