Constructing Anarchisms: Notes for a Preface

Constructing Anarchisms

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

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If asked, I generally say that I have been an anarchist for close to thirty years. And because of all the other things that I have been for much longer—a big nerd, basically—that has translated into nearly three decades of sometimes obsessive research into anarchist history and theory, art and literature, etc. At this point, it’s hard to imagine thinking of myself as anything other than an anarchist. I have worn a large number of hats over the years and continue to do so, but few of them represent anything like an identity. I have mixed feelings, in general, about identities. “I am large, I contain multitudes”—and those multitudes don’t always get along in a particularly unified or even dignified manner. With anarchist, however, the unity and the multiplicity seem to be simultaneously implied. Je suis anarchiste—I am anarchic.

Anyway, if we do the math, the implication is that I became an anarchist sometime in the early 1990s. But don’t ask me to give you a date in any decade. Becoming an anarchist is not such an easy thing. The state of being an anarchist is a bit like the condition of anarchy. We understand that it involves fluidity and uncertainty. We imagine we know it—more or less—when we see it. We’re pretty sure it’s a good thing, but we aren’t necessarily in agreement about all that it entails. As for the problem of the transition, well, it remains a problem.

It remains important to us whether we, or those around us, are indeed anarchists or not—whether they have become anarchists, remained anarchists despite changing impressions—often little more than fashions, I’m afraid—regarding what that entails. And much of that is as it should be, I expect: the importance of the identification, but also the evolving senses of what it entails; the recognition that becoming an anarchist might well be an ongoing process, etc. We don’t need to agree, all of us, once and for all, about what it means to be an anarchist, any more than we are likely to be able to agree on some particular path of becoming. But we arguably do need some tools to make the whole things easier on ourselves and to allow us the means of being easier on each other—without sacrificing, in either case, a concern for getting it right, according to whatever standards the anarchy inherent to the whole process allows.

I’ve spent a lot of the Covid Year wrestling with the extent to which anarchists can be said to be connected by general histories, general conceptions of anarchy and its consequences, and the degree to which we are simply forced to embrace the anarchy of our various anarchisms, conscious that there are limits to how much divergence “anarchism,” in its most general sense, can tolerate without a more or less complete loss of meaning, but unable to determine those limits very precisely on our own. It was in the course of work that I encountered a 1970 essay by René Furth (René Fugler), “The Anarchist Question,” which begins with a with the striking declaration that “anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist.” It’s opening chapter, titled “Dispersion,” begins with an assessment of the anarchism of its time and place that, while rather grim, may ring some bells in our own:

Anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist.

It scatters more than it gathers. It fritters away energies rather than concentrating them. It squanders its gains when what is necessary is to mobilize them for new acquisitions. Summary judgments and the remnants of old popularizations stand in for the methods of analysis and the precise knowledge that it lacks.

Instead of devoting the best part of our efforts to the struggle against capitalism and political power, we exhaust ourselves struggling to patch up and hold together our fragile means: groups, press, networks of communication. It is with great difficulty that we find the means to support ourselves on any kind of basis. The groups and organizations keep breaking up; those that take their place slip despite themselves in the ruts dug by the predecessors — unless they refuse everything, and toss and turn, for a while, this way and that.

The majority of the publications are as ephemeral as they are little known. Their theoretical basis — when there is something that resembles a theoretical basis — remains unstable and ragtag. In the best of cases, they earnestly reframe the old questions: those that had been forgotten for fear of the challenges. Or else they inject into the little anarchist world some elements of research and analysis done elsewhere, which is certainly useful and only too rare.

The essay doesn’t linger too long on the “unstable and ragtag” character of things, progressing through an analysis of specific problems arising from the historical development of anarchist ideas and practices to a minimal program aimed at correcting some anarchist responses. Neither Furth’s analysis nor his solutions are precisely my own, but the general trajectory of his project in the essay certainly shape the analysis that follows in this volume.

By November of 2021, I was feeling like I had drawn about as much clarity from isolated study as I was likely to and began to talk with friends about the possibility of addressing the issues I was wrestling with in some kind of group setting. The result was an online “workshop,” “Constructing Anarchisms,” which aimed to take participants through enough engagement with key anarchist concepts and confront them with enough episodes from the history of anarchism (in that most general sense) to prepare them to “make anarchism their own” by means of “making their own anarchism.” As a group enterprise, it was a bit of a bust, but as an incentive to keep my nose to that particular grindstone and focus my energies on a work of clarification, it was much more successful. Eight months into what was planned as a twelve-month process, it was pretty clear that the experiment had run its course—but also that, at least for me, some real clarification was taking place.

