Constructing Anarchisms (drafts)

Becoming Anarchists, Constructing Anarchisms


If asked, I generally say that I have been an anarchist for close to thirty years. And because of all the other things that I have been for much longer—a big nerd, basically—that has translated into nearly three decades of sometimes obsessive research into anarchist history and theory, art and literature, etc. At this point, it’s hard to imagine thinking of myself as anything other than an anarchist. I have worn a large number of hats over the years and continue to do so, but few of them represent anything like an identity. I have mixed feelings, in general, about identities. “I am large, I contain multitudes”—and those multitudes don’t always get along in a particularly unified or even dignified manner. With anarchist, however, the unity and the multiplicity seem to be simultaneously implied. Je suis anarchiste—I am anarchic.

Anyway, if we do the math, the implication is that I became an anarchist sometime in the early 1990s. But don’t ask me to give you a date in any decade. Becoming an anarchist is not such an easy thing. The state of being an anarchist is a bit like the condition of anarchy. We understand that it involves fluidity and uncertainty. We imagine we know it—more or less—when we see it. We’re pretty sure it’s a good thing, but we aren’t necessarily in agreement about all that it entails. As for the problem of the transition, well, it remains a problem.

It remains important to us whether we, or those around us, are indeed anarchists or not—whether they have become anarchists, remained anarchists despite changing impressions—often little more than fashions, I’m afraid—regarding what that entails. And much of that is as it should be, I expect: the importance of the identification, but also the evolving senses of what it entails; the recognition that becoming an anarchist might well be an ongoing process, etc. We don’t need to agree, all of us, once and for all, about what it means to be an anarchist, any more than we are likely to be able to agree on some particular path of becoming. But we arguably do need some tools to make the whole things easier on ourselves and to allow us the means of being easier on each other—without sacrificing, in either case, a concern for getting it right, according to whatever standards the anarchy inherent to the whole process allows.

I’ve spent a lot of the Covid Year wrestling with the extent to which anarchists can be said to be connected by general histories, general conceptions of anarchy and its consequences, and the degree to which we are simply forced to embrace the anarchy of our various anarchisms, conscious that there are limits to how much divergence “anarchism,” in its most general sense, can tolerate without a more or less complete loss of meaning, but unable to determine those limits very precisely on our own. It was in the course of that work that I encountered a 1970 essay by René Furth (René Fugler), “The Anarchist Question,” which begins with the striking declaration that “anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist.” Its opening chapter, titled “Dispersion,” begins with an assessment of the anarchism of its time and place that, while rather grim, may ring some bells in our own:

Anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist.

It scatters more than it gathers. It fritters away energies rather than concentrating them. It squanders its gains when what is necessary is to mobilize them for new acquisitions. Summary judgments and the remnants of old popularizations stand in for the methods of analysis and the precise knowledge that it lacks.

Instead of devoting the best part of our efforts to the struggle against capitalism and political power, we exhaust ourselves struggling to patch up and hold together our fragile means: groups, press, networks of communication. It is with great difficulty that we find the means to support ourselves on any kind of basis. The groups and organizations keep breaking up; those that take their place slip despite themselves in the ruts dug by the predecessors — unless they refuse everything, and toss and turn, for a while, this way and that.

The majority of the publications are as ephemeral as they are little known. Their theoretical basis — when there is something that resembles a theoretical basis — remains unstable and ragtag. In the best of cases, they earnestly reframe the old questions: those that had been forgotten for fear of the challenges. Or else they inject into the little anarchist world some elements of research and analysis done elsewhere, which is certainly useful and only too rare.

The essay doesn’t linger too long on the “unstable and ragtag” character of things, progressing through an analysis of specific problems arising from the historical development of anarchist ideas and practices to a minimal program aimed at correcting some anarchist responses. Neither Furth’s analysis nor his solutions are precisely my own, but the general trajectory of his project in that essay has certainly shaped the analysis that follows in this volume.

By November of 2021, I was feeling like I had drawn about as much clarity from isolated study as I was likely to and began to talk with friends about the possibility of addressing the issues I was wrestling with in some kind of group setting. The result was an online “workshop,” “Constructing Anarchisms,” which aimed to walk participants through enough engagement with key anarchist concepts and confront them with enough episodes from the history of anarchism (in that most general sense) to prepare them to “make anarchism their own” by means of “making their own anarchism.” As a group enterprise, it was a bit of a bust, but as an incentive to keep my nose to that particular grindstone and focus my energies on a work of clarification, it was much more successful. Eight months into what was planned as a twelve-month process, it was pretty clear that the experiment had run its course—but also that, at least for me, some real clarification was taking place.

As a historian of the anarchist past, my focus has often been on the margins of more familiar histories. emphasizing the anarchy of possible anarchisms. As a theorist, it has been on the clarification of fundamental principles through the synthesis of all that those various anarchisms reveal to us. I have long emphasized the extent to which clarity with regard to basic anarchist principles allows us to be open to encounters with elements, both in the anarchist past and in present anarchist milieus, that might allow further clarification, perhaps of a radical nature. After decades of research and reflection, I am even relatively comfortable striking my own balance between a commitment to slightly elusive principles and an openness to everything with which the anarchy of anarchisms might confront me—but that’s quite a commitment to ask of others seeking clarity with regard to being and becoming an anarchist.

Being where I am personally in the process, it has made sense to me to construct my projects according to a strategy that I have called “the bilge-rat’s gambit.” The reference is to the early pages of Joseph Déjacque’s Humanisphere, where he describes his work as a matter of boring a hole in the hull of his prison, the ship of state and civilization. In that context, we are encouraged to understand the potentially inrushing sea as anarchy, but scuttling the ship in which one is imprisoned is inescapably an extreme strategy. Shifting the context to the study of the anarchist past, the stakes are clearly less, but, in that context, the prison-ship to be scuttled is not the archic world that surrounds us, but what is archic in the anarchisms with which we have surrounded ourselves. In a post for “Constructing Anarchisms” course, I framed the new context and its dangers in these terms:

Let’s say that, taking inspiration from Déjacque’s bilge-rat, we decide that our present experience of anarchism is too constraining—and decide to scuttle this particular vessel. What happens next? As the anarchist past floods in, how do we make sure we stay at least afloat enough that a bit of ideological constraint doesn’t become the least of our worries?

Can we cobble together a new vessel from the wreckage, along with whatever other flotsam we may encounter? Or can we perhaps adopt what we might call, in the context of this metaphor, a more aquatic relation to the anarchist past?

But there are two different ways of thinking about this gambit. Treated as an individual matter, the stakes of even the most radical strategies remain minor for everyone but the individual. Anarchism (in the general sense) remains largely untouched, outside of the rare instances where an individual formulation finds itself in fashion—and those instances seem to have their own limited life-cycles. In any event, those individual formulations—however radical they may be, however “aquatic” the resulting relation to anarchism is for the individual—generally just become a new patch for anarchism in the more general sense.

