Voltairine de Cleyre, the Anarchist Tradition and the Political Challenge

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by Chris Crass

From 1890 thru 1910, Voltairine de Cleyre was one of the most popular and renown anarchists in the United States. She was a prolific writer and lecturer on such issues as religion, secularist freethought, marriage, women's sexuality during the Victorian age, the role of crime and punishment in society, prison abolition, anarchist thought and it's relationship to American traditions, anti-capitalism and class struggle, and suffrage and women's liberation.

Voltairine's contributions to American political thought have been largely overlooked or marginalized. While she is remembered in the contemporary anarchist movement as an important figure in that tradition, her writings and lectures have not received a wide audience since the decline of the anarchist movement in the United States during World War I and the 1920's, following the Palmer Raids, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and execution, and a host of other deportations, incarcerations and assassinations that silenced some of the most powerful voices in the radical tradition of this country.

Along with the revival of anarchist politics and organizing strategies in the United States during the 60's and 70's1 came a renewed interest in the history of anarchism. In 1978, Paul Avrich, a professor of history at Princeton University, published the first of his six books on US anarchism. This book was a biography titled, An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. Her essays, originally collected and published by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman in 1914, have again been reprinted and distributed in anarchist, secular humanist, and feminist circles. In the Preface of his book, Avrich writes "As a freethinker and feminist as well as an anarchist, moreover, she can speak to us today, across a gulf of seven [now nine] decades, with undiminished relevance... She was one of the most eloquent and consistent critics of unbridled political power, the subjugation of the individual, the dehumanization of labor, and the debasement of culture; and with her vision of a decentralized libertarian society, based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid, she has left a legacy to inspire new generations of idealists and reformers."2

Looking at the ideas and life of Voltairine de Cleyre provides a first hand look at the anarchist movement at the turn of the century and her politics encompassed many of the important traditions that led to the development of anarchist thought and movement in the United States. There have been multiple tendencies in anarchist thought for centuries, and this continues into today. One of Voltairine's contributions to anarchist thought was her belief in, what she and others called, "anarchism without adjectives". At the time there were competing schools of thought that diverged mostly in the areas of economics and strategies for social change. The two most prominent tendencies were the individualist anarchists (or the philosophical or scientific anarchists) and the anarcho-communists (or libertarian socialist, or social anarchist). Voltairine argued that there positive contributions to be learned from each, and that anarchists had to unite around their common anti-authoritarianism and allow room for experimentation with economic ideas and methods of agitation and organizing. While there were some who found her argument persuasive, the movement, nevertheless, remained divided along these issues. In her own writings and evolution as an important political theorist, Voltairine grappled with these issues and was able to develop her own synthesis along with her own unique contributions. Before looking at Voltairine's politics, let us first explore both individualist anarchism and anarcho-communism.

In her groundbreaking work an American anarchism, Eunice Minette Schuster, wrote about the development of anarchist thought from the colonial period up until the publication of her book, Native American Anarchism: A Study of Left-Wing Individualism, in 1932 (The title is referring to those who are American-born as oppose to those who are indigenous to the United States). She traces the specific development of individualist anarchism from Thoreau to the Heywoods to Benjamin Tucker.

Thoreau, who is an important voice in the canon of American political thought, "was an anarchist in that he believed in the sovereignty of the individual and voluntary cooperation," writes Schuster. And she continues: "He held the individual supreme and free to live and act his best impulses, which were both rational and emotional, restraining himself only that he might be a 'good neighbor'. Freedom and justice are the highest values." She then presents us with the quote from Thoreau that "government is best which governs not at all. And when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."3 Thoreau's book, Walden, and his essays on John Brown, slavery, and his classic essay on Civil Disobedience, have been a cornerstone of US political thought, and have influenced radicals far and wide.

