The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution


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  • “How A Revolution Was Lost” [coming soon]

The Historians

Jack Deames

Tilly Thornton

Patience Coppe (and Kimball)

The Failed Atercratic Revolution of 2014

The posts collected here appeared on the original Great Atercratic Revolution blog, as I was attempting to frame the project in its first form.

[April 13, 2014]

Exploring Perspectives, Inventing Accomplices

It has taken some time to move from proposing this project to finding the means to really push it forward. I’ve spent the last year attempting to sort through the tools in my theoretical toolkit, to see what seems useful and what is just a drag to lug around, while I clarified for myself just what it would mean to do history according to the anarchist principles I’ve been deriving from Proudhon’s work. That’s been rewarding work, but one of the lessons has been that once you start attempting to apply Proudhon’s basic critique—when you start looking for criteria of certainty that are not reducible to justice, or when you start looking for instances of external constitution of relations—it becomes pretty hard to stop. And just as there are all the manifestations of the State in the political realm, and metaphysics in the philosophical, there are historiographical concerns to be faced when we are doing history.

The differences between doing Anarchist History and doing history like an anarchist have been striking me more and more often lately, probably because my work has been taking me more and more often into parts of the story of anarchism where certain accounts have a pretty strong grip on us. Writing about the First International is a bit of a nightmare from the perspective with which I have necessarily been approaching it. The dominant histories are in part simply an argument against the kind of historical recovery work that I’m engaged in, which carefully position most of the figures whose story I have been pursuing on the margins of the tale, if not in the enemy camp. I’ve been playing with a slightly tongue-in-cheek essay called “Why We Can Still Love Varlin (and Almost Nobody Else),” which lays out some of the many ways in which radicals found themselves shoved out of both the histories and the internationalist movement over the course of just a few years. The punchline is fairly straightforward: to maintain one’s symbolic value in radical history, nothing beats a timely martyrdom. Those who survived tended to fall afoul of some strong voice.

I’ve often talked about how much it has been necessary to unlearn in order to learn about the earliest anarchists, and proposed “atercracy” as a term to designate a less thoroughly channeled or governed account of the anarchist tradition. I have spoken about my practice of imagining alternate outcomes and receptions for the radical projects and texts that I encounter, and exploring them (mostly in my notebooks) in the form of fiction. And I have, from time to time, documented my halting attempts to launch one or another introductory projects covering anarchist history—none of which, including this one, have quite got off the ground, although I’ve compiled a small mountain of what seem like the right sort of good stories. The problem for me has been to find a way to present a pretty thoroughly non-traditional account of the anarchist tradition in a manner which did not simply devolve into a discussion of anarchist historiography likely to bury all those good stories. That’s really a problem for two important reasons: 1) the tradition really does fit very well into the narrow little accounts we’ve given; and 2) the reasons are not obvious if you accept any of those narrow little accounts. The trick has been to try to make one of these new, presumably introductory projects both sophisticated enough to get the job done and not a drag to read and write.

I’ve known for some time that the alternative history project, with its not-quite-steampunk re-imaginings of the 19th century, probably held the answers I was looking for, but there is a complicated set of trade-offs when you’re trying to introduce history as historical fiction. You still have to do the history, and then you also have to be a competent fiction writer, and then you have to make it easy for the reader to discern when you’re wearing your historian hat and when you’re embroidering to make the pill go down easier. I hope some day to share much more of the Distributive Passions universe, but I want to do it because it is very precisely not history, but a kind of creative commentary on past ideas and events. Even if I had the time right now to do it justice (and I don’t) it wouldn’t really get me where I feel the need to go. But maybe it got me to the place where I could see what would.

What the scattered fictional experiments have allowed me to do is to explore other perspectives on historical events and yesterday, in the course of doing some research and translation, it struck me that I didn’t need to go as far as a parallel universe to develop some alternative points of view on anarchist history. All I needed to do was to lift myself out of the particular interpretive frame that, despite all of my explorations of the margins of the traditional, still dominates—and in some important senses probably should and perhaps has to dominate—my work as an Anarchist Historian. Because I am in a conversation (however one-sided it sometimes feels) with a movement that sees itself developing from mutualism to communism, passing through the International and Spain—or which sees itself engaged in a desperate resistance to pretty much that same history, passing from the early dissenters of the movement along the margins to an odd assortment of more-or-less accepted heresies (and mutualism probably fits all too comfortably among this number)—and because there are good political reasons not to mess with that particular set of narratives too hastily, when we seem to be in “repel all boarders” mode with regard to any number of entryist tendencies, a certain sort of grudging fidelity to a rather traditional understanding of “anarchism” just doesn’t feel like something I can jettison. The question then becomes whether that traditional sense can be expanded without losing more than we gain.

