New & Recent Books: The Ecumenical Spirit and the Libertarian Movement
Posted on 05.14.06 by Jeff Riggenbach

Books Cited or Discussed in This Essay:

De Cleyre, Voltairine. The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader. Ed. A. J. Brigati.

Oakland, CA:AK Press, 2004.

—. Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre — Anarchist, Feminist, Genius. Ed. Sharon Presley and Crispin Sartwell.

Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005.

DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Gates of Freedom: Voltairine de Cleyre & the Revolution of the Mind (With Selections from Her Writings).

Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Avrich, Paul. An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

DeLeon, David. The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Hamilton, Charles H. “Introduction: The Evolution of a Subversive Tradition.”

Benjamin R. Tucker & the Champions of Liberty: A Centenary Anthology.

Ed. Michael E. Coughlin, Charles H. Hamilton, and Mark A. Sullivan.

St. Paul, MN & NewYork: Michael E. Coughlin and Mark Sullivan, 1987,

pp. 1-19.

Martin, James J. Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827-1908. Colorado Springs, CO: Ralph Myles, 1970.

Reichert, William O. Individual Liberty: Selections from the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker. Ed. Clarence L. Swartz. New York: Revisionist Press, 1972 [1926].

—. Instead of a Book, by a Man Too Busy to Write One: A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism, Culled from the Writings of Benjamin R. Tucker. Second Edition. New York: Benjamin R. Tucker, 1897.


The late Samuel Edward Konkin III (SEK3) was in the habit of referring to the individualist anarchist movement in the United States of around a hundred years ago as “the first libertarian movement.” He often chided me, for example, about my enthusiasm for Max Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1845) — known in English as The Ego and Its Own — reminding me that Benjamin R. Tucker’s promotion of that book and its ideas in the early years of the 20th Century in his magazine Liberty had sounded the death knell of the first libertarian movement. Beware, SEK3 admonished me more than once, lest I help engender the destruction of the second libertarian movement in the selfsame way.

The first libertarian movement differed from our current one, to be sure. For one thing, at first glance, and somewhat paradoxically, it seems to have been much, much larger. I say, “paradoxically,” because, of course, the United States during the period of the first libertarian movement’s greatest public notice was a considerably less populous place than the nearly 300,000,000-strong behemoth it is today. In 1881, when Benjamin R. Tucker founded Liberty, the periodical that was to the first libertarian movement what the late R. W. Bradford’s Liberty has been for most of the past two decades to the current one, a mere 50,000,000 individuals inhabited the land area known as the United States of America — scarcely a sixth of that land area’s present population.

Granted, the population was growing rapidly. Within twenty years, by 1900, it would increase by fifty percent. Within forty years, by 1920, it would double. But even in the early years of World War I, when the last faint echoes of the first libertarian movement were silenced by government fiat,* the U.S. population never reached more than about a hundred million — only about a third of the teeming multitude we see around us in 2006. One would expect — wouldn’t one? — that any libertarian movement that might have existed in this country between 1880 and 1920 would have been proportionally smaller.

And there are some indications that this was the case. R. W. Bradford’s Liberty had a circulation of around ten thousand at the time of his death, late in 2005. Writing of Benjamin R. Tucker’s earlier publication of the same name (1881-1908), Charles Hamilton acknowledges that “[i]t isn’t clear how many people read Liberty,” but he estimates that “[i]t probably never had more than 600 to 1000 subscribers.” (10)

On the other hand, the anarchist writers and activists of that earlier time seem to have routinely addressed audiences many times the size of the relatively puny ones contemporary libertarian speakers have long since grown accustomed to. Consider, as a case in point, the career of Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912), who flourished as a writer and lecturer in the first libertarian movement between 1890 and 1910. Eugenia DeLamotte, the Arizona State University English professor who put together one of the three new books on de Cleyre published over the course of the past two years, reports that while most of de Cleyre’s lectures were delivered “in the eastern and midwestern United States […] she lectured also in England, Scotland, and Norway — sometimes to small audiences, but often to hundreds; sometimes to over a thousand.” (6)

The late Paul Avrich, in his 1978 biography of de Cleyre, An American Anarchist, documents one appearance she made in Cleveland that was “attended, in spite of a driving rainstorm, by 120 people,” and another “before the Social Science Club” of Philadelphia, where an “audience of 1,200 gave her a magnificent reception.” (178) DeLamotte mentions a “1908 anarchist demonstration,” also in Philadelphia, at which De Cleyre addressed what a local newspaper reporter described as “some two thousand workers.” (44) Avrich mentions a rally she addressed in London at which she herself estimated that “ten thousand people packed together with upturned faces” were in attendance. (113) And he reports that when de Cleyre died in Chicago late in June of 1912, “two thousand mourners” turned out to witness her interment. (236)

It’s not that de Cleyre was such a superstar that people just couldn’t stay away when she appeared in their vicinity. She had a certain prominence in the movement, certainly. Avrich points out that “for twenty-five years she was an active agitator and propagandist and, as a glance through the files of the anarchist press will show, one of the movement’s most respected and devoted representatives.” (xix) She wrote for all the major anarchist journals of the time. And according to Eugenia DeLamotte, “The New York Tribune reported in 1902, ‘Her writings are said to be known to anarchists all over the world.’” (6)

