Extrications: History, Tradition, Theory

This post is part of a series, under the general title Explications, exploring some of the dynamics of the anarchist milieu. A full listing of posts and related notes can be found at the series index page.

Posts in the series:

The initial task in these Extrications is analytic: we want to pull things apart a bit, enough to see if we can’t isolate some terms and make some useful distinctions. I want to set aside this notion of the anarchist milieu as our intentionally vague term for the thing that we are examining and pulling apart. Let’s just say for now that the milieu is the social space occupied by anarchism and anarchists—and hopefully, with a little care and luck, we’ll be able to say something a bit more definite before too long.

And let’s return, just for a moment, to the promise that these analysis will be “minimally sectarian.” It should be understood that the context for this particular set of explorations is the quest for (as I put it in “Toward a General Theory of Archy“) “some sort of positive account of anarchy as sufficient to the needs of anarchism—a narrative shareable by a variety of present tendencies, but also one suggesting a shared thread through various historical tendencies.” They form part of the preliminary work for Anarchism, Plain and Simple and are one continuation of the work in the “Propositions for Discussion.” All of that work is a bit of a tightrope-walk between inclusiveness and careful concern for anarchist principles, so at least the sectarian heat is saved for instances where those principles seem threatened. But perhaps, given my tendency to emphasize the tensions between elements such as anarchy and anarchism, it is worth underlining the fact that the work also attempts to address the milieu as we find it, to treat those elements—and the others we will attempt to specify—precisely as elements-in-tension without which the milieu could perhaps not even exist in any recognizable form.

The search for a shareable narrative certainly does not preclude serious, perhaps even harsh critique, but it does put it on a rather different footing than some other approaches—including those is some other aspects of my own work.

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But let’s begin. One manifestation of the milieu is obviously the day-to-day anarchy-talk: the various bodies of discourse, multiple and to some extent contradictory, varying according to ideological tendency, locality, language, etc., that emerge when anarchists try to talk to other anarchists, or non-anarchists, about their beliefs, projects, aspirations, critiques of existing systems, and so on. Alternately chatty and declamatory, anarchism always seems to have been vocal, whether the forum was newspapers or social gatherings, but in the era of the internet it seems hard to overestimate the importance of discourse—formal and informal, constructive and divisive, well and poorly informed—in shaping the anarchist milieu, for good and for ill. One of the characteristics of all this anarchy-talk seems to be its thoroughly mixed character, the way in which different kinds of discourse cross in so many forums. But if we were to attempt to distinguish some essential elements of these mixed discourses, it is hard to imagine that our selection would not include these three, or some near equivalents: more-or-less well-informed narratives about the histories of anarchists and anarchist tendencies; more-or-less well ordered argument about anarchist principles and their application in various contexts; and a lot of more-or-less loose talk, sometimes drawing on the same material as the first two categories, but as often consisting of slogans, quotations and time-honored misquotations, snappy answers to frequently ask questions, simplisms, sectarian dogma, rumor and gossip, off-the-cuff exposition, angry accusations and equally angry retorts, etc., etc., and so on, and so on…. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just call these elements anarchist history, anarchist theory and, for lack of a better name, anarchist tradition. I’m sure it would be child’s play to raise objections to the labels—I’m not entirely happy with “tradition,” but it does help tie this analysis to some of those that have come before—but I also think they will serve our purposes here, particularly with a bit of clarification.

So let’s say that when we’re talking about elements of anarchist tradition, we are not attempting to identify “The Anarchist Tradition,” but are gesturing at a loose bundle of narrative elements likely to be invoked when anarchists, or relatively well-informed others, talk about anarchist theory and practice. These elements are subject constant conflict and more or less conscious negotiation, but they are traditional in the sense that they tend to be traceable back to familiar and long-standing positions espoused or expounded at some point by familiar anarchist figures or critics of anarchism. Their specific form and content may change often and rapidly, but the occasions for this sort of frothing agitation in anarchist discourse tend to be fairly few in number, familiar in character and general in their interest. Even those of us who have assumed iconoclastic positions within the milieu have a great deal of difficulty not gravitating toward the same sources of ferment. Even when we we reject the persistent concerns that drive so much of this traditional content, it is hard not to at least use them as something to push against. And this is arguably the positive power of what we’re calling traditional elements, since they tend to maintain contact between even the most disparate anarchist positions. Unsurprisingly, the main uses of this kind of discourse all seem to related to the maintenance of the milieu and the relations within it, whether it is a matter of signaling to allies that we are “on the same team” or of responding to all the competitors, critics and would-be entryist that naturally play their part in the establishment and shaping of the milieu. No matter how much loose talk, or pure shit-talk, we think is involved here, when we turn to examine the other elements, which are perhaps more substantive, firmly grounded and directly useful in various ways, it is worth asking whether they alone could provide the connective force necessary to maintain the existing anarchist milieu.

Perhaps the important nuance here is that I want to consider anarchism as a living tradition, so that, however much our talk tends to revolve around perennial concerns, is still being created and shaped—again, for better or worse—by the mass of daily interactions. And at some point it may be appropriate to ask to what extend the various elements we are specifying are themselves reflective of a living character.

Now, let’s use the term anarchist history—a shorthand here for anarchist-history-talk or the more public, performative aspects of anarchist-history-work—to designate a different, though often overlapping bundle of narratives that are about anarchy, anarchism and anarchists, but have no particular connection to the maintenance of specific movements or milieus and do at least attempt to render the raw events of the past intelligible in a faithful manner. Without making any strong claims about objectivity, let’s just say that what we’re designating here as history is much freer to follow the facts wherever they might lead than what we are describing as tradition. We might also say, again without insisting too strongly, that, defined in these terms, history is freer to really focus on the past, on the raw flow of events, while tradition is perhaps destined to focus on the use of selected aspects of the past in the present.