That’s the question I want to explore, in the course of this new project.

But I can’t do it alone.

My great epiphany came after a couple of weeks immersed in newly digitized archival materials, including the papers of Max Nettlau and Lucien Descaves, two children of the 1860s who followed the packrat’s road to becoming, each in their way, historians of the anarchist movement. They were assembling their hoards in Europe at roughly the same time that the slightly older Jo Labadie was assembling his collection in North America. That’s a sort of research that I know something about, as a latter-day historian-packrat, and it is a hit-or-miss business, where the results are frequently shaped by luck and by the specific circles that the historian is able to access—for materials, for testimony, and for their own sense of what they might be missing. We know from Nettlau’s accounts that his research was shaped at times by political events, and there is no doubt that his interests were politically shaped, despite his rather wide-open collection strategy. I’ve come to have some sense of what Nettlau knew and what he was looking for, and have some inkling of Descaves interests, just as I have learned a good deal about Labadie’s in my explorations of his collection. I started to think about what wasn’t in those collections, and why, and it struck me that an awful lot of what I have been interested in over the last ten years was probably on the margins of all three of those collections. That left a couple of difficult questions—about the possibility that my interests have just been marginal, but also about just what sort of approach might have captured those interests as well as a wide swath of more traditionally relevant materials.

I understand the sort of exclusionary process that shapes so much anarchist history, and I could immediately think of some rather awkward examples of a broad strategy of inclusion going rather badly wrong. C. L. James, for example, wrote some strikingly idiosyncratic articles about anarchism’s origins and development, which are hard to reconcile with any of the anarchist subcultures existing during his life, and which do not seem to be grounded in the same way as something like Nettlau’s histories. But it might be possible to imagine the same sort of grounding, but in a different set of associations and locales than those frequented by Nettlau. Once I started down this road, New York City in the mid-19th century—and then Chicago, a couple of decades later—came to mind. A New Yorker born around the same time as Descaves would have had fairly ready access to people who had participated in the International Association before the First International, who had received Déjacque’s Libertaire, attended Stephen Pearl Andrews lectures or the services of his New Catholic Church, who had shopped at Calvin Blanchard’s bookstore, bought artificial flowers or heard socialist lectures made by Claude Pelletier, encountered Henri Rochefort, Mikhail Bakunin or Elie Reclus on their visits, even walked over lighted sewer vaults manufactured by Joshua King Ingalls, etc. Older acquaintances might have met Josiah Warren in 1830, encountered Anselme Bellegarrigue, voted for Lewis Masquerier, and so on. I started to imagine what a clever lad with insufficient adult supervision and access to the right circles might learn.

Jackson Wendell Deames (aka Jacques Dime) was born, as a character around which to build this alternative point of view. Immediately, he accumulated a checkered career, a long life and a life-long project to go with it: The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution. Fleshing him out, I borrowed bits from Nettlau and James, and more bits from Ravachol and Oliver Twist. I found that there was an existing character in my Distributive Passions tales who could pass for the aging Jack Deames, living out his last years under an assumed name. I built him up as a logical foil to my own approach, and then quickly gave him his own foil, a determined woman with an overlapping mission: Matilda “Tilly” Thorne. Between the two of them, I’ve started to parcel out a range of good stories and heretical interpretations that I would like to examine from a variety of perspectives. And I laid out a set of ground rules for myself:

For this project, the data of the histories will be just that. Our imaginary helpers may take on a (fictional) adventure of their own from time to time, but those will be clearly distinguished from the historical studies and will largely serve to flesh out the historiographical possibilities. In fact, I’ll start with a number of historical incidents likely to have shaped Jack’s world, and we’ll spend some time fleshing out how that world differs from ours, or from Nettlau’s, before Jack gets much say of his own. And then at some point we’ll go through a similar process with Tilly, in a slightly different time and space, as she emerges as Jack friend and antagonist. Perhaps it will all be a bit of a mess. Perhaps it will work better than I dare hope. Who knows how long I’ll want to keep it up. But I think there are enough lessons to be learned about history, and about how anarchists do history—and perhaps about how to do history anarchistically—that this may be fun for at least a while.

