Monthly Archives: June 2014

What if?

atercraticlogoIf we’re doing really radical history, it’s hard not to engage in some “What is”? Much of the attraction of knowing the details of the radical movements of the past is the possibility that we’ll find tools and lessons useful in the present and future. And we can’t very well limit ourselves to examining the successes of the past, since without a little of that “if at first you don’t succeed…” spirit, there wouldn’t seem to be much point in trying to be radical at all. So I have found myself wondering how things might have played out if the currency lessons of the New England colonial period had been the spread of the “land bank” model, rather than its suppression, or if the origins of the First International had been a transatlantic alliance, rather than just a cross-channel hook-up. None of these thought experiments are really much more dramatic than the similar operations that pass for straight history. Let’s think about a case like Black Flame. Whatever its value as a work of history, it seems clear that a great deal of its importance in recent discussions comes from its ideological and historiographical interventions. People love it or hate it because of the ways that it attempts to reinvent what it means to do “anarchist history,” reinventing “anarchism” in ways that defy a good deal of the historical record in the interests of “coherence.” As an ideological polemic, Black Flame is audacious in its sectarianism—and whether or not that is interesting probably depends on where you are positioned among the anarchist sects. As a work of history, however, it really only makes sense as a kind of alternate history, a “what if?” that starts from the truly audacious premise that the historical development of ideologies not only can but must be coherent. If you can buy the premise, then the rest of the work is a fascinating exercise in assembling available facts to fit one particular notion of what form that ideological coherence could take. Unfortunately, at least for the partisans of this premise, what the history of movements like anarchism seems to demonstrate rather dramatically is that coherence is something that we may attempt to impose on history and on movements, but it is certainly not inherent in either.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to assemble a usable past and a compelling origin story (although the project will obviously have limited appeal when you attempt to do so at the expense of others who identify with the same tradition.) An awful lot of good radical history has been done by people seeking their own ideological ancestors. And defending ideological positions is pretty much part of holding them. But if we’re really doing history, instead of just establishing continuity, then we have to try to be clear where our ideology inevitably colors our interpretation of historical facts. For the moment, let’s just acknowledge that some coloring of that sort seems inevitable, and let’s say that, in the absence of some truly objective lens for radical history, perhaps a variety of perspectives gives us the best chance to escape self-imposed blind spots.

What I am attempting to embrace in this project is a perspective that views the facts we generally associate with “anarchist history” not just according to a different or broader notion of what constitutes “anarchism,” but from a position from which it is not at all clear that “anarchism” is even a particularly important keyword. Why would I do that? Well, one reason is the emphasis that many people currently put on the word itself. Even those not rushing to appeal to lexical authority to settle their ideological disputes may be quick to look for what is most important in the tradition we have inherited in the immediate vicinity of some classical roots, while we know that among the historical roots of the explicitly anarchist tradition we can find some very interesting, and ideologically complicating, ideas about the “anarchy” that anarchists presumably embrace. Those realizations about Proudhon’s ambivalent attitude towards “anarchy” were certainly among the jolts that have driven me to rethink my historical approach. Another would be my simultaneous frustrations with ideological fundamentalism, sectarianism and “big-tent” attempts to sideline substantive differences within anarchistic circles. When I take a hard look at my own developing narrative of “anarchist history,” it’s hard not to admit that something of all of those tendencies has at times compromised the clarity of my vision and my exposition of the historical facts. And it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.

Enter Jack Deames, and the possibility of shifting perspective outside my own experiences, to force myself to first build the perspective of my proxy-historian from the historical facts I can associate with the position I have assigned him, before attempting to apply that perspective more broadly. And enter Tilly Thorne, still lurking in the wings, but serving for now as a reminder that neither Jack nor I have a monopoly on perspectives. Is this an audacious move? In some ways, not at all. After all, we know that the people we now tend to consider anarchists in the 19th century generally thought of themselves in other terms, with some even denying the terms “anarchist” and “anarchy” for reasons that had everything to do with the values we associate with anarchism. When we look at history, we find proponents of equitable commerce, libertaires, advocates of the pantarchy, mutualists, collectivists, egoists, partisans of atercracy, communists, prophets of art-liberty, sociology, etc., etc., as well as plenty of libertarian radicals without a convenient tag to hang on them. Oh, and a handful of folk for whom anarchy really is a keyword. And a range of individuals embracing ideologies tantalizingly or disturbing close to our anarchists and near-anarchists by other names. This is the world from which I’m attempting to conjure up some native historians, in order to set them loose on the material from which we have constructed our competing accounts of anarchism. If that conjuring is indeed audacious for someone not of that world, it is probably no more so than the alternatives.

It isn’t clear that, in the end, we can do without some form of the “what if?”

