Echoes and Fragments: Collective Egoism

One of the elements of Proudhon’s social theory which sometimes strikes people as odd or objectionable is his emphasis on “collective force” and his insistence on the existence of collective beings or individuals. I’ve had some understandably skeptical responses to my claim that Proudhon’s philosophy is essentially a philosophy of individualism—but encompassing individuals at every conceivable scale. That is, of course, a bit of a simplification—even a simplism—if we neglect to mention that, for Proudhon, individualism had a tendency to lead into socialism, and vice versa. Recall, for instance, that he expected an absolutely free and individualistic society, based on “complete insolidarity,” to lead more-or-less straight to communism. The theory of collective individuals is among the elements that have not been developed much by mutualists after Proudhon (although some of his French followers did pursue the question), but one of the assumptions of the “two-gun” rereading of the tradition is that very little of the original mutualist synthesis was lost, however much it may have been fragmented and scattered among the various anarchist and libertarian schools. That assumption is, of course, not a priori, but is based on having discovered those various threads, sometimes in the most seemingly unlikely places.

Consider, for example, this treatment of the egoism of collectives, from The Philosophy of Egoism, by James L. Walker (Tak Kak.)


Beside individuals we encounter groups variously cemented together by controlling ideas; such groups are families, tribes, states and churches. The more nearly a group approaches the condition of being held together by the interest of its members without constraint of one exercised over other members, the more nearly does the group approximate to the character of an Ego, in itself. Observation and reflection show that the group, or collectivity, never yet composed wholly of enlightened individuals joining and adhering in the group through individual accord, has always fallen short of the approximation which is conceivable for the group to the independent Egoistic character. The family, tribe, state and church are all dominated physically or mentally by some individuals therein. These groups, such as they have been known in all history, never could have existed with the disproportionate powers and influence of their members but for prevailing beliefs reducible to ignorance, awe and submission in the mass of the members.

With this explanation and corresponding allowance, the group may be spoken of as approximately Egoistic in its character. Even when least swayed by individual members, the family, the nation and the church are thoroughly selfy. These composite individualities, as it is the fancy of some writers to consider them, are appealed to in vain to furnish an exception to the Egoistic principle. When Jack imposes upon the ignorance of Jill or upon habits acquired during mutual aid, and Jill is too trusting to trace the transaction back to fundamental elements and calculations of mutual benefit, the matter is readily laid to Jack’s selfishness, which of course lauds its victim’s welcome compliance; but when the family demands a heavy sacrifice of each member, attention is mostly drawn by Moralists to the advantage of the family and the need of such sacrifices, never to the phenomenon of a ruthless form of Egoism in the family, imposing upon its members who have felt some of the advantages and then yielded to pretensions which will not bear analysis, or tracing back in an actual account of loss and gain. Thus it is said to the man that he needs a wife, to the woman that she needs a husband, and to the children that they needed parents and will need obedience from their own children by and by. On the strength of these views various sacrifices of the happiness of man, woman and youth may be effected while they do not inquire precisely what they do need individually and how they can get it at least cost of unhappiness.

The family, attempting to become an Ego, treats its members as an Ego naturally treats available organic or inorganic matter. The supine become raw material. The person has the power to resign self-care and allow himself to be seized upon and worked up as material by any of the other real or would-be Egos that are in quest of nutriment and of bases of operations. The greater would-be Ego, the “social organism,” reinforces the family demand with persuasion that hesitates at no fallacy, but first plies the individual with some general logic as to our need of each other, then with flattery, how it will repay him for inconvenience by praise, external and internal, all the while exerting a moral terrorism over every mind weak enough to allow it, and all to subjugate the real Ego to the complex would-be but impossible Ego. For not the good of the family, but of itself, is the object of the state and of the “social organism.” The state prates of the sacredness of the family, but treats it with scant courtesy when its own interest conflicts with the family interest. The “social organism” reinforces the family against the individual and the state against the family, this already threatening the family, and obviously it will next threaten the state so far as this can be distinguished from the community; that is, the “social organism” will have no permanent use for separate nations.

