Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back
- Our Lost Continent: Episodes from an Alternate History of the Anarchist Idea, 1837–1936 [project page]
- Preliminaries (2015-2018)
- Mappings: Notes for an Introduction (2017-2020)
Part I: Our Lost Continent: On the Uses of the Anarchist Past
A Dedication of Sorts
Anarchist History: Lessons from the Outbound Journey
On Anarchy and Anarchism: w/ Propositions for Discussion
September 23, 2016
Anarchy and Its Uses
Fundamental to everything I’ve been saying about anarchy and anarchism over the last couple of years is a sense that anarchy works as a useful guiding principle only when we take it very, very seriously. I’m not interested in an argument about language or ideas, so much as one about the conditions under which we attempt to produce alternatives to existing authoritarian systems. All the references to assembling a toolkit aren’t accidental or rhetorical, and all of the sometimes fussy play with very specific aspects of our analytical and rhetorical tools is at least aimed at very practical ends.
You can’t properly choose a saw until you know the kind of cutting you need to do. You can’t properly sharpen it until you understand how the teeth are arranged. A woodworker who refused to concern themselves with this sort of thing might be expected to run into problems. I think it is safe to expect the same sort of difficulties for would-be anarchists who won’t wrestle with the details where anarchy, authority, and the like are concerned. I’ll go so far as to suggest that much of the ineffectiveness of the anarchist movement has arisen from a failure to make certain that we’re using the right tools for the job–or, slightly more perversely, from the failure, having presumably chosen our tools, to make certain that we’re doing the right job for the tools.
This has led me to pursue what I think of as a “hard line” with regard to the centrality of anarchy to any meaningful anarchism, but in the sense that the stands we take and the lines we draw in defense of anarchy have to be properly anarchic stands and lines. The anarchist tradition began not just as a revolt against existing governments, but as a revolt against every governmental alternative that might be proposed. If we are to maintain that aspect of the tradition, it is vital that anarchism not solidify into any sort of fixed system–but it is at least as important that our thinking about anarchy does not coalesce into any sort of hard and fast rule.
There are tasks for which we almost certainly do not believe that anarchy–or any of the anarchisms or anarchist practices derived from it–is the right tool. We don’t try to build bridges or bind books with anarchy, nor do we pretend that it is this or that anarchic practice that lets us write clean code or tie tight knots. In the real-world practice of any number of skills, there are moments when our core concerns as anarchists may be raised, but those moments almost always involve social organization–or they involve the pervasive influence of the dominant ideas about social organization, as they have been applied, correctly or incorrectly, in other domains. In the latter case, part of being very, very careful with our tools is knowing when we have allowed our thoughts to slide from one domain to another.
Of course, we can’t always avoid certain kinds of conceptual slides. Indeed, anarchist critique has often made powerful use of unacknowledged distinctions and opportunistic conflations in the dominant discourses. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” depends on this sort of play with already existing uncertainties. And Bakunin’s “God and the State” is full of examples, some more successful than others, of attempts to use the language of authority to illustrate anti-authoritarian ideas. For example, he connects human freedom to the notion of a “slavery” to natural laws, which ultimately isn’t slavery at all, as an alternative to authoritarian notions that freedom arises from obedience to the law.
It’s probably safe to say that not all of Bakunin’s rhetorical maneuvers are as elegant as “property is theft,” but they are certainly not indecipherable. We just have to find some relatively fixed reference points that we can use to guide ourselves through the maze. So, for example, when we’re going to try to make sense of the section of “God and the State” dealing with authority, we need to recall that it starts as a continuation of a discussion of the absolute opposition between the idea of God and human liberty. The idealists can talk about the two in the same breath because of the way they think about human liberty:
Perhaps, too, while speaking of liberty as something very respectable and very dear, they understood the term quite differently than we do, as materialists and revolutionary socialists. Indeed, they never speak of it without immediately adding another word, authority—a word and a thing which we detest with all our heart.
Bakunin sort of buries the lead here, but the point seems to be that authority is the missing link that allows the idealists to link human liberty and the idea of God, which Bakunin has been treating as necessarily implying human slavery. Then he simply moves, with no transition, to a discussion of the one instance in which authority and human liberty might be fundamentally in harmony with one another, and with a certain kind of “obedience to the law”—even a certain kind of “slavery”—eventually concluding that if liberty and authority were brought into this kind of hierarchy, they would prove the assertions of the anarchists:
The most stubborn authoritarians must admit that then there will be no more need of political organization, direction or legislation, three things which, whether they emanate from the will of the sovereign or from the vote of a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform to the system of natural laws—which has never been the case and could never be the case—are always equally deadly and hostile to the liberty of the masses, because they impose upon them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.
Then he turns to showing how this sort of natural authority and political government are fundamentally incompatible, since making science (the always ongoing process of understanding that natural authority) the basis for political authority would be deadly to both human liberty and science itself.
This section of “God and the State” is both fascinating and maddening, precisely because, while Bakunin makes a bunch of fascinating observations and draws a series of useful conclusions about “authority,” he seems to have stitched them together without much indication of which conclusions should be drawn from which observations. But, in the interests of making some simple observations of our own, we can pretty safely say that there are at least two different notions of authority in play:
- a purely internal authority, representing the inescapable power of the laws of nature; and
- a range of external authorities, of which God and the State can be considered prime examples.
We would be tempted, given this division, to make the simple distinction that Bakunin himself makes in the essay and say that only internal authority could be considered “legitimate”—except that we already know that this particular variety of authority is indeed inescapable, and it seems silly to involve ourselves in a debate about the legitimacy of the inevitable.
How we proceed depends on what we want to take for a fixed point. If “authority” refers only to the inevitable consequences of natural laws, then “legitimate authority” seems to be a useless notion. On the other hand, if “authority” refers to externally sanctioned, a priori legitimacy, then “legitimate authority” is essentially redundant. The difficulty is that there seems to be something that still has to be addressed in “the authority of the bootmaker” and all the other specialists we encounter. It does not at first appear to be the sort of internal authority that is “vested” (to the extent that this remains a useful term) within us, but does not grant us a right to command others. Nor does it appear to be the sort of external authority that is vested in others and gives them a right to command us. And yet, Bakunin says, he is compelled to “bow.” And, whatever this authority is, it is not uncommon, as this newly retranslated passage makes clear:
I bow before the authority of exceptional men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my ability to grasp, in all its details and positive developments, only a very small portion of human science. The greatest intelligence would not be sufficient to grasp the entirety. From this results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labor. I receive and I give—such is human life. Each is a directing authority and each is directed in his turn. So there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.
We are dealing with a really ubiquitous sort of authority, which, in the best case, is both voluntary and beneficial. It is imposed on us, inescapably, by the laws of our nature, but it manifests itself in others in the form of some power (however limited) to command. Is this then “legitimate authority”? It that was the case, I think it would put us an an awkward position with regard to principles. The reason that we might willingly bow to the expert is thoroughly social, in the sense that it requires the encounter between the capacities of the expert and our relative incapacity in the same areas to create the appearance of an external authority validated by internal necessity. But it isn’t clear how this hybrid authority would work: the very limited “legitimacy” created by inevitability, when used as a rationale for a real power to command could only resemble a principle like “might makes right,” which hardly seems like the sort of principle to which anarchists should voluntarily bow, with the expectation of mutually beneficial outcomes.
Honestly, I just don’t see how an authority imposed by our own reason doesn’t simply remove “legitimacy” as an interesting question. And, when it comes right down to it, most of the evidence that we are dealing with authority, or obedience, or any of the concepts that we associate with archic society, seems to arise from the slightly perverse metaphors that anarchists have used to compare authoritarian and anti-authoritarian relations. When Bakunin describes what “obeying natural laws” actually means, it is hardly passive. Even when he talks about the practice of “bowing” to experts, it involves a lot of verification and testing. The simplest answer to the problem of “legitimate authority” seems be to to say that if there is an “authority” that fits within anarchist theory, there is nothing to say about its “legitimacy.” It’s simply not a question that makes any sense.
But there is still something—something real, if not legitimate—that is at least reflected in the expert. We know that this question of authority-as-reflection was something that Bakunin and his contemporaries were familiar with. The critique of God as merely a reflection of human excellence, along with the subsidiary critiques of Man, Humanity, etc. as mere displacements of this sort of projection, were commonplace. We find Bakunin rejecting God as the illusion of a universal authority, but also any real instance of universal expertise:
This same reason prohibits me, then, from recognizing a fixed, constant, and universal authority-figure, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such a universality was ever realized in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage of it in order to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive that man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility.
