Sunday, November 25, 2007

Voltairine De’Cleyre on God and Marriage


I just found a truly excellent article on Voltarine De’Cleyre, one of my favorite modern Anarchist writers. I’ll copy the whole thing here, but I just wanted to pull out one of the quotes and highlight it:

“[T]hat is rape, where a man forces himself sexually upon a woman whether he is licensed by the marriage law to do it or not. And that is the vilest tyranny where a man compels a woman he says he loves, to endure the agony of bearing children that she does not want, and for whom, as is the rule rather than the exception, they cannot properly provide. It is worse than any other human oppression; it is fairly God-like! To the sexual tyrant there is not parallel upon earth; one must go to the skies to find a fiend who thrusts life upon his children only to starve and curse and outcast and damn them!”

- Voltairine De’Cleyre

I love this quote on so many levels, for what it says about the institution of marriage as it existed in her time, as a reminder why we should be so utterly and irreconcilably hostile to those who seek to use religious conviction to return us to that time, and as an indictment of the “morality” that those same religious zealots preach.

Anyway, that’s enough from me, here’s the article in full as promised:

Priestess of Pity and Vengeance

chapter 3 of EXTREME VIRTUE: TRUTH AND LEADERSHIP IN FIVE GREAT AMERICAN LIVES (emma goldman, voltairine de cleyre, barry goldwater, john fire lame deer, malcolm x) By Crispin Sartwell original article is at:

If Joan of Arc were to be reincarnated as an American atheist, she’d be Voltairine de Cleyre. De Cleyre is an almost forgotten figure, but she committed her life to a vision of human liberation, a vision which encompassed even the man who tried to kill her. She was an incandescent writer and an original thinker, though she also lived much of her life in despair to the point of suicide. De Cleyre and Emma Goldman in their own time were often mentioned in the same breath as the two great women of American anarchism. They had much in common. Both were celebrated speakers and writers. Both mounted scathing critiques of sexual oppression and the institution of marriage. They were active in the same circles and on the same issues, though de Cleyre was centered in Philadelphia, Goldman in New York.

But Goldman and de Cleyre were opposite poles of the same world. Where Goldman was a communist anarchist, de Cleyre was an individualist, at least early in her career. Where Goldman was an immigrant, de Cleyre grew up in rural Michigan. Where Goldman drew on the work of European thinkers such as Kropotkin and Bakunin, de Cleyre associated her thought with Americans such as Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, and the individualist writer Benjamin Tucker. Where Goldman was given to the free expression of desire, de Cleyre spent much of her youth in a nunnery and even after she rejected organized religion she remained quite a severe ascetic. And where Goldman was almost pathologically social, de Cleyre was fundamentally solitary.

They knew each other and admired each other from the soapbox and in print, though their relationship was not untainted by rivalry. Each thought the other ugly, and said so. Goldman wrote that “physical beauty and feminine attraction were witheld from her, their lack made more apparent by ill-health and her abhorrence of artifice.” This is rather an odd assessment since many of her contemporaries described Voltai (as she was known to friends and family) as pretty, a view that is borne out by pictures. De Cleyre for her part called Emma a “fishwife,” accused her of “billingsgate” (talking abusively) (A 135) and thought her vulgar and decadent. They hated each other’s boyfriends as well; De Cleyre despised Emma’s notorious Ben Reitman, probably in part because of his continual sexual advances toward her and anyone else who got within range. And de Cleyre’s lover Samuel Gordon was a follower of Johann Most and supported him in his condemnation of Berkman’s attack on Frick. When Most repudiated her lover and collaborator Alexander Berkman, Emma horsewhipped Most in public, and you will understand why she refused to allow De Cleyre to visit her in jail if she brought Gordon.

But they also grudgingly admired and publicly defended one another. In 1894, Emma was arrested for telling a crowd “Ask for work; if they do not give you work ask for bread; if they do not give you bread then take bread.” De Cleyre delivered a speech in her defense which is one of the most astonishing documents in American letters. And after De Cleyre’s death in 1912, Emma published an extremely moving eulogy in Mother Earth, which, though it contains the quoted observations about Voltai’s appearance, is full also of praise for her work and her personality.


