Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism — No. 1

“Life as experience tears up programs, treads decorum under foot, breaks the windows, descends from the ivory tower. It abandons the City of Established Facts, out through the Gate of Settled Matters and roams, vagabond, in the open countryside of the Unforeseen.”

Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism:

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Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism

No. 1. — Vast, containing multitudes…

Whatever we think of individualism, anarchist individualism or a range of related topics, anarchist theory can hardly dispense with some close consideration of the individual. The question is whether that is a permanent condition or whether we have yet to extricate ourselves from a philosophical problem that we will eventually solve. And we are fortunate, I think, to have inherited some analyses of the concept of the individual that lead us rather quickly to what is most complex and interesting about it.

Proudhon’s free absolute, a unity-collectivity, seems to involve the right mix of the free and the fixed, the individual and the group, held in antonomic tension. Stirner’s unique is perhaps most striking for not being an instance of any type—or perhaps for being an only one that does not seem to preclude others. And what can we say about the self that Walt Whitman sang, casually mixing the single and the en masse?

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

My own understanding of the anarchic individual is, at this point, something of a synthesis of this material—except that the various insights do not come together, or at least have not yet come together, in any simple unity. Instead, my thoughts remain more than a bit anarchic. It remains to be seen whether or not that is a problem.

There is obviously a shared dynamic in these various approaches, according to which the single and individual tends to become multiple in a variety of ways. And perhaps the same can be said for figures like E. Armand’s anarchist individualist, who is as often a camarade as a solitaire. These are questions that I’ll attempt to address here, in this series, without any particular sense of urgency, in the form of a series of rambles through the literature of anarchist individualism.

All this talk of rambling is, in part, an allusion to the pace of the investigations involved, to the balades champêtres, open-air excursions or country rambles, hosted periodically by l’en dehors and, finally, to a striking passage from E. Armand’s writings that I recently had occasion to translate:

Life as experience tears up programs, treads decorum under foot, breaks the windows, descends from the ivory tower. It abandons the City of Established Facts, out through the Gate of Settled Matters and roams, vagabond, in the open countryside of the Unforeseen. — E. Armand, “Life as Experience

But it is also a reference to the part of nearly every day that I spend wandering through various local parks, in all kinds of weather, sorting through whatever problems of anarchist theory happen to be at the top of the mental heap. My own open-air excursions are an important part of the process of thinking and writing, which it is often hard to credit in the work produced. In this series, however, they may sometimes assume something close to center stage.

In choosing the title for this first installment of the Rambles…, I had intended to set myself on a path straight to the heart of the anarchy that dominates my understanding of the individual as contr’un. Respecting the process has made the path a little less straight, but let’s at least check in with “the star of the show.”

The Contr’un

Contr’un. Counter-one. A single unit or unity that keeps pointing us towards quantities more or less than simply singular.

With Stirner, we mark the scope of a self in terms of the reach of « its » might, but we do not assume that this might, this force, is in any way simple. Instead, with Fourier and Proudhon, we identify it as complex, composite—always already a collective force—and we recognize the connections of energy with conflict.

“All that reason knows and affirms is that each being, like every idea, is a group.” — P.-J. Proudhon, The Philosophy of Progress

And so we also recognize the working of Proudhon’s first “fundamental law of the universe,” not just in the relation between an individual and other individuals, or between the individual and their milieu, but also within the individual itself. Internal contradiction and conflict is the motor of the individual and the source of that “quantity of freedom” we association with its collective force.

(This is a too-quick summary, but much of the argument behind it can be found in the posts linked in the sidebar.)

That also means that reciprocity, at least in the peculiar way that Proudhon defined it, is a dynamic already at work within the individual.

Such is also the first law that I proclaim, in agreement with religion and philosophy: it is Contradiction. Universal Antagonism.

But, just as life supposes contradiction, contradiction in its turn calls for justice: from this the second law of creation and humanity, the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements, Reciprocity.

Proudhon’s unity-collectivity is obviously not just an individual, but the notion does allow us to account for what we might call individualities, units or unities at a wide range of scales—provided we are prepared to have most of our other familiar keywords shift in meaning to take advantage of the new interpretive possibilities.

