Margins and Problems: History and the Possibility of Anarchism

Constructing Anarchisms

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

Onward!—to the next experiment—with Scandal as our muse and encounter as our method.

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

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Let’s be clear:

The history that we will be exploring will not be The Story of Anarchism—or anything particularly close to that. It will be a story about anarchism—and specifically about some margins and problems related to anarchism—designed to support our joint project of “making anarchism our own” and “constructing our own anarchism.” That means that, while we orient our exploration according to some familiar ideas about the historical development of anarchism, we’ll be subjecting it to a variety of kinds of critical operations.

In particular, we’re going to be looking at the particular kind of story that so many of us have inherited—because there were other possibilities—examining the conditions under which that particular narrative emerged and exploring the possibility of other stories emerging from historical circumstances already “within the envelope” of what we think of as anarchist history.

That step taken with some care, we ought to be able to expand the range of possible anarchist histories considerably, while still retaining some common points of reference.

As we established in the first phase of this project, the period we’re going to use as our focus extends roughly from 1834 to 1934, with Pierre Leroux’s essay on “Individualism and Socialism” and the Encyclopédie Anarchiste as convenient endpoints and Proudhon’s 1840 declaration, “je suis anarchiste,” treated as at least one kind of inaugural event. The approach we are taking to “constructing anarchisms” being conceptual, it makes sense to at least begin by tracing the emergence of three that seem likely to feature prominently in whatever story we ultimately choose to tell: anarchy, as recuperated by Proudhon; anarchist, understood as a political or anti-political role; anarchism, variously understood as the body of theory, practices, organized bodies, etc. developed by anarchists.

The question of anarchism’s beginning is, of course, debated, if only because there are a variety of ways to begin. Faced with rivals for the name and the threat of entryism, anarchists like to point to a particular vocabulary that emerged in the 19th century, attached to particular individuals, movements and ideas, as one way of describing the emerge of anarchism. At the same time, it is quite common for anarchists to claim a certain perennity of anarchist aspirations and practices. For example, Charles-Auguste Bontemps, in the final section of his Social Individualism: Summary and Commentary (1967), “The Perennity of Anarchism,” concluded that:

Anarchism is not a label. It is the proper name of an evolutionary philosophy that defines an ethics and an aesthetic of personal life, whatever the society in which one lives at a given time. Its scientific source dates back to Democritus and Anaxagoras, its morality to our Epicurus, its method of apprehension of facts, of attitude according to facts, to Pyrrh’s skepticism. It is therefore older than Christianity, which could not destroy it and borrowed heavily from it…

In his Bibliography of Anarchy, Max Nettlau only goes back to the 16th century in his list of “Precursors of Anarchy,” restricting his account to the “anarchist literature.” His Short History begins with a claim about the perennial nature of “anarchist ideas:”

The history of anarchist ideas is inseparable from the history of all progressive developments and aspirations towards liberty. It therefore starts from the earliest favorable historic moment when men first evolved the concept of a free life as preached by anarchists — a goal to be attained only by a complete break from authoritarian bonds and by the simultaneous growth and wide expansion of the social feelings of solidarity, reciprocity, generosity and other expressions of human co-operation.

This concept of a life of freedom has been manifested in various ways in the personal and collective life of individuals and groups, beginning with the family…

Nettlau originally presented that volume as an examination of La anarquía a través de los tiempos (Anarchy through the Ages)—as his multi-volume work was a Geschichte der Anarchie (History of Anarchy)—but the English translation was titled A Short History of Anarchism, with the distinction between anarquía and anarquismo somewhat obscured elsewhere in the translation.

The more we emphasize the perennial nature of really anarchist aspirations, the less these distinctions matter. But most histories of anarchism, while noting more or less ancient sources, are still rather limited in the specific expressions of anarchist ideas that they can cite prior to the 18th century opening of the “age of revolutions.” It is a commonplace among anarchists that “the anarchist literature” is a record and codification of popular practices, rather than a philosophy elaborated by intellectuals and subsequently adopted by popular movements, but we’re often forced to embrace that as a kind of article of faith. One of the obvious difficulties is that anarchism—whether we take it to be a label, a proper name, a synonym for a certain conception of anarchy, etc.—emerged as a word and concept at a much later date then either the perennial practices it might ultimate refer to or the other keywords (anarchy, anarchist) with which it is usually associated.

