- Becoming Anarchists, Constructing Anarchisms
- Anarchy: Into the Maelstrom
Becoming Anarchists, Constructing Anarchisms
- 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
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.