Notes on Proudhon’s “Justice”

Translation progress report:

This year’s book anarchist translation project is progressing nicely. I’m starting the day with 621,442 words in the various draft files, which amounts to 1918 double-spaced pages of new drafts already in 2023. I think I have now surpassed the total of my big effort in 2014.

I’ll be finishing up a preliminary draft of the Seventh Study (Ideas) in Proudhon’s Justice in the Revolution and in the Church over the next two or three days. I’m hoping to also complete the Eighth Study (Conscience and Liberty) this month, then complete the Ninth Study (Progress and Decadence) and Twelfth Study (fragments on Moral Sanction) in June, before settling down to tackle the sections most fraught with difficulty — the two Studies on Love and Marriage, plus The Pornocracy, which was originally written as a “News of the Revolution” appendix to them — in July and as much of August is required. The Pornocracy needs to be checked against the manuscript, which I know differs to in a few interesting particulars from the posthumously published version.

The July work might be pushed back a bit by the various research “side trips” that work on the main text continues to inspire. In particular, I want to be sure to find time to work through the rest of the unpublished Political Geography and Nationality before I settle down to deal with the material in “Love and Marriage” and try to make some preliminary judgments about Justice in the Revolution and in the Church as a complete work.

The problem of human types

One key challenge for modern readers of Proudhon’s Justice is that the sections where he presumably provides his mature “solution of the social problem,” his account of basic social relations organized according to principles of immanent justice, are also the sections where his anti-feminism poses the most significant challenges for us. The account itself is hardly a mystery. I translated the “Catechism of Marriage” late in that 2014 campaign. Proudhon’s appropriation of the androgyne theory that had been popular in Saint-Simonian circles is straightforward enough — and, I think, there are also very few obstacles to making of it something useful, which dispenses with the particular forms of biological essentialism that we cite among the sources of the problem in Proudhon’s work. What does seem to remain a bit mysterious is a fairly wide range of details, through which Proudhon moved from some biological notions of dubious validity to a theory of social organization that is in some ways tantalizingly close to what we might hope for from an anarchist social science.

The most dismissive account of Proudhon treats hims as a racist, misogynist and elitist — always on the basis of very selective citation, since it would be much, much easier, given the central place in his work of equality and a justice based on mutual recognition of human dignity, to argue for the predominance of very different set of attitudes. What a close reading of Justice has suggested to me so far is, honestly, some degree of incoherence when it comes to the question of human types (genders, races, classes, nationalities, etc.) It seems to me quite possible, in fact, that this is the impression I will be left with when the texts have all been read and closely studied. The indications of prejudice are real, but they are matched by similarly scattered indications of a kind of radical indeterminism regarding human possibility. Trying to anticipate both the worst and the best general syntheses of these varied indications, I have yet to find myself able to settle on any very likely account.

This is the reason that I am doing my best to address the potentially relevant texts elsewhere in Proudhon’s work before turning to the Studies on Love and Marriage. Recognizing that there are likely to be analogies in the relevant analyses, I’ll try, for example, to spend some time understanding Proudhon’s account of the birth and death of nations between now and July. I’ll undoubtedly also return to the manuscript fragments where Proudhon’s crankiest biological ideas are expressed. Whatever the outcome of this particular part of the study, it seems inevitable that the picture of Proudhon that emerges from even these first-draft translations of his most complete mature work will be radically different from the caricatures that dominate English-language discussion currently. But the key struggle will just as inevitably focus on these studies, which arguably form the center of his most central work.

Love and Marriage / War and Peace

I have said, on various occasions, that there are very few obstacles to transforming Proudhon’s account of the “organ of justice” into something generally useful to 21st century anarchists. What I expect to find when I am done with Justice is that his thought remains unfinished in some fundamental ways, when it comes to establishing justice at the heart of the most intimate sorts of human relations. This is a sense that has grown for me since my engagement with the recent translation of Proudhon’s War and Peace.

Allow me to briefly explore the possible parallels, before talking more generally about the mutualism that should, I think, inform social relations when viewed through a more polished Proudhonian lens.

War and Peace is a magnificent, frustratingly Proudhonian work precisely because its appeal for a complex sort of peace begins, and ultimately depends, on an embrace of war as fundamental to social relations. There is perhaps not a lot new here, conceptually speaking, if you are familiar with 1848 account of universal antagonism as the first of the “fundamental laws of the universe,” but it is one thing to imagine dynamics of the universe are conceptually warlike, and that society is no exception to this general rule, and another to embrace that fact in its often horrific real-world manifestations — as Proudhon asks us to do, however temporarily, in the early chapters of War and Peace.

I consider War and Peace a fairly significant vindication of the method that Proudhon applies in so many of his mature works — and perhaps a more significant one than we see in Justice, as the framing of that earlier work never really allows us to see the various celebrations of the religious idea “in its day” as anything but preliminaries, while War and Peace arguably much more actively engages the reader in all the stages of Proudhon’s analysis. There is some real suspense, even if you know the final lines of the work, regarding just how he will move from the celebration of war to its rejection favor of a complex sort of peace. This last time through, I’ll admit to some pit-of-the-stomach unease as that early celebration took its own sweet time unraveling under close analysis.

