New Series: Proudhon’s Social Science

The posts in this series will consist of a fairly wide-ranging exploration of some of the principles of Proudhon’s thought and their application in the present. As it seems appropriate, I will be including or linking to posts from the Contr’un blog that seem to advance the study. [I’ll keep this post stickied until things have settled down enough to add navigation menus to the posts in the series.]

  1. All Actors Are Collective Actors: The Unity-Collectivity
  2. Equality and Justice
  3. Reciprocity
  4. Special Agent: The Free Absolute


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Equality and Justice

Let’s take a little extra time to emphasize the flatness of Proudhon’s system. Unity-collectivities at different scales overlap, but their relationships remain horizontal. The anarchistic “State” is, Proudhon tells us, “a kind of citizen” and the principle of political equality applies to all the citizens, no matter their kind. And the collective is a kind of individual almost everywhere we look in Proudhon’s work, and equality extends across widely different scales and between individuals of radically different makeup.

The recognition of equality becomes the foundation for justice—and Proudhon’s individualities at various scale crowd the world with potential equals, whose interests must be balanced in order to establish justice. And, indeed, equality, justice and balance are all just descriptions of particular aspects of a world without hierarchy and authority. They are really all just aspects of anarchy. But if we are to bring about anarchy, naturally we need to look closely at it from all sides.

When we are focused on equality, perhaps the most pressing question becomes what individualities can be recognized as equals. In the opening study in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Proudhon suggested broad inclusion as a principle. As we look around the world, we recognize those individuals capable of looking back at us, but, he said, “the passive does not exclude the reciprocal,” suggesting that ethical recognition at least potentially has to extend farther, perhaps to “plants and rocks, which are, like the hairs and the bones of my body, parts of the great organism.” With a modern ecological sensibility, we can certainly begin to consider some of the unity-collectivities in non-human nature that might call for recognition, along with others on a scale that includes human beings along with other elements. But the breadth of Proudhon’s conclusion will, I think, still challenge many of us:

Instead of seeking the law of my philosophy in a relation between myself, which I consider as the summit of being, and that which is the most inferior in creation and that I repute to be non-thinking, I will seek that law in a relation between myself and another self that will not be me, between man and man. For I know that every man, my fellow, is the organic manifestation of a mind, is a self; I judge equally that animals, endowed with sensibility, instinct, even intelligence, although to a lesser degree, are also selves, of a lesser dignity, it is true, and placed at a lower degree on the scale, but created according to the same plan; and as I no more know of a demarcation marked between the animals and the plants, or between those and the minerals, I ask myself if the unorganized beings are not still minds which sleep, selves in the embryonic state, or at least the members of a self of which I ignore the life and operations?

If every being is thus supposed self and non-self, what can I do better, in this ontological ambiguity, than to take for the point of departure of my philosophy the relation, not of me to myself, in the manner of Fichte, as if I wanted to make the equation of my mind, simple, indivisible, incomprehensible being; but of myself to another that is my equal and is not me, which constitutes a dualism no longer metaphysical or antinomic, but a real duality, living and sovereign?

We know the instances where Proudhon struggled to be as just to women as he presumably would be to rocks or hair and bones, but even then his failure was more a matter of fact than principle. He struggled, as we still do in other contexts, to reconcile the absolute equality of his principle with his sense of greater or less capacity or “dignity.” As I understand the work of Joseph Déjacque, the figure usually proposed as an alternative to Proudhon on questions of gender, he also wrestled with reconciling anarchistic thinking with his sense of natural hierarchies, and was perhaps a little more certain about the “place” of men and women in the universal circulus than we would be entirely comfortable with. Between them, I suspect we might have the material for a more successful attempt—but I’m fairly certain we won’t succeed without some additional wrestling of our own.

From the side of justice, it is a question of what individualities can demand (in one way or another) to be included in the balancing of interests, and, again, Proudhon concluded that those claims could come from a wide range of sources. In War and Peace, he laid out a general theory of “rights:”

RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.

What we have here is a scheme in which “faculties, attributes and prerogatives” seem to be among the elements that call for recognition. And every right “exists only under the condition of reciprocity.”

Reciprocity, however, is something we will have to return to in more detail.

In the meantime, the post on “” addresses some of the issues we will have to makes sense of.

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The Mutual Banking Writings of William Batchelder Greene

The important works are:

  • Equality. West Brookfield, Mass.: O. S. Cooke, 1849. [published anonymously] [74 pages]
  • Mutual Banking. West Brookfield, Mass.: O. S. Cooke, 1850. [95 pages]
  • The Radical Deficiency Of The Existing Circulating Medium, And The Advantages Of A Mutual Currency. Boston: B. H. Greene, 1857. [239 pages]
  • Mutual Banking, Showing The Radical Deficiencies Of The Existing Circulating Medium, And The Advantages Of A Free Currency. Worcester, Mass.: New England Labor Reform League, 1870. [52 Pages]
  • Mutual Banking. Modern Publishers, Indore City, India, 1946

plus a couple of short sections in Socialistic, Communistic, Mutualistic and Financial Fragments (Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1875) and a series of articles published around 1849 in the Worcester, MA Palladium. I have yet to see the articles, so I can’t comment much, except to say that they are explicitly mentioned in Equality as the source of much of that work. The Fragments contains a couple of excerpts, slightly rewritten from the 1870 Mutual Banking, plus “Mr. Phillips on the Currency.”

There were a few surprises as I worked through the various texts. First, despite the difference in length–239 and 52 pages!–the 1857 and 1870 editions are largely identical. The 1857 Radical Deficiency includes the texts of the “applications” of several Massachusetts towns for permission to start a mutual bank. The 1870 New England Labor Reform League edition has a preface by Ezra Heywood and a new “Conclusion.” Second, these editions essentially amount to an edited and somewhat secularized joint reprinting of Equality and and the 1850 Mutual Banking.

The major sections of the 1857 and 1870 works are as follows, with the source of each section in the 1849-1850 works noted:

  • The Usury Laws [from Equality]
  • The Currency [from Equality]
  • The Currency: Its Evils, and Their Remedy [from Equality]
  • Mutual Banking [from Mutual Banking, 1850]
  • Petition for a General Mutual Banking Law [from Mutual Banking, 1850]
  • The Provincial Land Bank [from Mutual Banking, 1850]
  • Money [from Mutual Banking, 1850, originally “Capital”]
  • Credit [from Mutual Banking, 1850]

There’s a bit of shuffling and streamlining of several sections in the 1857 text. Some of the less businesslike language is cut from the earlier editions. The 1850 edition has a substantially less elaborate “petition” in that section, but the 10-point petition used in later editions is appended at the end of the text.

The Modern/Gordon Press edition that is available online generally follows the 1857 and 1870 editions, but with even more simplification and streamlining.

That leaves the whole sections simply dropped from the two early works. Equality has a section on “Equal Laws and Equality Before the Law” and an introduction to “The Banking System” which were dropped, as was the entire second half of the work, “Equality , No. II: To the Philosophers and Politicians.” Equality II is an important piece, tying Greene’s political and financial work to elements from his critique of transcendentalism. It contains one of his strongest defenses of individualism and some of his strongest criticisms of “socialism.” I want to come back to this work in another context, because it anticipates some concerns I think the historians have tended to associate with later works. It should be read with the essays in The Blazing Star, some of the more esoteric Fragments, the A Priori Autobiography, and, probably, with the elements left stranded in the 1850 Mutual Banking:

  • an Introduction, covering the development of mutualist thought from Sparta to the Christian communion
  • a section on “The Proletariat”
  • “Usury,” a section dealing with the problem in largely religious terms
  • “The Cherubim,” a short, esoteric essay on human unity

And that’s pretty much the story. It’s likely that an inclusive edition, containing the important text from all editions, would run to something like 80 pages, with modern type and such–an ungainly thick pamphlet, but maybe still worth putting out there.

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What Mutualism Was: An Incomplete History of Mutualist Tendencies

It has been over a decade since I started piecing together the pieces of mutualist history. At the time, the work had a curious urgency, as the handful of us who had gravitated to the “mutualist” label had a lot of ground to cover in order to really understand just what we had implicated ourselves in. The specific project of sketching all that early history is one in which I have invested less energy as the years went on, but I’ve never stopped documenting the bits of history that I have found. The links here will form an evolving and definitely incomplete history of the various tendencies that have been called “mutualist,” but I think even this fragmentary documentary history is quite useful for those now facing the same questions we did a decade ago.

What Mutualism Was

  1. (1845-1872)
  2. (1849)
  3. (1854)
  4. Mutualists in the First International
  5. (Benj. R. Tucker)
  6. (poem) (1874)
  7.  (1933)

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The Fundamental Laws of the Universe

[At various points in this series, which is still very exploratory, it will probably be useful to drop in excerpts or whole posts from other sources, like this post from Contr’un, April 24, 2014. A few of the terms may be unfamiliar, but they are all concepts that we will get around to soon in this series.]

What would it take to flesh out the federative theory of property hinted at in the last post? What exactly does it mean to say that “property can be understood as an instance of federation”? We’re starting from a provocative reading of bits and pieces from Proudhon’s later works, and leaning hard, for the moment, on a portion of the title of The Theory of Property that didn’t make it out of the manuscript, and we’re going to have to go beyond anything explicitly laid out in Proudhon’s work. Still, I don’t think the extrapolation I’m about to make should strike anyone who has been following the work here as particularly extreme—particularly given the extremities to which we’ll see Proudhon go along the way.

So let’s start with the idea of federation. Proudhon’s The Federative Principle may have been, as he claimed, a rapid sketch, but it was obviously an important one. In it, we find one of those professions of principle of which Proudhon was so fond:

All my economic ideas, developed over the last twenty-five years, can be defined in three words: agro-industrial federation; all my political views may be reduced to a parallel formula: political federation or decentralization; and since I do not make my ideas the instruments of a party or of personal ambition, all my hopes for the present and future are contained in a third term, a corollary of the first two: progressive federation.

There’s not a lot of room left for ambiguity there. The central place of federation in his thought is clear, and if we recall his other claim:

“…transported into the political sphere, what we have previously called mutualism or guarantism takes the name of federalism. In a simple synonymy the revolution, political and economic, is given to us whole…”

we know that mutualism and guarantism essentially occupy the same place.