Perhaps we simply have to embrace “patching up” as our collective practice, at least for the time being, leaving some more direct embrace of the anarchy of our anarchisms for another day. We might all hope to someday feel native to the storm-tossed seas of anarchy—although it seems clear that not everyone who calls themselves an anarchist aspires to that particular state—without being capable, individually, of the individual efforts involved or, collectively, of the work of consultation, coordination and synthesis demanded.

The question is what we can do now—individually or collectively, at the beginnings of our anarchists journeys or years down our particular roads—to make anarchism less of an obstacle. Can we, in fact, propose a general analysis—perhaps not so much of fundamental anarchist principles, as of presently unavoidable anarchist problems—and some general practices to guide the encounters of anarchists and would-be anarchists with anarchism, in all of its various senses, as well as with one another?

The goal in all that follows is to propose a basic analysis and some fundamental practices that are shareable among anarchists and can serve as an aid to potential anarchists—without, in the process, attempting to propose some new form of anarchist ideology, which would only be “shareable” to the extend that it is adopted. It is an attempt to united a number of insights from the historical anarchist literature—rather “meta” insights about the general character of anarchy and anarchist practice—beginning with the analysis of anarchist development presented in Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis.” In that context, anarchist synthesis is not a strategy for constructing federations (as it is in other works by Voline, Faure, etc.), but an ongoing process by which the practical efforts of individual anarchists and anarchist groupings, which are necessarily focused more or less narrowly, become, though comparison and critical reflection, the material for more general reflections on the nature of anarchy and help to shape the core conceptions of anarchist theory. Various kinds of anarchistic practice presumably advance the shared project of achieving anarchy, but also serve as experiments by which our understanding of that project—and of the general dynamics of anarchy—can be clarified and refined.

There’s a general assumption involved in this account, that anarchy does indeed involve dynamics that we will have to learn to understand and navigate, in the course of our struggles against archic institutions of various sorts and beyond, which potentially allows us to distinguish between a range of partial, local applications of our present understanding of anarchy—itself partial and local, constrained and shaped by particular contexts—and some practices that are perhaps more fundamentally anarchist practices, focused on improving and completing that understanding. Again, these are, by present standards, perhaps more easily understood as something like meta-practices. But if it is indeed possible to present a coherent, shareable analysis of the archies, anarchies, anarchisms, etc. that we routinely encounter “in the wild,” without simply engaging in some winner-take-all struggle for the heart of anarchism-in-general, then perhaps that analysis is only “meta” in its affinities with anarchy—less beyond than en dehors.

Additional Notes

The Difficulty of Defining Terms

One of the ideas driving Constructing Anarchisms has been the notion that “anarchy” and “anarchism” mark problems that it is necessary to return to again and again, that “becoming an anarchist” is an ongoing and arguably interminable project. And, while that idea may not be exactly popular in anarchist circles, it is undoubtedly connected to the widely-shared intuition that we must allow anarchist theory and practice to retain some significant degree of pluralism. We certainly expect anarchy to manifest itself in a variety of ways, to be amenable to discussion in a variety of vocabularies, to be approachable from a variety of contexts, etc.—and we seem to share a sense that denying some similarly protean qualities to anarchist theory and practice would be some kind of fundamental betrayal of our anarchic ideals. Critiques of “absolutism”—specifically connecting anarchism and anti-absolutism—are surprisingly common lately in online debate.

So far, so good… We might be led to believe that anarchists are well on our way to confronting the “blind men and the elephant” character of our engagement with anarchy and its practical manifestations. Surely, some widespread outbreak of ideological modesty and an embrace of development through synthesis are just around the corner…

The problem, of course, is that our attachment to pluralism, like our attachment to anarchy, tends to remain largely a matter of intuitions, applied “on the fly” and often rather opportunistically. So, for example, there may be opposition to “absolutism” when it is a question of distinguishing “anarchy” and “democracy,” because “words mean different things to different people,” from those who would wave off the idea of “anarchist” capitalism or nationalism with no hesitation at all. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, in their treatment of basic concepts and beliefs, anarchists share a tendency to waver between dogmatism and dispersion, with consequences for both individual and collective practice that are all too predictable.

The consolation for anarchists is that the difficulties that lead to this sort of wavering are almost certainly structural, arising from a combination of the conceptual challenges posed by taking anarchy as an ideal and various tensions imposed on modern anarchisms by the specific historical development of anarchist ideas and movements. This is another of the ideas driving my recent projects—one that might eventually be explored in real detail through Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back. The problem is that we can come to a very clear sense of how our shared history brought us to the particular place we occupy without necessarily improving our situation a great deal. This has been one of the lessons of “Constructing an Anarchism,” where it became abundantly clear that learning this particular lesson from history was going to be difficult for many not already immersed in historical questions, and then again of “Margins and Problems,” where I found that my own critical and interpretive apparatus was simply not quite up to the task of tracing potential anarchisms through periods I know pretty well.

I interrupted “Margins and Problems” in order to determine what, if anything, I could do to “fix” some key terms—particularly “anarchy” and “anarchism”—in ways that rendered them consistently applicable across various periods of history, but avoided ideological dogmatism, which would be as deadly to the projects I have in mind as a “pluralism” that amounts to pure dispersion of meaning. I was not initially all that hopeful, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the “general formula” for anarchism and the exploratory typology of anarchisms came together just as soon as I sat down to start the work, with a serviceable outline for what was becoming a monograph on basic anarchist theory not far behind.

There are, of course, few easier ways to complicate a piece of writing than to establish a clear outline for it—as I have been reminded in recent weeks. But I have few complaints about the kinds of clarifications that have emerged from starting to put flesh on that skeleton.

Central to the argument I have been elaborating about the historical development of anarchist ideas and practices is a distinction between two periods: an era of anarchists without anarchism (from 1840 into the mid-1870s) and then an era during which anarchisms have proliferated. “Margins and Problems” added some consideration of an earlier period, during which anarchistic ideas emerged, but without the specific vocabulary provided by Proudhon, but did so in the context of a significantly different treatment of “anarchism.” Where “Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back” reserves the term “anarchism” for the instances when anarchists explicitly adopted it, highlighting those decades when, in the midst of an explosion of -isms, they did not, “Margins and Problems” dealt with the question of “potential anarchisms” and anarchism avant la lettre, asking questions about what more or less anarchistic expressions from those early decades might be recognized as a form of anarchism by the standards of the present. I was clear, at least in my own mind, about the kind of work that this idea of recognition might do more generally, about how the exercise of attempting to “recognize our own” in the historical sources might perhaps serve as practice for a different approach to that same problem in our interactions within the anarchist milieus—but I was rather painfully aware that, however useful the intuition I was exploring might prove to be, it was still more an intuition than any sort of clearly shareable tool or method.

