Journal: September 1, 2019

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I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.

Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.

Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.

Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread.
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

TALK OF THE BEGINNING AND OF THE END: Unlike Whitman, who will still be a constant companion through the next long leg of my voyage, I suspect that I may do very little for the next decade or so that doesn’t involve some talk of beginnings and ends. Because Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is as much a work about anarchist history as a work of anarchist history, it’s going to be necessary not only to tell a particular story about the adventures of “the anarchist idea,” but also to talk about the other stories that might be or might have been told, as well as exploring how things might have worked out differently if the details of our ongoing, collective story-telling had been different. That work will begin almost immediately here, with some exploratory posts on 1840 and the years leading up to it, as I try to clarify in precisely what senses Proudhon’s “anarchist declaration” or “barbaric yawp”—je suis anarchiste—can be considered a starting place for both anarchist history and the account I am beginning to tell.

At the same time, I’m trying to come to some kind of final reckoning with the history of my own research, which has—somewhat infamously, in some quarters—had its fair share of beginnings and endings. Specifically, I’m trying to clean up some of the mess that, perhaps inevitably, remains after merging the various studies and websites that have accumulated over my decades of fairly wide-ranging study. I’m in the midst of collecting the best of the Contr’un writings in my own instead-of-a-book collection—following a fine old mutualist tradition—at which point my hope is that many of those old posts will have really served their purpose as anything but documentation of the journey so far. Similarly, many of the early posts on the details of mutualist history are steadily being incorporated into new collections, as the work on both Our Lost Continent and What Mutualism Was provides a framework for consolidating all the details gathered over the years.

And the from page of the Libertarian Labyrinth has been getting its share of renovations, mostly aimed at simplifying access to the most active parts of the site. But you’ll also notice that the site identification has been tweaked to reflect, explicitly, a mission that has been increasingly implicit for some time:

“Encounters with the Anarchist Idea / Tools for an Anarchist Entente”

That’s a partisan declaration, since, among anarchists, even entente seems to inevitably take on a bellicose character. It marks the beginning of a conscious attempt to promote what I have come to think of as a “synthesis of the syntheses,” but which, given all of the potentially distracting connotations of synthesis, I will probably pursue—with due acknowledgment to the influence of E. Armand—under the more general and less familiar banner of Anarchist Entente.

VARIETIES OF ANARCHIST ENTENTE: Among the new or relaunched pages that I consider of particular importance is a page (linked in the sidebar) containing links to over a dozen anarchist writers who proposed some form of anarchist harmony or mutual toleration. Many of the names will be familiar, although the projects will undoubtedly be less so. Others will probably be entirely unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t happened on them here as I discovered them. Here’s the project description:

Anarchism had hardly been established as a widely used keyword before the struggles over its scope and proper meaning became equally widespread. Indeed, we might say that anarchism became a keyword precisely as an attempt to draw lines between, on the one hand, authoritarian and anti-authoritarian factions in the International and, on the other, the “modern” anti-authoritarian communists and all other anarchistic tendencies. And the widespread divisions gave rise, just as rapidly, to proposals for unity or at least toleration between anarchists if different currents. We might recognize, then, that, alongside the various tendencies defined by proposed economic and social institutions, there has also been a tendency, sharing partisans with nearly all of the other anarchist currents, defined by its struggles to deal with what is most anarchic about anarchism and find means to turn that anarchy into a strength, rather than a weakness. Here, that current, with all of its own internal anarchy, is identified by the phrase “varieties of anarchist entente.” This page will collect material related to the various proposals and their authors. Initially, the links are intended to introduce the major proponents of the various projects, but they will gradually come to focus more specifically on the details of those proposals.

BEGINNINGS, ENDS AND ENCOUNTERS: Taking on this project of documenting Entente and Synthesis as themselves qualities of an anarchist tendency—one nearly as old as anarchism itself and involving contributions from across the tendencies we generally recognize—is, as I have said, an inescapably partisan move. Making it one of the central threads in Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is obviously more so. I’ve reached a point where there doesn’t seem to be any reason to pretend that the sort of shareable narrative I’ve been pursuing is going to be particularly welcome in many of the equally partisan anarchist milieus, but there also doesn’t seem to be any reason to cater in any way to the sort of partisans who think that the questions I’ve been addressing fly in the face of some established historical consensus—necessarily only of the particular anarchisms they value. Honestly, that just seems like an impossibly bad reading of anarchist history, at a moment in the development of anarchist studies when perhaps the only thing we can say with a great deal of certainty is that we have an enormous amount of work to do. But, beyond that, the practice of mining history for confirmations of commitments that we have presumably already made in the present just seems like a lot of work—even if we don’t do that task very thoroughly—in order to simply reach conclusions that were pretty well established from the outset.