The individualist anarchism of the Heywoods focused on the right of the individual to decide sexual and marital relationships, to have access to birth control and sex education, and the abolition of slavery as an affront to individual liberty. The Heywoods were repeatedly fined and arrested under the Comstock laws that prohibited them from distributing birth control information through the mail as it was considered "obscene". The Heywoods were from New England families and during their lives in the mid 1800's they argued that individual liberty as expressed in the ideas of self-rule and self-support found in the Declaration of Independence must be extended and defended from the coercive force of the state and the laws that subjugate women, African slaves, and the indigenous population.4

The most widely known and read of the individualist anarchists was Benjamin Tucker, who published the journal Liberty. Tucker explained that individualist anarchism was rooted in the development of American political thought with its emphasis on the rights of individuals and explained that he was nothing more than "an unterrified Jeffersonian Democrat"5

Tucker and the individualists also believed that the scientific method could be applied to society, and that through science one could learn how to organize society in a way that maximized human liberty and equality. The theme of science and society had gained currency in a broad-range of circles: from the scientific management theories of Taylorism and Fordism that hoped to maximize worker productivity and their profit margin; to socialist and communists in Europe that hoped to run the economy scientifically so as to guarantee the benefits of labor to all ; to the Social Darwinists who argued that science had determined who was fit and unfit for society and arranged their class and race hierarchies accordingly. The hopeful potential of science was also shared by many of the anarcho-communists - especially it's major theorist, Peter Kropotkin, who was also a scientist.

The individualist anarchists also looked, to a large extent, at the American frontier as an important factor in the development of democracy. They would agree with many of the points made by historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, who developed a "frontier thesis" of American political culture. "The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy", writes Turner 6 The individualists believed in the concept of private property. The believed that people had a right to the product of their labor, and that people should be able to enter voluntarily into free contracts with one another to trade and even hire one another to work for them. They advocated a laissez-faire style economics, but also believed that everyone had a right to property and that it should be roughly shared equally. This is the major point of contention with all other anarchists, who argue that the individualists have defined property in terms of an idealized American past when families where given land to farm and little government existed, hence the importance of the frontier.

Voltairine de Cleyre was influenced by Tucker and the individualists early in her political development. She was drawn to the anti-authoritarianism and strong emphasis on personal liberty. She contributed articles to Liberty and other publications of individualists. But she soon became critical of their acceptance of private property and their lack of class consciousness. She lived in Philadelphia, one of the nations industrial centers and taught immigrant workers English. Her direct connections with workers along with her own life-long struggle with poverty pushed her to a rejection of capitalism and private property as institutions which enslaved people. While she continued to write for individualist papers and found important contributions in their work, her activity was chiefly alongside anarcho-communists.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's the level of immigration into the United States sky-rocketed. The need for cheap labor in the factories of the big cities brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants looking for work. Many of these immigrants brought with them socialist and anarchist ideas from Europe, and the anarchist movement swelled as they joined its ranks. The individualist anarchists never gained popular appeal, nor did they produce a social movement - something that many of them were in fact leery of as mass movements, they believed, diminished the freedom of the individual. While there were many native-born anarcho-communists, many were also immigrants. It was during this time that the labor movement also grew by leaps and bounds, and again it was immigrant workers that were largely responsible.

The radicalism brought to the United States by many of the immigrants struck fear into the ruling class and it was in large part the motivating factor in the anti-immigrant backlash. The Know Nothing Party developed in the 1800's as a pro-nativist and anti-immigrant organization that used violence and intimidation against immigrants. They called cried out for "America for the Americans". In one of their writings they warn of the peril of immigrants to the political institutions of the US: "Never was the near future of political parties in this country so seething with anxious hopes, doubts, and fears... never so ominous to demagogues and hucksters in the field of politics as now."7 The Know Nothing Party developed after the arrival of the "Forty-Eighters". These were political refugees who fled Europe after the failed attempts at revolution in countries around Europe during 1848. Schuster writes that in Louisville, Kentucky in 1855, Know Nothing Party members attacked German "Forty-Eighters" with stones and clubs to keep them from the voting polls. Germans were beaten by crowds, and sometimes killed.8 The Know Nothings were a forerunner of the violence directed against immigrants and radicals in particular. Theodore Roosevelt, as president and before, railed against radical immigrants and argued that immigrants must be assimilated, through force if necessary, and made into true Americans; rejecting one's language and culture for English and the Anglo-Saxon culture of the US. In his book, True Americanism, Roosevelt writes, "he[the immigrant] must learn that American life is incompatible with the existence of any form of anarchy..." and argues that regulation of immigration is necessary to keep out "unworthy individuals of all races - not only criminals, idiots, and paupers, but anarchists of the Most and O'Donovan Rossa type."9 Each of these named anarchists were foreign born and advocates of revolution to end capitalism and private property. Most was a leading figure in the anarcho-communist movement and a major critic of Tucker and the individualists. Like Most, many of the anarcho-communists were immigrants: there were newspapers in Yiddish, Italian, German, Spanish, and Finnish along with the English language publications. Anarchist and labor rallies at the time featured speakers in many different languages. As more and more immigrants arrived, a multicultural anarchist movement was born, one that did not have strong connections to the "American political tradition" upheld by the individualists, one that had matured in the conflicts of Europe and in the industrial centers of the US, one that was highly class conscious and advocated direct action in the form of strikes, sabotage, boycotts, marches, rallies, and at times retaliatory violence against bosses and political leaders.10