I had, by that time, introduced most of the elements that would lead me from the impasse I was facing in “Margins and Problems” to the present analysis, even if their real utility was not yet clear to me. Because “Constructing an Anarchism” was supposed to be an example of “making anarchism one’s own,” I made a point of pursuing a very different strategy than I have in the more historical work, often going to fairly extreme lengths to try to attach fresh concepts to rather tired, potentially compromised keywords. For example, when defining “tradition,” a term I expected to have negative connotations for much of my audience, I chose this formulation:

The anarchist tradition is, in its actual form, simply the ensemble of all that anarchists are saying about anarchism or anarchist ideas in any given moment, together with whatever share of historical anarchist utterances remain active in some sense in anarchist discourse. It is not a sum or resultant. We cannot count on it to “add up” in any very consistent sense. Indeed, we expect that it would exhibit considerable conflict and inconsistency, assuming we could somehow make all of its elements simultaneously present to consciousness. It is what we might call, following Proudhon, a work of collective reason. As part of what that means is that we don’t really expect to find all of it it in any one head.

There is undoubtedly still some clumsiness in the formulation, but the point was to draw the discussion away from consistently contentious debates about “the anarchist tradition” and its greater or lesser degree of internal diversity—debates that almost inevitably run aground on the fact that tradition, while real, is always difficult to pin down in its particulars—in order to confront something vague but unavoidable:

Tradition, then, is something given as soon as we make the attempt to “be an anarchist.” We can make choices about how we will think about anarchist tradition, but we can hardly avoid thinking about it, even if it is just to attempt to somehow strike out on our own and “be anarchists” in some entirely novel way. And even then we might be forced to recognize that our attempt to break free of a given conception of anarchist tradition simply amounts, from a less individual perspective, to our contribution to the collective work from which tradition arises. The next would-be anarchist to come along would confront an anarchist tradition — in this very general sense — shaped by our rebellion, but would face the confrontation nonetheless.

In that context, however, I was still focused on the tension of anarchy vs. anarchism, the critique of ideology, Proudhon’s dismissal of isms as “not worth a pair of boots,” etc. In “Halfway to Anarchism” I proposed thinking of anarchism in the most general sense as a sort of “collective einzige,” which might be encountered on a more or less equal basis in our attempts to become anarchists, but, if I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that through most of that work the collective manifestations of anarchism have remained primarily spaces of conflict, compromise and failure.

That particular treatment of “tradition” was an attempt to account for the necessarily social nature of “becoming an anarchist and establishing the general context or environment within which the work of constructing a more specific formulation of anarchist ideas—”an anarchism of our own”—takes place. Anarchist tradition was contrasted with the anarchist past, with the emphasis on the fact that elements of that past could be “activated” in our individual interventions, with a chance of then becoming part of the tradition moving forward. Early in the project, it seemed to make sense to place individual anarchists, engaged in the practice of constructing individual anarchisms, between the potential of the anarchist past and the more or less vague constraints of anarchist tradition.

It still makes sense, but, in the context of my present exploration of formulas and typologies, a slightly different formulation seems to be called for. At this point, rather than positing this practice of “making our own anarchisms” as something that could be done, I’m happy to claim that it is quite simply one of the things that anarchists have always done—and then to situate these most personal sorts of anarchism among the various types. However, in place of “anarchist tradition,” as a mark of the anarchic “ensemble” of anarchisms presently recognizable as such, it seems more useful to propose what we might call anarchism-in-general, which we can approach with the same “general formula” as more individual forms.

The question then becomes—to return to the opening discussion of “pluralism”—how the recognition of an “anarchic ensemble” alongside the more obviously individual constructions of anarchism might facilitate the work of comparison, clarification and synthesis. To at least start to address that question, I want to return to the “general formula”

Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism)

and talk a bit more about its terms.


We’re looking for ways to “fix” the terms of analysis enough so that we are not constantly struggling with various kinds of semantic noise and slippage, while still respecting what is fundamentally anarchic and ungovernable in both the concepts and the bodies of theory and practice we are hoping to examine. In that context, anarchy is the term that needs to be defined with the greatest care.

I want to keep the present text rather light on historical references, but will rely on a fairly small number of moments in the anarchist literature that seem to provide particular useful summaries or metaphors. Proudhon’s declaration that he was an anarchist “in the full force of the term,” together with his later affirmation of anarchy “in all of its senses,” seems like a good place to start, from the perspective of pluralism, providing us with a particularly anarchic notion of anarchy to set at the center of our analysis. And then it becomes a question of exploring the various senses of the term. The opening of William B. Greene’s “The Blazing Star” presents us with an ideal that recedes as we chase it—and it’s not hard to imagine the progress of our anarchic project as passing through stages marked by new demands, as we move from the combat against formal authority to struggles against its customary forms, before turning to the kinds of social transformation that will be necessary to minimize “authority-effects” emerging from material conditions. Joseph Déjacque’s “bilge-rat,” from the early pages of The Humanisphere, provides a provocative metaphor for the anarchist project as both escape from the archic status quo, but through a radical, potentially catastrophic opening to an inrushing alternative. And then the remainder of that work, with its anarchist détournement of elements from Charles Fourier, also takes us back to Proudhon’s anarchic “ideal republic,” where everyone does what they wish, and only what they wish. We could, of course, multiply the senses of anarchy, drawing on visions of Cossack invasions, free markets, poisonous pies, creative nothings, etc., but it isn’t clear how far beyond “the full force of the term” any of that takes us.

We “fix” anarchy as a concept precisely by emphasizing its extremity and plurality. By doing so, we increase the range of anarchisms that we can recognize, but we also emphasize that all of these anarchisms represent similarly structured, comparable, but partial expressions of the ideal of anarchy.


According to the proposed formula, each specific anarchism is the work of anarchists attempting to produce instances of anarchy in the world. As such, we should expect our plural anarchisms to differ in a wide variety of ways, reflect a variety of senses of anarchy, a variety of contexts and a variety of problems to be solved. And, provided they reflect the basic dynamic expressed by our formula, our enthusiasm for the resulting plurality of projects should arguably be tempered only by questions about how well those specific contexts and problems have been addressed. We can acknowledge the multiple, strong demands made by the central ideal of anarchy and still recognize that the answers to those demands may not “add up” to anything like a single ideological program. If, on the other hand, the anarchy of our anarchisms seems to emerge from uncertainty about the shared ideal, from the substitution of some other guiding concept for anarchy “in the full force of the term,” then perhaps all we can say with a great deal of certainty is that the “anarchisms” in question are ultimately incommensurable—and we may not even be able to have a good fight about them. Rather than a plurality of anarchisms, we have some form of dispersion, obscured by shared terms.

So we “fix” anarchisms as a concept by reaffirming the concept of anarchy, precisely in that strong sense, and then by noting that we expect each individual anarchism constructed to be a clear-but-partial expression of anarchy in such specific set of circumstances.

One of the consequences of treating anarchisms as a plural category, composed of partial expressions of anarchy, is to step away from the kind of familiar perspective that opposes anarchy and anarchism, however dialectically and productively, as if the ideal and the actual always had to be in conflict. There seems to be little doubt that many anarchists feel a tension—or various tensions—between their own theories and practices. And it may not be a mistake to say that some of the resulting discomfort arises from a sense that our anarchisms suffer from a bit too much anarchy—or from too little pluralism—or some similar complaint. There are, of course, reasons associated with anarchism’s history why we might expect that to be the case, reasons for expecting dialectical dynamics, contradictions, antinomies and the like to feature in our theory and practice. But there are also, I think, reasons to suspect that the extent to which they should encourage us to expect fundamental conflicts, like the one we at times assume between anarchy and anarchism, might be less than some early anarchist writings suggest.

