Thoughts on Constructing Anarchisms

Suggested readings:
From last week:
Related reading:
Ways to get lost for a while:
A neo-Proudhonian Synthesis:
A Tour of the Lost Continent:
    Constructing Anarchisms:

      Constructing Anarchisms

      1.—Making Anarchism « Our Own »

      Let’s begin with a couple of questions that we are committed, at this point to answering to the best of our ability:

      What is anarchy?

      What is anarchism?

      No pressure… But if you want to get up and take those questions out for a walk before continuing, I wouldn’t consider it a bad opening strategy. After all, these are old questions, which have proven rather resistant to definitive answers. Of course, those committed to an engagement with anarchy may put a bit less stock in the definitive than others. Proudhon, whose philosophy was all about “progress”—by which he meant never-ending change—declared that “Humanity proceeds by approximations” and advocated an experimental practice, against all of the utopian blueprints that might be drawn up. And that means that, despite the importance of the questions, we probably have to be a bit gentle with ourselves. Proudhon, who was not famously relaxed about things, ended the first letter in his Philosophy of Progress with this charming bit:

      The idea of progress is so universal, so flexible, so fecund, that he who has taken it for a compass almost no longer needs to know if his propositions form a body of doctrine or not: the agreement between them, the system, exists by the mere fact that they are in progress. Show me a philosophy where a similar security is to be found!… I never reread my works, and those that I wrote first I have forgotten. What does it matter, if I have moved for twelve years, and if today I still advance? What could a few lapses, or some false steps, detract from the rectitude of my faith, the goodness of my cause?… You will please me, sir, to learn for yourself what road I have traveled, and how many times I have fallen along the way. Far from blushing at so many spills, I would be tempted to boast of them and to measure my valor by the number of my contusions.

      Expect contusions. It would be some combination of foolhardy and self-defeating to approach our task of “constructing anarchisms” with any other expectation. But forewarned is forearmed and, expecting to stumble from time to time, we don’t have to treat it as a big deal. We are embarking on a voyage of exploration—through the parts of anarchist history and theory that I have described as « Our Lost Continent »—and ending with an experiment.

      This is a work on the margins of what we generally think of as the anarchist milieus. So, in some important senses, it doesn’t have to matter. For a variety of practical reasons, I try to treat our shared anarchist inheritance with a great deal of care. But I also live with a growing understanding of just how disconnected the facts of the anarchist past can be from our present understanding of “the anarchist tradition” or “anarchist history,” without that being a particular problem for anarchism as we experience it generally.

      Try to imagine the historical cataclysm that would be necessary to transform modern anarchist theory by itself. Was Bakunin perhaps actually an agent of the czar, as was claimed? So much for Bakunin! We are arguably better at walking away from problematic aspects of our shared heritage than we are at embracing the new problems it might pose.

      The one thing you can probably be certain of, at the end of a year of exploring the margins of anarchist tradition, is that—at least as far as the milieus are concerned—you can go home again.

      So expect contusions—but perhaps, depending on your own agendas and commitments, not of any very lasting sort.

      To talk about making anarchism « our own » involves a kind of double allusion to anarchist thinkers who will be known by at least some of those involved in our joint exploration. On the one hand, it seems useful to raise—and from the outset—a set of questions about on what terms an individual might “construct an anarchism.” Is anarchism the sort of thing of which there might be multiple, varied instances? Is it the sort of thing that might be constructed by individuals? Are individuals equal to the task involved? Do individuals have the “right” to undertake it—assuming we can make any sense, as anarchists, of the notion of right?

      ☞ At this point, the answers to the questions are of considerably less importance than the task of grappling with anarchism effectively enough to frame them. What follows in the rest of this post is an attempt to propose at least some of the questions we can expect to deal with in the coming months.