As a concept, this mutualism-guarantism-federation is perhaps a little tough to grasp. The synonymy doesn’t really seem all that simple. But that not-so-simple synonymy turns out to be a problem with several layers, as we start to look again at the individual synonyms. If we look at the explanation of “the mutualist system” in The Political Capacity of the Working Classes we find a fairly representative example of Proudhon’s treatment of mutuality:

The French word mutuel, mutualité, mutuation, which has for synonyms réciproque, réciprocité, comes from the Latin mutuum, which means [a consumer] loan, and in a broader sense, exchange. We know that in the consumer loan the object loaned is consumed by the borrower, who gives the equivalent, either of the same nature or in any other form. Suppose that the lender becomes a borrower on his side, you would have a mutual service, and consequently an exchange: such is the logical link has given the same name to two different operations. Nothing is more elementary than this notion

Mutualism is thus a system of credit, in some sense, but as we look around a bit more it appears that we can’t just leap from this family of mutual ideas to, say, the Bank of the People or some understanding of credit that we’ve brought along with us. In fact, when we go back to the 1848 article on the “Organization of Credit and Circulation,” where it quite literally is a question of introducing the first version of the Bank of the People, we find Proudhon grounding his practical proposal in an exploration of the “fundamental laws of the universe,” one of which is reciprocity, mutuality’s synonym:

We need, however, no great effort of reflection in order to understand that justice, union, accord, harmony, and even fraternity, necessarily suppose two terms and that unless we are to fall in to the absurd system of absolute identity, which is to say absolute nothingness, contradiction is the fundamental law, not only of society, but of the universe!

Such is also the first law that I proclaim, in agreement with religion and philosophy: it is Contradiction. Universal Antagonism.

But, just as life supposes contradiction, contradiction in its turn calls for justice: from this the second law of creation and humanity, the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements, RECIPROCITY.

RECIPROCITY, in all creation, is the principle of existence. In the social order, Reciprocity is the principle of social reality, the formula of justice. Its basis is the eternal antagonism of ideas, opinions, passions, capacities, temperaments, and interests. It is even the condition of love.

RECIPROCITY is expressed in the precept: Do unto others what you would have others do unto you; a precept that political economy has translated in its famous formula: Products exchange for products.

Now the evil that devours us comes from the fact that the law of reciprocity is unknown, or violated. The remedy is entirely in the promulgation of that law. The organization of our mutual and reciprocal relations is the entirety of social science.

This is really pure Proudhon, writing like the best socialist philosophers of his era, swooping from one scale of concerns to another, and back again, so quickly and nimbly that you might miss it if you’re not expecting the maneuver. And these are the moments that, from my perspective at least, give us our clearest glimpses of just how much is going on in Proudhon’s thought. So, on the way to a practical proposal about credit, we get the first two “fundamental laws of the universe:” universal antagonism and mutual penetration of the antagonistic elements.
We’ve tended to see and remember that Proudhon thought reciprocity resembled the Golden Rule, and I’ve spent some time working out the most robust version of that principle that I can, but it’s been harder to incorporate all the other things that Proudhon said about reciprocity into our account of mutualism. What we have generally treated as an ethical principle is also, and perhaps primarily, an observation about how the world works, an observation about ontology. I think some reluctance to tackle the fundamental laws of the universe may be considered simply prudent. But those who have been reading along can perhaps see that I’ve been trying to pull these various threads together for quite some time, and that for roughly a year now I’ve had a sort of “Note to self” stuck up at the top of the page here.
The first law of the universe is Contradiction, Universal Antagonism, and we know it because everything important to us about being in the world seems to rely on something other than, and opposed to, “the absurd system of absolute identity.” So now we need to talk about identity (which will, necessarily, carry us back into the vicinity of property.) And, again, we have to recognize that we are not just, and perhaps not even primarily, talking about ethical precepts now. Identity leads us to antagonism because all of the ways that we identify identity seems to depend on something other than simple internal uniformity. Absolute identity is an illusion of authority, and the alternative is a sort of contr’un, which is always to some degree at war with itself (as a simple unity.) We can recall some of the ways that we have marked this non-simple character, in relation to human selves:
  • Proudhon: “Every individual is a group.”
  • Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The second law is Reciprocity, Mutuality, which we understand is related to credit and exchange, and answers somehow to the provocative formula of “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements,” all without ceasing to also resemble or invoke the Golden Rule. Identity exists between Universal Antagonism and Imminent Justice. (We might say: between War and Peace and Justice in the Revolution and in the Church.) If things are, on the one hand, always coming apart more than our sense of them as unique things easily accounts for, it appears that they are, on the other hand, always more mixed up together than we tend to think. There are comments in The Philosophy of Progress about the impossibility of separating the self and the non-self that undoubtedly speak to this general insight, but there is also the the whole theory of the collective force and collective beings.

The more you chase the references around in Proudhon’s work, the more the metaphors of love and war, science and commerce seem to all get mixed up together. But that’s often a good sign in his work, suggesting you’re closing in on something central. A full explication of all the textual concerns would be demanding, but the general idea isn’t terribly difficult. As Whitman said, we are “not contain’d between [our] hat and boots.” The business of possessing an individual identity involves us in a sort of constant borrowing and lending, which involves some overlapping, some interpenetrating which is at least antagonistic to the simpler ideas of identity. That naturally means it will have some consequences for any simple notions of property as well.

And this is really a point in the elaboration of Proudhon’s thought that we’ve reached quite a number of times. When we bring in Proudhon theory of collective individuals, with his judgment that we must always encounter other individuals as at least potentially our equals, and then add in his theory of rights:

RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations.

we end up with a cast of political characters that would be complicated under any circumstances, but which we must account for in ways that acknowledge all sorts of overlap and interpenetration—but without, in the process, retaining or introducing any sort of hierarchy.

In the next post, I want to retrace some of the same ground, while talking about the disposition of the products of labor, and we’ll be able to explore some specific applications of Proudhon’s theory, but for now I want to make sure we spend enough time with this notion of mutualism-guarantism-federation to be sure we’re really applying the right principle.

The two laws respecting identity give us a subject always in the midst of an antinomic play between various sorts of contradiction and various sorts of justice. And we should probably understand justice as a temporary reconciliation, taking the form of a balancing between interests between which we have no more defensible criterion of choice. With anarchy generalized, external constitution rejected, we have to work things out without recourse to any outside referee, whether that’s a state or a notion of what is “natural.” We naturally bring lots of experience—and we each bring unique portions of experience—to the encounter, and we equally naturally will not disregard the lessons of that experience, but there is always at least some degree of sheer incommensurability when we’re dealing with experience. That means, of course, that our balances will have no externally constituted scales, no predetermined standards of weights and measures. It is, after all, anarchy that we’re talking about. Presumably we knew what we might be getting into when we started down this road. But let’s let it all sink in. No external criteria means that it is all on us to work things out when there is conflict, and, if Proudhon is to be believed, conflict is the first of the fundamental laws of the universe. So there isn’t much room for passivity, at the same time there isn’t much chance of absolute certainty.

Being a subject already seems hard, and rising to the occasion of being an anarchist actor, worthy of the under such uncertain circumstances, that much harder. There is a reason that I started all of this exploration with the notion that a Proudhonian anarchism would necessarily be an “anarchism of approximation.” Things get harder when we add in the fact that we apparently have to negotiate approximations of justice with all sorts of actors that are radically different from us: other species, states, ecosystems, etc., etc., etc. And it isn’t going to be lost on us that many of those other actors are not what Proudhon called “free absolutes,” beings capable of reflection, or that, whatever their capabilities, most of them do not seem to be capable of negotiation.

From the perspective of the individual human actor, it might begin to look like there was an imbalance developing between rights and responsibilities—an emerging injustice. In federation, human individuals will have to find balance with collectivities of various scales, some of which they will also be “part of” (in the sense of contributing to their collective force) and some of which they will not. Guarantism will involve the development, not just of institutions, but of balances between individuals and institutions, again at a variety of scales. Identity and property theory will always have to deal with an open balance of debits and credits in all the places where we overlap, and the multiplication of individualities means a multiplication of potentially overlapping property claims, always at a variety of scales. I have yet to find anywhere in Proudhon’s work where he elaborates how his sense that something like “contract” and “negotiation” applies to our interactions will all sorts of things that can’t seem to negotiate and enter into contracts gets put into action. Given the puzzle we’re working through at the moment, however, I think we might suspect that had he explicitly expanded his analysis into, say, ecological matters, we probably would have found yet another “synonym” or analogous set of metaphors. But maybe the strongest argument for not simply balking at the difficulties is that the bulk of Proudhon’s work—the critiques of absolutism and governmentalism, and then the elaboration of the theories of justice and conflict—don’t leave us an awful lot of obvious alternatives to at least exploring a bit farther. Having complicated the question of identity, and thus pushing us towards notions of property that may be individual, but will have a hard time being anything but approximately exclusive, there isn’t any very stable ground left to retreat to, without simply chucking an awful lot of what makes up our rationale for anarchism.

There are, I think, lots of ways to expand the scope of human liberty beyond the status quo which do not involve quite so great a leap into the unknown.

The question (which we will no doubt return to again and again) is whether any of them are really worth calling anarchism


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All Actors Are Collective Actors: The Unity-Collectivity

Every individual is a group. There are a small number of key concepts in Proudhon’s work, without which it is almost impossible to understand. The notion of the collective actor, or unity-collectivity, and that of the collective force with which it is imbued may top the list in terms of importance. Virtually everything else depends on this basic insight into the nature of unity. The logical contender for top spot would be the philosophy of progress, but it turns out that Proudhon really saw the two analyses as intertwined. While much of Proudhon’s 1853 work, The Philosophy of Progress, focused on questions of truth and certainty, we also find declarations that make it clear that those analyses were not separate from the analysis that led Proudhon to believe that “property is theft.” For example: “All that reason knows and affirms is that each being, like every idea, is a GROUP.”

There is a general principle being asserted here: unity, in whatever sphere we encounter it, is not simple, but is always a matter of converging forces and multiple elements. We’ll keep exploring aspects of this principle, and its various consequences, but for now let’s stay fairly close to the notions of property and theft.

Property, in its simplest form, is what is proper to a given individual. The notion of the proper at least potentially covers a lot of ground, from what is appropriate to the individual to what is a part of the individual or what is owned by the individual. All of the various things that can be considered my own fall within this broad sort of proper-ty. I want to insist on the individual character of property, if only to challenge the narrow range of things that we are accustomed to consider individual. If every individual is a group, then what defines individuality is not singleness, but a particular sort of relation between multiple elements. Proudhon gave that relation a number of names, each highlighting an aspect of the relationship, but perhaps it is enough to suggest that the elements of an individuality are closely enough associated to manifest a shared pattern or “law” of development (at least within some sphere of existence) and that their relationship is balanced and non-hierarchical. There is, to use one of Proudhon’s favorite keywords, a kind of justice among the elements.

We’ll come back to these concerns, but let’s see what happens when we try to map out the property of particular individuals.

Think of the work group from the first post. The 1000 workers add up to at least 1001 individuals, and the more complex their organization in the workplace the more individuals we should probably recognize. And the unity-collectivities that we recognize in the workplace are only some of the individualities that these workers will find themselves contributing elements to, with these other unity-collectivities ranging in scale from close friendships and families to universal wholes, perhaps on a larger scale than we can imagine. And the workers themselves are collectivities. Any attempt to map out the mine and thine of the situation—which is, after all, the most common use of the notion of property—is going to run into a problem: while there will be no shortage of clearly individual property, there will be very little that we can consider exclusive to any given individual. We’re quite simply going to find that, without some convention to strike some new, mutually constructed balance, the various spheres of individual property will overlap in overwhelmingly complex ways.