There is a long aside that would be possible here, addressing Fourier’s serial analysis, Proudhon’s epistemology, etc., some of which probably belongs in one of the later chapters of this work. At this point, however, it just seems useful to remind ourselves that, if we have embraced a rather anarchic notion of anarchy and seem prepared to do something similar with the concept of anarchism-in-general, it is alongside and in addition to other analyses. Talking about the Greek root arche, Stephen Pearl Andrews noted that it “curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning” a number or apparently quite different senses—and it is through the understanding of similarly curious combinations and similarly subtle unities that we are likely to make sense of “anarchy in all of its senses.” The reason we would both to try is because we already have in both anarchy as a concept and anarchic expression as a phenomenon.

We might also take an additional moment to consider how few concepts are likely to confront us with such an enticing example of unity-in-diversity. More often than not, when anarchists find themselves talking about the different meanings of important keywords, it is to acknowledge that we may simply be speaking at cross-purposes—whether or not that recognition leads us to make the clarifications presumably called for. It probably makes a lot more sense to be on particularly our guard against missteps as we play anarchic games with the language and concepts associated with anarchy, rather than, say, imagining that anything good is likely to come from similar handling of concepts like authority, power, etc.


The formula and taxonomy I’m working on were initially conceived as tools to avoid the confusions associated with a certain kind of anarchism-without-clarification. It was only once the analysis was well underway that I began to consider what might be done by addressing the most general manifestations of the proposed formula. My first thought was that, with fairly minor modifications, the conception of anarchist tradition I had proposed for “Constructing an Anarchism” would serve as a kind of anarchism-in-general, corresponding as it does to the formula in a very general sense. And it struck me that it is really the most general sort of anarchism that confronts us most dauntingly as we are attempting to become an anarchist, whether we are beginners trying to confront or embrace it all at once or whether we are old-timers forced to deal with how much anarchism there is out there that is so clearly not “our own.”

Having begun to incorporate it into the larger project, I was also struck by the ways in which the challenges posed by this anarchism-in-general were very similar to those posed by the concept of anarchy. “Profusion and uncertainty” is the formula I have used in other writings to gesture at the ways that anarchy provides us with both too much and too little, all at the same time. Anarchism-in-general seems to frustrate our needs and expectation in similar ways.

Of course, none of this was exactly new—no matter how differently it all struck me in the new context. I had already proposed thinking of anarchism-in-general (avant la letter, if only be a month or three) as a work of collective force, as a “collective einzige” that might be encountered as something like an equal by individual anarchists, as a kind of “camarade,” etc., along with everything proposed in the discussion of anarchist tradition. Nor have I been unaware that part of what anarchists respond negatively to when they talk about the diversity of positions among anarchists seems to be the element of anarchy in it all. But I have been struck over the last few days by a strong sense, which certainly has been new to me, that, while all of our individual and specific anarchisms have to be treated as partial and local adaptations of the anarchist ideal, anarchism-in-general appears to be something much more like a direct manifestation of at least the idea of anarchy. And that has made me wonder—and, so far, to ponder the question without any very clear conclusions—what it would take for anarchism-in-general to be recognized among anarchists as a space of solidarity, rather than primarily a space of distinction and conflict—but in a real, active sense, not just with a kind of “different strokes for different folks” kind of indifference, punctuated by bouts of sudden certainty about when lines have been crossed.

It’s really the “anarchism without adjectives” problem, I suppose, on a slightly different terrain. Although that label has been around for almost as long as “anarchism” itself, there still don’t seem to be any very clear guidelines for recognizing the unmodified anarchism in question—with the result that the label seems to be shared by some of those most resolutely committed to the pursuit of anarchy, some of the most shameless authoritarian entryists and some other folks who aren’t all that sure what they believe. The tendency has been largely a response to conceptions of anarchism that do not consider individual projects as necessarily partial and local, so a kind of general tolerance has been enough to mark the ideological space, but not to generate much in the way of specifically adjectiveless anarchist theory or practice. Similar, “anarchist synthesis” has primarily been a position within a fairly narrow debate about organizing anarchist federations, despite the interesting general account of anarchist development Voline gave us way back in 1924.

At this relatively early stage, I think I have to simply acknowledge that the present work will probably clear a space for recognizing some kind of adjectiveless anarchism, alongside various much more narrowly defined varieties. But, just as synthesis has shifted, in the context of recent work, from an organizational option for anarchist groupings to a way of talking about the general development of anarchism, I expect that anarchism-in-general, when treated as an anarchism without adjectives, will also assume a more general role, rather than marking a particular tendency among others. (That approach may allow some clarification of phrases like Ricardo Mella’s “La anarquía no admite adjetivos,” which has perhaps been a bit misrepresented.)

Definitions, Pluralism, Anarchy

I am generally inclined to treat a lot of the haggling over definitions among anarchists as simply unnecessary and resulting from a failure to think particularly clearly about what definitions are relevant to specifically anarchist conversations. But, as the present work hopes to provide tools for clarification adequate for existing conditions, perhaps it makes sense to directly address the dynamic that emerges when the key concepts of anarchist theory are treated in the most pluralistic, anarchic manner.

The general formula proposed should still serve, very much as already presented, since all it really attempts to explain is a general relationship between terms. For any definition of arche, it is possible to posit an anarchy, to then recognize an anarchist in the individual who embraces it and finally to recognize as anarchism the various theoretical and practical manifestations of that embrace and internalization of the guiding ideal. Provided the conception of arche retains those “curious combinations” and “subtle unities of meaning,” we can expect that anarchy will be embraced “in the full force of the term” and our discussions of anarchists and anarchisms ought to be broadly shareable and applicable to a wide variety of practical projects—without any great effort, I think, to get various factions “on the same page” in any sense except to unite them in a kind of general anarchist extremism.

But we know that some of the enthusiasm for “pluralism” arises precisely from a rejection of the stronger senses of anarchy. So one of questions we will probably have to address is what relation the notion that “words mean different things to different people” has with the kind of anarchy of meaning that seems to exist among the “extremists.”

A Clarification

These “notes for a preface” lack the straightforward nature that I hope will characterize the final text, simply because I am still working to complete the frame. This discussion of two kinds of “pluralism” regarding is one that needs to be condensed down a good deal more before it is as “minimalist” as the rest, but perhaps this clarification, originally posted on social media, will help avoid some potential misunderstandings:

There are two things going on here regarding anarchy.

The first is the “anarchy in all its senses” / “curious combinations” stuff, which is inspired by Proudhon’s anti-absolutism. What I am arguing is that we are much more likely to maintain a useful sense of anarchy if we confront the problem posed by Proudhon when he connected the various senses of the term—a move that involves something like the expansive understanding of arche that we find in Andrews’ description. An expansive understanding of arche means that our an-archy rejects a wide variety of things—eliminating some of the most obvious entryist projects and most basic confusions of governmentalist and non-governmentalist notions.

