Voltairine de Cleyre, “Open Your Eyes!” (1908)


WHEN, at the beginning of winter, the present industrial depression, following upon the great financial paroxysm of November, threw millions of people face to face with the problem of hunger and exposure, it was a foregone conclusion that protests, conscious and unconscious, would be made; that every degree of dissatisfaction, from the quiet reasoned argument of the social student to the blind act of murderous rebellion on the part of some desperate victim of “social order,” would find expression. It was equally to be foreseen that those in power, whether as manipulators of the law or as directly entrusted with its execution, would‘ rush into wild efforts of repression, persecution, vengeance. Their policy demands it, and their fear drives them beyond their policy. As the shivering, homeless wretch strikes a mad, blind blow, hitting out wildly in the death-agony of his spirit, often injuring those who are least to blame, so, on the other hand, the ignorant official, frothing with rage and fright, clubs and shoots right and left, all the while fearing the ground will explode beneath his feet, and acting on the principle that it’s “better to hang wrong f’ler ’n no f’ler.”

Meanwhile those who understand their role a little better, moved less by fear and more by their determination to secure themselves in their possessions and positions, see in the restlessness, in the inarticulate protests of the suffering people, their opportunity to suppress, hinder, or silence their declared enemies, the social reformers, to raise the cry of “Mad Dog” and so divert the attention of the better—conditioned workers from their stricken fellows, and make them believe that it is the unions, the foreigners, the Socialists, and the Anarchists who are disturbing “public order”; when in truth they well understand that it is hunger and homelessness that are doing it. But hunger and homelessness they consider as inevitable, a part of the pitiless system of life; and that, while the sufferings of individuals are deplorable, in mass they are to be kept silent, obedient, respectful, helpless. “It is better,” say they, “that men, women, and children die in thousands, than that property be sacrificed or law ignored.” And if any man dares say that hunger and destitution are not inevitable; that they are stupid, cruel, and criminal; that it is a greater wrong for a living creature to crawl away in some corner to die than to take the necessities for his existence from those who are holding them ‘out of use; then that man is proclaimed as the disturber of “peace and order,” and whatever wild action is committed by the desperate, is charged to him; his social-political creed becomes saddled with all the sins of the present system, and the mob howl “Crucify him.”

Thus it was a foregone conclusion that when a shivering, starving, half-crazed man killed a priest in Denver recently, he would be called an Anarchist. When a cowardly Chief of Police in Chicago, frightened no doubt by the memory of his blows upon the heads of unarmed workingmen walking in peaceful demonstration, grappled in a spasm of terror, and killed, a slender youth whose purpose in calling upon him is not known, and never will be known now, it was to be certainly anticipated that the boy would be denounced as an Anarchist, and the coldblooded murder of him justified by that one word. And Shippy is exonerated by laying that word across his victim’s body, though by his own law he should have been tried for murder!

When a crowd of unemployed workers in Philadelphia spontaneously forsook the hall where Socialist and Anarchist speakers were trying to show them that the cure for their ills lay not in political patchwork, but in a reorganization of society on the basis of equal opportunity for all,—forsook hall and speakers, in their helplessness and desperation, to march to the City Hall and ask the politicians to give them work—truly a most stupid and hopeless petition, it was as certain as that they marched that they would be stopped by the police at the cost of any brutality necessary, and of much more than necessary even for that! It was sure that instead of the march being instanced as a witness of the terrible wrongs inflicted on these suffering people, it would be trumpeted wide and far as an effect of the speeches of the Anarchists; the misery of hungry men with hungry children’s voices haunting them in the months-long weary tramp for work, and not finding it, would be brushed aside by the cry “foreigner,” “Anarchist!”

When at the great unemployed demonstration organized by the Socialists in New York, after the people had been chased, hustled, pounded, ridden down by mounted police, told that the club was stronger than the Constitution, and had it demonstrated on their heads and shoulders,—when after this some one exploded a bomb, killing one man and wounding another who may or may not have been the bomb-thrower, it was as certain as that night follows day that the bomb would be charged to Anarchists, that Anarchist editors would be called on to explain, though they had nothing to do with the demonstration and were sitting quietly in their offices when it took place.

The policy is in brief this: Let us lay our sins on the foreigner and the Anarchist.

This being done, with much hue and cry (though not altogether successfully, for some people still inquire calmly and do their own thinking), the next move is to cry for stringent laws,—laws curtailing individual freedom more and more and correspondingly extending the powers of officials. Ignorant Americans, who preserve the letter of Americanism and kill the spirit, call for laws to prevent immigration, inquisitorial laws to discover men’s political opinions, deportation laws to rid themselves of the terrible foreigner! And above all, laws to get rid of the Anarchists, the “assassins” and “bomb-throwers.”

And all the while their system goes on relentlessly breeding assassination and outrage within, so that a gateless wall built round the shores of America as high as heaven could not keep it out. As for their new laws, they can make liars out of people, but cannot alter their convictions.

Conceive the idiocy of the present law against the admission of Anarchists. Whom can it keep out? People with international reputations, who are neither assassins nor bomb-throwers, but teachers of the doctrine of future social order through liberty. It can keep out a Rocker, a Turner, a Kropotkin, a Tolstoi,—men publicly known as opposers of government. But what can it do with the unknown man who declares he is not an Anarchist? It puts a premium on a lie, and that is all. But it can also work a great deal of harm to simple people who are not Anarchists, people who have endured great hardships to obtain the means to come here, and may be turned back at the gate by the caprice of an official suffering from indigestion or the mania for Anarchist hunting. It can also create a great conspiracy—making secret police, who in default of bomb-throwers will throw bombs themselves and blame the Anarchists, in order to justify their jobs.

You who read this, do you really think the great problems of hunger and of injustice are ever going to be settled by these paltry persecutions? Do you think that the putting in prison of a few hundred individuals and the deportation of a thousand more is going to quiet the hunger of millions, give work to the unemployed, stop the accumulation of wealth in hands already overflowing, and divert it back to the great destitute masses? Surely you are not so foolish. You understand that if people are to be fed, they must be able to work; and if they are to be free to work at will, the means of work must be open to them; and if the land, the great source of all, is held out of use by means of legal sanction, property right, these means are not open; that the sole thing which lies between Man and Earth is his own stupid invention, existing in his mind only; that he has only to wipe that cobweb “Legal Sanction” out of his brain, and the whole horrible chimera of necessary destitution in the midst of plenty will vanish like a nightmare: only OPEN YOUR EYES.

It is not Anarchism but Law which preaches violence, Law which bids men die for fear of club, revolver, and bayonet. Anarchism means freedom, plenty, and peace.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “Open Your Eyes!,” Mother Earth 3 no. 3 (May 1908): 156-159.

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