Exploring perspectives, inventing accomplices

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It has taken some time to move from proposing this project to finding the means to really push it forward. I’ve spent the last year attempting to sort through the tools in my theoretical toolkit, to see what seems useful and what is just a drag to lug around, while I clarified for myself just what it would mean to do history according to the anarchist principles I’ve been deriving from Proudhon’s work. That’s been rewarding work, but one of the lessons has been that once you start attempting to apply Proudhon’s basic critique—when you start looking for criteria of certainty that are not reducible to justice, or when you start looking for instances of external constitution of relations—it becomes pretty hard to stop. And just as there are all the manifestations of the State in the political realm, and metaphysics in the philosophical, there are historiographical concerns to be faced when we are doing history.

The differences between doing Anarchist History and doing history like an anarchist have been striking me more and more often lately, probably because my work has been taking me more and more often into parts of the story of anarchism where certain accounts have a pretty strong grip on us. Writing about the First International is a bit of a nightmare from the perspective with which I have necessarily been approaching it. The dominant histories are in part simply an argument against the kind of historical recovery work that I’m engaged in, which carefully position most of the figures whose story I have been pursuing on the margins of the tale, if not in the enemy camp. I’ve been playing with a slightly tongue-in-cheek essay called “Why We Can Still Love Varlin (and Almost Nobody Else),” which lays out some of the many ways in which radicals found themselves shoved out of both the histories and the internationalist movement over the course of just a few years. The punchline is fairly straightforward: to maintain one’s symbolic value in radical history, nothing beats a timely martyrdom. Those who survived tended to fall afoul of some strong voice.

I’ve often talked about how much it has been necessary to unlearn in order to learn about the earliest anarchists, and proposed “atercracy” as a term to designate a less thoroughly channeled or governed account of the anarchist tradition. I have spoken about my practice of imagining alternate outcomes and receptions for the radical projects and texts that I encounter, and exploring them (mostly in my notebooks) in the form of fiction. And I have, from time to time, documented my halting attempts to launch one or another introductory projects covering anarchist history—none of which, including this one, have quite got off the ground, although I’ve compiled a small mountain of what seem like the right sort of good stories. The problem for me has been to find a way to present a pretty thoroughly non-traditional account of the anarchist tradition in a manner which did not simply devolve into a discussion of anarchist historiography likely to bury all those good stories. That’s really a problem for two important reasons: 1) the tradition really does fit very well into the narrow little accounts we’ve given; and 2) the reasons are not obvious if you accept any of those narrow little accounts. The trick has been to try to make one of these new, presumably introductory projects both sophisticated enough to get the job done and not a drag to read and write.

I’ve known for some time that the alternative history project, with its not-quite-steampunk re-imaginings of the 19th century, probably held the answers I was looking for, but there is a complicated set of trade-offs when you’re trying to introduce history as historical fiction. You still have to do the history, and then you also have to be a competent fiction writer, and then you have to make it easy for the reader to discern when you’re wearing your historian hat and when you’re embroidering to make the pill go down easier. I hope some day to share much more of the Distributive Passions universe, but I want to do it because it is very precisely not history, but a kind of creative commentary on past ideas and events. Even if I had the time right now to do it justice (and I don’t) it wouldn’t really get me where I feel the need to go. But maybe it got me to the place where I could see what would.

What the scattered fictional experiments have allowed me to do is to explore other perspectives on historical events and yesterday, in the course of doing some research and translation, it struck me that I didn’t need to go as far as a parallel universe to develop some alternative points of view on anarchist history. All I needed to do was to lift myself out of the particular interpretive frame that, despite all of my explorations of the margins of the traditional, still dominates—and in some important senses probably should and perhaps has to dominate—my work as an Anarchist Historian. Because I am in a conversation (however one-sided it sometimes feels) with a movement that sees itself developing from mutualism to communism, passing through the International and Spain—or which sees itself engaged in a desperate resistance to pretty much that same history, passing from the early dissenters of the movement along the margins to an odd assortment of more-or-less accepted heresies (and mutualism probably fits all too comfortably among this number)—and because there are good political reasons not to mess with that particular set of narratives too hastily, when we seem to be in “repel all boarders” mode with regard to any number of entryist tendencies, a certain sort of grudging fidelity to a rather traditional understanding of “anarchism” just doesn’t feel like something I can jettison. The question then becomes whether that traditional sense can be expanded without losing more than we gain.

