Justice—and “Justice”—as the Center of Proudhon’s Work

The Status of the Project

Work on the translation of Proudhon’s Justice in the Revolution and the Church continues steadily and is now well ahead of the schedule I had set myself, despite a bout of the still-lurking plague complicating matters in March. Today, I started translating the Fifth Study, on education and the draft files for the project contain roughly 411,000 words (1280 double-spaced pages) of new or previously unshared translation.

Aside from the “Program,” “Preliminary Address” and first four Studies from Justice, I have been able to add first-draft translations of Eugène de Mirecourt’s The Contemporaries: Proudhon, which inspired the framing of that work, plus Proudhon’s Third Memoir on property, Warning to the Proprietors, an early bit of religious criticism, The Miserere, and the 1848 text, Solution of the Social Problem, which includes and important critique of democracy and provided us with the famous phrase “liberty, not the daughter of order, but the MOTHER of order.” I’ve also been able to share several chapters from the completed, but ultimately unpublished 1859 work, How Business is Going in France, and am puttering away, behind the scenes, at a translation of The Creation of Order in Humanity.

There is even more work in-progress, including the long-delayed revision of Theory of Property, which will appear as time allows and the fit takes me. The most recent revisions of those texts I have begun to incorporate into the nascent edition can all be found linked at proudhonlibrary.org.

I am trying to mark the drafts I am sharing with some indication of their state of completeness and polish, but the truth is that this new phase of the New Proudhon Library project means that all of my Proudhon-related working translations, from the freshest first-draft texts to the most familiar and oft-revised entries in the Corvus Editions catalog, have to be reconsidered in the light of new contexts. A lot has changed since I first began to translation Proudhon—and a lot had to change, as I learned through some false starts, before work on a serious edition could really begin.

The Steps Moving Forward

This first stage, which simply involves producing first-draft translations as rapidly as possible, while getting reacquainted—or, in a few cases, acquainted for the very first time—with the rest of Proudhon’s body of work. With the first-draft translations, I am setting the bar as usability, which means that I’m not sharing a paragraph until I believe that an interested reader could, with a bit of perseverance where Proudhon’s sometimes convoluted prose is concerned and a willingness to explore contexts, follow the thread of the prose from beginning to end. That should mean, in practice, that the roughest drafts I’m producing should be a bit clearer than the very rough translation of Theory of Property with which we have been making do for years. But I’m posting these first drafts with all sorts of warnings about their inadequacies, precisely because I’ve reached the point where I don’t feel like I have to ask anyone to settle, at least for long, and because we can look forward to a period—perhaps a couple of years—during which the drafts will be in a state of flux as they pass through multiple revisions.

The second stage of the process will be an intermediate process, in the course of which I’ll do my best to catch any errors in the first drafts, fix formatting and begin to tame the often unnecessarily circuitous structure of Proudhon’s prose in this particular work. The structural revisions will be gentle, at least at first, as there will be a balance to be struck—one of many such balances—between the conscious choices that Proudhon made while producing the work in his own particular context and the really significant difficulties that some of those choices present to readers in our own context. As I work through the drafts, I will begin to assemble a glossary, documenting the idiosyncrasies of Proudhon’s usage, as well as those involved in my translation. I’ll also be beginning the process of annotating the work, connecting the glossary to the text, noting the connections between Justice and the rest of Proudhon’s body of work, etc. There will be instances where earlier works are quoted and translations need to be rendered consistent. Sometimes, this work will highlight other texts that need to be added to the stack for translation. Ultimately, of course, there isn’t much in Proudhon’s entire body of work that isn’t related to his analysis of the Revolution and the Church, but not every bit is equally relevant to the project of “Popular Philosophy” in Justice.

Coming to Grips with Proudhon’s Work

Just a glance at the list of titles included in the works of Proudhon gives a sense of just how much we’re taking on when we think about understanding his thought, producing an edition of his works, etc. It is a body of work that is equally enticing and daunting. Benjamin R. Tucker’s first Proudhon Library barely made a dent in it. And, so far, my own attempts haven’t exactly been dazzling in their successes, at least when measured against what remains to be done. One of the difficulties, of course, has been knowing where to start.

Anything like a “correct” answer to that question has depended a great deal on contexts, but often, and perhaps increasingly as time has passed, on contexts established by the reception of Proudhon’s work in earlier eras. Some of the results have been a bit bizarre. You have to wonder, for example, what Tucker, with his plumbline anarchism, made of a work like The System of Economic Contradictions, in which there is precious little that is linear anywhere to be found. Or we could contemplate the popularity among radicals of The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, a book addressed explicitly to the bourgeoisie, translated by John Beverley Robinson in a way that basically guarantees that the one concept that will remain unclear to the English reader is anarchy itself. I’ve had to come to terms with the extent to which my own understanding of Proudhon’s thought depending on an ongoing engagement with Theory of Property—a work I had every encouragement to consider unreliable or compromised, until I took the time to compare the printed version to the manuscript, learned to place it in its proper place in the larger body of work, etc. More obvious choices, like The Principle of Federation, have tended to produce what seem to me the strangest of impressions, were there no so many obvious preconceptions out there working against other readings. The relative quiet surrounding the recent translation of War and Peace seems to be some version of the same effect.

Someone asked me earlier today on social media what the “gateway” texts were to Proudhon’s thought. Thanks to recent work, my answer was more confident than it has generally been, focusing on the methodological writings and the writings on collective force, which seem to be the key to understanding everything else.

