Avengers who never assemble

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  • “My Testament, or Society of Avengers” (FR/EN, partial translation) [click image]

By what sign shall we recognize that an individual who has been struck has been struck by the society of avengers? If the victim is notorious depraved, or corrupt, or criminal, or villainous; if they are an enemy of the people; if their political importance  corresponds to their criminality; if a sign is left on the corpse; if they are not stripped or robbed; if no author of the murder can be assumed from self-interest, rivalry, etc.”

A notorious enemy of society is struck down and a mark is left on the corpse. We might be inclined to think we were reading an old Spider pulp, but the truth is arguably a bit stranger. The passage is from an unpublished work by Proudhon: My Testament, or Society of Avengers. It is just one of the many remarkable items tucked away in the archival material digitized by the Ville de Besançon. There are items that tend to complete our picture of Proudhon: personal papers, a mortuary photograph, over 14,000 pages of letters he received, and, of course, a number of key writings that remain unpublished. I’ve already talked quite a bit about Pologne, the major unpublished work of the 1860s. More recently, I’ve been exploring Economie, a unfinished work composed between 1850 and 1855, which includes quite a bit of exploration of the “psychology” of collective beings. That work seems to be a continuation of some of the analysis in The System of Economic Contradictions and to part of the work addressed—with conscious irony, Proudhon assures us—to the bourgeois, in the manner of The General Idea of the Revolution, a text that is from the same period and perhaps should be considered part of the same general project. There is also Comment les affaires vont en France, et pourquoi nous aurons la guerre, si nous l’avons : à propos des nouveaux projets de traités entre les compagnies de chemin de fer et l’Etat, a work completed and set into type in 1859, and then abandoned when Proudhon decided to pursue the question of war more fully in War and Peace. The manuscripts tell us more about Proudhon’s collaborations with Georges Dûchene (Manuel du spéculateur à la Bourse, Comment les affaires vont en France, Des réformes à opérer dans l’exploitation des chemins de fer, and Théorie de l’impôt) and Alfred Darimon (Chronos). I think that ready access to all these clarifying details ought to do a great deal to embolden those interested in Proudhon’s thought in pursuing that interest. We’ve been working with large portions of “the big picture” obscured, and some aspects of Proudhon’s larger project seems to come into focus quite rapidly as soon as we can even just do a fairly complete inventory of the various projects involved. And it doesn’t hurt, when combating the notion that all that is important about Proudhon is a handful of slogans and missteps, to be able to point to the largely unexplored expanses of his writings.

But there’s another sort of clarification that comes with exploring the manuscripts, which gives us a sense of what remained incomplete or undecided in Proudhon’s thought. Back in January, I pointed to the challenge implicit in Proudhon’s characterization of his own work as at once anchored to certain basic commitments and constantly changing, in accordance with a view that truth is not found in fixity. Proudhon told us that if he could live a thousand years we should be able to anticipate the twists and turns of his development, based on those commitments and the experimental nature of his method. And in one of my favorite passages from his work, in The Philosophy of Progress, he owned up to the fact that his progress would involve its share of mistakes:

“What could a few lapses, a few false steps, detract from the rectitude of my faith, the goodness of my cause?… You will please me, sir, to learn for yourself what road I have traveled, and how many times I have fallen along the way. Far from blushing at so many spills, I would be tempted to boast of them, and to measure my valor by the number of my contusions.”

We know, of course, that Proudhon seldom actually boasted of his mistakes, and the manuscripts suggest that he was, like most of us, pretty eager not to make them in the first place. One of the things that has come through clearly in my research on the posthumous works is the degree of care he was accustomed to lavish on the completion of his published works, a habit which imposed a good deal of stress on his literary executors. And now we have the example of an entire work set aside, presumably because Proudhon had been sick, and not feeling his full powers when he wrote it. But we know the importance of contradiction and antinomy to Proudhon’s work, and we know that he believed that progress was almost always the product of oscillations between positions that we often mutually exclusive. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised to find that the manuscripts are full of the marks of contradiction, oscillation, etc.

That is indeed what we find in the newly digitized archives. There are outbursts and provocations, telling asides and notes to himself. There are pages crossed out and multiple, contradictory versions of intractable arguments. And there are laugh-out-loud and Aha! moments, when the most unexpected elements make their appearances: proletarian dictatorships, for example, or, in the handful of pages in the manuscript of My Testament, a Society of Avengers.

Now, to be completely honest, the vigilante program was not entirely unexpected. References to it have played a rather peculiar role in Proudhon scholarship. Haubtmann makes special note of My Testament in his bibliography, while passing over works of similar or greater size, noting its “very violent tone.” Ritter focuses a great deal of attention on a similar proposal in Economie (which, despite the emphasis he places on its importance, I haven’t been able to track down.) And there is a history of dark hints throughout Proudhon’s works that if other measure are not taken to establish justice the workers would know how to look after their own interests, most famously in the Warning to the Proprietors, where the unmentionable method is apparently a sort of Vehmic court. After explaining the reference in a letter to Chaudey, Proudhon apparently disavowed it in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, where his fragmentary commentary on moral sanction, including a denial of the right of society to punish, certainly posed difficulties for a system of vigilante justice. The dark hints seem to return again in later works, including The Theory of Property, but they remain hints. There are, I think, some important differences between the proposal in My Testament and the Vehmic courts, which it will be interesting to explore, but before we turn to those perhaps we have to grapple a bit more with the problem of unpublished writings and dark hints.

