Part III - Anarchist Thought: Key Personalities - The original thinkers of the philosophy
by Ruth Kinna
What is Anarchism? 6
Anarchy: Origins of the word: 21
Anarchist Thought: Key Personalities: 37
Anarchist Thought: Schools of Anarchism: 48
Anarchist Thought: History: 92
End of Chapter One: 133
Conclusion: 134 (Lone Cypress Workshop)
Summary Conclusion: 148 (Lone Cypress Workshop)
Anarchist Thought: Key Personalities
(Ruth Kinna) One popular approach to the study of anarchism is to trace a history of anarchist ideas through the analysis of key texts or the writings of important thinkers. Paul Eltzbacher, a German judge and scholar, was amongst the first to adopt this approach. His 1900 German-language Der Anarchismus identified seven ‘sages’ of anarchism:
Those joining Proudhon were:
William Godwin (1756–1836),
Max Stirner (1806–1856),
Michael Bakunin (1814–1870),
Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921),
Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939)
and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910).
Eltzbacher’s list has rarely been treated as definitive, though George Woodcock’s Anarchism (1962), which remains a standard reference work, largely followed Eltzbacher’s selection, dropping only Tucker from special consideration in the family of key thinkers. Nevertheless, Eltzbacher’s approach remains popular. Its discussion both provides an introduction to some of the characters whose work will be examined during the course of this book and, perhaps more importantly, raises an on-going debate about the possibility of defining anarchism by a unifying idea.
Arguments about who should be included in the anarchist canon usually turn on assessments of the influence that writers have exercised on the movement and tend to reflect particular cultural, historical, and political biases of the selector. For example, in Anglo-American studies, Bakunin and Kropotkin are normally represented as the most important anarchist theorists; in Continental Europe, especially in France, Proudhon and Bakunin are more likely to be identified as the movement’s leading lights.
In recent years selectors have tended to widen the net of those considered to be at the forefront of anarchist thought. In Demanding the Impossible (1992), Peter Marshall not only restored Tucker to the canon, he expanded it to include Elisée Reclus (1830–1905), Errico Malatesta (1853–1932), and Emma Goldman (1869–1940).
The same tendency is apparent in anthologies of anarchist writings. Daniel Guérin’s collection, No Gods, No Masters, makes no reference to Godwin, Tucker, or Tolstoy but includes work by Casar de Paepe (1842–90), James Guillaume (1844–1916), Malatesta, Ferdinand Pelloutier (1867–1901) and Emile Pouget (1860–1931), Voline (the pseudonym of Vsevolod Mikhailovich Eichenbaum, 1882–1945) and Nestor Makhno (1889–1935).
George Woodcock’s Anarchist Reader shows a similar diversity, though it leans far more towards the North American tradition than Guérin’s collection and also includes twentieth-century figures like Rudolf Rocker (1873–1958), Murray Bookchin (b. 1921), Herbert Read (1893–1968), Alex Comfort (1920–2000), Nicholas Walter (1934–2000), Colin Ward (b. 1924) and Paul Goodman (1911–1972).
The popularity of Eltzbacher’s approach owes something to Kropotkin – one of his subjects – who in 1910 endorsed Eltzbacher’s study as ‘the best work on Anarchism’. One measure of the method’s success is the distinction that is now commonly drawn between the ‘classical’ theoreticians of anarchism, and the rest. This distinction is particularly marked in academic work. Even whilst nominating different candidates to the rank of classical theorist, by and large academics treat nineteenth-century anarchists as a body of writers who raised anarchism to ‘a level of articulation that distinguished it as a serious political theory’ and disregard the remainder as mere agitators and propagandists.
(Lone Cypress Workshop) I would deeply appreciate a ‘level of articulation that distinguishes it as a serious political theory’. It is what I have been searching for and have yet never quite found it. It is dangerous to suggest that one ‘disregard the remainder as mere agitators and propagandists’ since at the moment they all present themselves as such, and it is the anarchist that will give them legitimacy and substance through their abilities to illustrate the anarchist philosophy through a reasoned narrative. I am always waiting, and more often than not disappointed and thirsting for substantive information.
