Anarchy: Into the Maelstrom

First, we scuttle the ship of state, with all hands, if need be—ourselves includedif, for the moment, only in the realm of the imagination

After all the preliminaries, all the hesitations, it is time to take the plunge, to do our best to define anarchy in such a way that it can serve us as a guide and instrument in the exploration we have undertaken. And we have told ourselves that the anarchist conception of anarchy became more radical as time went on, as anarchism emerged as a more coherent project, so we should expect that the earliest figures have set the bar low in various ways—and we should prepare ourselves to outdo them.

In “Proudhon’s Barbaric Yawp,” I tried to indicate what was truly radical in Proudhon’s anarchist declaration—”je suis, dans toute la force du terme, anarchiste”—concluding that:

We have still not even come close to exhausting the radical possibilities of that inaugural moment. “Je suis anarchiste” remains, despite all of our efforts, nearly as untamed and untranslatable as it did in 1840.

There, the emphasis was largely on all that was possible as a next step from that first one, including possibilities that the anarchist tradition has never explored. The case for a viable anarchist synthesis begins with a demonstration that anarchiste was, from the beginning, capable of embracing a range of expressions without losing its most basic sense. But that argument almost certainly depends on an account of anarchie that displays a similar unity-in-diversity. Ultimately, this will require a return to the problem of “l’Anarchie, entendue dans tous les sens” (“Anarchy, understood in all its senses“), but perhaps we could start by simply attempting to bridge the first great anarchist schism that we generally recognize. If we are to talk about an anarchy simple and clear enough to the full range of anarchists and anarchist tendencies in our diverse history, finding some common ground between Proudhon and Joseph Déjacque is almost certainly a useful and necessary first step.

And there is no need to be coy about where I think we are headed. As I argued in “Anarchy and Democracy: Examining the Divide” and the responses that followed it, it seems both possible and ultimately necessary to make a clear distinction between the various forms of governmentalism and the anarchist alternative.

“…archy or anarchy, no middle ground.”

The problem, as I’ve suggested in the glossary entry on “legal order,” is that government tends to be pervasive. The existence of a single law tends to divide the social world up into the prohibited and the permitted, so that there is not really a question of “small” or “big” government, but instead only various difference in the manner in which we are ruled.

In order to be a real alternative to the regime of authority, anarchy would then have to involve a very complete break with legal and governmental order.

And there are certainly times when Proudhon seems to be pointing us in that direction. Consider this famous passage from the essay on “Democracy” in Solution du problème social:

The ideal republic is an organization that leaves all opinions and all activities free. In this republic, every citizen, by doing what he wishes and only what he wishes, participates directly in legislation and in government, as he participates in the production and the circulation of wealth. Here, every citizen is king; for he has plenitude of power, he reigns and governs. The ideal republic is a positive anarchy. It is neither liberty subordinated to order, as in a constitutional monarchy, nor liberty imprisoned in order. It is liberty free from all its shackles, superstitions, prejudices, sophistries, usury, authority; it is reciprocal liberty and not limited liberty; liberty not the daughter but the mother of order.

An organization in which individuals do what they wish and only what they wish certainly sounds anarchic in a rather strong sense. If we’re looking for ways to improve and radicalize this particular account of anarchy, then it is almost certainly a matter of making the break with government and authority as explicit in the rhetoric as it seems to be in Proudhon’s mind—so, no more talk of “kings,” or “citizens” for that matter, and no more recourse to the language of self-government in order to describe “an organization that leaves all opinions and all activities free.” Unless we are to believe that Mother Liberty engenders Order once and only once—that anarchy is a precondition, but not an ideal for a free society—then we are probably better off with the much stronger, clearer rhetoric of the Napoléon III manuscripts. Again:

“…archy or anarchy, no middle ground.”

But have we doomed our project from the outset? Is this strong sense of anarchy too strong to unite even the earliest anarchists? Perhaps not. In a variety of tones and vocabularies, the early advocates of anarchy seem to have fairly consistently seen it as a radical break with the governmental status quo. For example:

Anselme Bellegarrigue: “Anarchy is the annihilation of governments.”

Ernest Cœurderoy: “No master, or nothing but a master.”

Félix Pignal: “Down with governments, down with tyranny, and long live independence! Long live love and friendship.”

Elisée Reclus: “Our destiny is to arrive at that state of ideal perfection where the nations will no longer need to be under the tutelage of a government or of another nation; it is the absence of government, it is anarchy, the highest expression of order.”