It is a peculiar fact of Proudhon scholarship in the English language that the notebooks and unpublished writings have been of at least as much importance to those wishing to discredit Proudhon as to those wishing to understand him. There is something about the exposure of a presumably secret thought which has an extraordinary rhetorical power. I don’t think most of us want to be defined by our worst day or our most uncharitable thought, but many of us seem to be content to judge others in that way. The “why” of all that is probably worth some serious consideration, although I won’t take the time speculate to speculate much here. Clearly, there is some underlying mistrust that elevates the isolated private utterance over the public elaboration of a system, and it might be useful to isolate it and examine it more closely. But if our goal is to understand Proudhon’s thought, and to take up the challenge of extrapolating from it, if possible, to a progressively more refined understanding of anarchism, then we can’t give way to the temptation to fixate on any particular detail, any more than we can allow ourselves to ignore the obvious failures. There are places where the distinction between public and private expression was important to Proudhon, and where part of that importance involved rhetorical strategy, persuasion, and even perhaps deception of a sort, and it turns out that My Testament is one of those, but we have to engage with those instance when and as we find them.

All that said, let me present, with a certain amount of fear and trepidation, a very rough and unfinished transcription and translation of My Testament, or Society of Avengers. There are portions of the transcription left unfinished, where it will take time to make sense of Proudhon’s handwriting. There are a few spots where gaps in the transcription did not allow translation of some material I could make out. I had the help of a typescript transcription of some portions of the text, possibly by Haubtmann, but it was partial and not always entirely dependable. Finally, the handful of pages are just the outline for a work that was supposed to be around a hundred pages in length, so most of the key terms remain poorly defined, and the lack of a date prevents us from making particularly good guesses based on other works. As a result, there is a great deal that we simply cannot say with any certainty about the proposal. Some of its most striking elements appear alternately horrifying, provocative, or simply part and parcel of the difficult project of anarchism, depending on which of the possible definitions we think we should apply to various of those terms.

So let me propose a sort of exercise:

There is a great deal that we know about Proudhon’s theory of “rights,” defined as “the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives.” We also know a good deal about his own failures to always recognize human dignity. So when we see a passage where Proudhon claims, for example, that men have a “right of life and death” over wayward women and their accomplices, we either have to choose to interpret that passage according to Proudhon’s own known failures, or according to how own, oft-repeated principles, or we have to find a means of addressing the series of possibilities raised by his equally well-known inconsistencies. Which we choose no doubt depends on our own project. If we’re simply looking for further evidence that Proudhon sometimes failed, I don’t think that this new passage adds much that we didn’t already know, but we can bask once again in the horror of the thing. I find this the least useful of the various possibilities, but I recognize that it has its attractions. And there is undoubtedly a cautionary value in letting ourselves explore the costs of failures. If, on the other hand, we’re looking to recuperate Proudhon, then there are undoubtedly ways to think about the question of a “right of life and death,” using the sort of definitions we find in some of the later works, that confront us with a different set of possibilities and difficulties. And there is almost certainly a value in the exercise of giving the benefit of a doubt, although I suspect that, in the end, at least part of that value remains cautionary. I think, however, that the most interesting options come when we abandon the need to make Proudhon simply a villain or a hero, and take him, as he seems to have encouraged us to take him, as fallible but committed, and always in-progress. Naturally, that sort of encounter—and let’s allow that term all the theoretical richness we’re been gathering around it—is a more complicated thing. At the very least, it means being willing to encounter some range of possible Proudhons, pitting them against one another, deciding or acknowledging that we cannot easily decide between them, but learning to know the Proudhon or Proudhons of the past well enough to imagine where that Proudhon who might live a thousand years might have got to in the years since his death.

I’m not certain, having spent some time with the manuscript of My Testament, whether even the few pages that we have amount to the basis for a single work, embodying a single vision, or whether we’re dealing with variants visions among which Proudhon himself had not decided. If all the pieces present were to be connected, we are certainly missing some important pieces of the puzzle. I’m not sure what to make of the form of the work, a last will and testament, presumably affirming a belief that Proudhon could or would not affirm openly while living, nor, given that form, I am certain how to interpret the various denials and dark hints. We know that, in the end, the work was left unrealized, but we don’t seem to have the resources to say precisely why. When I turn to grapple with the details of the proposal of this Society of Avengers that is not to gather, hold meetings, etc. and whose actions can be recognized simply by the fact that the enemies of justice have been struck down, it isn’t even clear if this is really an institutional proposal or a general call to a kind of propaganda by deed, in which case it becomes hard to distinguish between the Society of Avengers and society.

That’s a lot of questions left to answer, with no certainty that they can be clearly answered with the available facts. That means that it is either a very frustrating problem or an occasion for reflection on what we do know about Proudhon’s thought and exploration of the various ways that our questions might be answered. The exercise that I would like to suggest to those happy to move beyond the thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluation of Proudhon, or the slightly schizoid tendency to make sure we always blame him whenever we praise him, is to take some time to try to grapple with this unfinished, provocative piece in the way that Proudhon seems to have challenged us to do, taking it as representing one step in a progression, part of a necessary oscillation, etc.

Short of that, I hope it will still produce a satisfying chuckle or gasp…

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