Our Lost Continent and
The Journey Back:
Episodes from an Alternate History of the Anarchist Idea,
as They Happened, as They are Recorded in the Margins of More Familiar Histories and as They Might Have Happened, if Observed through Other Lenses,
with Reflections on the Past and Future Development of Anarchism.
Extrications: History, Tradition, Theory
(August 7, 2017)
The initial task in these Extrications is analytic: we want to pull things apart a bit, enough to see if we can’t isolate some terms and make some useful distinctions. I want to set aside this notion of the anarchist milieu as our intentionally vague term for the thing that we are examining and pulling apart. Let’s just say for now that the milieu is the social space occupied by anarchism and anarchists—and hopefully, with a little care and luck, we’ll be able to say something a bit more definite before too long.
And let’s return, just for a moment, to the promise that these analysis will be “minimally sectarian.” It should be understood that the context for this particular set of explorations is the quest for (as I put it in “Toward a General Theory of Archy“) “some sort of positive account of anarchy as sufficient to the needs of anarchism—a narrative shareable by a variety of present tendencies, but also one suggesting a shared thread through various historical tendencies.” They form part of the preliminary work for Anarchism, Plain and Simple and are one continuation of the work in the “Propositions for Discussion.” All of that work is a bit of a tightrope-walk between inclusiveness and careful concern for anarchist principles, so at least the sectarian heat is saved for instances where those principles seem threatened. But perhaps, given my tendency to emphasize the tensions between elements such as anarchy and anarchism, it is worth underlining the fact that the work also attempts to address the milieu as we find it, to treat those elements—and the others we will attempt to specify—precisely as elements-in-tension without which the milieu could perhaps not even exist in any recognizable form.
The search for a shareable narrative certainly does not preclude serious, perhaps even harsh critique, but it does put it on a rather different footing than some other approaches—including those is some other aspects of my own work.
* * *
But let’s begin. One manifestation of the milieu is obviously the day-to-day anarchy-talk: the various bodies of discourse, multiple and to some extent contradictory, varying according to ideological tendency, locality, language, etc., that emerge when anarchists try to talk to other anarchists, or non-anarchists, about their beliefs, projects, aspirations, critiques of existing systems, and so on. Alternately chatty and declamatory, anarchism always seems to have been vocal, whether the forum was newspapers or social gatherings, but in the era of the internet it seems hard to overestimate the importance of discourse—formal and informal, constructive and divisive, well and poorly informed—in shaping the anarchist milieu, for good and for ill. One of the characteristics of all this anarchy-talk seems to be its thoroughly mixed character, the way in which different kinds of discourse cross in so many forums. But if we were to attempt to distinguish some essential elements of these mixed discourses, it is hard to imagine that our selection would not include these three, or some near equivalents: more-or-less well-informed narratives about the histories of anarchists and anarchist tendencies; more-or-less well ordered argument about anarchist principles and their application in various contexts; and a lot of more-or-less loose talk, sometimes drawing on the same material as the first two categories, but as often consisting of slogans, quotations and time-honored misquotations, snappy answers to frequently ask questions, simplisms, sectarian dogma, rumor and gossip, off-the-cuff exposition, angry accusations and equally angry retorts, etc., etc., and so on, and so on…. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just call these elements anarchist history, anarchist theory and, for lack of a better name, anarchist tradition. I’m sure it would be child’s play to raise objections to the labels—I’m not entirely happy with “tradition,” but it does help tie this analysis to some of those that have come before—but I also think they will serve our purposes here, particularly with a bit of clarification.
So let’s say that when we’re talking about elements of anarchist tradition, we are not attempting to identify “The Anarchist Tradition,” but are gesturing at a loose bundle of narrative elements likely to be invoked when anarchists, or relatively well-informed others, talk about anarchist theory and practice. These elements are subject constant conflict and more or less conscious negotiation, but they are traditional in the sense that they tend to be traceable back to familiar and long-standing positions espoused or expounded at some point by familiar anarchist figures or critics of anarchism. Their specific form and content may change often and rapidly, but the occasions for this sort of frothing agitation in anarchist discourse tend to be fairly few in number, familiar in character and general in their interest. Even those of us who have assumed iconoclastic positions within the milieu have a great deal of difficulty not gravitating toward the same sources of ferment. Even when we we reject the persistent concerns that drive so much of this traditional content, it is hard not to at least use them as something to push against. And this is arguably the positive power of what we’re calling traditional elements, since they tend to maintain contact between even the most disparate anarchist positions. Unsurprisingly, the main uses of this kind of discourse all seem to related to the maintenance of the milieu and the relations within it, whether it is a matter of signaling to allies that we are “on the same team” or of responding to all the competitors, critics and would-be entryist that naturally play their part in the establishment and shaping of the milieu. No matter how much loose talk, or pure shit-talk, we think is involved here, when we turn to examine the other elements, which are perhaps more substantive, firmly grounded and directly useful in various ways, it is worth asking whether they alone could provide the connective force necessary to maintain the existing anarchist milieu.
Perhaps the important nuance here is that I want to consider anarchism as a living tradition, so that, however much our talk tends to revolve around perennial concerns, is still being created and shaped—again, for better or worse—by the mass of daily interactions. And at some point it may be appropriate to ask to what extend the various elements we are specifying are themselves reflective of a living character.
Now, let’s use the term anarchist history—a shorthand here for anarchist-history-talk or the more public, performative aspects of anarchist-history-work—to designate a different, though often overlapping bundle of narratives that are about anarchy, anarchism and anarchists, but have no particular connection to the maintenance of specific movements or milieus and do at least attempt to render the raw events of the past intelligible in a faithful manner. Without making any strong claims about objectivity, let’s just say that what we’re designating here as history is much freer to follow the facts wherever they might lead than what we are describing as tradition. We might also say, again without insisting too strongly, that, defined in these terms, history is freer to really focus on the past, on the raw flow of events, while tradition is perhaps destined to focus on the use of selected aspects of the past in the present.
And perhaps, given what has already been said, defining anarchist theory—or talk-about-anarchist-theory, theoretical-talk-about-anarchism, etc.—is a relatively trivial manner. In any event, I don’t want to spend too much time on the question right now, beyond suggesting that there is indeed a realm of more-or-less well-reasoned argumentation about anarchist topics that we can usefully distinguish from what we are calling the traditional elements.
* * *
The next task, then, is to see if these elements allow us to make useful observations about the milieu. Having drawn these first rough distinctions, perhaps we can propose a fairly limited number of relations between the elements of anarchist tradition and the products of anarchist history and anarchist theory:
First of all, we have traditional elements for which there is ultimately no definitive historical source. There are elements of unverifiable hearsay, partisan distortion, misreading and misinterpretation, poetic license and pure fabrication that still enjoy time-honored places in our traditions. It doesn’t appear that Proudhon ever quite wrote that “anarchy is order,” although Anselme Bellegarrigue did and Proudhon said things that were similar. Emma Goldman probably never quite said the thing about dancing and the revolution. In these cases, the error is close enough to the truth to be harmless. The stakes are raised when in cases where partisan interests are at stake. There are, for example, quite a number of instances where Marxist misrepresentations of Proudhon pass for the salient elements of his work among large groups of anarchists. We may never, for example, entirely banish the notion that he was a proponent of labor notes or entirely devoted to small-scale production, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Similarly, there is a persistent quasi-historical folklore, which passes for history in much of the milieu, that transforms the successive emergence of various anarchist currents–with, of course, notable exceptions–into a progressive account of anarchism’s steady upward climb towards anarchist communism or anarchy-syndicalism, which tends to complicate the matter of simple comparison between tendencies and render real synthesis nearly impossible. The inadequacies of that account are many and marked, but it persists nonetheless and shapes discourse within the milieu.
Second, there are historical elements that have found a persistent place in our traditions, but whose place is hardly dependent on their grounding in historical fact. For example, it is of traditional importance that Proudhon declared that “property is theft,” but Proudhon’s own arguments about why that is true–including the analysis of collective force that is arguably central to his work, seldom come into play. Bakunin’s remarks about “the authority of the bookmaker” enjoy a similar sort of renown and a similar autonomy from their original context. It is unlikely that any careful analysis of the arguments in “God and the State,” addressing Bakunin’s various statements about authority in context, would lead particularly close to the position–so common these days–that authority is simply subject to a “burden of proof,” which, if met, might confer “legitimacy.” But, in both these cases, it is seldom a question of specific interpretations or arguments. Instead, the familiar phrase is invoked as if it was related, lending a vague aura of authenticity to the new theoretical claim.
These cases can become complex. Decontextualized, familiar elements may indeed be invoked in the service of fairly serious theoretical arguments, without functioning as anything more than a suggestive bon mot. But as we’re analyzing the various elements in these theoretical discourses, we need to be clear about what is truly argument and what is mostly gestural, particularly as we see these phrases of Proudhon and Bakunin invoked in support of widely divergent and often conflicting theories of exploitation, authority, property, etc.
What does not seem to emerge in these cases, despite all the complexities, is any real break with or threat to the loose rules of play by which the traditional components do their work. If the theoretical and historical problems remain unsolved, there is likely to be neither more nor less tension in the tradition itself, If those problems are resolved, well, the important issue was arguably never those particular historical or theoretical elements anyway. A correction may remove some of the distractions that prevent resolutions of the driving tensions, and may lead to a change in the nature of the tensions within the milieu, but we are undoubtedly a long ways from the point where we might see the fundamental tensions really resolved.
Third, there is a mass of historical facts relating to anarchy, anarchism and anarchists, which do not feature as elements in our traditions and toward which those traditions can be more or less indifferent. The bulk of what we’re calling anarchist history probably falls into this category, where it serves in various complementary or supplementary roles in relation to what we’ve designated as anarchist tradition. In twenty years of “gap-filling” I learned that in most cases the gaps in the tradition were considerably smaller than the material available to fill them, but I also very quickly learned that it didn’t matter much. For instance, it is an elaboration of the tradition to note that there was an equitable commerce movement that emerged around Josiah Warren’s proto-anarchist writings. It is interesting to note that it was fairly extensive. Careful documentation of the literature of that movement is the sort of thing that will prove interesting to a small audience and useful to an even smaller one, but it ultimately changes nothing in the realm of our traditions. It is likely to have few direct practical consequence. And we can multiply examples of this sort almost infinitely.
Fourth, finally, and a bit speculatively, it seems that there may be a small, but potentially quite important body of historical or theoretical work on anarchist subjects that has the potential to really clash with traditional elements in ways that are not easily resolved. In general, this work threatens the capacity of the tradition to tie together the various tendencies and forces us to rethink aspects of the tradition that are in some sense foundational. They confront us with the shortcomings of the traditional narratives, including their potential to hold back the development of vital anarchist movements and milieus. At their “worst,” they may suggest that what holds us together may also have been holding us back, at least in some senses, for quite some time.
