Roads to Anarchism: Introduction


Thoughts on Roads to Anarchism

Max Nettlau — 1927

Introductory Remark.

Section A. Present position of socialism and progressive elements.
  • I. Everyman’s Utopia. Private Life. Diversity of Man.
  • II. The professional classes.
  • III. Workers, peasants and proletarian socialism
  • IV. Real socialism versus Marxism.
  • V. Present position of authoritarian socialism.
  • VI. Voluntary associationist movement: Cooperation. Syndicalism.
  • VII. Movements of intellectual and moral Freedom: Education. Freethought. Humanitarian Efforts. Also Antimilitarism and Peace. Woman.
Section B. Present position of capitalist society.
  • VIII. Authority in history.
  • IX. Nationalism, its origins,—in European history—is there a way out?
  • X. The origin of the large European States as economic units.
  • XI. Nationalism (in Europe) and its consequences considered.
  • XII. The same subject, concluded.
  • XIII. Socialists and Nationalism.
  • XIV. Present position of Capitalism. Its efforts to keep up or recover its position. Inefficiency of present Socialism against Capitalism.
Section C. Essential conditions of efficient realizations of Socialism.
  • XV. The natural resources of the globe belong to all.
  • XVI. No more dictatorship! Suggestion of an agreement between all not dictatorial socialists.
  • XVII. Cessation of all socialist quarreling….
Section D. Present situation of anarchism; methods, prospects, possibilities.
  • XVIII. Methods of anarchist propaganda.
  • XIX. Present anarchist currents.
  • XX. An examination of the possibilities of Syndicalism, experimental socialism, etc.
Section E. The best possible initial stages of a Free Society.
  • XXI. Initial Economic Stages of a Free Society. The question of quantity and abundance, as it effects the methods of distribution of products.
  • XXII. Different economic forms in a Free Society. On education, sexual life and inter-social relations in a Free Society.

XXIII. Conclusion. It was necessary to show the great obstacles, the sometimes one-sided and inefficient use made of our small means. Hence to succeed a greater effort is necessary; and the means suggested in this essay or others which others should set to work to find, try to make such an effort possible and successful.

Max Nettlau’s work as a theorist of anarchist development, based in his extensive work as a historian of the movement, found expression in a long series of short articles (some of which are being assembled in a collection called New Fields, forthcoming from PM Press.) But he also produced three longer works addressing the question of anarchism’s progress, or lack thereof, and future prospects:

The third has been published in German and translated into Spanish from a lost French manuscript. I have transcribed the two English manuscripts and begun a translation of the French text.

Each of the manuscripts approaches the problem of anarchism’s progress from a slightly different perspective and all contain, I think, quite useful observations from a careful observer of both anarchist history and the activity of anarchists in the early twentieth century. Each contain critiques that are quite radical, sometimes calling into question a great deal of what passes for common sense in the anarchist milieus. “Eugenics of a Free Society” is, it seems to me, particularly good—and a look at the sidebar should give readers a fairly clear idea of the scope of the work—but there is a great deal about it that is difficult, including Nettlau’s charming, but slightly broken English and, of course, that title….

In an autobiographical narrative, Nettlau explained that his references to “eugenics” were inspired by his own experiments breeding siskins. The passages in the manuscript that seem relevant sometimes treat the growing of an anarchist movement or of a free society as a task requiring some kind of well-informed husbandry.

Green specks in a stony, arid desert are scarcely likely to expand, to cover the whole desert with green, fertile soil. Rather the desert, if it is to change, will have to acquire moisture by climate and other influences, and then only the scanty oases may be able to spread all over the desert.

And these are threads that I hope to pick up in the arrangement of New Fields.

But there are passages that more directly echo the uses that the language of eugenics was being put to in anarchist circles, where the emphasis was generally on the potential for a general progress and improvement in human prospects, with particular emphasis on improving the conditions for mothers and babies. So we find the passage about water in the desert immediately followed by this passage on the right of every organism to propitious circumstances of gestation and birth:

This means that progress and prosperity of the most advanced movements are quite inseparably linked up with general progress and that, consequently, every manifestation of such progress is of vital value to us. It will not do to hold up such progress to shame, because it is insufficient, or to try to goad and lash it to greater quickness by scorn; it will be right always to welcome and to greet it. Mens sana, in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body, operates in society as it does in men and the coming free society certainly has the same claim to the most eugenic gestation and birth as every other organism has.

There are undoubtedly plenty of other metaphors that would be more comfortable for modern readers, given the history of the better known varieties of eugenics. And, for this reason, I have chosen to focus on the subtitle—”Thoughts on Roads to Anarchism”—in my examination of Nettlau’s manuscript. After all, to still be speaking of “roads to anarchism” in the late 20s involves some potential provocations. But there is really no way to make sense of Nettlau’s analyses and arguments without embracing some version of the analogy between anarchist movement-building and husbandry. And perhaps we can agree that, if we were to imagine “a free society” as something to be “born,” and present anarchist activity as an important part of that process, we would probably be inclined to wish for the most advantageous circumstances possible for that “birth.”

In the posts in this series, my intention is to gently edit Nettlau’s text, clarifying those passages that seem to require it, and then to add whatever commentary seems called for by the analyses and arguments presented. One goal is to explore how best to approach the publication of the work in book form, but I also expect my responses to the manuscript to form much of the basis of future works of my own. I’ll do my best to reference related texts, by Nettlau and others, as appropriate.

For readers who have been around for a while, this project can be understood as a second attempt to tackle the questions originally raised on the “Responsibility, Solidarity, Strategy” blog. Those explorations, which remained unfinished for me, were a major impetus in my shift towards what we might call the ongoing-synthesism of my more recent work.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2132 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.