Margins and Problems: Beyond 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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My week was interrupted by a second vaccination appointment and the aches, pains and haziness that followed. That has given me some additional time to focus on the first of our major transitions and to clarify in my own mind the ways in which the philosophical anarchism we have posited contributed to or has analogues within more familiar forms. It also gave me a chance to return to some of my older writing on Pierre Leroux and his influence on the anarchist tradition—which turned out to be better than I remembered.

The extra time for reflection translated into enough extra prose that I’m saving the work on Leroux for an already-completed next post and will spend some time clarifying theoretical issues here.

Great Divide(s)

For me, this survey serves, in part, as research for Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back, the work on the anarchist past and “anarchist history” that I began two years ago. In that work, and in the work that has informed it, the notion of a divide has had two primary functions, marking (in the context of a complex riverine metaphor) the watershed between a specifically anarchist tradition and the still archist tendencies that informed it in various ways, but also designating certain rifts within nominally anarchist circles that might or might not be bridgeable by means of an anarchist synthesis. (See, for example: “Anarchy and Democracy: Examining the Divide,” as well as various examinations of “market anarchism.”) As I have moved gradually forward with the outline for Our Lost Continent, I’ve wrestled with the tension between the two projects involved: a clear and sometimes confrontational elaboration of anarchy and its consequences, which cannot help but highlight the real inconsistencies of anarchist ideas and movements to day, and the sense that many of anarchism’s divisions (or most, when I’m feeling bold) are surmountable through reflection and synthesis. I understand that the project of synthesis cannot help but be, at this stage, an outrageously partisan enterprise—and embrace that aspect of the project—but generally try to steer clear of the most divisive sort of rhetoric. 

We have been concentrating on the first of what we might expect will be a series of historical, developmental divides within the anarchist past. Something is clearly distinct between the philosophical anarchism we’re proposing and the project that Proudhon launched in 1840, forcing us to acknowledge that, whether or not there is some perennial libertarian impulse that can be traced back into history, some aspects of the anarchist tradition pretty clearly emerge and begin at some moment we can at least approximately identify. But we’ve also reached a point in our analysis where we have to acknowledge, I think, that the development of anarchist ideas has not been a matter of steady evolution (as we sometimes imagine.)

I had not expected both kinds of divides to become so relevant so early in our survey—but I had also not taken the possibility of a philosophical anarchism as seriously as perhaps I should have, nor explored its possible contents to any great degree. But what might seem like a rather extended, excessive engagement with the work of Paul Brown has produced occasions for unexpected clarifications.

In order to address them, let’s talk first about basic vocabulary:

We have already noted two different ways of approaching the concept of anarchism, which we are attempting to negotiate with this notion of “possible anarchisms.” We have the anarchism that we have inherited, which emerged under specific historical conditions, and a series of other circumstances under which the elements of something similar were present, but but not identified and articulated as such. The first is tied to a diverse, but more or less familiar set of stories about “anarchism,” with the explicit emergence of that term in the 1870s as a focal point. The second begins with a recognition of some degree of perennity in anarchist ideas and allows us to explore the possibility of that term (and the sense of a coherent ideology associated with it) emerging in other times and places through other kinds of stories.

Anarchism is already, for us, a term that marks both the shared ideas and the various differences among anarchists in the present. It is at once something we share and a term that marks all that we don’t share. And the same is really true of anarchy, perhaps with some etymological justification. Stephen Pearl Andrews observed that:

Arche is a Greek word (occurring in mon-archy, olig-archy, hier-archy, etc.), which curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning, the idea of origin or beginning, and hence of elementary principle, with that of government or rule.

So we should not be surprised to find that an-arche has—perhaps just as curiously and with the help of some hairsplitting treatment of notions like rule—come to refer to everything from Proudhonian anti-absolutism to democratic good governance.

There only seem to be two ways to directly address the uncertainties built into our shared vocabulary. We can either insist on particular, consistent, single uses or we can quite consciously accept and address the complexities. Since we are focusing on how to think about the anarchist past, rather than what, the second strategy seems to be our option. But, either way, we have our work cut out for us if we want to be clear.

