A Schematic Anarchism: Anarchism-in-General


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MAPPINGS: Notes for an Introduction
GREAT DIVIDES: Lessons of the Outbound Journey
SOURCES: The First Leg of the Journey
    CONFLUENCES: The Final Leg of the Journey

      For me, the last few years have involved a rather public renegotiation of my relationship with anarchism—and more specifically with the possibility of an anarchism-in-general that is not just a jumble of incommensurable theories with some superficial resemblances. I have most often presented that work as a matter of synthesis, with a very specific reference to Voline’s 1924 essay, “On Synthesis,” where he gives that notion—so often limited in anarchist discourse to debates about the organization of federations—a considerably more general significance.

      On the way to considering “anarchism and its aspirations,” Voline notes various philosophical obstacles and practical errors likely to stand between us and the truth of the matter. Speaking of knowledge generally, he observes that:

      We know neither the true life, nor its synthesis; we know neither its reality, nor its meaning, nor its movements. For us, life in its entirety is the great enigma, the great mystery. We only manage, from time to time, to pluck some fragments of its synthesis from the air…

      Those hard-won fragments are then all too easily taken for more substantial truths, particularly in the heat of various struggles, and we may find ourselves generalizing from them.

      Save for very rare exceptions, we are generally inclined to exaggerate the significance, sometimes very minuscule, of the bit of truth found by us, to generalize it, to make of it the whole truth, to extend it, if not to life in its entirety, at least to phenomena of a much larger and more complicated order, and at the same time to reject other elements of the truth we seek.


      if there exists a general, complete truth, its defining quality would be an incessant movement of transformation, a continual displacement of all the elements of which it is composed.

      That means that synthesis is not, in practical terms, a matter of creating some unity from disparate elements or tendencies. We will undoubtedly have no choice but to make our experimental mixtures—and in those instances we might do well to consider the anarchist analysis of collective force and how it emerges from balanced conflict. Synthesis, however, seems to more directly call for the expansion of our horizons, the opening of particular anarchist tendencies to the insights of other anarchist tendencies. Ultimately, it asks us to compare our fragments of truth, enriching all of our tendencies, none of which can be expected to know or represent a “general, complete truth” regarding anarchism.

      Max Nettlau, who was also explicitly concerned with the question of generalization, raised other difficulties:

      All my arguments are based on the fact that men are different from one another, so that the same thing cannot be known to the same degree by everyone.

      Anarchists, he suggested, do not simply hold unusual opinions regarding social relations, but perhaps represent a particular sort of individual, differing from others not just in their concerns, but in their capacities. As a result, his idea of radical social organization included not only approaches that would respect the differences among anarchists, but a different sort of relation—what he called mutual toleration—between anarchists and others who, despite their desire for radical change, may not be inclined or equipped to embrace our beautiful ideal of anarchy.

      I can only consider the generalization of an idea as equivalent to its complete neutralization, to its death by anemia. It is in this sense that I have said: anarchy to the anarchists, because it is dear to me and I have seen with horror that it is sacrificed to the thirst for success or to purely humanitarian, charitable considerations…

      Whether or not we believe that the tendency to embrace anarchy is a matter of inclinations or capacities, it will arguably serve us well to consider what it means to generalize anarchism. And the two sets of concerns seem to complement each other.

      Voline reminds us that our individual understandings of anarchism—what we have been calling here our anarchisms—are destined to be partial, but also that the fullest sense we might hope to achieve, anything like a “general, complete truth,” is still likely to be defined by the movement and displacement of its elements—by a sort of anarchy. Nettlau, while also emphasizing the natural variation among anarchisms—and while embracing an ethic of mutual toleration, which seeks to give relations among even non-anarchists something of an anarchic character—emphasizes the unique character of anarchy itself. Anarchy is not everything that anarchists do or desire. As I’ve emphasized before, it is not anarchy that builds bridges or binds books, even if some part of the practice of anarchist bridge-builders and book-binders must be counted among the proliferation of partial anarchisms that we encounter. 

      If we accept both cautions, we might expect to broaden the range of different anarchisms that we recognize, but, at the same time, narrow the criteria by which we recognize them. These two elements should be recognizable by now as fundamental elements of the synthetic, but anarchy-centered anarchism I have been pursuing for some time. What Nettlau’s critique suggests, which I have perhaps not emphasized enough in the past, is the extent to which specifically anarchist practice can and probably should be distinguished from the various good and useful things anarchists may do as a result of our developing understanding of archy, anarchy and their application to existing relations.

      For now, let’s just suggest that the anarchization of those existing relations involves, among other things, a certain number of practices that are quite narrowly anarchist, involving what we might call the upkeep of our various anarchisms, rather than their application to other problems. That active upkeep is arguably necessitated by the fact that we cannot simply lay down the law about anarchism, having abandoned recourse to any arche and recognized transformation and displacement as defining qualities of our beautiful ideal.

