Distributaries: “Modern Anarchism”

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

      Our fast-moving mountain current has spread out across the a decade’s worth of terrain, splitting off into various distributary currents. We know—or at least the driving metaphor of this work suggests—that the various currents will never unite as fully as perhaps they were mingled before Proudhon’s death. We can certainly point to instances where some form of direct influence seems to carry forward from the earliest period examined through to the anarchism of the 1880s—but we have also inherited narratives that at least flirt with the notion of a rather complete reinvention of anarchist thought in what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism.”

      The last and certainly not the least important of our tasks in this second section of the study will be to trace the emergence of anarchist communism as a force among the anti-authoritarians, particularly in the wake of the split in the International. Having touched on some of the early forms of libertarian communism in the first volume, we’ll have some context for examining the movement of figures like Carlo Cafiero and François Dumartheray toward a more familiar sort of anarchist communism and begin to address the conflicts between communists and collectivists in the emerging anarchist movement.

      Naturally, Peter Kropotkin will occupy an important place in this part of the study as well, perhaps particularly as he was both an articulate proponent of anarchist communist and one of those who took it upon themselves to create a kind of early anarchist history in order to explain the relations between the earlier forms of anarchist thought and the “modern anarchism” proposed by the communists. I will no doubt return to the close reading of his essay “On Order,” which includes a particularly interesting origin story for the new anarchism—which was, of course, essentially the first ideology to actually bear the name of anarchism.

      Elisée Reclus will also feature prominently in the examination of this transition and its framing in the emerging literature of anarchism. Between his own widely-read essay on anarchy and his editing of two other early classics (Bakunin’s God and the State and Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel), he played an important role in shaping the public perception of anarchism internationally.

      As we need the mid-point of the journey, it’s important to return to some of our earlier concerns and remind ourselves that we are going to end this particular segment with a beginning—really with a series of beginnings, from the emergence of anarchist communism (and that of anarchist individualism) to the organization of the Black International—followed rapidly by a number of key events—the Haymarket bombing and trial, the emergence of acracia and anarquismo sin adjetivos, etc.—that aren’t so easy to weave into stories with clear beginnings and endings.

      And there will be both some hard lessons and some simple pleasures, I expect, involve in the time we spend lingering on the details of how “modern” communist anarchism emerged and how the challenge it represented was met by by anarchists of a more individualist tendency and opponents outside the sphere of anarchist ideas. Once we move on into the next leg of the journey, the one thing that we can reasonably expect is that the complexities of this phase will be exceeded almost everywhere we turn. The diversity of ideas and practices will be every bit as great as it has been in this period of parceling-out and dispersion, but all of those varied elements will also now be part of anarchism—and the struggle over anarchism.

      We’ll want to gather every bit of clarity we can glean from this relatively more simple period, simply to help us make sense of what is to come. And, at this point, I feel fairly certain that at least some of that clarity will be fresh and likely to be a little hard on our ideological presuppositions and sacred cows. I look forward to the discoveries to be made, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t also dread the difficulties like to arise at least a bit.

      There is, of course, one more ardent anarchist communist who will play an absolutely vital role in this part of the study—as he will in all the others. As I’ve said, 1865 was not only the year of Proudhon’s death, but that of Max Nettlau’s birth. And the world we have been exploring in this second phase of the study will have been the world in which he grew up. At the point where we will end, Nettlau was still, by his own account, a rather narrow, intolerant anarchist communist—although his embrace of mutual toleration would come soon.

      Again, one of the tasks to accomplish in this volume will be to make sure that we deal with Nettlau’s origins and initial contexts well enough that we are well prepared to deal with him in his increasingly complex roles in later volumes.

      In planning the work, I’ve understood that each volume will be dependent on all the others in increasingly complex ways, making it necessary to plan far enough in advance to anticipate as much of what should be addressed early on to avoid too much backtracking in later volumes. The difficulties extent even to these preliminary summaries. So I expect that I will once again take some time off from summarizing and turn back to the work of writing up some of the early episodes, while I let what I’ve already written sink in and (hopefully) suggest a bit more clearly the emphases for the next volume.

      About Shawn P. Wilbur 2296 Articles
      Independent scholar, translator and archivist.