Margins and Problems: Some Premature Conclusions

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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There are plenty of useful histories of anarchism, including some general histories that draw from the anarchist past the material by which various conceptions of anarchism might be bolstered and enriched. And the more we know about the complexities of the anarchist past, the less, I think, we can begrudge ourselves or our fellow anarchists these ideological and organizational supports.

We pick and choose among the various available narratives on the basis of various kinds of present utility. Sometimes we are more scrupulous and demanding with regard to the accuracy of those various histories or the amount of the anarchist past for which they can account. Sometimes we fall back on a familiar “keep what works and discard the rest” standard—with or without real connection to anarchism’s experimentalist tendencies.

It all tends to be a bit haphazard and, as a result, there are perhaps good reasons to ask ourselves just what we are really getting from our uses of the anarchist past, beyond a range of competing origin stories. There are, after all, other ways to develop the content of our various anarchisms—and to clarify the relations between them. We might presumably shed the attempts at historical clarification and justification altogether, turning to various kinds of theoretical refinement and elaboration. But it seems clear that the various varieties of anarchism lack a shared set of clearly defined central ideas or ideals, which, as often as not, seem to reflect different understanding of the origins and development of anarchist thought. So there is some work that would have to be done before we hoped to distance philosophical or sociological elaborations of anarchism from the contested terrain of anarchist histories.

It’s all naturally a bit maddening—to such an extent that we might be inclined to say, with René Furth, that “Anarchism is a permanent obstacle for the anarchist.” Or we might look at our shared history with a more jaundiced eye and suspect that anarchists are a permanent obstacle for anarchy. One alternative that I have been pursuing—across most of my various projects—has been to suggest that our various historical and traditional narratives regarding anarchism perhaps require, as a supplement, a specific account of the anarchy of our anarchisms, if we are either to make the most of them or move on to other methods of articulating anarchist ideas.

I won’t go back through the history of my various attempts to address that anarchy of anarchisms—although those who have followed my work can trace them back almost fifteen years, to the work on anarchism and approximation, when I was first coming to terms with Proudhon’s anti-absolutism. While much of that work was presented as commentary on mutualism, even then I was generally using that term to designate a kind of anarchism sin adjetivos—one that, as we put it these days, “has kept its consistently anarchistic options open.”

What I do want to do here—as I at least interrupt the historical survey and set aside the Constructing Anarchisms project for a while—is talk a bit about the lessons learned from the portions of “Margins and Problems” completed so far, as well as the adjustments they seem to impose on my larger project.

I’ve had my nose to the Constructing Anarchisms grindstone since November of 2020, with most of my other projects moved to the back burner or simply interrupted for about eight months. I had a number of goals when I started the project, but perhaps the central one was simply to put the larger project out there, where its core ideas would be subject to criticism and I could get some sense of its intelligibility within at least some anarchist circles. More personally, I wanted to see if either I or the project would break under the strain of extending the analysis, shifting frameworks and forcing what has been a kind of extended, wandering monologue into at least a quasi-pedagogical setting.

Some parts of that worked out better than others. Much of the time I have had to settle for trading one sort of monologue for another, as the illusion of a “course” (at least of any very traditional sort) broke down pretty early in most of the forums where the project was being shared. Partly as a result of that fact, I’ve had to do a bit more restructuring on the fly than I expected, had to rely on earnest exchanges with obvious trolls more than was probably desirable, etc. All in all, however, I have very few complaints about how things have worked out. And, if it seemed to be a useful exercise, it would clearly be possible to continue on through the historical survey, multiply examples of historical and possible anarchisms, identify the conditions of possibility for each and the signs by which each could be recognized as an anarchism, etc.

The question, then, is whether the exercise is useful at this particular moment, for the specific audience that has remained engaged with the Constructing Anarchisms project—or whether we might all benefit from a change of perspective at this point. Is it perhaps time to move on from conscious preliminaries and settle down to work on some part of Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back?

The answer to that question seems to be “yes.” The two projects—Constructing Anarchisms and Our Lost Continent…(as originally conceived)—are very different, despite addressing many of the same elements of the anarchist past, with the “Atercratic Revolution” really constituting a third lens through which to view those elements. This multiplication of methods of analysis is, in the context of my larger project, one way of approaching what I’ve been calling the anarchy of our anarchisms—something absolutely essential to the progress of the progress for me, but obviously one more rather serious scholarly challenge for the particular audience trying to follow the work as it appears. Unsurprisingly, none of the material from Constructing Anarchisms has proved as generally intelligible as it arguably needs to be to make the kind of impacts that it might, if more appropriately presented.

It’s hard to overstate my appreciation of those who have made a point of playing along with the work of the last year or so, despite its conscious eccentricities—despite my conscious eccentricities. It means a lot. It’s also a gift I should take some care not to abuse.