If there is room, in between the universal man and the divine symbol of that universality, for something real and potentially positive, I’m not sure we’re going to get a clear look at it through the lens of authority. But that’s not the only lens available to us. To think of the cobbler as “the person who can make the shoes that I can’t make” is not necessarily to raise them up in any sort of hierarchy. After all, the cobbler may be looking back at “the person with language and research skills I don’t have,” rather than, say, “the person who needs my shoes.” But perhaps they’re just looking at a person with a particular set of skills, drawn from the vast number of skills distributed among human beings.
It just seems to be the continued dominance of the principle of authority, and our old habit of recognizing it, that keeps us focused on the expert as a “special man,” when the specialness of the embodied expertise is almost always going to be dependent on circumstances external to the natures of all the human actors involved. Face it: the times when we’re actually going to want to bow to the cobbler are likely to be limited to when we really, really need shoes, but at those times we may be happy to bow most reverently, if the alternative is to go unshod. The cobbler and our relation to them in the realm of expertise remain unchanged, while other factors introduce a new urgency to the proceedings.
Still, I’m no believer in post-scarcity, so it seems likely to me that all sorts of urgency will continue to press at least the appearance of authority upon us, for at least the foreseeable future. So if we’re going to have to continue to deal with the messy details of when we bow to cobblers and when we find other people bowing to us, and if we can sometimes at least partially transform the situation by consciously rejecting authoritarian interpretations, there are almost certainly also going to be plenty of instances where the stakes are too high to pretend that we can simply think ourselves out of our predicament.
So what do we do when faced with instances of authority that seem inescapable?
It seems to me that there are two basic responses, both of which should be available to anarchists. The first is fairly obvious: we can remind ourselves that “legitimate authority” is a weird, hybrid notion at best—and probably too muddled to take very seriously. The second takes us way back to our discussion of tools and their uses, and perhaps isn’t so obvious, but try it on for size:
Faced with real-but-not-“legitimate” authority, the kind that arises from the intersection of differing individual capacities and material exigencies of various sorts, and having reminded ourselves that the principle of authority seems to be built on no firm basis, and further having done our best to reconsider our position in accordance with some more consistently anarchistic lens and surveyed the possible consequences of our future actions is terms of their impact on the degree and quality of the freedom we can expect to enjoy in the various available cases, perhaps the work of anarchy is done for the moment—and we have to pick up other tools.
A lot of the problems that emerge in our debates seem like non-problems. There are people in the world who know not to touch the stove when it’s hot and not to run into traffic, while others do not, just as some people know how to make boots or do open-heart surgery, while others do not. We hardly think about how “authority” plays in all of this until other circumstances raise the stakes to the point where someone can exercise a right to command, even if it’s just the “right” to command an exorbitant wage in the capitalistic market. If we manage to eliminate more and more of the ways in which exploitation plays a key role in our societies, the necessity of addressing these attempts at command will certainly decrease. Given the artificial, systemic sources of many of the exigencies we face, we’ll be eliminating opportunities for command in large blocks, should we ever make any headway toward anarchy.
But until we’ve destroyed the foundations of those systems of authority and exploitation, we’re going to keep running into reminders of how little anarchy we really have, in contexts where there isn’t a heck of lot we can do about it. In those instances, there isn’t going to be any way to choose “correctly” among options all tainted to some degree with the kinds of relationships we oppose and abhor. We’re going to have to recognize when and where anarchist theory isn’t the tool we need—or at least isn’t a tool we can use—and concentrate of getting boots made, or building bridges, or whatever practical task is facing us. Anarchy is a goal and anarchist theory is at least a decent alternative to the hegemony of the principle of authority, but sometimes we just need to get stuff done, because we simply don’t live by liberty alone.
I think that this is the approach we should take to the question of the relationship between anarchy and democracy. If we affirm anarchy as a goal and oppose the principle of authority, it’s hard to see how we can have much good to say about democracy as a principle, beyond perhaps considering it a better sort of governmentalism than others, but, at the same time, sometimes we have to make decisions when real consensus is impossible. Under those circumstances, sometimes the least worst imposition on the interests and desires of dissenting minorities will be some kind of vote—and we’ll just have to hold our noses, recognizing that this is not one of those instances when anarchy is a tool we can use, and deal with the circumstances imposed on us.
But let’s be clear about what is imposed on us—and what most definitely is not. We may have to make use of this or that imperfect tool for decision-making, but that that doesn’t make those tools a part of our specifically anarchist toolkit. That toolkit has real limitations. Sometimes we will approach the goal of anarchy indirectly, by balancing clearly un-anarchistic practices, as Proudhon suggested in much of his mature work. Understanding the existence of real limitations on our options, recognizing that while authority can probably never be “legitimate,” it may still exert some real influence on our practices, we need to remain clear about the nature of our goals, the qualities of the available means and the specific limitations presented by our material and social contexts.
My sense is that this demanding mix of requirements imposes that “hard line” on us, according to which notions like anarchy have to be maintained with whatever clarity and purity we can manage intact, so that they provide useful guidance when we’re neck-deep in the complexities of a world still very much dominated by the principle of authority.
On the Anarchistic Production of Historical Narratives
In Search of the Great Divide
Part II: The Journey Back
I. — Sources (1837–1865)
1. Before the Beginning
We start our journey—start again, that is, as we begin our journey back to the present—in mountainous heights, at the very source of a glacier-fed stream. Below us, farther than the eye can see, stretches the almost impossibly complex system of waterways that represent for us “the anarchist tradition.” Much is, of course, invisible to us, hidden by the twists and folds of a broader landscape more than capable of dwarfing even our most ambitious imaginings of that tradition, with a full accounting of its tributaries and distributaries, and more is simply lost in the far distance.
The journey we have proposed is no short one.
And we should not be surprised that it is fraught with every sort of difficulty from the very beginning.
Indeed, it is the problem of beginnings that first confronts us. We begin—or begin again—but how do we know that we are beginning at the beginning. That is the thing that, in one sense, we can scarcely claim to know, while, in another, we can scarcely even claim there is a question. We can, after all, only begin from where we are—and the character of the journey must be conditioned by that beginning and everything that has gone into making it a reality. And yet, when it is a question of the specific scope of a study or narrative, we have to choose—and we have to make a concerted effort to choose, if not correctly, at least wisely.
These are perhaps the two most persistent questions that Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back will attempt to address—setting aside for the moment the question of what constitutes “the anarchist tradition.” We want to learn what historical conditions informed the establishment of “anarchist history” as a discipline and formed the context for specific narratives, such as Max Nettlau’s “Short History.” And we want to learn how our understanding of “the anarchist idea” and its development is shaped by the choice of particular beginning- and end-points.
For a variety of reasons, my inclination is to begin the study in 1840, with Proudhon’s “anarchist declaration”—je suis anarchiste—a “first,” or what we conventionally take to be a first, that both presents a compelling starting point for our journey and underlines some of the specifically anarchist difficulties we will face as we try to make our way. But that choice is indeed a choice and, as a result, an early episode in the narrative has to involve encounters with a variety of possible alternatives—with some consideration of how other choices would shape the narrative moving forward in different ways.
There are, of course, limits on how long we can spend beginning to begin, surveying options and weighing consequences. I often feel I’ve taken too long, despite the new lessons that each reconsideration brings. And, having once well begun, there is nothing that stops us from looking back from time to time, drawing in elements of the past as they become important. There will, in fact, be no avoiding this process of accounting for tributaries all along the journey. But there will be, just as certainly, those sources of the sources—aquifers that feed the wellsprings and glaciers that feed the cold mountain streams—at which we can only look back with regret as we move forward.
So let us set the scene. Somewhere in the general vicinity of 1840, the anarchistic current—what we have chosen, now and for the purposes of a particular narrative, to recognize as “the anarchist tradition”—begins as a little as the slightest of trickles on the warming edge of a glacier, or rather a confluence of glaciers. To give them names would involve us in yet another kind of narrative—precisely the story that we are choosing not to tell right now—but if we were to give them names, perhaps some of those names would include Association, Revolution, Social Science, Patriarchal Government, Laissez Faire, etc., etc. Or perhaps they would be proper names: Fourier, Leroux, Saint-Simon, Adam Smith, Hegel, Kant, Comte, Maréchal, Babeuf, Robespierre, etc., etc.
These are questions that we can barely even flirt with at the moment. To the extent that their answers matter to us in the context that we are establishing, they are going to either pose foundational problems or demand moments on the path forward when we stop and take some long looks back.