That, of course, is the difficulty.

That redefinition and redeployment of terms—the subversion of concepts—is one of the strengths of Proudhon’s work, but also one of the chief difficulties it poses for readers. And as a tool for elaborating something like individualism… well, it is quite obviously not exactly designed for the job.

Still, we will almost certainly find ourselves elaborating something very much like individualism, even if that elaboration must be supplemented by other sorts of analysis. It is quite simply very difficult to talk clearly about both sides of the unity-collectivity antinomy at the same time. So we may, for example, find ourselves grappling with the “individual” side of things, but in language that is largely “social” in its usual association—and vice versa.

But perhaps that is not the worst of outcomes.

I would, I think, be happy enough to call the human individual the first in a series of societies, if, in the process, I was able to avoid positing it as the first in a series of polities.

Armand on the anarchist “label”

The French title of this short piece is « Étiquette ? » Neither “Label?” nor “Tag?” seem like particularly attractive English translations, although both are obviously apt enough. (And “Tags” is the title of a related essay by William J. Gorsuch, of which I am very fond.)

It’s the kind of minor translating problem that is likely to send you off great distances in unlikely directions, all in the hope of some elegant solution. And while I don’t seem to have found one yet, I did remind myself, in the course of my more or less fruitless searching, that the word “independent,” which is italicized in the final paragraph, may be rendered in French as “sans etiquette”—which may be neither here nor there, but I did set me to wonder just what is the relation here between the anarchist “label,” which is not just a label and has been adopted solely for the pleasure it brings, and the lack of labels associated with independence.

Perhaps there will be some occasion to return to that question, but, for now, I think the article itself—sans any clear tag at its head—is interesting enough to share here:

An anarchist individualist, I choose, I have chosen the “label” anarchist because it please me, but also after reasoning about it. But this anarchist label is not just a label. It is an affirmation and a definition by itself, of which no one could be ignorant if they have studied the slightest bit of sociology or have spent time with flesh-and-blood anarchists.

Anarchist is a label that is also a declaration: a declaration that — in order to live in isolation or association, to produce or consume, to learn or to teach, to exist and to evolve in all domains — there is no need of governmental authority, there is no need for the State. The rulers have understood this so well that they have enacted special laws restricting the anarchists, the so-called lois scélérates. And this is true of all governments, up to and including the government of the proletarian elites.

The dictionaries indicate for the word “anarchy” and its derivatives “disorder, confusion.” But it is easy to see that this reflects the governmental method of teaching, which wants to promote the idea that without the State there is only disorder.

An artist, a literary person who does not prostitute themselves is only imaginable anarchically, outside of governmental or statist tutelage, protection or orders — and that is why an independent artist or writer who uses the words anarchy or anarchist in the official sense is incomprehensible to me.

E. Armand.

Source: Le Libertaire 4e série, 31 no. 10 (6 Juin 1925): 2.

And here, for good measure, is that essay by William J. Gorsuch, which is, I think, individualist enough in its conclusions to merit inclusion:


The other day a friend, who is so much of a Tolstoian as to be pleased to work for a living, remarked: “You are the first person ever pointed out to me as an Anarchist. Are you an Anarchist?”

I replied: “Some folks say so.”

I wish if possible to explain that answer.

I hold that one of the greatest hinderances to social progress is man’s proneness to accept and wear tags, labels, badges.

One of the limitations of language, due to differences of experience and therefore of knowledge on the part of individuals, is that the tag attached to any particular faith, sect, or ism always conveys to one mind a meaning distinct from and frequently antithetical to the meaning it conveys to any other mind.

Thus, all men, Mr. Pentecost included, believe in the deity-principle, and yet the God-tag does not mean the same thing to any two men.

So with the tag, Anarchism. If what you attach to that term is what I believe, or you think I believe, then to you I am an Anarchist. Otherwise, I am not.

As no two persons can see things in exactly the same light—similar is not the same—for the moment they did they would merge into one person, and cease to exist as integral units, I deprecate the use of any and all confusing, disintegrating, and deadly sect tags.