Voltairine de Cleyre was born in Leslie, Michigan on 17 November 1866. Her mother’s father had been an active abolitionist. She was named by her father, who was a “freethinker” (i.e. an atheist) after Voltaire. The family was very poor and through most of Voltai’s girlhood the de Claires (later Voltai changed the spelling of her name for unknown reasons) barely subsisted. Her sister Addie said that at Christmas, “We wanted, as all children do, to give our parents and each other something, but spending money was an unknown quantity with us.” She recalls that one year Voltai made a little box for her mother and a case for Addie’s crochet-hook out of cardboard (A 21).

Paul Avrich, the great chronicler of American anarchism, wrote in his biography An American Anarchist that “Voltairine de Cleyre grew up to be an intelligent and pretty child, with long brown hair, blue eyes, and interesting, unusual features. She had a passionate love of nature and animals. But, already displaying the qualities that were to trouble her personal relations in later life, she was headstrong and emotional. She was ‘a very wayward girl,’ says Addie, ‘often very rude to those who loved her best.’ Her eyes could be warm or ‘cold as ice.’ When only four, her ‘indignation was boundless’ when she was refused admission to the primary school in St. Johns because she was under age.’ She had already taught herself to read, says Addie, ‘and could read a newspaper at four!’” (A 24). She was admitted to the school the next year and continued until she was twelve.

Possibly because he could not afford to keep her and possibly because he was returning to his lapsed Catholicism, her father placed her in the Convent of Our Lady of Port Huron in Ontario when she was thirteen. She was there, omitting escape attempts, from September 1880 to December 1883. Though she received a decent education, particularly in music (which she loved and taught her whole life) and though she grew close to some of the nuns, it is obvious that her experience in the convent was part of her journey toward extreme anti-authoritarianism. But as well as rebelling against it, she also internalized the convent’s modesty and asceticism. Most pictures of her in later life show her in plain, high-necked garb that could almost be a habit. And her life of extreme frugality and devotion to her calling mirrored that of the nuns who helped raise her. She was often referred to by her acquaintances in religious terms as a priestess (the journalist Leonard D. Abbott called her the “priestess of pity and vengeance” (A 245)) or as the bride of her cause.

She never attended college, but was thoroughly self-educated. After she left the convent, she embarked on the career that supported her, though in poverty, throughout the rest of her life: offering private lessons in English, music, penmanship, and other subjects. In immediate response, by her own account, to her treatment at the convent, where she was often punished for misbehavior and the frank statement of her opinions, she became a freethinker and began to contribute to atheist periodicals and to lecture on Tom Paine and other subjects around the Midwest. In November 1887 she told a Michigan audience this: “I spent four years in a convent, and I have seen the watchwords of their machinations. I have seen bright intellects . . . loaded down with chains, made abject, prostrate nonentitites. I have seen frank, generous dispositions made morose, sullen, and deceitful, and I have seen rose-leaf cheeks turn to a sickly pallor, and glad eyes lose their brightness, and elastic youth lose its vitality and go down to an early grave murdered - murdered by the church” (A 40-41). As a lecturer, despite the firmness of her words, she seemed very self-contained. Where Goldman, Most, and many others breathed fire, Voltai did a slow burn. One of her listeners said “The even delivery, the subdued enthusiasm of her voice, the abundance of information, thought and argument, and the logical sequence of the same made a deep impression on me” (Jay Fox, quoted in A 42).

Like Goldman and so many others, she was converted from a vague socialism to anarchism by the execution of the Haymarket leaders in 1887. When, at 19, she read the news of the explosion that led to that executions - an explosion to which the anarchist leaders were never convincingly connected - she declared that the anarchists ought to be hanged. She berated herself for the rest of her life for that single thought, and spoke every year on the anniversary of the executions. But while Goldman gravitated toward Kropotkin’s communist anarchism, De Cleyre moved toward the individualist anarchism associated with Josiah Warren, Thoreau, and Benjamin Tucker and began to contribute to the latter’s journal, Liberty. The main practical disagreement between communist and individualist anarchists concerns the institution of property. Communists such as Goldman and Berkman held it to be antithetical to human freedom, whereas individualists such as Warren and Tucker considered it essential. Both, however, were critics of rapacious capitalism and shared a vision of voluntary social arrangements. Later, De Cleyre stepped up her critique of capitalism and called herself an “anarchist without adjectives.” She held that any attempt to dictate the future development of politics or economy was itself incompatible with anarchism. As many voluntary systems ought to be tried as there were people who wanted to live in them. Goldman to her credit also realized that something like this was the only position consistent with anarchism. But for De Cleyre, the origin of a social liberation had to be a personal transformation: for her, ultimately, the liberation of a people had to proceed through a liberation of each person, and the primordial scene of enslavement and freedom was within the human self.

