Statism: It’s not just for dentists anymore…


The story of anarchist anti-statism turns out to have an unexpected wrinkle, in which that tale crosses another story of anarchists and terminology that is rather bizarre. In attempting to clarify Proudhon’s treatment of “government” and “the state,” it has been necessary to follow those terms through a rather large number of texts and context, which add up to a rather dizzying number of uses, in order to draw some general conclusions about the shift in Proudhon’s thought from what we might now think of as an anti-statist position to an analysis in which we find room for an anarchist state, but none for any governmental principle. Part of the difficulty has, of course, been the close association of anarchism with anti-statism in the present, which leads us to believe that Proudhon should have been an anti-statist, and leads us to take his strong critiques of the state, in texts like “Resistance to the Revolution,” as evidence that he was a foe of statism at first, and then changed his mind.

The problem is that statism (étatisme) was not only not a keyword for Proudhon, but it does not seem to have been a keyword for much of anyone — in the sense generally given to it by anarchists — until the 1890s or so. Proudhon was among those who spoke of governmentalism (gouvernementalisme) as early as the 1840s, but statism does not seem to have become a common term among anarchists until the twentieth century, probably as much as a result of discussion of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy as anything else (although that book was apparently not translated into either French or English until relatively late in the century.)

Among non-anarchists, statism appears in the nineteenth century as another word for statecraft or state’s rights, and statist appears as a synonym for statistician.

Statism also appears as a word meaning something like a tendency to immobility. For example, in The Dental Cosmos in 1882, we find that:

“Every atom has a side of energy and a side of statism. When we find it awakened into energy we do not know the immediate cause of its awakening.”

Here, however, we are not dealing with an origin in English or French, but with a word from Alwato, coined by Stephen Pearl Andrews and included in his serialized essay on “The Science of Universology” in The Index in the 1870s—and our tale has come back around to an anarchist’s use of the term statism, but hardly the one we might expect. The connection to dentistry is an interesting one, and traces to a brief and very local enthusiasm for Alwato and universology among a couple of dentists prominent in the debates about dental nomenclature in the late nineteenth century. Among my nearly-completed pamphlets is a surprisingly large collection of articles from the dental journals relating to the adoption of Andrews’ terminology….

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