Are We Anarchists by Accident?

The Great Atercratic Revolution never goes away, even if the blog goes dormant for long periods of time. It remains an important part of a series of works about what I’ve taken to calling the “three little words” of the anarchist tradition: anarchy, anarchist and anarchism. Let me review those works:

Anarchist Beginnings: Declarations and Professions of Faith, 1840-1920, which is just about finished, is an anthology that looks at how anarchists have defined their beliefs and tradition. It is a comparatively simple starting place for the larger study, simply reporting what self-identified anarchists had to say about what that identification meant during the formative years of the anarchist tradition. But it raised questions that were not so simple. In particular, it highlighted the fact that there was a long period when one of the things that “being an anarchist” didn’t involve was a relationship to anarchism.

The search for the origins of the notion of anarchism sent me back through the works of the pioneers of the tradition, looking closely at the development of those three key terms. That work will eventually see the light of day as Anarchy, in All its Senses, although I’m still uncertain just what form the work will take. It is likely to be the scholarly monograph of the bunch. There is a lot of digging yet to be done, but the immediate lesson of the work done so far is that, in what I have been calling “the Era of Anarchy,” not only was anarchism not part of the equation, but anarchy was not simply a positive conception. It seems clear that we are aware of the tensions in the language of that early period, but haven’t quite worked out the consequences.

The work I’ve done on the historical origins of the anarchist tradition initially had the effect of drawing a bright line between “the Era of Anarchy” and “the Era of Anarchism,’ and I think there are very good reasons to highlight the differences between the general approaches of figures like Proudhon and Kropotkin, when it comes to key concepts. And that just heightened my sense that there was space for a kind of revival of the approach characteristic of the earlier era, whether it was a neo-Proudhonian social science or something more general. But there is obvious downside to any historical narrative that suggests a really decisive break between the two eras. Fortunately, my work on collectivism, anarchism with adjectives and the disputes of the late 19th century have suggested a much more complicated transition than we usually acknowledge, leaving a lot of overlap between the tendencies associated with the two “eras.” But it also raised more questions about the extent to which the anarchism of the later period was really a term of origanizational convenience, masking really serious differences within “the movement.” If we do not all seem to be “in this thing together,” perhaps there are simple, historical explanations, dating back to the beginnings of “modern anarchism.” And perhaps attempts to explore the relevant conflicts, like Black Flame, have been right to emphasize differences, but wrong (or at least unfaithful to the history) in the way that they have separated anarchism from other tendencies.

If it came down to a choice between anarchy and anarchism, I would have to come down on the side of anarchy as a principle and goal, rather than anarchism as a movement or consistent ideology. And it is not uncommon to find that choice presented, either by those for whom the resistance to ideology is a particularly important priority or by those who, despite claiming the anarchist label, are uncomfortable with the uncertainty that naturally attaches to anarchy. but there is, to my mind at least, something fundamentally perverse about the attempt to clarify and unify anarchism by purging it of those who embrace all the uncertainties of anarchy, and that fundamental perversity seems like as good an explanation as any for the sorts of conflicts and problems anarchist face in the present. When I discovered that Max Nettlau’s writings on mutual toleration and panarchy addressed this problem fairly directly, I was left with two basic questions, one of which concerned modern practice and one of which concerned our understanding of “the tradition.”

The modern question was fairly straightforward: Is the principle of anarchy sufficient as a goal and guide for a modern anarchist movement? Having ultimately decided that the answer is “yes,” I started working on the “propositions for discussion” that will ultimately be Anarchism, Plain and Simple. I think of the book as a sort of well-defined line in the sand. Hopefully, having considered the “shareable narrative” proposed, readers will be able to judge for themselves whether anarchy is really what they are after. I don’t expect it will actually solve terminological problems, but I do think that it will provide a basis on which they might be resolved. It’s a “no tent” resolution, rather than a big-tent attempt to minimize conflict, but minimizing conflict was not really central to anarchist thought in its origins.

The other question sets aside the problem of “the anarchist tradition” and its complicated history. That’s the question posed here: To what extent is our identification as anarchists a product of very specific conditions and what might the alternative have been? It’s a question that feels much safer to ask in the context of the “shareable narrative,” but it is clearly, in its own way, at least as potentially disruptive as anything suggested in Black Flame or similar accounts. Digging into the history, I’ve been struck by how many key “anarchist” figures apparently hated the language of anarchy. Working the margins of “the tradition,” as I so often have, it has become clear that we might assemble a collection of “anarchistic beginnings” where the language of anarchy was rejected or unknown. The archive is full of proposals for equitable commerce, adjuvantism, pantarchy, atercracy, art-liberty, etc., etc. And each of those more or less anarchistic proposals poses its own question: How would “the tradition” have been different, and how would modern ideology be shaped, if some other language had been adopted as a focus for organization in the modern era? The obscurity of some of the proposals hardly matters, at least for our thought experiment. After all, not many of Proudhon’s actual ideas were adopted along with the language of anarchy.

This question becomes not just interesting, but potentially important, I think, given the common indecision about whether our appeals to “the tradition” are really appeals to historical developments or to dictionary definitions, and given the overt appeals to etymology among the various entryist tendencies. Both internally and externally, what we call ourselves definitely shapes the sorts of interactions we have. If one way to help clarify the problems associated with that is to propose a narrative in which the language of anarchy works (Anarchism, Plain and Simple), another is to explore the alternatives and investigate just how essential anarchy is to what we have come to think of as “the anarchist tradition.”

As I return to The Great Atercratic Revolution, what I’m proposing is to set aside the scene-setting and character-building, which seems to fascinate my non-anarchist friends and leave my radical readers indifferent, and jump right to the business of comparing various alternative vocabularies to the language of anarchy. The narrative apparatus will emerge gradually, I’m sure. And by the time the theoretical stakes are clearer, perhaps Jack and Tilly and The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution will seem as natural a part of the conversations to others as they already do to me.

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