Constructing Anarchisms: Clarifications and Additional Tools

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

      Given the rapid buildup of “Constructing Anarchisms,” really in a matter of days, from a proposal among friends to this joint enterprise of really unknown dimensions, it’s no surprise that some of the introductory material didn’t clarify everything that perhaps it should have made clear. My bad. The thing to do now is to fill in a few gaps.

      What follows is a first sketch of some material that I will probably add to the print version of the project, which is coming together more rapidly than I expected. Some of it was then influenced by the discussion on this last week’s Anews podcast.

      One of the questions that came up on the podcast was a question of genres. Should the exploration I’ve been doing be considered history? or philosophy? And then there were questions about the function of episodes like last week’s treatment of Kropotkin and “On Order”? Finally, there were some comments-section shenanigans aimed at the perceived ideological agenda of my whole project. Not all of the responses were anything like equally thoughtful, but all of them suggest that it wouldn’t hurt to summarize and clarify some basic things at this point.

      This first “quarter” has been conceived as an example. Watch and wonder as, before your very eyes, someone constructs an anarchism! But the point isn’t to watch and then regurgitate the very individual vision contained in these writings. Instead, it’s a question of developing a personal sense of what “constructing an anarchism” could mean, so that you can attempt something similar on your own, after our survey of anarchist history. That’s one of the reasons that I haven’t felt much need to crank down the levels of uniqueness in the expression or curb my tendency to move from one form of exploration to another… and another. “Constructing an anarchism” is going to start out for most of us as a kind of problem, as we struggle to figure out if that’s something we could do, want to do, etc. Given that, there may be something to be said in favor of making the example of “making anarchism our own” unabashedly idiosyncratic.

      Given what I know about the people who ultimately gravitated toward the project, I’m going to guess that uniqueness as such is not likely to be a problem.

      But there’s no point in overdoing it—and if a good deal of what I have constructed in my previous work is quirky, I like to think that it is still a question of quirky tools, with some real, practical applications. So let me just take the time to introduce a handful of tools that will perhaps clarify just how I conceive the purpose of “Constructing Anarchisms.”

      The Ungovernability of Anarchism: Back in 2012, I wrote a couple of posts discussing the various senses in which anarchism (whether understood as an ideological ideal, a tradition or a movement) seemed destined to escape our best attempts to pin it down as sole property of any of the contending anarchist factions. It was intended to be an observation about the character of the anarchism or anarchisms that we have inherited (whatever connections it might ultimately have to similar observations we have made about the resistance of anarchy to certain kinds of definition), based in historical research. A key claim was that “Anarchism hardly had a name before it had an internal diversity that no amount of spinning is ever going to reduce to a single orthodoxy.”

      The first post was treated with suspicion, as if I was suggesting that, for example, capitalists or nationalists could be considered anarchists because anarchism was “ungovernable.” My point was very different—as some of you may have guessed from the historical episodes that I have emphasized. In the suggested readings for Week Two, I was concerned with the ways in which Proudhon’s conception of anarchy came to “contain multitudes.” What I was attempting to demonstrate in the treatment of Kropotkin’s “On Order” was how anarchism seems to have gained a similarly split character, again essentially at its origins. “On Order” is one of the first attempts to make specifically anarchist history and remains a touchstone for a certain account of anarchism’s origins, so it seems a natural place to look for a clear conceptualization of anarchism. What we find instead—the twists and turns by which Proudhon’s ideas, including that anarchy, are first dismissed and then drawn back in as if they were Bentham’s, etc.—is a bit of a mess as origin stories go. The sequel—Kropotkin alternating chair-whirling and the perhaps belated study of Proudhon—reminds us that the conceptualization or reconceptualization of anarchism was an ongoing process.

      I’ve never want to appear too hard on Kropotkin, felt that perhaps I was being more direct than usual in the post on an-archy and no doubt overcompensated a bit with all the chair-whirling. These are hard balances to strike. It has seemed important to me that the anarchist communist appropriation seems at once to be something very much like entryism and, at the same time, to present no real obstacle to synthesis, beyond some historical confusions that are fairly easily rectified if people want to rectify them. It has seemed extremely useful to concentrate on this episode, as it allows us to examine essentially the whole length of the history of explicit anarchism through the dual lenses of “modern anarchism as a break with previous anarchist projects” and “modern anarchism as a continuation of previous anarchist projects” while focusing on the same events.

      Those who have read any of the material for “Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back,” particularly the “Mappings,” won’t have any trouble moving from the metaphor of a “doubled” anarchist history to that of modern anarchism as a kind of “braided stream.” Those who want a quick introduction to some of those concerns might look at “Anarchism as a Fundamentally Unfinished Project” and “Anarchist History: The Metaphor of the Main Stream.”

      The Anarchist Declaration: I’ve said that I consider Proudhon’s first use of the phrase je suis anarchiste as a natural starting place for the examination of anarchist history, in part because there is a richness and an uncertainty in that expression that I expect all of the possible accounts leading from it will have difficulty exhausting. And texts like “The Anarchist Tension” suggest that, at the very least, that anarchist declaration—I am an anarchist—is going to require some new effort each time we make it, if, that is, we intend to take anarchy and anarchism seriously.

      That challenge suggests that there is a basic, constant sort of anarchist practice that involves refreshing our commitment to the anarchist project in whatever new circumstances we find ourselves in. One way, then, of “making anarchism our own” would be this ongoing reconnection of anarchistic ideas to altered contexts. And while sometimes I think that an inkling of that project leads us to reject too much specification and “wing it,” perhaps there is something to be said for some specific efforts to clarify those elements of « our own anarchism » that we expect to be most persistent.

      I’m certainly not above winging it—as some aspects of this project undoubtedly show. And one of the aspects of the daily practice that emerged for me in the course of the “Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism” is that I hardly consider one of these public explorations complete unless I’ve got myself stuck or nearly so on some theoretical limb in the process. I’m conscious now of fairly constantly pushing myself to go back to basic anarchist ideas, no matter the problem I am confronting, and take my time applying them, exploring their application. I don’t suppose that it is a practice that I will feel the need to keep up forever, but it is a habit that I’m quite consciously trying to cultivate.

      And maybe that’s the main thing—aside from a lot of challenging tidbits from anarchist history—that I feel it would be worthwhile to share in this joint exploration.

      There are a few more items from this personal toolkit that I will probably find an occasion to share, but the next phase of that work will probably combine quite nicely with the discussion of synthesis.

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