Strategies of Interpretation



Engaging with the Texts.

Don’t let anyone tell you that organizing a multi-volume edition is easy. It’s not. And organizing an anarchist edition, for an anarchist audience and taking into account even some basic anarchist theory, is much more complicated. I thought I understood all that pretty well when I took on the Bakunin Library project, but there’s nothing like living through the inevitable trial and error to remind you of the difference between theoretical and practical understanding. In general, I’m of a mind to follow Proudhon’s lead with regard to mistakes and “measure my valor by the number of my contusions,” but you only get to do that if, after you pick yourself up and dust yourself off, you at least make an effort not to stumble in the same way twice. So, in the wake of a couple of missed deadlines and in anticipation of the next set of hurdles, I’m going to take the time now to sketch out some basic principles of strategy for the Bakunin Library–and I’m going to try to make these interventions general enough that they can serve as principles for thinking about anarchist editions more generally.

My sense is that any consistent edition has to be based on at least two sorts of coherent strategy: a strategy of interpretation and a strategy of presentation. It is necessary, first, to have a general sense of the collected works as a whole, even if, as in the case of Bakunin’s works, that whole is a bit fragmentary or incomplete. And then it is necessary to have a clear sense of the purpose or purposes the edition is to serve, so that all of its elements can be carefully constructed with that purpose or purposes in the mind. I want to tackle the strategy of interpretation here and then address strategies of presentation in later posts.

When I talk about strategies of interpretation, I’m not talking about interpreting specific texts. In some ways, that is a matter of what I’m calling presentation. Instead, I’m talking about the groundwork that has to be established before the work of interpretation can really proceed. So it’s important to understand that we’re specifically talking about strategies for the edition, which are necessarily going to arise out of a lot of preliminary strategizing, reading, interpreting, revision of strategy, etc. There is, finally, a point at which all of that comparatively fluid, exploratory work has to yield something more stable, concrete and shareable, if the edition is going to be useful to its readers. When it is a question of a decade-long project, like the publishing phase of the Bakunin Library, it’s important to make good, clear decisions at this stage.

So let’s try to establish a solid foundation and ask really basic questions. Why, to start, would we bother to produce a multi-volume edition of works by someone dead for 140 years now? What is the use of a Bakunin (or a Proudhon, or any of the major “classical” figures of the tradition) in our present context? It’s a question that most of us can’t answer very specifically, since we’ve done without most of the works that might make up our edition for at least as long as people have been using the word “anarchism.” We start with not much more than an awareness that there are gaps in our history and some curiosity about what they may contain. But let’s try to answer the question more generally:

What kinds of uses might the works behind these famous names serve now? In what ways might we relate to these pioneering figures?

Are we, for example, treating a body of work as a source of isolated quotations that might confirm our own positions or are we really treating it as a body of work, from a thinker with at least some claim to special knowledge or expertise? There’s not a lot of middle ground, as I think we can see if we look at a specific example.

Let’s say that we want to address the thorny question of “the authority of the bootmaker.” If we want to cite Bakunin, we have to concern ourselves with at least three elements in “God and the State.” First, there are the resounding critiques of authority, including statements limiting legitimate authority specifically to the care and education of the youngest children, who have not yet, in the terms of Bakunin’s discussion, fully moved from the animal to the human realm. Then there are the statements about those kinds of authority that Bakunin does not reject (or perhaps spurn, depending on how we approach the translation of repousser.) Finally, there is the discussion of the essential elements of human nature and development, which is specifically invoked in the discussion of education and probably provides the best means of reconciling the apparent contradictions in the first two elements. When we check the original text, it is clear that the terms remains consistent, so we really do have to account for the fact that Bakunin says that he both does and does not reject, or spurn, authority.

The interpretive choices are fairly simple:

We might decide that Bakunin was at least partially incoherent, at which point we could presumably pick some bits we like, but it isn’t clear why we would bother citing Bakunin. Anarchists have arguably adopted this approach fairly often.

We might decide that he was inconsistent, and perhaps choose to believe that either autorité or repousser should be translated differently in different instances, distinguishing between political authority and expertise or between different forms of rejection. In this case, we might find other elements in the text, or perhaps in other texts, that bolster our interpretation. Certainly, some degree of interpretation of this sort is difficult to avoid, particularly with translated works. But I think we are safe in saying that this sort of interpretation fairly quickly moves from the realm of translation or interpretation to that of collaboration. There is a point at which we begin to simply attempt to salvage texts for our own purposes. Existing English translations of Bakunin’s works sometimes exhibit a desire to make the translations “more clear” than the origins, without the editorial collaborations necessarily being well-marked. In a few cases, the attempts to clarify make it almost impossible to tell which of Bakunin’s texts was the original source of the material.