But it really is necessary to begin, to set out on the journey we have chosen, even if that means acknowledging that we do so without being entirely equipped. So let’s just acknowledge that, shoulder that burden with the rest of our kit, and see where this nascent stream takes us.
2. Seeking the Source
My mind’s made up and has been for some time. For the purposes of this particular study, as a point of departure for this particular journey, I have chosen 1840 and Proudhon’s What is Property? More specifically, I have chosen the composition of one phrase, in the original French, as not simply the first, but perhaps the most important moment in “the anarchist tradition”—with that tradition defined in terms that will undoubtedly seem broad and inclusive to nearly everyone.
Je suis anarchiste.
This is what I call “the anarchist declaration,” a phrase that, once uttered, established a genre and a sort of repeated rite of passage for all who would attempt to follow in Proudhon’s footsteps, whether their goal in doing so was to really follow him, exceed his journey along at least a similar path or simply take hold of the phrase in order to make it do a different kind of work. It appears twice in rapid succession in the fifth chapter of Proudhon’s book, once in as simple form as one might hope for—although the time will come soon to wrestle with its inescapable complexities—and once as an emphatic reaffirmation: “quoique très ami de l’ordre, je suis, dans toute la force du terme, anarchiste.”
So if we are narrowing down the precise point at which I am inviting readers and fellow students of “the anarchist tradition” and “the anarchist idea” to join me for a journey, it is quite specifically a question of the final sections of What is Property? and Proudhon’s “Psychological Exposition of the Idea of the Just and the Unjust, and Determination of the Principle of Government and of Right.” Among other things, this marks a difference in my thinking about the two famous phrases found in the work. Taking Proudhon as “the father of anarchism,” it would have been easy to focus on the claim that “La propriété, c’est le vol!” But that phrase is nowhere near as compelling as a beginning. After all, Proudhon himself had made a version of the argument in 1939, in The Celebration of Sunday. Jules Leroux had made as similar argument in 1938—in a publication Proudhon might well have read. And critics have wasted a tremendous amount of energy stacking up other instances that might suggest Proudhon had borrowed that signature phrase without benefit of attribution. It might also have made sense to go back to the beginnings of Proudhon’s own studies, were it not the case that he himself made clear just how far afield—in a variety of direction—those studies had taken him in the first three decades of his life.
In the “Letter to M. Blanqui,” faced with the charge that he has been a Fourierist, Proudhon gave a remarkable account of his early intellectual wanderings:
Examining myself, therefore, upon this charge of Fourierism, and endeavoring to refresh my memory, I find that, having been connected with the Fourierists in my studies and my friendships, it is possible that, without knowing it, I have been one of Fourier’s partisans. Jérôme Lalande placed Napoleon and Jesus Christ in his catalogue of atheists. The Fourierists resemble this astronomer: if a man happens to find fault with the existing civilization, and to admit the truth of a few of their criticisms, they straightway enlist him, willy-nilly, in their school. Nevertheless, I do not deny that I have been a Fourierist; for, since they say it, of course it may be so. But, sir, that of which my ex-associates are ignorant, and which doubtless will astonish you, is that I have been many other things, — in religion, by turns a Protestant, a Papist, an Arian and Semi-Arian, a Manichean, a Gnostic, an Adamite even and a Pre-Adamite, a Sceptic, a Pelagian, a Socinian, an Anti-Trinitarian, and a Neo-Christian; in philosophy and politics, an Idealist, a Pantheist, a Platonist, a Cartesian, an Eclectic (that is, a sort of juste-milieu), a Monarchist, an Aristocrat, a Constitutionalist, a follower of Babeuf, and a Communist. I have wandered through a whole encyclopaedia of systems. Do you think it surprising, sir, that, among them all, I was for a short time a Fourierist?
Having spent some time attempting to decipher one of the earliest extant manuscripts, an 1836 essay title “Ecole du mouvement moral,” what is most immediately clear is that this is not yet the Proudhon familiar to us from event the study on the Sunday celebration. Perhaps a more careful engagement would reveal important facts about that later Proudhon, but the manuscript itself presents very little that seems ready to serve as a point of departure.
There are various obvious influences on Proudhon and his work, Charles Fourier and Pierre Leroux chief among them, that seem relevant enough that some “looking back” seems inevitable somewhere along the line. Similarly, some figures like Sylvain Maréchal both resemble and differ from Proudhon in ways that it will be necessary to explore eventually. But there is nothing that really suggests that, for example, Maréchal’s scheme for patriarchal government is any kind of first or early step on the particular path we are going to follow.
It might also be possible, I suppose, to set the starting point even later in Proudhon’s career. There are, after all, significant developments yet to come, a decade or more after 1840. But, again, it is a question of what starts us down the particular road by which we can explore “the anarchist tradition,” conceived broadly. And Proudhon’s very complicated relationship to that tradition means that some of the milestones in his own career might simply not fall along many of the paths we might trace.
So if we are to start with Proudhon—and if we are to start at a point that really feels like the start of something—then close proximity to that first iteration of the “anarchist declaration” seems like a promising spot. But perhaps, as we are teasing out the details of our watery metaphor, we want to say that the very source of all this, the trickle from the warming edge of our confluence of glaciers, “the farthest point of the river stream from its estuary or its confluence with another river or stream,” really is at least a little ways up the slope from the “point of declaration,” if only to remind us that events like that don’t just happen out of the blue. They don’t generate the sort of force that still attaches to the phrase je suis anarchiste without building up a bit of a bit of mass and momentum.
3. Over the Roofs of the World
Whether we locate its source at the very beginning of Proudhon’s intellectual career or somewhere in the work of 1840, we have to acknowledge that by that final section of What is Property? the anarchistic current has indeed acquired some mass and momentum.
Much of that is a result of all that Proudhon managed to pack into What is Property? (And those who haven’t taken a look at my notes on the text might want to do so now.) There are, as we have noted, a number of very important developments yet to come in Proudhon’s work, not least among them the embrace of the irreducible antinomies in place a fairly crude dialectic—a move that establishes a certain kind of anarchy at the heart of Proudhon’s thought. But it is remarkable how much of even the mature thought is present in still nascent form in the earliest of the published works.
These are the lessons we learn on a journey back through the works of Proudhon, reading those early works in the light of all that has come after. Looking back up the mountain, so to speak, from various vantage points along our trail, we’ll be able to reassess the writings of 1840—and perhaps some from earlier dates—from multiple perspectives. And we can expect some interesting developments along the way.
For example, we will take a long and searching look back at the end of this leg of the journey, when we have reached 1865 and the death of Proudhon. And, at that point, I think that some of the elements most demanding of our attention will probably be in the relatively near distance. Rather than focusing so much on the “anarchist declaration,” one obvious task will be to account for how “the anarchist idea” is to be understood in the context of works like The Federative Principle—which will, in turn, probably force us to engage more seriously with the problem of anarchy’s various senses (as if appears in work like The General Idea of the Revolution.) Treating this vantage point as a kind of endpoint, it is the details of Proudhon’s social science that seem destined to dominate any summing up. As for the specific importance of the rhetoric of anarchy, perhaps it would not be so great in a narrative that ended in 1865.
But that fact only adds to the questions raised when we look back from vantage points farther along the path, as at those greater distances it is precisely that declaration, much more than any of the social scientific details, that remains visible.
And we will have to account for the tremendous carrying power of that particular utterance.
A careful analysis of that declaration is one of the first tasks of the narrative itself, but, for now, let us remark that it has retained both a disruptive power and a great deal of mystery. And we may be forgiven the invocation of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” as we characterize Proudhon’s declaration as his own sort of “barbaric yawp,” “not a bit tamed” and “untranslatable,” sounded “over the roofs of the world”—and certainly over much of what we must include in “the anarchist tradition.”
To the extent that Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is simply an exploration of that tradition as we find it documented in a variety of sources, we’ll be looking for the various ways in which that distant exclamation found echoes all along our journey. But we’ll also be anticipating concerns that will arise as we near the end of our travels—and because this is a journey back, we can anticipate them quite precisely.
Although the endings of our journey will have some of the same exploratory character as its beginnings, we do know, once again, the events which establish a general vicinity. And that general vicinity is 1934-1935 and the publication of two great works of “anarchist synthesis,” Max Nettlau’s “Short History” (La anarquía a través de los tiempos) and the Encyclopédie Anarchiste. So we will be keeping track of the new elements incorporated into “the anarchist tradition”—and their relationships to that primal declaration of 1840—but also noting those elements that seem to have dropped out of that tradition, attempting to grapple with the reasons for those changes and the alternate developments that might have been necessary.
