Voltairine de Cleyre: two articles on communism

My work in the files of the Twentieth Century keeps dredging up gems, including a handful of pieces by Voltairine de Cleyre. Here are two connected items. I’ll post the sequel before the original, in part because it gives some context and clarification. From the February 9, 1893 issue:



“Cast thy bread upon the waters,
Find it after many days.”

Two years ago, in a little uptown parlor, the home of a Philadelphia weaver, a group of inquirers after truth were wont to assemble bi-weekly for the discussion of “Communism vs. Individualism.” There were generally present some fifteen Communists and five or six Individualists. Let it be here admitted that while all were earnestly seeking truth, each side was pretty thoroughly convinced that the other was searching in the wrong direction, and as near as I am able to ascertain we are all of the same opinion still. However, in the course of a year some crumbs of the bread floated into sight in the shape of a dialogue presenting the substance of those discussions, which appeared in the TWENTIETH CENTURY. Many more days again passed, and now a new fragment, in the shape of a criticism of the dialogue by M. Zametkin in the “People” of July 17, drifts in with the tide.

In attempting a brief reply to this criticism I do not presume to answer for my co-writer, Miss Slobodinsky. Being an Individualist of the ex-quoted stamp myself, I am in nowise authorized to speak for the “school.” That is the advantage I possess over my critic. Individualism (without quotes) may very comfortably be interpreted as a general name for persons bound to agree upon only one thing, which is that they are not bound to agree on anything else. But when one adds Communist one begins to represent a creed common to a good many others; and if one doesn’t represent it correctly, one must immediately recant or—be excommunicated. I suspect the arguments presented by “the imaginary Communist,” which were really a condensation of those given by fifteen actual Communists in the discussions before mentioned, would be deemed heretical by M, Zametkin (in which case he must take to quotation marks), for it is well known that Communism itself has two individuals within its folds known as the State Communist and the Free Communist. Now, my friends, of whom the imaginary Communist was a composite, and who will be much surprised to learn on good Communistic authority that they are only straw men, belong to the latter variety sometimes called Anarchist-Communists. An Anarchist-Communist is a person who is a man first and a Communist afterward. He generally gets into a great many irreconcilable situations at once, believes that property and competition must die yet admits he has no authority to kill them, contends for equality and in the same breath denies its possibility, hates charity and yet wishes to make society one vast Sheltering Arms, and, in short, very generally rides two horses going in opposite directions at the same time. He is not usually amenable to logic; but he has a heart forty or fifty times too large for nineteenth century environments, and in my opinion is worth just that many cold logicians who examine society as a naturalist does a beetle, and impale it on their syllogisms in the same manner as the Emperor Domitian impaled flies on a bodkin for his own amusement. Besides, a free Communist when driven into a corner always holds to freedom first. The State Communist, on the other hand, is logical. He believes in authority, and says so. He ridicules a freedom for the individual which he believes inimical to the interests of the majority. He cries: “Down with property and competition,” and means it. For the one he prescribes “take it” and for the other “suppress it.” That is very frank.

