Note on Anarchism and the Rhetoric of Democracy

The battle over the relationship between anarchism and democracy rages on, without necessarily gaining much in clarity. It shouldn’t surprise us, really. The earliest explicit proponents of anarchy had to find a way to place anarchy among a range of otherwise governmentalist possibilities, so we have inherited constructions like “the best form of government is that which does not govern,” leaving us to figure out whether anarchy is the last form of government (“pure democracy”) or the first form of something else–or whether perhaps the choice is largely rhetorical.

To be clear, I think the choice is more than rhetorical, but what if it really was just a question of what language we choose to make our appeal for truly and fully anarchic relations? What evidence do we have that the sort of move contemplated by those who want to present anarchy as (or at least as involving) a particularly pure form of democracy would work?

Here are a few thoughts from a recent Reddit exchange:

We certainly have choices about the way we use the language available to us and the tradition gives us a variety of examples of how those choices might play out. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” is an example of making the received language work against received ideas, and one that has been fairly durable and successful. It raises a paradox, which the curious can then explore in the set of arguments Proudhon provided. Taken out of context, it at least doesn’t lead anyone too far astray. Bakunin’s remarks about “the authority of the bootmaker,” on the other hand, has had the effect, as often as not, of making even anarchists forget the rest of what Bakunin said about authority, even just a sentence or two away from the original statement. Elsewhere in “God and the State” we have the powerful, scandalous statement that he preaches “the revolt of life against science” (the “property is theft” of the piece), which ought to send us back into the text to try to understand how this opposition plays out. But that’s not the phrase that has persisted in our memory, at least in the English-speaking world, and the one that has, when taken out of context, gives no clues as to the complexities of the argument from which it is lifted.

Proudhon wrestled with the way to deal with the words he used for new forms of familiar institutions. He initially called his preferred form of property “possession,” on the principle that new relations should have new names, but eventually doubled back, wanting to emphasize the evolutionary nature of the process he was describing, and so, for example, his description of the anarchic institutions of the future society retains the “patronymic name” of “State,” even thought the citizen-state he described is perhaps even farther removed from the governmentalist State than simple possession was from simple property. There are good reasons for the latter strategy, but the fact is that almost everyone who encounters the word “State” in the later works comes away thinking he had stopped being an anarchist.

Given all that, we might wonder why many of those same anarchists think talking in terms of “democracy” will prepare people for a new social form, rather than simply confusing everyone about what we really want.

The question seems simple enough: if anarchist have themselves often had trouble recognizing anarchic ideas presented in more conventional terms, what is the evidence that non-anarchists will be more attentive to the concepts behind the language?

There are, of course, deeper issues to consider. One of the reasons that we are having this conversation is that we have convinced ourselves that there is a pro-democracy current that goes back to the beginnings of the anarchist tradition. But it seems likely that this perception is itself in part an effect of our failure to really address the concepts behind the words and place the discussions of democracy in their proper contexts. Those of us who want to draw clear lines between anarchy and democracy are not arguing, for the most part, that democracy has not been an advance over more despotic forms of government or that anarchists will be able at all times to resolve conflict in ways that reflect “pure anarchy.” But when, for example, we look at Proudhon’s work, it seems obvious that there are critical differences between what he approves of in principle and those practices that he believes will find a place in the balancing of interests within a free society. We absolutely must, in this context, be able to distinguish between various democratic practices and the principle of democracy. When we turn to Déjacque’s later writings, we find him assigning an necessary and inevitable role to a certain kind of democracy, but as the chrysalis from which the anarchist papillon will eventually emerge, as a transitional institution and not as an anarchic one. These distinctions seem simple enough that if we were to take democracy itself as seriously as I would hope anarchists take anarchy, they would still probably be expected to emerge in our pursuit of its “pure” or “true” forms.

So why does this debate seem destined to go nowhere? From my admittedly partisan position, I would at least have to ask whether part of the problem is that we have already burdened ourselves with too much ambivalent rhetoric, which we have then treated with an indifference unbecoming among radicals. The search for that democratic current in the tradition is one more aspect of anarchist theory that ought to bring us face to face with the central concerns of the tradition. Let’s try not to waste the moment.

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