Anarchist History: Lessons from the Outbound Journey

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  • Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back [main page]
GREAT DIVIDES: Lessons of the Outbound Journey

It’s been almost exactly five years since I first proposed “our lost continent” as a metaphor for the most unexplored portions of the anarchist past and made my first uncertain observations regarding the terrain. It’s been almost two years since I proposed the “thought-experiment” of neo-Proudhonian anarchism and proposed a kind of synthesist reconstruction of anarchist history. And it’s been just six months since I started writing the “summary and rationale” posts, outlining the general goals and basic structure of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back.

A lot has changed in the last six months—and particularly in the last three or four, when I had planned to be working steadily through the episodes of Proudhon’s life—with most of those changes not for the better. But times of crisis and loss can be clarifying—and I’ve found that a lot of my uncertainties and hesitations seem a bit less significant in the face of present challenges.

What that has meant specifically for Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is that I have finally committed to a shift in strategy that will essentially split the work around that “and” in the title, with an initial section dedicated to the “lessons of the outbound journey” accumulated over the last couple of decades, including some preliminary contentions about the historical development of anarchism and the synthetic alternatives, which the “journey back” sections will then explore and test.

As I first considered the various approaches that I might take to a work addressing the question of “general anarchist history,” the lessons learned suggest three potential works that might be pursued:

  1. a critique of anarchism and its development;
  2. a synthetic counter-proposal;
  3. a reexamination of the anarchists past, demonstrating that the synthesis was at least potentially implicit in the development.

I had already pursued each of them to some extent. The “Extrications,” for example, were part of a fairly pointed critique, as were the attempts to assemble evidence of an “anarchic countercurrent” that involved some of anarchism’s most respected advocates. The “propositions for discussion” and the work proposed as “Anarchism Plain and Simple” were efforts to sketch out a kind of minimum program for “an anarchism we could share.” And, of course, the “lost continent” project has begun to draw together the elements for a general reexamination of the anarchist past.

But each of these projects has generated its share of resistance—of the sort that has made questions of audience complicated in a variety of ways. My focus on anarchy as the guiding principle has often been rejected—or countered with conceptions of anarchy that seem to me hardly distinguishable from “good government.” Perhaps the most frustrating response has been an acknowledgement that my interpretation of the anarchist past has not been wrong, but that, nonetheless, the sort of shareable, synthetic anarchism I’ve envisioned would be sufficiently different from that currently embraced by certain anarchist factions to constitute an entirely different sort of anarchistic project. But, of course, that response also has the potential to be the most useful, clarifying and liberating—provided I was prepared to take on the challenge involved and simply embrace the project of sketching out what really is, in some senses at least, a new vision of anarchism.

That, however, has been the last thing I’ve really wanted to do, an extreme intensification of the option that, within mutualist circles, I have most often greeted with a “let this cup pass from me.”

Of the three potential projects I’ve mentioned, I have long felt comfortable with my capacity to pursue the third. The first scared the hell out of me, no matter how certain I was that it was necessary. And the second just obviously involves both a tremendous amount of work and a certain confidence that the assertions of expertise involved will meet with something other than sectarian resistance and scorn—responses that, as an “out” mutualist, I have had my fill of over the last couple of decades.

Looking back over the social media conversations regarding the early stages of the project, I’ve been able to watch my confidence wax and wane. A year ago, I had reached the point of simply projecting the “lost continent” project as a kind of personal memoir, replacing the various in-progress attempts to engage more directly with anarchist theory and history. At other times, not too distant from that one, I imagined the project in the most belligerent terms. I remember getting together briefly with Aragorn! one afternoon, as he was passing through town on one of his tours, and talking about the status of our respective projects in the sort of terms that you can use with friends with a well-developed tolerance for the provocative. And, in response to one of those probing questions about fundamental goals (specifically, if I recall correctly, in the context of work on Bakunin), I sort of blurted out that, in a certain sense, what I’m would really like to do is “destroy anarchist history.” In other company, of course, there would have been more preamble and nuance—or, more likely, things simply wouldn’t have been said. But my rather intense love/hate relationship with what answers to the name of “anarchist history” has hardly been a secret for a long time now. And that has meant moments where there has seemed to be little other choice than attack—or some kind of reframing.

The difficulty has been knowing whether even the most conciliatory reframing could be received—particularly in some circles where I would still cling, however foolishly, to the hope that the work might be received at all—as anything other than attack.

Or the difficulty has been some combination of fatigue, depression, cowardice and misplaced concern on my part. Even on my best days, I’m not entirely sure.

But a combination of self-imposed social distancing (well before the pandemic) and good, old-fashioned intellectual labor—seasoned with some reminders of human mortality and the present dysfunction of nearly all our political options—has slowly, but surely pushed me to the point where some well-timed bit of potentially confirming evidence could set me off fairly boldly down a path that would involve all three of the proposed projects.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was René Furth’s 1972 essay on “The Anarchist Question,” which begins with the assertion that “Anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist.” It’s a fine essay of a familiar type, in which a committed anarchist examines the shortcoming of their own generation’s efforts to realize their anarchistic aspirations and ambitions. And it comes to some familiar conclusions. But what stood out as I read it was less anything particular about the essay than it was the sense of déjà vu—”here we go again,” but this time within my lifetime. And then I found myself admiring the clarity and courage with which Furth, taking his place in a long and really illustrious tradition, presented both his diagnosis and proposed cures.

What I realized a bit more consciously than perhaps I had before was that it is this tendency within the anarchist milieus—the tendency to assume responsibility for the present state of the movement and attempt to intervene at the level of foundations, principles and basic practices—that I most admire in anarchist writings. There are moments in the careers of so many of anarchism’s finest thinkers and most prominent spokespeople that involve this sort of basic internal criticism—and I have been more or less consciously collecting them for some time now. And it is easy to say that “what is good enough for Ricardo Mella, Max Nettlau, Emma Goldman, Voline, Sébastien Faure, etc. is good enough for me,” but obviously quite a bit less easy to imagine that you might have something to say that would fit in that tradition—or, having imagined it, to act on the idea.

But here we are, at long last. Driven by some mix of confidence, cussedness, hope and resignation, I’m going to try to set up the “journey back” I have already proposed in considerable detail with potentially shareable anarchism that is also a first sketch of a neo-Proudhonian anarchism. And I’m going to try not to be too terribly bashful about my sense that, if you care about the development of anarchism in the past and the continuation of that development in the future, perhaps you should pay attention to the possibilities involved.

Future posts in this “Great Divides” series will revisit the outlines I proposed in the past for “Anarchism Plain and Simple” and the theory section of “Proudhon: Between Science and Vengeance,” as I try to lay out a basic framework for this shareable and neo-Proudhonian anarchism.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.