Voltairine de Cleyre

Voltairine de Cleyre

Voltairine de Cleyre (November 17 1866 June 20 1912) was, according to Emma Goldman, "the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced." Today she is not widely known, possibly as a result of her early death.

Life

Born in the small town of Leslie, Michigan, she was placed as a teenager into a Catholic convent by necessity, because her father could not support the family. This experience had the effect of pushing her towards atheism rather than Christianity. The convent was in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada and of her time spent there she said, "it had been like the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and there are white scars on my soul, where ignorance and superstition burnt me with their hell fire in those stifling days." She attempted to run away, swimming to Port Huron Michigan, and hiked 17 miles where she met friends of her family who contacted her father and sent her back. She ran away again and never returned.

Family ties to the Abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, along with the harsh and unrelenting poverty that she grew up in, and being named after the philosopher (Voltaire), definitely contributed to the radical rhetoric that she developed shortly after adolescence. After schooling in the convent, de Cleyre began her intellectual involvement in the strongly anti-clerical freethought movement by lecturing and contributing articles to freethought periodicals.

During her time in the freethought movement in the mid- and late 1880s, de Cleyre was especially influenced by Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Clarence Darrow. Other influences during her life were Henry David Thoreau, Big Bill Haywood, and later Eugene Debs. After the hanging of the Haymarket protesters in 1887, however, she became an anarchist. "Till then I believed in the essential justice of the American law of trial by jury," she wrote in an autobiographical essay, "After that I never could."

She was known as an excellent speaker and writer in the opinion of biographer Paul Avrich, she was "a greater literary talent than any other American anarchist" and as a tireless advocate for the anarchist cause, whose "religious zeal," according to Goldman, "stamped everything she did.

She was close to and inspired by Dyer D. Lum, "her teacher, her confidant, her comrade," but Lum committed suicide in 1893. On June 12, 1890, she gave birth to a son, Harry, fathered by freethinker James B. Elliot; however, the child was taken from her when she refused to live with Elliot.

Throughout her life she was plagued by illness and depression, attempting suicide on at least two occasions and surviving an assassination attempt on December 19 1902. Her assailant, Herman Helcher, was a former pupil who had earlier been rendered insane by a fever, and whom she immediately forgave. She wrote, "It would be an outrage against civilization if he were sent to jail for an act which was the product of a diseased brain". The attack left her with chronic ear pain and a throat infection that often adversely affected her ability to speak or concentrate.

Voltairine de Cleyre died on June 20 1912, at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital in Chicago, Illinois from septic meningitis. She was buried at the Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home Cemetery), in Forest Park, Chicago.

Political beliefs

Anarchism without adjectives

Voltairine de Cleyre's political perspective shifted throughout her life, eventually leading her to become an outspoken proponent of "anarchism without adjectives," a doctrine, according to historian George Richard Esenwein, "without any qualifying labels such as communist, collectivist, mutualist, or individualist. For others, ... [it] was simply understood as an attitude that tolerated the coexistence of different anarchist schools.

For several years de Cleyre associated herself primarily with the American individualist anarchist milieu. Her early allegiance to individualism can be seen in the way she differentiated herself from Emma Goldman: "Miss Goldman is a communist; I am an individualist. She wishes to destroy the right of property, I wish to assert it. I make my war upon privilege and authority, whereby the right of property, the true right in that which is proper to the individual, is annihilated. She believes that co-operation would entirely supplant competition; I hold that competition in one form or another will always exist, and that it is highly desirable it should.

Despite their early dislike for one another, Goldman and de Cleyre came to respect each other intellectually. In her 1894 essay In Defense of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation, de Cleyre wrote in support of the right of expropriation while remaining neutral on its advocacy: "I do not think one little bit of sensitive human flesh is worth all the property rights in N. Y. city... I say it is your business to decide whether you will starve and freeze in sight of food and clothing, outside of jail, or commit some overt act against the institution of property and take your place beside Timmermann and Goldman."

Eventually, however, de Cleyre was moved to reject individualism. In 1908 she argued "that the best thing ordinary workingmen or women could do was to organise their industry to get rid of money altogether" and "produce together, co-operatively rather than as employer and employed." ("Why I am an Anarchist"). In 1912 she argued that the Paris Commune's failure was due to its having "respected [private] property." In her essay, "The Commune Is Risen", she states that "In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune fell, the chief one was that in the hour of necessity, the Communards were not Communists. They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic ones...

"Socialism and Communism both demand a degree of joint effort and administration which would beget more regulation than is wholly consistent with ideal Anarchism; Individualism and Mutualism, resting upon property, involve a development of the private policeman not at all compatible with my notion of freedom. Instead, she became one of the most prominent advocates of "anarchism without adjectives." In The Making of an Anarchist, she wrote, "I no longer label myself otherwise than as 'Anarchist' simply."

Some disagreement exists as to whether or not Voltairine's rejection of individualism constituted an embrace of communism. Rudolf Rocker and Emma Goldman made such an assertion, but others, including biographer Paul Avrich, have taken exception. Anarchist author Iain McKay argues that de Cleyre's 1908 advocacy of a money-less economy was communism. Cleyre, herself, in response to claims that she had been an anarcho-communist, said "I am not now, and have never been at any time, a communist.

Direct Action

Her 1912 essay in defense of direct action is widely cited today. In this essay, de Cleyre points to examples such as the Boston Tea Party, noting that "direct action has always been used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating it."

Feminism

In her 1895 lecture entitled Sex Slavery, de Cleyre condemns ideals of beauty that encourage women to distort their bodies and child socialization practices that create unnatural gender roles. The title of the essay refers not to traffic in women for purposes of prostitution, although that is also mentioned, but rather to marriage laws that allow men to rape their wives without consequences. Such laws make "every married woman what she is, a bonded slave, who takes her master's name, her master's bread, her master's commands, and serves her master's passions." See also: iFeminism

Anti-militarism

She also adamantly opposed the standing army, arguing that its existence made wars more likely. In her 1909 essay, Anarchism and American Traditions, she argued that in order to achieve peace, "all peaceful persons should withdraw their support from the army, and require that all who wish to make war do so at their own cost and risk; that neither pay nor pensions are to be provided for those who choose to make man-killing a trade."

Legacy

A collection of her speeches, The First Mayday: The Haymarket Speeches, 1895-1910, was published by the Libertarian Book Club in 1980 and in 2004, AK Press released The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader. In 2005, two more collections of her speeches and article were published, one by SUNY Press entitled Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine De Cleyre - Anarchist, Feminist, Genius, by Sharon Presley and the other, Voltairine De Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind, from University of Michigan Press.

References

Further reading

  • De Cleyre, Voltairine. Selected works of Voltairine de Cleyre. Mother Earth Pub. Association. (1914)
  • Avrich, Paul. An American anarchist : the life of Voltairine de Cleyre. Princeton University Press. (1976)
  • A. J. Brigati. The Voltairine De Cleyre Reader. AK Distribution; ISBN 1-902593-87-1. (2004)
  • Eugenia C. Delamotte. Voltairine De Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind. University of Michigan Press; ISBN 0-472-09867-5.
  • Margaret Marsh. Anarchist Women 1870-1920. Temple University Press; ISBN 0-87722-202-9.
  • Sharon Presley and Crispin Sartwell. Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine De Cleyre - Anarchist, Feminist, Genius. State University of New York Press; ISBN 0-7914-6094-0.

External links

Search another word or see Voltairine de Cleyreon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2014 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature
FAVORITES
RECENT

;