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Black Rose


An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine De Cleyre

Paul Avrich (Princeton University Press, 7978), 266 pp., 876.50.

Both as a speaker and a writer, Voltairine De Cleyre is one of the major figures in the history of American anarchism. Among the women of the movement, she occupies a position in the first rank with Emma Goldman and Lucy Parsons. Aside from her own considerable contributions to the anarchist movement, whose significance are largely undiminished today, her own "times" are also important, spanning what Paul Avrich delineates as the "classical age of anarchism," that between the Commune of Paris and the First World War, also the "heyday" or "blossom-time" of the American anarchist movement.

This Life of Vo/tairine De Cleyre is intended to be the first of a series of books by Avrich, which taken together will constitute a fairly complete history of American anarchism. Other figures on whom the author will do similar biographies are Josiah Warren, Alexander Berkman, Benjamin Tucker, Johann Most, and Emma Goldman. For undertaking such a massive research project, as well as for his interviews with the remaining individuals who had widest contact with the earlier anarchist movement, both anarchists and libertarians generally owe a debt of thanks to Professor Avrich and to Princeton University Press.

Furthermore, Avrich's organizational approach to the writing of a history of American anarchism, that of choosing various colorful personalities, is in itself interesting. The author feels such an approach is justified since anarchism never did become the creed of the mass of industrial workers, but rather "remained a dream of comparatively small groups of men and women who had alienated themselves from the mainstream of American society." (p. xvii) However, these people were not merely colorful personalities, "interesting" on that account, but powerful social and moral critics, "whose voices should not go unheard." (p. xvii)

One of these major social and moral critics, Voltairine De Cleyre was also in some respects an extraordinarily prophetic voice crying in the wilderness, anticipating "the contemporary mood of distrust toward the centralized bureaucratic state." (p. xix) Probably Avrich's greatest contribution to contemporary anarchists interested in Voltairine De Cleyre is in bringing out the development of her ideas on "Anarchism Without Adjectives," a doctrine to which she adhered throughout all the schisms of the anarchist movement-individualism vs. collectivism, private property vs. its expropriation, anarcho-socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, anarchocommunism, anarcho-capitalism, schisms that remain alive today, little changed.

De Cleyre saw each of these tendencies as forming a part of anarchism, each emphasizing one human need or form of economic organization to the exclusion of all other possibilities. Theoretical discussion and dialogue, she felt, was essential to see the strengths and limitations of each tendency. If push were to come to shove and a practical situationemerge in which one method or another be applied, the form or method of organization chosen should be based upon each individual situation; in other words, what was best suited to one situation would not necessarily be best suited to all others, and above all, should not be imposed upon people whose traditions might be alien to a particular form of structure. De Cleyre's "Anarchism Without Adjectives" reflected an extraordinarily broad, tolerant, and well-disciplined intellect, that developed a uniquely inspiring conception of anarchist thought, that was nearly without equal, "in its tolerance, breadth of outlook, high seriousness, close reasoning, and clear definition." (p.157)

This breadth of conception of what is embraced by anarchism is the more remarkable given Voltairine De Cleyre's individual political evolution. Like many other indigenous American anarchists, De Cleyre was nurtured upon the writings of Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau, and from such thinkers her own radical tendencies emerged. Of her contemporaries, two of her major influences were Dyer Lum and Stephen Pearl Andrews, both free thinkers, one a secularist and one a spiritualist. Again, like many other indigenous American anarchists, she espoused individualism as a major part of her political credo in her early years; this was true of many other members of the free thought, or secular, movement from which she emerged.

Unlike many other indigenous American anarchists, Voltairine De Cleyre moved on from individualism to a vastly modified position embracing socialism and, in special circumstances, expropriation of private property. Such an evolution was a far cry from her early years when she had described herself as an "individualist," in contradistinction to Emma Goldman who she called a "communist." Yet, Voltairine De Cleyre, above all intelligent, calm, and measured in her thought, did not pass through a series of "stages" or "phases," with each new one implying a renunciation of all previous ones, but saw each as somewhat of a counterbalance to the other. While she parted company intellectually with some of her earlier comrades, she continued to value the work of each and remained on friendly and civil terms with most, a favor infrequently returned. And to the end of her life, she continued to speak and write for the free thought and secular movement as well as for the anarchist movement.

Tolerant though she was, Voltairine De Cleyre did not lapse into a fuzzy-headed, all-inclusive, all-things-are- equal definition of anarchism. Debate and theoretical discussion should always be encouraged; disciplined and consistent thinking should always be given a hearing, regardless of whether it disagreed with one's current conviction. But only the word Anarchy could adequately describe her own beliefs. Nor was it subject to modification:

The triumphant word of Anarchism alone has the power to stir the moral pulses of the world. It is the only word which can animate the dreamer, poet, sculptor, painter, musician, artist of chisel or pen, with power to fashion forth his dream. (p. 162 quoted)

Only if a moral and aesthetic revolution occurs in the hearts and minds of men and women, in turn acting upon the material and political structures of the world, will Anarchy truly be served.

Avrich has done a more-than-commendable job in fleshing out the influences upon Voltairine De Cleyre's thinking. He is particularly strong in dealing with some of the more obscure and later European influences upon Voltairine De Cleyre, little-known (in the United States) Italian and Spanish comrades. He is not equally strong perhaps, or at least does not devote as much space, to the indigenous American influences upon De Cleyre. Lum, for instance, does not come to life very much at all, but comes across mostly as a shadowy, bizarre, hard, and tragic figure, whose common devotion to the Haymarket martyrs and to suicide seems his strongest link to Voltairine.

