Inheriting Proudhon

2010 is likely to be a good year for mutualism. Last I heard, Crispin Sartwell’s Josiah Warren collection was on its way to the publisher. Kevin Carson’s third book, The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto, is available in rough form. It looks like I’ll get to do the traveling necessary to put together a first edition of my own Descriptive Bibliography of Equitable Commerce (though several months later than originally planned), and, barring any catastrophic changes in my currently precarious economic situation, the first issue of The Mutualist (successor to LeftLiberty) ought to be available in time for the Bay Area bookfair. With a little luck, I might even have The Anarchism of Approximations and Other Essays finished by the year’s end. Arguably, however, the biggest mutualism-related event of the year is likely to be the release of Property is Theft!, the anthology of Proudhon’s work, edited by Iain McKay and due to be published by AK Press in November. Iain has begun to post the contents online. I’ve also begun to set up a new Proudhon Library archive, which will eventually take the place of the current Libertarian Labyrinth site, as that site becomes explicitly a workspace dedicated to bibliographic projects.

The new anthology is going to be a real event, bringing together a larger, better, and better organized collection of Proudhon’s work than has ever been presented in English. Kevin Carson described the previous best attempt, Stewart’s Selected Writings, as a sort of anarchistic Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” But imagine a collection of that sort where the entries were “organized” with no consideration for sequence, and no real attempt to make connections or map development — and consider how much Proudhon’s work really begs for some attention to the development of his ideas. What Iain has done with the new anthology is to present larger slices — mostly full essays or chapters — in roughly chronological order. He has included a useful glossary of obscure terms, events and persons mentioned in the texts. And if there is still not much in the way of a guiding overview included, there are at least quite a few less misconceptions repeated in what we get. The selection is a political one, relatively weak on philosophy and social science — but clearly ahead of the curve in acknowledging Proudhon’s later works. It is also pretty clearly a communist’s-eye-view, so the critique of property is emphasized in its earliest forms — but, significantly, the concluding chapter from The Theory of Property is also included as an appendix.

Iain has posted the introduction to the collection on the associated blog. Nobody will be surprised to find that I disagree, in some cases fairly strongly, with the analysis of Proudhon’s ideas contained in it. But if I think that Iain is a bit wrong about Proudhon, I also think he is wrong in pretty much the same way as many of the very best anarchist commentators have been. It’s not a matter of damning with faint praise: This is a very good book, assembled pretty much as a labor of love and respect, and you should support AK’s willingness to publish it with a purchase (or three) when it becomes available in November.

It’s just that, for a mutualist, there is no question of stopping here.

During the online seminar on What is Property? I posted a comparison of the theory in that work with the approach in The Theory of Property. At that point — over a year and a half ago — it seemed to me that “very little, other than Proudhon’s opinion about whether or not “the antinomy resolves itself,” actually changes. And that leaves us with roughly three responses: 1) to prefer the approach of 1840; 2) to prefer the approach of the 1860s; or 3) to feel that the terms are essentially ill-conceived.” At that point, I was just exploring the material from the 1860s and had yet to read much of “Justice in the Revolution and in the Church,” the central work from 1858. Since then, having filled in quite a few of the gaps in my reading, my sense of the options has changed a little. While the 1860s approach is certainly one approximation of that “third form of society” Proudhon began to pursue in 1840, now conceived (as I suggested last year) as a “counterpoise of property and communism,” it is far from the only such approximation possible, and it is, significantly, not one which gets us very far towards one of Proudhon’s other consistent goals, the transformation of the property relation itself, and the development of a positive theory of property. The Option #4 which I have actually been pursuing has been to treat the obviously incomplete and inconsistent work of the 1860s in the same way that Proudhon treated his own obviously incomplete and inconsistent work from the earlier decades, by attempting to work through the insufficiencies and inconsistencies. The notion of the “gift economy of property” — derived almost entirely from Proudhon’s own property writings — is an attempt to push beyond some of the undesirable aspects of his “final” approximation, taking his “positive” treatment of liberty (in the 1858 Justice…) as a working model.

(From my perspective, this is also the way to deal with Proudhon’s cultural failings — including his anti-feminism and racism — which we can and should address head-on. It seems obvious to most contemporary anarchists that these elements are inconsistent with the core of anarchist beliefs, but we haven’t, for the most part, got close enough to Proudhon to demonstrate that they were inconsistent with his own best thoughts on anarchism. I think, however, that this is indeed something that we will be able to show, without in any way whitewashing the serious consequences of prejudice.)

So 2010 should also be a good year for controversy over mutualism — hopefully controversy productive of better understanding. A lot of the controversy will arise from the fact that none of the various ways to inherit Proudhon’s work is self-evidently more likely to promote the goals of anarchism than any other. I obviously have some fairly strong feelings about the directions in which the greatest advantages lie. But the arguments for the “gift economy of property” and “anarchism of approximations” involve choices of emphasis and presumptions about the essence and aims of historical mutualism. Since it has been suggested recently that part of my strategy is to treat the “good old stuff” as “pure” and beyond critique, let’s get that possibility right off the table. I expect to present a good deal of good intellectual history, and to derive from it a good deal of interesting, and I think useful, theory. But all of that will involve some very explicit choices, and when I feel the need to disagree with my friends and comrades — if I embrace, to some extent, the Proudhonian maxim that peace is the perfection of conflict — it isn’t from any imagined shelter of historical or theoretical objectivity. I am ultimately a Derridean on the question of intellectual inheritance — we always choose between inheritances, and are responsible for those choices.

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