The most important methodological writings are arguably:

  • Philosophy of Progress: Program (1853)
  • Popular Philosophy: Program (from the 1860 2nd edition of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church)
  • The still-untranslated sections on “serial dialectic” from De la création de l’ordre dans l’humanité (1853)
  • The discussion of definable and indefinable notions from Ms. 2863 of Economy (early 1850s)

The two other works that discuss collective force — which was introduced in What is Property? (notes) — are:

  • Principles of the Philosophy of Progress (from Economy)
  • Little Political Catechism (from Justice…) (Jesse Cohn’s translation)

Most of the works not individually linked can be accessed through the proudhonlibrary.org project page liked above.

The thing that strikes me, however, looking over these lists is that — with the exception of the important discussion of indefinable notions in Economy — most of these potential gateway texts have been freely available online for quite a while now, without actually serving as a gateway for more than a few brave souls, most of whom are prepared to take the next steps, beyond the gateways, in French. Enough of the right sections and fragments are translated that anyone who cares to can now probably piece together a general sense of Proudhon’s concerns, but that’s different than having a work available, in the stronger sense of that term, with which readers can fully engage.

War and Peace is very close to being that work. If it was just a bit closer, I might not be engaged in the work I’m doing now, which I have managed to put off for a number of years now. But what I learned from wrestling with War and Peace was that I really needed to come back and come to terms with Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, which prepares the intellectual and rhetorical ground for it. I am not suggesting that anyone who feels the slightest inclination to tackle War and Peace should wait around for this work to finish. I might recommend a look at the material on indefinable notions and perhaps a read though the Program of Popular Philosophy, but that degree of methodological preparation ought to provide whatever preparation is possible for the fascinating, but ultimately difficult task of keeping up with Proudhon as he moves from his celebration of war to his invocation of a complex peace. And there are elements specific to War and Peace, like the discussion of the gamut of rights, that will probably be helpful in understanding Justice. The way that Proudhon scattered related insights across various works was probably an inescapable effect of the conditions under which he produced his work and no one who wants to construct an understanding of his broad project from the primary sources will escape the need to work back and forth across the various texts in order to draw all of the possible conclusions. The contention I have made in the title of this post, about the textual and conceptual “center” of Proudhon’s work, is the kind of claim you can’t make without that sort of engagement.

But let’s deal with the contention.

Justice is generally considered to be Proudhon’s masterwork. It’s sheer size — filling six of the twenty-six volumes of the 19th century Œuvres complètes — is obviously imposing. Then, the more that we learn about the works composed or published just before and after the 1860 second edition, the more it grows in various senses. War and Peace and Theory of Taxation appear as numbered studies in the same series as those in Justice. How Business is Going in France and some other still-unpublished manuscripts appear to be abandoned beginnings of the same project. The Pornocracy, in manuscript form, appears as an unfinished “News of the Revolution” section and Proudhon’s correspondence confirms that it was to follow the Studies on Love and Marriage in Justice. The works associated with Proudhon’s study of Poland, including the unpublished Political Geography and Nationality, the posthumously published Theory of Property and The Federative Principle all seem to flow from the same set of concerns, as they flow from one another in a manner thoroughly obscured by the publishing history. By the time was have assembled all of the early works summarized in Justice and the later works that clarify some point made there, there isn’t much left to assemble. The fundamental question of the struggle between Revolution and Church then gives us a basic framework with which to begin to organize all of the various texts. I have been having a good deal of fun working my way through Justice and being reminded of so many other texts, but I suspect it would suit a fair number of other readers to be able to start with Justice—which really is a remarkably readable work, despite its sustained arguments—and then pursue those other threads, as needed or desired, into other works.

Preparing a text that would make that second kind of exploration possible is ultimately the goal of the project I’ve undertaken.

Doing Justice to Proudhon

There’s certainly nothing very easy about the project, even now that I have spent decades doing the preparatory work. But it has at least become gradually easier as I’ve learned more about how Proudhon thought about writing, about philosophy, about truth, etc. One constant in my translation work over the years has been that I have tried to answer the most difficult questions about presenting others’ work by digging deeper into the work itself. For example, I’ve tried to use my understanding of anarchist individualism to clarify my relationship with E. Armand and his writings. I’ve tried to respect what is inescapably fragmentary in Bakunin’s writings. I’ve gone through stages in my engagement with Proudhon, some of which have pushed me in the direction of cautious, rather literal renderings of passages where his key concepts were obviously in play, before the passages on indefinable notions answered raised by “anarchy in all of its senses” suggested a fairly radical rethinking of my approach.

Proudhon’s whole project revolves around the establishment of complex, dynamic forms of equilibrium. Justice is ultimately a sort of balancing, a ponderation of forces that are at once antagonistic and interconnected, interdependent, perhaps inextricable from one another. Passages like the one about the “fundamental law[s], not only of society, but of the universe,” in the “Program” of Organization of Credit and Circulation, probably still contain secrets that will have to be wrested from them before we’re entirely comfortable even with the nature of that balancing of universal antagonism and reciprocity. But what is becoming clearer is that a Proudhonian solution to engaging with what remains uncertain in our understanding of Proudhon’s idea probably does not involve any sort of reduction of the apparent complexities and contradictions to any sort of dogma or program. Instead, it seems likely that most of the task is going to involve establishing means of balancing the various elements in conflict. I’m still perhaps a few steps away from knowing just how this accommodation of means and ends is likely to play out in the translations produced, but it may be that it will make sense to make the translator’s role a bit more evident, while trying to avoid obtrusion. Perhaps that will just mean a few more notes and annotations. Perhaps other means will suggest themselves as the project progresses.

We’ll come back to all of these questions, but I wanted to at least get some of this down now, before work had progressed too much longer.

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