That’s the question I want to explore, in the course of this new project.

But I can’t do it alone.

My great epiphany came after a couple of weeks immersed in newly digitized archival materials, including the papers of Max Nettlau and Lucien Descaves, two children of the 1860s who followed the packrat’s road to becoming, each in their way, historians of the anarchist movement. They were assembling their hoards in Europe at roughly the same time that the slightly older Jo Labadie was assembling his collection in North America. That’s a sort of research that I know something about, as a latter-day historian-packrat, and it is a hit-or-miss business, where the results are frequently shaped by luck and by the specific circles that the historian is able to access—for materials, for testimony, and for their own sense of what they might be missing. We know from Nettlau’s accounts that his research was shaped at times by political events, and there is no doubt that his interests were politically shaped, despite his rather wide-open collection strategy. I’ve come to have some sense of what Nettlau knew and what he was looking for, and have some inkling of Descaves interests, just as I have learned a good deal about Labadie’s in my explorations of his collection. I started to think about what wasn’t in those collections, and why, and it struck me that an awful lot of what I have been interested in over the last ten years was probably on the margins of all three of those collections. That left a couple of difficult questions—about the possibility that my interests have just been marginal, but also about just what sort of approach might have captured those interests as well as a wide swath of more traditionally relevant materials.

I understand the sort of exclusionary process that shapes so much anarchist history, and I could immediately think of some rather awkward examples of a broad strategy of inclusion going rather badly wrong. C. L. James, for example, wrote some strikingly idiosyncratic articles about anarchism’s origins and development, which are hard to reconcile with any of the anarchist subcultures existing during his life, and which do not seem to be grounded in the same way as something like Nettlau’s histories. But it might be possible to imagine the same sort of grounding, but in a different set of associations and locales than those frequented by Nettlau. Once I started down this road, New York City in the mid-19th century—and then Chicago, a couple of decades later—came to mind. A New Yorker born around the same time as Descaves would have had fairly ready access to people who had participated in the International Association before the First International, who had received Déjacque’s Libertaire, attended Stephen Pearl Andrews lectures or the services of his New Catholic Church, who had shopped at Calvin Blanchard’s bookstore, bought artificial flowers or heard socialist lectures made by Claude Pelletier, encountered Henri Rochefort, Mikhail Bakunin or Elie Reclus on their visits, even walked over lighted sewer vaults manufactured by Joshua King Ingalls, etc. Older acquaintances might have met Josiah Warren in 1830, encountered Anselme Bellegarrigue, voted for Lewis Masquerier, and so on. I started to imagine what a clever lad with insufficient adult supervision and access to the right circles might learn.

Jackson Wendell Deames (aka Jacques Dime) was born, as a character around which to build this alternative point of view. Immediately, he accumulated a checkered career, a long life and a life-long project to go with it: The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution. Fleshing him out, I borrowed bits from Nettlau and James, and more bits from Ravachol and Oliver Twist. I found that there was an existing character in my Distributive Passions tales who could pass for the aging Jack Deames, living out his last years under an assumed name. I built him up as a logical foil to my own approach, and then quickly gave him his own foil, a determined woman with an overlapping mission: Matilda “Tilly” Thorne. Between the two of them, I’ve started to parcel out a range of good stories and heretical interpretations that I would like to examine from a variety of perspectives. And I laid out a set of ground rules for myself:

For this project, the data of the histories will be just that. Our imaginary helpers may take on a (fictional) adventure of their own from time to time, but those will be clearly distinguished from the historical studies and will largely serve to flesh out the historiographical possibilities. In fact, I’ll start with a number of historical incidents likely to have shaped Jack’s world, and we’ll spend some time fleshing out how that world differs from ours, or from Nettlau’s, before Jack gets much say of his own. And then at some point we’ll go through a similar process with Tilly, in a slightly different time and space, as she emerges as Jack friend and antagonist. Perhaps it will all be a bit of a mess. Perhaps it will work better than I dare hope. Who knows how long I’ll want to keep it up. But I think there are enough lessons to be learned about history, and about how anarchists do history—and perhaps about how to do history anarchistically—that this may be fun for at least a while.


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