This is from Voltairine de Cleyre’s 1894 address, In Defense of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation. She is responding to Goldman’s maxim: “Ask for work; if they do not give you work, ask for bread; if they do not give you bread, then take bread.” What I love about her favorable yet cautious response to that phrase is the way she penetrates the illusory fervor of the mob mentality, extracting instead the need for reflection and understanding.
You are told you have the power because you have the numbers. Never make so silly a blunder as to suppose that power resides in numbers. One good, level-headed policeman with a club, is worth ten excited, unarmed men; one detachment of well-drilled militia has a power equal to that of the greatest mob that could be raised in New York City. Do you know I admire compact, concentrated power. Let me give you an illustration. Out in a little town in Illinois there is a certain capitalist, and if ever a human creature sweat and ground the grist of gold from the muscle of man, it is he. Well, once upon a time, his workmen, (not his slaves, his workmen,) were on strike; and fifteen hundred muscular Polacks armed with stones, brickbats, red hot pokers, anti other such crude weapons as a mob generally collects, went up to his house for the purpose of smashing the windows, and so forth; possibly to do as those people in Italy did the other day with the sheriff who attempted to collect the milk tax. He alone, one man, met them on the steps of his porch, and for two mortal hoers, by threats, promised, cajoleries, held those fifteen hundred Poles at bay. And finally they went away, without smashing a pane of glass or harming a hair of his head. Now that was power! And you can’t help but admire it, no matter if it was your enemy who displayed it; and you must admit that so long as numbers can be overcome by such relative quantity, power does not reside in numbers. Therefore, if I were giving advice, I would not say, “take bread”, but take counsel with yourselves flow to get the power to take bread.
There is no doubt but that power is latently in you; there is little doubt it can be developed; there is no doubt the authorities know this, and fear it, and are ready to exert as much force as is necessary to repress any signs of its development. And this is the explanation of EMMA GOLMANN’S imprisonment. The authorities do not fear you as you are, they only fear what you may become. The dangerous thing was “the voice crying in the wilderness” foretelling the power which was to come after it. You should have seen how they feared it in Phila. They got out a whole platoon of police and detectives, and executed a military maneuver to catch the little woman who had been running around under their noses for three days. And when she walked up to them, why then, they surrounded and captured her, and guarded the city hall where they kept her over night, and put a detective in the next cell to make notes. Why so much fear? Did they shrink from the stab of the dressmakers needle? Or did they dread some stronger weapon?
Ah! — the accusation before the New York Pontius Pilate was: “she stirreth up the people”. And Pilate sentenced her to the full limit of the law, because, he said, “you are more than ordinarily intelligent”. Why is intelligence dealt thus hardly with? Because it is the beginning of power. Strive, then, for power.
In this era of ever expanding access to information, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the people down by force. This problem has been solved largely by inventing myriad means of distraction. Not only does this quell substantially the corrective dynamics that moderate outward inequality and subjugation, it also prevents the understanding of the self that is so crucial to unlocking the seat of true power.
I don’t really care whether you believe in God or not. What I care about is the human spirit, for that is the only gateway to our best nature. And that, my friends, is the only divinity we’ll ever be able to count on in any measure, regardless of the exact character of its source (which we insult one another by arguing over, as if we have the words to express the subtlety of these immensely personal experiences).
The more I study the task of liberation, the more clearly and urgently I perceive it as a struggle of self against the authoritarian within far more than against the authoritarian without. The latter’s position is far less precarious if they have set the terms by which you judge your own potential - if they have trained you, in other words, to oppress yourself. And similarly, I believe that the overthrow of the former will ultimately be more rewarding to the individual and, by extension, society.
As an end note, let me remind the reader that I wrote extensively about the crossover of spirituality and individualism in my essay, History as the Evolution of Identity.