Posts by Shawn P. Wilbur

Flora Tristan, Messiah and Pariah

"God will doubtless pardon you, for you know not what you do, but we will not listen to you, for you know not what you say!"
I've just posted a fairly finished translation of Flora Tristan's posthumous work, The Emancipation of Woman, or, The Testament of the Pariah. It's a strange work, probably in part because it was finished by Alphonse Constant (better known as Eliphas Levi), at a time when Constant had moved on from the neo-Christianity of the Saint-Simonians, but had not yet embarked on his more famous career as an occultist. He writes in the text about his struggles to complete the work. But I suspect most of the strangeness of the text came from its primary author, Flora Tristan, who presents herself as at once a social pariah and a sort of spiritual-political messiah. The work, which is fundamentally a series of exhortations in favor of women's emancipation, works through its arguments in terms largely derived from various varieties of Christian heresy, often mixing the elements in rather startling ways. It is, for example, a work encouraging peaceful social change, written in a rather violent sort of prose. It is also often quite beautiful.

This is one of those texts that suggests whole universes of oppositional thought that are not easily accounted for in our schematic understandings of radical history. I would encourage readers to stick with it, taking pleasure in the really lovely moments scattered throughout the text, and not deciding too quickly how to respond to the very complicated, and not always coherent, play of the religious elements.

The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution

After wrestling a bit with how best to organize my dedicated anarchist history blog, Dispatches from the Revolution—Atercracy, I have settled on an unorthodox, but hopefully fun way of both wrestling with some of the technical difficulties and keeping the focus on good stories. Those interested in the historical tidbits should make follow developments over there.

More on Proudhon’s "Theory of Property"

I needed a change of page for a couple of days, and went back to work on the still-daunting task of taking Proudhon's The Theory of Property from the current draft translation to something well-contextualized and publishable. There's a lot of work to do, including revisiting Proudhon's earlier works on property, finishing work on the Appendix, translating more contextual material and consulting Proudhon's manuscripts. Fortunately, more of the relevant manuscript material has become available, and I've been able to take some time away from other tasks to finish translating the "Disagreement Regarding the Posthumous Publication of Unpublished Works by P.-J. Proudhon." The "Disagreement" is interesting in a variety of ways, not the least of which is that it doesn't seem to challenge The Theory of Property in any of the now-conventional ways, down-playing its significance to Proudhon, but really seems to show that the main controversy among Proudhon's friends and followers was over how best to present his thought—and how to honor his own relationships with those various friends, divided as they were politically. I also got a chance to spend a little more time with Proudhon's two letters to Grandclément, who sent Proudhon a manuscript on property just at the moment when he was wrapping up the work that would become The Theory of Property, and confirmed for Proudhon the importance of the distinction between allodium and fief. What is interesting about the second letter is that in it Proudhon pretty well inverts our received sense of the relative importance of some of his later works. Here is the opening of that letter:

Passy, February 28, 1863.
To Mr. Grandclément

Sir, I just read all at one go your last, excellent letter of the 25 of this month, and since I have a free moment, I am hurrying to respond to you right away. If I postpone even by two days, the difficulties accumulating, I could no longer do it.
Here is where my book on Poland is, that is to say my new work on Property. I do not have to tell you that property is a veritable ocean (?) to me—an ocean to drink—that its history alone would demand the sacrifice of a lifetime, and that I do not feel sufficiently Benedictine to bury myself thus under one single question. I am in a hurry to know, to comprehend a certain quantity of certain ideas, and, when the erudition does not advance as quickly as I would like, I hardly trouble myself for appealing to a divinatory faculty. — That is what happened to me, for example, with The Federative Principle, of which I just abruptly sketched the theory, or, if you will permit me this ambitious word, the philosophy, in 100 or 200 pages, leaving to others the chore of elaborating the whole system in minute details. That federalism, which boiled for thirty years in my veins, has finally exploded at the combined attacks of the Belgian and French press; the public judges now. What I would permit myself to say to you about it, to you, my master en fait de property, is that I regard that sketch as a fragment detached from the theory of Property itself, a theory that would have already seen the day, if for six months I had not been halted by the tribulations caused me by the Franco-Belgian and Italian Jacobinism, and by the necessity of responding to it. But nothing is lost; I regard even that improvised publication, like the Majorats littéraires, of which I will publish a second and better edition, as a fortunate prelude to my work on Property....