I will have repeated recourse to two phrases from the poetry of Walt Whitman, which seem to capture the two truths about property introduced by this notion that individuals are always groups:

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

“I…am not contain’d between my hat and boots”

The individuality of the individual does not preclude, and in fact presupposes, the individuality of constituent elements, the “multitudes” contained by the individual. And as those constituent multitudes participate in the unity-collectivity that is our self, as the workers participate in the unity-collectivity that is the work group or firm, we participate in unity-collectivities of various sorts—including many still organized along authoritarian lines, within which the collective force to which we contribute is captured and appropriated by some usurping class of elements and used against us.

In his economic manuscripts, Proudhon took some steps toward generalizing the analysis of capitalist exploitation in What is Property? to include parallel sorts of exploitation in the realm of government. He might well have gone farther, at least to recognize the similar dynamic at work in the family. (See my post on “The Capitalist, the Prince, the Père de famille, and the Alternative” for some thoughts in that direction.) We can certainly go that far, but we should perhaps also go considerably farther. One of the intriguing possibilities of Proudhon’s social science in our own time is that it might help us to wrestle with the sorts of issues we seem unable to quite come to terms with using the tools of “identity politics,” “privilege theory,” etc. We will move slowly but surely towards that sort of application, but not before we spend a bit more time clarifying some basics.

For those who have not read it, this might be a good time for a first reading of my essay “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State.” If you’ve read it before, but feel like you need some clarification, another read probably wouldn’t hurt. There are really only a few key principles in Proudhon’s work, but, in part because of that relative simplicity, it takes some real work to get a firm grasp on their application.

Further Reading: The Fundamental Laws of the Universe

Next: Justice and Equality

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Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: Self-Government and the Citizen-State

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:
Self-Government and the Citizen-State[1]

Shawn P. Wilbur


[The State] is itself, if I may put it this way, a sort of citizen…”

—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon[2]


For more than a hundred years, anti-statism has been a key principle of anarchism. But this was not always the case. A search of English- and French-language sources suggests that for much of the nineteenth century, the term “statism” (or “étatisme”) did not have its present meaning. In the political realm, it simply meant “statesmanship.” As late as the 1870s, the American anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews used the term to mean “a tendency to immobility,” without apparent fear of confusion, and the American Dental Association considering adopting Andrews’ coinage, apparently without fear of entering political territory.[3]

Anarchism emerged as a political philosophy in the first half of the nineteenth century, when much of the modern political lexicon was still being established. “Individualism,” “socialism,” and “capitalism” all seem to date from the 1820s or 1830s, and their early histories are entangled with that of “anarchism,” a term we generally date from 1840, and which was initially defined in terms of its anti-authoritarian or anti-governmental critique. Of course, the relatively late appearance of the term anti-statism does not itself tell us much about the history of the associated critique. We know, however, that at least some of the participants in the anarchist movement considered the emergence of anti-statism as both a real departure from the existing anti-governmental critique—and as a misstep. In 1887, for example, more than twenty years after the death of anarchist pioneer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Frédéric Tufferd wrote:

The most incredible confusion is that between the government and the State. I am an anarchist, as Proudhon was, for like him I want to abolish government, the principle of authority in the State, in order to replace it by an responsible and controllable administration of the public interests; but I do not want, with Bakunin, to abolish the State. The word State comes from stare, to hold, to persist; the State is thus the organized collectivity. Just as the commune is the local collectivity, the State is the national collectivity which has lasted, lasts, and will last as long as the nation itself.[4]

For Tufferd, socialists faced a choice between dividing over speculations on the nature of the State, God, etc., or uniting around a science focused on social relations. As he understood the terms of the “confusion,” government was any relation on the basis of the “principle of authority,” which could, indeed, shape particular States, but which was ultimately separable from the State as such. The State was merely a persistent manifestation of society.

This was quite different from the view which ultimately united much of the anarchist movement in opposition to the State as such. Almost from the beginning there had been those who felt that a decisive break had to be made with existing institutions. Not all were as extreme as, for example, Ernest Coeurderoy, who claimed that liberty could not come to European civilization unless it was first destroyed by the Cossacks, but many in the movement believed that very little of the present social organization could be allowed to persist. Certainly Bakunin—the representative figure, for Tufferd, of the anti-statist school—held government and the State to be entwined, and both to be impediments to anarchy.[5]

Despite their differences, however, both schools of thought could claim, with at least some justification, a descent from the work of Proudhon. Their specific inspirations were simply drawn from different periods of his career. Proudhon’s thoughts about the State appear, at least at first glance, to have run a wide gamut. At times, he had been its staunchest opponent, calling for its entire abolition. In 1848, during the Second Republic, he asked: “Why do we believe in Government? From whence comes, in human society, this idea of Authority, of Power; this fiction of a superior Person, called the State?”[6] Yet, in 1861 he claimed that “the State, as the Revolution has conceived it, is not a purely abstract thing, as some, Rousseau among them, have supposed, a sort of legal fiction; it is a reality as positive as society itself, as the individual even.”[7] He went so far as to describe the State as “a species of citizen.”

Could the State be in some sense a fiction? And, if so, could the same State also be, in some sense, a reality, a being of sorts, as real as the human individual? Proudhon answered both questions in the affirmative, and in terms which only require some clarification to render consistent. During the period of the Second Republic, he argued that the real power attributed to the State was legitimated by a false account of relations within society, and he waged an unrelenting war against that fundamental political fiction—but also against all other governmentalist accounts, which posited the necessity of a ruling authority outside and above the equal associations of individuals. Then, during the Second Empire, having swept aside, at least to his own satisfaction, that false account of the composition and realization of society, he began to advance an alternate account, in which he found that government and the State were indeed separable, and that the non-governmental functions of the State, though modest in comparison to those attributed to its authoritarian forms, served vital roles in society—even when the political forms of society approached anarchy.

Between the two periods, Proudhon himself identified a watershed corresponding to his own “complete transformation:” “From 1839 to 1852, I have had what is called my critical period, taking this word in the lofty sense it is given in Germany. As a man must not repeat himself and I strive essentially not to outlive my usefulness, I am assembling the material for new studies and I ready myself to soon begin a new period I shall call, if you like, my positive period or period of construction.”[8]

Proudhon’s claim was perhaps hyperbolic, since transformation was for him something of a constant process. Elsewhere, in what is perhaps a more satisfactory account, he characterized himself as “the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be accomplished.”[9] But he was quite correct in pointing to separate critical and constructive analyses, each predominating at different times in his work, which can serve us to distinguish—and ultimately to explore the relations—between two aspects of his theory of the State.

What follows is a roughly chronological examination of Proudhon’s developing understanding of the State, including accounts of the two analyses already noted. The first of these is an account of critical analysis of the governmentalist State, as Proudhon presented it in a series of published debates with Louis Blanc in 1849. The second is an exploration of some of the developments that he gave to his theory of the State in his later writings—in his 1858 masterwork, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, and in a number of other texts from the 1860s, including War and Peace, The Theory of Property, and The Federative Principle. Between these two studies it will be necessary to pause, as Proudhon did in his own career, for an examination of his early studies, in order to clarify the extent to which his later conception of the State grew directly from the earlier work. We’ll end by revisiting the “confusion” that concerned Tufferd, and consider the potential lessons of the largely neglected conclusions of Proudhon’s second analysis of the State.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon emerged as a public figure—and launched the modern anarchist movement—in 1840, when he published What is Property? To the question posed in the title, he proposed the infamous response: “Property is theft!” The work was hardly a political manifesto, and it would, in any event, be some years before the anarchist movement consisted of more than a small, heterodox collection of Proudhon’s fellow-travelers. Instead, it was a collection of critiques of existing property conventions, and the “Psychological Exposition of the Idea of Justice and Injustice, and a Determination of the Principle of Government and of Right,” in which Proudhon declared “I am an anarchist,” was not exactly an afterthought, but it was certainly written for non-anarchist contemporaries, rather than those who would eventually be his ideological heirs. Still, Proudhon defined anarchy in fairly clear and simple terms, as the “absence of master, of sovereign,” and declared that it was “the form of government which we approach every day.” Anarchy would come by means of a shift from rule by authority, or will, to a condition in which “the legislative power belongs to reason alone, methodically recognized and demonstrated.” Under these circumstances, “as the opinion of no one is of any value until its truth has been proven, no one can substitute his will for reason,—nobody is king.”[10] Proudhon distinguished this political order—sometimes designated by the English term self-government—from even those sorts of democracy for which it is claimed that “everyone is king,” as he believed that the multiplication of sovereign wills still differed from the dethroning of will in politics altogether.

Proudhon followed his book on property with others on the same subject, and soon found himself the object of both considerable notoriety and government prosecution. He was only saved from imprisonment because it was argued that he was merely a philosopher. For much of the 1840s, he did indeed concentrate on philosophy and social science, establishing himself as something of a rival to the “utopian” socialists Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Pierre Leroux and Etienne Cabet. But events in France would eventually lead him to an active political life.

During the Second Republic, Proudhon had direct incentives to think about the nature of the State itself. In the debates surrounding the form and direction of the French republic many revolutionary options no doubt seemed possible,[11] as well as any number of catastrophic failures, and Proudhon was not only drawn into the political conversation but into the government itself, serving in the constituent assembly from June 1849 until March 1849. He proposed programs and legislation. His work on property languished somewhat, while he established the theoretical basis and eventually the institutional apparatus for his Bank of the People, a currency reform project based on “free credit.”[12] He enjoyed a wide notoriety, but faced consistent opposition on most fronts. His career as a statesman ended when his immunity from prosecution was lifted and he was imprisoned for insults to president Louis Napoléon Bonaparte. In prison, he continued to be intensely involved in the political discussion, writing books and articles analyzing the failure of the 1848 revolution, and it was during this period that he engaged in the very public debate with fellow socialists Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux on the “nature, object and destiny” of the State.

The 1849 debate on the State was a surprisingly public affair, a debate between socialist philosophers so well publicized that early in 1850 La Mode, a popular magazine, could publish a one-act play, “The Feuding Brothers,” which was little more than a parodic report of the debate, cobbled together from quotes in the popular. The anonymous author of the farce could assume a fairly high degree of familiarity with the details, in large part because the French Revolution of 1848 had transformed socialist philosophers into men of state. The whole world was watching the developments within the Provisional Government of the Second French Republic, where the most important sorts of questions were being discussed among representatives whose preferred systems ranged from anarchy to the restoration of the constitutional monarchy.

