Looking Forward—Mapping our “Lost Continent”

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Despite the potentially daunting number of research and publishing projects I have in progress, I really don’t get overwhelmed by the variety.

That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t get overwhelmed. I do, at fairly frequent intervals, but what is truly daunting about the project-load that I’ve accumulated over the last decade or so is the fact that it is all really just one big project.

Somehow — for my sins, as like as not — I’ve found myself committed to some deep explorations of just how the anarchist tradition developed in its earliest, formative years, between Proudhon’s original anarchist declaration — je suis anarchiste — and the point at which what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism” had come together enough to become concerned about coming apart — a concern ultimately reflected in works like Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis.”

I’ve talked recently about my strong sense that many of the problems faced by anarchists in the present day have their roots in unresolved tensions that were ultimately built right into what we think of as the anarchist tradition. That sense only gets stronger as I continue my research. But it is, I suspect, a sense that still doesn’t make a lot of sense even to many of my regular readers, since there has still been no opportunity to really lay out the historical analysis on which it is based. I have introduced a range of more specific analyses addressing elements of the anarchist tradition, as well as elements generally excluded from the anarchist tradition that either influenced or might have influenced its shape and character. But it has all been decidedly labyrinthine in character. However interesting the various explorations may have been, even I have struggled to get any sort of comprehensive view from above of this “lost continent.”

With the history of mutualism I wrote for the Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism and the very recent proposal for an exploration of “Neo-Proudhonian Anarchism,” I think things have changed to the point where I at least have a fairly clear sense of the outlines of the region I have been exploring. And perhaps I also have a fairly clear sense of how to fill in at least the most important details. I at least have enough clarity to outline how the various works of history and theory that I have mentioned over the last couple of years fit into the larger project. So here we go:

What Mutualism Was is, in many ways, a return to some of my oldest projects, including the dissertation that there was never an opportunity to write. I’ve been collecting pieces of the history of mutualism now for over twenty years, but writing the Palgrave Handbook chapter was the first time that I’ve been forced to make some significant percentage of them feature in a single, coherent story. It nearly drove me crazy, but, having survived the process a first time, I once again became convinced that a more relaxed telling of that history was a story that the world — and the anarchist milieu — might find both entertaining and instructional. But where I had previous thought of the work as at least potentially providing a foundation for the various insurgent and resurgent mutualisms of the present day, I am now inclined to to treat it as a bit of a postmortem examination, explaining how such a wide variety of individuals and tendencies became linked together under the mutualist banner. Beginning in the middle of the history, with the establishment of mutualism as a theoretical foil for communistic “modern anarchism,” I hope to explore the various sorts of continuity and discontinuity that appear when we attempt to give that only quasi-historical mutualism a more substantial history. It’s not a story that requires high seriousness, so hopefully much of the focus can be on the diverse projects and personalities that have been woven into the story of mutualism.

I expect that the book will end with at least a chapter exploring alternatives, both in terms of interpreting the historical data and with regard to alternate paths that anarchist development might have taken, ending with some elaboration of the notion of Neo-Proudhonian anarchism. Some of that elaboration may also take place in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Between Science and Vengeance, the introductory volume I’m currently working on.

Anarchism: An Exploration and a Synthesis is now the working title for the book of “shareable” anarchist theory that I have been calling Anarchism, Plain and Simple. My original intention had been to separate this work, conceived as a modern bit of anarchism without adjectives, as much as possible from my historical research, but as my interest has shifted increasingly toward the more complex conceptions of anarchist synthesis my sense of appropriate strategies has shifted as well. As a sort of compromise between the more conventionally historical approach of What Mutualism Was (and A Good Word, which I expect will get completed largely as a byproduct of other projects) and the “pure theory” approach I had originally envisioned for the book, my current plan is to divide the work between an extended thought-experiment, elaborating the potential Neo-Proudhonian anarchism, and a version of the shareable anarchist narrative explicitly built from an attempt to synthesize what seems most promising in the thought-experiment with elements from across the spectrum of anarchist tendencies.

Part of the fun in the first section should involve an attempt to tell at least parts of the history of “modern” anarchism as if it had developed more directly from Proudhonian roots, so expect an exploration of neo-Proudhonian anarchist communism among the highlights there.

I think of those works as at least part of the blade of the intellectual earth-moving machinery required to clear a space in which the Bakunin Library and Proudhon Library translation projects can enjoy the reception and use that they deserve. At the same time, concerns similar to those that have encouraged me to highlight the complex dynamics in anarchist history and tradition have also encouraged me to do what I can to lift early figures like Proudhon, Bakunin and Déjacque out of some of the more familiar interpretive frames and to specifically devote space in many of the translation volumes to questions of context and interpretation connected to my other work. Situating Proudhon “between science and vengeance,” considering Bakunin as a “man of life” (rather than a distracted theorist or largely unsuccessful “man of action”) and extending the examination of Déjacque’s “utopian” tendencies to works other than The Humanisphere are all means of shedding new light on these figures, outside the context of their eventual contributions to “modern” anarchism. New or broadened contexts mean new and broader connections to other figures, events, institutions, tendencies and ideologies, many of which do not fit well into the familiar anarchist and Marxist traditions.

2019 should see the first of some new collections dedicated to documenting what I have called the anarchistic undercurrent, beginning with some of Max Nettlau’s theoretical work and a new edition of the Short History. There’s a collection of works on anarchist synthesis nearing completion as well.

Anarchist Beginnings: Declarations and Professions of Faith, also likely in 2019, will help to demonstrate the internal diversity among anarchists in the formative period — and I’m assembling texts for potential follow-ups volumes, designed to show a similar diversity in organizational ideas, artistic expressions, etc. I’m also hoping to publish a volume of some of the best internal critiques of anarchism, either under the Anarchist Beginnings banner or separately.

I hope to return the Corvus Editions project to its original focus on the margins of the anarchist (and related) traditions, probably moving forward with some print-on-demand collections of works for which there is not yet even an academic audience, but which ought to be available for those who want to get a sense of the interconnections between early anarchist agitation and traditions like freethought, spiritualism, free love, etc.

Finally, lurking beyond all of this is the possibility of tackling The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution as it exists in my head and notebooks, as a bit of historiographical fiction, playing with the ways that radical history has been constructed and the very different ways in which it might have been constructed, had it emerged in slightly different times and places. But that is a project that can comfortably sit on a back burner for a while yet. It either will or will not coalesce into something worth sharing, and it will be pretty clear which is the case, I think, as the pieces either do or do not come together.

Taken together, this is undoubtedly a clear case of too much on one’s plate, but, with a much clearer sense of how the various investigations already underway might fit together, none of the individual pieces look terribly daunting. I won’t make bold claims about publishing schedules. Life is too full of complications and my work all inches forward with only the most minimal sort of material support. But the fact is that I have been working steadily on most of these projects for a good long time now, so don’t be surprised if there is a bit of a dam-burst in the next year or so.

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