A Schematic Anarchism

I have been a student of anarchist ideas for more than twenty-five years, spending much of that time exploring the lesser-known regions of the anarchist past. It’s a course of study that remains both exciting and humbling. The opportunities for novel discoveries never seem to be exhausted, but that fact serves as a constant reminder of just how much there is still to be learned.

When I first began my studies of some of the earliest figures we now associate with “the anarchist movement” — figures like William Batchelder Greene and Josiah Warren — I had a strong sense of the work being in some sense marginal to conventional Anarchist Studies, but as my interests developed and I began to explore the work of better known pioneers such as Proudhon and Bakunin, I was surprised to find that I was really still working in those margins. It wasn’t just that the material I was encountering was neglected, largely untranslated and, at that time, sometimes hard to access. I also found myself approaching it with a number of preconceptions , drawn from the “common sense” prevalent among anarchists, that proved to be false.

These days, I spend time daily in the social media forums where anarchists engage in mutual education and, while steadily increasing research into those early figures has altered that “common sense” somewhat, it is still the case that anarchists are more likely to know the “dirt” on figures like Proudhon and Bakunin than they are to know their fundamental ideas, often relying without much consciousness of the fact on the accounts of ideological rivals for an understanding of the origins of their own tradition.

Without belaboring the point here, let’s just observe that anarchists are not necessarily comfortable with the question of anarchist origins. The same is arguably true about anarchist principles. The endless wrangling in online forums over whether or not anarchists are indeed consistent anti-authoritarians, principled opponents of hierarchy, etc. is not so far removed from the ideological push-and-shove that we see play out within Anarchist Studies. It is not hard to find reasons, both internal and external to the anarchist milieus, why we sometimes gravitate toward very narrow conceptions of key anarchist concepts — including anarchy, anarchist and anarchism — while at others we seem inclined to dispense with definition altogether. It is harder, I think, to deny that sometimes, at least, we waver between confusion and opportunism in the process.

As I’ve said, we have our reasons. We are the inheritors of a real embarrassment of riches when it comes to historical instances of anarchism. We are certainly not without examples, in a variety of contexts and at a variety of scales, of anarchist ideas — chief among them that elusive “beautiful idea” of anarchy — applied to practical problems. We have no end of anarchisms — taking that term in its most general sense — but we still want to talk, it seems, about anarchism, in the singular, and for that we lack much in the way of common language or conceptions. So we are often left to take potluck from ideas and practices that may or may not ultimately share compatible premises.

These are not new problems. When we look back at our shared history, we find anarchists beginning to address conflict and division in their ranks — and their ideas — almost immediately after the formation of an explicitly anarchist movement. Anarchism without adjectives emerged in multiple countries as a tendency in the 1880s — followed by related expressions and tendencies focused on synthesis, mutual toleration, entente, etc. What is striking about this diverse tradition within the tradition, however, is that, despite providing useful insights into the ongoing development of anarchist ideas, it has not necessarily brought us much closer to a positive understanding of what an adjectiveless anarchism would really look like — and has sometimes encouraged anarchists to defer the question more or less indefinitely.

We muddle along, despite the difficulties raised for both new students of anarchist ideas and old hands, understanding that some solutions might be more damaging to our various projects than the problem itself. We seem most in need of a shared framework when faced with entryism or attempts by authoritarians to subvert anarchist projects. But even those instances don’t seem to drive us in search of common ground or even a lingua franca. Much of the time we seem to alternate between some level of sectarian conflict and some degree of mutual indifference.

Some anarchists might take issue with parts of this general analysis, which has necessarily been drawn in broad strokes. That’s fine. I feel that it is accurate, as far as it goes, but I include it here primarily as context for what follows — a proposal that begins with an embrace of the anarchy of anarchisms. The issues I raise are specifically those I have regularly encountered or struggled with in my own work as an anarchist historian, theorist and educator, eventually confronting me with an apparent impasse and then with the need to elaborate some kind of general account connecting those keywords — anarchy, anarchist and anarchism — in at least a schematic form, before I could continue.

The diverse uses of those key terms in the anarchist literature, often even in works by the same authors, is often something students have to learn to deal with, translating on the fly between the various senses of the words and trying to stay focused on the underlying concepts. When we write, we have to do our best to decrease, rather than sustain or increase the existing uncertainties. It would obviously be useful if there was some sort of shared technical vocabulary to use in those instances. At least for now, however, that doesn’t seem to be an option, so we are forced to confront a certain ungovernability — a sort of anarchy — in our critical and conceptual apparatus.

In my own work, I have at times been able to pin down some of these terms. There are, for example, stories to be told about the development of anarchist ideas in which the historical usage of terms like “anarchism” provides important information and anachronistic uses of the term are confusing — so, in these narratives, there are “anarchist ideas” for some decades before “anarchism” assumes center stage. Then, however, there are also connected accounts in which the need to analyze the various anarchisms and near-anarchisms avant la lettre seems to call for different terminological distinctions. During the “Margins and Problems” stage of last year’s “Constructing Anarchisms” seminar, “reopening” and the premature end to the project came as something of a relief, as even I was struggling to remain clear about the relations between all of the varieties of anarchisms and near-anarchisms involved.

It has seemed necessary in some of this work to talk about the “ungovernability of anarchism” or the “anarchy of anarchisms” — even the “anarchy of anarchies” — in order to underline the perhaps inescapable difficulties, but also the possibility that both these difficulties and their insistent nature might show us another face of the anarchist project, provided we could find the appropriate anarchistic viewpoint from which to examine them. This has felt like a bit of a stop-gap measure, since I have never quite been able to identify that perspective. In the end, however, it was the notion of a second-order anarchy that forced me to think about anarchy in more abstract terms and eventually led to the schematic anarchism I am proposing here.

