PROJECT: Vital Things

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There is an element of anarchist theory that keeps imposing itself on my studies, often in the most unexpected times and places, which I think of — very imprecisely, I’ll admit — as a kind of vitalist tendency. By this I mean that there is a surprisingly common tendency, when attempting to speak about anarchy in its positive aspects, to make a connection to a range of ideas (life, sex, fecundity, progression, etc.) that are at once “natural” and disruptive of any very fixed, authoritative form of living or organizing social life. This presentation of anarchy resembles the more-or-less manichaean accounts pitting anarchy vs. authority as choices in the realm of social organization, but also differs from them, I think, in embracing more than just the “good” side of anarchy itself — its negative, anti-authoritarian side or its simple association with freedom — and drawing us back into an encounter with the “anarchy in all its senses” of Proudhon. To be “on the side of anarchy,” when anarchy is conceived in these more inclusive terms, potentially means to be on the side of “evil” — by at least some understandings of the notion (and here we should consider the anarchist affection for Satan, etc.) — but, more generally, to be on the side of changes whose outcomes we cannot control or predict — because the alternative seems to be one form or another of death.

This concern with the vital has appeared as central now in my work on Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin, Max Nettlau and a range of anarchists influenced by Charles Fourier, including Proudhon. And I have had a couple of opportunities to talk with anarchist audiences about the question. What I am collecting here, for now, are simply fragments relating to the question, with an eye toward eventually pulling the various insights together in a more coherent form.

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Anarchy as Life / Anarchism as its Embrace

[Proposal for a discussion session held at the 2017 Seattle Anarchist Book Fair]

It’s natural to think of anarchism as the necessary, but fundamentally negative work of critique and resistance. We live in a world that presents us with no shortage of fundamentally archic elements, which stand between us and a free, anarchic life. We may have visions of a “positive anarchy,” in the form of some “anarchist society,” but we seem to struggle imagining anarchy itself in positive terms. There is, however, a tendency in the anarchist tradition that has understood anarchy as positive and impersonal, vital and fecund–and that tendency has included figures as well-known as Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin and P.-J. Proudhon. And perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this more unfamiliar aspect of the thought of some very familiar thinkers.

If anarchy can be conceived as intimately connected to notions like life, sex, fecundity, progression, etc., what, in practical terms, would it mean for anarchists to embrace that anarchy? Do existing anarchist practices and the core principles of anarchism reflect an orientation towards that sort of anarchy, or are there tensions in the anarchist milieu between an anarchic emphasis on evolution and movement, and a movement that is forced to try to find a relatively fixed, stable footing in an arguably anarchic social and historical context?


[Proposal and notes for a presentation at the 2017 BASTARD Conference]

How do we account for the notion of evil in an anarchist context? One approach would be to examine the translations and transformations of familiar Judeo-Christian accounts in the anarchist literature. There is, after all, a familiar trope that portrays the anarchist as a matter of “doing the devil’s work.” Proudhon left us his infamous “hymn to Satan” and Bakunin recognized Satan as “the first freethinker.” These are allusions with a certain romantic appeal, as well as some rhetorical power in the battle against forms of authority that all too often seek to ground themselves in divine sanction. They have, of course, also been a source of criticism, since it is a simple move to interpret them as merely a pious inversion of elements from a familiar, manichaean tale.

It is, I think, fair to say that this criticism has sometimes hit its mark, but certainly not in every instance.

The symbolic narrative being referenced is fairly simple. In it most basic form, God, the active principle of creation and source of moral law, is opposed by Satan, the “adversary” or that which resists divine authority. Mapped onto the realm of governmental authority, anarchy assumes the role of the adversary, playing Satan to the God of Church, State, Capital, etc.

Translated or transformed into anti-authoritarian forms, things arguably become quite a bit more complex. There are conceptions of anarchism that place anarchy in the God-role, as well as those that give it an unabashedly devilish place in the story. There are those that attempt to be done with these divine or infernal elements, and those that retain them, only to put them to decidedly subversive, heretic uses. And some of the most interesting, complex treatments of these conventional elements are arguably to be found in the “classical” pioneers of the anarchist tradition (who have often been dismissed as bound to a manichaean dynamic.)