That allows for a kind of pluralism—for a range of anarchisms as anarchic as we are likely to be able to cope with—without much compromise in the realm of anarchy, which retains a very radical character. The problem with that approach, in relation to the range of existing anarchisms, is that the conception of anarchy involved is arguably too radical for a lot of sincere would-be anarchists.

So it seems necessary to at least introduce a different kind of pluralism, which leaves room for the would-be anarchist democrats—but also for the kind of selective, opportunistic stretching of the envelope that also potentially leaves room for real entryist projects. This may be an inescapable gambit, given the realities of historical anarchism’s development. In the essay “On Order,” for example, Kropotkin tried to sideline the Proudhonians in a move that was itself a sort of entryism. It was arguably unnecessary, so that there is no need to engage in anti-communism in order to defend anarchism, but our sense of shared historical origins has perhaps never quite mended the potential damage of that type done along the way.

Anyway, what we constantly hear from the advocates of this other sort of pluralism is that no one has the authority to limit the definitions of anarchist keywords. And that is true, as far as it goes. Lexical authority (in any strong sense) is no more supportable by anarchists than any other variety—although the ones most concerned to keep “anarchy” open to democracy (etc.) are also often the ones most likely to grant the existence of some form of “legitimate authority” or “justified hierarchy.” Opportunist inconsistencies aside, however, words mean what people cause them to mean through use and plurality in meaning in fundamental to the development of language.

So there is a choice between an anarchy-centered sense of anarchism, which recognizes an anarchic plurality of meanings—supported by both anarchist theories of meaning (Theory of Progress) and anarchist statements about anarchy (General Idea of the Revolution)—and a conception that provides us with a range of anarchisms connected, however loosely, by a kind of defiance with regard to definition in general. Both can be represented by the formula proposed. Neither leave us a lot of room to be too comfortable with regard to definitions. But the reasons for our potential discomfort are different in the two cases. In the second case, anarchism remains in some general sense anarchy-centered, but anarchy simply “means different things to different people.” We can bring a lexicographer’s tools to bear and sketch out the range of meanings of anarchy in a given time and place, with anarchism then presumably shifting with shifts in that key term—but who knows what it will all come to mean without some real focus on anarchy as a distinct, radical alternative to the most basic structures of the status quo…

For me, this notion of an “anarchism” that remains formally recognizable as such only because we have decided to unnecessarily muddy up our understanding of “anarchy,” “hierarchy,” “authority,” etc. is genuinely horrifying. And it is even more awful when the excuse given is that a narrow focus on the more radical forms of anarchy would somehow be a betrayal of anarchist principles. Part of the point of “Constructing Anarchisms” is to at least provide the means of comparing approaches to these questions, so that the stakes and likely consequences of different strategies are clear. My sense is that the dynamics of anarchy never get easy to grapple with, but that it doesn’t actually take much clarification to make the struggle sustainable and worthwhile.


  • Becoming an anarchist is a practice fraught with various sorts of purely practical difficulties, arising from the nature and histories of anarchy and anarchism. Each of these terms is, for different reasons, difficult to define precisely. [Becoming Anarchists — Embracing Anarchy]
  • Of these three key terms, however, anarchy is the one that comes closest to presenting a constant quality—even if it is constant in ways that involve flux and uncertainty. [Becoming Anarchists — Embracing Anarchy]
  • Taking anarchy as the central, driving principle, we can at least propose a general formula for anarchism, capable of describing a dynamic common to most, if not all, of the constructions recognizable as anarchism. (Our three key terms still mark complex bundles of meaning, but not so complex that the formula cannot accommodate them as we seek further clarification.) [Anarchism: A General Formula]
  • This general, inclusive formula can then be used to produce a kind of typology of anarchisms (and near-anarchisms or anarchisms in name only), allowing for various kinds of analysis and comparison. [Anarchisms: An Exploratory Taxonomy]
  • This typology of anarchisms, by which different constructions could be distinguished by their internal dynamics, would differ from the typologies of anarchists that are so common in the anarchist milieus, where individuals are routinely distinguished by beliefs and emphases rather distant from the defining emphasis on anarchy. (One of our guiding concerns here will be the means by which we recognize various practices, organizations, bodies of thought, etc. as manifestations of anarchy or examples of anarchism.) [Anarchisms: An Exploratory Taxonomy]
  • In order to really establish anarchy as our central principle—our beacon—we need to address the plurality of anarchies present in anarchist theory from the time of Proudhon, providing ourselves, to whatever extend is possible, a general account of the dynamics of anarchy. [A General Theory of Archy and Anarchy]
  • Part of this process will be the elaboration of a general account of archy. [A General Theory of Archy and Anarchy]
  • A survey of some key elements in Proudhon’s analysis—progress, the absolute, certainty and its criterion, etc.—should help to clarify the character of the existing archy and of anarchy as a radical alternative. [A General Theory of Archy and Anarchy]
  • With at least the rudiments of a general theory in hand, we can explore the use of this new toolkit in the analysis of anarchisms encountered in the past or present. (We’ll seek, among other things, some criteria for the extension of solidarity among anarchists and would-be anarchists.) [Encountering Anarchism(s)]
  • The difficulties noted in coming to grips with anarchism-in-general in more than a schematic manner, the anarchy of anarchisms, together with the demands of solidarity, would seem to be addressed by a synthetic account of anarchist development. [Synthesis as a Theory of Anarchist Development]
  • Having reached this point, we should have the tools in place to discuss, at least in general terms, the process of making anarchism one’s own / making one’s own anarchism. (Some discussion of the “Constructing Anarchisms” workshop will serve as illustration of the process and its difficulties.) [Constructing Anarchisms]

Becoming Anarchists — Embracing Anarchy

[see:Constructing Anarchisms: Halfway to Anarchism“]

How does one become an anarchist?

Or, more specifically, how does one become an anarchist in a way that involves a durable and dynamic connection to the complex heritage that has built up around the ideas of anarchy and anarchism since 1840 (or thereabouts)?

There is undoubtedly not just one answer to this question—and the range of plausible answers has undoubtedly developed alongside that accumulating heritage. So perhaps one way to begin answering the question is to look briefly at that development.

Proudhon, in 1840, starts our story by becoming an anarchist in what we are accustomed to treating as an entirely new way. Whether or not he was the first to declare himself an anarchist in the now familiar sense, it is hard to deny that his declaration — “je suis, dans toute la force du terme, anarchiste” — is one of the conditions of possibility for the story of anarchism and anarchists as we tend to tell it in the present. As it features in our story — or our stories, if you prefer — this inaugural declaration involves an appropriation of the already existing language of anarchy for new purposes. Instead of marking the failure of something necessary to human prospering, anarchy would henceforth mark the key quality of societies grown mature enough to leave governmentalism behind. Or perhaps we should say that the term could also mark this new possibility, alongside its existing definitions, as Proudhon embraced it “in the full force of the term” and, later, “in all of its senses.”

