Monday, 20 February 2012

Voltairine de Cleyre

Voltairine de Cleyre
was an anarchist, feminist writer and speaker who grew up in grinding poverty in rural Michigan. Among other things, she spoke out against marriage and criticised the way religion was used to suppress women's sexuality and limit their rights.

She died in 1912 and although her words are at least 100 years old, I was struck by how most of what she said is still very relevant today.

"They have yet to learn that there is one common struggle against those who have appropriated the earth, the money, and the machines," was about industrial and rural workers failing to find common cause but could easily be about the same lack of connection made between contemporary struggles.

Her political views evolved throughout her short life. Early on, she advocated an individualist anarchist ideology. In 1907, in a statement that seems to have been poached by Joe McCarthy 50 years later, she empahasized "I am not now, and never have been at any time, a Communist." But this statement was not to denounce her radical views or comrades, it was to explain what she was to later refer to as anarchism without adjectives. 

She came to the conclusion that factionalism between people who otherwise had so much in common was not only ridiculous but self-defeating. When capitalism was toppled, she believed there would be ample room for all the different viewpoints that fell under the umbrella of anarchism. The task at hand was doing the toppling, and doing it as soon as possible.

In these times of austerity (and the inspirational resistances that are arising across the globe against them) I can't think of a more relevant quote than this one she wrote in 1907 in response to the assassination of William McKinley: "the hells of capitalism create the desperate; the desperate act-desperately!"

The last essay she wrote before her death explained that the United States as a nation was founded on violent uprisings and it's history is a celebration of direct action, yet contemporary activists were routinely imprisoned and murdered by the state. She references the hanging of the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago as an important event that led her towards anarchism. 

Many young people who got involved in demos against tuition fees and the abolition of EMA here in the UK have also been radicalized by the vicious treatment they received at the hands of the police during perfectly peaceful protests. History repeats itself, especially when there is any threat to the established order.

Although Voltairine was a respected colleague of Emma Goldman, who called her the "most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced," she is missing from the popular narrative of anarchist thought. Perhaps her criticism is still largely true that many men involved in left-wing struggles often fail to fully embrace and, more importantly, practice equality with their female counterparts.

That final essay contains the brilliant line, "political action is never taken, nor even contemplated, until slumbering minds have first been aroused by direct acts of protest against existing conditions." Looking back at Voltairine's work 100 years after her death has made at least two things clear. The first is that very little has changed in terms of who holds the power in our world, the second is that there is still everything to fight for.

From top to bottom, stencils on tea stained paper pasted up on Paragon Road, Triangle Road/Warburton Street and Reading Lane, all in Hackney.

1 comment:

Britney Broccoli said...

This is just lovely.