Anarchist History: The Metaphor of the Main Stream

As tools for historical and cultural understanding, metaphors are obviously in the “use with great care” category and, as often as not, reveal more about our interpretive preconceptions than they do about the material we seek to interpret. But sometimes that’s just what is called for, as what needs to be more closely examined is at least as much the lens through which we are looking as it is the object of our scrutiny.

In the past, when talking about the development of anarchist ideas, I have invoked the notion of an “anarchistic undercurrent” within the anarchist tradition, different in character from what we might call the “surface currents”—and different specifically in its more anarchic character. Now this was perhaps provocative—suggesting that what is most anarchic in anarchism comprises a separate and more obscure current that what is generally visible “on the surface” (although, to be fair, I might have called it a countercurrent)—but the metaphor itself has been pretty rudimentary, with no particular knowledge of oceanography or fluid dynamics required. More significantly, of course, that metaphor—like the play with main texts and margins that has also had a place in my work—has presented only the most indirect sorts of challenges to the dominant narratives in anarchist historiographical and ideological thought. It has done little to challenge the assumption that a surface current, main text or mainstream could reasonably be identified within the anarchist tradition, only suggesting that a single-minded focus on that aspect of our history and tradition might miss vital elements.

I don’t think it should come as any surprise that such a diffident approach has often been treated as interesting, but perhaps not a great deal more. And now, with a multi-volume treatment of anarchist history at least in the planning stages, it seems to be time to address this question of an anarchist mainstream a bit more directly.

Full disclosure: I’m not at all convinced that any mainstream of anarchist thought or organization can be clearly identified, whether we turn our attention to the full, unfiltered mass of historical data or even if we focus much more closely on what has been treated as the core of anarchist tradition. I strongly suspect we need to at least modify our metaphors if we are to come to terms with the complexities of anarchist development.

So here are some thoughts on two other metaphors that I have used — “anarchistic countercurrent” and main text/margin — followed by a rethinking of the notion of a historical anarchist mainstream. And since our context is a project of “mapping our lost continent,” part of the process will be a little deeper (metaphorical) engagement with riverine geology and fluvial processes.

It should be clear that some of the metaphorical tools we develop have real, lasting explanatory power, while others are useful makeshifts, sturdy enough to get us to the next phase of things. It isn’t always clear, of course, which is which, at least until we’ve put them to practical use and compared them to alternatives. The metaphor of an undercurrent of more anarchistic anarchism and a surface current that has perhaps not always been directed by the most anarchistic of concerns was, on reflection, probably of the latter variety. It was a provocation, but also, as I have already observed, not a particularly bold one. As a way of describing my own experience, wading into the deeper waters of anarchist history, it did its work relatively well. I had, so to speak, played around in the shallows and backwaters for a long time, only rather reluctantly beginning to address the central figures of the anarchist tradition, as I had inherited it, and then, in the process, finding that the general development of anarchist didn’t conform all that closely to the general narrative that I had learned. And the tension between anarchy and anarchism had ultimately provided the key to at least the beginnings of an alternate account in which one general dynamic involved that tension in a particular persistent form.

I think that there are, however, two fairly significant problems with the narrative. First, it involves an association of the essential and the hidden that I have learned, with what I think are good reasons, to mistrust. It is, for example, the association made when critics of anarchism latch onto the worst paragraph in Proudhon’s Carnets in order to ward off an engagement with Proudhon’s theory—or even anarchist theory—in general, on the grounds that there is a revealed truth in that paragraph that necessarily colors and ultimately negates everything else in the larger body of work. Sometimes, of course, important clues to a body of work are indeed hidden, whether intentionally or otherwise, but we discover these cases by careful analysis, not by granting some broadly occult significant to what may simply be striking anomalies. And the appeal to the hidden is, I think, no more persuasive when it takes the form of an invocation of the unrecorded opinions and priorities of the masses.

The second issue is that much of what I’ve come to associate with the “undercurrent” isn’t ultimately very hidden. Indeed, some of it is remarkably well-known, if not perhaps deeply understood, and in much of the resources that gave rise to the metaphor is has been more a question of finding unexpected material in rather prominent sources than of finding some secret strain of anarchist thought. And even the work of clarifying the extent of that “undercurrent” has largely involved digging through the content of fairly prominent anarchist periodicals. In the end, an “undercurrent” is perhaps not so useful a description for material that is, at most, hidden in plain sight.

