Constructing Anarchisms: Definitions, Pluralism, Anarchy

Constructing Anarchisms

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

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More Notes for a Preface

The Difficulty of Defining Terms

One of the ideas driving Constructing Anarchisms has been the notion that “anarchy” and “anarchism” mark problems that it is necessary to return to again and again, that “becoming an anarchist” is an ongoing and arguably interminable project. And, while that idea may not be exactly popular in anarchist circles, it is undoubtedly connected to the widely-shared intuition that we must allow anarchist theory and practice to retain some significant degree of pluralism. We certainly expect anarchy to manifest itself in a variety of ways, to be amenable to discussion in a variety of vocabularies, to be approachable from a variety of contexts, etc.—and we seem to share a sense that denying some similarly protean qualities to anarchist theory and practice would be some kind of fundamental betrayal of our anarchic ideals. Critiques of “absolutism”—specifically connecting anarchism and anti-absolutism—are surprisingly common lately in online debate. 

So far, so good… We might be led to believe that anarchists are well on our way to confronting the “blind men and the elephant” character of our engagement with anarchy and its practical manifestations. Surely, some widespread outbreak of ideological modesty and an embrace of development through synthesis are just around the corner…

The problem, of course, is that our attachment to pluralism, like our attachment to anarchy, tends to remain largely a matter of intuitions, applied “on the fly” and often rather opportunistically. So, for example, there may be opposition to “absolutism” when it is a question of distinguishing “anarchy” and “democracy,” because “words mean different things to different people,” from those who would wave off the idea of “anarchist” capitalism or nationalism with no hesitation at all. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, in their treatment of basic concepts and beliefs, anarchists share a tendency to waver between dogmatism and dispersion, with consequences for both individual and collective practice that are all too predictable.

The consolation for anarchists is that the difficulties that lead to this sort of wavering are almost certainly structural, arising from a combination of the conceptual challenges posed by taking anarchy as an ideal and various tensions imposed on modern anarchisms by the specific historical development of anarchist ideas and movements. This is another of the ideas driving my recent projects—one that might eventually be explored in real detail through Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back. The problem is that we can come to a very clear sense of how our shared history brought us to the particular place we occupy without necessarily improving our situation a great deal. This has been one of the lessons of “Constructing an Anarchism,” where it became abundantly clear that learning this particular lesson from history was going to be difficult for many not already immersed in historical questions, and then again of “Margins and Problems,” where I found that my own critical and interpretive apparatus was simply not quite up to the task of tracing potential anarchisms through periods I know pretty well.

I interrupted “Margins and Problems” in order to determine what, if anything, I could do to “fix” some key terms—particularly “anarchy” and “anarchism”—in ways that rendered them consistently applicable across various periods of history, but avoided ideological dogmatism, which would be as deadly to the projects I have in mind as a “pluralism” that amounts to pure dispersion of meaning. I was not initially all that hopeful, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the “general formula” for anarchism and the exploratory typology of anarchisms came together just as soon as I sat down to start the work, with a serviceable outline for what was becoming a monograph on basic anarchist theory not far behind.

There are, of course, few easier ways to complicate a piece of writing than to establish a clear outline for it—as I have been reminded in recent weeks. But I have few complaints about the kinds of clarifications that have emerged from starting to put flesh on that skeleton.

Central to the argument I have been elaborating about the historical development of anarchist ideas and practices is a distinction between two periods: an era of anarchists without anarchism (from 1840 into the mid-1870s) and then an era during which anarchisms have proliferated. “Margins and Problems” added some consideration of an earlier period, during which anarchistic ideas emerged, but without the specific vocabulary provided by Proudhon, but did so in the context of a significantly different treatment of “anarchism.” Where “Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back” reserves the term “anarchism” for the instances when anarchists explicitly adopted it, highlighting those decades when, in the midst of an explosion of -isms, they did not, “Margins and Problems” dealt with the question of “potential anarchisms” and anarchism avant la lettre, asking questions about what more or less anarchistic expressions from those early decades might be recognized as a form of anarchism by the standards of the present. I was clear, at least in my own mind, about the kind of work that this idea of recognition might do more generally, about how the exercise of attempting to “recognize our own” in the historical sources might perhaps serve as practice for a different approach to that same problem in our interactions within the anarchist milieus—but I was rather painfully aware that, however useful the intuition I was exploring might prove to be, it was still more an intuition than any sort of clearly shareable tool or method.