Voltairine de Cleyre brought the two tendencies together in her own unique contribution to anarchist political thought. She too was class conscious and worked for the overthrow of capitalism and the state, but she also connected the broader anarchist movement to the tradition of democracy in the United States. In her essay, Anarchism and American Traditions, she argues that the individual liberties outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have helped lay a foundation for human freedom. What has plagued democracy in the US is the fear of liberty among the ruling class and large land owners that drafted the constitution that withheld power from the people to control their own lives. The government was established because the political leaders believed that only through order could liberty be produced. The motto of the anarchists, and one used frequently by Voltairine, was "Liberty is the Mother not the Daughter of Order".11 By connecting anarchist thought with American political thought, Voltairine directly challenged the popular assertion that anarchism was a foreign philosophy, ignorant of democracy and constitutional government. As a native-born English language writer, she was able to speak to a different audience, and from a position that defied the stereotype. Voltairine's writings and lectured combined the political liberty and individual rights of the individualist anarchists and the anti-capitalist, class consciousness, and organizing strategies of the anarcho-communists. She also worked to include her own feminist politics into the broader anarchist movement - that had yet to articulate a politics on the "woman question" as it was referred to. Avrich writes in her biography: "Voltairine de Cleyre's whole life was a revolt against this system of male domination which, like every other form of tyranny and exploitation, ran contrary to her anarchistic spirit. 'Let every woman ask herself,' she declared, 'why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my labor in the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take my children from me? Will them away while yet unborn? Let every woman ask.'"12

Voltairine wrote and lectured on such subjects as "Sex Slavery", "Love in Freedom", "Those Who Marry Do Ill", and "The Case of Women vs. Orthodoxy". She advocated for economic independence for women, birth control, sex education, and the right of women to maintain autonomy in relationships - including maintaining a room of one's own so as to keep one's independence, this is something that she did throughout her life, despite poverty. Anarchist women like de Cleyre and Emma Goldman challenged patriarchal power in society and in the anarchist movement. Through their ideas and activism they brought the experiences of women into the anarchist thought. Contemporary anarchist Elaine Leeder writes that anarchist women brought new dimensions to the movement as, "Anarchist women believed that changes in society had to occur in the economic and political spheres but their emphasis was also on the personal and psychological dimensions of life. They believed that changes in personal aspects of life, such as families, children, sex, should be viewed as political activity. This is a new dimension that was added to anarchist theory by the women at the turn of the century."13

Voltairine's feminist politics challenged not only men in the anarchist movement, but also women in the Suffrage movement that was organizing at the time to secure the right to vote for women. Voltairine de Cleyre and other anarchist women like Emma Goldman condemned the actions and beliefs of the Suffrage movement, on the basis that the vote would not achieve political equality for women. Look at the working men who currently have the vote, argued Voltairine and Goldman, have they been freed from the misery of poverty or the exploitation of the factory boss? As long as economic inequality dominates society, equality will be meaningless. Furthermore, as Emma Goldman stated in her essay on Woman Suffrage", women must gain equality with men, "First, by asserting herself as a personality, not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc., by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer... Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto known in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of live-giving; a creator of free men and women."14

Thus, Voltairine and other anarchist women, brought feminism to anarchism and anarchism to feminism. This theoretical development has been monumental in both movements, and continues to be a driving force in each.

The life and work of Voltairine has much to offer us today. She put forward a synthesis of individualist and communist anarchism that enables us to see the importance of each of these tendencies in anarchism. Her argument that anarchism is rooted in the democratic tradition of the US, challenges our notions of both anarchism and democracy. Her feminist politics added new dimensions to the shape of egalitarianism and women's liberation. If Voltairine were alive today, I believe that her politics would have included a race consciousness of how our society has been shaped by imperialism and white supremacy. Her lack of analysis on race was shared by most in the anarchist and mainstream feminist movements at the time, and each have suffered for this major neglect.15

In general, Voltairine's ideas offer keen insights into the contradictions of American political ideals of equality and democracy and the actual practices of society. By advancing her belief in radical social change and putting forward her egalitarian politics of a cooperative society based on anarchist and feminist principles, Voltairine challenges us to look critically at the existing conditions of society, and she also pushes us to expand our vision of what could be.

