Constructing an Anarchism: An-Archy

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      The first order of business is to again thank everyone who has followed along—and particularly those who have taken the opportunity to comment. A special shout-out to the folks on the Anews Podcast, who took some time again last week to talk about “Constructing Anarchisms.” The responses—sometimes even the trollish ones—have helped make clear the various little course-corrections that seem necessary. There is necessarily a lot of the work on this project happening just-in-time (or, like today, just-past-time) and the kind of active engagement required on my end is a lot easier to maintain when there are signs of life elsewhere.

      Among the course-corrections you’ll notice moving forward is a slight change in my list of building-block concepts. Mutualism and federation are out, replaced by individualism and guarantism. As will be clear when we get there, these are fairly small shifts in focus, but they represent clarifications for me, prompted in part by feedback received on the early material. 

      On, then, to An-Archy, hyphenated in this way to underline the fact that there are really two concepts—anarchy and the archy it intends to do without—that will have to be addressed.

      Two Working Definitions

      As we turn to my construction-in-progress, I hope to provide two slightly different resources for those of you who intend to attempt your own construction later. I obviously need to provide some fairly straightforward definitions for the concepts I’ll be using, together with some indication of how they fit together to form a useful anarchism. But it is also important to underline the extent to which these specific conceptualizations are choices made within specific contexts—and then to explore the background of those choices with enough care to make others’ choices easier. Sometimes it will also be necessary to make more than one choice, provide more than one definition, while clarifying why that is a necessity. And, of course, explaining the twelve concepts on which I will focus will require addressing a range of other, related concepts.

      Addressing An-Archy, perhaps we can begin with a very simple, structural definition and a general observation:

      ☞ As should already be clear, I think we have to treat anarchy as a still-emerging concept, in part because we are still coming to terms with the precise nature of the archy it seeks to eliminate. Perhaps that’s the way we should be thinking about all concepts of any importance. In The Theory of Property, Proudhon observed that “Humanity proceeds by approximations” (including, significantly, “the approximation of an-archy”) and I think we have to suspect that one of the ways that archy manifests itself is the form of approximations taken for something more finished and persistent. That’s a question we’ll undoubtedly have to return to at various points in our exploration. For now, let’s just emphasize that most of our “definitions” of concepts like anarchy will really be more like descriptions of some one of its aspects or applications.

      ☞ That said, we can point with a good deal of confidence at some of the more prominent aspects of the reigning archy: hierarchy, authority, governmentalism, oppression, exploitation, etc. In my model construction, I want to focus on questions of social relations and their structure, so let’s say that, in this context, anarchy entails horizontality, the complete absence of hierarchy. While I am prepared to recognize every sort of difference between individuals and groups of individuals, and to attempt to account for the practical consequences of those differences, it appears to me that every attempt to translate those differences into inequality (in the sense of social inequality, the persistent elevation of any individual or group above any others on the basis of their identities or social roles) is necessarily going to find itself at odds with the most basic sorts of anarchist critique.

      This approach is narrow, in the sense that it is focused on particular structures of social relations, but also quite broad in other ways. The archy that it opposes is not simply capitalism, the state-form, patriarchy or any of the other specific specific hierarchy (all of which can be critiqued from a variety of perspectives), but instead the general pretense that every social body must have a “head,” that someone must always “lay down the law,” etc. It identifies a particular target, a particular archic way of looking at the world, but makes no particular claims about the reasons for the hegemony or ubiquity of the archy it opposes.

      Compared to the conceptions of anarchy already introduced, it undoubtedly seems a bit tame. And it says something at once amusing and important about anarchist ideas that we might begin with an opposition to what is arguably the basic structure of the majority of our social institutions and still feel like maybe we’ve haven’t made a good start. But let’s see where this definition takes us and what it contributes to the specific project of a shareable, synthetic anarchism I have proposed, while we also explore larger contexts and other options.

      A Historical Interlude

      One way to contextualize specific conceptualizations is to compare them to those made in the past, which are not always the shining moments of clarity that we might imagine they were. When anarchism emerged as keyword, ideology and movement in the 1870s, for example, there was a considerable amount of baggage already associated with the term, as well as a considerable amount of not always accessible history accumulated in what was at that time still a largely undocumented anarchist past.