(RK) In a less than hearty endorsement of anarchism, George Crowder maintained that the ‘“great names” are indeed relatively great because their work was more original, forceful, and influential than that of others’. Some writers from within – or close to – the anarchist movement have also supported the idea of a classical tradition. Daniel Guérin’s guide to anarchism, No Gods, No Masters, includes only writings from those judged to be in the first rank of anarchist thought.
(LCW) I am intrigued by the title ‘No gods, no master’, and yet until something of substance and legitimacy is introduced, it will be difficult to not focus my interests on other alternatives that are willing to submit and defend their own perspectives. It does get a bit tiring incessantly hearing allusions to original, forceful, and influential contributions without ever hearing anything of value. I simply don’t have the time and will not offer the effort if no one within the anarchist community is willing to do so when I am here, aware, and interested in hearing what they have to say.
If those in the ‘first rank of anarchist thought’ are not presented and expanded, in-depth, then I can only conclude that this insightful and focused perspective simply does not exist. It is not my obligation to ferret out the mysteries of the ideology, but the anarchist community has the responsibility to contribute something, anything, of substance and legitimacy for me to consider.
(RK) The contribution of ‘their second-rate epigones’ is duly dismissed. A similar distinction is maintained in popular anarchist publications. Pamphlets and broadsheets produced by anarchist groups continue to focus on the work of Makhno, Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Malatesta; and reprints of original work by this intellectual elite can be readily found at anarchist book-fairs and on websites. Some activists are also happy to publish as anarchist literature the work of leading academic social critics – notably Noam Chomsky – establishing a new tier to the intellectual hierarchy.
(LCW) And yet hierarchies are frowned upon but continually offered as some kind of vindication of positions and fundamental premises. This is unacceptable. If authority is rejected, then the use of any form of authority is contra-indicated in the discussion, and if hierarchies are dismissed as irrelevant and counter-productive then I fail to see the legitimacy of including them in your ‘reasoned’ argumentation. Is this an indication that they are not as fundamental as previously presented?
I think the perpetual addition of even more viewpoints is not actually creating more credibility but the exact opposite. I find myself wanting to hear contemporaries, regular and representative members of the anarchist community, to espouse exactly what it is that they envision for their derivative paradigms, and not the regurgitation of speakers from the 18th and 19th centuries, which quite frankly have little relevance in the context of today’s social, economic and political realities.
This intellectual posturing, trying to elicit validation or legitimacy from these voices from centuries past, while inarguably interesting to some degree, does nothing to provide evidence or validity towards the actions and perspectives in today’s environment. We need to hear the current leadership and thoughtful musings that in turn will give us the insights and reasoned arguments that may inevitably persuade those not already on-board to mount a closer and more in-depth investigation. This is imperative because they see their vision as one of value that deserves to be acknowledged and deeply considered as valid and logical, as opposed to implausible and impractical.
It is the challenge of the anarchist community to respond to the criticisms, not with derision and contempt, but with reason, respect, consideration, and credible philosophy. Anything less will diminish social acceptance and create an insurmountable obstacle to legitimacy.
(RK) Yet Eltzbacher’s method has not been accepted without criticism. Indeed, its success has prompted a good deal of debate and his approach has been attacked on a number of grounds. As Guérin noted, one problem with Eltzbacher’s approach is that it can tend towards biography and away from the analysis of ideas. When the work of the masters is given less priority than the details of their lives, the danger is that the meaning of anarchism can be muddled by the tendency of leading anarchists to act inconsistently or sometimes in contradiction to their stated beliefs.
(LCW) Which is a valid reason to downplay these historical envoys to a place of respect and historical insight, but to use modern voices to explain and clarify from a contemporary perspective. History is instrumental in providing examples and context, but nothing is as dynamic as modern individuals with current examples to push the anarchistic positions and vision for the future in terms that contemporary communities can understand and embrace.
