Thursday, May 03, 2012

Learning from Voltairine

In 1908 a woman named Voltairine de Cleyre delivered a lecture to the Radical Liberal League in Philadelphia.

Her purpose was to argue against marriage. What I think we can learn from her lecture is the underlying trend within modernity to "disband" the ties that are intended to hold together a society in favour of a highly individualistic concept of freedom.

She begins by dismissing the idea that there is a real, objective right that might guide people's behaviour:
there is no absolute right or wrong; there is only a relativity, depending on the consciously though very slowly altering condition of a social race in respect to the rest of the world. Right and wrong are social conceptions: mind, I do not say human conceptions. The names “right” and “wrong,” truly, are of human invention only; but the conception “right” and “wrong,” dimly or clearly, has been wrought out with more or less effectiveness by all intelligent social beings. And the definition of Right, as sealed and approved by the successful conduct of social beings, is: That mode of behavior which best serves the growing need of that society.

It is humans who create what is "right" and that alters according to evolving social needs - that is the gist of her moral theory.

If you have this starting point you will then ask "How are social needs evolving?" And she has a clear answer. She believes that until recently men had to respond to the demands of their environment. In other words, in a tough environment men responded of necessity to what had to be done - any other response would have imperilled survival.

But that realm of necessity is gradually giving way. She therefore sees society evolving along these lines:
What is the growing ideal of human society, unconsciously indicated and unconsciously discerned and illuminated?

By all the readings of progress, this indication appears to be the free individual; a society whose economic, political, social and sexual organization shall secure and constantly increase the scope of being to its several units; whose solidarity and continuity depend upon the free attraction of its component parts, and in no wise upon compulsory forms.

She still talks about solidarity and continuity but these have been fatally demoted as they are not what she is defining the "right" by. What is right, in her theory, is a constant increase in the extent to which individuals can self-determine their social ties.

Once she has established this principle, some very radical conclusions follow. For instance, she is led to reject all forms of marriage:
By marriage I mean the real thing, the permanent relation of a man and a woman, sexual and economical, whereby the present home and family life is maintained. It is of no importance to me whether this is a polygamous, polyandric or monogamous marriage, nor whether it is blessed by a priest, permitted by a magistrate, contracted publicly or privately, or not contracted at all. It is the permanent dependent relationship which, I affirm, is detrimental to the growth of individual character, and to which I am unequivocally opposed.

And here we have the great, splintering clash of modern society. On the traditionalist side, marriage is held to be one important aspect of how we fulfil our being as men and women - a stable, happy marriage is therefore a great good. But the Voltairine moderns see it differently - for them individuals develop as an autonomous (non-dependent) self.

Voltairine was a principled kind of woman. She not only rejected formal marriage as leading to dependent relationships, she rejected de facto marriage as well. She insisted on men and women living apart. To those who claimed that she wanted to do away with relations between the sexes altogether she replied:
“Do you want to do away with the relation of the sexes altogether, and cover the earth with monks and nuns?” By no means. While I am not over and above anxious about the repopulation of the earth, and should not shed any tears if I knew that the last man had already been born, I am not advocating sexual total abstinence.

Predictably, her concern for "solidarity and continuity" was shallow - she had little sense of solidarity with anyone, not even with humanity in the abstract.

She then sets out to counter the argument that we fulfil our being as men and women through marriage rather than through absolute individual autonomy:
“But,” say the advocates of marriage, “what is there in marriage to interfere with the free development of the individual? What does the free development of the individual mean, if not the expression of manhood and womanhood? And what is more essential to either than parentage and the rearing of young?

Her answer is that the instinct to have children is now redundant. People once had children, she believes, in order to help ensure survival in a war against nature, but that survival instinct is now being met by science and technology. There is no longer a need for sons when you have mechanical harvesters:
Hence the development of individuality does no longer necessarily imply numerous children, nor indeed, necessarily any children at all. That is not to say that no one will want children, nor to prophesy race suicide.

