New Things and Old Words in Proudhon’s Late Works

We know that Proudhon, from the beginning, used at least two different strategies when it came to naming contested concepts. In the Second Memoir on Property, for example, he distinguished his own usage from that of Pierre Leroux:

Thus, according to M. Leroux, there is property and property, — the one good, the other bad. Now, as it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name “property” for the former, we must call the latter robbery, rapine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name “property” for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession, or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an unpleasant synonymy.

But by that time he had, of course, already embraced a rather novel understanding of anarchy — one that, whatever else we might want to say about it, certainly confronts us with something like “unpleasant synonymy.”

By 1853, his approach had changed a bit with regard to synonymy. Having already progressed from his identification as an anarchist “in the full force of the term” to an affirmation of “anarchy in all of its senses,” he explained in The Philosophy of Progress why he would now embrace the ambiguities of “the common language:”

I will retain, with the common folk, these three words: religion, government, property, for reasons of which I am not the master, which partake of the general theory of Progress, and for that reason seem to me decisive: first, it is not my place to create new words for new things and I am forced to speak the common language; second, there is no progress without tradition, and the new order having for its immediate antecedents religion, government and property, it is convenient, in order to guarantee that very evolution, to preserve for the new institutions their patronymic names, in the phases of civilization, because there are never well-defined lines, and to attempt to accomplish the revolution at a leap would be beyond our means.

All of this is in line, I think, with his adaptation of Fourier’s serial analysis and his understanding of the mechanisms of progress. And it’s worth noting the shift every once in a while, if only because there never seems to be any shortage of folks trying to read Proudhon’s keywords according to very different strategies than his own. But I also want to suggest some consequences of Proudhon’s strategy for our readings of his later works, as a kind of continuation on the two sets of “Notes on the Development of Proudhon’s Thought” (linked in the sidebar.)

One of the things that makes those later works so difficult for anarchists to understand and use is that, while they are the occasion for some of the most interesting developments of Proudhon’s anarchistic social science, they are, almost without exception, addressed to problems within clearly archic social systems. So we are left to try to decide whether, for example, the “State” that he discusses in Theory of Taxation is that of the Swiss canton that solicited its composition, described in somewhat unconventional terms, or whether we are dealing with the description of some sort of anarchic State — what I’ve called a “citizen-state” — presented in a somewhat unlikely context.

My suspicion is that we don’t really get to choose — at least in some of these works. I think it is important to recall Proudhon’s talk about antecedents when we look at these potentially paradoxical texts and be willing to explore the possibilities that open up if we treat at least some keywords as marking series, rather than single definitions. I suspect that we are safest in our interpretations if we assume that Proudhon had, by at least 1858, accomplished much of that work of “the elimination of the absolute” in his own mind and work. Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised if, having addressed himself more or less specifically to just about every available audience, from the masses to bourgeoisie to the emperor, Proudhon was, in the late work, writing for just about anyone who would listen.

None of those assumptions, if correct, reduce the need for the kind of analysis I’ve done recently, tracking concerns across different texts and different vocabularies. If anything, attention to the possibility of more or less conscious polysemy just adds another layer of complexity to what is already a formidable set of interpretive tasks. And perhaps we will ultimately find that those later texts remain more mixed than multiple. But Proudhon’s own words seem to suggest possibilities which I, at least, had not consciously acknowledged. 

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2609 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.