Max Nettlau’s writings on anarchist strategy form an early entry in a well-established anarchist genre: “Writings about Why this ‘Anarchy’ Thing Hasn’t Caught on Like We Thought it Should.” They’re notable for a number of reasons, including Nettlau’s credentials as “the Herodotus of Anarchism” and the fact that they date from such an early period in anarchist history. If my sense of the chronology is correct, anarchism had been a widely used keyword for less than twenty years when “Responsibility and Solidarity in the Labor Struggle” was published, and Nettlau published his “heresies” to an audience composed of many of the most prominent pioneers of anarchism. Because Nettlau preserved so much of his correspondence and so many of his manuscripts, along with the great wealth of other historical material he preserved, we also have a rather full picture of the gradual development of his ideas, with some responses from those prominent comrades. His ideas were not always welcomed by other anarchists, as we can see in this marginal note by Kropokin:
But Nettlau continued to make himself heard, if not always understood, on the topic of anarchist strategy for roughly forty years, leaving us hundreds of pages of material grappling with some concerns that cannot help but be of interest to contemporary anarchists. In this opening commentary, I want to focus on three in particular: Anarchy, Panarchy and Peace.
First, however, let me say a few words about the book project that is driving a lot of this research. Among Nettlau’s manuscripts are two long works—an unpublished “Essai d’une critique de quelques tendances actuelles du mouvement anarchiste” from 1902 (preceded by a shorter English draft and a French summary) and “Eugenics of a Free Society: Thoughts on Roads to Anarchism” (1927), which exists in an English manuscript, but has been published only in German and Spanish versions. I am slowly sifting through the shorter works and manuscript fragments to determine what texts include enough material not included in those works merit publication, but at this point it looks like perhaps two volumes—tentatively titled “Responsibility and Solidarity” and “Roads to Anarchism”—should cover the essential works. Nettlau himself also assembled a collection of works by other anarchist thinkers that seemed to support his 1902 work, and I will do my best to gather and translate those for inclusion here, with the possibility of perhaps assembling some sort of related anthology at a later date.
Having immersed myself in these texts, I’ve been struck by two rather strongly conflicting feelings. The first is that these texts are remarkably contemporary in their concerns, perhaps simply because the tradition has never really adequately addressed the questions they raise. The second is that they are couched in a language, and depend on concepts, that constituted a novel and rigorous sort of internal critique in Nettlau’s hands, but have now largely slipped into the hands of those for whom a rigorous attention to the demands of anarchy might actually be unwelcome, those who are drawn to the anarchist label but are indifferent, or even antagonistic, to any really thoroughgoing conception of anarchy. I have been reminded of the very different responses to my comment on the “ungovernability” of anarchism, and also of Proudhon’s provocative handling of the term “anarchy.” It probably shouldn’t surprise us when the sort of concepts that anarchists are drawn toward threaten to escape our grasp, let alone our control, but I think it is safe to say that it does indeed catch us by surprise—time and time again—and that our fear of losing control of our own discourse contributes to a certainly clumsiness on our part when it comes to separating our core ideas from the swirling rhetoric that surrounds them. Nettlau employs a range of notions—panarchy, anarchism without adjectives, voluntaryism, mutual tolerance, etc.—that he knew would raise at least rhetorical red flags in his own day, and which are now easy to recognize as—among other things—tools in the kit of a fairly concerted effort to blur the lines between anarchism and some of the tendencies to which it has traditionally been most opposed. We would be foolish to be indifferent to the uses to which these notions have been put in recent years. We would, however, be even more foolish to simply abandon the impulses behind their use in a work like Nettlau’s, on the basis of some rhetorical taint. Fortunately, most of the stratagems of the entryists are pretty weak stuff, when examined closely, so perhaps a bit of head-on confrontation is enough to let us at least start to extricate ourselves from the rhetorical tangles.
“Anarchy accepts no adjectives.”
When we think about a notion like “anarchism without adjectives,” there are two fundamental directions our thoughts can take us. If we accept the premise that, as Emma Goldman put it, “Anarchism is not, as some may suppose, a theory of the future,” then we may be led to greater acceptance of a wider range of proposals for a future society, or we may be led away from speculation about more-or-less anarchic systems altogether and focus more specifically on anarchism as (again quoting Goldman) “a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions.” A bit of both is probably the ideal, as long as we don’t let an excess of one tendency lead to indifference about the other side of the question.