* * *
I want to spend some time exploring this possible fourth category of historical and theoretical elements, drawing on my experiences as a researcher and anthologist. But first, in the next entry in this series, I want to talk a bit about the milieu as a site of tension, and explore a variety of possible responses to that dynamic.
Anarchism as a Fundamentally Unfinished Project
(December 16, 2018)
My argument about the anarchist tradition, in its most modest form, is that there is nothing about the history of variously “anarchist” ideas—particularly when the tale begins in 1840 or before—that precludes a real, future convergence toward an anarchism that both focuses on anarchy (in its strongest senses) and provides a vehicle for the sort of social reforms that have most often been promoted in the name of “anarchism.”
I certainly believe that there was an attempt to launch “modern anarchism” as a substantial break with the perceived ideology of Proudhon (but also that of Bakunin.) I have probably drawn as much attention to the depth of that rupture as anyone, but I have also, I think, made at least the beginnings of a strong case for its rather limited success. And it is the real depth of the developmental discontinuity between the era of anarchy-without-anarchism and that of “modern” anarchism that makes the subsequent and almost immediate diversity of anarchisms interesting. It is difficult to treat that modern diversity as an effect of the earlier projects and their influence. There is very little of the thought of any of the early figures that was passed along fully and faithfully—and while there were obviously some strange, more-or-less conscious instances of infidelity to earlier figures, it seems to make more sense to worry about conscious misrepresentation in cases like that of Bakunin than in those of more marginal figures. Much of the earlier anarchist history simply remained unknown—or at least not widely known—and only became an issue for modern anarchism as a result of efforts from within that modern movement to situate itself ideologically and historically.
In a sense the various anarchist factions that already existed by the early 1880s were just a mirror of the various tendencies that existed by the 1850s and the lack of unity among them was roughly the same, for roughly the same reasons. The first anarchists had emerged from a variety of non-anarchist tendencies and had really barely begun the work of exploring this bold new idea before other concerns—including the better known phases of organized internationalism—took center stage. Revolution, counter-revolution, prison, exile and the like also shaped the opportunities for convergence among the early anarchists. One of the striking things about the early generations is that, despite the fact that many of the key figures traveled widely, often in the same locales, their movements (and sometimes their publication opportunities) were seldom really free—so that even if they possessed some of our sense of them as an emerging, but still scattered anarchist movement, the opportunities to come together and build common ground were significantly limited.
We may really have to look to the decades early in the formative period of “modern anarchism” (between the mid 1880s and the mid 1920s, or thereabouts) for the first serious set of attempts to find common ground. The Black International could not presuppose any but the most limited agreement and amounted to a renewal of internationalism, but strictly among “anti-authoritarians” this time (with all of the need to build consensus or enforce conformity experienced by the International.) But by the time the Encylopédie Anarchiste was being published, there had been a substantial amount of work, much of it across sectarian lines, toward establishing at least a broad conversation. Some early attempts at what is now recognizable as “anarchist studies” came out of this same general stock-taking in the early 20th century.
We know that the movement for common ground had limited successes and that at times and places that resonate particularly strongly for us in this particular time, opposite tendencies dominated. But it is probably a mistake to identify those tendencies with the tendencies that attempted to assert control over the term “anarchism” in the period of its emergence. Anarchist communism went through significant changes, the emergence of syndicalism as a factor forced other changes and the old collectivist core that arguably most faithfully carried forward the ideas of Bakunin alternately blossomed and faltered in all sorts of ways. The differences between the sort of anarchism championed by someone like Makhno in the 1920s and the sort of anarchism championed by figures like Kropotkin, Cafiero and Reclus in the period immediately after the death of Bakunin are probably much greater than we usually recognize, while the various forms of synthesist anarchism that emerged probably had at least as good a claim to roots in that early anarchist communism as the platformist alternatives (and, again, it is probably a stretch to say that either had roots in the pre-1870 tendencies, despite the resources that might have eventually been found there.)
If we were to take this reading forward into the period of the 1930s and after, it’s tempting to suggest that the attempts at establishing specifically anarchist common ground were forced to take a back seat to world events and more immediate sorts of engagements, as they had in the period of the International. But if my readings of the post-war writings are at all representative, then it appears that, once again, anarchistic ideas reasserted themselves in diverse forms, with perhaps even an increased range of hybridizations. And at our end of the development of this post-war phases (which may indeed break down into phases that don’t come to mind immediately), we have the sort of diversity of positions that we would expect from dramatically increased access to the materials generated in earlier periods, together with, perhaps, a certain fatigue produced by the flood of earlier anarchisms into the range of tendencies that would have to be accounted for (one way or another) in the establishment of common ground and—let’s be honest with ourselves—a certain general cultural tendency toward fundamentalism, from which we could hardly claim complete immunity.
This sort of account is necessarily speculative, at least at this stage in our understanding of anarchist history, but the work it has to do in the present context is relatively limited. It seems important to search our history for the moments that present some plausible alternative to understanding anarchism as a system of threads, sometimes with radically different points of origin, that have been slowly and partially braided together by individuals who, in one way or another, have taken at least some of their cues from the architects of the “modern anarchism” that came closest to really defining anarchism as a single, new movement and body of thought. And, if it is a question of understanding the actual development—and/or lack of development—of the actually existing anarchisms, then there don’t seem to be many compelling alternatives. We can read the history from its beginnings and regret either the lack of some active synthesis or the lack of some greater differentiation among tendencies. But, in the present, we are all, it appears, products of an anarchist history in which the most consistent elements seem to be the continued emergence of possible anarchisms and an on-again/off-again attempt to manage the diversity.
There is a way of approaching the problem posed that involves rejecting what I am calling an “unfinished” anarchism, either by withdrawing from it—a strategy that never really seems to involve the establishment of much separation, as the libertarian socialists and libertarian municipalists tend to remind us daily—or some more frontal attack on the notion of anarchism-in-general, in the hope of inspiring some reorganization of the various groups of people who now struggle over the anarchist label, beyond just more sectarian strife. I think that the most promising of these suggests that we have not yet had anything worth calling anarchism in that general sense. But, ultimately, that approach doesn’t seem all that promising. In part, the problem is that we are not dealing with a philosophical discussion. Instead, we are engaged in a long and increasingly complex struggle for a particular political language that has still—despite the very uncertain uses to which it has often been put—arguably proven its power and value over a long history. And for some of us—often not, I’m afraid, the part of “us” most readily accepted among the more orthodox heirs of “modern anarchism”—there really is no alternative to anarchy as a guiding concept that has anywhere near the power and clarity attached (again, despite all of those very uncertain uses.)
I’ll come back to these questions in the promised posts on periodization and it appears that I am going to have to clarify a number of my remarks on anarchist history in response to an alternative accounts that attempts to take them as a point of departure. There is naturally a good deal more than could and should eventually be said, but as this was initially just a social media post that took on a life of its own, I guess I’ll wrap it up here for now.
Anarchist History: A Mutualist’s-Eye-View
(January 1, 2019)
I would love to jump right to the question of how to re-periodize anarchist history in accordance with the analysis I’ve started in “The Shape of Anarchist History,” but I think it’s worth taking the time to talk a bit more about how I came to that analysis. After all, there is nothing self-evident about the approach and there is a good deal that will probably strike other students of anarchism as questionable. My understanding of anarchist history is clearly—and quite consciously—the product of certain trajectories through the field of anarchist studies and through the sectarian landscape of the anarchist milieus. It is perhaps important to underline this fact, particular as it is such a central point of my analysis that the dominant narratives regarding anarchist history have a similar character—and that “anarchist history” might, through relatively small changes in the times and places where it was told, have looked very different and perhaps gone by different names.
Twenty-five years ago, when I made my first deep dives into the early histories of anarchist thought, I was neither a mutualist nor a historian. I was a cultural studies scholar and a bit of a jack-of-all-trades (for whom the “master of none” clarification would not have been entirely unfair), splitting my time between literary studies—mostly American, often 19th-century and just as often relating to “popular” literature of the pulpiest sort—and the brand-new field of internet studies—where I enjoyed a brief, but surprisingly illustrious career, both as a scholar and a personality (“aka bookish”) in certain online milieus. By happy accident, being both a 19th-century American studies scholar and an early internet adopter was a pretty good skill-set for engaging in the debates about individualist anarchism and its relation to capitalism that burned up more than their share of bandwidth on Usenet and various mailing lists.
In those days, the internet was made up of about a gazillion small ponds, in which becoming a relatively big fish required little beyond a bit of skill at using the resources constantly opening up around you and a willingness to both dish it out and take it in the daily battles. I was able to make my mark in a couple of those small ponds pretty easily, in large part because my ambitions were fairly narrow. I become a historian of certain margins of anarchism and had no real intention of staking any greater claim. Even when I decided to dust off my much-neglected French and start to tackle some of the literature of that tradition, I really thought I would be reading William Greene’s sources—folks like Pierre Leroux, Philippe Buchez, Auguste Ott, etc.—rather than Proudhon and his school. The Libertarian Labyrinth archive began, as I’ve said, with a similarly marginal mission, as a place to archive material that seemed a bit too esoteric for projects like Spunk Library.
In the course of my early research, I had drifted from a vague sort of green syndicalism to an equally vague sort of mutualism—the latter being necessarily vague, as mutualism meant very little beyond marginal, non-communist anarchism. I was doing my little bit for the anarchist movement, beating back the attempts of the anti-state capitalists to appropriate bits of anarchist history that, no doubt, the majority of anarchists at the time would have been perfectly happy to have forgotten, paying my dues to the IWW and serving as a source for historical anarchist literature in a number of ways, online and off. But I basically accepted the fact that what interested me in the anarchist tradition and movement was pretty distant from more popular concerns.
As it happened, of course, it was Proudhon that I started to translate—and that work began to transform my relation to anarchism and its history in a variety of ways. It took no time at all to understand that I didn’t understand Proudhon and that what I had learned in fairly diligent study of the English-language sources was, more often than not, quite seriously wrong. That launched a new phase of my anarchist studies career—as I became a historian of more margins, in both English and French—at a time when my connections to other marginal anarchists through the internet was also creating a space in which I could be more bold about what mutualism might look like in modern practice. This was all still a matter of pretty small ponds, but larger than before. And I was still largely content to think of all my anarchist activity as fundamentally marginal, even while I was learning things no one around me seemed to know about the origins of the tradition.
Fast-forward to a point in the relatively recent past, when my admittedly obsessive curiosity and the sort of free time provided by chronic underemployment had led me, step by step and more or less accidentally, to turn my attention to the very core of the anarchist tradition. Having found that Proudhon was not the figure, and his thought not the thought, that I had been prepared to find, it was no great surprise when the same turned out to be true about Bakunin. And, piece by piece, I’ve come to assemble a rather different sense of anarchist history’s content—which has naturally led to rather different ideas about anarchism’s development.
