Regarding the Great Authors (1953)

Wanting to berth one’s thinking within a system is pretty natural and it is that concern, more than any of the positive contents of Marxism, perhaps, that explains the success of the world view of which Marx, but above all Engels (his master and comrade’s rather dull-witted admirer) and their successors have laid down the rigid guidelines. The knowledge that one’s bookshelf holds the key to all human problems – even though that key be a bit worn and breaks off when opening certain locks – is intoxicating and conjures up a “superiority complex”. To tell the truth, Marx and Engels did more synthesizing than devising and the synthesis spawned by their cooperation cobbled together a few rather fragile products of the first half of the 19th century: their direct disciple, Kautsky*, categorized these as follows: “English political economy, French socialism and German philosophy.”

Adam Smith, Saint-Simon, Hegel – those were the three major sources. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and economics, sociology and philosophy have made a few advances. The strictly observant marxists nevertheless purport that from atop their ideological pyramids they can scan the past, present and future developments in human knowledge – not excepting those of which those very erudite specialists, Marx and Engels, had not the foggiest notion (physiology, say: Like Molière’s physician*, Marx talks about animal souls); – and also including matters of which they could have known a thing, for the very good reason that they were initiated after their deaths (genetics, to cite but one example; that only really got going with the exhumation of Mendel’s work* around about the year 1900). Marx’s pride was massive and his polemical arrogance was unequalled, but he would definitely be either frightened or outraged to discover, in the after-life, that in the USSR they offer training to midwives and gardeners in a gynaecology and the tending of fruit trees in which he is invoked as the fore-father (he who wore out poor Jenny von Westphalen with childbirth, no doubt due to his lack of the requisite knowledge and he certainly would not have been able to tell an oak tree from an apple tree!).

The real blame here lies with the priests of marx-olatry.

As a rule, anarchists are not possessed of the same tame and worshipful mind as authoritarian socialists and a lot of them would feel ill at ease in a well-guarded ideological prison kitted out in advance with all that their intellect could ask for: they have a bit of a penchant for gathering their nectar at random, even if sometimes they harvest more dust than nectar or pollen, as they try their luck down the byways of life and in the second-hand booksellers’ stalls.

There are some, though, who will not readily set foot outside home without using quotations from fine writers as crutches and without bandying at every turn (sometimes even inappropriately) the names of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and a few others, to fend off any who might dare contradict them. Let us not see this as pettifogging: it is a very innocent obsession and it harms no one, other than themselves maybe: because a couple of lines or even twenty pages from Elisée Reclus*, James Guillaume* or Ricardo Mella* have not attained, in our ranks, the status of oracles before which we are required to prostrate ourselves: and that was how those bold pioneers wanted it: they wrote to make themselves understood, not to hear their words recited back to them, and their true disciples were, in their view, those who took nothing they said on trust. As to finding somewhere among our major authors the equivalent of what Aristotle (or later on, Saint Thomas Aquinas) represented for the scholastics, forget it. Besides, the modern mind shies away from it. Where Hegel or Comte*, back in the old days, might readily have debated de omne re scibili [everything knowable], as did the younger Pico della Mirandola*, no such pretention can be found any longer other than among insignificant charlatans (theosophists, anthroposophists, and such like).  These days, everybody is only too well aware that a complete “synthesis” of human knowledge has become impossible, even for the most formidable genius; that, relentlessly and on every side, inquiry is blowing asunder the “science” of the handbooks and systems: Knowledge is forever growing more precise and perfect in its measurements, evolving into a mere reckoning of probabilities; and that in the end “established” facts can increasingly be placed into two categories 1. those that stand out in terms of their perfect clarity and generality, but which are merely linguistic conventions (“two and two make four”); 2. the ones that are to a greater extent concrete and more reflective of reality, but which are, by that very token, obscure, complicated and uncertain (“Napoleon is supposed to have died of cancer”). On this score, that presence of critical thinking which is a distinguishing feature of anarchism here places him, not in the vicinity of “savant” – but of “inquirer” whose chief mental approach is, increasingly, methodical doubt, and for whom the exploration of an issue throws up ten, twenty, a hundred more, each of them crying out for its Oedipus: only the simple-minded conformist imagines that science is laid out as it is in the teaching manuals and that it deals, as they do, in “certainties”; the only thing is that he is always ready to believe whatever is published by the “good authors” and to look upon his tribal “savants” as gods or sorcerers.