Pruning the Rhizome

Disruptive Elements: The Extremes of French Anarchism
Ardent Press, 2014
available from Little Black Cart
a review
"Tant pis pour ceux qui souffrent et n’osent pas prêcher l’extermination et l’incendie!" 

Most history worth bothering with shakes things up. This is particularly true of radical history, and of that branch of radical history that involves rediscovering and re-presenting primary works from various radical currents. Sometimes, the shake-ups are comparatively pleasant, and we find, unexpectedly, that we have inherited marvelous gems, glimpses into the personalities and practices of those who came before us. Sometimes, they seem more like attacks, and we find, perhaps, that our understanding of the past is flawed, in ways that have consequences for our present and future. Often, there is some of both aspects involved, and what arrives like an assault ends up enriching us. I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I have a great deal of interest in, and affection for, those productive disruptions that shake our complacency and force us to come to new terms with the traditions in which we're trying to take our places. 

Those productive disruptions come in a variety of shapes, sizes and degrees of intensity. Sometimes little discoveries shift enormous discourses, though most often slowly, as even radical master narratives tend to shift glacially when they shift at all. Others simply strike us, personally and immediately, with their energy. And energy is important for those of us battling in the trenches—such as they are—of movements like anarchism. There is an awful lot about those battles that can be very, very draining. That means we should treasure the instances where our tradition gives us the occasion to smile, laugh, snarl, show our teeth and our best "we mean it, man" grin. We are fortunate that Disruptive Elements, the new anthology of "extreme" French anarchist writings, includes a lot of those instances.

Let me get the basic pitch out of the way: If you enjoy anarchist history, you should order yourself a copy of the book. There will almost certainly be new material and pleasant surprises. The material ranges from Felix P.'s "Philosophy of Defiance" to assorted texts by and about Ernest Coeurderoy, Joseph Déjacque, Zo d'Axa, George Darien, Emile Armand, Emile Pouget, Octave Mirbeau, Albert Libertad, Emile Pouget, etc., together with some assorted material on egoism, free sexuality, naturism and critiques of "collectivism." The translations include quite a number of new pieces by vincent stone, together with more familiar work by Wolfi Landstreicher, Robert Helms, Paul Sharkey, Michael Shreve, and several by yours truly. Like Enemies of Society, the collection is unabashedly individualist and often explicitly egoist in focus. Unlike Enemies of Society, I expect the selection here will be fairly accessible and interesting to those who are not, or not yet, committed to these "extreme" forms of individualism. I think I would also not be going too far out on a limb to say that the writing in this collection is considerably more accomplished as well. Some of anarchism's finest literary stylists are present in the ranks. Which leads to the second half of the pitch: If you don't think you enjoy anarchist history, you should order yourself a copy of the book. Some of this stuff really is that good.

Unfortunately, while I can recommend buying and reading Disruptive Elements to almost anyone with an interest in the general field, I can't do so without also expressing major reservations about the interpretive elements of the book. For better or worse, all those magnificent texts are put in the service of "a campaign of guerrilla historicism that has as its goal a paradigmal hijacking and a sweeping overhaul of existing, received doctrines about anarchism." The goal of this operation is to find "bona fide, non-diluted anarchist thought." The context is a sort of post-left historiography and, it seems to me, a somewhat avant garde aesthetic.

At this point, I don't suppose that anyone will be surprised to find that Proudhon has been brought in to be the villain of the piece: "the diseased branch of Proudhon needs to be pruned unceremoniously from the anarchist family tree."

Perhaps, on the other hand, people might be surprised to see my first post on "the ungovernability of anarchism" cited, more-or-less in full, as part of the argument for this "pruning."

