A Reminiscence by Voltairine de Cleyre
Dyer D. Lum February 15, 1839–April 6, 1893
Voltairine de Cleyre
One of the silent martyrs whose graves are trodden to the level by their fellows’ feet, almost before it is seen that they have fallen, completed his martyrdom one year ago to-night.
There are thousands of such, why then commemorate this one?
Let our answer be that in this one we commemorate all the others, and if we have chosen his day and name, it is because his genius, his work, his character was one of those rare gems produced in the great mine of suffering and flashing backward with all its changing lights the hopes, the fears, the gaieties, the griefs, the dreams, the doubts, the loves, the hates, the sum of that which is buried, low down there, in the human mine.
No more modest a man than Dyer D. Lum ever lived; partly, nay mostly, indeed, it was inborn, instinctive; but it was also fostered by his conception of life, which led him to consider self as the veriest of soap-bubbles, a thing to be dispelled by the merest whiff of wind, so to speak; and therefore, personal recognition or personal gain as the most silly, as well as unworthy, of motives. For this reason his works have often gone where his name did not, and thousands of persons have been influenced by his logic and his sentiments who never heard of his personality. Indeed there were some of us who wondered when he died, what certain labor leaders would henceforth do for a cheap scribe to furnish them brains.
I have often heard him quote as his motto, both for organization and for literary effort, the expressive sentence: “Get in your work” “Let fools take the credit if they want it,” was the implication of his tone, and I shall never forget the delightful smile with which be repeated Charles Mackay’s lines, most singularly transposing the author’s meaning: “Grub little moles––.” He took an especial pleasure in grubbing, and smiling when a streak of sunlight fell on some one else.
I have said that this distinguishing characteristic, so fruitful in results in his later life, was partly instinctive and partly a philosophic conviction. The instinctive side may be best understood by a brief sketch of his ancestry. It is generally complained that the troublesome people who are never satisfied to let society alone, must necessarily be foreigners; at least they can never belong to the same nation as we, the good, the respectable. The easy method of laying everything pestilent to the charge of the foreigner, will not serve a conservative American against Dyer D. Lum. The first of the Lums to set foot in this country was Samuel L., a Scotchman, in the year 1732. They rooted in New England soil, and at the time of the Revolution, Dyer’s great grandfather was a minute-man in the very town, Northampton, where his own corpse was laid a year ago. On the maternal side the Tappan family were also revolutionists, and back of revolutionists Reformationists in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and still back of that, Crusaders. All this would be important enough and indeed even distinguishing, were I relating it by way of “gilding refined gold”; but they acquire meaning the moment we regard them as data for a character. They are fraught with mysterious symbolism, and he himself becomes a symbol of the deep-rooted faith of humanity, when we see that subterranean stream of blood running from Jerusalem through Europe and across the sea to America. It shows how profound is the well-spring of devotion to cause in the human heart; through how many centuries the spirit of rebellion lives. But what, say you, had it to do with his instinctive modesty? This: the devotee of a cause is never the devotee of self.
Now as to his philosophic convictions, it would be easy to deliver a whole lecture upon them; and unfortunately his profoundest work on that subject has not yet been printed. Of course, I can present them but briefly. I must preface that, as you will no doubt observe later on, his beliefs were in his own case a plain testimony to their own correctness. It sounds ridiculous to say that a thing can prove itself; but you will understand me when I explain that he regarded the conscious life of man, which includes, of course, his processes of reasoning and therefore his philosophy, as the merest fragment of him; that this process itself, which we are wont so fondly to consider as setting us higher than the brute, is but an upgrowth of our instincts. Man, the race Man, psychologically as well as bodily, might be likened to a tree, which every year adds small new growths whose bright green verdure opens to the sunlight, while below and supporting them quivers the great dark green mass of the tree, which year after year repeats itself, whispering in its shadows the old whispers of the centuries. The new verdure would represent the conscious life and growth of individuals, budding upward in response to the conditions surrounding them and adding what tiny mite they may to the experience of the race; but beneath and through, and all about them rustle the traditions of the dead – dead as individuals, but living, more potently living than ever, in the great trunk and branches of unconscious, or instinctive life. And as the shape of the newly budding leaf, the shade of its green, the length of its stem, its size, are determined more by the nature of the tree than by surrounding circumstances, so the philosophy of the individual is determined by the instinctive life of the race.
