Sources: Over the Roofs of the World

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back:
I. — Sources (1837–1865)

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

      Whether we locate its source at the very beginning of Proudhon’s intellectual career or somewhere in the work of 1840, we have to acknowledge that by that final section of What is Property? the anarchistic current has indeed acquired some mass and momentum.

      Much of that is a result of all that Proudhon managed to pack into What is Property? (And those who haven’t taken a look at my notes on the text might want to do so now.) There are, as we have noted, a number of very important developments yet to come in Proudhon’s work, not least among them the embrace of the irreducible antinomies in place a fairly crude dialectic—a move that establishes a certain kind of anarchy at the heart of Proudhon’s thought. But it is remarkable how much of even the mature thought is present in still nascent form in the earliest of the published works.

      These are the lessons we learn on a journey back through the works of Proudhon, reading those early works in the light of all that has come after. Looking back up the mountain, so to speak, from various vantage points along our trail, we’ll be able to reassess the writings of 1840—and perhaps some from earlier dates—from multiple perspectives. And we can expect some interesting developments along the way.

      For example, we will take a long and searching look back at the end of this leg of the journey, when we have reached 1865 and the death of Proudhon. And, at that point, I think that some of the elements most demanding of our attention will probably be in the relatively near distance. Rather than focusing so much on the “anarchist declaration,” one obvious task will be to account for how “the anarchist idea” is to be understood in the context of works like The Federative Principle—which will, in turn, probably force us to engage more seriously with the problem of anarchy’s various senses (as if appears in work like The General Idea of the Revolution.) Treating this vantage point as a kind of endpoint, it is the details of Proudhon’s social science that seem destined to dominate any summing up. As for the specific importance of the rhetoric of anarchy, perhaps it would not be so great in a narrative that ended in 1865.

      But that fact only adds to the questions raised when we look back from vantage points farther along the path, as at those greater distances it is precisely that declaration, much more than any of the social scientific details, that remains visible.

      And we will have to account for the tremendous carrying power of that particular utterance.

      A careful analysis of that declaration is one of the first tasks of the narrative itself, but, for now, let us remark that it has retained both a disruptive power and a great deal of mystery. And we may be forgiven the invocation of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as we characterize Proudhon’s declaration as his own sort of “barbaric yawp,” “not a bit tamed” and “untranslatable,” sounded “over the roofs of the world”—and certainly over much of what we must include in “the anarchist tradition.”

      To the extent that Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is simply an exploration of that tradition as we find it documented in a variety of sources, we’ll be looking for the various ways in which that distant exclamation found echoes all along our journey. But we’ll also be anticipating concerns that will arise as we near the end of our travels—and because this is a journey back, we can anticipate them quite precisely.

      Although the endings of our journey will have some of the same exploratory character as its beginnings, we do know, once again, the events which establish a general vicinity. And that general vicinity is 1934-1935 and the publication of two great works of “anarchist synthesis,” Max Nettlau’s “Short History” (La anarquía a través de los tiempos) and the Encyclopédie Anarchiste. So we will be keeping track of the new elements incorporated into “the anarchist tradition”—and their relationships to that primal declaration of 1840—but also noting those elements that seem to have dropped out of that tradition, attempting to grapple with the reasons for those changes and the alternate developments that might have been necessary.

      We know that there has hardly been a moment in the history of “the anarchist idea” at which it has not been contested—and often hotly contested. This is the reason that, at this phase of the project, it seem necessary to make heavy use of scare quotes around terms that are ultimately the subject of much of the exploration here. My hope is that, in the course of the research, some less awkward means of addressing the definitional difficulties will emerge. For now, however, it seems most useful to underline the potential problems, particularly as one of the recurring tasks of this exploration will be to see if there are perhaps periods during which phrase like “anarchist history,” “the anarchist idea” and “the anarchist tradition” simply cannot cover the diversity of nominally “anarchist” positions and ideas simultaneously expressed.


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