Essay

Pearl of Anarchy

Voltairine de Cleyre’s radical poetry is more timely than ever.
Image of Voltairine de Cleyre.

For many people, the word anarchist evokes images of Molotov cocktails and black masks. That’s not an inaccurate sketch, but it’s incomplete. As a radical movement whose goal is to eliminate the state, anarchism is frequently stereotyped as a violent, chaotic brand of political extremism. In truth, it’s an anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist ideology dedicated to establishing an egalitarian society. Anarchists’ antipathy toward politicians, police, the military, and the state has made them targets of repression and mischaracterization. And although anarchism has fostered riots and protests, it’s also been about grassroots activism, philosophy, and even poetry.

Most early-20th-century anarchist poets are remembered for other lines of work, particularly labor organizing. One of the most famous writers of popular leftist poetry and songs is Joe Hill, a Swede who immigrated to the United States in 1902 and joined the Industrial Workers of the World. Hill was an itinerant labor organizer who wrote many popular songs and satirical poems, including the oft-recorded “The Preacher and the Slave” and “The Tramp.” The day before he was executed by firing squad in 1915 after being found guilty of murdering a former police officer—a crime he most likely didn’t commit—Hill wrote his final will in the form of a poem. The first stanza:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide,
My kin don't need to fuss and moan—
"Moss does not cling to rolling stone."

Hill had a penchant for comedy, but much of the radical leftist poetry of his era was aggressive and propagandistic. Consider the work of David Edelstadt, a Russian Jewish émigré who arrived in the United States in 1882 after escaping the 1881 Kiev pogrom. Like Hill, Edelstadt was a laborer (he made buttonholes), an organizer, and an orator. In his poem “At Strife” (originally published in Yiddish), Edelstadt writes of the persecution and the fortitude of anarchist workers:

We are shot down, and on the gallows hanged,
Robbed of our lives and freedom without ruth,
Because for the enslaved and for the poor
We are demanding liberty and truth.

But we will not be frightened from our path
By darksome prisons or by tyranny;
We must awake humanity from sleep,
Yea, we must make our brothers glad and free.

One of the most prolific anarchist poets of the late 1800s was Voltairine de Cleyre, an activist, a speaker, and a writer whose legacy has been largely overshadowed. Like many anarchists of her time, she produced reams of essays, speeches, letters, and poems. Though she wrote almost nonstop in various genres, she seems to have favored poetry. “If my comrades wish to do aught for my memory, let them print my poems,” she wrote in a note found after her death.

Despite her industriousness, Cleyre’s work hasn’t endured like that of her contemporaries. Jesse Cohn, the author of Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture 1848–2011, attributes this partly to the fact that she died when she was just 45, in 1912. But it’s also because historical memory skews male. The selective forgetting of women’s activism and accomplishments still occurs, even in radical leftist movements, including anarchism. Feminists today often criticize “manarchists,” a portmanteau that refers to men who are domineering, patriarchal, and obsessed with the canon of male anarchist literature. As Cohn says of Cleyre’s undersized legacy, “there’s only room for one woman. And [in anarchist history,] that woman is usually Emma Goldman.”

Goldman, arguably the foremost American anarchist, was active at the same time as Cleyre. The two were friends, although they had political differences. (Goldman was an anarcho-communist; Cleyre described herself as “an anarchist without adjectives.”) Cleyre’s life and work would likely be even more obscure today had she not had Goldman’s support. In a short 1932 biography of her friend, Goldman hails Cleyre as the “most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced.” And about Cleyre’s poetry, the historian Paul Avrich argues, “She put into what she wrote, a voice, an era, a state of mind that nobody else has conveyed.”

Considering ongoing political unrest in the United States and a revived conversation about women’s rights, Cleyre’s voice is once again worth hearing.

