An Anarchist Survey: Response by Shawn P. Wilbur

Proposal for an Anarchist Survey

It’s been several weeks since I proposed a new survey of anarchist opinion, in the spirit of those undertaken by anarchist in the early 20th century. A number of folks have agreed to work up answers to the initial questions and I’ll start things off by posting my own somewhat tentative responses. I expect I will have a good deal more to say on all these questions, but, for now, let’s get the ball rolling. 

1. — How would you most succinctly define anarchism? Is there a shared “anarchist project” — and, if so, how would you characterize it?

I define anarchism as the struggle against authority, hierarchy and any attempt to impose an absolute standard on human relations. It involves the entire rejection of governmental and legal order, as well as the absolutism that might attempt to justify that order. At the same time, however, I recognize that, in practice, the various manifestations of anarchism will always target narrower and more specific manifestations of authority. So anarchists, and anarchist factions, share a general orientation and some common vocabulary, but the common project is one that is “shared” in the sense that different anarchists concern themselves with different aspects of it.

2. — What is the relationship between anarchism and the concept of anarchy?

Because anarchism is going to find a fairly wide range of expressions, in a wide variety of circumstances—with none of them likely to be ideal—a commitment to anarchy as a guiding concept is the thing that might serve to hold the various individual anarchisms together and to prevent each of them from simply becoming a more or less libertarian struggle for one particular kind of freedom. But anarchy is also probably a force constantly at work within anarchism, the manifestation of our internal diversity, complicating and potentially fragmenting anarchist activity. Understood in this way, it would be both one of anarchism’s most persistent challenges and the solution—or at least the lens through which we are most likely to see solutions—to the problems it creates.

3. — What is the value of tradition within the anarchist milieus and what might be its uses?

Tradition is not a source of authority in anarchism. Our struggles for anarchy are not validated simply because they resemble struggles from other eras. But when we find ourselves breaking with ideas and practices from other eras, our place within an existing tradition gives us a ready-made framework for either explaining novelty—through critique of past ideas and practices, through analysis of changing conditions, etc.—or for making corrections when we seem to be straying from the project we have inherited. We probably have to acknowledge, however, that what is recognized as anarchist tradition in any given time and place is as much a matter of ideological hegemony as it is of actual history. As a source of historical understanding and as a means of assessing past or present practices, tradition is arguably little more than a starting place. And we should hope, if anarchism is to remain a dynamic, living current, that our sense of “the tradition” is something that can be revised—and perhaps very substantially rewritten—without a threat to our sense of anarchism as a viable project.

4. — What, specifically, is the role to be played in the present by the anarchist literature — whether theoretical or artistic — of the past?

The presence of an existing body of anarchist theory and literature seems to play a significant role for nearly all of us, whether we know much about it or not. Sometimes it is the focus of careful analysis and use—and a source of real insight—and sometimes it is the focus of rather more opportunistic, more or less “scriptural” reference—with much less promising results. It is likely that the existing literature, and particularly its “classical” elements, assume far too much importance at the moment, but the way to solve that particular problem seems to be to deal with that literature—once and for all, in some cases—so that its lessons can be extracted, digested, disseminated and adapted to existing conditions, enriching the “common sense” of the anarchist milieus. The existing literature is a resource to be made the most of, but then we need to learn to move on. It seems clear to me that our general ignorance of the resources at our disposal is enormous, so that there is a great deal of work to be done before we can move on without substantial loss or waste.

5. — What are the most significant challenges facing anarchists — and anarchism, as you understand it — in the present?

I think it is always going to be hard for anarchists to remain faithful to the ideal of anarchy, while dealing with the specific, partial struggles that face us all the time. But at present we live in an era dominated by fundamentalism, by the substitution of simple answers for engagement with difficult questions, and, as a result, the difficulties are only magnified. There are any number of pressing concerns that face us as individuals, but as anarchist perhaps the most pressing is that we have gone more than 175 years without developing particularly good practices when it comes to balancing our conviction regarding the correctness of the anarchist ideal and our understanding of the much less than ideal circumstances of most of our specific struggles.

