Constructing an Anarchism: Approaching An-Archy

Suggested readings:
From last week:
Ways to get lost for a while:
Just for fun:
A neo-Proudhonian Synthesis:
A Tour of the Lost Continent:
    Constructing Anarchisms:

      What is anarchy? This is a question that I have returned to repeatedly, a bit obsessively, with different results each time. I have come to the conclusion that anarchy is what we might call a still-emerging concept. At times it strikes me as almost shockingly self-evident, bold and bare like the lovers in some one of a thousand anarcho-naturist poems—or sometimes maybe just bold:

      “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
      “Whaddaya got?”

      At others, the anarchy of available anarchies makes me wonder if I’ll ever really get more than glimpses of this beautiful idea.

      Think of these two responses as poles in what may, at least for now, be a kind of necessary oscillation in our encounter with anarchy. We’re at the stage of confronting ourselves with the fact—what seems to be a fact, at least—that some of our most important concepts continue to elude us, both individually and collectively. And we’re faced with the sheer volume of anarchist history and tradition that cannot help but complicate matters for us. But the basic premise of this whole experiment is that, while the complications are real, they are very far from insurmountable and, with a bit of care, we can probably position ourselves in relation to all that complexity in a way that is not just surmountable, but perhaps is even advantageous.

      We’ve already assembled some of what we need to engage with anarchy in all of its, y’know, anarchy. Paying attention to questions of sphere and scope of application—just not trying to use anarchy to answer questions or solve problems that don’t relate—will help us a lot. Being clear with ourselves and with one another about the specific realms to which we think anarchy most pertains will help as well. As someone already long accustomed to wrestling with these questions, it feels quite natural for me to be constantly shifting focus, talking about history at one moment and etymology at the next, shifting from the concerns of the very first conscious anarchists to those of my friends in various modern milieus—trying to balance the need for clarity and the fact that, in the end, I’m really in it for the anarchy. In this context, I am really trying to strike a useful balance, but there are going to be times when perhaps we should have a scrolling banner of the “PLEASE DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME” variety somewhere on the site.

      But you should almost certainly try this at home—or something like it—but just do it in your own way with the tools you can bring to the task in the present.

      The fact that anarchy is just anarchy, just right there, out there, taunting us with that “whaddaya got?” is probably the reason that we continue to talk about it, why people who pretty obviously want rather archic things want to talk about it, instead of falling back on some other language, some other rhetorical strategy. Whenever people talk about “rebranding” anarchism, I can’t help but laugh—because, whatever else anarchists may have got wrong over the years, the “brand” has served us well in a variety of ways. But there is no escaping the fact that the language of anarchy has been and remains a provocation, perhaps because it couldn’t be anything else in the circumstances, and that building with a provocation as foundation is likely to produce complicated results.

      So let’s not try to escape those facts—and see if there are some other difficulties that we can escape.

      We’re stretching out the opening a bit at this point, for a variety of reasons. I haven’t been quite sure if enough of us were on one page to move forward. I’ve been doing what I can in various forums to fix that. I decided I wanted to share a French essay from the 70s—next week—and then realized how much of it was still untranslated. And the good folks at the Anews Podcast spent some time this week responding to the project—which, frankly, just put me in the mood to chat back a bit in the general direction of distant friends.

      But it’s time to start my own work of construction, starting with some conception of anarchy that doesn’t consist of more-or-less erudite free association.

      It’s time to build.

      But we never really get to build from scratch.

      To make these concepts « our own » is inevitably to enter into some kind of relationship with existing bodies of thought and those who share an interest in them. And perhaps that relationship is ultimately one of sharing—but it is very difficult to start there.

      There’s a work that almost certainly comes first, which arguably calls on us to channel our Inner Stirner, look at the available material in “the anarchist tradition” and see, at least for a time, « my food ». There’s no real harm done if we just tear off whatever chunks seems useful. Ideas are rivalrous in other ways. But there’s something to be said for being quite conscious about our appropriations, looking at anarchism from the outside, extricating first ourselves and then perhaps too-familiar ideas from familiar frameworks.

