Sources: The End of an Era

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

      The first leg of the journey ends with the death of Proudhon—and the interruption of his particular investigation of “the anarchist idea.” The end of that segment will be an occasion to try to sum up the contributions of Proudhon and his contemporaries in a variety of ways.

      First, it is important simply to take stock of what was produced in that earliest era on its own terms, setting aside, as much as is possible, the presentist focus on the subsequent anarchist tradition. We know, for example, that “anarchism”—as a widely-used keyword, marking various bodies of ideology and assorted social movements—would not really emerge until late in the second era we are going to examine. But “the anarchist idea” (and, let’s recall, this is the phrase used by Nettlau to describe the focus of his “Short History”) did not have to wait for those developments to experience considerable elaboration and application.

      We’ll have to undertake this task with some real care, since each subsequent leg of the journey will get more complicated and depend on insights drawn from earlier investigations. The world in which Proudhon died was also, after all, the world into which Max Nettlau was born. It was also the world from which the First International was in the process of emerging. And the proto-anarchism of this early era would be a critical point of reference—sometimes as foundation, though more often as foil—for most of what would follow in “the anarchist tradition.”

      But we are ending at a point marked as much by discontinuity and disruption as by continuous development—no matter what other stories we have sometimes told ourselves—so one of our other tasks is to take stock of what appears to have been lost or forgotten, both in the immediate aftermath of Proudhon’s death and in the period between it and the emergence of “modern anarchism”—as Kropotkin described it—in the late 19th century. So an important part of this phase will be identifying elements that are clearly anarchistic, but are also comparatively unfamiliar, as they did not become integrated into subsequent anarchist ideologies.

      There is going to be a lot of material of that sort—and probably enough to sketch at least the the kind of “Proudhonian anarchism” I have talked about in the past, which seems to exist in potentia in Proudhon’s writings. And there will be some chances to break genuinely new ground, as some of the latest of Proudhon’s still-unpublished manuscript writings also seem to be among the least explored.

      (My hope is that the research involved in this task will also provide the material necessary to complete Between Science and Vengeance, the in-progress introduction to Proudhon that I’ve been working on.)

      A second major task will be to assess the extent to which the other anarchist theories from this period share sufficient ideas and concerns with Proudhon’s work to constitute together an anarchism avant la lettre which could be compared with “modern anarchism.”

      A third and absolutely critical task is then to face squarely the extent to which the anarchistic productions of that era were simply lost—or at least appeared to be—through much of the subsequent history of anarchism. I expect that the final sections of this volume will involve some serious reflections on the various ways that we might think about the relations between  these proto-anarchisms and “modern anarchism.” And, again, clarity will be precious to us moving forward, not least because the next era includes a period of perhaps as much as two decades in which neither is really present.

      The question of how the details of Proudhon’s work slipped so far out of the story of “the anarchist tradition,” at least as we usually tell it, even as Proudhon’s friends worked to establish his intellectual reputation  and Oeuvres Complètes, is a fascinating and challenging one. But we will leave much of the answering of it for the next part of our investigation, where a good deal of the focus will be on anarchistic developments taking place in the absence of the explicit rhetoric of anarchy.

      This is probably an appropriate place to talk about the relation between Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back and the “elegiac” history, What Mutualism Was, which I’ll be researching and writing simultaneously. The two works deal with similar difficulties, including the problem of a diverse set of ideological positions answering to the same label but explore very different kinds of solutions. It certainly would have been possible to approach these two studies differently—to lay out the conditions for a “mutualist synthesis,” for example, while suggesting that “anarchism” was a label too strained to be of use without a significant and conscious reconsideration. But there really is no synthesist tendency within mutualism comparable to that we find among anarchists, while the audience for a call to rethinking mutualism is significantly smaller—and perhaps more amenable to such endeavors—than it would be in the case of anarchism.

      As a kind of supplement to Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back, What Mutualism Was will cover a number of episodes and tendencies that will, I’m afraid, necessarily get fairly limited treatment in the larger narrative. In particular, it will include much more on Josiah Warren and the movement for equitable commerce. But the directions that the work on the larger history have taken probably also mean that the history of mutualism will expand to cover more detail regarding the uses of mutualist thought among European anarchist individualists—something I was not in a position to discuss much at all in my chapter for the Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism. My intention has been to finish up What Mutualism Was on a much shorter timetable, but I think we will just have to wait and see what the research brings to light.

      The next section of the study is called “Distributaries,” and covers the period from 1865 to 1886.

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