Now to the “one point” of criticism, viz: the ill-adjustment of supply to demand in the case of free competition, resulting in a deficiency once in a thousand cases, and over-production the rest of the time—either of which is bad economy. Communism, I infer, would create a general supervisory board, with branch offices everywhere, which should proceed with a general kind of census-taking regarding the demand for every possible product of manufacture, of agriculture, of lumber, of minerals, for every improvement in education, amusement or religion. “Madam, about how many balls do your boys lose annually over the neighbors’ fence? How many buttons do your little girls tear off their frocks? Sir, how many bottles of beer do you stow away in your cellar weekly for Sunday use? Miss, have you a lover? If so, how often do you write him, and how many sheets of paper do you use for each letter? How many gallons of oil do you use in the parlor lamp when you sit up late? This is not intended as personal, but merely to obtain correct statistics upon which to base next year’s output of balls, buttons,: beer, paper, oil, etc. Mr. Storekeeper, show me your books, that the government may make sure you sell no more than the prescribed quantity.’ Mr. Gatekeeper, how many people were admitted to the Zoological Garden last week? Two thousand? At the present ratio of increase the government will supply a new animal in six months. Mr. Preacher, your audiences are decreasing. We must inquire into the matter. If the demand is not sufficient, we must abolish you.” Just what means would be taken by the Commune in case of a natural deficiency, as, for instance, the partial failure of the West Pennsylvania gas wells, to compel the obstreperous element to yield the “prescribed quantity,” I can only conjecture. It might officially order an invention to take the place of the required commodity. Failing this, I do not know what plan would be adopted to preserve the equivalence of labor costs in exchange and have everybody satisfied. Omniscience, however, might provide a way. The competitive law is that the price of a shortened commodity goes up. Free competition would prevent artificial shortening; but if nature went into the business the commodity would certainly exact a premium in exchange, until some substitute had diminished the demand for it. “Ah,” cries Communism, “injustice.” To whom? “The fellows who were robbed in exchange.” And you, what will you do? Exchange labor equivalents to the first comers, and let the rest go without? But what then becomes of the equal right of the others, who may have been very anxious to give more In this last case where is the injustice? As our critic observes, however, deficiency is not the greatest trouble, especially natural deficiency. The main thing is, must we be licensed, protected, regulated, labeled, taxed, confiscated, spied upon, and generally meddled with, in order that correct statistics may be obtained and a “quantity prescribed;” or may we trust to the producers to look out for their own interests sufficiently to avoid under-stocked and overstocked markets ? Whether we may expect provision and order from those concerned, or be condemned to accept a governmental bill of fare from those not concerned. For my part, sooner than have a meddlesome bureaucracy sniffing around in my kitchen, my laundry, my dining-room, my study, to find out what I eat, what I wear, how my table is set, how many times I wash myself, how many books I have, whether my pictures are “moral” or “immoral,” what I waste, etc., ad nauseam, after the manner of ancient Peru and Egypt, I had rather a few thousand cabbages should rot, even if they happened to be my cabbages.

It is possible I might learn something from that.

Philadelphia, Pa.
It would be nice to see the Zametkin letter, but we can guess at least some of what was probably in it. De Cleyre and Slobodinsky were a bit hard on communists in the “Dialogue,” a fact which de Cleyre seems aware of in his somewhat more nuanced follow-up. Her critic seems to be the same M. Zametkin who argued with Benjamin Tucker in the pages of Liberty. We can also probably predict the sorts of debates that posting this piece, which flirts—briefly, and clearly facetiously—with the language of “capitalistic Anarchism,” will precipitate in places like Wikipedia talk-pages. But both pieces are vintage Voltairine—sharp, striking, and a bit opinionated—a kind of fun that even the Wikipediasts may find hard to spoil.
INDIVIDUALIST: “Our host is engaged and requests that I introduce myself to—I beg your pardon, sir, but have I not the pleasure of meeting the Communist speaker who addressed the meeting on Blank street last evening?”

COMMUNIST: “Your face seems familiar to me, too.”

INDV.: “Doubtless you may have seen me there, or at some kindred place. I am glad at the opportunity to talk with you as your speech proved you to be somewhat of a thinker. Perhaps—”

COM.: “Ah, indeed, I recognize you now. You are the apostle of capitalistic Anarchism!”

INDV.: ” Capitalistic Anarchism ? Oh, yes, if you choose to call it so. Names are indifferent to me; I am not afraid of bugaboos. Let it be so, then, capitalistic Anarchism.”

COM: “Well, I will listen to you. I don’t think your arguments will have much effect, however. With which member of your Holy Trinity will you begin: free land, free money, or free competition?”

INDV.: “Whichever you prefer.”

COM.: “Then free competition. Why do you make that demand? Isn’t competition froe now ?”

INDV.: ‘. No. But one of the three factors in production is free. Laborers are free to compete among themselves, and so are capitalists to a certain extent. But between laborers and capitalists there is no competition whatever, because through governmental privilege granted to capital, whence the volume of the currency and the rate of interest is regulated, the owners of it are enabled to keep the laborers dependent on them for employment, so making the condition of wage-subjection perpetual. So long as one man, or class of men, are able to prevent others from working for themselves because they cannot obtain the means of production or capitalize their own products, so long those others are not free to compete freely with those to whom privilege gives the means. For instance, can you see any competition between the farmer and his hired man? Don’t you think he would prefer to work for himself? Why does the farmer employ him? Is it not to make some profit from his labor? And does the hired man give him that profit out of pure good nature? Would he not rather have the full product of his labor at his own disposal?”