There is a good deal about War and Peace that remained unfinished, particularly when it comes to describing the nature of the complex, conflict-rich peace invoked at the tend. I think, however, it is probably fair to say that, there, as in a number of other cases, Proudhon takes us to a place where we can make the leap to anarchy / mutualism / guarantism and social organization on the federative principle — and that we have as much of a blueprint for anarchic relations in general as we could expect or we could need. And, again, we’re not dealing with mysteries here. Proudhon’s “social system” is summarized in a passage from the Seventh Study of Justice (one of the first sections I will revisit today, as it happens, when I return to translation work), around which I have been constructing an account of the anarchic encounter for more than a decade now.

Two men meet, recognize their dignity, state the additional benefit that would result for both from the concert of their industries, and consequently guarantee equality, which means economy. There is the whole social system: an equation, and then a power of collectivity.

Two families, two cities, two provinces, contract on the same footing: there is always only these two things, an equation and power of collectivity. It would involve a contradiction, a violation of Justice, if there were anything else.

(For a recent re-examination of the passage, “Constructing an Anarchism: Guarantism (Theory)” may be useful.)

It is clear that the “Studies on Love and Marriage” in Justice lack the kind of disturbing elegance of War and Peace and that the leap from situating the organ of justice in the androgyne / conjugal couple to meaningfully anarchist relations is going to be significantly more demanding than the other from Proudhon’s vaguely invoked peace. Still, I am more and more inclined to read the two works in similar ways. One of the lessons of Justice — with its twelve Studies, which all follow variations on a formula, first exploring what was perhaps inevitable about the religious idea and its early manifestations, before demonstrating how its failures in each case point toward revolutionary alternatives — is precisely this relative consistency in method throughout Proudhon’s works. He seems to have had some consciousness of this himself, as he frequently connects earlier works to the account being constructed in Justice. Where the “Studies on Love and Marriage” really stand out from the others is in Proudhon’s apparent failure to find a convincingly revolutionary alternative to family and marital structures clearly implicated in the old systems that he otherwise rejects.

It seems to me that one very natural way of approaching the problematic Studies in Justice is to assume a rather familiar unfinished quality, but one present to a much greater degree than in works like War and Peace. This is, perhaps, what we might expect, given the subject matter. The transformation of the most intimate sorts of social relations poses some of the greatest difficulties we face. In such a context, an approach like Proudhon’s arguably faces difficulties even greater than those posed by the problems of war and peace. His biological essentialism may seem like a particular failure to us, but it is worth noting how much of the feminism of his day depended on notions of fairly fundamental difference between men and women, expressed in terms less dramatically different from his own than we might expect.

Perhaps, for now, it is enough to indicate what seems most promising to me in the account that Proudhon presents — particularly if we treat that account as roughly analogous to the one in War and Peace.

We know that, in other contexts, Proudhon insists on a kind of equality among men that is independent of their differences in capacities and experiences. Indeed, there are a number of places where he downplays the notion that capacities really differ in any essential way. This is all complicated, of course, by the fact that Proudhon clearly includes environmental factors among those that make up the human self, as well as the fact that he pretty clearly sees the full expression of human being as something that only occurs in the context of social relations. But what seems immediately interesting for us is that Proudhon sees the possibility of equality among persons who are very different in the capacities that they express. Whatever differences may exist among them do not seem to prevent what is for Proudhon the fundamental social act, the exercise of a basic faculty that makes us capable of a justice not imposed from outside: the recognition of ourselves and our own dignity in the person of others.

This capacity for mutual recognition between persons does not seem to have any limits among men, when considered as male persons. What Proudhon sometimes says about particular collectivities of various sorts (races, nations, etc.) tends to be conditional, depending on a variety of broadly environmental factors, generally balanced by statements that deny essentially inferiority or superiority, and, in any event, not directly related to this question of the capacity for mutual recognition. So, whatever contrary indications there may also be in Proudhon’s work — including the worst expressions of bigotry — there seems to be in that work a theory of human being so independent of the traits around which we might build a theory of types that we probably ultimately find ourselves pretty close to a theory of uniques.

If our destination was a theory of genderless or gender-neutral justice, and our method was one borrowed from the mature Proudhon, modeled to some extent on War and Peace, it is not hard to imagine an account of intimate relations that begins with patriarchal traditions and their connections to religion, advancing by stages to examples of the failures of otherwise revolutionary movements — with perhaps a close reading of Sylvain Maréchal’s work as Exhibit A — and the confusions of previous attempts to organize social relations around the notion of the androgyne. Many of the same sources addressed in other Studies within Justice might easily lend themselves to this account. Given what we have already said about the lack of obstacles posed by individual differences, even Proudhon’s crankier biological assumptions would not necessarily pose any insurmountable obstacle. After all, what Proudhon actually proposes is a kind of union of equal opposites, who presumably engage in some kind of just relations between themselves, despite “inferiorities” and “superiorities” that he goes to great trouble to establish and emphasize. Setting aside the reproductive function of the conjugal couple, the real advantage of treating it as the exemplary “organ” of social justice would seem to be that it is a case in which recognition of equality, and thus the exercise of justice, remains possible despite the most undeniable (in Proudhon’s opinion) differences in capacities. If married couples can exercise justice, presumably anyone can…