In 1889, Voltairine moved to Philadelphia, where she lived and taught and spoke and organized, largely in the Jewish immigrant community, until 1910. She had several lovers over the years, and in 1890 bore one of them, James Elliott, a son. She had no interest in raising the boy, whose name was Harry, and he was cared for by Elliott’s family. As Avrich puts it, “Moody and irritable, in chronic illness [, poverty], and desperate need of privacy, she could not face the task of raising a child” (A 72). Through this period, she was much in demand on the lecture circuit, and she toured the country and later England, though lecturing left her so exhausted and in so much pain that she had to take to her bed afterwards. (It is not clear what exactly her illnesses were, though it is apparent that they were extremely serious from a young age and caused her death at age 45.) And she contributed poems, stories and essays to many publications, notably Goldman and Berkman’s Mother Earth, which in 1914 published her Selected Works under Berkman’s editorship. That book is a bit hard to obtain, in part because the U.S. government seized it upon publication. Of all American anarchists, native born or immigrant, and with the exception of Thoreau, Voltairine de Cleyre is certainly the most distinguished writer; nevertheless, she is more or less completely out of print.

In March 1902, in an expression of the anti-anarchist mania that followed President McKinley’s assassination by a young European anarchist, Senator Joseph Hawley announced that he would give a thousand dollars to have a shot at an anarchist. De Cleyre’s response: “You may by merely paying your carfare to my home (address below) shoot at me for nothing. I will not resist. I will stand straight before you at any distance you wish me to, and you may shoot, in the presence of witnesses. Does not your American commercial instinct seize upon this as a bargain? But if payment of the $1,000 is a necessary part of your proposition, then when I have given you the shot, I will give the money to the propaganda of the idea of a free society in which there shall be neither assassins nor presidents, beggars nor senators” (A 136). Indeed, such flashes of humor, even in the context of extremely serious matters and De Cleyre’s extremely depressive personality, are characteristic of her writing and in particular of her correspondence.

On 19 December of that same year, Voltairine de Cleyre was shot three times at point-blank range. The would-be assassin was not Senator Hawley, but a former student of hers named Herman Helcher, who declared to the police that he loved Voltairine and that she had broken his heart, despite the fact that it had been several years since they had seen one another. Helcher laid in wait for de Cleyre in a building that she passed daily on her way to give lessons. As she boarded a streetcar, he pulled at her sleeve. When she turned, he shot her in the chest. The bullet spun her around, and then he put two more bullets into her back. She managed to run a block before another of her pupils, a doctor, found her. She was expected to die, but as she wrote later to a friend, “I believe that outside of the actual physical pain of the first three days, my friends suffered more than I did. I don’t know what kind of curious constitution I am blessed with, but some way I settled down to the coldest kind of mental attitude in which the chief characteristic was an unshakable determination not to die” (V to Maggie Duff, A 171).

As we ponder de Cleyre’s response to the shooting, we need to keep in mind that she had early on renounced violence, though she came late in her career to endorse “direct action,” largely as a result of her support of revolutionary anarchists in Mexico. But she had also expressed sympathy with anarchist assassins such as Bresci and Czolgosz, saying (as had Goldman) that their actions, while regrettable, were understandable under the circumstances, and that poverty and oppression ever led to violence. And de Cleyre had criticized the legal and penal system in extreme terms on many occasions. So she refused to identify her assailant or participate in any way in his trial. In fact she sent an appeal on his behalf to the journal Free Society:

Dear Comrades,

I write to appeal to you on behalf of the unfortunate child (for in intellect he has never he has never been more than a child) who made the assault upon me. He is friendless, he is in prison, he is sick - had he not been sick in the brain he never would have done this thing.

Nothing can be done to relieve him until a lawyer is secured, and for that money is needed. I know it is hard to ask, for our comrades are always giving more than they can afford. But I think this is a case where all Anarchists are concerned that the world may learn our ideas concerning the treatment of so-called “criminals,” and that they will therefore be willing to make even unusual sacrifices.

What this poor half-crazed boy needs is not the silence and cruelty of a prison, but the kindness, care, and sympathy which heal.

These have all been given to me, in unstinted quantity. I can never express the heart of my gratitude for it all. Be as ready to help the other who is perhaps the greater sufferer.

