- William Lloyd Garrison and Ezra Heywood were united in their opposition to war, slavery, patriarchy, and the State. But when the Civil War came, Garrison, along with many of his followers, decided it was worth compromising a bit with war and the state by supporting the Northern cause, in the hope that a Union victory would bring a quicker end to slavery. Heywood, by contrast, stuck to his antiwar position. In his 1863 address “The War Method of Peace” (a title Garrison professed to find “somewhat paradoxical,” thus apparently missing the point), Heywood, quoting Garrison past against Garrison present, attacked the Garrisonians for betraying their former pacifist principles. Garrison graciously printed Heywood’s critique in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator – but refused to answer or debate Heywood, on the grounds that wartime was not the appropriate occasion for discussing the antiwar position. (I guess one should protest a war only after it’s over?) As far as I can tell, after that one appearance it was never reprinted again, even in Heywood’s Collected Works – until now.
In James J. Martin’s history of individualist anarchism in America, he writes that despite the “considerable vigor” with which Heywood had combated slavery during the antebellum years, as an “opponent of violence” he “disassociated himself from the cause of negro freedom with the outbreak of hostilities,” although “he continued to deprecate slavery, and inconsistently, to rejoice in later years at its destruction by the means which he most deplored.” I cannot agree with Martin that there is any inconsistency involved here; why can’t we be glad of a result while disapproving of the way in which it came about? For example, if our ancestry could be traced far enough back, most of us – perhaps all of us – are at some point the descendants of rape. Can’t we be glad we exist without thereby approving of rape?
Heywood’s pacifist position is more extreme than mine, however. My take on the Civil War is closer to Spooner’s: no to forced Union, but yes to fomenting and abetting armed insurrection against slaveholders. Nevertheless, Heywood’s analysis of the destructive effects of wars of liberation on liberators and liberated alike is still all too timely today. And while he was mistaken in anticipating that the Emancipation Proclamation would be reversed after a Union victory, he was certainly correct in fearing that any emancipation secured by Lincoln’s troops would be emancipation on white-supremacist terms and within a white-supremacist framework. (Another point in favour of the Spooner position, incidentally: emancipation won by the slaves themselves, culminating in well-armed free blacks in rightful possession of the plantations, could not have been followed by a century of Jim Crow.)
- As I’ve discussed before (see here and here), the American individualist anarchist movement of the 19th century was divided between “egoists” and “moralists.” In her 1891 article “The Philosophy of Selfishness and Metaphysical Ethics,” Voltairine de Cleyre attempts to transcend the entire dichotomy. According to de Cleyre, there are two different ways of going wrong about ethics. One way is the morality of obedience, of duty, of submission to an incomprehensible external authority. For de Cleyre this was the essence of religious ethics (she’s arguably wrong about that – what about Aquinas? – but never mind), and is no longer believable once its theistic metaphysical basis has been discarded. Nevertheless, de Cleyre holds that there was some core of truth to the ethics of duty, underlying its authoritarian trappings, and it is this core that she seeks to recover.
The opposite way of going wrong is the perspective of egoism, which she rejects on the grounds that, as she understands it, such a perspective renders morality subjective, arbitrary, a matter of whim and caprice. The egoist is right to reject an ethics based on external authority, but wrong to replace it with an ethics of pure subjective will. (So the rejection of pure subjective will was the core of truth in religious ethics.)
I think de Cleyre is on to something important here. Aristotle’s attempt to avoid both the otherworldliness of Plato and the vulgar conventionalism of the materialists and Sophists; Wittgenstein’s critique of both Frege and psychologism; Rand’s upholding of the category of the objective as an alternative to both intrinsicism and subjectivism; my own attempt to steer a path between the reflectionist praxeology of Rothbard and the impositionist praxeology of Mises – all of these represent, in different ways, a striving to avoid conceiving normativity, whether ethical or logical, either in purely external or in purely subjective terms. One advantage of the ancient Greek approach to ethics, I’ve argued (see, e.g., here, here, here, and here), is precisely that it allows for internalism without subjectivism.
De Cleyre is also right, I think, to look to a reconceptualisation of the true nature of the self in order to ensure that the demands of morality are neither objectionably external to the self (the “duty” deviation) nor objectionably circumscribed by what we presently will (the “caprice” deviation). It was in just this spirit that Aristotle argued that since “it is our reasoned acts that are felt to be in the fullest sense our own acts,” it follows that “a man is or is chiefly the dominant part of himself,” i.e. his reason, so that the virtuous person, who “values this part of himself most,” thus turns out to be “a lover of self in the fullest degree.” (Nicomachean Ethics IX. 8.) While de Cleyre’s suggestion of a single collective self for all of us (if that’s what she means) strikes me as a move in quite the wrong direction, at least she sees the kind of move that is needed here.
I also think de Cleyre’s view that oppressive institutions were formerly justified as expressions of a more limited stage of social development is an error – one she unfortunately shares both with Marx and with many 19th-century libertarian thinkers, including Proudhon, Spencer, and Molinari. (But, to his credit, not Bastiat!) What perhaps helps mislead her into this error, though, is her correct internalist insight: she sees that it makes no sense to condemn a practice unless some case against it can be made from the standpoint of the practitioners themselves. Where she goes wrong, I would say, is in thinking of that standpoint in psychologistic rather than in Socratic, reflective-equilibrium terms; thus if the practitioners feel no psychological discomfort (even if quickly repressed) regarding their practices, de Cleyre too quickly concludes that there’s no case as yet to be made to them against those practices, whereas Socrates would inquire whether – regardless of how they may happen to feel – they are logically committed, by their present beliefs and desires, to condemning those practices.
Author Archive | Roderick
The documentary film Anarchism in America, which features interviews with Karl Hess and Murray Bookchin among others, is advertised as containing footage of sf author Ursula Le Guin as well. But a number of viewers have reported, with disappointment, that Le Guin is nowhere to be found.
I’m not so sure. In track 3, titled “International Symposium on Anarchism,” there’s a frustratingly brief clip of an unidentified woman saying: “I think anarchism to most people does mean bomb-throwing, at first. But they don’t know that it’s an idea at all, and a whole political philosophy, and a moral philosophy.”
Is that Le Guin? I think it might be. (Even if so, admittedly an insufficient basis for including her name in puffery for the film. Still, it’s an excellent film, worth a watch.)
After four years I’ve finally switched from doing everything manually to using actual blogging software. I’m not crazy about how the new version looks, and I haven’t mastered all the technical details yet; but the two chief advantages will be: a) it will save me time, and b) it will allow readers to post comments. (For now I’m letting comments be unmoderated – though judging from some of the crazy email I get, I can imagine that that might change. But we’ll try it for now.)