The Shape of Anarchist History

Retracing steps I took in my research 20-25 years ago is a fascinating and frequently rewarding experience, particularly now that I’m working with some figures who are perhaps marginal even to the rather loose, broad account of the anarchist and near-anarchist traditions that I’ve been constructing. Most recently, I’ve been working my way back through the writings of Calvin Blanchard (“Announcer of the Religion of Science, Professor of Religio-Political Physics, Expositor of the Statics and Dynamics of God Almighty, Advocate for the Constitution Manifest in Human Nature, and Head Member of the Society for Abolishing Utopia, and Humbug, and Failure,” etc.), the libertarian Comtean who, perhaps even more than Stephen Pearl Andrews, made a practice of expressing anarchistic ideas in a language far more directly suited to the promotion of regimes of authority.

Blanchard is in some ways the idea material on which to test my developing understanding of anarchist history. He poses all sorts of difficulties when approached directly. We can ask: Was Calvin Blanchard an anarchist? But none of the various answers that present themselves are entirely satisfactory—in large part because the question seems forced. Almost no one—present company excluded—cares whether Calvin Blanchard belonged to this or that political or philosophical tendency. Blanchard barely matters now, even as an amusing footnotes in the various histories he crossed, and making him matter seems likely to be hard and perhaps useless work. He’s not Eliphalet Kimball—another unknown, but at least one who made his own case at the time for inclusion in a history of anarchy and its promoters, provided someone finally came along and discovered him. He’s not Lysander Spooner, whose place in anarchist history has provoked lively debate—even if the stakes have never been entirely clear. He’s certainly not Josiah Warren, who, despite repudiating most labels, was embraced much more widely and had his work incorporated to a much more significant degree into currents that it would now be hard to entirely jettison or excommunicate. His importance—if indeed he has some real importance in this story—is as an outlier among the outliers. Ask a similar question about the other figures just named and perhaps that doubly marginal character makes him a particularly interesting topic—but only if your search for answers takes you in directions that also make you a bit of an outlier in the discussions of anarchist history.

That is, of course, probably a completely fair characterization of my own position in the conversation, in large part because what drew me into the discussion was precisely the debate over the status of various marginal characters. In the beginning, it was William Batchelder Greene who grabbed my attention, but I fairly quickly made a specialty of the margins, of which there have been no shortage to explore over the years. But what I came to think of as the “libertarian labyrinth” was not just a sort of hinterland at the edge of the anarchist map. Instead, it was a hinterland over which people struggled—and continue to struggle—as if it was the very center of things. More curiously, a tremendous amount of that struggle went on without the majority of the strugglers every really learning much about the actual bodies of thought involved. Instead, the vehemence with which many of the related debates have been engaged has often been in fairly direct proportion to the ignorance of the debaters.

The mystery of that strange dynamic is not particularly deep. The truth is that none of the figures that I have studied in fairly great depth are particularly important to the anarchism that we have inherited. What’s more, few of them are particularly intelligible in the contexts that the received anarchist tradition(s) provide(s). To be completely honest, my first deep dive into the works of these marginal figures—a work of more than a decade—left me much richer in bits and pieces of knowledge, but not that much clearer about how to answer the kinds of questions I posed here earlier. The most important outcome of that stage in my research was a degree of certainty that these hotly fought, but curiously empty “historical” debates were primarily a cover—and usually fairly transparently so—for struggles over what would constitute the defining qualities of anarchy and anarchism. That naturally led to some questions about why a debate over this really marginal material really did seem to have significance for the general understanding of anarchism’s core. Why, I wondered, did the attempts to finally jettison it and the attempts to really integrate it seem equally doomed?

The hypothesis that emerged was the ungovernability of anarchism.

It appeared to me, after more than a decade of historical research, that perhaps there was a basic problem in the accounts we had produced of anarchism and its development, so that even accounts that attempted to be exclusive and provide a coherent account of that development struggled with the real diversity of anarchist ideas, practices, institutions, organizations, etc. But if that was the case, it was hardly clear why it was so, particularly given the real will to differentiate obvious in so many aspects of anarchist culture.

Eventually I was led to what is perhaps the central claim in much of my more recent work: that some fundamental contradictions or confusions were central to the narratives by which the “modern anarchism” of Kropotkin and others—really the first anarch-ism of any significance—was introduced into the void left by the splintering of the workers’ international.

According the account that I have been developing—which is naturally not widely embraced, at least as yet—both (communistic) anarchism and mutualism (conceived as a kind of theoretical foil for that communistic anti-authoritarianism) were invented sometime in the 1870s—as alternatives, one conscious and the other considerably less so, to the various ideas of the “anarchists without anarchism” of the earlier period. This new dichotomy was then at once naturalized (by anarchist communists and anti-communist anarchist individualists), challenged (by the proponents of acracia, “anarchism without adjectives” and the more sophisticated sorts of synthesis) or “re”-joined (by various schemes for organizational synthesis or entente) almost immediately, but without any of the various reactions very seriously challenging the new mapping of the anarchistic territory.

