The Dominant Idea

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“The Dominant Idea” first appeared as a serialized article in Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman’s influential anarchist magazine, Mother Earth, with the first instalment in May 1910. Soon after, the Mother Earth Publishing Association printed a booklet edition of the article, which they sold through their catalogue from 1910 onward.

“Regnant ideas, everywhere! Did you ever see a dead vine bloom? I have seen it. Last summer I trained some morn­ing-glory vines up over a second story balcony; and every day they blew and curled in the wind, their white, purple-dashed faces wink­ing at the sun, radiant with climbing life. Then all at once some mis­chance hap­pened, some cut worm or some mis­chiev­ous child tore one vine off below. The sappy stem wilt­ed and began to wither; in a day it was dead, — all but the top which still clung longingly to its sup­port, with bright head lifted. But the next night there was a storm, a heavy, driving storm, with beat­ing rain and blind­ing lightning. I rose to watch the flashes, and lo! the won­der of the world! In the black­ness of the mid-night, in the fury of wind and rain, the dead vine had flower­ed. Five white, moon-faced blossoms blew gaily round the skel­e­ton vine, shining back triumphant at the red lightning. I gazed at them in dumb wonder. Dear, dead vine, whose will had been so strong to bloom, that in the hour of its sudden cut-off from the feed­ing earth, it sent the last sap to its blos­soms; and, not waiting for the morn­ing, brought them forth in storm and flash, as white night- glories, which should have been the child­ren of the sun. Over death and decay the Dominant Idea smiled: the vine was in the world to bloom, to bear white trumpet blossoms dash­ed with purple; and it held its will beyond death.

“I think this unqualified determinism of the material is a great, lamentable error in our modern progressive move­ment; the absolute sway of Matter is quite as mischievous an error as the unrelated nature of Mind; in its direct action upon personal con­duct, it has the more ill effect of the two. What we need is a true appraise­ment of the power and rôle of the Idea. Against the accept­ed form­u­l­a of modern Materialism, ‘Men are what circum­stances make them,’ I set the opposing declaration, ‘Circumstances are what men make them’; and I contend that both these things are true, up to the point where the combating powers are equalized, or one is overthrown….”

Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) was a popular Anarchist and feminist writer, speaker and activist. Her contemporary and friend Emma Goldman called her “the most gifted and brilliant anarch­ist woman America ever produced.” She published articles in Liberty, Twentieth Century, Free Society and Mother Earth, and worked closely with libertarian com­mun­ists, market anarch­ists, and mutualists within the Phila­delphia social an­arch­ist move­ment, but refused to commit herself to economic blueprints, adopting a pluralistic view of economic arrangements in any future free society.

Introduced August 2014.

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