I had, by that time, introduced most of the elements that would lead me from the impasse I was facing in “Margins and Problems” to the present analysis, even if their real utility was not yet clear to me. Because “Constructing an Anarchism” was supposed to be an example of “making anarchism one’s own,” I made a point of pursuing a very different strategy than I have in the more historical work, often going to fairly extreme lengths to try to attach fresh concepts to rather tired, potentially compromised keywords. For example, when defining “tradition,” a term I expected to have negative connotations for much of my audience, I chose this formulation:

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.

There is undoubtedly still some clumsiness in the formulation, but the point was to draw the discussion away from consistently contentious debates about “the anarchist tradition” and its greater or lesser degree of internal diversity—debates that almost inevitably run aground on the fact that tradition, while real, is always difficult to pin down in its particulars—in order to confront something vague but unavoidable:

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.

In that context, however, I was still focused on the tension of anarchy vs. anarchism, the critique of ideology, Proudhon’s dismissal of isms as “not worth a pair of boots,” etc. In “Halfway to Anarchism” I proposed thinking of anarchism in the most general sense as a sort of “collective einzige,” which might be encountered on a more or less equal basis in our attempts to become anarchists, but, if I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that through most of that work the collective manifestations of anarchism have remained primarily spaces of conflict, compromise and failure.

That particular treatment of “tradition” was an attempt to account for the necessarily social nature of “becoming an anarchist and establishing the general context or environment within which the work of constructing a more specific formulation of anarchist ideas—”an anarchism of our own”—takes place. Anarchist tradition was contrasted with the anarchist past, with the emphasis on the fact that elements of that past could be “activated” in our individual interventions, with a chance of then becoming part of the tradition moving forward. Early in the project, it seemed to make sense to place individual anarchists, engaged in the practice of constructing individual anarchisms, between the potential of the anarchist past and the more or less vague constraints of anarchist tradition.

It still makes sense, but, in the context of my present exploration of formulas and typologies, a slightly different formulation seems to be called for. At this point, rather than positing this practice of “making our own anarchisms” as something that could be done, I’m happy to claim that it is quite simply one of the things that anarchists have always done—and then to situate these most personal sorts of anarchism among the various types. However, in place of “anarchist tradition,” as a mark of the anarchic “ensemble” of anarchisms presently recognizable as such, it seems more useful to propose what we might call anarchism-in-general, which we can approach with the same “general formula” as more individual forms.

The question then becomes—to return to the opening discussion of “pluralism”—how the recognition of an “anarchic ensemble” alongside the more obviously individual constructions of anarchism might facilitate the work of comparison, clarification and synthesis. To at least start to address that question, I want to return to the “general formula”

Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism)

and talk a bit more about its terms.


We’re looking for ways to “fix” the terms of analysis enough so that we are not constantly struggling with various kinds of semantic noise and slippage, while still respecting what is fundamentally anarchic and ungovernable in both the concepts and the bodies of theory and practice we are hoping to examine. In that context, anarchy is the term that needs to be defined with the greatest care.

I want to keep the present text rather light on historical references, but will rely on a fairly small number of moments in the anarchist literature that seem to provide particular useful summaries or metaphors. Proudhon’s declaration that he was an anarchist “in the full force of the term,” together with his later affirmation of anarchy “in all of its senses,” seems like a good place to start, from the perspective of pluralism, providing us with a particularly anarchic notion of anarchy to set at the center of our analysis. And then it becomes a question of exploring the various senses of the term. The opening of William B. Greene’s “The Blazing Star” presents us with an ideal that recedes as we chase it—and it’s not hard to imagine the progress of our anarchic project as passing through stages marked by new demands, as we move from the combat against formal authority to struggles against its customary forms, before turning to the kinds of social transformation that will be necessary to minimize “authority-effects” emerging from material conditions. Joseph Déjacque’s “bilge-rat,” from the early pages of  The Humanisphere, provides a provocative metaphor for the anarchist project as both escape from the archic status quo, but through a radical, potentially catastrophic opening to an inrushing alternative. And then the remainder of that work, with its anarchist détournement of elements from Charles Fourier, also takes us back to Proudhon’s anarchic “ideal republic,” where everyone does what they wish, and only what they wish. We could, of course, multiply the senses of anarchy, drawing on visions of Cossack invasions, free markets, poisonous pies, creative nothings, etc., but it isn’t clear how far beyond “the full force of the term” any of that takes us.

