Proudhon’s Barbaric Yawp (1840)

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Our Lost Continent & the Journey Back—1840

Proudhon’s Barbaric Yawp

— Je vous entends : vous faites de la satire ; ceci est à l’adresse du gouvernement. — En aucune façon : vous venez d’entendre ma profession de foi sérieuse et mûrement réfléchie ; quoique très ami de l’ordre, je suis, dans toute la force du terme, anarchiste. Écoutez-moi. — P.-J. Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété?

[I understand: you are engaged in satire; this is addressed to the government. — Not at all: you have just heard my serious profession of faith, over which I have reflected long and carefully; although I am very friendly to order, I am, in the full force of the term, (an) anarchist. Listen to me.]

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. — Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Every story has to start somewhere. And when the story is that of anarchist history, it seems hard to find a more likely place to begin than Proudhon’s 1840 declaration—je suis anarchiste—which we generally treat as the first instance of at least one kind of anarchist position-taking.

The form of this first anarchist declaration is almost certainly familiar to those of us who have made some attempt to claim the anarchist label. Most of us know the “you must be joking” reception and have made the “we mean it, man” response. And most of us have more than once then gone on to the “listen to me” stage of things and tried to explain to baffled or incredulous listeners just what we are talking about. For those of us who have been around a while, perhaps all of that has even become relatively routine. Still, I think most of us, no matter how long we’ve claimed the label, might be willing to admit that our willingness to make the claim has often been more certain than our grasp on precisely what that claim involves us in. It is not, after all, entirely up to us; and whatever we may make of the phrase has to contend with what is now a long history of similar declarations.

Now, imagine making that declaration, not just for our first time, but for the first time.

Imagine je suis anarchiste as an inaugural event, a position-taking in a world where “being (an) anarchist” was a previously unattempted feat and where there were no clear criteria for determining just what should follow and validate such a declaration. Imagine speaking the phrase, making the declaration in a world without anarchists—at least in the sense most relevant to modern anarchist identities and identifications.

That’s a hard place to occupy now, in a world where “being an anarchist” is a relatively common, if not necessarily well-defined phenomenon. But at the moment when Proudhon made his declaration, it was arguably not even clear how one would diagram its structure, let alone fathom its consequences. After all, French grammar allows us to read the final word of that phrase as a noun or as an adjective. Does anarchiste designate a role, identity or affiliation, or does it indicated a tendency? I am an anarchist—although there are, perhaps, no others, at least in the precise sense I am using—or else I am anarchistic—unless, of course, we decide that “the full force of the term” includes all these various senses (and Proudhon would indeed later embrace “anarchy, taken in all its senses,” so this final interpretation may be an immediately relevant precedent.)

Multiple stories start with Proudhon’s declaration. We will follow one of them for almost a hundred years. But another ends almost as soon as it begins, because this moment, this event is not ultimately sustainable.

Almost immediately, we move from a moment of pure and perhaps boundless potentiality to the exploration of all that moment might contain, in potential form, or imply. There is what we might call, borrowing from Whitman, Proudhon’s barbaric yawp—for which, in that moment, “not a bit tamed” and “untranslatable” seem perfectly appropriate descriptors—and then the “listen to me,” followed by 180 years (and counting) of attempts at enough taming and translation to put the potential energy stored up in that moment to some practical use. And that has meant, among other things, repeated attempts at restaging the initial moment, repeated declarations, followed in their turn by explanations that, when they are successful, capture some aspect of the anarchy that Proudhon invoked, but inevitably leave more to be said.

A significant portion of the material on which this history will draw will have been part of a long series of anarchist declarations. And some of the failures of anarchist theory to accumulate and develop in some more systematic manner may be attributable to this dynamic, which tends to draw us back—if not to first principles, as anarchists have a complicated relationship to arche—to familiar forms of position-taking and equally complicated relationships with origins and systemization.

All of that will, I think, become increasingly clear as this exploration progresses. But, for now, what I would like to suggest—as a kind of preliminary conclusion and guide to orient future action—is this:

We have still not even come close to exhausting the radical possibilities of that inaugural moment. “Je suis anarchiste” remains, despite all of our efforts, nearly as untamed and untranslatable as it did in 1840.

And, perhaps, recognizing that fact will at least help us, as we retrace our steps from that point, to determine how best to orient ourselves and our anarchist activity with regard to the questions and possibilities raised by that initial declaration.

Onward, then! But perhaps we still want to take a moment, just on the verge of beginning in earnest, to think about the route ahead of us and make a few last minutes arrangements.

First, lets observe that exploring a lost continent is perhaps a task best undertaken with a party—and then acknowledge that ours is already partially assembled. Along with Max Nettlau and Proudhon, who will accompany us, in one capacity or another, throughout the journey, we should welcome Walt Whitman, whose inclusion here involves much more than just the opportunity for a fun post title. Whitman’s work has long been a kind of touchstone for anarchists, myself included, and it will function at times in this study as a kind of poetic foil for more conventional theoretical work we’ll be examining.

Whitman will get his own introduction in due course, but, for now, consider him at least on a path likely to cross our own at various points.

Second, in case this dynamic I have described of a sort of eternal return to basic anarchist questions seems implausible, let me cite at least one contemporary anarchist who seems to recognize a similar dynamic. Consider this passage from Alfredo M. Bonanno’s “The Anarchist Tension:”

So anarchists keep asking themselves the same question: What is anarchism? What does it mean to be an anarchist? Why? Because it is not a definition that can be made once and for all, put in a safe and considered a heritage to be tapped little by little. Being an anarchist does not mean one has reached a certainty or said once and for all, ‘There, from now on I hold the truth and as such, at least from the point of view of the idea, I am a privileged person’. Anyone who thinks like this is an anarchist in word alone. Instead the anarchist is someone who really puts themselves in doubt as such, as a person, and asks themselves: What is my life according to what I do and in relation to what I think? What connection do I manage to make each day in everything I do, a way of being an anarchist continually and not come to agreements, make little daily compromises, etc? Anarchism is not a concept that can be locked up in a word like a gravestone. It is not a political theory. It is a way of conceiving life, and life, young or old as we may be, whether we are old people or children, is not something final: it is a stake we must play day after day. When we wake up in the morning and put our feet on the ground we must have a good reason for getting up, if we don’t it makes no difference whether we are anarchists or not. We might as well stay in bed and sleep. And to have a good reason we must know what we want to do because for anarchism, for the anarchist, there is no difference between what we do and what we think, but there is a continual reversal of theory into action and action into theory. That is what makes the anarchist unlike someone who has another concept of life and crystallises this concept in a political practice, in political theory.

Although Bonanno may seem like strange company for at least some of the figures likely to be featured in this examination, I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that this passage—one of my favorite bits of modern anarchist writing—describes a dynamic at least not significantly different from the one that I have begun to explore.

Whether these two expressions come anywhere close to representing a key elements in “the anarchist tradition” is course, a question that only the proposed exploration can attempt to answer.

So, again, onward!

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2430 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.