Distributaries: The Reform Leagues and Anarchist Individualism

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

      The question, raised again in the last installment of this series, of how contexts have shaped our perception of anarchist history is one that will be hard to avoid when we turn our attention to developments in English-speaking circles in North America. In that context, 1865 marks the end of the American Civil War and the return to civilian life of a number of key figures in the story to come.

      There are important individual stories to be told. We’ll track the journey of Dyer D. Lum to anarchism and the post-war exploits of William Batchelder Greene. Ezra and Angela Heywood will feature prominently, as we account for the relationship between The Word and the emerging anarchist movement in the 1870s. There will be a lot of apparent diversions into the spiritualist press, adventures among the free religionists and free lovers, as well as plenty of exploration of the “Yankee International” and the associated organizations. We’ll say goodbye to figures like Calvin Blanchard.

      In general, I think, we’ll find this period in the radical history of the United States full of interesting characters and episodes, many of which related to more familiar sorts of anarchist history, but also a bit hard to make sense of as a whole, if only because familiar attitudes towards government, authority and hierarchy will so often be found in contexts that do not seem to be “ours.” Hopefully, there will have been opportunities in the first volume to redraw the boundaries of “proper contexts for anarchistic thought” in earlier times and other settings, but, ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that the pursuit of the anarchist idea has often not been neatly separate from pursuits that seem decidedly cranky and weird.

      But perhaps there are lessons to learn about the practical side of anarchy from an examination of cranks who were every bit as serious and organized as they were eccentric and diverse. In any event, we probably can’t set the question aside if we want to take a closer look at the various “reform leagues” that were a vehicle for comparatively “big tent” organizing in support of a variety of radical agendas.

      Of those, the New England Labor Reform League, established in 1869, is probably the best known, best documented and the closest, in terms of those involved, to familiar accounts about anarchism’s emergence in the United States. So some effort to identify the major players and explore their varied careers will be a priority. But we’ll also check in on the New England Anti-Death League and various other lesser-known radical organizations.

      Expect accounts of the struggle against postal censorship, some clarification of Josiah Warren’s views on spiritualism and an exploration of the mutualist feminism of Angela Heywood, as well at least a lengthy mention of the gold-bug, spirit-inspired equitable commerce launched by some NELRL members in competition with Josiah Warren’s ideas.

      Then, as our narrative reaches 1872 and the introduction of a young Benjamin R. Tucker to the grand old men of the NELRL, expect increasing attention to the emergence of the modern individualist anarchism that would eventually pose itself as the rival to the communistic “modern anarchism” of Kropotkin & Co.

      For years, I’ve dreamed about really spending the time and doing the research that would be necessary to track Tucker through his early encounters with labor reformers and free religionists on the road to anarchism. How successful I am this time around may depend on whether I can put together the funds for some research travel in New York and Massachusetts. But I have, over those years, at least established the outlines of the story of Tucker’s early years and the assembly of talent and viewpoints that made his Radical Review as simultaneously fascinating and puzzling as I think it is.

      Simply attempting to cover the most interesting and important Tucker-related episodes might threaten to swamp both this volume and the next, so any successes I have in sketching out the story of his development will undoubtedly be only partial. And it will be necessary to also introduce quite a number of the other individuals who were instrumental in the rise of anarchist individualism in the United States. Fortunately, both What Mutualism Was and Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back will cover parts of this story. What goes into which narrative will be something to work out as the research progresses, but expect the episodes here to be particularly focused on how Tucker and his fellow-travelers understood the concept of anarchy and how they understood their place in the emerging anarchist movement.

      In this volume, which ends with the events at the Chicago Haymarket, I’ll be particularly interested in comparing the emergence of communistic “modern anarchism” as an alternative to the nascent Proudhonian anarchism with the establishment of anarchist individualism as some kind of continuation of it. My (undoubtedly contentious) working assumption, at this stage in my research, is that anarchist communism and anarchist individualism were in many ways very similar kinds of “modern” responses to the proto-anarchism of figures like Proudhon, Bakunin, Greene, Warren, etc., emerging from a shared “modern” set of assumptions and sensibilities quite different from those of their predecessors.

      We will, of course, only begin our encounter with Tucker in this portion of the study. He lived until 1939 and remained in at least sporadic communication with other anarchist individualists, so he will remain at least a potential subject of further study throughout the remainder of the work. His heyday is probably the third of the four periods we’ll cover, between Haymarket and the First World War. In this volume, he features particularly as one of the most important figures to try to build something distinctly “modern” from the rather scattered remains of the Proudhonian period—and we will follow his career through the building stages of that project.

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