We “fix” anarchy as a concept precisely by emphasizing its extremity and plurality. By doing so, we increase the range of anarchisms that we can recognize, but we also emphasize that all of these anarchisms represent similarly structured, comparable, but partial expressions of the ideal of anarchy.


According to the proposed formula, each specific anarchism is the work of anarchists attempting to produce instances of anarchy in the world. As such, we should expect our plural anarchisms to differ in a wide variety of ways, reflect a variety of senses of anarchy, a variety of contexts and a variety of problems to be solved. And, provided they reflect the basic dynamic expressed by our formula, our enthusiasm for the resulting plurality of projects should arguably be tempered only by questions about how well those specific contexts and problems have been addressed. We can acknowledge the multiple, strong demands made by the central ideal of anarchy and still recognize that the answers to those demands may not “add up” to anything like a single ideological program. If, on the other hand, the anarchy of our anarchisms seems to emerge from uncertainty about the shared ideal, from the substitution of some other guiding concept for anarchy “in the full force of the term,” then perhaps all we can say with a great deal of certainty is that the “anarchisms” in question are ultimately incommensurable—and we may not even be able to have a good fight about them. Rather than a plurality of anarchisms, we have some form of dispersion, obscured by shared terms.

So we “fix” anarchisms as a concept by reaffirming the concept of anarchy, precisely in that strong sense, and then by noting that we expect each individual anarchism constructed to be a clear-but-partial expression of anarchy in such specific set of circumstances.

One of the consequences of treating anarchisms as a plural category, composed of partial expressions of anarchy, is to step away from the kind of familiar perspective that opposes anarchy and anarchism, however dialectically and productively, as if the ideal and the actual always had to be in conflict. There seems to be little doubt that many anarchists feel a tension—or various tensions—between their own theories and practices. And it may not be a mistake to say that some of the resulting discomfort arises from a sense that our anarchisms suffer from a bit too much anarchy—or from too little pluralism—or some similar complaint. There are, of course, reasons associated with anarchism’s history why we might expect that to be the case, reasons for expecting dialectical dynamics, contradictions, antinomies and the like to feature in our theory and practice. But there are also, I think, reasons to suspect that the extent to which they should encourage us to expect fundamental conflicts, like the one we at times assume between anarchy and anarchism, might be less than some early anarchist writings suggest.

There is a long aside that would be possible here, addressing Fourier’s serial analysis, Proudhon’s epistemology, etc., some of which probably belongs in one of the later chapters of this work. At this point, however, it just seems useful to remind ourselves that, if we have embraced a rather anarchic notion of anarchy and seem prepared to do something similar with the concept of anarchism-in-general, it is alongside and in addition to other analyses. Talking about the Greek root arche, Stephen Pearl Andrews noted that it “curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning” a number or apparently quite different senses—and it is through the understanding of similarly curious combinations and similarly subtle unities that we are likely to make sense of “anarchy in all of its senses.” The reason we would both to try is because we already have in both anarchy as a concept and anarchic expression as a phenomenon.

We might also take an additional moment to consider how few concepts are likely to confront us with such an enticing example of unity-in-diversity. More often than not, when anarchists find themselves talking about the different meanings of important keywords, it is to acknowledge that we may simply be speaking at cross-purposes—whether or not that recognition leads us to make the clarifications presumably called for. It probably makes a lot more sense to be on particularly our guard against missteps as we play anarchic games with the language and concepts associated with anarchy, rather than, say, imagining that anything good is likely to come from similar handling of concepts like authority, power, etc.


