Anarchist History: No End of Beginnings

After a couple of decades in the wilderness of history, in search of the elusive headwaters of the anarchist tradition, you stop beside some particularly active mountain spring and think that, while no serious seeker would every claim a single source for that tradition, you’ve probably been in the right neighborhood for some time now. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the return trip.

You look back down along the course of the stream you have followed and perhaps you think:Easier said than done. There is no question of retracing the circuitous route by which you came. But you know all too well that the most direct path is fraught with difficulties and widely considered impassible at multiple points along the way. These, after all, were the conditions that set you off on less-traveled and perhaps untraveled trails on the journey here. And if you’ve gained a great deal of clarity about the terrain—recognizing “the current” as a kind of impossible braid and the “impassible” points as sometimes much less daunting (but also sometimes much more) than reported—that still doesn’t mean you have the kind of map that would be needed to strike off directly towards home.

You hardly even need to get started to understand that things will look different when traveling in the other direction, but also to note that there are advantages to starting from a certain height, with a certain amount of local experience and at least a partial sense of the general lay of the land. You can always fall back, you know, on your assembled collection of overland guides, even if they are not always dependable or describe routes to exactly where you want to go. In the end, you have the certain knowledge that you got from there to here, so presumably you can get back again. You know that. But it’s not always a great consolation, as you work to cut a path back to the present.

I’ve spend the month since the “Streamside Reflections” wrestling with a few last preliminary details, which seemed to demand my attention before I could just settle back into my established routine. A lot of that, frankly, has involved letting what I’ve learned over that couple of decades really sink in and allowing myself to dispense with some assumptions about what that anarchist tradition must look like that have been hard to abandon, despite my sense that they aren’t necessary or even particularly helpful.

Things really do look different if you try to see the unfolding story of “the anarchist idea” from the vantage point of the 1830s or early 1840s. From that starting point, there is no question of framing the development of the anarchist tradition in terms of Marx and Marxism, the International, the Paris Commune, anarchist communism, syndicalism, events in Ukraine or Spain nearly a century late, platformism (or its alternatives), 1968 or any of the more recent moments. In 1840, it’s not even a question, necessarily, of framing things in terms of the eventual emergence of anarchism as an ideology, movement, keyword, etc. All of those events obviously leave their mark. A series of influential figures, active organizations and key texts will establish important markers along the route—or along routes not taken this time around—but the challenge posed by those who want to insist on a “main stream” of anarchist thought and activity is precisely that at least some of those markers mark points of impassibility, divergences more decisive than just the ongoing work of ideological avulsion or simply some “real” beginning for some more important or authentic anarchist tradition (in the light of which the journey so far has to be understood in some other light.)

One natural response to that challenge seems to be to frame an account of the development of that “anarchist idea” in terms drawn from the earliest period we are examining, to spend some time really exploring the era of anarchy and anarchists without anarchism—for its own sake and for the sake of the anarchy proposed, rather than for the light it might shed on later developments—and then to move forward, attempting to accomplish a number of related tasks:

The first is obviously to focus on the actual development of the idea of anarchy from points like Proudhon’s 1840 declaration—Je suis anarchiste—through his own work and through the works of other early figures who adopted the anarchist label. We know that there is a substantial development in Proudhon’s work and we know that at least the beginnings of a conversation emerge in that context. If we are going to look forward toward anarchism from the earliest works, perhaps the most useful task is to imagine what anarchism would have looked like if it had developed explicitly from that early exchange of ideas.

We also clearly have to deal with the challenges as they emerge, whether we are talking about inconsistencies in the work of Proudhon and others, divisions among those who claim the anarchist label or critiques from outside the nascent movement of anarchists. And there will be no shortage of those, but, again, it is important to weigh them on their own merits, not pick and choose among them according to how well they fit some modern conception of where the anarchist tradition does or should end up. When we’re tempted to dwell too much on some presumably decisive objection that we know is coming, perhaps it will  be mostly useful to remember that our own most immediate context is an anarchism that seems every bit as diverse as it has ever been—making claims about decisive breaks or turning points at subject to a considerable amount of entirely reasonable doubt.