Chris Crass is an anarchist organizer with Food Not Bombs in San Francisco and at student at SFSU majoring in "Race, Class, Gender and Power Studies".

1 Farrell, James J. The Spirit of the Sixties: The Making of Postwar Radicalism. 1997, Routledge Press. Farrell outlines the development of a 'personalist politics' that combined Catholic social thought, communitarian anarchism, radical pacifism and humanistic psychology. Farrell demonstrates the importance of anarchist thought and strategies of organizing and action on the movements of the 50's and 60's looking primarily at the Catholic Worker movement, the Beatniks, the Civil Rights and Student movements, the impact of the Vietnam War, and the impact of these movements on American political thought and life.

2 p. XIX. Avrich, Paul. An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. 1978, Princeton University Press. Avrich's research and writings have done much to bring positive attention to anarchist history and thought. His book on the Haymarket Tragedy, the Trial of Sacco and Vanzatti, and sketches of various lesser known or remembered anarchists has helped to lay a foundation from which others may interrogate the anarchist past and discover lessons for current social justice movements.

3 p. 47 and 51. Schuster, Eunice Minette. Native American Anarchism: A Study of Left-Wing Individualism. Originally published 1932, this version 1983, Loompanics Unlimited.

4 p. 88-92. Ibid. There is also a book called "Free Love and Anarchism" which is about the Heywoods and focuses on their conflict with Comstock and struggle for birth control rights and women's liberation.

5 p. 88. Ibid.

6 Turner, Frederick Jackson. From essay reprinted in From Many, One: Readings in American Political and Social Thought ed. Sinopoli, Richard C. 1997, Goergetown Press.

7 Know-Nothing Party, The Silent Scourge. From Many, One ed. Sinoploi. See note 6.

8 p. 124, note 121. Schuster, Eunice Minette. Native American Anarchism.

9 p.197,198. Roosevelt, Theodore, True Americanism. From Many, One ed. Sinopoli. See note 6. Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th president after the assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist in 1901. During Roosevelt's presidency the Anti-Anarchist immigration law was passed that prevented anyone advocating the overthrowing of government from entering the country. This law was soon taken to the Supreme Court and found constitutional.

10 The acts of violence committed by anarchists has been grossly over-exaggerated and used to instill fear in the general public of the mad, bomb-throwing anarchist. Nevertheless, there have been acts of violence carried out by anarchists in this country. Alexander Berkman's attempted assassination of steel boss Henry Frick after Frick ordered pinkertons to attack striking workers at the picket lines. Berkman latter condemned such acts of political violence, and in general the anarchist movement has agreed. The tactic of nonviolent direct action has been the most widely used, continuing today.

11 De Cleyre, Voltairine. Anarchism and American Traditions. From Selected Writings of ed. Alexander Berkman. 1914, Mother Earth Press. This essay is one of her most popular, and has been frequently reprinted.

12 p. 158. Avrich, Paul

13 p. 143. Leeder, Elaine. Let Our Mothers Show the Way from the anthology Reinventing Anarchy, Again ed. Howard J. Ehrlich. 1996, AK Press. This essay is a good example of the continued importance of Voltairine to anarchist movement. Her ideas at the turn of the century are also strikingly similar to ideas expressed in the emerging Women's Liberation movement of the '60's and '70's: the personal is political and the political is personal.

14 p. 149. Goldman, Emma. Woman Suffrage, From Many, One ed. Sinopoli.

15 The contemporary feminist movement has produced an enormous amount of writing on this subject. Women of color feminists have struggled throughout the history of feminist movement to be heard, Paula Giddings book When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Sex and Race in America, documents this. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua's This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color was a breakthrough in feminist thought, published in 1981.

The writings of bell hooks offer crucial understandings of how race, class, and gender intersect and how all forms of domination must be opposed simultaneously. In the anarchist movement, there continues to be a lack of anarchist analysis on imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy. However, anarchists of color have been at the forefront of developing this analysis and challenging the predominantly white movement to look at racism, white skin privilege, and the institution of white supremacy.

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Chris Crass