Our Lost Continent

The “lost continent” of anarchist history has been there all along, not so much lost but rather willfully ignored or dismissed, a blank spot on our map marked, not with some dire warning of the “Here be dragons” variety, but rather with the dismissive “Here be precursors.” The problem is that our attempts to simply sail around most of the period between 1840, when we can unquestionably say that there were anarchists, and 1880 or so, when we can point with equal confidence to the emergence of anarchism in one or more forms, tend to commit us to a history—and a vision of “the anarchist tradition”—that is both inaccurate and unhelpful.

I no longer feel the slightest hesitation in declaring that there was, in that forty-year period, what we might call an Era of Anarchy, during which a wide variety of anarchist philosophies developed and subsequently declined. Proudhon launched the era with his explicit declaration—”I am an anarchist!”—in 1840, but he wasn’t alone for long. The communists of l’Humanitaire identified the “anarchistic” roots of their approach the following year. We can argue about how anarchistic other communists of the period were, but certainly by the 1850s, Joseph Déjacque had explicitly joined communism to the anarchy of Proudhon—running ahead of nearly all his contemporaries in proposing some form of anarchism and launching the sort of internal struggle that would mark the whole of the post-1880 Era of Anarchism. There were individualists as well, including Josiah Warren, whose dislike of labels kept him from identifying as an anarchist, and Anselme Bellegarrigue, who looks, in contemporary terms, like some sort of left-wing market anarchist. Stirner is there, with his anarchistic egoism. Ernest Coeurderoy dreams of cossack invasions. Virtually every radical current from the revolutions of the late 18th century or the “utopian” period of the early 19th century manifests some more-or-less libertarian extreme. In North American, Calvin Blanchard announces Art-Liberty, Eliphalet Kimball publishes his Thoughts on Natural Principles, and antinomian principles bubble up, over and over again, on the fringes of New England’s religious culture. Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and New England transcendentalism unite in the work of William B. Greene. Activity in the anti-slavery movement leads Ezra Heywood and Lysander Spooner to the most libertarian conclusions. Networks develop, formally and informally, among some of these figures and spread their influence among the working classes. The New England reform leagues, the Association Internationale, the Union républicaine de langue française and the International Workingmen’s Association represent the efforts of various of these anarchist philosophies to manifest themselves as movements in the era before anarchism was established as an ideology, or even a widely-used keyword. In the context of these attempts, new tendencies will emerge, such as the anarchistic collectivism of Bakunin and his associates and a revived anti-state communism, which will reject the term an-anarchy because of its associations with Proudhon.

Make no mistake: the various anarchist philosophies and movements that existed for a time in this earlier period were indeed not the sort of mass movement that histories like Black Flame have sought. They differed organizationally, and they were born in radically different ideological contexts than the anarchisms of the 1880s. If we insist on defining anarchism as narrowly as those historians, then there are good reasons to consider virtually everything before the establishment of the Black International in 1881 as precursors—and to pick and choose very carefully among the contenders for the anarchist label in the years that followed. But there are, I think, plenty of reasons to reject that particular definition. When we look at the later era, we find that one of the early developments was a questioning, even by those firmly committed to communism and working-class organization, of the vision of revolutionary change embedded in the organizational model. Along with their emphasis on our inability to forecast future institutional forms, the “without adjectives” school also questioned whether the emphasis on the rising of the proletariat was perhaps not already an outdated strategy, better adapted to struggles from the earlier era. On this point, Max Nettlau, arguably the finest of our anarchist historians, produced a number of thought-provoking interventions. And if there is the possibility that the strategies appropriate to the era of the Paris Commune were of questionable use within a decade or two, how much farther are we from their conditions now? When we shift registers, and compare our beliefs about concepts like the relationship between individuals and collectives, can we ignore the possibility—raised provocatively, if not always usefully, by the post-anarchists—that our worldview differs from that of, say, Kropotkin in ways that we dare not ignore?

We seem doomed, at least for now, to some sort of rough-and-ready periodization of our early anarchist history, which has to serve as origin and foundation for a movement, as well as fodder for historical explorations. Perhaps the first step to a more nuanced approach is to at least redraw the dividing lines. Instead of lumping most of our pre-Spanish Civil War history under the label of “classical anarchism,” let’s acknowledge the fairly significant patterns of development that seem to exist in that era. As a first step, let’s recognize the rather dramatic disconnect—in terms of individuals, organizations, concepts and bodies of thought—that existed between the period between 1840 and 1880 and the period that followed the organizational efforts of 1881. That break was not complete, of course, but it was significant. We might break down that early era again, perhaps, around the time of Proudhon’s death and the birth of the International. But that is, I think, a harder divide to identify clearly, and one which we will only precisely understand as we begin to look carefully at this Era of Anarchy with fresh eyes.

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