With love to all,

Voltairine de Cleyre

Philadelphia, 807 Fairmount Avenue (A 177)

This letter puts into practice in the clearest way the thoughts contained in one of De Cleyre’s strongest essays. Titled “Crime and Punishment,” it is not an abstract treatment of issues in penology and jurisprudence, but a philosophy of life based in passionate empathy.

A great ethical teacher once wrote words like unto these: “I have within me the capacity of every crime.” [She is attributing this thought to Emerson, though it is an ancient insight, and was explored famously by Montaigne.]

Few, reading them, believe that he meant what he said. Most take it as the sententious utterance of one who, in an abandonment of generosity, wished to say something large and leveling. But I think he meant exactly what he said. I think that with all his purity Emerson had within him the turbid stream of passion and desire; for all his hard-cut granite features he knew the instincts of the weakling and the slave; and for all the sweetness, the tenderness, and the nobility of his nature, he had the tiger and the jackal in his soul. I think that within every bit of human flesh and spirit that has ever crossed the enigma bridge of life, from the prehistoric racial morning until now, all crime and all virtue were germinal. (SW 177)

Thus, de Cleyre came to a politics of punishment through empathy with transgressors, and to empathy with transgressors through self-scrutiny. Throughout her life, she subjected herself to withering self-examination (indeed too withering; it drove her to attempt suicide). But in a way that only great saints and exemplars ever have, she let her understanding of herself inform totally her understanding of others, even of those she most deeply despised. “Ask yourself, each of you, whether you are quite sure that you have feeling enough, understanding enough, and have you suffered enough, to be able to weigh and measure out another’s man’s life or liberty, no matter what he has done?” (SW 199). That attitude led to great self-loathing and great charity. She was herself the poor she was trying to feed; she was the criminal she was trying to free. And just as truly, she was the industrialist she was trying to overthrow; she was the president or priest whose doctrine she was dedicated to refuting and whose power she was dedicated to destroying.

For de Cleyre, then, anarchism was more than a political doctrine; it was an approach to ethics and hence to jurisprudence. One was to leave others free not only to live as they liked but to believe and to be as they liked, and the limits of judgment and of justice were precisely fixed by the limits of empathy. Anarchism thus transcended any moral system: it opened the possibility of people inventing and living according to whatever values seemed right to them. On her view, one takes responsibility for oneself, and leaves the question of the responsibility of others for themselves to themselves. This view connects de Cleyre with the American libertarian tradition of Josiah Warren and Lysander Spooner, but she develops the thought much more directly out of her own continual charitable and teaching work with the poor, and out of her acute sensibility of suffering.

[T]he difference between us, the Anarchists, who preach self-government and none else, and Moralists who in times past and present have asked for individual responsibility, is this, that while the have always framed creeds and codes for the purpose of holding others to account, we draw the line upon ourselves. Set the standard as high as you will; live to it as near as you can; and if you fail, try yourself, judge yourself, condemn yourself if you choose. Teach and persuade you neighbor if you can; consider and compare his conduct if you please; speak your mind if you desire; but if he fails to reach your standard or his own, try him not, judge him not, condemn him not. He lies beyond your sphere; you cannot know the temptation nor the inward battle nor the weight of circumstances upon him. You do not know how long he fought before he failed. Therefore you cannot be just. Let him alone. (SW 179)

She adds: “awakening will come when suddenly one day there breaks upon [every person] with realizing force the sense of the unison of life, the irrevocable relationship of the saint to the sinner, the judge to the criminal; that all personalities are intertwined and rushing upon doom together” (SW 201). De Cleyre’s ethics was not based upon abstract principles, though there is a metaphysics underlying it: an Emersonian metaphysics of the connection of all things. But the metaphysics itself is given in and articulated out of an extremely profound, life-transfiguring experience of that connection which has its origin in self-reflection. And this idea that together we are “rushing upon doom” tempers de Cleyre’s politics with an existentialist sense of the finitude and even the futility of human life: she resolves to do good in the face of absurdity, to love even in the darkness, to love even the darkness itself.

Helcher’s bullets were never removed from de Cleyre’s’s body, and they contributed to a downward spiral in physical and emotional health, and an ever-darkening outlook on the world. Voltairine de Cleyre died on 20 June 1912.

