Propositions for Discussion (on Anarchy and Anarchism) — I

  1. Anarchy is a simple, accessible notion, sufficient to provide the necessary glue for a real anarchist current or movement.

I’ve been struck by the number of times recently that I have encountered the argument that a really thoroughgoing idea of anarchy was an impediment, and perhaps the great impediment, to the anarchist movement. It seems obvious that attempting to do justice to the notion of anarchy could be an impediment to any number of other kinds of products or movements, but it is hard for me to wrap my head around the notion that anarchism—as an ideology, movement, individual aspiration or whatever—could have any other focus. And the difficulties presented by anarchy as a focus and ideal seem relatively minor, however great the difficulties may be as we struggle towards its realization. Words are, of course, never sufficient to really define concepts, but what the tradition seems to demonstrate is that when anarchists have turned to discuss what they meant by anarchy, they have tended define it in the broadest, most radical terms, and often with specific reference to its tendency to race on ahead of our practical projects. From Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Progress to Bonanno’s The Anarchist Tension, we are reminded that anarchy is special in that regard, that it doesn’t let us rest with a single vision of freedom in a single context. With that in mind, anarchy necessarily becomes more for us that a label or even a concept. It becomes a kind of practice or discipline, which we can share widely—provided that is really what we desire—without necessarily binding one another to any particular practical projects or philosophical commitments. And that, of course, is just the sort of relationship that we should expect in anarchy. When we see people rejecting it, we have to ask if perhaps they are mistaken about what their own focus or ideal really is.

  1. “Anarchy accepts no adjectives,” in the sense that any attempt to modify anarchy simply destroys it.

This was the strong sense of “anarchism without adjectives,” as it emerged in the earliest years of the era of anarchism. To extend their metaphor, we might say that anarchy is the adjective, in the sense that anarchy may modify other forms of organization, whether it seeps in as entropy or is introduced in a principled manner, but it simply ceases to be itself wherever it is subordinated to any other determined form of order. All of our explorations of the relationships between anarchy and order have been useful, particularly as answers to the prevailing, authoritarian notion of “social order,” but as with so many of our useful provocations (starting with “property is theft”) we have to make sure we remember that they are indeed provocative. whenever we feel the need to specify our projects and positions more specifically than just as anarchist, we should probably call ourselves anarchistic communists, anarchistic individualists, anarchistic mutualists, anarchistic feminists, etc., rather than pretend, even in the limited context of a label, that it made much of any sense to talk about a communistic or individualistic anarchy.

  1. We really are faced with a fairly stark choice—to be or not to be anarchist—but perhaps we have misunderstood the usefulness of having lots of people identify specifically as anarchists, when perhaps their most pressing concerns are elsewhere.

In a manuscript fragment from 1902, Max Nettlau expressed what I think is a rather startling sentiment for someone deeply involved in promoting and documenting the anarchist movement: “I can only consider the generalization of an idea as equivalent to its complete neutralization, to its death by anemia. It is in this sense that I have said: anarchy to the anarchists, because it is dear to me and I have seen with horror that it is sacrificed to the thirst for success…” But this was only part of the set of ideas that Nettlau was exploring. He had, for instance, discovered the notion of panarchy, which was originally conceived as a sort of “free market in governmental systems,” but which he elaborated as a kind of general cultivation of what is freedom-oriented in a variety of ideologies and projects, in the hope of creating an environment in which the more complete sorts of anarchy might actually have some chance to taking root. It’s a hard notion to come to terms with, at least as long as we imagine that the anarchist/not-anarchist divide is something we can clearly discern and effectively patrol. We treat that divide as a sort of frontier to be fortified, and then do our best to gather those with whom we feel at least some minimum of solidarity inside, while striving to keep everyone else safely outside our defenses. But, of course, even the most committed anarchists differ on how that minimum should be understood and there is no agreement about who to include and who to exclude. Could we come to an agreement on that, well, we would then be walled up in an enclosure largely of our own making, on a war footing with the rest of the world—but the truth is that there isn’t much danger of us resolving those basic issues. We are stuck in a familiar debate over which adjectives we will allow to modify anarchism, when that whole project is probably a losing proposition. If, on the contrary, we really accepted that anarchy is what works to modify all our projects, we would still have difficulties. We could not, for instance, exclude the possibility of more or less anarchistic variants of various authoritarian ideologies—but that purely rhetorical problem certainly wouldn’t prevent us from clearly identifying which projects did or did not approach our ideals.

  1. For better or worse, none of us are ever just anarchists.

To really come to terms with this sort of “anarchism without adjectives” would involve admitting to ourselves that, for example, individualism is not anarchy, although it may be anarchistic in its tendencies and those tendencies may be emphasized and encouraged—and that the same is true of mutualism (understood as a system), of collectivism, communism, etc., etc. Our hyphens have everything to do with the uncomfortable position that we, as individuals, find ourselves in, attempting to put our ideals into practice. We may be deeply committed to the ideal of anarchy, but this is presumably for reasons that have everything to do with the fact that we are ourselves individual, organized beings with specific needs and desires, who cannot be indifferent to the way the world around us is arranged. The ideal is never enough, and if we embraced the ideal without those specific, individual reasons we would have to suspect that what we were embracing was not really anarchy, but just a very particular vision of order and authority. It might be a very pleasant vision, but it would, I think, still be at odds with the vision of anarchy elaborated without our tradition. And if we acknowledge that being an anarchist is neither the whole of our identity, nor even the motivating element, then perhaps there is room in our general thinking about politics, society, etc. to consider whether perhaps we have let ourselves be pushed into placing at least the wrong sort of emphasis on that identification, while we have perhaps missed other principles around which many of our struggles might be more usefully organized.

[To be continued…]


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.