Nathan J. Jun, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Philosophy Program
Midwestern State University
My current research project is a 2-volume study entitled The Immortal Idea. What follows is a brief overview of the first volume, An Intellectual History of Anarchism.
Although anarchism has been ignored, dismissed, and vilified for most of its history, there is a growing sense that the tide is turning in its favor. Since the late 1990s, the stunning resurgence of anarchist and anarchist-inspired politics that originated—or, at the very least, was first recognized—in the context of the anti-globalization movement has continued to grow in strength and influence. In so doing, it has had a far-reaching and transformative impact on other political movements throughout the world, including the Arab Spring (2010-2012), the global Occupy movement (2011-2012), the Indignados movement in Spain (2011-present), the Quebec student protests (2012), and the Nuit Debout movement in France (2016).
The political resurgence of anarchism has been accompanied by an explosion of academic interest in the subject, as is made clear by the enormous volume of anarchism-related research published in the last five years alone. While this research has contributed significantly to our understanding of the social, cultural, and political history of anarchism, only a handful of recently-published studies deal explicitly with its intellectual history, and these have tended to replicate the shortcomings of older accounts—for example, focusing inordinately on theoretical texts to the exclusion of other forms of anarchist intellectual and cultural production; misunderstanding or mischaracterizing the historical, intellectual, and political connections that exist between anarchism and other political-theoretical currents; privileging the intellectual contributions of white, middle class, European males while simultaneously ignoring or downplaying those of female, non-white, non-European, and working class actors; and paying insufficient attention to the relationship between anarchist ideas and anarchist practices as well as the various ways these practices and ideas originate within, and evolve in response to, different contexts. In their tendency to identify anarchism with a fixed set of beliefs, principles or values, moreover, they have consistently relied on definitions that are either too broad (which makes anarchism an incoherent jumble of ideas that from other perspectives) or too narrow (which makes anarchism a static, homogeneous belief system that marginalizes or altogether excludes historically significant tendencies). As such, they fail to explain what makes anarchism a shared intellectual tradition while simultaneously accounting for the existence of diverse anarchist perspectives.
The Immortal Idea provides a much more nuanced and methodologically sound analysis of the historical origins and development of anarchist ideas. Drawing upon Michael Freeden’s theory of ideology, the volume argues that intellectual traditions should be understood not as fixed belief systems but as complex conceptual formations that evolve and change over time in response to shifting internal and external contexts. According to this view, intellectual traditions are analogous to ideologies insofar as both seek to "decontest"—i.e., to ascribe particular meanings to the concepts they include. Although every tradition is defined by a particular set of so-called core concepts, each is capable of accommodating a diverse range of perspectives that differ with regard to the adjacent and peripheral concepts they recognize. By treating anarchism as an intellectual tradition in this sense—that is, a complex and evolving conceptual cluster—the Immortal Idea circumvents the definitional pitfalls that have beset other studies. In so doing, it will address the confusion surrounding contemporary anarchism and its relationship with other political ideologies, including earlier iterations of anarchism itself, as well as to shed light on the overall place of anarchism in the history of political thought. In this way it promises to make a significant and original contribution that will prove valuable to historians, political theorists, and other scholars in a wide range of humanities disciplines and provide a firm foundation for other investigations of the topic going forward.
Central to the view I am urging, the intellectual history of anarchism is primarily concerned with how its distinctive concepts originate as well as how they evolve over time. As such, the proposed study has three fundamental tasks, each of which corresponds to a major part of the text—first, to determine what these concepts are (identification); second, to explain where, when, and how they came about (origination); and third, to examine the various ways they have changed (evolution). The first task is not simply a matter of determining which concepts factor most prominently in the anarchist tradition, but also of explaining the unique ways that anarchists have decontested these concepts historically. On the basis of a thoroughgoing examination of a wide range of anarchist intellectual and cultural discourses, I will argue in part one that there are at least three core concepts that define the anarchist tradition as such—namely, freedom, equality, and solidarity—as well as a range of adjacent and peripheral concepts including, but not limited to, direct action, revolution, federalism, communism, environmentalism, feminism, and pacifism.
The second task, which is in many respects the most challenging, involves investigating the historical circumstances under which particular concepts begin to take on the meanings ascribed to them by the anarchist tradition. As I will argue in part two, a uniquely anarchist decontestation of the three concepts cited above emerges in the late eighteenth century and continues to evolve in the early nineteenth century until finally assuming its mature shape in the late 1840s. As anarchism begins to distinguish itself from other traditions in the 1860s and 70s, it gradually gives rise to adjacent and peripheral concepts whose positions relative to the core are constantly shifting in response to internal and external factors.
The third task is largely a matter of identifying and explaining the most crucial shifts as they occur over time. It is here, in part 3, that a careful consideration of print history and transnational migration history becomes especially important, as changes in the overall conceptual formation of anarchism are often related to the dissemination of anarchist ideas and practices through various kinds of networks.
The proposed volume will be at least 80,000 words in length inclusive of front matter, bibliography, and index. As noted above, it is divided into three parts. Part 1 ("The Conceptual Morphology of Anarchist Thought"), which is concerned with identifying the core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts that populate the complex and evolving core of anarchist thought, includes the following chapters: Chapter 1: Approaches to the History of Political Thought; Chapter 2: Ideological Analysis and the History of Political Thought; Chapter 3: Core Concepts of Anarchist Thought; Chapter 4: Adjacent Concepts of Anarchist Thought; and Chapter 5: Peripheral Concepts of Anarchist Thought. Part 2 ("The Historical Origins of Anarchist Thought"), which seeks to explain where, when, and how the concepts identified in part 1 came about, includes the following chapters: Chapter 6: Proto-Anarchist Ideas in the History of Political Thought; Chapter 7: The Enlightenment and the French Revolution; Chapter 8: Hegel, Romanticism, and Early Socialism; Chapter 9: Materialism and Positivism; and Chapter 10: Marxism and Beyond. Part 3 ("The Historical Evolution of Anarchist Thought"), which examines the various ways that anarchist concepts have changed over time as well as the social, political, cultural and intellectual mechanisms by which these changes were brought about, consists of the following chapters: Chapter 11: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1770-1840; Chapter 12: The Age of Anarchy, 1840-1865; Chapter 13: The Age of Anarchism, 1865-1890; Chapter 14: Anarchism in the World, 1890-1939; and Chapter 15: Anarchism Since 1939.
Anarchism has been the overarching focus of my scholarly career. In addition to a monograph and several edited volumes, I have published more than 2 dozen articles, book chapters, and reviews on the subject. I have also presented my work at approximately twenty-four conferences since 2008. My earlier writings—which reflect my training as a philosopher and political theorist—were mainly concerned with identifying and critically analyzing anarchism’s basic philosophical commitments as well as exploring the historical and intellectual relationships that exist between anarchism and various strands of recent European philosophy.2 Since at least 2012, the principal aim of my research has been to examine and understand the place of anarchist texts, thinkers, and theories within the broader history of political thought.3 In the course of pursuing this aim, I have gained valuable experience in archival research as well as proficiency in translating French and Italian sources. The proposed project represents the culmination of this work and sets the stage for its next stage: a comprehensive philosophical analysis of anarchist political theory in historical context.