      But that reference to « our own »—en guillemets, a French form of scare-quoting—is also a tip of the hat to the anarchist individualist E. Armand, who had the habit of wrapping up possessive pronouns in this way in his writings, generally at moments where there was some question whether they might involve some kind of overreach for a conscious egoist and serious student of Stirner. In my Rambles in the Fields of Anarchist Individualism (linked in the sidebar, for those with too much time on their hands), I have appropriated the guillemets for instances where it seems important to underline questions of the shareability of concepts—a practice I will continue in this context.

      To make anarchism « our own » in simple egoist sense might simply be to appropriate those elements of anarchist thought and tradition that are of use to us. In this task, we can perhaps take our cues from that conscious egoist Humpty Dumpty:

      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

      “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

      “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

      But even the egoist is likely to be troubled, eventually, by that question of shareability. And, despite considerable interest in Stirner and those who made wholesale appropriations of his thought, I’m not an egoist.

      ☞ Anyway, let’s say for the moment that the very existence of this collective endeavor, our proposed exploration of a shared anarchist heritage and our recognition of those existing anarchist milieus makes the question of sharing « our » anarchisms one that will be hard to avoid. So when you see a term bracketed en guillemets in one of my texts, treat it as a kind of offering—something I have constructed for my own personal use which might be of use in your own projects.

      2.—The Anarchy in Anarchism(s)

      There are arguably two constant concerns to address as we begin to ask our questions about anarchism. We should always hold ourselves to a relatively high standard when it comes to the matter of asking the right questions. A lot of wasted effort can be avoided by picking our battles and continuing to ask ourselves if the questions we have been asking in one phase of our exploration continue to be of use to us in those that follow. But we must also be concerned about something a bit more basic, trying our best to make sure that we really know what question we are asking—clarifying our concerns sufficiently that we can be fairly certain we are not just reacting to words or being guided by our preconceptions. And we may find that some of the more obvious questions actually break down into multiple questions before we are done with them.

      For example, this might be the right time to backtrack just a bit and ask: Is anarchism the kind of thing that we can construct or “make « our own »”? But it is a hard question to answer at this stage, when defining anarchism is itself the the task to which we expect to dedicate the next year. So we might instead ask: What sort of “anarchism” might we construct—individually, in the context of this collective investigation, by defining a set of related concepts, etc.? And we might also ask: Is there any alternative to constructing an anarchism?

      Our answers to all of these questions can and probably will vary considerably. And different ideas about the kind of thing that anarchism is will necessarily lead, in the end, to different kinds of construction. If you understand anarchism as fundamentally a genre of thought about social relations, then there is considerable latitude in constructing and reconstructing that thought, with potential projects bounded by little more than the need to make new constructions intelligible as instances of this particular genre. That requires some reference to the anarchist tradition, but perhaps only as a point of departure. If, on the other hand, you think of anarchism as fundamentally a historical movement, bought into being under particular conditions in the past and perpetuated through some kind of continuous action and development, your elaboration of concepts is going to be constrained by the particular history you want to describe.

      Neither approach is “correct” or “incorrect,” at least for the purposes of our shared exploration. Nor is there any particular reason to approve or disapprove in advance of any of the varied philosophical perspectives that we are likely to bring to the project. The specific structure of the course and its final project should pose challenges for most approaches. With any luck, those structural challenges will be insuperable for any bad-faith actors or would-be entryists, while they serve as spurs for the rest of us to further clarify our positions. The aim is to present material that can be of use to the full range of even marginally consistent anarchists, communists and individualists, platformists and nihilists, etc.—but the actual use of the material is obviously up to individuals. In order to make the most of things, you might keep these two basic points in mind:

      ☞ My contributions will all come from an ongoing project to sketch out a “plain,” shareable anarchism, suitable for a kind of active, ongoing anarchist synthesis. If you’re having trouble making sense of what I’m saying or how to put it into use, the first step is probably to return to that premise and to see if perhaps that helps to clarify the sometimes idiosyncratic ways that I am defining and articulating concepts.

