Our Lost Continent: Episodes from an Alternate History of the Anarchist Idea, 1840–1934

“Episodes from an alternate history… as they actually happened…”

For several months now, I’ve been exploring the possibility of combining a number of writing projects already in various stages of completion. My master plan has long been to approach my preoccupations with anarchist history and anarchist development from a number of different directions in different manuscripts, each with a narrowly defined subject matter and clearly defined methodology. So, for example, I have been working on a history of anarchist terminology—A Good Word—and have outlined several versions of a work demonstrating the possibility of a broad anarchist synthesis through a rereading of the tradition’s formative years. I am moving forward steadily with What Mutualism Was, an expansion of my chapter on the history of mutualism for The Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism, as well as a fairly extensive library of anthologies collecting the work various early anarchist figures, destined for publication by Corvus Editions. But my notebooks are also full of bit and pieces of various more creative projects: episodes of alternate libertarian history under the title of The Distributive Passions, The Old Compagnon (tales of a Proudhon given a thousand years to complete his work), the alternate-historiography experiments in The Great Atercratic Revolution, etc.

My work is fundamentally interdisciplinary and the specific problems that I have been trying to address seem to demand approaches that break to some degree with even the very loose norms of anarchist studies. I remain confident that combining a variety of approaches is the best way to explore the sort of general questions that have come to be the central focus of my work. But I have come to doubt that the sort of strategy of triangulation I’ve been pursuing will produce the effects that seem most important to me, as long as the various examinations are kept at arm’s length from one another. Indeed, I’ve come to doubt the extent to which any of the individual explorations have been really intelligible as parts of a larger project. The problem, of course, is that increasing intelligibility by diversifying the styles and methods of analysis and commentary requires some careful framing of the whole affair—and that is perhaps the very thing that the Libertarian Labyrinth project has lacked much of the time.

Of course, the great difficulty with the various projects associated with the Libertarian Labyrinth has been that they were all moving forward and all subject to the kinds of ongoing alteration that one should expect from ongoing investigations. An attempt at summarizing the work as a whole already has some comparative advantages, particularly as the last year or so has really provided me with some basic objectives to concentrate on and some general conclusions to defend. But I continue to think that the most useful thing I have to offer is less a particular reading of history than a demonstration of the complexities involved in reading history—and particularly an ideologically charged history like that of “the anarchist idea.”

Having attempted to outline a number of clever combinations of existing projects—and finding them all perhaps *a bit too clever* for my purposes—I turned to a sort of inventory of the stories—and the kinds of stories—that it seemed I should tell in a general summary of my work to date. And, in the end, resulting more-or-less chronological list of stories ended up looking more like the solution to my problem than any of the more artful arrangements I had attempted. There remained, however, the question of how best to associate the varied stories I had to tell to some familiar account of anarchist history—and my recent work, preparing a new edition of Max Nettlau’s Short History of Anarchism (La Anarquía a través de los tiempos), suggested that history as a kind of foil for my own work.

In the framing material for the new edition of Nettlau’s history, one of my tasks has been to connect his historical work to the theoretical work (on panarchy, mutual toleration, etc.) that has been so influential on my own sense of anarchist development. But there are obvious limits to how much of that contextualization can be done in a brief preface. It struck me that building my own episodic account around a reading of Nettlau’s Short History would be one way of taming my work a bit, as well as providing a more familiar reference, but also that much of my own work amounts to an exploration of the contexts for Nettlau’s own development as a theorist—including, of course, a good deal of study of his other works.

I’m now in the process of braiding together a variety of elements—including my favorite stories from anarchist history (supplementing by some bits of documentary history), remarks on Nettlau’s narrative, observations about Nettlau’s development, explorations of the conditions for writing anarchist history, a theory of anarchist synthesis and some bits of alternate history—into a kind of roughly chronological miscellany, covering the years between 1840 (when Proudhon declared je suis anarchiste) and 1934–35 (when both La Anarquía a través de los tiempos and the Encyclopédie Anarchiste were published.) The goal is to produce a book that is both a work of history and work quite self-consciously about history, but also one in which many of the ideas, analyses and metaphors I’ve piled up over the years on the Libertarian Labyrinth/Two-Gun Mutualism/Contrun blog can find some concerted practical application.

