Margins and Problems: A Philosophical Anarchism

Constructing Anarchisms

Part II—Anarchist History: Margins and Problems (An Idiosyncratic Survey)

General Resources:
II—Anarchist History: Margins & Problems:
I—Constructing an Anarchism:

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We’re concerned, in these early phases of the survey, with the means by which we might recognize an anarchism emerging in contexts where that term did not yet have any of its familiar associations. What are the conditions for an emerging body of thought to inspire in us the same responses we have to the sorts of anarchism we presently espouse?

If we think about our present conditions, we are often surrounded by at least nominally “anti-government” critique—but I don’t imagine many of us feel surrounded by anarchists. Is the present problem simply a matter of so much “anti-government” rhetoric being just that—rhetoric in the service of some clearly governmental project—or is there something that would still be missing in the most sincere and thorough critique of legal and governmental order?

Part of what is arguably at stake is the identification of anarchism as a primarily critical project. If we find that the fairly thorough rejections of law and government in some of the early works we’re looking at does not inspire that sense of recognition in us, then it become useful to understand whether it is a question of note enough critique—of partial anarchisms, which need to be supplemented by the application of similar principles to other areas of society—or whether perhaps the specific invocation of anarchy has a more positive character for us.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last couple of weeks trying to become more enthusiastic about the work of William Godwin. The work is ongoing, I’m afraid, and less successful than I might have hoped. Rather than wade back into An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice again, I decided that I would take a look at Peter Marshall’s Romantic Rationalist: A William Godwin Reader, the current edition of which I had not read, and see if the presentation of Godwin as “the most profound exponent of philosophical anarchism” struck me as any more convincing this time around.

Marshall’s superlatives don’t, in the end, strike me as particularly convincing, but he makes a very useful argument for seeing Godwin as some kind of “philosophical anarchist.” It is easy to see Godwin’s work as a particularly well-developed example of the intellectual current that sees the only just form of government as self-government, government by reason alone—or at least government solely according to the tools given by nature to the individual. I’m perfectly content, in the context of our present survey, to accept Marshall’s attempts to defend Godwin against charges of a too-narrow rationalism and to recognize that Godwin’s emphasis on human perfectibility connects him more to the anarchists to come than it does to figures like Maréchal and de la Boétie. And in the brief section on “Anarchy” in Romantic Rationalist, perhaps we even see glimpses of how Godwin’s approach and the more familiar forms of anarchist rhetoric might have been joined.

For me, at least, there is something still lacking. In Proudhon, the theory behind “property is theft” provides all we really need for a very thorough sort of anarchistic critique of existing institutions, but the various explicit invocations of anarchy add something more. There’s an 1848 letter by Bakunin in which he writes:

I believe neither in constitutions, nor in laws. Even the best of constitutions would not satisfy me. it is something else that we need: effervescence and life, a new world without laws and therefore free.

And this opposition of even the most rational forms of government to life—understood in terms of anarchic effervescence—should also be familiar from “God and the State:”

What I preach then is, to a certain extent, the revolt of life against science, or rather against the government of science, not to destroy science—that would be high treason to humanity—but to remand it to its place so that it can never leave it again.

If I had to draw my own personal line between various sorts of anti-governmentalism and approaches recognizable as anarchism, I suppose a key concern would be that the anarchist project, for me, goes beyond the critique of existing institutions to address that vital effervescence as itself fundamental to positive anarchy.

But we’ve set ourselves the task of exploring a range of possible anarchisms, as they might have emerged at various stages in history. And there is certainly something emerging in the era we’re examining. As I have been gathering my thoughts on this early “philosophical anarchism,” I have been exploring the edges of a fairly large and certainly tempting literature relating to Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and others, treating the fine distinctions between philosophical anarchism, aristocratic antinomianism, etc.

Would any of this have suggested the idea of anarchism at the time—or given rise to some other term that invoked what that word means to us now? It’s hard to say. There are certainly passages that, when read with a knowledge of what was to come, seem at least appropriable by our anarchist histories. Consider this by Shelley:

I am no aristocrat, or any crat at all but vehemently long for the time when man may dare to live in accordance with Nature & Reason, in consequence with Virtue. (1811)

In 1886, Frédéric Tuefferd used anticrat as a synonym for anarchist, but, like so many of these terms, there isn’t much reason to think it wouldn’t have been a fairly obvious option for anti-government critics for decades before that.

In any event, your answer to that question is going to depend on exactly what you think constitutes the defining qualities of anarchism—and we are still exploring possibilities. What I want to do at this point is simply to propose we adopt the term philosophical anarchism—more or less as elaborated in the literature on figures like Godwin—to designate philosophies advocating self-government on the basis of, as Shelley put it, “Nature & Reason,” as an ideal toward which humans and human societies could presumably advance.

The possibility of human perfectibility—advancement toward an ideal—is a key element in this philosophical anarchism, distinguishing it from approaches, like that of Maréchal, that suggest a kind of retreat or regression as the only means of establishing “natural” human relations and self-government. (I don’t mean to pick a fight with anarchist primitivists here by suggesting that all such approaches are necessarily non-anarchist, but I think that the examples we have touched on have to be considered at best near-anarchisms.)

But let’s make sure we’re clear on exactly what we intend to do with these possible anarchisms that we are beginning to propose. It is one thing to begin from our present beliefs and delve back into the anarchist past in search of precedents and precursors. There is a great deal of that sort of exploration in the background of our survey, but it is not our aim. I leave it to individuals to decide if their personal understanding of anarchism is one more manifestation of a perennial variety of thought or something remarkable, even entirely novel, shaped by the most immediate sort of present conditions. Our task is a clarification and individualization of beliefs — “constructing our own anarchisms” / “making anarchism our own” — with the anarchist past as a store of potential building materials, which we have to sift through and try to assess in terms of their utility. It is a question, as we have noted before, of a series of operations on the anarchist past—a series of experiments through which we might learn what that past is good for in the present.

