Constructing Anarchisms: Halfway to Anarchism

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:

      We’re halfway through the process of constructing our experimental anarchism and, with the hardest part of my work now done, I’ve been spending more time thinking about how we might continue things in 2022, with the work done this year serving as a foundation. Early on, I described this project as a kind of survey course and my intention from the beginning was to arrange the year’s work around a series of texts, concepts and historical episodes, from which participants could presumably pick and choose a bit without entirely loosing the thread. One of the strengths of the introductory survey is that every lesson doesn’t have to be a hit. The goal is as much the establishment of general literacy and the development of a particular set of disciplinary skills as it is the specific encounters with particular texts. And, as peculiar as the selected texts and weekly “lectures” have do doubt sometimes been, the responses I’m getting suggest that participants are indeed both fleshing out their knowledge of anarchism — something we’ll emphasize in coming months — and learning to work with the particular set of tools I have offered. I’m learning some lessons as well and expect that I’ll be better able to manage the uncertainties of this very open format moving forward.

      For those who haven’t been able to devote the time to following along, there are the collected readings — now nearly 250 pages in pdf form — and I am still considering a corrected and annotated print version of that body of work. But when I think about the explorations that it might be entertaining and useful to pursue next year — probably much shorter and more focused projects — it strikes me that I really don’t want to either do without the foundation that we’re establishing here or suggest to newcomers that the “prerequisite” is 500 pages of meandering explorations of anarchist theory — with or without at least an equal quantity of material exploring the broad contours of anarchist history.

      So I have been working on a set of texts reflecting the insights that I am gathering right now, in the course of our joint exploration, trying to find the most effective means to rapidly introduce all of the “probably important, but also largely unknown” bits we have been collecting — without just seeming like I’ve lapsed into glossolalia. Having convinced myself — and at least of couple of you — of the utility of the toolkit I’ve been assembling, I think I’m prepared to present a rather compressed introduction — and then just say, in essence, “if these colors don’t seem right to you, read on and we’ll get you up to speed.” That is obviously going to require a fairly delicate kind of craft, combined with a boldness that is at least not my usual tone. But the first efforts to produce that introduction have been, while frustratingly not quite complete, promising enough that I feel like I can and probably should share them. Consider this a kind of mid-quarter review for those of you who have been following along.

      Becoming an Anarchist


      How does one become an anarchist?

      Or, more specifically, how does one become an anarchist in a way that involves a durable and dynamic connection to the complex heritage that has built up around the ideas of anarchy and anarchism since 1840 (or thereabouts)?

      There is undoubtedly not just one answer to this question—and the range of plausible answers has undoubtedly developed alongside that accumulating heritage. So perhaps one way to begin answering the question is to look briefly at that development.

      Proudhon, in 1840, starts our story by becoming an anarchist in what we are accustomed to treating as an entirely new way. Whether or not he was the first to declare himself an anarchist in the now familiar sense, it is hard to deny that his declaration — “je suis, dans toute la force du terme, anarchiste” — is one of the conditions of possibility for the story of anarchism and anarchists as we tend to tell it in the present. As it features in our story — or our stories, if you prefer — this inaugural declaration involves an appropriation of the already existing language of anarchy for new purposes. Instead of marking the failure of something necessary to human prospering, anarchy would henceforth mark the key quality of societies grown mature enough to leave governmentalism behind. Or perhaps we should say that the term could also mark this new possibility, alongside its existing definitions, as Proudhon embraced it “in the full force of the term” and, later, “in all of its senses.”

      Proudhon, then, became an anarchist by confronting anarchy and making it his own, transforming it — at least in part — from an indication of all the worst that his world had to offer (the violence of the Terror, emerging capitalism, political disorganization and corruption, etc.) into a symbol for the social peace and justice that might emerge from solving the problems to which the existing anarchy owed its existence. In doing so — and in doing so in such a triumphant manner that it is hard to have a serious conversation about the problem of becoming an anarchist without some reference to the act — he altered the context for nearly all of those who would embrace consistent anti-governmentalism in the years that followed.

      For our present purposes, the details are not so important. It is worth noting, perhaps, that some of the success of that anarchist declaration was undoubtedly due to the impact of Proudhon’s other 1840 provocation: property is theft. We might observe as well that the phrase, je suis anarchiste, need not have established anarchist as a role or identity — let alone set off the chain of events that would lead to anarchist movements, anarchist ideologies, anarchist history, etc. One possible interpretation — I am anarchistic, rather than I am an anarchist — might have provoked a rather different kind of long-term development — and perhaps one more in harmony with at least some aspects of Proudhon’s larger project. That he chose instead to embrace anarchy in the strongest and most diverse of terms is at least striking—and it is a point that we may have to return to.