Proudhon, then, became an anarchist by confronting anarchy and making it his own, transforming it — at least in part — from an indication of all the worst that his world had to offer (the violence of the Terror, emerging capitalism, political disorganization and corruption, etc.) into a symbol for the social peace and justice that might emerge from solving the problems to which the existing anarchy owed its existence. In doing so — and in doing so in such a triumphant manner that it is hard to have a serious conversation about the problem of becoming an anarchist without some reference to the act — he altered the context for nearly all of those who would embrace consistent anti-governmentalism in the years that followed.

For our present purposes, the details are not so important. It is worth noting, perhaps, that some of the success of that anarchist declaration was undoubtedly due to the impact of Proudhon’s other 1840 provocation: property is theft. We might observe as well that the phrase, je suis anarchiste, need not have established anarchist as a role or identity — let alone set off the chain of events that would lead to anarchist movements, anarchist ideologies, anarchist history, etc. One possible interpretation — I am anarchistic, rather than I am an anarchist — might have provoked a rather different kind of long-term development — and perhaps one more in harmony with at least some aspects of Proudhon’s larger project. That he chose instead to embrace anarchy in the strongest and most diverse of terms is at least striking—and it is a point that we may have to return to.

Once made, as we have said, Proudhon’s declaration established a new context for subsequent attempts to become an anarchist. Perhaps not every new attempt was a response. We have careers like that of Eliphalet Kimball, who embraced anarchy — and even elaborated a kind of homespun anarchism avant la lettre — in New England in the 1850s. While it is likely that he was aware of Proudhon’s work, he left no intellectual genealogy and made no decisive references. We are free to imagine other origins and roughly parallel appropriations of the language of anarchy. But we certainly have clear evidence that, for others among his contemporaries, the process of becoming an anarchist involved not just an encounter with anarchy, but also an encounter with Proudhon’s reimagining of it.

The case of Joseph Déjacque is instructive. His works are marked by those two encounters — and marked so strongly by the encounter with Proudhon that his own individual conception of anarchy — and, again, a rudimentary anarchism, this time complete with the familiar name — have largely been forgotten, leaving his role in the tradition almost entirely reduced to that of “the anarchist who confronted Proudhon.” The brevity and focus of this survey doesn’t allow us to linger long with Déjacque either — but let’s make a point of noting that such lingering would indeed reward the student of anarchism.

There is a period of at least a couple of decades after 1840, during which new anarchists might emerge at the cost of not much more than those same two encounters. There was precious little direct engagement between Proudhon and those who immediately followed him down the path to becoming an anarchist. Between those other anarchists, there was almost none. In North America, there was perhaps more direct interaction among extreme anti-authoritarians in the same period, but there the language of anarchy was so seldom used that those relations hardly register in this particular story.

In the period of the International, we see various anti-authoritarians wrestling with libertarian ideas — with or without the language of anarchy, with or without the reference to Proudhon — and we see a small, but steadily growing number of them embrace the anarchist label. It is, however, arguably not until after the split in that organization that we see the next really significant development regarding the process of becoming an anarchist. That comes with the emergence of anarchism as a widely used keyword.

Once again, we have to give the details rather short shrift — and, once again, they would reward much closer attention. Kropotkin’s essay “On Order” stands out as a particularly useful embodiment of the new difficulties that were being added to the process we are examining. But what is perhaps most striking in it is the new forms of ambivalence, toward both anarchy and Proudhon’s particular appropriation of it, that had become possible for those on the way to becoming anarchists.

More generally, the new development was an enrichment and complication of the potential meaning of anarchist. With the emergence of anarchism as an ideology — or ideologies — and movement — or movements — there also emerged at least the possibility of distinguishing between anarchists as advocates of anarchy and anarchists as advocates of anarchism. We don’t have to engage much with the details of the period — the emergence of anarchist communism, that ambivalence toward Proudhon and his conception of anarchy, the rise of contending factions within anarchist circles, etc. — to see that quite a variety of other distinctions had become possible in this period as well.

Had it, under those new conditions, become easier or harder to become an anarchist? We might say that it had become easier where there was an anarchism which can be joined — if by that we meant that it had become easier to be recognized as an anarchist because one behaved in ways that were in the process of becoming characteristic of anarchists, believed and said things that were in the process of becoming characteristic anarchist ideas and utterances, and so on. A multiplication of recognizably anarchist positions translates into a multiplication of means by which one could be recognized as an anarchist. But this scenario is certainly quite different from the one in which we picture Proudhon making anarchy his own, defying and transforming traditional uses. In 1840, there simply were no rules that could be followed. Examining matters fifty years later, we at least have to ask whether some conformity to emerging — and, no doubt, evolving — rules was a necessary part of being recognized as an anarchist.

I have somewhat provocatively described Proudhon’s encounter with anarchy in terms of an appropriation. If nothing else, that language underlines the real difference between, on the one hand, making anarchy one’s own and, on the other, acting in such a way that one is recognized as belonging among the anarchists, as adhering to anarchism.

Is it possible to make anarchism one’s own?

Let’s start by clarifying what Proudhon accomplished in his encounter with and appropriation of anarchy — and see what it suggests to us about our new problem. If we were just judging that work on the basis of the success of a slogan and a provocative label, we might be inclined to argue that he managed to give anarchy a new meaning, among others that persisted, but perhaps the claim that he had made anarchy his own would have to be treated as hyperbole. And the Proudhonian portion of the anarchist heritage — in the form in which it is usually presented to us, at least — does not include much more than those dual provocations. Still, the durability of the provocations seems to preserve the possibility of restoring the substance behind them.

We are still just flirting with the details, but, for example, once we restore the reasons why “property is theft” and acknowledge the theory of collective force, Proudhon’s entire body of work looks very different. When we dig deep enough to find the connections between his critiques of capitalism and governmentalism, we can begin to trace the contours of his anarchistic social science—and when we follow that process through, learning to love the antinomies and recognize what unites “anarchy understood in all of its senses,” the full extent of Proudhon’s engagement with anarchy should, I think, begin to become clear.

But what do we really mean when we talk about Proudhon making anarchy his own?

It seems to me that we can make two claims fairly confidently: first, that Proudhon took the concept of anarchy and make it the heart of his life-work; second, that, as a result, the meaning of anarchy was enriched and complicated in ways that seem beyond reversal. Out of the encounter of Proudhon and anarchy came a kind of mutual accommodation.  We might say, with regard to the developing understanding of anarchy, that “he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own” — a familiar formula for appropriation — but we’re not talking about resources encountered “in the state of nature.” We’re talking instead about an ongoing social project of meaning-making, in the context of which Proudhon’s actions amount to appropriation more in the sense of “use without right” and in the obsolete sense of “adaptation to one’s individual purposes” (which still seems to persist in that phrase “to make something one’s own.”)