And perhaps, given what has already been said, defining anarchist theory—or talk-about-anarchist-theory, theoretical-talk-about-anarchism, etc.—is a relatively trivial manner. In any event, I don’t want to spend too much time on the question right now, beyond suggesting that there is indeed a realm of more-or-less well-reasoned argumentation about anarchist topics that we can usefully distinguish from what we are calling the traditional elements.

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The next task, then, is to see if these elements allow us to make useful observations about the milieu. Having drawn these first rough distinctions, perhaps we can propose a fairly limited number of relations between the elements of anarchist tradition and the products of anarchist history and anarchist theory:

First of all, we have traditional elements for which there is ultimately no definitive historical source. There are elements of unverifiable hearsay, partisan distortion, misreading and misinterpretation, poetic license and pure fabrication that still enjoy time-honored places in our traditions. It doesn’t appear that Proudhon ever quite wrote that “anarchy is order,” although Anselme Bellegarrigue did and Proudhon said things that were similar. Emma Goldman probably never quite said the thing about dancing and the revolution. In these cases, the error is close enough to the truth to be harmless. The stakes are raised when in cases where partisan interests are at stake. There are, for example, quite a number of instances where Marxist misrepresentations of Proudhon pass for the salient elements of his work among large groups of anarchists. We may never, for example, entirely banish the notion that he was a proponent of labor notes or entirely devoted to small-scale production, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Similarly, there is a persistent quasi-historical folklore, which passes for history in much of the milieu, that transforms the successive emergence of various anarchist currents–with, of course, notable exceptions–into a progressive account of anarchism’s steady upward climb towards anarchist communism or anarchy-syndicalism, which tends to complicate the matter of simple comparison between tendencies and render real synthesis nearly impossible. The inadequacies of that account are many and marked, but it persists nonetheless and shapes discourse within the milieu.

Second, there are historical elements that have found a persistent place in our traditions, but whose place is hardly dependent on their grounding in historical fact. For example, it is of traditional importance that Proudhon declared that “property is theft,” but Proudhon’s own arguments about why that is true–including the analysis of collective force that is arguably central to his work, seldom come into play. Bakunin’s remarks about “the authority of the bookmaker” enjoy a similar sort of renown and a similar autonomy from their original context. It is unlikely that any careful analysis of the arguments in “God and the State,” addressing Bakunin’s various statements about authority in context, would lead particularly close to the position–so common these days–that authority is simply subject to a “burden of proof,” which, if met, might confer “legitimacy.” But, in both these cases, it is seldom a question of specific interpretations or arguments. Instead, the familiar phrase is invoked as if it was related, lending a vague aura of authenticity to the new theoretical claim.

These cases can become complex. Decontextualized, familiar elements may indeed be invoked in the service of fairly serious theoretical arguments, without functioning as anything more than a suggestive bon mot. But as we’re analyzing the various elements in these theoretical discourses, we need to be clear about what is truly argument and what is mostly gestural, particularly as we see these phrases of Proudhon and Bakunin invoked in support of widely divergent and often conflicting theories of exploitation, authority, property, etc.

What does not seem to emerge in these cases, despite all the complexities, is any real break with or threat to the loose rules of play by which the traditional components do their work. If the theoretical and historical problems remain unsolved, there is likely to be neither more nor less tension in the tradition itself, If those problems are resolved, well, the important issue was arguably never those particular historical or theoretical elements anyway. A correction may remove some of the distractions that prevent resolutions of the driving tensions, and may lead to a change in the nature of the tensions within the milieu, but we are undoubtedly a long ways from the point where we might see the fundamental tensions really resolved.

Third, there is a mass of historical facts relating to anarchy, anarchism and anarchists, which do not feature as elements in our traditions and toward which those traditions can be more or less indifferent. The bulk of what we’re calling anarchist history probably falls into this category, where it serves in various complementary or supplementary roles in relation to what we’ve designated as anarchist tradition. In twenty years of “gap-filling” I learned that in most cases the gaps in the tradition were considerably smaller than the material available to fill them, but I also very quickly learned that it didn’t matter much. For instance, it is an elaboration of the tradition to note that there was an equitable commerce movement that emerged around Josiah Warren’s proto-anarchist writings. It is interesting to note that it was fairly extensive. Careful documentation of the literature of that movement is the sort of thing that will prove interesting to a small audience and useful to an even smaller one, but it ultimately changes nothing in the realm of our traditions. It is likely to have few direct practical consequence. And we can multiply examples of this sort almost infinitely.

Fourth, finally, and a bit speculatively, it seems that there may be a small, but potentially quite important body of historical or theoretical work on anarchist subjects that has the potential to really clash with traditional elements in ways that are not easily resolved. In general, this work threatens the capacity of the tradition to tie together the various tendencies and forces us to rethink aspects of the tradition that are in some sense foundational. They confront us with the shortcomings of the traditional narratives, including their potential to hold back the development of vital anarchist movements and milieus. At their “worst,” they may suggest that what holds us together may also have been holding us back, at least in some senses, for quite some time.

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I want to spend some time exploring this possible fourth category of historical and theoretical elements, drawing on my experiences as a researcher and anthologist. But first, in the next entry in this series, I want to talk a bit about the milieu as a site of tension, and explore a variety of possible responses to that dynamic.

[Next: Problems of the Mixed Milieu]

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