The Pleasures and Perils of “Getting Back to Basics”

I’ve talked a bit, in this period of personal and political transition, about the effects of working backwards through the anarchist tradition, “chipping away at … accepted wisdom.” I would hope that the practical difficulties shine through in most of my recent work, whether it is the attempt to grapple with Proudhon’s developing notion of the State, in the period before anti-statism was really a thing, or the discovery that his idea of “anarchy” may have been a bit more complicated than we generally acknowledge. I’m in the last throes of revising my essay on the State right now, and find myself forced to unlearn nearly as much as I’m learning–as quickly as humanly possible–and then forget parts of what I’m un/learning, temporarily, so that something actually gets written. Some of these maneuvers have been easier than others. Coming to terms with Proudhon’s developing property theory was hard, given the importance placed on his famous statement that “property is theft,” and filling in the blanks between 1840 and the 1860s took me on a wild ride through his works. Translating The Philosophy of Progress and The Celebration of Sunday gave me some important signposts for mapping Proudhon’s general itinerary, and some more recent dips into his collected correspondence have confirmed that Proudhon himself recognized a major transition–what he called, in what is perhaps a bit of characteristic overstatement, a “complete transformation”–in the period immediately following the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon, a shift from critical to constructive work.

One of the more disorienting experiments of the last few months has been attempting to take Proudhon at his word–at least provisionally–when he declares property defeated, “never to rise again,” at the beginning of a life-long examination of the problems involved with it, or when he makes these claims about “complete transformation” in his work. With some real confidence about the broad trajectory of his project–drawn from those signposts he himself left us–I’ve been trying to entertain a wide range of possibilities with regards to the details, reading and rereading texts with an eye to the fine points, particularly concerned with the patterns of keyword-use, and the places where they might break down.

I didn’t really expect anarchy to be as troublesome a notion as it has become, despite a long-standing suspicion that, for Proudhon, it was not quite the same, absolutely central concept that it has become for those of us who have inherited the tradition. Anyone who even dabbles in anarchist history can cite examples of anarchists using “anarchy” to mean disorder, since the term was not widely used for self-identification until late in the 19th century. But in The General Idea of the Revolution, where he paid quite a bit of explicit attention the senses in which various terms should be understood, and where he used the term anarchy to designate both his political ideal and chaos and “anarchie économique,” he went out of his way in two passages to link the two usages, describing the general trajectory of progress in these terms:

Le premier terme de la série étant donc l’Absolutisme, le terme final, fatidique, est l’Anarchie, entendue dans tous les sens.

The first term of the series being thus Absolutism,  the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses. 

The Robinson translation obscures the range of “senses,” of course, which means this troublesome passage has been hidden in plain sight for a long time now. And I have yet to do a sufficiently exhaustive survey of Proudhon’s use of the term to be sure of anything, except that the complications are probably not yet exhausted. 

It has been an interesting challenge to track the various critical and constructive uses of notions like property and the State. It’s a little different sort of problem when the keyword that seems to have slipped free from its ideological moorings is anarchy. On the one hand, it’s extremely exciting to think that the old dog perhaps has some “new” tricks to show us, right at the point of its origins. On the other hand, these are the foundations we are talking about, and while some of us have been talking about the anti-foundationalist elements in Proudhon’s thought for awhile now, I think perhaps we’ve tended to assume that anarchy was going to remain relatively unscathed as things developed. Instead, it looks like maybe anarchy is going to be the site and occasion of some of the most interesting and challenging developments to come. 

This is the stuff that was looming on the research horizon as I wrote up the outline for the Two-Gun Mutualism book, and it has loomed considerably larger in the meantime–to the extent that I’m pretty sure addressing it, and laying out the nitty-gritty details of how to rig your “occupancy and use” property so that it is ecologically sustainable and provides the basis for a traditional mutualist currency (etc.) are probably two separate projects. For better or worse, given what I perceive to be the state of the anarchism movement(s) at the moment, focusing a bit more philosophically on that business of “anarchic encounters between equally unique individuals” has honestly seemed like it was of more immediate and practical use. Thus, Everything in the Balance, which will at least be a good, close look at those old “foundations,” and the Atercracy project–my Great Leap Sideways–which will, I hope, let me work around and through this potential “slipping free” on the part of the concept of anarchy.

As I mentioned, the ANARCHISMS Project is a sort of bridge, built of as many individual conceptions of anarchism and anarchy as I can assemble, with the goal of highlighting at least some of the dizzying complexity that the tradition has either suffered or enjoyed, depending on your perspective, in the historical archive. But one of the rules of that game is that the texts included will be in at least some very broad sense orthodox and also fairly programmatic. That still leaves a lot of the material I’ve been dealing with–all the near-misses, close cousins, precursors, experiments, and roads-not-taken that the Libertarian Labyrinth was originally created to document–outside the envelope. The project can provide a much-extended variety of anarchist canon, a body of evidence in support of the hypothesis of the ungovernability of the anarchist tradition, but it is ultimately still a project about what “anarchism” is, even if it seems likely to open that question up to a range of interesting concerns.

There is, arguably, another sort of ungovernability lurking beyond the concerns I have addressed so far, the fact that the events of history seldom really conform to our after-the-fact categorizations, which pretty much always seem to beg some question or questions which perhaps we should address. There are specifically anarchistic theoretical concerns about how we deal with “raw” history, some of them relating to the way Proudhon conceptualized “the Revolution” in works like his famous “Toast.” But, honestly, there are also just plenty of indications that we’ve been pretty slipshod and ideologically-driven in the way we have dealt with our own tradition–as well as indications that we can do better.

So I’m in the midst of trading up (as I see it) a bunch of interesting, but presently also very frustrating, questions and conflicts within the little world of resurgent “mutualisms” for some more basic questions about how we got to the place in our questioning and conflicting that we occupy today–questions about the various things that Proudhon meant by “anarchy,” about Dejacque’s invention of the “you’re just a liberal” attack, about “anarchists” who never claimed, or explicitly rejected, the label, about the failures and missteps of the tradition, and about the bits and pieces of anarchism scattered far and wide in the most unlikely places. I want to take one big step to the side and look at the histories from which we have gleaned “the tradition” in a context where nobody needs to worry that it’s an ideological attack–or the end of everything–if it turns out that things weren’t really the way we “remember.”

Anarchism is what it is, and, warts and potential misconceptions and all, anarchism is where I’ve chosen to stand my ground politically. But I hope that perhaps this other thing–this Atercracy–this sort of parallel-Earth reflection of often-familiar events, may have some potential to enrich the anarchist tradition.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.