Between Proudhon and Leroux, there seems to have been almost complete agreement on most of the substantive issues, although this didn’t prevent them from making outrageous accusations and calling one other the most bizarre names. Between Blanc and Proudhon, however, the lines were clearly drawn. For modern readers, the most striking aspect of the exchange might be the obvious animosity between the two men. Proudhon referred to the “the “the avowed, cordial hatred of Louis Blanc,”[13] while Louis Blanc, reprinting his contributions some years later, felt the need to suppress some passages that “was marked by too much vehemence and does not deserve to figure in a discussion de principles.”[14] But there were also a clear clash of principles.

Blanc’s account of the State was a progressive one, assuming an evolution through forms of “tyranny,” followed by a democratic transformation to the “reign of liberty.”

“What is the State?” asks Louis Blanc. And he replies:—

“The State, under monarchical rule, is the power of one man, the tyranny of a single individual.

“The State, under oligarchic rule, is the power of a small number of men, the tyranny of a few.

“The State, under aristocratic rule, is the power of a class, the tyranny of many.

“The State, under anarchical rule is the power of the first comer who happens to be the most intelligent and the strongest; it is the tyranny of chaos.

“The State, under democratic rule, is the power of all the people, served by their elect, it is the reign of liberty[15]

At the end of its evolution, Blanc claimed, the State would be “nothing other than society itself, acting as society, to prevent… what? Oppression; to maintain… what? Liberty.”[16] There had been master-States, he said, but in the democratic regime the State would be a servant.

Proudhon naturally challenged the characterization of the anarchic regime, but he also questioned the apparent sleight of hand by which the tyranny of the State in all its other forms became liberty when in the hands of democratically elected officials. He claimed that Blanc, and the other proponents of the State, did not really believe in a society that could act as society, insisting instead on the necessity of the State, which he characterized as “the external constitution of the social power.” His opponents believed “that the collective being, that society, being only a being of reason, cannot be rendered sensible except by means on a monarchic incarnation, aristocratic usurpation, or democratic mandate.”[17] Proudhon, on the contrary, believed that this “collective being” had a real existence, strongly analogous to that of the human individual: “in both cases, the will, action, soul, mind, and life, unknown in their principle, elusive in their essence, result from the animating and vital fact of organization.”[18] This was not simply an analogy for Proudhon, but an enduring part of his social science, which he was prepared to state in no uncertain terms: “We affirm, on the contrary, that the people, that society, that the mass, can and ought to govern itself by itself; to think, act, rise, and halt, like a man; to manifest itself, in fine, in its physical, intellectual, and moral individuality, without the aid of all these spokesmen, who formerly were despots, who now are aristocrats, who from time to time have been pretended delegates, fawners on or servants of the crowd, and whom we call plainly and simply popular agitators, demagogues.”[19]

In his response, Blanc did not challenge Proudhon’s account of society as a collective being, but he objected that it was incomplete: “If this collective being of which the citizen Proudhon declares the existence is anything but a collection of senseless syllable, it must be realized. But the collective being realized is precisely the State.” Altering the argument slightly, Blanc said that society might form an organized, unified body, but that it would lack unity if it lacked the State, which he likened to the human head.

The analogy was not particularly apt. We probably wouldn’t say that the human body is “realized” by the head, or that the head was the site of its unity, even if we were convinced that the State was a real “organ” of society—unless, of course, we believed that the body was unorganized without the direction of something like a soul. Proudhon seized on this element of the argument, referencing Descartes’ attempts to find a site for the soul in pineal gland.

For Proudhon, there could be no equivocation between beings capable of self-government and those animated by some external force or principle. Every attempt to combine the two accounts would involve a fatal contradiction, and this was inevitable in any defense of States organized according to the principle of authority. No doubt, Proudhon admitted, those contradictory States were inevitable in the evolution of society, but in the end the fiction of authority would be overcome. “Anarchy,” he said, “is the condition of existence of adult societies, as hierarchy is the condition of primitive societies: there is an incessant progress, in human societies, from hierarchy to anarchy.”[20]

The debate over the aim or object of the State simply clarified the arguments concerning its nature. According to Proudhon, the governmentalists believed that in the absence of a State society would be in a constant state of internal warfare. For Proudhon, a collection of individuals in constant warfare would simply not constitute a society. In this instance it would indeed be society which was fictive, and we might ask ourselves how this warfare might give rise to the peaceful impulses which presumably would inform the rule or “realization” accomplished by the State. The divide between Proudhon and Blanc revolved around a choice between “internal” and “external constitution” of the society. Without the “realizing” element of the State, Blanc argued, society would just be a group of elements. In response, Proudhon argued that every individual is essentially a group of elements—but that in every individual worthy of the name the principle of association or realization, the only law the anarchist Proudhon was prepared to recognize, is inherent in and demonstrated by the association itself. There is self-government or there external imposition, and it matters little, in the long run, whether the imposing force is vested in one individual or many, or what we call those who wield the force. It is still tyranny.

On the question of the destiny of the State and the possibilities for its reform, Proudhon had very little room for optimism. What he objected to in the State was not, according to his present understanding of the terms, an inessential part of it, but its very essence, its external position with regard to society. Some States might be more or less objectionable in their impositions on society, but the point, for Proudhon, was to cease imposing any order on society which was not its own order, derived from its own internal law. Proudhon wanted neither master-States nor servant-States, just as he wanted neither masters nor servants. As he had not yet found the grounds on which to deal separately with government and the State, that left him with no option by to reject the State entirely.

Imprisoned until after the coup d’état, Proudhon was poorly positioned to effect the course of the republic, but, like many political prisoners, he made the most of his incarceration. His debate with Leroux and Blanc had been preceded by the Confessions of a Revolutionary, a critical history and personal indictment of the French Revolution of 1848, and it was followed by The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, in which he sought to argue for the possibility, even the necessity of a new revolution. His anti-governmentalist critique—and perhaps his entire “critical” phase—reached its crescendo in the “Epilogue” of the latter work, in what has become one of his most famous passages:

To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so…. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. And to think that there are democrats among us who pretend that there is any good in government; Socialists who support this ignominy, in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity; proletarians who proclaim their candidacy for the Presidency of the Republic! Hypocrisy![21]

This is the anti-governmentalist faith that he never abandoned, and the aspect of Proudhon’s thought which has been consistently honored by the anarchist tradition. But the Republic was nearing its final crises in 1851, and the context for Proudhon’s critique would change dramatically with the emergence of the Second Empire.

With the coup d’etat, the legislative conversation was abruptly closed, and Louis Napoleon’s regime was not accommodating to dissenting voices, rewarding them not just with censorship, but sometimes with imprisonment or exile. Like many others, Proudhon gradually adapted, or, as he put it, he “transformed.”

He had said that “a man should not repeat himself,” but the truth is that by 1852 he had probably repeated his critique to just about every audience available to him: the people and his fellow socialists, in a series of publications; his fellow legislators; the bourgeoisie, in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century; and even the emperor Louis Napoleon, in The Social Revolution, Demonstrated by the Coup d’État of December 2. But Proudhon found himself increasingly limited in what he could publish in France, and fairly quickly found himself in exile in Belgium.

It would not be hard to imagine, given the events surrounding Proudhon’s development, how someone who identified as an anarchist in 1840 might have come to terms with the State in the context of the Second Republic, and then come to reject it again as a result of political disappointment and persecution. We could also, no doubt, understand if imprisonment and exile had dampened the ardor of a political activist. Proudhon’s evolution is perhaps a little more difficult to understand.

By 1858, he had defined the terms of his constructive project:

I intend to suppress none of the things of which I have made such a resolute critique. I flatter myself that I do only two things: that is, first, to teach you put each thing in its place, after having purged it of the absolute and balanced it with other things; then, to show you that the things that you know, and that you have such fear of losing, are not the only ones that exist, and that there are considerably more of which you still must take account.[22]

But this apparently mild-mannered program appeared in the midst of his Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, a massive frontal assault on the Church and continued critique of governmentalism, for which he once again faced prosecution—a work in which he declared, defiantly and a bit dramatically, “I am a sans-culotte”!

Without speculating unnecessarily on the factors which drove the “complete transformation” of the early 1850s, we can point to circumstances which undoubtedly played a role. Just as he was being forced into Belgian exile, Proudhon undertook a review of his philosophy, and in the course of that work quietly corrected some problems from the critical period.

In 1853, Proudhon published The Philosophy of Progress. The work took the form of two long letters to a French journalist who had asked him for a summary of his ideas, and they afforded an opportunity for Proudhon to bring together the various aspects of his previous work in a way which he had not done before. Much of the work was devoted to a consideration of “the criterion of certainty” in science and philosophy, and, to no doubt over-simplify a long and very interesting study, his conclusion was that little, if anything, was certain but change.

Indeed, finally pressed to explain himself, he condensed his project down to a single opposition and a single affirmation: “All that I have ever written, all that I have denied, affirmed, attacked, and combated, I have written, I have denied or affirmed in the name of one single idea: Progress. My adversaries, on the contrary—and you will soon see if they are numerous—are all partisans of the absolute…”[23]

This opposition, he believed, was a sort of skeleton key, not only to the works he had written, but to any work he might pursue:

If, then, I could once put my finger on the opposition that I make between these two ideas, and explain what I mean by Progress and what I consider Absolute, I would have given you the principle, secret and key to all my polemics. You would possess the logical link between all of my ideas, and you could, with that notion alone, serving for you as an infallible criterion with regard to me, not only estimate the ensemble of my publications, but forecast and signal in advance the propositions that sooner or later I must affirm or deny, the doctrines of which I will have to make myself the defender or adversary.[24]

This distillation of his project gave him a clear set of principles with which to set out on the next phase of his careers, and The Philosophy of Progress highlighted elements of his early works which might have otherwise gone unremarked. But as Proudhon consolidated his project around the notions of progress and the opposition to the absolute, some shortcomings of his early works may have presented themselves.

Arguably, some of the apparent single-mindedness of his opposition to concepts like property and the State, so admired by the anarchist tradition, was achieved by questionable terminological gymnastics. In the introduction to What is Property?, he contrasted his view with that of one of property’s defenders: “Mr. Blanqui recognizes that there are a mass of abuses, odious abuses, in property; for myself, I call property exclusively the sum of those abuses.[25] While this made for a bold statement, it also threatened to reduce the impact of his claim that property is theft. Even while arguing for the historical development of the notion of justice, he drew firm lines between himself and those who would construct similar accounts about property. In 1841 he distinguished his terminological approach from that of Pierre Leroux: “Thus, according to Mr. Leroux, there is property and property: the one good, the other bad. Now, as it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name “property” for the former, we must call the latter robbery, rapine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name “property” for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession, or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an odious synonymy.”[26] However, he was unable to escape that “odious synonymy” in a number of his works, and as his analysis became more complex, he even began to exploit it, emphasizing the internal contradictions in many key concepts.