It seems to me that “anarchism without adjectives” has become a convenient label for people who are either undecided or indifferent with regard to questions of social and economic organization, but also to some who would like to see our inability to predict the future leave an opening to systems that have already more than proven their incompatibility with anarchy. Somehow, instead of Ricardo Mella’s notion that “Anarchy accepts no adjectives,” there seems to be a sense that anarchy will accept all adjectives, including some that are obviously, wildly inappropriate. Maybe it’s a basic grammatical trap: we have these nouns—anarchy, anarchist and anarchism—and they are infamously hard to define, and one of the chief ways that we clarify what we mean by particular nouns is to add adjectives. But we have been reminded repeatedly, in a variety of ways and by anarchists as diverse as Proudhon and Alfredo Bonnano, that these particular nouns are ones that we are going to have to return to again and again in a bit more fundamental manner. If we say we like ice cream, and someone asks us what flavor, then we can usefully specify. But if we try to specify kinds of anarchy, then we are most likely to simply describe something that is not quite anarchy, that differs from anarchy by being still tied to our particular preferences for some kind of established order. The same is not necessarily true for ideologies, so perhaps our anarchisms can be usefully specified. Perhaps anarchism without adjectives doesn’t make much sense at all, since an unspecified ideology probably doesn’t do the work we expect of an ideology in the first place—but that probably ought to suggest to us that our anarchistic ideologies are at best anticipations of some one of those “approximations of an-archy” that Proudhon anticipated as part of our progress. An anticipation of an approximation may indeed be usefully adorned with all sorts of adjectives, but that’s because it is at least a couple of significant steps away from anarchy. Anarchy is the thing that is perhaps always going to respond to our best-laid plans with a hearty “One more effort, comrades!”
To say “I am anarchistic” is bold enough, though most anarchists would probably consider it a little tentative. But to say “I am an anarchist” might be a matter of, as they say, writing a check we can’t cash (unless, of course, what we really mean is “I am anarchistic,” but delivered with a little more flair.) It would probably be more precisely descriptive for most of us to say that we are anarchistic individualists, anarchistic mutualists or anarchistic communists, but the stronger declaration—I am an anarchist!—probably functions for many of us as a kind of manifesto, an attempt at making a certain desired reality manifest. I suspect that was true for Proudhon, and I think that consciously climbing out on that particular limb is itself an important part of any sort of meaningfully anarchistic practice—but it certainly involves subjecting ourselves to a particular kind of tension, in a part of our lives—closely associated with identity, and everything that goes with it—where we may be prone to look for dynamics that are somewhat less tense.
But let’s say that we accept this notion that “anarchy accepts no adjectives,” while perhaps our individual or shared anarchistic projects require all sorts of specification. What are the consequences when we try to make sense of the “anarchism without adjectives” of Ricardo Mella, Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, Voltarine de Cleyre, Max Nettlau, etc.? We seem to have two elements to incorporate into our practice: on the one hand, in our identification with anarchy, and in our relations with others who also identify with that ungovernable notion, perhaps our sense of solidarity ought to increase as the notion of anarchy that we share assumes a more and more unmodified character; on the other, our practice, whether shared or parallel, can’t take place at those levels of abstraction, and the ways in which we express our solidarity have to express some sort of cautious, pragmatic pluralism (acknowledging, as Nettlau put it, that “men are different from one another,” and that these differences have all sorts of repercussions for the full kind of freedom we envision as part of anarchy), but without letting ourselves be carried so far away from our well-considered understanding of anarchy itself to accept the various “anarcho”-authoritarians with which we seem to be constantly faced. But if anarchy’s answer to those best-laid plans of ours is “One more effort, comrades!” then it shouldn’t be so hard for those of us intrigued by this adjectiveless approach to anarchism to get comfortable enough applying that response to our own best that we don’t fall for proposals that are pretty obviously not even within the realm of the good.
Of course, not everyone is going to be drawn to an approach that is quite this unrelenting, so we need to figure out—assuming we don’t also decide it’s all a bit too much—just how to proceed, when the differences among us are likely to be substantial at every level of analysis. Max Nettlau proposed a notion of “mutual tolerance,” and explored the strategy of panarchy, but we’ll have to see if that commits us to things we can’t tolerate.