Isaac Barr, S. E. Parker, Donald Rooum, George Walford: Letters

Sir,
I think that all Stirner means is ‘That it is not a good thing to tell the truth all the time.’ I think Kant would agree with that.

Yours etc. Isaac Barr

Sir,
I will accept your injunction not to discuss, for the time being, the issues raised so far in the debate on Stirner, particularly since it is clear that a stalemate has been reached between ‘truth-telling-as-a-commitment’ and ‘truth-telling-as-an-expedient.’ However, I would like to comment on some new points you make in your piece Freedom from Truth.[IC 59]

You appear to be complaining that Stirner ‘seems to have behaved for the most part as a good and compliant 19th Century German citizen.’ So what? To repudiate all authority does not necessarily involve open defiance of ‘the authorities.’ It simply means that one does not acknowledge the ‘authority’ of ‘the authorities’ whilst at the same time, as a matter of prudence, taking into account their power whenever one’s interests conflict with theirs. If Stirner kept his head below the parapet in matters where he opposed the government of the day, rather than risk his skin in futile gestures, that was because he saw that to be in his interest. Since he did not pose as a moral exemplar he left it up to his readers as to how they acted in the light of those of his ideas that they made their own. His approach was indicative, not imperative.

Stirner’s ideas certainly ‘justify… any behaviour’ he considers to be in his interest: ‘Whether what I think and do is Christian, what do I care? Whether it is human, liberal, humane, whether unhuman, illiberal, inhuman, what do I ask about that? If only it accomplishes what I want, if only I satisfy myself in it, then overlay it with predicates as you will; it is all alike to me.’ (p. 357) Thus he could not morally condemn anyone else who behaves in a similar fashion, but he would not necessarily ‘approve’ of (in the sense of welcome or support) it. As he wrote concerning the so-called criminal act: ‘the correct thing is that I regard it as either an action that suits me or as one that does not suit me, as hostile or friendly to me.’ (p. 240). In other words, the interests of another individual may not coincide with his. Indeed, they may conflict and then only the respective power of each will settle the matter.

Yes, an egoist can publish books declaring ideas he does not hold, if it is to his advantage. If, however, you mean to imply by this remark that Stirner did not hold the ideas he expressed in The Ego and his Own then the weight of biographical evidence is against you. Not only were some of the ideas expressed there implicit in essays published before his book (for example, The False Principle of our Education, or Art and Religion but in 1845 there was published a fifty-page reply to three of his main critics (Ludwig Feuerbach, ‘Szelige,’ and Moses Hess) and another reply, signed ‘G. Edward,’ to the young philosopher Kuno Fischer, published in 1847, has been attributed to him. Not only this, in the early 1850s Stirner could be found at the salon of the Countess von der Golz discussing his philosophical ideas. Agreed, he was no slave to his ideas, writing that ‘the owner can cast from him all the thoughts that were dear to his heart and kindled his zeal, and will likewise “gain a thousandfold again” because the, their creator, remains,’ (p. 358) but something like decade seems rather a long time to spend putting forward ideas he did not hold!

Yours etc. S. E. Parker (Editor of EGO, journal of the British Stirnerians).

Reply:
We remind readers that the subject of this letter announced that truth, to him, was ‘a thing of naught,’ and he did so not as an isolated remark but in the course of an extended passage on the same theme which was itself consonant with a whole book. We draw the conclusion that his work cannot be taken seriously, and Mr. Parker’s letter confirms this. His letter takes various statements by Stirner seriously, and in doing so fails to take seriously his repudiation of a commitment to truth. (The Stirner correspondence is now closed).

Sir,
Heartfelt thanks to George Walford for the review of What is Anarchism? An Introduction. I could not have written a more flattering one myself.
Just one correction of a misreading, if I may. I do not claim one in seven of all non-voters for anarchism, but only one in seven of those who tell opinion pollsters they will not vote. When I did a bit of data-collecting for Gallup in 1955, these respondents were counted as ‘don’t-know,’ as it was assumed everyone favoured the system (the question about previous voting behaviour was worded: ‘How did you vote last time or were you prevented?’). Now that intentional non-voters are counted separately, they turn out to be seven or eight per cent of persons qualified to vote. (I have no evidence for the one-in-seven guess).