We know the rather complicated story of how anarchism emerged as a keyword, decades after Proudhon’s appropriation of anarchy and anarchist, and it is hard to avoid the sense that our understanding of both the anarchist past and our present associations might well be different—and perhaps quite different—if things had played out differently. As much as we would perhaps like to attach ourselves to traditions and tendencies of different sorts—more perennial, less “western,” less “civilized,” etc.—there is a certain sense in which anarchism is inescapably a product of the late 19th century, owing as much of its original character to historical conflicts within the international workers’ movement as to specifically anarchistic ideas. Not for the first time, as we will see, the emergence of a new ism did not guarantee that those who in one sense “invented” it would be able to maintain their hold on it. The meaning of anarchism has arguably been subject, throughout its history, to conflict and revision—with the search for origins, precedents and precursors being one important part of anarchism’s ongoing development.

The point is not that understanding the historical emergence of a tendency explicitly called anarchism in any way exhausts the range of possible anarchisms in either the past or present. But that historical emergence remains a condition of possibility for all the other stories we might want to tell about “our own” anarchism. To really come to terms with the anarchist past we have to both account for it as such and also try to imagine our potential precursors in the contexts in which they actually occurred: a world without that particular kind of anarchism.

So we will combine two operations in our survey. First, we will do the thing that we can hardly help doing, filling in gaps in the backstory we have inherited and testing existing narratives. Then we’ll also do something that is arguably very hard to do, trying to imagine particular moments in that world without anarchism and assessing these texts on something like their own terms.

I have already talked about “The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution” and the strategy of trying to imagine possible historians at various stages points along our journey, from whose perspective we might explore these possible anarchisms. So, for example, we might pick 1834 as a kind of watershed year—if only because we know we’re going to talk about Pierre Leroux’s essay on “Individualism and Socialism” as one of the contexts of Proudhon’s sociological anarchism—and imagine a set of circumstances in that year that might have inspired ambitious thoughts about philosophical anarchism.

Imagine, for example, an evening early in July, 1834 at the Boston Theatre, with a crowd of freethinkers and workers gathered for the weekly Sunday lecture. Among them is a commercial traveler, recently arrived from the wilds of southern Ohio, and on the stage is a rather notorious communist, Paul Brown, author of a series of articles in the Boston Investigator under the title of “The Radical.” The crowd is restive. The speaker is clearly intelligent, but perhaps just as clearly happy to shock—while talking about self-government on the basis of reason.

Let’s give our traveler a (borrowed) face and a history in the radical milieus—as he listens attentively to a talk that swoops from women’s rights to common property, with asides on fashion, plagiarism, education, etc. He’s of an age to have visited Josiah Warren’s “time magazine” and perhaps even have played a part in the failed communistic experiment that Warren talked about in “The Motives for Communism—How It Worked and What It Led To.” He might well have read Warren’s earliest proposals in The March of Mind, the Western Tiller or in copies of the Boston Investigator (for which Warren himself served as an agent.) He could have visited New Harmony, perhaps encountering Brown there, perhaps reading his “Gray Light” in the Gazette or his Twelve Months in New Harmony. We know that there were any number of similar figures, who followed developments in radical circles and often contributed to the debates themselves, but anonymously or under pseudonyms that are now indecipherable. So let’s give him a body of work—anonymous editorials in a workingman’s paper, published in Bethel and Moscow, but now lost; contributions to various local papers, signed “R,” “Z” or sometimes “R. Z;” mentions, as “R. Z.” and then, later, “Zane,” in some of the larger freethought papers, from which he ordered a steady stream of radical literature—and then let’s acknowledge that not everything we would like to attribute to him can be exactly verified.

Then let’s given him a moment. Let’s imagine that his response to the Brown’s provocative performance is a sort of crystallization of ideas picked up from Warren, the more radical articles in George H. Evans’s first Workingman’s Advocate and New York Daily Sentinel—perhaps even the book published by Evans, Vice Unmasked, which proposed an end to all laws—along with the works of his rival among the New York workingmen’s movement, Thomas Skidmore, whose major work (The Rights of Man to Property!) arguably exceeded Brown’s by quite a bit in its agrarian excesses. There would, of course, be other radical voices he would have encountered in the same spaces and pages where he encountered these—and some of those would have been voices from abroad. There are, for example, some fairly straightforward routes from the radical debates in what was then the western United States to the works of William Godwin or even perhaps Sylvain Maréchal.

Now, from his moment of inspiration and crystallization, in which something seemed to click about the connections between what certainly might be considered disparate radical tendencies, let’s give him a few months of frenzied intellectual activity and, from that, a little book. Let’s imagine him at least trying to print the thing at home, using Warren’s widely publicized method for “Printing in Private Families,” and advertising it in the back pages of whatever paper his means could support. Let’s give his little book a face as well—an existence at least halfway out of our imaginations, so that we can imagine it full of ideas that aren’t just footnotes on our own—and, as a sort of shared exercise, let’s take some time to try to imagine what it might contain.

I’m going to take a few more days to try to work myself into something like the position of “Zane,” our first possible historian, and then use this framework as a way to finish discussing the early philosophical anarchism that we are proposing as our first possible anarchism.

It’s been a week interrupted by a heady mix of vaccination and eleventh-hour inspiration, but I’ll make an effort to finish up the next post and the promised discussion of Pierre Leroux’s essay over the next week or so.

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