We have been presenting an understanding of anarchist practice centered around the repeated reconstruction of what it means to “be an anarchist” in each new context. Proudhon claimed that “humanity proceeds by approximations”—and perhaps that’s a useful way to think about anarchism as well, whether we are thinking about the development of shared ideologies and tendencies or about the more individual process of applying anarchistic ideas to the objects of daily practice.
☞ Let’s say that synthesis is is the element of anarchist practice that involves relating the various approximations to one another and to the developing anarchist tradition. Looking backward toward the tradition, it is a matter of establishing some continuity between applications, which may involve radical rethinking in some contexts, but also, we would expect, some kind of development, both in our own ideas and in collective conceptions. Looking forward, it is a question of renewing the tradition, perpetuating it through novel applications. And then there is the question of relating concurrent approximations.
What I’m proposing is a kind of two-step dynamic that we might associate with instances of anarchist practice. The first step is exploratory, as the lessons of prior practice are applied to novel conditions. In this step, something new is perhaps added to the developing collection of anarchist analyses and anarchist practices. The second step is synthetic, as the new application is related back to the body of prior practice, as well as to practices taking place concurrently. The novel elements are made intelligible as extensions of the existing body of practices and rendered more or less shareable by other anarchists.
There are certainly other ways to conceptualize anarchist practice, just as synthesis has been conceptualized in a variety of different ways within the anarchist tradition. Perhaps some of you will explore some of the alternatives in the later stages of this project.
Synthesis is a term with a long history in anarchist theory, going back at least to 1840 and Proudhon’s description of anarchic liberty as a “synthesis of community and property.” It is, of course, most closely associated with the debate between anarchist synthesists and platformists in the late 1920s. I’ll admit that I was vaguely aware of the notion of anarchist synthesis for a long time before I did much looking into the matter, in large part because the choice between platformism and synthesis is so often treated solely as a matter of how to organize anarchist federations—and that has never been anywhere near the top of my list of anarchist concerns.
Even as I began to fairly seriously research anarchism without adjectives and some of the related currents, it took a while before even the most familiar texts on synthesis held much appeal—and then suddenly all roads seemed to lead there, as I began to assemble evidence of what I’ve called an “anarchistic undercurrent” concerned with reconciling the various anarchist currents. In that context, it turns out that synthesis was a central concern in the sense that nearly all the proponents of related notions like symbiosis, entente, mutual toleration, liaison, etc. at least had to publish their objections to the term. (The anarchist capacity for quibbling seems to be something of a constant throughout the tradition.)
I don’t always love the term myself. Looking at the history of that “undercurrent,” I am inclined to think that what is perhaps really needed is something like a synthesis of the various proposals for near-synthesis, while perhaps anarchy already serves to describe the principle by which various anarchist currents might be brought into a mutually beneficial sort of relation. In collecting the various related tendencies, I have called them “Varieties of Anarchist Entente,” giving pride of place to E. Armand’s favored term. Still, I am inclined to think that Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis” is an unjustly neglected work on the perhaps equally neglected question of anarchist development and, for the moment, that seems reason enough to justify calling myself a synthesist at times and to choose synthesis as a keyword here in this construction.
I’ve already talked a bit about the objections to Voline’s essay. If the opening discussions of truth and life seemed to be aimed at some kind of metaphysic certainty, I might share the concerns expressed. But Voline seems to posit the question of full knowledge in order to remind us that we’re not likely to experience it—and that, even if we did, our triumph might be short-lived:
The synthesis itself is not immutable. It is only a resultant constantly in motion, which sometimes comes closer to one of the factors and sometimes to another, and never remains close to one or the other for long.
That seems clear enough. So let’s try to turn the corner in our analysis here, acknowledge that there likely to be a good deal that is anarchic about the practice of a developing, living body of thought, and prepare for the introduction of a new set of concepts—starting with governmentalism, and the related ideas like authority and hierarchy—that are quite a bit more straightforward in their elaboration and application.
This is the last week of this “quarter” with really extensive suggested readings and I expect the material for this week to inform much of the rest of the discussion. “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State” is the English version of a book chapter originally published in German, explaining Proudhon’s theory of the state, but really giving a kind of general introduction to his project. It should provide useful context for much of the work to come. The glossary entries on “Legal Order” and “Authority and Authority-Effects” establish some terms I will have recourse to in next week’s post. And “What About the Children?” and the new translation of Bakunin’s discussion of authority in “God and the State” together constitute an entry into the debates about “justified hierarchy” and “legitimate authority.”