Constructing an Anarchism: Tradition

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      I’ve decided to skip “Notes” this week and devote the time to other projects. (So if, for example, you were interested in 175 installments of anarchist writing, fiction and memoir, on exile in New Caledonia, I’ve at least provided the bibliography.) The post on An-Anarchy has elicited some passionate responses, but they have mostly been of the “after the horse has bolted” gate-keeping variety. And while it is true that even those conflicts have their uses — C’est du choc des idées que jaillit la lumière and all that — some kinds of light are considerably less likely to provide much clarity for our particular purposes here.

      Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. — Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

      Anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist. — René Furth, “The Anarchist Question” (1972)

      We’ve started with a rather complicated collection of remarks on anarchy. For the purposes of my construction, I’ll be emphasizing anarchy in social relations as a matter of strict horizontality or absence of hierarchies. But the sense of much that has been said so far is that anarchy is not the sort of concept that can be conceptualized once and for all, requiring instead repeated reformulations in evolving contexts. We’ll be continuing to explore the ways in which we not only can, but perhaps must “make our own anarchy” as we “make anarchy our own.” Part of that exploration will involve an encounter with individualism in a few weeks, but right now we have to address the fact that what Marx said about “making history” (no doubt in the most materialist sense) is also true of making sense of history, as we turn to the question of (collective) anarchist tradition.

      (We’ll get to the question of just now nightmarish the weight of that tradition might be or what sort of obstacle it it might pose to anarchists, but first let’s see if we can present tradition in a somewhat kinder light.)

      In the “Notes on the Approach,” I described tradition as “[a] kind of approximation, subject to competition, reevaluation, revision and … ongoing synthesis.” In “Extrications: History, Tradition, Theory,” I described it as “a loose bundle of narrative elements likely to be invoked when anarchists, or relatively well-informed others, talk about anarchist theory and practice”—before going on to explore the relations between history, tradition and theory in considerably more detail. Rather than repeat that material here, I encourage folks to read that essay carefully. And for the purpose of the current construction, picking up the discussion there of the various kinds of anarchy-talk, let’s just say this:

      ☞ The anarchist tradition is, in its actual form, simply the ensemble of all that anarchists are saying about anarchism or anarchist ideas in any given moment, together with whatever share of historical anarchist utterances remain active in some sense in anarchist discourse. It is not a sum or resultant. We cannot count on it to “add up” in any very consistent sense. Indeed, we expect that it would exhibit considerable conflict and inconsistency, assuming we could somehow make all of its elements simultaneously present to consciousness. It is what we might call, following Proudhon, a work of collective reason. As part of what that means is that we don’t really expect to find all of it it in any one head.

      At the end of our exploration, those who wish to will presumably propose their own sense of anarchism as a concept. But anarchism is also various other things, other phenomena, which together form the environment and context for projects like the present one and which any fresh conceptualization of anarchism will have to confront. As we’ve already noted, there is no question of starting our conceptualizations and constructions “from scratch.” Our anarchism may end up being an affirmation, modification or rejection of other anarchisms that are present among the elements of the current state of anarchist tradition, but it will almost certainly be one of those things.

      There is, of course, much more that might be activated through our explorations. Just as we can’t help but know that we are not the first to make the effort to “be an anarchist,” we can hardly help but sense that the anarchist past contains a great deal about which we can simply have no very informed opinion. Elements come and go from the active, current mix, responding to changes within the anarchist milieus, so that ideas or views that were quite central to the anarchist tradition of another time and place may be largely unknown in the present and new concerns may burst suddenly into anarchist discourse. And the more we sense the richness of the resources not currently in use, the more we have to suspect that incorporating them might then lead us on to still other resources that have, at present, only a kind of virtual relation to the actual anarchist tradition.

      We end up with choices to make about how far afield we are going to look for possible pieces of our own anarchist theory, what breadth (in terms of applications and ideologies) and what depth (in terms of history, languages, etc.) we are prepared to explore in our engagement with tradition, and how much energy we are prepared to bring to the task of activating elements of the anarchist past presently on the margins or outside the scope of the anarchist tradition. Those choices should logically be shaped by our present circumstances and needs, including our degree of comfort with the anarchist tradition as we experience it and our sense of the adequacy of existing anarchist theory.