But in speaking thus we should not forget that the group, or collectivity, reflects the will of some master minds, or at the widest the will of a large number under the influence of certain beliefs. Either one or two or three horses may draw a plow, and its motions will be different. The complexity of motion from three horses is certainly a phenomenon to be studied, but the way is not to disregard the elementary motive forces which form the result by their combination; and so it is with society. Its phenomena will be according to conditions of information and to circumstances which determine the direction of personal desires. The certainty of desire and aversion as motives, founded in self-preservation, is found in the nature of organic as distinguished from inorganic existence. All desires and dislikes, acting and counteracting, make the so-called social will,—a more convenient than accurate abstraction. To make of it an entity is a metaphysical fancy. Unity of will is the sign of individuality. The semblance of a social self, apart from individuals, obviously arises from the general concurrence of wills. They could not do otherwise than run along parallel lines of least resistance, but the intellectual prism separates the blended social rays.

The church is an important group, under the theological belief. The primitive character of its dominant idea finds its complementary expression in the simple and transparent Egoism of its immediate motives. A personal ruler, judge and rewarder existing in belief, commands and threatens. The person sacrifices part of his pleasure to propitiate this master because he fears his power. Habits supervene and the investigating spirit is terrorized both by personal belief and the fear of other fear-stricken believers, watchful and intolerant. The hope of heaven and fear of punishment are of the simplest Egoism. Morality on the same plane includes the fear of man and hope of benefit from man, complicated with belief in reciprocal enforcement of ecclesiastical duties, and this as a duty. Becoming metaphysical it is doubtless more difficult of analysis, but this secondary or transition stage of mind is already disposed of as a whole by philosophy, so that the evolutionist predicts the passage of its phenomena and their replacement by positive ideas of processes. The metaphysical stage will pass away though its formulas be entirely neglected by the advancing opposition. In fact, spell-bound and mystified man is freed by courage to break off from the chain of phantasies which has succeeded to the chain of theological fear. In this progress example counts suggestively and even demonstratively, and new habits of positive, specific inquiry give the intellect mastery of itself and of the emotions which had enslaved it.

To sum up this part of the subject, let those who preach anti Egoistic doctrines in the name of deity, society or collective humanity, tell us of a deity who is not an Egoistic autocrat, or who has worshipers who do not bow down to him because they think it wisest to submit; of a family which sacrifices itself to the individuals and not the individuals’ hopes and wishes to itself; of a community or political or social state which departs from the rule of self-defence and self-aggrandizement; of any aggregation, pretending to permanence, that is not for itself and against every individuality that would subtract from its power and influence; of a collective humanity that is not for itself, the collectivity, though it were necessary to discourage and suppress any individual freedom which the collectivity did not think to be well disposed toward the collectivity or at least certain to operate to its ultimate benefit. Self is the thought and aim in all. Selfiness is their common characteristic. Without it they would be elemental matter, unresisting food for other growths.

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


  1. ‘One of the elements of Proudhon’s social theory which sometimes strikes people as odd or objectionable is his emphasis on “collective force” and his insistence on the existence of collective beings or individuals.’

    Strange, as I always thought that this was simply recognising reality.

    Proudhon first raised the notion of “collective force” in What is Property? and the concept is perfectly understandable and, indeed, commonsense — people working together as a group can achieve more than individuals working alone. He then argued that the boss appropriated the product of this collective force because he paid the workers as individuals. This was one of the (many) reasons property is theft.

    I should point out that in the 1840s Marx praised Proudhon for being the first to notice this but when he came to write Capital he forgot to credit Proudhon even though he repeated Proudhon’s arguments…

    Proudhon subsequently expanded upon this concept and related it to all forms of organisation and liberty within them and society. The new Proudhon Anthology will have some of material within it so hopefully making it clearer what he meant.

    I guess if you have been brainwashed by neo-classical or “Austrian” economics this may seem strange but if you haven’t, well, nothing too difficult to comprehend.