We know that there has hardly been a moment in the history of “the anarchist idea” at which it has not been contested—and often hotly contested. This is the reason that, at this phase of the project, it seem necessary to make heavy use of scare quotes around terms that are ultimately the subject of much of the exploration here. My hope is that, in the course of the research, some less awkward means of addressing the definitional difficulties will emerge. For now, however, it seems most useful to underline the potential problems, particularly as one of the recurring tasks of this exploration will be to see if there are perhaps periods during which phrase like “anarchist history,” “the anarchist idea” and “the anarchist tradition” simply cannot cover the diversity of nominally “anarchist” positions and ideas simultaneously expressed.
4. The Era of Proudhon
So far, we have been focused on beginnings and endings, on looking forward and looking backward along trails already traveled or retraveled. But, of course, the bulk of this exploration will involve a matters much more close at hand—if I can put it that way—as we work our way, year by year, toward the present.
Having divided our journey into long segments, corresponding to the various volumes, and having identified a few key figures whose careers it will be useful to explore in more depth, it becomes a question of the more painstaking task of exploring, in each of the years we will traverse, various incidents in the development of “the anarchist idea.” In each leg of the journey, we will consult the appropriate chapters of various histories—starting with the work of Max Nettlau—and select some texts that seem to illuminate the moment. And we will engage in one or more close studies of texts published or events that occurred in that span.
In the first volume, P.-J. Proudhon will occupy center stage and we will attempt to tease out the outlines of the “Proudhonian anarchism” that might have emerged from his thought, had subsequent chapters of anarchist history played out a bit differently. Joseph Déjacque will feature as his anarchistic adversary—and as the first figure explicitly associated with an “anarchism.” Various other figures will be the subject of those close examinations, with the goal of demonstrating just how rich this early period was in a variety of anarchistic ideas.
Each long leg of our journey will require certain reassessments and perhaps the most pleasant of those will involve this earliest era, which is so often marked on our maps with “Here be Precursors,” but is rather astonishingly well stocked with a wide range of anarchistic theories. And those theories, like the theorists behind them, tend to have a delightful larger-than-life air about them. They are entertaining and provocative, but also sufficiently distinct from the more familiar staples of anarchist theory to force us to wrestle with them a bit before they give up all of their secrets.
This earliest era is really the wild heart of “Our Lost Continent.” And it is here that the fantastical framing of this historical exploration seems most obviously useful.
So we will undoubtedly make the most of that frame in this first volume, in the first place purely for the fun of it, but secondarily because there is a skill to be practiced, a way of seeing “the anarchist tradition” as still wild and unexplored, that it will be necessary to apply in less obvious contexts, later in our journey, if we are to really complete the task we’ve set ourselves.
Among the figures to be examined in this portion of the project are:
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, L’Humanitaire, Sylvain Maréchal, Pierre Leroux, William B. Greene, Charles Fourier, Etienne de la Boetie, Anselme Bellegarrigue, Ernest Cœurderoy, Joseph Déjacque, Eliphalet Kimball, Henriette (artiste), Jenny P. d’Héricourt, Calvin Blanchard, Henry Edger, Le Proletaire, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Josiah Warren, Mikhail Bakunin, Adin Ballou, Félix Pignal, César de Paepe, Flora Tristan, Jeanne Deroin, Ganneau (The Mapah), Walt Whitman
The episodes already treated here—to one degree or another—that might become the subjects of more extensive studies include:
- 1838: Property is theft (Jules Leroux)
- Adin Ballou, “Non-Resistance in Relation to Human Governments” (1839)
- Property? It’s just a phase… (Proudhon to the Academy of Besançon, 1840)
- Josiah Warren, “Manifesto” (1841)
- The Emancipation of Woman, or, The Testament of the Pariah (1846)
- Gabriel-Desire Laverdant, “Of Property” (1846)
- Bakunin, “I believe neither in constitutions, nor in laws” (1848)
- Bakunin, Letter to Proudhon (1848)
- Etienne Cabet, “Down with the Communists!” (by a communist) (1848/49)
- Jeanne Deroin to Proudhon, January 1849
- Henriette, artiste, “Letter to Proudhon” (1849)
- C.-F. Chevé, “Fundamental Principles of Socialism” (1849)
- Anselme Bellegarrigue, “Anarchy is Order” (1850)
- The Feuding Brothers (1850)
- Elisée Reclus, “The Development of Liberty in the World” (c. 1850)
- Pauline Roland, “Have Women the Right to Labor?” (1851)
- Jeanne Deroin, “Letter to the Associations on the Organization of Credit” (1851)
- The trial of Joseph Déjacque, October 23, 1851
- Notes on “Le Commanditaire” (Anselme Bellegarrigue, 1852)
- Coeurderoy and Vauthier, “The Barrier of the Combat” (1852)
- Félix Pignal, “The Philosophy of Defiance” (1854)
- Suzanne Voilquin, “Suicide of Claire Démar and Perret Desessarts” (1855)
- Carlo Pisacane, “Testamento politico” (1857)
- Joseph Déjacque, “The Humanisphere” (1858)
- Proudhon on “libertarians” (1858)
- Proudhon, Comment les affaires vont en France, et pourquoi nous aurons la guerre, si nous l’avons : à propos des nouveaux projets de traités entre les compagnies de chemin de fer et l’Etat (1859)
- Constitutions and Organic Bases of the Pantarchy and New Catholic Church (1860)
- Paul Emile De Puydt, Panarchy (1860)
- Hector Morel, “Nationalities Considered from the Point of View of Liberty” (1862)
- “The Working Man” of London greets Bakunin (1862)
- A Counsellor (Josiah Warren), “Modern Government and its True Mission” (1862)
- Eliphalet Kimball, “Law, Commerce and Religion” (1862)
- César de Paepe, “Anarchy” (1863)
- Manifesto of the Sixty Workers of the Seine (1864)
- Proudhon, “My Testament, or Society of Avengers“
But, of course, a year-by-year exploration of these particularly under-explored years is likely to turn up all sorts of new material as well—and to suggest new ways of thinking about elements first examined “on the trip out” and often through lenses that it has been necessary to refine or discard along the way.
5. The End of an Era
The first leg of the journey ends with the death of Proudhon—and the interruption of his particular investigation of “the anarchist idea.” The end of that segment will be an occasion to try to sum up the contributions of Proudhon and his contemporaries in a variety of ways.
First, it is important simply to take stock of what was produced in that earliest era on its own terms, setting aside, as much as is possible, the presentist focus on the subsequent anarchist tradition. We know, for example, that “anarchism”—as a widely-used keyword, marking various bodies of ideology and assorted social movements—would not really emerge until late in the second era we are going to examine. But “the anarchist idea” (and, let’s recall, this is the phrase used by Nettlau to describe the focus of his “Short History”) did not have to wait for those developments to experience considerable elaboration and application.
We’ll have to undertake this task with some real care, since each subsequent leg of the journey will get more complicated and depend on insights drawn from earlier investigations. The world in which Proudhon died was also, after all, the world into which Max Nettlau was born. It was also the world from which the First International was in the process of emerging. And the proto-anarchism of this early era would be a critical point of reference—sometimes as foundation, though more often as foil—for most of what would follow in “the anarchist tradition.”
But we are ending at a point marked as much by discontinuity and disruption as by continuous development—no matter what other stories we have sometimes told ourselves—so one of our other tasks is to take stock of what appears to have been lost or forgotten, both in the immediate aftermath of Proudhon’s death and in the period between it and the emergence of “modern anarchism”—as Kropotkin described it—in the late 19th century. So an important part of this phase will be identifying elements that are clearly anarchistic, but are also comparatively unfamiliar, as they did not become integrated into subsequent anarchist ideologies.
There is going to be a lot of material of that sort—and probably enough to sketch at least the the kind of “Proudhonian anarchism” I have talked about in the past, which seems to exist in potentia in Proudhon’s writings. And there will be some chances to break genuinely new ground, as some of the latest of Proudhon’s still-unpublished manuscript writings also seem to be among the least explored.
(My hope is that the research involved in this task will also provide the material necessary to complete Between Science and Vengeance, the in-progress introduction to Proudhon that I’ve been working on.)
A second major task will be to assess the extent to which the other anarchist theories from this period share sufficient ideas and concerns with Proudhon’s work to constitute together an anarchism avant la lettre which could be compared with “modern anarchism.”