By the beginning of his constructive phase he had reached a point in his battle with the reigning concepts like “religion, government, and property” where he could allow them to retain their “patronymic names,” even when they assumed new forms, in order to highlight the action of progress. As a result, familiar terms may have meaning with only a family resemblance to those we know. Whether or not Proudhon himself underwent a “complete transformation” in the early 1850s, we are likely to lead ourselves astray if we do not acknowledge that at least his vocabulary was fairly substantially transformed.

In 1858, Proudhon published his Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, a work in four volumes, later expanded to six. In a series of studies within it, he contrasted the conception of justice advanced by the Catholic Church with an anarchic vision in which a vast array of interests would be balanced, without political hierarchy or governmental authority, in relations consistent with reason and science. The studies combined critical and constructive elements, with the theory of collective beings receiving a considerable amount of development.

In his early writings, Proudhon had adopted a sort of second-hand Hegelian dialectic, without having direct access to Hegel’s writings. He believed that human progress was achieved by the playing out of contradictions—which he called theses and antitheses, without otherwise conforming to the details of Hegel’s system—and he believed that when these terms were synthesized, the tensions between them was resolved. However, he had also incorporated elements of the serial analysis of Charles Fourier, and attempted to synthesize those influences in what he called a “serial dialectic.” It is safe to say that some tensions remained in his own construction, until he finally abandoned it in 1858, asserting that “The antinomy does not resolve itself… The two terms of which it is composed BALANCE, either between themselves, or with other antinomic terms.”[27] With this theory of antinomies as his guide, there was no longer any question of dramatic victories or defeats for ideas or forces. Instead, the only form of resolution was balance, and while Proudhon liked to talk about the scales [bascule] of justice, as he began to build a “true” social system by bringing more and more ideas into relation, the varieties of balance multiplied. In the work on Justice, the study on “Goods” ended with an incomplete catalog of more than a dozen sorts of economic antinomies to be balanced.

With no recourse to external governmental control, all of this balancing was necessarily to be achieved by individuals situated in the midst of this complex, evolving web of relationships. The interested beings would not, of course, be limited to individual human beings. In the study on the State, Proudhon reaffirmed his belief in “social beings,” on a range of scales from families and small workshops to nations and States.

He retraced the arguments of 1849, armed with a vast new body of historical data and contemporary political analysis. One brand new element was, however, featured prominently: a constructive notion of the State as another collective being. The “Small Political Catechism” which summarized the study began with the question: “Every expression conceals a reality; of what does the reality of the social power consist?” The answer was: “It is collective force.” Furthermore, “collective force being a fact as positive as individual force, the first perfectly distinct from the second, collective beings are as much realities as individual ones.”[28] This notion of collective force had been part of Proudhon’s theoretical apparatus since the work on property in 1840, where he used it to demonstrate that individual property could not emerge simply from social labor. In The General Idea of the Revolution he had invoked it to suggest limits on individual ownership of capital, based on whether the means of production in question would be employed individually or by some organized association of laborers. By 1849, the family and society had joined the list of collective beings manifesting one or more varieties of synergetic “force.” As Proudhon’s thought developed, the range of beings and manifestations of force to be reckoned with continued to multiply. It was perhaps inevitable that Proudhon would find something in all the manifestations associated with government and the State that he had to consider a reality.

The theory of the State that emerged in 1858 was still rather vague: “The State results from the gathering of several groups, different in nature and object, each formed for to exercise a special function and for the creation of a particular product, then assembled under a common law, and in an identical interest.”[29] If this State was to be understood as an individual, a “species of citizen,” there was still some elaboration to be made. Proudhon, however, was most concerned with showing that the role of the state would be “primarily commutative,” but “no less real” for that. All of the usual activities associated with states, the “works of public utility,” seemed to him to be “effects of the ordinary collective force,” with no natural or necessary connection to any structure of external authority. As examples of appropriate projects for his anti-authoritarian State, he discussed questions like general security and the provision of a circulating medium.

The work on Justice also presented an important evolution in Proudhon’s discussion of reason, the sole source of legislation in his anarchist vision. Collective reason emerged alongside collective force as a manifestation of collective being, and in the study on “Ideas” Proudhon described the special role that it had to play in safeguarding individual reason against the corrupting influence of the absolute. To simplify what is both a wide-ranging and occasionally puzzling discussion, we might simply observe, in this context, that as the force exerted by individuals in industry finds expression both in industrial organizations and in more strictly individual forms, the individual reason which is supposed to inform our self-government is expressed, if we may put it this way, by individuals as individuals, by collectives as individuals, and by individuals as parts of collectives. The anarchic self-government of a given society will have to be grounded in the balancing of those manifestations of reason, and the overlaps between individual and collective give us some clues to the mechanisms likely to be involved.

Proudhon himself, in talking about the “organ” of the collective reason, situated it everywhere that collective force might be found. This proliferation of reasons to be reckoned with perhaps served to combat the one real danger he foresaw need to protect against: “There is only one precautionto take: to insure that the collectivity consulted does not vote, as one man, by virtue of an individual sentiment that has become common….”[30] That danger was apparently real enough in Proudhon’s mind that, in a puzzling paragraph, he proposed a “special magistracy” to operate as “police of conversations and guardian of opinion.” The proposal was, however, without details, and in context it is hard to imagine how this “magistracy,” whether formal or figurative, could have been tasked to do anything but stave off premature agreement.[31] In any event, if Proudhon’s most ambiguous statements raise momentary questions about his entire opposition to government, there is no lack of unambiguous declarations affirming it. “Justice alone commands and governs,” he insisted, “Justice, which creates the power, by making the balance of forces an obligation for all. Between the power and the individual, there is thus only right: all sovereignty is rejected; if it denied by Justice, it is religion.” Beyond this self-government, guided by justice, society was “ungovernable.”[32]

There are a number of other details relevant to the theory of the State, scattered through the sprawling work on Justice. In a sort of delayed response to Blanc, Proudhon poked fun at the “monstrous idea” that others had possessed of “social being:” “it is like an animal of a mysterious species, but which, in the manner of all the known animals, must have a head, a heart, nerves, teeth, feet, etc. from that chimerical organism, which everyone strives to discover, they then deduce Justice, that is to say that we derive morality from physiology, or, as we say today, right from duty, so that Justice always finds itself placed outside of consciousness, liberty subjected to fatalism, and humanity fallen.”[33]

Another study provided a positive account of liberty, suggesting that freedom is not simply the absence of prohibition or restraint, but a quality inherent to the organization of beings, which is greater or lesser to the extent that the relations between them are complex and energetic—a notion that would form part of the rationale for Proudhon’s federalism. Long sections devoted to gender roles, and the proper role and constitution of the family have earned Proudhon a reputation for anti-feminism, but even beneath the genuinely reactionary social roles proposed there is a curiously radical notion that the “organ of justice” is located in a human relationship, rather than a human individual.

Proudhon developed his theory of the state in three works during 1861. War and Peace, probably the most interesting of the three, was a two-volume examination of the role of conflict in human history, demonstrating the means by which a proper understanding of war might lead to a just peace. It is a difficult, sometimes perplexing work, which has led some to treat Proudhon as a militarist, despite the fact that the book ended with the declaration that “humanity wants no more war.”[34] In it we find Proudhon working out the play of the antinomies on a large political stage, dealing with the interactions of States and peoples, mixing lessons drawn from history with more observations applicable to the theory that he was in the process of constructing.[35]

The work contained important statements about justice in general: “Justice is not a commandment made known by a higher authority to an inferior being, as is taught by the majority of writers who have written on the rights of the people; justice is immanent in the human soul; it is its deepest part, it constitutes its highest power and its supreme dignity.”[36] Where individual rights are concerned “Right, in general, is the recognition of human dignity is all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise.”[37] These various claims, however, are limited to the specific spheres in which the faculties are expressed, and must still be harmonized through a process of balancing. It’s clear that by this period in his career Proudhon had given the conventional language of political philosophy some fairly individual interpretations. If, as Proudhon claimed, all manifestations of individual or collective force bear their “rights” within them, then what we find in the theory of rights, and the notion of immanent justice, is really just a restatement of basic anti-authoritarian principles: equality is the basis of society and interests must be balanced.

It was in The Theory of Taxation, also published in 1861, that the citizen-State finally emerged. While primarily concerned with methods of public finance, the book contained a very brief section on the Relation of the State and Liberty, according to modern rights.” Despite its brevity, however, it is perhaps the most concise summary of Proudhon’s later theory of the State. The modern theory of rights, he claimed, “has done one new thing: it has put in the presence of one another, on the same line, two powers until now had been in a relation of subordination. These two powers are the State and the Individual, in other words the Government and Liberty.” He reaffirmed that the State had a “positive reality,” manifesting itself as a “power of collectivity,” issuing from the organized collective, rather than imposed on it from outside, and thus possessing rights—of the sort introduced in War an Peace—but no authority. He asserted that in a regime of liberty it too must be ruled, like the citizens, only by reason and by justice—because, as he put it, “it is itself, if I may put it this way, a sort of citizen.”[38] This image of the citizen-State, neither master nor servant, and located “on the same line” as the other citizens, may be the simplest characterization possible of Proudhon’s complex and elusive ideal for the State. Finally, Proudhon declared the State “the protector of the liberty and property of the citizens, not only of those who have been born, but of those who are to be born. Its tutelage embraces the present and the future, and extends to future generations: thus the State has rights proportional to its obligations; without which, what use would its foresight serve?”[39] The State was now as Tufferd described it, the thing that persisted and mediated the balancing of interests even between generations.

A third work, The Theory of Property, was substantially completed in 1861, although it was not published until after Proudhon’s death. It was controversial at the time of its publication, because the editors did not clearly mark their contributions to two summary sections left unfinished by the author.[40] It has been controversial for more recent readers, because it represented the final stage of Proudhon’s theory of property—a theory which evolved in some of the same surprising ways as his theory of the State. Indeed, those who knew his many writings on property should probably have been prepared for the development of this State-theory. He had hardly made his first, triumphant pronouncements about property’s defeat in 1840 when he began to make what we would probably recognize as a very early shift from critical to constructive concerns, raising the possibility that the same property that was “theft” was also “liberty,” if properly balanced by other forces,” by 1846. By 1848, Proudhon believed that “All that it is possible to do against the abuses or drawbacks of property is to merge, synthesize, organize or balance it with a contrary element…”[41] In The Theory of Property he was finally able to move beyond that impasse, by proposing the State as the counterbalancing power to individual property.

