Voltarine de Cleyre, the Anarchist Tradition, and the Political Challenge

Voltairine de Cleyre’s concept of “anarchism without adjectives” (which actually originated from Cuban anarchists a few decades earlier) was about reconciling or at least accommodating the various radical tendencies of her time (mutualists, individualists, collectivists, communists, syndicalists, Tolstoyans, Georgist, Bellamyites, etc.).  Given the proliferation of a much greater number of anarchist tendencies since then, along with a greater number of political ideologies and cultural tendencies generally, it is clear that “anarchism without adjectives” is more relevant than other, along with similar concepts like panarchism, voluntarism, exitarianism, national-anarchism, bolo’bolo, patchwork, etc.

By Chris Crass

Spunk Library

From 1890 thru 1910, Voltairine de Cleyre was one of the most popular and renown anarchists in the United States. She was a prolific writer and lecturer on such issues as religion, secularist freethought, marriage, women’s sexuality during the Victorian age, the role of crime and punishment in society, prison abolition, anarchist thought and it’s relationship to American traditions, anti-capitalism and class struggle, and suffrage and women’s liberation.

Voltairine’s contributions to American political thought have been largely overlooked or marginalized. While she is remembered in the contemporary anarchist movement as an important figure in that tradition, her writings and lectures have not received a wide audience since the decline of the anarchist movement in the United States during World War I and the 1920’s, following the Palmer Raids, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and execution, and a host of other deportations, incarcerations and assassinations that silenced some of the most powerful voices in the radical tradition of this country.

Along with the revival of anarchist politics and organizing strategies in the United States during the 60’s and 70’s1 came a renewed interest in the history of anarchism. In 1978, Paul Avrich, a professor of history at Princeton University, published the first of his six books on US anarchism. This book was a biography titled, An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. Her essays, originally collected and published by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman in 1914, have again been reprinted and distributed in anarchist, secular humanist, and feminist circles. In the Preface of his book, Avrich writes “As a freethinker and feminist as well as an anarchist, moreover, she can speak to us today, across a gulf of seven [now nine] decades, with undiminished relevance… She was one of the most eloquent and consistent critics of unbridled political power, the subjugation of the individual, the dehumanization of labor, and the debasement of culture; and with her vision of a decentralized libertarian society, based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid, she has left a legacy to inspire new generations of idealists and reformers.”2

Looking at the ideas and life of Voltairine de Cleyre provides a first hand look at the anarchist movement at the turn of the century and her politics encompassed many of the important traditions that led to the development of anarchist thought and movement in the United States. There have been multiple tendencies in anarchist thought for centuries, and this continues into today. One of Voltairine’s contributions to anarchist thought was her belief in, what she and others called, “anarchism without adjectives”. At the time there were competing schools of thought that diverged mostly in the areas of economics and strategies for social change. The two most prominent tendencies were the individualist anarchists (or the philosophical or scientific anarchists) and the anarcho-communists (or libertarian socialist, or social anarchist). Voltairine argued that there positive contributions to be learned from each, and that anarchists had to unite around their common anti-authoritarianism and allow room for experimentation with economic ideas and methods of agitation and organizing. While there were some who found her argument persuasive, the movement, nevertheless, remained divided along these issues. In her own writings and evolution as an important political theorist, Voltairine grappled with these issues and was able to develop her own synthesis along with her own unique contributions. Before looking at Voltairine’s politics, let us first explore both individualist anarchism and anarcho-communism.

In her groundbreaking work an American anarchism, Eunice Minette Schuster, wrote about the development of anarchist thought from the colonial period up until the publication of her book, Native American Anarchism: A Study of Left-Wing Individualism, in 1932 (The title is referring to those who are American-born as oppose to those who are indigenous to the United States). She traces the specific development of individualist anarchism from Thoreau to the Heywoods to Benjamin Tucker.


Leave a Reply