Leonard D. Abbott, “Voltairine de Cleyre’s Posthumous Book” (1914)


By Leonard D. Abbott.

THERE is a famous painting which shows the Statue of Liberty looming up through the mists of New York Harbor. At the base of the statue ships are concealed by a fog. In the background, the sky-scrapers of the metropolis are stained by a heavy and unwholesome atmosphere. The only sunlight in the picture falls on the head and the uplifted torch of the womansymbol of Liberty. She is rising triumphant over commercialism, and her torch is strong and steadfast.

It is in some such way as this that I think of Voltairine de Cleyre, whose posthumous book (published by the Mother Earth Publishing Association) may be accurately termed an Anarchist classic. Voltairine de Cleyre was preeminently the standard-bearer of a libertarian gospel, and she struggled through every kind of conflict and poverty and sickness into a kind of sun-lit immortality.

There are few, if any, books in the literature of Anarchism as lofty as these “Selected Writings.” I have read Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus, and I know something of the writings of Bakunin and Proudhon and Stirner and Nietzsche and Tolstoy and Benjamin Tucker. But Voltairine de Cleyre stands alone. She has the individuality that only very great writers possess.

This book is divided by its editor, Alexander Berkman, into three sections—poetry, essays, and sketches and stories—and is prefaced by a biographical introduction from the pen of Hippolyte Havel. The introduction is not as inspired as the one that Havel wrote for Emma Goldman’s “Anarchism,” but it is satisfactory as far as it goes. The poems cover seventy-five pages. They are remarkable for several reasons. I will confess that my first impression of this poetry, as a whole, was in the nature of a disappointment. We have heard much of the heights and depths of genius, and both are represented here. The really great poems of the collection were almost all printed, years ago, in a little pamphlet entitled “The Worm Turns,” and they are almost without exception poems of vengeance. They were born of the stormy period in which the Chicago Anarchists, Angiolillo, Vaillant, Henry and Caserio died. They are crimson and black; they quiver with hatred; and I call them great because their expression is superb and their dramatic appeal is undeniable. But alongside of these historic poems, and others, such as “The Gods and the People” and “The Suicide’s Defense,” that are almost as great, appear a group that I can only call banal and that are of value merely because they trace moods and struggles in a soul’s development. Think of Voltairine de Cleyre writing a Christian Science hymn! Yet she did it. And think of Voltairine de Cleyre writing “The Christian’s Faith” and such lines as:

There’s a love supreme in the great hereafter,
The buds of earth are blooms in heaven;

The smiles of the world are ripples of laughter
When back to its Aidenn the soul is given.

An immense gulf stretches between such sentiments as these and the uncompromising radicalism of the essays that follow. Voltairine de Cleyre’s prose is a joy to read; it is so sincere, so clear, so simple, yet withal so warm and eloquent. She keeps to the main facts. She possesses, in a supreme degree, the faculty of separating the essential from the non-essential. Her note is American, yet she makes a universal appeal. This is not the first time that the statement of universal principles in distinctly national terms has been an important factor in creating the international fame of a writer.

Take the essay, “Anarchism and American Traditions.” This is a memorable exposition of the truth that the spirit of Anarchism, so far from being a foreign importation, is rooted in our very soil. Voltairine de Cleyre bases Anarchism here in the colonization period of one hundred and seventy years from the settling of Jamestown to the outburst of the Revolution. She names as fundamental likeness between the Revolutionary Republicans and the Anarchists the recognition that the little must precede the great; that the local must be the basis of the general; that there can be a free federation only when there are free communities to federate. She reminds us that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, declined a re-election to Congress in order to return to Virginia and do his work in his own local assembly, and that he said: “Let the general government be reduced to foreign concerns only, and let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations, except as to commerce, which the merchants will manage the better the more they are left free to manage for themselves, and the general government may be reduced to a very simple organization, and a very inexpensive one; a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants.” And she also reminds us that that same formulator of our libertarian national charter wrote: “God forbid that we should ever be twenty years without a rebellion! * * * What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that the people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take up arms. * * * The. tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

