A Universalistic Vision of Anarchism


The following is an excerpt from Voltairine de Cleyre’s essay “Anarchism”, originally published October 13, 1901 in Free Society. It represents the latter half of her political development and her eventual acceptance of anarchism without adjectives.

I have now presented the rough skeleton of four different economic schemes entertained by Anarchists [socialism, communism, individualism, and mutualism]. Remember that the point of agreement in all is: no compulsion. Those who favor one method have no intention of forcing it upon those who favor another, so long as equal tolerance is exercised toward themselves.

Remember, also, that none of these schemes is proposed for its own sake, but because through it, its projectors believe, liberty may be best secured. Every Anarchist, as an Anarchist, would be perfectly willing to surrender his own scheme directly, if he saw that another worked better.

For myself, I believe that all these and many more could be advantageously tried in different localities; I would see the instincts and habits of the people express themselves in a free choice in every community; and I am sure that distinct environments would call out distinct adaptations.

Personally, while I recognize that liberty would be greatly extended under any of these economies, I frankly confess that none of them satisfies me.

Socialism and Communism both demand a degree of joint effort and administration which would beget more regulation than is wholly consistent with ideal Anarchism; Individualism and Mutualism, resting upon property, involve a development of the private policeman not at all compatible with my notions of freedom.

My ideal would be a condition in which all natural resources would be forever free to all, and the worker individually able to produce for himself sufficient for all his vital needs, if he so chose, so that he need not govern his working or not working by the times and seasons of his fellows. I think that time may come; but it will only be through the development of the modes of production and the taste of the people. Meanwhile we all cry with one voice for the freedom to try.

What does this mean for us in the 21st century? Does it mean that we should endorse every ideology claiming to be “against authority”? Of course not. Does it mean that we should be open to a wider array of allies in the fight against oppression? Maybe. Does it mean that we should be a little more respectful and a lot more loving with one another despite sincere disagreements? I think definitely.

I think that de Cleyre’s vision of a more universalistic anarchism is a reminder to be humble, tolerant, and optimistic. Humble enough to admit that our knowledge of the optimal post-state system is limited, and being willing to change our minds if necessary. Tolerant of the diverse needs and preferences that will appear in the absence of illegitimate hierarchies, and the various social and economic arrangements that will also emerge. And optimistic that people cooperating together peacefully will be able to solve the many challenges we face, and will work to create a brighter future that will meet the dreams and desires of a vast array of individuals and communities.

I’ll end with de Cleyer’s inspiring words:

And then, to turn cloudward, starward, skyward, and let the dreams rush over one…painting endless pictures, creating unheard symphonies that sing dream sounds to you alone, extending sympathies to the dumb brutes as equal brothers, kissing the flowers as one did when a child, letting oneself go free, go free beyond the bounds of what fear and custom call the “possible,” – this too Anarchism may mean to you, if you dare to apply it so.


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