      I have quite obviously chosen to embrace a very broad and deep conception of anarchist tradition—and those of you who have decided to ramble with me through the “lost continent” of early anarchist history don’t have much choice but to accept that breadth and depth as conditions of the joint exploration. It should already be clear that my own choices are driven by a sense that synthesis, across both ideological currents and the divisions of time and place, is necessary for the development of anarchist ideas. But it is important to note that an expansive conception of anarchist tradition does not in any way commit you to that position or to agreement with any of the elements, familiar or unfamiliar, that you choose to explore. The scope of tradition recognized involves a choice of what you are prepared to account for or, in the defense of your conceptualizations, to be accountable for.

      Those who believe that answers to questions about anarchist theory should only draw from a narrow tradition, made up of presumably tried-and-true elements, might have a practical point, provided we think that the need for new exploration really isn’t that great. But I expect that a deep faith in the tried-and-true is not something to be taken for granted among those willing to take on the sort of itinerary we’ve mapped out.

      Still, there are limits to how far afield it is practical to go—and these questions regarding anarchist theory are presumably of some practical concern for most of us. So it probably makes sense for participants to be on the lookout, particularly when we turn to the rapid survey of the anarchist past, for elements and episodes that look particularly promising. In my own case, I eventually found, after decades of rather unfocused exploration, that the issues that seemed most pressing to me involved the concept of anarchy—at which point my task became that of finding some useful way back to present concerns, starting from Proudhon and his “barbaric yawp,” je suis anarchiste. Others will find other points of emphasis and plot out other itineraries for their individual research. But my hope is that the process of looking over my shoulder as I continue to come to terms with my truly expansive conception of the anarchist tradition will both suggest resources that might not otherwise have come to mind and mark out some excursions as not worth more than a second-hand experience, while providing at least a sketch-map of the anarchist past.

      Tradition, then, is something given as soon as we make the attempt to “be an anarchist.” We can make choices about how we will think about anarchist tradition, but we can hardly avoid thinking about it, even if it is just to attempt to somehow strike out on our own and “be anarchists” in some entirely novel way. And even then we might be forced to recognize that our attempt to break free of a given conception of anarchist tradition simply amounts, from a less individual perspective, to our contribution to the collective work from which tradition arises. The next would-be anarchist to come along would confront an anarchist tradition — in this very general sense — shaped by our rebellion, but would face the confrontation nonetheless.

      The question becomes whether this amounts to some kind of failure, whether in the structure of anarchism as –ism and collective identity or in our individual practice in relation to it. If, as Marx suggested, accumulated tradition “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”—and I don’t think we can easily dismiss the possibility—is there some way to do without?

      Marx seems to have envisioned a sort of eventual clean break, beyond which the nightmare would disappear and the brains of the living would express themselves in something like a “new language.”

      …the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

      There’s some “end of history” stuff involved in his vision of the new revolution:

      The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.

      There’s certainly something appealing, potentially freeing about the approach: “let the dead bury their dead.” But in order to judge its lasting utility, we probably have to account for the sense in which it marks a beginning, as well as foreseeing an end. The “Eighteenth Brumaire” is not “the Manifesto,” but these passage still have a manifesto-like quality, marking a moment in which revolutionary change is presumably on the verge of occurring.

      We’ve emphasized all of the uncertainty and potential packed into the moment when Proudhon first declared himself an anarchist. We should note here that, beyond the possibilities packed into the declarations themselves, we are also witnessing there an anarchist expression unconstrained by a consciously anarchist tradition. Indeed, one of the things that tends to confuse us about Proudhon—and many of the other early anarchists—is the extent to which they not yet speaking the new language that we would inherit from them as the language of a tradition. For Proudhon in 1840 and for Marx in 1852, new things are emerging—and it is possible to imagine “forgetting the native tongue” of a pre-revolutionary world. For us, however, things look different. Not only have the language and traditions of the old world not been forgotten, but the revolutionary movements of the 19th century have contributed their own traditions, which now weigh on the minds of the living in their own way.