I would like to attempt the examination of a range of possible transformations of this theological narrative into anarchist terms, including the possibilities for situating “evil” in each of them, followed by some exploration of how these accounts might be used as lenses to clarify some concepts more at home in anarchists discourse, such as “anarchy” itself. As a working hypothesis, I would suggest that, while authoritarian, legislative understandings of “evil,” and morality in general, seem foreign to anarchist thought, the radical conception of anarchy we find in early anarchist writings still confronts even the most pragmatic, rational approaches to anarchism with something that we should perhaps consider our own “problem of evil.”

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It is probably helpful to explicitly situate this examination in its larger context, as the sequel to an exploration of “Anarchy as Life / Anarchism as its Embrace,” recently staged under similar circumstances at the Seattle Anarchist Book Fair. The goal there was to consider the possibility of understanding “being an anarchist” as a position equivalent to “being on the side of life” (as opposed to law, imposed order, authority, etc.) The possibility seems to be raised again and again in the “classical” anarchist tradition.

Emma Goldman could hardly distinguish anarchy and “the sex element,” quoting favorably this remarkable bit from Walt Whitman:

Sex: sex: sex: whether you sing or make a machine, or go to the North Pole, or love your mother, or build a house, or black shoes, or anything—anything at all—it’s sex, sex, sex: sex is the root of it all…

Mikhail Bakunin is usually presented as a man of action, as opposed to a thinker, but perhaps the most consistent—and most consistently anarchic—elements in his thought mark him instead as a man of life. This passage from an unpublished variant tie a common opposition in Bakunin’s thought—life vs. law—directly to the matter of “being an anarchist:”

There is one other point that profoundly separates me from our pan-Slavists. They are still partisans of unity, always preferring discipline, the yoke of authority, majestic and monotonous uniformity and public order, to liberty. Me, I am an anarchist; I am a partisan of the life from below against all laws imposed in an authoritarian and doctrinaire manner from on high and I always and everywhere prefer liberty to order…

And while this is not the place to multiply examples, the truth is that we could find similar material in many of the figures we now think of as the pioneers of anarchist thought. Indeed, there are perhaps reasons to suspect that at the heart of this early anarchist thought is a sort of dynamism, tending to reduce everything to relations between forces, but we have to stop ourselves before we venture too far down that path.

Our question is more immediate, since being “on the side of life” cannot help but be a provocative way of framing the anarchist’s position in the world. “Life,” after all, contains plenty that we would almost certainly hesitate to champion specifically and, at present, a great deal of what it means to “be an anarchist” involves constant, heightened levels of vigilance against a wide range of possibilities that many anarchists would not hesitate to call evils.

In the discussion of “anarchy as life,” we had to at least draw a tentative distinction between what we might fall the fact of life—the existence of something like Walt Whitman’s “procreant urge [and urge and urge] of the world,” which particularly manifests itself in “inception,” new births and deaths, new heavens and hells, etc.—and the products of life which few of us manage to face with the equanimity of a Whitman. As enemies of the fixed and authoritative, of every structure that would set itself up as eternal, it’s hard to imagine how we would even begin to “be anarchists” if we did not feel that life (in the sense we’ve been giving the term here) is on our side. But I think it is equally hard to imagine modern anarchists dispensing with that fundamental vigilance with regard to every sort of inception, which—however much at odds with other aspects of anarchist identity it might be—often amounts to a real mistrust of almost everything that life sends our way. It is hard to imagine anarchists dispensing with evil.

So let’s turn and face that question more directly:

We started by observing that one of the ways that the “classical” anarchists defined themselves in relation to existing, authoritarian society was through translations and transformations of familiar Judeo-Christian tales. If authority, whether attached to the Church or the State, tended to appeal to origins in divine will or providence, then it was simple for anti-authoritarians to dress up as the Devil.