      The practical dangers of generalization seem clear enough—and perhaps that’s what’s necessary if we are to pick up the threads from the last post regarding anarchism without adjectives. The synthesis pursued here clearly depends on the assumption that we can use the word “anarchism” in the singular, and without further specification, without simply speaking nonsense. The schematic anarchism proposed seeks to reflect the meanings that a naive reader or listening might glean from the elements of the word itself, representing as close to a “plain speech” interpretation as we can probably hope for, and appears useful as at least a widely applicable foil for our various more specific, local, applied anarchisms. It is too abstract to impose much in the way of unity—assuming that imposition seemed like a good idea—but it does perhaps provide us with a means of achieving or recognizing greater commensurability among those specific, and in some sense partial, formulations. It has a very abstract generality. And then there is the “actually existing anarchism,” in all of its diversity and incoherence, which seems to exist as a sort of manifestation of collective force, whether we like it or not. It is at once real and more-or-less imponderable, exhibiting all of the complexities that an analysis like Voline’s would lead us to expect. The problem is knowing just what that anarchism-in-general is good for.

      I keep coming up with different answers to that last question. I’ve experimented with simply abandoning the notion of a singular anarchism per se and embracing the relative incommensurability of our inescapably plural anarchisms. I’ve just never been able to convince myself that there is not, ultimately, a real, historical phenomenon out there, with all of the untidy qualities that we should expect of such phenomena, toward which the word “anarchism” at least gestures in ways that those of us who would like to be anarchists can hardly ignore.

      In the case of anarchy, I feel pretty comfortable with the concept itself, no matter the difficulties involved in applying a privative ideal. Our practical understanding of the concept will necessarily be shaped by our circumstances, but the observation, for example, that anarchy is what occurs in the absence of those things we have been led to believe will always be present still functions as a useful, general guide. But if anarchy is a relatively straightforward concept that is somewhat hard to apply, anarchism-in-general is a label we use to designate one of those products of time and diverse hands that owe their reality to something other than conceptual coherence. As a historical and social phenomenon, anarchism is as hard to deny as it is, at times, inconvenient to deal with. But as a concept—as the concept suggested to us by the real phenomenon—it is perhaps best treated as a concept sous rature, an anarchism, necessary, but not really sufficient to many of our uses.

      For historical anarchism, we can easily show that “incessant movement of transformation” and “continual displacement of all the elements,” in case anyone doubts it. Completing the argument that this “truth of anarchism” is itself an expression, however imperfect, of anarchy, is presumably the work of careful intellectual and ideological history. Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back is intended to accomplish at least part of that work. From that sort of analysis, we might then proceed to explore the ways in which the anarchy of anarchisms provides us with prefigurative possibilities in the present, with the project of embracing that anarchy and transforming it into a source of shared strength emerging as a form of anarchist organizing that might hope to avoid many of the divisive pitfalls familiar from the past.

      The problem, of course, is that there is nothing like a consensus among anarchists that our diversity can be made a strength. On the contrary, the position taken here, which tries to stake out realms of anarchist practice and anarchist organization at least somewhat distinct from the familiar practices and institutional forms of labor struggle, popular defense, etc. is one in need of development and defense. That arguably involves reviving anarchist synthesis as something other than a loyal opposition to platformism, as well as adapting the tools of the Proudhon’s analysis of collective force to what we’ve been calling the anarchy of anarchisms, tasks that will occupy us moving forward. I think, however, that the rationale for pursuing such a project should be fairly clear at this point.

      If not, I’m inclined to blame the relative novelty of the project and I expect that the series of close readings and reflections to come will clarify things.

      Only time will tell, I suppose, whether my present confidence is misguided. I will admit to lingering for longer than has been necessary, here at the final transition, considering and reconsidering aspects of my developing account that seems most likely to provide surprises when the time comes to put them to work. It has been a certain kind of luxury to spend months working almost entirely on one relatively narrow set of questions. From this point on, it is back to work on my larger project, which spans a variety of genres and scales, and the schematic anarchism will have to show that it can be useful in various contexts.

      As I return to projects like the promised “exploratory typology of anarchisms” and Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back, the scope of things will change dramatically. In the larger scheme of things, the schematic anarchism is just one more hard-won fragment of anarchistic truth, which now has to be subject to a work of further synthesis. Still, if we recognize that most of the anarchist theory we are working with is in some sense fragmentary, it’s also important to make the most of the fragments as we grasp them—and some of my hopes for this little bit relate to more immediate responses to pressing problems.