We might turn things around and suggest that what happened was that Proudhon made himself a part of something, associated himself with others involved in that process of meaning-making. That might have the advantage of pushing us in specifically Proudhonian directions, thinking about that process in terms of collective force, the role of conflict and contradiction, and so on. And that might, in turn, let us make a bit more headway with the arguably much more difficult question of making anarchism one’s own.


Anarchism: A General Formula

The interval between the interruption of the “Margins and Problems” survey and the appearance of this first draft-section from the Constructing Anarchisms manuscript has been considerably shorter than expected—a pleasant surprise after the slow going of the last month or so. I’ll talk more about the structure and aims of the book as the pieces come together, but for those who have been following the workshop, these initial sections should be recognizable as new approaches to familiar problems.

Anarchism-in-general: We are addressing anarchism as something that we can make our own, meaning that, in a certain sense, we can each make our own anarchism. Thus, there will be anarchisms, in the plural, that we must learn to identify by their shared characteristics. Part of our task here will be to establish the elements that must be defined in order to present an anarchism. But, in order to be recognizable as an anarchism, each instance must present itself as not just logically or ideologically complete and consistent, but also as intelligible within patterns of historical development.

That may all sound needlessly complicated, but one of the goals here is to capture and clarify the wide range of meanings that the term can and regularly does have in common usage. The anarchism-in-general that we hope to somehow make our own is the vague, inclusive mix of ideas, practices, publications, organizations and traditions that comes to mind when we speak the word “anarchism” with no other clarification. It is both the context for the construction of more individual anarchisms and the evolving product of the interaction between old and new constructions. No one espouses this anarchism-in-general. It is not a matter of theory or ideology, but instead a particular, evolving range of possibilities. So when we say that this is the anarchism that anarchists share, we are making only the most modest claims about specific goals or beliefs held in common.

In order to work with this anarchism-in-general, we need to reduce it to a kind of formula, addressing its various variables and their likely values. We might, for example, propose the following: Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism).

Now, what happens when we try to unpack that formula?

Its form suggests a particular relation between three key terms: anarchy, anarchist and anarchism. That particular relation is suggested, in turn, by the historical development of the anarchist vocabulary, where anarchism lagged behind the other two terms, entering common usage decades later. So, in this arrangement, anarchism will be the –ism associated with the anarchists. And we will allow that suffix a fairly full range of possible meanings, recognizing among the manifestations of anarchism the various ideas, ideologies, activities, organizations, publications and artistic productions, struggles and even general impulses of the anarchists. Such a broad, inclusive approach allows us to capture what remains unspecified in many uses of the term, but it also addresses historical complications arising precisely from that lag between the appearance of anarchists and that of anarchism. In early anarchist writings it is sometimes difficult to distinguish concepts like mutualism and anarchism from mutuality and anarchy. Joseph Déjacque, who seems to have been the first anarchist to embrace anarchism as a keyword, sometimes used it to designate one side in the great social struggle of the era—with the opposite side being jesuitism—and sometimes as something like a fundamental force of nature. In his essay “On Religion,” he declared that the religion of the future must be:

The evolving synthesis of all the contemporary truths; perpetual observation and unification; the progressive organization of all the recognized sciences, gravitating from the present to the future, from the known to the unknown, from the finite to the infinite; the negation of arbitrary absolutism and the affirmation of attractional anarchism; the principle and consecration of every movement in humanity and universality, the pulverization of the past and its rising regeneration in the future, its permanent revolution.

So we may perhaps be forgiven for allowing the suffix here more scope than we might generally give to political —isms. And is, simply attempting to cover our bases, we ran down the list of meanings for that suffix, we might imagine anarchisms that are characteristic quirks or structural changes, anarchisms that resemble volcanisms, exorcisms, heroisms, witticisms, tropisms, etc. We don’t need to imagine that all these senses will come into play with equal regularity. Indeed, we can be certain that they won’t. But with each of these variables we’ll want to give ourselves a sense of the full range of possible values.

As anarchism is defined in terms of the manifestations and tendencies of the anarchists, anarchist is in terms of the relations of individuals (singly or in association) to the idea of anarchy. Here, once again, we have at least some potential ambiguity to address in the sense of the suffix. Proudhon’s provocative declaration—je suis anarchiste—was first uttered in a world where anarchist did not yet designate a political role or adherence to an ideology or movement. The French allows us to read it as the declaration of a role or occupation:

(Compare, for example: Je suis médecin. = I am a doctor.)

or else as a statement about a condition of one’s being:

(Je suis malade. = I am sick.)

And for examples of where we might find anarchisms wary of reducing being an anarchist to fulfilling a role or conforming to a type, we need look no farther than the anarchist individualists and conscious egoists.

Anarchists seek anarchy as a state of relations, express anarchy as a value they seek to embody, etc. And anarchy, to perhaps no one’s surprise, arises from the convergence of two particularly complex variables. In a discussion of his own system of pantarchy, Stephen Pearl Andrews gave this definition for arche:

Arche is a Greek word (occurring in mon-archy, olig-archy, hier-archy, etc.), which curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning, the idea of origin or beginning, and hence of elementary principle, with that of government or rule.

Treated as a root for anarchy, it takes us far beyond the narrow senses of “without rulers” or “without government,” but, here again, we have no lack of precedents for that extension, starting with Proudhon’s project of anti-absolutism, which seems to take all of Andrews’ curious combination as its target. And while we allow arche its full scope, we want to take care as well to strip the privative an– of none of its emphatic character.

If, in a general sense, Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism), with the outer layers of the equation representing expressions of the elements within, we can expect the most radical forms of anarchism to emerge when the elements of the central anarchy consist of the broadest sort of arche and the most emphatic form of negation. There will also, of course, be forms of anarchy both much less emphatic and much less sweeping in their rejection of arche. We see anarchism presented at times as little more than a theory of good government. At any given time and place there will be would-be anarchisms proposed so mild or partial in their rejection of arche that they will not be recognizable as anarchism at all. At the same time, we often see an entirely understandable tendency on the part of anarchists to attempt to shield anarchism—or their particular anarchisms—from the more unruly sorts of anarchy. Here again, however, precedents presumably well within the scope of anything like the anarchist canon complicate the issue. Consider, for example, Proudhon’s description, in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, of the series of political forms:

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

It appears then that there will inevitably be a good deal of unavoidable variation among the anarchisms defined by our general formula, with the central term—anarchy—exerting a genuinely anarchic influence on the whole. But perhaps that serves us well, both in accommodating as broad a range of potential anarchisms as we might hope to address and in placing the problem of anarchy at the center of things, in a way that will be hard to avoid.

Having established what appears to be a serviceable formula, we can now turn to the more difficult work of applying it in various operations, both in the analysis of existing anarchisms or potential anarchisms, in the construction of anarchisms of our own and in attempts to glimpse the general shape of anarchism-in-general in specific times and places.

Having established a formula for anarchism-in-general, we certainly haven’t established that all anarchisms are created equal. We have simply provided a means by which those anarchisms that take the form suggested by the formula can be rendered comparable. While the proposed formula leaves considerable space for variation among the anarchisms that it will recognize, it also sets a relatively high bar for consideration.

