Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Anarchism, Geohistory, and the Annales: Rethinking Elisee Reclus's Influence on Lucien Febvre

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Anarchism, Geohistory, and the Annales: Rethinking Elisee Reclus's Influence on Lucien Febvre

Article excerpt

Abstract. It has been hypothesized that the celebrated geographer and anarchist Elisee Reclus was a decisive influence on several concepts that are characteristic of the Annales School, the historical French school of the Annales d'histoire economique et sociale, such as longue duree, material history, space-movement, and geohistory. Yet no systematic research exists on the topic. In this paper, on the basis of textual analysis and new archival materials recently published in France, I argue that Reclus's influence particularly affected the Annales's founder Lucien Febvre, and that it springs from not only Febvre's scholarly interest in Reclus, but also his early engagement in socialist milieus and sympathies for both anarchism and figures like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Finally, I show how these topics could be useful for present debates on critical social theory and radical geographies.

Keywords: Elisee Reclus, Lucien Febvre, anarchism, socialism, geohistory, critical theory


Elisee Reclus (1830-1905), the well-known French geographer and anarchist, was concerned with a historical perspective for which he has sometimes been defined as the forerunner of several historiographical schools of the 20th century, particularly the Annales School, the French school of thought that took shape around the Annales d'histoire economique et sociale, a journal founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch (1882-1944) and Lucien Febvre (1878-1957). It was the journal's 'Great Man', Fernand Braudel (1902-85), who in 1949 launched the concept of 'geohistory' in his masterpiece La Mediterranee et le monde mediterraneen a l'epoque de Philippe II.

Several historians of geography have noticed a correspondence between some of Reclus's ideas and the concepts developed later by the Annales School, namely, material history, world system, social history, longue duree, persistence, space-movement, and rural landscape (Deprest, 2002; Errani, 1984; Lacoste, 1990; Pelletier, 2013), but we have no systematic research either comparing Reclus's corpus with that of the Annales, or exploring the scholarly and political networks that could have allowed the transfer of knowledge between the cited authors.

The present paper is a first attempt to fill this lacuna. My hypothesis is that Reclus's ideas did indeed have both a direct and indirect influence on the thinking that went into the Annales, mainly as a result of the admiration that Febvre felt for Reclus as both a geographer and an anarchist, which in turn was probably the result of Febvre's little-known but well-documented sympathies for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, revolutionary syndicalism, and left-libertarian thinking. I try to elucidate this problem by analyzing the texts and archives of both authors.

The importance of this work lies in the recent rediscovery of both Febvre and Reclus in different fields of international research, involving central points in current debates on geography, history, and critical social theory. Recent research on Reclus has stressed the links between geographical thinking and anarchism. Here, 1 quote as examples the special issues dedicated to anarchism by Antipode and ACME in 2012, and the session "Demanding the impossible", which took place during the RGS-IBG International Conference in London in 2013. The authors involved in these experiences draw explicitly on a 'genealogy' (Springer, 2013) beginning with Reclus and another early anarchist geographer, Pyotr Kropotkin. According to Marcelo Lopes de Souza (2012), there is also a historical tradition in urban geography, starting from these two authors and leading directly to present debates on autonomy and federalism, inspired by Murray Bookchin and Cornelius Castoriadis (Lopes de Souza, 2012).

At the 3rd International Conference of the Anarchist Studies Network, held in Loughborough in September 2014 and including sessions on geography, (1) several presenters advocated the need for interdisciplinary studies on the transnational and transcultural nature of the concrete anarchist movement, drawing on its anticolonial and postcolonial networks (Anderson, 2007; Hirsch and Van der Walt, 2010), its present cosmopolitanism (Gordon, 2008), and Reclus's legacy (Ferretti, 2013). …

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