      ☞ But also recognize from the outset that an important part of the process we will be pursuing is an exposure of our existing anarchist thought to the kinds of uncertainty and conflict that the anarchist tradition can and usually does provide when we really allow ourselves to explore. If the particular materials with which we will be engaging don’t throw you a curve on a fairly regular basis, maybe you should consider with what degree of openness you are confronting them.

      An experimental practice isn’t worth much if there is not a real question to be asked, a real uncertainty to be addressed. And that’s just as true when it comes to experiments regarding our identities and associations. The passage I’ve already quoted from Bonnano’s “The Anarchist Tension” is followed by this striking bit:

      …the anarchist is someone who really puts themselves in doubt as such, as a person, and asks themselves: What is my life according to what I do and in relation to what I think? What connection do I manage to make each day in everything I do, a way of being an anarchist continually and not come to agreements, make little daily compromises, etc? Anarchism is not a concept that can be locked up in a word like a gravestone. It is not a political theory. It is a way of conceiving life, and life, young or old as we may be, whether we are old people or children, is not something final: it is a stake we must play day after day.

      And I think we have to take that as one of the challenges to be accepted moving forward.

      It should be clear, at this point, that one of the assumptions driving the project is that there is a sort of anarchy within anarchism, an anarchy of anarchisms, which prevents us from simply simply adopting a coherent and useful anarchism passed down to us from any particular set of pioneers. I have looked—and looked—for the fabled anarchism as such—in the historical record, in the secondary literatures and in daily interactions with anarchists of various tendencies—and come away convinced that it simply does not exist, except as a certain kind of avoidance of the problems we’re going to go out of our way to confront.

      So, when we are asking ourselves a fairly basic question like “What is the relationship between anarchy and anarchism?” we might well break that question down into a question about principles and manifestations and another question about the organization of relations within anarchism (however we have defined that term.) And we, judging from conversations within the milieu about “unity,” respond very differently to anarchy in the different contexts.

      Our search is for clarity, so that we can take up whatever practical projects anarchism suggests to us more effectively. But the material for our experiments is overwhelming and, in its way, anarchic—so one of the ways that we’ll achieve clarity is likely to be in our preparation for each new encounter and experiment.

      The remainder of what follows addresses a few more key issues that have shaped the course:

      3.—The Distinctiveness of Anarchist Thought

      ☞ Another premise: Our use of the language of anarchy and anarchism should matter in some substantive way. If some less extreme, contentious and unruly concept better describes the core of our projects, then perhaps we should run with that.

      In exploring the anarchist tradition, we’ll certainly encounter a wide range of related concepts, aspects of an-archy and archy, constituent struggles, etc., which will perhaps provide us with some of the elements we use to construct our own anarchisms. Some of those elements will have been treated as synonyms for anarchy or anarchism in some expressions of anarchist thought, with some degree of sense and justice, perhaps, but without, I think, really illuminating what is distinct about the idea of anarchy or an –ism organized around it.

      I would like to encourage participants to focus on what is really distinct about anarchy—what separates it from “good government” in the form of pure democracy, from voluntary association (with no consideration of the structures for which one volunteers), from anti-statism or anti-monopolism, from socialism, individualism and communism in their various forms, etc., etc. It seems clear that such distinction is possible. And, honestly, if this work of distinction and clarification convinces a few would-be anarchists that perhaps their particular interests and investments are elsewhere, that doesn’t seem like the worst of outcomes.

      4.—The Scope of Application

      While we are emphasizing the importance of anarchy in the construction of anarchism, paying close attention to both what anarchy is and what it is not, we’ll also have to learn in what circumstances the body of thought we are constructing is specifically relevant. Anarchy is not the answer to every question, even if, for anarchists, it may never be far from our thoughts. Anarchy doesn’t build bridges or bind books, although it may be a related concern. We tend to joke in social media circles about the constant questions about “anarchist methods” or “anarchist opinions” regarding subjects that seem very far removed from the subject of anarchy, but maybe there’s room for us to be clearer about the connections of anarchist thought to the details of “everyday life.”