      Our hyphenated an-archy threatens to drag us into a confrontation with the details of that emergence and perhaps we should just go with the flow. That form can perhaps be seen as a nod to Proudhon and the anar-chie of 1840, which as good an “authority” as Kropotkin assures us was not quite the anarchy of the collectivists or anarchist communists. In the essay “On Order,” he began by noting that “a party devoted to action, a party representing a new tendency, seldom has the opportunity of choosing a name for itself.” He discusses the beggars, sans-culottes and nihilists, who were all presumably named by their opponents, and then presents this rather remarkable origin story for anarchism:

      It was the same with the anarchists. When a party emerged within the International which denied authority to the Association and also rebelled against authority in all its forms, this party at first called itself federalist, then anti-statist or anti-authoritarian. At that period they actually avoided using the name anarchist. The word an-archy (that is how it was written then) seemed to identify the party too closely with the Proudhonists, whose ideas about economic reform were at that time opposed by the International. But it is precisely because of this — to cause confusion — that its enemies decided to make use of the name; after all, it made it possible to say that the very name of the anarchist proved that their only ambition was to create disorder and chaos without caring about the result.

      Forget the anarchists who actually seized the opportunity to call themselves “anarchists.” What Kropotkin will distinguish as “modern anarchism”—itself a curious characterization, as anarchism was at that time really a new label—was named by its enemies—the Marxist?—in order to “cause confusion.”

      And the “modern” anarchist communists learned to live with it…

      It’s a weird story, which seems to play ideological games with the historical facts—and, in the long run, it wasn’t a story even Kropotkin could stick to. Proudhon would reenter the story of anarchism in later tellings. And perhaps it was always “the Proudhonists” who were the target of Kropotkin’s comments, although they were not particular fond of the language of an-archy. Most likely, Kropotkin was just repeating bits of ideological hearsay. After all, by the time he became involved with the International in 1872, the “Proudhonists,” who had been instrumental in the founding of the organization and they rather swiftly purged from it, were really a distant memory.

      There are indications, too, that Kropotkin had yet to really engage with Proudhon’s work directly. In 1883, Marie Le Compte (responsible for the less famous, but nearly simultaneous other English translation of “God and the State,” reported to Benjamin R. Tucker’s Liberty these details from Kropotkin about his activities in prison:

      At 10 I read Proudhon half an hour, then take five minutes’ exercise by whirling my chair over my head, then read Proudhon. . . . . . At 2 the guard comes to say promenade in the court. I promenade half an hour, then write on my “Prisons of Siberia” for two hours (all I am ever able), then read Proudhon.

      Chair-whirling Kropotkin is one of those images worth a side-trip, I think. More immediately worth our attention is the potential mix of confusion and uncertainty about that anarchist past that informed the formation of “modern anarchism.” Back in 1881, Kropotkin tells us that “the anarchist party quickly accepted the name it had been given” and then goes on to explain how the ideological conflicts were presumably dealt with by a return to the sources.

      So the word [anarchist] returned to its basic, normal, common meaning, as expressed in 1816 by the English philosopher Bentham, in the following terms: “The philosopher who wished to reform a bad law”, he said, “does not preach an insurrection against it…. The character of the anarchist is quite different. He denies the existence of the law, he rejects its validity, he incites men to refuse to recognize it as law and to rise up against its execution”. The sense of the word has become wider today; the anarchist denies not just existing laws, but all established power, all authority; however its essence has remained the same: it rebels — and this is what it starts from — against power and authority in any form.

      If, however, you were not expecting Jeremy Bentham, inventor of the Panopticon, as the source for the “basic, common meaning” of anarchy—particularly as the rest of the explanation sounds an awful lot like Proudhon—well, you’re not alone. And, if we didn’t know about all of that furious later reading of Proudhon (and chair-whirling), it would be hard, I think, to avoid noticing the similarities between the emergence of that explicit anarchism and certain all-too-familiar kinds of entryism. When I first read “On Order” in the context of my work on the language of anarchy, I could help but think of this spicy, but probably apocryphal bit from Kenneth Rexroth’s Communalism:

      There is a story that, when the Communist International was formed, a delegate objected to the name. Referring to all these groups he said: “But there are already communists.” Lenin answered: “Nobody ever heard of them, and when we get through with them nobody ever will.”

      Placing Kropotkin in the villain’s role was even a kind of thought experiment I played out in a long-ago post on “the Benthamite anarchism and the origins of anarchist history.” Unsurprisingly, the idea of Bread Santa as the bad guy was too alien even for much outrage. Fair enough. We know the essay was not Kropotkin’s last or best attempt to engage with the anarchist past. We also know, I think, that it was not the last silly thing he said about the “Proudhonian” parts of that past. So what are the takeaways from this particular episode? Maybe these:

      This anarchism thing never been easy.

      We all have to start somewhere.

      Sometimes even our best and brightest have been a bit off the mark, even in relation to the basics.

      Again with the Etymology…

      I don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy on etymological considerations. That’s the sort of thing that is all too prevalent in online discussions of anarchism. And we’ve already touched on some of the relevant details. But let’s review a few key bits and raise a couple of new questions.

