Anarchism: Plain and neo-Proudhonian

from the libertarian labyrinth

In the revised outline for Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back, the work is now clearly split into two parts:

  1. Our Lost Continent: Reflections on the Anarchist Past
  2. The Journey Back: Reconsideration of Anarchist History

And that first section includes at least the following elements:

  1. some personal reflections on my own research into anarchist history and theory, with an account of how “our lost continent” became the driving metaphor in the work;
  2. a much expanded discussion of “theories of anarchist development,” with considerable attention given to the questions raised in the “Extrications” series, with an argument in favor of Voline’s 1924 essay “On Synthesis” as the most promising guide for understanding the general development of anarchism;
  3. a section dedicated to that preliminary outline of a “shareable” anarchism—a “plain” anarchism or general theory of archy and anarchy—starting from the previously published “propositions for discussion;”
  4. a discussion of the rationale for “The Journey Back,” addressing many of the considerations already at least touched on in the “Mappings” series.

Among the lessons that I at least believe strongly I have learned in the course of the “outbound journey,” probably the most important and perhaps most controversial is this:

  • A distinct, anarchy-centered anarchism is not just possible, but necessary, if we are to confront the systemic challenges facing us, and that anarchism seems likely, if seriously pursued, to be adequate to the task.

The likelihood of any serious pursuit on the scale necessary is, of course, a different question. Anarchists are used to pursuing what we see as real solutions, whether or not their application seems to be in the cards. But that likelihood certainly doesn’t get any greater if we don’t continue to make the case for anarchy and anarchism.

Within the anarchist milieus, of course, the most contentious bit is probably the stipulation that anarchism be anarchy-centered and clearly distinct from other tendencies. Those anarchists who have, instead, rallied around concepts like democracy or have focused on the the anarchic elements already existing in everyday life may have limited enthusiasm for such an approach. But I have to confess that none of the more indistinct forms of anarchism seem to me to justify the inescapably extreme gesture of recourse to even the rhetoric of anarchy. That recourse seems to confuse the issue as much for the proponents of democratic anarchism as it does for those whose anarchism is anarchy-centered. But if, as is so often argued, anarchist synthesis is impossible because the goals and principles of various tendencies are too divergent, the most straightforward solution seems to be to focus on those tendencies for which the appeal to anarchy really is fundamental and a genuinely distinct conception of anarchism is most necessary. And if that focus is more fruitful, in terms of the possibility of synthesis, the the question of the relation of this anarchy-centered anarchism to adjacent tendencies—or of radical, but not consistently anarchist practices and principles to more consistently anarchist struggles—can be addressed on a clearer basis.

So let’s say, regarding the ideological synthesis we’re seeking, that:

  • A plain, anarchy-centered anarchism would have to be both adequate to the task of challenging systems based on hierarchy, authority and exploitation in various forms, but would also have to be shareable among the various genuinely anarchist tendencies (mutualism, anarchist collectivism, anarchist communism, anarchist individualism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc., etc.) to the extent that those tendencies have themselves focused their efforts on the pursuit of anarchy.

That means that the pursuit of anarchy does not preclude—and may indeed demand—the use of a wide variety of non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian norms and institutions in that struggle and in the pursuit of the full range of other goals that anarchists will continue to have. Anarchy precludes archy—but that is a basic struggle over the fundamental foundations of society—and, once we have, as Proudhon put it, “eliminated the absolute” from our common sense about how societies must function, we might expect to find that our options are, in fact, much more increased than decreased by the abandonment of the governmental principle and legal order.

But we should also expect to find, I think, that our failure to achieve even this sort of anarchist synthesis has been accompanied by the incorporation of some dubious and inconsistent elements into our common sense about anarchism in practice. So expecting moments of difficult self-criticism and even outright iconoclasm seems reasonable.

Still, I think it is equally reasonable to fear that attempting to condense what is valuable in the anarchist tradition down to a plain form might result in an ideology ultimately too simple to be a great deal of practical use. There is undoubtedly a great deal of work that can be done to make the character of positive anarchy clearer, but there is no getting around the fact that fundamental to that character is the “general threat of profusion and uncertainty” that I’ve discussed in recent posts. So it becomes a question of what form a “general theory of archy and anarchy” might take that would be most amenable to useful elaboration. And perhaps we might say that:

  • The more the our plain anarchist ideology is simply a reflection of anarchistic social science, the more we might expect its elaboration to be possible in a manner that does not lead down the road of exclusive programs and ideological division.

And, having reached that point, the final and most contentious of our new contentions should come as no surprise.

  • The existence of Proudhon’s large body of anarchistic social science at the beginnings of the history of explicit, self-conscious anarchist thought would seem to make it—revised, corrected and elaborated in a critical polylogue with subsequent anarchist thinkers—a natural candidate for a basis of theoretical synthesis in anarchist theory.

The plain, but undoubtedly no longer simple result of that process would then be, if the promise of Proudhon’s work lived up to our expectations, the sort of neo-Proudhonian anarchism that I initially proposed as a kind of critical thought experiment and am now prepared to pursue precisely as a basis for synthesis.

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