New Uncertainties and Opportunities

Having identified our “Era of Anarchy,” and recognized some of the ways in which the anarchist history and tradition we have inherited have obscured and distorted that early era, we have to be careful not to simply replace the old distortions with new ones. The difficulty is that we are products, as well as inheritors, of that history and tradition, and the way in which we “are anarchists”—the range of possible meanings accessible to us for the phrase “I am an anarchist”—is inevitably shaped by that fact. None of us will ever repeat Proudhon’s experience of making that declaration for the first time, and trying to make it mean something in a political landscape without clear precedents for it. Instead, all of us face the very different challenge of making the declaration mean something concrete and individual, in the face of so many similar attempts and so many ideological pressures to make our own meanings fall in line with this or that existing tendency. We may choose to identify more with anarchy than anarchism, but that is almost inevitably a response to the fact that anarchism, as an ideology or system, is so inescapably a part of our political reality. We may share a great deal with those early proponents of a “pre-anarchism” anarchy, but our experience of asserting those shared elements is likely to be very different.

If we’re going to avoid new distortions, we should take our time and explore the possible depths of our differences. Having underlined the disconnections between eras, one of the questions we have to ask is whether perhaps even identifying the period from 1840 to 1880 as an “Era of Anarchy” is a bit too presentist. Having called part of our own foundation into question, it hardly seems useful to stop short of a full inspection. That’s why “Anarchy, in All of its Senses” is likely to end up a book-length monograph, why an “alternate historiography” project like “The Great Atercratic Revolution” has seemed at least potentially useful, and why it may be worth going to some potentially extreme lengths to determine if even identifying the earlier era with anarchy is a move more beholden to ideological than historical concerns.

If we are going to explore our “lost continent,” we might as well make the most of it, have some fun and see what we can see that we haven’t seen before. Having determined that we are at least a bit wrong about our origins, there’s something to be said for doing our best to correct that state of affairs. And once we start looking closely at the details, all sorts of curious things emerge. In the midst of trying to work out just what Proudhon meant when he first said “je suis anarchiste,” I was struck by the fact that I cannot even be absolutely sure whether, in that original context, “anarchiste” is best read as a noun or an adjective. It’s not the sort of thing that ought to keep us up at night, but it might be useful to consider, in the context of contemporary debates about identity, what it might mean to “be anarchist,” without necessarily “being an anarchist,” and how relations between what we might call “the anarchist” (when opting for the adjectival reading, and with echoes perhaps of constructions like Die Freien) or “the anarchistic” might differ with those among anarchists. There are historical reasons to emphasize all the elements in Proudhon which resist or deny simple conceptions of identity, as we search for the real content of his thought and shape of his method, and, once we have acknowledged this much, we are encouraged to ask whether Proudhon’s use of multiple keywords to identify the elements of his project really represents a problem or inconsistency—as has often been claimed—or whether the problem is largely interpretive, a matter of our own choice of keywords and interpretive lenses.

Without getting too lost in details that I’m still ferreting out, I think we can safely say that “anarchy” did not have the same primacy for Proudhon that it does for us, that “anarchist” is probably a simpler sort of identity for us than it could have been for him, and that we are perhaps a bit quick to read terms like “mutualism” as designating ideologies, when they may well just indicate categories of relations. I want to tackle the question of “science” in a separate post, but let’s just note here that Proudhon had something rather specific, and in some senses quite radical, in mind when he proposed his form of scientific socialism. So perhaps one of the reasons that we do not find a treatment of “anarchism,” or a more systematic treatment of “federalism” or “mutualism,” is his works is his anarchistic resistance to systems, and one of the sources of his various terminological variations is his commitment to experiment.

