By Evelyn Kronfeld
Last year, in an attempt to tidy my bookshelf, I went through my messy stack of zines. Amid the disorganized booklets was a tract entitled “Crime and Punishment”, published by the Boston Anarchist Black Cross. I had never heard of its author, Voltairine de Cleyre, but I absolutely loved her name. After skimming the essay, I looked her up, and began to research her political philosophy. I soon learned, largely thanks to the biography An American Anarchist by historian Paul Avrich, that she led a brief-yet-enigmatic life.
On her escape from the Convent of Our Lady of Lake Huron, de Cleyre ventured toward Port Huron by the St. Clair River, in search of freedom from the life that was designed for her. A few years later, she graduated from the monastery, and exhibited righteous anger towards religion. Her earliest social efforts aligned with the “Golden Age of Freethought”, a movement which stood against 19th-century orthodoxies and championed secular thought. Her ex-Catholic fervor didn’t end with writing against religious dogma, and she was drawn to the labor movement from a young age. Throughout her life, she emphasized and wrote most assuredly about feminist matters, decrying men’s domination over women, comparing this control to that of an employer over their employee. As de Cleyre saw it, women were prisoners of false socialisation and marital rape. Institutions like the standing military, which make death and violence a profession, were straightforwardly reprehensible to her.
Love and heartbreak were important aspects of her brief life. In her early twenties, de Cleyre took up an assortment of lovers. T. Hamilton Garside, a socialist lecturer from Scotland, was her first infatuation. He was a tall, alluring fellow – an ex-preacher with a voice “as sweet as a summer wind”.
Another man, Dyer Daniel Lum, would stroll into her life. Lum was nearly thirty years older than Voltairine, and a Civil War veteran, hardened by a life of labor activism and anarchist theorizing; he warned de Cleyre that Garside was bad news. The guy was flashy, cold, not someone to fall for – Lum expressed all this, but de Cleyre was still in love. Dyer expected de Cleyre to act naively. When her heart was broken, it was traumatic, and sparked her return to Michigan.
Still enduring heartache, she became entangled with James B. Elliot, whom she’d met at the train station when she first visited Philly in 1888. James was about forty when Voltairine moved in with him – he was a Thomas Paine fanboy and a freethinker. Voltairine desired political autonomy, but also autonomy in her relationship. Despite his preoccupation with “freethought”, James may not have been so skeptical of patriarchal gender roles; de Cleyre couldn’t be tamed to Elliot’s liking, so their romance was short-lived. After giving birth to the pair’s son (whom she would not live with or raise), she hung around Kansas for a year, lecturing and writing there until she could push herself home. Lum was seemingly a sporadic lover, whose sexual relationship with de Cleyre is unconfirmed, and who was mostly apart from de Cleyre. Their correspondence included lovestruck verse, and formative philosophical interchange. Lum would sink into depression, killing himself five years after befriending Voltairine.
Tumultuousness would follow de Cleyre into her thirties. An unwell past student of hers tried to kill her shortly before Christmas in 1902. Standing against the violence of the State, she didn’t want him imprisoned. The bullet further damaged her health and diminished her capacity to communicate, and she died a decade later in Chicago, beside her now-adult son Harry.
Emma Goldman wrote that Voltairine’s struggles with physical illness led her to contemplate suicide, citing an unaddressed letter where de Cleyre proclaimed her intention to “do tonight that which I have always intended to do should those circumstances arise which have now arisen in my life”; she expressed in the note that the man who shot her was not to blame for her suffering, but that doctors failed her by promising that she’d recover. She actually died eight years after writing this note, from septic meningitis, not by suicide.
“There is no indication anywhere,” Goldman wrote, “why Voltairine, usually so determined, failed to carry out her intention. No doubt it was again the Dominant Idea; her Will to life was too strong.”
So many Americans have chronic conditions, and some studies have warned that living with chronic illness can lead to suicidality. Perhaps, as an anarchist, de Cleyre felt overwhelmed not only by her health issues, but also by the world’s issues which she felt responsible for tackling.
