Libertarian socialist historiography

[Contr’un, June 4, 2015]

bakunincardRecently, I’ve been looking at some very interesting work by René Berthier and Gaston Leval, some of it relating to the familiar question of just how anarchists have used the language of anarchy (anarchist, anarchist, etc.) Berthier (whose various works on Bakunin and Proudhon I have been finding very useful) has written a nice little essay on “L’usage du mot « anarchie » chez Bakounine” (The Use of the Word ‘Anarchy’ by Bakunin), which covers some of the same ground as my work on “Anarchy in All its Senses,” but in the works of Bakunin, rather than Proudhon. Leval was contributed a more general essay, “Socialiste libertaire! Pourquoi?” (Libertarian Socialist! Why?) on his reasons for preferring that label, socialiste libertaire (libertarian socialist), over anarchist, and documenting a number of other figures associated with the anarchist tradition who shared that preference, at least at some stages of their careers.

Berthier finds that Bakunin uses the term anarchy in much the same way as Proudhon, seldom using it to designate (as he puts it) “a political doctrine” and frequently using it to indicate disorder. He observes a number of occasions in Bakunin’s work where the positive connotations of the terms obviously depend on the fact that disorder in the existing society creates opportunities for change, not necessarily on any positive aspects of anarchy itself—but also documents a number of instances where something like the “political doctrine” he is seeking may really be in play.

Leval traces some of the same history, showing that even anarchist authors often associated the term anarchy with disorder, and invoking a series of prominent figures (Rudolf Rocker, Francisco Ferrer, Tarrida del Marmol, Gustav Landauer, etc.) who at one time or another preferred identification as some form of socialist to the anarchist label. It’s an interesting account, despite some passages that look like they are reaching a bit for ideological points: Leval claims, for example, that it was Jules Guesde, Paul Brousse, and Benoît Malon who were must insistent on the anarchist label during the First International, and then attempts some connection between their “verbal extremism” and their subsequent “founding” of “the authoritarian socialist party.” For Leval, the biggest problem with the language of anarchy seems to be that too many people have adopted it, and that it does not indicated clearly enough a investment in the issues he considers central.

I’m afraid that I am not ultimately very hopeful that any amount of attention to labels and keywords is going to solve any of the problems we have communicating our ideas to others. It is an open question whether libertarian socialist has proven any clearer, in the years since 1956, than anarchist. I also have very little investment—and some purely negative reaction—to the focus on “a political doctrine,” which seems to drive both examinations of the history. Indeed, looking at the similarities between Proudhon’s and Bakunin’s use of the language of anarchy, it strikes me that someone not looking to break with that terminology might be inclined to linger a little longer with the question of what—other than a political doctrine—that obviously complex term might be indicating. To put it more directly: It seems to me that a self-identified libertarian socialist may have fewer reasons to grapple with, or avoid grappling with, the problem of “anarchy in all its senses” than someone who identifies as an anarchist. Without no identification with the terminology, neither anxiety nor curiosity is likely to drive us to plumb the depths of the difficulties.

But there is another side to this issue. After all, the question of “anarchy in all its senses” has hidden in plain sight for a long time. It seems to have been obscured in the English translation of The General Idea of the Revolution precisely because it seemed to create confusion about a political doctrine—when the text itself suggested that a search for something else was required. But many of the questions raised during the “Era of Anarchy” work arise from the fact that we tend to see “anarchism” in periods where perhaps we should distinguish other sorts of activity in support of anarchy.

The question of the relationship between Bakunin’s career and anarchy and anarchism is obviously something that I’ve been forced to wrestle with as the Bakunin Library comes together, and it was partially as a means of buying a bit of time that I chose to construct the collection along lines already established by Max Nettlau and James Guillaume, as a “collectivist” edition. But one of the things that I have discovered, as I’ve grappled with the literature on Bakunin—which always threatens to outstrip my language skills—is that much of the most useful commentary on Bakunin as an anarchist has come from scholars like Berthier, for whom the question of anarchism emerges specifically as a kind of distraction that must be addressed.

My own (anti-)political, philosophical and historiographical commitments mean that I can, at times, only follow the logic of that libertarian socialist scholarship so far. Anarchy is obviously an important piece of the particular puzzle I am assembling. But I am finding it a very useful foil as I am attempting to clarify my own anarchist account.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.