I'll confess that I was surprised, then amused, and then finally just annoyed, as it became clear that the Proudhon to be "pruned" was pretty obviously not at all the interesting, disruptive Proudhon that readers are likely to find here—right alongside the texts by Déjacque, Coeurderoy, Ravachol, etc. and even central to the discussion of ungovernability—but the Proudhon that "everybody knows," if by "everybody" we mean those with an axe to grind and those who haven't spent much time with Proudhon.

It is clear enough that this is a book that's looking for a fight—most obviously with "the left" and a couple of comparatively successful anarchist publishers. You'll excuse me for being much more interested in whether or not the book, and at least one of its editors, are looking for a fight with me. That is quite simply not clear.  When the introduction talks about "retracing the elusive rhizomes" of anarchist thought, and employing my own work on the difficulties of disciplining the rhizomatic structures of anarchist theory and tradition, naturally I feel right at home. But then there are the moments when things get all arboreal, and all for the purpose it seems of cutting off the very limb that I have climbed so very far out on. The move seems strangely familiar, really. The received doctrine is, after all, that the Proudhonian limb was pruned almost immediately following Proudhon's death. Some of the most significant resistance to that account has come from individualists, even egoists. Who pruned the Proudhon-limb? The collectivists, and then (again) the communists, and then (again) the defenders of various narrow, arboreal models of anarchist history or theory, often with some help from the marxists and various anti-anarchist critics—the anarchist mainstream, those who insist on particular forms of organization or the recognition of particular economic or social systems. I think some people call this "the left." The collectivist victory over the mutualists took the form of the collectivists claiming that they were, in fact, the true heirs of Proudhon's tradition—a fairly straightforward "hijacking," if even there was one. The same process has pretty well pruned Bakunin down to the most unappealing of stumps, and it seldom slow to sacrifice others if it serves present, ideological demands. Now another pruning—and a hijacking, but of what?—is being proposed in favor of an element of the post-left, but it isn't clear to me that the rationale is any more appealing.

Let's look at the "branch of Proudhon." Who has been responsible for the bits of recent green on this allegedly dead and possibly phantom limb? A motley assortment of individuals, both inside and outside of academic circles, all of whom have at least some investment in challenging "existing, received doctrines about anarchism." Hell, some of us even aim at what might be called a "sweeping overhaul" of our sense of anarchist history, theory and tradition. Does there seem to be any particular sign of disease? Of particularly Proudhonian disease? The laundry list of charges against Proudhon in Disruptive Elements is familiar:
  • Awful writing
  • An unappealing description of anarchy (and infrequent use of the word)
  • Participation in the provisional government after the French revolution of 1848
  • Antisemitic passages in his notebooks
  • Misogyny
  • Homophobia
  • Sexual repression
There is also a somewhat jumbled reference to two works from 1851 and 1852, one of which was dedicated "To the Bourgeoisie" and the other of which was addressed to Louis Napoleon after his coup d'état. And the alternative to all of this is supposed to be a consistency (complete with boldface) which Proudhon presumably lacked, but Ernest Coeurderoy apparently possessed. (Hold that particular thought.) Now, I admittedly spend way too much time dealing with this sort of thing, but—and there's really no polite way to say this—if I'm going to be confronted with yet another attempt to dismiss Proudhon as a laughable "fraud," it would be nice to see something that wasn't:
  1. A matter of opinion, like questions about writing style;
  2. A matter of inflated rhetoric, like saying "misogyny" when anti-feminism or sexism is most accurate;
  3. A well-known inconsistency, like the antisemitic journal entry, which is notable as much because it contradicts so much else in Proudhon's work, as it is for its violent prejudice;
  4. A matter of anarchist dogma, like the anti-electoral stance, from before Proudhon himself popularized the dogma;
and it would be particularly nice if the sources cited were not nearly all available either on Wikipedia or in Larry Gambone's old introductory text. Again, there is a much, much fuller picture of Proudhon, and material addressing some of these questions, linked from the very same pages that the translations were drawn from. Anyone who is actually interested in those questions can pretty easily find other or fuller accounts of them, here or elsewhere.

