Positive Anarchy, Profusion, Uncertainty and the Uses of History

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back

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

      The last post in this series, on “The Uses of a Lost Continent,” ended with a rapid escalation from questions about the limits of specific historical narratives to the image of “the anarchist past” as a familiar sort of “new world” to, perhaps, be carved down to a more usable size by whatever means seem necessary. Feel free to supply your own image of a burning jungle, clear-cut forest, strip-mined mountain, etc. History certainly provides no lack of handy analogies.

      The occasion for the provocation has been the suggestion that what the critics of an inclusive, synthetic approach to “anarchist history” and “the anarchist tradition” reject—whether they reject the possibility or the utility of such accounts—is precisely a kind of anarchy in the “anarchist past” (broadly defined), which manifests itself in the overwhelming volume and troubling heterogeneity of material that we have inherited from past generations of anarchists. More than that, perhaps, we sense that what we know of that volume and diversity is still not the whole story. Above and beyond the known difficulties, there is a kind of general threat of profusion and uncertainty—a sense that there remain unknown difficulties to face before we come to any accounting of and with that anarchist past.

      Is it unfair to associate these qualities of profusion and uncertainty with anarchy? My sense is that anarchists are themselves often of two minds about most of the potential faces of anarchy. We often love the riotous, but also often only “in its place.” We perhaps simply haven’t engaged very well with the positive side of anarchy. We are clear enough that anarchy doesn’t mean “anything goes,” but the full range of things that might “go” in the absence of authority and hierarchy seems at best underexplored—as the magnitude of the task of dispensing with authority leaves us focused on an-archy in its negative sense.

      An anarchic order, in which nothing is “permitted,” but from which an unknown variety and quantity of equally unknown and perhaps unprecedented things might issue, is obviously something a bit different from a world in which the familiar abuses of authority have been eliminated. The question then becomes whether the latter is possible without at least a fairly close encounter the former.

      I don’t suppose, at this point, that my feelings on the matter are subject to much doubt.

      There is a discussion that undoubtedly has to take place sometime soon, in order for this study to move forward, about the qualities of positive anarchy understood as a fundamentally different kind of economy than all of the ideologies and systems that we have proposed in our struggles against various kinds of archy. There are philosophical clarifications that feel overdue. But perhaps they would be a bit of a distraction here, where the question is really one of facing a kind of teeming and potentially threatening unknown, precisely where we think the foundations of our anarchisms ought to be. And I want to face that moment head-on.

      So the questions remain: What are the uses of a “lost continent”? What are the uses of history? In what sense should we look to the historical record for foundations for our present-day projects? And, if continued research forces us to reevaluate the nature of the historical material we have treated as foundational, how should we respond?

      My own thoughts on these questions arise from the practical experience of researching and recovering the roots of mutualism—a work that obviously intersects with this research on the early development of anarchism and shares many of the same challenges. (Those unfamiliar with that work can find much of it linked here: What Mutualism Was: An Incomplete History of Mutualist Tendencies.) The key challenge, which I’ve written about a number of times over the years, was that it has been hard not to be painfully aware that those of us involved in the mutualist renaissance were trying hard to be mutualists while still in the midst of figuring out just what that ought to entail (should we come to any explicit terms with what had been passed down in the way of a mutualist tradition.)

      There has always been, of course, the perfectly straightforward option of taking what had been handed down to us and just moving forward from there, without fussing too much about how the ideas we developed corresponded to those of figures who were, for us, little more than figureheads and symbols. But that is not an option that many have chosen to take. There is, after all, a lot of interesting and useful stuff that has been available without a great deal of searching—and one thing leads to another… So modern mutualists have nearly all found that they have some stake in recovering a mutualist past or elaborating a mutualist tradition.

      The work of assembling some kind of historical backstory has exerted its own pressures on the broad mutualist milieu, in part because the received account of “the mutualist tradition” was threadbare enough and the possible historical sources extensive enough that the process of “filling in the gaps” naturally created a number of significantly different narratives, which then tended to channel further research in specific, often divergent directions. But there could be no simple parting of the ways, with various modern mutualisms developing independently, because part of what we inherited, part of what we all began to incorporate into our new projects, was a small pantheon of pioneers, presumably all representative, in one way or another, of “mutualism.” Diverging tendencies could hardly help coming into conflict over just how these key figures and their contributions would be understood in the present.