[April 13, 2014]


Much of the attraction of the work I do does not come from the ideas—as fascinating and useful as they may be—but from the amazing gallery of rogues that I get to spend so much of my time with. And the more you work at the margins of the tradition, the stranger and more wonderful the characters get. But one of the more interesting things about the history of anarchism, as opposed to the more-or-less official accounts maintained by the modern movement, is the extent to which some of the strangest characters occupied really central positions in the movements of their day. In the United States, figures like Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886) played prominent roles in the anarchist movement, despite their boundless, aggressive eccentricity. Andrews connects the backwoods proto-anarchism of Josiah Warren to the bohemian culture of New York City, and both to the First International (with a little help from Victoria Woodhull.) Spiritualism, language reform, free love, equitable commerce and a host of other interests mingle in his works on the Pantarchy, itself a curious mix of anarchism and benign, voluntary dictatorship by a sort of philosopher-king. While he was certainly subject to a variety of criticism from a number of quarters, for many, Andrews’ almost impossibly eccentric hodgepodge of ideas and interests appeared both radical and forward-looking.

In sketching out the life of our new friend, Jack Deames, the challenge is to capture something of the perspective from which not just Andrews, but a host of other wild rogues could appear together as a relatively coherent, or at least intelligible political movement or scene. That means taking a number of apparently daft projects seriously enough to see how they might have fit together, and appeared as logical aspects of a revolt against authority in their own time and place. The fun, given our own peculiar project, is to imagine the sort of wild character who might have taken on an exploration of all these wild ideas as his own personal life-work. So let’s start sketching:

Jackson Wendell Deames (aka Jacques Dime) 1858-1965. Of mixed French-American parentage, born out of wedlock to a single mother, who promptly succumbed. I have my theories about the details, but only time will tell what we will discover about his parents, the circumstances of his conception, etc. Those who know my other work will understand that 1858 represents for me a particular moment in the coming of age of anarchism. Raised—by diverse hands, shall we say—among the French workers who were part of the Union Républicaine de Langue Française, among tales of the February Revolution of 1848, the June Day, the coup d’état of December 2, 1851, the International Association, Déjacque’s Libertaire, etc, and entering at a young age into an international workers’ movement which was, in the city where he was born, curiously mixed with elements we might more immediately associate with individualist anarchism, and possessing a wealth of intelligence and a dearth of close supervision, we can begin to imagine how Jack’s lifelong obsession might have taken root. We can also see how certain individuals, who might not feature so prominently in either the strictly European or strictly North American accounts, might come to occupy a prominent place. Take, for example, Claude Pelletier (1816-1880), of whom we’ll get a first glimpse:



The foreign notabilities resident in New York if gathered together in one room would make a most interesting assemblage. In the recent articles published in THE WORLD on the French Communistic and German Socialistic elements in the population of this city, some account was given of notorious foreigners who had been concerned in revolutionary movements in the Old World and who are still seeking to create revolutionary movements in the New World. Something remains to be said of men formerly active in political affairs abroad, but now settled down in New York quietly pursuing their business avocations. Perhaps the most remarkable of this class is Claude Pelletier, at one time a well-known Socialist and politician of the extreme Radical wing in France, and a member of the Corps Legislatif from 1848 to 1851. He was born in 1816, at Arbresle, in the Department of the Rhone, the son of an innkeeper, he went to Paris while very young, and lived in great poverty until after the revolution of 1848, when he went home and became a candidate for the Assembly, to which he was elected by 45,000 votes. He was a strong partisan of La Montagne and an active worker in the Radical cause. He was reelected in 1850 by 71,000 votes, and was still in office when, on December 2, 1851, he was arrested by the order of Louis Napoleon and subsequently banished by the decree of January 9, 1852, as “dangerous to the public peace.” So much Vapereau’s Dictionnaire des Contemporains tells us; for the rest let Pelletier speak for himself.

