Anarchist Theorist – Voltairine de Cleyre (November 17, 1866 – June 20, 1912)


Recently I have begun looking at historical Anarchist Theorists and I decided to write a succession of posts about them; first up, Voltairine de Cleyre!


De Cleyre was an Anarchist as well as a sexual equality activist, we will be focusing on her theory’s and work in Anarchy. She was an unrelenting anarchist revolutionary, opposing the state. Initially an individualist anarchist, she later referred to herself as “only an anarchist”. A proponent of the Freethought movement, which is a “philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or dogma.” also related to the Irreligion movement and humanism. Voltairine, was raised in abject poverty, and sent very young by her father to a Catholic Convent to be educated. This move by her father moved her away from Christianity to atheism, she hated the institution so much that she swam to Port Huron, Michigan from Ontario, and hiked 17 miles meeting her family friends who contacted her father and he sent her back.

With her family ties to the abolitionist movement, and being named after Voltaire it was only a short time before Voltairine came up with her own radical ideas. After her convent schooling was over she began putting her full energy’s into the Freethought movement. “After the hanging of the Haymarket protesters in 1887, however, she became an anarchist. “Till then I believed in the essential justice of the American law of trial by jury,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay, “After that I never could”. The Haymarket affair was a riot that originally started out as a protest, bombs were thrown and police began firing. Ultimately, it resulted in the death of eight police man, most likely from friendly fire, and an unknown amount of civilians. The trial resulted in four men being convicted and prosecuted, and one committing suicide in prison. Even though the prosecution admitted none of the defendants threw the bomb.

Her zeal and flair for writing and speaking is one of the best known in anarchist circles. Voltairine lived in Philadelphia, among the poorest sections with Jewish Immigrants. Her life, despite her active pursuing of freedom was plagued by depression and illness, attempting suicide twice. Even surviving an assassination attempt on her life. She died in a hospital in Chicago from Septic Meningitis, she was buried near her dear friend Emma Goldman, the Haymarket defendants, and other social activists.


Although early on Voltairine was an advocate of “anarchism without adjectives” – that is, without any labels and tolerates the existence of anarchist schools of thought – she was also a staunch advocate of Individualism and property rights. By 1908 however, de Cleyre had moved onto “produce together, co-operatively rather than as employer and employed.” more Collectivism, than Individualism. she did state though that she was and had never been a Communist. She also opposed a standing army, she argued that its existence made wars more likely. In the essay, Anarchism and American Traditions, she argued that the only method to achieve peace was, “all peaceful persons should withdraw their support from the army, and require that all who wish to make war do so at their own cost and risk; that neither pay nor pensions are to be provided for those who choose to make man-killing a trade.”

Voltairine left a wonderful legacy of anarchist thought and theory. While all her ideas may not be directly in line to my way of thinking, the idea of “anarchism without adjectives” that she advocated was one I believe we all can take notes from.

About Judith Ayers

Currently a double major in Political Science and Mass Communications with a minor in Sociology at York College of Pennsylvania, Judith is involved locally in many "liberty minded" organizations. This includes holding the position of President for the York College Libertarian Club.
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One Response to Anarchist Theorist – Voltairine de Cleyre (November 17, 1866 – June 20, 1912)

  1. Pingback: When As An Ordinary Citizen, I Am Criminal, Treacherous, Spy, Terrorist, and Discriminated – siruskashefinomannowhere

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