      My own experiences have been in what has become known as “neo-Proudhonian mutualism,” where we have at least been conscious for a long time of the difficulties I’ve just described. But it has, frankly, been hard to ignore them, as Proudhon is perhaps the most contested of all of the potentially foundational figures.

      It’s striking just how important particular interpretations of particular bits of Proudhon’s work are to a wide variety of tendencies—and how little evidence there is to support so many of those interpretations. Those who want to reduce his work to a few objectionable bits in the notebooks are obviously driven by concerns that have very little to do with Proudhon or his work, but this is arguably true as well of those who insist on focusing on a few of the early works—or a few paragraphs, taken in isolation, from those works.

      Proudhon’s work are another “lost continent,” though obviously one of considerably less extent than the one we’re starting to explore. His works—taken as a whole and including the published works, correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks, etc.—are, even for most of us who insist on building them into their ideological foundations, that sort of teeming and potentially threatening unknown, particularly when seen through the common lenses of partisan emphasis, with the most troubling elements constantly dragged to the fore. For the critic who wants to be done with Proudhon, I think the answer to the question we’ve posed is simple enough: This is a landscape to be cleared, an edifice to be razed, with just enough preserved to remind us of why it was necessary to obliterate the rest. But how different is the advocate of partial appropriation, who wants to make use of a bit here or there that seems useful to their defense of communism, the cooperative movement, etc.? How different are all those who have wanted both the phrase “property is theft” and the authority of the figure behind it, but have associated them with just about everything except the specific account of exploitation found in What is Property?

      The best explanation we can give in most of these cases is, I think, that even in the cases where the intent is destructive, there simply isn’t much knowledge of what has to be tossed away in order to perform the reduction of the whole body of work to a few fragments. And that’s a familiar enough situation, when we turn back to those questions of burning jungles, clear-cut forests, strip-mined mountains, etc. But it’s not much of an excuse—in either context.

      It’s particularly difficult to excuse because of all the ways in which history is not, after all, much like a continent at all. If we feel we have to mix up bits of history and received tradition with our present-day ideologies, without taking on the difficulties of really accounting for full bodies of work, it’s no surprise—and perhaps it’s no problem, provided we don’t go beyond that and try to make sure that nobody else can contest our accounts with contexts or alternative narratives. As much wildness as there is to much of the history from which we would like to draw, the profusion of possible data and the uncertainty surrounding any particular appropriation are dealt with easily enough by simply acknowledging what we’re up to. So, for example, the partisan Marxist critic of Proudhon—via a few cherry-picked journal entries—need do nothing more than acknowledge that Proudhon’s actual work does not particularly interest them, so they’re going to stick with what they think they learned from some source that does interest them. To be really honest about that choice would mean abstaining from debate about the real content of Proudhon’s work, of course, but I’m not sure anything would be lost in radical circles if we all just stopped having strong, oft-repeated opinions based on little more than partisan prejudice. (Your mileage may vary, I suppose…) Those who are simply interested in finding bits that might be useful to their own projects or are simply looking for even partial reflections of their own ideas in the “classics” are always free to do so—at which point those who are interested in more might simply say that such piecemeal appropriations fall outside the range of their own interests. Imagine the amount of purely ideological bickering that could be avoided.

      It would probably be naive to expect these things to happen, at least without some concerted efforts by various radical movement to alter their cultures. But they are clearly things that could happen.

      We could confront a variety of historical “continents,” recognize the difficulties and uncertainties with which they present us, and not immediately set off down the path pioneered by those who have shaped real-world continents according to priorities in which it would, at the very least, be hard to find anarchy featuring very prominently. 

      And, again, we should perhaps stop, if only for a moment, to recall how fraught with uncertainty and anxiety the relationship of anarchists to anarchy can be. But, if we are to finish this particular thought, we then have to set off again in search alternative uses of our “lost continents.”

