Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis

In a new series of posts, under the general title Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis, I’ll be engaging in a sort of back-to-basics exploration of anarchy, anarchism and the practice of being an anarchist. I’ll be going back through a lot of material that has appeared here, in the sometimes unfathomable order dictated by my own research, and reintroducing whatever seems most useful. At the same time, I’ll be fleshing out the outlines of two monographs, Anarchism, Plain and Simple and A Good Word, that I have sketched out. I’ll also be opening one important line of new research, as I’ll be reading, and sometimes translating, sections from the Encyclopédie Anarchiste (Anarchist Encyclopedia) organized by Sébastien Faure and others in the early 20th century. That Encyclopedia, of which only a four-volume dictionary was actually completed, was itself an attempt to gather together insights from the full range of anarchist currents existing at the time, inspired by the notion of an anarchist synthesis, as promoted by Voline and Faure.

It turns out that synthesis was one of the concepts already present in my own work (through Pierre Leroux, Proudhon, Bakunin, Nettlau, etc., in various ways), which I have arguably not made anything like the most of, perhaps because when I had first encountered the works of Voline and Faure, it was in the context of the debate over platformism, a context not calculated to show the idea off in anything like its best light. To the extent that the question is about the organization of federations in Ukraine a century ago, I still am not very excited, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the writings on the anarchist synthesis were really much broader in their concerns. What I found there was a general theory of anarchist development, in the context of which both the separate development of individual schools of thaught and the attempt to combine the lessons of these individual experiments had a role to play.

Consider these remarks from Voline’s Anarchist Encyclopedia entry on “Synthesis:”

In the beginning, when the anarchist idea was still undeveloped and confused, it was natural and useful to analyze it from all sides, to break it down and examine each of its elements in depth, to compare them, to contrast them with one another, etc. That is what has been done. Anarchism was broken down into several elements (or currents.) Thus the whole, too general and vague, was dissected, which helped to deal in depth, to study thoroughly that whole as well as those elements. In that period, then, the dismemberment of the anarchist idea was a positive thing. Various people concerning themselves with the various currents of anarchism, both the details and the whole gained in depth and precision. But afterwards, once that first work was accomplished, after the elements of anarchist thought (communism, individualism, syndicalism) were turned over and over in every way, it was necessary to think of recreate, with these well worked elements, the organic whole from which they came. After a fundamental analysis, it was necessary to return (deliberately) to the beneficial synthesis.

A bizarre fact: we no longer think of that necessity. The people interested in a given element of anarchism end up substituting it for the whole. Naturally, they soon find themselves in disagreement and soon in conflict with those who treat other bits of the entire truth in the same manner. So, instead of reaching the idea of merging the scattered elements (which, taken separately, were no longer good for much of anything) into an organic whole, the anarchists undertook for long years the fruitless task of hatefully opposing their “currents” to one another. Each considered their “current,” their fragment as the only truth and fought bitterly with the partisans of the other currents. Thus commenced, in the libertarian ranks, that milling in place, characterized by blindness and mutual animosity, which continues into the present and which must be considered harmful to the normal development of the anarchist idea.

Now, in this particular essay, the analysis of synthesis is still fairly closely tied to the state of the anarchist movement in the 1920s, where a few fairly well defined factions accounted for most of the anarchists and where, consequently, a specific division of labor could be proposed between them. But in 1924, Voline published another long essay on synthesis in the Revue Anarchiste, and that essay begins with a long discussion of synthesis as the basis of truth and life, before finally turning to the question of anarchism, which he understood as naturally expansive in its concerns.

[I]t is precisely the anarchists who more than anyone must constantly recall the synthesis and the dynamism of life. For it is precisely anarchism as a conception of the world and life that, by its very essence, is profoundly synthetic and deeply imbued with the living, creative and motive principle of life. It is precisely anarchism that is called to begin—and perhaps even to perfect—the social scientific synthesis that the sociologists are always in the process of seeking, without a shadow of success, the lack of which leads, on the one hand, to the pseudo-scientific conceptions of “marxism,” of an “individualism” pushed to the extreme and to various other “isms,” all more narrow, stuffier, and more distant from truth that the last, and, on the other hand, to a number of recipes for conceptions and practical attempts of the most inept and most absurd sort.

The anarchist conception must be synthetic: it must seek to become the great living synthesis of the different elements of life, established by scientific analysis and rendered fruitful by the synthesis of our ideas, our aspirations and the bits of truth that we have succeeded in discovering; it must do it if it wishes to be that precursor of truth, that true and undistorted factor, not bankrupting of human liberation and progress, which the dozens of sullen, narrow and fossilized “isms” obviously cannot become.

This vision of an anarchism “as big as life,” and also as dynamic, is appealing for a variety of reasons. And the synthetic theory helps us to litf the question of “unity” out of the realms of dogmatic squabbling and realpolitik, and explore the possibility that the pros and cons of our organization (or refusal of organization) need to be addressed in the context of larger sorks of development.

I am at least convinced enough by the arguments of the anarchist synthesists to give the approach a serious trial, and to work out the connections between it and the particular sort of “sin adjetivos” approach I have been taking, but I want to frame all of this clearly as a sort of experiment in rethinking the tradition, rather than some attempt to give a definitive account.

Eventually, the collected texts will be featured on the new hub of the Libertarian Labyrinth, where they will also serve as a more accessible entry point. But much of the work will initially be done here, and I’ll probably collect and revise groups of texts before adding them to the self-contained site. That means that things will proceed here very much as “usual,” whatever that is these days, but my hope is also to draw a line between a long period of exploration and dissemination of ideas and a new period of analysis and synthesis of the results.

Anarchism: Elements of a Synthesis will begin in earnest, almost immediately, with a post on “the social problem,” and we’ll see if that old-fashioned notion can provide us with a new starting place for a discussion of anarchism.

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