Constructing an Anarchism: Notes on the Approach

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:

      Off on the Right Foot

      We’re starting with an odd mix of cautions and pep-talks, because we need an odd mix of critical distance and passionate engagement if we’re going to complete the task at hand. “Expect contusions,” but “please do try this at home.” It’s easy to draw the preliminaries out too long, but it’s hard to be sure we’ve really situated ourselves where we need to be until the long opening moment starts to feel a little awkward. But we can guess that we have carved out a space for exploration when people start to try to occupy it, as some already have on Facebook, Reddit, the Anews Podcast and—in a somewhat more adversarial fashion—a couple of comment sections.

      That means, I think, that we can shift some of our attention from a profusion of questions to a profusion of answers—none of which. of course, will necessarily be your answers.

      Getting to the Point

      We’ve set ourselves a particular course — a journey from anarchy to an –ism — and for some of us, steeped in some form of the critique of ideology, the trick is making that trip sound like something other than a march to the scaffold. Fortunately, there are various sorts of -isms and part of our journey through anarchist history will involve encounters with a number of those varieties, suitable for the projects of various sorts of anarchists. But we should probably try to make clear, here at the outset, how the particular path I am taking aims to combine both a search for bits useful to individual constructions and the articulation of a shareable anarchism, which might serve as a tool for broad synthesis.

      As I work through my list of chosen concepts, I will be elaborating a kind of system—one that is presumably useful in the planning and pursuit of anarchistic projects of a practical nature. In that context, the invocation of an-archy marks a rather complete rejection of the organizational principles of the status quo, Proudhon’s theory of collective force is adopted as a specific and broadly applicable anarchistic social science, with federation and mutualism designating particular kinds of anarchistic relations, and so on… The simplest way to provide examples for others to examine, evaluate, adapt, reject, revise, etc. in their own experiments is to sketch out a model—or at least give a pretty clear picture of a toolkit—even if the results are explicitly of a provisional sort.

      If anarchy is the principle and anarchism is, in some sense, the application of the principle in real relations, then we can expect a good deal of the exposition dealing with the other concepts to focus on questions of authority, hierarchy, oppression, domination, exploitation, etc. Starting from that radical rejection of the status quo, part of the project obviously has to be directed toward elaborating a critique of what is and proposing viable alternatives. In the context of that part of the project, the anarchist tradition is presented as a largely untapped resource, which anarchists of various tendencies might be expected to put to better use than has previously been the case.

      I certainly believe that we have inherited remarkable resources and that many of the failures of various anarchist tendencies might be remedied, at least in part, by some concerted scavenging through those resources. But that’s only part of what is driving this project.

      The other part is an insistence on anarchy-centered anarchism as the great lost treasure of « our » “lost continent.” But anyone concerned about that -ism at the end of the journey is probably also aware that keeping anarchism anarchy-centered is not the easiest task. So perhaps it will be useful here to work quickly through my list of concepts, with a particular eye to how that centering of anarchy is likely to be maintained at each step:

      ☞ In the context of an anarchist theory, the invocation of Anarchy should, it seems to me, impose certain limits to systematization. Proudhon’s appeal to an-arche was a simple expression of his opposition to everything that would try to present itself as eternal and unchanging. To treat anarchy as a kind of principle should prepare us for concepts and theories that are always approximate in the moment and subject to more or less immediate revision.

      ☞ With that idea of anarchy held at the center of our investigations, it seems natural to think of Tradition as simply another kind of approximation, subject to competition, reevaluation, revision and ultimately the sort of ongoing Synthesis we find elaborated in Voline’s 1924 article (but invoked repeatedly in the works we will be examining.) Anarchy resists systemization, but so too does the raw material of the anarchist past. And, rather than imagining that all we have to do is just cut things down to size in the right way, perhaps there is a more radical and simultaneously more inclusive lesson to be learned from that fact.

      ☞ The question then becomes whether or not we can assemble a critical toolkit, including perhaps some kind of social science, that still centers anarchy among our concerns. My answer is a fairly unabashed pitch for a recovery, rectification and extension of the hidden-in-plain-sight Proudhonian sociology. And that argument will largely take the form of reexamining familiar notions (authority, hierarchy, exploitation, domination, etc.)  through the lens of another vocabulary: Governmentalism, Aubain, Federation, etc. But the concept that concerns us most at this moment is almost certainly Collective Force, arguably the heart of Proudhon’s analysis, which led him to think about increases in qualities as varied as productive power and freedom in terms of what I think we have to recognize as increases in anarchy within given systems of relations. If forced to make choice proposed by Bakunin between *science* (in its more governmentalist forms) and *life*, I would like to think I would always choose the latter—to the point of Déjacque’s “bilge-rat,” who drills away at the ship of state, regardless of what will eventually pour in—but it isn’t clear that we have to choose. And one of the issues I want to touch on in all of this section, but perhaps specifically in the material on Mutualism, is the fact that in the period of anarchy-without-anarchism the –isms proposed in anarchist circles were as often as not something other than ideologies.

      ☞ An anarchy-centered social science obviously makes it easier to talk about programs without feeling like that scaffold is right around the corner. Drawing on recent material from the Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism, I want to propose a rather simple, 3-part program—build around the concepts of Contr’un, Encounter and Entente—that addresses an anarchistic conception of the self, a rudimentary social system (drawn from Proudhon, but perhaps not so far from the union of egoists in spirit) summarizing anarchic relations among anarchists and some suggestions about how how we might conceptualize anarchistic relations with non-anarchists.

      ☞ The end point, then, should be an Anarchism that remains meaningfully anarchy-centered, if also necessarily approximate and subject to all manner of critique and revision. And if some degree of ideological commitment is hard to escape in this kind of exercise, I hope it will be clear that there has always been a possibility, clearly represented within the anarchist tradition, of treating our anarchism primarily as a tendency, rather than an ideology.

      A basic assumption in all of this is that anarchy itself is not diminished by our poking and prodding. It appears to me, on the contrary, that anarchy may be one of those ideas that is more than capable of expanding to match or more than match our attempts to master it, ultimately infusing our efforts with more of its own character.


      Our next “week” is two weeks long, in order to accommodate the holidays, so I’m not going to rush myself too much over the next couple of days to finish both the René Furth translation and the post on An-Anarchy. But I shouldn’t be more than a couple of days behind schedule on either. In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts about this post, the Ricardo Mella readings or anything else more or less relevant to our exploration, comments are welcome in the Facebook group, r/Mutualism, here on the blog or anywhere else you think you might be able to catch my attention.


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