Welcome to Anarchist Beginnings






  • 1850-1876
  • 1877-1919
  • 1920-1930



The ANARCHIST BEGINNINGS project began as a series of pamphlets from my Corvus Editions project, simply titled “Anarchisms,” collecting a first assortment of the “Declarations & Professions of Faith,” together with some collective statements from the same period. When the opportunity emerged to publish a collection of this material, it became clear that it would be more useful limit the anthology to writings of a particular type, which could be more easily compared and contrasted. That led me back to a more literary sort of analysis, attempting to present the various texts as instances of an anarchist declaration, which could then be approached with familiar literary tools, as well as with the more conventional tools associated with political theory. That meant, of course, that there were quite a number of excellent texts that couldn’t be included in that first volume, so I began almost immediately to at least consider what additional volumes, dealing with different genres of anarchist expression from the formative decades.

This approach has been a welcome return to a kind of scholarship I spent years pursuing in an earlier stage in my career. I spent much of the late 80s and early 90s studying popular genre fiction and my interest in that sort of analysis has been revived by my more recent work on the narratives surrounding Ravachol and the period of propaganda by deed. But it has taken some time to adapt the tools I developed in that earlier work—which were largely intended to make my experience as a bookseller part of my toolkit as a cultural critic—to the questions around which ANARCHIST BEGINNINGS has been organized:

How did the anarchist tradition begin? How do individuals begin to be anarchists? What are the relations between these two kinds of beginnings? What can we learn about being anarchists in the present from an examination of the experiences of the first anarchists?

These are, of course, absolutely fundamental questions. The act of becoming an anarchist is something with a history, an evolving practice, and one that is necessarily very different for us than it was for Proudhon in 1840 or the rank and file of the emerging anarchist movement in the 1880s, etc., etc. And this practice has obviously taken a number of forms, so ultimately it makes sense to approach it through the analysis of a number of genres of expression.

With the first volume near completion, I’ve been thinking more about possible additional volumes. It was obvious from the beginning that one logical sequel would be a collection of early manifestos and group programs, with the focus turned from questions of individual identity to collective organization. A third volume under consideration would include various more literary expressions—poems, stories, dialogues, catechisms, etc.—produced from within the anarchist movement and a fourth might consist of the most interesting critiques and caricatures produced by outsiders. The fifth volume I have been considering would consist of what I have been calling “progress reports” from within the anarchist movement—internal critiques and assessments that allow us to compare our own fears and concerns with those of the anarchist pioneers. This volume seems likely to take shape fairly quickly—at least in preliminary form—as my recent research into the sin adjetivos and synthesist tendencies has unearthed a number of powerful critiques and, most interestingly, a period of very general dissatisfaction and concern among anarchist veterans in the 1920s (precisely at the end of the period these volumes are intended to cover.)

I’ll be updating the pages linked in the sidebar with possible texts as I find them and would gratefully accept recommendations for others.

One way to look at the likely result of this project is as another kind of documentary history of anarchism, supplementing work like Robert Graham’s from another direction. That seems like a worthy enough project on its own, but I’m not certain that it answers any very pressing need within the anarchist milieu. What I have been attempting to do with all of my recent work as an anthologist is to craft specific tools from the collections, with specific modern tasks in mind. So, for example, Anarchy and the Sex Question was an attempt to not just assemble Emma Goldman’s key writings on feminist issues, but to arrange and introduce them in a way that suggested what a more extensive, focused work by Goldman might have looked like, while also addressing the thorny question of “feminism,” its various senses and its evolution. With New Fields, the forthcoming collection of “Early Reflections on Anarchism” by Max Nettlau, the goal has been to present readers with a series of questions that perhaps still pertain to modern anarchism, but also to do so in a way that allows them to vicariously experience the earlier emergence of those questions in contexts that seem quite distant. In general, I am interested in facilitating new and—to the extent that it is possible—rather personal encounters with the human individuals who usually appear to us only as mythic figures or bits of cultural capital to be struggled over.

It is, I will admit, the people you “meet” that continues to maintain my active interest in radical history, every bit as much as the ideas and the hope of making those ideas appear relevant to a largely reluctant milieu. Learning anarchist history “looking over the shoulder” of anarchist pioneers is a remarkable experience, as much because those pioneers generally turn out to be like us—human, all too human—as because of the admitted pleasures of relative intimacy with famous names. Having immersed myself in projects involving translation, deciphering manuscripts, identifying (or not identifying) and attempting to piece together fragments, searching correspondence, etc. I’ve found myself involved in something close to collaboration with some of the thinkers I most admire. And that’s an experience that seems worth sharing, in part because I think that breaking down the distance between ourselves and those pioneers is one of the keys to really making anarchism our own.

So, in some important ways, I’m simply imaging the ANARCHIST BEGINNINGS volumes as a large, diverse and provocatively ordered collection of shoulders over which we might look, while at the same time comparing our own experiences of becoming an anarchist—a matter, arguably, of many beginnings—with that of those who have come before us.