There are certain general principles, generic truths, that the experience of the race has demonstrated to be good.

The utterance of, the insistence upon, and the life-practice of these genera I claim is the whole duty of those who would grow and see society grow.

Liberty, equality, love, purity, are these generic truths. These are the law and the gospel.

You may say: “These also are relative and not absolute, and therefore are subject to misinterpretation and misapplication.”

True, they are relative and not absolute, just as man is relative in respect to the universe, but they are not misleading except when intentionally misinterpreted by the imperfect who desire to violate them. To one whose nature, however feebly, is upreaching, they are never confusing, but ever clear, guiding principles. On the four corner stones of liberty, equality, love, and purity, we predicate our position. Whatever is inharmonious there with is evil, vile.

All sects in religion, philosophy, economics, physics, or art, are narrowing to the natures of the acceptors. Sectarians are never discoverers of the newer and better, but ever bitter adherents of the old and outgrown. No Christ was ever insulted or crucified by a man, or men, but always by sectarians, who, by the persecution, proved they knew their ancient truth, but present error was doomed. If they had not feared the new thought, they would have contemptuously ignored it.

The newest and most radical sect is as intolerant and jealous as the oldest and most conservative. If the new one does not as openly show the persecuting spirit as does the old, it is due to want of strength, and not to lack of will. This is true of all sects; of Anarchists, Single-taxers, Socialists, Materialists, Agnostics, and Universalists, as well as of Monarchists, Republicans, Protectionists, Spiritualists, and Roman Catholics.

For this reason I don’t like tags, and object to having one pinned on my breast. I prefer to be a free man. Owned by no party, clique, clan, or sect, I browse where I please, and accept truth wherever I find it. Every sect to which man has ever adhered has contained some truth and much error. Eclectic, rather than pedantic, I choose to accept the truth and reject the error. I decidedly refuse to swallow the error in order to gain the truth. The reason we see so many sick men is because they open their mouths and shut their eyes and gulp the indigestible whole. This is wrong. It’s sure to narcotize, or nauseate.

“But,” I hear the objector, “men must combine, form sects, in order to do effective work for progress.”

True, we must unite the efforts of many men to accomplish something to which the strength of one man is unequal, but it does not follow that the bond of union should be of such a character that some of the men can usurp the privilege of deciding whether the others are doing their full share, or in the proper way. As soon as the power of thus judging and deciding is granted to a few, or a set, a sect is born, arrested development ensues, excommunication is in order, and fossilization is the result.

No organization can rightfully and justly exist that cannot do so from its own inherent vitality, its own righteousness. When it needs artificial strengthening bands, it has outlived its usefulness, and nature demands that it fall and die, thus making fertile the soil for newer and higher evolvements. But men who see in the perpetuation of the organization, power or emolument for themselves object, and gathering together those they can influence, draw the lines of holiness a little closer and give birth to that thing of death, a sect.

If we would but learn the truly spiritual law of labor, which is to be creative, to evolve, to originate, to give out the new, no sects could ever be formed. The sectarian, leader, or follower, is an absorbent, a sponge. He has lost the faculty of producing, creating, and retained only the power of assimilation. The latter function swine exercise, as well as men, but I think we all desire to advance at least slightly beyond that stage of development. If we would we must learn this lesson: Each one’s part is to do his own full duty to himself by living a life of purity and love, and by asserting liberty and equality through refusing, under any circumstances, to infringe upon any other individual’s liberty and right of equality.

In every department of human thought and action the bad habit of wearing and swearing by tags prevails. Be tagged or be damned. I won’t be either. I refuse to be classified because I reserve the right to grow.

“But if you don’t stay planted in one spot you’re inconsistent.”

All right. I’d rather be inconsistent than be a mollusk.

What I don’t know today I am glad to find out tomorrow, and I’m not ashamed to share my new knowledge with whoever has ears to hear.

Somehow I can’t get the notion out of my mind that, after all, the old world wags along in just about the best possible way.

