Margins and Problems: Questions of Nature and Artifice

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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expanding the toolkit

As we move forward, let’s propose some distinctions between the various varieties of anarchism and near-anarchism that we might encounter.

Let’s start with an ideal and probably nonexistent integral anarchism, which would represent a successful synthesis or distillation of the various attempts to express basic anarchist principles in a way that would simply allow us to apply them. That sort of anarchism might require a significant body of work to express—or it might be the sort of thing that, finally clarified, could be comfortably scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin.

We might then first distinguish that anarchism from various anarchisms-in-progress: substantial attempts to work through anarchist ideas from a variety of perspectives, addressing individual and social concerns, that, while not fully clarified and perhaps obviously flawed, at least seem to point us down some promising path. For example, taken as a whole, Proudhon’s body of work seems to provide us with the guidance we need to correct for his obvious errors. E. Armand’s anarchist individualism is of a sort that arguably addresses a lot of social concerns, if perhaps primarily from one side, while something similar might be said of a number of anarchist communists. And, of course, we have to recognize that much—perhaps most—of the anarchist literature is part of larger conversations, so those substantial attempts may be the work of particular milieus, whether local or international.

Then there are what we might call partial anarchisms—accounts of anarchism that seem comparatively clear and finished, but which seem to reduce the scope of anarchist theory more than seems warranted. I recall, for example, my first reading of John Badcock, Jr.‘s “Slaves to Duty,” when I was first exploring anarchist individualism and egoism. My reaction was that this was not the anarchism I was looking for, but also that I was very glad to have stumbled on it, as it made certain issues very clear. I’m inclined to treat Benjamin R. Tucker’s “plumb-line” anti-monopolism as a kind of partial anarchism. He is clearly concerned with the achievement of anarchy and his elaboration of the plumb-line approach just as clearly paints of a picture of that project likely to be useful even to anarchists who don’t share his particular focus—but the focus is particular. The same could be said about some of the more narrowly focused anarchist communist accounts as well.

Indeed, the partial anarchisms seem like obvious fodder for anarchist synthesis. Sébastien Faure’s formula of combining “the three great anarchist currents” (anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism) is certainly easy enough to understand—and perhaps to extend to other tendencies with their own specializations. But there are also idiosyncratic accounts, what we might call eccentric anarchisms, with a similar utility, but perhaps less obvious means of integration into some kind of anarchist synthesis. Ernest Coeurderoy’s theory of anarchy through Cossack invasion comes to mind, along with Stephen Pearl Andrews pantarchy (which might also be not quite anarchist, depending on your criteria) and the “rational anarchy” of Emile Digeon. My favorite example is probably the work of Eliphalet Kimball, whose use of analogies—(pies and governments are both dangerous, for roughly the same structural reasons)—provides us with a very simple and interesting system, once we work through its peculiar, homespun presentation. We don’t need to think of his work as associated with a “great anarchist current” to find useful. Instead, these eccentric expressions accomplish a kind of defamiliarization of concepts that we often have difficulty confronting with a real critical distance.

What distinguishes the eccentric anarchisms for me is the fact that, although they arise from peculiar premises or worldviews—and may remain pretty peculiar throughout—they do indeed seem to be aiming at anarchy. But, as the peculiarities are often great, there may indeed be some overlap with the category of near-anarchisms that, despite strong critiques of various things that anarchists also oppose, don’t ultimately seem likely to get us to anarchy. The patriarchal government of Sylvain Maréchal would seem to be the most obvious example of a compelling and consistent anti-governmental critique that is, in the end, attached to an ideal that consistent anarchists would have to oppose.

sifting through the precursors

With those categories proposed, we can begin to examine the various texts we have identified as contenders for the distinction of anarchism prior to 1840. Those texts were:

  • 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)

Two of those texts were eventually presented by their authors as either ironic (Burke) or the product of mental illness (Grayson.) So we can start by treating those as near-anarchisms. But we can’t really stop there, since Burke’s Vindication was apparently both an influence on Godwin and the subject of subsequent appropriation by allies of Josiah Warren. We have a category of non-anarchist works that have been woven, in various ways, into the fabric of anarchist history and tradition. So we will have to be open to considering these various texts in a variety of ways.

defense of “natural society”

Etienne de la Boetie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1577) is an interesting case to consider. It makes a strong case throughout for the advantages of not having a ruler, while explicitly presenting itself as at least not quite a call to radical social change.