The formula and taxonomy I’m working on were initially conceived as tools to avoid the confusions associated with a certain kind of anarchism-without-clarification. It was only once the analysis was well underway that I began to consider what might be done by addressing the most general manifestations of the proposed formula. My first thought was that, with fairly minor modifications, the conception of anarchist tradition I had proposed for “Constructing an Anarchism” would serve as a kind of anarchism-in-general, corresponding as it does to the formula in a very general sense. And it struck me that it is really the most general sort of anarchism that confronts us most dauntingly as we are attempting to become an anarchist, whether we are beginners trying to confront or embrace it all at once or whether we are old-timers forced to deal with how much anarchism there is out there that is so clearly not “our own.”

Having begun to incorporate it into the larger project, I was also struck by the ways in which the challenges posed by this anarchism-in-general were very similar to those posed by the concept of anarchy. “Profusion and uncertainty” is the formula I have used in other writings to gesture at the ways that anarchy provides us with both too much and too little, all at the same time. Anarchism-in-general seems to frustrate our needs and expectation in similar ways.

Of course, none of this was exactly new—no matter how differently it all struck me in the new context. I had already proposed thinking of anarchism-in-general (avant la letter, if only be a month or three) as a work of collective force, as a “collective einzige” that might be encountered as something like an equal by individual anarchists, as a kind of “camarade,” etc., along with everything proposed in the discussion of anarchist tradition. Nor have I been unaware that part of what anarchists respond negatively to when they talk about the diversity of positions among anarchists seems to be the element of anarchy in it all. But I have been struck over the last few days by a strong sense, which certainly has been new to me, that, while all of our individual and specific anarchisms have to be treated as partial and local adaptations of the anarchist ideal, anarchism-in-general appears to be something much more like a direct manifestation of at least the idea of anarchy. And that has made me wonder—and, so far, to ponder the question without any very clear conclusions—what it would take for anarchism-in-general to be recognized among anarchists as a space of solidarity, rather than primarily a space of distinction and conflict—but in a real, active sense, not just with a kind of “different strokes for different folks” kind of indifference, punctuated by bouts of sudden certainty about when lines have been crossed.

It’s really the “anarchism without adjectives” problem, I suppose, on a slightly different terrain. Although that label has been around for almost as long as “anarchism” itself, there still don’t seem to be any very clear guidelines for recognizing the unmodified anarchism in question—with the result that the label seems to be shared by some of those most resolutely committed to the pursuit of anarchy, some of the most shameless authoritarian entryists and some other folks who aren’t all that sure what they believe. The tendency has been largely a response to conceptions of anarchism that do not consider individual projects as necessarily partial and local, so a kind of general tolerance has been enough to mark the ideological space, but not to generate much in the way of specifically adjectiveless anarchist theory or practice. Similar, “anarchist synthesis” has primarily been a position within a fairly narrow debate about organizing anarchist federations, despite the interesting general account of anarchist development Voline gave us way back in 1924.

At this relatively early stage, I think I have to simply acknowledge that the present work will probably clear a space for recognizing some kind of adjectiveless anarchism, alongside various much more narrowly defined varieties. But, just as synthesis has shifted, in the context of recent work, from an organizational option for anarchist groupings to a way of talking about the general development of anarchism, I expect that anarchism-in-general, when treated as an anarchism without adjectives, will also assume a more general role, rather than marking a particular tendency among others. (That approach may allow some clarification of phrases like Ricardo Mella’s “La anarquía no admite adjetivos,” which has perhaps been a bit misrepresented.)

Definitions, Pluralism, Anarchy

I am generally inclined to treat a lot of the haggling over definitions among anarchists as simply unnecessary and resulting from a failure to think particularly clearly about what definitions are relevant to specifically anarchist conversations. But, as the present work hopes to provide tools for clarification adequate for existing conditions, perhaps it makes sense to directly address the dynamic that emerges when the key concepts of anarchist theory are treated in the most pluralistic, anarchic manner.

The general formula proposed should still serve, very much as already presented, since all it really attempts to explain is a general relationship between terms. For any definition of arche, it is possible to posit an anarchy, to then recognize an anarchist in the individual who embraces it and finally to recognize as anarchism the various theoretical and practical manifestations of that embrace and internalization of the guiding ideal. Provided the conception of arche retains those “curious combinations” and “subtle unities of meaning,” we can expect that anarchy will be embraced “in the full force of the term” and our discussions of anarchists and anarchisms ought to be broadly shareable and applicable to a wide variety of practical projects—without any great effort, I think, to get various factions “on the same page” in any sense except to unite them in a kind of general anarchist extremism.