The work shows that he was far from having overcome all his misgivings about the State. “The state, constituted in the most rational and liberal manner, animated by the most just intentions, is none the less an enormous power, capable of crushing everything, all by itself, if it is not given a counter-balance.”[42] One of the useful powers of property was, somewhat ironically, a power to divide society, a power required because “[t[he power of the state is a power of concentration; give it freedom to grow and all individuality will soon disappear, absorbed into the collectivity; society will fall into communism; property, on the other hand, is a power of decentralization; because it is itself absolute, it is anti-despotic, anti-unitary; it is because of this that it is the principle of all federation; and it is for this reason that property, autocratic in essence carried into political society, becomes straightway republican.”[43]

Beyond the transformation of the despotic, fictive State into the citizen-State, difficulties and responsibilities still remained. “We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes—one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensive, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.”

Through the 1860s, one of the dominant ideas in Proudhon’s thought was this notion of federation, which involved the decentralization of society and the organization of the parts in a mutual, horizontal manner, without relations of authority over one another. The Federative Principle, published in 1863, started with the premise that both the political and economic realms were doomed to content with irreducible antinomies: “It is a question of knowing if society can arrive at something settled, equitable and fixed, which satisfies reason and conscience, or if we are condemned for eternity to this Ixion’s wheel.”[44] For Proudhon, of course, it was again a question of balancing opposing forces and tendencies, and much of the text is devoted to exploring the details of that equilibration in various arenas.

Alongside reiterations of his warning to keep the power of the State in check, he clarified what he took to be the specific role of the state: “In a free society, the role of the State or government is par excellence a role of legislation, institution, creation, inauguration, installation; — it is, as little as possible, a role of execution.”[45] If collective beings were to have a special role in the division of political labor, it is natural that it would involve the identification of problems pertaining specifically to the collective aspects of society, but the non-governmental implementation of solutions to such problems could only fall back on the individuals that made up the collectivity. Perpetual social progress would guarantee a permanent role for entities like the State, but should they be allowed to fulfill beyond that to which they were especially suited, the balance of forces would be upset, and the hard-won stability of society sacrificed.

At the end of his life, Proudhon had come to think of federation as the practical key to achieving and maintaining justice—understood simply as balance—in all aspects of society:

All my economic ideas, developed for twenty-five years, can be summarized in these three words; Agro-industrial Federation.

All my political views come down  to a similar formula: Political Federation or Decentralization.

And as I make of my ideas neither a party instrument nor a means of personal ambition, all my hopes for the present and the future are expressed by this third term, corollary of the other two: Progressive Federation.[46]

Proudhon worked on his social science to the very end. In The Theory of Property, he had declared that “humanity proceeds by approximations,” positing a progress-without-end as an alternative to utopian blueprints, and he had on several occasions sketched out general “approximations” of his vision of an anarchist society, most notably perhaps in General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century. His final, deathbed work, The Political Capacity of the Working Classes,[47] was of a similar character, but written, with the benefit of Proudhon’s entire constructive development, specifically for the radical workers who would be Proudhon’s immediate ideological heirs. It provided concrete examples of how the various elements of Proudhon’s project, including the re-imagined State, might fit together in a free society.

Looking back over Proudhon’s writings on the State, it is clear that some aspects of his theory remained unfinished or unwritten at the time of his death, but it is also striking how much of what was written by this pioneering anarchist and social scientist has essentially been ignored by both traditions for more than a hundred years.  There are elements of Proudhon’s thought which are strikingly contemporary, including a sort of anti-foundationalism which many may be surprised to find in nineteenth works. There is also a novel approach to questions of the relationship between the individual and collective. Above all, perhaps, the importance of an adequate analysis of the institutions of property and the State, or the principles of liberty and authority, have not diminished in the time since Frédéric Tufferd confronted the socialist movement with a choice of paths. To acquaint ourselves with Proudhon is, if nothing else, to provide ourselves with long-forgotten options.


[1] Completed June, 2013. A German-language version of this essay will appear in the Staatsverständnisse series, published by Nomos, who hold the rights to the translation.

[2] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Théorie de l’impôt, Paris: Dentu, 1861: 68.

[3] Bakunin was writing about “statism,” or its Russian equivalent, by 1870. Joseph Lane’s “An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto” was published in 1887, and in the previous year the American individualist anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker had published a partial translation of Proudhon’s “Resistance to the Revolution” under the title “The State.”

[4] Frédéric Tufferd, “L’Union en socialisme,” Société nouvelle 2, No. 33 (septembre 1887): 224.

[5] See, for example, Mikhail Bakunin’s “La science et la question vitale de la revolution.”

[6] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Confessions d’un Revolutionnaire, new ed., (Paris: Lacroix, 1876): 5.

[7] Théorie de l’impôt. 77.

[8] Proudhon, Correspondance, vol. 6, (Paris: Lacroix, 1875): 285-286.

[9] Proudhon, Philosophie du progrès: programme, (Bruxelles: Lebegue, 1853}: 22.

[10] Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété? (Paris: Prevot, 1841): 301-302.

[11] See, for example, Pierre Leroux, Projet d’une constitution démocratique et sociale (Paris: G. Sandré, 1848.)

[12] Proudhon’s key writings on credit are assembled in Solution du problème sociale (Paris: Lacroix, 1868.)

[13] Mélanges, tome iii, 30.

[14]Louis Blanc, Histoire de la Révolution de 1848 (Paris: Marpon et Flammarion, 1880): 235. The personal aspects of the debate occasionally allow us a glimpse of the intimate lives of the participants. In his correspondence, Proudhon includes this curious detail. “While Louis Blanc accuses me of selling socialism, his framed portrait serves as the companion to mine in my wife’s bedroom! Could I refuse that place to the man who, despite the weakness of his deductions and his incompetence, best represents the governmental principle?…” Correspondance, Vol. 5 (Paris: Lacroix, 1875): 107.

[15] Mélanges, tome iii, 9-10.

[16] Louis Blanc, Histoire de la Révolution de 1848 (Paris: Marpon et Flammarion, 1880): 236.

[17] Mélanges, tome iii, 11.

[18] Mélanges, tome iii, 13.

[19] Mélanges, tome iii, 12.

[20] Mélanges, tome iii, 9.

[21] Proudhon, Idée générale de la révolution au XIXème siècle, (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1851): 341-342.

[22] Proudhon, De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Église, Tome III (Paris: Lacroix, 1868): 113.

[23] Philosophie du progrès, 19.

[24] Philosophie du progrès, 20-22.

[25] Qu’est-ce que la propriété, xviii.

[26] Proudhon, Lettre à Mr Blanqui sur la propriété: deuxième mémoire, (Paris: Prevot, 1841): 130.

[27] Proudhon, De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Église, tome I (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1858): 353.

[28] Op cit., 480-481.

[29] Op. cit., tome I, 481.

[30] De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Église, tome III, 119.

[31] The suggestion recalls Proudhon’s statement from 1840, where he proposed that questions of policy might be decided by the Academy of Sciences, to whom all citizens could appeal, on the basis of “departmental statistics.” The proposal has sometimes been mistaken for the creation of a “Department of Statistics,” presumably with authority to regulate on the basis of science, although that seems clearly at odds with the anarchistic self-government Proudhon was in the process of proposing. While the most authoritarian readings of these two passages are almost certainly incorrect, there is certainly something puzzling about them, and we know that Proudhon was not immune to proposing mechanisms arguably at odds with his goals. It was, after all, in the context of a very similar discussion of the “organ of justice” that he elevated the patriarchal family to a special place in his social theory.

[32] De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Église, tome I, 495.

[33] De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Église, tome III, 113.

[34] Proudhon, La guerre et la paix, tome iI (Bruxelles: Hertzel, 1861): 420.

[35] Lack of space prevents me from addressing some interesting material on relations between States. Readers are encouraged to consult Alex Prichard, Justice, Order and Anarchy (New York: Routledge, 2103) for an analysis of La Guerre et la Paix from the perspective of international relations.

[36] Proudhon, La guerre et la paix, tome i (Bruxelles: Hertzel, 1861): 199.

[37] Op. cit., 288.

[38] Théorie de l’impôt, 68.

[39] Op cit., 76-82.

[40] See Auguste Beauchery, Economie Sociale de P.-J. Proudhon (Lille: Imprimerie Wilmot-Courtecuisee, 1867.)

[41] Confessions, 228.

[42] Proudhon, Théorie de la propriété (Paris: Lacroix, 1866): 137.

[43] Op cit., 144.

[44] Proudhon, Du Principe fédératif (Paris: Lacroix, 1868): 40-41.

[45] Op cit., 54.

[46] Op cit.. 83-84.

[47] Proudhon, De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières (Paris: Lacroix, 1868.)


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The heart of Proudhon’s thought

[from Contr’un, January 22, 2011] A slightly belated “Happy 202nd Birthday!” to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It looks like the AK Press anthology will be out in February, and I have hopes of having the second issue of The Mutualist, “Owning Up,” and Proudhon’s Third Memoir on Property finished up by the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair. I wish I thought that all those releases were likely to advance the debate about mutualism much beyond its current state—but I’m seriously concerned that more translations means more material to take out of context, and an intensification of the tug-of-war over Proudhon’s place in the anarchist tradition.

I don’t think my own understanding of the matter can be much in doubt by now: Proudhon’s mutualism was not a precursor, from which any of the later schools evolved—at least if by “evolved” we mean some sort of development that took the early system seriously in its entirety. Instead, it was an ambitious project from which nearly all of the subsequent schools of anarchism have borrowed something, but from which they have also subtracted some elements that Proudhon would have considered essential. But can’t we pick and choose? Sure. There’s nothing about anarchism that means anything has to be drawn from Proudhon’s thought—or anyone else’s, for that matter. But if you’re going to play the game of trying to link Proudhon’s thought to more contemporary schools—whether you’re a social anarchist, a market anarchist, or a two-gun mutualist—you have to engage with the texts in a way which does not remove passages cited from necessary contexts.

For Proudhon, was property “theft”? Yes, from as early as 1840 and on until the end of his life. Was property “impossible”? Yes, and for the same period. Was property “liberty”? Yes, at least from 1846 until the end of his life—and arguably from 1840 as well. For Proudhon was property any of these various things in isolation? Possibly—in the sense that the arguments for “theft” and those for “impossibility” are not necessarily dependent on one another—but it’s probably most accurate to think of those two analyses as aspects of a single critique of property according to its origins and logics. There’s certainly no point in choosing between them, unless you find one of the arguments simply uncompelling. When it’s a question of choosing between “theft” and “liberty,” things are a little more complicated. Arguably, if you follow the logic of What is Property? all the way through, “theft” and “liberty” are already tied up in a dialectic bundle a handful of pages after Proudhon declared himself an anarchist. (See this old post for the basic argument for continuity from 1840 to 1865.) Certainly, by 1846, the suggestion that liberty is a “synthesis of property and community” has given place to an explicit “contradiction” inherent in property, with “theft” and “liberty” as the horns of the dilemma. “La propriété, c’est le vol; la propriété, c’est la liberté : ces deux propositions sont également démontrées et subsistent l’une à côté de l’autre dans le Système des Contradictions,” he said in 1849 in his Confessions of a Revolutionary. “Property is theft; property is liberty: these two propositions are equally demonstrated and subsist beside one another…” And from that point on, nothing changes except that the contradictions become more irreducible, and eventually Proudhon turns his analysis to the aims of property—at which point he does a sort of amazing thing, taking the weakest aspect of his 1840 analysis, the treatment of property as “the sum of its abuses,” and finding in it the element that brings his whole analysis together. It is because property is “theft”—because it is absolutist in character—that it can be a force for liberty in the “new theory” of The Theory of Property.