Central to this process, of course, has been my own perspective—as a mutualist, looking for clarity about the tradition that I necessarily embraced half-“sight unseen,” and as a specifically mutualist student of Proudhon (et al.) As long as I was a mutualist student of mutualism (and other presumably marginal tendencies), things were fairly simple—and those years were a fine opportunity to develop my “chops” as a historian. As soon as I turned my attention to Proudhon, however, and began my transformation into a student of anarchism (understood now in a very broad sense) the project got considerably more complicated. And the reason for that is simple:
Love him or hate him, include him as essential foundation or exclude him as a faulty precursor, address his work in great detail or gloss over it in the most dismissive terms:—Proudhon occupies an important position in virtually all the histories of anarchist thought.
The problem, of course, is that no single figure—not even one with Proudhon’s fine appreciation of contradiction and tendency to harness the rhetoric of scandal—could possibly be all the things that the various histories require him to be. At the same time, all the many ideas and opinions, all the myths and legends that rush onto stage at the very mention of Proudhon don’t leave a lot of room for his actual ideas to appear. And while very few people would claim Proudhon’s works as a significant inspiration, a tremendous number of people seem to need Proudhon to fill some role—and often a curiously foundational one.
What should we say about the Proudhon over whom anarchists and other would-be radicals constantly struggle? As a foundation, is he rock or is he sand? Or is he so thoroughly multiple, virtual or strictly traditional in his role that it would be impossible to say? This last seems to be the case, even in individual instances. How common it is, for example, to have political rivals or opponents state both that Proudhon definitively believed some thing and that he was ultimately “a man of contradictions”? How seldom are his ideas addressed as incorrect and how often are they simply rejected as silly, abject or both? How many of his most basic and presumably familiar claims—”property is theft” comes immediately to mind—not simply treated as slogans by others, but as if they had been slogans for him? How often is real ignorance of Proudhon’s thought presented as if it was cause for boasting, while knowledge of it is treated as cause for suspicion, by “critics” with a very possession sort of disdain for the “father of anarchism” that we can’t quite seem to disown?
Proudhon—they can’t live with him, but can’t live without him.
In the realm of anarchist tendencies, mutualism has played the equivalent role. It has been, in a sense, the accursed share of anarchist history, with a necessary role, but one that relegates it to the past—to such an extent that, even when you are talking about the most modern sorts of adaptations, there is no escaping the sense that others see you like some Ghost of Anarchisms Past. It is normal, in a youth-oriented movement like anarchism, to feel a bit old, but when you get the feeling that sometimes even your near-peers have unconsciously misdated you by a century or so, well, it shapes your approach in a variety of ways.
What it seems important to say in this context is that approaching anarchist history through mutualism is likely to both chasten and embolden a historian. On the one hand, there is the ever-present sense that you’re a bit of an interloper or anachronism, which is hard to shake even when you feel that you’re doing cutting edge work relevant to the very heart of the anarchist project. On the other hand, it is amazing just how much sense the anarchist tradition makes when you simply begin at some promising beginning—say 1840 and je suis anarchiste—and follow the course of events. And also—somewhere on that same hand, I suppose—it is striking how tractable modern problems seem when viewed through that particular lens.
So I am diffident and bold—and it doesn’t always come out as anything intelligible to most of those around me. But for my part, I must confess that one of the things I find least intelligible is the resistance with which my tale of tractable modern problems has been met so often. It is certainly a novel tale, different in some particulars from the inclusive narratives of figures like Max Nettlau, who, despite important efforts, perhaps never really came to terms with the thought of anarchy’s early- and mid-19th century theorists. And it certainly troubles some existing narratives, in which Proudhon and mutualism (etc.) have played weird, quasi-foundational roles without ever really being given their due. But it is also a story that I have waited a long time to tell, specifically so that I could tell it under circumstances where my plucking away of certain traditional cornerstones could be coupled with the offering of new and much firmer foundations.
If I’m being entirely honest, I have to say that I am tired, that I’ve been carrying this particular story around in one form or another for a long time and that any hopes I had that it would get lighter over the years have been largely disappointed. But I’ve been insisting for years that, where anarchistic problems are concerned, the way out is through. So I’m going to give that one more try, as if I was just a little more sure than I feel here at the opening of 2019.
Anarchist History: The Metaphor of the Main Stream
(June 6, 2019)
As tools for historical and cultural understanding, metaphors are obviously in the “use with great care” category and, as often as not, reveal more about our interpretive preconceptions than they do about the material we seek to interpret. But sometimes that’s just what is called for, as what needs to be more closely examined is at least as much the lens through which we are looking as it is the object of our scrutiny.
In the past, when talking about the development of anarchist ideas, I have invoked the notion of an “anarchistic undercurrent” within the anarchist tradition, different in character from what we might call the “surface currents”—and different specifically in its more anarchic character. Now this was perhaps provocative—suggesting that what is most anarchic in anarchism comprises a separate and more obscure current that what is generally visible “on the surface” (although, to be fair, I might have called it a countercurrent)—but the metaphor itself has been pretty rudimentary, with no particular knowledge of oceanography or fluid dynamics required. More significantly, of course, that metaphor—like the play with main texts and margins that has also had a place in my work—has presented only the most indirect sorts of challenges to the dominant narratives in anarchist historiographical and ideological thought. It has done little to challenge the assumption that a surface current, main text or mainstream could reasonably be identified within the anarchist tradition, only suggesting that a single-minded focus on that aspect of our history and tradition might miss vital elements.
I don’t think it should come as any surprise that such a diffident approach has often been treated as interesting, but perhaps not a great deal more. And now, with a multi-volume treatment of anarchist history at least in the planning stages, it seems to be time to address this question of an anarchist mainstream a bit more directly.
Full disclosure: I’m not at all convincing that any mainstream of anarchist thought or organization can be clearly identified, whether we turn our attention to the full, unfiltered mass of historical data or even if we focus much more closely on what has been treated as the core of anarchist tradition. I strongly suspect we need to at least modify our metaphors if we are to come to terms with the complexities of anarchist development.
So here are some thoughts on two other metaphors that I have used — “anarchistic countercurrent” and main text/margin — followed by a rethinking of the notion of a historical anarchist mainstream. And since our context is a project of “mapping our lost continent,” part of the process will be a little deeper (metaphorical) engagement with riverine geology and fluvial processes.
It should be clear that some of the metaphorical tools we develop have real, lasting explanatory power, while others are useful makeshifts, sturdy enough to get us to the next phase of things. It isn’t always clear, of course, which is which, at least until we’ve put them to practical use and compared them to alternatives. The metaphor of an undercurrent of more anarchistic anarchism and a surface current that has perhaps not always been directed by the most anarchistic of concerns was, on reflection, probably of the latter variety. It was a provocation, but also, as I have already observed, not a particularly bold one. As a way of describing my own experience, wading into the deeper waters of anarchist history, it did its work relatively well. I had, so to speak, played around in the shallows and backwaters for a long time, only rather reluctantly beginning to address the central figures of the anarchist tradition, as I had inherited it, and then, in the process, finding that the general development of anarchist didn’t conform all that closely to the general narrative that I had learned. And the tension between anarchy and anarchism had ultimately provided the key to at least the beginnings of an alternate account in which one general dynamic involved that tension in a particular persistent form.
I think that there are, however, two fairly significant problems with the narrative. First, it involves an association of the essential and the hidden that I have learned, with what I think are good reasons, to mistrust. It is, for example, the association made when critics of anarchism latch onto the worst paragraph in Proudhon’s Carnets in order to ward off an engagement with Proudhon’s theory—or even anarchist theory—in general, on the grounds that there is a revealed truth in that paragraph that necessarily colors and ultimately negates everything else in the larger body of work. Sometimes, of course, important clues to a body of work are indeed hidden, whether intentionally or otherwise, but we discover these cases by careful analysis, not by granting some broadly occult significant to what may simply be striking anomalies. And the appeal to the hidden is, I think, no more persuasive when it takes the form of an invocation of the unrecorded opinions and priorities of the masses.
The second issue is that much of what I’ve come to associate with the “undercurrent” isn’t ultimately very hidden. Indeed, some of it is remarkably well-known, if not perhaps deeply understood, and in much of the resources that gave rise to the metaphor is has been more a question of finding unexpected material in rather prominent sources than of finding some secret strain of anarchist thought. And even the work of clarifying the extent of that “undercurrent” has largely involved digging through the content of fairly prominent anarchist periodicals. In the end, an “undercurrent” is perhaps not so useful a description for material that is, at most, hidden in plain sight.
I’ve been finding that metaphor of main texts and margins more durable, provided it is used with a certain amount of care. There is, on the one hand, no vague appeal to general flows in anarchist development and, on the other, much of what I have been talking about is what is and is not contained in received narratives, so, as metaphors go, it couldn’t get much simpler. And there is obviously fun to be had, given the ways that the potential marginal material tends to dwarf even the most extensive narratives of anarchist history.
I’ll be using this particular metaphor to structure Our Lost Continent, treating how ever many volumes of material I eventually produce as a kind of marginal commentary of Nettlau’s Short History. And part of the attraction here is that readers can compare the narratives that I’m building through the marginal episodes, biographical commentary on Nettlau, etc. with the more conventional historical narrative in that work. But this structure of multiple narrative currents naturally raises questions about how to compare them and how to determine which, if any, should be considered the primary narrative or main stream.
Appeals to a main stream of anarchism, to a mainstream anarchism, attempt, it seems to me, to describe more than just the qualities of a particular historical narrative. They want to describe anarchism in general. And when these appeals are historical in nature, the metaphor of a river system seems quite apt, with its tributaries, main and side channels, banks and floodplains, headwaters and deltas, gradients, flow rates and sediment loads, etc., etc. all offering ways to talk about the development of anarchistic ideas and movements—even if most of that apparatus is just sort of vaguely suggested by the invocation of the main stream. The problem, however, is that, given the quantity and complexity of the historical material available for incorporation into our riverine model, it is that most-invoked feature that seems hardest to identify.
What would the main stream of a developing anarchism look like? We should probably expect some breadth (of self-proclaimed anarchist adherents), some depth (of anarchist ideas) and some fairly significant persistence or at least steady evolution of those other qualities. But if we do not simply exclude a good deal of at least nominally anarchist material, it is hard to find any very lengthy stretch of history that presents a main stream with clearly defined ideological characteristics. If we attempt to proceed—focused on ideological and methodological differences, but without some initial culling of the material—we find, not steady flows or continued evolutions, but instead instances of discontinuity that are perhaps hard to reconcile with our metaphor. And if we are determined to find a main stream in the available materials, perhaps the attempts to establish clear ideologies and defining projects in the midst of the truly broad anarchist tradition start to look more like silt—swept up by the general flow and then deposited, more-or-less unceremoniously, downstream—than the do the water.