Being uncertain how much of this apparent attack is inadvertent, I won't follow the metaphor of the "branch of Proudhon" much farther. The arboreal model seems, in any event, to be wrong, and a manifestation of sectarian and sometimes authoritarian tendencies within the movement. Anarchism is better understood as a rhizome, and the relationships between currents and schools will almost all have that complex, messy character. You don't really prune rhizomes.

But I want to come back to the question of shaking things up, of disruptive elements. For me, one of the more puzzling aspects of the book's frame, and the use of Proudhon as a foil, is the extent to which it introduces a number of rather domesticating elements into a collection that is supposed to inspire us with wildness, with opposition to civilization, and with passion. When it is a question of writing style, there are certainly more exciting writers among those in the collection, but some of that excitement comes at a price. Déjacque, for example, was a very uneven craftsman with the pen, prone to runaway prose that is likely to be an acquired taste for many. Coeurderoy, who might be the most consistent stylist of the bunch, was certainly capable of purple prose. As the concerns become more serious, the potential dissonance becomes greater. Déjacque's rather masculinist rhetoric and his own peculiar notions about women's proper roles (for which, see the Humanisphere) may be more acceptable to more modern anarchists, but, having raised the issue with regard to Proudhon, it seems far from consistent that he would get a free pass. But by the time we're comparing Proudhon's long-secret diary entry to Coeurderoy's long-standing, public proposal to solve Europe's problems by a full-scale Cossack invasion, Proudhon is receding as a particularly viable villain. And a really difficult problem emerges: If we are to keep feeling feeling (moral?) outrage at Proudhon's private thoughts about extermination by steel and fire, then we have to either treat Coeurderoy's much more sweeping invocation of a similar extermination as just a bit of literary excess, or perhaps he have to consider Proudhon's fault as not desiring extermination in public, and wholesale.

Proudhon simply can't fulfill the role of real villain and milquetoast foil for these other, presumably more vibrant figures. What the really extreme emphasis on Proudhon threatens to do is to detract from the figures who are the main focus of the anthology. Because the attempted dismissal of Proudhon is ultimately not very convincing, Proudhon himself threatens to become one of the most distracting elements present. For me, that only seems right—at least in the general scheme of things. If it is really a rhizome that we are tracing, in search of alternatives to received dogma, then many of our best leads—many of the most disruptive elements—will come from engaging with Proudhon, his circle, and his more-or-less direct successors (as they have in the past.) But it really is unfortunate that an ill-conceived quarrel with Proudhon should disrupt this particular collection.

More anarchist archives online

The International Institute of Social History has digitized several more of their important collections, as part of a large-scale digitization project. The collections include Max Nettlau's papers, the Bakunin collection, the Louise Michel collection, the Alexander Berkman papers, the Fédération Jurassienne Archives, the Lucien Descaves papers, the Gustave Landauer papers, and several others. Many of the downloadable files are manuscript pages, varying dramatically in legibility, but there are also files of collected pamphlets, periodical issues, fliers, etc. So far, I've run across some issues of Josiah Warren's Periodical Letter, a good scan of J. Wm. Lloyd's "Anarchists' March," the published first section of Louise Michel's Notions encyclopédiques, par ordre attractif, clippings of early poems by Joseph Déjacque, etc. The Nettlau and Descaves collections are particularly rich in longhand copies of published articles, including some early pieces by Ernest Coeurderoy and Déjacque. Together with the Proudhon-related manuscripts still appearing at the Ville de Besançon site, there are whole worlds of radical history opening out there right now. 

Proudhon on the Criterion of Certainty (1841-1858)

I've pulled together some rough translations from Proudhon's The Creation of Order in Humanity with existing translations from the Second Memoir on Property and Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. Together with The Philosophy of Progress, the collected texts cover some of the major stages in Proudhon's treatment of the question of "the criterion of certainty."