But we know that some of the enthusiasm for “pluralism” arises precisely from a rejection of the stronger senses of anarchy. So one of questions we will probably have to address is what relation the notion that “words mean different things to different people” has with the kind of anarchy of meaning that seems to exist among the “extremists.”

A Clarification

These “notes for a preface” lack the straightforward nature that I hope will characterize the final text, simply because I am still working to complete the frame. This discussion of two kinds of “pluralism” regarding is one that needs to be condensed down a good deal more before it is as “minimalist” as the rest, but perhaps this clarification, originally posted on social media, will help avoid some potential misunderstandings:

There are two things going on here regarding anarchy.

The first is the “anarchy in all its senses” / “curious combinations” stuff, which is inspired by Proudhon’s anti-absolutism. What I am arguing is that we are much more likely to maintain a useful sense of anarchy if we confront the problem posed by Proudhon when he connected the various senses of the term—a move that involves something like the expansive understanding of arche that we find in Andrews’ description. An expansive understanding of arche means that our an-archy rejects a wide variety of things—eliminating some of the most obvious entryist projects and most basic confusions of governmentalist and non-governmentalist notions.

That allows for a kind of pluralism—for a range of anarchisms as anarchic as we are likely to be able to cope with—without much compromise in the realm of anarchy, which retains a very radical character. The problem with that approach, in relation to the range of existing anarchisms, is that the conception of anarchy involved is arguably too radical for a lot of sincere would-be anarchists.

So it seems necessary to at least introduce a different kind of pluralism, which leaves room for the would-be anarchist democrats—but also for the kind of selective, opportunistic stretching of the envelope that also potentially leaves room for real entryist projects. This may be an inescapable gambit, given the realities of historical anarchism’s development. In the essay “On Order,” for example, Kropotkin tried to sideline the Proudhonians in a move that was itself a sort of entryism. It was arguably unnecessary, so that there is no need to engage in anti-communism in order to defend anarchism, but our sense of shared historical origins has perhaps never quite mended the potential damage of that type done along the way.

Anyway, what we constantly hear from the advocates of this other sort of pluralism is that no one has the authority to limit the definitions of anarchist keywords. And that is true, as far as it goes. Lexical authority (in any strong sense) is no more supportable by anarchists than any other variety—although the ones most concerned to keep “anarchy” open to democracy (etc.) are also often the ones most likely to grant the existence of some form of “legitimate authority” or “justified hierarchy.” Opportunist inconsistencies aside, however, words mean what people cause them to mean through use and plurality in meaning in fundamental to the development of language.

So there is a choice between an anarchy-centered sense of anarchism, which recognizes an anarchic plurality of meanings—supported by both anarchist theories of meaning (Theory of Progress) and anarchist statements about anarchy (General Idea of the Revolution)—and a conception that provides us with a range of anarchisms connected, however loosely, by a kind of defiance with regard to definition in general. Both can be represented by the formula proposed. Neither leave us a lot of room to be too comfortable with regard to definitions. But the reasons for our potential discomfort are different in the two cases. In the second case, anarchism remains in some general sense anarchy-centered, but anarchy simply “means different things to different people.” We can bring a lexicographer’s tools to bear and sketch out the range of meanings of anarchy in a given time and place, with anarchism then presumably shifting with shifts in that key term—but who knows what it will all come to mean without some real focus on anarchy as a distinct, radical alternative to the most basic structures of the status quo…

For me, this notion of an “anarchism” that remains formally recognizable as such only because we have decided to unnecessarily muddy up our understanding of “anarchy,” “hierarchy,” “authority,” etc. is genuinely horrifying. And it is even more awful when the excuse given is that a narrow focus on the more radical forms of anarchy would somehow be a betrayal of anarchist principles. Part of the point of “Constructing Anarchisms” is to at least provide the means of comparing approaches to these questions, so that the stakes and likely consequences of different strategies are clear. My sense is that the dynamics of anarchy never get easy to grapple with, but that it doesn’t actually take much clarification to make the struggle sustainable and worthwhile.

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