Anarchism, Plain and Simple

I’ll do a proper year-end round-up sometime soon and talk about a number of changes coming to the Libertarian Labyrinth, but I’ll start with some updates on publishing and translating projects. If things have been fairly quiet on the blog, it’s because virtually all my time and energy has been invested in attempting to finish up the manuscript of Anarchist Beginnings: Declarations and Professions of Faith, 1840-1920 (the book previously known as Anarchies and Anarchisms.) And that project has been a learning (and unlearning, and relearning) experience on a scale that I couldn’t have imagined when I started it, almost three years ago. It has made me feel, alternately, awfully clever and pretty darn thick, as I’ve struggle to make sense of just exactly what lessons it had to teach. Things are finally coming together—once and for all, I think—and not just for that particular book. As a result of the work necessary to complete that project, I’ve also got a healthy head start on a sort of companion volume, tentatively titled Anarchism, Plain and Simple: Propositions for Discussion (portions of which have already appeared here and on the Responsibility, Solidarity, Strategy blog.

Anarchism, Plain and Simple is a 2016 project, which will undoubtedly have to play second fiddle for a month or three to the stack of nearly completed manuscripts that trouble my sleep most nights, but which I expect will be finished before 2017 comes around. Part of my confidence comes from the fact that the work is, in effect, a sort of summary of work that I’ve already done in piecemeal fashion over the last few years. Regular readers will recognize elements of the “anarchism of the encounter” and longtime readers will find most of the elements promised in the abandoned Two-Gun Mutualism book, stripped of the idiosyncratic language of that project.

Notes from a draft introduction to Anarchism, Plain and Simple

Anarchism had hardly established itself as a tendency before anarchists began to ask themselves why their beautiful ideal was not gaining wider acceptance in the world. And it should come as no surprise to any of us that the most animated debates in those early years revolved around familiar issues like organization, future economic forms and the possibility of pluralism regarding these questions within an anarchist movement worthy of both parts of its name.

Let’s date the emergence of anarchism as a widely used label sometime around 1880, and then note the fact that anarchism without adjectives was already being promoted—and not just in Spain, where it had emerged around mid-decade—within less than ten years. By the turn of the century the discussion had shifted from the necessities of cooperation among anarchists to the more fundamental question of the nature of anarchy, with Ricardo Mella declaring in 1899 that “anarquía no admite adjetivos”—anarchy accepts no adjectives. Max Nettlau, having undergone a rapid conversion from anarchist-communist partisan to proponent of the “sin adjectivos” school, wrote the essay “Some criticism of some current anarchist beliefs” in 1901 and followed it with a book-length work, Essai d’une critique de quelques tendances actuelles du mouvement anarchiste, the following year.

We could go back through the first forty years following Proudhon’s declaration “je suis anarchiste”—I am an anarchist, or perhaps just I am anarchist—tracing the steps by which the anti-authoritarian internationalists of the First International came to adopt the anarchist label, despite the taint of “proudhonism,” and launched an anarchism with at least conflicted relations to the an-archie of the 1840s. And then we could trace the various points in the subsequent history where a renewed focus on anarchy was proposed as a solution to anarchism’s failures. But that would take us too far afield from present concerns. Let’s just acknowledge that there has been, perhaps from Proudhon’s first declaration, the potential for conflict between the ideal of anarchy and any attempt to systematize its application to real social relations. “Humanity proceeds by approximations,” as Proudhon reminded us in The Theory of Property, with “the approximation of an-archy” being one part of that process. But approximation presupposes a more perfect limit or ideal, even if it is a more perfect absence or elimination of hierarchy and authority, as in the case of anarchist activity.

There will always be a tug-of-war between the ideal and the various approximations. Anarchists must learn to choose both, or else sacrifice one to the other. This is not, it seems to me, a knowledge that many of us have mastered yet, and arguably it is anarchy that tends to be sacrificed when it comes time for us to choose.

It is a certain kind of virtue not to be paralyzed by the difficulties posed by our ideal and to be able to keep looking for the next step towards greater freedom. But if we do not also keep that beautiful idea of anarchy fresh in our minds, it becomes hard to be certain just what is guiding our footsteps. The tension created by the dual demands of anarchist praxis—to “change the world,” but by steadily bringing our relations, in all spheres, closer to the ideal of anarchy—can be exhausting—and perhaps many of the shortcomings of present anarchist practice are best attributed to various kinds of exhaustion—but perhaps not quite so exhausting as we tend to make them, nor even necessarily more so than the tensions inherent in not transforming our existing relations.

Perhaps some of what feels particularly demanding about the ideal of anarchy is not, in fact, a function of the ideal, but instead a function of our resistance to it. Perhaps those—and they seem so common now—who imagine an “anarchism” that would make room for all manner of fundamentally hierarchical, authoritarian or even patently governmental elements—but for “the right reasons,” for “the common good,” etc.—have actually taken the harder road by refusing to strike out into largely unexplored, really anarchic territory. And perhaps those who fear that anarchy itself is an insufficient ground for “organizing” anarchy on a meaningful scale have made a similar miscalculation—while those who simply insist on a particular social system as the only means of achieving anarchy have arguably missed the point of anarchy completely.

That is the premise that these propositions seek to explore and, for the most part, to defend: Anarchy is sufficient to the needs of anarchism, and refocusing on the ideal of anarchy might be the thing—perhaps the only thing—that could serve as a common commitment and ground for solidarity among anarchists not bound too tightly by their own approximations.