      We are pursuing anarchy as conceived through the broader of the proposed etymologies, as an-arche. The prefix an– is privative, which, according to the OED, means “consisting in or marked by the absence or loss of some quality or attribute that is normally present.” We recognize in arche a concept that, as Stephen Pearl Andrews put it, “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.” Go in search of the other significant uses of arche and the combinations get curious indeed. So when you put the two together you should at least expect to do without an awful lot of things that you might otherwise expect to be present, with the absences being particularly noticeable among things that might pretend to be eternal, essential, certain or absolute.

      We aren’t going to solve theoretical or ideological problems with even the best dictionary. But it’s probably worth noting that there is nothing about the word anarchy that precludes broad interpretations, sweeping denunciations, whether we’re talking about something like Proudhon’s anti-absolutism or the insurrectionary desire to “to finally come to daggers with life.” (And this might not be a bad time to recall that, for Proudhon, insurrection was a Plan B to which he clung for much of his life. See “My Testament, or Society of Avengers.”) Indeed, it is probably when interpreted most broadly, most sweepingly, that is is most shareable, even if it is not in that form that it will seem most appealing to some who might be invited to share.

      The Anarchist Question

      It’s never been easy. This is the horn that I would like to stop blowing about now, but if folks have spent time with any significant fraction of the material presented so far, I imagine the point has been made.

      If we go back to the beginnings of the anarchist tradition, we find that the clearest conceptions of anarchy were complex, with multiple meanings in play. (See “Proudhon’s Barbaric Yawp,” “Anarchy, Understood in All its Senses.”) And sometimes the conceptions were not as clear as they might have been, if only because anarchist thought was a work in progress. (“Anarchy: Historical, Abstract and Resultant”)

      Moving forward through the anarchist past, we encounter a range of difficulties that have made the transmission of ideas from generation to generation, or even just between contemporary factions, anything but clear and simple. We can’t escape the fact that ignorance and confusion have, at times, been woven into the fabric of anarchist tradition, nor should we neglect the fact that the urge to rectify that sort of error has been persistent enough to almost count as an anarchist current on its own. Almost from the beginning, students of anarchists ideas have proposed means of coming to terms with the anarchist past, often seesawing between despair and optimism. (“The Bankruptcy of Beliefs,” “The Rising Anarchism,” “The Anarchist Question.”) We might seesaw a bit ourselves, seeing how perennial some of the questions we face have been throughout the anarchist past, but I think there is something reassuring in finding that the questions have already been asked, often by some of the most familiar names in anarchist history, even if those investigations have not always received the attention they perhaps deserve.

      A Theory of Archy

      One of the things I’ve learned about the study of the anarchist past is that many of the things we imagine it can’t provide us are indeed there, ready and waiting, but we tend not to find them until we’ve done enough work on our own to know what we lack. Five years ago, when I wrote “Toward a General Theory of Archy,” archy was really just another in the series of neologisms that filled my writing at the time. I knew that I had reached certain limits, however temporary, in my reading of the “classics,” where the shifting vocabularies and conceptual toolkits add layers of complexity to ideas that are already challenging. So I was expanding my own conceptual toolkit, with mixed success, trying to establish some comparatively fixed points to which I could relate the shifting senses of more familiar keywords in the works of Proudhon, Bakunin, etc.

      Archy is not really arche in any of its historical senses. At first, I simply wanted a kind of place-holder for all of the things that anarchists have opposed historically. I discovered parallels between Proudhon’s critiques of capitalism and of governmentalism, then hoped to extend those critiques to institutions, like the patriarchal family, that Proudhon had not adequately analyzed or critiqued. Much of what I will be sharing in the coming weeks was ultimately a product of that project, although the insights came in fits and starts. (“Escheat and Anarchy,” like “Anarchy, Understood in All its Senses,” emerged from the correction of existing translations.)

      For a few years, I spoke about archy in public forums and including it in my writings, as if the notion had secured its place in historical anarchist theory—and there weren’t many bold enough to call my bluff. And eventually it was no longer a bluff, as I found that the term did indeed have a certain currency in certain 20th century anarchist circles. By the time I wrote “Archy vs. Anarchy,” I didn’t need to make or avoid any claims about the novelty of the term—but I suppose there may be plenty of other more or less unauthorized innovations there.

      “Archy vs. Anarchy” is a simple introduction to the anarchism I’ll be constructing over the coming weeks. I have paired the three short readings on archy with René Furth’s long, but very interesting article on “The Anarchist Question,” as preparation for my post on Tradition, rather than revisiting the material from the “Extrications” series, which some of you may have already read. I will summarize what I think is useful from those exploratory writings. Those trying to pace their reading schedule should notice that next week’s readings will include Voline’s essay “On Synthesis,” which, again, some participants will have already read, and that “Escheat and Anarchy” will be more thoroughly discussed in Week 7, when we look at Proudhon’s theory of exploitation.

      About Shawn P. Wilbur 2512 Articles
      Independent scholar, translator and archivist.