The Uses of a Lost Continent

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

      I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the reception of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back—particularly as it has been a matter of draft sections distributed through social media without much in the way of rhyme or reason. It appears that some of the method in my madness has shown through.

      But this is obviously a big project, dependent on a very complicated set of frames, so it’s probably worth underlining the very practical reasons for the approach I’m taking. I’ll largely skip over a series of fairly personal concerns, relating to the demands of tackling large projects. Let’s just say that injecting a bit of fun into the process certainly does not hurt when it is a question of returning to the work day after day. And some elements, like the quasi-dialogue to be established between my own work and Nettlau’s “Short History,” are attempts to establish checks on my own approach that I haven’t been able to establish in more immediate ways. Certain other choices are largely a question of playing to what I see as my own strengths. As should already be clear, this is very far from the only kind of study that even my own somewhat idiosyncratic research might have produced—but, for reasons that I hope will become clearer and clearer, it feels like the most useful one, given the current states of anarchist studies and the larger anarchist milieus.

      While I’m warming to the task, if I was entirely honest, I would have to say that anything like a “general history of anarchism” is just the sort of project most likely to evoke a response of “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” I’m most comfortable exploring and experimenting, and generally happy to leave the more magisterial summaries to others who are undoubtedly more suited to that task. But we don’t always get to choose—particularly when our most basic philosophical and political commitments are at stake. So, here I am, trying to do something like “general anarchist history” without making too much of a mess of things.

      Or maybe I’m here simply because, having gestured repeatedly at the kind of history I might write if I was the kind of guy who wrote that kind of history, I’ve been told one too many times that it couldn’t be done…

      Of the objections that have been raised, the most important is almost certainly that “anarchist history” and “the anarchist tradition,” when used generally and without very careful delimitation, simply do not refer to any one particular thing, even approximately. They are instead bound up with a long series of confusions, conflations, accidents of history and of language, etc., which have caused us to treat truly distinct tendencies as if they were elements of a single, though obviously complex system. Properly anarchist theory and organization are, on this view, hindered—or at least distracted—by a range of unlike and incompatible, though nominally “anarchist” elements.

      The criteria by which the wheat is separated from the chaff vary, although we can undoubtedly point to some persistent disagreements about the relative roles of individuals and social collectivities, differences in opinions about what constitutes useful organization, varying emphases when it comes to balancing anarchy as a principle of social organization with a wide range of specific struggles for reform, etc. But perhaps we can at least set these specific issues aside for the moment, if we can suggest an account by which the apparent incompatibility of elements can be contested.

      The (currently half-completed) outline I’ve been providing here, likening “anarchist history” to a complex river-system and elaborating at least some of that system’s dynamics at the outset, is an attempt to answer the challenge of this first objection. If we can describe “anarchist history” or “the anarchist tradition” as if we were describing known, naturally occurring systems, then it becomes harder to deny that, behind whatever real confusions might remain in our understanding of things, there probably is some more-or-less coherent object that might be analyzed and some useful subject for narrative exposition. We can describe a “river” or riverine system, provided we understand the demands of the task and follow through, engaging all the complexities. So why is answer to the challenge of “anarchist history” not an engagement of roughly the same sort and seriousness?

      The answer that seems most likely, from those quarters where the first objection is most seriously posed, is that the kind of account that is likely to emerge from that kind of engagement with “anarchist history” is not one that provides useful conclusions. If we grant, from that perspective, that the complexities of “anarchist history” can be accounted for and a complex unity proposed, the practical problem may only be exacerbated. The distractions from proper organization and useful action remain. Something may be preserved—and that something may answer well, perhaps even particularly well, to the name of “anarchist history”—but it is not a useful thing. It may even be something fundamentally inimical to the aims and interests that these critics associate with the name of anarchism.

      And, ultimately, there is no simple answer to this second objection. We can point, as I have done, to the more general theory of synthesis in anarchist development that we find in Voline’s 1924 essay, at least as a place to start thinking about our relation with “anarchist history” and “the anarchist tradition.” We can emphasize the immensity of “the anarchist project”—certainly another of these phrases that has earned its scare-quotes—and the very limited likelihood that any of our projects, individually or in our real associations, encompass more than some fraction of its scope. We can point to the various elements of that “anarchistic counter-current” that I have begun to sketch—the various projects for entente, synthesis, anarchism without adjectives, symbiosis, mutual toleration, etc.—which have sought, in their various ways, to confront the diversity—let’s go ahead and say the anarchy—of anarchisms and anarchistic perspectives. And all of that at least gets us started on the road to elaborating some synthetic, dynamic account.

      But there’s not—at least not necessarily—anything about even the most successful such account that is going to make it appealing to those who have come to believe that the story of anarchism is really the story of some specific current within the larger system, some “main stream,” and is not concerned in any direct, positive sense with the rest. We could—if we could—complete the account down to its smallest details, exhausting the surviving archives and no doubt even those elements that have not survived, but the choice here is not ultimately between more or less complete versions of like things. Instead, I think we have to acknowledge that the contending forces here would like “anarchist history” to manifest itself in substantially different forms—as narratives of different genres, tools of different kinds, destined for different sorts of uses.