It would not surprise me in the least if, in the end, the audience for even the best, most generally intelligible version of the story I want to tell about anarchism and the anarchist past is small. And I am perfectly okay with that fact. After all, there have been days when it felt like perhaps it would be nonexistent—but not so much over this last year. I know that many of the anarchists I have come to admire felt similar feelings and, while we don’t get to pick our place in the historical conversation, it might not be too bold to think this work might eventually make at least an interesting footnote.

But even that “eventually” doesn’t happen without a good deal of focus—and perhaps a bit of hustle—in the present. So it becomes a question of whether continuing the survey in “Margins and Problems” is likely to result in a loss of focus or some increase in clarity.

With the historical survey, I had really set out to touch primarily on material with which I was already familiar, even if the plan was to pass over some elements likely to be familiar to those who haven’t spent decades searching the margins of anarchist history. The best laid plans

The pre-1840 works all turned out to be more interesting than my previous readings had suggested. But that was largely a result of drastically altering my approach to the material. Thinking about my own developing relationship with the anarchist past, I can probably break it down into three distinct phases with some direct relevance to the current project. As I suspect is the case with most anarchists, I’ve done most of my exploration of that anarchist past neck-deep in the anarchy of anarchisms, without any particular set of critical and analytic tools to help me sort things out. Then, after a lot of wrestling with the difficulties, I settled on the method of focusing on what appeared unique in the explicit emergence of *anarchy* as an anarchist keyword in 1840 and *anarchism* in the 1870s, providing some relatively stable points around which to build a narrative. This is the approach that I’ve been using in Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back—and, I think, the approach that I intend to keep using. But it has been important to also establish that this approach is one possibility among many and to address the tendency to treat anarchism as ultimately a perennial tendency, which simply gained familiar labels at particular places and times. “Margins and Problems” was intended to tackle that project as a kind of secondary function—but then the particular kinds of interactions that the historical survey provoked (and did not provoke) drew those concerns front-and-center.

At that point, while the basic work involved in the survey proved perhaps even simpler than I had expected, the more complex concerns about how we recognize an “anarchism” and how the various forms we might recognize should best be integrated into a simple survey quickly became, if not overwhelming, at least a heck of a lot more demanding of my attention than I had expected. From the perspective of my own developing project, that is a truly wonderful turn of events. But without the audience for the project doing much to keep my nose to the grindstone, the simpler parts of the survey have struggled to hold the necessary portion of my attention.

And the survey was always at some real disadvantages, most of which probably just boil down to the fact that it has been a bit… unprecedented in its form and approach, doing quite a number of things with the anarchist past that we are not all that accustomed to doing. I had really counted on the element of defamiliarization as one of its strengths and suspect that, where it failed to engage those who clearly had at least some interest in being engaged, the fault was in my ability to sufficiently reframe material that at least felt familiar.

There was a lot that has been experimental about the whole Constructing Anarchisms project, so there are lots of elements to consider when assessing its successes and failures for those who did their best to play along. But there has always been a faction who were clearly interested, but were also perhaps waiting for the book. Moi aussi, I will confess. The book has been damned recalcitrant in taking shape, in asserting its proper form, as opposed to quite a number of possible others, and so on. But one of the things I learned from “Margins and Problems” was that there were books that I could write that frankly did not interest me all that much—and another, filled with elements that have inspired reactions of puzzlement and occasional rage, which I almost certainly have to write, if I am to given Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back the frame it probably requires.

So, at this point, I’m going to interrupt the “Margins and Problems” survey, setting aside the growing pile of “possible anarchisms” for the time being and starting to determine how my newest conclusions about anarchism and the anarchist past—including a growing sense that perhaps anarchist ideas are still far less developed in general than I had previously believed—might reshape the “braided stream” narrative I have proposed. I’ve got about a year’s worth of writing to reread carefully and a number of dropped threads that might be usefully picked up again.

I would like to return to the Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism, translate some anarchist fiction, lay out a couple of short collections for a relaunch of Corvus Editions, re-re-reread Stirner, continue to obsessively hunt down works illustrated by Louis Moreau, and, as time and the muses allow, start to work on a kind of manifesto of anarchist practice in relation to the anarchy of the anarchist past.

That work, as I presently envision it, would begin with a novella based on the “possible historians” material introduced in “Margins and Problems,” which can then be used as a foil for existing histories in the historiographical manifesto to follow. I’m thinking of it as the long methodological chapter any sane editor would ask me to remove from Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back, but also as an extended summary of my thoughts, in general, about the present uses of the anarchist past. Producing as a separate volume should rid me of the temptation to add certain distracting elements to the already idiosyncratic form of the …Journey Back section of the history, essentially allowing readers to pick how many layers of defamiliarization they wish to deal with.

I’m still available in the usual forums to talk about Constructing Anarchisms, work through constructions with others, field more-or-less related questions, etc. And I’m sure I’ll still be cluttering up the internet with exploratory anarchist musings of one sort or another. But I will probably try to tackle this historiographical work in more isolation than usual, now that it is a question of really crafting a text.

And in a moment of transformation, it only seems right to welcome back, one more time, the “Constructing an Anarchism” papillon:

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