M. Pelletier lives in Wooster street, near Canal, in a little three story building, where he has for many years carried on the business of a manufacturer of artificial leaves and flowers. His office is in the back room on the first floor, and there he superintends the work of a dozen girls engaged in folding the leaves and flowers. The adjoining front room is used as a sitting room and library; it is comfortably but plainly furnished, and much space is occupied by bookcases containing the works of Voltaire, Moliere, Rossi, Washington Irving, Kant, Comte and others. The walls are hung with photographs of Garibaldi and Mazzini, bearing the autographs of those distinguished men. There are a few oil paintings of merit and several line engravings of classical subjects. In this room M. Pelletier, in the dress of a French artisan, received the writer. He is a distinguished looking old gentleman, with white hair and beard, a face denoting great intelligence and the most polished manners. He readily consented to speak of his past life and present views, adding, however, that he must “long since have ceased to be of interest to the public.”

It appears from M. Pelletier’s story that he first imbibed his Socialistic theories while living at the inn kept by his father, where, as he remembers, in 1829, he saw King Louis-Philippe on his way to Lyons. At the inn he came in contact with people of all sorts and all opinions, and as he became impressed with the cruel misery of the vast majority of the people, was filled with a desire, amounting to a mania, to aid them. Full of this desire, he went, to Paris, where, however, he was unable to get work, and had to sell his books and his clothes and to rely upon the goodwill of his acquaintances to get the means of bare subsistence. But, during this time, his discontent with the prevailing social system and his ambitious projects of contributing towards its reform grew stronger every day. Then came the revolution of 1848, which he speaks of as “a terrible showing of the frightful effects of the cowardice of the people.” The revolution produced a great effect upon him; “to this day,” he said to the writer, “I cannot drive out of my mind or from before my eyes the horrible doings of that period; it opened my eyes wide to the terrible nature of men made mad with grief and trouble, of men made beasts in time of danger by cowardice.” He continued, as though thinking aloud: “Oh, my God those scenes back of the Hotel de Ville! Talk of the Commune of ’71! It was child’s play compared to that. I tell you the most terrible thing to see is a man thoroughly a coward. Be rather afraid of a cowardly friend than of a bold enemy in times of revolution! How I saw men killing each other in perfect frenzy, how I saw crowds behind the Hotel de Ville crazy with fear, trampling the dead and dying, stabbing at corpses and wallowing in the blood of comrades they knew not why! Ah! I have never forgotten those scenes from hell; they come to me again and again, and I ask, What has become of the manliness of men?”

In the election following the revolution M. Pelletier was elected to represent the. Department of the Rhone and the great city of Lyons, and for two years that followed he labored in time and out of time, with men whose names have since become famous, to put into practice his theories for the alleviation of the distress of his fellow men. But the coup d’état that carried Louis Napoleon into power proved the death-blow to his schemes; he was arrested and imprisoned, and, as Victor Hugo relates in his “Histoire d’un Crime,” he was with sixty-two other Deputies sentenced to banishment. His fellow exiles included Victor Hugo himself; Lafon, now or recently in New-Orleans, and Jules Leroux, now settled in Corning County, Iowa. Of these sixty-three exiles only about twenty are now living.

After leaving France Pelletier went to England, as he says, “with a heart heavy with the feeling that the alleviation of the distress of the French people and of humanity was further off than ever, since in the shadow of the Bonapartist republic we had the substance of a worse despotism than France had yet seen. How my views proved to be prophetic all the world knows.” In 1855 M. Pelletier came to the United States, poor and friendless. It occurred to him, as he says, that he should prove himself more competent to aid others, when occasion served, if he could now manage to aid himself. He therefore sought and obtained employment as a vender of artificial flowers, and became half a canvasser, half a peddler.

His industry and intelligence were a help to him and he prospered. In a short time he was enabled to open a store of his own; then he became a manufacturer, and is reputed today to be one of the most successful men in his business. One of his business rivals said to the writer recently, “How does Pelletier stand? Why, he stands like the Bank of England; his word is good for all he will ever ask for!” But, engrossed in business as he has been. M. Pelletier has not at all given up his Socialistic views: all his leisure for a dozen years has been devoted to the writing of a Socialist dictionary for the instruction of the masses in the practical methods of enforcing Socialist views. This work is entitled “Dictionnaire Socialiste—Indiquant les Voies et Moyens de Résoudre le Problème Sociale.” (Socialist Dictionary, Indicating the Ways and Means to Solve the Social Problem.) up to this time two volumes have been printed, and constitute a clear, concise and judicial exposition of Socialist theories. M. Pelletier will not publish the work until it is complete. He hopes to leave it finished at his death, as he says, “for a legacy to the people and for the cause to which I was so willing to consecrate my life but so little able to serve.”

