Anarchist History: Streamside Reflections and Preparations for the Journey

I expect that anyone who has made the experiment—on any scale, really—can attest that it is often much easier to venture out into the wilderness than it is to find our way home again. There is undoubtedly a lesson here for historians of what we call “the anarchist tradition,” and particularly for those of us whose researches have taken us deep into the interior, in search of the more-or-less mythic headwaters of that tradition. But perhaps the difficulties are not quite as great as some critics of broadly, deeply inclusive anarchist history can make them seem.

There is a critique that seems to run something like this: Of course, the critics acknowledge, you can keep tracking elements of influence back and back into history, but at some point you are simply talking about something other than anarchism, at least as we understand it now. And if you make the experiment of taking these early forms as a starting point, there is no trail back to the present that leads directly to the anarchism of the present day. Either you encounter insuperable obstacles, which force a detour to some really distinct path, or else you end up somewhere else, arriving at some ideological alternative to modern anarchism. This critique will be familiar to those who have followed the modern debates about mutualism, which has often either been treated as an anachronism—an ideology of the past, that has somehow outlived its moment—or as something outside the envelope of anarchism—a current, returning to one of our metaphors, separate from the main stream.

And, ultimately, there is a part of me that sympathizes with this critique. There really is a persistent unease that comes with the kind of historical work I’ve done, which really boils down to a realization that you can’t go home again when certain traditional narratives are stretched beyond a certain point. But may suspicion is that the unease may ultimately have as much to do with our uncertainty about what anarchism really is in the present as it is about any aspect of the past. And I’ve attempted to address that critique in a couple of different ways in recent years: first, through the suggestion that many of the problems that haunt the modern movement could be largely addressed by some attention to the long-neglected question of synthesis (as Voline described in in his 1924 essay, not in the sense of organization fusion) and, second, through the recognition of the possibility of real alternatives, of, for example, a neo-Proudhonian anarchism that would arise directly from the works of Proudhon (without the detours through the inherited anarchist tradition that have shaped the existing neo-Proudhonian mutualism.)

In terms of the metaphor of the braided channel, it is a question of whether the braided river-system is itself anarchism—in which case a general anarchist history needs to account for both the various individual channel and those dynamics of avulsion that create and destroy individual channels—or whether the that braided river system is something larger, in the context of which the anarchism we have inherited is, properly speaking, one or more of the channels—and then anarchist history has to decide which channels are non-anarchist tendencies, which might be anarchistic alternatives (like the proposed neo-Proudhonian anarchism), etc.

Moving forward, and through the course of Our Lost Continent, I want to keep this question open to some extent, using the possibility of a genuine alternative like the neo-Proudhonian anarchism as a foil for the synthesist premise that most of the narrative will rather boldly defend. But all that really means is that, instead of providing one alternative to those accounts of anarchist history that would try to solve our ideological conflicts with history, I would like to provide at least two.

So, having raised some basic questions and discussed some potentially useful metaphors, let’s talk about Our Lost Continent, which I hope will be a kind of summary of my work on anarchist development, a historical support for the synthesist approach to anarchism in the present and, of course, a representative collection of the kind of good stories I’ve picked up in year of research. It is probably impossible to talk about the general history of anarchism without engaging in a certain amount of partisan pushing-and-shoving, but what I would like to do is to emphasize the present possibilities presented by at least certain accounts of the historical development of anarchism. There are plenty of cautionary tales to be told along the way and, however positive and celebratory I intend the project to be in its entirety, the general narrative may in fact be dominated by more somber notes. And there is ultimately nothing that can be said to those who insist on more partisan accounts or demand that what is recognized as anarchism be limited to the beliefs of their own tendency. But I persist—some might say through persistent naïveté or premature decline—in believing that there is an audience for an account of anarchist development that is cautiously optimistic about at least some possible futures, while not being overly celebratory about the past,  and that ultimately argues that anarchism—broadly defined, as we have, for better or worse, inherited it—can and perhaps must be shared and allowed a full and anarchic manifestation.

There are, of course, a couple of difficulties associated with this kind of hypothesis.