Darkness and Liberation

Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre were anarchists for different reasons and in different ways. For Emma, anarchism promised a flowering of life and creativity. She viewed life as a force which could fill all things if it were liberated. De Cleyre, on the other hand, found life a continual trial, and even toyed with the idea that its universal extinction was preferable to its continuation. Her anarchism was driven by her extremely intense experience of and empathy for suffering. To Alexander Berkman she wrote: “In the last analysis it is life itself I hate, not a fat bourgeois. Life, life this fiendish thing which brings millions of little creatures forth mercilessly, only to hunger, pain, madness. There is not a day when the sufferings of the little waif animals in the street does not create in one a bitter rage against life” (A 206).

And thus where Goldman turned always toward life as experience - toward art, sexuality, liberation of human potential - de Cleyre turned away in pity and in disgust and in depression. But she also continuously returned. Despite immense physical and emotional problems, she devoted herself to the relief of suffering wherever it might be found. Where Emma imagined a beautiful ideal, and never stopped aspiring to it even in the most difficult circumstances, de Cleyre had a dark realism and little hope for anarchism or any other ideal. Of all things, she was most acutely aware of the suffering that surrounded her; she made of it her own suffering. She habitually rescued animals and human beings from the street. After a particularly brutal quarrel with Gordon in the 1890s, they both swallowed poison, though they both survived. And de Cleyre tried to commit suicide on at leasdt one other occasion. By the end of her life she continued her political work by sheer force of will. “I am not sure of anything,” she wrote to Berkman on 24 June 1910. “I am not sure that liberty is good. I am not sure that progress exists. I do not feel able to theorize or philosophize or preach at all. . . . I can see no use in doing anything. Everything turns bitter in my mouth and ashes in my hands. . . . All my tastes are dying” (A, 215). And to another correspondent around the same time: “I have nothing - nothing to say. I would like to finish my life in silence” (A 216). She was continuously, grindingly ill in body and spirit, and in the last years of her life experienced terrible headaches and continual roaring noises in her ears.

This perhaps makes Voltairine de Cleyre out to be an unremittingly depressed and depressing figure. But against this infinitely dark background, Voltairine de Cleyre’s writing and her commitment are incandescent. When she wrote of the suffering of others and the means to achieve its surcease, she wrote with total passion. And in dedicating her life to hope even in the face of overwhelming continual hopelessness, she displayed a heroic overcoming not only of the circumstances that surrounded her, but of herself. Many people who suffer suicidal depression of the sort she faced throughout her life turn inexorably inward; the sufferings of others and indeed the external world quite in general, come to seem unreal; action becomes impossible.

But Voltai de Cleyre used her reflection on her own suffering and her intense desire for a liberation from it as a tool to understand all that suffers, as a connection to the world’s suffering, as a motivation for its remediation. So intense were her connections to all things that suffered that she lived much of her life in utter despair. But so intense was it, too, that in the face of that despair she made beautiful language and demonstrated amazing generosity. She died at age 45 and death must have come as a relief, something that in some sense she had sought all her life. But that life was made all the more alive by its morbidity. There is a kind of existential nobility that despairs and fights anyway, that defies God or indeed any authority even as it acknowledges that it can’t win and even that it is impossible to know what victory means or whether it is desirable. But it pursues liberation anyway, acknowledges and shapes the absurdity of life. Voltairine de Cleyre acknowledged our finitude, our impotence, the inevitability of our failure, our pain, and our death. And even as she did so she kept fighting to alleviate these conditions. That resolution to hope in the face of hopelessness, that song on the edge of the abyss, marks a courage greater even than that of the idealist.

De Cleyre’s prose is paradigmatically American. She is in many ways a florid romantic, but driving the poetical gesture there is muscle. It is hard to quote her briefly, in part because when she’s pouring, her sentences are extremely long, and in part because her figures of speech take a very long time to unfold. But when you examine her rhetoric, you also find that she is remarkably plain-spoken, and even in at her most poetic and passionate she is utterly direct. Here is a passage from her essay on Goldman. Recall that Goldman had been arrested for urging the poor to “take bread.”