The winter of death comes; the individual withers like the leaf; but the small item of growth that he has added is there, brown and barren though the twig appear. From him new buds will shoot, though its own leaves hereafter rustle in the deep green shadows of unconsciousness. As time passes away useless boughs wither and die, and are stricken utterly from the life of the race; such are the worthless lives, the abnormal growths, which no longer add anything either to the beauty or the service of the whole.
Or, to adopt one of Comrade Lum’s own figures, the useless or brutish elements in man slowly sink down like sediment deposited by the moving current. Now, in a case where we are able to trace a strain of blood as far back as this of his, and further are able to look at the conscious work of the man, and see that the one was the offspring of the other, modified of course by circumstances, we are able to make the seemingly absurd statement that the belief proves its own correctness.
Let me particularize concerning this belief. First he was in all his writings the advocate of resistance, the champion of rebellion. But long before he had reduced the matter to a syllogism, he was a resistant in fact. What else could you expect from the Crusader, the Reformationist, the Revolutionist? It might be said by the people who believe in the supreme influence of circumstances, that it was his social environment which made him such – that given the ideal social order and he would have been as mild a pacificator as Jesus: which is equivalent to saying that given the outward circumstances and an ear of wheat will grow from a seed corn. Lum was the resistant, the man of action; the man who while scarcely more than a boy, enlisted as a volunteer in the 125th New York infantry to fight a cause he then deemed just; who being taken prisoner, twice effected his escape; who sick of the inaction of superiors, while a third-time prisoner waiting to be exchanged, took his exchange in his own hands, at the risk of death for desertion, and within a month re-enlisted in the cavalry, where by sheer force of daring he rose from private to captain; the man who smashed the idol of the Greenback movement, sooner than let him betray its voters, reckless himself of the rebound of hate from the politicians; the man who cast all business prospects and journalistic hopes aside as so much chaff, when he picked up the fallen banner of the fight in Chicago, by editing the paper of Albert Parsons, then in prison and doomed to die; the man who could say to his well-beloved friend, when that friend asked him whether he should petition Governor Oglesby for his life, knowing that that petition would be granted, the man who, under these circumstances could say: “Die, Parsons”; the man who poor, defeated, dirty, ragged, hungry, could proudly refuse the proffered hand of the then king of the labor movement, that king who had kept his kingdom by repudiating the martyrs of Chicago from the limitless height of one soul over another, answer “there’s blood on it, Powderly”; the man who faced a public audience to defend the shooting of Frick by Alexander Berkman, a few days after the occurrence, because he felt that when another has done a thing which you approve as leading in the direction of your own aspirations, it is your duty to share the effects of the counterblast his action may have provoked; the man who seized the unknown Monster, Death, with a smile on his lips – all of this man was germinating in the child of the pious home who even when a mere boy had dared Jehovah.
Having “weighed Him, tried Him, found Him naught,” he threw the Jewish God and cosmogony overboard with as much equanimity as he would have eaten his dinner, and set about finding a more reasonable explanation of phenomena. In this, as in all other matters, the man of action has a certain advantage over a pure theorist, which is this: he plunges immediately into the conflict, he throws the gauntlet, rashly sometimes, but boldly; he settles the question at once; if there is any suffering attached to the attempt, he suffers once and has done with it; while the theorist, the fellow who walks tiptoe round the edge of the battle-field, dies a hundred times and still suffers on.
My own conversion from orthodoxy to freethought was of this latter sort. I never dared God; I always tried to propitiate him with prayers and tears even while I was doubting his existence; I suffered hell a thousand times while I was wondering where it was located. But my teacher winked at the heavens, braved hell, and then tossed the whole affair aside with a joke.
