By Will Schnack
Ideologies and philosophies that go by the title “anarchism” are wide-ranging in their span. These include mutualists, individualists, collectivists, communists, capitalists, nationalists, primitivists, futurists, and more. It has become something of a common trend for people to come up with the next new “anarcho-” position. Even more recently, as a revival of an attempt to settle the “infighting,” positions which include all of these into their ranks have been taken, with titles such as “anarchism without adjectives” or “without hyphens” and “pan-anarchism.” However, when one actually analyzes these different factions, one quickly comes to realize that most of the hyphenated positions are not much different from the standard views of the statist, except for a few minor details, usually philosophically inconsistent.
I’m here to do what I can to stop all of the confusion.
The first form of anarchism was mutualism, as Pierre Proudhon was the first to label himself as such. Yes, there were thinkers long before Proudhon who espoused anarchic philosophies. These folks did not call themselves anarchists. William Godwin, labeled an anarchist posthumously, and Josiah Warren, whose writing precedes Proudhon’s by some years, were only widely referred to as anarchists after Proudhon’s use of the term in describing himself. Josiah Warren had actually resisted comparisons to Proudhon made by William Greene, but nonetheless Proudhon’s title of “anarchist” would be attached to Warren’s name in the United States through the thought of folks such as Benjamin Tucker. It is those elements which have something in common with Proudhon’s thought—mutuality—that are responsible for each individual’s claim to the title. Without these similarities to the man who was the first to identify himself as such, there would be no claim for these others. William Godwin and Josiah Warren, like Proudhon, described a liberty of the individual accompanied by a widespread access to land, which set them apart from both state socialists and classical liberals, and made comparisons to Proudhon easy.
Any positive use of the term “anarchist” must relate to the philosophy of Proudhon’s in some way, and indeed this seems to have been the case historically. Proudhon seems to have set the precedent for defining an anarchist. Perhaps what makes Proudhon the most relevant basis for anarchist thought is that it was Proudhon who was the main philosopher of anarchism during anarchism’s rise as a social movement in Europe, during the Paris Commune and First International, where Proudhonists were a dominant presence. No other anarchic thinker had inspired a social movement of this magnitude in the modern era. Because Proudhon was both the first to self-identify as an anarchist, and because he was also the first to inspire a large movement of anarchists behind him, it’s not unreasonable to use his defining thought as a standard from which to gauge the merits of others. In fact, it seems the reasonable thing to do so.