The best is yet to come: a review of Mitchell Abidor’s edition of the Anarchist Encyclopedia

Sébastien Faure

A review of Mitchell Abidor's translated abridgment of the Anarchist Encyclopedia, an immense, collaborative work produced largely by the French 'grand old man' Sébastien Faure. Abidor's contribution is valuable, but leaves us wanting more.

In the 1920s Sébastien Faure embarked on two projects that would occupy the rest of his life. The first, the creation and distribution of an anarchist encyclopedia that would strengthen the anarchist movement and clarify its thought; it would not be a “catechism or gospel”, but an anthology with practical use – Faure hoped anarchists would use it as “a source when writing or giving speeches”, or as an anthology that militants would use to “educate themselves”. The second project was that of the anarchist synthesis – a pan-anarchist movement that would bring together the fractured and often warring factions of our movement in a rich theoretical and organisational unity. These two projects were inseparably bound up with each other, and Mitchell Abidor gives us a taste of this interaction in his 2019 abridgment of Faure’s encyclopedia, The Anarchist Encyclopedia, released on AK Press.

Initial impressions

The first thing to notice is that this edition is quite slim, clocking in at only 262 pages. This may seem like a reasonable amount, but it is a tiny fraction of the original French work: the first volume alone, covering entries A-C, is 606 pages long, the whole thing 2893.

One of the most valuable things about this abridgement is Abidor’s preface, which brings together information I have not yet seen published in English. He quite accurately outlines the synthesist project Faure was embarking on; it is not incidental that the project was called the Anarchist Encyclopedia, instead of the Anarcho-Communist Encyclopedia, or the Anarcho-Syndicalist Encyclopedia, or anything else. The work stands as a realisation of, or at the very least a significant step towards, the synthesis Faure and others like Voline were hoping for: a unification of the triad of syndicalism, communism and individualism; the fractured strands of anarchy brought into productive dialogue with each other, unified, together. Voline’s entry on ‘Synthesis’ is one of the best included the book and is a must-read.

Some valuable biographical information on Faure is also provided, including a troubling report that Faure may have been a sexual predator – he was arrested twice for such crimes: "[in] the first instance, he was arrested for rubbing against young girls at the flea market at Clignancourt, and then four years later for having accompanied two other men to a hotel in the company of minors". A separate biography mentions that he served short prison sentences for these crimes. I can’t tell if he admitted to the crimes, but it is clear his comrades were quick to publish a pamphlet in his defense. Hopefully some historians may be able to get to the bottom of this issue.

A lack of focus?

It would have been useful for Abidor to provide an outline of his editorial philosophy. There doesn’t seem to be any coherency to his selection; the entries seem to have been chosen at whim, following only his own personal interest. Faure intended the Encyclopedia to be a kind of anarchist reference book, and though it is obviously quite dated, it still holds up as a useful book for both libertarian militants and general scholars. Much can be drawn from it as a historical text, to understand the perspectives of the French synthesists of the time; Anglophone readers interested in approaching the work this way will be disappointed, however, because Abidor has presented us with what is really a hodgepodge of articles.

For instance, the following entries are not included: authority, anarchism, anarchists, antistatism, authority, autonomy – and that’s just sticking to the letter A! One could go down the list and come across innumerate entries, dealing with real fundamentals, that would fit quite well in an abridgement. Instead, we have flag, kabbalah and zeal, not to mention an utterly inane article about bandits that consists of the author requiring three paragraphs to explain that common thieves are "unfortunates" motivated by poverty, and that the bourgeoisie are the real bandits. A perfectly reasonable idea; you’d be hard pressed to find an anarchist that would disagree with it. But why include it? It says absolutely nothing new or interesting, with absolutely no depth. In any case, the sentiment behind it is covered by the translated entry on ‘Property’ and, in particular, the entry on ‘Vulture’. As an aside, the ‘Vulture’ entry, written by syndicalist militant Georges Yvetot, happens to be one of the most creative in the collection.

The Encyclopedia, anarchism, and anti-Semitism

Despite its value, we can find an example of the problems of Abidor’s editorial approach – or lack thereof – in the preface itself. He mentions that Faure had a stellar reputation as a fighter against anti-Semitism, being one of the first and most prominent Dreyfusards, but that his history of anti-racism "did not prevent him from allowing passaged tainted with anti-Semitism to enter the encyclopedia, particularly those in the entry on ‘Xenophobia’, by the future Nazi Collaborator Achille Blicq".

I think it is a problem that Abidor did not think to include this entry in his selection. If his intention was to provide Anglophone readers with something of historical value, then why not include the entry as an example of the bigotries that were, at the time, present in some way in our movement? If his intention was to provide us with anarchist theory that has value in of itself, then let us read the passage and understand how and why it goes wrong, solidifying our own theoretical understanding in the process. It is also worth noting that Abidor has not included Voline’s comprehensive entry on anti-Semitism.

