Margins and Problems: Anarchic Encounters with the Anarchist Past

Let’s say that, taking inspiration from Déjacque’s bilge-rat, we decide that our present experience of anarchism is too constraining—and decide to scuttle this particular vessel. What happens next? As the anarchist past floods in, how do we make sure we stay at least afloat enough that a bit of ideological constraint doesn’t become the least of our worries?

Can we cobble together a new vessel from the wreckage, along with whatever other flotsam we may encounter? Or can we perhaps adopt what we might call, in the context of this metaphor, a more aquatic relation to the anarchist past?

These are the eminently practical questions that our “bilge-rat’s gambit” poses—however fanciful the framing may be. The scenario depends on certain elements being present, including at least two conflicting conceptions of anarchism. There is the anarchism that shapes our milieu—conceived here as a kind of vessel that contains and potentially constrains us as anarchists—and, behind those feelings of constraint, something else: a more individual, more fully internalized conception of anarchism, which is in some important senses at odds with the values and ideas current in the milieu. Our own anarchism may be rudimentary or extensively developed. It may be a lifeline, a floating plank or not much more than our own personal buoyancy. But it is « our own » and important enough to us to provoke at least drastic experiments.

Chase the metaphor from here in whatever direction seems most useful, whether it is a question of a matter of piecing together some new vessel more suitable to your needs or perhaps assembling the apparatus necessary to provoke some sort of personal sea-change. Or hang in there for just a few minutes, while we clarify things just a bit more, and then you can simply let the metaphor go—if that happens to suit you better.

In an earlier post, we talked about scuttling the ship of state or civilization, with the potentially inrushing ocean being anarchy. If, this time around, the sea is the anarchist past and the vessel is the conception of anarchism that holds sway in the milieus we inhabit, then either that vessel is ship-shape, sea-worthy and suitable for the anarchistic purposes we envision—or we have to make a change. In the first case, we needn’t worry too much if the anarchist past is a particularly vast and storm-tossed expanse, but at the moment when we think of emulating Déjacque’s bilge-rat, with a sink-of-swim sort of response to constraint, we would be foolhardy not to give it some serious thought. Before we open the floodgates, we should probably have our act together, survey our resources and make whatever plans we can for coming through relatively unscathed.

As I’ve noted before, one of the inescapable truths about the anarchist past is that there is a whole lot of it, so much that perhaps I can be forgiven the ocean metaphors. So the choice between a really wide-ranging exploration of the material available to us for “constructing an anarchism of our own” and working within the confines of some serviceable conception of anarchism—one that seems to serve many of our needs, but is clearly not of our own construction—isn’t likely to be a choice between “really understanding” all of that history or settling for a second-hand account, but is really more about the manner in which we would prefer to assemble what will inevitably be a very partial knowledge of the anarchist past.

And there just aren’t that many ways to avoid such a choice. We can try to disconnect entirely from the tradition of anarchism and base our project on nothing but whatever principles and practices we can logically derive from a given notion of anarchy—a move that then poses new problems if « our » anarchism is to connect back in some way to that of the existing milieus. But I have yet to see many very promising examples of that approach. We can engage in anarchist synthesis, pursuing consciously partial anarchist projects, but with an eye on the other more-or-less conscious and differently partial projects around us. And this might be unavoidable, even when our own project seems to be in that sink-or-swim stage. Finally, we can try to slow down—really slow down, despite the obvious urgency of anarchist struggles—and allow ourselves to experiment.

Ultimately, that final option is probably the only one we can manage here, as a joint project, under the specific constraints of the very loosely connected association we’ve formed to pursue this exploration. We can get our feet wet, paddle around in the shallows and contemplate the deeper waters. Maybe we can’t collectively accomplish much more than a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. And maybe that is going to be enough for a number of us. After all, one perfectly reasonable response to this little adventure might be reassurance that the good ship My Current Milieu wasn’t such a bad spot after all. For others, the lure of the sea will undoubtedly be greater—and, if nothing else, we can manage some kind of water safety course…

Let’s leave the metaphor there. I hope that participants in this idiosyncratic survey will come away with a general understanding of the chronology of anarchist development, as well as some appreciation for the richness and complexity of the anarchist past. I hope, by specifically focusing on “margins and problems,” that the various encounters will help individuals to clarify their own beliefs, providing resources for the third stage of our project, as we turn back to the problem of making anarchism our own. And, of course, I hope that folks will be entertained by some of the more obscure manifestations of anarchist and near-anarchist thought that we will encounter.