A third and absolutely critical task is then to face squarely the extent to which the anarchistic productions of that era were simply lost—or at least appeared to be—through much of the subsequent history of anarchism. I expect that the final sections of this volume will involve some serious reflections on the various ways that we might think about the relations between these proto-anarchisms and “modern anarchism.” And, again, clarity will be precious to us moving forward, not least because the next era includes a period of perhaps as much as two decades in which neither is really present.
The question of how the details of Proudhon’s work slipped so far out of the story of “the anarchist tradition,” at least as we usually tell it, even as Proudhon’s friends worked to establish his intellectual reputation and Oeuvres Complètes, is a fascinating and challenging one. But we will leave much of the answering of it for the next part of our investigation, where a good deal of the focus will be on anarchistic developments taking place in the absence of the explicit rhetoric of anarchy.
This is probably an appropriate place to talk about the relation between Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back and the “elegiac” history, What Mutualism Was, which I’ll be researching and writing simultaneously. The two works deal with similar difficulties, including the problem of a diverse set of ideological positions answering to the same label but explore very different kinds of solutions. It certainly would have been possible to approach these two studies differently—to lay out the conditions for a “mutualist synthesis,” for example, while suggesting that “anarchism” was a label too strained to be of use without a significant and conscious reconsideration. But there really is no synthesist tendency within mutualism comparable to that we find among anarchists, while the audience for a call to rethinking mutualism is significantly smaller—and perhaps more amenable to such endeavors—than it would be in the case of anarchism.
As a kind of supplement to Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back, What Mutualism Was will cover a number of episodes and tendencies that will, I’m afraid, necessarily get fairly limited treatment in the larger narrative. In particular, it will include much more on Josiah Warren and the movement for equitable commerce. But the directions that the work on the larger history have taken probably also mean that the history of mutualism will expand to cover more detail regarding the uses of mutualist thought among European anarchist individualists—something I was not in a position to discuss much at all in my chapter for the Palgrave Handbook of Anarchism. My intention has been to finish up What Mutualism Was on a much shorter timetable, but I think we will just have to wait and see what the research brings to light.
The next section of the study is called “Distributaries,” and covers the period from 1865 to 1886.
6. Note on Critics and Collaborators
One of the reasons for taking the time to write out these summary and rationale sections is that, even after we have dismissed the notion that the result will be “representative” in any very complete sense, there are still a lot of elements to incorporate into each volume. And it is important that the material necessary to support investigations in later volumes is—as much as possible—presented in earlier volumes. Given the extent to which the research for each volume is likely to raise new concerns, we can expect to miss some things, necessitating some long instances of backtracking. But those can at least be minimized by careful planning now.
That means that, during this phase of outlining, source-gathering and preliminary research, it will be necessary at times to return to portions of the summary that are already largely complete and add notes emphasizing elements that need to be more fully incorporated into the project. Expect those notes to be a little less polished, in terms of the use of the guiding metaphors, and sometimes simply to raise issues for further study, for which there is not yet any place in the existing summary and rationale.
In this first case, the omission to be addressed is perhaps not particularly great. As I’ve started to outline the various partial developments of Proudhon’s project in the “Distributaries” section, I’ve been reminded that many of the key figures will have naturally been introduced in the first volume, in the course of a year-by-year account of Proudhon’s activity. The individuals involved in publishing the Oeuvres Complètes did not simply come out of nowhere, although many of them are hardly mentioned in the anarchist accounts of the early period.
It seems important, however, to underline the extent to which Proudhon’s literary executors, and others who engaged in the battle over his intellectual and political legacies, were not just followers, but collaborators. While Proudhon’s position in the histories of anarchism is peculiar—indeed, in large part because of the largely symbolic position he occupies in many of those histories—those who worked alongside him or contributed to his published works have generally been ignored. As part of the project of presenting a more accurate picture of Proudhon and his work, we’ll have to spend some time with Darimon, Langlois, Duchêne, Chaudey, Boutteville, etc. And, in the process, we’ll be able to explore why each of them was relatively easy to forget, at least in the context of anarchist history.
The recent digitization of the periodicals associated with Proudhon will be a significant help in this work, which ought to at least alter our perceptions about organization among the early proponents of more-or-less Proudhonian ideas. And while it is clear that we’re not going to find an “organized movement” to match the International here—or in the examinations of the movement for equitable commerce or the New England reform leagues in this work and What Mutualism Was—we will almost certainly complicate the story of just when and how movements for anarchist goals arose.
We will also have to make a concerted effort to remember Proudhon’s critics, who have perhaps suffered an even more peculiar fate that his collaborators. If the latter are details in a story that anarchists have often felt no need to understand or tell in any real detail, the former are closely associated with the cautionary details we have so often chosen to emphasize. It has often struck me as ironic that, despite widespread outrage about Proudhon’s anti-feminism, the women who engaged him directly have been almost entirely neglected, while those women—Jenny P. d’Héricourt, Jeanne Deroin, André Léo, Pauline Roland, etc.—are among the most interesting and formidable radical figures of their era.
One of the difficulties, of course, is that those women did not, for the most part, identify with anarchist ideas, even when their own ideas very closely paralleled those of Proudhon. So an examination of their ideas and the rhetoric they used to present them, will be an important part of the exploration of alternatives in the period before anarchism became established as the standard under which anti-authoritarian struggle would be waged.
Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back: II. — Distributaries (1865–1886)
II. — Distributaries (1865–1886)
1. The Problem of Proudhon
Our glacier-fed stream of anarchist thought has been running fast and steadily increasing in volume. But all of that changes with the death of Proudhon and—perhaps not coincidentally—with the birth of the First International. There are certainly other factors that contribute to the changes we are about to explore. Quite a number of our companions and acquaintances from the first leg of the journey died before Proudhon or were exiled to places where their ability to influence the emerging anarchist movement was limited. But the shift is still startling.
Historical and ideological hindsight provides a developmental account by which the earliest forms of explicitly anarchist thought developed through a collectivist transition to the “modern anarchism” of the anarchist communists, but as we try to trace the steps forward from Proudhon, things don’t seem anywhere near so clear.
It is not that the influence of Proudhon disappeared with his death. Indeed, what we might be inclined to think of as a period of limited influence was actually one in which the work of establishing his Oeuvres complètes was ongoing and key portions of the posthumous works were being published. The influence was widespread, but also diffuse, in the sense that, while many different groups of partisans and enthusiasts continued to develop parts of Proudhon’s project, the project as a whole was essentially abandoned.
Where Fourier and Saint-Simon each found some primary apostle and left a sizable school in their wake, Proudhon, perhaps because of his opposition to precisely that kind of thing, left instead a loose association of old friends and collaborators, most of whom could not have been considered anarchists at any time in their careers. In the context of the First International and its conflicts, such a network was badly situated to compete with doctrines like Marxism—and the International was almost certainly not big enough for two competing anti-capitalist social sciences. With Proudhon not present to defend his ideas to the workers, not only were his ideas marginalized, but those workers identified as “Proudhonists”—a faction instrumental in founding the International—were for the most part marginalized as well. Before the split between marxists and collectivists, even the diffuse Proudhonian influence was combated on a number of fronts.
The idea of anarchy did not fair much better in those circles, functioning in part as an accusation to be hurled at those workers whose anti-authoritarianism, though not of a Proudhonian variety, opened them up to what were, in context, invidious comparison. As a result, many of the episodes we’ll be looking at in this volume may appear to be quite marginal to the histories of the International, so ably told by historians like Robert Graham, Wolfgang Eckhardt and René Berthier.
It is in part because those histories have been so ably told that I feel free—in this project and, to some extent at least, in the related work on the Bakunin Library—to emphasize other elements during this period. I’ll undoubtedly lean heavily on those historians of the International for the year-by-year summaries of relevant events, but will focus the close examinations on less familiar figures and episodes, hoping to keep this narrative centered around the idea of anarchy.
I’ve opted to call this segment of the narrative “Distributaries,” borrowing a term that describes waterways that branch off a river or stream, sometimes to be lost through seepage and evaporation in some region without exit, sometimes to find their own path to some sea, and sometimes to rejoin the channel from which they diverged at some point downstream. And we’ll see developments analogous to each of these options. In the terms of our metaphor, this distributary era resembles a kind of complex inland delta—like that found along the Niger River in Mali—although perhaps I’ll wait to press forward with the details of that analogy until the work on this era is complete.
For now, it is probably enough to note that we will have to account for a number of different ways in which the work produced by Proudhon, though now parceled out among very diverse factions, continued to develop and exert an influence, while we will also be on the lookout for the emergence of those other elements that would eventually inform “modern anarchism.” And we will have to be fairly careful about keeping those task separate, except where we find evidence of direct influence by Proudhon’s project and its continuations on the anarchist movements and ideologies that would eventually emerge.