Abidor gives us a hint that the Xenophobia entry is complex when he quotes part of the entry later in the introduction, as an example of how some of the Encyclopedia’s contributors were not all "consistent and upright" with opinions that would "accord with reality":

Quote:
Achille Blicq, in an entry on “Xenophobia” that was written late in the process and does not appear in this collection, when nationalist frenzy was sweeping Europe, said that: “Borders, ever more unstable, are disappearing in many places in expectation of the day when their existence will come to an end, while a powerful current of mutual sympathy and fraternal mutual assistance, motivated by the clear notion of the shared interests of the workers of all nations, are irresistibly leading humanity towards the creation of one sole and immense fatherland that will be formed by men become free and independent, as well as more loving and in solidarity.”

At first glance, it seems strange to square anti-Semitism with what seems to be such a universalist, anti-nationalist statement. After all, an Anarchist Encyclopedia entry on xenophobia is a bit of a weird place to put some Jew-hating, no? Abidor continues, providing us with some valuable information:

Quote:
Blicq himself, like his fellow contributor, Georges Yvetot would not escape the German Occupation with his reputation unblemished. Yvetot, while still proclaiming himself to be an anarchist, was named to a collaborationist committee designed to help workers who had been victims of Allied bombings. He died before the committee could actually accomplish anything, but did give an interview to a Collaborationist newspaper. Blicq’s case was more clear-cut, since he was appointed “Aryan administrator” of a confiscated Jewish firm, and also wrote to the Commissariat for Jewish Questions requesting information about a Jewish-owned clinic. Sued after the war by the returned owner of the firm Blicq administered, Maitron’s Biographical Dictionary reports the police as saying that he lived “in a luxurious home … [and] enjoyed quite important pecuniary means.” He suffered no consequences for his wartime activities.

I was so interested by this whole business that I decided to try and translate the relevant anti-Semitic passages of the ‘Xenophobia’ entry myself, naturally with the assistance of Google Translate (please forgive any errors). For context, we are led into this section by a discussion of how xenophobia and nationalism can spring from false senses of superiority. These are the anti-Semitic passages in full:

Quote:
If one studies, for example, the Jewish people, before the most cruel and the most ironic of fates compelled him to disperse, to dissolve himself in all nations, to become that unfortunate “wandering people carrying his homeland by the soles of his shoes”; if we study the history of this people, we learn that it was so imbued with its “superiority” that it could not admit that there were other laws, other codes than those that had been dictated to them by their God and Master Yahweh, who proclaimed them “chosen people”, in superb style. All the other nations refusing to bow before the Jewish deity, the only one who had the droit de cite [right to belong, or have citizenship, lit: right to city], became impious, abominably sacrilegious! They alone, the Jewish people, deserved to live, to grow, to shine brightly over the entire universe!

It is necessary to add that, in a just return, by application of the same principle, the manifestation of an identical feeling, the Jew attracted all the contempt, all the hatred of other peoples who, equally penetrated by this false as well as absurd idea of being the “chosen people”, could not accept this unpardonable insult of being judged to be inferior!

It’s probably some of the strangest anti-Semitism I’ve ever read – a surreal victim blaming, stating that "le juifs" are significantly responsible for the repression and persecution they have suffered through, because they allegedly thought of themselves as superior and treated others as inferior; in this twisted line of thinking, anti-Semitism becomes a kind of fight against injustice, rather than the obvious victimisation of a minority that it is. These short paragraphs taint the rest of his article, which seems to be sincerely attempting to put forth anti-nationalism and universalism.

At first I thought Blicq was just an oddball, his strange viewpoint unique within the anarchist movement. Then, I realised that it bore some similarity to a passage I had read a few weeks ago, written by Erich Mühsam in his introductory book Liberating Society from the State: What is Communist Anarchism?:

Quote:
The Jewish doctrine of “God the Father” places the solitary, just, all-powerful, omnipresent, and menacing God over humankind. He is beseeched in endless prayer, honored, and assured of adoration and gratitude, even in times of torment and humiliation.

[…]

It is the predicament of the Jews that they, who have introduced authority as the highest form of life over humankind, must feel the effects of their doctrines in the harshest ways. They have brought monotheism, the belief in only one God, into this world, the God-given authority of the father, and, as a logical consequence, the nationalist formula of “God’s chosen people.” Whoever speaks of a fatherland, speaks in a Jewish manner, for he embraces the glorification of one nation, namely his own. He counts himself among the chosen people. From this, he derives the right to hate, to despise, and to assault other peoples. The Jews, themselves formerly a centrally-organized nation with a confined territory and now scattered across all countries, are pursued, insulted, slandered, and abused as intruders, enemies, and foreigners by nationalists, i.e., by fanatical descendants of their spirit, though of a different stock. The natural conscience of justice is destroyed by alleged national and racial superiority. To have the same ancestry, the same family tree, the same place of residence, and the same master suffices to form a community that despises the descendants of other ancestors and the slaves of other masters.

We see the same elements here: pinning the inception of authority and nationalism on the Jewish people and on Jewish theology, morphing this into a statement of universalism: "the natural conscience of justice is destroyed by alleged national and racial superiority". The repression the Jews have suffered through is thought of as something they helped create: those who abuse the Jews are "fanatical descendants of their spirit".

