Library Update — July 1, 2017

Today is the anniversary of the death of Bakunin in 1876. It seems like as good an occasion as any to update folks on the progress of the library (particularly as I had really hoped to do an update back at the end of May, on the anniversary of his birth.) It’s been a comparatively quiet year for the project, with much of the work focused on how best to frame the new translations. Some of that task has involved working ahead, tackling material destined for later volumes, just to be as certain as possible that we’re on the right track and prepared to make the most of the material as we present it. But this year, to be honest, much of the work has simply involved thinking long and hard about what we hope to accomplish and what is most useful in the present political context.

There are obviously questions to be answered about the role of this sort of deep historical work in a context where things seem just on the verge of, as they say, hitting the fan. Perhaps our present circumstances make a return to the sources of anarchism more useful than ever, but there is no escaping the conflict between the sort of careful attention required to derive what is most useful from this old and difficult material and the often more-than-just-daily distractions of the present era. So I feel like the stakes have been raised quite a bit since the last update. At the same time, the questions posed by the materials themselves have not got any simpler. None of this has changed the general approach of the edition, but it has encouraged some refinements.

Back in September of last year, I announced the basic structure of the volumes:

Each volume will be built around a core of more or less familiar work, freshly retranslated, with additional material providing context and elaboration for material rightly considered central to Bakunin’s thought. Introductions will provide historical and biographical context and notes will provide clarification and context where necessary. Finally, a sort of critical appendix in each volume will tackle one or more key theoretical concerns raised in the volume, highlighting a mix of interpretive concerns, translation issues, potential differences between the picture presented by existing, partial translations and the new translations, etc. Because I want to specifically address the difficulties faced by English-language readers, for whom Bakunin has been an important figure, but not a particularly accessible source, I’m currently thinking of the task in this final section as “Rereading Bakunin,” as even those encountering the material for the first time directly will be hard put not to have absorbed some basic “reading” of the material through its very partial incorporation into anarchist tradition and theory.

In the meantime, much of my time has been spent clarifying in my own mind what those “key theoretical concerns” might be. The result of that reflection has been the realization that each of the volumes proposed raises not just questions of interpretation specific to the works included, but also more general issues that arguably stand between us and the fullest use of Bakunin’s works. So each volume will include, besides the selected works and that “critical appendix” on interpreting those works, some discussion of one of the larger issues facing English readers of Bakunin in the 21st century. The new edition of God and the State will collect the most important texts from the various previous editions and address the question of “the authority of the bootmaker,” but also address more generally the place of Bakunin in anarchist tradition and mythology. The Reader will collect a representative selection of texts, with appropriate interpretive helps, but also address the question of how to read the works of a writer who produced numerous variants and fragments. The third volume will collect material of “secret societies,” with a close look at the question of “conspiracy” in the writings, but also address the difficult question of Bakunin’s relation to Proudhon. And so on…

In general, the goal remains “not to attempt to interpret the books for readers, but to pick a few critical instances where I can, in effect, do some very careful reading with readers, providing some insights into all that has gone into the process of assembling the edition.” But the hope is to highlight more of the possibilities for further study, particularly where the received wisdom about early anarchist figures might suggest there was little more to be learned.

The only other significant change since the last update is that this has once again become a one-person project, at least for the first few volumes. Changes in participants precipitated a minor shake-up in the contents of the Reader—and that ultimately became a more considerable shake-up, as these other considerations emerged and I decided to confront the complex character of Bakunin’s work directly in the Reader itself. My initial approach had been to avoid excerpts, in order to avoid loss of contexts, which meant that a few well-known and historically important pieces had been excluded. But the deeper I got into the work, the clearer it became that readers would almost certainly be better off if their introductory experience included the full range of fragments, variants, excerpts, etc. that they are likely to encounter when exploring Bakunin’s works. The new contents are not quite finalized, but I am hopeful that the new selection, together with the critical material, will not just be a useful tool for those following the remainder of the Bakunin Library project, but will also provide some guidance in making the most of the texts already available.

All in all, although it would be wonderful to have a volume or two already complete, the time spent refining the project seems to me to be producing useful results. The coming months will, I suppose, give more definitive answers.