      Once made, as we have said, Proudhon’s declaration established a new context for subsequent attempts to become an anarchist. Perhaps not every new attempt was a response. We have careers like that of Eliphalet Kimball, who embraced anarchy — and even elaborated a kind of homespun anarchism avant la lettre — in New England in the 1850s. While it is likely that he was aware of Proudhon’s work, he left no intellectual genealogy and made no decisive references. We are free to imagine other origins and roughly parallel appropriations of the language of anarchy. But we certainly have clear evidence that, for others among his contemporaries, the process of becoming an anarchist involved not just an encounter with anarchy, but also an encounter with Proudhon’s reimagining of it.

      The case of Joseph Déjacque is instructive. His works are marked by those two encounters — and marked so strongly by the encounter with Proudhon that his own individual conception of anarchy — and, again, a rudimentary anarchism, this time complete with the familiar name — have largely been forgotten, leaving his role in the tradition almost entirely reduced to that of “the anarchist who confronted Proudhon.” The brevity and focus of this survey doesn’t allow us to linger long with Déjacque either — but let’s make a point of noting that such lingering would indeed reward the student of anarchism.

      There is a period of at least a couple of decades after 1840, during which new anarchists might emerge at the cost of not much more than those same two encounters. There was precious little direct engagement between Proudhon and those who immediately followed him down the path to becoming an anarchist. Between those other anarchists, there was almost none. In North America, there was perhaps more direct interaction among extreme anti-authoritarians in the same period, but there the language of anarchy was so seldom used that those relations hardly register in this particular story.

      In the period of the International, we see various anti-authoritarians wrestling with libertarian ideas — with or without the language of anarchy, with or without the reference to Proudhon — and we see a small, but steadily growing number of them embrace the anarchist label. It is, however, arguably not until after the split in that organization that we see the next really significant development regarding the process of becoming an anarchist. That comes with the emergence of anarchism as a widely used keyword.

      Once again, we have to give the details rather short shrift — and, once again, they would reward much closer attention. Kropotkin’s essay “On Order,” which I have addressed at some length in the “Constructing Anarchisms” posts, stands out as a particularly useful embodiment of the new difficulties that were being added to the process we are examining. But what is perhaps most striking in it is the new forms of ambivalence toward both anarchy and Proudhon’s particular appropriation of it that had become possible for those on the way to becoming anarchists.

      More generally, the new development was an enrichment and complication of the potential meaning of anarchist. With the emergence of anarchism as an ideology — or ideologies — and movement — or movements — there also emerged at least the possibility of distinguishing between anarchists as advocates of anarchy and anarchists as advocates of anarchism. We don’t have to engage much with the details of the period — the emergence of anarchist communism, that ambivalence toward Proudhon and at least his conception of anarchy, the rise of contending factions within anarchist circles, etc. — to see that quite a variety of other distinctions had become possible in this period as well.

      Had it, under those new conditions, become easier or harder to become an anarchist? We might say that it had become easier where there was an anarchism which can be joined — if by that we meant that it had become easier to be recognized as an anarchist because one behaved in ways that were in the process of becoming characteristic of anarchists, believed and said things that were in the process of becoming characteristic anarchist ideas and utterances, and so on. A multiplication of recognizably anarchist positions translates into a multiplication of means by which one could be recognized as an anarchist. But this scenario is certainly quite different from the one in which we picture Proudhon making anarchy his own, defying and transforming traditional uses. In 1840, there simply were no rules that could be followed. Examining matters fifty years later, we at least have to ask whether some conformity to emerging — and, no doubt, evolving — rules was a necessary part of being recognized as an anarchist.

      I have somewhat provocatively described Proudhon’s encounter with anarchy in terms of an appropriation. If nothing else, that language underlines the real difference between, on the one hand, making anarchy one’s own and, on the other, acting in such a way that one is recognized as belonging among the anarchists, as adhering to anarchism.

      Is it possible to make anarchism one’s own?

