“Perpetual and unconquerable protest against the dictates of Authority”
Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) was a free-thinking poet and feminist who sought to express and develop what has been described as “an innate and organic American anarchism”. (1)
She defined anarchism as “freedom to the soul as to the body, – in every aspiration, every growth” (2) and argued that human beings had a “natural tendency to break all the bonds which seek to control thought”. (3)
This tendency manifested itself as the spirit of freedom, a collective energy which surged forth in individuals.
De Cleyre wrote in her essay ‘In Defense of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation’: “The spirit which animates Emma Goldman is the only one which will emancipate the slave from his tyranny – the spirit which is willing to dare and suffer”. (4)
She therefore had little time for the materialist dogma propagated by much of the left, which regarded any talk of spirit as absurd and “mystical”.
She declared in ‘The Dominant Idea’: “It is thus that the so-called Materialist Conception of History, the modern Socialists, and a positive majority of Anarchists would have us look upon the world of ideas – shifting, unreal reflections, having naught to do in the determination of man’s life, but so many mirror appearances of certain material relations, wholly powerless to act upon the course of material things.
“I think this unqualified determinism of the material is a great and lamentable error in our modern progressive movement”. (5)
This insight even led de Cleyre to defend the philosophical outlook of the Middle Ages. She asked: “Must we, because the Middle Age was dark and blind and brutal, throw away the one good thing it wrought into the fibre of Man, that the inside of a human being was worth more than the outside? that to conceive a higher thing than oneself and live toward that is the only way of living worthily?” (6)
The medieval sense of ethics and inner value had been rejected by the modern industrial age “and so the cancer goes on rotting away the moral fibre, and the man becomes a lump, a squash, a piece of slippery slime taking all shapes and losing all shapes, according to what particular hole or corner he wishes to glide into – a disgusting embodiment of the moral bankruptcy begotten by Thing-Worship”. (7)
De Cleyre shared Gustav Landauer’s equation of anarchy with life itself and explained that this was why the revolutionary struggle would never end: “It will go on because Life cries to live, and Property denies its freedom to live; and Life will not submit. And should not submit”. (8)
This revolutionary life force, the spirit of revolt, could only become real and active when it found expression in the words and deeds of individuals, she stressed.
“Individuality is a thing that cannot be killed. Quietly it may be, but just as certainly, silently, perhaps, as the growth of a blade of grass, it offers its perpetual and unconquerable protest against the dictates of Authority”. (9)
She said the malign Dominant Idea stifling the human spirit could only be challenged if individuals had the courage and determination to resist its power and were able to source, and remain true to, a sense of justice that came from within themselves.
If they could do that, they could end their days in the knowledge that they had done what had to be done, she said: “At the end of life you may close your eyes, stating: ‘I have not been dominated by the Dominant Idea of my Age; I have chosen mine own allegiance and served it”. (10)
1. Barry Pateman, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, ed. by A.J. Brigati (Oakland/Edinburgh, AK Press, 2004), p. i.
2. Voltairine de Cleyre, ‘Anarchism’, Selected Works, Project Gutenberg.
3. Voltairine de Cleyre, ‘The Drama of the Nineteenth Century’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 133.
4. Voltairine de Cleyre, ‘In Defense of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 7.
5. Voltairine de Cleyre, ‘The Dominant Idea’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 36.
6. De Cleyre, ‘The Dominant Idea’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 42.
7. De Cleyre, ‘The Dominant Idea’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 43.
8. Voltairine de Cleyre, ‘Direct Action’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 61.
9. Voltairine de Cleyre, ‘The Economic Tendency of Freethought’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 63.
10. De Cleyre, ‘The Dominant Idea’, The Voltairine de Cleyre reader, p. 45.