Our Lost Continent

The “lost continent” of anarchist history has been there all along, not so much lost but rather willfully ignored or dismissed, a blank spot on our map marked, not with some dire warning of the “Here be dragons” variety, but rather with the dismissive “Here be precursors.” The problem is that our attempts to simply sail around most of the period between 1840, when we can unquestionably say that there were anarchists, and 1880 or so, when we can point with equal confidence to the emergence of anarchism in one or more forms, tend to commit us to a history—and a vision of “the anarchist tradition”—that is both inaccurate and unhelpful.

I no longer feel the slightest hesitation in declaring that there was, in that forty-year period, what we might call an Era of Anarchy, during which a wide variety of anarchist philosophies developed and subsequently declined. Proudhon launched the era with his explicit declaration—”I am an anarchist!”—in 1840, but he wasn’t alone for long. The communists of l’Humanitaire identified the “anarchistic” roots of their approach the following year. We can argue about how anarchistic other communists of the period were, but certainly by the 1850s, Joseph Déjacque had explicitly joined communism to the anarchy of Proudhon—running ahead of nearly all his contemporaries in proposing some form of anarchism and launching the sort of internal struggle that would mark the whole of the post-1880 Era of Anarchism. There were individualists as well, including Josiah Warren, whose dislike of labels kept him from identifying as an anarchist, and Anselme Bellegarrigue, who looks, in contemporary terms, like some sort of left-wing market anarchist. Stirner is there, with his anarchistic egoism. Ernest Coeurderoy dreams of cossack invasions. Virtually every radical current from the revolutions of the late 18th century or the “utopian” period of the early 19th century manifests some more-or-less libertarian extreme. In North American, Calvin Blanchard announces Art-Liberty, Eliphalet Kimball publishes his Thoughts on Natural Principles, and antinomian principles bubble up, over and over again, on the fringes of New England’s religious culture. Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and New England transcendentalism unite in the work of William B. Greene. Activity in the anti-slavery movement leads Ezra Heywood and Lysander Spooner to the most libertarian conclusions. Networks develop, formally and informally, among some of these figures and spread their influence among the working classes. The New England reform leagues, the Association Internationale, the Union républicaine de langue française and the International Workingmen’s Association represent the efforts of various of these anarchist philosophies to manifest themselves as movements in the era before anarchism was established as an ideology, or even a widely-used keyword. In the context of these attempts, new tendencies will emerge, such as the anarchistic collectivism of Bakunin and his associates and a revived anti-state communism, which will reject the term an-anarchy because of its associations with Proudhon.

Make no mistake: the various anarchist philosophies and movements that existed for a time in this earlier period were indeed not the sort of mass movement that histories like Black Flame have sought. They differed organizationally, and they were born in radically different ideological contexts than the anarchisms of the 1880s. If we insist on defining anarchism as narrowly as those historians, then there are good reasons to consider virtually everything before the establishment of the Black International in 1881 as precursors—and to pick and choose very carefully among the contenders for the anarchist label in the years that followed. But there are, I think, plenty of reasons to reject that particular definition. When we look at the later era, we find that one of the early developments was a questioning, even by those firmly committed to communism and working-class organization, of the vision of revolutionary change embedded in the organizational model. Along with their emphasis on our inability to forecast future institutional forms, the “without adjectives” school also questioned whether the emphasis on the rising of the proletariat was perhaps not already an outdated strategy, better adapted to struggles from the earlier era. On this point, Max Nettlau, arguably the finest of our anarchist historians, produced a number of thought-provoking interventions. And if there is the possibility that the strategies appropriate to the era of the Paris Commune were of questionable use within a decade or two, how much farther are we from their conditions now? When we shift registers, and compare our beliefs about concepts like the relationship between individuals and collectives, can we ignore the possibility—raised provocatively, if not always usefully, by the post-anarchists—that our worldview differs from that of, say, Kropotkin in ways that we dare not ignore?

We seem doomed, at least for now, to some sort of rough-and-ready periodization of our early anarchist history, which has to serve as origin and foundation for a movement, as well as fodder for historical explorations. Perhaps the first step to a more nuanced approach is to at least redraw the dividing lines. Instead of lumping most of our pre-Spanish Civil War history under the label of “classical anarchism,” let’s acknowledge the fairly significant patterns of development that seem to exist in that era. As a first step, let’s recognize the rather dramatic disconnect—in terms of individuals, organizations, concepts and bodies of thought—that existed between the period between 1840 and 1880 and the period that followed the organizational efforts of 1881. That break was not complete, of course, but it was significant. We might break down that early era again, perhaps, around the time of Proudhon’s death and the birth of the International. But that is, I think, a harder divide to identify clearly, and one which we will only precisely understand as we begin to look carefully at this Era of Anarchy with fresh eyes.

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