Perhaps one might measure a man’s scientific learning by the extent of the ignorance he professes: and, likewise, might state that, in one sense, the anarchism in an individual can be gauged by the insignificance he ascribes to splendid, slick theoretical constructs – which are always incompatible with life, the meaning of living free and the meaning of human experience.

For rather stunning confirmation of this latter hypothesis, look no further than Proudhon; Proudhon, that tireless trader in notions and facts, that wrecker of all commonplaces, could not help contradicting himself from one end of his output to the other. “Destruam et edificabo”; he tears down and he builds up: his life a never-ending work in progress. Clutching on to the dead letter in order to fill a few pages – and building up a portrait of Proudhon as a social geometer with the help of a pot of glue – is tantamount to dooming oneself to neglect of the essential. A plebeian Hercules of ideology, Proudhon is more of a temperament than a mind. He feels himself an anarchist. In which respect, there may well be less to be derived from the redoubtable dialectical compilations by means of which the author of Contradictions économiques* prepared the ground for the author Das Kapital than from a simple note to Marx in which Proudhon declines the honour of becoming a hallowed member of a theoretical police charged with monitoring, filtering and overseeing socialism.

Let us be clear here: Proudhon should be read, and from end to end: but for the feeling, the boldness and style of intellectual and moral life, and for the splendid flashes of insight applied to the world, rather than for any logical or “didactic” schema in his thinking. Whittling Proudhon down to a system (the way that Eltzbacher* has done in his well-meaning book in which the anarchist greats are classified by an entomologist doctor of laws) is tantamount to mistaking Ulysses’s voyages with the time-tabling and itinerary of packet-boats. Besides, there is an anarchist approach to the reading of books and it is applicable to any great work. It consists of a search, not for authority (to be acknowledged or overthrown), but just for the freedom in its creative surge. Do not go reading Proudhon in order to sift (in the light of established ideas from here or there in 1952) what is anarchist from what is not: read him in order to feel the mental battles, austere poverty and enormous output of a man who, through his book, bestows upon you the honour of a dialogue between equals.

What can I say about Bakunin? By virtue of the vastness of his aristocratic and barbarous nature, he holds us in thrall: by virtue of his selfless violence; by dint of the machiavellian profundity and childish simplicity of his all-destructive revolutionism; by dint of the oral character of everything he wrote as he races from one digression to the next, like those conversations in which, from midnight to daybreak, hearts and minds over-excited by the nearness of some social disaster runneth over. He is near-at-hand and distant, complex and rudimentary, worrisome and charming, as strong as a titan and seductive like a woman. His phlegmatism, his bursts of energy, his eccentricity and prodigality, his fiascos and his doggedness, his insights and his dreams will forever set an example and pose a problem for rebels, whose virtues, weaknesses and temptations he largely embodies. He worshipped yet sneered at the masses, was mad about science yet held it in contempt, hated culture and had an innate appreciation of its greatest features. Once does not tackle him with impunity: nor does one come away from him without a wistful feeling. He is an incoherent thinker – but he illumines and simplifies everything he touches, with a prophet-like potency.  In him, one finds, side by side, a huge dose of utopia and the utmost realism. Bolshevism is indebted to him for its triumph and anarchism for its defeats; and yet he is one of ours. There is no one so cosmopolitan, and none more Russian. The worship of force and the refusal to bend the knee before force, that is him. He has bequeathed, not some opus, but a life. He is the nagging unease, with that indefinably strange placidness. No words of his, no act of his can be unravelled from the rest. A formless fellow, but completely human.