(RK) Another problem is the apparent arbitrariness of Eltzbacher’s selection. Here, complaints tend in opposite directions. Some have argued that the canon is too inclusive, composed of fellow travelers who never called themselves anarchists and those who adopted the tag without showing any real commitment to the movement. Others suggest that the approach is too exclusive and that it disregards the contribution of the numberless, nameless activists who have kept the anarchist movement alive.
(LCW) I would then suggest including and calling attention to these invisible individuals that represent the rest of the anarchist society that feels insignificant and of little consequence in the machinations of the non-existent, and yet ever-present authority that can never be named.
If you are truly of the people and the common man, then stop referencing these historical figures that in many cases never really professed to being an anarchist, and even when they did, it was not in the modern-day context and therefore somewhat irrelevant. They were often, in context, just yesterday’s version of celebrities when what we really need to see are bona fide and actual anarchists who are articulate, thoughtful, and insightful.
You cannot live on the reputation of those individuals that had something to say a hundred years ago or more. They had no first-hand knowledge of today’s environment and realities, and their comments and observations are interesting at best, and exclusive and irrelevant at worst.
(RK) The problem of inclusion has been exacerbated by the habit of some writers treating anarchism as a tendency apparent in virtually all schools of political thought. Armed with a broad conception of anarchism as a belief in the possibility of society without government, anarchists from Kropotkin to Herbert Read have pointed to everything from ancient Chinese philosophy, Zoroastrianism, and early Christian thought as sources of anarchism. The father of Taoism, Lao Tzu, the sixteenth-century essayist Etienne de la Boetie, the French encyclopaedist Denis Diderot, the American Transcendentalist David Henry Thoreau, Fydor Dostoyevsky and Oscar Wilde, and political leaders like Mohandas Gandhi, have all been included in anthologies or histories of anarchism. As Nicolas Walter argued, this inclusiveness can be misleading:
The description of a past golden age without government may be
found in the thought of ancient China and India, Egypt and
Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, and in the same way the wish
for a future utopia without government may be found in the
thought of countless religious and political writers and communities.
But the application of anarchy to the present situation is
more recent, and it is only in the anarchist movement of the
nineteenth century that we find the demand for a society without
government here and now.
(LCW) Think deeply about the wish for a society devoid of government and authority. I have yet to hear reasonable suggestions as to how such an environment would be structured and/or managed. Without a deeply considered response there is the danger that the anarchist ideology will become more laughable than conceivable or desirable. The onus and challenges are on the part of the anarchist community. I can certainly dismiss it without further thought, but it is the contemporary anarchist that has the most to lose, and it is within their power to accept the challenge and respond accordingly. If they are not able or willing to do so then the inevitable end result of irrelevance will be on them.
(RK) The reverse complaint, that the canon is too exclusive, is in part a protest about the restrictedness of the choices. Who decides which anarchists have made the most important contribution to anarchist thought or to history?
(LCW) I think there is a fundamental conflict as we consider such a question. Pretty much by definition, an anarchist is a unique, individualistic, and independent participant in the greater whole that is anarchism. It seems somewhat unreasonable to suggest that they will simply follow the lead of any other individual. Under the best of circumstances, they will consider and conclude based on their own experience and personal ideology, willing to cooperate with other anarchists as well as non-anarchists if their intent and expectations dovetail with their own. Any other form of anarchism does little to pique my interest nor those that wish to investigate anarchism.
This ability to introduce authority and hierarchy seems almost compulsive with all of the ideologies, so it would be reasonable to believe that with the anarchist this will only be more pronounced and obvious with each issue under scrutiny. A true anarchist cannot be led but only persuaded to invest time and resources in something that makes sense to them, and not simply follow some self-appointed spokesperson for the entire ideology. I would find it hard to think it could be anything other than such a paradigm. This makes it difficult to direct and control the members of the community, but is that not the problem that every other ideology, without exception, has to address at some point?