I do not give you that advice. Not because I do not think that bread belongs to you, not because I do not think you would be morally right in taking it, . . . not that I do not think one little bit of sensitive human flesh is worth all the property rights in New York City; not that I think the world will ever be saved by the sheep’s virtue of going patiently to the shambles; not that I do not believe the expropriation of the possessing classes inevitable, and that that expropriation will begin by such acts as Emma Goldman advised, viz.: the taking possession of wealth already produced; not that I think you owe any consideration to the conspirators of Wall Street . . . not that I would have you forget the consideration they have shown to you; that they advised lead for strikers, strychnine for tramps, bread and water as good enough for working people; . . . not that I would have you forget the single dinner at Delmonico’s which . . . cost ten thousand dollars! Would I have you forget that the wine in the glasses was your children’s blood? It must be a rare drink - children blood! . . . If, therefore, I do not give the advice which Emma Goldman gave, let not the authorities suppose it is because I have any more respect for their constitution and their law than she has, or that I regard them as having any rights in the matter.

No. My reasons for giving that advice are two. First, if I were giving advice at all I would say: “My friends, that bread belongs to you. It is you who toiled and sweat in the sun to sow and reap the wheat, it is you who stood by the thresher, and breathed the chaff-filled atmosphere in the mills, while it was ground to flour; it is you who went into the eternal night of the mine and risked drowning, fire-damp, explosion, and cave-in, to get the fuel for the fire that baked it. . . . My second reason for not repeating Emma Goldman’s words is that I, as an anarchist, have no right to advise another to do anything involving a risk to himself; nor would I give a fillip for an action done by the advice of some one else, unless it is accompanied by a well-argued, well-settled conviction on the part of the person acting, that it really is the best thing to do. Anarchism, to me, means not only the denial of authority, not only a new economy, but a revision of the principles of morality. It means the development of the individual as well as the assertion of the individual. It means self-responsibility, and not leader worship. I say it is your business to decide whether you will starve and freeze in sight of food and clothing . . . And in saying this I mean to cast no reflection whatever upon Miss Goldman for doing otherwise. She and I hold many differing views on both Economy and Morals; and that she is honest in hers she has proven better than I have proven mine. Miss Goldman is a communist; I am an individualist. She wishes to destroy the right of property; I wish to assert it. . . . But whether she or I be right, or both of us be wrong, of one thing I am sure: the spirit which animates Emma Goldman is the only one which will emancipate the slave from his slavery, the tyrant from his tyranny - the spirit which is willing to dare and suffer. (7-10)

De Cleyre was certainly a spirit willing to dare and suffer, and though she lived in want and pain, she spoke and wrote with a courage that was total.

One interesting theme of this speech is de Cleyre’s ambivalent relation to the idea of “leadership,” whether Goldman’s, her own, or anyone else’s. She certainly could not, comformably to her own ethics, tell people what to do, even were they willing to follow her. Her leadership, then, was not rabble-rousing or even large-scale organizing. Rather, she reached people one at a time in a kind of ministry and when she spoke she took care that the autonomy of each member of her audience was respected in her words and in her delivery. She led, of course, by example, by her purity of purpose, by her deep dedication to helping specific people to survive and thrive. And she led by the inspiring vision given in her writings. But she refused to seize the sort of power that those writings were dedicated to critiquing. In that sense, she provides an alternative model of leadership that is highly personal and self-consciously respects the autonomy of those over whom it is exercised.

Her essay “Sex Slavery” is one of her most impassioned. And the feminism she puts forward in it is strikingly modern, though it also takes up and pushes forward an existing tradition. She compares marriage (as it stood in the late nineteenth century) to chattel slavery. And she traces its origin to God and the state. “[T]hat is rape, where a man forces himself sexually upon a woman whether he is licensed by the marriage law to do it or not. And that is the vilest tyranny where a man compels a woman he says he loves, to endure the agony of bearing children that she does not want, and for whom, as is the rule rather than the exception, they cannot properly provide. It is worse than any other human oppression; it is fairly God-like! To the sexual tyrant there is not parallel upon earth; one must go to the skies to find a fiend who thrusts life upon his children only to starve and curse and outcast and damn them!” (SW 345). This is de Cleyre at her blasphemous best, thundering against oppression in a way reminiscent of Malcolm X. “At Macon in the sixth century . . . the fathers of the Church met and proposed the decision of the question, ‘Has woman a soul?’ Having ascertained that the permission to own a nonentity wasn’t going to injure any of their parsnips, a small majority vote decided this momentous question in our favor. . . . The question of souls is old - we demand our bodies, now” (SW 350). And she goes on to assert that women’s bodies are entrapped by restrictive and “modest” clothing, by limitations on such activities as team sports and horsemanship, and above all by the domination of their sexuality by men. And typically, she finishes by proposing liberty, and by saying that no one can see what sorts of relations might be possible in the future between the sexes, but that all the possibilities are permissible as long as they are voluntary.


