Conscious of the difficulties faced by students of anarchist ideas, whether newcomers or old hands, it seems useful to propose some means of exploring the field with confidence. There is no question, particularly in a short piece such as this, of providing a map of that vast, complex territory, but we can certainly identify a few landmarks and propose some tools with which individuals might do their own mapping.
For our landmarks, let’s begin with three fundamental terms — anarchy (understood as an-arche, according to the etymology proposed by Proudhon in 1840), anarchist and anarchisms. For a first tool, let’s attempt a simple conceptual map of their relations in the context of one question that seems unavoidable: How does one become an anarchist?
All of these landmark-terms are contested, so it is difficult to fix their positions without engaging, however unintentionally, in polemical activity, imposing particular assumptions not necessarily shared by other students of anarchist ideas, appealing to the authority of some particular history, etymology, ideology, etc. To avoid these missteps, let’s begin by locating them in a general, relative manner, establishing the relations between the terms themselves, which might persist despite differences in the specific definitions assigned to them. We can then see how much clarification is possible by exploring the dynamic we have proposed.
Returning to the question we have posed, we might describe the practice of becoming an anarchist in this way:
We become anarchists by embracing and internalizing anarchy. We express that internalized anarchy by constructing anarchisms.
Rendered as a conceptual map or formula, a really schematic representation of the relationships between the terms might simply take the form of an exploded view of the word anarchism:
Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism).
But the description of becoming an anarchist is also a map of sorts. We are presented with a sort of path, from anarchy to anarchisms, along which our most basic studies might travel. Of course, the practice of becoming-anarchist is likely to be ongoing — experimental — and the relations between the elements dynamic. We probably do not embrace anarchy all at once. It is unlikely that we have any very clear, practical sense of it without first engaging in attempts to apply and establish it. So we can imagine ourselves traveling back and forth along this simple path, gradually increasing our understanding of each of the landmark-concepts.
For any sufficiently elaborated anarchy, conforming in its basic terms to those of our formula, we ought to be able to establish both the archy (arche) that it seeks to dispense with and the anarchisms that might express it in various specific contexts. For any connected set of anarchisms, we ought to be able to reason our way back to the anarchy that they express, and then to the archy for which they are to serve as an alternative.
We can judge the degree of elaboration and the internal consistency of proposed anarchisms, and we can compare the elements and internal logics of different articulations of the formula. We can, as the need arises, conduct these operations on our own ideas or those of others, on anarchisms meant to apply to the broadest or narrowest of contexts, in the present or as we encounter them in the study of the anarchist past. As our focus broadens — extending from abstraction and personal reflection to considerations of the dynamics at work within anarchist movements, milieus, histories and traditions — the work of analysis and comparison is almost certain to become more complicated, but the formula should still serve us as a general structure and guide.
The difficulty is, however, that it seems we might extend our work of analysis, comparison and categorization to its greatest extent, completing our map of the details of anarchist ideas and practices across the relevant regions of time and space, without, in the process, producing any criteria to guide us when it comes time to say which manifestations we should prefer. A widely shared conception of anarchy would presumably simplify things for us, but it isn’t clear that we possess one. Each of our key terms seems to confront us, in our histories and in our present-day milieus, as plural, uncertain, anarchic, ungoverned and ungovernable.
We have to decide, then, whether this is really a problem — or if recognizing it might be a step toward a somewhat unorthodox solution.
Let’s return to our formula, now recognized as dynamic, and recognize that our first encounters are unlikely to be with the anarchy — at least in any direct sense. We are much more likely to first encounter anarchy second-hand, as it is expressed in various anarchisms, in the propaganda and practices of anarchists — and, lacking the knowledge to sort through the various manifestations and expression, we are likely to experience what we encounter as a largely undifferentiated anarchism-in-general.
As our familiarity grows, it is easy to adopt the loose systems of classification, based largely on ideological differences or preferences about future institutions, that currently structure so many of the internal relations among anarchists. The formula proposed, and the exploratory classifications that might emerge from its application, are proposed in part as an alternative. It occurs to me, based on my own decades of research and reflection, that the tidiness characteristic of our early familiarity with the range of anarchisms is almost always likely, with greater exposure, to give way to an understanding of that range that is more definite in its details, but no less anarchic than our first impressions. That, at least, has been my own experience.
If we take this to be more generally the case — if there is something fundamental shared by the experiences of the newcomer to anarchist circles and the longtime student of anarchist ideas — then perhaps the logical next step in our general analysis is to try, following the structure of the formula proposed, to reason from this anarchic anarchism-in-general, through the diversity of anarchist roles and identities we encounter, to whatever sort of anarchy seems implied — understanding that this pass through the apparatus should, if the model really serves, allow us to come back to the other terms with a different sort of clarity.
