Coming to Terms with the Anarchist Past

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Posts in the series:

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As archives and projects converge, it seems like a good time to state or restate some the working hypotheses—or shall we say contentions—at the heart of this stage of exploration. It should be clear that the central problem I’ve been attempting to address is the role of historical knowledge in modern anarchist practice and I doubt anyone will be surprised if I suggest that we still have some work to do on that front. But let’s put it boldly:

The use of history in the anarchist milieus consistently poses problems that we remain ill-equipped to solve. And the problem is not simply one of insufficient attention or lax practice in this particular area. Instead, if we begin to seriously address the question of anarchist origins—and specifically the origins of the notion of anarchism and of the practice of anarchist history—we seem bound to acknowledge that they emerged in contexts that can only be called partisan and that these partisan origins, though not uncontested, have shaped what anarchism has been and could be.

This is the chief lesson of the work on what I’ve been calling “The Era of Anarchy”the era of anarchy without anarchism—the roughly 40-year stretch between Proudhon’s adoption of the language of anarchy and the emergence of what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism.” It is not just that this formative period is, in general, badly understood by anarchists, although that is certainly the case. We also have to acknowledge that the particular means by which “modern anarchism” came to displace the earlier anarchy without anarchism have shaped the development of anarchism from the beginning, in ways that arguably still matter.

One of the questions I have asked in a number of ways is whether that particular succession was inevitable, whether something other than “modern anarchism”—or any kind of anarchism at all—might have emerged as the logical evolution of anarchy without anarchism. This question can be unpacked to reveal a number of related questions:

  • Was anarchy really at the center of Proudhon’s project?
  • Was the language of anarchy a help or a hindrance in the development of anti-authoritarian tendencies?
  • What was the relationship between the anti-state communism that came to dominate that emerging “modern anarchism” and the thought of figures like Proudhon and Bakunin?
  • To what extent was the emergence of anarchism in the late 19th century a break with previous tendencies and to what extent was it an evolution and continuation?
  • To what extent is the modern understanding of mutualism really a product of the same period of redefinition, rather than a reflection or development of Proudhon’s thought?

And so on…

When I first started to ask these questions, it was hard not to feel like I was on very shaky ground—or perhaps that I was tinkering with the foundations of my own anarchistic projects in what could only be a rather dangerous way. Piece by piece, however, I’ve been able to assemble what seem to me to be the elements of a different way of thinking about anarchism, which is itself already established to some degree within the broad anarchist tradition. Anarchy without anarchism, anarchism without adjectives, mutual toleration (or panarchy, in the sense Max Nettlau gave to it) and anarchist synthesis are some of the manifestations of what I have come to think of as the anarchistic undercurrent within anarchist history. I have come to think of my own work—and particularly the work of extrication that I have recently begun—as another element in this series.

But that contention requires some background, including some contentious theses about some key events in anarchist history. So, again, let’s be bold and at least consider the possibility that:

Anarchism and mutualism (in the modern sense) were indeed products of the same succession—which we might now recognize as something like an exercise in retroactive continuity—by which the the projects of the anarchist pioneers, and particularly Proudhon, were reimagined as precursors to communistic “modern anarchism.”

This succession was only partially completed. Anarchism was launched as “modern anarchism” and the projects of the earlier period more or less integrated into a developmental narrative, with anarchist communism positioned at the leading edge of anarchistic evolution. But other tendencies did not simply abandon the field, new tendencies emerged and mutualism became one of the ideas around which oppositions would rally—even if it was an idea that was in many ways now substantially transformed. At the end of the 19th century, the conflict within the anarchist movement could be conceived in terms of this sort of opposition:

There are two Anarchisms. That is to say, there are two schools of Anarchism.

One is communistic, the other mutualistic.

One is emotional, the other is philosophic. One is utopian, the other practical.

One is dogmatic, the other rational.

One is destructive, the other constructive. One is revolutionary, the other evolutionary.

One relies on the logic of force, the other on the force of logic.

Henry Seymour, “The Two Anarchisms” (1894)

although, of course, the communists would describe the differences in rather different terms than the insurgent mutualists.

This simple opposition would then give way to new mixtures and new schisms, and also, even as the terms of the opposition were still being refined, to anarchism without adjectives, which accepted the new notion of anarchism, but resisted the attempt to tie that -ism to any specific practical program. In a simple, but powerful statement of that resistance, Ricardo Mella claimed that “Anarchy accepts no adjectives.”

So there are two different struggles that emerged almost simultaneously with the new anarchism. There was a struggle between adjectives—between anarchist ideologies—and struggle between ideological anarchism and the various manifestations of the anarchistic undercurrent, starting with anarchism without adjectives. Similarly, there are two ways of accounting for the projects of that period of anarchy without anarchism. According to one, which we might say is reflected in the main currents of modern anarchism, figures like Proudhon, Bakunin and Déjacque remain precursors of current anarchist ideologies. According to another, which is perhaps still largely a sort of potential historiography, anarchism without adjectives was a recovery of some elements of the proto-anarchism of the era of anarchy without anarchism, filtered, of course, through new ideological lenses.