I remember really being puzzled, the first time I read the book on Progress, about the extent to which this summary of Proudhon's thought was focused on the question of certainty, and it has taken a long time, even after discovering his claim that the work on property was really a sort of diversion from his primary concern with the criterion of certainty, to come to terms with just how central the question of certainty is to the pursuit of positive anarchy. However, at the same time I was groping towards this understanding of Proudhon's work, I was also approaching the issue of certainty from a number of other directions in my explorations: in my work with the concept of "guaranteeism," in my slow development of Pierre Leroux's idea that it is fear that sends us toward violent extremes, and, of course, in the work on anarchism's "ungovernability." All of the work on the "anarchism of the encounter" really amounts to saying that anarchism, at least as it appears in that Proudhonian "social system," is the means by which we learn to live freely in a world where almost nothing is certain.

The most recent return to the idea of "two-gun mutualism" was another attempt to keep pulling all those various threads a little closer together. If there is a core to my work on anarchism, it is probably pretty close to that oh-so-slowly-developing "two-gun" project.

Return of the Proudhon Seminar

Starting in May, one of the projects I'll be working on is the evaluation, revision and/or annotation of the existing translations of Proudhon's works, starting with Tucker's translations of the first two memoirs on property. As part of the process, I've proposed a group reading of the material. When we read What is Property? five years ago, in the original "Proudhon Seminar," our shared understanding of Proudhon's work was, I think, very different than it is now. I've recently come back to the work in a couple of different contexts and been amazed at how different it looks to me. 

We've set up a "Proudhon Seminar" group on Facebook, to discuss this and other projects, but I expect the reading itself to take place on an email list or forum unassociated with the major social networking sites. I'll post updates here as they are available.

A Million Words: Day 115

As expected, this has been a slightly more distracted month. I managed to get sick for a week, and had to burn a couple of my allocated "sick/vacation days," and then made up most of the lost time with a couple of unusually easy bits of translation. I'm nearing the halfway mark in the main text of Fribourg's history of the International, and have probably a third of the supplementary documents and endnotes completed. I'm also making pretty good headway through Jenny P. d'Héricourt's Woman Affranchised. I finished a draft translation of all the material for the collection of Fourier's writings on gastronomy and gastrosophy, but will need to do quite a bit more work to properly annotate it.

On the Proudhon front, I completed a translation of his 1837 application for the Suard Pension, and have a long section from The Creation of Order in Humanity, on the criterion of certainty, that is about an hour of correction and revision away from being posted. And I have just started to transfer some of my keyword files to the Proudhon Library wiki (and will post more about this project when I'm a bit farther along with it.)

I've had a delay on the Bakunin Reader, which may or may not actually delay the book a few months, but have been continuing to post translations to the Bakunin Library site, and recent additions include some interesting material on cooperation, strike funds and solidarity, the conflict with Marx, etc. I've got some fairly venomous material aimed at the Parisian workers of the "Sixty," but will probably hold onto that until I have time to give it the historical context it deserves. This delightful bit showed up in a very short, undated fragment:
There is one other point that profoundly separates me from our pan-Slavists. They are still partisans of unity, always preferring discipline, the yoke of authority, majestic and monotonous uniformity and public order, to liberty. Me, I am an anarchist; I am a partisan of the life from below against all laws imposed in an authoritarian and doctrinaire manner from on high and I always and everywhere prefer liberty to order…"
The best real surprise of the last couple of weeks has been Claude Pelletier's 1867 work, The Revolutionary Socialist Heretics of the 15th Century, a five-act play that transplanted the concerns of the French revolution of 1848, and the thought of figures like Proudhon and Pierre Leroux into the context of the Hussite rebellion in Bohemia. I've posted the preface, and will post the play as soon as it is finished. Much of it is really quite interesting, and it is certainly interesting to find that Pelletier was combining influences from Leroux and Proudhon in his form of mutualism.

I'm starting the day with a little over 312,000 words translated since Thanksgiving, which is probably getting close to the amount that I've translated in the rest of my relatively brief career, and the pace is feeling relatively natural now. That said, the sense that there is always far, far too much still to be tackled doesn't go away. What I'm finding is that I'm still most often researching first and translating as a part of that research process, in order to better share and support what I'm finding—much as, in other phases of my work, archiving has been largely a means of citing otherwise inaccessible sources. What I have not been able to incorporate into my schedule as much as I had hoped is the translation of more works just "for the fun of it," and I may make some effort, once this period of racing to meet deadlines is over, to build in a regular slot for some of the various bits of weird science and imaginary voyage narratives that I have started on at various times.

