Tag Archives: Paul Avrich

An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre

book cover So I lied. Less than twelve hours after saying I’d likely not post here for a bit I finished another Paul Avrich book and can’t help myself. [apologies for the not-great book cover. There wasn’t a good one online so I took a photo at 11 at night]

I’d never even heard of Voltairine before reading Avrich’s duel Berkman-Goldman biography a bit back (though to be honest, I knew nothing about Berkman and Goldman before stumbling upon their biography either) but there were a few quotes attributed to her that peaked my interest. I could tell Avrich had something of a special interest in her and so I was not at all surprised to find this biography.

As a biography this is a solid B. Part of the problem throughout Avrich’s work is that, being one of the only historians to look at anarchy in the United States, he no doubt felt compelled to do too much at once. Write a biography of one person but at the same time give an overview of Anarchism, and create mini-bios of as many other people as possible (more than is necessary to our understanding of Voltai). And perhaps this is just a product of coming at the book with unrealistic expectations, but I was also hoping the book would talk more in-depth about her actual views. That is, more than just a line or two about her views on education, prison reform, sex, etc., I wanted depth and nuance. A mini-treatise! Avrich’s research was exhaustive and impressive, and he cites to a ton of lectures she gave over the course of her too-short life. But then fails to tell us much of anything about her positions. He’s such a tease!

That all said, I learned a great deal about her and there’s no doubt Avrich’s work here has, as another reviewer said, “rescued de Cleyre from undeserved oblivion.”  L. Glen Seretan Review, 1979. Absolutely worth reading — I only wish it were twice as long!

Below are some of my notes, in case they’re of use: 

  • People worth looking up
    • Lucy Parsons (p.90)
    • Natasha Notkin (98)
    • Mary Hansen (98)
    • Jacob Coxey – “industrial army” – marched to DC to demand relief from unemployment. (100)
    • Max Nettlau – anarchist historian (109)
    • Elisee Reclus (157)
    • Mary Wollstonecraft – Voltai’s feminist hero. Mentions idea of room of one’s own and issues with opposite-sex romantic relations and power. (158; 161)
    • Kropotkin –  esp. Fields, Factories, and Workshops, influenced her views on the possible compatibility of technology, innovation, and labor. (167-68)
    • Catherine Breshkovskaya – Socialist revolutionary from Russia. (187). “Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal”. (186)
    • Relationship between anarchists & libertarians with socialists like Debs and London. (203)
    • Flores Magon
    • American libertarian and anarchist thinkers she IDs
      • Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau
  • Ideas, Orgs, etc.
    • Alternative living arrangements
      • Stelton Colony (82)
      • Sunrise Colony in Michigan (82)
      • Mohegan colonies (104)
      • Flores Magon’s Mexican revolution and corresponding experimentation with communal living in places like Tijuana. (226)
    • Ladies Liberal League and the Radical Library (97)
    • Marriage and Children – seemed to think it might be morally wrong to have children. (160)
    • Property
      • not an advocate of communal property originally and definitely not a Communist. (105; 144) (contrast with Emma Goldman)
      • in 1890s moved to a Dyer Lum-Proudhon type mutualism.
      • strongly opposed to commercialism. Had a sort of Jeffersonian agrarian fantasy
    • Philosophy
      • anti-materialist conception of history. Like Berkman “the idea is the thing”
      • Dominant Idea Theory – thought was about consumerism. (162)
      • Anarchy has different threads
        • (1) Individualism vs. (2) Collectivist (subcategories include: mutualism, socialist/Marxist, communist)
        • (1) US native (I take him to mean not native but simply not first generation) vs. (2) immigrant. (155)
      • what draws some anarchists and libertarians to Buddhism? Here Avrich talks about Lum, who was her most stable mentor and lover, being involved in it. (56)

The Modern School Movement (experimentation in anarchist and libertarian education and living)

Book CoverOne of the many interesting tidbits in the Avrich Sasha Berkman-Emma Goldman duel biography was its brief discussion of the Modern School Movement. The way Avrich explained it, in 1901 Francisco Ferrer started the Modern School in Spain. His goal was, at least in part, to teach the next generation of children how to lead the coming working class revolution. But the idea was that to achieve this end did not require force-feeding students dogma. Instead, a sense of justice and voluntary cooperation would arise naturally from children raised in an environment of freedom, nature, exercise, love, and sympathy — where formality, hierarchy, and discipline were entirely absent from learning. While the school was forcibly closed in 1906, Ferrer (once released from prison again) founded the International League for the Rational Education of Children in 1908. Tragically, though, he was then executed in 1909 as a result of his anarchist and related education activities (he was labeled seditious). His execution sparked international outcry and led anarchists and libertarians to create Modern Schools around the world. The United States was one place these schools particularly flourished and this book documents their creation and ultimate dissolution.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but there were a couple of issues. First, there are some chunks that seem virtually identical to text in the duel biography. Now, the repetition isn’t so much the issue as much as the fact that the areas of overlap didn’t strike me as core to the story of the Modern School Movement. It was bonus material that led down small (but interesting!) rabbit holes that diverted attention from the book’s main project. Another issue, and I don’t know how you get around this, was how many characters were introduced. Considering this seems to be one of the only books out there on the Modern School Movement, I don’t blame him for stuffing it full of information. But, it would be great for later books in this area to focus a bit more on specific lines of thought without the movement and develop them more robustly. At the end of the book there are likely a dozen names I’ve already forgotten. I also wish the book dedicated more than a few sentences to talking about what happened to the children who attended these amazing schools. How did they fare later in life? For an educational philosophy, the proof has got to be in the pudding. Most people reading this book, I suspect, want to know whether the experiments can be thought a success on the experimenters’ own terms. I still don’t know.