In organizing this section, I’ve chosen to designate six different emphases that it will be necessary to balance. And the first of those is naturally what I’m calling here “the problem of Proudhon,” who will continue to be both essential and also somehow marginal to “the anarchist tradition” right up to the present day. Hopefully, as we examine the various uses of his parceled-out project, we find ourselves in a position not just to understand what became problematic about Proudhon’s project within anarchist circles, but perhaps also to at least begin to “solve” the problem moving forward.
Among the episodes already discussed and available for more extensive study, we should include:
- “Disagreement on the Posthumous Works of Proudhon” (1865)
- Eliphalet Kimball, “Thoughts on Natural Principles” (1867)
- “Last Words of Calvin Blanchard” (1868)
- André Léo, “Communism and Property” (1868)
- [César de Paepe], “The Present Institutions of the International from the Point of View of the Future” (1869)
- Jenny P. d’Hericourt, “Morality According to the Sexes” (1869)
- Mikhail Bakunin, “What is Authority” (1870)
- William Batchelder Greene, “The Blazing Star” (1871)
- Benjamin R. Tucker, “I hope to do some work for the Labor Cause…” (1872)
- Claude Pelletier, “The Socialistic Soirées of New York” (1873)
- Angela T. Heywood in “The Word” (1873-1881)
- Speeches of Paschal Grousset and François Jourde on the Paris Commune (San Francisco, 1874)
- Josiah Warren’s Last Letter (1874)
- Bakunin to Elisée Reclus, February 15, 1875
- Mikhail Bakunin, “Le Gouvernementalisme et l’Anarchie” (1878)
- Peter Kropotkin, “On Order” (1881)
- Benjamin R. Tucker, “Anarchism or Anarchy” (1881)
- Sidney H. Morse, “Liberty and Wealth” (1882)
- “Statism: It’s not just for dentists anymore…” (Alwato, 1882)
- Emile Digeon, “Rights and Duties in Rational Anarchy” (1882)
- Clement M. Hammond, “Then and Now” (1884)
- Dyer D. Lum, “Evolution and Revolution” (1886)
- Frédéric Tuefferd, “Letter to Albert Parsons from an Anticrat” (1886)
But it seems likely that fleshing out an understanding of this period will probably take us in some directions we haven’t explored before.
2. Proudhonism and the International
If we wanted to characterize the shift that followed Proudhon’s death in the most general terms, we might say that Proudhon was almost immediately replaced by Proudhonism—and then we would have to observe that Proudhonism was the most protean of things, taking nearly every imaginable form, depending on who invoked it, except perhaps that of a straightforward continuation of Proudhon’s own work.
I think I’ve pretty well established that an important part of the histories of both anarchism and mutualism was the extent to which certain pioneering figures and certain early expressions were not just appropriated for new purposes, but were incorporated—in substantially distorted forms—into the foundations of late-19th century ideologies that might, in hindsight, have benefited more from free and complete engagement. Both Proudhon and Bakunin suffered some degree of this treatment—a fact that has become clearer the deeper I’ve delved into their work and one that was shaped my own approach into, at least in part, an attempt to compensate. For the moment, what is important to remember is that a very substantial portion of the period covered by this entire study—more than a quarter of of the rough century to be examined—has been incorporated into the later tradition in this way, making some degree of rectification a necessary part of our task. But we begin that work simply by sketching out the various ways in which Proudhonism—Proudhon’s work in parceled-out form or as seen through the eyes of rivals—manifested itself in the years before anarchism really became a widely used keyword.
So we’ll start with the effort to publish the Oeuvres Completes and the arrangement of the posthumous works, including the debates surrounding the agencement of the manuscripts. An interesting result of the year-by-year approach is that we will actually keep returning to those efforts in each volume, as new publications and translations continue to appear in steadily changing contexts. But obviously the period from 1965—the year of Proudhon’s death and the publication of De la Capacité politique des classes ouvrières—to 1875—and the publication of the Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon—will require particular attention.
A close examination of De la Capacité politique des classes ouvrières will naturally lead to a study of the French workers whose manifesto inspired some of Proudhon’s that work—workers instrumental in the establishment of the First International. E. E. Fribourg’s “Proudhonist” history, L’Association Internationale des Travailleurs, will get special attention, as we try to establish more clearly the nature and role of Proudhonism in the International, but it will also be necessary to spend some time examining the process by which De la Capacité politique des classes ouvrières came to be published and spend some time with the related manuscript writings, some of which remain as poorly explored as anything Proudhon wrote.
Turning to Théorie de la propriété, perhaps the other best-known work among the posthumous writings, there will be an opportunity to talk more about the debates over the presentation of Proudhon’s work—including the “Disagreement on the Posthumous Works of Proudhon,” which surrounded the publication of the final work on property—and a chance to get to know the various figures named as Proudhon’s literary executors.
Among those fIgures, J.-A. Langlois will certainly feature prominently—and, when we reach the year 1867, we will naturally take the time to closely examine L’homme et la révolution : huit études dédiées à P.-J. Proudhon, his attempt to extend and clarify Proudhon’s work. It’s a serious, substantial, 2-volume work, which has managed to almost entirely escape anarchist commentary—or much of any commentary at all.
Examining a work like L’homme et la révolution allows us to speculate a bit on what Proudhonism might have looked like if it had evolved as a theory in a manner similar to Marxism. And we can reflect on the lack of other opportunities for this kind of speculation.
And those reflections will naturally lead us to the rest of Proudhon’s self-proclaimed disciples—individuals and works even more obscure than Langlois and L’homme et la révolution. In some cases, we can expect these encounters to provide cautionary examples of how the embrace of isolated bits of Proudhon’s project could lead in unfortunate directions. But, again, these mutuellistes isolés (as Nettlau called them in his Bibliographie) provide us with a series of possible alternate paths for the proto-anarchism of the earliest period, so examining them will be an important part of establishing the range of possibilities at the time of the emergence of “modern anarchism.”
The Proudhonism in the International was largely displaced by anti-authoritarian collectivism, which we’ll introduce separately. And Claude Pelletier, who might be counted among the mutuellistes isolés, will also get a separate introduction.
It’s worth noting that quite a number of the more-or-less Proudhonian figures we will be examining either changed camps (like César de Paepe, who moved from mutualism to collectivism and then to state socialism), pursued political paths that had little to do with anarchist ideas (while perhaps still retaining a connection to Proudhon) or died in the period of the International and the Commune. And we’ll have to account for the role played in some of the later developments by generational change.
We’ll also have to come to some conclusions about just what Proudhonism was, what roles it played and which factions were best served by it. This account will obviously parallel the history of mutualism in many, though perhaps not all, regards.
3. Anti-Authoritarian Collectivism
Let’s review our position just a bit, in the context of our riverine metaphor. Discussing the first leg of our journey, we were unlikely to go too far wrong talking about stages in the development of a single waterway or simple river system. We could talk about stages of anarchist development and stages in our journey back from the sources of the anarchist tradition in roughly parallel ways. But, as I’ve already noted, each of the long legs of the journey—each volume of the study—because more complicated than the last, which makes the metaphor even more useful in some ways, but also less obvious in others.
So, in order to talk about the period after the death of Proudhon and before the emergence of “modern anarchism,” we’ve had to imagine our fast-moving mountain stream losing speed and breaking up into various branches—our distributaries—as it flows out onto some ancient lake bed or sediment-rich plain. As a result, of course, the summaries for this leg of the journey cannot follow a chronological pattern, but instead each has to address some part of the inland delta we are now exploring.
We can present the individual summaries in order of appearances—or perhaps, more precisely, order of divergence—as successive factions take up parts of Proudhon’s project and develop them in their own ways. But the main account will still follow the year-by-year format, with the various manifestations of the multiple tendencies appearing more-or-less side-by-side as they occur.
What the planning for this second volume has made clear, I think, is that in order for the study to be really clear and useful, particularly in the later volumes, it will be necessary to include a more complete version of the summaries as part of the introductory material—and then to review at least some of that same material in the concluding sections of each volume. This preparatory work has also reduced some of my anxieties about the duplication of subject matter between works like What Mutualism Was and Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back. Much of the big story being explored will probably remain unclear until it can be approached from a number of different perspectives.
Another complication is the fact that Proudhon, who has died just before the start of this stretch of history, still threatens to dominate much of the action. (I am suddenly reminded of Barthelme’s The Dead Father.) There is simply no escaping the fact that one of the most important problems we have to solve is determining the relationship between the anarchist thought of Proudhon’s lifetime and the “modern anarchism” that emerged sometime late in the 1870s.