As much as anything, however, I want to emphasize the utility—first in the relatively safe realm of historical research, but then also in our daily interactions with others (and particularly other anarchists)—of that practice of anarchic encounter that I emphasized in the later stages of “Constructing an Anarchism.”

In the post on “Encounter and Entente,” it was really a question of what stands between us and a kind of einzige-to-einzige sociality, “where (in the words of Proudhon) there exists neither primacy nor obedience, neither a center of gravity nor of direction, where the only law is that everything submits to Justice, to balance.” And I proposed that kind of social interaction as a goal for anarchist-to-anarchist relations, which presumably means a lot less partisan tomfoolery, where, as so often happens, something sets us off and we spend all our energy trying to paint one another as the enemy within. A recognition of the need for synthesis—which includes the recognition that “real anarchists” are likely to be, as a direct result of their active engagement, subject to a certain amount of tunnel vision, unless they take steps to remedy things—gets us part of the way there. Committed partisans of some particular anarchist project should be able to recognize the anarchistic core of other people’s projects and use that as a focus for mutual recognition, encounter and potential collaboration—provided they have really come to terms with the anarchistic core of their own endeavors. But these ideological vessels that we build or borrow, including the milieus that support us in various ways, do, in various sense of the term, contain us and that containment can interfere with the sort of anarchistic self-knowledge that is probably necessary to make mutual recognition among different tendencies of anarchists routine.

Anyway, for now, rather than ramble too much more about encounters in the abstract, let’s just say that, if we find it relatively difficult to engage with one another as « unique » and, maybe-just-maybe, in possession of pieces of the big puzzles that might be usefully shared, we might get a bit of practice in a less stressful setting. Who better than dead people—long-dead people—even long-dead people that we have labeled in advance as marginal or problematic—as a subject for our study of what makes one an anarchist? These encounters have their own characteristic difficulties, of course, but the advantages shouldn’t be too hard to see. What better than writings that have, at present, very little weight in the great debates over “real anarchism,” to use as foils to illuminate parts of our own beliefs?

If your response to that last bit is to snort and mumble something about irrelevance, then this is probably a logical place for us to part ways. For everyone else, the fun starts in earnest in a few days, with a look at some of the relevant people, texts and events prior to 1840 and Proudhon’s What is Property? As things stand now, with a bit of research still to be done, I expect to spend about three weeks on this first historical period.

The featured readings for those weeks will be:

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In the words of Shawn Wilbur:

I’ve found myself perhaps a bit obsessed with the work of Sylvain Maréchal—despite finding it fundamentally reactionary in certain ways. He has earned a place in many of the histories of anarchism [which ones?] as a kind of precursor and he did, in fact, reject most [but not all] forms of government. As a result, there are numerous passages in his work that are bound to delight anarchists, but virtually all of his works eventually draw the line that he will not cross. The family was, for him, the natural unit of society and government , and the need was less to reject hierarchy and authority, as the anarchist might (?) suggest, but to limit it to its proper and natural scale.

I'm sure this will be a another fine example of your good-faith approach to conversation and critique. (Lonely trolls seem to be the worst.)

Anyway, I reject Sylvain Maréchal's proposal, advocating neither rural simplicity nor patriarchal government. You may have been in too big a hurry to find something that might offend you, but, in future, you might remind yourself that a survey of "margins and problems" is almost certainly going to be full of texts with, well, problems and only marginal connections to anarchism.

As for the question of "which histories," in the Short History, Max Nettlau claimed that "A few decades before the French Revolution Sylvain Marechal proposed a type of anarchism which was set forth with great clarity..." and one of the earliest expressions of anarchist communism, in l'Humanitaire (1841) takes Maréchal's work as a key inspiration for their own, with the recognition that his commitment to patriarchal relations is a point that differentiates them from him. Gustave Brocher mentions him positively in the Encyclopédie Anarchiste. Robert Graham includes Maréchal's "Manifesto of the Equals" in his documentary history. I find him cited as a precursor in works by Ugo Fedeli and E. Armand, and listed as a "forgotten anarchist" in an editorial note in Freedom (London). In Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism, Rocker lists him among the "pioneers of libertarian thinking." I'm sure there is plenty more to find, but all of this came up on a search of my own hard drive.