COM.: “And what of that? What does that prove?”

INDV.: “I am coming to that directly. Now, does this relation between the farmer and his man in any way resemble a cooperative affair between equals, free to compete, but choosing to work together for mutual benefit? You know it does not. Can’t you see that since the hired man does not willingly resign a large share of his product to his employer (and it is out of human nature to say he does), there must be something which forces him to do it? Can’t you see that the necessity of an employer is forced upon him by his lack of ability to command the means of production? He cannot employ himself, therefore he must sell his labor at a disadvantage to him who controls the land and capital. Hence he is not free to compete with his employer any more than a prisoner is free to compete with his jailer for fresh air.

COM.: “Well, I admit that much. Certainly the employé cannot compete with his employer.”

INDV.: “Then you admit that there is not free competition in the present state of society. In other words, you admit that the laboring class are not free to compete with the holders of capital, because they have not, and cannot get, the means of production. Now for your ‘what of that?’ It follows that if they had access to land and opportunity to capitalize the product of their labor they would either employ themselves, or, if employed by others, their wages, or remuneration, would rise to the full product of their toil, since no one would work for another for less than he could obtain by working for himself.”

COM.: “But your object is identical with that of Communism! Why all this to convince me that the means of production must be taken from the hands of the few and given to all? Communists believe that; it is precisely what we are fighting for.”

INDV.: “You misunderstand me if you think we wish to take from or give to any one. We have no scheme for regulating distribution. We substitute nothing, make no plans. We trust to the unfailing balance of supply and demand. We say that with equal opportunity to produce, the division of product will necessarily approach equitable distribution, but we have no method of ‘enacting’ such equalization.”

Com.: ”But will not some be strong and skillful, others weak and unskillful? Will not one-deprive the other because he is more shrewd?”

INDV.: “Impossible! Have I not just shown you that the reason one man controls another’s manner of living is because he controls the opportunities to produce? He does this through a special governmental privilege. Now, if this privilege is abolished, land becomes free, and ability to capitalize products removing interest, and one man is stronger or shrewder than another, he nevertheless can make no profit from that other’s labor, because he cannot stop him from employing himself The cause of subjection is removed.”

COM.: “YOU call that equality! That one man shall have more than others simply because he is stronger or smarter? Your system is no better than the present. What are we struggling against but that very inequality in people’s possessions?”

INDV.: “But what is equality? Does equality mean that I shall enjoy what you have produced? By no means. Equality simply means the freedom of every individual to develop all his being, without hindrance from another, be he stronger or weaker.”

COM.: “What! You will have the weak person suffer because he is weak? He may need as much, or more, than a strong one, but if he is not able to produce it what becomes of his equality?”

INDV.: “I have nothing against your dividing your product with the weaker man if you desire to do so.”

COM.: “There you are with charity again. Communism wants no charity.”

INDV.: I have often marveled on the singularity of Communistic mathematics. My act you call charity, our act is not charity. If one person does a kind act you stigmatize it; if one plus one, summed up and called a commune, does the same thing, you laud it By some species of alchemy akin to the transmutation of metals, the arsenic of charity becomes the gold of justice! Strange calculation! Can you not see that you are running from a bugaboo again? You change the name, but the character of an action is not altered by the number of people participating in it.”

COM.: “But it is not the same action. For me to assist you out of pity is the charity of superior possession to the inferior. But to base society upon the principle: ‘From each according to his capacity, and to each according to his needs’ is not charity in any sense.”

INDV.: “That is a finer discrimination than logic can find any basis for. But suppose that, for the present, we drop the discussion of charity, which is really a minor point, as a further discussion will show.”

COM.: “But I say it is very important. See! Here are two workmen. One can make five pair of shoes a day; the other, perhaps, not more than three. According to you, the less rapid workmen will be deprived of the enjoyments of life, or at any rate will not be able to get as much as the other, because of a natural inability, a thing not his fault, to produce as much as his competitor.”