Despite her extreme tendency toward heresy, there remained throughout de Cleyre’s life a yearning toward transcendence. It would seem, indeed, to be a yearning for God, though of course we must acknowledge her self-declared atheism. This certainly is the key to understanding her asceticism, her apparent vow of poverty and dedication to self-sacrifice, self-abnegation, and perhaps self-destruction. De Cleyre wanted to erase herself into pure generosity and hence pure emptiness. There is a kind of an American Platonism lurking in her renunciation of the beyond and in her love of nature and its transcendence. In a short story titled “The Chain Gang,” which is reminiscent of some of the contemporary essays of W.E.B. Du Bois, de Cleyre displays her lifelong association with music and relates it to what is certainly a religious experience.

When you hear that an untaught child is able, he knows not how, to do the works of the magicians of mathematics, has it never seemed to you that suddenly all books were swept away, and there before you stood a superb, sphinx-like creation, Mathematics itself, posing problems to men whose eyes are cast down, and all at once, out of whim, incorporating itself in the wide-eyed, mysterious child? Have you ever felt that all the works of the masters were swept aside in the burst of a singing voice, unconscious that it sings, and that Music itself, a master-presence, has entered the throat and sung?

The essay/story then describes the way the song “incorporates” itself in black men working on a Georgia chain gang.

But wide beyond the limits of high man and his little scorn, the great sweet old Music-Soul, the chords of the World, smote through the black man’s fibre in the days of the making of men; and it sings, it sings . . . through all the voices of the Chain Gang. And never one so low that it does not fill . . . and bursts out singing things always new and new and new. (SW 414-15)

She always viewed suffering as a call to transcendence, as perhaps the only road to transcendence of the self. Only one who is deep in soul-darkness and self-loathing seeks both immersion in pain and its overcoming through its intensification. And only someone with that power of self-overcoming really understands from inside the expressions of transcendence by which oppressed people transform pain into art. That was the origin of the blues that de Cleyre heard, and, more, celebrated and embodied.

Her philosophy is eclectic and finally quite original; she was the opposite of an ideologue, and it is to the credit of Alexander Berkman - an ideologue if ever there was one - that he could edit her writings and try to disseminate them. But her philosophy is also characteristically American. I would, again, call her metaphysics transcendental in the Emersonian vein. Whereas the philosophy of, let us say, Hegel, denigrates the physical world or sees it as a mere shadow of the Idea, Emerson and de Cleyre seek the transcendent in the immanent, and find it. And thus her ethics emerges directly from her metaphysics; it is an ethics that makes use of what Emerson would call the “oversoul,” the sense in which or the level at which we are all connected in one cycle of life and suffering and death and transcendence. Here is how she begins her wonderful essay “The Dominant Idea”:

In everything that lives, if one looks searchingly, is limned the shadow line of an idea - an idea, dead or living, sometimes stronger when dead, with rigid, unswerving lines that mark the living embodiment with the stern, immobile cast of the non-living. Daily we move among these unyielding shadows, less piercable, more enduring than granite, with the blackness of ages in them, dominating living, changing bodies, with dead, unchanging souls. And we meet, also, living souls dominating dying bodies - living ideas regnant over decay and death. Do not imagine that I speak of human life alone. The stamp of persistent or of shifting Will is visible in the grass-blade rooted in its clod of earth, as in the gossamer web of being that floats and swims far over our heads in the free world of air. (SW 81)

In de Cleyre’s metaphysics, then, the beauty and truth of the eternal, the will that is the source of the cosmos, is inside the world and indeed inside us: or indeed is the world and is us. If our suffering distances us from it by enclosing us within ourselves, it also issues a call for its own amelioration through connection, through concrete acts of charity. And so charity or the relief of suffering brings us to a kind of truth; it lets us see the modes of connection that constitute the human community and the world. And from this immanent transcendence, Voltairine rejects materialism and determinism, and holds that one can incorporate an idea in oneself, that one can live toward an ideal, that even in death one is free and connected to the ideas that animate all nature. This is very much related to the sort of ethics developed a century later by Iris Murdoch that associates goodness with truth, and truth with an overcoming of ego. And Murdoch’s ethics is in turn related to Platonism and to various religious traditions, in particular that of the Bhagavad-gita.