***

Cleyre was born in Leslie, Michigan, in 1866, just one year after the end of the Civil War. Her father named her after the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire. Both of her parents were tailors. The impoverished family moved to St. Johns, Michigan, when Cleyre was around a year old. She lived there until age 12, when her father shipped her to a convent school in Ontario, Canada, where he thought she would receive the best education. The rebellious young Cleyre chafed against the confines of her ultra-religious schooling and even swam across a river and hiked alone through miles of woods in an escape attempt.

After graduating, Cleyre got involved in the “freethought” movement, which rejects religious epistemologies in favor of science and reason in the pursuit of truth. She wrote essays and gave speeches about atheism, freethought, and feminism and regularly contributed to radical journals, such as Lucifer the Lightbearer, the Rebel, and Free Society. Cleyre was influenced by the famed attorney Clarence Darrow and by Thomas Paine, the political philosopher whose pamphlet Common Sense (1776) further galvanized America’s independence from Great Britain. But she started writing poetry consistently only after the Haymarket riot and trials in Chicago.

The movement that led to the Haymarket affair began in 1884, when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for demonstrations in favor of an eight-hour workday. Between April 25 and May 4, 1886, several segments of Chicago’s labor movement, including anarchists and socialists, gathered for a series of strikes and protests. A parade was held on May 1. Then, during a May 3 strike at the McCormick Reaper Works plant, police shot at striking workers, killing at least six.

The following day, anarchists held a demonstration near Haymarket Square, but toward the end of the rally, police arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse. An unidentified person threw a bomb. Police responded by firing on the crowd. At least four workers were killed, and some 70 more were injured. Seven officers were also killed, although some of these casualties were the result of police inadvertently shooting their own.

Eight anarchists—August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Oscar Neebe, Louis Lingg, and Michael Schwab—were tried for conspiracy, despite a lack of evidence that they had committed any crimes. The outcome of the case was a foregone conclusion, and after seven of the eight defendants were convicted, Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel were hanged in November of 1887. Lingg killed himself prior to his execution; he preferred to die by his own hand rather than be killed by the state. Neebe was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Fielden and Schwab saw their death sentences commuted to life in prison the day before their comrades were executed.

The trial against the Haymarket anarchists is “now considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. In 1983, Governor John P. Altgeld of Illinois pardoned the three living anarchists who’d been tried over their involvement. “No greater damage could possibly threaten our institutions than to have the courts of justice run wild or give way to popular clamor,” he said. Many countries now celebrate May 1 as Labor Day (sometimes called International Workers’ Day) in honor of the Haymarket riot.

Haymarket and its aftermath had a profound effect on Cleyre. Although she initially thought the eight anarchists deserved to be punished, the executions prompted her to become an anarchist. “Till then I believed in the essential justice of the American law of trial by jury. After that I never could,” she wrote. She dedicated her adult life to burnishing the anarchists’ legacy.

In 1889, and again in 1897, she wrote poems about the graves of the martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois. In “At the Grave in Waldheim,” she both mourns the activists and resolves that a world free of tyranny will be won in their name:

No more shall the necks of the nations be crushed,
No more to dark Tyranny’s throne bend the knee;
No more in abjection be ground to the dust!
By the brave heart-beats stilled, by the brave voices hushed,
We swear that humanity yet shall be free!

In “Light Upon Waldheim,” she reiterates the need to fight for a better world in the face of painful losses:

Light upon Waldheim! And the earth is gray;
A bitter wind is driving from the north;
The stone is cold, and strange cold whispers say:
“What do ye here with Death? Go forth! Go forth!”

Cohn describes Cleyre as being “enough of her time” that modern readers might have difficulty reading her. “She breaks every single commandment of modernism,” he says. “Her work is full of abstraction, allegory, and high-falutin Victorian rhetoric.” Yet she also addresses themes and social issues that violate “modernist canons of taste,” Cohn says, noting that she wrote “poems and sketches that powerfully and directly indicted, for instance, white supremacist systems of control.”