Since he has been in America M. Pelletier has studiously avoided all publicity and refrained from taking part in any of the so-called Socialistic movements of other foreigners in this country. He explained the reason of this by saying: “I am not conversant with the English language and therefore I could not, if I would, take part in politics here. I have often been solicited to do so by countrymen of mine who make a practice of interfering in matters that they do not understand, and if I consented I might, perhaps, have much influence with them. But I think that the politics of America should be left to people who understand the American people. From what I see of American Socialism, I am afraid it has started in the wrong way. The American Socialists want to work less and to be paid more, forgetting that men will not employ labor if it does not serve them, and that there is nothing to be gained by increasing the antagonism between labor and capital which already exists. There is no doubt that the workmen here are greatly distressed, but there is a relief for them. Just as the politicians insure against crime, fire, &c., let them insure against involuntary idleness, which is a still greater evil. Let all men work and eat. In a republic like this we should have Government workshops in the large cities to give work to those who want it: let the Government advance men wages on their labor to meet their necessities as the commission merchant advances moneys to the producer on his produce to meet his expenses. Communism sounds terrible, and Socialism sounds little better, but worse than either is a country where the few feast and the many starve, and the Government cannot relieve the distress and can only wait expectantly for an outbreak and suppress it at a cost much larger than would have been required to prevent it.”

As to Mégy and his fellow Communists, M. Pelletier said: “Mégy means well, but he is young, he is younger than his age. He has a good heart that has suffered, and he has become an extremist. But these people have no influence with the American working-man—the French Commune has no place here. If a revolution broke out here tomorrow you would not even hear of Mégy. These people are the apostles of ideas only, very honest and sincere, but having no business with the present state of labor affairs in America. “In regard to the state of American politics, M. Pelletier said: “Corruption is its name and its blame. In Europe the politicians are honest at least; if they are wrong they are conscientiously wrong. Corruption has no access to them; they are proud to be honest rather than rich. Our justice in Europe is honest, too, until it touches political matters, and then it is worse than it is here. Your trouble in the United States is with an aristocracy of office-holders apparently elected by the people, not to serve them but to grow rich at their expense. While one sees suffering all around and one asks in vain for its relief we see two or three men invested with absolute power of imposing heavy taxes, regardless of the general distress, because to regard that distress would be to decrease the taxes, and to decrease the taxes would be to decrease the official salaries which alone make office-holding desirable. These views are common among thinking men, and the danger of this country lies not in the Commune nor in Socialism, but in the arrogance and greed of the public officials, who are slowly but surely breeding a revolution of which they may be the first victims. For myself, I take no active part in public affairs; the memories of the past and my present work in behalf of humanity in the future occupy all my time.”

In conclusion M. Pelletier spoke of Mazzini and Garibaldi, with whom he was formerly well-acquainted. He said that Mazzini’s dream had been fulfilled in the unity of Italy and that Garibaldi had lived to see the realization of many of his hopes. As to Church matters he would not speak; he was of opinion “that the Socialists and the Communists make too much of the Church in their abuse of it. They could not harm it more than by leaving it severely alone.”

Source: New York World. April 30, 1878. 7.

[June 5, 2014]

May 31, 1874

A 16-year-old Jack Deames has just been introduced to Henri Rochefort, Paris Communard and escapee from New Caledonia. He shakes the famous hand, mumbles something and retreats. Although young, he has shown the sort of youthful enthusiasm and energy that sometimes gets you introduced as a representative of the next generation. Rochefort is both familiar and largely unknown. Jack’s world is full of stories about the Paris Commune and its protagonists. He has been aware of Rochefort’s escape and journey, and vaguely aware of his conflicts with Paschal Grousset and François Jourde. Not everything he has heard has been positive, but for the moment those around him seem content to celebrate the escape and return. Jack is too young to really remember Bakunin’s visit the city in 1861, but he understands clearly that, at least for the moment, those around him are willing to see this new escapee’s passage as a favorable sign, perhaps even of a rebirth of international radicalism.