For better or worse, I have wanted to pursue this hypothesis of a kind of Original Confusion in our accounts of anarchism and its development far enough to determine if it provided anarchist historians—inevitably saddled with a mission that contains more than its share of potentially conflicting scholarly and ideological demands—with an opportunity to escape at least a few of the worst dilemmas. That rather limited and specialized escape act has seemed to bear more importance than it might otherwise have, if only because of the problem alluded to before: the tendency of many anarchists without any strong inclination to plumb the depths of serious historical study—and no real need to do so—to tangle themselves and their sense of anarchist identity in “historical” debates of dubious quality.

To be clear: It’s really my opinion, developed through a long engagement with the material of anarchist history, that most of us could just walk away from existing “historical” debates, provided we were willing to think more clearly about the concepts at the heart of anarchist philosophy and embrace the insights of Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis,” which simply says that anarchism is a big project and none of us are going to be able to grapple with all aspects of it at once. More than that, it’s my considered opinion—as someone who feels strongly about the powerful lessons that might be drawn from the history of anarchist thought—that we would be considerably better off than we are now if we did so without delay.

I would struggle, of course, to decide whether that sort of abandonment of “historical” question ought to be Plan A or Plan B, but perhaps the difference really isn’t that great. Accepting that anarchism is indeed a big, big project, my most practical sense is that there is a place for the dedicated historians among the factions that might divide up various anarchistic labors with an eye to ongoing synthesis. But even that is only practical in a kind of potential sense, since it is unlikely that the we are likely to either really extricate or fully invest ourselves anytime soon, where it is a question of these historical or quasi-historical questions.

That leaves a limited number of options moving forward—or, to be more precise, leaves me limited options, at least until I convince myself that my working conclusions are incorrect or until I convince some significant number of folks that they are indeed correct. The one that I have chosen to focus on for the time being has been the retracing of my early steps necessary to produce What Mutualism Was, a relatively complete account of mutualism’s origins and development, aimed at presenting a similar set of questions and options in a context where the stakes are not nearly as high.

But, as I suggested at the outset, even margins have their margins. And I’ve come to believe that figures like Calvin Blanchard are there to remind us that there are probably quite a number of cases where Was X an anarchist? is probably just not the really useful question to be asking—particularly if we take seriously the discontinuity and possible confusions introduced into the anarchist tradition along with the “modern anarchism” narrative. It is figures like Blanchard who seem to call for a different approach—one that does not simply compound the problems with our existing narratives and perhaps even one with a wider application. It is figures like Blanchard that inspired what is undoubtedly my most unconventional attempt to untangle early anarchist history: the oft-deferred project in “alternative historiography” that I’ve named The Great Atercratic Revolution.

Libertarian Labyrinth.—Ungovernability of Anarchism.—Great Atercratic Revolution.—It struck me today, really for the first time, just how constant some of my concerns have been for so many years. The third construction is something I’ve proposed as an alternative to histories rendered ungovernable from the beginning, being an account of those anarchists-without-anarchism, told (for the most part) without recourse to the language of anarchy. It seems an almost inescapable conclusion that a preoccupation with the question of whether or not early radicals were anarchists has led to a fair amount of less-than-stellar generalization about what else they might have been. The way the debate about inclusion and exclusion has been structured, these early figures have presented various threats and promises, mostly because of the other elements bound up with their anti-authoritarian thought or because of the language in which they choose to express themselves. In the process of collecting and archiving this marginal material, I have never had the luxury of working free from the fear—really the certainty—that, for those who desire to muddy the waters around the concepts of anarchy and anarchism, I was piling up some pretty attractive piles of potential mud. At the same time, however, few things have been more valuable for my own work than digging deep into this material. I’m not sure any other sort of work could have brought me to the point where I could at once let go of the sorts of questions that had initially drawn me so deep into the field of anarchist history—at least in the form in which I originally encountered them—and equip myself with a fundamentally different set of questions which seem to me significantly more valuable to anarchism as a vital, ongoing project.

