The Ephemera: A Fabrication
How a Revolution Was Lost (in progress)
In a season filled with real tragedy, it is no surprise that the 5600-acre Mary’s Bend Fire of 2018 left little imprint in the news. No lives were lost—none, at least, that have been confirmed—and only a handful of structures were destroyed. Indeed, apart from a few outbuildings, the only structure to burn was a curious old octagonal house, tucked away at the end of a winding woods road that had never been what they call “improved” and was now nearly impassible.
If you walked the road today—perhaps to survey the burn site, as there is little else to see—you would find yourself weaving through forest land marked by decade upon decade of haphazard, small-scale logging, rising gradually and descending more precipitously over the ridge separating the highway from the course of the St. Mary’s River. Toward the top of the rise a fine stand of old-growth forest remains, spared, though largely by accident, by both loggers and fire. On the downslope, the scars of clearcutting blend with those left by the fire, but with the latter increasingly dominant the farther down you go.
Before the fire, the deeply rutted road passed through a sort of meadow, littered with the remains of old logging, but also dotted, in season, with nearly all that the area has to offer in the way of showy flora. Before the fire, it was a chance to walk that lovely meadow that lured most of the visitors stumbling up that way. The road had only gone on another half-mile or so, ending, after another plunge into some dense woods, in the clearing where old Gabriel Solly lived among the last remnants of the New Earth Institute and the frankly utopian community from which that institution had emerged.
These days, you wouldn’t want to try to go quite so far. What the fire had started, heavy rains a few months later finished quite completely, as the site of the ruined house, perched between the river and the steep slope where the fire had done its worst, simply slumped, en masse, into the Saint Mary’s, briefly damming it and then releasing a wave of muddy water and debris that caused damage as far downstream as Philomath.
I’ve been told, although I’ve never been able to confirm the tale, that burned timbers from the house, recognizable due to the peculiarities of its construction, eventually washed up on the banks of the Willamette, near Albany.
By that time I was personally—and here indeed the story does get personal—much more concerned about the fate of old Gabe Solly, who had been missing long enough to seriously concern all of us who knew him, although careful searches all around the site gave no indication that he had died in the fire.
I met Gabe in a townie bar in Corvallis, quite by accident. I was nearing the end of a relatively fruitless research trip up and down the valley, combing libraries and archives for any scraps of context for the Willamette Pilot, an obscure and apparently short-lived paper, which had mixed columns dedicated to anarchism, free love and vegetarianism with advertisements for various more-or-less cooperative enterprises scattered across Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties. The better part of a week on the road had yielded some fascinating glimpses of rural Oregonian commerce in the 1930s, but shed very little light on the Pilot or its collaborators. In a converted house on the east edge of Eugene, a particularly helpful, perceptive bookseller had delved deep into their memory and then their unshelved stock, eventually producing three issues of a somewhat later naturist paper—really more of a typewritten newsletter—issued, in Dallas under a pseudonym familiar from the Pilot, first (?) as Nature’s Way and then as morning star (all lower-case, “formerly Nature’s Way.”) Those issues had provided a few traceable names—pen-names being the rule—and some far more provocative glimpses of local culture, but another day and a half following the new leads had yielded little. I was prepared to consider myself defeated, at least for the moment, as I worked my way down through a last thick stack of print-outs. Little beyond the pleasures of revisiting an old college haunt kept me at the work—and I will readily confess that I was paying considerably more attention to the local nut-brown ale and the foot traffic outside than I was to that task by the time Gabe walked in.
Truth be told, the urgency of these matters is almost always self-imposed and success is not always in our hands. Some years later—soon after the Mary’s Bend Fire was declared contained, while I awaited news of Gabe and his fate—I picked up a nearly complete run of the Pilot, along with three copies of the Pilot’s Manual, a sort of do-it-yourself compendium and manifesto issued by the same group, at a yard sale not far from Alsea and answered some lingering questions while sitting in my car, eating a brown-bag lunch at the end of a steep dirt road in the coastal range.
But on the afternoon in question I was sitting at a back table in a very old local watering hole, running low on inspiration and wondering whether another pint was called for, when an older fellow, perhaps not that many years my senior, passed my table, headed for the men’s, and treated me to the kind of looking-over that reminded me that, college memories or not, I no longer quite belonged. He was not, to all appearances, a particularly rough customer, but he was obviously “in my business” in a way that suggested that he, at least, felt he had a right to know what I was about. It was the incentive I needed to at least try to give that business my full attention. Trading my beer for a highlighter, I made something of a production of scouring articles for anything that might push my research along.
My luck, however, held.
“That…,” said a voice above me. “That was my father.” Nature’s call presumably answered, that not-quite-rough customer had returned to his examination of me, hovering just a bit closer than was entirely comfortable. His voice was something of a surprise—not because its mixed notes of cultivation and alcohol were unusual in a place like this. Quite the contrary. As far as I can tell, any college town worth its salt naturally develops a population of tweedy sots through processes set in motion by powers greater than our own. But this, if I could put any stock in first impressions, was a fine, upright, rather simple looking man—if I can use that last term without taking anything away from the first two—with calloused hands and dusty boots. “The morning star…,” he said, without clarifying much. And he peered down at me as if perhaps I could help. Finishing my pint seemed like the best option in this lengthening moment, and I did so deliberately, finally setting the glass back down on the table with more emphasis than I had intended.