Pitiful, abject nations, you have taken leave of your senses! You cling stubbornly to evil and are blind to what is good. You allow the best part of your income to be taken from you, you let your farms be pillaged, your houses despoiled and stripped of your ancient ancestral possessions! You can claim nothing as your own, and it seems you would be glad to be allowed to rent from someone else your possessions, your families and your very lives. And all this devastation, this misfortune, this ruin is not visited upon you by an enemy — or rather, it does come from an enemy, and from the man to whom you give the power he has, for whom you so courageously go to war, laying down your lives without hesitation to make him more powerful. Your oppressor has but two eyes, two hands, one body, and has nothing that the least of your infinite number of citizens does not have — except the advantage you give him, which is the power to destroy you. Where did he get those eyes which spy on you, if you did not give him them? Would he have all those hands to strike you with, if he did not get them from you? Those feet which trample upon your cities, where did he get them if they are not your own. What power has he over you, if it is not the power you give him. How would he ever dare attack you, if you were not his accomplices? What could he do to you, if you were not receivers of the goods this thief plunders from you, the companion of this murderer who is killing you, traitors to yourselves? You sow your fruit so that he can destroy the harvest. You furnish your houses, so that he can pillage them. You bring up your daughters to sate his lust. You bring up your children so that (at best) he will take them off to fight his wars and be butchered, or make them ministers to his greed and instruments of his vengeance. You accustom yourselves to hardship so that he can enjoy a life of luxury and wallow in foul and base pleasures. You make yourselves weak so that he can be strong and oppress you ever more harshly. The very beasts would not endure these humiliations if they were capable of feeling them. But you can deliver yourselves if you make the effort — not an effort to deliver yourselves, but an effort to want to do so. Resolve to be slaves no more, and you are free! I am not asking you to push him out of your way, to topple him: just stop propping him up and, like a great colossus whose plinth has been taken from under him, he will crumble and be shattered under his own weight.

This is good, strong stuff—and there is plenty more of it. But it is all wrapped in a frame that suggests nothing can be done. The text continues:

But doctors tell us we ought not to meddle with wounds that are incurable. I am wasting my time preaching this lesson, for the people long ago lost consciousness, lost all awareness that they are sick. This fact demonstrates plainly that the condition is fatal. Let us therefore attempt to explain how this stubborn desire to be slaves has become so deeply-rooted that it now seems as though the very love of liberty is no longer natural.

So we might be inclined to think that there is some kind of anarchist critique here, but of a sort that leaves very little room for any kind of anarchist activity.

We’re presented with a fascinating vision of human nature, which is fundamentally good and liberty-loving, but also almost entirely powerless against authoritarian forms of nurture.

One cannot deny that Nature has great influence over us, and inclines us the way she wills, which is why people are called ‘good natured’ or ‘bad natured’. But we have to confess that she has less power over us than custom does, for our natural state, however good it may be, is lost if it is not developed, whereas our upbringing always molds us into its own shape, whatever our natural disposition. The good seeds that nature sows in us are so tiny and so insecure that they cannot withstand the slightest pressure from a contrary upbringing. And developing them is not easy — whereas it is easy for them to become bastardized and melt away into nothing. In the same way, fruit trees have their own nature, and retain it if left on their own to grow, but they lose it and bear alien fruit when grafted.

There are glimpses here of what development according to our natures might look like, but, as we look forward toward Burke’s text, it’s a little hard to know just what “natural society” might look like.

Edmund Burke’s Vindication of Natural Society (1756) presents itself as a rather similar sort of study, with “natural reason” and “natural justice” contrasted with “artificial theology” and “artificial government.” The most famous passage is probably this:

In vain you tell me that artificial government is good, but that I fall out only with the abuse. The thing! the thing itself is the abuse! Observe my Lord, I pray you, that grand error upon which all artificial legislative power is founded. It was observed that men had ungovernable passions, which made it necessary to guard against the violence they night offer to each other. They appointed governors over them for this reason! But a worse and more perplexing difficulty arises, how to be defended against the governors? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It’s a familiar sort of critique. Who will watch the watchers? But we have a greater sense than in de la Boétie’s text that there might be some alternative.

We are indebted for all our miseries to our distrust of that guide, which Providence thought sufficient for our condition—our own natural reason, which rejecting, both in human and Divine things, we have given our necks to the yoke of political and theological slavery. We have renounced the prerogative of man, and it is no wonder that we should he treated like beasts. But our misery is much greater than theirs, as the crime we commit in rejecting the lawful dominion of our reason is greater than any which they can commit.

So this is, in some ways, a potentially more radical text, in the sense that it offers the guidance of “our own natural reason” as a path beyond the sway of “artificial government.” But, even if we were encourage to treat it as something other than a bit of irony, there is ultimately no call to action, but instead Burke, in the character of a world-weary old man, makes a rather subdued exit.

You are, my Lord, but just entering into the world; I am going out of it. I have played long enough to be heartily tired of the drama. Whether I have acted my part in it well or ill, posterity will judge with more candour than I, or than the present age, with our present passions, can possibly pretend to. For my part, I quit it without a sigh, and submit to the sovereign order without murmuring. The nearer we approach to the goal of life, the better we begin to understand the true value of our existence, and the real weight of our opinions. We set out much in love with both; but we leave much behind us as we advance. We first throw away the tales along with the rattles of our nurses; those of the priest keep their bold a little longer; those of our governors the longest of all. But the passions which prop these opinions are withdrawn one after another; and the cool light of reason, at the setting of our life, shows us what a false splendour played upon these objects during our more sanguine seasons. Happy, my Lord, if instructed by my experience, and even by my errors, you come early to make such an estimate of things, as may give freedom and ease in your life. I am happy that such an estimate promises me comfort at my death.

