A Good Word: Anarchy in All its Senses

“Whatever the carpers may say, the word Anarchy is rapidly vindicating itself. No other word could have given such an impetus to the gospel of Liberty in so short a time.” — Benj. R. Tucker

“Anarchy is a good word. It means, ‘without a head.'” — Eliphalet Kimball

Every time I begin to think I’ve gone a bit overboard in my research on the language of anarchy, someone on the internet reminds me just how strange things can get in a milieu where anarchism and anarchy may or may not actually have any connection, depending on which self-proclaimed anarchists you ask. Most recently, I have been rather forcefully assured, by more than one interlocutor, that those two notions are completely unrelated and that, if fact, anarchism is opposed to anarchy. That’s just a very strong statement of a sentiment I see around quite a lot, but I was interested to see that it was not a sentiment that raised much in the way of vocal opposition. I doubt that it is anything like a majority position, even among those whose idea of anarchism has been largely shaped by figures like Chomsky, Graeber or Bookchin, but I am beginning to suspect that it no longer appears as an outrageous position. That, by itself, strikes me as sufficient reason to push back a little.

The bright side of all of this, I suppose, is that if it is no longer outrageous to disconnect anarchy and anarchism, then presumably it is not a fool’s errand to take the time to show just how important the notion of anarchy really is (as I plan to do in Anarchism, Plain and Simple) or even to give some detailed account of the emergence of the various terms in the anarchist toolkit, as I’ve been doing in the posts on “Anarchy, in All its Senses.” And if the latter project is perhaps no longer just of interest to serious anarcho-nerds and specialists in intellectual history, it is much more interesting to consider a project that has been in the back of my mind for some time now: expanding the scope of “Anarchy, in All its Senses” and reshaping what I have been thinking of as a scholarly monograph into a more popular sort of account.

An expanded story would allow me to incorporate material like the recent translations from Déjacque on “anarchism,” a response to René Berthier’s “L’usage du mot « anarchie » chez Bakounine” that is taking shape in my notebooks, some analysis too deep to quite fit into Anarchist Beginnings, and a bit of material that has so far been relegated to the very back-burner historiography project, “The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution.”

It might look something like this:

A Good Word
[some subtitle about the emergence of anarchism and its keywords]


Ch. I. “It Means ‘Without a Head'”

For an expanded account, there is no need to start with Proudhon, particularly as one of the questions to be answered is why the keyword anarchy does not occupy a more central place in his work or possess a simpler, more “systematic” meaning. We know that what ties the various parts of our story together was, in fact, not any particular understanding of what anarchy entails in practice, but the fact that it was, in a variety of ways, “a good word” to designate a range of radical oppositions to the status quo, full of untamed potential.

In the interest of first approaching the term anarchy with all its wildness intact and, of course, in the interest of telling good stories, perhaps it would make sense to begin with a lesser-known figure, Eliphalet Kimball, whose home-brewed social theory arguably confronted the dangers and difficulties of anarchy as directly as any of the early adopters of the term. “Anarchy is a good word,” he said in 1862. “It means, ‘without a head.'” And his acephalous anarchy seems like a fine occasion to talk about the direct appeal of an ungovernable anarchy, both as model and metaphor, from the French Revolution-era Acéphocratie to considerably more modern variations on the theme. Kimball’s odd position as a relative unknown, but also as one of the first theorists in the United States to actively embrace anarchy as a keyword, let’s us sidestep, if only for a moment, some familiar distractions and debates grounded in anarchist tradition, while we explore the sense in which anarchy is both an untamed (and perhaps untameable notion) and “a good word.”

A close reading of Kimball’s work also lets us tentatively identify some elements of the anarchism-before-the-name of this early period, which we can compare to the work of better-known anarchist theorists.

Ch. 2. “Anarchy, In All its Senses”

When we turn to the explicit use of anarchy and anarchist as positive terms, obviously Proudhon’s 1840 declaration is a key moment, but in order to grasp all that may be in play in 1840, we probably have to begin by focusing on the instances in The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century when Proudhon embraced “anarchy, in all of its senses.” That means not just carefully documenting his use of the language of anarchy—along with that of a handful of other key early thinkers (Bellegarrigue, Déjacque, Coeurderoy, Bakunin, Reclus, etc.)—but also documenting the connections to uses of the terms outside the emerging tradition. That means exploring the connections to the French Revolution (and specifically to the Terror), to the work of Charles Fourier, to the literature and critique of emerging capitalism, etc.

I expect to be able to show a fair amount of agreement between the figures examined here and Eliphalet Kimbal, around a rather “wild” conception of anarchy. With that conception sketched out, we can begin to address some of the work that has treated the apparent inconsistencies in the treatment of anarchy as an excuse to downplay the importance of the concept, particularly in figures like Proudhon and Bakunin.

