Yesterday I recalled to mind Voltairine de Cleyre who refused to cooperate in the prosecution of a former language student of hers, Herman Helcher. She said she considered him mentally ill so that he did not know what he was doing. She went further than that and solicited people to come to his aid. Many in the community in which de Cleyre had become a leading figure rallied to her call. It is said here two lawyers were hired to defend her assailant and others pitched in to trying to give him some mental health care. Helcher, who was born in Latvia was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. After his release it is noted here that he was in and out of mental hospitals.
After de Cleyre’s release from the hospital there was a party on January 11, 1903, at the house where she lived on Fairmont Avenue, Philadelphia. Among those attending were prominent lawyer Clarence Darrow and muckraking journalist Henry Demarest Llyod.
It is reported that the following toast were raised at the party:
“To a long life of continued usefulness for Miss de Cleyre, and may we attain the high standard of life she has set.”
“To the speedy recovery of health and freedom for our comrade, Herman Helcher.”
“To all those who have failed in life, and all who, through mistake or misfortune, are confined in prisons or asylums anywhere -may they have a speedy release.”
“To the Social Revolution now making, and that it may have a happy ending.”
“To the coming age of fraternity and freedom when prisons and punishment shall be no more, for this is Anarchism.”
I suggest it was not so much her belief that Helcher was mentally ill that made de Cleyre not participate in is prosecution; it was that she had turned against the American justice system and refused to partake in its offerings. Ominous signs of others feeling this way are present in today’s America.
Why then should we be interested in de Cleyre or in other anarchists such as Emma Goldman who admired de Cleyre even though the women idea of the goals of anarchy differed substantially. It is because both women were drawn to the anarchist movement by a specific event: in their case it was the Haymarket Affair of May 4, 1886, and the subsequent execution of the anarchists involved in it.
Goldman wrote about how the executions affected her: “I had a distinct sensation that something new and wonderful had been born in my soul. A great ideal, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the memory of my martyred comrades, to make their cause my own, to make known to the world their beautiful lives and heroic deaths.”
Those anarchists and many like them turned on the American system of justice because of those executions. Prior to that time they were disposed toward that philosophy but afterward they became full advocates of it. If justice could not be found in America where would it be found other than in the renunciation of all type of governments.
I suggest another such event has happened that will bring anarchism out into the forefront in America. We can soon expect this time to see the fire in our streets as a result of this. That event is the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. How widespread and how wide the turmoil will be is hard to determine. As the country moves further to the right as it will with Trump and the people he surrounds himself with in charge the only alternative to many on the far left will be anarchism.
Anarchism never gained a foothold in America. de Cleyre live among many Jewish refugees from the old Russian empire in Philadelphia who were mired in poverty. America was alien to them and they saw little difference here than they saw in the country from which they fled. But their children seized upon the hope and opportunities offered here and moved away from that philosophy and the movement slowly died in strength.
Today there is a different America. What is missing now is the hope. Trump, as his slogan indicated, is looking to the past. Hope looks forward. What do those to whom the past has been troublesome and the present similar feel when they are told that they are going back to a place that to them is abhorrent? How do they protest that happening?
I suggest we will soon be hearing more about new generations of de Cleyres. The youth will not accept the Trump trifles while watching the rich grow richer and stronger. We are in for exciting and dangerous times that will mirror the late 1960s if not far exceed them.