Moreover, from her earliest days, she seems to have been an uncommonly effective public speaker. Sharon Presley, the California State University lecturer in psychology (and longtime activist in the second libertarian movement) who, with fellow academic Crispin Sartwell, put together another of those three recent books on de Cleyre, reports that while she was “not a flamboyant speaker like Emma Goldman, she was, by most accounts, compelling and eloquent,” and that Goldman herself “considered Voltairine’s speeches to be highly original and even brilliant.” (19) Avrich quotes the American art critic and man of letters, Sadakichi Hartmann, “who attended a lecture she gave on Mary Wollstonecraft at the Manhattan Liberal Club in 1894,” as admiring her “even delivery, the subdued enthusiasm of her voice, the abundance of information, thought and argument, and the logical sequence of the same” in her remarks. (42)

De Cleyre had embarked on her career as a lecturer not long after finishing up high school at the Convent of Our Lady of Port Huron in Sarnia, Ontario (just across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Michigan), where she had been sent, over her vigorous protests, by her father, Hector De Claire, a liberal and freethinker, the man who had taught her to read and write French as well as English and had named her after the intellectual idol of his youth in Northern France, Voltaire. An itinerant and perennially impoverished tailor, De Claire seems to have recognized his daughter’s unusual intellectual talents and sought to expose her to the best schooling he could afford. Avrich cites letters indicating that he also believed a few years behind the convent’s walls would cure the thirteen-year-old Voltairine of what he considered the “impudence and impertinence, so very prominent in her.” Then too, he told his wife in another letter quoted by Avrich, the convent would “refine her, so she has manners and knows how to behave herself and cure her of laziness, a love of idleness, also love of trash such as Story Books and papers.” Moreover, it would “give her ideas of proprieties, of order, rule, regulation, time and industry, as I doubt not you know she needs.” (29-30)

Harriet De Claire, then separated from her husband for economic reasons and living a hundred miles west in the small town of St. Johns, near Lansing, where Voltairine and her sister Adelaide had grown up, doubtless agreed. It was, after all, Voltairine’s “restless” character and her displays of “wilfulness” that had prompted Harriet to send her twelve-year-old daughter to live with her father in Port Huron in the first place. If he now felt that a few years of study in the convent school were indicated, he was probably right.

After at least one escape attempt and a number of angry or mournful letters home, Voltairine settled down and made the best of her situation. She seems to have received fairly expert instruction in writing and music at the convent school, and a good deal of help in perfecting her mastery of French. As a result, when she returned to St. Johns late in 1883, she was able to find employment almost immediately as a private teacher of French, English, music, and “fancy penmanship.” Two years later, shortly after her nineteenth birthday, weary of living at home with Harriet, Voltairine took her first tentative steps into the world outside.

At first she moved only a short distance away, settling in with an aunt in Greenville, a small town near Grand Rapids, in Western Michigan. Within a few months, however, she had moved on, into a room in a rooming house in Grand Rapids proper; she had also begun writing for a weekly freethought paper called The Progressive Age. Within a few months more, the true extent of her English language skills having been discovered by the proprietors, she was named editor. Her articles in The Progressive Age led to speaking engagements, and before long de Cleyre, a mere girl of nineteen or twenty, was traipsing around Western Michigan lecturing on Tom Paine and atheism, among other topics. As Avrich writes, “For small fees she addressed the local free thought circuit in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and other Michigan towns […]. He notes that, “[b]eing a former pupil in a convent, she was a particularly effective speaker, as she could talk from firsthand experience, like the runaway slaves who addressed abolitionist gatherings before the Civil War.” (40)

According to Avrich, she told her audiences: “I know of what I speak. I spent four years in a convent, and I have seen the watchwords of their machinations. I have seen bright intellects, intellects which might have been brilliant stars in the galaxies of genius, loaded down with chains, made abject, prostrate nonentities. I have seen frank, generous dispositions made morose, sullen, and deceitful, and I have seen rose-leaf cheeks turn to a sickly pallour, and glad eyes lose their brightness, and elastic youth lose its vitality and go down to an early grave murdered — murdered by the church.” (40-41) Her speaking engagements led to further speaking engagements, and to opportunities to write for other publications, “including,” according to Presley, “The Freethinkers’ Magazine, Freethought, and The Truth Seeker. […] As her reputation grew, her lectures, including frequent tours for the American Secular Union, a nationwide freethought organization, took her to many Midwestern and Eastern states.” (19)

By this time it was late 1887 and Voltairine was twenty-one, a rising young star in the freethought firmament. Today, readers who know about freethought at all usually associate it with organized atheism, with Robert G. Ingersoll as the Madalyn Murray O’Hair of the 19th Century. But in fact there was much more to freethought than that. As Eugenia DeLamotte reminds us, freethought was “an eclectic movement that included atheists, agnostics, and deists as well as religious thinkers (Unitarian, transcendentalist, sometimes Quaker) who shared a scorn for religious dogma as a source of truth or authority; a rejection of biblical miracles and the divinity of Jesus; an aggressive, activist commitment to separation of church and state; and an insistence that human progress depends on the exercise of each individual’s reason with regard even to subjects held most sacred.” (4) There were many freethought periodicals and institutions in 19th Century America that specialized in only one of these issues. As DeLamotte notes, for example, the American Secular Union, which employed Voltairine de Cleyre as a lecturer early on in her career, placed its main “focus on separation of church and state.” (19)