One example is her short story “The Chain Gang:

Cling—clang—cling—From the Georgian hills it sounds; and the snow and the storm cannot drown it,—the far-off, terrible music of the Chain Gang.

I met it there on the road, face to face, with all the light of the sun upon it. Do you know what it is? Do you know that every day men run in long procession, upon the road they build for others' safe and easy going, bound to a chain? And that other men, with guns upon their shoulders, ride beside them—with orders to kill if the living links break? There it stretched before me, a serpent of human bodies, bound to the iron and wrapped in the merciless folds of justified cruelty.

Like many of her anarchist contemporaries, Cleyre sometimes wrote poems that were propagandistic or dealt explicitly with revolution. The last poem she wrote, “Written—in—Red,” is about the Mexican revolution:

Written in red their protest stands,
For the gods of the World to see;
On the dooming wall their bodiless hands
have blazoned “Upharsin,” and flaring brands
Illumine the message: “Seize the lands!
Open the prisons and make men free!”
Flame out the living words of the dead
Written—in—red.

Much of Cleyre’s work doesn’t appear political on first read. Several lengthy poems rebuke religion, and several others celebrate love, a sentimental subject not usually associated with anarchist activism. But, as Cohn suggests, her poems about eternal life are still political and anticipate the 1960s women’s liberation slogan “the personal is political.” Her poem “The Burial of My Past Self” (1885), in which she writes of laying to rest the earlier part of her life, is one such example:

Poor Heart, so weary with thy bitter grief!
So thou art dead at last, silent and chill!
The longed-for death-dart came to thy relief,
And there thou liest, Heart, forever still.

Dead eyes, pain-pressed beneath their black-fringed pall!
Dead cheeks, dark-furrowed with so many tears!
So thou art passed far, far beyond recall,
And all thy hopes are past, and all thy fears.

“The poem helps Cleyre create a newer, stronger self with more autonomy and coherence,” Cohn says. Still, anarchism is typically coded as masculine. The popular cliché of the anarchist’s polemical attitude and appetite for riots doesn’t jibe with the caricature of petticoated Victorian women. At the same time, it’s not surprising that some working-class Victorian women were drawn to radical leftist ideologies. They were legally forbidden from participating in electoral politics and, in some cases, sought radical means to agitate for their rights. But as is true in almost every aspect of American life, women in the anarchist movement—no matter how important or formative their roles—were often pushed to the margins and saw their legacies erased. Two notable exceptions are Goldman and Lucy Parsons. The latter was a labor organizer and anarchist communist married to Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket martyrs. (Parsons is also the subject of a recent major biography, Goddess of Anarchy.)

Writing the history of anarchism in terms of individuals rather than movements means that the rear guard (as opposed to the vanguard) is devalued, despite the critical work carried out behind the scenes, often by women. “Trauma can be addressed there,” Cohn says of the rear guard, “as well as the care of children and the whole business of reproductive labor.” Cleyre participated in both the more visible, traditionally male spheres of anarchism—organizing and giving public speeches—and in the rear guard. She also advocated for the rights of children and women. In “Sex Slavery,” an essay about domestic abuse that contemporary readers may find prescient amid the #MeToo movement, Cleyre skewers the ignorance of privileged women regarding the plight of their more vulnerable sisters:

It has often been said to me, by women with decent masters, who had no idea of the outrages practiced on their less fortunate sisters, “Why don't the wives leave?” … Why don't you run, when your feet are chained together? Why don't you cry out when a gag is on your lips? Why don't you raise your hands above your head when they are pinned fast to your sides? Why don't you spend thousands of dollars when you haven't a cent in your pocket?”

Siobhan O’Leary, an anarcho-feminist and a labor organizer, argues that Cleyre’s feminism fills an important gap in anarchist literature. Cleyre “recognizes the manifestations of authority in social structures, rather than only state ones,” O’Leary says. She notes that, “among [Cleyre’s] long list of authoritarian grievances are several references to ‘the state of the household.’”

