Pruning the Rhizome (review of “Disruptive Elements”)


Disruptive Elements: The Extremes of French Anarchism

Ardent Press, 2014

available from Little Black Cart


a review


“Tant pis pour ceux qui souffrent et n’osent pas prêcher l’extermination et l’incendie!”

Most history worth bothering with shakes things up. This is particularly true of radical history, and of that branch of radical history that involves rediscovering and re-presenting primary works from various radical currents. Sometimes, the shake-ups are comparatively pleasant, and we find, unexpectedly, that we have inherited marvelous gems, glimpses into the personalities and practices of those who came before us. Sometimes, they seem more like attacks, and we find, perhaps, that our understanding of the past is flawed, in ways that have consequences for our present and future. Often, there is some of both aspects involved, and what arrives like an assault ends up enriching us. I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I have a great deal of interest in, and affection for, those productive disruptions that shake our complacency and force us to come to new terms with the traditions in which we’re trying to take our places.

Those productive disruptions come in a variety of shapes, sizes and degrees of intensity. Sometimes little discoveries shift enormous discourses, though most often slowly, as even radical master narratives tend to shift glacially when they shift at all. Others simply strike us, personally and immediately, with their energy. And energy is important for those of us battling in the trenches—such as they are—of movements like anarchism. There is an awful lot about those battles that can be very, very draining. That means we should treasure the instances where our tradition gives us the occasion to smile, laugh, snarl, show our teeth and our best “we mean it, man” grin. We are fortunate that Disruptive Elements, the new anthology of “extreme” French anarchist writings, includes a lot of those instances.

Let me get the basic pitch out of the way: If you enjoy anarchist history, you should order yourself a copy of the book. There will almost certainly be new material and pleasant surprises. The material ranges from Felix P.’s “Philosophy of Defiance” to assorted texts by and about Ernest Coeurderoy, Joseph Déjacque, Zo d’Axa, George Darien, E. Armand, Emile Pouget, Octave Mirbeau, Albert Libertad, etc., together with some assorted material on egoism, free sexuality, naturism and critiques of “collectivism.” The translations include quite a number of new pieces by vincent stone, together with more familiar work by Wolfi Landstreicher, Robert Helms, Paul Sharkey, Michael Shreve, and several by yours truly. Like Enemies of Society, the collection is unabashedly individualist and often explicitly egoist in focus. Unlike Enemies of Society, I expect the selection here will be fairly accessible and interesting to those who are not, or not yet, committed to these “extreme” forms of individualism. I think I would also not be going too far out on a limb to say that the writing in this collection is considerably more accomplished as well. Some of anarchism’s finest literary stylists are present in the ranks. Which leads to the second half of the pitch: If you don’t think you enjoy anarchist history, you should order yourself a copy of the book. Some of this stuff really is that good.

Unfortunately, while I can recommend buying and reading Disruptive Elements to almost anyone with an interest in the general field, I can’t do so without also expressing major reservations about the interpretive elements of the book. For better or worse, all those magnificent texts are put in the service of “a campaign of guerrilla historicism that has as its goal a paradigmal hijacking and a sweeping overhaul of existing, received doctrines about anarchism.” The goal of this operation is to find “bona fide, non-diluted anarchist thought.” The context is a sort of post-left historiography and, it seems to me, a somewhat avant garde aesthetic.

At this point, I don’t suppose that anyone will be surprised to find that Proudhon has been brought in to be the villain of the piece: “the diseased branch of Proudhon needs to be pruned unceremoniously from the anarchist family tree.”

Perhaps, on the other hand, people might be surprised to see my first post on “the ungovernability of anarchism” cited, more-or-less in full, as part of the argument for this “pruning.”

I’ll confess that I was surprised, then amused, and then finally just annoyed, as it became clear that the Proudhon to be “pruned” was pretty obviously not at all the interesting, disruptive Proudhon that readers are likely to find here—right alongside the texts by Déjacque, Coeurderoy, Ravachol, etc. and even central to the discussion of ungovernability—but the Proudhon that “everybody knows,” if by “everybody” we mean those with an axe to grind and those who haven’t spent much time with Proudhon.

It is clear enough that this is a book that’s looking for a fight—most obviously with “the left” and a couple of comparatively successful anarchist publishers. You’ll excuse me for being much more interested in whether or not the book, and at least one of its editors, are looking for a fight with me. That is quite simply not clear.  When the introduction talks about “retracing the elusive rhizomes” of anarchist thought, and employing my own work on the difficulties of disciplining the rhizomatic structures of anarchist theory and tradition, naturally I feel right at home. But then there are the moments when things get all arboreal, and all for the purpose it seems of cutting off the very limb that I have climbed so very far out on. The move seems strangely familiar, really. The received doctrine is, after all, that the Proudhonian limb was pruned almost immediately following Proudhon’s death. Some of the most significant resistance to that account has come from individualists, even egoists. Who pruned the Proudhon-limb? The collectivists, and then (again) the communists, and then (again) the defenders of various narrow, arboreal models of anarchist history or theory, often with some help from the marxists and various anti-anarchist critics—the anarchist mainstream, those who insist on particular forms of organization or the recognition of particular economic or social systems. I think some people call this “the left.” The collectivist victory over the mutualists took the form of the collectivists claiming that they were, in fact, the true heirs of Proudhon’s tradition—a fairly straightforward “hijacking,” if even there was one. The same process has pretty well pruned Bakunin down to the most unappealing of stumps, and it has seldom been slow to sacrifice others if that serves present, ideological demands. Now another pruning—and a hijacking, but of what?—is being proposed in favor of an element of the post-left, but it isn’t clear to me that the rationale is any more appealing.

