Anarchist History: Maps and Overland Guides

However cautious I might be about some common metaphors, I have to acknowledge that I have shown much less restraint in talking about mapping and in treating the terrain of anarchist history just a bit literally from time to time. The Libertarian Labyrinth name referred very explicitly to the experience of finding myself dropped—really of dropping myself—into the midst of a history, specifically that of the early anarchists in the United States, that was both extremely complex and a bit difficult to reconcile with the general sense of the anarchist tradition that I had developed prior to this exploration of unfamiliar and partially unmapped territory.

In that context, of course, there was quite a bit of real mapping to do, tracing connections between texts and figures, following the Greenes as they moved from place to place, even consulting period railway maps and schedules to determine whether the William B. Greene I found teaching in one Massachusetts town could be the William B. Greene I knew was living in another. There were patterns of influences to trace and record. And so on. If the material from that early period still feels a bit labyrinthine, at least, over the years, the known paths have become quite familiar. Slowly but surely, I’ve not only found my bearings, but used them to blaze fairly clear trails from the remote corner of anarchist history where I really began my serious studies to more frequently traveled regions of the tradition. Later, as material like the Max Nettlau papers became available online, I was able to compare notes with earlier trailblazers as well.

A lot of the work by anarchist historians does indeed involve very careful mapping of particular bits of anarchist history, along with a wide range of other skills, drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, that then provide various kinds of representations of anarchist culture in various locales and periods. This sort of close engagement is, in fact, probably the primary work of anarchist studies. And our attempts to characterize anarchist history or anarchist tradition generally should, if we are serious about the task, make the most of all that careful reconstruction and elaboration. But the specific task of general representation has a rather different character.

We know that the disconnect between map and territory becomes significant quickly—and when the “map” is a narrative history of global events, perhaps the utility of the mapping metaphor breaks down almost immediately. So what does that mean for a project that wants to frame itself in terms of lost continents and journeys to and fro? Probably not a lot, except that a little clarity about any quasi-geographical or quasi-cartographical metaphors will be welcome..

And that takes us in a more literary direction.

Before it ever occurred to me that my historical explorations would be as successful and ultimately fruitful as they have been, the Libertarian Labyrinth name marked the possibility of encountering minotaurs at least as much as that of mapping the maze. And when I first described the the “era of anarchy” as “our lost continent,” it was in large part a nod-and-wink to the portion of my readership that likes its pulp fiction every bit as much as it likes its radical history—accompanied by a world map that included Atlantis and Mu. It seemed important at the time to mark this particular part of the anarchist tradition not just as a neglected bit of history, but as something that, at present, played a specific, largely mythic role—whatever other uses we might find for a closer examination. It has not just been important that these early figures are “lost,” or very nearly so. It has also seemed important that they remain “ours,” integrated into familiar general accounts of anarchist history—if maintained in the spaces toward their margins—precisely as shadowy, largely symbolic elements.

(There are reasons to think that we like some figures better when the are “lost.” We have had as many as five different translations—substantial or complete—of Joseph Déjacque’s Humanisphere fairly easily accessible for quite some time now, without Déjacque’s work being subjected to much more substantive analysis—but also without a certain kind of ritual invocation of his work altering much in either frequency or content. And a number of the other figures from the “era of anarchy” now enjoy a similar accessibility—without any of that significantly changing their role in the general narratives.)

In some senses, of course, this has been another rather diffident strategy, in the sense that playing with mythic imagery and embracing the crankiness of many of the early figures I have examined has let me begin to say some genuinely radical things about the development of anarchism while still giving the sense of staying in my lane, treating the marginal as marginal. I’m certainly not above candy-coating the potentially hard things I suspect need to be said about anarchism and its development, particularly if the sweetener is the wealth of truly entertaining characters and episodes I’ve picked up along the way. And I hope to continue to balance celebration and critique in the works to come.

In the end, that balance may ultimately be as provocative as any more direct sort of approach, since the lost continent is one of those working metaphors that, however limited the era of anarchist history to which I originally applied it, has seemed to apply more broadly the more I used it—to the point where I finally decide that Our Lost Continent was the right title for my general account of anarchist history—or, more specifically, of anarchist history as we use it in the present anarchist milieus.

