Constructing Anarchisms: Introductory Notes

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

      This is the complicated bit—ironing out various wrinkles in the process and trying to tie together the various, still tentative conversations taking places on social media. Lacking any sort of model for this sort of thing, we’ll just have to work through it as best we can. But that’s one of the reasons that we’ve stretched a 12-month course over 13 months.

      I suppose we’ll never have a clear sense of how many people have participated in various parts of the workshop, but there are close to one hundred members in the Facebook group alone. The main project page has become 2020’s most visited post in the Libertarian Labyrinth archive and most of the “business” pages seem to be getting 200-250 hits a piece. So we may not be legion, but we’ve certainly extended our numbers well beyond the half-dozen usual suspects to whom I originally proposed the project.

      Thanks to everyone who has taken part so far, to whatever extent. Your feedback and your silences as well have helped, in various ways, in shaping the various course corrections I am implementing now.

      So let’s deal first with the administrivia:

      ☞ I’m working to accommodate a variety of learning styles, which means a certain amount of duplication of key resources. For those primarily using the Libertarian Labyrinth site as a source for readings, the sidebar of each post will continue to include as many relevant links as it will comfortably contain. The main project page will always contain the most complete list of weekly course posts, notes and suggested readings—and I have added all of the introductory material (on Participation, Philosophy and Thoughts on Constructing Anarchisms) to the bottom of that page. So if you’ve lost something, head for that page, which should be linked at the top of the sidebar on each individual workshop-related page and is also linked in the main menu bar at the top of each page as “WORKSHOP“.

      ☞ That experience of reading in the Libertarian Labyrinth site will retain the potentially labyrinthine character of reading any hyperlinked text, with links out to additional, related writings beyond the scope of the Suggested Readings or even, at times, the Related Readings I have chosen to highlight in the sidebar of each post. I am going to try to be very selective in choosing the texts listed in the sidebar, to minimize distractions, while also including Suggested Readings from the previous week, to reduce unnecessary drifting from page to page. This will continue to be the richest experience, in terms of access to related information, but it will also be rich in potential distractions and temptations.

      ☞ For those using the audio recordings provided by the Immediatism podcast, I’ll be doing my best to insert links wherever it seems helpful, where recordings are available.

      ☞ In order to mark the simplest and shortest route through the course, and to accommodate those who want or need a more completely self-paced experience, I also working on providing material in two additional forms. The first of these, by popular demand, is a weekly pdf containing my main post for the week and the Suggested Readings, which will generally be background for my post the following week. At this point, that includes the following:

      And the obvious step beyond the pdf collections would be to include a print version of the material among the next-phase Corvus Editions, which will, with a little luck, start to appear in 2021. So, perhaps:

      Moving forward, we will be going a bit slowly through the holiday season, but the rhythm of things should be established. Each week will open with an essay by me, generally addressing the Suggested Readings from the previous week and ending with suggestions on how to approach the Suggested Readings for the week that is beginning.

      So, for this week, the “Thoughts on Constructing Anarchisms” function as the last of the Introductory Readings and establish a range of considerations to bring to bear when reading the “Defining Anarchy” posts—which, in their turn, establish the background for my next essay “Constructing an Anarchism: An-Archy.” Early next week, that essay will appear, together with a couple of short Suggested Readings applying some of the ideas contained there and a few more addressing the topic of the next essay, “Tradition.” And so on…

      I have presented the “Defining Anarchy” articles with very little preamble, by design. While we are hopefully decreasing organizational uncertainties, I hope that folks will begin to embrace, however strategically or provisionally, the sorts of theoretical and practical uncertainties that seem, to me at least, to accompany the embrace of anarchy. The five articles undoubtedly engage in more than their fair share of intellectual and literary dérive and free association, but I’m pleased to find that they also seem to hold together as a sort of rambling exploration of that central concept. If the association of anarchism and uncertainty is unfamiliar or seems untoward, perhaps the journey through these writings will at least clarify why that association has come to occupy a central place in my own anarchism.

      So, if you haven’t taken the opportunity to dive into the readings yet, I encourage you to take the plunge.

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      Discussion Notes

      Voline’s “On Synthesis” has drawn some interesting comments, largely because of his emphasis in early parts of the essay on Truth—complete with the capital T—is just the sort of thing to put many of us on our guard. I’ll be doing a more thorough analysis of the essay in a later post, as I incorporate it into « my anarchism », but, for the moment, here are some comments from various forums:

      The approach that Voline takes is quite similar to that of Proudhon, whose Philosophy of Progress might yield some useful comparisons here. He sort of teases us with the possibility of “Truth” and “Life,” while emphasizing the various ways in which we can only gain approximate knowledge of them. Even the rhetorical move of describing everything that exists, “the great existing All,” as a kind of “synthesis” probably has to be taken as part of his argument against the utility of other conceptions of “knowing the truth.” Sometimes, after all, the truth is the “essence” of the existent—which at least seems rather different than a synthesis or resultant.