But what about Déjacque, who is so often held up as an early alternative to Proudhon and who seems to have been the first anarchist to attach himself to the notion of anarchisme? He seems to have been, if anything, even more extreme than Proudhon.

So—men of great liberties or small, the lukewarm and the hot—rally, all of you, to Liberty, to complete, unlimited liberty, for apart from it there is no salvation: Liberty or death!… Rally to the only true principle. Together let us oppose radicalism to radicalism, anarchism to jesuitism, so that what the cross-bearers and sword-bearers, the bravos of the autocratic and theocratic Authority provoke as a Riot (which they strive to drown in blood and drag around in irons) responds to them by growing to the level of the circumstances, by declaring Revolution!!!

We must always, of course, ask ourselves to what extent the extremism in these expressions is also rhetorical. Déjacque was explicit in embracing Scandal as at least one of his muses and Proudhon, if less open about the matter, certainly didn’t shy away from provocation. But I think our interpretive choices are fairly simple. To the extent that the more extreme invocations of anarchy are simply rhetorical, the project in which they are presumably in service seems reducible to some form of “good government”—but without any very clear standard by which to judge the goodness. This is the problem faced by all those who are presently attempting to embrace “legitimate authority” or “justified hierarchy,” but without, it seems, any means of knowing how authority could be deemed legitimate or hierarchy justified—and certainly without any clearly anarchistic means. If, on the other hand, we take the strong distinctions seriously—”…archy or anarchy, no middle ground”—we may find our project thwarted by various difficulties, but we can at least say that we clearly have a project distinct from the project of government and legislation, from the organization of society into hierarchies governed by various presumed authorities.

So what does that project look like? What are the most basic organizational consequences of embracing anarchy—since questions of organization are bound to dominate debates about anarchist synthesis—?

In “Archy vs. Anarchy,” I tried to sketch out some of those consequences, starting with the abandonment of the polity-form in favor of more thoroughly federative forms of social organization. Decentralization is perhaps an inadequate term for that transformation, but the abandonment of schemes that privilege any particular center was certainly a key move in early anarchist strategy. So, for example, we find Proudhon invoking a perennial decentering notion early on, in The Celebration of Sunday:

In the sphere of pure ideas, everything is connected, supported and demonstrated, not according to the order of filiation, or the principle of consequences, but according to the order of coexistence or coordination of relations. Here, as in the universe, the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere; that is, everything is at once principle and consequence, axis and radius.

And then returning to it in The General Idea of the Revolution, this time specifically as it relates to social relations:

Let us recall the principle. The reason for the institution of government, as we have said, is the economic chaos. When the Revolution has regulated this chaos, and organized the industrial forces, there is no further pretext for political centralization; it is absorbed in industrial solidarity, a solidarity which is based upon general reason, and of which we may say, as Pascal said of the universe, that its centre is everywhere, its circumference nowhere.

And what Proudhon found in Pascal—and we might be familiar with in Nietszche—Déjacque pulled from the works of Pierre Leroux, as in The Humanisphere he connected the circulus and anarchy:

Since the ages of antiquity, the sciences have constantly gained ground. The Earth is no longer a solid and immobile surface, as we formerly believed in the days of a creator-God, ante- or ultra-diluvian monster. No: the earth is a globe always in motion. The heavens are no longer a ceiling, the floor of a paradise or an Olympus, a sort of vault painted in blue and festooned with golden corbels; it is an ocean of fluid of which neither the eyes nor the thoughts can plumb the depths. The stars, like the suns roll in that azure wave, and are worlds gravitating, like our own, in their vast orbits, and with an animated pupil under their luminous lashes. This definition of the Circulus: “Life is a circle in which we can find neither beginning nor end, for, in a circle, all the points of the circumference are the beginning or end;” that definition, taking some more universal proportions, will receive an application closer to the truth, and thus become more understandable to the common. All these globes circulating freely in the ether, attracted tenderly by these, repulsed gently by those, all obeying only their passion, and finding in their passion the law of their mobile and perpetual harmony; all these globes turning first by themselves, then grouping together with other globes, and forming what is called, I believe, a planetary system, a colossal circumference of globes voyaging in concert with more gigantic planetary systems, from circumference to circumference, always extending, and always finding new worlds to increase their volume and always unlimited spaces in which to execute their progressive evolutions; in the end, all these globes of globes and their continuous movement can only give a spherical idea of the infinite, and demonstrate by irrefutable arguments, — arguments that one can touch with the eye and the thought, — that anarchic order is universal order. For a sphere that always turns, and in every sense, a sphere which has neither beginning nor end, can have neither high nor low, and consequently neither a god at the summit nor a devil at the base. The Circulus in universality dethrones divine authority and proves its negation by proving the movement, as the circulus in humanity dethrones the governmental authority of man over man and proves it absurd by proving movement. Just as the globes circulate anarchically in universality, so men should circulate anarchically in humanity, under the sole impetus of sympathies and antipathies, reciprocal attractions and repulsions. Harmony can only exist through anarchy. That is the whole solution of the social problem. To desire to resolve it otherwise, is to want deny Galileo eternally, to say that the earth is not a sphere, and that this sphere does not revolve. And yet it turns, I will repeat with that poor old man who was condemned to perjure himself, and accepted the humiliation of life in order, no doubt, to save his idea. With this great authoricide, I forgive his apparent cowardice in favor of his science: it is not only the Jesuits who believe that the end justifies the means. The idea of the Circulus in universality is in my eyes a subject of too great scope to devote to it only these few lines; I will return to it. While awaiting more complete developments, I call on revolutionaries to meditate on this passage.

