Anarchism: The Formula Explored

Constructing Anarchisms

Part III—Drafts
II—Margins and Problems
I—Constructing an Anarchism

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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. 

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2549 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.