One for the road?

I’m contemplating a research “tour” in the fall, gathering up some missing pieces for various current projects and surveying the possibilities for some longer-term work. By that time, I will have at least Anarchy and the Sex Question to promote—and my publisher would certainly like me to take the opportunity. But as I have been thinking about what I really have to offer in the way of presentations that might themselves be taken out on tour, it strikes me that telling folks about what Emma Goldman is going to tell them in a book we hope they’ll buy might not be the most compelling option. On the other hand, some of the lessons about the present, practical uses of anarchist history that I learned along the way might well be interesting fodder for discussion, particularly as I have, over the last year or so, developed some fairly stringent standards for judging when works are finished.

So here is a description of a potential talk that I might give various places along various Amtrak or bus routes, during the second half of this year. If you can think of a likely venue for such an encounter, feel free to get in contact.

Tools that Cut Both Ways:
Thoughts on Anarchist History and Publishing

There is an approach to the study of the anarchist tradition that focuses on the process of documentation, with the guiding assumption being that at least one of the ways that we can put our history to use in the present is simply by confronting it in all its diversity. History is messy and, as a result, a continued engagement with anarchist history is one guard against the solidification of nominally anarchist ideology. With projects like Corvus Editions and the Libertarian Labyrinth archives, I’ve probably been as ardent a champion of that approach as anyone in recent memory. And I like to think that there have been some real positive, practical results from the years of saying, over and over again, “But wait! There’s more! Anarchism’s possibilities are far from exhausted!” That said, I’ve also had a very intimate experience of the strategy’s failures and incapacities.

One of the successes of the long campaign was that a few years back I became sufficiently known as someone who knew things about anarchist history that presses started wanting to turn some of that knowledge into “real books”—and not just little, insignificant books. Suddenly, I found myself in a position where I could not help shaping the reception and understanding of some very prominent figures and central texts. I had been pretty cozy being the champion of figures like Sidney Morse, Eliphalet Kimball, Jenny d’Héricourt and “He who was Ganneau.” Work on Proudhon has been less cozy, certainly, but increasingly satisfying in a personal way, while the public impacts follow their own much slower course. All of that fit well in the life I have been eking out.

Then, out of the blue, I was the editor—and pretty much the whole team, if truth be told—of the collected works of Bakunin in English. I was preparing new editions of “God and the State” and Nettlau’s “Short History.” I had potential outlets for my Proudhon translations. And Déjacque. And Ravachol. I had the opportunity to produce a mass-market introduction to anarchism. And, of course, I had a chance to weigh in on the question of Emma Goldman and feminism.

The transition from working at the margins of both anarchist publishing and anarchist history to work somewhere much closer to the core of both involved a lot of complicated rethinking about the uses of the tradition for practical purposes. I want to talk about some of the new projects, the process of turning them from Corvus-style document collections to “real books,” and the standard that I have been developing for judging when a work of anarchist history or theory is really finished and ready to be unleashed upon the world.

I started with a sort of general question: “Is this a tool yet?” It has always seemed necessary, if I was going to bring a manuscript to a publisher, that it have a fairly clear use, adapted to present or foreseeable future problems. But as I wrestled with the revisionist elements in some of the projects, the criterion became a bit more specific: “Does it cut both ways?”

To “cut both ways,” in this context, means that not only does the work of history provide some means of dealing with present, “real-world” problem, but it does so in a way that at least has a fighting change of clarifying what it means to confront present problems as an anarchist. Sometimes that means confronting problems in the anarchist tradition itself. Sometimes that simply means updating old analyses. And sometimes, finally, it simply means recognizing our entertainments and consolations as such and presenting them accordingly.

This talk—which I hope will fairly rapidly become a conversation—is, first, an opportunity to introduce the new Emma Goldman anthology, Anarchy and the Sex Question, and to preview some forthcoming books, but it is also a sort of explanation and position-taking regarding the work that I do as a writer, translator, archivist, publisher, etc. If you’ve ever wondered just what is driving my various projects, well, I’m right there with you sometimes—but I think perhaps I’m ready to explain.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2627 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.