Mapping Mutualism

As I've mentioned, several of my projects have been intersecting recently, and I've been feeling better able to start mapping out the various currents and traditions that we would have to account for in any really adequate history of mutualism. Let's just get some of those elements laid out so we can refer back to them:
  1. Proudhon's own writings. We are fortunate to have a great deal of Proudhon's work now available online, including quite a number of the manuscripts. There are a number of articles that remain uncollected and there are some omissions in the Mélanges volumes. There are also omissions and questionable edits in the volumes of correspondence. And there is an enormous amount of translation to be done. But the body of work that is readily available is remarkable.
  2. The contents of the newspapers that Proudhon was affiliated with. The most serious problem with the Mélanges collections is that the articles are lifted from their original context, and we can tell very little about the conversations that Proudhon was involved with. There were allies and adversaries of Proudhon active in the same papers, and some of those figures were very significant voices. 
  3. The works of Proudhon's collaborators and literary executors. Some of Proudhon's circle produced lengthy works, like Langlois' L'Homme Et La Révolution and Darimon's various histories, which continued or contextualized Proudhon's own work. A number of these figures also figured in subsequent chapters of radical history, often as adversaries in the stories told by Bakunin, Louise Michel, etc. 
  4. The workers of The Sixty and the "Proudhonian" workers in the International. The last phase of Proudhon's career saw him increasingly involved with the French workers' movement, and the individual workers influenced by works like The Political Capacity of the Working Classes went on to take part in the International, in a variety of cooperative ventures, and in politics. But, again, our understanding of them is complicated by the fact that they were opposed on some key points to what became the dominant currents in the International and the anarchist movement. 
  5. The collectivist anarchists. The collectivists made attempts to present themselves as the true inheritors of Proudhon's legacy, and it has been difficult to evaluate those claims, given the fairly obvious misunderstandings between factions and the fairly rapid eclipse of anarchist collectivism by anarchist communism. 
  6. The later, isolated Proudhonians. There seems to have been a steady stream of writers with an interest in developing Proudhon's thought, but without close ties to other elements in the anarchist movement. Joseph Perrot, P. F. Junqua, Edmond Lagarde, and a number of other explicit disciples of Proudhon published a fairly extensive literature.
  7. The mutualists and individualists in the United States. Proudhon's ideas made a fairly immediate impact in the U. S., beginning in the 1840s, and aspects of his thought remained influential as the mutualism of figures like William B. Greene gave way to the individualism of Benjamin R. Tucker, James L. Walker, the various mutual bank enthusiasts, etc. 
  8. The tradition of Josiah Warren and equitable commerce. Although Warren held Proudhon's thought in something like horror, the French mutualist tradition and the movement for equitable commerce became thoroughly mixed in the development of individualism in the U. S. 
  9. The exiled French workers in the United States.  While the French-speaking workers appear to have had limited contact with the American mutualists and individualists, we do find connections to Greene through the International, and we find fairly major developments of Proudhon's ideas in the works of figures like Claude Pelletier.
  10. Other influences on Proudhon, Greene, etc. Some thinkers, such as Charles Fourier and Pierre Leroux, inevitably come back into our story because of their importance to later thinkers.
And this list doesn't even begin to deal with the influence of Proudhon beyond the French and English literatures. There is a fairly substantial Spanish-language literature to track down as well. 

    Bakunin on Proudhon and Marx (update)

    Back in 2011, I posted some brief remarks by Bakunin on Proudhon and Marx. In an 11th-hour shuffle of some of the contents of the Bakunin Reader I tracked down the manuscript from which those remarks were taken, an unpublished letter "To the Brothers of the Alliance in Spain," which focuses on the question of the necessity of maintaining the secret society, the International Alliance, alongside the International Workingmen's Association, and develops the previously translated remarks into a pointed attack on Marx and his faction.