“The Dominant Idea” and “Direct Action” are two of the strongest essays I know—as notable for their diction as for their arguments. “Crime and Punishment,” in addition to its humanitarian thesis, conveys in its opening sentences an idea that Voltairine de Cleyre was fond of repeating and decorating—the idea, namely, that men are of three sorts: the “turn backs1” (or conservatives), the “rush aheads” (or radicals),”and the indifferents. Most people, she says, belong to the first and third types, yet “it is the radical who always wins at last.” Noteworthy tributes may be found in these pages to three American contemporaries of Voltairine de Cleyre— Emma Goldman, Moses Harman and Dyer D. Lum. Lum was Voltairine’s teacher, confidant and comrade. One of his favorite sayings was: “Events are the true schoolmasters.” Voltairine de Cleyre, in speaking of his instinctive modesty, makes a remark that might be applied to herself: “The devotee of a cause is never the devotee of self.” The Paris Commune and the Mexican Revolution are the subjects of masterly studies, while essays on Francisco Ferrer and on modern educational reform may be recommended to the careful attention of those who are trying to build up libertarian schools in America.

One of the most valuable features of the book is its clear definition, in several essays, of the meaning of Anarchism. Voltairine de Cleyre calls herself an Individualist-Anarchist, but she speaks of at least three other possible schools of Anarchism—namely, Anarchist Mutualists, Anarchist Communists and Anarchist Socialists. It would take too much space to explain in detail in this article her conception of these different schools. Suffice it to say that the point of agreement in all is: no compulsion. “For myself,” she remarks, “I believe that all these and many more could be advantageously tried in different localities; I would see the instincts and habits of the people express themselves in a free choice in every community; and I am sure that distinct environments would call out distinct adaptations.” She adds: “My ideal would be a condition in which all natural resources would be forever free to all, and the worker individually able to produce for himself sufficient for all his vital needs, if he so chose, so that he need not govern his working or not working by the times and seasons of his fellows. I think that time may come; but it will only be through the development of the modes of production and the taste of the people.” Voltairine de Cleyre is as tolerant in her choice of methods as in her presentation of ideals. She speaks of non-resistance and of violent rebellion as both necessary, each in its time and place. She sees value in organization, education, agitation and assassination. “Ask a method? Do you ask Spring her method? Which is more necessary, the sunshine or the rain? They are contradictory—yes; they destroy each other—yes, but from this destruction the flowers result. Each choose that method which expresses your self-hood best, and condemn no other man because he expresses his self otherwise.”

In Voltairine de Cleyre’s writings I find brain and emotion often at war. Like every great nature, she saw all around a subject, and her very breadth of view makes her seem inconsistent. She hesitates between love and hatred, and she exclaims: “No man is in himself a unit, and in every soul Jove still makes war with Christ.” In 1902 she went so far as to say: “The spread of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ and ‘The Slavery di Our Times,’ and the growth of the numerous Tolstoy clubs having for their purpose the dissemination of the literature of non-resistance, is an evidence that many receive the idea that it is easier to conquer war with peace. I am one of these. I can see no end of retaliation, unless some one ceases to retaliate.” But a few years later found her throwing herself, with all her energy and enthusiasm, into the Mexican Revolution. She hesitates between action and her desire for seclusion. She hesitates between art and life, and finds a solace for life’s disappointments in esthetic ecstacy and the inward vision. She hesitates between a coherent intellectual attitude and the sheer nihilism which makes it, at times, impossible for her to see life other than as “a vast scheme of mutual murder, with no justice anywhere, and no God in the soul or out of it.”

Above all, she hesitates between life and death. Pessimism lurks below the surface of everything she has written, and she felt, at times, a strong inclination to give up the battle altogether. Her days were so unhappy that one is tempted to say of her, as of many another genius before her: “Her work was a success; her life was a failure.” But, as she herself observed, “out of the blackest mire the whitest lily blooms.” Her character became great through suffering and in spite of suffering. Voltairine de Cleyre failed to win happiness. But she won something that may be more precious—the satisfaction that comes from honest self-expression and from the exercise of rare intellectual gifts. Her writings will be an inspiration to humanity for generations to come, and her name will grow in fame and in honor as the ideals for which she fought are realized.

Leonard D. Abbott, “Voltairine de Cleyre’s Posthumous Book,” Mother Earth 9 no. 8 (October 1914): 265-69.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.