From the beginning, then, even in her earliest days as a professional freethinker, de Cleyre (as she began spelling her name some months after commencing her writing career) took an interest in political questions. Many other freethinkers did as well. De Cleyre herself defined freethought as “the right to believe as the evidence, coming in contact with the mind, forces it to believe. This implies the admission of any and all evidence bearing upon any subject which might come up for discussion.” (”The Economic Tendency of Freethought,” 1890, included in The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader and Exquisite Rebel) DeLamotte commments that “[a]mong the many subjects that came up routinely in late-nineteenth-century freethinking circles were marriage, sexuality, birth control, women’s rights, race relations, labor relations […] and the relation of the individual to the state.” (14)

Little wonder, then, that, as Avrich puts it, “between the anarchist and free thought movements there was a close and longstanding affinity. Both shared a common anti-authoritarian viewpoint and a common tradition of secularist radicalism stretching back to Thomas Paine and Robert Owen, heroes to atheists and anarchists alike. Nearly all anarchists were freethinkers, and many […] first came to anarchism through the free thought movement, in which they constituted a militant left wing within the local clubs as well as the regional and national federations.” (39)

By 1888, when she was twenty-one years old, Voltairine de Cleyre was ready to become one of those anarchists who had first come to anarchism through the freethought movement. The specific event which precipitated her involvement with anarchism as a cause was the Haymarket affair of 1886-1887. As Avrich tells the story, “The Haymarket affair, one of the most famous incidents in the history of the anarchist movement, began on May 3, 1886, when the Chicago police fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing and wounding several men. The following evening, the anarchists held a protest meeting near Haymarket Square. Toward the end of the meeting, which had proceeded without incident, rain began to fall and the crowd started to disperse. The last speaker, Samuel Fielden, was concluding his address when a contingent of police marched in and ordered the meeting to be closed. Fielden objected that the gathering was peaceful and that he was just finishing up. The police captain insisted. At that moment a bomb was thrown. One policeman was killed and nearly seventy were injured, of whom six later died. The police opened fire on the crowd, killing at least four workers and wounding many more.”

“Who threw the bomb,” Avrich continues, “has never been determined. What is certain, however, is that the eight men who were brought to trial, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab, were not responsible. Six of them, in fact, were not even present when the explosion occurred, and the other two were demonstrably innocent of throwing the bomb. Moreover, no evidence was produced to connect the defendants with the bombthrower. Yet all eight were found guilty, the verdict being the product of perjured testimony, a packed jury, a biased judge, and public hysteria. In spite of petitions for clemency and appeals to higher courts, five of the defendants were condemned to death and the others to long terms of imprisonment. On November 10, 1887, Lingg committed suicide in his cell […]. The following day, November 11th, Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer were hanged.”

Finally, “[s]ix years later, in 1893, the imprisoned men, Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab, were pardoned by Governor John P. Altgeld, who criticized the judge for conducting the trial ‘with malicious ferocity’ and found that the evidence had not shown that any of the eight anarchists were involved in the bombing.” (47-49) In effect, the court convicted the men for espousing an idea — the idea that human life would be better without the State — that was widely believed to have influenced whoever threw that fateful bomb at the Chicago police. The four who were executed were put to death for committing what George Orwell would call, many years later, a “thoughtcrime.”

The execution horrified Voltairine de Cleyre — the more so because she herself, not yet converted to the anarchist cause at the time the original bombing took place, had called for just that fate to be imposed on the suspects in the case. “At the time of the explosion in May 1886,” Avrich writes, “Voltai was nineteen years old. She was living in St. Johns and had not yet embarked on her radical course. Glimpsing the newspaper headlines — ‘Anarchists Throw Bomb in Crowd in the Haymarket in Chicago’ — she joined the cry for vengeance. ‘They ought to be hanged!’ she declared, words over which she agonized for the rest of her life. ‘For that ignorant, outrageous, blood-thirsty sentence I shall never forgive myself,’ she confessed on the fourteenth anniversary of the executions, ‘though I know the dead men would have forgiven me, though I know those who love them forgive me. But my own voice, as it sounded that night, will sound so in my ears till I die — a bitter reproach and shame.’” (49-50)

She “dedicated a poem to Governor Altgeld when he pardoned Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab, and yet another after his death in 1902. She wrote a poem to Mathew M. Trumbull, a distinguished Chicago attorney who had defended the anarchists in two incisive pamphlets and appealed to the state for clemency. For the epigraph of her poem ‘The Hurricane’ she quoted the prophecy of Spies: ‘We are the birds of the coming storm.’ Nearly every year she took part in memorial meetings to her comrades, delivering moving and deeply felt orations, the most powerful of her career.” (49) She moved to Chicago near the end of her life, died there, and was buried in Waldheim Cemetery there, next to the Haymarket martyrs.