As we see him, Bakunin is not so much the author of one (or two) revolutionary catechisms, as the author of a hierarchy of delights: “Dying for freedom’s sake, for a start; secondly, love and friendship; thirdly, smoking; then, in this order, sleeping, drinking, eating.” He was worshipped by several people. And let down those who loved him. (There was just one being that dominated him for a while – a certain Nechayev*; Bakunin severed all ties). He ended up alone, near an old musician who tended to his wasted body which took too long to die. In actual fact, he left behind two daughters: the Commune and the International.

Which perhaps leaves Kropotkin – our “great seer”, whom Malatesta, with his positive physician’s mindset, went that step further and dubbed “a poet of science”. Through certain of his writings and the adoration of certain of his disciples, anarchism – having achieved philosophy or ideology status – was set out as the acceptance of a self-styled “scientific” or “synthetic” system of outlook on the world, one bound up with social redemption. His “society to come” is a communist utopia on which the Kropotkinist anarchists have never managed to reach agreement other than by relying on the vague. Since then, there has been an understandable backlash, as the claim to omniscience, the need to boil everything down to a preconceived system and the belief in a mechanical universe, in which the will of the revolutionary was unwittingly projected as the world’s destiny, the law of evolution, monist determinism, etc., have proved unsustainable. What survives from Kropotkin’s oeuvre as well as from his constructive and vital side is federalism, which is to say the art of free relations, whereas the most old-fashioned “forward-looking” perspectives of the biologist, the economist and the historian in him have faded. Likewise, the definition of “anarchist” as “him who, through his ideology, gains possession of the key to truth and to justice in the synthetic knowledge of what is and what ought to be or shall be” is increasingly being discarded. All of which is leading us gradually in the direction of a definition that is both narrower and wider: “the anarchist is one who, in his thinking and his doing, manifests a decided will to be free and to respect the freedom of others”: any man is “anarchist” when he asserts, by thought or deed, both his own freedom and the freedom of his neighbour.

That, by our reckoning, is the yardstick of the voluntarist, ethical, agnostic anarchism which, in the 20th century, constitutes the antidote to the poison of totalitarianism. Pluralistic, it offers a free hand to seekers after truth, rather than searching for data justifying only this or that sociological hypothesis. Ipso facto, it remains open to any fresh discovery, just as it is to any dogma-free fraternity. Regardless of the ebb and flow of history, it looks like a constant of the human mind. To one extent or another, it pops up in every life and in every book. And it only remains for us to nurture it in our own lives, without thereby being required to compensate for unfavourable circumstances with belief in sacred texts.

Writing as André Prunier in Défense de l’homme, (Paris) No 54, April 1953

KSL notes:
Jean-Baptist ‘Moliere’ (1622-1673) French playwright whose plays included Médecin malgré lui (Physician in spite of himself)
Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) German Marxist leader and theoretician, popularizer of Marx’s theories.
Elisée Reclus (1830-1905) French anarchist geographer, Internationalist and Communard.
James Guillaume (1844-1916) Swiss anarchist, Internationalist and Bakuninist.
Ricardo Mella (1861-1925) Celebrated Spanish anarchist theorist.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857) French philosopher and founder of Positivism.
Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) Italian philosopher who once challenged all-comers to debate on any of 900 theses.
Contradictions économiques – A reference to Proudhon’s magnum opus Système des contradictions économiques (1846)
Paul Eltzbacher (1868-1928) German law professor who wrote an exposé of anarchist thinking, examined through seven major anarchist thinkers.
Sergei Nechayev (1847-1882) Russia revolutionary who briefly was an influence over associate Bakunin and was a byword for ruthless, murderous revolutionism.

From Un anarchisme hors norme (a collection of texts by André Prudhommeaux, published by Tumult )

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.