    Groups are usually greater than the sum of their parts. There are group interests. If you take an atomistic individualistic perspective and deny this you end up defending authoritarian social relationships (Proudhon: “property is despotism”). The interests and freedom of the individuals who make up the group are submerged by the person who owns the property. As I wrote elsewhere:

    “There are two ways of having a group. You can be an association of equals, governing yourselves collectively as regards collective issues. Or you can have capitalists and wage slaves, bosses and servants, government and governed.”

    Proudhon’s philosophy is one of individual liberty and, as such, he sought to answer Rousseau’s question of what kind of association can protect the freedom of those within it. Hence Proudhon’s support for decentralised, federal self-managed organisations — both socially and economically. And subsequent anarchist support for both.

    So if by “individualist” it is meant, as so many sadly do, an abstract individualism which only exists when you sign a contract and is lost immediately afterward, then Proudhon was not one. If by “individualist” it is meant someone concerned with real liberty for real individuals, one which cannot be lost or sold, then he was one.

    Unfortunately “individualist” is a much used and abused term and one I tend to avoid precisely because of that. But, then, much the same can be said for socialist, communist, libertarian and anarchist…

    An Anarchist FAQ

  2. Iain, while the notion of collective force seems pretty straightforward, I think the development Proudhon gave to his notion of collective *individuals* seems counter-intuitive to a lot of folks. After all, he goes a long ways beyond the affirmation of cooperation. Much of the specific strength, and nearly all of the pitfalls, in Proudhon’s mutualism come from the stuff that happens when he tries to simultaneously develop both individualism and socialism in dynamic tension. What’s interesting about the Walker piece is that, as one-sided as the analysis seems to be, he demonstrates that egoism can get us to a theory of collectives, not too far from Proudhon’s (and with direct reference to Proudhon.) Because of Walker’s relation to Tucker, this at least opens the possibility that even the notion of “collective individuals” can be pretty orthodox individualism.

    The details and niceties of all this are, unfortunately, among the things it wasn’t possible to fit into the anthology. The analysis of the 1850s was foreshadowed by the analysis of 1840, and subsequent anarchist developments have resembled Proudhon’s mature work in many ways, but Proudhon’s mutualism isn’t simply reducible to the foreshadowings or the subsequent development. Mutualism takes in the insights of “The Theory of Property,” as well as those of “Political Capacity,” and the way to bring those insights together is to linger a bit with the philosophical bits in “War and Peace” and “Justice.”

    As for the use of the term “individualist,” I think the “Two-Gun Mutualist” posts have made my approach relatively clear.

  3. Hey Ian. Mostly agree with what you’re saying, except the part about the brainwashed Austrian perspective. I wouldn’t say it’s brainwashing work so much as incomplete theory. Austrians don’t take context into account, even though this should be an important layer above praxeological ‘truths.’

    So that a person who contracts with another, may be said to have chosen to do so, and preferred it to not have contracted (the infamous ‘they went to the factory because otherwise life was shit’ justification for industrial revolution-era slavery); but the range of alternatives determines whether this is a meaningful choice. (Other problem is the knowledge of, and trust in those alternatives, which people may or may not have, due to mandatory education.)

    Hence, under the appropriate context, two persons contracting do form a collective of equals; as the free market theory pretends but reality negates.

    Shawn: I’ve read the unexpected dangers of the free market piece, and I’m quite surprised by Proudhon’s claim that possessory sets of ownership rules, when they are the only rules, lead to inequality. Is there some freely available history documenting this?

  4. Matthieu, there’s a basic problem dealing with Proudhon’s property theory, since he, by his own testimony, seems to have intended “possession” to mean, even in the 1840 text, inalienable and indivisible “fief.” The usufruct possession that’s sort of a standard anarchist model really seems to be a later invention. Proudhon’s account was never, as far as I can tell, entirely consistent, but he was fairly consistent in describing the “possession” he wanted to contrast with simple property in more-or-less feudal terms. The later discussion is in “Théorie de la propriété,” starting on page 84.

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