As a historian of the anarchist past, my focus has often been on the margins of more familiar histories. emphasizing the anarchy of possible anarchisms. As a theorist, it has been on the clarification of fundamental principles through the synthesis of all that those various anarchisms reveal to us. I have long emphasized the extent to which clarity with regard to basic anarchist principles allows us to be open to encounters with elements, both in the anarchist past and in present anarchist milieus, that might allow further clarification, perhaps of a radical nature. After decades of research and reflection, I am even relatively comfortable striking my own balance between a commitment to slightly elusive principles and an openness to everything with which the anarchy of anarchisms might confront me—but that’s quite a commitment to ask of others seeking clarity with regard to being and becoming an anarchist.

Being where I am personally in the process, I has made sense to me to construct my projects according to a strategy that I have called “the bilge-rat’s gambit.” The reference is to the early pages of Joseph Déjacque’s Humanisphere, where he describes his work as a matter of boring a hole in the hull of, his prison, the ship of state and civilization. In that context, we are inclined to understand the potentially inrushing sea as anarchy, but scuttling the ship in which one is imprisoned is inescapably an extreme strategy. Shifting the context to the study of the anarchist past, the stakes are clearly less, but, in that context, the prison-ship to be scuttled is not the archic world that surrounds us, but what is archic in the anarchisms with which we have surrounded ourselves. In a post for “Constructing Anarchisms” course, I framed the new context and its dangers in these terms:

Let’s say that, taking inspiration from Déjacque’s bilge-rat, we decide that our present experience of anarchism is too constraining—and decide to scuttle this particular vessel. What happens next? As the anarchist past floods in, how do we make sure we stay at least afloat enough that a bit of ideological constraint doesn’t become the least of our worries?

Can we cobble together a new vessel from the wreckage, along with whatever other flotsam we may encounter? Or can we perhaps adopt what we might call, in the context of this metaphor, a more aquatic relation to the anarchist past?

But there are two different ways of thinking about this gambit. Treated as an individual matter, the stakes of even the most radical strategies remain minor for everyone but the individual. Anarchism (in the general sense) remains largely untouched, outside of the rare instances where an individual formulation finds itself in fashion—and those instances seem to have their own limited life-cycles. In any event, those individual formulations—however radical they may be, however “aquatic” the resulting relation to anarchism is for the individual—generally just become a new patch for anarchism in the more general sense.

Perhaps we simply have to embrace “patching up” as our collective practice, at least for the time being, leaving some more direct embrace of the anarchy of our anarchisms for another day. We might all hope to someday feel native to the storm-tossed seas of anarchy—although it seems clear that we do not all aspire to that state—without being capable, individually, of the individual efforts involved or, collectively, of the work of consultation, coordination and synthesis demanded.

The question is what we can do now—individually or collectively, at the beginnings of our anarchists journeys or years down our particular roads—to make anarchism less of an obstacle. Can we, in fact, propose a general analysis—perhaps not so much of fundamental anarchist principles, as of presently unavoidable anarchist problems—and some general practices to guide the encounters of anarchists and would-be anarchists with anarchism, in all of its various senses, as well as with one another?

The goal in all that follows is to propose a basic analysis and some fundamental practices that are shareable among anarchists and can serve as an aid to potential anarchists—without, in the process, attempting to propose some new form of anarchist ideology, which would only be “shareable” to the extend that it is adopted. It is an attempt to united a number of insights from the historical anarchist literature—rather “meta” insights about the general character of anarchy and anarchist practice—beginning with the analysis of anarchist development presented in Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis.” In that context, anarchist synthesis is not a strategy for constructing federations (as it is in other works by Voline, Faure, etc.), but an ongoing process by which the practical efforts of individual anarchists and anarchist groupings, which are necessarily focused more or less narrowly, become, though comparison and critical reflection, the material for more general reflections on the nature of anarchy and help to shape the core conceptions of anarchist theory. Various kinds of anarchistic practice presumably advance the shared project of achieving anarchy, but also serve as experiments by which our understanding of that project—and of the general dynamics of anarchy—can be clarified and refined.

There’s a general assumption involved in this account, that anarchy does indeed involve dynamics that we will have to learn to understand and navigate, in the course of our struggles against archic institutions of various sorts and beyond, which potentially allows us to distinguish between a range of partial, local applications of our present understanding of anarchy—itself partial and local, constrained and shaped by particular contexts—and some practices that are perhaps more fundamentally anarchist practices, focused on improving and completing that understanding. Again, these are, by present standards, perhaps more easily understood as something like meta-practices. But if it is indeed possible to present a coherent, shareable analysis of the archies, anarchies, anarchisms, etc. that we routinely encounter “in the wild,” without simply engaging in some winner-take-all struggle for the heart of anarchism-in-general, then perhaps that analysis is only “meta” in its affinities with anarchy—less beyond than en dehors.

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