The philosophy that de Cleyre then articulates - both optimistic and intensely realistic - is an original version of the American pragmatism then being articulated by William James and soon to be elaborated in very much the way Voltai does, by John Dewey. De Cleyre:

[A]gainst the accepted formula of modern Materialism, “Men are what circumstances make them,” I set the opposing declaration, “Circumstances are what men make them”; and I contend that both these things are true to the point where the combating powers are equalized, or one is overthrown. In other words, my conception of mind, or character, is not that of a powerless reflection of a momentary condition of stuff and form, but an active modifying agent, reacting on its environment and transforming circumstances, sometimes greatly, sometimes, though not often, entirely. (SW 82-83)

Here and in many other places, de Cleyre’s philosophy and her writing find a pitch of synthesis, originality, and lucidity which certainly no contemporary anarchist ever reached, and which indeed is rare in any context. Because of the relation of immanence and transcendence in her philosophy, this meliorism becomes a declaration that the world itself can become an arena of transcendence through concrete human action, in particular through a transformation of social conditions.

Compatibly with this philosophy, throughout de Cleyre’s writing you will find the most prosaic and practical observations interrupted by flashes of poetry and radical intuition. I conclude with this long quotation from her essay “Anarchism,” in which she pauses in her discussion of various economic models to deliver a sublime account of the human self in general and in particular of her self.

Ah, once to stand unflinchingly on the brink of that dark gulf of passions and desires, once at last to send a bold, straight-driven gaze down into the volcanic Me, once, and in that once, and in that once forever, to throw off the command to cover and flee from the knowledge of that abyss, - nay, to dare it to hiss and seethe if it will, and make us writhe and shiver with its force! Once and forever to realize that one is not a bundle of well-regulated little reasons bound up in the front room of the brain to be sermonized and held in order with copy-book maxims or moved and stopped by a syllogism, but a bottomless, bottomless depth of all strange sensations, a rocking sea of feeling wherever sweep strong storms of unaccountable hate and rage, invisible contortions of disappointment, low ebbs of meanness, quakings and shudderings of love that drives to madness and will not be controlled, hungerings and moanings and sobbings that smite upon the inner ear, now first bent to listen, as if all the sadness of the sea and the wailing of the great pine forests of the North had met to weep together there in that silence audible to you alone. To look down upon that, to know the blackness, the midnight, the dead ages in oneself, to feel the jungle and the beast within, - and the swamp and the slime, and the desolate desert of the heart’s despair - to see, to know, to feel to the uttermost, - and then to look at one’s fellow, sitting across from one in the street-car, so decorous, so well got up, so nicely combed and brushed and oiled and to wonder what lies beneath that commonplace exterior, - to picture the cavern in him which somewhere far below has a narrow gallery running into your own - to imagine the pain that racks him to the finger-tips perhaps while he wears that placid ironed-shirt-front countenance - to conceive how he too shudders at himself and writhes and flees from the lava of his heart and aches in his prison-house not daring to see himself - to draw back respectfully from the Self-gate of the plainest, most unpromising creature, even from the most debased criminal in oneself - to spare all condemnation (how much more trial and sentence) because one knows the stuff of which man is made and recoils at nothing since all is in himself, - this is what Anarchism may mean to you. It means that to me.

And then, to turn cloudward, starward, skyward, and let the dreams rush over one - no longer awed by outside powers of any order - recognizing nothing superior to oneself - painting, painting endless pictures, creating unheard symphonies that sing dream sounds to you alone, extending sympathies to the dumb brutes as equal brothers, kissing the flowers as one did when a child, letting oneself go free, go free beyond the bounds of what fear and custom call the “possible,” - this too Anarchism may mean to you, if you dare apply it so. And if you do some day, - if sitting at your work-bench, you see a vision of surpassing glory, some picture of that golden time when there shall be no prisons on the earth, nor hunger, nor houselessness, nor accusation, nor judgment, and hearts open as printed leaves, and candid as fearlessness, if then you look across at your low-browed neighbor, who sweats and smells and curses at his toil, - remember that as you do not know his depth neither do you know his height. He too might dream if the yoke of custom and law and dogma were broken from him. Even now you know not what blind, bound, motionless chrysalis is working there to prepare its winged thing. (SW 113-15)


Paul Avrich, An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine De Cleyre (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) (A).

Alexander Berkman, ed., Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre (New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1914) (SW).

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