      So the response to this second objection perhaps has to be two-fold. On the one hand, there is the more conciliatory task of showing how knowledge of the larger system is likely to be useful to all of the more focused projects. But the difficulty is that it’s hard to go very far in that direction without confronting what seems to me the key insight behind the embrace of anarchist synthesis (at least in the form that interests us here):

      The pursuit of anarchy is such a large, ambitious, genuinely revolutionary project that all of us inevitably get some critically important bits wrong—forcing us to look at parallel endeavors if we are to correct our own mistakes.

      The “other hand” here is the understanding that, whatever the various anarchisms may be and whatever their various virtues, anarchy is something that flows through all of our various projects and is not captured or more than temporarily channeled by any of them. And if the gesture of calling ourselves “anarchists” and our ideologies “anarchism” is anything more than a bit of harmless edginess, we probably have to confront just what a hell of a star we have hitched our wagon to. And if our concerns are really more mundane, then perhaps we should take a cue from those principled radicals who have found other labels and other flags to fly.

      But, let’s face it, there are really no friendly ways to suggest to others that maybe they aren’t really anarchists in any very strong sense, no matter how many well-respected libertarian radicals may have come to that conclusion for themselves. So this is where the conversation tends to get a bit chippy. Sometimes, self-proclaimed anarchists are quick to dismiss anarchy as a concern. Sometimes, they are as quick as the capitalists and nationalists to define it in the narrowest and least radical sense. And sometimes, when you’re starting to try to tease out the differences between your positions, they’ll treat you to a snarling

      Well, who &%$#ing cares?

      with the obvious implication that you are the one trivializing something very important.

      That, at least, has been my experience, sometimes on social media and sometimes in forums with more serious pretensions. And it’s probably not nice to mention it, but, as I said, this is where things almost inevitably get a bit chippy.

      Having traced the path to that fundamental confrontation and the question of anarchy that underlies it, however, there’s really not much to do but get back to work. Perhaps part of the reason that push so often comes to shove in these encounters is because some of the issues involved—and perhaps particularly this business of the various genres of stories that might answer to the name of “anarchist history”—are simply not very well or widely understood. Indeed, looking at the way that proponents of various political ideologies regularly engage with historical narrative—so often in ways that suggest either the most cynical sort of opportunism or a rather credulous faith in “history,” if not a bit of both—it’s hard not to think that an exploration of anarchist history that emphasized the various varieties and layers of narrativity involved might be of some use.

      One of my chief hopes for Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is to provide readers with at least a solid introduction to the various ways in which the events of the anarchist past have become “anarchist history” and informed “the anarchist tradition,” along with some insights into how things might have played out differently. I want to continue to explore the extent to which “anarchist history” has been a partisan affair, the times that it has been a source of self-deception among anarchists in general, the instances where more a more careful engagement with the anarchist past might have advanced the anarchists movements and, just as importantly, the wide variety of ways in which “anarchist history”—however you might want to interpret that phrase—just doesn’t make one damn bit of difference in the present.

      These questions of narrative genres and their limits are near and dear to me, taking me back to concerns that occupied much of my work during grad school. But pursuing them here would, for the most part, take us rather far afield from the issues we’ve been addressing here. I have in mind a series of posts on “Limits” that will pursue other lines of exploration, but, for now, I want to focus on the question of “the uses of a lost continent.”

      The “lost continent” is, after all, a literary trope, associated with genres of popular entertainment very different from what we think of as history, despite a shared concern with the past. Invoking it almost inevitably involves taking on associations of at least a potentially disreputable sort—and by design, as there are questions that I want to make it hard to dodge, both for myself and for my readers. But let’s start by focusing on just a couple of elements likely to be invoked along with the phrase: first, lost or undiscovered knowledge, and, second, unexplored and trackless wilderness. The basic conventions of the genre generally ask us to believe that what has been “lost” to our histories, what exists in the few remaining gaps on our maps, the interstitial life of the world is likely to be larger than life. “Here be dragons.” The lacunae are not empty, but abundantly full—full to overflowing.

      On “our lost continent,” what there is in disturbing, potentially overwhelming profusion is the anarchist past—which is also, in our scenario, the lost or undiscovered knowledge and, we have to expect, a fair number of those “dragons.” It is all inescapably anarchic, particularly alongside the neat little narratives we have provided ourselves to explain the early decades of anarchist thought and action. And it really is in the comparison of the profusion of potential materials and the meager simplicity of the conventional historical accounts that we perhaps most clearly see the problem we are facing.

      This wild, rich, largely trackless continent is “ours,” but what are we to do with it?

      It’s a particularly awkward question—and one charged with all sorts of urgency when addressed in contemporary anarchist terms:

      What are we to do—we anarchists, with our consciousness of the history of such encounters—with a rich and relatively trackless continent? Set aside for the moment that this “continent” is history—or anarchy—or “ours.” Each of those considerations will complicate things in their own way. Are we bold or cautious? Do we “take only picture and leave only footprints” or do we understand that there will be a certain amount of slash-and-burn on the road to making this wilderness fertile for the purposes of anarchism? Do we see ourselves and our principles in profusion or do we see an obstacle to proper organization and useful action? Are our answers to these questions driven by ecological concerns? lessons learned from the history of colonialism or capitalism? ideological differences with those who may have embraced profusion or wilderness among their central principles or most prominent symbols?

      It would be easy to multiply similar questions, although I don’t suppose there is any great need. But perhaps other important ones will occur to either me or you before we take up those we have laid up in the next post.

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