This was not, of course, the only option available — or even the only option taken by figures like Proudhon and Bakunin. Key elements of the anti-authoritarian were based on analyses, like those of Feuerbach and Pierre Leroux, that saw divinity as a projection of the collective powers of humanity

Translated into anti-authoritarian realm of which we dream, however, the deposed “God” of authority becomes that which resists (“O God! … the Satan who besets us is yourself”) — and perhaps still plays a useful role — to an anarchy that can never quite fill the God-role. Secularizing the narrative means refusing the temptation of a world created in our own image, subject to our own omniscience. Unlike the supernatural, the natural always remains intractable.

Indeed, that intractability of the natural world is perhaps as good an example of anarchy as any we can point to. And if we acknowledge that, we would hardly be the first.

But to identify with the intractable means recognizing limits on our ability to entirely banish, if not religion, then at least the problem religion has tried to solve.

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The move is, however, too simple, I think, given the richness of both anarchist thought and the mythology surrounding Satan as a symbol of resistance to authority. While the inversion may at times seem simple — “O God! … the Satan who besets us is yourself” — with the status of authority upended as one move in the critique, the character of that which resists — of anarchy — seems anything but simple. With God associated with authority and law, with the absolute and unchanging, Satan assumes the role of active principle, identified with progress, change, uncertainty and the opposition to fixed standards necessary to respond to a continuing creation. And this role ultimately mirrors that of anarchy in the thought of the same figures, where it has been understood variously as life (Bakunin), sex (Goldman), etc.

Part of the process of secularizing this narrative is refusing to simply assume the God-role in it, imagining a world created in our own image, subject to our own omnipotence. While we would perhaps like to draw the whole conversation “beyond good and evil,” even the most narrowly rationalist constructions of anarchy still have to incorporate the category of the presently unforeseeable, source of uncertainty and sometimes of progress (two of the analogues of anarchy in the work of Proudhon.)

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In this “classical” form, the anarchist struggle is essentially that of “life vs. law” (Bakunin) and we certainly should expect that moral law is not exempt from the anarchist opposition, nor are most of the fixed standards and “types” with which moral legislation might be constructed. (See Stirner’s and Proudhon’s critiques of fixed ideas and absolutism.) But rather than eliminating the role of ethical engagement, this simply changes the terms under which the anarchist can — and arguably must — engage. To “take the side” of anarchy doesn’t commit us to embrace everything that life — change, progress, the uncertain products of a continuing creation, etc. — might bring us, any more than it allows us that which comes with the predetermined standards of authority and morality. Instead, it seems to demand a certain, willful exposure to what comes and an equally conscious relinquishing a particular set of evaluative tools — shaped by authoritarian norms — in favor of some other set of tools that we have perhaps not clearly identified.

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There is a familiar trope… and it is a source of criticism…

Whether or not the criticism hits home depends on the details of the narrative’s secularization…

We have to refuse the God-role…

When we do, we find there are functional limits to the project of moving “beyond good and evil” …

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Excerpts from


Introduction to Anarchy and The Sex Question: Essay on Women and Emancipation, 1897-1916

Shawn P. Wilbur, editor; PM Press, 2016

For Emma Goldman, what was vital was, in fact, vitality itself, most often understood as sex, but in the most inclusive sense of that term. In an undated manuscript on “The Element of Sex in Life,” she described sex as “the most element force in human life.” In her discussion, it becomes hard to distinguish sex from life itself, and her interest in sexual science from a commitment to a sort of sexual vitalism. Love and art, procreation and play, and the impetus behind both individual and social development all come back to sex—and not just for human beings.

To sex we owe more than poetry; we owe the song of birds, all vocal music and the voice itself, the plumage that comes to supreme glory in the bird of paradise, the mane of the lion, the blush of the maiden, the beard of man, and all higher forms of life in plant and animal worlds. It is woven into every fabric of human life and lays its fingers on every custom. To the debit side of the sex account we must charge many silly stupidities and some of the foulest injustices which go to make the thing we call human culture the amazing and variegated mosaic that it is.

