Happy 200th, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon!

I’ve been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon by tidying up my files of material relating to him, archiving some of my scattered translations at Collective Reason, and taking some time to gather my thoughts on Proudhon’s importance for the anarchist movements of the present and the future.

I came to grapple with Proudhon’s work rather reluctantly, which seems to be the norm, among those of us who come to grapple with it at all. I deeply regret that reluctance, as there has probably never been another figure in the anarchist tradition who has pursued as far, and as doggedly, the answers to some of the movement’s most basic questions: What is freedom? How are order and liberty related? What are society and the state? What is property? What is the self, and what are its objects? What, if it exists, is progress? These are not just anarchist questions. They are the sort of questions which must be answered by anyone, or any society, which hopes to establish itself in a lasting fashion, and to provide justice for its members.

Curiously, notoriously, the world, and the anarchist movement itself, remembers Proudhon primarily for that provocative bon mot, “Property, it is theft.” There is no denying the importance of What is Property? Nor is there any denying that that work of 1840 was not Proudhon’s last word on any of the subjects he tackled in it. From an emphasis on simple syntheses of existing ideas, Proudhon gradually developed his theory of the antinomies, basic conflicts in the realm of ideas, surrounding all the questions and concepts worth pursuing, which ultimately were characterized as much by their perpetually unresolved and unresolvable character as by more specific or local characteristics. Proudhon has been accused of retreating from his early anarchism, but such a charge is hard to justify. There was at first, after all, only a vague, synthetic notion of liberty as the reconciliation of “property” and “communism,” a “third form of society” which, frankly, hasn’t panned out, and which, if it did, would hardly satisfy, with its synthetic character, a large number, perhaps the majority, of those who consider themselves the partisans of anarchism now.

Proudhon’s mutualism started as an “oil and water” anarchism, and gradually came to embrace what it had been from the start. The result was a resolutely anti-utopian approach, which, if it denied the possibility of a stable, self-sustaining, finally fully-realized free society, also denied the legitimacy of any patent-office panacea that anyone might be tempted to impose, because the best of all presently possible arrangements in the only world we have would only be a stepping stone to something else. He hoped to dethrone religion as a passive adoration of the absolute, but the vaccuum left by God was, for him, only one more thing to draw human beings up and onward. Taking his cues from the gradual internalization of moral justification accomplished by successive manifestations of Christianity, he sought to completely secularize and de-’’pneumatize’’ judgment and responsibility. In the process, of course, he placed the heavy weight of self-justification squarely on the shoulders of “Humanity.”

A highly individualistic thinker, insisting at times on the complete individualization of interests, “complete insolidarity,” he was not afraid to pursue his individualist course when it confronted him with something other than a social atomism. Without ever reducing the role he assigned to individual humans as responsible actors, he recognized the high levels of interdependence which characterize so much of human reality. So he was not averse to references to Humanity, or to society as a collective being, even to the State as a collective entity with a role to play even in an anarchist society. His theory of collective force drove his theory of property, from the beginning of his career through the end of his life. As much as the idea of “collective persons” may shock our delicate anarchist or libertarian sensibilities, the social science he was pursuing remains a compelling and useful approach, providing rather direct suggestions for solutions, particularly in the realm of property theory. Far more than his peers, Pierre Leroux and William B. Greene, Proudhon was able to grasp both the philosophical niceties and the practical consequences of the “doctrine of life” of revolutionary neo-christianity, and his appropriation of Fourier’s serial method, and appreciation of the positivity of the passions, was, if somewhat less colorful and enthusiastic in his hands, arguably more profound than anything produced by Fourier’s direct disciples. Proudhon, at first a rather relentless competitor in the struggles over socialism and the direction of the revolution after 1848, quietly became a rather brilliant synthesizer of others’ ideas, though ultimately always capable of making them his own.

We know Proudhon’s faults: His ideas about gender and the role of the family blinded him to the importance of the movement for women’s political equality. He considered himself a defender of women’s rights, and was at, as is charged, a misogynist, but the best we can say about his “Catechism of Marriage” is that it is a clever argument from extremely bad data. The antisemitic comments in his notebooks are undoubtedly of the much the same character. The inability to distinguish “Jew” from “banker” plagued lots of people, and not a few anarchists, for a long time after Proudhon’s death. The importance assumed by those faults among anarchists suggests a couple of things: 1) that, as a movement, we have not got to know our founding figures well enough to recognize the rather significant faults that nearly all of them had; 2) that we don’t know enough to see how those faults are far outnumbered by spectacular achievements, precisely in the realm of respect for individual rights, in thinking through the problems of racism and nationalism, etc.; and 3) that we are all a little too easily carried along by the current of small-f fundamentalism and the eye-on-the-media purity campaigns which rule popular politics.

In this anniversary year, in the midst of an economic dip which threatens to deepen into a real crisis, we should really just get over it, get on with it, spend some time getting to know the figures who first built this movement of ours, and perhaps particularly today’s birthday boy, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon was, par excellence, the anti-fundamentalist thinker, if by fundamentalism we mean the opportunistic tendency to substitute convenient answers for the hard but necessary work of understanding who, how, and why we are, here and now, together. (And that, whatever other definitions there may be out there, seems to be our zeitgeist. Add our unbelievably atrophied organs of tolerance and forgiveness to the picture, and many, many things may be explained.) As such, he is one of the thinkers at least potentially most useful to us, here and now, together.

Anselme Bellegarrigue described the beginnings of the 1848 French revolution as if someone had pressed that infamous “make the government go away” button that libertarians talk about, as if the revolution was, at the moment of the abdication of the king, accomplished. The problems came from the failure of the provisional government, and its successors, to understand that another kind of work was necessary. It’s an intriguing thought, though it is equally tempting to valorize the early days of the transition that followed, when public debate on the form of government burst out in so many forms. Proudhon, of course, dismissed the French ‘48 as a revolution “without an idea,” and set himself to establish just what the “general idea of the revolution” might be. He never stopped writing about the possibilities: justice, equality, liberty, mutualism, reciprocity, agro-industrial federation. The Revolution, he said, was both conservative and progressive. All of this is of real importance, and we neglect any of these concepts and principles at our peril. But we have seen all these glorious words captured by various approximations, or attached to various shams, so often that it is hard to see how any of them, or all of them taken together, if we do not remember arguably the most important thing that Proudhon said: The antinomy does not resolve itself. It is not resolved.

Let’s call that the Spirit of ‘58 (the year of Proudhon’s Justice), which was also William B. Greene’s Blazing Star, and let’s reunite with it one of Proudhon’s other best observations, which we might see as a necessary corellary: “L’humanité procède par des approximations,” that is, Humanity proceeds by approximations. From the various lessons we might draw from that combination, let’s start with a certain restlessness and relentlessness, particularly when faced with panaceas, political and economic saviors, “bail-outs” and the like, a skepticism towards claims about what “just won’t work,” what ideas “can’t go together,” and a recollection that “it is the clash of ideas that casts the light.” In practice, let’s try to marry all of that to a more and more habitual experimentalism, a DIY sensibility that springs from our understanding that it never gets done in any way we, as anarchists and libertarians, as full and free human beings, could live with, until we do it ourselves.

Happy Birthday, Proudhon!


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

1 Comment

  1. A great, thoughtful post, Shawn–I enjoyed reading it. I hope the recognition of tension and incompleteness, the call for experimentation, will resonate with everyone who cares about freedom but who might be tempted to engage in dogmatism. Keep up the good work!

Comments are closed.