Nevertheless, he did not, as nearly all of our modem image-breakers have done, deny all religions in their entirety, because he had run a lance through a stuffed Mumbo-Jumbo. Indeed, the spirit of devotion to something greater than Self, which will be found as the kernel of every religion, was so thoroughly in him, or indeed was he himself that whether he fancied himself willing it or not, his inclinations directed all his conscious efforts to read the riddle of life into the channel of Buddhism. I do not know whether he ever accepted its peculiarly fanciful side or not; but if he did, it was early corrected by a no less characteristic trait, also an inheritance of the Tappan family, that of critical analysis. An omnivorous reader, he was always abreast of the times in matters of scientific discovery; and his inexorable logic would never have permitted him to retain a creed which necessitated any doctoring of facts; he rather doctored the creed to fit the facts and thus evolved a species of modem Buddhism which he called “Evolutional Ethics” whose principles may be briefly stated as follows:
Man is the continuation of the process of evolution up to date. He is thus united to all other products of evolution, and is governed by the same laws. The two factors which determine form in the organic world are adaptation and inheritance; and since evolution is no less a matter of psychology than physiology, the soul of man as well as the soul of animals and plants, must be moulded by these factors. That inheritance tends to crystallize existing forms, while adaptation, or the influence of environment, ever tends to modification of forms, whether physical or intellectual. That mind as much as body is unconscious, so far as there is perfect adaptation to surroundings; and that only when inharmony of the organism with the environment as the result of change in the latter, arises, can there be consciousness. That this consciousness is a state of pain, more or less sharply defined ; and will continue to increase in intensity until the necessary adaptation is accomplished, when as a result a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure will ensue, gradually sinking into the blissful unconsciousness of perfect harmony. That progress thus demands this stepping constantly up the rough stairway of pain; and that not even one step is passed until moistened by the blood of many generations. That the path up the mountain side is not laid out by us, but for us, and that we must travel there whether it pleases us or not. That the chances are it will not please us; that our whole lives, in so far as they are conscious, will probably be one record of never achieved struggle; and that rest will come only when we descend to the unconsciousness of Death.
Thus he was a pessimist of the darkest hue; and yet he never wasted a moment’s regret on the facts. He watched this passing spectre man, gliding among the whirling dance of atoms, contemplated his final extinction with composure, sneered at metaphysicians while he himself was buried in metaphysics, and cracked jokes either at his own expense or somebody else’s .
The result of all this speculation was the conclusion that man, being a social animal, must adapt himself to social ends (not determined by him but for him – unconsciously); that therefore the one who sets himself and his egotistic desires against the social ideal is the supreme traitor. He had a peculiar power of expressing volumes in an epithet; and the epithet he gave to the Egoist was “Dung-Beetle.” For the sake of those who may not be familiar with the insect referred to, I may explain that a dung-beetle is a sort of bug that exhibits its instincts by rolling a ball of dung, and who sometimes appears to meditate when he rolls over the ball that the universe has turned bottom up – because he has.
Now, it is well known that the greater part of the reform camp – particularly the Anarchistic camp – is made up of Dung-Beetles, I mean of Egoists; people who declare that the desire for pleasure is the motive of action, who think a great deal of their egos and don’t care a rap for society. The result was they sharpened their pencils and wrote scathing editorials denouncing him. To which he answered never a word. First, because he didn’t consider himself worth fighting about; and second, if he had, he was altogether too good a general to do it. His opponents were a disputatious sort, who liked nothing better than argument; he knew what his enemy wanted and didn’t do it.
But when a question worth discussing arose, then woe to those who had courted the rapier of his wit, or challenged to duel with the diamond-tipped dagger of his sarcasm. He could answer columns with a paragraph.
I do not know whether this philosophy of his had crystallized in his own mind before he became an Anarchist or not. I believe, however, it had not; I think it grew along with his other conceptions, being broadened and corrected, and in turn broadening and correcting his thought in other channels. But at any rate, fully developed or not, it certainly influenced his conclusions on economic subjects greatly. True to his instincts he was always at the front of battle, and when the war closed his first move was to attach himself to the Greenback party, the first widespread expression of organized protest against monopoly of the means of production in America. He still had faith in the saving grace of politics, and was active enough in the agitation to be nominated for Lieut. Governor of Massachusetts with Wendell Phillips for Governor. The fight, which besides being a demand for fiat money, embodied a short-hour movement, took on a national character; and Dyer D. Lum with five others, including Albert R. Parsons, was appointed on a committee to push the matter before Congress. This was in 1880. Six years later, time and the tide had driven both of them into the great current of Socialism, and final repudiation of politics as a means of attaining Socialistic ideals. And here came in the philosophy of the unconscious. The socialization of industry was the next step up the mountain side, not because men wished or planned it; but the pressure of surroundings made it the only possible move; but on the other hand the reactionary, system-building Socialism advocated by the great master Marx, and all his train of little repeaters, was seen to be at variance with a no less marked feature of the evolving social ideal, viz., elasticity, mobility, constantly increasing differentiation; which is only possible when units of society are left free to adapt themselves to the slightest changes, unforced by the opinions of other people who know nothing of the matters in question, but who, being in the majority (for where is ignorance not in the majority?) could suppress the free movements of the minority by enacting their ignorance into laws.