In a word, she did penance. She devoted the rest of her life to penance for what she regarded as her unforgivable act of prejudgment. Her penance was writing for periodicals, delivering orations and lectures, and otherwise working to propagate the doctrine the martyrs had espoused, the doctrine of society without the State. She seems to have been that type of personality — the type of the penitent, the devotee, the true believer, the ascetic. So perhaps it was inevitable that she would choose a career as a penitent. It was, in any case, a practical choice. If there was anything she could truly be said to know how to do it was penance. She had learned that at Our Lady of Port Huron. As she herself put it in 1903 in her essay “The Making of an Anarchist” (included in The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader), “[B]y early influences and education I should have been a nun, and spent my life glorifying Authority in its most concentrated form, as some of my schoolmates are doing at this hour within the mission houses of the Order of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.” Sartwell argues that in fact she “internalized the convent’s modesty and asceticism,” whatever her disagreements with its dogma. “Most pictures of her in later life,” he points out, “show her in plain, high-necked garb that could almost be a habit. And her life of extreme frugality and devotion to her calling mirrored that of the nuns who helped raise her. She was often referred to by her acquaintances in religious terms as a priestess […] or as the bride of her cause.” (5)

Certainly she lived as though she had taken a vow of poverty. It is generally agreed that her work as a private teacher of music, English, French, writing, and penmanship produced only a meagre income. Yet DeLamotte quotes de Cleyre’s mother as complaining to her other daughter, Voltairine’s sister Adelaide, about Voltairine’s “habit of giving away the little money she made instead of spending it on better dresses.” The truth is, DeLamotte maintains, that it was Voltairine’s mother who was the principal beneficiary of her daughter’s profligate charity, for, however strapped for cash Voltairine might be, she regularly sent money home. (159) Had she chosen to be less selfless, she could have maintained a higher standard of living.

Nor can there be much doubt that she could have earned more money had she chosen to do so. According to Paul Avrich, “she possessed a greater literary talent than any other American anarchist.” (7) Crispin Sartwell agrees — with one minor qualification: “Of all American anarchists, native born or immigrant, and with the exception of Thoreau, Voltairine de Cleyre is certainly the most distinguished writer.” (6) Sharon Presley notes that, even among her contemporaries, she was “highly praised […] for the elegance and stylistic beauty of her writing.” (20) Would she have had that much trouble landing a job in a magazine or newspaper office? Or with a book publishing house? So far as is known, she never sought, or even considered, such employment. She didn’t want a regular job. She just wanted enough income, however irregular, to make ends meet. The rest of her time, as much time as she could find, she wanted to devote to her real job — which was, of course, the cause, the movement for individual liberty.

In this cause, she soldiered forward bravely, year after year, impeded not by her poverty, which seems to have been largely self-chosen, but by a somewhat mysterious ill health which appears to have dogged her steps from the earliest days of her career and caused her premature death at the age of forty-five. Sartwell acknowledges frankly that “[i]t is not clear what exactly her illnesses were,” and what we know of their symptoms only leaves us more mystified than ever. Sartwell reports, for example, that “lecturing left her so exhausted and in so much pain that she had to take to her bed afterwards.” (6) She suffered, according to Avrich, from a “recurrent inflammation of the sinuses” and “a progressive ‘atrophy of the tissues of the roof of the mouth,’ resulting from a ‘chronic catarrh of the nose.’ It ultimately reached the middle ear and infected her entire head, so that in early 1904 she suffered from temporary deafness, and for the rest of her life she was afflicted with a continual pounding in her ears that was ‘louder than the noise of the locomotives stationed within a few yards from her house.’” (184)

Am I alone in finding this somewhat dubious? The mucous membranes of her nose were inflamed — by what no one seems to know. And this caused debilitating pain, temporary deafness, and a pounding in the ears as loud as a locomotive a few yards away? How could one deliver lectures as skillfully as de Cleyre’s auditors claimed she did, if one couldn’t hear oneself speak? How could one hear one’s audience and adjust one’s remarks accordingly? De Cleyre sometimes claimed to be unable to work as a result of her ill health, but most of the time, she labored on despite it all. She went through at least one period of using morphine (then a perfectly legal, “over-the-counter” medicine) to control her constant pain, and on at least two occasions, she attempted suicide. On at least one other occasion, at a time when she was hospitalized, “suffering from daily convulsions and not expecting to survive,” at a time when a major freethought magazine had already “printed a premature obituary and devoted an issue to her life’s work,” Avrich reports that “in spite of her feeble condition, Voltairine left her bed in the Medico-Chirurgical Hospital and walked through the snow to attend a mass meeting” at which a Russian Populist leader she admired was raising funds. (185, 187)

It is difficult to escape the impression that de Cleyre was a classic neurotic and that her ill health was psychosomatic in origin — an expression, like her bottomless guilt, her need to do penance, and her spartan self-denial, of a deeply troubled and unhappy personality. She had a rare talent for writing, true enough. And certain of her essays really are the neglected classics the editors and annotators of the three recent books about her life and work — Eugenia C. DeLamotte, Sharon Presley, Crispin Sartwell, A. J. Brigati — want us to believe they are. “Anarchism and American Traditions,” for example, appeared originally in 1908 and 1909 in the pages of Mother Earth, Emma Goldman’s anarchist magazine. It is included in both The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader and Exquisite Rebel. It is a true gem, the best brief treatment I’ve seen of the issues around which it is so cunningly, artfully constructed: the ways in which anarchism is implicit in the writings of the American Founders, the absurdity of public education as a safeguard or cornerstone of a free society, the problem of widespread indifference to liberty. It is eminently quotable. It rings with a stirring spirit of defiance. It is fiercely intelligent. Whether incorporated into a course in “civics” or “political science” or simply included, with other readings, in a survey of American history, this piece should be required reading for every American high school student.