Ch. 3. “A Confusion of Tongues”

Armed with a rather different notion of what anarchy meant to the early anarchists, we can examine the other potential vocabularies for describing similar conceptions of society and progress, with the goal of determining whether our “good word” was indeed good, and how that goodness stacked up against the rhetorical competition. So it may be useful to spend some time with notions like Calvin Blanchard’s Art-Liberty! and look closely at Claude Pelletier’s journey from adjuvantism to atercracy. Both of those approaches very closely resemble the “wild” proto-anarchism of the self-proclaimed anarchists, but were dressed up in different language.

This is also probably the place to examine a range of other vocabularies used by self-proclaimed anarchists, or by the followers of those anarchists, with the goal of establishing the range of possibilities available when “modern anarchism” began to emerge in the 1870s.

The Emergence of Anarchism

There was probably as much discontinuity as continuity between the periods I have been calling the Era of Anarchy and the Era of Anarchism, and the adoption of the language associated with Proudhon by the modern movement naturally involved some plot-twists. This is the most complicated part of the story, since it combines the various attempts to define anarchism, the negotiations with the notion of anarchy, the proposal of alternate terms (acracia, etc.), some very significant resistance to the language of anarchy, all the complexities involved in integrating the work of earlier figures into a tradition that was now specifically and self-consciously anarchist, and all of this negotiated across a wide range of languages, cultures and ideological tendencies.

It should, at the very least, be possible to give a fairly clear sense of the complexities involved and to make some assessment of the strengths of anarchy as a “good word” in the debates. This will also be the place to talk about the emergence of anarchism without adjectives and to introduce some of Max Nettlau’s thought on questions of anarchist organization.

The Synthesis and the Emergence of Anarchist Studies

In Anarchist Beginnings, I’ve consciously focused on a period ending in the early 1920s, which I consider formative, but there is arguably a long aftermath, during which the “modern movement” became increasingly self-conscious and began to address its own complexities and contradictions more seriously. Sébastien Faure would have to be considered a particularly important figure in this era, both because of his role in proposing the anarchist synthesis and because of his role in the production of the Encyclopédie anarchiste (1925-1934). Both projects address both the need to clarify anarchist theory and the existing pluralism within the movement. We might look at Faure as one of the pioneers of what we now call “anarchist studies,” and perhaps as a pioneer with a particularly interesting approach to problems with still grapple with.

There are elements of Faure’s project that I would like to examine alongside the proposals of Max Nettlau, with an eye toward their present application. But I also want to examine the ways in which anarchy and anarchism were transformed in the inter-war period into the subject matter of not just sociology or political theory, but fields of expertise specific to an emerging milieu. That transformation undoubtedly opened possibilities for cooperation, but it just as certainly created a sort of politico-social space with a more or less well-defined “inside,” and in this way created a new set of difficulties (among them the possibility of anarchist practice and the pursuit of anarchy going their separate ways.)

Libertarian Socialism as an Alternative to Anarchism

As an alternative to the possibilities of some modern revival of the anarchist synthesis or anarchism without adjectives, I want, finally, to examine the arguments made by thinkers like Gaston Leval, who came, after years of involvement in the anarchist milieu, to decide that anarchy was not such a good word, after all. In works like “Libertarian Socialist! Why? (1956), “The Permanent Crisis of Anarchism” (1967) and the various publications of the Groupe Socialiste Libertaire, Leval laid out a very interesting critique of the modern anarchist movement. Unlike some of the attempts to purify anarchism by dubious rewritings of its history or commitments, there have certainly been critiques of the focus on anarchy that managed to remain fairly faithful to what seems to be the core of anarchist concerns. I want to look back at some of those, but also forward to the approach of figures like René Berthier, first, in order to explore the ways in which the word anarchy, however good it may be at describing what at least many of us still want, is certainly not the only way that might be good to express our aspirations, and, second, in order to raise the possibility that those who now consider themselves anarchists can perhaps separate, adopting languages more directly related to our key concerns, without necessarily coming into opposition.

Possibilities of Clarification and Synthesis

The result of clarifying our commitment and retailoring our language might be part of a division of the anarchist movement into more useful, coherent tendencies. It might, alternately or perhaps additionally, involve a kind of more-than-anarchist synthesis among more-or-less libertarian tendencies. In the conclusion, I want to revisit some of the conclusions from Anarchism, Plain and Simple, together with some of the practical observations that will have emerged in this history, in order to suggest at least some possibilities for moving forward without tripping each other up at each step, as we seem to do so often now.

Many of the pieces of this project will naturally come together in the course of the next year’s research. Some are already pretty well developed in my notes. I’m thinking of this as primarily a 2018-2019 project, with most of the real writing taking place once Anarchism, Plain and Simple has been pretty well put together. But, for example, I hope to complete my edition of Eliphalet Kimball’s writings later this year, and the first chapter might well at least get drafted at that time. At least having a fairly clear outline means that I can finish odds and ends as other projects dictate or allow.

And if other commitments don’t allow, you still have a provocative outline to consider.

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