Sources: Before the Beginning

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back:
I. — Sources (1837–1865)

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

      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.

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