The situation with Mühsam is significantly complicated by the fact that he himself was raised Jewish, the son of Jewish parents. Is this self-hatred? An earnest critique of one's own tribe? I do not know; more research needs to be done. I don’t actually know if Mühsam even thought of himself as Jewish, but he certainly died like so many German Jews: he was labelled by Goebbels as a “Jewish subversive”, arrested after the Reichstag fire, then taken to the Sonnenburg and Brandenburg camps to be brutally tortured, before finally being killed at Oranienburg. An interesting sidenote: the French Encyclopédie, published between 1925 and 1934, includes an entry on ‘Holocauste’. It explains to us that the term refers to a burnt offering, and that this is why it is commonly said that the masses who perished in World War I were offered as a holocaust "for the benefit of financiers and international industrialists".

My point in all of this is not to criticise Abidor for failing to write a grand history of anti-Semitism and the anarchist movement. The example of anti-Semitism is just a symptom of the editorial approach Abidor has taken: a lack of a coherent structure or reasoning has meant we only get a superficial grasp on many of the issues that are naturally raised when we read the text. Instead of satisfying us, as the Faure intended to do, we’re left with more questions than answers; the more curious readers are left to pick at the threads present and follow them elsewhere, as I have done with the curious case of anarchist anti-Semitism.

Other notes + conclusion

I would like to stress that Abidor doesn’t just tease us but presents us with great information too – I think most of the entries provided are great. One of the best is the entry on ‘Bolshevism’ written by Peter Arshinov, the militant Russian anarchist and Makhnovista who would help write the extremely influential Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists – the Platform. Arshinov would later publicly renounce anarchism and return to the Soviet Union. Not long after he arrived, he was executed. The inclusion of Arshinov’s critique of Bolshevism is interesting for two reasons:

1. Platformism and synthesism are usually considered to be completely opposed to each other; it is hard to find a more definite split in the present day anarchist scene than that between platformists and synthesists. The platformists often consider the synthesists to be ineffective and unable to do anything, their organisations being like an attempt to herd cats; in turn, the synthesists often consider the platformists to be latent-Bolshevists and dogmatists, their organisations following a Trotskyist-like approach to politics. The inclusion of one of the foremost advocates of the platform in what in what is really a synthesist project shows us what we can achieve when we blur the lines, abandon dogmas and reach across the aisle a little bit.

2. Arshinov’s entry is so rigorous and convincing that it makes me think that the Soviet Union may have been telling the truth when it charged him with attempting to restore the Russian anarchist movement. Of course, it’s not impossible for even the most in-depth author to go back on their word or change their mind, but the strength and seeming sincerity of Arshinov’s attack just makes me think that his renunciation of anarchism might well have been a ruse, and that he genuinely went back to try and help the anarchist underground there. Nick Heath’s biography of Arshinov mentions that at the time he wrote it, the Russian records had not been examined for the truth; hopefully some progress in this area has been made since.

I’d definitely recommend people purchase the book – it’s worth the money. You will learn a lot, and Abidor’s translations are flawless as far as I can tell. But in the end, you will be left unsatisfied, knowing that you’ve only read less than 10% of what Faure was able to put together before he died. Then again, readers of the entire French work would be left unsatisfied too, considering Faure only managed to produce the first part of what was intended to be a five-part work. So inclusion: buy the book, but pick up Assimil’s French With Ease while you’re at it too – happily, the entire French work is freely available online. There is much more to learn.

NB – Shawn Wilbur has translated a number of entries and posted them on his website The Libertarian Labyrinth. Shawn is an excellent translator and hopefully he translates some more of the entries that Abidor has neglected.

Posted By

sherbu-kteer
Jun 18 2019 08:46

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  • You who are bent beneath the yoke of the state, capital, and churches, know that salvation lies within you, is entirely within you, and nowhere else but within you!

    Sébastien Faure, in the preamble of the Anarchist Encyclopedia

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Comments

Anarcho
Jun 19 2019 20:37

I would say that Mitchell Abidor is not the best translator. I've went through a few of his translations and they are seriously flawed -- so bad I decided to re-translate them. Not wrong as such, but marred by some very strange decisions which make the end product strange. So take his translations with a pinch of salt.

I should note I'm not alone in this evaluation of previous translations -- let us hope he is getting better,

sherbu-kteer
Jun 20 2019 15:53

That's slightly concerning... my French is abysmal so I can't really judge their quality directly, hence why I hedged my compliment with "as far as I can tell". Just from the way the things read in English, I couldn't pick up anything that stood out as strange.

Anarcho have you read the book or looked at the Encyclopedia in general? It almost feels a bit like a slightly more abstract, prototype of the FAQ. The intended purpose is a bit similar too.

Anarcho
Jun 26 2019 19:49

I know of it but never really looked at it (my French was pretty non-existent when I started AFAQ, although it has got better). Yes, the idea is similar although AFAQ is not as focused as an Encyclopedia -- and an Encyclopedia cannot really address questions, only subjects.

Still, regardless of concerns about the translation, it is good to have it -- at the very least it will help others identify entries which are worth re-translating!