There’s a part of me that likes that variation on the metaphor quite a bit, but it obviously doesn’t do the work that most invocations of an anarchist main stream attempt to accomplish. What is might do, however, is suggest a way to rethink the ideology-as-channel element of the metaphor a bit. There are, after all, kinds of river systems that perhaps allow us to map some of the elements that seem to complicate the question of a main stream.
Let’s say that our River of Anarchism moves along at a pretty good clip, often driven by external concerns that also mean it is subject to variations in the general flow of the current. Let’s acknowledge that it’s journey through the terrain of history thus far has often loaded it with material that it has not necessarily been able to dissolve or deposit quickly—that its sediment load has perhaps generally been quite high. And let’s also recognize that its ultimate interface with the rest of the political systems in the world has often been a bit uncertain. Given those factors, if anarchist history really was a river, I might expect, based on the workings of familiar fluvial processes—though perhaps these processes are considerably less familiar to those who never considered geology as a profession in their youth—a river system featuring a braided channel, perhaps ending in a complex delta, with considerable avulsion (abandonment and creation of river channels) throughout. And, searching for some of the reasons for this particular kind of complexity, we might expect to find a complex network of tributaries.
And that’s probably enough of that kind of fun, at least for now—not because there is not potentially a great deal more that could be done elaborating the metaphor, but because there is so much more to be done sifting through the material we might like to organize with it and because there are probably other things we have to say about the relationship between historical research, ideological mapping and the study of actual landforms before we allow the seductive possibilities of a new metaphor to exercise much more of their powers.
For now, let’s just posit the possibility that the metaphor of an anarchist main stream might not have the explanatory power that its casual invocation suggests, but that perhaps a metaphor not so dramatically removed—multiple tributaries, braided channels, complex deltas, sediment load, avulsion, etc.—may at least provide opportunities to examine the possibilities and limitations of the more familiar model.
Next: Maps and Overland Guides
Anarchist History: Maps and Overland Guides
(June 8, 2019)
However cautious I might be about some common metaphors, I have to acknowledge that I have shown much less restraint in talking about mapping and in treating the terrain of anarchist history just a bit literally from time to time. The Libertarian Labyrinth name referred very explicitly to the experience of finding myself dropped—really of dropping myself—into the midst of a history, specifically that of the early anarchists in the United States, that was both extremely complex and a bit difficult to reconcile with the general sense of the anarchist tradition that I had developed prior to this exploration of unfamiliar and partially unmapped territory.
In that context, of course, there was quite a bit of real mapping to do, tracing connections between texts and figures, following the Greenes as they moved from place to place, even consulting period railway maps and schedules to determine whether the William B. Greene I found teaching in one Massachusetts town could be the William B. Greene I knew was living in another. There were patterns of influences to trace and record. And so on. If the material from that early period still feels a bit labyrinthine, at least, over the years, the known paths have become quite familiar. Slowly but surely, I’ve not only found my bearings, but used them to blaze fairly clear trails from the remote corner of anarchist history where I really began my serious studies to more frequently traveled regions of the tradition. Later, as material like the Max Nettlau papers became available online, I was able to compare notes with earlier trailblazers as well.
A lot of the work by anarchist historians does indeed involve very careful mapping of particular bits of anarchist history, along with a wide range of other skills, drawn from a wide variety of disciplines, that then provide various kinds of representations of anarchist culture in various locales and periods. This sort of close engagement is, in fact, probably the primary work of anarchist studies. And our attempts to characterize anarchist history or anarchist tradition generally should, if we are serious about the task, make the most of all that careful reconstruction and elaboration. But the specific task of general representation has a rather different character.
We know that the disconnect between map and territory becomes significant quickly—and when the “map” is a narrative history of global events, perhaps the utility of the mapping metaphor breaks down almost immediately. So what does that mean for a project that wants to frame itself in terms of lost continents and journeys to and fro? Probably not a lot, except that a little clarity about any quasi-geographical or quasi-cartographical metaphors will be welcome..
And that takes us in a more literary direction.
Before it ever occurred to me that my historical explorations would be as successful and ultimately fruitful as they have been, the Libertarian Labyrinth name marked the possibility of encountering minotaurs at least as much as that of mapping the maze. And when I first described the the “era of anarchy” as “our lost continent,” it was in large part a nod-and-wink to the portion of my readership that likes its pulp fiction every bit as much as it likes its radical history—accompanied by a world map that included Atlantis and Mu. It seemed important at the time to mark this particular part of the anarchist tradition not just as a neglected bit of history, but as something that, at present, played a specific, largely mythic role—whatever other uses we might find for a closer examination. It has not just been important that these early figures are “lost,” or very nearly so. It has also seemed important that they remain “ours,” integrated into familiar general accounts of anarchist history—if maintained in the spaces toward their margins—precisely as shadowy, largely symbolic elements.
(There are reasons to think that we like some figures better when the are “lost.” We have had as many as five different translations—substantial or complete—of Joseph Déjacque’s Humanisphere fairly easily accessible for quite some time now, without Déjacque’s work being subjected to much more substantive analysis—but also without a certain kind of ritual invocation of his work altering much in either frequency or content. And a number of the other figures from the “era of anarchy” now enjoy a similar accessibility—without any of that significantly changing their role in the general narratives.)
In some senses, of course, this has been another rather diffident strategy, in the sense that playing with mythic imagery and embracing the crankiness of many of the early figures I have examined has let me begin to say some genuinely radical things about the development of anarchism while still giving the sense of staying in my lane, treating the marginal as marginal. I’m certainly not above candy-coating the potentially hard things I suspect need to be said about anarchism and its development, particularly if the sweetener is the wealth of truly entertaining characters and episodes I’ve picked up along the way. And I hope to continue to balance celebration and critique in the works to come.
In the end, that balance may ultimately be as provocative as any more direct sort of approach, since the lost continent is one of those working metaphors that, however limited the era of anarchist history to which I originally applied it, has seemed to apply more broadly the more I used it—to the point where I finally decide that Our Lost Continent was the right title for my general account of anarchist history—or, more specifically, of anarchist history as we use it in the present anarchist milieus.
There will be opportunities, as the new work develops, to talk in a great deal more detail about why I have come to that position—much of which we deal with the question of political myth—but, for now, I want to stick to the spatializing metaphors we’ve been looking at and talk a bit about what kind of work a general history of anarchist development might do, if it is indeed not quite a question of mapping a terrain.
The work of historical research can certainly be understood as a kind of exploration. We set out from a more-or-less known present into a comparatively unknown past, in search of material that allows us to better understand the present and in search of entertaining or inspiring episodes. So one kind of historical narrative would be a kind of travel narrative, the explorer’s record of episodes on the journey. Those of us who are actively documenting the steps in our research leave accounts of this sort, even if we scatter them about a good deal. We much less frequently try to build sustained narratives in this way—if only because what is normal in the course of complex historical research makes is likely to make for confusing reading. (To give one example: a year passed between my translation of Fernand Fortin’s first proposal for a liaison anarchiste and my discovery that there there was any more to the story. The first work was done, on the fly, in the course of a different exploration, precisely so that I would be likely to follow up when time allowed. But while it is often simply necessary for the historical researcher to work this way, there doesn’t seem to be many good reasons to ask anyone else to relive it.) That’s why the genre of historical narratives usually involves something else, particularly when it is a question of general histories. Those histories tend to take the form of a reconstruction, recounting a progression from the past to the present. The constraints of specifically narrative reconstruction then impose the form of a journey through time. And specifically ideological histories—histories of ideologies, but also histories intended to further present ideological ends—share this character.
We can, however, probably point to at least a couple of different kinds of general ideological histories, distinguished by the uses intended for them in the present. In general, it is probably fair to say that histories of this sort intend to explain and illuminate the present state of the ideologies in question—or of some present ideology that is closely related to the one whose history is being recounted. But sometimes we write history to give a storied foundation to existing beliefs. Sometimes we are more concerned with showing where everything went so wrong. And sometimes we are attempting to show that an existing account of ideological history is perhaps not the only way to account for the events in question—or that, given a particular ideology as a subject of historical narrative, there are other events that need to be considered (or, perhaps, left unconsidered in a revised narrative.)
I don’t think there is much mystery about the ways that anarchist struggle over what is to be included in or excluded from anarchist history or anarchist tradition. I also think that most of us understand—or could and would understand, if pressed to consider the question—that our general histories are stories we tell ourselves, driven largely by present concerns, and subject to all of the difficulties posed by anarchists’ lack of shared doctrine, historical anarchism’s diverse range of material contexts and practical applications, lost sources, undocumented actions and opinions, distortions of anarchist beliefs by the lenses of authoritarian societies, etc., etc. In fact, the widely expressed disdain for history in a movement that tends to pride itself on a kind of eternal youth, probably means that many anarchists expect nothing else from anarchist history than one more expression of present ideological conflicts.
If, however, we try to clarify the dynamics of the conflicts between different approaches to the general history of anarchism, I think we have to talk just a little a bit more about potential genres and forms of narrative. And here, I will be the first to admit, it is necessary to both speculate about the rationales behind objections and resistances that are not always so clearly articulate and to push our metaphors on a little closer to the breaking point. But—considering the extent to which all my labors in the field of anarchist history have emphasized the pleasures of recounting entertaining, if also sometimes bizarre stories—I hope readers will allow me this additional provocation:
Rather than maps, what general ideological histories most seem to resemble are perhaps the kinds of overland or emigrants’ guides that pioneers used in their travels to and across the North American continent. The most encyclopedic among them—Nettlau’s Short History, for example—look more like maps, perhaps, but even many of the very well-researched works of anarchist history have a rather pronounced “how to get from here to there” character—with “here” being a largely unknown past and “there” being a particular, present ideological formulation or movement. That would make them overland guides to where we are from a place where we have never been—and obviously that is a genre whose uses call for some scrutiny. At the same time, I think there is a case—and perhaps a strong case—that looking at these histories in this way may be quite useful in the present, particularly if—in the inevitable mixing of the metaphors in play here—we think of ourselves as voyaging along a braided stream.
In the next post, I’ll try to talk about how these reflections on anarchist history and narrative metaphor seem likely to shape Our Lost Continent, my own attempt to at least engage with the question of how to construct a general history of anarchism useful to anarchists in the present.
