Embracing Anarchy — Introduction

I’m far enough along with the glossary project to feel comfortable re-outlining the Constructing Anarchisms text and taking another shot at the introduction. I think that this version is considerably more direct about my intentions for the work.

Embracing Anarchy — Becoming Anarchists, Constructing Anarchisms


We become anarchists by embracing and internalizing anarchy. 

We express that internalized anarchy by constructing anarchisms. 

I take this to be a kind of general formula, describing the relations between three key concepts — anarchy, anarchist and anarchism — in their most general senses. This formula should be applicable to any form of anarchism that defines itself in terms of a commitment to anarchy. It should serve us as a rough schematic as we analyze and construct various anarchisms. The devil is, as usual, in the details — and the complex development of the various anarchist tendencies has provided us with no shortage of details to confront. There are plenty of reasons why anarchists find themselves so divided in the present, many of which will not be easily overcome. 

Let’s not let that worry us. If we find, as well we may, that some anarchisms are ultimately incompatible with one another, antagonistic in their expressions, incommensurable in their specific conceptions, so be it. There is a proposal to accompany the analysis presented here, but it is not a proposal for unity. My expectation is that the account given here of what we might call anarchism-in-general will suggest significant common ground for some anarchist tendencies that are generally seen as irreconcilable rivals, but that, while it may facilitate the building of bridges among anarchists, it may also mark previously unseen chasms — identifying them as at least potentially unbridgeable. My hope is that, in either case, the outcomes will be a result of increasing clarity with regard to anarchism in its most basic, schematic form.

The work begins with the most abstract sort of analysis. I hope to present my schematic anarchism with little or no reference to the anarchist past.  I also intend to studiously avoid the use of terms, concepts and principles drawn from the authoritarian, archic tradition, which dominates the status quo, in the description of anarchy and anarchism. While the past productions of anarchists clearly demonstrate the subversive uses to which those elements can be put, there seems to be some advantage in showing that there is no necessity driving these rhetorical and conceptual borrowings. Once the relations between our key terms have been established and the schematic anarchism is sketched out, I’ll take the opportunity to address some of the most famous or infamous of those subversions, exploring the maneuvers involved in terms of the general formula proposed. Here, too, the intent is to keep the historical references to a minimum, with the goal being to demonstrate that, even in these cases, the description and defense of anarchy can be achieved in less potentially ambiguous and misleading terms. 

This new account is a product of the years I have spent exploring the anarchist past and would have been impossible without that work. Readers can assume the quantity and diversity of historical examples behind each of the generalizations — and regular readers will have some sense of the self-restraint required to refrain from constant reference to it. Dispensing with my usual apparatus of historical reference should reduce be understood, on the one hand, as a concession and offering to the broad audience to whom the account here might be useful, for many of whom those references would simply function as a distraction. At the same time, however, it involves a particular sort of assertion and a kind of confrontation. It is one thing — and a comparatively unthreatening one — to share thoughts about the development of anarchistic ideas in this or that historical text. It is quite a different sort of work to provide an account of anarchism-in-general, stepping out of the relative shadow and shelter of all that spade-work and having my say about the beautiful idea. 

Those few, comparatively brief historical studies, which follow the elaboration of the schematic anarchism, are intended as an exercise in extrication, demonstrating, for those not enamored of the anarchists past, how to escape some of the snares in our shared traditions that even they often seem to be snared by, but also, for those more attached to “the tradition,” some of the ways that we can have our historical dalliances without sacrificing present clarity. They are an expression of my love/hate relationship with “anarchist history” in all of its forms and sketches for a more extensive discussion of the uses of the anarchist past that will have to be left for subsequent volumes, where those uses are the real focus. The work of extrication at least suggested, the exploratory typology of anarchisms that come next will pursue a strategy for differentiating various sorts of anarchism very different from the familiar narrative that grafts various anarchist tendencies onto a quasi-historical, quasi-developmental “family tree.” That typology will instead propose more-or-less functional distinctions by which the proposed schematic might be enhanced. The explanation and defense of that typology will, once again, make use of historical examples, but with no pretense that, the distinctions once made, the result will be itself some map or account of anarchist development. 

All of this work should make more and more clear both the strengths and the very real inadequacies of the general formula proposed. Like every tool, it will have its strengths and its weakness, tasks for which it is marvelously well-suited and those for which it is considerably worse than useless. What I hope will be clear is that the key to any sort of broad understanding among anarchists depends on some shared understanding — or at least shared exploration — of the central concept of anarchy. And then I further hope that I will have made the case, by the time I get to the exhortation to “synthesis” with which the work ends, that it is anarchy “in the full force of the term” that provides the most promising ground for that mutual understanding, both in terms of its likely efficacy in the work of constructing anarchisms and in the particularly anarchic latitude that it ought to afford to the anarchists who embrace it. 

The final proposal here is synthesis — not in the sense of organizational fusion, not as an institutional rival to platformism, but as a recognition of every particular anarchism’s limited and generally unfinished nature, which makes that process of mutual understanding a potential means of escaping our own blinders and dead ends, no matter how much or how little use we may ultimately have for the projects of anarchists of different tendencies. In order to flesh out this particular sort of synthesis, it will be necessary to address the notions of individualism and socialism — first in the context of the exploratory typology and then again in the final section — before finally turning to the concept of reciprocity in its “Proudhonian” form, not imagined as a condition to be established in some future social arrangement, but as a pre-existing condition with a range of consequences, as a problem to be solved. In that final section, figures from a variety of historical anarchist tendencies will get to have their say regarding some of the most basic qualities of human social relations, but perhaps the lion’s share of the theoretical inspiration will come from Proudhon, Max Stirner, Walt Whitman and Charles Fourier — all figures with an appreciation of both the factors that draw us together and those that set us apart. I hope to make a convincing case that those figures, particularly when taken together, provide us with most of what we need to at least begin to undertake that task of embracing and internalizing anarchy, which is not just the first step in becoming anarchists and constructing anarchisms, but an ongoing process and perhaps the most important form of anarchist practice. 

For those familiar with the work that has led up to this particular project, expect an intensification of familiar dynamics. This call for synthesis is also a polemic in favor of the most radical sorts of anarchy. This extrication from the coils of history and tradition is, for me, the rationale for a new plunge into the anarchist past — hopefully on much-clarified terms. The new tools forged here will be offered sincerely for widespread use, but no pretense that they are the right tools for every job. 

Embracing Anarchy — Introduction

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