That is why coercion, manipulation, and indoctrination are invariably the only viable alternatives for those of little patience and with grandiose expectations for the movement, not to mention the confidence and hubris that their own perspective is the only real option to achieve success. Beware the intellectual prophet, the selfless symbol of all that is good about any particular movement. They are either a fanatic, a charlatan, or a con man. In any case, a master manipulator, replete with a charm and grace that they have honed to a fine cutting edge.
(RK) In his account of the German anarchist movement Andrew Carlson criticizes theorists of anarchism like Eltzbacher for wrongly suggesting that the German movement produced no writers of repute and that anarchist ideas exercised only a marginal influence on the German socialist movement. Neither view is supportable. Equally misleading is the view, sustained by the canon, that women have made little contribution to anarchism. The anarchist movement has boasted a number of women activists, apart from Emma Goldman, including Louise Michel (1830–1905), Lucy Parsons (1853–1942), Charlotte Wilson (1854–1944), and Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912). These women have made a significant contribution to anarchism and their exclusion from the canon is a sign of unreasonable neglect.
(LCW) It becomes more prevalent with each subsequent attempt at historically directing populations that this obsession with putting time and effort into touting the backgrounds and personal attributes of contributors, no matter the relevance or importance, such as gender, is once again self-defeating and self-destructive. The narrative should be exclusively focused on concepts and philosophies.
Those that are paying attention will certainly take note when the speaker or author is a woman or whatever politically correct attribute is the target of attention. It is what they say, and not who says it that ultimately creates the legitimate and compelling movement. While personalities can play a part, I would tend to think it is the resources wasted on these petty obsessions that overshadow the essence of the philosophy itself. When distractions take center stage, as opposed to concepts and ideologies, attention wanes and diminishes, and is often lost in the confusion. It is extremely difficult to remain ‘on board’ with enthusiasm and optimism when so much of the narrative is on things that are not important enough to sustain the energy of that very same movement.
(RK) In the other part, the complaints about exclusivity touch on the abstraction involved in the process of selection. Many anarchists resent the way in which the study of anarchist thought has been divorced from the political context in which the theory was first advanced. Such a distinction, they argue, legitimizes the intense scrutiny of a tiny volume of anarchist writings and encourages the achievements of the wider movement to be overlooked or ignored.
(LCW) What is this obsession with any process of selection at all? Once again, this is an example of authority and hierarchy, the need to create some elaborate list, and the desire to direct others by selecting specific writers to exemplify only a single (or select group) viewpoint of a specific author or sector of the greater whole. It is the wider movement that will eventually create the dynamism and inclusionary environment that is necessary for the legitimacy and durability of the ideology.
Talk about issues and examples. Speak of optimism and utilize explanations with great detail while introducing and providing a profusion of information and evidence to support and defend the views that you find so compelling. The rest will take care of itself. This need to control and direct the narrative may well be some human trait that will take many more centuries to understand and contain, but it is anathema to any concerted effort to change the activities and thoughts of the social community, and I would think especially in the attempt to engage and energize the anarchist body of thought.
I think the wider movement should be the focus, with their contributions of equal or greater value than those that simply have the talent to produce pleasant prose or aggressive rhetoric. It all comes across as nothing but careful and strategic propaganda (authority and hierarchy), and that seems to conflict with the fundamental focus and desires of the anarchist community. Is this not the case?
(RK) Some anarchists, it’s true, have worked hard to elaborate a coherent anarchist world view: Kropotkin made a self-conscious effort to present himself as a philosopher. But even Kropotkin recognized that anarchism was defined by the countless newspapers and pamphlets that circulated in working-class circles, not by the theories spawned by people like himself.