      One of the things that people have asked me for in the responses to this most recent work has been more specific statements about what anarchism is not, alongside the schematic account of what it is. It’s a side of the question that I have consciously downplayed a bit, at least to the extent of saying very little about specific would-be anarchisms that seem to be either implausible constructions, given existing contexts, or simply bad-faith appropriations. The struggle over anarchist individualism and mutualism, waged between capitalists and anti-capitalists over recent decades, is, of course, a basic context for all of my work. The mutualist renaissance and much of the resurgence of interest in Proudhon among non-mutualists certainly would have had a different character if they had not been informed by that particular struggle—and those developments have, in turn, shaped a lot of recent discussion about “classical” anarchism more generally.

      One of the things that has struck me, time and time again, about the attempts to claim or contain mutualist and individualist anarchisms by adversaries and rivals alike has been how obviously inadequate the accounts involved have been. In some stages of my own research, I’m afraid that I have had to spend at least as much time and energy unlearning false interpretations and misrepresentations as I have been able to apply to learning from the sources. What I learned while writing my Palgrave Handbook chapter on mutualism was the extent to which anarchist rivals and non-anarchist opponents had conspired, more or less unconsciously, to create obstacles to mutualist self-definition and understanding. It’s been a valuable education and the specific difficulties involved have been instrumental in refining my current projects. I don’t even mind that there is likely to be another 20-25 years involved in proposing some synthetic alternative to the general history of anarchism that I initially learned—and I am happy to attribute our lack of such an alternative, despite the crowd of really talented historians that have been drawn to the study of the anarchist past, to factors that would have been hard to avoid, given the specific conditions under which anarchism has actually developed.

      I’ve spent the last couple of years concerned with very little other than achieving a bit of clarity regarding anarchism-in-general, on the basis of which I can relaunch some stalled projects—and I feel like I’ve succeeded. Part of that has been gaining some confidence that my previous uncertainty about some of the key issues was not just some kind of weird personal flaw or artifact of my own particular development as an anarchist. Personal clarity and confidence are, of course, precious things, particularly when you find yourself in the midst of a long process. Some of my tardiness in wrapping up this stage of things is certainly a bit of wallowing in those unaccustomed feelings. Humor me for a long moment…

      …because all good things must come to an end. And there is at least one more messy question to address before I can once again immerse myself in the homespun anarchism of Eliphalet Kimball or the bibliographical complexities of Lewis Masquerier’s œuvre.

      Obviously, there shouldn’t be a 25-year learning period necessary to get really comfortable with the basic ideas of anarchism. What the etymological explorations I’ve been involved in here seem to suggest is that it ought to be possible to move quite quickly from the most naive sense of anarchism—the one suggested by the elements of the word itself—to a conception that is both unmistakably radical and arguably compatible with most established anarchist tendencies. When we turn to the question of what anarchism is not, it would seem that almost any clear-headed, good-faith engagement with anarchist ideas would inoculate even unsympathetic observers against the sort of confusions introduced into anarchist discourse by capitalists, nationalists, etc.

      We know, however, that this isn’t the case. Some of the persistence of these debates is, of course, driven by the dogged persistence of the entryists, but some of it is pretty clearly driven by that lack of consensus, which I mentioned earlier, about whether the diversity of anarchisms is, or can be made, a strength. Some is created by a fairly widespread tendency, observable in a variety of anarchist circles, to quite consciously reject the sort of simple, radical conceptions I’ve been championing here.

      It seems to me that the simplest way to discourage confusions about anarchism is to focus on anarchy. I recognize that this has certainly not always been anarchists’ focus, so there’s no question of insisting, but it does seem worth taking a few moments to talk about what I have observed among anarchists and how the schematic anarchism proposed here, or something like it, might present alternatives.

      The debates over the relationship between anarchy and democracy seem to present some perfect examples of a kind of self-sabotaging behavior among anarchists. My position has been that the two concepts can be easily distinguished and, since anarchists presumably have some real stake in maintaining whatever clarity they can around their few keywords, it seems reasonable that anarchists would desire to make the distinction. Whatever radical possibilities still cling to the notion of democracy seem like a poor trade for the likelihood that anarchy will, through the association, no longer serve so well to represent a truly radical alternative.

      Again, there are precedents for very different approaches. The early literature of anarchism is full of memorable bits by Proudhon, Bakunin and others that depend on the ambiguous or playful use of key terms. Proudhon consciously changed his strategy regarding “new words,” “new things” and “the common language,” adopting a strategy more in line with his own developing epistemology, but also with the Fourierist serial analysis that he sometimes employed. Bakunin’s tendency to stretch the language of authority to describe anarchistic relations—”the authority of the shoemaker,” “our church,” etc.—seems positively perverse at times, but also harmless in context, provided those contexts are not forgotten. Like Déjacque’s apparent compulsion to mix metaphors, these are matters of personal strategy and expression, worthy of the most careful attention when it is a matter of understanding the individuals and text. I think we have to be honest, however, that rhetorical gambits like “property is theft” and “the authority of the shoemaker” have often taken on a life of their own, eclipsing in various ways the careful arguments they were supposed to serve. What we often see in anarchist circles appears to be a real preference for the rhetorical embellishments, and the ambiguities they exhibit, over the careful arguments.