And this invocation of the circulus ought to recall Proudhon’s emphasis on progress—understood as constant movement, circulation. Indeed, in Justice in the Revolution and the Church, Proudhon encouraged his readers to “admire this circulus, which antiquity represented by the symbol of the snake which eats its tail”—relating it there to the “universal conflict” and “balancing of forces” that he considered “the fundamental laws of the universe.”

And from here we might dive straight into the various attempts at a science of society—by Déjacque and Proudhon, by Leroux and Charles Fourier, etc.—by means of which the complex dynamics of a decentered, endlessly circulating universe might be adequately described. After all, this sociology based on the analysis of collective force, which occupied so much of Proudhon’s career, is the basis for the neo-Proudhonian anarchism that I have proposed as a plain, potentially shareable framework for anarchist synthesis.

But I think it is appropriate to pause here once more to examine just how anarchists like Proudhon and Déjacque—who were, as we have noted, no strangers to the muse Scandal—took that particular plunge. Proudhon had his “je suis anarchiste” and “propriété, c’est le vol.” Bellegarrigue insisted that “Anarchy is order, for government is civil war.” Cœurderoy invited the Cossacks to invade. And Déjacque, insisting that “Harmony can only exist through anarchy,” started The Humanisphere—his anarchistic reimagining of Fourier’s phalanstère by declaring:

This book is not a literary work, it is an infernal labor, the cry of a rebel slave.

And then again:

This is a book of hatred, a book of love!….

But perhaps it is what comes between those two statements that is most interesting.

In the context of the present, there’s no avoiding the fact that talk of decentering, invocations of Proudhonian anti-absolutism and the more extreme presentations of anarchy all tend to provoke certain kinds of moral panics, whether it is a matter of the campaign against “lifestylism” (bolstered in part by a reading of anarchist history that placed Proudhon among the “individualists”), the wild talk about “postmodernism” or “cultural marxism” (which seems to unite traditionalist entryists and the proponents of various kinds of scientism in truly bizarre ways) or just the widely-expressed concern (both within and outside the anarchist milieus) that anarchists won’t be able to “make decisions” and “get things done” if they don’t rein in their more radical impulses. No one will be surprised when I say that I am equally unperturbed by all of those concerns. The premise driving this work—and really all of my work—remains this:

  • A distinct, anarchy-centered anarchism is not just possible, but necessary, if we are to confront the systemic challenges facing us, and that anarchism seems likely, if seriously pursued, to be adequate to the task.

But, if I am unperturbed, it is because I have already embraced the difficulties of an anarchy-centered anarchism and recognized the real difficulties posed by the threats of “uncertainty and profusion” that seem inextricable from the approach. And I don’t have the slightest interest in downplaying those threats. As I said in the post “On the Anarchist Culture Wars:

When it comes right down to it, the only people I have much faith in when it comes to a lasting commitment to anarchist thought and practice are those who are both serious about ideas (although I recognize a lot of ways this seriousness might manifest itself) — and specifically serious about anarchist ideas and anarchistic ways of thinking — and ready to acknowledge that the particular ideas that separate anarchism from the rest of the political or social philosophies out there, anarchy chief among them, are not “safe.”

