Anarchism as a Fundamentally Unfinished Project

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This is not the promised post on periodization, but instead a related FB status that got entirely out of control. Consider it similar to the “Notes” posts that I have occasionally posted in between more definitive statements. It amounts to a sort of well-educated guess about some of the broad patterns of anarchist development, but I think that it proposes a few clarifications that will be hard to refute, with consequences for our understanding of anarchist history that perhaps excuse its partially speculative nature.

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My argument about the anarchist tradition, in its most modest form, is that there is nothing about the history of variously “anarchist” ideas—particularly when the tale begins in 1840 or before—that precludes a real, future convergence toward an anarchism that both focuses on anarchy (in its strongest senses) and provides a vehicle for the sort of social reforms that have most often been promoted in the name of “anarchism.”

I certainly believe that there was an attempt to launch “modern anarchism” as a substantial break with the perceived ideology of Proudhon (but also that of Bakunin.) I have probably drawn as much attention to the depth of that rupture as anyone, but I have also, I think, made at least the beginnings of a strong case for its rather limited success. And it is the real depth of the developmental discontinuity between the era of anarchy-without-anarchism and that of “modern” anarchism that makes the subsequent and almost immediate diversity of anarchisms interesting. It is difficult to treat that modern diversity as an effect of the earlier projects and their influence. There is very little of the thought of any of the early figures that was passed along fully and faithfully—and while there were obviously some strange, more-or-less conscious instances of infidelity to earlier figures, it seems to make more sense to worry about conscious misrepresentation in cases like that of Bakunin than in those of more marginal figures. Much of the earlier anarchist history simply remained unknown—or at least not widely known—and only became an issue for modern anarchism as a result of efforts from within that modern movement to situate itself ideologically and historically.

In a sense the various anarchist factions that already existed by the early 1880s were just a mirror of the various tendencies that existed by the 1850s and the lack of unity among them was roughly the same, for roughly the same reasons. The first anarchists had emerged from a variety of non-anarchist tendencies and had really barely begun the work of exploring this bold new idea before other concerns—including the better known phases of organized internationalism—took center stage. Revolution, counter-revolution, prison, exile and the like also shaped the opportunities for convergence among the early anarchists. One of the striking things about the early generations is that, despite the fact that many of the key figures traveled widely, often in the same locales, their movements (and sometimes their publication opportunities) were seldom really free—so that even if they possessed some of our sense of them as an emerging, but still scattered anarchist movement, the opportunities to come together and build common ground were significantly limited.

We may really have to look to the decades early in the formative period of “modern anarchism” (between the mid 1880s and the mid 1920s, or thereabouts) for the first serious set of attempts to find common ground. The Black International could not presuppose any but the most limited agreement and amounted to a renewal of internationalism, but strictly among “anti-authoritarians” this time (with all of the need to build consensus or enforce conformity experienced by the International.) But by the time the Encylopédie Anarchiste was being published, there had been a substantial amount of work, much of it across sectarian lines, toward establishing at least a broad conversation. Some early attempts at what is now recognizable as “anarchist studies” came out of this same general stock-taking in the early 20th century.

We know that the movement for common ground had limited successes and that at times and places that resonate particularly strongly for us in this particular time, opposite tendencies dominated. But it is probably a mistake to identify those tendencies with the tendencies that attempted to assert control over the term “anarchism” in the period of its emergence. Anarchist communism went through significant changes, the emergence of syndicalism as a factor forced other changes and the old collectivist core that arguably most faithfully carried forward the ideas of Bakunin alternately blossomed and faltered in all sorts of ways. The differences between the sort of anarchism championed by someone like Makhno in the 1920s and the sort of anarchism championed by figures like Kropotkin, Cafiero and Reclus in the period immediately after the death of Bakunin are probably much greater than we usually recognize, while the various forms of synthesist anarchism that emerged probably had at least as good a claim to roots in that early anarchist communism as the platformist alternatives (and, again, it is probably a stretch to say that either had roots in the pre-1870 tendencies, despite the resources that might have eventually been found there.)

If we were to take this reading forward into the period of the 1930s and after, it’s tempting to suggest that the attempts at establishing specifically anarchist common ground were forced to take a back seat to world events and more immediate sorts of engagements, as they had in the period of the International. But if my readings of the post-war writings are at all representative, then it appears that, once again, anarchistic ideas reasserted themselves in diverse forms, with perhaps even an increased range of hybridizations. And at our end of the development of this post-war phases (which may indeed break down into phases that don’t come to mind immediately), we have the sort of diversity of positions that we would expect from dramatically increased access to the materials generated in earlier periods, together with, perhaps, a certain fatigue produced by the flood of earlier anarchisms into the range of tendencies that would have to be accounted for (one way or another) in the establishment of common ground and—let’s be honest with ourselves—a certain general cultural tendency toward fundamentalism, from which we could hardly claim complete immunity.

This sort of account is necessarily speculative, at least at this stage in our understanding of anarchist history, but the work it has to do in the present context is relatively limited. It seems important to search our history for the moments that present some plausible alternative to understanding anarchism as a system of threads, sometimes with radically different points of origin, that have been slowly and partially braided together by individuals who, in one way or another, have taken at least some of their cues from the architects of the “modern anarchism” that came closest to really defining anarchism as a single, new movement and body of thought. And, if it is a question of understanding the actual development—and/or lack of development—of the actually existing anarchisms, then there don’t seem to be many compelling alternatives. We can read the history from its beginnings and regret either the lack of some active synthesis or the lack of some greater differentiation among tendencies. But, in the present, we are all, it appears, products of an anarchist history in which the most consistent elements seem to be the continued emergence of possible anarchisms and an on-again/off-again attempt to manage the diversity.

There is a way of approaching the problem posed that involves rejecting what I am calling an “unfinished” anarchism, either by withdrawing from it—a strategy that never really seems to involve the establishment of much separation, as the libertarian socialists and libertarian municipalists tend to remind us daily—or some more frontal attack on the notion of anarchism-in-general, in the hope of inspiring some reorganization of the various groups of people who now struggle over the anarchist label, beyond just more sectarian strife. I think that the most promising of these suggests that we have not yet had anything worth calling anarchism in that general sense. But, ultimately, that approach doesn’t seem all that promising. In part, the problem is that we are not dealing with a philosophical discussion. Instead, we are engaged in a long and increasingly complex struggle for a particular political language that has still—despite the very uncertain uses to which it has often been put—arguably proven its power and value over a long history. And for some of us—often not, I’m afraid, the part of “us” most readily accepted among the more orthodox heirs of “modern anarchism”—there really is no alternative to anarchy as a guiding concept that has anywhere near the power and clarity attached (again, despite all of those very uncertain uses.)

I’ll come back to these questions in the promised posts on periodization and it appears that I am going to have to clarify a number of my remarks on anarchist history in response to an alternative accounts that attempts to take them as a point of departure. There is naturally a good deal more than could and should eventually be said, but as this was initially just a social media post that took on a life of its own, I guess I’ll wrap it up here for now.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.