“Can I get you another? It seems like we should talk.”
I agreed to another, driven, I’ll admit, by a mix of curiosity and unwillingness to naysay that “should.” “Make it a pilsner,” I said as he nodded and turned away, if only not to appear completely cowed. I could hear the bartender greet him, hear them exchange a few words and a laugh, and then he was back, a tall pilsner glass in one hand and a pint of black stout in the other. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. “That… there….” There was a bit of awkward and emphatic pointing. “The morning star… my father published that.” He put his beer down, pulled back a chair and then reached across the table. “I’m Gabe Solly. Nice to meet you.”
We shook hands and settled down with our respective beers, perhaps giving them a bit more attention than they really deserved. But the encounter now well and truly begun, neither of us seemed too eager to push things along. He took a couple of big swallows and made a study of the first bits of lacing on the glass. I swished around a mouthful of pilsner, washing out the mild sweetness of the brown ale, and made as discreet a study as I could of him.
One of my few regrets with regard to Gabe was not just pulling out my camera—then or on a number of similar occasions—and snapping a photo. I have always, I think, had a vague fear that he might bolt or even simply disappear. But now, of course, he has disappeared. And I find it hard to describe the ways in which he always seemed just a bit protean and always seem to threaten to slip from view—even when seated across a narrow bar table, seriously sipping a beer.
You see, my first—or rather my second impression—was that those first fleeting observations had somehow been all wrong. The man now seated across from me pushed through those stammering openings and quite rapidly established himself as a scholar, possessed of considerable knowledge—both local and general—a keen eye and an equally keen intellect. More than that, it became immediately clear that we had a large number of common interests and some shared experiences.
I found myself reciting the relevant details of my research trip—including many that would not, I think, have been relevant in most company. Nothing I said seemed alien to him and his responses were of precisely the sort to instill a sense of shared understanding, even camaraderie. I already had a glimpse of his chameleon-like qualities, which were in many ways quite remarkable, but in this case it was quite simply true that we did indeed have a great deal in common. It was soon no mystery why he felt that we “should” talk.
He told bits of his own story. He was, it turns out, an archivist as well, although he was at that time in the last stages of liquidating the collection that had been amassed by the New Earth Institute. I knew a bit about the history of the Institute, the community of New Earth from which it had grown and even a bit about the Solly family. (During a years-long sojourn in the Midwest, I had attended several conferences and gatherings in Gilead, Ohio—and had, we came to realize, been chauffeured on a tour of the local milieux libres by Gabe’s half-sister.) But Gabe was one of those old heads who really did seem to have been everywhere—at least once, if only while passing through to somewhere else—and could talk about the most remarkable range of subjects with a kind of comfortable, if sometimes distant familiarity.
That, at least, was the case when it came to the kinds of political movement and social experiments about which I had myself amassed no small amount of knowledge.
Making Anarchism Our Own
Anarchism: A General Formula
The interval between the interruption of the “Margins and Problems” survey and the appearance of this first draft-section from the Constructing Anarchisms manuscript has been considerably shorter than expected—a pleasant surprise after the slow going of the last month or so. I’ll talk more about the structure and aims of the book as the pieces come together, but for those who have been following the workshop, these initial sections should be recognizable as new approaches to familiar problems.
Anarchism-in-general: We are addressing anarchism as something that we can make our own, meaning that, in a certain sense, we can each make our own anarchism. Thus, there will be anarchisms, in the plural, that we must learn to identify by their shared characteristics. Part of our task here will be to establish the elements that must be defined in order to present an anarchism. But, in order to be recognizable as an anarchism, each instance must present itself as not just logically or ideologically complete and consistent, but also as intelligible within patterns of historical development.
That may all sound needlessly complicated, but one of the goals here is to capture and clarify the wide range of meanings that the term can and regularly does have in common usage. The anarchism-in-general that we hope to somehow make our own is the vague, inclusive mix of ideas, practices, publications, organizations and traditions that comes to mind when we speak the word “anarchism” with no other clarification. It is both the context for the construction of more individual anarchisms and the evolving product of the interaction between old and new constructions. No one espouses this anarchism-in-general. It is not a matter of theory or ideology, but instead a particular, evolving range of possibilities. So when we say that this is the anarchism that anarchists share, we are making only the most modest claims about specific goals or beliefs held in common.
In order to work with this anarchism-in-general, we need to reduce it to a kind of formula, addressing its various variables and their likely values. We might, for example, propose the following: Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism).
Now, what happens when we try to unpack that formula?