I don’t think I am wrong to imagine that most of the early anarchist pioneers I have been studying were in that category of individuals who both valued ideas and understood their dangers. And when the course I’ve chosen feels more than a bit like folly, one somewhat ironic touchstone has been the opening sections of The Humanisphere. There, between the two declarations about the character and spirit of the work, is one of the more peculiar opening sequences I can think of:

Being, like the cabin boy of the Salamander, unable, in my individual weakness, to strike down all those who, on the ship of the legal order, dominate and mistreat me, when my day is done at the workshop, when my watch is finished on the bridge, I descend by night to the bottom of the hold, I take possession of my solitary corner and, there, with teeth and claws, like a rat in the shadows, I scratch and gnaw at the worm-eaten walls of the old society. By day, as well, I use my hours of unemployment, I arm myself with a pen like a borer, I dip it in bile for grease, and, little by little, I open a way, each day larger, to the flood of the new; I relentlessly perforate the hull of Civilization. I, a puny proletarian, on whom the crew, the horde of exploiters, daily inflict the torment of the aggravated misery of the brutalities of exile or prison, I open up the abyss beneath the feet of my murderers, and I spread the balm of vengeance on my always-bloody scars. I have my eye on my Masters. I know that each day brings me closer to the goal; that a formidable cry—the sinister every man for himself!—will soon resound at the height of their joyous intoxication. A bilge-rat, I prepare their shipwreck; that shipwreck alone can put an end to my troubles and to those of my fellows. Come the revolution, will not the suffering have, for biscuit, ideas in reserve, and, for a life-line, socialism!

This section ends with a call to insurrection, at which point the work turns to a rather conventional preface, followed by the various descriptions of the Humanisphere and its underlying rationales. It is a bit like a section from another work, prepended so we don’t forget that this is the same Déjacque condemned for participation in the June days, for publication of incendiary verse and for possession of unlawful munitions—who was then condemned by his fellow exiles for promoting “antisocial thought, criminal means.” But even if we take it separately, on its own terms, I think it is remarkable. Stuck in the hold of the ship of state, a “bilge-rat,” Déjacque sees the way forward toward freedom in terms of scuttling the ship.

I relentlessly perforate the hull of Civilization.

And we have to wonder, if this is not indeed a strategy of self-destruction, what bit of magic or science, what sort of sea-change, is likely to transform this desperate attempt into some kind of victory. Talking about the rationale for publishing The Humanisphere together with the much more obviously insurrectionary pamplet, The Revolutionary Question, I suggested a few years back that perhaps we needed to address a number of utopias in Déjacque’s work:

I’ve been thinking about Déjacque’s “Humanisphere” in terms of a tension between two kinds of “utopia:” a space of harmony, the Humanisphere, and a space of resistance, occupied by the servants who loot or poison their masters, etc. But I suspect what many of us actually find most compelling about some of Déjacque’s writing is the thing we find in Coeurderoy, a sort of apocalyptic openness to whatever floods in when (to pick up the metaphor early in the book) he manages to drill a hole in the hull of the ship of civilization. Fourier arguably manages to mix up these three utopias fairly successfully, with his half-mad illustrations, but in the early anarchists we get them carved up in various ways.

And perhaps I have just been waiting for that final reference back to the works of Fourier to sink in.

I don’t think that it is hard, particularly given all that has already been said about anarchy, to understand that part of what has to change in order for the scuttling of the ship of state—or of “civilization”—to lead to anarchistic victory is a refusal of the framing narrative, which makes the ship a place of safety, despite all the horrors of life within it, and the waters that might rush in, the vortex created by the sinking vessel, conditions of certain doom. If the ship is indeed the ship of state, then what it keeps out is probably anarchy—so perhaps the metaphor fairly quickly loses its utility for anarchists. Perhaps there is little to be lost in abandoning this particular line of thinking provided we can maintain our sense of the stakes and dangers involved.

But things keep circling back, cycling by, whirling around…

We have already identified anarchy with the circulus, the circulus with the Humanisphere, which is the anarchistic version of the phalanstery, otherwise known—and here that half-remembered bit of Fourier finally sinks in—as the tourbillon, which is, in turn, the whirlwind or whirlpool.

Everything seems to conspire to bring us back to the maelstrom. And we know what the maelstrom can do. We think of Poe’s mountain guide: “…the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul.” And, still lingering in the middle of the nineteenth century, we can hardly help but think of Ahab:

“The ship? Great God, where is the ship?” Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.

But there are, perhaps, reasons to cling to this particular metaphor for just a bit longer, provided we can maintain our distance from the foundering ship of state. So let’s take one last look at the wreck of the Pequod, not just to consider the kinder fate of Ishmael, but to wonder just a moment longer about how “everything is connected, supported and demonstrated,” in the presence of “unharming sharks” that might have been lifted straight from The Theory of Universal Unity.

The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck.

It so chanced, that after the Parsee’s disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.


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