Jay Fox, “Voltairine de Cleyre” (1923)

VOLTAIRINE DE CLEYRE.

(Report of Speech at Voltairine de Cleyre Memorial Meeting.)

Coming to this meeting I rode with a green conductor, a young man who was probably making his lirst trip, and I was struck by his awkwardness in performing apparently so simple a task and by his efforts to conceal the fact of his amateurishness.

He fumbled the change, got the transfers mixed, forgot to pull the bell—and all the time he chewed gum and tried to act like a veteran. He tried to deceive us and put on a bold front in spite of all the evidence of his greenness.

I stayed on the platform and watched the young man. I saw that most of the people passed into the car unconscious of the actor. I saw he was putting it over on them.

Then I lost sight of the green conductor, and I saw Voltairine standing on the platform of the world and watching capitalist society fumbling with the affairs of this world and crumbling and crushing the working class in its awkward hands and casting them aside to perish of disease and want, having no thought or care but to get the last nickel from them, and hiding its cruelty, its inhumanity, not behind a stick of chewing gum, like the green conductor, but behind machine guns and a wall of soldiers and police.

Then I heard her eloquent tongue ring out in words of fire denouncing the rapacity of the capitalist class, and I saw her writing magnificent poetry and prose that will live when we are all dead and forgotten.

Comrade Brown has made a comparison between Voltairine and Elihu Root. Let me develop the idea further.

In every human being there are two main motive forces—one concerned with the preservation of self, the other with the preservation of the species. In some persons one or the other of these forces is highly developed.

In Mr. Root the self force is large. He thinks only of the “I.” His fine intellect is devoted entirely to Root. His great happiness lies in doing things for himself. He is the type of the American capitalist.

In Voltairine the other force was most largely developed. Consequently her fine mind was devoted to the things that concerned the race. She got no happiness in thinking of herself as separated from the rest of us. She thought in terms of “we.’ She was part of us; and that is why we are here today. Voltairine was the type of the social revolutionist.

It was said here that she was a direct actionist. Let me say that every man and woman of worth who has ever stood upon this earth was a direct actionist. Every person with red blood in his veins and an idea worth anything is a direct actionist. Sincere, honest man and women who see the tragedy of the world today and who know the cause and the remedy want to go straight at the cure. They have no time to beat around the bush.

The holders of good jobs can afford to go the long way round, and never get there. We of the common herd, we who suffer the pains of this pitiless system cannot and will not temporize with it any longer, and will not be led astray by the bourgeoise who are in no hurry to get off our backs. It is the militant minority of direct actionists who have always done things in this world. The great mass, the great majority, is slow to move and always follow the lead of the minority with the largest battalion.

An active militant minority of direct actionists, clear-visioned, unspooked, is now being formed in this country, that is going to sweep the contemptable capitalist system off the map with one mighty stroke.

And Voltairine was a powerful member of this minority. She is yet. and will be; for while she has left us in person her ideas remain. And what is a person after all, but a series of ideas?

Voltairine will ever be associated in the minds of the toilers with their struggle for liberty, and when the tight is over and a free society is established her memory will be fondly cherished as a great inspiration in the social revolution.

JAY FOX.


Jay Fox, “Voltairine de Cleyre, The Syndicalist 3 no. 12 (July 1, 1913): 48.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2216 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.