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  • Social Histories of Anarchism
  • Carl Levy

Introduction: Overview

This article is a synoptic overview of a larger project on the social histories of anarchism from the eighteenth century to the present. The specific themes of this article are a discussion of the periodization of anarchism as an ism, an ideology originating in nineteenth-century Europe, and its relationship to and differences with more general libertarian or noncoercive modes of behavior and organization found in all human societies. Secondly, the dissemination of anarchism (and syndicalism) throughout the globe and thus the role of the Global South in the history of anarchism will be surveyed. This article focuses on the period of classical anarchism (1860s to 1940s) and therefore discusses the differences between preanarchism and classical anarchism on the one hand, and classical anarchism and postanarchism on the other.

Once that is established, which in turn sets the context for the ideology of classical anarchism, the article proceeds to examine the dissemination and reception of anarchism from the 1880s to 1914—in many ways the heyday of anarchism as a global movement, in which it competed with, and at times challenged, the hegemony of social democracy. This challenge was most successfully mounted where anarchism merged with or lived under the protective cover of the syndicalist movement. Thus, a discussion of the relationships among anarchism, syndicalism, and the globalization of the [End Page 1] labor movement in the period 1880-1914 is pursued. But anarchism also "punched over its weight" by having the best tunes: anarchist culture and anarchist practices seeped into the broader socialist and labor movements through popular forms of sociability on the one hand and the close relationship of avant-garde literature and the figurative arts on the other. Thus the sociology and social history of patterns of neighborhood and recreational embeddedness of anarchist subcultures are discussed in tandem with a review of the literature on the relationships among the intelligentsia, anarchism, and bohemia. The article concludes with a review of the growing literature on the dissemination and reception of classical anarchism in the Global South.

Standard accounts of anarchism (Max Nettlau, James Joll, George Woodcock, and Peter Marshall) combine renditions of histories of ideas, political biography, and accounts of political and social movements. But my project seeks to collate and employ the outpouring of published and unpublished academic writing on the social history of anarchism, a product of the explosive growth of higher education since the 1960s and the accompanying innovations in historiography, the social sciences, and the humanities. By employing similar methodologies and asking similar questions about anarchism that have been posed in kindred fields of social, socialist, and labor histories, anarchism is no longer approached as a context-less, ahistorical study in social pathology. In their recent magisterial account, Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt have been inspired by this method. However they limit their project to "class struggle anarchism," essentially variations on syndicalist and peasant forms of anarchism.1 Although they have produced an impressive global mapping of aspects of classical anarchism, their terms of reference are too limited and sectarian for my tastes. I will return to their important contribution to the mapping of classical anarchism in the Global South later in this article. In any case, full engagement with other disciplines in the social sciences, as recently suggested by Davide Turcato, is still to be carried out on a global scale.2

Overview of the Project

Thus this article is about historical periodization and definitional boundaries, the dissemination of modes of organization and the intersections of ideas and cultures, played out within the imperial carve-out of the globe and through [End Page 2] the circuits of capital and labor that embraced it by 1914. Anarchism was an alternative form of modernity, which mounted in the most thorough way a criticism of empire and nation-state but simultaneously was part and parcel of the processes of modernization and globalization, which swept the globe before 1914. In a broader project, which this article reviews, I cover individual fields of study that help one situate anarchism in this larger framework, some of which I published earlier in my career, while others await publication:

  • • The notions...


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