Next: Streamside Reflections and Preparations for the Journey
Anarchist History: Streamside Reflections and Preparations for the Journey
(June 11, 2019)
I expect that anyone who has made the experiment—on any scale, really—can attest that it is often much easier to venture out into the wilderness than it is to find our way home again. There is undoubtedly a lesson here for historians of what we call “the anarchist tradition,” and particularly for those of us whose researches have taken us deep into the interior, in search of the more-or-less mythic headwaters of that tradition. But perhaps the difficulties are not quite as great as some critics of broadly, deeply inclusive anarchist history can make them seem.
There is a critique that seems to run something like this: Of course, the critics acknowledge, you can keep tracking elements of influence back and back into history, but at some point you are simply talking about something other than anarchism, at least as we understand it now. And if you make the experiment of taking these early forms as a starting point, there is no trail back to the present that leads directly to the anarchism of the present day. Either you encounter insuperable obstacles, which force a detour to some really distinct path, or else you end up somewhere else, arriving at some ideological alternative to modern anarchism. This critique will be familiar to those who have followed the modern debates about mutualism, which has often either been treated as an anachronism—an ideology of the past, that has somehow outlived its moment—or as something outside the envelope of anarchism—a current, returning to one of our metaphors, separate from the main stream.
And, ultimately, there is a part of me that sympathizes with this critique. There really is a persistent unease that comes with the kind of historical work I’ve done, which really boils down to a realization that you can’t go home again when certain traditional narratives are stretched beyond a certain point. But may suspicion is that the unease may ultimately have as much to do with our uncertainty about what anarchism really is in the present as it is about any aspect of the past. And I’ve attempted to address that critique in a couple of different ways in recent years: first, through the suggestion that many of the problems that haunt the modern movement could be largely addressed by some attention to the long-neglected question of synthesis (as Voline described in in his 1924 essay, not in the sense of organization fusion) and, second, through the recognition of the possibility of real alternatives, of, for example, a neo-Proudhonian anarchism that would arise directly from the works of Proudhon (without the detours through the inherited anarchist tradition that have shaped the existing neo-Proudhonian mutualism.)
In terms of the metaphor of the braided channel, it is a question of whether the braided river-system is itself anarchism—in which case a general anarchist history needs to account for both the various individual channel and those dynamics of avulsion that create and destroy individual channels—or whether the that braided river system is something larger, in the context of which the anarchism we have inherited is, properly speaking, one or more of the channels—and then anarchist history has to decide which channels are non-anarchist tendencies, which might be anarchistic alternatives (like the proposed neo-Proudhonian anarchism), etc.
Moving forward, and through the course of Our Lost Continent, I want to keep this question open to some extent, using the possibility of a genuine alternative like the neo-Proudhonian anarchism as a foil for the synthesist premise that most of the narrative will rather boldly defend. But all that really means is that, instead of providing one alternative to those accounts of anarchist history that would try to solve our ideological conflicts with history, I would like to provide at least two.
So, having raised some basic questions and discussed some potentially useful metaphors, let’s talk about Our Lost Continent, which I hope will be a kind of summary of my work on anarchist development, a historical support for the synthesist approach to anarchism in the present and, of course, a representative collection of the kind of good stories I’ve picked up in year of research. It is probably impossible to talk about the general history of anarchism without engaging in a certain amount of partisan pushing-and-shoving, but what I would like to do is to emphasize the present possibilities presented by at least certain accounts of the historical development of anarchism. There are plenty of cautionary tales to be told along the way and, however positive and celebratory I intend the project to be in its entirety, the general narrative may in fact be dominated by more somber notes. And there is ultimately nothing that can be said to those who insist on more partisan accounts or demand that what is recognized as anarchism be limited to the beliefs of their own tendency. But I persist—some might say through persistent naïveté or premature decline—in believing that there is an audience for an account of anarchist development that is cautiously optimistic about at least some possible futures, while not being overly celebratory about the past, and that ultimately argues that anarchism—broadly defined, as we have, for better or worse, inherited it—can and perhaps must be shared and allowed a full and anarchic manifestation.
There are, of course, a couple of difficulties associated with this kind of hypothesis.
It is one thing to insist that history itself does not solve the problems that arise from our uses history in the present, but that understanding of things obviously compromises any historical argument in favor of synthesis in the same ways that it would an argument for strict anarchist communism, platformism or any other specific tendency. The primary thing that we can do with the historical analysis is to defend the claim that our present uses of history are indeed matters of ideology and choice, challenging certain specific and arguably partisan readings in the process. Then, on a more level playing field, it’s back to the game of proposing alternate accounts of general anarchist history, which can be judged, on the one hand, according to how extensively and faithfully they make use of the available historical material and, on the other, how useful they seem for present purposes. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that even a moderately successful synthesist account would appear as a worthy contender alongside existing narratives.
But what then? A synthesist account has to prepare us for a different kind of follow-up, demanding a continuing and probably increasing engagement with diverse elements of anarchist history and theory, rather than giving us guidelines according to which we can easily pick and choose. So it might be premature to say that such an account was even moderately successful if it was not accompanied by at least some instruction and demonstration in the skills necessary to take the additional steps required. It’s simply not good enough, then, to only provide an equally compelling account of the past, particularly as the participation kind of synthesis championed in this work is considerably less familiar than the proposals for organizational synthesis we usually associate with the term.
To address those additional demands, it seems necessary to transform what might otherwise be a collection of simply historical accounts into a series of essays about anarchist history—and then to make sure that those essays cover a variety of relevant topics and demonstrate a range of what we might call the survival skills for further synthesist exploration. Readers of my various blogs will have a sense of that range, but also—if we’re honest—they will also probably have a fairly clear sense of just how difficult it is to make that range of techniques look like a well-ordered toolkit.
To provide enough unifying structure to feel like I can move forward with the project fairly efficiently, to provide readers easier means to compare my episodic and somewhat meta account to more conventionally historical alternatives, and to acknowledge my admiration for perhaps the greatest influence on my thinking as an anarchist, as a historian of anarchism and contributor to anarchist theory, I have decided to organize Our Lost Continent as a tribute to Max Nettlau and a set of commentaries specifically related to the Short History. This will undoubtedly and explicitly be a case of marginalia threatening to inundate the main text, but if there is a text that seems capable of bearing the load, I think I’ve chosen the right one.
Expect a loosely chronological collection of material, with yearly summaries of key events and essays inspired by, but hardly limited to, a series of historical events, supported texts translations and illustrations. The subject matter will perhaps focus on the presently “marginal” in anarchist history, as there will be no particular need to recover familiar ground—particularly where it is covered in Nettlau’s Short History—but one of my goals is to incorporate, as quietly and painlessly as possible, a sort of literature review of a number of existing general histories of anarchism. The general arguments—that anarchist history presents us with what we have been calling a braided channel and that this odd business of producing emigrants’ guides from an unfamiliar past to a familiar present is, for better or worse, business as usual for general ideological histories—means that I have the luxury of breaking with some of the narrower conclusions of potentially competing narratives without feeling the need to replace or displace the good historical work they contain. It’s worth noting, too, that my primary intention in this whole project is to celebrate the breadth, diversity and ungovernability of the anarchist tradition, while presenting a positive vision of how individual anarchists and anarchist factions might benefit from embracing all that messy complexity.
There are a number of more specific elements in the work—particularly those relating to the emergence of anarchist studies as a practice and discipline—that are probably more easily addressed later, when I’ve narrated or identified a few more of the “episodes” in the narrative that I’m producing. I’m very interested, for example, in the effects of particular beginning and ending points on the interpretation of the arcs created. And there are developments of the metaphors introduced here that will undoubtedly be dictated by the historical work as it proceeds. I expect I won’t quite know what the shape of the work is until I’m well into the construction of the second volume—and as for what will appear in the final conclusions to the fourth volume, well, things are naturally a bit hazy. Finally, there is the question of how to address the span from 1936 or so to the present. As presently organized, this new overland guide may not quite get us home from the wilderness. But I reasons to hope that, based on the pace with which the project has developed so far and the existing material in my own files still not really incorporated, none of the problems that remain will be beyond solution.
With these three introductory pieces composed and published, I feel like I am at least underway, even if it is, so far, just a matter of climbing well out onto a limb. What comes next is the collection of more relevant past writings on the project homepage, the steadily outlining of later volumes—including the outlining of What Mutualism Was, which will be composed simultaneously with the first volumes and in much the same format—and the composition of the first of the episode-essays. And that first episode will almost certainly involve “Proudhon’s barbaric yawp,” je suis anarchiste!
Anarchist History: No End of Beginnings
(July 21, 2019)
After a couple of decades in the wilderness of history, in search of the elusive headwaters of the anarchist tradition, you stop beside some particularly active mountain spring and think that, while no serious seeker would every claim a single source for that tradition, you’ve probably been in the right neighborhood for some time now. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the return trip.
You look back down along the course of the stream you have followed and perhaps you think:Easier said than done. There is no question of retracing the circuitous route by which you came. But you know all too well that the most direct path is fraught with difficulties and widely considered impassible at multiple points along the way. These, after all, were the conditions that set you off on less-traveled and perhaps untraveled trails on the journey here. And if you’ve gained a great deal of clarity about the terrain—recognizing “the current” as a kind of impossible braid and the “impassible” points as sometimes much less daunting (but also sometimes much more) than reported—that still doesn’t mean you have the kind of map that would be needed to strike off directly towards home.
You hardly even need to get started to understand that things will look different when traveling in the other direction, but also to note that there are advantages to starting from a certain height, with a certain amount of local experience and at least a partial sense of the general lay of the land. You can always fall back, you know, on your assembled collection of overland guides, even if they are not always dependable or describe routes to exactly where you want to go. In the end, you have the certain knowledge that you got from there to here, so presumably you can get back again. You know that. But it’s not always a great consolation, as you work to cut a path back to the present.
I’ve spend the month since the “Streamside Reflections” wrestling with a few last preliminary details, which seemed to demand my attention before I could just settle back into my established routine. A lot of that, frankly, has involved letting what I’ve learned over that couple of decades really sink in and allowing myself to dispense with some assumptions about what that anarchist tradition must look like that have been hard to abandon, despite my sense that they aren’t necessary or even particularly helpful.
Things really do look different if you try to see the unfolding story of “the anarchist idea” from the vantage point of the 1830s or early 1840s. From that starting point, there is no question of framing the development of the anarchist tradition in terms of Marx and Marxism, the International, the Paris Commune, anarchist communism, syndicalism, events in Ukraine or Spain nearly a century late, platformism (or its alternatives), 1968 or any of the more recent moments. In 1840, it’s not even a question, necessarily, of framing things in terms of the eventual emergence of anarchism as an ideology, movement, keyword, etc. All of those events obviously leave their mark. A series of influential figures, active organizations and key texts will establish important markers along the route—or along routes not taken this time around—but the challenge posed by those who want to insist on a “main stream” of anarchist thought and activity is precisely that at least some of those markers mark points of impassibility, divergences more decisive than just the ongoing work of ideological avulsion or simply some “real” beginning for some more important or authentic anarchist tradition (in the light of which the journey so far has to be understood in some other light.)