The problem is that even such a piece as this — and this is the very best Voltairine de Cleyre has to offer us — even such a piece as “Anarchism and American Traditions” is not in any sense an original piece of work. It expounds no ideas save those its author has learned from others. The plain fact is that, as Eugenia DeLamotte observes, “[d]e Cleyre was not one of the great original theorists of anarchism at its most general level, although many of her lectures are brilliant and cogent syntheses of ideas drawn from her extensive reading of anarchist theory.” (80) As a libertarian, de Cleyre’s strong suit was not original thought. It was distilling and packaging the original thought of others. She was, in Friedrich Hayek’s sense of the word, an “intellectual,” that is, a professional “secondhand dealer in ideas.” Such figures rarely command much fame outside the compass of their own lifetimes. “[J]ournalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists” — Hayek ticked them off, the common types of intellectuals. How many of them enjoy any sort of renown beyond whatever they enjoy during the years when their own generation is in the ascendant? However great their skill with words, however great their skill at distilling and packaging, they are easily, and soon, forgotten. That, less than a hundred years after her untimely death, Voltairine de Cleyre should have a full-length biography devoted to her (though, alas, it is currently out of print) and three annotated collections of her work vying for readers’ attention, suggests that she has already achieved a degree of immortality never realized by most of her fellow intellectuals.


Within her lifetime, as we have seen, de Cleyre enjoyed a fair amount of notoriety and often drew substantial audiences when she lectured, far more substantial than the ones libertarian speakers see today, even with a much larger population to draw from. Why is this? Part of the reason is that the first libertarian movement included, as ours does today, more than just individualist anarchists. But the first libertarians picked different allies, and thereby hangs a tale.

Benjamin R. Tucker, according to James J. Martin, “looked upon anarchism as a branch of the general socialist movement.” (226-227) William O. Reichert agrees. Tucker, he writes, “definitely thought of himself as a socialist.” (156) And so did most other individualist anarchists of the time. They defined their terms pretty much as Tucker defined them, too. “Anarchism,” he wrote in 1886, at a time when the nineteen-year-old Voltairine de Cleyre still believed anarchists were the crazed bombers depicted by the daily press, “may be described as the doctrine that all the affairs of men should be managed by individuals or voluntary associations, and that the State should be abolished.” (Individual 7) As for socialism, Martin quotes Tucker’s definition as follows: “the belief that the next important step in progress is a change in man’s environment of an economic character that shall include the abolition of every privilege whereby the holder of wealth acquires an anti-social power to compel tribute.” (227) And of course, the way to abolish those privileges is to abolish the State that bestows them. Thus, as Reichert points out, there need be no conflict between individualism and socialism. “Contrary to what is generally believed, Tucker argued, individualism and socialism are not antithetical terms but are basically compatible with one another. In fact, he maintained, ‘the most perfect socialism is possible only on condition of the most individualism.’” (158) After all, he reminded his readers, “voluntary co-operation is clearly individualistic.” (159)

Tucker believed, then, that there could be such a thing as an “individualist socialist.” So did Jack London. So did a lot of other people in the America of a hundred years ago. This is how it came to be that the activists and propagandists and fellow travellers who made up the first libertarian movement thought of themselves as the natural allies of other anarchists and socialists. And in the America of a hundred years ago, there was a surprisingly large population of self-described anarchists. David DeLeon reports that in Chicago on the eve of the Haymarket tragedy, “self-identified anarchists in that city published five journals (with a total circulation of about 30,000).” (88) A little less than fifteen years later, Paul Avrich tells us, Voltarine de Cleyre was asked to prepare “a report […] for an International Anarchist Congress in Paris in 1900″ on the size and makeup of the anarchist population in the States. Beginning with the city in which she made her own home for most of her adult life, she estimated that there were “between 400 and 500 anarchists in Philadelphia, of whom 145 were active regulars.

Seventy-five of these were Russian Jews, 40 were native Americans, 24 Germans, 3 Italians, 2 Cubans, and one Frenchman; 126 were men and 19 women; 124 were Anarchist-Communists, 12 individualists, and 9 (including Voltairine) undefined.” (131)

The two cities — Chicago, ca. 1885 and Philadelphia, ca. 1900 — were about the same size, with a population of just a little more than one million. Could four or five hundred anarchists, of whom only about a hundred and fifty could be counted on to put forth any real effort — could such a group have produced five journals with a total circulation of about thirty thousand? Unquestionably, if there were sufficient interest among certain non-anarchists — among socialists, for example, and among those convinced that worker unions would bring the promised land. It is noteworthy that a full two-thirds of the regular active anarchists in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia were immigrants, and that nearly ninety percent of them regarded themselves as communists. Most communist anarchists in this country at that time were immigrants. Communist anarchism was a European invention, brought into America by immigrants. “Native American anarchism” as Eunice Minette Schuster called it in 1932, was individualistic to the core.** But in the America of a hundred years ago, the libertarians of the native American variety were a distinct minority, vastly outnumbered by their communist, mostly immigrant, coevals.

Those speeches Voltairine de Cleyre gave in support of the anarchist cause — the ones attended by twelve hundred, two thousand, ten thousand people? Those crowds were not entirely libertarian crowds. Many of those who made them up were socialists or boosters of organized labor. Many of them were Single Taxers (devotees of the reform proposals of Henry George). Many of them were young people just trying to figure out why all these other people had come together in such a big group. (As John Holt used to say, the question foremost in the mind of every young person, from childhood through young adulthood, is: “What are all these people doing, and how can I get in on the act?”)***

Not a few of those non-anarchists who regularly turned out en masse at these meetings and rallies were “the inconsistent libertarians,” as David DeLeon calls them — the liberals, those who, as the anarchists saw it, paid lip service to individual liberty but were all too willing to sell it out for temporary political advantage. In the America of a hundred years ago the mainstream liberal position was best represented by the Democratic Party of Grover Cleveland: small government, free markets, free trade, international peace. Yet sufficient numbers of liberals of that era were susceptible to the political siren songs of statists of one stripe or another that the party chose the profoundly illiberal William Jennings Bryan as its presidential standard-bearer in 1896, 1900, and 1908, and the even more loathsome Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and 1916.