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May 31, 1874

men-of-the-day-no-4-the-mob-rule-henri-rochefortA 16-year-old Jack Deames has just been introduced to Henri Rochefort, Paris Communard and escapee from New Caledonia. He shakes the famous hand, mumbles something and retreats. Although young, he has shown the sort of youthful enthusiasm and energy that sometimes gets you introduced as a representative of the next generation. Rochefort is both familiar and largely unknown. Jack’s world is full of stories about the Paris Commune and its protagonists. He has been aware of Rochefort’s escape and journey, and vaguely aware of his conflicts with Paschal Grousset and François Jourde. Not everything he has heard has been positive, but for the moment those around him seem content to celebrate the escape and return. Jack is too young to really remember Bakunin’s visit the city in 1861, but he understands clearly that, at least for the moment, those around him are willing to see this new escapee’s passage as a favorable sign, perhaps even of a rebirth of international radicalism.

Jack drifts away, sorting through the events of the day. Just what a young man in his circumstances would have made of this particular event is one of the things we’re trying to understand, but let’s start by imagining that, at the very least, the international character of the struggles that have been so central to his social world seems a bit more concrete. And from that small step, let’s take a leap. Let’s say that, on that day, something clicked for young Jackson Wendell Deames in a decisive way, that this was the day that set him on his lifelong, obsessive quest to understand the international movements for ever-greater liberty. Let’s say that, having mulled over the day’s events for a while, he pulled a notebook out of his pocket, turned to a blank page and wrote, with something of a flourish, a single phrase, the meaning of which was still unclear to him, but seemed full of portents and promises:

The Great Atercratic Revolution




Henri Rochefort arrived in New-York at 7 p. m. on Saturday by the Hudson River Railroad, with Thomas Pain, a French political prisoner, who had escaped with him from New-Caledonia, end Ollivier Benedic, a French acquaintance whom he bad met at Sydney, New-South Wales. On reaching the Grand Central Hotel he took supper with his friends. After breakfasting yesterday he visited a photographer by invitation, and remained at the rooms until 4 p. m. This engagement caused him to miss an appointment with a committee of the French societies at 3.30 p. m. On leaving the photographer, he visited with a party of friends Claude Pelletier, artificial flower and feather manufacturer of Worster-st., who took refuge in this country alter the French revolution of 1848. Here he conversed freely upon the various acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Versailles troops upon Communists, and upon the discomfort of his imprisonment in New-Caledonia. He expressed much sympathy for those of his fellow captives, who, unlike himself, were unprovided with money, and were limited to scanty and indifferent food and wretched accommodations. It was proposed by Mr. Pelletier that he should lecture in this city, Boston and Philadelphia for their benefit, and he expressed willingness to do so, especially as he might in that way place the motives and acts of the much-abused Communists in a more favorable light before the American people. Joseph Olivier, a refugee, and George Baron, a member of the Société Union Républicaine, who entered at that moment, agreed that this course would be more desirable than the attendance of M. Rochefort at a banquet, as the profits of the latter would be absorbed by a restaurant keeper and be of no assistance to their suffering country men,

M. Rochefort told a Tribune reporter that he thought of prolonging his stay in this country eight days, it is possible that he may soon retire to Mr. Pelletier’s country seat at Yonkers for a day or two to prepare his lecture. He intends to remain only a few days in London, as he considers the climate unfavorable to the health of his children; neither will he sojourn at Brussels, as he thinks the Belgian Government unfavorable to him. He will proceed to Genova and await events. He feels confident that the Government of MacMahon will last only a few mouths, and that he will be able to return to Paris soon. He has no idea of publishing a paper out of France, on account of the difficulty of circulating it there. He will more probably write for a Paris journal, or if practicable publish a new one in that city, and edit it at a distance. He thought that if he should act as a correspondent of one or more of the French papers he could more easily accomplish his purposes. Instead of his signature at the foot of his articles (as the admission into France of any article bearing his name is prohibited), he would make his mark, which would be a lantern. He was going to devote himself wholly to the salvation of the Republic, and would not take part in the labor movements. In a conversation with a Tribune reporter he reasserted in detail and at great length the views concerning Napoleon III, the Commune, and the MacMahon Government, which have been attributed to him in the foreign correspondence of The Tribune.

M. Rochefort is five feet nine inches in height, and 44 years of age, with a thin, dark complexioned face, full, high cheek bones, and numerous marks of small-pox. There is a slight cast in one of his dark eyes, and his dark curly hair is tinged with gray. His beard is confined to the upper lip and chin. He appears fond of animals, and has brought with him from Australia a big, red-headed parrot. For a hideous little Mexican monkey possessed by Mr. Pelletier, be showed a decided friendship. He took the little animal on his lap, fondled it, and kissed its head with a sympathetic “pauvre petit,” and other expressions of endearment. As he deposited it on the ground in the excitement of discourse, the animal would soon return and climb upon his knee. This repeated partiality seemed to entertain Rochefort, who styled him an evident Republican for his attraction. On leaving Mr. Pelletier’s house, he dined with a friend who had accompanied him hither from Chicago, and was not at the hotel to receive visits during the evening. No time has been set for his lecture.

[“Arrival of Rochefort,” New York Daily Tribune 34, no. 10347 (June 1, 1874): 1.]


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