One natural response to that challenge seems to be to frame an account of the development of that “anarchist idea” in terms drawn from the earliest period we are examining, to spend some time really exploring the era of anarchy and anarchists without anarchism—for its own sake and for the sake of the anarchy proposed, rather than for the light it might shed on later developments—and then to move forward, attempting to accomplish a number of related tasks:
The first is obviously to focus on the actual development of the idea of anarchy from points like Proudhon’s 1840 declaration—Je suis anarchiste—through his own work and through the works of other early figures who adopted the anarchist label. We know that there is a substantial development in Proudhon’s work and we know that at least the beginnings of a conversation emerge in that context. If we are going to look forward toward anarchism from the earliest works, perhaps the most useful task is to imagine what anarchism would have looked like if it had developed explicitly from that early exchange of ideas.
We also clearly have to deal with the challenges as they emerge, whether we are talking about inconsistencies in the work of Proudhon and others, divisions among those who claim the anarchist label or critiques from outside the nascent movement of anarchists. And there will be no shortage of those, but, again, it is important to weigh them on their own merits, not pick and choose among them according to how well they fit some modern conception of where the anarchist tradition does or should end up. When we’re tempted to dwell too much on some presumably decisive objection that we know is coming, perhaps it will be mostly useful to remember that our own most immediate context is an anarchism that seems every bit as diverse as it has ever been—making claims about decisive breaks or turning points at subject to a considerable amount of entirely reasonable doubt.
There will, of course, be points in the journey where the mere insistence on impassibility, or the claim that what we have taken for a branching of channels has really involved the crossing of a watershed, will mean that certain familiar paths will be, if not closed to us, at least subject to considerable difficulties. Kropotkin and Tucker are probably not going to be our guides as we try to navigate the late 19th and early 20th century, assuming we are still focused closely on the career of that “idea of anarchy.” But the anarchist tradition is nothing if not rich, so perhaps we can count on other guides and make our way home along significantly different paths.
It is this possibility, I think, that makes the project most exciting for me and also most difficult to seriously pursue. There is not generally a lot of resistance to the observation that there have been a lot of different kinds of anarchists in the past, but, in the context of the tradition, they have certainly not all been treated as of equal interest—or even, in many cases, of any lasting interest at all. To judge their present value as guides in terms of an attempt to trace what is most anarchistic—most closely related to a developing notion of anarchy—within the broad and developing tradition seems like a reasonable rationale—at least until that rationale elevates Eliphalet Kimball or Gérard de Lacaze-Duthiers (theorist of l’Artistocracie) over Kropotkin or Durutti. Then the specter of the “representative” account almost necessarily returns, even if it is not always clear what—if not a developing anarchy—we are obliged to represent.
Perhaps some of what is potentially disturbing in that aspect of the study can be alleviated by the performance of yet another task, as we attempt to determine to what degree the insistence on rupture, divergence, etc. really reflect something impassible in the route of a constantly developing anarchist idea and to what extent they mark aspects of another dynamic. We may find, for example, more of Proudhon in Bakunin that the latter’s testimony about influences would lead us to expect. We may find that the rupture between mutualism and “modern anarchism” insisted on by Kropotkin was, however real and motivated by important events at the time, also unnecessary and perhaps unfortunate (for anarchist communists and the inheritors of the mutualist label alike.) We’ll certainly find a periodic resurfacing of clearly Proudhonian concerns, within “main stream” anarchist circles and long after the presumed break, just as we will find a similar cycle of rediscovery with regard to Bakunin, against long after his work was presumably surpassed. And the present work will, of course, mark just another event in that very uneven, piecemeal, stop-start development, while at the same time it will probably take the form of an argument that a great deal of what has divided anarchists has not be necessary in the stronger sense of that term.
Still, among the things that our research assures us that we will find, there is no discounting the fact that we will find a lot of beginnings, a lot of places where the previous thread seems to have broken or been dropped, when that ideological avulsion seems to send large numbers of anarchists off down some new channel. And one of the key things we are going to have to account for in the larger account is just why this is the case.
Some of what we see is obviously tunnel-vision and failure to synthesize the lessons of various anarchistic efforts and experiments into a sense of the anarchist idea that we could share—complicated by the fact that, almost as soon as the question was explicitly raised, the discussion of synthesis became largely trapped in a narrow debate about organization. I don’t think there is a very convincing argument against this claim—at least from any position that takes anarchy seriously as the central idea of anarchist theory. We find some concern about the splintering of anarchism in just about every era it has existed, with projects to address the concern arising, at one time or another, from just about every anarchist tendency. In important ways, anarchists have just never quite got it together—which has arguably been a real impediment when it comes to developing strategies for applying anarchist ideas and practices in new or evolving contexts.
But perhaps there is another dynamic at work here, more directly connected to the nature of the anarchist idea itself. One of my favorite modern anarchist essay’s is Alfredo M. Bonanno’s “The Anarchist Tension,” in large part because of the early passage, which I’ll quote at some length:
What is anarchism? It might seem strange that I should take up such a problem in this situation as I know for certain that there are many anarchists here, because I know them personally. And if nothing else, anarchists should at least know what anarchism is. Yet it is necessary to take up the question ‘What is anarchism?’ time and time again. Even in a few words. Why is that? This does not normally happen in other expressions of life, in other activities or ideas that define themselves with some foundation to be something or other.
So anarchists keep asking themselves the same question: What is anarchism? What does it mean to be an anarchist? Why? Because it is not a definition that can be made once and for all, put in a safe and considered a heritage to be tapped little by little. Being an anarchist does not mean one has reached a certainty or said once and for all, ‘There, from now on I hold the truth and as such, at least from the point of view of the idea, I am a privileged person’. Anyone who thinks like this is an anarchist in word alone. Instead the anarchist is someone who really puts themselves in doubt as such, as a person, and asks themselves: What is my life according to what I do and in relation to what I think? What connection do I manage to make each day in everything I do, a way of being an anarchist continually and not come to agreements, make little daily compromises, etc? Anarchism is not a concept that can be locked up in a word like a gravestone. It is not a political theory. It is a way of conceiving life, and life, young or old as we may be, whether we are old people or children, is not something final: it is a stake we must play day after day. When we wake up in the morning and put our feet on the ground we must have a good reason for getting up, if we don’t it makes no difference whether we are anarchists or not. We might as well stay in bed and sleep. And to have a good reason we must know what we want to do because for anarchism, for the anarchist, there is no difference between what we do and what we think, but there is a continual reversal of theory into action and action into theory. That is what makes the anarchist unlike someone who has another concept of life and crystallises this concept in a political practice, in political theory.
This is what is not normally said to you, this is what you never read in the newspapers, this is what is not written in books, this is what school jealously keeps quiet about, because this is the secret of life: never ever separate thought from action, the things we know, the things we understand, from the things we do, the things with which we carry out our actions.
There is a good deal that is simply suggestive here, thanks to a the somewhat impromptu character of the remarks and some uncertainties in translation, but, honestly, that has been some of the charm of the piece for me. There are aspects of the argument, such as it is, that I probably can’t entirely embrace. But the notion that “it is necessary to take up the question ‘What is anarchism?’ time and time again” has become an important part of my understanding of the anarchist idea and its development, in part because, if this necessity is real, it would help to explain the rather obsessive tendency of anarchists to begin and then begin again—and do so in terms that to which “get it together” is not an adequate response.
Certainly, if that part of Bonanno’s argument is correct—and if we look we can easily find similar claims elsewhere in the material we have inherited—then, while there may still be plenty of instances where our failures to develop uniquely anarchistic theory can be attributed to our own distraction and dogmatism, we are also almost certainly going to be forced to think at least a little bit differently about what it would mean to focus on anarchy, to ground some general, shareable understanding of anarchism on the anarchist idea.
Part of the work in Our Lost Continent will obviously be an attempt to account for the diversity and division we find throughout the anarchist tradition. Where possible, a key task will be to try to identify persistent dynamics among and within the various anarchist currents that can account for the historical outcomes we have seen and perhaps better inform our relations moving forward. Many of the key questions to be raised will be questions of organization—with perhaps the most important of those questions being whether or not we have allowed a particular kind of organizationalism to shape our sense of what anarchist organization might entail. One of the consequences of that particular focus will probably be an emphasis, as I am assembling the episodes and encounters to be treated in depth, on tendencies like individualism, egoism and mutualism—sometimes zeroing in on specific moments and movements that might seem marginal even in those contexts—if only to supplement insights that are perhaps pretty well disseminated among anarchists concerning the “social” side of human relations with views specific enough to break down some of the too-easy “social vs. individual” divisions and complex enough to breathe some life back into those concepts.
I expect the result will be resisted, perhaps rejected in certain quarters as not “representative.” Its that objection that I am still trying to learn to shrug off—as I think I have to when I have set myself on the trail of anarchism at its most anarchy-centric, which probably also means anarchism that is, in some senses at least, quite anarchic, at least in its manifestations.
Of course, because this is a “return trip,” I am starting out with plenty of ideas about how that anarchy of anarchism can be understood in terms other than pure intellectual or ideological dispersion, organization ineffectiveness, etc. And the prospect of taking “a different route home” is an exciting one, not least because the advance scouting that I have been able to do suggests the journey will be full of exciting discoveries and development, with potentially important consequences for present and future anarchist practice.
Still, this is inescapably yet another beginning, another moment at which it is necessary to as “what is anarchism” and, we might say, to “put myself in doubt,” both as an anarchist and as a student of anarchist history. Even after decades of exploration—perhaps especially after decades of exploration—there is nothing simple about marking a new beginning, let alone following through to the indicated end.
So, wish me luck—and I hope that, if nothing else, the stories that emerge as the journey progresses will entertaining.
The Uses of a Lost Continent
(December 16, 2019)
I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the reception of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back—particularly as it has been a matter of draft sections distributed through social media without much in the way of rhyme or reason. It appears that some of the method in my madness has shown through.
But this is obviously a big project, dependent on a very complicated set of frames, so it’s probably worth underlining the very practical reasons for the approach I’m taking. I’ll largely skip over a series of fairly personal concerns, relating to the demands of tackling large projects. Let’s just say that injecting a bit of fun into the process certainly does not hurt when it is a question of returning to the work day after day. And some elements, like the quasi-dialogue to be established between my own work and Nettlau’s “Short History,” are attempts to establish checks on my own approach that I haven’t been able to establish in more immediate ways. Certain other choices are largely a question of playing to what I see as my own strengths. As should already be clear, this is very far from the only kind of study that even my own somewhat idiosyncratic research might have produced—but, for reasons that I hope will become clearer and clearer, it feels like the most useful one, given the current states of anarchist studies and the larger anarchist milieus.
