Anarchist History: A Mutualist’s-Eye-View

I would love to jump right to the question of how to re-periodize anarchist history in accordance with the analysis I’ve started in “The Shape of Anarchist History,” but I think it’s worth taking the time to talk a bit more about how I came to that analysis. After all, there is nothing self-evident about the approach and there is a good deal that will probably strike other students of anarchism as questionable. My understanding of anarchist history is clearly—and quite consciously—the product of certain trajectories through the field of anarchist studies and through the sectarian landscape of the anarchist milieus. It is perhaps important to underline this fact, particular as it is such a central point of my analysis that the dominant narratives regarding anarchist history have a similar character—and that “anarchist history” might, through relatively small changes in the times and places where it was told, have looked very different and perhaps gone by different names.

Twenty-five years ago, when I made my first deep dives into the early histories of anarchist thought, I was neither a mutualist nor a historian. I was a cultural studies scholar and a bit of a jack-of-all-trades (for whom the “master of none” clarification would not have been entirely unfair), splitting my time between literary studies—mostly American, often 19th-century and just as often relating to “popular” literature of the pulpiest sort—and the brand-new field of internet studies—where I enjoyed a brief, but surprisingly illustrious career, both as a scholar and a personality (“aka bookish”) in certain online milieus. By happy accident, being both a 19th-century American studies scholar and an early internet adopter was a pretty good skill-set for engaging in the debates about individualist anarchism and its relation to capitalism that burned up more than their share of bandwidth on Usenet and various mailing lists.

In those days, the internet was made up of about a gazillion small ponds, in which becoming a relatively big fish required little beyond a bit of skill at using the resources constantly opening up around you and a willingness to both dish it out and take it in the daily battles. I was able to make my mark in a couple of those small ponds pretty easily, in large part because my ambitions were fairly narrow. I become a historian of certain margins of anarchism and had no real intention of staking any greater claim. Even when I decided to dust off my much-neglected French and start to tackle some of the literature of that tradition, I really thought I would be reading William Greene’s sources—folks like Pierre Leroux, Philippe Buchez, Auguste Ott, etc.—rather than Proudhon and his school. The Libertarian Labyrinth archive began, as I’ve said, with a similarly marginal mission, as a place to archive material that seemed a bit too esoteric for projects like Spunk Library.

In the course of my early research, I had drifted from a vague sort of green syndicalism to an equally vague sort of mutualism—the latter being necessarily vague, as mutualism meant very little beyond marginal, non-communist anarchism. I was doing my little bit for the anarchist movement, beating back the attempts of the anti-state capitalists to appropriate bits of anarchist history that, no doubt, the majority of anarchists at the time would have been perfectly happy to have forgotten, paying my dues to the IWW and serving as a source for historical anarchist literature in a number of ways, online and off. But I basically accepted the fact that what interested me in the anarchist tradition and movement was pretty distant from more popular concerns.

As it happened, of course, it was Proudhon that I started to translate—and that work began to transform my relation to anarchism and its history in a variety of ways. It took no time at all to understand that I didn’t understand Proudhon and that what I had learned in fairly diligent study of the English-language sources was, more often than not, quite seriously wrong. That launched a new phase of my anarchist studies career—as I became a historian of more margins, in both English and French—at a time when my connections to other marginal anarchists through the internet was also creating a space in which I could be more bold about what mutualism might look like in modern practice. This was all still a matter of pretty small ponds, but larger than before. And I was still largely content to think of all my anarchist activity as fundamentally marginal, even while I was learning things no one around me seemed to know about the origins of the tradition.

Fast-forward to a point in the relatively recent past, when my admittedly obsessive curiosity and the sort of free time provided by chronic underemployment had led me, step by step and more or less accidentally, to turn my attention to the very core of the anarchist tradition. Having found that Proudhon was not the figure, and his thought not the thought, that I had been prepared to find, it was no great surprise when the same turned out to be true about Bakunin. And, piece by piece, I’ve come to assemble a rather different sense of anarchist history’s content—which has naturally led to rather different ideas about anarchism’s development.