Anarchy and “Natural Government”

We’ve characterized our possible philosophical anarchism in terms of self-government guided by reason, making it an anarchic system in the sense that the only authority recognized and the only hierarchies tolerated are presumably given in and by nature. In this context, anarchy and “natural government” become roughly synonymous—and we’re left to wrestle with how to account for that synonymy.

This is arguably the point at which it becomes useful to have dug a bit deeper into the details of work like Paul Brown’s, since it allows us to at least relate a few concrete differences to the apparent paradox with which we’re faced. So, for example, we’ve highlighted the really philosophical quality of the approach—the emphasis on disquisitions over demands, as well as the ultimately governmental nature of the demands actually made. The abolition of various archic forms is presented as logically a good idea, but without any clear call for the radical social changes that would entail. And then we’ve built the perspective of our “possible historian” for the period around the moment in Brown’s work where he seems to find himself on a slippery slope from “let us reason together” to a more or less insurrectionary “right” to demand the changes called for by reason. What we should probably also highlight now is the terms in which Brown characterized that reason-driven uprising.

Let us arise in the majesty of our strength, assert our rights, and demand of our usurpers an immediate surrender of their illgotten hoards of exuberant wealth, with all they iniquitously hold that belongs to us. Our spoilers are villainous cowards; and when they are overmatched a thousand fold in numbers they will yield without bloodshed. They will succumb at the mandate of eternal justice. They cannot gainsay, they cannot resist the conviction of this eternal truth, that human creatures being born equal, have equally a right to the inheritance and use of this world and of the things that are therein.

This vision of revolution—if we can use that term here—is curious. As we noted, it has something in common with the familiar narrative surrounding the general strike as a “folded arms strike,” but it isn’t entirely clear whether the reason that the uprising will be irresistible is strength in numbers or whether it is the rationale inspiring the movement of the masses that ultimately cannot be gainsaid. Certainly, there would seem to be no “right” to rise up without the support of reason—so we can draw a very clear distinction between this vision of social change and, say, the “creed of force” interpretation of syndicalism. Still, in the context of anarchist thought, the difference between a “right” to revolution based on reason and one based on force is not quite as significant as it might seem in other contexts.

Assuming very familiar degrees of pluralism, comparable to those we experience regularly in the present, we might see both “self-government according to reason” and “the law of the jungle” as at least possible bases for a philosophical anarchism on the model we have been discussing, with the significant differences between the philosophies simply arising from different conceptions of nature and, as a result, of “natural government.” The various approaches would, of course, rise or fall according to the validity of those conceptions—and, more generally, on the plausibility of the conception of nature as law-giving.

So perhaps we have begun to identify what will distinguish the next anarchisms we encounter from the philosophical anarchism we have been discussing. It is not that anarchists will stop looking to nature for guidance in the establishment of social relations, but instead that the particular conceptions of nature to which they will appeal will not grant it legislative functions, naturalizing government. We shouldn’t be at all surprised to find this shift in anarchistic thinking in the early 19th century, since it is arguably only a reflection of a broader shift, as notions like the hierarchical “great chain of being” stopped functioning as principles of natural science.

Uncoupling nature and authority opens a number of new possibilities, not the least of which is the possibility of an anarchy considerably more likely to spark a sense of recognition in modern anarchists than any of these systems of “natural government.” That anarchy might then become naturalized, placing all government on the side of artifice—a move that perhaps retains a kind of negative authority in the form of “natural anti-government.” Or it might open new spaces, beyond the opposition of nature and artifice (which always seems to be, to some extent, “in the eye of the beholder.”)

We shouldn’t be surprised to find that any anarchization of the concept of nature brings with it a less uniform notion of human nature. The comparison we have already proposed of Paul Brown’s 1822 “Moral Catechism” with Fourier’s work seems to bear this out, with the passional economics of latter involving a more distinct sort of human individuality and, as a result, a rather different conception of human society.

Let’s try, at least provisionally, to draw a line and identify our first real divide:

While the avant-la-lettre philosophical anarchism we have been examining still imagines social harmony as emerging from adherence to a particular kind of law (though not human legislation), maintaining a particular sort of hierarchy between human individuals and a law-giving nature—uniting anarchy and natural order, while placing human government on the side of artificethe next anarchism we will recognize, Proudhon’s anti-absolutism, would quite simply lack any source for blueprints, making social harmony something that must be constructed, negotiated and renegotiated among diverse, associated individuals.