Today we are sharing our movement with these selfsame liberals. For instead of allying themselves with socialists and with other anarchists, the libertarians of the 1960s and ’70s, the founders of the second libertarian movement, allied themselves with people who claimed to favor individual liberty but said they believed that a limited State was the best means of attaining that goal. In the 1960s and ’70s, such people were called “limited government libertarians;” in the 1890s, such people were called “liberals.” And just as, during the 1890s and after, many liberals were lured away from the true path by the mirage of progressivism, so today, many limited government libertarians have been lured away from the true path by the mirage of “national security.” The scare quotes are necessary, because we are talking here about “libertarians” who, with straight faces, describe the bombing of innocent civilian populations in other countries as “self defense;” who prattle neo-conservative nonsense about exporting democracy to prevent war; who call for the destruction by nuclear bomb of entire populations in certain parts of the world. This is even worse, and even more disastrous for the libertarian cause, than the problem Benjamin R. Tucker and Voltairine de Cleyre faced a hundred years ago, when certain of their fellow anarchists called for communal interference “with the freedom of individual production and exchange” in the ultimate free society. (Tucker, quoted in Reichert 161)

Communist anarchism, according to Tucker, “is a very simple [creed], consisting of two articles: (1) that all natural wealth and products of labor should be held in common, produced by each according to his powers and distributed to each according to his needs, through the administrative mechanism and under the administrative control of workingmen’s societies organized by trades; (2) that every individual should have perfect liberty in all things except the liberty to produce for himself and to exchange with his neighbors outside the channels of the prescribed mechanism.” On the other hand, “[a]narchism means absolute liberty, nothing more, nothing less. [Communist anarchists] deny liberty in production and exchange, the most important of all liberties, — without which, in fact, all other liberties are of no value, or next to none. [They] should be called, instead of Anarchists, Revolutionary Communists.” (Instead 387, 389-390)


Voltairine De Cleyre agreed. According to Avrich, she believed that “the amount of administration required by Economic Communism would practically be a meddlesome government, denying equal freedom.” Yet she did not try, as Tucker did, to read the communists out of the movement. In fact, she played precisely the opposite role. In the anarchist census of Philadelphia that she prepared early in 1900, de Cleyre reported, according to Avrich, that of the “145 […] active regulars” in the city’s anarchist movement, “124 were Anarchist-Communists, 12 individualists, and 9 (including Voltairine) undefined.” (131) She included herself among the “undefined,” because, as she told Emma Goldman, “I am an Anarchist, simply, without economic labels attached.” And thereby hangs yet another tale.

As Avrich tells the story, “This notion of an unhyphenated anarchism, of an anarchism without labels or adjectives, had been developed in the late nineteenth century by the most respected theorists of the Spanish anarchist movement, Ricardo Mella and Fernando Tarrida del Mármol […]. Mella and Tarrida, troubled by the bitter debates between mutualists, collectivists, and communists in the 1880s, worked out a new theory, summarized in the formula ‘anarchism without adjectives,’ which called for greater tolerance within the movement regarding economic questions.” (149)

“During the next few years,” Avrich writes, “Errico Malatesta adopted a similar position, as did Elisée Reclus, Max Nettlau, and other prominent European anarchists.” (150) During those same years “a number of American anarchists” began “pushing for a unification of the different anarchist schools and for a flexibility that would accomodate a variety of attitudes and viewpoints.” But “[b]y the turn of the century […] Voltairine had emerged as the leading apostle of tolerance within the anarchist movement, pleading for cooperation among all who sought the removal of authority, regardless of their economic preferences. Tuckerites and Mostians, Kropotkinites and Tolstoyans must suspend their factional bickering and close ranks in the common quest for a free society. Such was the central theme of her writings during the final decade of her life.” (153)

For example, she wrote in 1901, in an essay entitled “Anarchism” (included in Exquisite Rebel):

“There are […] several economic schools among Anarchists; there are Anarchist Individualists, Anarchist Mutualists, Anarchist Communists and Anarchist Socialists. In times past these several schools have bitterly denounced each other and mutually refused to recognize each other as Anarchists at all. The more narrow-minded on both sides still do so; true, they do not consider it narrow-mindedness, but simply a firm and solid grasp of the truth, which does not permit of tolerance towards error. This has been the attitude of the bigot in all ages, and Anarchism no more than any other new doctrine has escaped its bigots. Each of these fanatical adherents of either collectivism or individualism believes that no Anarchism is possible without that particular economic system as its guarantee, and is of course thoroughly justified from his own standpoint. […] this old narrowness is yielding to the broader, kindlier and far more reasonable idea, that all these economic conceptions may be experimented with, and there is nothing un-Anarchistic about any of them until the element of compulsion enters and obliges unwilling persons to remain in a community whose economic arrangements they do not agree to. (When I say ‘do not agree to’ I do not mean that they have a mere distaste for, or that they think might well be altered for some other preferable arrangement, but with which, nevertheless, they quite easily put up, as two persons each living in the same house and having different tastes in decoration, will submit to some color of window shade or bit of bric-a-brac which he does not like so well, but which nevertheless, he cheerfully puts up with for the satisfaction of being with his friend. I mean serious differences which in their opinion threaten their essential liberties. I make this explantion about trifles, because the objections which are raised to the doctrine that men may live in society freely, almost always degenerate into trivialities, — such as, “what would you do if two ladies wanted the same hat?” etc. We do not advocate the abolition of common sense, and every person of sense is willing to surrender his preferences at times, provided he is not compelled to at all costs.)

