The Synthesist’s Consolation

“L’homme se trompe parce qu’il apprend.”—P.J. Proudhon

One of the catalysts for the post on “Coming to Terms with the Anarchist Past,” and the particular kind of clarification it represents, has been the work I’ve been doing for an encyclopedia entry on mutualism. It felt like a project I had been working towards for close to a quarter of a century. It has turned out to be one more in a series of theoretically simple projects that have run up against the significant and unexpected difficulties presented by that complicated succession—from anarchy to “modern anarchism”—that occurred sometime around the death of Bakunin in 1876. In fact, I’ve only just managed to pull the last bits of it together, long after my original deadline, because I came to realize, in what I thought were the last stages of writing the entry, that, while I knew much more than could be comfortably included about a wide range of mutualisms, I had somehow missed the thread that made sense of them as a steadily evolving tradition.

That’s no small admission to make, but I really want to underline it here, because an awful lot of what I will be talking about in the near future involves a similar dynamic: on the one hand, there are real accomplishments, knowledge amassed, insights developed, etc., and there is no question of denying the fruits of past labors—whether we are talking about my own work over the last couple of decades or that of anarchists more generally over a much longer period of time; on the other, there is a work of synthesis, evaluation, revision, etc., which cannot take place without those other labors, but which probably has to take place before that work can really be said to have yielded its fruits.

I think it is widely understood that one of the difficulties we face in the anarchist milieus is the extent to which our relations and interactions assume a shared project—and all the elements that make such a sharing possible—when, in reality, we often share very little beyond some very general attitudes and a vocabulary that we tend to use in very diverse ways. But it’s one thing to understand that this difficulty exists and another thing entirely to either construct something shared—or even shareable—or to adapt our practice to the realities of our situation. Neither option seems particularly easy, particularly if, as I’m suggesting, some of the things that we presumably already share—including a particular conception of anarchism and a particular framing of anarchist history—have  been connected from their origins to an anarchist practice characterized by at least some ambivalence about how much sharing—let alone synthesizing, revising and such—it is appropriate to do.

One of the things that has drawn me to Voline’s concept of anarchist synthesis—especially as elaborated in his 1924 article “On Synthesis“—is that its basic assumption is that a project as ambitious as the pursuit of anarchy in a world dominated by authority is necessarily going to be a shared project, with aspects parceled out, whether consciously or not, among various individuals or tendencies, who will eventually have to compare notes and determine what their combined explorations reveal. Returning again to whatever valid analogies there may be between individual efforts and those of anarchists in general, it seems useful to me to note that most of the insights I have gained—or at least think I have gained—into the more fundamental aspects of anarchist thought have come from a process of coming at questions from multiple perspectives, through the literature of various tendencies, etc., in a manner that in some ways mimics the synthetic method proposed by Voline in a single, though varied exploration. The experience of that sort of work has suggested to me at least the bare possibility of assembling a shareable narrative covering basic anarchist ideas, but the same experience has also impressed upon me the futility of attempting to share with those who see the furtherance of their own anarchistic projects only in the continued refinement of personal or local projects.

It seems to me that the perspective that has treated internal critiques, like those at the heart of anarchism without adjectives and anarchist synthesis, as nothing more than the emergence of new anarchist factions is a perspective essentially blind to the need for the kind of common project that could really have anarchy at its center. It’s not too hard, I think, to imagine varieties of anarchism—ideological or absolutist anarchisms—that recognize the virtues of anarchy in a variety of social contexts, but require rather more certainty and unwavering agreement among their adherents. Nor is it too difficult, I imagine, to dream up all the ways a more anarchic anarchism might possibly go wrong.

The thing is that going wrong seems to be part of the process. This is the synthesist’s consolation, but it is also a view we can trace back through the anarchist literature to Proudhon and What is Property? There, Proudhon presents one of the earliest versions of his argument that the fundamental laws of the universe are universal antagonism and reciprocity, the two faces of the interdependence that characterizes social relations, but also the relations of elements internal to any individual. He is looking for an alternative to the theory that it is sin that rules human relations and suggests that behind any religious sentiment there is finally “man himself; volition and conscience, free-will and law, eternally antagonistic. Man is at war with himself. Why?” The religious, he says, equate every sort of error or misstep with sin and claim, in effect, that “man sins because he sins.” If this is true, then consolation can only come from somewhere outside the vicious circle of human experience. Proudhon proposes the alternative explanation: “L’homme se trompe parce qu’il apprend.” We make mistakes because we are learning.

It is not always clear if anarchists can, in general, distinguish missteps from some form of secular sin. And if we cannot make the distinction then we can hardly expect to escape an equally vicious circle, with the eternal verities of our chosen ideologies playing the God-role and offering the only hope of salvation. That would be, to put it very mildly, an ironic fate for anti-authoritarians, particularly when the alternative seems to be a matter of sharing—something we often pride ourselves on ability and eagerness to do.

Perhaps the problem is that we are not particularly eager to share our mistakes, to share in the experience of being regularly, normally mistaken as we advance towards an ideal that we have to acknowledge involves a radical break with most of the norms of our existing societies. Or perhaps it is our sense of the radical nature of our ideal that makes it so easy for our pursuit of it to fall back into fundamentally religious patterns. Or perhaps a little of both dynamics are at play, with us just that much more defeated by the combination.

But if what I am calling the synthesist’s consolation really comes at the cost of acknowledging and then in some sense sharing the ways that we solved the problems of anarchism, as a step towards learning to share progressively more adequate syntheses, then at least we do not have to start entirely from scratch. Here is Proudhon again, from The Philosophy of Progress, testifying to another, very different way to think about our missteps on the road to anarchy:

What could a few lapses, a few false steps, detract from the rectitude of my faith, the goodness of my cause?… You will please me, sir, to learn for yourself what road I have traveled, and how many times I have fallen along the way. Far from blushing at so many spills, I would be tempted to boast of them, and to measure my valor by the number of my contusions.