Now, don’t hold up your hands in holy horror and cry: “Oh my! Oh my! And I’ve heard you rail against the evil and infamy of the present!”

I don’t mean that society is as perfect as it will be, but I do mean that we are growing toward perfection just as rapidly as is healthy. You know, if a boy shoots up too fast it’s a sure sign of organic disorder. Neither do I mean that we who gain slight glimpses of the truth should fold our hands and rest contented with the idea that the forces of social evolvement will work out the salvation of the race without any assistance from us. We are part of those same forces. If we see a truth and suppress and do not utter that truth, we are stumbling blocks in the way of progress. If we think and speak our best thought, we become active principles, rendering easier and quicker the practical application of truth. In the one case we are corpses that have missed burial; in the other, we are living men who justify our right to life.

I think we should tear off the tags, and be no longer blinded followers of this, that, or the other school. Fiercely battling among ourselves, we see no good in brothers who have our ultimate in view, but believe in a different way of getting there and thus wasting our energies in internecine strife, we afford a spectacle at which humanity weeps, while greed in self-gratulation approvingly smiles.

Let us learn to be men, and not partisans. Let us search out, if we can, our common, not our antagonistic attributes and aspirations, and uniting on the basis of what all admit is good and true, discover with what ease evil can be dethroned and justice enfranchised.

Read “Volney’s Ruins” and learn that all people agree that the sun appears neither triangular nor square, but round; that gold is heavier than lead; that lead is softer than iron; that sugar is sweet and gall bitter; that we love pleasure and hate pain; but that all people do not agree as to whether the moon is inhabited, or a cavern is in the centre of the earth; that what we can demonstrate we agree upon, but when we must conjecture we don tags and fight. Apply this rule: when men bitterly oppose each other it is because the faith that is within them is not based on certainty. How health-giving it would be if all earnest reformers would analyze the foundations of their theories before enthusiastically going gunning for opponents.

Read Volney!

William J. Gorsuch

Bridgeport, Conn.

Source: The Twentieth Century 6 no. 2 (January 8, 1891): 3-5.

…in the fields…

Even out here on the far edge of the suburbs, an open hillside is a bit of a treasure. I’m fortunate enough to have one, on public land, within a short walk of the house—complete with views of the mountain and largely unmown fields that shift in color and texture with the shifts of light and seasons. There are quite a number of these marginal and interstitial plots nearby, generally poorly marked and not to heavily used, but this is arguably the gem of the bunch. It’s just a grassy hillside, really, with an uneven path mown around its edge. The contours of the land make the hill itself difficult to photograph and the hummocky ground is any number of twisted ankles waiting to happen. But that just means that walks are leisurely on the path and even more so off it—and that when you stop and lift your eyes from the uncertain surfaces underfoot, the lines of the hillside always seem to lead off and up towards some encounter with the sky.

I take picture after picture, day after day, recording the various convergences of grass and slope and sky and sun and clouds. I stop for long periods of time, to take photographs or to scribble in a tiny notebook. The dog-walkers are sometimes obviously curious, but generally too polite to ask questions.

Today, thinking and scribbling about this project, I walked around the recently remown trail and then around again…

The Mystery of Hermann Sterne

Of the various ways in which individuals and multitudes might cross paths, one that I had not thought about as I started this set of reflections was the question of pseudonyms. But it was that question that absorbed a great deal of my time and attention over the last few days.

The name Hermann Sterne first caught my eye while working my way through the run of l’en dehors. There were, of course, no shortage of pseudonyms in the paper, but a story called “Unico Schmidt,” signed Hermann Sterne, struck me in passing as perhaps exceeding some kind of limit on possible references to Max Stirner. I noted a couple of other articles by Sterne, but didn’t pay much attention until, much later, I started to try to track down the original sources of the stories and articles in E. Armand’s collection En marge du vice et de la vertu. One story, “La Bête de Proie,” showed up when I did a search through my archive—not once, in fact, but twice. In neither case, however, was the author listed as Armand. In the pages of l’Anarchie, it was signed “Hermann Sterne,” but in l’en dehors the same story was signed “Me Grosjean.” I was pretty quickly able to determine that “Le cauchemar,” another story originally published under the Hermann Sterne name, was the same story published as by Armand in Profils de Précurseurs et Figures de Rêve.