      Nothing is more common these days than to hear apparently well-intentioned anarchists make the case for “legitimate authority,” “justifiable hierarchy,” anarchy as a matter of “rules, but not rulers,” and so on. When these formulations are challenged, the most compelling responses seem to be the appeals to pluralism and rejections of absolutism—both clearly anarchist positions of the utmost orthodoxy, which most of the proponents of harder lines regarding anarchist principles can hardly reject. It’s those arguments that I have tried to be particularly attentive to in the present analysis and expect to be engaged with most seriously in much of what follows. There are obviously key anarchist concerns at stake, both because solidifying the place of pluralism and anti-absolutism within anarchist theory seems of critical importance and because our present uncertainty seems to leave significant gaps through which entryists can do their work. The question is whether taking those concerns seriously really leads us in the direction of relative indifference to defining the goals of anarchism as consistently non-authoritarian, non-hierarchical, non-governmental, etc.

      If we embrace what is anarchic about the production and development of meaning, taking definitions as more or less imperfect descriptions of existing practices, then we are left, as I have suggested previously, with intelligibility and plausibility as the key criteria guiding an effective use of language. Again, whether we want to take a fairly naive view or embrace something like Proudhon’s anarchistic epistemology, it seems inescapably true that contexts will matter a great deal. So the pluralist approach to a text like “God and the State” begins with the recognition that a key term, authority, is used in what appear to be conflicting ways. Here is the infamous transition (in my translation):

      Consequently, no external legislation and no authority—one, for that matter, being inseparable from the other, and both tending to the enslavement of society and the degradation of the legislators themselves.

      Does it follow that I drive back every authority? The thought would never occur to me. When it is a question of boots, I refer the matter to the authority of the cobbler; when it is a question of houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For each special area of knowledge I speak to the appropriate expert. But I allow neither the cobbler nor the architect nor the scientist to impose upon me.

      What, in a case like this, do pluralism and anti-absolutism commit us to say about Bakunin’s use of the word “authority”—and about the relevance of that usage to anarchist theory? If contexts matter, then we have a lot to work with, beginning with the unfinished state of Bakunin’s manuscript and the obvious break marked in the text, then extending to the relationship of the passage on expertise to the sections that come before and after it. If we are simply not allowed to choose, then authority is at once inseparable from external legislation and something else… And we are ultimately forced to choose. If, under those circumstances, we choose to emphasize our uncertainty about whether authority can be consistently opposed, that’s ultimately on us. If we then turn around and use a more or less incoherent Bakunin as a kind of authority—presumably of the “good” kind—we almost certainly haven’t done ourselves any favors.

      I want to come back to all of this in the context of a study of some of Proudhon’s writings on language and meaning, but I also want to underline here what I have already suggested:

      Pluralism and anti-absolutism are better served by the embrace of a narrow conception of anarchy—and an an-arche-centered anarchism—than they are by even the most well-meaning hemming and hawing. Such a conception is really only “narrow” in the sense that it helps to focus our attention and efforts towards those aspects of the beautiful ideal. What I hope is clear from the work on the schematic anarchism is that this sort of conception is also about as close as we’re actually likely to get to “plain language.”

      The other advantage of this “narrow” conception of anarchism would seem to be defensive, as it provides us a tool for emphasizing the difference between really plausible accounts of anarchism and those that enjoy a lot of currency at the moment, despite their really implausible elements. For those concerned to clearly delineate what is not anarchism, I would venture to say that the schematic anarchism ought to be a valuable tool. While not every existing tendency in the “anarchist mainstream” defines its project in terms consistent with those I have been exploring, I feel fairly confident that the vast majority of them could at least affirm their connections to an anarchy-centered anarchism-in-general in those terms. I feel equally confident that the various entryist current would, probably without exception, fail miserably at the task. If I’m right, then an engagement with adjectiveless anarchism and with that distinct conception of anarchy, with or without any attempt at other forms of synthetic mutual benefit, would seem to be generally desirable among anarchists with relatively “traditional” commitments and projects.

      I’ll wrap things up here, conscious of what is unfinished or a bit repetitive in these three posts on a schematic anarchism. I feel like I have worked myself to a place where I can return to other projects with more conceptual clarity, confidence and pleasure than I’ve been able to enjoy for a long time. I hope that I have also at least given some good indications of the concerns that will drive my work moving forward. 

      Next up: Back into the deep historical weeds, I suspect, to do some “Margins and Problems”-style work on the aforementioned Eliphalet Kimball and Lewis Masquerier.

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