      Let’s start by clarifying what Proudhon accomplished in his encounter with and appropriation of anarchy — and see what it suggests to us about our new problem. If we were just judging that work on the basis of the success of a slogan and a provocative label, we might be inclined to argue that he managed to give anarchy a new meaning, among others that persisted, but perhaps the claim that he had made anarchy his own would have to be treated as hyperbole. And the Proudhonian portion of the anarchist heritage — in the form in which it is usually presented to us, at least — does not include much more than those dual provocations. Still, the durability of the provocations seems to preserve the possibility of restoring the substance behind them.

      We are still just flirting with the details, but, for example, once we restore the reasons why “property is theft” and acknowledge the theory of collective force, Proudhon’s entire body of work looks very different. When we dig deep enough to find the connections between his critiques of capitalism and governmentalism, we can begin to trace the contours of his anarchistic social science—and when we follow that process through, learning to love the antinomies and recognize what unites “anarchy understood in all of its senses,” the full extent of Proudhon’s engagement with anarchy should, I think, begin to become clear.

      But what do we really mean when we talk about Proudhon making anarchy his own?

      It seems to me that we can make two claims fairly confidently: first, that Proudhon took the concept of anarchy and make it the heart of his life-work; second, that, as a result, the meaning of anarchy was enriched and complicated in ways that seem beyond reversal. Out of the encounter of Proudhon and anarchy came a kind of mutual accommodation.  We might say, with regard to the developing understanding of anarchy, that “he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own” — a familiar formula for appropriation — but we’re not talking about resources encountered “in the state of nature.” We’re talking instead about an ongoing social project of meaning-making, in the context of which Proudhon’s actions amount to appropriation more in the sense of “use without right” and in the obsolete sense of “adaptation to one’s individual purposes” (which still seems to persist in that phrase “to make something one’s own.”)

      We might turn things around and suggest that what happened was that Proudhon made himself a part of something, associated himself with others involved in that process of meaning-making. That might have the advantage of pushing us in specifically Proudhonian directions, thinking about that process in terms of collective force, the role of conflict and contradiction, and so on. And that might, in turn, let us make a bit more headway with the arguably much more difficult question of making anarchism one’s own.

      Encounters with Anarchism

      Is it possible to make anarchism one’s own—perhaps not in the sort of history-making manner as Proudhon’s mutual accommodations with anarchy, but at least in a way that leaves us feeling with some certainty that we have made ourselves a part of something? In the terms we have been laying out, that would presumably mean making anarchism a central element in our own projects and developing it within those projects in such a way that perhaps the next person encountering that anarchism might see in us at least an interesting footnote—should they encounter us in the context of that larger encounter.

      The most obvious problem is the daunting scope of anarchism, when conceived in such general terms. If we think about anarchism as a collective enterprise — an international enterprise with a history going back at least 180 years — then it is hard to imagine on what stage and in what manner an encounter could take place. Still, we seem to encounter anarchism — frequently conceived in even more abstract terms — quite frequently, dogging our steps and looming over our projects. “Anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist” (René Furth)—although it may simultaneously be a perennial promise. No matter what camarades and rivals say, we can be fairly certain that what we encounter is not just phantasms — or properly organized federations — or the weight of all the pamphlets and newspapers we haven’t read, in languages we could certain be more skilled in reading — or that new manifesto someone published last week. But it is all those things, among other things, and the truth is that we know pretty well how to navigate all of kinds of those encounters, whether or not we always have the energy and drive to do so. And most of us who have been around a while understand how little it can really take to join the ranks of the interesting footnotes. From certain perspectives, anarchism is daunting in its scope and seriousness. From others, it remains, at any given time, a pretty small pond.

      All of this suggest that we at least know how to begin our encounter with anarchism. The anarchisms of which we can feel ourselves a part are not, we may be forced to admit, anarchism as such, in all of its fullness—but they are themselves at least a part of it. It then becomes a question of how to take the steps necessary to make our encounter and some form of mutual accommodation with that daunting and still nebulous anarchism-as-such real and direct.

      It is that question that Constructing Anarchisms is intended to address.

      The essays in this collection, together with the courses and exchanges organized online, should — if at all successful — unpack the terms of this rather dense, manifesto-like introductory statement and then propose various explorations and experiments intended to bring anarchism — in all its diversity and conflict-ridden richness — into clearer focus.

      But before we turn to those tasks, let me propose a provisional manner of thinking about anarchism, which we can both use and put to the test moving forward.

