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It’s been roughly 25 years since I first committed myself to the study of anarchist history and theory. And I can break that span down into three general periods: two decades during which I understood the work as a simple matter of “filling the gaps” in a traditional anarchist narrative that I had not yet come to seriously challenge, five years during which the tensions between anarchist history and anarchist tradition have posed all kinds of theoretical and practical problems, and, at this point, a few long weeks during which I’ve come to think of at least some of my work on anarchism as fundamentally different from the work of the first twenty years.

At the same time, it at least seems to me like the anarchist milieu within which I have been working has gone through multiple and fairly significant changes, and that those shifts in context have, at least at times, turned what might otherwise have simply felt like moments of increased clarity into crises of various sorts from which there at least seemed to be no very easy escapes. There is, of course, no discounting the fact that I have myself grown a quarter of a century older in this period or the fact that the anarchist milieu remains youth-oriented enough that the extra decades can’t help but matter. And, ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that personal impressions of the milieu and its possibilities never amount to more than that, although they may be more or less well grounded in observation and reflection.

What follows, then, is the beginning of a series of posts in which I’ll try to clarify my own perceptions of some aspects of the anarchist milieu, drawing what I hope are minimally sectarian distinctions, with an eye to examining some of the elements and relations that structure the milieu as a sort of virtual space, capable of mattering enough to provoke “internal” conflict, but also vague and plural enough to prevent the undeniable contradictions between nominally anarchist tendencies from simply shattering the the illusion of a shared social space. This exploration is motivated in part–and perhaps in large part–by what seem to me to be present tendencies capable of and perhaps, given their elements and the energies invested in them, destined to break down all the fragile balances that sustain the sense-of-milieu. It is an outcome about which I must confess a great deal of ambivalence, but not one about which I can ultimately be indifferent, for reasons that will perhaps become clearer as things progress.

I’m pursuing this particular set of examinations under the title Extrications, referencing some of my own relatively recent writings on anarchist property theory, but also more generally suggesting that our thinking about anarchism may presently be a bit of a muddle or a tangle, itself limiting our ability to respond to the real challenges we face. If that is indeed the case, then a work of separate examination and clarification, an analysis of elements that seem to have at least some degree of independence, an attempt to lift concepts and categories up out of the broad, popular discourse seems like a useful sort of work.

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I’ll start with some observations on the role of anarchist tradition in the milieu, and attempt to make some distinctions between tradition, history and theory. In that context, I want to continue my discussion about how best to present “classical” works as resources for a modern, living anarchism. And then I want to spend some time talking about the strategies that might be adopted by paradoxically “new” anarchist currents, such as “neo-Proudhonian” mutualism, as they try to find their place in the current milieu.

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Related notes:

  • Three Roads from Proudhon [coming soon]


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