Politics Within Limits

1. My social ideas are temperamentally mine—I have not really changed them in forty years—but they do not derive logically from my biases, as a doctrine. I would abhor a politics, pedagogy, or town-planning that was deduced from metaphysics or epistemology, or even scientifically deduced, rather than being pragmatic and not immoral. One must not manipulate real people because of an idea or a confirmed hypothesis. Indeed, I say “not immoral” rather than “moral” because positive morality, when used as a principle for action, can be more abstract and imperial than anything. There are far too many missionaries among my friends.

But instead of being abstract or moral, my corresponding defect is that I am an artist and fundamentally unpolitical. I don’t (timidly) bestir myself to oppose anything or try to change it unless I first have imagined a simpler and more artistic way to do it, neater, making use of available and cheap materials, less senseless, less wasteful. If a bad situation is not amenable to my flash of inventiveness, I find it hard to identify with it as mine; I feel there’s nothing that I can contribute. Meantime people are suffering. But a political person ploughs into the situation and makes a difference in it just by his action. Sometimes a good idea then turns up.

Artistic visions have their virtues. (Let me speak no evil of the creator spirit.) They are better than carping criticism. They give people a ray of possibility instead of the gloom of metaphysical necessity. Activism and ideology both do more harm than good. But art has the unpolitical self-sufficiency of art. I am not zealous to make my models real. And they have the timidity of being personal; I draw no strength from my fellows; I cannot lead and find it hard to follow.

One cannot rely on artists for a political message. Tolstoy makes war seem sublime and attractive. Homer makes it senseless and horrible.

  1. But I mustn’t overstate my diffidence. I, like anybody else, see outrages that take me by the throat, and no question of not identifying with them as mine. Cruelty and insults to the beauty of the world that keep me indignant. Lies, triviality, and vulgarity that suddenly make me sick. The powers-that-be do not know what it is to be magnanimous; often they are simply officious and spiteful. As Malatesta used to say, you try to do your thing and they intervene, and then you are to blame for the fight that happens. Worst of all, it is clear from their earth-destroying actions that these people are demented, sacrilegious, and will bring down doom on themselves and those associated with them; so sometimes I am superstitiously afraid to belong to the same tribe and walk the same ground as our political leaders.

Yet people have a right to be crazy, stupid, or arrogant. It is our speciality as human beings. Our mistake is to arm anybody with collective power. Anarchy is …

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