The gap that we have to fill is, of course, almost exactly that occupied by the anarchist phase of the career of Mikhail Bakunin…
…But it just isn’t clear in what sense that career really bridges the gap. In some ways, in fact, Bakunin’s rather ambiguous relationship to both Proudhon and “modern anarchism” seem to present us with new problems to solve.
So a second major goal of this segment of the study is to look closely Bakunin’s works, his correspondence and the accounts of his activity—including, of course, Nettlau’s important contributions—in order to treat Bakunin much as we hope to treat Proudhon in the first volume.
The most important task here is obviously just to come to grips with the large, untidy body of works left behind by Bakunin. In the course of accounting for various contexts, the influence of Proudhon will obviously be something to be explored carefully. If will be necessary, if it is possible, to weigh what seem to be fairly significant borrowings by Bakunin from Proudhon’s social science against Bakunin’s stated disdain for Proudhon as a social scientist. And it will be helpful to at least attempt to sketch out what a Bakuninian anarchism might have looked like, had Bakunin’s own influence been more decisive in the period following his death.
And here we will have to confront as directly as we can the extent to which Bakunin’s successors really intended to leave Bakunin’s thought behind, perhaps in many respects just as completely as Proudhon’s, in pursuing a “modern anarchism” conceived on “scientific” terms (about which we might say, in retrospective and in both cases, that it was perhaps largely a question of competing versions of “science.”)
And then, finally, we can begin to turn toward the final chapters of the volume and begin to trace the various sorts of Bakuninism that emerged after Bakunin’s death.
Much of this work will obviously overlap with the preparation of the Bakunin Library volumes, which have suffered more delays that I would have liked, precisely because the research has tended to produce as many new, important questions as it has clear, definitive answers. Fortunately, much of the work of translation and preparation has not been dependent on the answers to these larger questions, so my hope is that it will be possible to move forward again fairly quickly once a bit more of the preparatory work is done—even in advance of actually writing the relevant sections of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back.
Just as Bakunin will gradually assume center stage, displacing Proudhon, so anti-authoritarian collectivism will come to take the place of the various sorts of mutualism and “Proudhonism.” But collectivism shares with its predecessors much of the same protean quality and quite a number of the figures associated with the tendency were passing through on the way to other ideological positions—or else found collectivism itself a vehicle for fairly significant developments in their thought.
I am fortunate that some of what ought to be covered about anti-authoritarian collectivism and the milieu around Bakunin has been covered very ably by other historians—so much so, indeed, that I expect I will be accused of rather seriously under-representing the events most closely tied to the International. But, in a study where the driving concerns are ultimately all connected to the questions of anarchy and the dynamics of development within the anarchist tradition, it just doesn’t seem likely to me that the episodes most important to particular story are going to be those involving Karl Marx. We shall see. But my preliminary sense is that, if I am going to err in the direction of overemphasis, I would rather that readers learned “too much” about, say, Adhémar Schwitzguébel or Victoire Léodile Béra (André Léo.) So, while I expect to dutifully report major events in the development of the International in my yearly summaries, I may resort in many cases to footnotes to direct readers to episodes already well-told by others.
With regard to the other major set of more familiar events—those related to the Paris Commune of 1871—I suspect that I will have my work cut out for me just addressing the episodes most obviously suggested by early parts of the work: the “Proudhonism” of certain communards, the death of Chaudey, the exploits of various radical women and important feminist men already featured here, etc. I will probably have to be on my best behavior not to be drawn off too far into the weird world of Jules Allix, the sympathetic snail telegraph and his work on the Curation de l’aliénation mentale. — One question to be answered is whether there is some sort of companion volume of bizarre and clearly unrepresentative episodes that is likely to compile itself along the way. — But in all these situations where there is an existing literature which can really only be supplemented in small ways, I think that the obvious strategy will be to guide readers in that direction, while filling these new volumes with the sort of material those other works can’t provide.
Some of our distributary channels really diverged early, as anarchist ideas spread through the export of the European press and through the exile of European revolutionaries. So, for example, there are individuals and incidents to be explored in the context of the French exile communities in North America.
Among those French exiles, Claude Pelletier has come to occupy a special place in my studies. He was one of the most interesting of those continuing Proudhon’s project, particularly as his work reunited elements from Proudhon and Pierre Leroux in a much more substantive way that we find, say, in the work of William Batchelder Greene. He was also clearly involved in labor internationalism, starting with the International Association that preceded the “First” International, contributing to some important French-language papers in New York.
His works are fascinating, from the 1848 Solution du problème de la misère to the various works, such as Les soirées socialistes de New-York, that he published while in the United States. Those include a Dictionnaire Socialiste in three volumes and a play that explores the radical ideas of the French 1848 revolution—and specifically those of Proudhon and Pierre Leroux—in the context of a retelling of the 15th-century Hussite rebellion.
A close reading of some of these works will certainly occupy an important place in this part of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back.
But Pelletier’s work, and particularly the label he created to describe it, have assumed another sort of importance in my work over the years. That label—Atercratie or Atercracy—has come to signify for me the variety of other ways that the anarchist idea might have been conceived and found organized expression.
One of the forms of analysis that I have proposed here, but which has never quite got a proper start, has been the exploration of what anarchist history might have looked like if pioneered by other individuals, in other times and places, than those who ended up making the beginnings that we have inherited. I have gone as far as sketching out the circumstances and some of the qualities of a number of different potential anarchist historians, starting back in 2014 with a sketch for “Jack Deames:”
Jackson Wendell Deames (aka Jacques Dime) 1858-1965. Of mixed French-American parentage, born out of wedlock to a single mother, who promptly succumbed. I have my theories about the details, but only time will tell what we will discover about his parents, the circumstances of his conception, etc. Those who know my other work will understand that 1858 represents for me a particular moment in the coming of age of anarchism. Raised—by diverse hands, shall we say—among the French workers who were part of the Union Républicaine de Langue Française, among tales of the February Revolution of 1848, the June Day, the coup d’état of December 2, 1851, the International Association, Déjacque’s Libertaire, etc, and entering at a young age into an international workers’ movement which was, in the city where he was born, curiously mixed with elements we might more immediately associate with individualist anarchism, and possessing a wealth of intelligence and a dearth of close supervision, we can begin to imagine how Jack’s lifelong obsession might have taken root. We can also see how certain individuals, who might not feature so prominently in either the strictly European or strictly North American accounts, might come to occupy a prominent place. Take, for example, Claude Pelletier (1816-1880)…
Then it became clear that Jack/Jacques would need a larger framework, and companions:
Jackson Wendell Deames (aka Jacques Dime) was born, as a character around which to build this alternative point of view. Immediately, he accumulated a checkered career, a long life and a life-long project to go with it: The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution. Fleshing him out, I borrowed bits from Nettlau and [C. L.] James, and more bits from Ravachol and Oliver Twist. I found that there was an existing character in my Distributive Passions tales who could pass for the aging Jack Deames, living out his last years under an assumed name. I built him up as a logical foil to my own approach, and then quickly gave him his own foil, a determined woman with an overlapping mission: Matilda “Tilly” Thorne. Between the two of them, I’ve started to parcel out a range of good stories and heretical interpretations that I would like to examine from a variety of perspectives….
A third, earlier historian was added sometime later in my notebooks, along with quite a bit of detail about what specific stories might be told. Progress was very slow, but never really abandoned. Still, in the span of five years and through a lot of rather uphill work trying to establish a general view of anarchist history for my various projects, a funny thing happened: the book of “good stories” gradually became this project, while the semi-fictional “alternate historiography” project languished—not because I lost enthusiasm for the idea, but because nobody else seemed to get it.
At some point, as Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back began to seem more and more like something I could actually pull off, I finally did abandon the project, incorporating much of what I had intended to do with it directly into the new work. And this strategy of cannibalizing and combining projects is one that I think is genuinely more promising than much of what I had been pursuing before.
In the end, however, Jack, Tilly and Patience (who has never even had a chance to take a bow) showed themselves a bit more resilient than I had expected—and one day, a couple of weeks ago, I sat down and wrote most of the introduction to a very simple version of The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution, which I hope to find the time to pursue as a kind of long footnote to the present study.