Its form suggests a particular relation between three key terms: anarchy, anarchist and anarchism. That particular relation is suggested, in turn, by the historical development of the anarchist vocabulary, where anarchism lagged behind the other two terms, entering common usage decades later. So, in this arrangement, anarchism will be the –ism associated with the anarchists. And we will allow that suffix a fairly full range of possible meanings, recognizing among the manifestations of anarchism the various ideas, ideologies, activities, organizations, publications and artistic productions, struggles and even general impulses of the anarchists. Such a broad, inclusive approach allows us to capture what remains unspecified in many uses of the term, but it also addresses historical complications arising precisely from that lag between the appearance of anarchists and that of anarchism. In early anarchist writings it is sometimes difficult to distinguish concepts like mutualism and anarchism from mutuality and anarchy. Joseph Déjacque, who seems to have been the first anarchist to embrace anarchism as a keyword, sometimes used it to designate one side in the great social struggle of the era—with the opposite side being jesuitism—and sometimes as something like a fundamental force of nature. In his essay “On Religion,” he declared that the religion of the future must be:
The evolving synthesis of all the contemporary truths; perpetual observation and unification; the progressive organization of all the recognized sciences, gravitating from the present to the future, from the known to the unknown, from the finite to the infinite; the negation of arbitrary absolutism and the affirmation of attractional anarchism; the principle and consecration of every movement in humanity and universality, the pulverization of the past and its rising regeneration in the future, its permanent revolution.
So we may perhaps be forgiven for allowing the suffix here more scope than we might generally give to political —isms. And is, simply attempting to cover our bases, we ran down the list of meanings for that suffix, we might imagine anarchisms that are characteristic quirks or structural changes, anarchisms that resemble volcanisms, exorcisms, heroisms, witticisms, tropisms, etc. We don’t need to imagine that all these senses will come into play with equal regularity. Indeed, we can be certain that they won’t. But with each of these variables we’ll want to give ourselves a sense of the full range of possible values.
As anarchism is defined in terms of the manifestations and tendencies of the anarchists, anarchist is in terms of the relations of individuals (singly or in association) to the idea of anarchy. Here, once again, we have at least some potential ambiguity to address in the sense of the suffix. Proudhon’s provocative declaration—je suis anarchiste—was first uttered in a world where anarchist did not yet designate a political role or adherence to an ideology or movement. The French allows us to read it as the declaration of a role or occupation:
(Compare, for example: Je suis médecin. = I am a doctor.)
or else as a statement about a condition of one’s being:
(Je suis malade. = I am sick.)
And for examples of where we might find anarchisms wary of reducing being an anarchist to fulfilling a role or conforming to a type, we need look no farther than the anarchist individualists and conscious egoists.
Anarchists seek anarchy as a state of relations, express anarchy as a value they seek to embody, etc. And anarchy, to perhaps no one’s surprise, arises from the convergence of two particularly complex variables. In a discussion of his own system of pantarchy, Stephen Pearl Andrews gave this definition for arche:
Arche is a Greek word (occurring in mon-archy, olig-archy, hier-archy, etc.), which curiously combines, in a subtle unity of meaning, the idea of origin or beginning, and hence of elementary principle, with that of government or rule.
Treated as a root for anarchy, it takes us far beyond the narrow senses of “without rulers” or “without government,” but, here again, we have no lack of precedents for that extension, starting with Proudhon’s project of anti-absolutism, which seems to take all of Andrews’ curious combination as its target. And while we allow arche its full scope, we want to take care as well to strip the privative an– of none of its emphatic character.
If, in a general sense, Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism), with the outer layers of the equation representing expressions of the elements within, we can expect the most radical forms of anarchism to emerge when the elements of the central anarchy consist of the broadest sort of arche and the most emphatic form of negation. There will also, of course, be forms of anarchy both much less emphatic and much less sweeping in their rejection of arche. We see anarchism presented at times as little more than a theory of good government. At any given time and place there will be would-be anarchisms proposed so mild or partial in their rejection of arche that they will not be recognizable as anarchism at all. At the same time, we often see an entirely understandable tendency on the part of anarchists to attempt to shield anarchism—or their particular anarchisms—from the more unruly sorts of anarchy. Here again, however, precedents presumably well within the scope of anything like the anarchist canon complicate the issue. Consider, for example, Proudhon’s description, in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, of the series of political forms:
The first term of the series being thus Absolutism, the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses.
It appears then that there will inevitably be a good deal of unavoidable variation among the anarchisms defined by our general formula, with the central term—anarchy—exerting a genuinely anarchic influence on the whole. But perhaps that serves us well, both in accommodating as broad a range of potential anarchisms as we might hope to address and in placing the problem of anarchy at the center of things, in a way that will be hard to avoid.
Having established what appears to be a serviceable formula, we can now turn to the more difficult work of applying it in various operations, both in the analysis of existing anarchisms or potential anarchisms, in the construction of anarchisms of our own and in attempts to glimpse the general shape of anarchism-in-general in specific times and places.
Anarchisms: An Exploratory Taxonomy
Encounters with Anarchism(s)
Becoming an Anarchist