There will, of course, be points in the journey where the mere insistence on impassibility, or the claim that what we have taken for a branching of channels has really involved the crossing of a watershed, will mean that certain familiar paths will be, if not closed to us, at least subject to considerable difficulties. Kropotkin and Tucker are probably not going to be our guides as we try to navigate the late 19th and early 20th century, assuming we are still focused closely on the career of that “idea of anarchy.” But the anarchist tradition is nothing if not rich, so perhaps we can count on other guides and make our way home along significantly different paths.

It is this possibility, I think, that makes the project most exciting for me and also most difficult to seriously pursue. There is not generally a lot of resistance to the observation that there have been a lot of different kinds of anarchists in the past, but, in the context of the tradition, they have certainly not all been treated as of equal interest—or even, in many cases, of any lasting interest at all. To judge their present value as guides in terms of an attempt to trace what is most anarchistic—most closely related to a developing notion of anarchy—within the broad and developing tradition seems like a reasonable rationale—at least until that rationale elevates Eliphalet Kimball or Gérard de Lacaze-Duthiers (theorist of l’Artistocracie) over Kropotkin or Durutti. Then the specter of the “representative” account almost necessarily returns, even if it is not always clear what—if not a developing anarchy—we are obliged to represent.

Perhaps some of what is potentially disturbing in that aspect of the study can be alleviated by the performance of yet another task, as we attempt to determine to what degree the insistence on rupture, divergence, etc. really reflect something impassible in the route of a constantly developing anarchist idea and to what extent they mark aspects of another dynamic. We may find, for example, more of Proudhon in Bakunin that the latter’s testimony about influences would lead us to expect. We may find that the rupture between mutualism and “modern anarchism” insisted on by Kropotkin was, however real and motivated by important events at the time, also unnecessary and perhaps unfortunate (for anarchist communists and the inheritors of the mutualist label alike.) We’ll certainly find a periodic resurfacing of clearly Proudhonian concerns, within “main stream” anarchist circles and long after the presumed break, just as we will find a similar cycle of rediscovery with regard to Bakunin, against long after his work was presumably surpassed. And the present work will, of course, mark just another event in that very uneven, piecemeal, stop-start development, while at the same time it will probably take the form of an argument that a great deal of what has divided anarchists has not be necessary in the stronger sense of that term.

Still, among the things that our research assures us that we will find, there is no discounting the fact that we will find a lot of beginnings, a lot of places where the previous thread seems to have broken or been dropped, when that ideological avulsion seems to send large numbers of anarchists off down some new channel. And one of the key things we are going to have to account for in the larger account is just why this is the case.

Some of what we see is obviously tunnel-vision and failure to synthesize the lessons of various anarchistic efforts and experiments into a sense of the anarchist idea that we could share—complicated by the fact that, almost as soon as the question was explicitly raised, the discussion of synthesis became largely trapped in a narrow debate about organization. I don’t think there is a very convincing argument against this claim—at least from any position that takes anarchy seriously as the central idea of anarchist theory. We find some concern about the splintering of anarchism in just about every era it has existed, with projects to address the concern arising, at one time or another, from just about every anarchist tendency. In important ways, anarchists have just never quite got it together—which has arguably been a real impediment when it comes to developing strategies for applying anarchist ideas and practices in new or evolving contexts.

But perhaps there is another dynamic at work here, more directly connected to the nature of the anarchist idea itself. One of my favorite modern anarchist essay’s is Alfredo M. Bonanno’s “The Anarchist Tension,” in large part because of the early passage, which I’ll quote at some length:

What is anarchism? It might seem strange that I should take up such a problem in this situation as I know for certain that there are many anarchists here, because I know them personally. And if nothing else, anarchists should at least know what anarchism is. Yet it is necessary to take up the question ‘What is anarchism?’ time and time again. Even in a few words. Why is that? This does not normally happen in other expressions of life, in other activities or ideas that define themselves with some foundation to be something or other.

