“A Lance for Anarchy,” Voltairine de Cleyre

Voltairine de Cleyre was involved in the debates in The Open Court in the 1890s, and also published a number of poems in that journal. “A Lance for Anarchy,” which appeared in the issue of Sept. 24, 1891, was a response to an article by editor Paul Carus.


THE perusal of Dr. Carus’s article, “Freethought: Its Truth and its Error” in The Open Court of Aug. 6th, has impelled me to a parallel line of thought concerning a doctrine, a principle, less understood, more misinterpreted, both by enemies and followers, than even that much abused, much misunderstood, much misinterpreted principle of freethought; and, as is the case with the latter, the greatest damage proceeds not so much from the opposition of prejudice as from the profession of ignorance.

“Freethought,” says Dr. Carus, “has arisen in revolution to blind obedience.” It was indeed the great revolt against human authority over the action of the mind. It was not merely a negation; no revolt ever is: it was the assertion that the individual mind must think according to necessity, according to its own law. And this assertion rooted the negation of that authority which sought to interfere with the law, in the confusion-working effort to build all minds after one fixed pattern. Mark, it was the very fact that thought is not, cannot be free, in the absolute sense, is not a thing of caprice “willing” to think this or that, but a thing of order constantly adapting itself to the relations of all other things, constantly progressing in the knowledge of truth as it fulfils the law of its growth—it was this which justified, nay made at all conceivable, the revolt against “dressed authority,”—that is God, that is—Priests! Here was a contradiction, or, as he would prefer to call it, an antinomy, to delight the heart of Proudhon; thought struggled for liberty because of its fatalism; conceiving the implacable authority of Truth, it denied authority; it would be free from men because it could not be free from self; with the light of a widening infinite in its eyes, it denied the supremacy of the Sun; “Come,” it said, “you are great, but you are not all; do not think by your near shining, to shut out the stars.”

Now this, precisely this, lies at the root of that doubly abused, misunderstood, misinterpreted word Anarchism. “Anarchism is negation,” you say. True. Of what? The authority of rulers, precisely as freethought negatives the authority of priests. But why this negation. Because of the affirmation that every individual is himself, ruled by the fatalism of existence; within himself contains the law of right being, from which he can no more escape than sunlight can exist independent of the sun, and a “strict obedience” to which is necessary to that morality which Dr. Carus has called “living the truth”: disobedience, in its stead, creating ever increasing confusion only to be wrought out and purified after many lives, the weary Karma of the race, and never wholly purged till the wronged law receives its recompense,—Understanding and Fulfilling. Hence this negation of “Archism,” which would maintain a puny, false authority, denying the real one, hindering true order and progress. And the real anarchist can truthfully say to the Republican, “it is you, not I, who deny self-government.” I say a real one, because as there are freethinkers and freethinkers, so there are anarchists and anarchists; and as I have intimated the greatest damage to either cause proceeds from the ignorant profession of them by people of whose lives they form no part. No real freethinker, comprehending the laws of racial growth, will for a moment deny the value of the creeds so long as they were the highest possible
conception of life; that is while humanity yet remained below the creed; nor will he deny that until a thinker has risen above the creed, comprehending himself, realising that the laws of his mind’s guidance exist with it, cannot be conceived apart, the one from the other; until this conception of right guidance from within has taken the place of the old idea of a law descended from Heaven, the freethinker will admit that such a mind is better left among the orthodox, than to become so poor an apology for a reformer, as he must become by throwing away his old beliefs, not replacing them with the faith of truth.

So the real anarchist, instead of maintaining as Prejudice would have it appear, the utter abolition of social restraint, the bursting of every bond which man by slow experience has found necessary to order, the inauguration of chaos, maintains, on the contrary, the higher principle that “every man must be a law unto himself,” embodying in himself all the truth of the Codes, and denying their authority beyond this, because he realises this; knowing the glory of the truth he holds he would maintain his freedom to reach out after that which is higher still, unknown but not unknowable. Anarchism is, in fact, the assertion of the highest morality; a conception of society without officials, police, military, bayonets, prisons, and the thousand and one other symbols of force which mark our present development; a dream of the day when “each having mended one, all will be mended.” To him who has arrived at such a conclusion there is no morality in obedience to outward authority, neither in the observance of formulas; neither in doing what is writ in statute books; one is moral only so far as he (by long struggle it may, probably will, be) makes right his nature,—him. What then? Does he therefore deny the value, and the present necessity of Codes? Not at all. He would not, if he could, sweep them at once from existence, well knowing that as long as men are incapable of receiving the authority of “the inward must,” they are incapable of living without statutes. Yet Prejudice and Ignorance cry: “Anarchy is the destruction of the law.” It is not the destruction of the law; it is the fulfilling of the law. It is the only logical outcome of freethought—the ripened fruit of which freethinking is the potent seed. A small seed, as Dr. Carus says. But it is a seed which was planted in hard soil, watered by red rains, and nurtured among jealous thorns. And yet the tree is scarcely blossoming, and still we dare to dream of that russet warm day of Autumn future when the promise of the seed shall be fulfilled: when every mind shall think according to its own law, and every life express itself freely, bounded only by the equal freedom of others, so finding the more quickly, the more surely, the truth which alone shall live.

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

1 Comment

  1. A truly brilliant piece by de Cleyre. It cuts to the chase on both freethought and libertarianism and demonstrates the similarity between the two. I once did a talk on the subject in the 1980’s called, “The Religion of Politics and the Politics of Religion,” for a libertarian supper club. A lot of the people in the audience were surprisingly religious and quite uncomfortable with the line of argumentation, but I think it quite correct.

    Just Ken

Comments are closed.