Each of the earliest pioneers of the anarchist tradition asked, I think, a question or three that still very much pertain to the problems of 21st-century life. They’re not always easy to extract or to drag into the present, and they’re not always flattering to us when applied to the culture of anarchism that has developed since the late 19th century. Working from the roots of the tradition has been a valuable experience, both in terms of focusing my analysis on key concepts and in terms of gaining tools with which to understand why the anarchist milieu is the often frustrating place that it is.
Getting to know the early history and theory is one of the things that keeps anarchist thought fresh and inviting for me. And I think that there are very few of the problems faced by the anarchist milieu that can’t be resolved by a bit of careful rethinking of our relationship to that history and theory. But some aspects of that rethinking are more demanding than others, and perhaps the hardest of all involve a dilemma I have alluded to on a variety of occasions, when discussing the differences between the “era of anarchy” and the “era of anarchism.”
The emergence of anarchism as the key organizing concept of an emerging anarchist milieu in the late 19th century meant that a variety of new things were possible. As anarchists positioned themselves around specific, shared ideologies, anarchism also became a manifestation of collective force, with, as we might expect, interests, dynamics and logics all its own, not always, as we might also expect, precisely in sympathy with the interests and logics of individual anarchists. Unsurprisingly, that meant that at times individual interests would be sacrificed to the interests of the collective and that some anarchists would recreate the governmentalist dynamic of “external constitution” right in the heart of the tradition that began with a call for its abolition.
It is not hard to go as far as opposing anarchy to anarchism—at least as a vague, conceptual opposition—but it is hard, I think, to know what to do with the opposition once we have made it. We are, after all, all products of ideological societies in which individual identity tends to be defined in terms mediated by a identifications that are themselves really instances of external constitution. So, among other things, we are anarchists because of a relationship to anarchism that can hardly escape some degree of self-subordination.
I’m not terribly interested at this point in talking about the benefits of that kind of identification, which are, I think, clear enough to all of us, whether our goals involve building mass movements or just making it through the day without being crushed by our alienation from other collective movements. We get together to get things done and hopefully, if we are anarchists, we find some means to balance interests in a way that is at least better than the alternatives. In the process, if we are conscientious about applying the theories that we have inherited, we engage Proudhon’s questions about the dynamics of social life and collective force, and keep in mind his cautions about absolutism. We bring the lessons of Proudhon and Bakunin to bear on those situations where we real the limits of our capacities for freedom and are forced to roll the dice with some form of authority. But the truth is that there are conflicts baked right into the anarchist tradition that no amount of conscientious analysis is ever going to resolve, in part because these fundamental, “classical” questions are largely alien to the thought of much of the anarchist milieu.
That leaves a difficult problem for those of us who fervently believe in the desirability and possibility of anarchy, who would consider ourselves anarchists, who even acknowledge the necessity, given the history through which we have inherited those other notions, of some kind of anarchism: how to think about our place in the contemporary milieu without just joining one faction or another in the hope of dominating the definitions. It’s a Stirnerian question: how to “be an anarchist” and still be unique, in the sense of not defining ourselves, or allowing ourselves to be defined, as an instance of a type.
For me, this is the last question to be answered for the work-in-progress, Anarchism, Plain and Simple, but it has become the urgent next question to be answered for me personally, as the milieu seems more and more likely to simply wring all the joy of anarchy out of me. The difficulties of the question are, I think, underlined by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to think about the adjustments required except in terms of quitting or burning out. And, honestly, it’s not so easy to think of the sort of movement and necessary separation involved in anything but relatively maudlin terms, even if, at some other level, the whole, still indistinct process is at least conceivable as the preservation and intensification of joy, the refusal of unnecessary and harmful mediation, etc., etc.
Anyway, that is my question for the foreseeable future. And the answers will undoubtedly involve a variety of changes in my practices and affiliations, though the long-term, essentially custodial work on key texts and core ideas will continue. Like the “year without mutualism,” this shift is not a threat or a promise about what I might decide is necessary another year down the road, but like that adjustment it is driven by the realization that I am certainly not doing myself or anyone else any favors by clinging to a particular relationship with a milieu that I find at least as exhausting as sustaining.