“Therefore I say that each group of persons acting socially in freedom may choose any of the proposed systems, and be just as thorough-going Anarchists as those who select another. If this standpoint be accepted, we are rid of those outrageous excommunications which belong properly to the Church of Rome, and which serve no purpose but to bring us into deserved contempt with outsiders.” (72-73)

Actually it’s the intellectual incoherence of this seemingly oh-so-reasonable position that appears to me more likely to bring us into deserved contempt with outsiders. The problem with “anarchism without adjectives” is that it naively takes for granted the very concept that is fundamentally at issue in this dispute; to put it bluntly, it begs the question. Specifically, it assumes easy agreement on the concept of “compulsion,” when in fact such agreement is by no means easy. As George H. Smith argued recently in an online discussion of this very topic (his remarks are quoted here with permission), “To call for the abolition of the state means very little until we know which activities and institutions are viewed by a particular anarchist as corollaries and consequences of governmental coercion. And these will be determined largely by one’s economic theories — where ‘economic’ is used in the broad sense to include theories of property.”

According to Smith, “What is viewed as a voluntary relationship by the libertarian anarchist — e.g., a capitalist who pays wages to workers — is viewed as a coercive relationship by the communist anarchist. This difference, in turn, leads to different notions of what constitutes the legitimate use of force. If workers forcibly expropriate a factory and declare it their communal property, the libertarian anarchist would call this an unjustified use of force. Not so the communist anarchist, for whom the workers are simply taking control of what is rightfully theirs.” Voltairine de Cleyre, as we have seen, proposed that each community make whatever “economic arrangements” best suit its preferences. In one community, the workers might be permitted to seize such a factory. In another, they might not. De Cleyre’s only rule was that there must be no “compulsion.”

“The problem, of course,” Smith writes, “is that there has to be a baseline agreement on what constitutes ‘compulsion’ before any such workable arrangement is possible, and there is no such agreement among the different schools of anarchism. We see this even if we confine our discussion to individualist anarchism. Compare the older ‘individualist anarchism’ of Benjamin Tucker and the newer individualist anarchism that we may broadly describe as ‘Rothbardian.’

“Tucker, following Proudhon, declared that the only legitimate basis for land ownership is occupancy and use. This completely ruled out rent as unjust expropriation. If I build a house on a tract of land, then I own that land, according to Tucker, only as long as I live in the house. If I decide to move elsewhere, then I have no right to charge rent for someone else to use the house, for I have lost ownership of the land by no longer occupying it.

“Tucker also advocated private protection agencies, and he considered the question of what would happen if, in an anarchistic society, a nonoccupant attempted to charge rent, even for a house that he had built with his own hands. He concluded that the protection agency would refuse to enforce this unjust demand, and that the present occupant would now be the legitimate owner. As for the house itself, Tucker added that the former owner was technically committing trespass by keeping a house on someone else’s property, and that it was his responsibility to move it or lose it.

“Hence if the original owner (who built the house) attempted to evict the non-rent-payer, this would be considered aggression, and the present occupant (with the assistance of private protection agencies) would be justified in using defensive violence to prevent eviction.

“There is obviously far more involved here than different preferences about the ideal economic system. What we have instead are radically different conceptions of property, which necessarily lead to radically different conceptions of what is truly ‘voluntary.’

“Given that this difference occurs within the ‘individualist’ branch of anarchism, you can imagine the implications that a communistic conception of property would have, and how radically at variance its notion of ‘voluntary’ would be with modern libertarian anarchism. Voltairine’s common anarchistic ideal of ‘no compulsion’ sounds great in theory, but, without adjectives (i.e., conceptions of property rights, including property in one’s person and labor) that enable us to distinguish the voluntary from the coercive, it amounts to nothing more than a vague verbal assent.”

Smith would go further. He would say, if I read him aright, that the libertarians of the second movement — today’s movement — have made a better choice of allies than the libertarians of a hundred years ago did. “In the final analysis,” he writes, “the anarcho-individualist has more in common with his minarchist cousins, and the anarcho-communist has more in common with state communists, than either anarchist has with each other. Their rejection of the ’state’ amounts to a nominal agreement only, since each version has coercive mechanisms (private agencies, for the individualist; worker syndicates, for the communist) to enforce its respective vision of ‘freedom’ by preventing ‘aggression’ and ‘exploitation.’”

And this is why, when our minarchist cousins begin condoning or even advocating the murder of foreign innocents and the destruction of their property, when they begin mouthing obscenities like “collateral damage,” just as though such phrases had any legitimate place in the vocabulary of a libertarian, we should ask ourselves whether the concept of “libertarianism without adjectives” makes any more sense than Voltairine de Cleyre’s “anarchism without adjectives,” whether it is any easier to be both a nationalist warmonger and a libertarian than it is to be both a communist and an anarchist, and whether there isn’t a lesson for those of us living now in Benjamin R. Tucker’s effort a hundred years ago to run the Reds out of the libertarian movement.