There will be opportunities, as the new work develops, to talk in a great deal more detail about why I have come to that position—much of which we deal with the question of political myth—but, for now, I want to stick to the spatializing metaphors we’ve been looking at and talk a bit about what kind of work a general history of anarchist development might do, if it is indeed not quite a question of mapping a terrain.

The work of historical research can certainly be understood as a kind of exploration. We set out from a more-or-less known present into a comparatively unknown past, in search of material that allows us to better understand the present and in search of entertaining or inspiring episodes. So one kind of historical narrative would be a kind of travel narrative, the explorer’s record of episodes on the journey. Those of us who are actively documenting the steps in our research leave accounts of this sort, even if we scatter them about a good deal. We much less frequently try to build sustained narratives in this way—if only because what is normal in the course of complex historical research makes is likely to make for confusing reading. (To give one example: a year passed between my translation of Fernand Fortin’s first proposal for a liaison anarchiste and my discovery that there there was any more to the story. The first work was done, on the fly, in the course of a different exploration, precisely so that I would be likely to follow up when time allowed. But while it is often simply necessary for the historical researcher to work this way, there doesn’t seem to be many good reasons to ask anyone else to relive it.) That’s why the genre of historical narratives usually involves something else, particularly when it is a question of general histories. Those histories tend to take the form of a reconstruction, recounting a progression from the past to the present. The constraints of specifically narrative reconstruction then impose the form of a journey through time. And specifically ideological histories—histories of ideologies, but also histories intended to further present ideological ends—share this character.

We can, however, probably point to at least a couple of different kinds of general ideological histories, distinguished by the uses intended for them in the present. In general, it is probably fair to say that histories of this sort intend to explain and illuminate the present state of the ideologies in question—or of some present ideology that is closely related to the one whose history is being recounted. But sometimes we write history to give a storied foundation to existing beliefs. Sometimes we are more concerned with showing where everything went so wrong. And sometimes we are attempting to show that an existing account of ideological history is perhaps not the only way to account for the events in question—or that, given a particular ideology as a subject of historical narrative, there are other events that need to be considered (or, perhaps, left unconsidered in a revised narrative.)

I don’t think there is much mystery about the ways that anarchist struggle over what is to be included in or excluded from anarchist history or anarchist tradition. I also think that most of us understand—or could and would understand, if pressed to consider the question—that our general histories are stories we tell ourselves, driven largely by present concerns, and subject to all of the difficulties posed by anarchists’ lack of shared doctrine, historical anarchism’s diverse range of material contexts and practical applications, lost sources, undocumented actions and opinions, distortions of anarchist beliefs by the lenses of authoritarian societies, etc., etc. In fact, the widely expressed disdain for history in a movement that tends to pride itself on a kind of eternal youth, probably means that many anarchists expect nothing else from anarchist history than one more expression of present ideological conflicts.

If, however, we try to clarify the dynamics of the conflicts between different approaches to the general history of anarchism, I think we have to talk just a little a bit more about potential genres and forms of narrative. And here, I will be the first to admit, it is necessary to both speculate about the rationales behind objections and resistances that are not always so clearly articulate and to push our metaphors on a little closer to the breaking point. But—considering the extent to which all my labors in the field of anarchist history have emphasized the pleasures of recounting entertaining, if also sometimes bizarre stories—I hope readers will allow me this additional provocation:

Rather than maps, what general ideological histories most seem to resemble are perhaps the kinds of overland or emigrants’ guides that pioneers used in their travels to and across the North American continent. The most encyclopedic among them—Nettlau’s Short History, for example—look more like maps, perhaps, but even many of the very well-researched works of anarchist history have a rather pronounced “how to get from here to there” character—with “here” being a largely unknown past and “there” being a particular, present ideological formulation or movement. That would make them overland guides to where we are from a place where we have never been—and obviously that is a genre whose uses call for some scrutiny. At the same time, I think there is a case—and perhaps a strong case—that looking at these histories in this way may be quite useful in the present, particularly if—in the inevitable mixing of the metaphors in play here—we think of ourselves as voyaging along a braided stream.

In the next post, I’ll try to talk about how these reflections on anarchist history and narrative metaphor seem likely to shape Our Lost Continent, my own attempt to at least engage with the question of how to construct a general history of anarchism useful to anarchists in the present.

Next: Streamside Reflections and Preparations for the Journey

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