Two things about the second approach should be clear to readers of my work. First, this is the approach that I have been moving towards for a long time. Second, there is still some moving to do and lots of clarifications to make. Part of the difficulty is that the discontinuity between eras was not just a matter of ideological divides, but of a very uneven transmission of knowledge among anarchists. So we often find anarchists in the late 19th century struggling to learn about the ideas and actions of predecessors, even when only a couple of decades had elapsed. It should probably come as no surprise that there are also two kinds of anarchist history at work in all of this as well. (Indeed, if you’ve read my earlier post on “History, Theory and Tradition,” it will come as no surprise at all.) If the first was complicit in some dubious myth-making, the second, exemplified by the work of historians like Max Nettlau, contributed significantly to the anarchic countercurrent. It is certainly no accident that Nettlau is one of the figures we find engaged with multiple sorts of resistance to the programatization of anarchism. And, personally, I can mark two different encounters with Nettlau—first as a historian of anarchism and second as a dogged critic from within the ranks—as critically important steps in my own development.

Indeed, that dual character of Nettlau’s contribution has been an inspiration to me and recognizing it has been an aid in understanding both how the various aspects of my own explorations fit together and why my two main projects—fleshing out the history of the era of anarchy without anarchism and coming to grips with the uses of anarchist history in the milieu—have seemed to be such consistently uphill battles. If, as seems to be the case, one of the first uses of a specifically anarchist past was the creation of an ideological origin story for “modern anarchism”—if, to put it more boldly, anarchism and anarchist history first emerged tangled up with a programatization and ideologization of anarchist thought—then the feeling of working against ourselves, which I think will be familiar to many of my readers, has one more potential explanation.

This entanglement might, for example, begin to explain why the theories of anarchism without adjectives and anarchist synthesis only seem to register within the tradition as additional, competing tendencies, rather than as internal critiques of a more broad and general character. It almost certainly begins to explain the tangle of ideas associated with mutualism, which only seem to become more snarled the more we learn about that particular history. But while we’re here at the beginnings of these explanations of events and tendencies still very much in the realm of the anarchist past, there’s also an almost inescapable temptation to ask questions about what more contemporary anarchist tendencies might be related to the troubled circumstances of the birth of anarchism. If we acknowledge the broad critical character of the proposed anarchic undercurrent, recognizing in its manifestations, not simply the addition of new competition in the struggle for the soul of anarchism, but a series of attempts to address the problem of the development of anarchist ideas more generally, and if we accept the evidence that these attempts have, in general, been ignored and neutralized by the anarchist mainstream, then there is certainly incentive to look for more recent instances of this dynamic at work. If we find them, but again find them suppressed, that would be significant. If we don’t find them, that too would obviously be significant. If we find instead—as I expect is likely to be the case—that the broad critical impulse remains, but that its manifestations have increasingly been channeled directly into the form of new partisan projects, that too has to be significant, when it is a question of asking ourselves if and how anarchism, as a nominally shared project, can adapt moving forward.

One way of reading the present nature of the conflicts within the anarchist milieus would be to see it as the logical result of long decades of failure to respond to internal critique from what have arguably been some of our very best thinkers (Mella, Nettlau, Voline, etc.) We might contrast our failures to address those criticisms with our readiness to take the bait when far less compelling critiques have been raised. Looking back over the prominent internal critiques of the last quarter century or so, some of those that have had the greatest impact (from Bookchin, the authors of Black Flame, etc.) have not ultimately been very good, while others with what seems to me a great deal of potential (including much of the work of the post-left, elements of post-anarchism, the contributions of the resurgent mutualisms and, alas, an awful lot of the contributions of traditionally marginalized groups to general anarchist theory) have been largely neutralized by the dynamics of the anarchist milieu, including, of course, all the ways in which that milieu is really just part of the larger society.

That’s one way of reading things, anyway. And I’m naturally very, very aware that the bolder these contentions become, the more the combination of the tentative and the audacious within them threatens to render them harmless to much of my potential audience. So, naturally, I’ll be coming back to these questions and these contentions, again and again, in order to test them, modify them, support them with additional research, etc. But the truth is that there is very little new here, very little that has not already been strongly implied by the work—alongside a great deal that has been explicit, but generally unmarked by either elaboration by myself or comments from others, for years.

I am hoping that by marking some of these working hypotheses—though perhaps not even the most audacious of them yet—there are conversations that might be started, whether online or in whatever gathering spaces are left to us. I suppose only time will tell.


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