Publication information

Free Society
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “Expediency vs. Morality”
Author(s): Holmes, William
Date of publication: 27 July 1902
Volume number: 9
Issue number: 30
Pagination: 1

Holmes, William. “Expediency vs. Morality.” Free Society 27 July 1902 v9n30: p. 1.
full text
anarchism; McKinley assassination (personal response: anarchists); Leon Czolgosz (as socialist).
Named persons
Gaetano Bresci; Leon Czolgosz; Francis B. Livesey; Joshua T. Small.
The article by Joshua T. Small referenced below appears in the 13 July 1902 issue of Free Society (“‘Two Kinds of Anarchy,’” p. 3). Small’s article is written in response to a letter to the editor by Francis B. Livesey in the 29 June 1902 issue of Free Society (“Two Kinds of Anarchy,” p. 5). Click here to view Livesey’s letter.

Expediency vs. Morality

     The adoption of the above caption over these few remarks is suggested by reading Comrade Small’s observations on “Two Kinds of Anarchy” in the issue of FREE SOCIETY just at hand. In my opinion the comrade has sized up the situation in a nutshell: “The question, then, resolves itself into one of expediency rather than of morals.”
     I have contended, ever since becoming an Anarchist, that Anarchists are justified in using any and all means to put an end to capitalist plundering, even to the taking of human life. They may be justified, too, on the highest grounds of morality and virtue. They may plead humanity, justice, the prevention of further outrages, and last, but not least, self-defense: for certainly it is humane to attempt to put a stop to wholesale plunder and murder, and is it not a righteous act? And if, as apologists of capital punishment aver, the taking of the life of the murderer prevents other murders, the deed of the avenger can be justified on that ground also. According to all tradition and custom, he who is violently attacked may take the life of his assailant. Even in law this principle is recognized, and he who in self-defense or in defense of his family slays one who seeks to do him or them great bodily injury is not held strictly accountable. Very well; it is easy enough for the poor victim of social injustice to place the blame upon some powerful individual, and striking at that individual as the representative of a nefarious system, seek, in that way to lessen the evils which have produced his and others’ suffering.
     Let us look at this matter a little closer, and without prejudice or bias. I awaken at night to find a burglar crawling in my window with a deadly weapon in his hand. But I have a pistol, I am possessed of a steady nerve, and being now thoroly [sic] awake, I have a decided advantage. Shall I kill him or not? This is the question which presents itself to me, and it is purely a question of expediency. No question of the right of the matter enters my head. Of course it is right for me to shoot him in his tracks, for I have caught him red-handed, and not a jury in the land would convict me of crime. But I may be a humane man, and having “the drop on him” I may decide to capture him, or to scare him away without injuring him. Take another case: suppose that Mr. Livesey with his wife and children were traveling in a brigand country and the robbers actually succeed in capturing his youngest child. Mr. Livesey follows up the brigands to their stronghold, and finds that he can only regain his lost child by killing the chief, who is on guard. Would he hesitate to do so? I think not. Suppose, again, that he is uncertain whether by killing the chief he can recover his baby; would he not be justified in killing the bandit on the bare chance? But suppose he discovers that on their way the villains have brained his little one. Surely he would then be justified in killing not only the chief but his whole murderous gang, if he had them in his power. With him then it would become simply a question of expediency, and he would be governed either by his reason or by passion, whichever might be the strongest motive.
     Very well, Anarchists claim, as Comrade Small justly avers, “that the people’s heritage has been stolen from them.” They insist that murderous robbers have again and again been caught red-handed in the act of plundering the innocent and defenseless; that robber bands have for years, aye, for centuries, stolen all they possessed on earth, and murdered, in cold blood and by wholesale, their loved ones. As an act of mere vengeance are they not justified in using violence? Surely, if this is so, on the ground of self-defense they are doubly justified.
     But here the question of expediency comes in. Anarchists reason, and reason rightly, that violence begets violence, that “they who use the sword must perish by the sword,” and that killing one tyrant only makes room for another and possibly a worse. They may consider, also, the question of time. Has the proper time arrived for a violent deed, for an insurrection, for a revolution? Then there is the effect upon the general movement to be considered: no Anarchist wishes to do that which he fears may injure the cause and possibly retard its growth. A dozen other questions may suggest themselves to him, any one of which or all combined may nerve his arm to do a bold deed or cause him to hesitate or abstain.
     I think we should be very careful how we criticize the acts of a Bresci or a Czolgosz. While, in our opinion and at first sight their deeds may seem rash, foolish and productive of more harm than good, (and I was one who at first condemned the deed of Czolgosz,) [sic] we should withold [sic] our judgment until we have carefully weighed and considered all the consequences. We never know what good may come out of an apparent evil. Let us rather judge conduct by its results than by appearances.
     Of course Anarchy, as a school of philosophy, has nothing to do with revolutionary actions. Bresci may have understood Anarchism or he may not. I don’t know. Czolgosz it now appears was a DeLeon Socialist, and did not understand the principles of Anarchism. But there are revolutionary Anarchists and there are peace Anarchists. The difference arises not in their acceptance of the theories and principles of Anarchism but in their views as to what are the best tactics to be employed to hasten the downfall of the capitalistic system.
     As for me, as long as the highest expediency seems to demand soft methods, I am for peace, but when the time seems to have come for sterner measures I hope I may be found worthy to fight, if need be to die, for the Social Revolution.