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The Anarchism of Despair

The life of Laurance Labadie appears very much like his anarchism, a deliberate, often anachronistic struggle against the vogues and prevailing winds of his day, a hopeless attempt to revive an energy faded or extinguished entirely. His thought belonged to a libertarian strain regrettably anchored to those of the previous generation or two, to a time just before the “official” anarchist movement coalesced firmly around communist and syndicalist patterns of thought. Perceiving the inherent stagnancy of such a narrowly circumscribed focus on these ideologies, Ardent Press, along with its distribution partner Little Black Cart, has worked to make egoist, individualist, nihilist, and anti-civilization writings available. For those of us who care about developing a more complete picture of anarchist history and ways of thinking, Ardent Press’s efforts are very much appreciated. Anarcho-Pessimism: The Collected Writings of Laurence [sic] Labadie is just such a vital effort, the most comprehensive compilation of Labadie’s writings ever, and to the author’s knowledge the only Laurance Labadie collection since the historian of anarchism James J. Martin made a selection of Labadie’s essays a part of his Libertarian Broadsides series. The volume features a series of introductory essays by someone called “Chord,” as well as a biographical introduction by historian Mark A. Sullivan[1], and Martin’s “We Never Called Him ‘Larry’: A Reminiscence of Laurance Labadie” (which also appeared in the Libertarian Broadsides collection).

There is a deep despondency hidden even within the most sanguine of anarchisms, for imagining and expecting a freer, fairer world tends unavoidably to throw into sharp relief the long and arduous journey ahead. The anarcho-pessimism typified by Laurance Labadie, however, carries no such promise for the future, expects no paradise, has no faith in the ability or the inclination of human beings to live together and relate to each other in non-authoritarian ways. As Chord observes in the introduction, “the possibility of a happy ending for the human race was simply out of the question to him.” Labadie derided utopians for their utopias, for erecting their systems and prescribing the terms on which human beings must interact. Putting Labadie at odds with the main current of the anarchist movement, his anarchism, successor to that of Benjamin Tucker and his Liberty circle, reviled communism as another castle in the air that “will ever be opposed by thinking people.” Still, he made no common cause with the counterfeit libertarianism of “American ‘free enterprisers’” and saw the confrontation of communism with this conservatism as a no-win situation for “individual liberty.” Indeed, his hatred of the mephitic social environment created by the corporate state led him to an affection — at least to an extent — for the thought of the decentralist, self-sufficiency champion Ralph Borsodi, with whom Labadie had a long and rewarding friendship. Like Borsodi, Labadie saw himself as the defender of a forgotten “third way.”

Chord’s introduction perceptively fits Labadie into a lost tradition within anarchism that deliberately eschews fatuous talk of revolution — at least as the seizure of the state — and economic expropriation. Following Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker and others, Chord explains, Labadie’s anarchism advised a slow and measured movement in the direction of freedom, arising from “intellectual and economic” developments and “only superficially political.” Chord’s description of the individualist anarchist predisposition of skepticism toward revolutionary aims and politics tracks closely George Woodcock’s account of the philosophical differences that separated Proudhon from Marx.[2] The latter put the cart before the horse in treating political revolution as a necessary step which must precede the solution of the social and economic problem. The former, in contrast, held that workers’ self-organization, their adoption of free and equitable economic relations amongst themselves, would accomplish the political revolution perforce. Abandon the quest for control of the mechanisms of political power, building your own decentralized, libertarian associations now. This distinction is apparent in all of Labadie’s work, captured in striking completeness by Anarcho-Pessimism. Because he understood the importance of education in the desired anarchistic evolution (rather than revolution), Labadie proposed “the complete abolition of the education system,” which as one of the principal keepers of the status quo retards “the ability to ask significant questions” (boldface in original). Labadie had absolutely no faith that humankind would ever begin to ask those questions and he expressed fathomless annoyance at the “fakers” and “uplifters” he saw everywhere, especially in the political and education establishments. Many an anarchist reader of Labadie’s work will doubtless sympathize.