Again, anyone is free to borrow elements from Proudhon’s writings for their own project. But to claim derivation or evolution from Proudhon’s thought—or to claim that one has surpassed or superceded that thought—the bar is considerably higher. For that, you need to show that you have understood that thought in some basic way. With Proudhon, that means taking into account the various sorts of serial and/or dialectical approaches he used, all through his career. It means not trying to affirm only one element of a antinomic pair, when Proudhon explicitly affirmed both-in-the-antinomy. And it means respecting what he himself said about his methods and commitments.

It’s been almost two years since I first posted a translation of Proudhon’s Philosophy of Progress, and I’ve recently returned to it, cleaning up the translation for a New Proudhon Library hardcover edition. Unfortunately, it was one of the items that did not make the cut for the forthcoming anthology, and all I can do is point again to the key passages in it dealing with Proudhon’s basic philosophy and method (in a slightly improved translation.) These passages really do indicate the very heart of Proudhon’s project, the logic that guided him through all the various projects and analyses that he undertook. And they are challenging passages—which demand a great deal more of us than the common mis/understandings of Proudhon’s thought even begin to take in. More importantly, they demand something different from us that just an affirmation or rejection of this or that idea or institution.

If you’re interested in Proudhon, and in the early forms of anarchist thought, give these passages a careful read. If you’ve read them before, another look probably wouldn’t hurt. Pay particular attention to the passages where Proudhon talks about what is “true” and “false.” And the next time someone makes a claim about Proudhon or his particular form of mutualism, ask yourself if it takes into account these very basic elements of Proudhon’s approach.

from Proudhon’s “The Philosophy of Progress”

Nothing persists, said the ancient sages: everything changes, everything flows, everything becomes; consequently, everything remains and everything is connected; by further consequence the entire universe is opposition, balance, equilibrium. There is nothing, neither outside nor inside, apart from that eternal dance; and the rhythm that commands it, pure form of existences, the supreme idea to which any reality can respond, is the highest conception that reason can attain.

How then are things connected and engendered? How are beings produced and how do they disappear? How is society and nature transformed? This is the sole object of science.

The notion of Progress, carried into all spheres of consciousness and understanding, become the base of practical and speculative reason, must renew the entire system of human knowledge, purge the mind of its last prejudices, replace the constitutions and catechisms in social relations, teach to man all that he can legitimately know, do, hope and fear: the value of his ideas, the definition of his rights, the rule of his actions, the purpose of his existence…

The theory of Progress is the railway of liberty.

Progress, once more, is the affirmation of universal movement, consequently the negation every immutable form and formula, of every doctrine of eternity, permanence, impeccability, etc., applied to any being whatever; it is the negation of every permanent order, even that of the universe, and of every subject or object, empirical or transcendental, which does not change.

The Absolute, or absolutism, is, on the contrary, the affirmation of all that Progress denies, the negation of all that it affirms. It is the study, in nature, society, religion, politics, morals, etc., of the eternal, the immutable, the perfect, the definitive, the unconvertible, the undivided; it is, to use a phrase made famous in our parliamentary debates, in all and everywhere, the status quo.

From that double and contradictory definition of progress and the absolute is first deduced, as a corollary, a proposition quite strange to our minds, which have been shaped for so long by absolutism: it is that the truth in all things, the real, the positive, the practicable, is what changes, or at least is susceptible to progression, conciliation, transformation; while the false, the fictive, the impossible, the abstract, is everything that presents itself as fixed, entire, complete, unalterable, unfailing, not susceptible to modification, conversion, augmentation or diminution, resistant as a consequence to all superior combination, to all synthesis.

For me, the response is simple. All ideas are false, that is to say contradictory and irrational, if one takes them in an exclusive and absolute sense, or if one allows oneself to be carried away by that sense; all are true, susceptible to realization and use, if one takes them together with others, or in evolution.

Thus, whether you take for the dominant law of the Republic, either property, like the Romans, or communism, like Lycurgus, or centralization, like Richelieu, or universal suffrage, like Rousseau,—whatever principle you choose, since in your thought it takes precedence over all the others,—your system is erroneous. There is a fatal tendency to absorption, to purification, exclusion, stasis, leading to ruin. There is not a revolution in human history that could not be easily explained by this.

On the contrary, if you admit in principle that every realization, in society and in nature, results from the combination of opposed elements and their movement, your course is plotted: every proposition which aims, either to advance an overdue idea, or to procure a more intimate combination, a superior agreement, is advantageous for you, and is true. It is in-progress.

Such is then, in my opinion, the rule of our conduct and our judgments: there are degrees to existence, to truth and to the good, and the utmost is nothing other than the march of being, the agreement between the largest number of terms, while pure unity and stasis is equivalent to nothingness; it is that every idea, every doctrine that secretly aspires to prepotency and immutability, which aims to eternalize itself, which flatters itself that it gives the last formula of liberty and reason, which consequently conceals, in the folds of its dialectic, exclusion and intolerance; which claims to be true in itself, unalloyed, absolute, eternal, in the manner of a religion, and without consideration for any other; that idea, which denies the movement of mind and the classification of things, is false and fatal, and more, it is incapable of being constituted in reality. This is why the Christian church, founded on an allegedly divine and immutable order, has never been able to establish itself in the strictness of its principle; why the monarchic charters, always leaving too much latitude to innovation and liberty, are always insufficient; why, on the contrary, the Constitution of 1848, in spite of the drawbacks with which it abounds, is still the best and truest of all the political constitutions. While the others obstinately posit themselves in the Absolute, only the Constitution of 1848 has proclaimed its own revision, its perpetual reformability.

With this understood, and the notion of Progress or universal movement introduced into the understanding, admitted into the republic of ideas, facing its antagonist the Absolute, everything changes in appearance for the philosopher. The world of mind, like that of nature, seems turned on its head: logic and metaphysics, religion, politics, economics, jurisprudence, morals, and art all appear with a new physiognomy, revolutionized from top to bottom. What the mind had previously believed true becomes false; that which it had rejected as false becomes true. The influence of the new notion making itself felt by all, and more each day, there soon results a confusion that seems inextricable to superficial observers, and like the symptom of a general folly. In the interregnum which separates the new regime of Progress from the old regime of the Absolute, and during the period while intelligences pass from one to the other, consciousness hesitates and stumbles between its traditions and its aspirations; and as few people know how to distinguish the double passion that they obey, to separate what they affirm or deny in accordance with their belief in the Absolute from that which they deny or affirm in accordance with their support for Progress, there results for society, from that effervescence of all the fundamental notions, a pell-mell of opinions and interest, a battle of parties, where civilization would soon be ruined, if light did not manage to make itself seen in the void.

Such is the situation that France finds itself in, not only since the revolution of February, but since that of 1789, a situation for which I blame, up to a certain point, the philosophers, the publicists, all those who, having a mission to instruct the people and form opinion, have not seen, or have not wanted to see, that the idea of Progress being from now on universally accepted,—having acquired rights from the bourgeoisie, not only in the schools, but even in the temples,—and raised finally to the category of reason, the old representations of things, natural as well as social, are corrupted, and that it is necessary to construct anew, by means of that new lamp of the understanding, science and the laws.

Dimsit lucem à tenebris! Separation of positive ideas, constructed on the notion of Progress, from the more or less utopian theories that suggest the Absolute: such is, sir, the general thought which guides me. Such is my principle, my idea itself, that which forms the basis and makes the connections in all my judgments. It will be easy for me to show how, in all my controversies, I have thought to obey it: you will say if I have been faithful.

Movement exists: this is my fundamental axiom. To say how I acquired the notion of movement would be to say how I think, how I am. It is a question to which I have the right not to respond. Movement is the primitive fact that is revealed at once by experience and reason. I see movement and I sense it; I see it outside of me, and I sense it in me. If I see it outside of me, it is because I sense it in me, and vice versa. The idea of movement is thus given at once by the senses and the understanding; by the senses, since in order to have the idea of movement it is necessary to have seen it; by the understanding, since movement itself, though sensible, is nothing real, and since all that the senses reveal in movement is that the same body which just a moment ago was in a certain place is at the next instant in another.

In order that I may have an idea of movement, it is necessary that a special faculty, what I call the senses, and another faculty that I call the understanding, agree in my CONSCIOUSNESS to furnish it to me: this is all that I can say about the mode of that acquisition. In other words, I discover movement outside because I sense it inside; and I sense it because I see it: at base the two faculties are only one; the inside and the outside are two faces of a single activity; it is impossible for me to go further.

The idea of movement obtained, all the others are deduced from it, intuitions as well as conceptions. It is a wrong, in my opinions, that among the philosophers, some, such as Locke and Condillac, have claimed to account for all ideas with the aid of the senses; others, such as Plato and Descartes, deny the intervention of the senses, and explain everything by innateness; the most reasonable finally, with Kant at their head, make a distinction between ideas, and explain some by the relation of the senses, and the others by the activity of the understanding. For me, all our ideas, whether intuitions or conceptions, come from the same source, the simultaneous, conjoint, adequate, and at base identical action of the senses and the understanding.

Thus, every intuition or sensible idea is the apperception of a composition, and is itself a composition: now, every composition, whether it exists in nature or it results from an operation of the mind, is the product of a movement. If we were not ourselves a motive power and, at the same time, a receptivity, we would not see objects, because we would be incapable of examining them, of restoring diversity to their unity, as Kant said.

Every conception, on the contrary, indicates an analysis of movement, which is itself still a movement, which I demonstrate in the following manner:

Every movement supposes a direction, A → B. That proposition is furnished, a priori, by the very notion of movement. The idea of direction, inherent in the idea of movement, being acquired, the imagination takes hold of it and divides it into two terms: A, the side from which movement comes, and B, the side where it goes. These two terms given, the imagination summarizes them in these two others, point of departure and point of arrival, otherwise, principle and aim. Now, the idea of a principle or aim is only a fiction or conception of the imagination, an illusion of the senses. A thorough study shows that there is not, nor could there be, a principle or aim, nor beginning or end, to the perpetual movement which constitutes the universe. These two ideas, purely speculative on our part, indicate in things nothing more than relations. To accord any reality to these notions is to make for oneself a willful illusion.

