Theories of Anarchist Development

From The Libertarian Labyrinth by Shawn P. Wilbur

The question we’re wrestling with remains this: How do we understand the anarchist past and how does that understanding influence our action in the present? This question is ultimately inseparable from questions about how our present understanding of the anarchist project influences our engagement with the anarchist past, but one thing at a time.

One important aspect of our coming-to-terms with the anarchist past has to be our general understanding of how anarchism has developed. An adequate theory of anarchist development should probably be able to:

  1. account for the historical facts (and particularly, now, for the mass of historical facts newly available thanks to archive digitization, etc.)
  2. describe the ways in which the defining characteristics of anarchism might have influenced that development
  3. help us explain the state of anarchism in the present.

Let’s just acknowledge that, for the most part, we do not have explicit, well developed theories of this sort. What we have instead are convictions about the relative merits of various anarchist tendencies and quasi-historical narratives that together suggest implicit theories of development. These vary from simple just-so stories to histories of considerable sophistication, but artificially narrowed focus. What they tend to have in common is a sense that anarchist thought has undergone some kind of relatively continuous change, often towards the ideology (communism, syndicalism, platformism, etc.) of their choice. Equally continuous, though obviously different in their implications, are a small number of narratives that trace a steady degeneration of anarchist thought from some moment of primal clarity. (I think I know a few folks who believe that “it has all been downhill from Stirner” and I have myself half-seriously described anarchist history as a sort of “parceling out” of Proudhon’s project.)

Ultimately, there is a tremendous amount of good historical work that either accepts or does not challenge this kind of implicit theory of development. And the point here isn’t to downplay the value of any of that work. But it does seem to me that continuity as an assumption about anarchist development is likely, sooner or later, to be a casualty of good historical work and that the more the light of historical research shines on the earliest decades of the anarchist past the more likely that assumption is to lose its place in our common sense.

Let’s consider the three tasks that we’ve said a theory of anarchist development should perform:

Accounting for the details of the anarchist past, particularly in the era prior to the emergence of anarchism per se, means revising our sense of the various tendencies and their succession. To reconstruct the argument I have been making here for some time, let me begin by recalling a summary from “Our Lost Continent,” the post in which I first proposed an “Era of Anarchy” or period of anarchy-without-anarchism in the years between 1840 and 1875-80:

I no longer feel the slightest hesitation in declaring that there was, in that forty-year period, what we might call an Era of Anarchy, during which a wide variety of anarchist philosophies developed and subsequently declined. Proudhon launched the era with his explicit declaration—”I am an anarchist!”—in 1840, but he wasn’t alone for long. The communists of l’Humanitaire identified the “anarchistic” roots of their approach the following year. We can argue about how anarchistic other communists of the period were, but certainly by the 1850s, Joseph Déjacque had explicitly joined communism to the anarchy of Proudhon—running ahead of nearly all his contemporaries in proposing some form of anarchism and launching the sort of internal struggle that would mark the whole of the post-1880 Era of Anarchism. There were individualists as well, including Josiah Warren, whose dislike of labels kept him from identifying as an anarchist, and Anselme Bellegarrigue, who looks, in contemporary terms, like some sort of left-wing market anarchist. Stirner is there, with his anarchistic egoism. Ernest Coeurderoy dreams of cossack invasions. Virtually every radical current from the revolutions of the late 18th century or the “utopian” period of the early 19th century manifests some more-or-less libertarian extreme. In North American, Calvin Blanchard announces Art-Liberty, Eliphalet Kimball publishes his Thoughts on Natural Principles, and antinomian principles bubble up, over and over again, on the fringes of New England’s religious culture. Proudhon, Pierre Leroux and New England transcendentalism unite in the work of William B. Greene. Activity in the anti-slavery movement leads Ezra Heywood and Lysander Spooner to the most libertarian conclusions. Networks develop, formally and informally, among some of these figures and spread their influence among the working classes. The New England reform leagues, the Association Internationale, the Union républicaine de langue française and the International Workingmen’s Association represent the efforts of various of these anarchist philosophies to manifest themselves as movements in the era before anarchism was established as an ideology, or even a widely-used keyword. In the context of these attempts, new tendencies will emerge, such as the anarchistic collectivism of Bakunin and his associates and a revived anti-state communism, which will reject the term an-anarchy because of its associations with Proudhon.

The facts of history force us to trade a narrative of succession for one that displays a great deal of simultaneity. The provocative follow-up, on “The ‘Benthamite’ anarchism and the origins of anarchist history,” focused on the extent to which anarchism emerged as a break with that anarchy-without-anarchism, rather than a refinement or clarification of it. Having now explored the extent to which the ascendance of anarchist communism also involved a careful management of the legacy of Bakunin (with “God and the State” marking a sort of farewell to Bakunin for at least some of those involved in its publication), as well as having traced the conflict-filled construction and reconstruction of “mutualism” in various anarchist eras, discontinuity really seems to me to be the defining quality of many of the moments we often paint as advances for anarchist thought or victories for particular tendencies.

So we probably have a variety of reasons to believe that most of the claims to continuous development and succession from tendency to tendency have been based on an incomplete use of the historical data. But we can also just look around to see that, however convincing those claims might have been at particular moments in anarchist history, we are again faced with a wide variety of tendencies existing simultaneously, with no evidence that any of them are likely to go away any time soon.

