What I Did on My Summer Vacation

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Okay. It wasn’t really a vacation, but I did take about ten days off Facebook and I shirked some other social media responsibilities while I cleared my head a bit and reworked some projects. It’s satisfying to at least challenge the inevitability of those connections once in a while and to get a clearer sense of just what they are contributing to the ongoing work. And it was past time for me to look back through my stack of nearly completed book projects and see which of them still made sense to me, as a step toward deciding if they are likely to make sense to anyone else.

Work on the anthologies went surprisingly quickly. I had been off FB about an hour when a slightly different approach to my expanded edition of “God and the State” suggested itself. I was, on the other hand, reminded that I don’t read Gallician—but put on notice to look for it in the Spanish texts I’m working on. And within about a day I discovered serious complications to my readings of both Ricardo Mella and Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, which started a bit of a domino cascade and threw a couple of important projects into disarray. I decided to distract myself by finishing the translation of a bit of early Bakunin and was amused to find that this passage from 1837:

A great deal of time has passed since the idea came to me to record here the facts of my inner life. My soul has undergone many upheavals, and I have nearly fallen again. No, I am still not sufficiently illuminated by the truth; I still do not possess enough love to prevent myself from observing myself, from giving myself up to all impressions indiscriminately. There are still many obscure sides in me and these aspects still make it impossible for me to obtain uninterrupted harmony. I still know moments of desiccation, of coldness, and in these moments I must be firm; I must consider them passing instances of illness and I must study the proper means of destroying them.

Next year, in the spring, I will go abroad. — It is essential; it is time to leave indeterminacy behind and make a decision. To this end, I must prepare myself 1) morally and 2) materially: at present, I am reading the Phenomenology.

amounts to a sort of natural lead-in to the essay on Hamlet, from the same year, which was the very first of the Bakunin Library translations. I took that as a sign that perhaps I am on the right track after all with the Bakunin Library reader and, after kicking some alternatives around with folks on Twitter, gravitated back towards A Partisan of Life for its title. That led to some work on a fresh translation of “The Reaction in Germany”—juggling German and French texts—and to a series of possible translations for the famous phrase: “Die Lust der Zerstörung ist zugleich eine schaffende Lust!” There is a part of me, which is perhaps not the best behaved part, that leans towards “appetite for destruction” in the first half, but…

I spent a lot of time working on sorting through Ricardo Mella’s works, searching through some periodicals I hadn’t checked yet and assembling as many of the texts listed for inclusion in the projected Obras Completas as I could. There are still a couple of long texts to transcribe or format, but I’ll be able to present all but perhaps one of those texts fairly soon. In the process of examining the projected edition and the texts not specifically assigned, I also decided that perhaps fidelity to that plan is not the best approach if at some point there is a chance to do more translation work on Mella’s writings. But I also got a chance to look a lot more closely at a number of texts and my interest in those writings has grown dramatically.

Now, it was that closer examination that “broke” a little anthology of works on anarchist synthesis I had nearly completed, but in a way that is probably all for the best. It is clear that there have been some misconceptions repeated about Mella’s use of the phrase “La anarquía … no admite adjetivos.” In the essay “Tolerancia e intransigencia” (Solidaridad 2 no. 22 (January 13, 1889)), Mella was actually responding to those among his comrades who would use a literal reading of the “without adjectives” approach to disqualify anarchist collectivism as an approach:

Anarchy – they say – does not admit adjectives, because this would amount to qualifying it, to determining it. And immediately afterwards these comrades will speak of political freedom, of economic freedom, of absolute freedom as if anarchy and freedom were not synonymous and as if what it admitted by one would be rejected by the other. They forget, first of all, that there are adjectives that ratify rather than qualify the noun that accompanies them, and even grammar does not intervene in these determinations of use and custom. They forget, in the second place, that anarchy does not involve more than one part of the solution of the social problem and that, therefore, it is necessary to coordinate with it, to harmonize, so to speak, the second part of the question with the principles of freedom that we proclaim.

So the phrase “anarchy admits no adjectives,” which certainly sounds like Mella’s thought in other places, is actually presented as the claim of anarchists who have been captured by dogmatic adherence to an idea (one of the subjects of “Beyond the Ideal,” which I just posted in a draft translation.) It’s the sort of revelation that naturally forced me to take a few steps back in my interpretation, but the clarification is really such a nice clarification of what I think we had wanted to see in the phrase, that it is hard to be too disappointed. And the further clarification on the limits of anarchy as a “solution of the social problem” obviously resonates with some similar remarks that I have made here in the past.