Let’s look at the “branch of Proudhon.” Who has been responsible for the bits of recent green on this allegedly dead and possibly phantom limb? A motley assortment of individuals, both inside and outside of academic circles, all of whom have at least some investment in challenging “existing, received doctrines about anarchism.” Hell, some of us even aim at what might be called a “sweeping overhaul” of our sense of anarchist history, theory and tradition. Does there seem to be any particular sign of disease? Of particularly Proudhonian disease? The laundry list of charges against Proudhon in Disruptive Elements is familiar:

  • Awful writing
  • An unappealing description of anarchy (and infrequent use of the word)
  • Participation in the provisional government after the French revolution of 1848
  • Antisemitic passages in his notebooks
  • Misogyny
  • Homophobia
  • Sexual repression

There is also a somewhat jumbled reference to two works from 1851 and 1852, one of which was dedicated “To the Bourgeoisie” and the other of which was addressed to Louis Napoleon after his coup d’état. And the alternative to all of this is supposed to be a consistency (complete with boldface) which Proudhon presumably lacked, but Ernest Coeurderoy apparently possessed. (Hold that particular thought.) Now, I admittedly spend way too much time dealing with this sort of thing, but—and there’s really no polite way to say this—if I’m going to be confronted with yet another attempt to dismiss Proudhon as a laughable “fraud,” it would be nice to see something that wasn’t:

  1. A matter of opinion, like questions about writing style;
  2. A matter of inflated rhetoric, like saying “misogyny” when anti-feminism or sexism is most accurate;
  3. A well-known inconsistency, like the antisemitic journal entry, which is notable as much because it contradicts so much else in Proudhon’s work, as it is for its violent prejudice;
  4. A matter of anarchist dogma, like the anti-electoral stance, from before Proudhon himself popularized the dogma;

and it would be particularly nice if the sources cited were not nearly all available either on Wikipedia or in Larry Gambone’s old introductory text. Again, there is a much, much fuller picture of Proudhon, and material addressing some of these questions, linked from the very same pages that the translations were drawn from. Anyone who is actually interested in those questions can pretty easily find other or fuller accounts of them, here or elsewhere.

Being uncertain how much of this apparent attack is inadvertent, I won’t follow the metaphor of the “branch of Proudhon” much farther. The arboreal model seems, in any event, to be wrong, and a manifestation of sectarian and sometimes authoritarian tendencies within the movement. Anarchism is better understood as a rhizome, and the relationships between currents and schools will almost all have that complex, messy character. You don’t really prune rhizomes.

But I want to come back to the question of shaking things up, of disruptive elements. For me, one of the more puzzling aspects of the book’s frame, and the use of Proudhon as a foil, is the extent to which it introduces a number of rather domesticating elements into a collection that is supposed to inspire us with wildness, with opposition to civilization, and with passion. When it is a question of writing style, there are certainly more exciting writers among those in the collection, but some of that excitement comes at a price. Déjacque, for example, was a very uneven craftsman with the pen, prone to runaway prose that is likely to be an acquired taste for many. Coeurderoy, who might be the most consistent stylist of the bunch, was certainly capable of purple prose. As the concerns become more serious, the potential dissonance becomes greater. Déjacque’s rather masculinist rhetoric and his own peculiar notions about women’s proper roles (for which, see the Humanisphere) may be more acceptable to more modern anarchists, but, having raised the issue with regard to Proudhon, it seems far from consistent that he would get a free pass. But by the time we’re comparing Proudhon’s long-secret diary entry to Coeurderoy’s long-standing, public proposal to solve Europe’s problems by a full-scale Cossack invasion, Proudhon is receding as a particularly viable villain. And a really difficult problem emerges: If we are to keep feeling feeling (moral?) outrage at Proudhon’s private thoughts about extermination by steel and fire, then we have to either treat Coeurderoy’s much more sweeping invocation of a similar extermination as just a bit of literary excess, or perhaps we have to consider Proudhon’s fault as not desiring extermination in public, and wholesale.

Proudhon simply can’t fulfill the role of real villain and milquetoast foil for these other, presumably more vibrant figures. What the really extreme emphasis on Proudhon threatens to do is to detract from the figures who are the main focus of the anthology. Because the attempted dismissal of Proudhon is ultimately not very convincing, Proudhon himself threatens to become one of the most distracting elements present. For me, that only seems right—at least in the general scheme of things. If it is really a rhizome that we are tracing, in search of alternatives to received dogma, then many of our best leads—many of the most disruptive elements—will come from engaging with Proudhon, his circle, and his more-or-less direct successors (as they have in the past.) But it really is unfortunate that an ill-conceived quarrel with Proudhon should disrupt this particular collection.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2628 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.