Anarchist-communism, work, and the virtue of selfishness

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Contr’un Revisited: Obviously, it’s a big moment when Joseph Déjacque enters the mix, but there’s a lot going on here that would bear fruit later. Adding Déjacque to my list of early anarchist obsessions moved me closer to the recognition of an Era of Anarchy, and discovering the influence of both Fourier and Pierre Leroux in his work would sharpen my interest in the “utopian” roots of anarchism, but the first really dividend from my work on Déjacque was a sense that I had been underestimating the place of egoism among the early anarchists. At this point, I had made a couple of fairly unsuccessful tries at reading Stirner’s Unique, had come to an interested impasse with John Badcock, Jr.’s Slaves to Duty, and knew enough of the work of “Tak Tak” (James L. Walker) to know I didn’t know enough. The days of drinking beer with Wolfi Landstreicher and arguing Stirner vs. Proudhon (and then exploring the connections) were still to come. Still wrestling to free myself from the received narratives about how the various anarchist tendencies fit (and didn’t fit) together, it would be a good while before I was sure what to do with the sense that some kind of egoism was common to most of the anarchist pioneers. There’s still some of the later realizations that need to be articulated, but perhaps that’s something that can get done in the near future.

As for Déjacque, I’ve spent a lot of time with his work, translating The Humanisphere and a number of other texts, exploring his early uses of the term anarchism, etc. And a lot of work remains to be done. Ultimately, I can’t quite decide what to make of Déjacque. He was one of those who “contains multitudes” and often seemed to be pulled in conflicting directions. But wrestling with his work has certainly been valuable. 

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I’ve been reading some of the work of Joseph Déjacque—early anarchist, critic of Proudhon, communist, and one of the first to distinguish himself as a libertaire, rather than a libéral . There is a very nice online archive containing much of his work in French. Déjacque shows the influence of Fourier even more strongly than Proudhon. He retains much of the language of Fourier’s historical scheme, and emphasizes the positivity of human impulses. A key source of his differences with Proudhon may indeed have been the extent to which, and the manner in which, the two men accepted the notion of the perfectibility of human beings and their institutions. Pierre Leroux also seems to have been an influence on Déjacque. L’Humanisphère—Utopie Anarchique contained much of Déjacque’s vision of an anarchist society. There’s a lot in it, and not all of it is clear without some serious digging for contexts. It also seems to have been subject to rather piecemeal republication. The version I initially printed out was heavily edited. Another short essay turned out to be part of a chapter missing in that version. That excerpt, on “Authority and Idleness,” goes something like this:

In anarchy, consumption feeds itself by production. It would make no more sense to a humanispherean that a man might be forced to work, than that he might be forced to eat. For natural man, the need to work is as pressing as the need to eat. Man is not all stomach: he has arms and a brain, and apparently this is so he might work. Work, whether manual or intellectual, is the food which makes him live. If a man has no needs but those of the mouth and stomach, he is no longer a man, but an oyster, in which case, nature, in place of hands, which are attributes of his intelligence, would have given him, like a mollusk, two shells.—And idleness! Idleness! Do you cry to me, you civilizées?

Idleness is not the daughter of liberty and human genius, but of slavery and civilization; it is something foul and against nature, that one could only encounter in some Sodom, old or new. Idleness is not a pleasure, it is a gangrene and a paralysis. The bygone societies, the old worlds, the corrupt civilizations could only produce and spread the same scourges. Humanisphereans satisfy naturally the need for the exercise of the arm, as well as that of the stomach. It is no more possible to ration the appetite for production that the appetite for consumption. It is up to each to consume and to produce according to their strengths, according to their needs. By bending all beneath a uniform remuneration, one would starve some and cause others to die of indigestion. Only the individual is capable of knowing the proportion of labor that his stomach, his brain, or his hand can digest. One rations a horse at the stable; the master allocates to domestic animal so much food. But in liberty the animal rations itself, and the instincts offer it, better than the master, that which suits its temperament. Wild animals scarcely know disease. Having all in profusion, they do not fight among themselves to pull up a blade of grass. They know the wild meadow produces more pasturage than they are able to graze, and they mow it in peace, one beside the other. Why do men wrest consumption from one another, when production, by mechanical forces, furnishes more than their needs?

—Authority is idleness.
—Liberty is labor.

The slave alone is lazy, rich or poor:—the rich, slave to prejudice, to false science; the poor, slave to ignorance and prejudices,—both slaves of the law, the one to suffer it, the other to impose it. Isn’t it suicide to dedicate its productive faculties to inertia? The inert man is not a man; he is less than a brute, because the brute acts in the measure of its means, and obeys its instinct. Whoever possesses a particle of intelligence could at least obey it. And intelligence is not idleness; it is fertilizing movement. It is progress. The intelligence of man is his instinct, and that instinct says to him without ceasing: Labor; put the hand and the brow to the work; produce and discover; productions and discoveries, these are liberty. Those who do not work, do not enjoy. Work is life.—Idleness is death!

That might not sound all that appealing to the “anti-work” crowd, though it is clear that Déjacque is talking about a kind of “attractive labor” that would not have the character of work within authoritarian institutions. It does give a pretty unequivocal answer to the question often posed about expectations about labor under anarchist-communism. The treatment of the relation between abilities and needs, on the one hand, and production and consumption, on the other, is itself fairly attractive. And Déjacque, at least, was pretty sure that everyone would be busy at their attractive industries. In fine Fourierist fashion, we might extend his claims about “natural man” and laziness, and guess that those who appear naturally lazy are, instead, enslaved by ill-wrought social systems, or perhaps just bored. (Time to exercise the papillon a bit, maybe.)

When I tracked down the installment of L’Humanisphère from which this excerpt was taken, I was a bit surprised to find that it led off with a long passage on l’égoïsme:

L’égoïsme, c’est l’homme : sans l’égoïsme, l’homme n’existerait pas. C’est l’égoïsme qui est le mobile de toutes ses actions, le moteur de toutes ses pensées.

I don’t think that’s too hard to follow, even if you don’t have much French. Egoism is the motive of all human actions, and the motor of all human thoughts. Here is one of those points at which we can explore the original differences between mutualism and anarchist communism, and one of the things that is clear is that individualism per se was not the point of contention.

More about these issues as I work my way through the sources. . .


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


  1. I may be misreading the above, but Déjacque seems to espouse a sort of puritanism rather than a passion for justice. The idleness of the ruling class is wrong not because it occurs at the expense of the oppressed, but because idleness “per se” is wrong?

  2. camelcase: L’Humanisphère was the name that Déjacque gave to his anarchist utopia. Humanisphereans would be the anarchists who lived in it. “L’Humanisphère” ran serially in “Le Libertaire,” which is available in the Déjacque archive linked above.

    brad: If I’m reading things correctly, the Fourierist influence is important here. Idleness is less morally wrong than a product of thwarted passional drives. Rich and poor are both referred to as “slaves.” This isn’t some “protestant work ethic,” where people push themselves to labor because they should labor, whether or not the labor is attractive to them. Work, for nearly all the Fourierists and semi-Fourierists, is what we do when we’re free. It looks like Déjacque would allow the play of all of the passions, including the flighty “papillon,” or spirit of variation and alternation. Attractive industry is supposed to be a lot more like what we might call “play” than a J. O. B.

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