INDV.: “It is true that under our present conditions, there are such differences in productive power. But these, to a large extent, would be annihilated by the development of machinery and the ability to use it in the absence of privilege. Today the majority of trade-people are working at uncongenial occupations. Why? Because they have neither the chance for finding out for what they are adapted, nor the opportunity of devoting themselves to it if they had. They would starve to death while searching; or, finding it, would only bear the disappointment of being kept outside the ranks of an already overcrowded pathway of life. Trades are, by force of circumstances, what formerly they were by law, matters of inheritance. I am a tailor because by father was a tailor, and it was easier for him to introduce me to that mode of making a living than any other, although I have no special adaptation for it. But postulating equal chances, that is free access and non-interest bearing capital, when a man finds himself unable to make shoes as well or as rapidly as his co-worker, he would speedily seek a more congenial occupation.”

COM.: “And he will be traveling from one trade to another like a tramp after lodgings!”

INDV: “Oh no; his lodgings will be secure! When you admitted that competition is not now free, did I not say to you that when it becomes so, one of two things must happen: either the laborer will employ himself, or the contractor must pay him the full value of his product. The result would be increased demand for labor. Able to employ himself, the producer will get the full measure of his production, whether working independently, by contract, or cooperatively, since the competition of opportunities, if I may so present it, would destroy the possibility of profits. With the reward of labor raised to its entire result, a higher standard of living will necessarily follow; people will want more in proportion to their intellectual development; with the gratification of desires come new wants, all of which guarantees constant labor-demand. Therefore, even your trades-tramp will be sure of his existence.

“But you must consider further that the business of changing trades is no longer the difficult affair it was formerly. Years ago, a mechanic, or laborer, was expected to serve from four to seven years’ apprenticeship. No one was a thorough workman until he knew all the various departments of his trade. Today the whole system of production is revolutionized. Men become specialists. A shoemaker, for instance, spends his days in sewing one particular seam. The result is great rapidity and proficiency in a comparatively short apace of time. No great amount of strength or skill is required; the machine furnishes both. Now, you will readily see that, even supposing an individual changes his vocation half a dozen times, he will not travel very long before he finds that to which he is adapted, and in which he can successfully compete with others.”

COM.: “But admitting this, don’t you believe there will always be some who can produce more than their brothers? What is to prevent their obtaining advantages over the less fortunate?”

INDV.: “Certainly I do believe there are such differences in ability, but that they will lead to the iniquity you fear I deny. Suppose A does produce more than B, does he in anyway injure the latter so long as he does not prevent B from applying his own labor to exploit nature, with equal facilities as himself, either by self-employment or by contract with others?”‘

COM.: “Is that what you call right? Will that produce mutual fellowship among human beings? When I see that you are enjoying things which I cannot hope to get, what think you will be my feelings toward you? Shall I not envy and hate you, as the poor do the rich today.”

INDV.: “Why, will you hate a man because he has finer eyes or better health than you? Do you want to demolish a person’s manuscript because he excels you in penmanship? Would you cut the extra length from Samson’s hair, and divide it around equally among al short-haired people? Will you share a slice from the poet’s genius and put it in the common storehouse so everybody can go and take some? If there happened to be a handsome woman in your neighborhood who devotes her smiles to your brother, shall you get angry and insist that they be ‘distributed according to the needs’ of the Commune? The differences in natural ability are not, in freedom, great enough to injure any one or disturb the social equilibrium. No one man can produce more than three others; and even granting that much you can see that it would never create the chasm which lies between Vanderbilt and the switchman on his tracks.”

COM.: “But in establishing equal justice, Communism would prevent even the possibility of injustice.”

INDV,: “Is it justice to take from talent to reward incompetency? Is it justice to virtually say that the tool is not to the toiler, nor the product to the producer, but to others? Is it justice to rob toil of incentive? The justice you seek lies not in such injustice, where material equality could only be attained at the dead level of mediocrity. As freedom of contract enlarges, the nobler sentiments and sympathies invariably widen. With freedom of access to land and to capital, no glaring inequality in distribution could result. No workman rises far above or sinks much below the average day’s labor. Nothing but the power to enslave through controlling opportunity to utilize labor force could ever create such wide differences as we now witness.”

