Distributaries: The Problem of Proudhon

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back: II. — Distributaries (1865–1886)

Project Page:
MAPPINGS: Notes for an Introduction
SOURCES: The First Leg of the Journey
    CONFLUENCES: The Final Leg of the Journey

      Our glacier-fed stream of anarchist thought has been running fast and steadily increasing in volume. But all of that changes with the death of Proudhon and—perhaps not coincidentally—with the birth of the First International. There are certainly other factors that contribute to the changes we are about to explore. Quite a number of our companions and acquaintances from the first leg of the journey died before Proudhon or were exiled to places where their ability to influence the emerging anarchist movement was limited. But the shift is still startling.

      Historical and ideological hindsight provides a developmental account by which the earliest forms of explicitly anarchist thought developed through a collectivist transition to the “modern anarchism” of the anarchist communists, but as we try to trace the steps forward from Proudhon, things don’t seem anywhere near so clear.

      It is not that the influence of Proudhon disappeared with his death. Indeed, what we might be inclined to think of as a period of limited influence was actually one in which the work of establishing his Oeuvres complètes was ongoing and key portions of the posthumous works were being published. The influence was widespread, but also diffuse, in the sense that, while many different groups of partisans and enthusiasts continued to develop parts of Proudhon’s project, the project as a whole was essentially abandoned. 

      Where Fourier and Saint-Simon each found some primary apostle and left a sizable school in their wake, Proudhon, perhaps because of his opposition to precisely that kind of thing, left instead a loose association of old friends and collaborators, most of whom could not have been considered anarchists at any time in their careers. In the context of the First International and its conflicts, such a network was badly situated to compete with doctrines like Marxism—and the International was almost certainly not big enough for two competing anti-capitalist social sciences. With Proudhon not present to defend his ideas to the workers, not only were his ideas marginalized, but those workers identified as “Proudhonists”—a faction instrumental in founding the International—were for the most part marginalized as well. Before the split between marxists and collectivists, even the diffuse Proudhonian influence was combated on a number of fronts.

      The idea of anarchy did not fair much better in those circles, functioning in part as an accusation to be hurled at those workers whose anti-authoritarianism, though not of a Proudhonian variety, opened them up to what were, in context, invidious comparison. As a result, many of the episodes we’ll be looking at in this volume may appear to be quite marginal to the histories of the International, so ably told by historians like Robert Graham, Wolfgang Eckhardt and René Berthier.

      It is in part because those histories have been so ably told that I feel free—in this project and, to some extent at least, in the related work on the Bakunin Library—to emphasize other elements during this period. I’ll undoubtedly lean heavily on those historians of the International for the year-by-year summaries of relevant events, but will focus the close examinations on less familiar figures and episodes, hoping to keep this narrative centered around the idea of anarchy.

      I’ve opted to call this segment of the narrative “Distributaries,” borrowing a term that describes waterways that branch off a river or stream, sometimes to be lost through seepage and evaporation in some region without exit, sometimes to find their own path to some sea, and sometimes to rejoin the channel from which they diverged at some point downstream. And we’ll see developments analogous to each of these options. In the terms of our metaphor, this distributary era resembles a kind of complex inland delta—like that found along the Niger River in Mali—although perhaps I’ll wait to press forward with the details of that analogy until the work on this era is complete.

      For now, it is probably enough to note that we will have to account for a number of different ways in which the work produced by Proudhon, though now parceled out among very diverse factions, continued to develop and exert an influence, while we will also be on the lookout for the emergence of those other elements that would eventually inform “modern anarchism.” And we will have to be fairly careful about keeping those task separate, except where we find evidence of direct influence by Proudhon’s project and its continuations on the anarchist movements and ideologies that would eventually emerge.

      In organizing this section, I’ve chosen to designate six different emphases that it will be necessary to balance. And the first of those is naturally what I’m calling here “the problem of Proudhon,” who will continue to be both essential and also somehow marginal to “the anarchist tradition” right up to the present day. Hopefully, as we examine the various uses of his parceled-out project, we find ourselves in a position not just to understand what became problematic about Proudhon’s project within anarchist circles, but perhaps also to at least begin to “solve” the problem moving forward.

      Among the episodes already discussed and available for more extensive study, we should include:

      But it seems likely that fleshing out an understanding of this period will probably take us in some directions we haven’t explored before.

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