      We probably also need to be aware that different constructions of anarchism, drawing elements from different spheres of social relations, will almost certain apply more or less easily to relations in other spheres. When we struggle over whether the etymology of anarchy is an-arche or an-archos, part of what is at stake is a question regarding the scope of application appropriate to the term. A commitment to opposing rulers (an-archos) is potentially quite different, in both theory and practice, from the broad form of opposition that might be implied by an-arche. In “The Pantarchy Defined—The Word and the Thing,” Stephen Pearl Andrews captured the potential scope of arche quite nicely:

      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.

      Without some clarification about the scope of anarchism’s application—without a clear designation of its targets—we’re left without any very clear way to choose between the anarchism of those who champion the “no rulers, but not no rules” formula and that of those, like myself, who are inclined to think of anarchism as “lawless and unprincipled” (at least in some important senses.)

      5.—Relations with the Non-Anarchist World

      Related to the question of anarchism’s possible scope of application, there are questions regarding its practical scope in a world that remains surprisingly full of people who have resisted all the charms of anarchy. With debates about various kinds of political “unity” a constant feature of so many anarchist milieus, it probably makes sense, as we are working to distinguish anarchism from other tendencies, to also pay at least some attention to the ways in which clarifying anarchism might also clarify its possible relations with other tendencies, whether radical or not.

      6.—Conceptualizing and Constructing an Anarchism

      When it finally comes time to try to “construct an anarchism,” all of these preliminary concerns ought to help guide us in the choice of building materials. And different general concerns may suggest a mix of different kinds of concepts, with the definitions doing different kinds of work. For example, in my own preliminary exposition:

      Anarchy, together with the related notion of archy, provides a focus around which both my conception of anarchism and my critique of the anarchist tradition can be organized. Tradition is an occasion to address longstanding conflicts among anarchists, explore the power of “origin stories” and make a distinction between the stories we tell and the raw events of the anarchist past. Synthesis, with a nod to Voline’s 1924 essay, is an opportunity to talk about individual method and theories of anarchist development. Governmentalism, the political target of anarchists prior to the emergence of anti-statism as an ideology, is one of those historical keywords that requires reintroduction for modern readers—and that reintroduction provides an opportunity to discuss a range of more familiar concepts (authority, hierarchy, etc.) as well as some specifically Proudhonian notions (“external constitution,” etc.) Collective Force was the concept at the heart of Proudhon’s sociology and it is perhaps one of the keys to working through an analysis of anarchy as a positive concept. Contr’un, Encounter  and Entente are the heart of a three-part analysis including a theory of the anarchist subject, a theory of relations among anarchists and a theory of relations between anarchists and non-anarchists. And so, on to Anarchism

      I’m still working some of the ways in which all of those interconnecting elements really come together as a kind of theoretical edifice, but I don’t think that it’s hard to see that, as they do come together, the resulting anarchism will be something we can view from a variety of different sides and easily place within a variety of different contexts. The goal is ultimately not just the construction of “an anarchism,” but of at least the beginnings of a worldview in the context of which that anarchism might be fairly directly put to the work for which it is well suited.

      7.—Moving Forward

      We’re opening with a period of twelve days, set aside for settling into our studies, discussing whatever seems to call for discussion in Voline’s essay on “Synthesis” and beginning to engage with the notion of anarchy, which will be the first of the building-blocks I introduce as I begin to summarize my own anarchism. For that last task, I’m going to recommend a series of writings originally produced as part of Our Lost Continent: Episodes from an Alternate History of the Anarchist Idea, a work-in-progress covering roughly the same period as our joint exploration, although eventually in considerably greater detail. The title I originally gave them, “Defining Anarchy,” may be a bit of a false promise, but I think folks will find enough questions in the series to tide them over until I can try again to make good on the promise in a little over a week.



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