From that double concept, of commencement or principle, and of aim or end, all the others are deduced. Space and time are two ways of conceiving the interval which separates the two terms assumed from movement, point of departure and point of arrival, principle and aim, beginning and end. Considered in themselves, time and space, notions equally objective or subjective, but essentially analytic, are, because of the analysis which gave rise to them, nothing, less than nothing; they have value only according to the sum of movement or of existence that they are supposed to contain, so that, according to the proportion of movement or existence that it contains, a point can be worth an infinity, and an instant eternity. I treat the idea of cause in the same way: it is still a product of analysis, which, after having made us suppose in movement a principle and a goal, leads us to conclude by supposing further, by a new illusion of empiricism, that the first is the generator of the second, much as in the father we see the author or the cause of his children. But it is always only a relation illegitimately transformed into reality: there is not, in the universe, a first, second, or last cause; there is only one single current of existences. Movement is: that is all. What we call cause or force is only, like that which we call principle, author or motor, a face of movement, the face A; while the effect, the product, the motive, the aim or the end, is face B. In the ensemble of existences, that distinction has no more place: the sum of causes is identical and adequate to the sum of effects, which is the very negation of both. Movement or, as the theologians say, creation, is the natural state of the universe.

From the moment that I conceive of movement as the essence of nature and of mind, it follows first that reasoning, or the art of classifying ideas, is a certain evolution, a history, or, as I have sometimes called it, a series. From this it follows that the syllogism, for example, the king of arguments of the ancient school, has only a hypothetical, conventional and relative value: it is a truncated series, proper only to produce the most innocent babble about the world, by those who do not do not know how to return it to its fullness, by bringing about its full reconstruction.

What I say about the syllogism must be said about the Baconian induction, the dilemma, and all the ancient dialectic.

The condition of all existence, after movement, is unquestionably unity; but what is the nature of that unity? If we should consult the theory of Progress, it responds that the unity of all being is essentially synthetic, that it is a unity of composition. Thus the idea of movement, primordial idea of all intelligence, is synthetic, since, as we have just seen, it resolves itself analytically into two terms, which we have represented by this figure, A → B. Similarly, and for greater reason, all the ideas, intuitions or images that we receive from objects are synthetic in their unity: they are combinations of movements, varied and complicated to infinity, but convergent and single in their collectivity.

That notion of the ONE, at once empirical and intellectual, condition of all reality and existence, has been confused with that of the simple, which results from the series or algebraic expression of movement, and, like cause and effect, principle and aim, beginning and end, is only a conception of the mind, and represents nothing real and true.

It is from this simplism that all of the alleged science of being, ontology, has been deduced.

With the idea of movement or progress, all these systems, founded on the categories of substance, causality, subject, object, spirit, matter, etc., fall, or rather explain themselves away, never to reappear again. The notion of being can no longer be sought in an invisible something, whether spirit, body, atom, monad, or what-have-you. It ceases to be simplistic and become synthetic: it is no longer the conception, the fiction of an indivisible, unmodifiable, intransmutable (etc.) je ne sais quoi: intelligence, which first posits a synthesis, before attacking it by analysis, admits nothing of that sort a priori. It knows what substance and force are, in themselves; it does not take its elements for realities, since, by the law of the constitution of the mind, the reality disappears, while it seeks to resolve it into its elements. All that reason knows and affirms is that the being, as well as the idea, is a GROUP.

Just as in logic the idea of movement or progress translates into that other, the series, so, in ontology, it has as a synonym the group. Everything that exists is grouped; everything that forms a group is one. Consequently, it is perceptible, and, consequently, it is. The more numerous and varied the elements and relations which combine in the formation of the group, the more centralizing power will be found there, and the more reality the being will obtain. Apart from the group there are only abstractions and phantoms. The living man is a group, like the plant or the crystal, but of a higher degree than those others; he is more living, more feeling, and more thinking to the degree that his organs, secondary groups, are in a more perfect agreement with one another, and form a more extensive combination. I no longer consider that self, what I call my soul, as a monad, governing, from the sublimity of its so-called spiritual nature, other monads, injuriously considered material: these school distinctions seem senseless to me. I do not occupy myself with that caput mortuum of beings, solid, liquid, gas or fluid, that the doctors pompously call SUBSTANCE; I do not even know, as much as I am inclined to suppose it, if there is some thing which responds to the word substance. Pure substance, reduced to its simplest expression, absolutely amorphous, and which one could quite happily call the pantogene, since all things come from it, if I cannot exactly say that it is nothing, appears to my reason as if it was not; it is equal to NOTHING. It is the mathematical point, which has no length, no size, no depth, and which nonetheless gives birth to all geometric figures. I consider in each being only its composition, its unity, its properties, its faculties, so that I restore all to a single reason,—variable, susceptible to infinite elevation,—the group.

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Note on mutual banking

[From Reddit] There have been two phases of mutual banking, I think. There was a practical phase, stretching back into the 17th century, when various land banks and lumbards actually sprung up in places like the North American colonies, where many people had real property but didn’t have ready access to currency. Under those circumstances, access to a circulating medium could be the source of a real economic class divide, and there is a fascinating history of city merchants battling the establishment of mutual currency and credit banks by rural competitors, all of which led to the suppression of the land banks in North America by an extension of the Bubble Act.

That’s the context for the second phase, where a similar form of banking was proposed, often where it was illegal, once again to solve the problem of access (or cheap access) to a circulating medium. William Batchelder Greene’s New England version of mutual banking was a pretty direct attempt to legalize and revive the colonial land banks (although he claimed not to know about them until the 1850s, although he obviously knew about proposals like Kellogg’s “safety fund,” which were similar.) Greene’s neighbors in Western Massachusetts had precisely the right mix of real property and need for currency. The situation for workers in Paris was more complicated, since they were less likely to own real property. This is why Proudhon’s bank would accept a much broader range of securities, and why he explored cooperative marketplace schemes like his proposal for a “Perpetual Exposition.”

The second phase of the mutual bank propaganda went on for a long time, not always, I suspect, in places where the conditions were precisely right. But it was almost certainly a valuable tool for keeping non-governmental currency schemes in the public eye.

Whether mutual banking would make sense now as a transitional method or “after the revolution” as a means of providing a circulating medium depends entirely on local conditions. I am skeptical in both cases, but certainly don’t rule it out in either one.

As for the details of the thing, all the bills of credit issued would be backed by some relatively stable form of security. In essence, each individual provides their own money, and the mutual association simply exists to manage the mutual recognition of value. The percentage of the value of the security which could be issued by the association and/or the amount of insurance levied would depend on conventions worked out among the members. If the percentage remains low, then the danger of loss always rests on the individual members themselves. If members wish to reduce that danger further, then insurance is an option. Obviously, lots of things can go wrong, but the mutual nature of the association is likely to reduce the chances of people trying to take advantage of the system by quite a bit. In a society based on mutual associations, attempting to cheat any of them seems like a very quick route to a very unhappy set of circumstances. But it is probably also the case that even where the conditions are correct to form mutual credit associations, the bills of credit would not be the logical currency for all kinds of transactions. A secured credit currency is fairly “hard,” so it is, for example, good and comparatively inexpensive for use in investment in real property and such. But it might have more overhead than you would want for the cup of coffee or pint of beer you’re going to buy tomorrow, or the week’s groceries, assuming that the community has not simply absorbed minor transactions into some social base.

My personal feeling is that access to raw materials and means of production is probably going to be most seriously changed by changes in property conventions, at least “after the revolution.” And that seems the most elegant and inexpensive way to tackle much of what is wrong with capitalist society.

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Property and Theft: Proudhon’s Theory of Exploitation

Part of the task here will be to explain the basics of Proudhon’s social science, the body of work that shows how his basic commitment to anti-authoritarianism and non-governmentalism played out (or didn’t, but could have played out) in a variety of contexts. The goal is to show how most of the principles he developed depend on a fairly small number of observations or assumptions, so that readers can not only make better sense of Proudhon’s work, but also acquire a toolkit that can be applied in new contexts. In the process, we’ll hopefully also debunk some familiar misreadings or misrepresentations of Proudhon.

Let’s start with the single most famous, and probably most misunderstood, of Proudhon’s claims: Property is theft.

There seems to be no end of explanations of what Proudhon meant by that phrase—or of why it must be meaningless—but very few of them seem to have much of anything to do with what he actually said in What is Property? The simplest misunderstanding, often resorted to by those who presumably should have known better, involves the assertion that “theft presupposes property,” and so Proudhon is talking contradictory nonsense. The answer is two-fold:

  • First, when we look at the discussion of property in Proudhon’s earlier work, The Celebration of Sunday, we find a conception of property that presupposes theft, rather than the other way around. If nothing else, recognizing it is a useful step outside the propertarian paradigm.
  • More importantly, however, it should be obvious that Proudhon is pointing to contradictions in the very definition of property itself. “I contend that neither labor, nor occupation, nor law, can create property; that it is an effect without a cause…” At this point, I suppose someone could make an argument that every effect has a cause, but they would pretty obviously be objecting to a metaphor, not to the arguments behind it.  And What is Property? contains argument after argument in support of its provocative thesis.

Of course, when we get stuck at this level of debate, we miss even the most obvious facts about Proudhon’s anti-property argument, starting with the fact that the heart of his argument may seem more like an analysis of remuneration than of ownership. Ultimately, the discussion of collective force and the droit d’aubaine is a bit of both, but perhaps most importantly for our purposes that discussion provides us with a description of modern society that potentially revolutionizes the way we think about a wide range of economic and sociological questions.

Consider a passage like this:

A force of one thousand men working twenty days has been paid the same wages that one would be paid for working fifty-five years; but this force of one thousand has done in twenty days what a single man could not have accomplished, though he had labored for a million centuries. Is the exchange an equitable one? Once more, no; when you have paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid. Consequently, there remains always a right of collective property which you have not acquired, and which you enjoy unjustly.

The simplest way to understand Proudhon’s theory of capitalist exploitation is to recognize that there are not 1000 workers in this scenario, but at least 1001, with the 1001st (that “force of one thousand men” considered as a “collective being”) doing a tremendous amount of the work. When the share (however we might determine shares) of that last worker is paid out to the capitalist, that is exploitation, and since the contribution of that last worker is the product of the organized association of all the other workers, all of the workers are exploited.

Why is this is a question of “property”? The first and simplest answer is that what is proper to the 1000 workers has two sides, which we might, for now, call individual and social, while the existing property conventions only acknowledge the individual side. But we’ll have a chance to clarify that statement as we explore the theory more thoroughly. For now, however, what is important to remember is that, whatever theory of just remuneration we might come up with and however we might decide that contributions to production and the creation of property are related, there is at least one potential claimant who has not conventionally entered into the conversation—what Proudhon called a “unity-collectivity” of all the workers.

There are, it turns out, lots of these unity-collectivities. Indeed, one of Proudhon’s key principles is that every individual is a group. And once you accept that principle, lots of interesting things happen to your view of society and economy.

Next: Every Actor Is a Collective Actor

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