Proudhon’s anarchy would be, at least in its most consistent expressions, a rejection of arche in nearly all of its forms.

So how do we get from one form of anarchism to another, in what must be considered, however we mark its end-points, a very short period of time?

The tale of that transition is the one that we will at least begin to tell through a look at the work of Pierre Leroux and his essay on “Individualism and Socialism.”

Systems and Sciences

Hierarchy is, among other things, a form of mediation. Relations that might otherwise exist directly between individuals on a peer-to-peer basis must also involve some degree of direction, supervision or at least tacit assent of “superiors.” Hierarchical societies can be quite flexible, but only in ways that respect the fundamental structure and its aims. The authority at the top of the hierarchy may also take a variety of forms: God, king, People, Nature, reason, etc.—and some of those authorities may be of a sort that demands some representative or representatives exercise the rights and powers with which they are presumably endowed—but there is always some given order implied and defended by the existence of the hierarchy. There is, in the terminology used by Proudhon, some form of absolute.

To abandon the last presumed sources of authority and move beyond the hierarchical organization of society is to embrace, from a structural point of view, anarchy and, with regard to the persistence of social forms, progress (in the sense of flux, ongoing development, etc.) The anarchism (still avant la lettre and thus, in our terms, a “possible anarchism”) of Proudhon would make this dual embrace explicit:

That which dominates all my studies, its principle and aim, its summit and base, in a word, its reason; that which gives the key to all my controversies, all my disquisitions, all my lapses; that which constitutes, finally, my originality as a thinker, if I may claim such, is that I affirm, resolutely and irrevocably, in all and everywhere, Progress, and that I deny, no less resolutely, the Absolute.—Proudhon, The Philosophy of Progress (1853)

But—as you might expect, given our own struggles to be entirely rid of authority and hierarchy—the transition from “natural government” to anti-absolutism was not accomplished without missteps and growing pains. The immediate context for the emergence of a consciously, explicitly anarchist body of thought seems to have been what we now think of as “utopian socialism”—and, to some extent, also “ricardian socialism.”

There are good reasons to treat the “utopian socialism” label as misleading, if not simply abusive. Critics, including Proudhon, objected to the “utopian” quality of various systems proposed for the production of social harmony, as opposed to works of social science, which would elaborate the complex dynamics of that harmony. But much of the “utopian vs. scientific socialism” debate boils down to a partisan wrangle over the qualities of a social science, with the various partisans each struggling in their own ways to avoid recreating some scheme of nature-given law.

It would take us too far off our already winding course to explore much in these transitional tendencies, although I’ll try to address some of their most important insights as they directly influence anarchist thought. In that context, we will probably have occasion to propose a kind of utopian anarchism, with some transitional qualities. But, for now, a look at Leroux’s “Individualism and Socialism” can serve us a kind of crash-course, allowing us to witness the emergence of some very familiar terms in rather unfamiliar forms, as well as giving us a taste of a more “utopian” form of social scientific thought which would have considerably influence on the self-proclaimed anarchists of the 1840s and 1850s.

I will be following this post immediately with a sequel containing the text of Pierre Leroux’s essay “Individualism and Socialism,” some notes on its complicated publishing history (which some of you may already have read), preceded by an essay of my own, “‘Two-Gun’ Mutualism and the Golden Rule,” which discusses Leroux’s essay and its influence on anarchist thought. My essay dates from 2010 and marks an early phase of my interest in anarchist synthesis, addressing the place of individualism and socialism in modern mutualist anarchist theory, but that context, once acknowledged, shouldn’t be too distracting. The essay also forms the first part of a still-unfinished series addressing questions of gender and violence in Proudhon’s work—and we will take up some of those questions in upcoming posts, as one of our focuses through the 1840s will be on the possibilities for a feminist anarchism emerging in those early years.

I have labored more than just a bit, working through the clarifications required here—and long after the post-vaccine haze could be any excuse. And I’m certain that readers will, at times, labor as well, trying to follow the importance of the distinctions that emerge. All I can do is to ask for patience, as we move from the least familiar parts of our story toward those most familiar, trying to assemble, as we go, the tools with which we might defamiliarize those elements in useful ways. 

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2529 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.