Margins and Problems: Reflections on “Constructing an 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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Reflections on “Constructing an Anarchism”

The first phase of “Constructing Anarchisms” was an experiment—and, I think, a relatively successful one. But it was also a fairly complex experiment, for which there were not perhaps many precedents, so, despite the fact that it often felt like the commentary on method was overwhelming the project itself, it is probably worth reviewing and reflecting a bit here, so we can begin again with a clearer shared sense of the project moving forward.

…how, much more than what

In the final post of the first series, I made a point to emphasize—and really to reemphasize—the extent to which the content of « my anarchism » has been, despite my firm belief in the utility of the ideas elaborated, secondary to the series of operations on the anarchist past by which I attempted to explore and elaborate them. When thinking about the final “project,” where we will all turn again to the task of making anarchism our own / making « our own » anarchism, it has made sense to break down our “construction of an anarchism” into a fairly large number of elements, simply because that should force some additional clarity into the conceptualization of anarchy and anarchism. But, in the opening phase, it was not just a question of the variety of elements, but also of the variety of methods or practices that might be used in that process of clarification—the variety of different operations that might be applied to the historical material.

So there were experiments in simple recovery, picking up old and forgotten concepts to see what they could do for us in new settings. There were recontextualizations, and perhaps even some transvaluations, where historical concepts were put to novel uses. There were broad narrative clarifications, making sure, for example, that we knew in what order some of the familiar elements of anarchist history actually took place. There were close—sometimes painfully close, persnickety—readings of “classical” texts. And then there was the selection of specific texts, ideas and incidents from the vast storehouse of the anarchist past—a selection that was carefully calculated according to the perceived values of the elements, but which could certainly be considered idiosyncratic.

Through all of that, the emphasis was on presenting an example of “constructing an anarchism” and further examples of various means by which the materials of the anarchist past could be applied to that work. If I had to pick one element that I would hope any reader might come away with, it is simply the realization that there is quite a bit of life left in the anarchist past. Then, in degrees of diminishing importance, come the demonstrations of the various kinds of operations, followed by the specific elements of that past that caught my eye this time around.

The next phase will involve more of the same, although the presentation ought to be more straightforward. There will naturally be more direct emphasis on historical texts and incidents, but an idiosyncratic survey is, again, a matter of individual preference and selection—so participants should be prepared to focus as much on the rationales given for the selection of materials as they are on the materials themselves. As before, I will select materials that seem to me particularly useful, but part of that utility will be to underline the richness of the materials from which others can make different, equally individual choices.

…a deliberate presentism…

It is easy, I suppose, in the face of a lot of old stuff, to imagine that the particular explorations involved here are primarily about the past. And some of the comments about the project—about my projects in general—seem to take that sense to the extreme, so I start to feel a bit like the Ghost of Anarchism Past, hanging around to pester folks who pride themselves on knowing a spook when they see one. I will confess to an antiquarian streak, but in the context of “Constructing Anarchisms,” that fondness for cool, old stuff really just adds spice to a consciously presentist project.

There is a frequently asked question, roughly as old as anarchism itself: This anarchism thing seems pretty great, so why hasn’t it caught on better? The answers have varied, as the accumulation of relevant material has increased, but there have generally been appeals to what remains unthought, what has been poorly thought thus far and what may have been clearly thought in the past, but seems less clear to anarchists in the present.

It is easy to suspect that, in the present, we are probably dealing with some complicated mix of elements from each category. If you share that suspicion, then the next phase of this project—acquiring a very basic sense of the history of anarchism and focusing specifically on margins and problems—seems like a natural next step. If you don’t then you can probably find plenty of better uses for your time—and more power to ya

If I had to defend the thesis that an engagement with the anarchist past was useful, even necessary to anarchist practice in the present, my argument would be that, despite all of our iconoclastic talk, most anarchists seem to remain attached to some kind of historical or quasi-historical foundation, some kind of inherited tradition. Some of those foundations amount to excuses for not addressing the anarchist past before a certain point—although they almost always involve exceptions. Stirner, for example, tends to be treated as unique, while his contemporaries are often treated as mere symptoms of a vaguely sketched past. The problem there, of course, isn’t the recognition of a particular anarchist’s uniqueness, but rather the fact that making of Stirner a unique unique, while reducing other anarchists to vague historical types, serves Stirner’s ideas no better than it does a more historical approach.