While I’m warming to the task, if I was entirely honest, I would have to say that anything like a “general history of anarchism” is just the sort of project most likely to evoke a response of “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” I’m most comfortable exploring and experimenting, and generally happy to leave the more magisterial summaries to others who are undoubtedly more suited to that task. But we don’t always get to choose—particularly when our most basic philosophical and political commitments are at stake. So, here I am, trying to do something like “general anarchist history” without making too much of a mess of things.
Or maybe I’m here simply because, having gestured repeatedly at the kind of history I might write if I was the kind of guy who wrote that kind of history, I’ve been told one too many times that it couldn’t be done…
Of the objections that have been raised, the most important is almost certainly that “anarchist history” and “the anarchist tradition,” when used generally and without very careful delimitation, simply do not refer to any one particular thing, even approximately. They are instead bound up with a long series of confusions, conflations, accidents of history and of language, etc., which have caused us to treat truly distinct tendencies as if they were elements of a single, though obviously complex system. Properly anarchist theory and organization are, on this view, hindered—or at least distracted—by a range of unlike and incompatible, though nominally “anarchist” elements.
The criteria by which the wheat is separated from the chaff vary, although we can undoubtedly point to some persistent disagreements about the relative roles of individuals and social collectivities, differences in opinions about what constitutes useful organization, varying emphases when it comes to balancing anarchy as a principle of social organization with a wide range of specific struggles for reform, etc. But perhaps we can at least set these specific issues aside for the moment, if we can suggest an account by which the apparent incompatibility of elements can be contested.
The (currently half-completed) outline I’ve been providing here, likening “anarchist history” to a complex river-system and elaborating at least some of that system’s dynamics at the outset, is an attempt to answer the challenge of this first objection. If we can describe “anarchist history” or “the anarchist tradition” as if we were describing known, naturally occurring systems, then it becomes harder to deny that, behind whatever real confusions might remain in our understanding of things, there probably is some more-or-less coherent object that might be analyzed and some useful subject for narrative exposition. We can describe a “river” or riverine system, provided we understand the demands of the task and follow through, engaging all the complexities. So why is answer to the challenge of “anarchist history” not an engagement of roughly the same sort and seriousness?
The answer that seems most likely, from those quarters where the first objection is most seriously posed, is that the kind of account that is likely to emerge from that kind of engagement with “anarchist history” is not one that provides useful conclusions. If we grant, from that perspective, that the complexities of “anarchist history” can be accounted for and a complex unity proposed, the practical problem may only be exacerbated. The distractions from proper organization and useful action remain. Something may be preserved—and that something may answer well, perhaps even particularly well, to the name of “anarchist history”—but it is not a useful thing. It may even be something fundamentally inimical to the aims and interests that these critics associate with the name of anarchism.
And, ultimately, there is no simple answer to this second objection. We can point, as I have done, to the more general theory of synthesis in anarchist development that we find in Voline’s 1924 essay, at least as a place to start thinking about our relation with “anarchist history” and “the anarchist tradition.” We can emphasize the immensity of “the anarchist project”—certainly another of these phrases that has earned its scare-quotes—and the very limited likelihood that any of our projects, individually or in our real associations, encompass more than some fraction of its scope. We can point to the various elements of that “anarchistic counter-current” that I have begun to sketch—the various projects for entente, synthesis, anarchism without adjectives, symbiosis, mutual toleration, etc.—which have sought, in their various ways, to confront the diversity—let’s go ahead and say the anarchy—of anarchisms and anarchistic perspectives. And all of that at least gets us started on the road to elaborating some synthetic, dynamic account.
But there’s not—at least not necessarily—anything about even the most successful such account that is going to make it appealing to those who have come to believe that the story of anarchism is really the story of some specific current within the larger system, some “main stream,” and is not concerned in any direct, positive sense with the rest. We could—if we could—complete the account down to its smallest details, exhausting the surviving archives and no doubt even those elements that have not survived, but the choice here is not ultimately between more or less complete versions of like things. Instead, I think we have to acknowledge that the contending forces here would like “anarchist history” to manifest itself in substantially different forms—as narratives of different genres, tools of different kinds, destined for different sorts of uses.
So the response to this second objection perhaps has to be two-fold. On the one hand, there is the more conciliatory task of showing how knowledge of the larger system is likely to be useful to all of the more focused projects. But the difficulty is that it’s hard to go very far in that direction without confronting what seems to me the key insight behind the embrace of anarchist synthesis (at least in the form that interests us here):
The pursuit of anarchy is such a large, ambitious, genuinely revolutionary project that all of us inevitably get some critically important bits wrong—forcing us to look at parallel endeavors if we are to correct our own mistakes.
The “other hand” here is the understanding that, whatever the various anarchisms may be and whatever their various virtues, anarchy is something that flows through all of our various projects and is not captured or more than temporarily channeled by any of them. And if the gesture of calling ourselves “anarchists” and our ideologies “anarchism” is anything more than a bit of harmless edginess, we probably have to confront just what a hell of a star we have hitched our wagon to. And if our concerns are really more mundane, then perhaps we should take a cue from those principled radicals who have found other labels and other flags to fly.
But, let’s face it, there are really no friendly ways to suggest to others that maybe they aren’t really anarchists in any very strong sense, no matter how many well-respected libertarian radicals may have come to that conclusion for themselves. So this is where the conversation tends to get a bit chippy. Sometimes, self-proclaimed anarchists are quick to dismiss anarchy as a concern. Sometimes, they are as quick as the capitalists and nationalists to define it in the narrowest and least radical sense. And sometimes, when you’re starting to try to tease out the differences between your positions, they’ll treat you to a snarling
Well, who &%$#ing cares?
with the obvious implication that you are the one trivializing something very important.
That, at least, has been my experience, sometimes on social media and sometimes in forums with more serious pretensions. And it’s probably not nice to mention it, but, as I said, this is where things almost inevitably get a bit chippy.
Having traced the path to that fundamental confrontation and the question of anarchy that underlies it, however, there’s really not much to do but get back to work. Perhaps part of the reason that push so often comes to shove in these encounters is because some of the issues involved—and perhaps particularly this business of the various genres of stories that might answer to the name of “anarchist history”—are simply not very well or widely understood. Indeed, looking at the way that proponents of various political ideologies regularly engage with historical narrative—so often in ways that suggest either the most cynical sort of opportunism or a rather credulous faith in “history,” if not a bit of both—it’s hard not to think that an exploration of anarchist history that emphasized the various varieties and layers of narrativity involved might be of some use.
One of my chief hopes for Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is to provide readers with at least a solid introduction to the various ways in which the events of the anarchist past have become “anarchist history” and informed “the anarchist tradition,” along with some insights into how things might have played out differently. I want to continue to explore the extent to which “anarchist history” has been a partisan affair, the times that it has been a source of self-deception among anarchists in general, the instances where more a more careful engagement with the anarchist past might have advanced the anarchists movements and, just as importantly, the wide variety of ways in which “anarchist history”—however you might want to interpret that phrase—just doesn’t make one damn bit of difference in the present.
These questions of narrative genres and their limits are near and dear to me, taking me back to concerns that occupied much of my work during grad school. But pursuing them here would, for the most part, take us rather far afield from the issues we’ve been addressing here. I have in mind a series of posts on “Limits” that will pursue other lines of exploration, but, for now, I want to focus on the question of “the uses of a lost continent.”
The “lost continent” is, after all, a literary trope, associated with genres of popular entertainment very different from what we think of as history, despite a shared concern with the past. Invoking it almost inevitably involves taking on associations of at least a potentially disreputable sort—and by design, as there are questions that I want to make it hard to dodge, both for myself and for my readers. But let’s start by focusing on just a couple of elements likely to be invoked along with the phrase: first, lost or undiscovered knowledge, and, second, unexplored and trackless wilderness. The basic conventions of the genre generally ask us to believe that what has been “lost” to our histories, what exists in the few remaining gaps on our maps, the interstitial life of the world is likely to be larger than life. “Here be dragons.” The lacunae are not empty, but abundantly full—full to overflowing.
On “our lost continent,” what there is in disturbing, potentially overwhelming profusion is the anarchist past—which is also, in our scenario, the lost or undiscovered knowledge and, we have to expect, a fair number of those “dragons.” It is all inescapably anarchic, particularly alongside the neat little narratives we have provided ourselves to explain the early decades of anarchist thought and action. And it really is in the comparison of the profusion of potential materials and the meager simplicity of the conventional historical accounts that we perhaps most clearly see the problem we are facing.
This wild, rich, largely trackless continent is “ours,” but what are we to do with it?
It’s a particularly awkward question—and one charged with all sorts of urgency when addressed in contemporary anarchist terms:
What are we to do—we anarchists, with our consciousness of the history of such encounters—with a rich and relatively trackless continent? Set aside for the moment that this “continent” is history—or anarchy—or “ours.” Each of those considerations will complicate things in their own way. Are we bold or cautious? Do we “take only picture and leave only footprints” or do we understand that there will be a certain amount of slash-and-burn on the road to making this wilderness fertile for the purposes of anarchism? Do we see ourselves and our principles in profusion or do we see an obstacle to proper organization and useful action? Are our answers to these questions driven by ecological concerns? lessons learned from the history of colonialism or capitalism? ideological differences with those who may have embraced profusion or wilderness among their central principles or most prominent symbols?
It would be easy to multiply similar questions, although I don’t suppose there is any great need. But perhaps other important ones will occur to either me or you before we take up those we have laid up in the next post.
Positive Anarchy, Profusion, Uncertainty and the Uses of History
(January 30, 2020)
The last post in this series, on “The Uses of a Lost Continent,” ended with a rapid escalation from questions about the limits of specific historical narratives to the image of “the anarchist past” as a familiar sort of “new world” to, perhaps, be carved down to a more usable size by whatever means seem necessary. Feel free to supply your own image of a burning jungle, clear-cut forest, strip-mined mountain, etc. History certainly provides no lack of handy analogies.
The occasion for the provocation has been the suggestion that what the critics of an inclusive, synthetic approach to “anarchist history” and “the anarchist tradition” reject—whether they reject the possibility or the utility of such accounts—is precisely a kind of anarchy in the “anarchist past” (broadly defined), which manifests itself in the overwhelming volume and troubling heterogeneity of material that we have inherited from past generations of anarchists. More than that, perhaps, we sense that what we know of that volume and diversity is still not the whole story. Above and beyond the known difficulties, there is a kind of general threat of profusion and uncertainty—a sense that there remain unknown difficulties to face before we come to any accounting of and with that anarchist past.