Labadie’s woebegone libertarianism recalls Bakunin saying, “I feel neither the strength nor, perhaps, the confidence which are required to go on rolling Sisyphus’s stone against the triumphant forces of reaction.” Labadie, though, never gave himself over to the kind of naive, romantic revolutionism that propelled Bakunin’s life. For Labadie, the revolution was culminated when an individual “woke up,” abandoned faith in the state and all systems of authority, joining those few distinguished by their understanding of liberty. And such an appreciation of liberty was, Labadie thought, quite unlikely to result from preaching or proselytizing of the kind he saw among the various political factions of his lifetime. Labadie’s anti-authoritarian posture was, rather than the fruit of some religious conversion or epiphany, a tendency intuitive or instinctive, bound indissolubly to a deep distrust in his fellow humans and their plans. Abstract notions of human solidarity and cooperation — ideas which have been at the center of so much of anarchist theorizing — did not impress or interest Labadie. A withdrawing misanthrope who moved desultorily from job to job, Labadie once told his parents of his “hate of everything,” damning “the whole cosmic process” as “utter hopelessness and futility.” His father, of course, was the great labor activist and anarchist Joseph A. Labadie, for whom the University of Michigan Library’s Labadie Collection is named. Where Joseph (or “Jo”) was well known for his cheerful and obliging comportment, earning him the title the “gentle anarchist,” Laurance didn’t think very much of his fellow man, describing his own probes into “what makes humans tick” as thoroughly “infused with a considerable degree of venom.” As Martin recounted, “Laurance luxuriated in his image of a curmudgeon,” his “joy at being an agent provocateur.” Labadie loved liberty mostly because he was intensely cynical about his neighbors and the meddlesome interferences that they were certainly plotting.

Chord’s introduction to Section 2 of the book, “Evolving Experiments With Anarchist Economics,” spotlights the contradiction inherent in Labadie writings on political economy, which at once denounce all “systems” and endorse a specific program of mutualist money and credit that is nothing if not systematic and definite. In this he followed Tucker, whose work continuously emphasized the emancipatory power of free credit for the working class. Such economic ideas — and Labadie’s left wing individualism more generally — appeared even more quixotic to his twentieth century audience than the same ideas had during a time when radical proposals for monetary reform (e.g., Greenbackism) were far more common in American politics. By the middle of Labadie’s life, individualistic and laissez faire ideas were identified with the conservatism that Labadie hated just as vehemently as he hated communism. Chord is not far from the mark in writing that “Labadie’s economic theories read like theology at times,” that Labadie’s only lapses into a kind of religious fervor come when he’s discussing economics. Such fixation on economic forms and the elimination of privilege distinguishes anarchist individualism of the Benjamin Tucker variety, and Labadie never dispensed with this fundamental aspect of the vanished school for which he served as “keeper of the flame.”

Anarcho-Pessimism will come as an astounding revelation to anyone interested in an anarchism that, rather than offering another recital of workerist bromides, presents a caustic indictment of modern politics and society. With a contempt and audacity all his own, this one of a kind autodidact savaged the status quo like no one before or since, and in doing so gave us what is one of the last links in the chain that is American individualist anarchism. Though it points to the dynamic variousness of anarchism as a whole, the individualist anarchism we find in Anarcho-Pessimism is unlikely to change the present day anarchist movement. Labadie, of course, wouldn’t have given a damn. He wasn’t a joiner, or a revolutionary, or an activist.[3] In his lifetime, only a few lucky acquaintances benefited from his acumen and wit, and it is safe to predict that only a bold and irreverent few will benefit from this collection.

Notes:

[1] See also Sullivan with Mildred J. Loomis, “Laurance Labadie: Keeper of the Flame” in Benjamin R. Tucker and the Champions of Liberty: A Centenary Anthology, a collection Sullivan edited with Michael E. Coughlin and Charles H. Hamilton.

[2] Quoting an 1846 letter from Proudhon to Marx, Woodcock observes that it “clearly opposes the anarchist ideal of economic action to the Marxist emphasis on political action.” Proudhon’s letter had argued, “[W]e have no need of it [revolution] in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination.”

[3] Individualist anarchism always was philosophically and intellectually oriented, rather than action oriented. Indeed, when Tucker left for France, taking Liberty with him, Labadie’s father Jo lamented, “How dead the movement seems now.” See Carlotta Anderson’s All-American Anarchist: Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement.

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