I’ve been finding that metaphor of main texts and margins more durable, provided it is used with a certain amount of care. There is, on the one hand, no vague appeal to general flows in anarchist development and, on the other, much of what I have been talking about is what is and is not contained in received narratives, so, as metaphors go, it couldn’t get much simpler. And there is obviously fun to be had, given the ways that the potential marginal material tends to dwarf even the most extensive narratives of anarchist history.

I’ll be using this particular metaphor to structure Our Lost Continent, treating how ever many volumes of material I eventually produce as a kind of marginal commentary of Nettlau’s Short History. And part of the attraction here is that readers can compare the narratives that I’m building through the marginal episodes, biographical commentary on Nettlau, etc. with the more conventional historical narrative in that work. But this structure of multiple narrative currents naturally raises questions about how to compare them and how to determine which, if any, should be considered the primary narrative or main stream.

Appeals to a main stream of anarchism, to a mainstream anarchism, attempt, it seems to me, to describe more than just the qualities of a particular historical narrative. They want to describe anarchism in general. And when these appeals are historical in nature, the metaphor of a river system seems quite apt, with its tributaries, main and side channels, banks and floodplains, headwaters and deltas, gradients, flow rates and sediment loads, etc., etc. all offering ways to talk about the development of anarchistic ideas and movements—even if most of that apparatus is just sort of vaguely suggested by the invocation of the main stream. The problem, however, is that, given the quantity and complexity of the historical material available for incorporation into our riverine model, it is that most-invoked feature that seems hardest to identify.

What would the main stream of a developing anarchism look like? We should probably expect some breadth (of self-proclaimed anarchist adherents), some depth (of anarchist ideas) and some fairly significant persistence or at least steady evolution of those other qualities. But if we do not simply exclude a good deal of at least nominally anarchist material, it is hard to find any very lengthy stretch of history that presents a main stream with clearly defined ideological characteristics. If we attempt to proceed—focused on ideological and methodological differences, but without some initial culling of the material—we find, not steady flows or continued evolutions, but instead instances of discontinuity that are perhaps hard to reconcile with our metaphor. And if we are determined to find a main stream in the available materials, perhaps the attempts to establish clear ideologies and defining projects in the midst of the truly broad anarchist tradition start to look more like silt—swept up by the general flow and then deposited, more-or-less unceremoniously, downstream—than the do the water.

There’s a part of me that likes that variation on the metaphor quite a bit, but it obviously doesn’t do the work that most invocations of an anarchist main stream attempt to accomplish. What is might do, however, is suggest a way to rethink the ideology-as-channel element of the metaphor a bit. There are, after all, kinds of river systems that perhaps allow us to map some of the elements that seem to complicate the question of a main stream.

Let’s say that our River of Anarchism moves along at a pretty good clip, often driven by external concerns that also mean it is subject to variations in the general flow of the current. Let’s acknowledge that it’s journey through the terrain of history thus far has often loaded it with material that it has not necessarily been able to dissolve or deposit quickly—that its sediment load has perhaps generally been quite high. And let’s also recognize that its ultimate interface with the rest of the political systems in the world has often been a bit uncertain. Given those factors, if anarchist history really was a river, I might expect, based on the workings of familiar fluvial processes—though perhaps these processes are considerably less familiar to those who never considered geology as a profession in their youth—a river system featuring a braided channel, perhaps ending in a complex delta, with considerable avulsion (abandonment and creation of river channels) throughout. And, searching for some of the reasons for this particular kind of complexity, we might expect to find a complex network of tributaries.

And that’s probably enough of that kind of fun, at least for now—not because there is not potentially a great deal more that could be done elaborating the metaphor, but because there is so much more to be done sifting through the material we might like to organize with it and because there are probably other things we have to say about the relationship between historical research, ideological mapping and the study of actual landforms before we allow the seductive possibilities of a new metaphor to exercise much more of their powers.

For now, let’s just posit the possibility that the metaphor of an anarchist main stream might not have the explanatory power that its casual invocation suggests, but that perhaps a metaphor not so dramatically removed—multiple tributaries, braided channels, complex deltas, sediment load, avulsion, etc.—may at least provide opportunities to examine the possibilities and limitations of the more familiar model.

Next: Maps and Overland Guides

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