I still probably haven’t adequately summarized the various lessons that have come from my exploration of the anarchistic undercurrent represented by the various works of synthesis, entente, adjectivelessness, reconstruction, etc. And this isn’t the place for that summary either. But what the various lessons would probably share is a connection to the full realization that anarchism has not been some manifestation of libertarian ideas working their magic on the material of history. Instead, it has been a complex assemblage of a large number of individual projects and collective efforts at various scales, filtered through and often bounded in particular ways by rhetorical choices made, once again, by specific figures occupying specific places on the globe and specific moments in history. In some ways, the persistence of the language of anarchy has been a happy accident. Anarchy is indeed “a good word,” as Eliphalet Kimball put it, and perhaps it has the potential to be an even better one for the various currents of anarchists who currently struggle over it. However, as things are at the moment, it is also a contested word, marking a notion often honored, even by those who love it or claim to love it, very much in defiance of its strongest and most coherent senses. In any event, it seems to me that if we understand anarchism in really historical terms, recognizing both the accidental and the in-progress elements of this meta-project assembled of minimally coordinated projects, then our engagement with it has to be more active, and probably simultaneously more critical and more constructive. This is another of those affirmations that really demands more unpacking and clarification than I can give it here, but let’s just say here that one of the the tasks before us—a product of both freedoms and necessities associated with this view of anarchist history, which at least still seems to me as something of a heresy—is to reconsider how we should think about the general “shape” of anarchist history if we do, in fact, place the sort of emphasis on the simultaneous creation of “modern anarchism” and its “mutualist” foil in the period after the split in the International.

That creation has figured in my thoughts for some time now as a sort of “narrow passage,” through which a tremendous amount of historical data would have to simultaneously pass to inform a definition of “modern anarchism” not fundamentally characterized by a fairly significant discontinuity with the ideas of the earlier period. It seems clear that the attempt to significantly narrow the range of anarchistic tendencies—if this is indeed a fair characterization—was hardly successful for any length of time. But it seems equally clear that, whatever relevance the various tendencies of the earlier period may have to our current diversity, very few of us quarrel now because we conform very closely to the ideas of any of the tendencies of the anarchists-without-anarchism. We are not Warrenites, nor advocates of “inalienable homestead,” nor enthusiasts for any of the specific varieties of “natural order” that informed the works of Andrews, Déjacque, Blanchard, etc. Even among those of us who have assumed some version of the “Proudhonian” label, our fidelity to Proudhon’s ideas is quite partial. So, it is one thing to talk about the modern uses to which we have put some of the ideas from the earlier era, but it is very much another thing to cling too tightly to the notion that the specific history of anarchism must treat those modern uses and their historical sources as the same—or even as the product of some kind of direct development.

The original premise of the Atercratic Revolution project was that, if the anarchist history we have inherited really was shaped by the specific circumstances of specific individuals who took it upon themselves to tell a new story about a new idea—(modern) anarchism—and its relations to certain precursors, then presumably the same historical events might have been woven into significantly different narratives in different times and places (within the general scope of what we now think of as the origins of anarchism.) To test the utility of the thought, I’ve spent some time imagining what the emergence of anti-authoritarian movements in the late 19th century might have looked like to a young French-American man in New York City in the 1870s, to a young woman in Chicago’s reform circles a decade or so later, and so on… One of the goals was to leave the questions of anarchy and anarchism out of things, unless there were specific reasons to bring them in to the narrative. So, for example, I imagined that Jack, my first alternative historian, might have latched onto the notion of atercracy, which was in circulation in his particular time and place, but would also have to account for notions like art-liberty, pantarchy and inalienable homestead, as the primary proponents of those ideas would also have been local for him. And by giving Jack and his eventual collaborators a rather different question than the one that I started with—something like “What the &#$% is going on all around us?” rather than “Is this anarchism?“—I was able to set myself down a rather different path through familiar material, rather than literally retracing my steps. And, in fact, the path that has been imposed on me has been, in some ways, much the opposite of the one I first took through this marginal material. Knowing some of the ways in which these various outliers could indeed be considered anarchists, I could turn my attention to the various other things that they were.

That investigation has involved a widening of scope, a diversification of classifications and an attention to the influences of earlier sources, including many not so easily incorporated into a strictly anarchist history. And it has essentially confirmed a hunch that I’ve carried around for a number of years now. It now appears to me very much the case that the period immediately preceding what we usually think as the opening of the era of anarchist thought—the era of “utopian socialism” and the birth of social science—nearly every one of the significant schools produced its radical libertarian heresy, however obscure and short-lived some of those may have been. We would not expect that sort of pattern of development to produce a coherent and cohesive body of anarchistic thought. Instead, we we would probably expect the sort of Babel that was indeed arguably produced. But if we did want to incorporate an account of what appears to have been a very diverse and disconnected flowering of anarchistic ideas into the story of the emergence of “modern anarchism”—particularly this late in the tale, when so many elements from that early profusion have been incorporated into anarchist currents, with or without much understanding of their original contexts—then it seems to me that we would have to address those early elements much differently than we have thus far.

And perhaps that’s where I have to leave things, at least for now. Just exactly what that substantially different approach would or will involve remains a bit unclear to me. But I suspect it would involve, among other things, the construction of a context in which a figure like Calvin Blanchard, the near-anarchist disciple of Fourier, Paine and Comte, could come into a considerably clearer focus for those of us who care about the development of libertarian ideas.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2141 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.