It is one thing to insist that history itself does not solve the problems that arise from our uses history in the present, but that understanding of things obviously compromises any historical argument in favor of synthesis in the same ways that it would an argument for strict anarchist communism, platformism or any other specific tendency. The primary thing that we can do with the historical analysis is to defend the claim that our present uses of history are indeed matters of ideology and choice, challenging certain specific and arguably partisan readings in the process. Then, on a more level playing field, it’s back to the game of proposing alternate accounts of general anarchist history, which can be judged, on the one hand, according to how extensively and faithfully they make use of the available historical material and, on the other, how useful they seem for present purposes. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that even a moderately successful synthesist account would appear as a worthy contender alongside existing narratives.

But what then? A synthesist account has to prepare us for a different kind of follow-up, demanding a continuing and probably increasing engagement with diverse elements of anarchist history and theory, rather than giving us guidelines according to which we can easily pick and choose. So it might be premature to say that such an account was even moderately successful if it was not accompanied by at least some instruction and demonstration in the skills necessary to take the additional steps required. It’s simply not good enough, then, to only provide an equally compelling account of the past, particularly as the participation kind of synthesis championed in this work is considerably less familiar than the proposals for organizational synthesis we usually associate with the term.

To address those additional demands, it seems necessary to transform what might otherwise be a collection of simply historical accounts into a series of essays about anarchist history—and then to make sure that those essays cover a variety of relevant topics and demonstrate a range of what we might call the survival skills for further synthesist exploration. Readers of my various blogs will have a sense of that range, but also—if we’re honest—they will also probably have a fairly clear sense of just how difficult it is to make that range of techniques look like a well-ordered toolkit.

To provide enough unifying structure to feel like I can move forward with the project fairly efficiently, to provide readers easier means to compare my episodic and somewhat meta account to more conventionally historical alternatives, and to acknowledge my admiration for perhaps the greatest influence on my thinking as an anarchist, as a historian of anarchism and contributor to anarchist theory, I have decided to organize Our Lost Continent as a tribute to Max Nettlau and a set of commentaries specifically related to the Short History. This will undoubtedly and explicitly be a case of marginalia threatening to inundate the main text, but if there is a text that seems capable of bearing the load, I think I’ve chosen the right one.

Expect a loosely chronological collection of material, with yearly summaries of key events and essays inspired by, but hardly limited to, a series of historical events, supported texts translations and illustrations. The subject matter will perhaps focus on the presently “marginal” in anarchist history, as there will be no particular need to recover familiar ground—particularly where it is covered in Nettlau’s Short History—but one of my goals is to incorporate, as quietly and painlessly as possible, a sort of literature review of a number of existing general histories of anarchism. The general arguments—that anarchist history presents us with what we have been calling a braided channel and that this odd business of producing emigrants’ guides from an unfamiliar past to a familiar present is, for better or worse, business as usual for general ideological histories—means that I have the luxury of breaking with some of the narrower conclusions of potentially competing narratives without feeling the need to replace or displace the good historical work they contain. It’s worth noting, too, that my primary intention in this whole project is to celebrate the breadth, diversity and ungovernability of the anarchist tradition, while presenting a positive vision of how individual anarchists and anarchist factions might benefit from embracing all that messy complexity.

There are a number of more specific elements in the work—particularly those relating to the emergence of anarchist studies as a practice and discipline—that are probably more easily addressed later, when I’ve narrated or identified a few more of the “episodes” in the narrative that I’m producing. I’m very interested, for example, in the effects of particular beginning and ending points on the interpretation of the arcs created. And there are developments of the metaphors introduced here that will undoubtedly be dictated by the historical work as it proceeds. I expect I won’t quite know what the shape of the work is until I’m well into the construction of the second volume—and as for what will appear in the final conclusions to the fourth volume, well, things are naturally a bit hazy. Finally, there is the question of how to address the span from 1936 or so to the present. As presently organized, this new overland guide may not quite get us home from the wilderness. But I reasons to hope that, based on the pace with which the project has developed so far and the existing material in my own files still not really incorporated, none of the problems that remain will be beyond solution.

With these three introductory pieces composed and published, I feel like I am at least underway, even if it is, so far, just a matter of climbing well out onto a limb. What comes next is the collection of more relevant past writings on the project homepage, the steadily outlining of later volumes—including the outlining of What Mutualism Was, which will be composed simultaneously with the first volumes and in much the same format—and the composition of the first of the episode-essays. And that first episode will almost certainly involve “Proudhon’s barbaric yawp,” je suis anarchiste!

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2301 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.