6. — How would you characterize the present state of anarchist activity (outside the realm of theory and propaganda)?

There are obviously a lot of important projects being pursued by anarchists, but I’m not sure how much actual anarchist activity there is, at least in any more general sense. And I fear that anarchists are increasingly drawn into the internal struggles of the governmental order on terms that are not meaningfully anarchistic. Militancy in this or that necessary struggle is no substitute for a focus on anarchy as a guiding principle or goal.

7. — How would you characterize the present state of anarchist theory and propaganda?

I find it hard to judge, in large part because, while there seems to be a lot of activity, there is arguably not much of a shared language or basic theoretical framework. And there are certainly occasions when the lack of those things has meant that our theoretical discussions tend to be more about words than ideas. (Recent debates about “democracy” seem to be obvious examples of this problem.) But beneath these semantic and contextual distractions, I think there is also a genuine uncertainty in many, perhaps most, anarchist mileus about just how involved in theoretical elaboration we can afford to be, if that sort of activity is to avoid being purely “academic” (in the most pejorative sense of that term.) That uncertainty seems to be as much a force within the anarchist studies community as it is within the most activist elements of the movement.

8. — What are the most urgent changes to be made in anarchist practice moving forward?

While “diversity of tactics” was once a principle that at least drew a lot of lip service, we are probably not so trusting of internal diversity these days. And arguably we were never very articulate about how those diverse manifestations of anarchism fit together. Increased militancy in the face of resurgent reaction has certainly not increased our clarity on these questions. But it is arguably when militant action is called for—and when that action is likely to make increased demands on the movement—that we need to have some shared sense of purpose and some general faith that, despite diversity of tactics, we have the “community” of anarchist generally behind us. At present, I’m not even sure that such a community exists, except as a product of certain kinds of social signaling.

9. — What is the role of some kind of “anarchist unity” moving forward? What form could or should that unity take?

I think that there are anarchistic solutions to anarchism’s obvious fragmentation. We probably haven’t taken the notion of federation as seriously as the names of our organizations might suggest.

10. — What are the greatest needs with regard to new anarchist theory, propaganda, literature and art?

For better or worse, I am presently very focused on questions of common language, theoretical synthesis, rules of engagement for the division of labor that seems inevitable among anarchists, etc. Anything that clarifies how the various, obviously divergent anarchisms might make better use of our (at least nominal) association seems welcome—along with compelling arguments or agendas for moving beyond associations that are perhaps merely nominal, and thus simply confusing. But I also think there is a crying need for increased attention to the application of anarchist ideas outside the usual range of practices within the milieu. Anarchists have inherited some of the “in this world, but not of it” attitude of the Christians, so there are a lot of fairly basic questions about the mechanics of daily life that we are not prepared to address. Now, the nature of our project means that one answer to most of the common questions about “how X will work in an anarchist society” is “in a variety of different ways, limited only by our rejection of hierarchy and authority.” But we can almost certainly do a better job of providing at least experimental speculations about the role that anarchy would play in institutions and relations that now involve a strong element of authority by default.

11. — Do you currently identify with any particular anarchist current or tendency — and, if so, how do you characterize your position?

Because I draw on sources from the earliest eras of explicit anarchist activity, mutualism has been a useful reference, but I also identify with the more demanding sorts of anarchism without adjectives (believing, with Ricardo Mella, that “anarchy accepts no adjectives”) and see a synthesis as necessary means of federating various anarchist tendencies.

12. — What additional questions would it be useful to pose to a broad anarchist audience?

I think there are a lot of specific areas where we might usefully survey our currently ideas, but, having proposed these general question, I’m hoping others will make suggestions about the directions in which the surveys might be expanded.

13. — Would you be interested in participating in future surveys, perhaps addressing more specific elements of anarchist theory, practice and culture?

I’m in for the long haul.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 1961 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.