Neither Grayson nor Leroux were anarchists either, although Leroux influenced a number of early anarchists (Proudhon, Déjacque, Cœurderoy, etc.) and Grayson certainly made an interesting case for the abolition of all laws.

This is, in fact, a section about people who were not anarchists, but came pretty close in some ways. Eventually, we'll get to sections about people who probably were anarchists, but still f*cked things up in various ways. If you're intent on playing Captain Obvious all the way through, it looks like smooth sailing.

What is your critique or work in the contemporary USA, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico?

And props to Shawn Wilbur for finally providing some historical context for one of his obscure and somewhat baffling choices for an anarchist study project, although to my mind, either Robert Graham or Rudolf Rocker would be much better options. As for the equally obscure P.W. Grayson, first a quote from Wilbur's quote from Wikipedia:

Peter Wagener Grayson (1788–1838) was an attorney, diplomat, cabinet officer, and presidential candidate in the Republic of Texas. He was the son of Benjamin and Caroline (Taylor) Grayson, and was born in Bardstown, Virginia (later Kentucky), in 1788. He owned a plantation near Matagorda, Texas.

Grayson helped raise United States volunteers for the Texas Revolution, and he was appointed by President Sam Houston as Texas attorney general in February 1837 and as naval agent to the United States in December 1837.

In 1838, Grayson was the Houston party candidate for president of the Republic of Texas. On July 9 of that year he fatally shot himself.

Too bad about the last part, but the rest hardly recommends him as material for an anarchist study group. A few quotes from Grayson's essay should suffice to demonstrate the general tenor of the work:

If, however, there be a spot on the face of the globe where the light of liberal intelligence and just opinions is beginning to show itself, through the clouds of prejudice, custom, and superstition, it is the land we are all standing on here in these free states of America.

...I think one may safely assert, that there was never presented to the eyes of mankind a happier spectacle than the political institutions of the United States.

...It is now many years since the idea occurred to me, that if mankind were as wise, not as one could easily imagine them to be, but only as wise as an enlightened self love could make them, there were no need for either government or law.

Incidentally, I would be very interested to see Wilbur's response to the question about his opinion on contemporary anarchist projects in the USA.

Shawn's archives are called "libertarian LABYRINTH", it's not about anarchist puritanism, it's not about identity politics, it's not about lessons in how to be an anarchist (there's already a lot of that, "anarchy 101" sites are pretty bountiful and dot's website is actually buried pretty deep in there if you do a google search), it's about libertarian ideals, and it's a maze in the sense that he explicitly does not try to turn any part of the archives into easily consumable material.


but thanks again...we now know that someone who died in 1838 was not in all seriousness someone who "we should" consider "an anarchist"

Max Nettlau is arguably still the gold standard for general anarchist history—although Graham stands out among modern historians. We Do Not Fear Anarchy—We Invoke It is certainly a gem. But if you actually look at the work of either, my approach to the question of historical precursors is almost entirely in line with theirs—although my project is not general anarchist history—and both include most of the tendencies I will address. And apparently you haven't read Rocker's Pioneers of American Freedom, where he not only presents a friendly account of mutualist and individualist anarchism, but includes among his precursor figures both Jefferson and Lincoln—alongside more likely candidates like Paine, Emerson, Thoreau and Garrison. (As for your other suggestions, I'll probably make some mention of William Manning's 1798 "Key of Libberty," if only for its scathing critique of Hamilton's financial policies.)

Your idea of reading seems to involve looking for something to be offended by. I wonder, given your apparent liking for Rocker, what you think of this sentiment:

It has always been the practice of mediocre minds to brand as "foreign" what they could not understand because it was outside the narrow circle of their own ideas, and to persecute such ideas as "alien influences" whenever they felt themselves called upon to defend the nation against them. This assault upon the thought and feeling of the individual has from the earliest times been the chief source of social reaction, for its champions in their petty arrogance have been unable to recognize the actual pre-requisites of social progress.

I confess that I feel it might have some relevance to your approach. It's probably also not unconnected to the question about contemporary anarchism in the US.