My engagement with anarchist history has always had a voyage-of-discovery quality to it—and, certainly, not all of the discoveries have been flattering to either my preconceptions or the figures and movements I’ve been studying. Sometime, before What Mutualism Was is completed, there is a careful study of William Batchelder Greene’s plagiarism to complete (although, if the practice was good enough for Herman Melville, I’m not sure Greene has much to apologize for.) And the early stages of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back will have to involve closer examinations of Proudhon’s anti-feminism and the antisemitic outburst in the Carnets than will be entirely comfortable. But comfort isn’t what any of this is—or at least ought to be—about. Whether you think of the study of patriarchal government as the price of unearthing more of Sylvain Maréchal’s entertaining writings or think of what is genuinely delightful about those writings as the silver lining on the necessary work of establishing an important, not-quite-anarchist point of reference, in order to do the work we have to take the good with the bad. More generally, if we find—or continue to find—that the foundations upon which we have built the anarchisms of the present owe as much to tradition as they do to history, we can hope that the recognition of how much real history is still unaccounted for in our traditions is a very real consolation, with practical consequences when it is a question of enriching those anarchisms of the present. And, in the end, the fate of these half-historical, half-mythical figures that we think of as the pioneers of anarchism shouldn’t be of such concern to us, provided that our present beliefs are not simply founded on the emulation of largely mythical figures. What would it really matter to us—here, in the present—if Bakunin turned out to have really been, as his rivals claimed, an agent of the Czar? Our real connections to these figures are so tenuous that it’s hard to see how anything but our pride could really be damaged.

I have been saying now for some time that the primary utility of serious historical work, outside of the fairly narrow scope of what so often passes for anarchist history, is either to free us from history that does not actually serve present needs or to free history from present preconceptions, so that it might serve those needs more usefully. There is something to be said in favor of both outcomes. But to reach them, we need to be able to encounter history in a less constrained—more anarchic—manner than we are accustomed to, particularly when it is a case of these ideologically charged researches. In the vocabulary that I’ve built up over the years on this blog it is precisely a question of that anarchic encounter between equal uniques that became a centerpiece in my own theoretical work some years back and still expresses the core of my understanding about anarchist practice. It’s a formulation that first appeared in this paragraph, destined to be the “About this page” quote for a surprising number of mutualist forums:

Mutualism is not a specific social, political or economic system. It is—at its core—an ethical philosophy. We begin with mutuality or reciprocity—the Golden Rule, more or less—and then seek to apply that principle in a variety of situations. As a result, under mutualism every meaningfully social relation will have the form of an anarchic encounter between equally unique individuals—free absolutes—no matter what layers of convention we pile on it. To the extent that our conventions, institutions and norms respect that basic premise, we can call them “mutualist.” To the extent that we commit ourselves to viewing our relations through this lens, and exert ourselves in the extension of mutualistic freedom, we can call ourselves “mutualists.” We don’t take anarchy lightly and understand that archic relationships and coercive force come in lots of varieties, and the exertion matters—if mutuality is reduced simply to an outcome of this or that system, mutualism as such almost certainly disappears.

And while I would be more inclined to emphasize the social scientific aspects of mutualism over the ethical philosophy, at the time it was a question of emphasizing something—anything!—other than a few, semi-utopian and half-remembered institutional proposals, and perhaps here, as we try to think about historical work specifically as a kind of anarchist or mutualist practice, perhaps the ethical emphasis is appropriate. As I’ve suggested in the past, an anarchistic study of anarchism and anarchists seems to demand an encounter on a relatively equal basis, not one already thoroughly shaped by our ideological needs and sentimental attachments—and certainly not one in which the authority of those needs and attachments is used to constrain our understanding of the very figures and movement on which any such presumed authority would have to rely.