She was right about families becoming smaller, but wrong that it would not hasten race suicide. She was wrong, too, in thinking that the instinct to have marry and have children exists simply as part of a struggle to survive against nature. That misses the point, which is that our masculinity is expressed, in part, through our roles as husbands and fathers and therefore marriage and fatherhood is one significant aspect of fulfilling our being.

And what of the small families she allows might exist in her future society? How will these be arranged if men and women are not supposed to live together?

Again, true to her principles, she believes that men and women can only develop apart from each other:
People will not, and cannot, think and feel the same at the same moments, throughout any considerable period of life; and therefore, their moments of union should be rare and of no binding nature.

Children, therefore, should be raised outside of marriage:
I believe that children may be as well brought up in an individual home, or in a communal home, as in a dual home; and that impressions of life will be far pleasanter if received in an atmosphere of freedom and independent strength.

Modern society has shifted in the direction Voltairine wanted it to.  Those who understand the fulfilment of being her way have won out.

Why? Why should the Voltairines have triumphed?

Perhaps one reason relates to a point made by Voltairine herself. When living conditions are tougher, such a radically individualistic outlook is simply less viable. But when a society finally produces a comfortable level of material security, then perhaps a certain aspect of human nature starts to assert itself - a certain kind of person emerges who wants to go their own way and who therefore far from wanting to uphold social ties of family, ethny or nation wants to actively disband them.

That's made worse when the "disbanders" are well-off, anonymous urbanites, rather than, say, a landed gentry with a sense of noblesse oblige and dynastic tradition.

And the "disbanders" can recruit to their side all those who don't like the structure of the traditional society: early on, for instance, it might be the merchant classes pushing against feudal economic restrictions, or dissenting churches pushing against the established church. It could include as well ethnic minorities, or some homosexuals, or the mannish kind of women, or even those who are depressed or resentful, or those from unhappy homes.

So perhaps any developed society is going to have take care to protect itself from the likes of Voltairine, from those who are ready to cast off social ties in favour of autonomous development.


  1. How refreshing is that smell of honest and unalloyed leftism? No pretty lies. No pretence of normalcy. No bowing to the mute and deaf gods. If only our leftists today could be so pure...

  2. Steve, I agree. Votairine wasn't being sneaky - or at least not as much as we're used to. She recognised the traditional view and set out her own modernist view in opposition to it. Both sides knew where they stood.

  3. Well, but remember, they decided to be sneaky because being direct wasn't working. That's the whole idea behind the Long March and Gramsci, which was really articulated after this person was speaking.

  4. I'm not gonna lie- I barely read this post. As soon as I read "there is no absolute right or wrong...", I knew this woman was batshit insane, and thus required no further reading to prove it.

    So... sorry for not reading, but at least you've added another name to the list of people to disregard.

  5. "People will not, and cannot, think and feel the same at the same moments, throughout any considerable period of life; and therefore, their moments of union should be rare and of no binding nature."

    Of course, that's why man has been given something called memory. And it raises questions about her own political leanings, why it's only inter-sex relationship that be subject to this human failing?

    "there is no absolute right or wrong"

    and there is no absolute equality, but only the power to claim so.

    "I believe that children ...."

    and tomorrow I might not feel the same about it, so as soon as this sermon is over, you should forget everything about it.

    A quick look at her wiki page gives this:

    "Throughout her life she was plagued by illness and depression, attempting suicide on at least two occasions and surviving an assassination attempt on December 19, 1902. "

    Today, she would be a manic depressive working tirelessly to legalize gay marriage. With a shorter haircut.

  6. ... and should not shed any tears if I knew that the last man had already been born ...

    Scratch the surface of leftism and you find this hatred of humanity and desire for human extinction. It really is a philosophy of despair. They seem to think this way: Life is suffering, death is peace and we must aim for world peace.