Cleyre lambasts the tyranny of women’s gender roles and sexism at length in “Sex Slavery,” where she marshals a litany of damning questions:

Let Woman ask herself, “Why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my labor in the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take my children from me? Will them away while yet unborn?” Let every woman ask.

Cleyre’s political philosophy on the constraints of women’s gender roles manifested in her private life. During her time in Philadelphia, from 1889 to 1910, she had a son with James Elliott, a fellow freethinker. Cleyre didn’t want to raise a child, but an abortion wasn’t possible given her weak physical condition. (Many doctors at the time were better equipped to oversee childbirth than abortions.) After her son was born in 1890, she refused to marry Elliott, and he banished her from her son’s life. She didn’t see the child again until he was 17.

It was also in Philadelphia that Cleyre taught English to Jewish immigrants and helped form both the Ladies Liberty League, a group that fostered discussion of radical anarchism and feminism, and the Radical Library, a reading library for working-class people. She knew Yiddish and French and worked as a translator—an important role because many anarchists at the time were immigrants who couldn’t speak English.

Though her work is underrecognized today, Cleyre remains influential among contemporary anarchists. Yesenia Padilla, an anarchist organizer and poet from California, says that Cleyre’s writing still resonates with activists focused on direct action, such as strikes, marches, or sabotage.

“Cleyre was one of the first people to write about direct action as a philosophy,” Padilla says, referring to Cleyre’s 1912 essay. In her defense of these tactics, Cleyre makes explicit a long history of Americans physically intervening to improve their conditions. She cites Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 and the Underground Railroad as early examples. This line of thinking still thrives in modern anarchist tradition, in which activists protest and march, raise money and write letters to political prisoners, and even fix potholes in their neighborhoods when city government fails to do so. For Padilla, Cleyre’s text represents something that is “intrinsic to the character of anarchist organizing: our people power.”

As for Cleyre’s poetry, Padilla finds the work “galvanizing and sobering, but also very hopeful.” She still turns to the poems for inspiration and nourishment. “Her work sustains for the long haul,” Padilla says, adding that she particularly enjoys “Written—in—Red” because it speaks to “greater solidarity” within the anarchist movement, as well as “The Hurricane,” a poem inspired by a quote from Haymarket martyr Spies: “We are the birds of the coming storm.” The latter poem expands on Spies’s ocean symbolism, as it first depicts a calm ocean, then crescendos to a wild sea storm as those addressed transition from woe to anger:

Strong is thy rage, O People,
In its fury
Hurling thy tyrants down!
Thou metest wage, O People.
Very swiftly,
Now that thy hate is grown:
Thy time at last is come;
Thou heapest anguish,
Where thou thyself wert bare!
No longer to thy dumb
God clasped and kneeling,
Thou answerest thine own prayer.

Cleyre’s work also resonates for O’Leary on the level of representation. “[She] was the first time I saw myself in anarchism,” O’Leary says. “A contemporary scholar like Robert Wolff can argue theory all day, but having the socialized subordination kicked out of you by someone saying, ‘You. Everyone says you can’t do it because you’re a woman. That’s a lie. I am inviting you in’” is altogether different.

Though Cleyre’s life was cut short by chronic illness, sometimes described vaguely as “brain fever,” she accomplished much in her short time as a writer and an activist. She was one of the most prolific turn-of-the-century anarchist writers and a diehard activist who dedicated her adult life to the movement. She was “unusually gifted: as poet, writer, lecturer, and linguist, she could have easily gained for herself a high position in her country and the renown it implies,” Goldman writes. The historian Max Nettlau describes her more simply as “the pearl of anarchy.” Cleyre’s contributions have mostly been forgotten, but her writing and activism were quite meaningful to her contemporaries. When she died, she was buried in Waldheim, near Goldman and the Haymarket martyrs whose deaths changed her life.

Originally Published: May 7th, 2018

Elizabeth King is an independent journalist based in Chicago.