While Lum, De Cleyre's closest comrade for a number of years, is tagged as some obscure sort of Buddhist, we learn little of De Cleyre's own spiritual odyssey, though one senses it was immense. We know that she rejected Catholicism early in life, having attended a convent high school. To what extent, if at all, was she tainted with Stephen Pearl Andrews' spiritualism? Dyer D. Lum, who wrote a tract against spiritualism, nonetheless, supported Victoria Woodhull's Presidential candidacy, for example, she who was notorious for her spiritualism as well as for her free love. Similarly, Freethought, a periodical to which both De Cleyre and Lum contributed articles in the 1880s, included about 25 percent spiritualists among its subscribers. Such were the vagaries and ins-andouts of American radicalism of the 1880s, prior to most of the important European influences. Where did Lum and De Cleyre fit in? What did they feel about all this? One senses that particularly for Lum, who committed suicide only a few years later, such details would be significant. (Hal Sears' The Sex Radicals provides one of the fullest pictures of this period of American radicalism.)

In addition to the mysterious Lum, however, the various dramatic relationships with other anarchists form a fascinating backdrop to her thought. Avrich goes into a good bit of detail on her ambivalent friendship with Emma Goldman, her late-blossoming friendship with Berkman on his assuming the editorship of Mother Earth after his release from prison, and the series of unhappy and unhealthy sexual liaisons-particularly with younger men-that marked her mature years. To Berkman, in platonic solidity and literary sympathy, Voltairine De Cleyre was a true friend. One of the most moving and human passages Avrich quotes is from a letter to Berkman on the subject of suicide. Emma Goldman, with her large lust for living, could be only impatient with such weakness.

Voltairine, on the other hand, was not only a compassionate listener, but was able to empathize with Berkman and see him through his period of self-doubt and readjustment (though Berkman died by his own hand in the 1930s). Voltairine De Cleyre had attempted the act of suicide twice, once by poison with a lover following a particularly futile and devastating argument and once by morphine following a long and painful illness. On this subject Voltairine lived what Emma, ever the spokesperson of Romanticism and Idealism, spoke but did not feel. The nineteenth century European Romantics probably have more that is meaningful to say to us on suicide-as well as on drugs-than have twentieth century social scientists, beginning as far back as Mme. de Stael's "Reflections on Suicide." As with most of the original Romantics, Voltairine De Cleyre did not ultimately take her life but could not condemn in theory the self-justified right to discontinue one's life.

Despite her experience with near-suicides, her unhappy sexual unions, and her relentless poverty, Voltairine De Cleyre was not a morbid person, not until the very last part of her life when she had been shattered psychologically and physically by persistent ill-health, once due to a would-be assassin's bullet. Avrich rightly emphasizes this point since it is contrary to the prevailing picture of De Cleyre as a martyr- or an ascetic-type for which Emma Goldman was at least in part responsible in her autobiography. And, despite many personality differences, Voltairine De Cleyre's opposition to marriage and woman's enslavement to child-rearing were strong points shared with Emma Goldman.

One contributing factor to De Cleyre's lifelong poverty was her position that an anarchist should earn his or her daily bread and not be dependent economically on the movement, a position shared with Kropotkin. This was in contrast to both Emma Goldman and Lucy Parsons who were professional movement lecturers and writers. Voltairine De Cleyre distrusted the more popular and inflammatory rhetorical styles of Goldman and Parsons as speakers, as she did any speaker whose appeal was in any large way influenced by personal charisma or magnetism. De Cleyre, who on at least one occasion appeared at the podum attired in a Roman toga emphasizing classic serenity and calmness of appeal, delivered speeches carefully written out in advance and characterized by greater complexity and subtlety of argument than Emma Goldman's most popular speeches. De Cleyre considered the brisk-selling Anarchism and Other Essays by Goldman to be fine, for the most part, for as far as it went, implying the work was a bit superficial for her own taste.

For all this fascinating and intimate detail about the movement and his thoroughness in developing Voltairine De Cleyre's political evolution, Avrich has not really succeeded in making his subject "live" or "come to life" in the way Richard Drinnon was able to do with Emma Goldman in Rebel in Paradise. In part, this may be inevitable because Voltairine De Cleyre is simply a more aloof sort of person, whereas for Emma Goldman the world was her stage and she flourished in the public eye. In part, however, it is because Avrich's project is somewhat limited to the political, theoretical, and analytical, although he professed in his introduction as his goal "to analyze her character, her ideas, her feelings, ..." (p. 16) To have done this more thoroughly, he would have had to provide more about De Cleyre's writing, her spiritual development, her emotional development, her more satisfying and enduring friendships, perhaps at the expense of space devoted to the movement figures, who were less significant personally for Voltairine though more significant for history. While Voltairine De Cleyre cultivated an aloof air in public, it was only because her interior life was so rich, so full of imagery, so strong, and at times so turbulent. For me, the human side of Voltairine De Cleyre is at least as fascinating as the human side of Emma Goldman, perhaps more so, as her dark sides were more intense, her need for privacy more overwhelming, and her fears and doubts-both about herself and the world-apparently stronger.

While there are aspects of Voltairine De Cleyre's life-particularly her writing, concerning which Berkman recommended her to Upton Sinclair as "one of the best short story writers in America"-that still await definitive treatment, Paul Avrich's account of De Cleyre's life is thoroughly researched and doubtless accurate, a corrective to previous mistaken treatments of her life. Not one for idle speculation, Avrich states what the facts and sources clearly reveal and no more. For this reason, as well as for having filled in a conspicuous gap, a missing puzzle piece, in the history of American anarchism, Paul Avrich has given us a work that will solidly endure. His portrait of Voltairine De Cleyre as a calm and well-measured theorist of major note is not to be faulted.

-Marian Leighton


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