(LCW) Exactly! While we must all communicate in a coherent manner, I find it hard to accept that there can indeed be anything even approaching a ‘world-view’ of the anarchist. The diversity of the movement precludes any such eventuality. What is needed is a way to contain and manage the plethora of thoughts and insights produced, something akin to herding cats.
The importance of listening to and distributing the work of those within the movement should be the focus, otherwise it will be outside influences that will define and determine the ultimate final product. I personally believe that Ayn Rand is a perfect example of what I am trying to suggest. So many try to create a counter-narrative to her philosophy, but she never rose to the bait and continued to speak her own truth, and while there are many that have embraced those mindless criticisms, their voice has degenerated into an echo chamber for the whining examples of victimhood which is what she tried to articulate from the very beginning.
Her movement has grown with each subsequent year for over fifty years. Will it take its place at the front of the line at some point? It should, but that is not the point. Perhaps, but probably not, and yet when there is a belief system that is comprehensive, rational, and legitimate, the only thing you can do is live the life you have decided is the best form for you, based on the personal philosophy and morality you have been able to craft for yourself and work as hard as you are able, doing the things for which you have the capacity and the ability to achieve, and try to change one mind at a time. The anarchist would do well to think in those terms and control what they can, which is themselves and act in accordance with their values and beliefs. What else can you expect or ask from any individual? There is nothing else.
Stop worrying about what the mindless and the ignorant have to say and illustrate the ideology with your every thought, word, and action. If that is not enough then perhaps the movement and the ideology were doomed from the start in any case. I disagree with Kropotkin, anarchism is not defined by countless newspapers and pamphlets disseminated by the opposition but by these very same things created and dispensed by the membership. One can only be defined by others if you allow it to happen.
(RK) The vast majority of anarchists have worked as essayists and propagandists and it seems unreasonable and unnecessarily restrictive to assess anarchism through the examination of a tiny, unrepresentative sample of literature.
(LCW) Which I believe is in sync with the points I was trying to make. I am a writer and a philosopher, for what it’s worth. I intrinsically understand the value and strength that words can impart to any ideological paradigm, and yet the reality of propaganda is more a means of misinformation, indoctrination, and manipulation than anything else. A dangerous threat without a doubt, but with comprehension an obstacle that can be confronted and controlled.
It is rarely an example of truth but more a matter of fear and ignorance. It certainly can inform and instruct, and yet that is rarely the way it is used. It is invariably used in the promotion and focused agenda of the ideology in question at the expense of morality, ethics, character, and integrity. Normally a matter of the justification of the 'ends' by use of any and all 'means', which I unequivocally reject without exception as a legitimate means to achieving an objective.
(RK) The point is made by Kingsley Widmer:
The parochialism of thinking of anarchism is generally just in the
Baukunin-Kropotkin [sic] nineteenth-century matrix, even when
adding, say, Stirner, Thoreau, Tolstoy, or ... what turned-you-on-ina-
libertarian-way, just won’t do – not only in ideas but in sensibility,
not only in history but in possibility … Either anarchism should be
responded to as various and protean, or it is the mere pathos of
defeats and the marginalia of political theory.
Leaving the problem of arbitrariness aside, other critics have directed their fire at the conclusions Eltzbacher drew from his study. At the end of his book, Eltzbacher attempted to distill from the wide and disparate body of work he surveyed a unifying idea or core belief that would serve to define anarchism. The idea he settled upon was – as the French Academy suggested – the rejection of the state.
(LCW) This may or may not have been an honest interpretation, but as so many of my previous comments have made quite clear, there is no real rejection of the state in its entirety because the state represents authority and hierarchy, and there has never been nor do I believe that there will ever be an ideology that can exist without a minimum structure of state, and it is no different with anarchism.
Without some semblance of state, no one could ever even suggest that another individual do any particular action without their complete and voluntary agreement. Especially with the anarchist, that would specifically demand an individual by individual transformation into a legitimate consensus. This would tend to argue an impossible outcome.