As I was learning this, I also discovered a note in Ideario referring to a revised version of “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs,” which incorporates parts of two other essays in the collection. The collected version features prominently in the synthesis anthology, so that information obviously imposes a delay—again, hopefully of a rewarding sort. But my recent discovery of E. Armand’s project for an Anarchist Entente—complete with some note entirely on-target commentary on synthesis—was already complicating the synthesis anthology and so I naturally had to ask myself if perhaps the logical alternative was to construct a larger collection placing the various proposals for anarchism without adjectives, anarchist synthesis, anarchist entente, symbiosis, mutual toleration, etc. together in a larger context. And that gave me the incentive to wrap up my draft translation of F. Tarrida del Mármol’s “Revolutionary Theory.” And that led me to consult the revised version of that text, the “Programa socialista-libertario,” which transformed the early proposal for “anarchy without adjectives” into a proposal to drop the language of anarchy altogether.

Needless to say, there are some things to work out in this story, but it has certainly lost nothing in the way of interest.

There was a little bit of a break from research here and there. I watched all the WNBA basketball I could. This year the postseason has been nothing short of magical and it’s refreshing to follow a sport that is not surrounded by the sort of toxic culture that always threatens to swallow up so many others.

And then I did a bit more semi-random translation:


Whoever says law, says limitation; whoever says limitation, says lack of freedom. This is axiomatic.

Those who believe in the reform of the laws to improve life and who seek an increase of freedom by that means, lack logic or speak lies that they do not believe.

For a new law destroys another old law. It destroys old boundaries, but creates new boundaries. And so, laws are always a barrier to the free development of human activities, ideas and feelings.

It is, therefore, an error, widespread perhaps, but a mistake in the end, to believe that the law is the guarantee of freedom. No, it is and will always be its limitation, which is to say its negation.

—Ricardo Mella

(Acción Libertaria, núm. 5, Gijón 16 de Octubre de 1910.)

I also got a good start on preparing a couple of non-anarchist volumes for print-on-demand publication, starting with my translation of a 1721 French hollow earth tale, An Account of a Voyage from the Arctic to the Antarctic Pole by way of the Center of the Earth. I have a couple of very good collections of historical documents that don’t have obvious publishers, so I’m hoping that this will be a good way to get them into a few more hands than my more artisanal efforts has been able to serve.

However, hovering in the background of all of this busy activity, and really motivating the break more than anything, there has been a fundamental question about focus. For quite some time, I have been doing historical research, archiving, interpretation of historical materials, contemporary anarchist theory and several kinds of alternate-tradition speculation all at once, driven in several directions at once by the demands of the research itself and by the lack of others working on the same questions. It has been a pretty successful juggling act, I think, in periods where the question was simply continuing the research, but I think I can simply say that it has failed when it comes to presenting a project that is intelligible to others. And, with all of the distractions present in the anarchist milieus, lack of easy intelligibility is perhaps the most serious defect a project could suffer from.

I’ve been feeling for some time like I’m in a good position to pursue almost any of the elements of my work in a more serious manner, but without much sense that the results—however important they might seem through my own lenses—would be of much use to even those who have followed my work comparatively closely. And I don’t really have any interest in contributing to the general noise and disarray that seems to be such an important factor in anarchism at the moment. So I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to work out how best to roll out pieces of the work in a way that might perhaps gradually communicate what I now see all the time as I engage with the anarchist tradition, without having to frame things in terms of yet another iconoclastic challenge to the status quo—understanding that those things, however well-founded and well-intentioned they may be, never seem to accomplish much. Part of the impetus for the break was to see if perhaps I could just stop all that plotting and planning.

And that is, more or less, the decision I’ve come to.

Without going into too much detail about the soul-searching that went on and its occasionally depressing results, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the theoretical work I’ve been doing is probably pretty darn good in its way, it’s not really anything anyone is waiting on with bated breath. And that is probably unlikely to change until some of the arguments that I have made in summary form about the “era of anarchy” and the “anarchic undercurrent” have been backed up by a much more substantial body of work and documentation in print.

So, to cut a long story short, I’ve essentially decided to return to the set of concerns that was driving my work a decade or more ago, when the early years of the anarchist tradition had given up far fewer of its secrets, and to spend a few years completing the somewhat elegiac history, What Mutualism Was, together with some collection of published anthologies (self-published where necessary) mapping out significant parts of what is still terra incognita in the early eras of the anarchist tradition. The Bakunin Library and Proudhon Library projects naturally fall within the scope of that project, as does whatever emerges from the continuing work on adjectives, synthesis and all that. Indeed, it should be obvious that I’ve been laying the groundwork for this particular course correction for some months, without being quite able to commit to it. But I think I am prepared to commit to it now. And if that means that some theoretical writings have to wait five years before they get a lot of new attention, well, they are only likely to be that much stronger and more intelligible for the additional preparation.

I’m am, of course, a multi-tasker by nature and am inclined to test our historical hypotheses against theoretical ones, and both against various kinds of speculation. So there should be no lack of diversity in the work posted here moving forward, but expect that the focus with regard to published work and the largest part of the research here will be aimed at really establishing in detail what I like to think I have at least usefully sketched out in the past. And we’ll see how quickly that work goes.

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