It is to the credit of the editors of Exquisite Rebel, The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, and Gates of Freedom that the “anarchism without adjectives” controversy has been put before the reading public again, and at such an appropriate moment. Thanks to their efforts, the life and work of an interesting minor writer is once more available in convenient format for the interested reader. Voltairine de Cleyre was far from the “genius” Sartwell and Presley style her, but she is well worth rediscovering and re-reading. Each of these recent volumes has its strengths and weaknesses. The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader comes with the lowest price tag — it may be had online for about half the price of either of the other two. Of the three, the Reader is the only one to offer a sizeable selection of de Cleyre’s verse, apparently much prized during her lifetime. Only three such works find their way into Gates of Freedom, and none at all are included in Exquisite Rebel. It’s easy to guess why Presley, Sartwell, and DeLamotte might have decided to deemphasize this aspect of de Cleyre’s work. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, frankly. Still, on the other hand, like all writing of any kind, it helps us to piece together a fuller, more accurate portrait of its author.

This is true also of the personal letters Eugenia DeLamotte chose to sprinkle so liberally through Gates of Freedom. These letters individualize de Cleyre. They give us an opportunity to hear, as it were, her own personal voice, as distinct from both her declamatory and somewhat overwrought “poetic” voice and the gracefully plainspoken, confident, and sardonic voice of her essays and lectures — the voice that won her a reputation as a notably talented writer. DeLamotte herself is not a bad writer, either; unexciting, perhaps, but pithy, succinct, straightforward, altogether readable — except during her periodic fits. She has fits, you see, or something very like them. Reading her is somewhat like listening to an informative and articulate lecturer who, every so often, quite unpredictably, suffers a severe and prolonged seizure, after which she just goes on as before, as though nothing at all had happened.

Here’s how one of DeLamotte’s fits comes on. She’s writing along, in perfectly normal English. “Underlying all her projects as a speaker, writer, and political activist was the idea set forth in Thomas Paine’s description of France in 1793, in the passage she took as her opening ‘text’ in ‘The Economic Tendency of Freethought’: ‘The mind of the nation had changed beforehand, and a new order of things had naturally followed a new order of thoughts.’”

Then comes the transition sentence. “For this reason, in some form or other her subject is always the material and psychological workings of the dominant ideologies of her day, which she attacks from two interestingly related directions.” This is still in comprehensible English, but with a new and somewhat annoying vagueness — “ideologies,” systems of ideas, have “material workings?” But never mind, for now the fit is fully upon her, and we have far, far more to worry about than a single somewhat muddled sentence. “On the one hand,” DeLamotte writes, “she exposes a dominant form of mystification that misrepresents material relations as spiritual or psychological essences; at the same time, she works to insert psychology into an understanding of how material relations work, appealing to the logic of feelings to circumvent the mystifying illogic of ideology.”

Should this be at all unclear to anyone out there, DeLamotte hastens to add that in order to do all this exposing, inserting, and appealing, de Cleyre “crafted a rhetoric that would dismantle a hegemonic discourse and construct an oppositional set of metaphors capable of reconfiguring (to invoke Althusser’s description of ideology) her audiences’ ‘”imaginary,” “lived” relation’ to ‘their conditions of existence;’ their ‘imaginary relation . . . to the real relations in which they live.’” This academic gibberish goes on for a paragraph or two, and then, as though by magic, suddenly the familiar, comprehensible DeLamotte is back. “De Cleyre’s lecture ‘Sex Slavery,’ delivered in 1890, is a powerful example […].” (125)

This is disconcerting, to say the very least. It also serves as a powerful incentive to skip those portions of Gates of Freedom in which it happens most frequently, namely, the portions that deal with de Cleyre’s contributions, not to anarchism, but to feminism. This is unfortunate, since, as DeLamotte herself remarks, a stronger case can be made for de Cleyre’s originality as a feminist than can be made for her originality as an anarchist. (80) Fortunately, Sharon Presley also covers this territory, in Exquisite Rebel, and manages to do so in plain English, without recourse to jargon-ridden academese.

Exquisite Rebel, the volume edited by Presley and Sartwell, is the all around “best buy” of this group. The introductory material is ample enough to be helpful and informative, brief enough not to get in the way of Voltairine herself. Of the essays most likely to interest a contemporary libertarian — “The Making of an Anarchist,” “Why I Am an Anarchist,” “Anarchism,” “Anarchism and American Traditions,” “The Dominant Idea,” “The Economic Tendency of Freethought,” “In Defense of Emma Goldman” — nearly all are here. This is the book for the newcomer to Voltairine de Cleyre’s life and work to pick up first. The other two volumes offer a wider selection of her writings, for those who seek more in-depth knowledge of her oeuvre.

De Cleyre’s chief importance nearly a hundred years after her death is historical. But historical importance is no mean thing. By writing and editing books of this kind, by supplying the history and the historical documents to contemporary readers, DeLamotte, Presley and Sartwell, and Brigati have made it possible for contemporary libertarians to see their own time, their own movement, more clearly and to better understand what they need to understand for their movement to grow and prosper.

* The reference is to the Wilson administration order forcing Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth to cease publication in 1917.

** See Eunice Minette Schuster, Native American Anarchism: A Study of Left-Wing American Individualism (Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics, 1983 [1932]).

*** See “The Crisis in Schooling: An LR Colloquium,” The Libertarian Review Vol. 7, No. 11, December 1978, pp. 25-28.

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