Jack drifts away, sorting through the events of the day. Just what a young man in his circumstances would have made of this particular event is one of the things we’re trying to understand, but let’s start by imagining that, at the very least, the international character of the struggles that have been so central to his social world seems a bit more concrete. And from that small step, let’s take a leap. Let’s say that, on that day, something clicked for young Jackson Wendell Deames in a decisive way, that this was the day that set him on his lifelong, obsessive quest to understand the international movements for ever-greater liberty. Let’s say that, having mulled over the day’s events for a while, he pulled a notebook out of his pocket, turned to a blank page and wrote, with something of a flourish, a single phrase, the meaning of which was still unclear to him, but seemed full of portents and promises: The Great Atercratic Revolution



Henri Rochefort arrived in New-York at 7 p. m. on Saturday by the Hudson River Railroad, with Thomas Pain, a French political prisoner, who had escaped with him from New-Caledonia, end Ollivier Benedic, a French acquaintance whom he bad met at Sydney, New-South Wales. On reaching the Grand Central Hotel he took supper with his friends. After breakfasting yesterday he visited a photographer by invitation, and remained at the rooms until 4 p. m. This engagement caused him to miss an appointment with a committee of the French societies at 3.30 p. m. On leaving the photographer, he visited with a party of friends Claude Pelletier, artificial flower and feather manufacturer of Worster-st., who took refuge in this country alter the French revolution of 1848. Here he conversed freely upon the various acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Versailles troops upon Communists, and upon the discomfort of his imprisonment in New-Caledonia. He expressed much sympathy for those of his fellow captives, who, unlike himself, were unprovided with money, and were limited to scanty and indifferent food and wretched accommodations. It was proposed by Mr. Pelletier that he should lecture in this city, Boston and Philadelphia for their benefit, and he expressed willingness to do so, especially as he might in that way place the motives and acts of the much-abused Communists in a more favorable light before the American people. Joseph Olivier, a refugee, and George Baron, a member of the Société Union Républicaine, who entered at that moment, agreed that this course would be more desirable than the attendance of M. Rochefort at a banquet, as the profits of the latter would be absorbed by a restaurant keeper and be of no assistance to their suffering country men,

M. Rochefort told a Tribune reporter that he thought of prolonging his stay in this country eight days, it is possible that he may soon retire to Mr. Pelletier’s country seat at Yonkers for a day or two to prepare his lecture. He intends to remain only a few days in London, as he considers the climate unfavorable to the health of his children; neither will he sojourn at Brussels, as he thinks the Belgian Government unfavorable to him. He will proceed to Genova and await events. He feels confident that the Government of MacMahon will last only a few mouths, and that he will be able to return to Paris soon. He has no idea of publishing a paper out of France, on account of the difficulty of circulating it there. He will more probably write for a Paris journal, or if practicable publish a new one in that city, and edit it at a distance. He thought that if he should act as a correspondent of one or more of the French papers he could more easily accomplish his purposes. Instead of his signature at the foot of his articles (as the admission into France of any article bearing his name is prohibited), he would make his mark, which would be a lantern. He was going to devote himself wholly to the salvation of the Republic, and would not take part in the labor movements. In a conversation with a Tribune reporter he reasserted in detail and at great length the views concerning Napoleon III, the Commune, and the MacMahon Government, which have been attributed to him in the foreign correspondence of The Tribune.

M. Rochefort is five feet nine inches in height, and 44 years of age, with a thin, dark complexioned face, full, high cheek bones, and numerous marks of small-pox. There is a slight cast in one of his dark eyes, and his dark curly hair is tinged with gray. His beard is confined to the upper lip and chin. He appears fond of animals, and has brought with him from Australia a big, red-headed parrot. For a hideous little Mexican monkey possessed by Mr. Pelletier, be showed a decided friendship. He took the little animal on his lap, fondled it, and kissed its head with a sympathetic “pauvre petit,” and other expressions of endearment. As he deposited it on the ground in the excitement of discourse, the animal would soon return and climb upon his knee. This repeated partiality seemed to entertain Rochefort, who styled him an evident Republican for his attraction. On leaving Mr. Pelletier’s house, he dined with a friend who had accompanied him hither from Chicago, and was not at the hotel to receive visits during the evening. No time has been set for his lecture.

[“Arrival of Rochefort,” New York Daily Tribune 34, no. 10347 (June 1, 1874): 1.]

[June 9, 2014]

What if?

