The Ungovernability of Anarchism

There is a lesson about anarchism that seems extraordinarily hard to learn, even though we are constantly confronted with it: As a tradition and as an idea, anarchism is essentially ungovernable. As an idea, it is too basic and logical a response to the statist status quo to remain the exclusive domain of any particular class or faction of dissenters. As a tradition, it emerged alongside many of the categories we presently use to distinguish those classes and factions, positing itself, at its origins, as much as an alternative to those classificatory schemes as fodder for their work.

When it is a question of a choice between more-or-less anarchist approaches, we should certainly expect everyone to proclaim the overwhelming advantages of their particular theory or strategy—and if there are certain rhetorical advantages to “no true Scotsman” sorts of arguments, they will be used, and their use may help us to focus on what the real essence of anarchism might be. But let’s be clear when we’re being rhetorically clever or expedient, and acknowledge that there is no question of forcing any fraction of the thought that has a legitimate claim to the title of “anarchism” into the little ideological boxes that most of us favor. That ship has sailed. Anarchism hardly had a name before it had an internal diversity that no amount of spinning is ever going to reduce to a single orthodoxy.

And the more of our history that we uncover, the more irrevocably irreducible it will appear.

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


  1. Shawn,

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. But I’m wondering if you would extend this analysis to forms of anarchism outside the broader “leftist” paradigm, like anarcho-capitalism, religious variations of anarchism, anarcho-nationalism, culturally conservative renditions of anarchism, etc.?

  2. My point is that the tradition and idea of anarchism frequently does not play well with our ideological generalizations, not that anarchism doesn’t have a specific tradition, or that the idea does not ultimately have a coherent center, however poorly our ideologically charged approaches may serve our search for it at times.

    To respond to that point with talk about “leftist paradigms” and vague references to “culturally conservative renditions” seems to miss the point.

    “Religious variations of anarchism” is a broad category. Is it an important one? There have certainly been no shortage of religious anarchists, as there has been no shortage of atheist anarchists. It seems pretty clear to me, whether I look at the tradition or consider the idea, that “religion” covers ground that ranges from highly libertarian to highly authoritarian, and that the question of “religious anarchism” ultimately boils down to a question of consistent anarchism.

    “Anarcho-capitalism” is another term that covers over a range of positions. Certainly, given the anarchist tradition, grafting “capitalism” onto anarchism is pretty unlikely. The underlying question of markets is obviously more complicated, but, again, it’s a question that has to be tackled in terms of whether or not a given economic arrangement conforms to that core notion of “anarchism.” There’s room for debate and elaboration of that core idea, but it’s not unlimited. At some point, we’re obviously talking about something else.

    Where “anarcho-nationalism” is concerned, I just have to scratch my head. It’s probably a substantial misreading of the tradition and a rather uninspired encounter with the idea to reduce anarchism to anti-statism, as some try to do. But to not even oppose nationalism, however you want to construe that term, seems like a hopeless non-starter.

    And “culturally conservative renditions” is just too vague to respond to, although I imagine I know some of what’s at stake for you. My position on most of these kinds of “cultural” issues is that when the question is what is or is not anarchism, “conservatism” is largely another distraction. Proudhon had conservative views on the family, for example, and was an anarchist. He had reactionary ideas on gender, and was an anarchist. But the evidence for his anarchism is not in his conservatism, nor his occasional plunges into reaction. It’s in his thought about liberty and justice, which included an explicit treatment of the dialect between progress and conservation, and which themselves would have been sufficient to rid Proudhon of some of his “culturally conservative” views,” had he applied that thought consistently.

    So, while I’m happy to extend the analysis as far as it will stretch without breaking the thread of similarity, and while “religion,” “conservatism,” and some of the things that are called “capitalism” are included in the things I feel are excluded without much justice from some of the usual accounts of anarchism, I doubt I have any real sympathy for the sorts of ideological positions that concern you.

    My sense is that filling in the blanks in anarchist history, and applying ourselves to a more direct analysis of what is essential to anarchism will actually make much clearer to the marginal—if not antithetical—relationship between anarchism and the range of “conservative” concerns. As much “right wing” authoritarianism as there no doubt still is to root out, I doubt very much that the “right” has much to contribute that hasn’t been better treated by “left-wing” individualists.

  3. Hmm. Your position seems to be something along the lines of “a big tent…but not THAT big!”

    “It’s probably a substantial misreading of the tradition and a rather uninspired encounter with the idea to reduce anarchism to anti-statism”

    So beyond anti-statism, what would you consider to be the irreducible minimum prerequisites for an authentic anarchism?

    My view is that anarchism exists to the degree that social interactions and organizations are voluntary and non-coercive in nature. It may be that complete voluntarism is an ideal which cannot be fully realized, and there may be some grey area in terms of how what is voluntary and what is not should be defined. The political implication of voluntarism in that the state should be replaced with voluntary associations, and the specific cultural, ideological, economic, religious, etc. theme of a voluntary association is irrelevant to its anarchist credentials. It seems to me that the efforts by many anarchists to bring in all of these qualifiers undermines the wider voluntarist principle.

    I think that in a civilization where anarchists became the dominant political faction we might still have debates over preferred economic systems, cultural values, theology and religion, sexual “morals,” social controversies like abortion and animal rights, questions of human nature and its essence, etc. But we wouldn’t have the state attempting to impose uniformity on these questions on the whole society and different factions attempting to seize control of the state for the sake of repressing the others.

  4. “Hmm. Your position seems to be something along the lines of ‘a big tent…but not THAT big!’”

    I could honestly say the same about your position. But let’s be clear. My position isn’t about making the tent of anarchism bigger or smaller. It’s about acknowledging that, in terms of the tradition, the dimensions are not ours to control, and that, in terms of the idea, well, it’s a tough one to tame, for lots of reasons…

    “So beyond anti-statism, what would you consider to be the irreducible minimum prerequisites for an authentic anarchism?”

    I sort of have to laugh, Keith. I’ve been pretty consistent arguing for a long time now that what is lacking in much of contemporary anarchism, what we could learn from that “pre-classical” generation or two who came along before the Paris Commune, is their open-endedness, the restless, progressive nature of their thought, and their unwillingness to limit liberty to any irreducible minimum. I doubt there is much in that with much appeal for your brand of conservatives, who, it seems to me, are unfortunately comfortable with any number of “archies,” provided they have the stamp of tradition. This seems to be the shortcoming of voluntarism as well.

    If anarchism is indeed “ungovernable” as an idea and a tradition, irreducible minimums just don’t seem to be on the table, and we have to have the fight on other terms. From my perspective, the attempts to marry anarchism to other, less progressive traditions come out looking out of step with the historical tradition, barely half-hearted in their engagement with the idea of an-archy, and practically at odds with the most promising movements to extend liberty.

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