We can, however, delay that moment when we abandon the ideal of translation or interpretation, at least until we feel we have really exhausted the content of the original texts. So, for example, any attempt to make sense of “God and the State” that does not at least attempt to incorporate the material on how animality, reason and revolt drive human development has probably failed in some fairly basic sense. And if we want to lay claim to the conclusions of the work, or at least choose among the possibilities, but reject or ignore the underlying argument about nature and its laws, we are back in a place where it is unclear why citing Bakunin is appropriate. This sort of analysis and interpretation is more difficult, of course, and English readers seldom have the luxury of working with even whole fragments, let alone all the additional information available from the manuscripts of the French-language Collected Works.

This third strategy involves treating Bakunin as if he was, to use language familiar from “God and the State,” a kind of savant. That leaves us to navigate our way through the difficulties of assessing the authority of an illustrious anti-authoritarian, but this is a case where perhaps taking the work seriously helps us to negotiate the difficulties. After all, what Bakunin says about the authority of the savant in “God and the State” is really applicable to virtually every instance where we attempt to take one another seriously. There is always a gap between the knowledge, experience and expertise of different individuals, and every instance involving the exchange of knowledge or the application of influence requires us to verify what we can and then opt to “bow” or not, as Bakunin put it, to the rest. From the point of view of principles, there is no threshold below which authority becomes legitimate. We can only try to balance the real gains that arise from our diversity against the real dangers of authority.

There are, of course, interpretive strategies that might grant even greater authority to the work in question, but even if our ideological interests would allow them in this case, the state of the manuscripts probably doesn’t. The range of strategies appropriate to our edition seems fairly limited.

A project like the Bakunin Library naturally starts with the exploration of at least the possibility that much of what Bakunin left us contained useful insights not yet fully exhausted by the traditions that have claimed descent or drawn inspiration from his thought. And it only continues if that working hypothesis turns out to be valid. The fact that even very familiar fragments like “God and the State” seem to have depths unplumbed by much of the popular commentary on them is one good early indication that further assuming incoherence is not an adequate strategy and assuming inconsistency still threatens to lead us astray. That seems to leave us the strategy of approaching the works as coherent and consistent, not because they will be so in each case, but because we don’t know how to rule out the possibility.

To clarify a bit, I want borrow a notion from my analysis of Proudhon, whose work I have described as “more consistent than complete,” meaning that where it lacks clarity, the problem is as often as not that complex relationships between concepts and partial analyses have not been spelled out. With Bakunin, who drew inspiration from both Marx and Proudhon, as well as directly from the philosophy he studied in his youth, the likelihood of apparent logical contradictions actually being unmarked dialectical or antinomic tensions is quite high. If we acknowledge that he was a thinker of large, complex thoughts and a writer who enjoyed very few of the conditions conducive to composing extended theoretical works, we have probably identified the most important dynamic in the works we have inherited. Starting from that set of insights, we are inclined to treat the “incompleteness” of Bakunin’s works not in terms of any lack of ideas, but in terms of an imbalance between the driving desire to express big, important thoughts and the time and space free to do so. What is likely is that Bakunin’s ideas seldom had the proper conditions to fully flower, so if we are to really understand where he might have been headed intellectually, we are often forced to take our cues from half-opened buds.

If that is our approach, then each unfinished text or fugitive fragment is, at least potentially, a glimpse at the portions of Bakunin’s project we cannot observe in the major works. Variants gain new importance and we are forced to acknowledge that many of Bakunin’s works are really variants of one another, to at least some degree. The rather bakuninian upside to all of this is that the very nature of the work Bakunin left forces us to abandon any notion of him as an infallible savant or writer of political scripture. Much of the work of comparing opinions and exploring alternatives, which Bakunin recommended in “God in the State,” is actually incorporated as part of the work itself in his writings.

 It has taken about four years to come to terms with Bakunin’s work in a way that seemed adequate to the purposes we had proposed. And if you have asked me in early May how I felt about the progress, I would have said I felt really confident that not only were we ready to move forward steadily, but that we were ready to do so with a surer, more interesting strategy than I had really dared hope for. The kinds of clarification that have become possible as the content of Bakunin’s work began to provide inspiration for its presentation have not just been a pleasant surprise, but have also forced a sort of quantum leap in the potential utility of the edition. At no time since then have I really changed my opinion about any of that, but that didn’t mean that the new “God and the State” came together on the anticipated timeline.

