Voltairine de Cleyre, “Our Present Attitude” (1908)

THE present organization of society, working logically and inexorably, has brought about a situation which both Socialists and Anarchists have all along foreseen and foretold. It was no more to be avoided than the leap of Niagara is to be avoided, when once the headwaters start on their outward course to the sea.

Those who imagine that industrial conditions can be made or unmade by this or that inadequate legal patchwork, find themselves in the midst of a frightful boiling of irreconcilable elements, which they weakly and childishly try to explain by some trivial reason, such as the attitude of this or that politician, or this or that capitalist, or by some single political move (such as protection without restriction of immigration), or by the wickedness of human nature, or by blaming the “calamity press,” or by the will of God, and so on. The condition is so terrible that somehow they are compelled to “sit up and take notice”; but they do not perceive that it is the inevitable result of the whole Politico-economic lie that man can be free and the institution of property continue to exist.

I wish a sharp distinction made between the legal institution of property, and property in the sense that what a man definitely produces by his own labor is his own. It is the legal institution of property which has produced this condition, in which the elemental cries of humanity are swelling up in a frightful discordant chorus, because the elemental needs of humanity are being denied,—and denied to masses of men.

Now, what has happened and what must continue to happen? The people in whom Christian ethical instincts predominate are starving and dying in corners; the people in whom natural instincts predominate over ordinary rules of action are stealing in preference to starving; the jails, the courts, the prisons, are full of these victims of social injustice, who, under free conditions, would be active, energetic, useful people. And still the streets are full of beggars for the means of life. I Now, in times like these, wild outbursts of desperation must be expected. It is not the business of Anarchists to preach wild and foolish acts,—acts of violence. For, truly, Anarchism has nothing in common with violence, and can never come about save through the conquest of men’s minds. But when some desperate and life-denied victim of the present system does strike back at it, by violence, it is not our business to heap infamies upon his name, but to explain him as we explain others, whether our enemies or our friends, as the fated fruit of the existing “order.”

We must expect that such people will be called Anarchists, in advance. No matter what they themselves say, no matter what we say, the majority of people will believe they acted not as desperate men, but as theoretical Anarchists. Such has been the fate of every new idea which sought to penetrate the human mind and to uplift it; the sins of the existing order were blamed at its door, and every calumny that rage and fear could invent was heaped upon it. This is an old, old story.

Well, what of it? If this is the price to be paid for an idea, then let us pay. There is no need of being troubled about it, afraid, or ashamed. This is the time to stand boldly and say, “Yes, I believe in the displacement of this system of injustice by a just one; I believe in the end of starvation, exposure, and the crimes caused by them; I believe in the human soul regnant over all laws which man has made or will make; I believe there is no peace now, and there never will be peace, so long as man rules over man; I believe in the total disintegration and dissolution of the principle and practice of authority; I am an Anarchist, and if for this you condemn me, I stand ready to receive your condemnation.

It has been my experience that when you face an enemy and look him in the eyes, he will accord you far more respect than when you shuffle and shirk. And, moreover, you stand far more chance of convincing him, or the indifferent man at the side, by an open-eyed declaration than by any indirection. I say these things because I have been pained to see that in the present period of repression many of our comrades think and act otherwise. I am sure that most who thus act Peter and deny their Master, do it out of reasoned conviction, and not cowardice; but I am also sure that it is a very mistaken policy, and can have only wretched results.

Face and outface—for these are times when “valor is discretion.”

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Our Present Attitude,” Mother Earth 3 no. 2 (April 1908): 78-80.

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