      One reason for embracing an expansive conception of the anarchist tradition is to connect ourselves, in whatever ways we can, not just to “our end” of that tradition, but also to its earliest beginnings. If we were committed to a transformation of the sort that Marx described, then there would be very little choice but to think of our whole tradition as a matter of beginnings drawn out across centuries (or to retreat, I suppose, to some ideological fantasy about our own advances and the false consciousness of others.) And we can see the desirability, perhaps even the necessity of eventually attaining some degree of forgetfulness of the language of archy. The more difficult question is how to deal with the weight of specifically anarchist tradition. There doesn’t seem to be any question of forgetting the language of anarchy, which is at once traditional and still in the process of formation. So “let the dead bury their dead” is arguably not going to suffice for us.

      For an alternative, perhaps it makes sense to turn to figures closer to our own situation. Among the elements that have seemed worth attempting to activate through research and commentary, the various discussions of renewing and reconstructing anarchism have often topped my own list. There was an international flurry of such activity in the 1920s, which produced the ideas about synthesis that will be the focus of next week’s post, which, if not precisely remembered, is closely enough related to the emergence of platformism that it at least comes as no surprise. The post-’68 French discussions that produced Furth’s “The Anarchist Question” are less well-known, but should, again, come as no surprise when we encounter them.

      When I first encountered Furth’s essay, I was immediately struck by the bold opening line: “Anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist.” The course it follows is perhaps not the one we would expect, based on that beginning—and the greater value may be in the development, rather than the inaugural provocation—but I will confess that the line has stuck with me, in part because I’m not entirely certain how the remainder of the essay addresses it. Having already present anarchist tradition as a kind of inescapable constraint on new anarchist thought, anarchism as “permanent obstacle” is no great leap. But the insistence on permanence is interesting, particularly given all that follows.

      It rang vague bells, as well—although it took me a while to make the connection. I had stumbled on Furth’s essay after encountering his name in the pages of Recherches Libertaires, where he had discussed the individualisme social of Charles-Auguste Bontemps. That led me to a fascinating debate about renewing the anarchist tradition and ultimately to “The Anarchist Question.” Furth’s essay was striking enough to distract me from Bontemps for a while, but when I returned to works like “Synthesis of an Evolving Anarchism,” which is among this week’s suggested readings, and “Anarchism and Evolution,” it was hard to miss the ways in which permanence was also featured in those writings. But what curious ways… In the latter essay, under the header “Permanence of Anarchism,” we find the following (somewhat roughly translated for now):

      …The elaboration of anarchism has never presented its views as immutable certainties. Our opponents should realize that its fundamental anti-dogmatism protects it from this nonsense…

      Anarchism is revolt and freedom. Its steadfast pursuits exonerate it from its temporary mistakes. It is endlessly made and unmade. It always desires to be unfinished so that it may always be alive. In this sense, the future belongs to it; it does not stray from its path. This must be for us a reason to refrain from believing that we will see the end of the road…

      Throughout the writings of Furth and Bontemps, the “permanence” of anarchism seems to be very hard to distinguish from a kind of impermanence, with all the endless making and unmaking, all the attention given to reconstruction.

      This connection of change and permanence is not, of course, a new or particularly challenging problem for anarchists. We might just note it as evidence of continuity with ideas as old as Proudhon’s conception of progress. But before I settled down to write this final section I did run across a way of thinking about the problem that was at least new to me.

      In L’Individualisme social: Résumé et commentaires, a work that Bontemps published in 1967, the final chapter (or résumé conclusif) was entitled “Pérennité de l’anarchisme” (“Perennity of Anarchism.”) Now the pérennité appealed to in this case is more clearly describing the persistence back through history and presumably into the future of a basic libertarian impulse, with the more explicit forms of anarchism simply being this “evolving philosophy” in a particular form. That, too, is not a particularly novel notion. But I was struck, while still wrestling with the question of permanence in Furth’s work, with this notion of perennity—not so much because I find particular appeal in positing anarchism as an instance of another “perennial philosophy,” but because the question that brings us to this point, a question of the persistence and periodic renewal of anarchism, is perhaps very much a question of perennation, of the means of surviving the harshest seasons.

      And perhaps that’s a concept we can do something with next week.

      The suggested readings for this week, like Furth’s essay, are general descriptions of anarchism, each with some emphasis on synthesis. Beginning with next week’s readings, we will be focusing much more narrowly on specific aspects of anarchist analysis.

      About Shawn P. Wilbur 2562 Articles
      Independent scholar, translator and archivist.