If we look again at the formula proposed:

Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism)

it should be clear that only anarchy-centered anarchisms need apply. Anarchy is the defining concept and would-be anarchisms that have placed some other idea, ideal or aim at their center must, at the very least, find their vindication in some process other than the one being proposed here. That criterion alone should make clear, I hope, just how little aid and shelter this analysis aims to extent to ideologies attempting to lay claim to the word “anarchism” while placing some element other than anarchy at the center of their theory and practice.

Similarly, in treating the outer layers of the equation as manifestations or expressions of the elements within, we put ideology in its place, if I can put it this way, as a byproduct of the process of individuals, individually and in association, pursuing the goal of anarchy. Beginning from the affirmation that anarchy is itself sufficient as a guiding principle, and embracing the anarchic quality that this affirmation must give to anarchist theory and practice, we certainly won’t claim that there is no place within anarchism for programs, platforms and the like, but we are claiming that it is not those elements that determine whether one is or is not an anarchist.

All of this places us within a particular current of anarchism and it may be fair to characterize it, as I have in the past, as something of an undercurrent, at least within what we usually recognize as “organized” anarchism. For that reason, many of my references from the anarchist past are drawn from the initial period of anarchists-without-anarchism, prior to the emergence of explicit anarchist movements in the 1870s, and from the various attempts at anarchist entente (anarchism without adjectives, anarchist synthesis, etc.), which began to emerge almost immediately after the emergence of anarchism as a keyword and focus for at least nominally anarchistic organization.

This is not, of course, the most common way to characterize the development of anarchist ideas and movements in the 19th century—and I’ll devote time and space in later sections both to clarifying the approach and to presenting arguments for its utility. But if we are to move from the general equation of anarchism to the next logical step, an exploratory typology of anarchisms, it will be useful to make some initial observations about anarchy and adjectives, which should then allow us to discuss synthesis as an anarchist practice and theory of general anarchist development.

“Anarchism without adjectives” is a phrase that has been put to a variety of uses, both within anarchist circles and—a bit perversely, if not surprisingly—within the circles of those who would like to lay claim to an “anarchism” in which decidedly archic elements seem to predominate. Even among the Spanish collectivists who first championed “anarquía sin adjetivos,” the phrase seems to have designated a range of not entirely compatible positions. Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, who is perhaps most closely associated with the phrase, gradually distanced himself from the language of anarchy and by 1908 had rewritten his 1889 call for anarchy without adjectives as a “Libertarian-Socialist Program,” with an explanation that the earlier language “only damages the idea that it is trying to defend.”

Ricardo Mello, though apparently more comfortable with the language of anarchy, found that “without adjectives” could be a double-edged sword, when simply deployed as a phrase. In an 1889 essay, “Tolerancia e intransigencia,” Mella declared that “la anarquía no admite adjetivos” (“anarchy accepts or recognizes no adjectives”), which sounds like rather a hard line in defense of anarchy, compatible with the challenging conceptions of anarchy and anarchism we find in some of Mella’s other works, such as “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” and its sequel, “The Rising Anarchism.” The story is, however, a bit more complicated, as the phrase is actually attributed to anarchist collectivists how had, taking the phrase a bit literally, apparently begun to talk themselves out of some of their anarchist beliefs on the basis that they represented an untoward “determination,” and thus betrayal, of the fundamental idea of anarchy.

Mella’s responses are a useful corrective to this particular kind of misstep, which we might consider a matter of taking a literal refusal of adjectives—a rigid program, if ever there was one—for an engagement with what is challenging and potentially protean in the idea of anarchy. He points to both practical and grammatical inconsistencies of the collectivist comrades, as well as making the necessary observation that anarchy is only a general idea or principle and that its application requires that it be harmonized with other ideas relevant to the solution of specific problems. If we want to affirm what is true about the statement that “anarchy recognizes no adjectives,” that it is particularly resistant to determination and to the modification of its fundamental character, we have to treat the phrase as more than just a phrase or slogan.

The general formula for anarchism that we have proposed does depend, to a very significant degree, on the idea of anarchy remaining ungovernable, intransigent in the face of various attempts to subordinate it to other ideas. In this context, it is anarchy itself that does the modifying and, in its own peculiar way, determining of the elements with which he attempt to harmonize it. If we differ in our emphases, it is because we are anarchist individualists, anarchist communists, anarchist mutualists, etc., engaging in theory and practice as an expression and manifestation of our embrace of anarchy—precisely as a radical alternative to the decidedly and pervasively archic status quo. And if our practices, including those involved in the elaboration of anarchistic theory, lead to the articulation of ideologies and platforms, the elaboration of stable norms and the construction of lasting institutions, then those elements should, according to our formula, appear as expressions and manifestations of another order, with anarchy remaining the thing giving those expression their consistent, characteristic qualities.

We have observed that the anarchism-in-general we have proposed is not something that any individual espouses, because it is an “evolving range of possibilities,” adapted to no particular set of circumstances and filled with potential contradictions when engaged as an abstraction. It is, in essence, the product of the attempts we have made, in all sorts of specific contexts, to learn to apply anarchy and to let it do its work in the world. Our inability to embrace simultaneously everything that seems really anarchic in our evolving sense of anarchism-in-general should probably be taken as an indication of where our general understanding of anarchy remains lacking. And given the fairly obvious theoretical difficulties with making anarchy a positive guide, amidst institutions and social relations organized largely on opposite principles, we should expect to confront that lack fairly regularly.

In general, I think of anarchist development in terms of a dynamic suggested by Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis.” Having embraced anarchy as an alternative to the organizing principles of the status quo, anarchists seek to apply that idea in a variety of complex, each of which potentially reveals something new about the general character of anarchy itself. Ideally, this practice is supplemented by some conscious effort at synthesis, through which we avoid subordinating anarchy to a range of specific practical concerns by seeking out the experiences of other anarchists in other specific contexts. The division of labor involved would seem to allow and in some cases even call for the kinds of specialization we see among existing anarchist tendencies, but a shared commitment to conscious synthesis would at least help avoid the kind of subordination of anarchy to other concerns that we arguably see all too often as well. This sort of anarchist synthesis is, it should be clear, rather different from the proposals for organizational fusion that Voline, Sebastien Faure and others proposed in the same period, which gave rise to various kinds of synthetic unions and federations.

As we begin to turn to the question of an exploratory typology of anarchisms, by which we could begin to sort through the various historical and possible alternatives, this understanding of anarchist development allows us to first distinguish those works and tendencies that clearly revolve around the pursuit of anarchy from those with other central concerns, but it also allows us to engage anarchism-in-general in terms of its historical, evolving character. Our proposed formula gives us fairly clear guidance about what kinds of tolerance and more or less scornful intolerance we ought to apply to the shortcomings we seem bound to find in almost all of the anarchisms we might encounter.

Anarchisms: An Exploratory Taxonomy

A General Theory of Archy and Anarchy

Encounters with Anarchism(s)

Synthesis as a Theory of Anarchist Development

Constructing Anarchisms

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2691 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.