(RK) Anarchists, Eltzbacher famously argued, ‘negate the State for our future’. In all the other areas Eltzbacher pinpointed – law, property, political change, and statelessness – anarchists were divided. The controversy generated by this conclusion has centered on two points.
(LCW) A contradiction in terms exist in the presentation. He argues that anarchists ‘negate the state’ but also claims that on the issue of statelessness anarchists were divided. I would suggest that this concept be clarified before mindlessly accepting both perceptions. You simply cannot have it both ways.
(RK) For some critics Eltzbacher was right to identify anarchism with the rejection of the state, but mistaken in his attempt to classify anarchist families of thought by an apparently scientific method which imposed on anarchism concepts – of property, the state and so forth – that were drawn from legal theory. As one critic put the point, Eltzbacher’s ‘analysis and presentation possessed the finality of a court judgement’. Other critics have been more concerned with Eltzbacher’s general conclusion than with the means by which he purported to distinguish schools of anarchist thought. From this point of view, his mistake was the attempt to identify a common thread in anarchism.
Marie Fleming has forcefully advanced the case. In her study of Elisée Reclus – a writer conspicuous by his absence from Eltzbacher’s study – Fleming argues that the study of sages imposes a putative, yet meaningless, unity of tradition on a set of ideas that are not only diverse but also often incompatible. As she points out, Eltzbacher himself admitted that his defining principle – the rejection of the state – was filled with ‘totally different meanings’.
In his insistence that anarchists be drawn together in one school of thought, he wrongly prioritized philosophy over history. He encouraged the idea that ‘anarchism embodied a peculiar way of looking at the world’ and overlooked the extent to which it was ‘a movement that ... developed in response to specific social-economic grievances in given historical circumstances’.
(LCW) This seems to suggest that the anarchist is not an ideology of action, but one of reaction. The grievances tend to be identical to those of the socialist, communist, and liberal mindsets, things that make them uncomfortable or the unsubstantiated assumption that all workers are victims and completely incapable of prosecuting their own priorities without the influence, dare I say, of some higher authority or state.
The anarchist is often presented as a fiercely independent and individualistic entity, and I believe it irrational to think that they would accept or admit to such a reliance on some outside influence. I think the rank-and-file anarchist is being relegated to that of a sycophant or mindless adherent. I would think that they would strongly disagree and have a vastly different perspective on such an assumption.
(RK) Fleming’s criticism of Eltzbacher’s method is important but it has not undermined the appeal of classical anarchism and should not be taken as a rebuttal of Eltzbacher’s leading conclusion that anarchism implies a rejection of the state. Individual anarchists will of course continue to centre their anarchism on a range of different concepts – usually more positive than the state’s rejection.
Nevertheless, the rejection of the state is a useful ideological marker and one that resonates in popular culture. Moreover, it’s possible to find a corrective for the general unease created by Eltzbacher’s legalism in two alternative methods of analysis. The first seeks to understand anarchism by distinguishing between different schools of thought. The second is based on a historical analysis of the anarchist movement. These approaches shed a more subtle light than Eltzbacher was able to do on the nature of anarchist anti-statism.
(LCW) Is anarchism a philosophy of populism or is it something more dynamic and compelling? Does it persuade individuals to its cause through philosophical concepts and reasoned argument or is it directed by some mindless, emotional, and misinterpretive perspectives? Is it to change the wrongs of a society gone astray or is it an attempted coup of an idealistic pseudo-state machine? The answer, one way or the other, needs to be presented with a clarity that is succinct and without contradictions or obvious vulnerabilities.
Is anarchy so easily deluded simply by what ‘resonates’ with popular culture? Does it not have more depth and legitimacy than some vague ‘likability’? Is it not built upon concrete concepts and fundamental beliefs? Then should the anarchist community articulate them so we can discuss and debate, and not just protest with charismatic and angry rhetoric? Unimpressive.
(RK) Specifically, the analysis of schools has helped to illustrate the broadness of this concept, and the historical approach to its relationship to anti-capitalism.