If we are, in a sense, synthesizing the the impressions of anarchy least encumbered by knowledge of and investment in the details of anarchism-in-general’s fundamental anarchy with those that arise from a long and serious engagement with them, then we need a number of possible criteria to all guide us in roughly the same direction. If we are not—or not yet—distinguishing between anarchy in the broadest contexts and the same concept the most narrowly proscribed local applications, we know that our definition will necessarily be abstract, but still presumably radical. It’s the radical nature of anarchy that we can take from the realm of naive impressions. From etymology, we get the privative an-, which designates not just opposition, but loss or absence, attached to arche, which indicates something fundamental to a given structure or set of relations, something considered permanent or foundational. From the study of the anarchist past we get a range of archies that we might seek to do without, including, way back in the work of Proudhon, the absolute, by which he meant anything with a pretense of being fixed and permanent — while from the ongoing internal struggles among anarchists we get a strong feeling that anything worth while in the present should probably be a lot more radical than Proudhon.
Recognizing that we are dealing with a very general sort of definition, perhaps we can just say that, this time around, anarchy — the anarchy-in-general shared by the widest range of anarchisms, is what happens in the absence of the very things we have been led to believe will always be present.
There is obviously some idiosyncrasy at work here, but perhaps also some elegance. If the definition identifies a common denominator among the range of anarchies proposed or implied, but one that might seem incident to more vital concerns, it also functions, I think, as a pretty good paraphrase of the anarchy implied by Proudhon’s philosophy. If the formulation is not immediately familiar, it seems to be intelligible and plausible, at least as far as it goes. If we want to press on, passing back through the other terms in our formula, we can at least say that an anarchist is someone who looks forward to living a life organized on very different principles that those currently in force or vogue. Anarchism would then be the practices — almost certainly experimental, given the definition of anarchy — by which we might learn to work through the obvious difficulties of such a fundamental reorganization of society.
Are we any closer to establishing any criteria by which we might distinguish between more and less desirable forms of anarchism? We certainly haven’t moved any closer to a rule by which we could separate “real” anarchisms from imposters — but none of the available criteria seem anything like self-evident and we are doing our best to avoid ideological impositions. If, however, we accept that the definition of anarchy is at least generally intelligible and plausible, we might ask what the embrace and internalization of that principle, even in this abstract and somewhat unfamiliar form, might entail. If someone declares themselves an anarchist, meaning at least that they hope to experience social relations that differ radically from those currently existing, isn’t that already a bar high enough to present challenges?
Having underlined the radical nature of the shift from archic to anarchic society and the experimental nature of the work of transition, we should be conscious that perhaps every instance of the anarchist declaration — je suis anarchiste / I am (an) anarchist — is as aspirational as literal. Lacking, as we almost certainly do, a clear sense of what forms anarchic relations might take, the declaration is intelligible and plausible primarily in terms of that anticipation of radical change. Using the terms of our analysis here, the anarchist positions themselves as such in relation to particular conceptions of anarchy and particular expressions of anarchism. To make our declaration public and to claim a place as an anarchist-among-anarchists, in connection with or in defiance of, established conventions regarding such identifications, always leaves us open to challenges — and, in the context of our study here, the challenges generally amount to some version of “show us the map.” Without entering the territory of “real anarchist” debate, let’s just acknowledge that, in the context of claims about identity, some mappings are certain to seem more plausible than others.
We have passed, in the short exploration stage here, from a sense of anarchisms as anarchic, in the sense of chaotic, to a sense of anarchy as what happens in the absence of familiar, presumably fixed foundations, and at least hinted at the kinds of changes necessitated in the anarchist by embracing and internalizing that notion of anarchy. I have suggested that, this time around, anarchism seems to designate the kind of exploratory, experimental practice necessary to transition from archic to anarchic society. Does this help to clarify the apparent chaos of nominally anarchist practices and perhaps set up the next set of questions and clarifications? Have we indeed produced any insights that ought to increase our general confidence in exploring anarchist ideas, history, tradition, etc.?
The strength of this general analysis is arguably in its generality, which, in this case, amounts to a particular kind of specificity. The achievement of anarchist goals inevitably involves a kind of mixture, with specifically anarchist elements guiding and shaping a wide variety of familiar practices in more or less unfamiliar ways. When we talk about anarchist practices, we generally do not do so in the kind of general terms used here. We instead talk about practical activity that seems to advance projects consistent with anarchist goals: feeding people left unfed by archic society, organizing in various forms of opposition to existing institutions, etc. Much of the practical activity involved in these projects differs little from the activity involved in projects entirely consistent with the archic status quo. So we might ask if there are anarchist practices with a much more specifically anarchistic character, presently exercised, with greater or lesser consciousness of the fact, in the context of these familiar things that anarchists do.
It’s a question that, for now, I simply want to pose and leave unanswered — suggesting that at least some of the answers could be found by continuing to work within the context of the general formula proposed — and, with that, I’ll draw this brief exploration to a close.
This text — which errs, for a change, on the side of brevity — is intended as the introduction to a set of essays, close readings and reflections on the present uses of the anarchist past. It is a summary of conclusions drawn from the Constructing Anarchisms project and presents the kernel of my general methodology. It is, at present, both longer and less inclusive than I would like, but I think it is in a state worth sharing, as I wrestle with the insights necessary to produce the next version. Constructive criticism is welcome.