      I think we’re free to think of parts of the essay as not entirely clear or dominated by the practical comments he wants to get to. But, in this case, maybe it’s enough to acknowledge that, assuming it’s worth talking about capital-T Truth, it’s going to involve more than we’re going to hold in thought at any one moment. And recognizing that is probably enough to carry us on to the practical conclusions he draws.

      Voline starts, provocatively, by saying that Jesus would have had a hard time answering the question “What is truth?” And then he lays out three obstacles to full knowledge of truth, defined as “all that exists,” drawn from the much more mundane field of human experience: our senses are imperfect; reality is undivided; reality is in constant flux.

      Again, this all seems like it could be lifted, without a lot of variation, from Proudhon’s Philosophy of Progress, where reality is presented as a matter of constant flux across a scope of more than human scale—perhaps not a bad description of a certain kind of anarchy—while authority depends on the pretense of the absolute, which is always an attempt to pretend that reality isn’t in constant flux.

      I can understand the concern that Voline’s emphasis on Truth draws us back toward forms of thought that we might consider antiquated, but it strikes me that this is probably an account we could present in the language of Bataille, Deleuze or Derrida.

      The work that Voline ends up doing when he turns to the problems he sees with anarchism is really a matter of attacking fixed ideas—a concern shared by Proudhon, Stirner, etc.

      But even if the approach was not one with which we could easily connect, we might be interested in the way he works through it, simply because our discussions of anarchism may be haunted by a kind of capital-A “Anarchy,” which poses similar problems to those posed by “Truth,” “Life,” etc.

      One way of thinking about the difficulties of defining “anarchy” is that it tends to be stuck, in most of our analyses, somewhere between partial definitions (anti-statism, anti-monopolism, voluntaryism, etc.) that are obviously not sufficient and a kind of capital-A “Anarchy,” in which the privative “an-” is clear enough, but the scope and precise nature of “archy” tends to be elusive (in familiar ways.)

      A Bit of Preamble

      A little background on the series: I’ve been working for a number of years now on a kind of “general commentary” on “anarchist history”—not so much an alternate account of our “general history,” but really a study of anarchist historiography and tradition-making. The work has received rather mixed responses, in part because the project itself was a bit obscure and in part because it seems bound to decenter tendencies and elements of tradition that arguably hold a kind of hegemonic sway in general anarchist discourse. But it has also been criticized for the emphasis on “anarchy,” perhaps in opposition to familiar forms of “anarchist organization.”

      The result is the in-progress series “Our Lost Continent: Episodes from an Alternate History of the Anarchist Idea”—and when “Defining Anarchy” opens with talk about “all the preliminaries, all the hesitations,” that’s a reference to the 100+ pages of rationales and outlines that I had already written just clarifying the project so that I could get off to a promising start. The slightly misnamed “Defining Anarchy” series amount to a similar kind of preliminary writing for the theoretical section that will open “Our Lost Continent.”

      You certainly don’t need to pay any attention to this other project, except to the extent that our exploration will continue to draw on resources assembled for it. But things will obviously be clearer if you’re aware that we are tracing much the same path it will explore.

      General Thoughts (from various forums)

      I would be lying if I said that the kind of work involved in “Our Lost Continent” doesn’t, at times, exacerbate my depression and delay less ambitious projects. But that’s mostly when I’m burying myself in the gazillion little details that allow you to grapple with more magisterial accounts of anarchist history.

      I offer the “Defining Anarchy” series at this stage in our exploration because, among other things, I think the posts are a good example of how we can usefully just have some fun with the material, while also clarifying our thoughts. There are certainly parts of what I do that I wouldn’t wish on anyone not strongly drawn to their particular rigors. But the fun is a lot of fun—and this series was born of sense of obstacles cleared away.

      The specific aim of the series was to suggest that something like an “anarchist synthesis” was possible, and perhaps necessary, from the moment that Proudhon claimed “je suis anarchiste” in 1840.

      The case for a viable anarchist synthesis begins with a demonstration that anarchiste was, from the beginning, capable of embracing a range of expressions without losing its most basic sense. But that argument almost certainly depends on an account of anarchie that displays a similar unity-in-diversity. Ultimately, this will require a return to the problem of “l’Anarchie, entendue dans tous les sens” (“Anarchy, understood in all its senses“), but perhaps we could start by simply attempting to bridge the first great anarchist schism that we generally recognize. If we are to talk about an anarchy simple and clear enough to the full range of anarchists and anarchist tendencies in our diverse history, finding some common ground between Proudhon and Joseph Déjacque is almost certainly a useful and necessary first step.

      And, from there, one thing leads to another, I engage in a bit of theoretical and literary dérive, Poe and Melville make appearances, etc. The part of “Our Lost Continent” that I hope we will be able to incorporate into this project is the sense that large parts of anarchist history and theory are both largely unexplored and still already « ours » in important ways, together with the sense that what remains unexplored is potentially a bit magical.

      Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…

      If I had it to do all over again, the series would have been titled Anarchy: A Descent into the Maelstrom. But I was just playing around, exploring ideas without any very fixed agenda, so the likelihood that any given metaphor would go the distance seemed remote. “Defining Anarchy” is ultimately a pretty dull title for a series that puts so much emphasis on what is tempestuous, “lawless and unprincipled,” etc. about our beautiful idea.

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      New Translations

      Work continues on a variety of other projects, of course, including the deep exploration of the work of E. Armand that I expect will remain ongoing for the foreseeable future. Adapting his poetry to English remains one of the more pleasant tasks—and one at which I think I can claim some success:

      the twilight hour

      This is the twilight hour:
      the sky is gray,
      a fine rain falls,
      there are traces of snow on the road,
      the solitude is tremendous,
      the day ends on a dismal note, without grandeur or glory,
      and the night is slow to fall,
      hardly two or three stars shine faintly.
      Somewhere a dog bays gloomily,
      Frail shadows,
      of little girls sent shopping, hastening their steps,
      avoiding the drizzle as best they can.
      Skeletal and desolate, bare trees stand out on the horizon,
      In me, it is also half-light, chiaroscuro,
      half day and half night,
      the day of rare desires completely realized,
      the night of aspirations unsatisfied,
      of appeals unheard,
      of waves untamed,
      Within me, deep within me,
      there are sad and silent winter landscapes,
      snow that covers trails yet to be traced,
      rain that falls on shadows in search of their bodies,
      messages that seek their addressees.
      Outside of me, as within me, this is the twilight hour.

      March 1, 1937

      E. Armand.

      E. Armand, “L’heure crépusculaire,” L’en dehors 17 no. 304 (Mars 1937): 118.

      One of the most interesting things about the anarchist individualist publications like l’en dehors is that they tend to be filled, not just with poetry, but also with poetic bits of prose on various subjects related to life as an anarchist. Here, for example, is one by Maurice Imbard:


      It is truly a fine, but a pointless thing to always dream.

      Human evolution depends on our activity.

      So struggle, always struggle, ceaselessly, without truce or peace. And, from this day forward, let our dreams become reality.

      It is, however, a good, wholesome, but difficult task to free ourselves from the immense jumbles of prejudices, but don’t hesitate. Let us not hesitate. Let each of you, let each of us, bang, cut and strike without respite, without ever growing discouraged. Be brave. Let us be brave—and let all obstacles be demolished.

      These obstacles that we call God, Homeland, State, Property.

      Rid yourself, let us rid ourselves of all tyrannies. Let he masters be no more. Let all the laws of the judge or of the priest be destroyed.

      So, according to your strength and our, according to your knowledge and ours, according to all our desires, to all our needs, let us labor, act and strike—and let us strike unceasingly the monstrous Authority.

      Maurice IMBARD.

      Maurice Imbard, “Activité,” L’En dehors 2 no. 19/20 (fin Septembre 1923): 3.

      Part of the work of understanding Armand’s work has been assembling a bibliography of his extensive publications, which has, in turn, sometimes required acquiring copies of works not held anywhere that I can consult them. And sometimes that leads to new avenues of research. I found, for example, that the copy of Ainsi chantait un « en dehors » I purchased for myself was originally presented by Armand to Robert Lanoff, a contributor to L’Anarchie and fairly popular anarchist songwriter. In no time at all, I had followed the thread far enough to acquire my very first anarchist accordion score—and finish at least a passable adaptation of this monologue:

      Let’s Rise Up!


      Words by LANOFF

      To Work! Through the enormous effort of your hands, the machine suddenly starts up. Work, poor beggar; you must be brave. The wheel now turns almost furiously. Produce! Triple your boss’ capital, but die like a dog in a hospital bed. Do you feel the difference in the classes now? While you exhaust yourself, others feast. It is time, worker, that you open your eyes. Do you want to live better or worse? We want to free ourselves, despite it all. But at least respond to our final appeal. Let’s rise up, beggars, and break the iron law!  It’s up to us to be free tomorrow. From this point forward, no more beggars bending their lean backs, no more miners digging their own tombs in the mine, no more old men in prison for stealing bread, but peace and happiness for the whole human race. Do you understand now what we want to do? Do you understand the greatness of the libertarian spirit? Worker, do you understand the common good? “The motto one for all is also all for one.” They say we should act without violence. But how to do it? You keep your silence. Do you wish to remain forever an oppressed being, serving your master, exploited eternally? If you don’t, let’s rise up en masse. Let’s resist, no matter what they say, and fight, no matter what they do. Make rifles and forge cannons. Let’s rise up, people! And woe to the cowards, the sell-outs, the traitors. Be bold, proletarians, and you will soon see the end of your misery!


      We must finally reclaim our Liberty,
      Battle from this day forward with tenacity.
      To the renegades let’s deliver a resounding blow
      And declare tomorrow the general strike!

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