Max Nettlau, pessimism and possibilities

In 1901 and 1903, Max Nettlau, arguably the greatest of anarchism’s historians, wrote a series of documents intended for “friends and comrades,” though not for general publication, addressing what he took to be problems in anarchist practice. The first of these seems to have been “Some criticism of some current anarchist beliefs,” a 49-page text written in English, and this was followed by at least two drafts of a more formally structured French manuscript of nearly 200 pages. All can be read in the digitized portions of the Max Nettlau Papers at the IISH site. The linked text is a partial transcription of the first version, including the main text and notes, but omitting several additional postscripts and a collection of related quotations.

My admiration for Nettlau as a historian is deep and steadily growing. His merits as a writer on anarchist theory and tactics has dawned on me gradually. For those who don’t know his essays “Responsibility and Solidarity in the Labor Struggle” and “Are there New Fields for Anarchist Activity?” (both of which I recommend), it is worth noting that one of Nettlau’s consistent concerns was with the apparent fact that the majority of “the people” or “the workers” were primarily concerned with whatever immediate, material improvements they could gain, and the difficulty of connecting the anarchist struggle to those bread-and-butter concerns without compromising or sacrificing one or the other. That note of political realism deepens into a real pessimism in parts of the 1901 manuscript, but it is, let us recall, the pessimism of someone with as rich a sense of the scope and sweep of the anarchist movement as we could hope to find. As such, it seems worthy of engagement. But there are other elements present as well. There is a recognition of just how different individuals are from one another, and that differentiation will almost certainly not be decreased by liberating individuals from the disciplines of authority. That recognition contributes to the “anarchism without adjectives” aspects of Nettlau’s thought, expressed in direct references to figures like Ricardo Mella and Francisco Tarrida del Marmol, in “diversity of tactics” arguments like those found in “Anarchism: Communist or Individualist? Both,” and in an interest in “mutual tolerance” that finds systematic expression in works like “Panarchy, a Forgotten Idea of 1860.”

In the manuscript writings, Nettlau presents a fairly dark and cutting critique of a lot of still-sacred anarchist tendencies (a critique to which we might adds the more biting comments from his remarks on the Ravachol meetings), with some proposals for anarchist tactics amidst populations that are predominantly antagonistic or indifferent to the cause. He presented them in a spirit of discussion and inquiry. There is not much indication how, if at all, they were received. Personally, I find it very hard to buy into the language of “toleration,” in part because it is only too clear how that language has been routinely used against anarchist aims. Nor can I quite make sense of the notion of “pantarchy” in any context but an already existing anarchy. But reading Nettlau recently has sent me back to engage a little more seriously with the origins of the “without adjectives” tendency, and to reason a little more closely about how anarchistic coexistence might work in a context which is not itself anarchistic. I will want to come back to these questions soon, no doubt, but, in the meantime, I think anyone interested in the kinds of questions I’m addressing here will find the time spent engaging with Nettlau’s writings well spent.

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


  1. Shaun,
    The Nettlau piece “Some Criticisms of some current anarchist beliefs” is excellent and still entirely relevant to the miniscule movement of today, echoing a lot of my own frustrations with the implausible nature of much anarchist dogma…As a friendly observation, I noticed that you’d already made a PDFout of it, but I caught a large number of typos/ grammatical snafus so you may want to edit it again before publishing it as a pamphlet….Amazing text though, and thanks for digging it up!

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Most of the snafus are in the original manuscript, and at this stage it seems useful to have an accurate record of that. Some of Nettlau’s peculiar phrasing made it into his other published writings. But, yes, this will get some sort of smoothing edit before it is published more formally.

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