Is there perhaps some way to discuss the contexts of this development that salvages the more continuous sorts of narratives? Could we find ground on which to claim that, for example, the emergence of anarchist communism (or anarcho-syndicalism or platformism or egoism or Proudhon’s first barbaric yawp, etc.) really did mark a particularly decisive development, but that other events have obscured its significance, led the working classes astray, etc.? Part of the answer probably depends on what sort of thing we think the anarchist project is. If we think of anarchist theory as something that emerged in a somewhat unformed state from popular resistance to authority, and that it took some time for the basic ideas necessary for an anarchist movement to become clear (and this seems to be one of the rough-and-ready developmental narratives), then at least some of the early complications may not weigh too heavily on us, but it would still be necessary to explain why, after some series of positive innovations (including whatever steps you think it took to get from “je suis anarchiste” to your favored flavor of anarchism), we have continued to see innovations that simply do not fit the narrative of steadily increasing clarity. After all, one of the ways that reactionary would-be entryists have attempted to brand their efforts is as further refinements of the tradition.

The stakes rise here a bit, in ways that I have attempted to gently address in the past. I don’t have any trouble drawing a clear line between the various consistent anti-authoritarian tendencies and various authoritarian attempts to graft their pet systems of hierarchy onto anarchism—and I don’t imagine many other consistent anarchists have much trouble separating the two groups, as long as we stick to questions of logical consistency. But our implicit theories of anarchist development attempt to do more than just distinguish in this way, calling on the testimony of particular histories to bolster the claims of one or another anarchist tendencies to preeminence. As long as we can really show some sort of continuity, and some development towards a particular sort of clarification of the anarchist ideal, then we can at least point to those subsequent moments when proposed “developments” seem to lead anarchist thought off in some different direction. If, however, what our historical research shows is not the steady development of ideas, but instead a sort of theoretical détournement, through which a single set of terms is charged and then recharged with significantly different meanings—and this is one fairly compelling way, I think, of reading the succession of phases in anarchist thought—then we are on more dangerous ground. The fact that there is probably more connection between the thought of Proudhon and that of Kropotkin than was acknowledged by the latter in works like “On Order” does not change the fact that the form of the anti-authoritarian communist appropriation of the language of anarchy is essentially that of entryism. We can back up and say that this particular form of appropriation was unnecessary, that it was ultimately harmless in itself, etc., but if we appeal to it as a vindication of the “modern anarchism” of the anarchist communists then we have, at the very least, opened doors that we may find a little bit hard to close.

Fortunately, if deeper engagement with anarchist history takes away some familiar narratives of development, the same process seems to provide alternative accounts. But it really does not seem that the sort of “common sense” accounts of continuous development from “precursors” to “modern anarchism” (however you want to specify those catagories) fulfills any of the tasks we have set for a theory of anarchist development. And I wonder if there isn’t something particularly demoralizing about some of the common, but under-theorized positions in the milieu, which combine a sort of faith that some process of clarification has taken place with the almost inescapable experience of our collective lack of clarity.

Let’s not waste any time, then, proposing a more adequate alternative.

No one should be surprised when I turn again to Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis.” As I suggested in “The Synthesist’s Consolation,” the first benefit of engaging with Voline’s text is indeed consolation. If we are forced to acknowledge that we still have some work to do in order to come to terms with the anarchist past, we can at least remind ourselves that some of our best and brightest warned us a long time ago that the road wouldn’t always be smooth. In moving from the the rude shot across the bow in “Coming to Terms with the Anarchist Past” to the more positive, conciliatory message of “The Synthesist’s Consolation,” I’ve really just been executing a variation on an old theme. We see it in rather extreme form in Max Nettlau, one of the most constant witnesses to difficulties that seemed inherent in our project, whose various writings on mutual tolerance, panarchy, synthesis, etc. provide us with extraordinarily challenging proposals to defects in the anarchist project that he clearly thought were themselves profound. But there we also see the theoretical questioning accompanied by a constant practical commitment. We see it again in the work of Ricardo Mella, whose essay on “The Bankruptcy of Beliefs” lumps anarchism among the systems of belief that must inevitably collapse under the weight of their own defects, but who sequel on “The Rising Anarchism” suggests another chapter, explicitly based in synthesis, provided we stick to the task at hand. Alongside these two remarkable bodies of work, Voline’s account of anarchist synthesis (and my own appeal to it) are positively gentle and optimistic in their tone. More than that, however, I think that Voline’s notion of synthesis really does the things that we might expect from an adequate theory of anarchist development—provided, of course, that we allow it to do that work and do not simply reduce it to a commentary on how to organize anarchist congresses or federations, as has so often been done.

If anarchism is a matter of exploration, followed by synthesis, and then no doubt by more cycles of a similar nature, then we would have to feel quite certain of our present beliefs and practices to waste too much time relegating the explorations of others to “precursor” status. Among contemporary tendencies, it becomes easy to see a sort of division of later, in the context of which we needn’t pretend that all explorations are equal in their long- or short-term utility. Were we to adopt this perspective, we might expect some reduction in the most useless sorts of sectarian struggle, along with some reduction in the distractions that stand between us and serious engagements with the anarchist past. We might at the very least have better fights among ourselves and there are probably a whole series of improvements that we might see in our relations with one another if we were to really internalize this view of things. But perhaps one of the most immediate effects of adopting a synthesist theory of anarchist development would be the light it might shed on our present conflicts and incompatibilities. After all, we are talking about a critique that is now well over a century old. And if it was true that there was a need for synthesis among anarchist tendencies one hundred years ago, what do we imagine the effects would be if we failed to address that need?

If we are looking for a theory, rooted in the nature of the anarchist project, that seems likely to shine a line on what is demoralizing about our present situation, perhaps we have at least found a likely candidate.