Distributaries: Anti-Authoritarian Collectivism

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back: II. — Distributaries (1865–1886)

Project Page:
MAPPINGS: Notes for an Introduction
SOURCES: The First Leg of the Journey
    CONFLUENCES: The Final Leg of the Journey

      Let’s review our position just a bit, in the context of our riverine metaphor. Discussing the first leg of our journey, we were unlikely to go too far wrong talking about stages in the development of a single waterway or simple river system. We could talk about stages of anarchist development and stages in our journey back from the sources of the anarchist tradition in roughly parallel ways. But, as I’ve already noted, each of the long legs of the journey—each volume of the study—because more complicated than the last, which makes the metaphor even more useful in some ways, but also less obvious in others.

      So, in order to talk about the period after the death of Proudhon and before the emergence of “modern anarchism,” we’ve had to imagine our fast-moving mountain stream losing speed and breaking up into various branches—our distributaries—as it flows out onto some ancient lake bed or sediment-rich plain. As a result, of course, the summaries for this leg of the journey cannot follow a chronological pattern, but instead each has to address some part of the inland delta we are now exploring.

      We can present the individual summaries in order of appearances—or perhaps, more precisely, order of divergence—as successive factions take up parts of Proudhon’s project and develop them in their own ways. But the main account will still follow the year-by-year format, with the various manifestations of the multiple tendencies appearing more-or-less side-by-side as they occur.

      What the planning for this second volume has made clear, I think, is that in order for the study to be really clear and useful, particularly in the later volumes, it will be necessary to include a more complete version of the summaries as part of the introductory material—and then to review at least some of that same material in the concluding sections of each volume. This preparatory work has also reduced some of my anxieties about the duplication of subject matter between works like What Mutualism Was and Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back. Much of the big story being explored will probably remain unclear until it can be approached from a number of different perspectives.

      Another complication is the fact that Proudhon, who has died just before the start of this stretch of history, still threatens to dominate much of the action. (I am suddenly reminded of Barthelme’s The Dead Father.) There is simply no escaping the fact that one of the most important problems we have to solve is determining the relationship between the anarchist thought of Proudhon’s lifetime and the “modern anarchism” that emerged sometime late in the 1870s.

      The gap that we have to fill is, of course, almost exactly that occupied by the anarchist phase of the career of Mikhail Bakunin…

      …But it just isn’t clear in what sense that career really bridges the gap. In some ways, in fact, Bakunin’s rather ambiguous relationship to both Proudhon and “modern anarchism” seem to present us with new problems to solve.

      So a second major goal of this segment of the study is to look closely Bakunin’s works, his correspondence and the accounts of his activity—including, of course, Nettlau’s important contributions—in order to treat Bakunin much as we hope to treat Proudhon in the first volume.

      The most important task here is obviously just to come to grips with the large, untidy body of works left behind by Bakunin. In the course of accounting for various contexts, the influence of Proudhon will obviously be something to be explored carefully. If will be necessary, if it is possible, to weigh what seem to be fairly significant borrowings by Bakunin from Proudhon’s social science against Bakunin’s stated disdain for Proudhon as a social scientist. And it will be helpful to at least attempt to sketch out what a Bakuninian anarchism might have looked like, had Bakunin’s own influence been more decisive in the period following his death.

      And here we will have to confront as directly as we can the extent to which Bakunin’s successors really intended to leave Bakunin’s thought behind, perhaps in many respects just as completely as Proudhon’s, in pursuing a “modern anarchism” conceived on “scientific” terms (about which we might say, in retrospective and in both cases, that it was perhaps largely a question of competing versions of “science.”)

      And then, finally, we can begin to turn toward the final chapters of the volume and begin to trace the various sorts of Bakuninism that emerged after Bakunin’s death.

      Much of this work will obviously overlap with the preparation of the Bakunin Library volumes, which have suffered more delays that I would have liked, precisely because the research has tended to produce as many new, important questions as it has clear, definitive answers. Fortunately, much of the work of translation and preparation has not been dependent on the answers to these larger questions, so my hope is that it will be possible to move forward again fairly quickly once a bit more of the preparatory work is done—even in advance of actually writing the relevant sections of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back.

      Just as Bakunin will gradually assume center stage, displacing Proudhon, so anti-authoritarian collectivism will come to take the place of the various sorts of mutualism and “Proudhonism.” But collectivism shares with its predecessors much of the same protean quality and quite a number of the figures associated with the tendency were passing through on the way to other ideological positions—or else found collectivism itself a vehicle for fairly significant developments in their thought.

      I am fortunate that some of what ought to be covered about anti-authoritarian collectivism and the milieu around Bakunin has been covered very ably by other historians—so much so, indeed, that I expect I will be accused of rather seriously under-representing the events most closely tied to the International. But, in a study where the driving concerns are ultimately all connected to the questions of anarchy and the dynamics of development within the anarchist tradition, it just doesn’t seem likely to me that the episodes most important to particular story are going to be those involving Karl Marx. We shall see. But my preliminary sense is that, if I am going to err in the direction of overemphasis, I would rather that readers learned “too much” about, say, Adhémar Schwitzguébel or Victoire Léodile Béra (André Léo.) So, while I expect to dutifully report major events in the development of the International in my yearly summaries, I may resort in many cases to footnotes to direct readers to episodes already well-told by others.

      With regard to the other major set of more familiar events—those related to the Paris Commune of 1871—I suspect that I will have my work cut out for me just addressing the episodes most obviously suggested by early parts of the work: the “Proudhonism” of certain communards, the death of Chaudey, the exploits of various radical women and important feminist men already featured here, etc. I will probably have to be on my best behavior not to be drawn off too far into the weird world of Jules Allix, the sympathetic snail telegraph and his work on the Curation de l’aliénation mentale. — One question to be answered is whether there is some sort of companion volume of bizarre and clearly unrepresentative episodes that is likely to compile itself along the way. — But in all these situations where there is an existing literature which can really only be supplemented in small ways, I think that the obvious strategy will be to guide readers in that direction, while filling these new volumes with the sort of material those other works can’t provide.


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