Published in the Truth Seeker (Volume 120 No. 5)
Voltairine de Cleyre: Anarchist without Adjectives
by Sara Baase
If you try to name the great anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Joseph Proudhon, and Benjamin Tucker may come to mind. Voltairine de Cleyre (1866- 1912) is not well known today. She was a freethinker, an anarchist, and a feminist. She toured the country as a speaker and she wrote poems, stories, and essays. She knew and worked with many of the more well-known radicals. The purpose of this article is to introduce de Cleyre and some of her excellent writings.
Voltairine de Cleyre was born to a poor family and was sent off to a convent at age 13 to be educated. She hated it. She was taught to repeat religious statements even if she did not believe them. She made a significant moral decision: She would not lie, even if it meant she would be damned. (This decision, made in innocence and fear, reminded me of Huck Finn's decision to protect Jim, the runaway slave, even if he went to hell for it. In each case, the child decided to do what he or she knew instinctively was right even if punished for it. The irony is that the punishment was damnation threatened by the church, the institution that is supposed to teach the child to do right.)
When Voltairine emerged from the convent at age 17, she totally rejected religious dogma and hypocrisy. She was a freethinker, without ever having "seen a book or heard a word to help" her.
During the next 15 years, de Cleyre embraced and then abandoned many variants of anarchist philosophies. It was as if she were trying on garment after garment, trying to find one that fit. None fit quite right, so ultimately, she fashioned her own. Here is a brief summary of the development of her views. Throughout, her anti-authoritarianism and her dedication to liberty were constant.
De Cleyre began lecturing on freethought soon after leaving the convent. At 19, she spoke on Thomas Paine's lifework at a Paine Memorial convention, and heard Clarence Darrow speak on socialism. She embraced socialism for six weeks until she discovered anarchism. Emma Goldman said her "inherent love of liberty could not make peace with the state-ridden notions of socialism." She then discovered Benjamin Tucker, the individualist anarchist editor and publisher of Liberty, the main anarchist newsletter from 1881 to 1908. The individualist anarchists held that the "essential institutions of Commercialism are in themselves good, and are rendered vicious merely by the interference by the State." De Cleyre later disagreed with the economic views of the individualists and became a mutualist anarchist. She saw mutualism, under which free federations of the workers would obviate the necessity of an employer, as a synthesis of socialism and individualism. She became a pacifist and opposed prisons. Having forsworn hypocrisy, she declined to prosecute a man who tried to assassinate her.
De Cleyre's pacifism led her to reject mutualism. She commented that ''Socialism and Communism both demand a degree of joint effort and administration which would beget more regulation than is wholly consistent with ideal Anarchism; Individualism and Mutualism, resting upon property, involve a development of the private policeman not at all compatible with my notion of freedom."
What was left? Simply anarchism "anarchism without adjectives," as the Spanish anarchist Fernando Tarrida del Marmol put it when calling for greater tolerance among the various anarchist factions. One of de Cleyre's best essays is "Anarchism" published in 1901. In it she defines anarchism as freedom from compulsion. She recognizes that an anarchist must adopt some view of economics. In this lovely essay, she describes the distinctive views of the four major economic subcategories of anarchists: communist, socialist, individualist, and mutualist and shows why each might have developed when and where it did. She argues that the particulars depend more on history and culture than abstract rational derivation. Individualism, for example, was a good fit in a society without a history of class conflict, where the worker of today could be the employer tomorrow, where the country's motto was "The Lord helps him who helps himself." De Cleyre saw that "there is nothing unanarchistic about any of them until the element of compulsion enters and obliges unwilling persons to remain in a community whose economic arrangements they do not agree to." Like Tarrida, she encouraged tolerance among anarchists, even including the Christian anarchists.
De Cleyre also encouraged tolerance of a variety of methods of achieving liberty. Just as libertarians today argue about whether resources should be spent on electoral campaigns or educational projects, the anarchists at the turn of the century argued about peaceful methods versus confrontational tactics. De Cleyre wrote that "all methods are to individual capacity and decision," i.e., that we should use our own skills to do what we are good at, and choose methods that we are comfortable with. She described and applauded several prominent examples. Tolstoy, the "Christian, non-resistant, artist" used his talent as a writer to "paint pictures of society as it is, . . ., to preach the end of government through the repudiation of all military force." John Most, fierce and bitter from years in prison, used his fiery tongue to denounce the ruling classes. Benjamin Tucker, cool and critical, believed passive resistance most effective, but was ready to change when he thought it wise. Peter Kropotkin hailed the uprisings of the workers and believed in revolution with his whole soul. Even those who chose assassination of oppressive and cruel government officials she defended. She saw them as gentle in their daily lives, lofty in their ideals, driven to acts of violence by the corruption and injustice they saw. She wrote
Ask a method? Do you ask Spring her method? Which is more necessary, the sunshine or the rain? They are contradictory yes; they destroy each other yes, but from this destruction the flowers result.
Each choose that method that expresses your selfhood best, and condemn no other man because he expresses his Self otherwise.
I do not agree with de Cleyre in all particulars, but her argument for tolerance is an important one for those with radical views who often spend more time arguing with their friends than criticizing the enemies of liberty.
De Cleyre's essay "Anarchism and American Traditions" attempts to show how anarchist and anti-authoritarian the founders of this country were. The essay includes a powerful attack on government control of education. She probably exaggerated the anarchist leanings of the founders, but her style and the quotes she selected make delightful reading for modern anarchists. The arguments she presents on education are as valid and relevant today as they were in the late 18th century and in 1908 when she wrote her article. She laments the fact that children in the public schools are taught the battles of the American Revolution, but not its ideals.
De Cleyre writes that the founders "took their starting point for deriving a minimum of government upon the same sociological ground that the modern Anarchist derives the no-government theory; viz., that equal liberty is the political ideal." She quotes (more fully than I do here) Thomas Jefferson's wonderful passage
Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government .... 2. Under government wherein the will of every one has a just influence .... 3. Under government of force....
It is a problem not clear in my mind that the first condition is not the best.
(Jefferson goes on to say he believes anarchism inconsistent with a large population.)
After describing the founders' views of the purpose of education, and gracefully but sharply criticizing the political ideas taught in government schools, she concludes with
If the believers in liberty wish the principles of liberty taught, let them never intrust that instruction to any government; for the nature of government is to become a thing apart, an institution existing for its own sake, preying upon the people, and teaching whatever will tend to keep it secure in its seat.
There is much more of Voltairine de Cleyre's life and work to explore. I recommend the following sources.
Paul Avrich An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre (Princeton University Press, 1978)
Alexander Berkman (editor), Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre (Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1914)
Wendy McElroy, Freedom, Feminism and the State (Cato Institute, 1982)
Any information in this article pertaining to legal or medical matters is not to be construed as professional advice. Copyrights remain the property of the authors.