History and Possibility

This year’s million-word translation push has a couple of different motives behind it. At a basic level, it’s a way to make productive what looks like an otherwise disastrous year for me. Last year was a year of wrong guesses, zigs that probably should have been zags, and an increasingly isolation on most fronts. I’m having to rethink a lot of things, make even more of my very limited resources, and try to keep my chin up through the process. In the past, really bad years have meant that Liberty got scanned and much of the deep background research that informs current projects got done. But in terms of realistic prospects, this might be the worst year of all, and it will be necessary to make whatever I fill my days with to keep sane also contribute as much as possible to some more viable projects going forward.

The compensation for last year’s stress and alienation has been a really exciting rediscovery of anarchy and anarchism, which has, naturally, brought its own quota of stress and alienation along with it. But in many ways the notion of the anarchic encounter has been the more-or-less mutualist principle I have been trying to isolate and articulate for about a decade now, and the discovery of the tensions in Proudhon’s idea of anarchy, and all of the speculations that have arisen over the last year regarding that discovery, has clarified some of what was still unclear to me about what a genuinely neo-Proudhonian account of anarchism should probably involve. I feel surprisingly calm and confident with regard to what I’ve been calling “the little Proudhon book,” which is slowly but surely coming together in the hours not occupied by wrestling with translation. In fact, I’ve written parts of three “little Proudhon books,” with different styles and emphases for different audiences, and even toyed with resurrecting the “Two-Gun Mutualism” project.

I spent much of 2012 and 2013 trying to decide whether I should be directing my anarchist projects towards a narrower audience, which might or might not be there, with an interest in those provocative outliers in radical history of which I’ve ended up making something of a specialty, or towards a broader audience, more likely to be concerned with fundamental questions about the nature of anarchism than the details, however fascinating, of the movement’s history. Corvus Editions has always been a bit split between a commitment to reprinting what seems useful and otherwise unavailable across the tradition and a more focused agenda of challenging the hegemonic account of “anarchist history.” That’s undoubtedly been a problem from a commercial standpoint, as anarchist consumers are at least as driven by brand loyalty as other consumers, and perhaps often more so. One of the lessons learned fairly definitively in 2013 was that my perceived personal demographics was always going to be more important in face-to-face movement settings, like anarchist book fairs, than whatever content I quite literally brought to the table at the events, a lesson that, along with the changing economics of book- and zine-fairs, has pretty well taken me off the circuit for 2014. But the theoretical and historical lessons of the same period, that new clarity about the origins of anarchism, might well have pushed me in the same directions anyway.

I continue to be very extremely interested in archiving the full range of anarchist materials, and will no doubt continue to do so, and will probably even continue to publish collections of more familiar anarchist figures, but I will most likely do so, at least for the near term, primarily in digital form, developing the new Libertarian Labyrinth catalog. I will also have some opportunities to publish some more introductory and mainstream material with other publishers, starting with the anthology from the Anarchisms Archive and an Emma Goldman collection drawn from La Frondeuse. And, of course, I will be dedicating a lot of my time and energy to The Bakunin Library, which is moving steadily forward, and which has become a lot of fun, along with being a lot of work. In some cases, those projects will expand the received “canons” quite a bit, often simply by actually presenting texts which have always been presumed to occupy a place in the central literature of the tradition, but simply haven’t been read much. The slow-but-steady work on Proudhon amounts to the same sort of transformation of the “canonical” body of work by actually presenting it. I think that what I’ve done so for with Proudhon demonstrates that this sort of transformation can be fairly radical. But correcting the historical record is really just a means to other ends for me, ends which have much more to do with future possibility than an accurate rendering of the past.

While I suppose, based on the responses, or lack thereof, that it has not always been clear, most of my work from about “The Lesson of the Pear-Growers’ Series” (originally posted November 21, 2007 on the now defunct on ALLiance blog) has had one foot in a sort of atercratic counter-history of anarchism and its related traditions, not quite an alternate history, but a persistent marking of possible points of divergence from the history of the anarchist tradition that we are all, to one extent or another, more of less forced to accept. It is the “Two-Gun History of the World” section of TGM: Rearmed that seems most likely to really still need writing, if the work that I’ve done and continue to do is going to have any of the impact that it seems capable of having on the way we think, here and now, about anarchism, anarchy, etc. It seems to me that, despite all of our loud resistance to “history” and “theory,” that one of the things that defines anarchists at present is a rather peculiar certainty about just those things. It seems like everyone I encounter “knows” substantially more about Proudhon than I expect I will ever learn in whatever lifetime of study is left to me, while at the same time apparently possessing an exhaustive understanding of “property,” of “mutualism,” and of a really astounding number of other topics that seem extremely complex and thorny to me.

Finding myself stuck between an anarchy and an anarchism that seems more and more ungovernable and a kind of empty “certainty” that seems to be the main strategy for governing those things, it seems likely that if there is not simply an unconquerable differend between approaches, then the only strategy for breaking down the impasse is to uncover more and more of the possibility hidden within the tradition, behind our rather empty certainty about that tradition’s ultimate meaning. For me, that undoubtedly means more and more engagement, but also more overt, systematic engagement, with the growing constellation of alternate references I have been gradually assembling.

If last year’s work was in large part a reassembly of the greater part of my theoretical writings around the concept of the encounter, and that seems to have been the case, it appears that this year will begin a similar reassembly of historical references around that notion of atercratic or “two-gun” counter-history. So expect much more of folks like Claude Pelletier, Gustave Lefrancais, Eliphalet Kimball, Flora Tristan, Jenny P. d’Hericourt, Calvin Blanchard, Joseph Perrot, Jeanne Deroin, Andre Leo, Lewis Masquerier, Joshua King Ingalls, etc., etc. And expect a fresh infusion of weird science and invention, fiction and poetry, and perhaps even a bit of the genuinely alternate history I’ve been squirreling away in my “Distributive Passions” notebooks. Certainly expect that style and art will play a different and more prominent role. If the result looks a bit like anarchist history’s equivalent to steampunk, that’s okay with me, but the point is to highlight the extent to which the history that we think we know already contains worlds full of possibility, ripe for our own use, without any need to make much of anything up.

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