Anarchy as a Beacon and as a Focus for Synthesis

A synthetic anarchism is bound to pose some problems, whether we think of anarchism as an ideology or as a set of experimental practices. Most of the difficulties surround the notion of anarchy. Whether we imagine that anarchy is the ideal or principle upon which an evolving ideology should focus with increasing clarity or whether we consider it a placeholder, the name for a discovery or experimental result that we have not yet encountered in any full sense, it remains a largely negative element. As such, anarchy certainly does not provide all the practical direction that many of us would like from a principle. I suppose that’s why some anarchists have resolved to do without, setting their sights on more concrete goals.

Anarchists have, at times, tried to directly conceptualize an ideal that is never fully present to us, as William Batchelder Greene did in his freemasonry-influenced text on “The Blazing Star:”

Some men — not all men — see always before them an ideal, a mental picture if you will, of what they ought to be, and are not. Whoso seeks to follow this ideal revealed to the mental vision, whoso seeks to attain to conformity with it, will find it enlarge itself, and remove from him. He that follows it will improve his own moral character; but the ideal will remain always above him and before him, prompting him to new exertions. What is the natural conscience if it be not a condemnation of ourselves as we are, mean, pitiful, weak, and a comparison of ourselves with what we ought to be, wise, powerful, holy?

But clarifications of this sort only take us so far. We can understand that our goals may evolve or that our perceptions of the distance to the goal may be altered by our efforts to reach it, but progress itself is not our goal, however necessary it may be to its attainment.

To come to grips with anarchy, it helps to have a sense of how a constantly receding ideal might operate, but it probably helps more to ask ourselves why it is anarchy that appears to us, a dim but shining ideal, in the first place. There is no denying, I think, the power of the idea of anarchy—both in a positive and in a negative sense—as evidenced by the remarkable durability of Proudhon’s declaration (“je suis anarchiste.”) But it is not so easy to move beyond that recognition of power to an understanding of why people—some people, as Greene reminds us—have taken this notoriously elusive and largely negative notion as their pole star.

Anarchy is not the thing we have “in hand,” and anarchy per se or in itself seems likely to remain at some distance. What we have all around us, however, is evidence of a general problem, which anarchists have called the principle of authority, hierarchygovernmentalism, absolutism, etc. If we wanted to lift it out of those various discourses and examine it in a specifically anarchist context, we might just call it archy—provided, of course, we are always ready to break this abstract negation of a negation down into the specific objects of anarchist critique.

Our situation is complicated. To the extent that it is defined by a relation to anarchy, anarchism exists between two hypotheses. If anarchy is the remedy that we can’t quite describe, archy is a general diagnosis that we’re almost always just a little short of being able to entirely affirm. The two are intimately linked, however, and, as a rough and ready rule, we can probably say that anarchy is less dim and appears less distant the closer we come to affirming the existence of a general regime of archy.

That observation allows us to go a little farther.

I think it’s hard to spend much time among anarchists without realizing that there are some of us for whom anarchy really is a sort of ever-present beacon and others for whom anarchism does not require that blazing star, and that a substantial perceptual gulf between the groups. If there is any “unbridgeable chasm” running through the anarchist milieus, perhaps this division is as good a candidate as any. There is a tendency, I think, to treat the two camps in terms of a disagreement over “organization” or according to the terms of the old “idealist vs. materialist” dichotomy. But I suspect that these judgments are themselves largely reflections of the group that the old debates about “organization” have on the collective imagination of the movement.

It strikes me that the odd assortment of anarchist tendencies that really seem to inspire anarchists to see anarchy as something like a shining ideal are united by the comprehensiveness of their critique of authority, archy. Among mutualists, it seems to me that anarchy is more prominent for the anti-absolutists than the anti-statists and anti-monopolists, while it hardly seems to figure at all for the voluntaryists who lurk in the neighborhood. Anarchist egoists, at least of the Stirnerian sort, with their rejection of the typical and categorical, seem to see it easily, as do anarchist nihilists. It is not entirely a question of well-formed or ill-formed theory. An oddball like Eliphalet Kimball considered pies dangerous for roughly the same reason he mistrusted government, which led him to have strange ideas about dessert but a comparative clear notion of anarchy. The clarity and indiscrimate application of his structural analysis makes the emergence of an alternative ideal—an acephalous anarchy—almost inevitable. It is not a question of whether our focus is materialist or not. Whether we believe that there is a regime of authority as real and material as, say, the capitalist mode of production or whether our analysis is more driven by a sense of the power of ideas, it is probably the act of more clearly distinguishing a pervasive, present archy that makes the vision of anarchy nearly inescapable for some of us.

That means, of course, that there are anarchists whose identity as such is based on association with a particular organization, movement, milieu, sector on a political chart, etc. and that there are others who more directly identify with the idea or ideal of anarchy, but if we are to understand the differences—and the sometimes unexpected affinities within the milieu—we probably have to look first at the scope of the critiques of existing society, rather than other factors.

And if anarchy emerges as an “ideal” as a result of analyses of the existing system that, in essence, leave little room for remedies that don’t involve a complete break with the fundamental principles of that system, there may be good reasons to ask if the same anarchy can emerge in any other way. I know that one of the characteristic experiences of my debates with voluntaryists, anti-state capitalists, anti-state democrats and others, who want to claim the anarchist title but do not seem to have any sense of what anarchy has to do with it, is a feeling that my antagonists simply don’t understand what I’m talking about. And perhaps, to be fair, there are people who understand some of the critique of the principle of authority, but do not, in fact, “see anarchy” in the same way that some of us do.

If the differences are real, then they have real, practical consequences. When it is a question—as it is here—of “shareable narratives” and the old idea of anarchist synthesis, then perhaps one of the places that we can begin to understand present difficulties is by looking at how synthesis—along with some other elements of what I’ve been calling the anarchic countercurrent—became incorporated into the anarchist tradition as if it were simply a question of competing organizational tendencies. Lifted out of the specific context of proposals for the Nabat federation, the organizational opposition of platform vs. synthesis doesn’t make much sense, particularly when Voline’s writings suggest very different stakes. But the failure of synthesis to register as a theory of anarchist development makes considerably more sense if we acknowledge a basic difference within the anarchist tradition when it comes to addressing both anarchy and organization together.

If that difference is then traceable to a difference in the prominence of anarchy in anarchist analysis, itself traceable to differences in the scope of various forms of nominally anarchist critique, then we are faced with an interesting set of problems, which it will be necessary to explore more fully.

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