Indeed, summing up her position, she claims—in a slight misquotation of Walt Whitman—that “where sex is missing everything is missing.” [1] Sex, in these most abstract moments, is Whitman’s “procreant urge of the world,” and we might usefully continue the quotation to glimpse the vision that Goldman seems to be affirming:

Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow’d persons of the earth,
These are contain’d in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself.

This vision, however, was clearly not one that had been embraced by most of humanity. Instead, various powerful institutions—in the realms of religion, politics, economics and social norms—had attempted to control the element of sex and limit its expression. As a result, Goldman said, “It is not surprising that the most elemental force in human life, sex, should still be degraded and denied.” Understood in this way, sex is closely allied with anarchism, which Goldman described as “a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions,” sharing as enemies the same group of repressive institutions. In much the same way that Proudhon had connected anarchy with a restless progress, Goldman invites us to link anarchy with sex, and both with life, understood as a transforming force. The influence of Nietzsche is evident in Goldman’s approach—even before she calls for a “complete transvaluation of all accepted values”—and her specific critique of feminism echoed familiar Nietzschean themes of decadence, contempt for life and “man,” and the opposition of morality to freedom.

Goldman’s references to Nietzsche and Whitman—both exuberant writers, excessive in their expressions, and perhaps prone to take things just a little too far—can perhaps serve us when it appears that Goldman has herself been carried away by her passion for life and freedom. There are certainly moments when her generalizations about the character of “woman” in general suggest a different kind of anti-feminism than we would perhaps associate with a woman also praised as a pioneer of anarchist feminism. But a tendency to mix art and preacherly invective, to move unexpectedly from social science to jeremiads—and at times to take it all too far—is certainly not unusual in the literature of anarchism. It is perhaps an occupational hazard for those whose subject matter and values all run towards the unchained and excessive.

Some of Goldman’s most vehement expressions were almost certainly intended to provoke scandal, but many of us should also be prepared to be scandalized at odd moments when her work seems to echo views of sex that certainly would not have been controversial to much of her audience. As an “elemental force,” but one expressed through very material bodies, sex was, for Goldman, at once innate and socially conditioned, and its conventional expressions manifested some mix of an ideal and the forces committed to its expression. As a result, Goldman was not simply a critic of traditional gender roles. Motherhood, for example, is presented as a natural manifestation of sex, and Goldman shows a continuing interest in the “ideal relation” between “man” and “woman.” But this is all consistent with the project of transvaluing values or, as Nietzsche also put it, spiritualizing passions. In the manuscript on “The Element of Sex,” Goldman quoted from “Morality as Anti-Naturalness”: “All passions have a time when they are fatal only, when, with the weight of their folly, they drag their victim down; and they have a later, very much later period, when they wed with spirit, when they are ‘spiritualized.’” It is clear that Goldman was looking towards a time when all passions will be rid of that “weight of folly,” and that this conception of the sexual ideal contributed to her defense of sexual passions and practices that might have been considered “unnatural” by many of her contemporaries. It is, however, equally clear that this approach committed her to some defenses of traditional “womanhood,” when compared to the “New Woman” of her era. The formula of “liberation from liberation” asks us to consider what must be rejected, as well as what must be embraced, in both traditional roles and existing rebellions.

And perhaps nothing more needs to be said, in general, about Emma Goldman’s various engagements with “the sex question.” If we accept that sex is fundamental, and that it is at once innate and transformative, then we should be prepared to find a similar dynamic in the writings on the subject. If we expect dynamism in the work, then we should be prepared for all the shifts and potential shocks that it contains. Thus prepared, we can apply ourselves to the task of making our way through Goldman’s essays.

[1] The phrase, from Whitman’s poem “A Woman Waits for Me,” is “Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking.”


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