From a present perspective, we know that anarchy and anarchist were the enduring keywords of the era, and we know it because they are the ones that we have adopted. We have Kropotkin’s story of the adoption, in which the absence of Proudhon plays such a prominent role. Behind it, we have the testimony of Bakunin, widely recognized as the founder of “modern anarchism,” that he, at least, despite differences on that question of science, acknowledged Proudhon as a source. Bakunin’s Proudhon was the one who “adored Statan and proclaimed anarchy,” an individual notable more for revolutionary zeal than for social-scientific prowess, a figure as unfamiliar in many ways as the historical Proudhon—the social scientist, political prisoner and exile, who wrote more than fifty volumes of theory and correspondence—but also very clearly not quite that historical figure. For better of worse, reconstructing the development of anarchist ideas and vocabularies through these formative years commits us to a very complicated project, where both historical facts and developing traditions necessarily have a place. It’s not a rabbit-hole that everyone is going to be eager to fall down.

Fortunately—as I’m sure at least some readers will agree—not everyone has to risk drowning in the details in order for all of us to at least potentially benefit from the questions raised. If we acknowledge that there is an era of anarchist activity largely ignored in our anarchist histories, and recognize that at least part of the reason for that has been tendencies internal to the modern anarchist movement, which has found itself using that era of activity as both a foundation and a foil, then it is logical to ask how else we might view it, if not as a useful appendage to our own origin story. And one of the most provocative questions is probably whether or not the activity of that early era is best characterized as “anarchist.” With so many concepts in play, and so many vocabularies in use, what do we gain or lose by focusing on “anarchy”? Perhaps more importantly, what might we gain or lose if some other characterization turned out to be more generally accurate? It appears that we have inherited something from a mythologized Proudhon, or a sanitized Bentham, or a slightly mistranslated Bakunin. Does any of that matter? If it doesn’t matter, does our present use of history and tradition make any sense? If it does matter, what are the consequences?

Internet chat rooms are full of quibbling over the true meaning of “anarchy,” with historical and lexical authority grappling endlessly, as if either mattered in some straightforward sense. If comparatively few anarchists do historical study, or even acknowledge its importance, vague references to anarchist history are among the most common maneuvers in our rhetorical toolkit—and we often resort to them when the stakes for the movement are quite high, when, for example, we are dealing with the attempts of capitalists and other authoritarians to claim that they too (or they alone) are “anarchists.” There are, I think, no shortage of theoretically adequate answers to be drawn from virtually every period of our history, and recovering early anarchist writings only increases our resources, but the rote retorts that “anarchists have always…” is perhaps less serviceable as our sense of our origins becomes increasingly complex and the “verdict of history” arguments also suffer as the traditional evolutionary narrative comes under closer scrutiny.

There are opportunities for strengthening our arguments for anarchism as we deal with these newfound complexities in our history, but we will have to embrace them.

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


  1. Hey there, if you’re interested in the information, I’ve read on a libcom biography of anarchist Charles Alérini there was a group of bakunian internationalists who used the term “an-archie” to describe their ideas in their publication:

    “With Paul Brousse and Camille Camet and others in Barcelona he founded the Comité de propagande révolutionnaire socialiste de la France méridionale (Committee of Revolutionary Socialist Propaganda for Southern France) which in 1873 published the paper La Solidarité Révolutionnaire (10 issues June-September) and which employed the term “an-archie” to describe its ideas in a signed programme. This group attempted to rebuild the movement in southern France and launch a new insurrectionary movement but soon Brousse moved to Switzerland and Camet returned to France leading to the cessation of the paper.”

    I tried searching for some issues of the paper online, but didn’t find any text directly from the paper, just some references to it.

    • Thanks! I see that Guillaume includes part of their manifesto in his history of the International. IISH seems to have the paper. Another thing to follow up on for the Collectivist Reader.

  2. Hello again, I think I’ve found another use of the term anarchist by a bakuninist before the 1880’s(in this case Jules Montels),but it’s from the late, and not early 1870’s

    The text can mean two things:
    1.That Montels really did use the term “anarchism” in his pamphlet
    2.That he was referring to the bakuninist international of wich he was a member.

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