Is it unfair to associate these qualities of profusion and uncertainty with anarchy? My sense is that anarchists are themselves often of two minds about most of the potential faces of anarchy. We often love the riotous, but also often only “in its place.” We perhaps simply haven’t engaged very well with the positive side of anarchy. We are clear enough that anarchy doesn’t mean “anything goes,” but the full range of things that might “go” in the absence of authority and hierarchy seems at best underexplored—as the magnitude of the task of dispensing with authority leaves us focused on an-archy in its negative sense.
An anarchic order, in which nothing is “permitted,” but from which an unknown variety and quantity of equally unknown and perhaps unprecedented things might issue, is obviously something a bit different from a world in which the familiar abuses of authority have been eliminated. The question then becomes whether the latter is possible without at least a fairly close encounter the former.
I don’t suppose, at this point, that my feelings on the matter are subject to much doubt.
There is a discussion that undoubtedly has to take place sometime soon, in order for this study to move forward, about the qualities of positive anarchy understood as a fundamentally different kind of economy than all of the ideologies and systems that we have proposed in our struggles against various kinds of archy. There are philosophical clarifications that feel overdue. But perhaps they would be a bit of a distraction here, where the question is really one of facing a kind of teeming and potentially threatening unknown, precisely where we think the foundations of our anarchisms ought to be. And I want to face that moment head-on.
So the questions remain: What are the uses of a “lost continent”? What are the uses of history? In what sense should we look to the historical record for foundations for our present-day projects? And, if continued research forces us to reevaluate the nature of the historical material we have treated as foundational, how should we respond?
My own thoughts on these questions arise from the practical experience of researching and recovering the roots of mutualism—a work that obviously intersects with this research on the early development of anarchism and shares many of the same challenges. (Those unfamiliar with that work can find much of it linked here: What Mutualism Was: An Incomplete History of Mutualist Tendencies.) The key challenge, which I’ve written about a number of times over the years, was that it has been hard not to be painfully aware that those of us involved in the mutualist renaissance were trying hard to be mutualists while still in the midst of figuring out just what that ought to entail (should we come to any explicit terms with what had been passed down in the way of a mutualist tradition.)
There has always been, of course, the perfectly straightforward option of taking what had been handed down to us and just moving forward from there, without fussing too much about how the ideas we developed corresponded to those of figures who were, for us, little more than figureheads and symbols. But that is not an option that many have chosen to take. There is, after all, a lot of interesting and useful stuff that has been available without a great deal of searching—and one thing leads to another… So modern mutualists have nearly all found that they have some stake in recovering a mutualist past or elaborating a mutualist tradition.
The work of assembling some kind of historical backstory has exerted its own pressures on the broad mutualist milieu, in part because the received account of “the mutualist tradition” was threadbare enough and the possible historical sources extensive enough that the process of “filling in the gaps” naturally created a number of significantly different narratives, which then tended to channel further research in specific, often divergent directions. But there could be no simple parting of the ways, with various modern mutualisms developing independently, because part of what we inherited, part of what we all began to incorporate into our new projects, was a small pantheon of pioneers, presumably all representative, in one way or another, of “mutualism.” Diverging tendencies could hardly help coming into conflict over just how these key figures and their contributions would be understood in the present.
My own experiences have been in what has become known as “neo-Proudhonian mutualism,” where we have at least been conscious for a long time of the difficulties I’ve just described. But it has, frankly, been hard to ignore them, as Proudhon is perhaps the most contested of all of the potentially foundational figures.
It’s striking just how important particular interpretations of particular bits of Proudhon’s work are to a wide variety of tendencies—and how little evidence there is to support so many of those interpretations. Those who want to reduce his work to a few objectionable bits in the notebooks are obviously driven by concerns that have very little to do with Proudhon or his work, but this is arguably true as well of those who insist on focusing on a few of the early works—or a few paragraphs, taken in isolation, from those works.
Proudhon’s work are another “lost continent,” though obviously one of considerably less extent than the one we’re starting to explore. His works—taken as a whole and including the published works, correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks, etc.—are, even for most of us who insist on building them into their ideological foundations, that sort of teeming and potentially threatening unknown, particularly when seen through the common lenses of partisan emphasis, with the most troubling elements constantly dragged to the fore. For the critic who wants to be done with Proudhon, I think the answer to the question we’ve posed is simple enough: This is a landscape to be cleared, an edifice to be razed, with just enough preserved to remind us of why it was necessary to obliterate the rest. But how different is the advocate of partial appropriation, who wants to make use of a bit here or there that seems useful to their defense of communism, the cooperative movement, etc.? How different are all those who have wanted both the phrase “property is theft” and the authority of the figure behind it, but have associated them with just about everything except the specific account of exploitation found in What is Property?
The best explanation we can give in most of these cases is, I think, that even in the cases where the intent is destructive, there simply isn’t much knowledge of what has to be tossed away in order to perform the reduction of the whole body of work to a few fragments. And that’s a familiar enough situation, when we turn back to those questions of burning jungles, clear-cut forests, strip-mined mountains, etc. But it’s not much of an excuse—in either context.
It’s particularly difficult to excuse because of all the ways in which history is not, after all, much like a continent at all. If we feel we have to mix up bits of history and received tradition with our present-day ideologies, without taking on the difficulties of really accounting for full bodies of work, it’s no surprise—and perhaps it’s no problem, provided we don’t go beyond that and try to make sure that nobody else can contest our accounts with contexts or alternative narratives. As much wildness as there is to much of the history from which we would like to draw, the profusion of possible data and the uncertainty surrounding any particular appropriation are dealt with easily enough by simply acknowledging what we’re up to. So, for example, the partisan Marxist critic of Proudhon—via a few cherry-picked journal entries—need do nothing more than acknowledge that Proudhon’s actual work does not particularly interest them, so they’re going to stick with what they think they learned from some source that does interest them. To be really honest about that choice would mean abstaining from debate about the real content of Proudhon’s work, of course, but I’m not sure anything would be lost in radical circles if we all just stopped having strong, oft-repeated opinions based on little more than partisan prejudice. (Your mileage may vary, I suppose…) Those who are simply interested in finding bits that might be useful to their own projects or are simply looking for even partial reflections of their own ideas in the “classics” are always free to do so—at which point those who are interested in more might simply say that such piecemeal appropriations fall outside the range of their own interests. Imagine the amount of purely ideological bickering that could be avoided.
It would probably be naive to expect these things to happen, at least without some concerted efforts by various radical movement to alter their cultures. But they are clearly things that could happen.
We could confront a variety of historical “continents,” recognize the difficulties and uncertainties with which they present us, and not immediately set off down the path pioneered by those who have shaped real-world continents according to priorities in which it would, at the very least, be hard to find anarchy featuring very prominently.
And, again, we should perhaps stop, if only for a moment, to recall how fraught with uncertainty and anxiety the relationship of anarchists to anarchy can be. But, if we are to finish this particular thought, we then have to set off again in search alternative uses of our “lost continents.”
So what are these practical alternatives?
As is so often the case with anarchism, I think there are a lot of alternatives. But we probably begin to explore them by asking a few basic questions about our own uses of history:
What sorts of narratives are we constructing. What is the nature of the materials we are using? What are the present-day stakes surrounding our specific uses?
Are we telling stories about ideas, ideologies, movements, etc.? Are we engaging in reportage, polemic, persuasion, literary experiment, etc., etc.? To what extent should the works we are attempting be understood as contributions to an understanding of the history of anarchism and to what extent are they attempts to establish, reinforce or renew some form of anarchist tradition?
What is the state and extent of the relevant historical records? How seriously are we attempting to “represent” them? To what extent are our conclusions driven by negative factors, such as lack of access to materials, language barriers and the often enormous demands of establishing contexts?
And in what sense, ultimately, can history function as a foundation for ideology? What are the substantive costs—as opposed to those associated with the accumulation of historical capital—of finding that the histories we have made use of are not what we supposed them to be?
Among the parallel worlds that I have constructed to help me clarify my own work, there is one in which Bakunin was indeed a czarist spy and in which Proudhon was secretly guilty of far greater deviations from libertarian ideas than even his harshest critics suggest. Exploring that world is obviously a much more sombre experience than my conventional historical work—and much more so than the explorations of worlds where some famous mistakes were rectified—but it’s not hard to imagine that the practical consequences would have been negligible, leading to a parallel anarchist movement in which little or nothing changed.
And we can probably think about quite a range of other scenarios in which the historical record or the material from it available to us might change in significant ways without significantly challenging how we do anarchism in the present. For better or worse, the anarchist tradition, including the strictly historical elements that are part of it, have been built into a pretty sturdy bulwark against too rapid, sweeping changes in the anarchist milieus.
There is hardly a single struggle over the anarchist past that is not ultimately motivated by concerns about the anarchist present and possible anarchist futures. There are a few, ultimately refreshing examples of students and scholars whose axes to grind are almost entirely historical—but for the rest of us they still function primarily as a check on our own conclusions, much like the partisan critics we more frequently encounter.
And that’s fine.
We’re not engaged in a purely theoretical enterprise. Our task is more like engineering than physics. But that clearly doesn’t mean that we can be careless about the way that we analyze the relevant materials, nor that we can be indifferent to the condition in which we leave them for other researchers.
The anarchist past is a renewable resource, provided we take the stewardship of that resource seriously. And if the materials of that anarchist past are really useful in the construction of modern anarchist theory and practice, then there doesn’t seem to be any good argument for not taking that stewardship seriously—particularly when we recognize the limits our each individual attempt to build useful accounts from those materials. If, on the other hand, those materials are not useful for any real construction in the present, then we should probably stop pretending that they are and either stop messing around with the anarchist past or find other more appropriate uses for it. And since there is no indication that anarchists are likely to break with the idea that the past is important to the construction of present and future anarchisms—an idea almost universally held, however much its details vary from tendency to tendency—perhaps it is time, whatever else we disagree about, that serious anarchists come to some consensus that our various projects are all probably best served by a much less invasive approach to our shared past than has been the norm.
There is work to do, I think, in becoming clear about just how and why the past matters, just what sorts of materials it provides us in the present and what kind of foundation it can provide for the future. But part of that work almost certainly involves confronting those anarchic aspects of profusion and uncertainty head-on and perhaps orienting ourselves toward the “lost continent” of the anarchist past as we might, with the benefit of a variety of very practical historical lessons, orient ourselves towards the various more literal continents that have been lost in a variety of ways through careless appropriation.
At that point, the anarchist past could perhaps be our treasure and our playground. We could perhaps be a bit fearless in our explorations and if, at the end of some long excursion, time and reasons seem to remain, perhaps we could turn around and set off again.
That is, at least, a vision that appeals to me.