Central to this process, of course, has been my own perspective—as a mutualist, looking for clarity about the tradition that I necessarily embraced half-“sight unseen,” and as a specifically mutualist student of Proudhon (et al.) As long as I was a mutualist student of mutualism (and other presumably marginal tendencies), things were fairly simple—and those years were a fine opportunity to develop my “chops” as a historian. As soon as I turned my attention to Proudhon, however, and began my transformation into a student of anarchism (understood now in a very broad sense) the project got considerably more complicated. And the reason for that is simple:

Love him or hate him, include him as essential foundation or exclude him as a faulty precursor, address his work in great detail or gloss over it in the most dismissive terms:—Proudhon occupies an important position in virtually all the histories of anarchist thought.

The problem, of course, is that no single figure—not even one with Proudhon’s fine appreciation of contradiction and  tendency to harness the rhetoric of scandal—could possibly be all the things that the various histories require him to be. At the same time, all the many ideas and opinions, all the myths and legends that rush onto stage at the very mention of Proudhon don’t leave a lot of room for his actual ideas to appear. And while very few people would claim Proudhon’s works as a significant inspiration, a tremendous number of people seem to need Proudhon to fill some role—and often a curiously foundational one.

What should we say about the Proudhon over whom anarchists and other would-be radicals constantly struggle? As a foundation, is he rock or is he sand? Or is he so thoroughly multiple, virtual or strictly traditional in his role that it would be impossible to say? This last seems to be the case, even in individual instances. How common it is, for example, to have political rivals or opponents state both that Proudhon definitively believed some thing and that he was ultimately “a man of contradictions”? How seldom are his ideas addressed as incorrect and how often are they simply rejected as silly, abject or both? How many of his most basic and presumably familiar claims—”property is theft” comes immediately to mind—not simply treated as slogans by others, but as if they had been slogans for him? How often is real ignorance of Proudhon’s thought presented as if it was cause for boasting, while knowledge of it is treated as cause for suspicion, by “critics” with a very possession sort of disdain for the “father of anarchism” that we can’t quite seem to disown? 

Proudhon—they can’t live with him, but can’t live without him.

In the realm of anarchist tendencies, mutualism has played the equivalent role. It has been, in a sense, the accursed share of anarchist history, with a necessary role, but one that relegates it to the past—to such an extent that, even when you are talking about the most modern sorts of adaptations, there is no escaping the sense that others see you like some Ghost of Anarchisms Past. It is normal, in a youth-oriented movement like anarchism, to feel a bit old, but when you get the feeling that sometimes even your near-peers have unconsciously misdated you by a century or so, well, it shapes your approach in a variety of ways.

What it seems important to say in this context is that approaching anarchist history through mutualism is likely to both chasten and embolden a historian. On the one hand, there is the ever-present sense that you’re a bit of an interloper or anachronism, which is hard to shake even when you feel that you’re doing cutting edge work relevant to the very heart of the anarchist project. On the other hand, it is amazing just how much sense the anarchist tradition makes when you simply begin at some promising beginning—say 1840 and je suis anarchiste—and follow the course of events. And also—somewhere on that same hand, I suppose—it is striking how tractable modern problems seem when viewed through that particular lens.

So I am diffident and bold—and it doesn’t always come out as anything intelligible to most of those around me. But for my part, I must confess that one of the things I find least intelligible is the resistance with which my tale of tractable modern problems has been met so often. It is certainly a novel tale, different in some particulars from the inclusive narratives of figures like Max Nettlau, who, despite important efforts, perhaps never really came to terms with the thought of anarchy’s early- and mid-19th century theorists. And it certainly troubles some existing narratives, in which Proudhon and mutualism (etc.) have played weird, quasi-foundational roles without ever really being given their due. But it is also a story that I have waited a long time to tell, specifically so that I could tell it under circumstances where my plucking away of certain traditional cornerstones could be coupled with the offering of new and much firmer foundations.

If I’m being entirely honest, I have to say that I am tired, that I’ve been carrying this particular story around in one form or another for a long time and that any hopes I had that it would get lighter over the years have been largely disappointed. But I’ve been insisting for years that, where anarchistic problems are concerned, the way out is through. So I’m going to give that one more try, as if I was just a little more sure than I feel here at the opening of 2019.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2121 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.