That all said, I am grateful Avrich wrote this and only wish there was more out there on this topic.

Here’s the list of ideas and notes I kept as I read. As I’ve said before, some of it might not make sense unless you read the book yourself.

  • Paul Robin’s school at Cempuis, which was the model for Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna.
  • A.S. Neill’s Summerhill – read by Uncle Fern, thought revolutionary (re: education)
  • 1949 Freedom in Education – post-Aunt (Elizabeth) Fern’s death. Interesting ideas on education but also anti-intellectual (in an ironically dogmatic way for a free-thinker)
  • Lewis Mumford – wrote on utopias
  • Single Tax party
  • Frobel – The Education of Man (founding educational philosophy text)
  • Central Labour College of London
  • News from Nowhere – William Morris. Libertarian utopia
  • Power of conduct as more powerful than mere speech quote on page 145 and what it should mean to free speech advocates/ the line between speech and conduct with re: government power to regulate. (quote = “It is not hard to write what one feels as truth. It is damned hard to live it.”
  • Walt Whitman, Walden – hugely influential on anarchists
  • Pestalozzi – 1800s, early radical education thought
  • Joseph McCabe – monk turned atheist (that’s got to be an interesting story. Elizabeth Fern had a similar trajectory. The relationship between some sort of mysticism/religiosity (just plain intensity of conviction?) and anarchism is interesting…. Think of C.S. Lewis, too.)
  • Skaneateles Community = one of the earliest US anarchist colonies. Brook Farms in MA was another early one.
  • The Paris Commune (looked online – very little in English about this)
  • The New Unionism – Andrew Tridon. One of the first American books on revolutionary syndicalism.
  • Kropotkin, Appeal to the Young. Probably one of the most influential pieces, sparked many young people to consider anarchism.
  • 1890-1920s is when anarchism was the most popular in the US. Where’s their writing on welfare capitalism? Made trade unionism seem tame.
  • Aurora Colony
  • The Modern School magazine, printed by Ishill around 1911ish. Free Spirit Press then Oriole Press (Ishill’s press — Ishill seems quite interesting).
  • Socialism spectrum: libertarian-ish (Carpenter, Morris) and then somewhere far away we have economic determinism (Engels, Marx)

Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

Book CoverJust finished an absolutely engrossing dual biography of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. I should keep better track of how I’m led to all the different books I buy and read – it’s interesting to see how your own most core views morph over time in response, in large part, to the sheer fortuity of what you read. As for this book, while I can’t remember the specifics, I think my recent interest in the history of anarchist thought in the United States is connected to both the First Amendment section of a paper I’ll be trying to get published soon (it deals with labor law and government interests that do/do not compel restrictions of speech in that context) and also Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the influence of which continues to spread through my brain.

But back to the book. I am embarrassed to confess that, prior to this book, I knew almost nothing about anarchist thought in the United States. I’ve read a number of very unfortunate First Amendment cases dealing with anarchists’ speech, but I never dedicated time to learning about the nitty-gritty of its different branches, its history, etc. Ugh. Such a mistake.

This book is a great introduction to the area. Paul Avrich (the first author) was a professor specializing in Anarchism and I suspect you won’t find a better guide into the field than him. (This book was also the last project he worked on before his death in 2006. [I know this because I tried to email him after finishing the book to ask him some follow-up questions.] His daughter, Karen Avrich, ended up compiling his work and actually writing and creating the final product. You can read a little bit about their lovely collaboration here.)

But moving on — as I mentioned, it’s a dual biography of two hugely influential anarchists — Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. And, given their inspirational and significant friendship, it seems quite natural to read about both of their experiences at the same time.

I kept a list of ideas, peoples, things, etc. the book mentioned that I wanted to learn more about. I’ll add my notes verbatim here, too (so some may make more sense than others):

  • International Institute of Social History – Amsterdam
  • The Bolshevik Myth (Berkman’s account) and the separate concluding chapters (published separately)
  • Goldman’s book – My disillusionment in Russia (two volumes originally, later published as one)
  • Spanish Civil War (esp. how it does/does not relate to activity in Russia and Germany)
  • Gustav Landauer and Alfred G. Sanftleben (libertarian socialists)
  • Leonard Abbot (part of the Ferrer teaching association – just look up Ferrer teaching generally)
  • Modern School Movement (Avrich wrote a book on this, I think)
  • Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (Berkman from awful time in prison – also first discussion of homosexuality outside the medical context?)
  • Becky Edelsohn
  • Gertie Vose
  • Upton Sinclair (relation to anarchists)
  • The Blast and Mother Earth (Berkman and Goldman’s publications)
  • Catholic Worker Movement
  • Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan (at least had documents about radicalism in it)
  • Voltairine de Cleyre