If we’re doing really radical history, it’s hard not to engage in some “What is”? Much of the attraction of knowing the details of the radical movements of the past is the possibility that we’ll find tools and lessons useful in the present and future. And we can’t very well limit ourselves to examining the successes of the past, since without a little of that “if at first you don’t succeed…” spirit, there wouldn’t seem to be much point in trying to be radical at all. So I have found myself wondering how things might have played out if the currency lessons of the New England colonial period had been the spread of the “land bank” model, rather than its suppression, or if the origins of the First International had been a transatlantic alliance, rather than just a cross-channel hook-up. None of these thought experiments are really much more dramatic than the similar operations that pass for straight history. Let’s think about a case like Black Flame. Whatever its value as a work of history, it seems clear that a great deal of its importance in recent discussions comes from its ideological and historiographical interventions. People love it or hate it because of the ways that it attempts to reinvent what it means to do “anarchist history,” reinventing “anarchism” in ways that defy a good deal of the historical record in the interests of “coherence.” As an ideological polemic, Black Flame is audacious in its sectarianism—and whether or not that is interesting probably depends on where you are positioned among the anarchist sects. As a work of history, however, it really only makes sense as a kind of alternate history, a “what if?” that starts from the truly audacious premise that the historical development of ideologies not only can but must be coherent. If you can buy the premise, then the rest of the work is a fascinating exercise in assembling available facts to fit one particular notion of what form that ideological coherence could take. Unfortunately, at least for the partisans of this premise, what the history of movements like anarchism seems to demonstrate rather dramatically is that coherence is something that we may attempt to impose on history and on movements, but it is certainly not inherent in either.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to assemble a usable past and a compelling origin story (although the project will obviously have limited appeal when you attempt to do so at the expense of others who identify with the same tradition.) An awful lot of good radical history has been done by people seeking their own ideological ancestors. And defending ideological positions is pretty much part of holding them. But if we’re really doing history, instead of just establishing continuity, then we have to try to be clear where our ideology inevitably colors our interpretation of historical facts. For the moment, let’s just acknowledge that some coloring of that sort seems inevitable, and let’s say that, in the absence of some truly objective lens for radical history, perhaps a variety of perspectives gives us the best chance to escape self-imposed blind spots.

What I am attempting to embrace in this project is a perspective that views the facts we generally associate with “anarchist history” not just according to a different or broader notion of what constitutes “anarchism,” but from a position from which it is not at all clear that “anarchism” is even a particularly important keyword. Why would I do that? Well, one reason is the emphasis that many people currently put on the word itself. Even those not rushing to appeal to lexical authority to settle their ideological disputes may be quick to look for what is most important in the tradition we have inherited in the immediate vicinity of some classical roots, while we know that among the historical roots of the explicitly anarchist tradition we can find some very interesting, and ideologically complicating, ideas about the “anarchy” that anarchists presumably embrace. Those realizations about Proudhon’s ambivalent attitude towards “anarchy” were certainly among the jolts that have driven me to rethink my historical approach. Another would be my simultaneous frustrations with ideological fundamentalism, sectarianism and “big-tent” attempts to sideline substantive differences within anarchistic circles. When I take a hard look at my own developing narrative of “anarchist history,” it’s hard not to admit that something of all of those tendencies has at times compromised the clarity of my vision and my exposition of the historical facts. And it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.

Enter Jack Deames, and the possibility of shifting perspective outside my own experiences, to force myself to first build the perspective of my proxy-historian from the historical facts I can associate with the position I have assigned him, before attempting to apply that perspective more broadly. And enter Tilly Thorne, still lurking in the wings, but serving for now as a reminder that neither Jack nor I have a monopoly on perspectives. Is this an audacious move? In some ways, not at all. After all, we know that the people we now tend to consider anarchists in the 19th century generally thought of themselves in other terms, with some even denying the terms “anarchist” and “anarchy” for reasons that had everything to do with the values we associate with anarchism. When we look at history, we find proponents of equitable commerce, libertaires, advocates of the pantarchy, mutualists, collectivists, egoists, partisans of atercracy, communists, prophets of art-liberty, sociology, etc., etc., as well as plenty of libertarian radicals without a convenient tag to hang on them. Oh, and a handful of folk for whom anarchy really is a keyword. And a range of individuals embracing ideologies tantalizingly or disturbing close to our anarchists and near-anarchists by other names. This is the world from which I’m attempting to conjure up some native historians, in order to set them loose on the material from which we have constructed our competing accounts of anarchism. If that conjuring is indeed audacious for someone not of that world, it is probably no more so than the alternatives.

It isn’t clear that, in the end, we can do without some form of the “what if?”

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2417 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.