It seemed clear that I was dealing with a pseudonym, but I couldn’t find any confirmation of the fact. What I could find, however, were a number of curiously incomplete author biographies and a lot of indications that Hermann Sterne had always published in roughly the same periodicals as Armand. At length, I convinced myself that there was no other logical explanation—and then I found this note by Armand himself in the supplement to l’en dehors no. 4:

I acknowledge the articles written by me under the pseudonyms Hermann Sterne, Amos and le Guépin, published while my name appeared on the masthead of l’anarchie.

So E. Armand (pseudonym for Ernest Juin) noted the regular use of pseudonyms by the editors of “l’anarchie” in his conflict with André Lorulot (pseudonym for Georges Roulot) and identified three of his own. And now, searching for the pseudonymous articles, other names look suspicious. At some point, I think it will make sense to map the appearances of other obvious pseudonyms in l’anarchie against the timeline of editors—and then do some careful content analysis of any likely Armands.

It is still unclear to me to what extent Armand made any attempt to conceal his authorship of the pseudonymous articles. He was prone to experimentation in his writing. But his concerns certainly remained constant, as this piece by “Hermann Sterne” should demonstrate:

“My Cause”

I am only willing to work for one cause and one cause only: my own. I do not wish to sacrifice myself for Principles, to expend my energies in the service of an Ideal. I only wish to concern myself with the triumph of one cause—my cause—my anarchist cause.

I do not wish to make any effort that is not intended to make me less dependent on everything that dependence implies. That does not aim to free me from everything represented or perpetuated by authority. Institutions and men alike.

For my cause—the cause that I espouse, that to which I give my days, my energy and my whole self—my cause is that of individual autonomy.

And I want my cause to triumph straight away. And I place myself in a state of constant revolt against everything that tends to diminish, weaker or restrain the surge or development of my personality.

But in order for My cause to be completely affirmed, in order for it to triumph, it would be necessary that there be no instance in which I could be dominated or dominator, exploited or exploiter.

Any volontary act on my part that would tend to maintain domination and exploitation works in opposition to the triumph of My Cause. So I cannot, knowingly, be an agent of authority, an intermediary of exploitation, or the conscious auxiliary of the least of those agents or the most insignificant of those intermediaries.

As isolated as I may appear, I nevertheless have many friends: all the anti-authoritarians who desire the success of Their Cause; all those who defy authority; all the partisans of the autonomy of the individual; all those who deny or reject social or moral constraints; all those who do not desire the intervention of the State or Society in their personal lives.

All those who struggle for the reduction to nothing of the empire and influence of the powers of oppression and exploitation. All those are « my own » and belong to my species.

Let us battle for our cause, in isolation or associated, when associated, freely and temporarily, for a specific cause and not for the triumph of “the Cause” as an abstraction or for the cause of others. Let us struggle so that Our Cause emerges victorious, so that the cause that carries the day is that of anti-authoritarianism, of individual independence, so that the phantom prejudices and shadow-conventions that the men who surround us have created to excuse their ignorance or conceal their fears may be reduced to dust.

Hermann STERNE.

Translating E. Armand

« En guillemets »: Most writers pose a few very individual problems for translators. For example, the most unlikely words can become “technical terms.” In the writings of E. Armand, camarade, milieu and determinisme all seem to do just a bit more work than we might expect them to. But Armand also makes a peculiar use of quotation marks, sometimes where we would expect “scare quotes,” but also particularly around possessive pronouns: “Citoyen de « mon » monde,” “« Notre » individualisme,” etc. It is perhaps not surprising that some little extra fuss might be made around questions of possession—around “the unique and its property”—but it isn’t always clear whether the intent is to underline the proprietary relation, to problematize it, or to do a bit of both.

