What if?

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If we’re doing really radical history, it’s hard not to engage in some “What is”? Much of the attraction of knowing the details of the radical movements of the past is the possibility that we’ll find tools and lessons useful in the present and future. And we can’t very well limit ourselves to examining the successes of the past, since without a little of that “if at first you don’t succeed…” spirit, there wouldn’t seem to be much point in trying to be radical at all. So I have found myself wondering how things might have played out if the currency lessons of the New England colonial period had been the spread of the “land bank” model, rather than its suppression, or if the origins of the First International had been a transatlantic alliance, rather than just a cross-channel hook-up. None of these thought experiments are really much more dramatic than the similar operations that pass for straight history. Let’s think about a case like Black Flame. Whatever its value as a work of history, it seems clear that a great deal of its importance in recent discussions comes from its ideological and historiographical interventions. People love it or hate it because of the ways that it attempts to reinvent what it means to do “anarchist history,” reinventing “anarchism” in ways that defy a good deal of the historical record in the interests of “coherence.” As an ideological polemic, Black Flame is audacious in its sectarianism—and whether or not that is interesting probably depends on where you are positioned among the anarchist sects. As a work of history, however, it really only makes sense as a kind of alternate history, a “what if?” that starts from the truly audacious premise that the historical development of ideologies not only can but must be coherent. If you can buy the premise, then the rest of the work is a fascinating exercise in assembling available facts to fit one particular notion of what form that ideological coherence could take. Unfortunately, at least for the partisans of this premise, what the history of movements like anarchism seems to demonstrate rather dramatically is that coherence is something that we may attempt to impose on history and on movements, but it is certainly not inherent in either.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to assemble a usable past and a compelling origin story (although the project will obviously have limited appeal when you attempt to do so at the expense of others who identify with the same tradition.) An awful lot of good radical history has been done by people seeking their own ideological ancestors. And defending ideological positions is pretty much part of holding them. But if we’re really doing history, instead of just establishing continuity, then we have to try to be clear where our ideology inevitably colors our interpretation of historical facts. For the moment, let’s just acknowledge that some coloring of that sort seems inevitable, and let’s say that, in the absence of some truly objective lens for radical history, perhaps a variety of perspectives gives us the best chance to escape self-imposed blind spots.

What I am attempting to embrace in this project is a perspective that views the facts we generally associate with “anarchist history” not just according to a different or broader notion of what constitutes “anarchism,” but from a position from which it is not at all clear that “anarchism” is even a particularly important keyword. Why would I do that? Well, one reason is the emphasis that many people currently put on the word itself. Even those not rushing to appeal to lexical authority to settle their ideological disputes may be quick to look for what is most important in the tradition we have inherited in the immediate vicinity of some classical roots, while we know that among the historical roots of the explicitly anarchist tradition we can find some very interesting, and ideologically complicating, ideas about the “anarchy” that anarchists presumably embrace. Those realizations about Proudhon’s ambivalent attitude towards “anarchy” were certainly among the jolts that have driven me to rethink my historical approach. Another would be my simultaneous frustrations with ideological fundamentalism, sectarianism and “big-tent” attempts to sideline substantive differences within anarchistic circles. When I take a hard look at my own developing narrative of “anarchist history,” it’s hard not to admit that something of all of those tendencies has at times compromised the clarity of my vision and my exposition of the historical facts. And it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.

Enter Jack Deames, and the possibility of shifting perspective outside my own experiences, to force myself to first build the perspective of my proxy-historian from the historical facts I can associate with the position I have assigned him, before attempting to apply that perspective more broadly. And enter Tilly Thorne, still lurking in the wings, but serving for now as a reminder that neither Jack nor I have a monopoly on perspectives. Is this an audacious move? In some ways, not at all. After all, we know that the people we now tend to consider anarchists in the 19th century generally thought of themselves in other terms, with some even denying the terms “anarchist” and “anarchy” for reasons that had everything to do with the values we associate with anarchism. When we look at history, we find proponents of equitable commerce, libertaires, advocates of the pantarchy, mutualists, collectivists, egoists, partisans of atercracy, communists, prophets of art-liberty, sociology, etc., etc., as well as plenty of libertarian radicals without a convenient tag to hang on them. Oh, and a handful of folk for whom anarchy really is a keyword. And a range of individuals embracing ideologies tantalizingly or disturbing close to our anarchists and near-anarchists by other names. This is the world from which I’m attempting to conjure up some native historians, in order to set them loose on the material from which we have constructed our competing accounts of anarchism. If that conjuring is indeed audacious for someone not of that world, it is probably no more so than the alternatives.

It isn’t clear that, in the end, we can do without some form of the “what if?”


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