Grayson is, of course, far more obscure than Maréchal—at least within anarchist circles. I probably should have stumbled on it when researching George Henry Evans and the National Reformers, but it turns out that it flew a bit under the radar even in those circles. It took a mention in a Josiah Warren essay, in the 1860s, to bring it to my attention. The text does one thing very well—presenting an argument for the repeal of all laws—from a worldview that one would certainly not expect to reach particularly anarchistic conclusions. But it also anticipates elements of a range of familiar anarchist arguments. To appropriate such a document is, of course, and old game, which anarchists have played with texts like Burke's A Vindication of Natural Society and Dana's Proudhon and his "Bank of the People". We'll take a look at The Inherent Evils of All State Governments Demonstrated, the clever Warrenite appropriation of Burke's "Vindication," when we get to the 1850s.

A few more suggestions for the study group:

Benjamin Franklin
George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
John Adams
Alexander Hamilton
Abraham Lincoln

I'm sure we could find at least some interesting material there.

Unlike you, Shawn, I don't make a project out of searching out all the most obscure and dated material from whatever source, then trying to pass it off to contemporary anarchists as something from which they will be able to derive something - anything - of real value to their own theory and practice. What was interesting and relevant to anarchists a hundred years or more ago may be less so now - times change, values change, theory and practice must change, too.

I'm not worried that many anarchists will be tempted to follow you down your intellectual rabbit hole, but when I see you dumping your crap on this web site week after week, I can't resist the opportunity to show just how hollow and self-serving your whole approach is. My own reading, such as it is, tends to focus on issues and ideas that are clearly relevant to my current concerns as an anarchist , whether or not the authors themselves identify as anarchists (that much you and I would agree on). I'll just toss out a few articles and authors that have impressed me over the past thirty or so years:

Bob Black (everybody's favorite whipping boy): particularly The Abolition of Work

Saul Newman: Anarchism, Marxism, and the Bonapartist State

Mark Lance: Fetishizing Process

John Zerzan

James C. Scott: Against the Grain

Todd May: Post-Structuralist Anarchism

Untying the Knot: Feminism, Anarchism, and Organization

Jacques Ellul: The Technological Society and Propaganda

Willem Vanderburg: The Labyrinth of Technology

Peter Gelderloos: A Critical History of Harrisonburg Food Not Bombs

Many articles in magazines and journals like Anarchy: Journal of Desire Armed, Green Anarchy, Fifth Estate, Social Anarchism, and Anarchist Studies Journal.

I imagine that most of us read material that is relevant to our present concerns—when we are not reading simply to entertain ourselves. I suppose that some of us are just a little less interested in policing the present concerns of others.

Your "changing practices for changing times" homily is sort of funny, given that the whole impetus of "Constructing Anarchisms" is the present need to create different relations to the anarchist past. You might actually think about the development of my own project in the context of postanarchism, with which you are clear familiar. It was a wonderful idea to bring together poststructualism and anarchist theory. The problem was that a lot of the postanarchist work didn't handle either half of the mix particularly well. And of the most striking problems with it was that there were obvious similarities between poststructuralism and the work of the early anarchists, which were not just ignored, but actively denied by those who thought they were bringing some novel set of concerns into anarchist theory. Times and concerns do indeed change, but not in some simple, linear manner. Stirner was not an anomaly—somehow miraculously ahead of his time—but one representative, among others, of a general tendency that makes many of those early anarchist figures much more "contemporary" (if that is actually the right way to talk about tendencies like poststructuralism) than the dominant anarchist figures of later periods, like Kropotkin. So, for example, one reason to pay some attention to Proudhon in the 21st century is that the heart of his project amounts to an application across various areas of social science of some of the concerns we find some timely in someone like Stirner.

The argument that we made back in 2003 ("What's Wrong with Postanarchism"), from a poststructuralist anarchist perspective, was that it didn't make much sense to deny the existence of relevant reflections in early anarchist texts—just to try to reinsert them again into anarchist theory, on the basis of a mistaken historical critique. I still think that's a sensible argument.

Anyway, one of the reasons I turned to a much closer examination of both early anarchist theory and some of the neglected later tendencies was precisely to address some of those presumably contemporary concerns directly in their first appearances, urged on by the inadequacies of what I was reading in the postanarchist literature and encountering in the active debates at the time. But examples like postanarchism raise larger questions about the ways in which dubious relationships to the anarchist past shape anarchism in the present—and what sorts of presently useful corrections might be fairly easily made. And here we are.

nestor and shawn, sitting in a tree!

shawn like "why won't someone help me?!"

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