As a working strategy in translations, I have simply chosen, where it is a question of these possessive pronouns, to maintain the original publication or some very close approximation, to leave the translated word en guillemets: “Citizen of « My » World,” “« Our » Individualism,” etc. And we will see, over time, whether or not the practice gives up more of its secrets. With more familiar sorts of scare-quoting, I have chosen to use the guillemets to signal instances where the word in question has a particular significance for Armand. So, for example, a central figure in Armand’s world is the « en-dehors ».

The Camarades of l’en dehors

Although my study of periodicals like l’en dehors was initially focused primarily on E. Armand and a few other writers, such as Ixigrec, I knew from experience that other contributors would emerge as interesting figures in their own right. The poet Eugène Bizeau was among the first to separate themselves from the pack, particularly with a couple of book reviews in poetic form, like this one for Armand’s Anarchist Individualist Initiation:

My dear Armand, your book is a book of ideas, which is why those who wish to reign by the sword or by the power of their fists do not value it. I, preserving the ideal of my younger years, I like its dawn-air, which breaks as if to illuminate the helpless vessels that the surf carries off … And, fleeing the ebb of human stupidity, endlessly multiplied, how many sailors lost on the granite rocks, how many tormented minds and hearts full of sorrow, will one day to “put in at the port,” if by you aid their “compass” once again finds the north!

(See the post linked in the sidebar for the French original.)

But I am always on the lookout for short, pithy statements of anarchist principle, which I have a tendency to translate as I find them. And I quickly realized that a certain “Marius Jean” or “Jean Marius” had produced quite a number of those for l’en dehors. Here are two of them:

Them and Us

The ordinary individual, partisan and supporter of the present society, is hostile toward us: we are too different from them.

They fear us: their conformist spirit allows them to adapt to all situations and to submit to all forms of slavery. They want, above all, to live in peace. For them, we are trouble-makers, destroyers of quiet—and the more capable we are of revolt, the more they fear and hate us.

They do not understand us: men of the herd, their mentality — which accepts the ideas of exploitation and iniquity, which destroys in them all courage and renders impossible the least gesture of independence — is do deeply rooted that any burst of energy, any act of conscious rebellion is foreign to them.

They would like us to be like them, with the same listless spirit, the same resignation, dragging along the same lamentable existence, perpetuating as they do the suffering and sorrow of living.

But we will never accept such a fate. We have no wish to be the accomplices of those who, through lack of consciousness or consistency, maintain slavery in all its forms. Let us be outsiders, true « en-dehors », not only in dreams and in words, but in our acts each day, no matter the opinion of the admirers and supporters of society, no matter what they wish of us! — Marius JEAN.

A Dream of the Future

I tasted, in this gloomy spring, the delights of one of the rare days when the sun had deigned to smile. Under its fiery rays the countryside felt revived. Trees and blades of grass were growing green again and in the proud clusters of lilacs, the humble flowers spread their exquisite scents. From the earth itself there escaped the odor of renewal. Everything breathed the joy of living, the delight of being enveloped in the caress of light and vibrant air. And what delicious chirping of birds! What amorous pursuits! What charming games! How far off winter seemed! Everything was only promises: green meadows, undulating wheat, fragrant flowers, the beginnings of nests.

I was entirely captivate by nature, which lavishes each spring its inexhaustible treasure of life.

And yet, I said to myself, in the heart of this admirable nature, where nothing artificial exists, where it seems that harmony and kindness should bud and blossom, we are still neither happier nor better than elsewhere. We lead the same painful, dull lives, devoid of wisdom. We are not more humane, not more human.

And I dreamed of an existence very different from our own, where, inspired by nature, we could develop harmoniously; where, more reasonable and less artificial, we could live more freely and more beautifully; where we would finally be “human.” — Jean Marius.

I can’t always entirely endorse the sentiments expressed in these short pieces, with which the anarchist individualist papers tended to be rich, but I almost always find them useful to think with—or against.

And perhaps that’s enough for a first installment—time to pocket the notebook and take another turn around the grassy hill. Yesterday, I sketched out the first bits of some reflections on “self-government,” which should form part of No. 2. We shall see where things take me today…

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