Anarchism: A General Formula

Constructing Anarchisms

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

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The interval between the interruption of the “Margins and Problems” survey and the appearance of this first draft-section from the Constructing Anarchisms manuscript has been considerably shorter than expected—a pleasant surprise after the slow going of the last month or so. I’ll talk more about the structure and aims of the book as the pieces come together, but for those who have been following the workshop, these initial sections should be recognizable as new approaches to familiar problems.

Anarchism-in-general: We are addressing anarchism as something that we can make our own, meaning that, in a certain sense, we can each make our own anarchism. Thus, there will be anarchisms, in the plural, that we must learn to identify by their shared characteristics. Part of our task here will be to establish the elements that must be defined in order to present an anarchism. But, in order to be recognizable as an anarchism, each instance must present itself as not just logically or ideologically complete and consistent, but also as intelligible within patterns of historical development. 

That may all sound needlessly complicated, but one of the goals here is to capture and clarify the wide range of meanings that the term can and regularly does have in common usage. The anarchism-in-general that we hope to somehow make our own is the vague, inclusive mix of ideas, practices, publications, organizations and traditions that comes to mind when we speak the word “anarchism” with no other clarification. It is both the context for the construction of more individual anarchisms and the evolving product of the interaction between old and new constructions. No one espouses this anarchism-in-general. It is not a matter of theory or ideology, but instead a particular, evolving range of possibilities. So when we say that this is the anarchism that anarchists share, we are making only the most modest claims about specific goals or beliefs held in common. 

In order to work with this anarchism-in-general, we need to reduce it to a kind of formula, addressing its various variables and their likely values. We might, for example, propose the following: Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism). 

Now, what happens when we try to unpack that formula?

Its form suggests a particular relation between three key terms: anarchy, anarchist and anarchism. That particular relation is suggested, in turn, by the historical development of the anarchist vocabulary, where anarchism lagged behind the other two terms, entering common usage decades later. So, in this arrangement, anarchism will be the –ism associated with the anarchists. And we will allow that suffix a fairly full range of possible meanings, recognizing among the manifestations of anarchism the various ideas, ideologies, activities, organizations, publications and artistic productions, struggles and even general impulses of the anarchists. Such a broad, inclusive approach allows us to capture what remains unspecified in many uses of the term, but it also addresses historical complications arising precisely from that lag between the appearance of anarchists and that of anarchism. In early anarchist writings it is sometimes difficult to distinguish concepts like mutualism and anarchism from mutuality and anarchy. Joseph Déjacque, who seems to have been the first anarchist to embrace anarchism as a keyword, sometimes used it to designate one side in the great social struggle of the era—with the opposite side being jesuitism—and sometimes as something like a fundamental force of nature. In his essay “On Religion,” he declared that the religion of the future must be:

The evolving synthesis of all the contemporary truths; perpetual observation and unification; the progressive organization of all the recognized sciences,  gravitating from the present to the future, from the known to the unknown, from the finite to the infinite; the negation of arbitrary absolutism and the affirmation of attractional anarchism; the principle and consecration of every movement in humanity and universality, the pulverization of the past and its rising regeneration in the future, its permanent revolution.

So we may perhaps be forgiven for allowing the suffix here more scope than we might generally give to political —isms. And is, simply attempting to cover our bases, we ran down the list of meanings for that suffix, we might imagine anarchisms that are characteristic quirks or structural changes, anarchisms that resemble volcanisms, exorcisms, heroisms, witticisms, tropisms, etc. We don’t need to imagine that all these senses will come into play with equal regularity. Indeed, we can be certain that they won’t. But with each of these variables we’ll want to give ourselves a sense of the full range of possible values.

As anarchism is defined in terms of the manifestations and tendencies of the anarchists, anarchist is in terms of the relations of individuals (singly or in association) to the idea of anarchy. Here, once again, we have at least some potential ambiguity to address in the sense of the suffix. Proudhon’s provocative declaration—je suis anarchiste—was first uttered in a world where anarchist did not yet designate a political role or adherence to an ideology or movement. The French allows us to read it as the declaration of a role or occupation:

(Compare, for example: Je suis médecin. = I am a doctor.)

or else as a statement about a condition of one’s being:

(Je suis malade. = I am sick.)

And for examples of where we might find anarchisms wary of reducing being an anarchist to fulfilling a role or conforming to a type, we need look no farther than the anarchist individualists and conscious egoists. 

Anarchists seek anarchy as a state of relations, express anarchy as a value they seek to embody, etc. And anarchy, to perhaps no one’s surprise, arises from the convergence of two particularly complex variables. In a discussion of his own system of pantarchy, Stephen Pearl Andrews gave this definition for arche:

Arche is a Greek word (occurring in mon-archy, olig-archy, hier-archy, etc.), which curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning, the idea of origin or beginning, and hence of elementary principle, with that of government or rule.

Treated as a root for anarchy, it takes us far beyond the narrow senses of “without rulers” or “without government,” but, here again, we have no lack of precedents for that extension, starting with Proudhon’s project of anti-absolutism, which seems to take all of Andrews’ curious combination as its target. And while we allow arche its full scope, we want to take care as well to strip the privative an– of none of its emphatic character. 

If, in a general sense, Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism), with the outer layers of the equation representing expressions of the elements within, we can expect the most radical forms of anarchism to emerge when the elements of the central anarchy consist of the broadest sort of arche and the most emphatic form of negation. There will also, of course, be forms of anarchy both much less emphatic and much less sweeping in their rejection of arche. We see anarchism presented at times as little more than a theory of good government. At any given time and place there will be would-be anarchisms proposed so mild or partial in their rejection of arche that they will not be recognizable as anarchism at all. At the same time, we often see an entirely understandable tendency on the part of anarchists to attempt to shield anarchism—or their particular anarchisms—from the more unruly sorts of anarchy. Here again, however, precedents presumably well within the scope of anything like the anarchist canon complicate the issue. Consider, for example, Proudhon’s description, in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, of the series of political forms:

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

It appears then that there will inevitably be a good deal of unavoidable variation among the anarchisms defined by our general formula, with the central term—anarchy—exerting a genuinely anarchic influence on the whole. But perhaps that serves us well, both in accommodating as broad a range of potential anarchisms as we might hope to address and in placing the problem of anarchy at the center of things, in a way that will be hard to avoid. 

Having established what appears to be a serviceable formula, we can now turn to the more difficult work of applying it in various operations, both in the analysis of existing anarchisms or potential anarchisms, in the construction of anarchisms of our own and in attempts to glimpse the general shape of anarchism-in-general in specific times and places.

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