Before dying at the age of 45, her ideology moved around a lot. It was celebrated litigator Clarence Darrow whose words on socialism equipped Voltairine with her first clear vision of economic justice. The foul aftermath of the 1887 Haymarket Affair was fresh and weighed heavy on her. According to her 1903 essay “The Making of an Anarchist,” she didn’t identify with the label “Socialist” for very long. She became familiar with concepts such as individualist anarchism from periodicals like Liberty by Benjamin Tucker, an identification she once embraced that distinguished her for a while from anarcho-communists like Goldman.
In August 1893, Goldman stood before a sea of working-class New Yorkers for the purpose of telling them to take and demand, not hope and beg: “Fifth Avenue is laid in gold, every mansion is a citadel of money and power…Your neighbors – they have not only stolen your bread, but they are sapping your blood…demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.” Shortly after, she was arrested for “inciting to riot”, and sentenced to a year in prison.
Goldman, in the aforementioned quote, refers to expropriation, taking from the rich for the good of the working class. De Cleyre gave a speech in response to this the following year. In her lecture, Voltairine affirmed that the rich don’t deserve the sympathy of the poor and that life is far more valuable than property. Expropriation is moral and inevitable, she said, but she didn’t encourage her audience to go out and do so en masse — directing other people’s behavior made her uncomfortable. To her, if a worker were to follow Goldman’s advice, they’d become a direct target of the police, and become vulnerable to state violence. Therefore, de Cleyre saw it as problematic for her to compel workers to engage in such a risky act. Further, she believed it false that “power resides in numbers”, and warned that capitalists, guarded by the State, could overcome crowds of proletarians. As we’ve seen this year, mass protests against police brutality have been met with immense cruelty by law enforcement, who are dedicated to upholding white supremacy. Tremendous mobilization won’t necessarily be enough to topple intricate ruling class institutions, and this reality is difficult to confront.
In 1907, it was reported to the International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam that de Cleyre was “a worker in the cause of Anarchist Communism”. She clarified in Mother Earth that she was never a communist, and also that she no longer identified with individualism. This concurs with her essay “Anarchism” from six years prior, where she said that without “the element of compulsion”, various economic systems could be prosperously-anarchist, and that tolerance among the different schools was proper. ‘Anarchism without adjectives’ was her purported doctrine.
Contemporaries of de Cleyre gave life to this phrase, rejecting sectarian conflicts which plagued anarchist circles. Those who have historically identified with the term tend to want many competing economic ideas to be tolerated by anarchists for the sake of accountability, or they find all economic models to be flawed in some way. It seems like de Cleyre’s use of ‘anarchist without adjectives’ mostly had to do with her taking issue with various proposed economic systems; she wrote that an individualist economy would lead to “the destruction of equal liberty,” but that a Communist economy would result in the same in some ways.
De Cleyre would write more favorably of communist ideas later in life. Shortly before her death, she wrote that the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871 was largely due to participants’ failure to destroy economic chains – “in the hour of necessity, the Communards were not Communists.”
Her leftward shift was probably connected to her aforementioned friendship with Goldman. While the two often butted heads, a mutual admiration persisted. If not for Goldman’s posthumous tribute, de Cleyre’s work would be far less known and appreciated. Their relationship was a great example of radical sisterhood.
For the most part, de Cleyre’s son wasn’t a part of her life. Further, her romantic relationships were apparently unfulfilling. However, her connection to Goldman lasted years, and was impactful for both women. Unlike Garside, Goldman respected her. Unlike with de Cleyre and Lum’s relationship, Goldman and de Cleyre’s friendship wasn’t marred by tragedy (even while Voltairine’s life constantly was). As with most poets, love played an important role in de Cleyre’s life, and her love for Emma was a remarkable blessing.
The personal is political, a slogan popularly associated with second-wave feminism, applied precisely to de Cleyre’s life. She understood the pain of poverty, and of chronic illness; like most people, she knew love and heartbreak. Through her writing, she experienced these things publicly, and vibrantly.
As capitalism wages a constant war on our bodies and spirits, artful communication is crucial. Therefore, keep communism poetic.
Evelyn Kronfeld writes about gender, media, and politics. Her work is compiled at evkronf.net.