There was still a bit of work to be done.


Engaging with the Contexts.

I thought that I was pretty well prepared when I sat down to put together the expanded, critical edition of “God and the State.” After all, it was initially just a sort of retrospective collection and a teaser for the eventual publication of The Knouto-Germanic Empire and the Social Revolution, of which it is a part. I suppose I envisioned it as a chance to wrap up some old business, before moving on to new things.

I have a lot of admiration for the quality of the translations from Liberty and am fascinated by the range of anarchist tendencies that ultimately contributed to the publication and translation of “God and the State.” And I have long wanted to gather up all the pieces for a really complete edition, if only because it would be nice to have one source for understanding all the various twists and turns of that story. It’s hard to foresee any future in which “God and the State” does not remain a key anarchist text.

At the same time, I’ve always found the text a bit frustrating and the uses to which it is often put within the anarchist movement even more so. So the possibility of at least providing a more complete alternative has been very attractive to me. If there is no question of supplanting “God and the State,” at least its notorious incompleteness could be better contextualized, both with the forthcoming translation of The Knouto-Germanic Empire and with the expanded edition of the text itself.

 In preparation for the new edition of “God and the State,” I did my own check of the translation, purchased the microfilm containing the other earmy English translation, which ran in Truth, made myself at least generally familiar with all the pieces of The Knouto-Germanic Empire, tracked down and translated correspondence related to the publication process, and then finally sat down to do a close reading of the text itself–something I had not done in quite a few years. The background research made it clear that what I had thought of as a sort of loose collaboration across tendencies was probably at least as well understood as a series of struggles over Bakunin’s legacy, with some of the conflicts being very serious. And then when I started to work through the text, line by line, I was very pleasantly surprised at how much better it all seemed than I remembered it. Obviously, there are difficulties with the text, not least the apparent contradictions, but most of them were fairly easy to address.

I very quickly got a lot more enthusiastic about the new edition, but, at the same time, I was puzzled why I had been left so unimpressed by past readings. Ultimately, I was surprised to find that much of the commentary, and even some of the introduction to the original edition, was fairly well designed to lower readers’ expectations. James Guillaume came to believe that the text should not be reprinted in separate form, calling it a “mutilated and shaken-up fragment.” But he also believed that Reclus and Cafiero must have known where the fragment came from, so when we what might well have been recognized as a portion of Bakunin’s most extensive work presented as “really a fragment of a letter or report,” this “little literary artifice” (as Guillaume suggested it must be) seems remarkably dismissive.

The truth is that I really was pretty well prepared by the time these 11th-hour complications arose. The Reader was largely assembled and the rest of the volumes planned. I was able to bring a lot of the lessons of my work on Proudhon to bear, including a translation strategy. I was even beginning to articulate the complicated relationship between the existing translations, some of which had enjoyed “careers” stretching over a century, and the new translations. The draft introductions to the first two volumes both made use of a quote by Frank Mintz (“Every commentator on Bakunin makes a choice.”), which has been driving a lot of my thinking. But I was probably still thinking too simply about the choices available. And at some point that bit of Marx’s “18th Brumaire” came back to me:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Maybe “nightmare” is a little strong for what tradition has done to Bakunin in the English-speaking world, where we have gone on as if we knew him, while perhaps even the fragments of work we possessed were presented in ways that did not show them off in the best light. But it’s a fair assessment of the days I spent staring at the manuscript of the new edition of “God and the State,” trying to figure out what didn’t yet look right to me.

In the end, what I needed to do was to abandon the notion that we could just simply present a new edition of Bakunin–essentially a new Bakunin–and imagine that the conversation could start there, or even continue in any very useful fashion. Some common ground was needed, even if it was contested ground like “God and the State.” That realization led to some clarifications of the approach to the texts, particularly where the question of Bakunin-as-savant was concerned, and pretty quickly “God and the State” had moved from afterthought to centerpiece in the Bakunin Library–while my panic turned to satisfaction, despite some missed deadlines.

Without getting too deep into the details, what I realized was that, if the Bakunin Library was to be useful to more than just the sort of specialists and scholars accustomed to dealing with questions of interpretation, it was not going to be enough to try to meet Bakunin in his own works. It was going to be necessary to attempt to bring that Bakunin to an audience with existing investments the Bakunin represented by the existing translations.

To clarify what that involves, it will be necessary to turn to the question of strategies of presentation.

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