I question whether I ‘go beyond’ anarchist orthodoxy in recognising that anarchy is not complete freedom. A limit to freedom is accepted in the conventional anarchist formula, ‘freedom to do anything except [what interferes with the freedom of others (ed. IC)], and in Herbert Read’s woffly distinction between ‘freedom’ and ‘licence.’ Complete freedom would only be possible if people were perfect; and if people were perfect, governments would be unobjectionable.

Yours etc. Donald Rooum.

Reply:
Freedom, in its connection with anarchism, carries rather more complications than this letter suggests. The name of the oldest anarchist journal is not Freedom and Limitation, the title of the movement does not refer to autogestion (or even self-control), people living in any sort of society would impose restrictions on each other even if perfect, and ‘freedom to do anything except…’ is an empty phrase; every freedom of action worth talking about does interfere. (See the letter below, which is reprinted from Freedom, 3 April 1993.)

Dear Editors,
This letter is an appeal for help. For many years I looked forward to a society in which freedom would be limited only by the condition that one should not interfere with the freedom of others. Recently I have been trying to work out what this would mean in practice, and now find myself in trouble.

Apart from the freedom to think or feel without acting (no society can deprive us of that), there doesn’t seem to be any freedom worth thinking about that does not interfere with the freedom of others. By keeping myself out of jail I interfere with the freedom of the police to throw me in, by refusing to do a job I interfere with the freedom of the bosses to exploit me, and by propagating anarchism I deprive the statists of their freedom from opposition. Those examples come from authoritarian society, but in anarchy the principle would still hold. By reading a book, sitting in a railway carriage or riding a bike I deprive others of the freedom to use that book, seat or bike. By speaking to anybody I prevent them enjoying silence, by breathing I prevent others using that parcel of air, and by just being there I prevent others occupying that space.

‘Freedom that does not interfere with the freedom of others’ has come to look like an empty formula not corresponding to any objective reality. Changing the words, talking about range of choice instead of freedom, doesn’t help a bit. I can’t think of any significant choice that can be put into practice without interfering with the freedom of others to practise their choices.

This is distressing; it has brought on something like a Victorian crisis of faith. Can the readers of Freedom help? Can anybody tell me of freedoms worth thinking about that can be exercised without interfering with the freedom of others?

Yours etc. George Walford

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BETWEEN Marxist predictions, competition for the most striking failure is fierce. Our own choice wobbles between one from the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and another from an article by Karl in the New York Tribune of 25 August 1852. The first said that the proletariat, being a class, would become a party; the other, that universal suffrage in Great Britain would inevitably mean ‘the political supremacy of the working class.’

A century and a half after those predictions were made the proletariat, like the bourgeoisie, remains extended over the whole of the ideological range, and universal suffrage has ensured the political supremacy not of the working class but of the ideological group committed to Domination / Principle. Even when the Tories are not in power this syndrome continues as the predominant influence on political behaviour. (The group committed to expediency, even larger and exercising even greater power over social life generally, remains indifferent to political issues save as they affect its own interests; it does not seek political supremacy).

The pathetic fallacy, not only of Marxism but of revolutionaries generally, has been the picture of a working class that is ‘really’ opposed to capitalism and only waiting some occasion – the vote, or a free press, or a speaker bringing the socialist message – to declare its true allegiance. (See Riot Against Revolution, elsewhere in this issue.) In Britain the franchise came close to being universal around the beginning of this century; since that time the conservatives have been in power for longer than any other party. In France the outcome has been much the same: ‘the extensions of the franchise in 1851 and 1871 profited conservatives and royalists, and moved republicans like Lamartine and George Sand to complain bitterly of the childish immaturity of the people.’ [1] The history is valid, but the attitude one-sided; that ‘childish immaturity’ is the old put-down: If they don’t agree with us there must be something wrong with them. [1] G. M. Tamas, reviewing two books on French politics in TLS 19 February, 9.

from Ideological Commentary Number 60, May 1993.