Voltairine de Cleyre and the Inner Struggle

“At the end of life you may close your eyes, stating: ‘I have not been dominated by the Dominant Idea of my Age; I have chosen mine own allegiance, and served it. I have proved by a lifetime that there is that in man which saves him from the absolute tyranny of Circumstance, which in the end conquers and remoulds Circumstance, the immortal fire of Individual Will, which is the salvation of the Future.”

These were the stirring words written by American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, in her 1910 essay The Dominant Idea. They were addressed, of course, to people like her, who had found the inner strength to follow the course of their own innate moral compass and disregard the transient philosophical or ideological trends of the times.

They were addressed to the kind of people whom we might see as being the human equivalents of antibodies, charged with the responsibility of fighting the disease which is crippling the social organism and is killing the living planet.

It is intriguing to see how the individual conscience can react to finding itself completely at odds with the prevailing norms of the society into which it has been born.

Undoubtedly there are many people who have the capacity, and the initial urge, to challenge that society, to dedicate their lives to trying to cure it, but so very many drop by the wayside and fail to see the task through.

De Cleyre, expressing her pessimistic side, considered that most of us are too easily lured by material comfort and well-being, for the sake of which we are all too happy to abandon our higher ideals.

She wrote to such people, in a particularly scathing passage: “Do not fool yourself by saying you would like to help usher in a free society, but you cannot sacrifice an armchair for it. Say honestly, ‘I love armchairs better than free men, and pursue them because I choose; not because circumstances make me. I love hats, large, large hats, with many feathers and great bows; and I would rather have those hats than trouble myself about social dreams that will never be accomplished in my day. The world worships hats, and I wish to worship with them’.”

In this context, the battle for the future of the human race is being fought on a completely different level to that which we normally picture. It’s not happening on the streets, or in meeting halls, or even in books or on the internet. It’s happening inside individuals’ heads. It’s the battle between their conscience and their lazy desire for pleasure and comfort.

For de Cleyre, the strength of the Individual Will represented “intent within holding its purpose against obstacles without”, but we are also touching here on one of the most important apparent paradoxes of anarchist philosophy.

The “intent within”, the impulse of a higher ideal, in fact represents a prioritisation of a wider reality beyond the individual – a world “without”. By searching deep into our own conscience we find something more important than ourselves and the immediate hedonistic desires of our ego and our body. The supposedly “individualist” route of self-searching in fact leads us to a realisation of our responsibility on a collective plane.

Knowing ourselves, completing ourselves, on the deepest level means understanding that we are only small and temporary parts of a much bigger organism and that our role must therefore be to use our physical existence, our autonomy of action and our will of purpose for the greater good.

It is this aspect of anarchism – or the psychological process of being and remaining an authentic anarchist – that brings it so close to being a spiritual discipline.

De Cleyre herself, in the same essay, regretted that contemporary culture had lost the greatest insights of the Middle Ages, “that the inside of a human being was worth more than the outside” and that “to conceive a higher thing than oneself and live toward that is the only way of living worthily.”

One of the main aims of a spiritual path is to rid oneself of the blinkers of the selfish ego, and to remember constantly that living merely for oneself and one’s immediate gratification is empty and, ultimately, self-destructive.

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, who began life as a seeker of simplicity and truth, finds himself lured, via the love of a woman, into a materialistic life of wealth and easy pleasure: “Just as the potter’s wheel, once set into motion, still turns for a long time and then turns only very slowly and stops, so did the wheel of the ascetic, the wheel of thinking, the wheel of discrimination still revolve for a long time in Siddhartha’s soul; it still revolved, but slowly and hesitatingly, and it had nearly come to a standstill. Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha’s soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it to sleep…

“The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also the vice that he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish – acquisitiveness. Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.”

This inner fight, against the illusion of the supremacy of our own ephemeral personal lives, is the fight to release ourselves as human antibodies against the cancer of our greed-obsessed civilisation, the fight to activate our authentic Individual Will against the pathetic excuse of Circumstance and the lure of an easy, pampered existence.

It is not a fight any of us can be sure of winning. There will always be moments when we are weary of the struggle and in need of rest. Constant vigilance is required to make sure that a refreshing break does not turn into a lifetime of self-betrayal.

Perhaps the best way to avoid being lured away by armchairs, big feathery hats or whatever else might take your fancy, is to ensure that your road through life does not take you within tempting distance of them.

Those who think they can simultaneously reap all the material rewards from playing along with a corrupt society, while remaining fundamentally in rebellion against it, are fooling themselves. In the end the material path will no longer be a game, but a trap, and the potter’s wheel of spirit will gradually stop turning.

With each individual lost to this self-indulgence, the human race has lost another chance to change itself, to change its direction, to save itself from the destruction that only the wilfully blind cannot see.

Our task, as anarchists, is to urge each other to be strong, to be constant, to persevere in our lifelong efforts, no matter how grim the prospects may appear, no matter how many “obstacles without” confront us.

Ultimately, this is the only way anything is ever going to change. It is the only hope we have, however remote it may seem at present, and it is a hope which it lies within our collective power to fulfil.

As de Cleyre urged our counterparts one hundred years ago: “Hold unto the last: that is what it means to have a Dominant Idea, which Circumstance cannot break. And such men make and unmake Circumstance.”