However, just in case these plans once again fall through, let me at least introduce Patience Coppe—a single mother, early advocate of free unions and (in some universe not too unlike our own) the first real historian of the anarchist idea—and her son, Kimball (who looks, perhaps naturally, a bit skeptical about all of this…)
5. The Reform Leagues and Anarchist Individualism
The question, raised again in the last installment of this series, of how contexts have shaped our perception of anarchist history is one that will be hard to avoid when we turn our attention to developments in English-speaking circles in North America. In that context, 1865 marks the end of the American Civil War and the return to civilian life of a number of key figures in the story to come.
There are important individual stories to be told. We’ll track the journey of Dyer D. Lum to anarchism and the post-war exploits of William Batchelder Greene. Ezra and Angela Heywood will feature prominently, as we account for the relationship between The Word and the emerging anarchist movement in the 1870s. There will be a lot of apparent diversions into the spiritualist press, adventures among the free religionists and free lovers, as well as plenty of exploration of the “Yankee International” and the associated organizations. We’ll say goodbye to figures like Calvin Blanchard.
In general, I think, we’ll find this period in the radical history of the United States full of interesting characters and episodes, many of which related to more familiar sorts of anarchist history, but also a bit hard to make sense of as a whole, if only because familiar attitudes towards government, authority and hierarchy will so often be found in contexts that do not seem to be “ours.” Hopefully, there will have been opportunities in the first volume to redraw the boundaries of “proper contexts for anarchistic thought” in earlier times and other settings, but, ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that the pursuit of the anarchist idea has often not been neatly separate from pursuits that seem decidedly cranky and weird.
But perhaps there are lessons to learn about the practical side of anarchy from an examination of cranks who were every bit as serious and organized as they were eccentric and diverse. In any event, we probably can’t set the question aside if we want to take a closer look at the various “reform leagues” that were a vehicle for comparatively “big tent” organizing in support of a variety of radical agendas.
Of those, the New England Labor Reform League, established in 1869, is probably the best known, best documented and the closest, in terms of those involved, to familiar accounts about anarchism’s emergence in the United States. So some effort to identify the major players and explore their varied careers will be a priority. But we’ll also check in on the New England Anti-Death League and various other lesser-known radical organizations.
Expect accounts of the struggle against postal censorship, some clarification of Josiah Warren’s views on spiritualism and an exploration of the mutualist feminism of Angela Heywood, as well at least a lengthy mention of the gold-bug, spirit-inspired equitable commerce launched by some NELRL members in competition with Josiah Warren’s ideas.
Then, as our narrative reaches 1872 and the introduction of a young Benjamin R. Tucker to the grand old men of the NELRL, expect increasing attention to the emergence of the modern individualist anarchism that would eventually pose itself as the rival to the communistic “modern anarchism” of Kropotkin & Co.
For years, I’ve dreamed about really spending the time and doing the research that would be necessary to track Tucker through his early encounters with labor reformers and free religionists on the road to anarchism. How successful I am this time around may depend on whether I can put together the funds for some research travel in New York and Massachusetts. But I have, over those years, at least established the outlines of the story of Tucker’s early years and the assembly of talent and viewpoints that made his Radical Review as simultaneously fascinating and puzzling as I think it is.
Simply attempting to cover the most interesting and important Tucker-related episodes might threaten to swamp both this volume and the next, so any successes I have in sketching out the story of his development will undoubtedly be only partial. And it will be necessary to also introduce quite a number of the other individuals who were instrumental in the rise of anarchist individualism in the United States. Fortunately, both What Mutualism Was and Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back will cover parts of this story. What goes into which narrative will be something to work out as the research progresses, but expect the episodes here to be particularly focused on how Tucker and his fellow-travelers understood the concept of anarchy and how they understood their place in the emerging anarchist movement.
In this volume, which ends with the events at the Chicago Haymarket, I’ll be particularly interested in comparing the emergence of communistic “modern anarchism” as an alternative to the nascent Proudhonian anarchism with the establishment of anarchist individualism as some kind of continuation of it. My (undoubtedly contentious) working assumption, at this stage in my research, is that anarchist communism and anarchist individualism were in many ways very similar kinds of “modern” responses to the proto-anarchism of figures like Proudhon, Bakunin, Greene, Warren, etc., emerging from a shared “modern” set of assumptions and sensibilities quite different from those of their predecessors.
We will, of course, only begin our encounter with Tucker in this portion of the study. He lived until 1939 and remained in at least sporadic communication with other anarchist individualists, so he will remain at least a potential subject of further study throughout the remainder of the work. His heyday is probably the third of the four periods we’ll cover, between Haymarket and the First World War. In this volume, he features particularly as one of the most important figures to try to build something distinctly “modern” from the rather scattered remains of the Proudhonian period—and we will follow his career through the building stages of that project.
6. “Modern Anarchism”
Our fast-moving mountain current has spread out across the a decade’s worth of terrain, splitting off into various distributary currents. We know—or at least the driving metaphor of this work suggests—that the various currents will never unite as fully as perhaps they were mingled before Proudhon’s death. We can certainly point to instances where some form of direct influence seems to carry forward from the earliest period examined through to the anarchism of the 1880s—but we have also inherited narratives that at least flirt with the notion of a rather complete reinvention of anarchist thought in what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism.”
The last and certainly not the least important of our tasks in this second section of the study will be to trace the emergence of anarchist communism as a force among the anti-authoritarians, particularly in the wake of the split in the International. Having touched on some of the early forms of libertarian communism in the first volume, we’ll have some context for examining the movement of figures like Carlo Cafiero and François Dumartheray toward a more familiar sort of anarchist communism and begin to address the conflicts between communists and collectivists in the emerging anarchist movement.
Naturally, Peter Kropotkin will occupy an important place in this part of the study as well, perhaps particularly as he was both an articulate proponent of anarchist communist and one of those who took it upon themselves to create a kind of early anarchist history in order to explain the relations between the earlier forms of anarchist thought and the “modern anarchism” proposed by the communists. I will no doubt return to the close reading of his essay “On Order,” which includes a particularly interesting origin story for the new anarchism—which was, of course, essentially the first ideology to actually bear the name of anarchism.
Elisée Reclus will also feature prominently in the examination of this transition and its framing in the emerging literature of anarchism. Between his own widely-read essay on anarchy and his editing of two other early classics (Bakunin’s God and the State and Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel), he played an important role in shaping the public perception of anarchism internationally.
As we need the mid-point of the journey, it’s important to return to some of our earlier concerns and remind ourselves that we are going to end this particular segment with a beginning—really with a series of beginnings, from the emergence of anarchist communism (and that of anarchist individualism) to the organization of the Black International—followed rapidly by a number of key events—the Haymarket bombing and trial, the emergence of acracia and anarquismo sin adjetivos, etc.—that aren’t so easy to weave into stories with clear beginnings and endings.
And there will be both some hard lessons and some simple pleasures, I expect, involve in the time we spend lingering on the details of how “modern” communist anarchism emerged and how the challenge it represented was met by by anarchists of a more individualist tendency and opponents outside the sphere of anarchist ideas. Once we move on into the next leg of the journey, the one thing that we can reasonably expect is that the complexities of this phase will be exceeded almost everywhere we turn. The diversity of ideas and practices will be every bit as great as it has been in this period of parceling-out and dispersion, but all of those varied elements will also now be part of anarchism—and the struggle over anarchism.
We’ll want to gather every bit of clarity we can glean from this relatively more simple period, simply to help us make sense of what is to come. And, at this point, I feel fairly certain that at least some of that clarity will be fresh and likely to be a little hard on our ideological presuppositions and sacred cows. I look forward to the discoveries to be made, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t also dread the difficulties like to arise at least a bit.
There is, of course, one more ardent anarchist communist who will play an absolutely vital role in this part of the study—as he will in all the others. As I’ve said, 1865 was not only the year of Proudhon’s death, but that of Max Nettlau’s birth. And the world we have been exploring in this second phase of the study will have been the world in which he grew up. At the point where we will end, Nettlau was still, by his own account, a rather narrow, intolerant anarchist communist—although his embrace of mutual toleration would come soon.
Again, one of the tasks to accomplish in this volume will be to make sure that we deal with Nettlau’s origins and initial contexts well enough that we are well prepared to deal with him in his increasingly complex roles in later volumes.
In planning the work, I’ve understood that each volume will be dependent on all the others in increasingly complex ways, making it necessary to plan far enough in advance to anticipate as much of what should be addressed early on to avoid too much backtracking in later volumes. The difficulties extent even to these preliminary summaries. So I expect that I will once again take some time off from summarizing and turn back to the work of writing up some of the early episodes, while I let what I’ve already written sink in and (hopefully) suggest a bit more clearly the emphases for the next volume.