If there is anything like an anarchism here, it is of a very distinctly philosophical sort, presented as one of the compensations of old age.

With Sylvain Maréchal we take a significant step toward active anti-governmentalism and anti-clericalism. Maréchal’s extensive writings were in the service of a kind of revolutionary transformation, even if it was not quite the kind that was taking place around him in revolutionary France. On the one hand, we have the view, expressed in works like “Mother Nature before the National Assembly,” that the real failure of the French revolutionaries was in their desire to replace the monarchy with any sort of government at all, rather than simply falling back on the laws of nature. There is a remarkable anti-government streak running through many of works and we are treated to tyrannicidal fantasies like “The Last Judgment of Kings.” On the other hand, however, we are also provided with a rather clear vision of the post-governmental society that Maréchal had in mind: patriarchal government and pastoral simplicity. Father knows best—provided he takes his cues from Mother Nature, embracing “sweet mediocrity.”

All our misfortunes are due to Society:
Man lost his right to happiness,
At the moment when he dared, with a criminal hand;
To substitute a code for the paternal voice.

Even Maréchal’s considerable talents as a writer in various genres are insufficient to make that particular vision palatable to anarchists, I expect. His work presents us, then, with a near-anarchism that provides us with a foil for the patriarchal missteps of later figures like Proudhon, but also serves as one possible manifestation of the “natural society” of figures like de la Boétie and Burke. The former had written:

In the first place, it is I think beyond doubt that if we were to live according to the rights which nature gave us and the precepts she teaches us, we would be naturally obedient to our parents, we would be the subjects of reason and we would be the serfs of nobody.

There is a family resemblance between the various proposals we have looked at so far and a good deal of shared vocabulary, but it isn’t clear to me how well the various visions of “natural society” would mesh. My sense is that, if we had to generalize from these first three bodies of work, with no knowledge of the more complete and explicit anarchist accounts to come, we might have real difficulty reasoning from the critiques of government made to an active pursuit of anarchy.

the arcadian connection

We know that Sylvain Maréchal attracted the attention of later anarchists, beginning with the anarchistic communists associated with l’Humanitaire (1841), the first issue of which featured a long “bio-bibliography” dedicated to him and his works. But we also know that the appeals to pastoral simplicity—with or without an invocation of some “Golden Age”—would persist in various forms in anarchist circles, right up to the present day.

There is nothing simple about the ways in which a vision not so far from Maréchal’s have persisted in milieus where at least some of his assumptions about “natural society” would certainly have been rejected. I’ve been struck, reading l’en dehors and the associated anarchist individualist literature, by the peculiar, but effective mixture of design elements drawn from currents like futurism with material like Louis Moreau’s woodcuts, which often draw on pastoral traditions.

We probably won’t take the time to delve too deeply into the various forms of anti-modernism that contributed to anarchist thought, but we should probably at least note that in the period we are examining, before the explicit launch of the anarchist project in 1840, two rather different kinds of anti-Civilization positions had already been articulated. One looked back to a lost “Golden Age,” which was neither primitive nor civilized. Maréchal was quite clear about where his version of “natural society” fit in the course of humanity’s development:

XI. The savage is not yet man. The city dweller is no longer man.

The father of the family, living with his children, in his house, in the midst of a domain no larger than he needs to feed himself and his own, that is man par excellence.

The savage is man unformed.

The city-dweller is man deformed.

The simple man, the rustic man, the one who occupies the happy medium between the cannibal brute and the polite Pharisee; that is the man of nature. — (Corrective to the Revolution, 1793)

But it was only fifteen years later that Charles Fourier introduced his account of human development in Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies. In his work the “golden age” was thousands of years in the future. We might say that the civilisé—the human being in the present era of “Civilization”—is, in Maréchal’s terms, still unformed, at least in comparison to their expected state in the era of Harmony, or perhaps deformed, as Fourier’s account was not one of ideal happy mediums and douce médiocrité. Fourier’s vision was one of passions unleashed, but also balanced in such a way that their interaction was harmonious—a basic vision that would inform the ideas of a number of early anarchist thinkers.

In the context of our search for an anarchism or proto-anarchism among these precursors, let’s just note that, for many of the anarchists of subsequent periods, while anarchy might well be at odds with existing civilization and while the method of approaching anarchy might be a more complete understanding of the natural world, it was perhaps most common for the full, anarchic expression of human nature to be understood as a matter for the future, a product of human activity—artifice, in the sense of “technical skill; artistry, ingenuity,” without any implied opposition to nature. Proudhon, for example, gave us a rudimentary sketch of human social development:

Anarchy is the condition in which adult societies exist, as hierarchy is the condition of primitive societies: there is an incessant progress, in human societies, from hierarchy to anarchy.

Let’s take a break at this point, as this is probably long enough for one sitting. I’ll try to wrap up this section with two more posts, one addressing the rest of the texts on our list in terms of a possible pre-1840 philosophical anarchism and one involving a close reading of Pierre Leroux’s essay on “Individualism and Socialism.”

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