      The problem of establishing a useful perspective will be different for each of us. Some of us will struggle to find a space outside of our anarchist beliefs from which we can still maintain a useful perspective. Some of us will perhaps have to begin by clarifying what we think anarchism is before we can meaningfully confront the tradition as a resource. That’s one of the reasons for the long wind-up. For the moment, it’s mostly just us and a couple of questions:

      What is anarchy?
      What is anarchism?

      But now I’m going to start coming at you with answers, of a sort, which it will be necessary to treat as a kind of creative work—examples of answers, being precisely exemplary (in a modest sense), rather than definitive. That distinction is obviously easiest to maintain if it is indeed a question of multiple examples, which is why we will regularly pair a new conceptualization with some of my past writings on the same topic.

      Approaching the concept of An-Archy, we’ve already introduced the texts from the “Defining Anarchy” series. This week, I want to present two more attempts to define or conceptualize anarchy for your consideration. They both deal with the complicated question of what Proudhon meant when we wrote about anarchy. The first, “Anarchy, Understood in All its Senses,” deals with a bizarre set of interpretive problems introduced into the English translation of Idée générale de la révolution au XIXe siècle, when the translator attempted to clarify the text by translating many of the appearances of the word anarchie with English words that were not anarchy. This might not have been a problem, except that Proudhon had himself suggested twice in the text that the various senses of the term were in some sense interchangeable. For example:

      The first term of the series being thus Absolutism,  the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses.

      The problem posed by the diversity of those senses is one that I want to return to in next week’s post, but you can read a partial exploration in the second reading, “Anarchy: Historical, Abstract and Resultant.” This attempt to distinguish three types of anarchy that seem to appear in Proudhon’s work really aimed to address a different problem in Proudhon scholarship, concerning his alleged shift away from anarchist ideas in his later works, but should be read here primarily as an example of the clarifying process.

      Returning to the warring visions of anarchy with which I began this post, we might think of the first of these readings as dealing with an anarchy that at least Proudhon thought shown through in some relatively uniform way despite significant differences in the uses of the term, while the second demonstrates some of the real diversity in the possible definitions of anarchy. And we’ll see if the two sets of insights can be combined in next’s weeks conceptualization of the concept.

      That just leaves one reading for the week: Ricardo Mella’s “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” and its sequel, “The Rising Anarchism.” Mella was a Spanish collectivist anarchist and one of the thinkers associated with the idea of anarquismo sin adjetivos. He was a talented and prolific writer whose works are marked by a fairly constant concern that the anarchic heart of anarchist thought should be maintained. He was hard on all isms, tracing an apparently inevitable trajectory from enthusiasm to dogma to “dreadful questioning:”

      The enthusiasm of the neophyte, the healthy and crazy enthusiasm, forges new doctrines and the doctrines forge new beliefs. It desires something better, pursues the ideal, seeks noble and lofty employment of its activities, and barely makes a slight examination, if it finds the note that resonates harmoniously in our understanding and in our heart. It believes. Belief then pulls us along completely, directs and governs our entire existence, and absorbs all our faculties. In no other way could chapels [almost certain sects or narrow schools of thought, in the sense of the French chapelle], like churches, small or large, rise powerfully everywhere. Belief has its altars, its worship and its faithful, as faith had.

      But there is a fateful, inevitable hour of dreadful questioning. And this luminous hour is one in which mature reflection asks itself the reason for its beliefs and its ideological loves.

      And, as the first essay draws to a close we find that anarchism is apparently not immune to this tendency to bankruptcy. But the sequel, if less poetic and moving, is useful in its measured thoughts about what might keep an anarchism in the black. It is also an early example of an argument for anarchist synthesis, but one perhaps more radical, or at least more compellingly presented, than that of Voline.

      If individuals or groups are looking for a text to read closely or to discuss, I think it would be hard to find one that draws together so many of the concerns we have begun to address. And, as it is a particular favorite of mine, it seems likely that I will return to it again.


      About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
      Independent scholar, translator and archivist.