So anarchists keep asking themselves the same question: What is anarchism? What does it mean to be an anarchist? Why? Because it is not a definition that can be made once and for all, put in a safe and considered a heritage to be tapped little by little. Being an anarchist does not mean one has reached a certainty or said once and for all, ‘There, from now on I hold the truth and as such, at least from the point of view of the idea, I am a privileged person’. Anyone who thinks like this is an anarchist in word alone. Instead the anarchist is someone who really puts themselves in doubt as such, as a person, and asks themselves: What is my life according to what I do and in relation to what I think? What connection do I manage to make each day in everything I do, a way of being an anarchist continually and not come to agreements, make little daily compromises, etc? Anarchism is not a concept that can be locked up in a word like a gravestone. It is not a political theory. It is a way of conceiving life, and life, young or old as we may be, whether we are old people or children, is not something final: it is a stake we must play day after day. When we wake up in the morning and put our feet on the ground we must have a good reason for getting up, if we don’t it makes no difference whether we are anarchists or not. We might as well stay in bed and sleep. And to have a good reason we must know what we want to do because for anarchism, for the anarchist, there is no difference between what we do and what we think, but there is a continual reversal of theory into action and action into theory. That is what makes the anarchist unlike someone who has another concept of life and crystallises this concept in a political practice, in political theory.

This is what is not normally said to you, this is what you never read in the newspapers, this is what is not written in books, this is what school jealously keeps quiet about, because this is the secret of life: never ever separate thought from action, the things we know, the things we understand, from the things we do, the things with which we carry out our actions.

There is a good deal that is simply suggestive here, thanks to a the somewhat impromptu character of the remarks and some uncertainties in translation, but, honestly, that has been some of the charm of the piece for me. There are aspects of the argument, such as it is, that I probably can’t entirely embrace. But the notion that “it is necessary to take up the question ‘What is anarchism?’ time and time again” has become an important part of my understanding of the anarchist idea and its development, in part because, if this necessity is real, it would help to explain the rather obsessive tendency of anarchists to begin and then begin again—and do so in terms that to which “get it together” is not an adequate response.

Certainly, if that part of Bonanno’s argument is correct—and if we look we can easily find similar claims elsewhere in the material we have inherited—then, while there may still be plenty of instances where our failures to develop uniquely anarchistic theory can be attributed to our own distraction and dogmatism, we are also almost certainly going to be forced to think at least a little bit differently about what it would mean to focus on anarchy, to ground some general, shareable understanding of anarchism on the anarchist idea.

Part of the work in Our Lost Continent will obviously be an attempt to account for the diversity and division we find throughout the anarchist tradition. Where possible, a key task will be to try to identify persistent dynamics among and within the various anarchist currents that can account for the historical outcomes we have seen and perhaps better inform our relations moving forward. Many of the key questions to be raised will be questions of organization—with perhaps the most important of those questions being whether or not we have allowed a particular kind of organizationalism to shape our sense of what anarchist organization might entail. One of the consequences of that particular focus will probably be an emphasis, as I am assembling the episodes and encounters to be treated in depth, on tendencies like individualism, egoism and mutualism—sometimes zeroing in on specific moments and movements that might seem marginal even in those contexts—if only to supplement insights that are perhaps pretty well disseminated among anarchists concerning the “social” side of human relations with views specific enough to break down some of the too-easy “social vs. individual” divisions and complex enough to breathe some life back into those concepts.

I expect the result will be resisted, perhaps rejected in certain quarters as not “representative.” Its that objection that I am still trying to learn to shrug off—as I think I have to when I have set myself on the trail of anarchism at its most anarchy-centric, which probably also means anarchism that is, in some senses at least, quite anarchic, at least in its manifestations.

Of course, because this is a “return trip,” I am starting out with plenty of ideas about how that anarchy of anarchism can be understood in terms other than pure intellectual or ideological dispersion, organization ineffectiveness, etc. And the prospect of taking “a different route home” is an exciting one, not least because the advance scouting that I have been able to do suggests the journey will be full of exciting discoveries and development, with potentially important consequences for present and future anarchist practice.

Still, this is inescapably yet another beginning, another moment at which it is necessary to as “what is anarchism” and, we might say,  to “put myself in doubt,” both as an anarchist and as a student of anarchist history. Even after decades of exploration—perhaps especially after decades of exploration—there is nothing simple about marking a new beginning, let alone following through to the indicated end.

So, wish me luck—and I hope that, if nothing else, the stories that emerge as the journey progresses will entertaining.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.