At the very least, clearly articulating the relationship between explicitly “anarchist ideas” and that “history of all progressive developments and aspirations towards liberty” is likely to be a complicated process, with the “anarchist literature” and those pesky anarchist intellectuals smack dab in the middle of things. So perhaps we have at least one good argument here for beginning with the literature—particularly as it seems rich in its own complications.

As we’ve noted before, the story of the emergence of anarchism as a widely-used word is itself pretty complicated. That “age of revolutions” from the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century was a period during which a good deal of our current political vocabulary was introduced. (For those who want a sense of the absolute deluge of new isms introduced in that period, Arthur E. Bestor’s essay, “The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary,” is a great introduction. It is available through JSTOR, which you may be able to access through a public library.) Anarchism is, however, somewhat conspicuously absent until rather late in the 19th century, so one of our tasks in the early stages of this exploration will be to ask ourselves whether that absence is significant.

We might begin by at least posing the question:

At what point in time and in what locations would it have first been possible to tell a story about “anarchism”?

And the first thing we might say on the way to an answer is that there are quite a number of ways to interpret the question.

The second might be to propose a range of example of the early anarchist or proto-anarchist literature, as recognized in existing histories, which we might choose to characterize as examples of anarchism. For example:

  • Etienne de la Boetie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1577)
  • Edmund Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society (1756)
  • Sylvain Marechal’s Mother Nature before the National Assembly (1791), Last Judgment of Kings and Remedy for the Revolution (1793), Manifesto of the Equals (1801), etc.
  • William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and Caleb Williams (1794)
  • Paul Brown’s Gray Light (1825-27)
  • Josiah Warren’s earliest writings (1827-1830)
  • Peter W. Grayson’s Vice Unmasked (1830)
  • Thomas Hodgskin‘s The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832)

Faced with these more specific examples—most of which we will explore in more depth later—we can start to observe patterns of similarity and difference, both among these texts and between them and somewhat later texts with a firmer claim to a place in anarchist canons. There is, for example, a very frequent appeal to the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” social relations, but perhaps less agreement on whether the full expression of “natural” freedom is to be found in the past or the future. There are positions that we might, without too much rhetorical violence, call “anti-civ”—a label applicable to a variety of “utopian” socialist positions as well—but without clear agreement about whether it is a question of “returning” to some pastoral “Golden Age” and the rudimentary society of the family or whether, instead, it is a matter of evolving and progressing beyond authoritarian, governmentalist society. There are a variety of theories of “human nature” in play.

We can try assess whether any of these early presented seem to us to present real anarchy—or we can judge them by the criteria so often brought to bear on the work of figures like Proudhon and Bakunin. Grayson’s arguments in favor of the abolition of all law are striking, but his blind spots with regard to many of the forms of oppression and exploitation that surrounded him seem even more so. Proudhon is still often treated (a bit incorrectly) as an advocate of fairly simple forms of society and technology—but he looks like a transhumanist alongside “the Shepherd Sylvain,” who also manages to outdo him in real commitment to patriarchal government.

I’m happy, ultimately, to set the bar very high, when it is a question of recognizing anarchism in any of these works. It might well be that, in important senses, we are still waiting for the fullest sorts of articulations of anarchist ideas. But there is also probably some kind of truth in the assertions about the perennial nature of at least anarchistic aspiration. So if the exercise is going to be useful, we need first to be open to the series of relatively open encounters necessary to analyze and compare the visions presented to us, prepared to find what is useful—whether familiar or unfamiliar, expected or unexpected—in these works that are either already recognized elements in much less idiosyncratic anarchist histories or are included according to similar rationales.

Encounter-as-method is nothing but that openness in our approach, which allows us to deal with the works themselves before we turn to the question of judging them worthy or unworthy of any further attention.

We’re at the stage now, however, of trying to figure out how much of the material necessary for an “anarchism” worthy of the name—or some other similar name—was around prior to Proudhon’s publications.

I’ll take of that question and begin a survey of the texts from this period in the next post.

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