      So what are these practical alternatives?

      As is so often the case with anarchism, I think there are a lot of alternatives. But we probably begin to explore them by asking a few basic questions about our own uses of history:

      What sorts of narratives are we constructing. What is the nature of the materials we are using? What are the present-day stakes surrounding our specific uses?

      Are we telling stories about ideas, ideologies, movements, etc.? Are we engaging in reportage, polemic, persuasion, literary experiment, etc., etc.? To what extent should the works we are attempting be understood as contributions to an understanding of the history of anarchism and to what extent are they attempts to establish, reinforce or renew some form of anarchist tradition?

      What is the state and extent of the relevant historical records? How seriously are we attempting to “represent” them? To what extent are our conclusions driven by negative factors, such as lack of access to materials, language barriers and the often enormous demands of establishing contexts?

      And in what sense, ultimately, can history function as a foundation for ideology? What are the substantive costs—as opposed to those associated with the accumulation of historical capital—of finding that the histories we have made use of are not what we supposed them to be?

      Among the parallel worlds that I have constructed to help me clarify my own work, there is one in which Bakunin was indeed a czarist spy and in which Proudhon was secretly guilty of far greater deviations from libertarian ideas than even his harshest critics suggest. Exploring that world is obviously a much more sombre experience than my conventional historical work—and much more so than the explorations of worlds where some famous mistakes were rectified—but it’s not hard to imagine that the practical consequences would have been negligible, leading to a parallel anarchist movement in which little or nothing changed.

      And we can probably think about quite a range of other scenarios in which the historical record or the material from it available to us might change in significant ways without significantly challenging how we do anarchism in the present. For better or worse, the anarchist tradition, including the strictly historical elements that are part of it, have been built into a pretty sturdy bulwark against too rapid, sweeping changes in the anarchist milieus.

      There is hardly a single struggle over the anarchist past that is not ultimately motivated by concerns about the anarchist present and possible anarchist futures. There are a few, ultimately refreshing examples of students and scholars whose axes to grind are almost entirely historical—but for the rest of us they still function primarily as a check on our own conclusions, much like the partisan critics we more frequently encounter.

      And that’s fine.

      We’re not engaged in a purely theoretical enterprise. Our task is more like engineering than physics. But that clearly doesn’t mean that we can be careless about the way that we analyze the relevant materials, nor that we can be indifferent to the condition in which we leave them for other researchers.

      The anarchist past is a renewable resource, provided we take the stewardship of that resource seriously. And if the materials of that anarchist past are really useful in the construction of modern anarchist theory and practice, then there doesn’t seem to be any good argument for not taking that stewardship seriously—particularly when we recognize the limits our each individual attempt to build useful accounts from those materials. If, on the other hand, those materials are not useful for any real construction in the present, then we should probably stop pretending that they are and either stop messing around with the anarchist past or find other more appropriate uses for it. And since there is no indication that anarchists are likely to break with the idea that the past is important to the construction of present and future anarchisms—an idea almost universally held, however much its details vary from tendency to tendency—perhaps it is time, whatever else we disagree about, that serious anarchists come to some consensus that our various projects are all probably best served by a much less invasive approach to our shared past than has been the norm.

      There is work to do, I think, in becoming clear about just how and why the past matters, just what sorts of materials it provides us in the present and what kind of foundation it can provide for the future. But part of that work almost certainly involves confronting those anarchic aspects of profusion and uncertainty head-on and perhaps orienting ourselves toward the “lost continent” of the anarchist past as we might, with the benefit of a variety of very practical historical lessons, orient ourselves towards the various more literal continents that have been lost in a variety of ways through careless appropriation.

      At that point, the anarchist past could perhaps be our treasure and our playground. We could perhaps be a bit fearless in our explorations and if, at the end of some long excursion, time and reasons seem to remain, perhaps we could turn around and set off again.

      That is, at least, a vision that appeals to me.

      About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
      Independent scholar, translator and archivist.