Such an obvious kitchen-sink affair seemed to demand one of those 19th-century style titles that threaten to run over onto the copyright page, but for now this will have to do:

Our Lost Continent:

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.

In terms of general structure, I am anticipating a fairly extensive opening section—”Beginnings”—covering 1840–1865 and focused to a large extent on Proudhon and Déjacque (although I don’t plan to skimp when it comes to demonstrating the real and fascinating diversity of that early period, nor to exclude a number of important figures whose career took place or began earlier.) But one of the things I am eager to highlight is what is at stake in the selection of beginnings and endings in our historical accounts, and what I tend to think of as Proudhon’s “barbaric yawp” in 1840 and his death in 1865 seem like particularly useful subjects for those sorts of reflections.

A second section—tentatively “New Beginnings”—will cover the period from 1865 until 1890 or so. Bakunin will naturally be an important focus here, but one of the things that I really want to explore is the extent to which the period between Proudhon’s death and the full emergence of “modern anarchism” is perhaps even more “lost” to us as specifically anarchist history than the earlier period. This seems particularly true of the period prior to 1881, by which point that “modern anarchism” seems suddenly well launched among communists, collectivists and individualists alike. This is the section that I expect still holds the most surprises for me, particularly when it comes to weighing the influences of the various movements—obviously the international workers’ movement, but also currents like free thought and spiritualism—in the composition of the new anarchist beginning of the 1880s. But this is also the period during which Max Nettlau (who was born the same year that Proudhon died) grew up and came to embrace anarchism, so there will be a variety of questions to explore about the contexts of the anarchist history that we have inherited, as well as the possible alternatives. (I expect that Jack Deames, Tilly Thorne and the cast of The Great Atercratic Revolution will make some kind of appearance.)

The organization of the remaining section(s), covering Nettlau’s activity through the publication of the Short History and, of course, much of the formative period for “modern anarchism,” still remains a bit unclear to me. There is a great deal of Nettlau’s work still to digest, including some lengthy manuscripts from the period of the First World War. But no one who has followed my work will be surprised to find that anarquismo sin adjetivos, anarchist synthesis and similar projects (such as the calls for libertarian and anarchist entente by E. Armand) will occupy a prominent place. Nor, I suppose, will it be too great a surprise that Ricardo Mella’s particular sort of critique—and the notion of el anarquismo naciente—seem likely to play a particularly prominent role. For a variety of reasons, not least the fact that this braided account will end just prior to the Spanish Civil War, much of the focus in the finals section(s) is likely to be on the nascence of the emerging anarchism of the period. Once again, beginnings are really a key focus—and I expect to spend a good deal of time examining the surveys of the 1920s and the concerns that motivated them.

My goal overall is to produce a work that is at least potentially useful and shareable among anarchists of a variety of tendencies, as well as students of “the anarchist idea.” (The phrase is one of Nettlau’s that was obscured in translation.) But, to be honest, I am also very interested not to get too deeply involved in certain kinds of debate about how inclusive anarchist history ought to be. I expect that the best version of the work would hold little interest for those for whom anarchism does not appear still nascent in some important senses. For those willing to at least weigh the possibility of really sharing a historical tradition, I have some hope of presenting a relatively compelling case, but for others, honestly, I got nothin’

As far as the length of the work is concerned, I am uncertain at present, but I won’t be surprised if the best version occupies a couple of volumes.

And among the works-in-progress that will not be absorbed by this combination of projects will be What Mutualism Was and Proudhon: Between Science and Vengeance, both of which will undoubtedly benefit from fewer projects in the pile and the possibilities of overlapping research.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2141 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.