Thus it will be seen that he looked forward to free Socialism as the industrial ideal; the requirements of that ideal are laid down in his “Economics of Anarchy.”
A few of his caustic sentences may here be quoted:
“The Statist assumes that rights increase in some metaphysical manner, and become incarnate in half the whole plus one.” ”Politics discovers wisdom by taking a general poll of ignorance.”
“Every appeal to legislation to do aught but undo is as futile as sending a flag of truce to the enemy for munitions of war.”
“When Caesar conquered Greece, he subjugated Olympus, and the Gods now measure tape behind counters with Christian decorum.”
Lum had faith in humankind. He always trusted the people; the people that maligned him, the people that injured him, the people that killed him. When I asked him once why he did not get angry at an individual who industriously circulated lies about him, he answered with a twinkling laugh, “For the same reason that I don’t kick the house-cat.” And yet he had an abiding faith in that man, and other similar men, to work out the judgments of the human race, undisturbed by the fact that they let their only honest leaders die in garrets.
And underneath the speculative philosopher who confused you with long words; underneath the cold logician who mercilessly scouted at sentiment; underneath the pessimistic poet that sent the mournful cry of the whip-poor-will echoing through the widowed chambers of the heart, that hung and sung over the festival walls of Life the wreaths and dirges of Death; underneath the gay joker who delighted to play tricks on politicians, police and detectives; was the man who took the children on his knees and told them stories while the night was falling, the man who gave up a share of his own meagre meals to save five blind kittens from drowning ; the man who lent his arm to a drunken washerwoman whom he did not know, and carried her basket for her, that she might not be arrested and locked up; the man who gathered four-leafed clovers and sent them to his friends, wishing them “all the luck which superstition attached to them”; the man whose heart was beating with the great common heart, who was one with the simplest and the poorest.
Lum held that evolutional ethics, or Anarchist ethics, in fact, must take account of both the altruistic and egoistic impulses; that while determining causes will ever lie in the mysterious realm of the unconscious life, consciousness may discern the trend of development and throw in its quota of influence for or against. That in its endeavor to comprehend the trend of development, it should take fair account of ancient truths, however enveloped in superstitious husks; should aim to extract the virtue even in the much mistaken altruistic doctrines of vicarious atonement and personal abasement; and while emphasizing the negation of human rulership as destructive of the possibilities of true growth, at the same time to acknowledge the vain conceit of self as anything more than a temporary grouping of instinct developed in beast, in plant, in man; to acknowledge the individual creature as a sort of mirrored reflection of the cosmos, constantly shifting, now scintillant, now vague and evanescent, now gone forever as Death breaks the mirror.
The notion of immortality which grows from such a conception of self is purged of the old vain conceit. It has been most beautifully voiced in George Eliot’s “Choir Invisible,” Mr. Lum’s favorite poem; and in the lines is expressed the last great limitless shadow which engulfs even this immortality, the blind, tremendous darkness which lies at the end of all, the sense of the invincibility of which must have lain upon our teacher’s soul when after the last searching, inexplicable, farewell look into a friend’s eyes he went out into the April night and took his last walk in the roar of the great city – he who should soon be so silent!
Most of his comrades were surprised. They said: “I never thought Dyer D. Lum would go alone.” But I who know how often and how wearily he said “What’s the use,” am sure that that mocking question lay at his heart, and paralyzed the will to do.
Like Olive Schreiner’s stars in the African Farm, the soul about to depart sees the earth so coldly – all the ages are as one night – and like them he watches little helpless creatures of the earth come out and crawl awhile upon its skin, then go back beneath it, and it does not matter – nothing matters.
Source: Selected works of Voltairine de Cleyre (1914).