      Anarchism as Collective Einzige

      We’ve answered the question of how one becomes an anarchist in terms of encounters and mutual accommodations: to become an anarchist — “in a way that involves a durable and dynamic connection to the complex heritage that has built up around the ideas of anarchy and anarchism” — one confronts a social work-in-progress and makes oneself a part of it. Part of the intention here is to connect this process of becoming with the sketch that Proudhon gave us of an anarchic “social system” in his work on Justice in the Revolution and in the Church:

      Two men meet, recognize one another’s dignity, state the additional benefit that would result for both from the concert of their industries, and consequently guarantee equality, which means economy. There is the whole social system: an equation, and then a power of collectivity.

      Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always only these two things, an equation and a collective power. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.

      But in order to reach the point where we can think in terms of this kind of encounter, and bring the would-be anarchist face to face with anarchism, we have to make an effort to make sure that the anarchism we are talking about is indeed something real, rather than a fiction, phantasm or product of our ideology-driven wishful thinking. And encountering the real is a delicate operation, as perhaps Max Stirner has demonstrated better than anyone.

      The real, if we accept a conception close to Stirner’s — and one certainly not out of line with Proudhon’s — is elusive in ways that make even its designation of unique uncomfortably confining. It is, in some very literal sense, unspeakable — and perhaps amenable only to encounter. On this view, our mutual accommodation is likely to be worked out on characteristically egoist terrain, through relations of force — taking that term in as purely descriptive sense as we can manage — as we work our way into the existing assemblage, altering it according to our capacities, in conformity with our interests, needs and desires.

      This is, I think, a useful way to think about making anarchism our own — even if it raises another question regarding the grounds on which we might presume to force (again, using this term with the greatest of care) an encounter and perhaps an accommodation. To address this new question, let’s try to clarify how this process of becoming an anarchist — in the slightly unfamiliar way that we have presented it — related to the far more familiar practices involved in simply getting along in anarchist circles.

      We are applying a potentially unfamiliar mix of elements from Stirner and Proudhon in order to conceptualize anarchism as an ongoing work involving long and complex associations. Following a path pioneered by James L. Walker, we are prepared to recognize in this anarchism both a unity-collectivity and a unique of more than individual human scale. And, while this may all seem strange and abstract, we’re going to try to take Stirner’s word for it that, where the unique is involved, the unspeakable may also be as real as things get.

      An anarchism conceived as a sort of baffling antagonist might perhaps also be something for which students of Proudhon should be more prepared. Universal antagonism was, after all, the first of the “fundamental laws of the universe” that he recognized and presumably formed the background for the anarchic encounter we have already touched on. The subsequent agreement — mutual accommodation — would then be the work of the second law, understood as justice, the balancing of antagonistic tendencies, and the result of the new association would be a “power of collectivity.” Repeated again and again in the context of a single concern — such as the development of anarchist ideas and practices — persistent associations would become reservoirs of collective force, available to magnify or counterbalance new associations and interventions. At the same time, those complex and persistent associations could be expected to develop tendencies of their own — interests and even, in some sense, ideas of their own — resulting from the real qualities and general tendencies of those associations.


      There is a good deal more than ought to be woven into that final section, but it wasn’t going to happen today and didn’t seem important enough to delay sharing what is there. I’ve compiled useful notes on a number of long walks, while wrestling with the finer details of the Proudhon-Stirner synthesis, the role of prefiguration in the study of the anarchist tradition, the connections between this unspeakable-but-real anarchism and the beautiful idea of anarchy, etc., etc. And even with all of this out on the page, my head is still a pretty crowded neighborhood. A note dictated onto my phone on the way to the grocery store reads: “At some point we have to abandon our stare-down with the unspeakable and return to the usual anarchist chatter.” Looking at that now, I am reminded of a piece I recently translated, which will have to serve here in place of any very fixed conclusion:

      Words, Nothing but Words

      It is true, to speak and to write one uses words. That’s why, in speaking and writing, I have always been careful not to be dogmatic. I have been content to give views, opinions, presenting points of view, proposing formulas that can be revised according to the evolution of individuals and adapted to various personal temperaments. I tried to act on mentalities, to make them reveal themselves to themselves, not to indoctrinate them. All I desired — and desired fiercely — was that my theses, my opinions, my proposals should not include or display anything that is based on, supported by or relies on statism; governmentalism, capitalist or clerical exploitation. I had to use words to say all that.

      E. Armand.

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