In the end, I am happy to think of our work on the anarchist past as first and foremost a work of extrication, with the increased clarity we hope to achieve in large part a matter of knowing more clearly what we can let go. But there is nothing particularly easy about that process and engaging in it as an individual process only gets us so far.

…grappling with tradition…

I share a lot of the concerns I have seen expressed about placing anarchist tradition in such a central place in the construction of an anarchism of « my own ». But, as I have said, part of the impetus there is a recognition that however individual we may make our understandings of anarchism, they seldom manage to be solitary or self-sufficient. Being an anarchist, it seems, is necessarily either an attempt at connection or the sort of act of defiance that can’t help but ring a bit hollow. And the steady accumulation of the various materials that make up the anarchist past seems to make both well-defined connection and plausible repudiation of tradition increasingly difficult.

One possible way of managing the difficulty is to at least refuse the most nebulous formulations of anarchist tradition, starting with the partisan attempts to present a single “anarchist tradition” and some ideological “verdict of history” to go along with it. We might, as I suggested in “Halfway to Anarchism,” define tradition in terms of what is active in a given anarchist milieu at a particular point in time, making it at least potentially a more specific body of elements upon which we could perform various operations—drawing particular elements into focus, expanding the active elements, neutralizing elements through critique, etc.—with the criteria for the operations being present anarchistic needs.

The problem, of course, is that we have a variety of needs in the present, many of which relate to the general struggle against hierarchy, authority and exploitation, which may only be anarchistic in the most general of senses. A certain kind of presentism gets us anarcho-democracy, “justified authority” and the like—usually with a reflexive nod to some 19th century soundbite. So we have to remind ourselves that, while the general struggle between archic and anarchic social forms seems to have a connection to almost any need we could name and any element of the anarchist past we might try to put to use, the really anarchistic parts of anarchist theory and practice are likely to be pretty narrow in scope. So we can be selective in what we address, provided we can find a rationale that does indeed emphasize those elements that are genuinely—and, given the common fears about outdated or antiquated treatments, durably—anarchistic.

…timeless or untimely…

Presumably we want some kind of “back to basics” approach—and there are thoroughly modern precedents for going “back” as far as figures like Proudhon and Stirner, or even to pre- or proto-anarchist figures like Charles Fourier and Étienne de La Boétie. It took me a long time to find it, as I assumed it would not be there, but one of the more interesting post-’68 movements in French anarchist was in fact a renewed engagement with both the “classical” anarchist texts and the kinds of self-critique so common in the 1920s and 1930s. There is a recognition in the relevant literature that, while contexts may indeed have changed dramatically, the most central concerns of anarchist thought are comparatively enduring. And, whether it was recognized at the time or not, we can say that many of those self-critical questions have been equally perennial.

So one of the uses of a historical survey is to identify those anarchistic concerns and questions that have most often and consistently recurred in the anarchist past. From this process, we would begin to get a sense of what is in some sense timeless about anarchist ideas and concerns. And, just as we can expect to find the core concerns of anarchist thought touching on all sorts of practical problems, we might expect to find insights into these comparatively timeless concerns in a wide variety of contexts. So we probably want to look far and wide, seeking out the most searching examinations of those core concerns, whatever the context.

But perhaps there is another sort of more-or-less historical consideration to consider. Our perception of the perennial concerns of specifically anarchistic thought may still be hard to cleanly separate from the ubiquitous, hegemonic, fundamentally archic stuff that we have not yet learned to recognize as such. So perhaps we need to pay at least some attention to that side of the anarchist past that seems, by modern and practical standards, a bit outré or out there. That means, for example, following the logic when Eliphalet Kimball tells us that pies and governmental are poisonous—a case where the peculiar, homespun character of the argument does not detract terribly from what might be a useful insight—but also paying some attention to the fatally flawed near anarchisms and the cases where perhaps a little anarchy turned out to be a dangerous thing, where half-digested anarchist principles led to disastrous ends. It also means being on the lookout for the ways in which anarchy is perhaps always a bit untimely and ultimately resistant to application.

Let’s leave things there for now and simply note a couple of basic premises for the next phase of our exploration. My sense, ultimately, is that we wrestle with the anarchist past, whether we like it or not, and that we make anarchism « our own », just as inevitably. The question is how deliberately we can confront the challenges that emerge from those two apparent facts. And the goal of this phase of Constructing Anarchisms is to at least add a few relevant tools to your kit.

Over the next week and a half, expect two or three more posts on method. And then, starting April 12, we’ll spend three or four weeks covering material that sets the scene for 1840, “je suis anarchiste” and property is theft.

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