COM.: “Then you hold that your system will practically result in the same equality Communism demands. Yet, granting that, it will take a hundred years, or a thousand, perhaps, to bring it about. Meanwhile people are starving. Communism doesn’t propose to wait. It proposes to adjust things here and now; to arrange matters more equitably while we are here to see it, and not wait till the sweet impossible sometime that our great, great grand children may see the dawn of. Why can’t you join in with us and help us to do something?”

INDV.: “Yea, we hold that comparative equality will obtain, but pre-arrangement, institution, ‘direction’ can never bring the desired result—free society. Waving the point that any arrangement is a blow at progress, it really is an impossible thing to do. Thoughts, like things, grow. You cannot jump from the germ to perfect tree in a moment. No system of society can be instituted today which will apply to the demands of the future; that, under freedom will adjust itself. This is the essential difference between Communism and cooperation. The one fixes, adjusts, arranges things, and tends to the rigidity which characterizes the cast off shells of past societies; the other trusts to the unfailing survival of the fittest, and the broadening of human sympathies with freedom; the surety that that which is in the line of progress tending toward the industrial ideal, will, in a free field, obtain by force of its superior attraction. Now, you must admit, either that there will be under freedom, different social arrangements in different societies, some Communistic, others quite the reverse, and that competition will necessarily rise between them, leaving to results to determine which is the best, or you must crush competition, institute Communism, deny freedom, and fly in the face of progress. What the world needs, my friend, is not new methods of instituting things, but abolition of restrictions upon opportunity.”

I’ll be updating my Voltairine de Cleyre bibliography and getting that posted within the next week or so.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. I see the bad habit of some social anarchists calling individualists “capitalists” has been going on for sometime! I’m sure that the “anarcho”-capitalists will leap on “capitalistic anarchism” bit and ignore the rest of the article…

    Interesting, given her earlier arguments, that she ended up arguing that workers should simply get of money, i.e. she became a communist-anarchist. Not that this negates her “anarchism without adjectives” position, any more than it did for Malatesta.

    Still, important stuff. Keep it coming!


  2. Heh, “capitalist” is one of the nicer things we used to get called. I suspect, ultimately, than none of the various anarchist positions is sufficient to all conditions, and that if we ever established out libertarian panarchy, we might well see not just a variety of different libertarian systems attempting to coexist, but some sort of adaptive cycling through the options, as conditions changed. The movements of Voltairine, or Tucker, or Kropotkin, probably shouldn’t, or shouldn’t just, be examined in terms of choices between various anarchist orthodoxies.

  3. I would agree with you there. Any free society will see a great number of experiments, based on what people want, objective circumstances, chance and a whole host of other factors. I’m also sure they will come up with systems no one could predict.

    Any communist-anarchist who denies that really has no idea what a social revolution is actually like (or, at least, what a *libertarian* social revolution would be like). I hope that communist-anarchism would become the dominant form of a free society, but that depends on many, many factors. And I would suggest that social experimentation would be easier in an overall communistic system, but that is mere opinion.

    I have to say that the tone of what passes for debate within anarchism is in need for improvement (outside of anarchism, well, that depends on the specific circumstances and people involved). I’m not whether it has improved or not over the years, but we can try to make it better.

  4. Good catch on the Rosa/Rachelle identity! I would have been reluctant to make it without further confirmation that they were the two.

    Three periodicals that I always wanted to spend time with there the Twentieth Century, where your essay is from, the Boston Investigator (“Boston” was dropped at a later date), and Lucifer the Light-Bearer.

    Very glad to see you reprinting from Twentieth Century. There have been many references to it in libertarian circles and have always been intereted in it.

    Best to you,
    Just a thought.
    Just Ken

  5. I think that, gradually, we’ll work out the points of connection between what mutualists–and even some of the anarcho-“capitalists”–are talking about when they advocate “markets,” and the mechanisms of production and distribution necessary for libertarian communism. The debates will get more productive as they get more substantive, and as it becomes thinkable to really compare alternatives.

    Bob Helms tells me, btw, that de Cleyre’s co-author was Rachelle Slobodinsky-Yarros, Victor Yarros’ wife. “Slobo” contributed at least one letter to “Liberty,” and was active in many of the same areas as VY.

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