A FRESH ENCOUNTER WITH ANARCHIST INDIVIDUALISM: Nothing about this reintroduction of the ethic of the anarchic encounter changes the fact that much of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back will be focused on effects of collective force and on the application of Proudhon’s analysis to the collective dynamics of the anarchist movement, both historically and in the present. But it is necessary, I think, to underline a certain oscillation in my own explorations, back toward an engagement with anarchist individualism, after some years of increasing focus on the opposite extreme. Part of my renewed interest in specifically individualist forms of anarchism comes, of course, from diving deep into the works of E. Armand (Lucien-Ernest Juin), who is, I must say, a much more kindred spirit than my old acquaintance Benjamin R. Tucker is ever likely to be—and who shared an interest in the question of entente, a cordial, if sometimes critical engagement with Max Nettlau, an investment in works like the Encyclopédie anarchiste, etc….

Ultimately, it is still Proudhon and the problem of the unité-collectivité that is the central, guiding influence in all this, but expect that the place of the individualists in my larger project will be less as the sort of spice they have often provided and much more as a contributing current—and a very important one at that—in the braided stream of anarchism that I’ll be examining.

Expect, too, the incorporation of much of the Contr’un toolkit of the last decade, as well as some fond farewells to elements that are perhaps not destined to see any more development. Here, for example, is an older piece that seems appropriate to revisit in the present context—perhaps, among other reasons, for its indications that some of these present endings and beginnings are just as logically understood in terms of a narrative of constant inception:

FROM THE ARCHIVES: August 29, 2013

The Anarchic Encounter: Economic and/or Erotic?

It seemed appropriate to break off the previous post mid-encounter, if you will, in order to highlight even more emphatically the fundamentally fecund nature of the interactions I’ve been describing. The sort of anarchy that I have been starting to describe is not just without rulers, without any legitimate hierarchy, whether governmental or invested in other institutions, but largely without rules as well. It is not without history, if by that we mean an accumulation of experience and experiment, on the basis of which each new experiment is not a from-scratch affair, but might be assumed to take its place in a trial-and-error sort of progress. And that history may provide sufficient guidance for many, even most of our encounters, but there is probably no point in talking about anarchy if ever encounter is not also informed by the notion that, as we have put it, “another world is possible.”

Another world is possible at every moment, and we should expect our commitment to an ungovernable anarchism to confront us with unforeseen possibilities on a pretty frequent basis. We will always build on a foundation composed of equal parts accumulated historical experience and consciousness of radical possibilities. At every encounter, it will be up to us to decide what sort of world it is we are building towards at that very moment.

And every moment, every association, every decision to build in a particular manner will have its consequences—its offspring. If we understand the social world as Proudhon did, as inhabited by “any number of individuals, on any number of scales and creating any number of associations,” with all of the “collective individuals” brought into the world by our encounters and associations figuring in the justice-balance, then we’re going to have to find the means to negotiate a new range of possibilities and responsibilities (or at least a new set of terms with which to negotiate it.)

Unfortunately, Proudhon, who has given us so much in the way of social scientific apparatus for approaching the clearly economic side of these questions, is considerably less help in tackling other aspects. As much as he has had to say about anarchistic commerce, he is not the person we would expect to enlighten us much on the subject of intercourse.

There are, of course, some approaches even to these other concerns in Proudhon’s writings. In his critical phase, he was certainly not above adding some sexy bits to his analysis of “property.” [See “Varieties of Proprietors: Lovers, Husbands, and Mother Hens,” and the linked material, for an introduction to this side of Proudhon’s discourse.] Over and over again, we find him referring to the infertile nature of proprietorship, but I have yet to find equally engaging treatments of the fecundity of the alternatives.

Fortunately, Proudhon’s work is far from the only reference point I’ve identified for the analysis of property on the blog, and for some of the other figures I’ve had occasion to invoke the fecund was something of a preoccupation. Let’s consider, for example, what our old friend Walt Whitman might have to add at this stage of our review.

What if we understood this economic formulation by Proudhon:

Two men meet, recognize one another’s dignity, state the additional benefit that would result for both from the concert of their industries, and consequently guarantee equality, which means economy. That is the whole social system: an equation, and then a collective power.

Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always only these two things, an equation and a collective power. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.

as in many regards equivalent to this overtly erotic formulation by Walt Whitman:

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.


When we’ve had a chance to wrap up the review of the work thus far, this problem of integrating the economic and erotic aspects of the anarchic encounter will be one of our preoccupations.


I hope, as work moves forward on Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back and related projects, to produce one of these journal updates every week or so, documenting the ongoing development of the project. As space allows, some of the old “Beyond the Labyrinth” elements may also return, along with a sort of feuilleton/literary supplement section, highlighting poetry and other works that are hard to feature elsewhere, but certainly integral to my growing understanding of anarchism and its history. We’ll see how all that actually goes.

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