This second-order anarchy is not quite or not necessarily “our” anarchy — the anarchic “beautiful idea” of the anarchist tradition — so we can perhaps subject it to a bolder examination than we might otherwise feel free to attempt. If it is going to be useful to us in this context, however, we should be able to establish its relations to the more familiar conceptions of anarchy in ways that don’t simply compound our confusions. We want to avoid, for example, slippage between multiple senses of “anarchy” or “anarchism,” while still accommodating, at least to some extent, the existing range of definitions. Without imagining that all of the anarchisms proposed are of equal utility or even that they share identical ends — and understanding that every nod to inclusiveness is likely to be treated as an invitation by a certain class of entryists — we still have to forego any attempt to solve our problem by “laying down the law” on some ideological, historical or etymological pretext.

What happens then if we start by simply describing the general relations between our keywords? What if we said, for example, that:

An individual, having recognized and rejected the archy that structures the social world in which they live, deciding that they want to live differently and relate to others on a radically different basis, becomes an anarchist by embracing and internalizing anarchy, which they then express through the experimental construction of anarchisms.

This account is little more than a kind of exploded view of the term “anarchism” —

Anarchism = (((an + archy)ist)ism).

— wrapped up in a narrative where the relations between the terms are essentially just those implied by the prefixes and suffixes involved. Setting aside for the moment the meaning of archy, we can say that anarchy is what takes place in its absence. An anarchist is a practitioner, student or proponent of anarchy. Anarchism is a manifestation or expression of anarchy — or it is the work or ideas of anarchists. The meanings of the prefixes and suffixes being generally known, we risk very little, it seems to me, in proposing the account above — provided we can find an equally simple way to define its central term.

Archy is, of course, not a widely familiar word, even though it has been part of the anarchist vocabulary since at least 1858.

Archie ou anarchie, point de milieu donc. (Anarchy or archy, then, no middle ground.) — Proudhon, “Qu’est-ce que enfin que la République?”

It is common enough that we shouldn’t hesitate to recognize it as part of our shared vocabulary, but it seems that in most instances it has been defined as that with which a given anarchy hopes to dispense, rather than in any more direct fashion. We are left, then, with the same indeterminacy — the same anarchy of possible senses. However, if we want to avoid conceptual drift in our analysis of an “anarchy of anarchisms,” the sense of our second-order anarchy should presumably be broad enough to include the various sorts of anarchy pursued by anarchists.

One of the projects that should follow this one is what I have been calling an experimental typology of anarchisms, beginning to sort through the various manifestations of the various kinds of anarchy that we find in the anarchist past, in the hope of at least characterizing our differences in more useful ways than those we have available at present. But to launch this phase of things, perhaps a sort of end run is sufficient, using what I have privately come to think of as the “Proudhon principle.”

If we wanted evidence of anarchists uncomfortable relation with origins, we might not have to look any farther than the tradition’s love/hate relationship with Proudhon. According to Saint-Beuve, Proudhon is supposed to have said “I dream of a society where I would be guillotined as a conservative” — and there has seldom been any shortage of anarchists ready to drop the blade, whether or not they have any real knowledge of his extensive body of anarchist philosophy and social science. Given the widespread recognition of Proudhon’s shortcomings, both real and imagined, it should not be too contentious a claim that the most radical and comprehensive conceptions of anarchy would be more radical than his own. But then Proudhon comes along and — in a passage radical enough in its way that the translator felt the need to “correct” it — simply associates the full range of anarchies with his anti-absolutism.

The first term of the series being thus Absolutism, the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses. — Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century

So, while we acknowledge that sometimes anarchists have given anarchy a variety of narrow senses, it seems necessary that our second-order anarchy be very inclusive. For that purpose, we can reference one of the contending etymologies for anarchyan-arche — and cite an 1873 article, “The Pantarchy Defined—The Word and the Thing,” Stephen Pearl Andrews provided this pithy summary of the various senses of that etymological element:

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.

That curious combination is indeed inclusive, leaving us with a definition of anarchy as something like “what happens in the absence of the very things we have been led to believe will always be present.”

If we apply this definition in the contexts most familiar to anarchists, we find ourselves very close to the account already proposed and can attempt to define our other keywords. An anarchist is someone who looks forward to living a life organized on very different principles that those currently in force or vogue. Anarchism would then be the practices — almost certainly experimental, given the definition of anarchy — by which we might learn to work through the obvious difficulties of such a fundamental reorganization of society. There is no need for us to embrace any or all of the alternatives to the archy we reject. Embracing anarchy can be understood in resolutely anti-utopian terms, simply as the embrace of radically different possibilities from which to choose our paths forward — and to explore different paths, as anarchy always seems to imply some degree of profusion.

We should expect, then, that embracing the anarchy of anarchisms — with its anarchy of anarchies — might involve a similar exposure to possibility, without, in the process, committing us to a specific embrace of any of the possibilities. So we might imagine our second-order analysis accounting for micro-anarchisms, where the archy rejected is of a particularly narrow or local variety, while still providing us a general model according to which those anarchisms might be compared to those proposed on the grandest of scales.

This sort of conceptual flexibility will naturally induce some degree of ideological discomfort. The range of claimants to the “anarchist” label is already so broad and heterogeneous that the thought of extending recognition to those who only oppose the most local manifestations of archy may naturally seems like a misstep or risk. Let’s recognize the necessity of distinguishing more consistent sorts of anarchism from the obvious attempts to marry anarchy and authority, but let’s not elevate that concern above the potential gains from rethinking things freely. At the same time, let’s not compromise our presumably more consistent position by attempting to protect it by an appeal to some “anarchist” arche.