Abandon the notion that the differences between men and women are of particular significance and you are left with the idea that just social relations begin with more or less committed individual relations between persons who recognize themselves and their own dignity in one another, despite any number of differences. Treat reproduction as another instance of the division of labor — being careful, of course, to drag all such instances out of the purely economic realm — and decenter any particular conception of the family. At this point, it wouldn’t be difficult to engage in what is ultimately a fairly familiar sort of analysis of the missteps associated with “free love,” alternative family models, etc., perhaps ending with some very general considerations about the kinds of personal connections most conducive to social justice on a broader scale. Proudhon’s own account can simply take its place among the missed opportunities to be surveyed: one more attempted solution that never quite understood the nature of the problem.

Toward a schematic mutualism?

There is a lot of that story I am not ready to try to tell, although I think it is useful to tell that much, before returning to the texts to closely follow Proudhon’s own steps. I feel considerably more confident about my understanding of Proudhon’s theory of the human subject, outside of the context of gendered relations.

One of the things that has struck me on this reading of Justice is how often Proudhon invokes the notion of mutualism. At a time when my other researches have really established mutualism as, in Proudhon’s terms, an indefinable notion, there are passages in Justice that suggest a kind of schematic approach.

The most fundamental sort of practical mutualism in Proudhon’s work seems to involve that practice of mutual recognition that he associates with justice, with the expression of the human faculty in which social justice is immanent. I think that we might say that wherever there is that mutual recognition of ourselves and our dignity in the persons of others there is mutualism, at least of some very basic sort. There are, I think, other sorts of mutualism that appear in Proudhon’s work as a result of our social origins, independent to some degree at least of the acknowledgment of equality-in-difference. The 1848 definition of reciprocity as a kind of preexisting condition, which he characterizes as “the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements,” is at least a de facto mutuality. But, focusing for the moment on the question of mutual recognition, we can perhaps also say that where there is a conscious acknowledgment of the equality-despite-difference necessary for recognition to be really mutual, we will also find much of what is necessary — or, perhaps more precisely, necessarily set aside — for the presence of anarchy.

It is common, following indication in The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, to characterize what remains when we eliminate governmental relations in terms of economics. That’s certainly not entirely wrong — although it is always important to remember that The General Idea was very specifically a work addressed to the bourgeoisie — but it is equally vital that we recognize that it was specifically in his unfinished Course on Economy that Proudhon clarified his ideas about meaning and definition, just as it was in his Study on Labor in Justice that he laid out his theories of knowledge and of the emergence of intelligence. Veering from “politics” to “economics” does not necessarily mean, in this case, settling comfortably into any of the provided economic discourses.

I talked a bit about this problem recently on social media:

One of the nice things about “Justice” is that Proudhon, who used key terms in ways that can be slippery for modern readers, spent a lot of time exploring the concepts behind the terms, allowing us to glimpse the series of meanings he is dealing with. One thing we are constantly reminded of is Proudhon’s tendency to return to the most basic sorts of etymological roots—and in the Study on Labor we get some answers about why that is the case. In passages that can be amusing for those familiar with other theories of human action, Proudhon proposes that the rudiments of human concepts — and really of intelligence as such — emerge from the contemplation, classification and analysis of the simplest of human actions.

There is a lot that might be said about the theory itself — which we will be better prepared to tackle when translations are completed — but the general takeaway is, I think, that we are likely to go wrong when we load up Proudhon’s prose with too many of our own associations.

This came up recently in the context of Proudhon’s use of the term “transaction.” Examining the OED entry for the term, I found an old French sense that emphasized mutual concessions, which seemed closest to his usage. It was no surprise to me, since this is often the case. As surprisingly contemporary as some of Proudhon’s ideas can be, there is a fairly simple style of signification—close to the obvious etymological elements and often identified in the etymological sources with “old French”—that is well adapted to his serial approach to meaning.

We can’t avoid the complexities of Proudhon’s usage — “anarchy in all its senses,” etc.—but we can at least get started somewhere near the center of a give series if we begin by searching for some action-oriented conceptual core. What kind of an action is a “trans-action”? Etc.

One of the terms that needs attention in this context is “industry,” which we arguably need to read against the grain of industrial society. — “Everything is absurd in the present conditions of labor, and seems to have been combined for the perpetual enslavement of the worker.” — For Proudhon, industry begins very simply as the application of something inside the human individual to the non-self. It begins as a kind of instinctual expression and gains the qualities of intelligence through analysis, which Proudhon explicitly refers to as a destructive or deconstructive process. — “…all intelligence begins with destruction: Destruam and ædificabo.” — The use of “déconstruire” in 1858 deserves to be placed in a more complete context, but has some novel elements.

What I would like to suggest here, for now, is that the basic elements of a potential “schematic” mutualism, constructed on roughly the same model as my schematic anarchism, all seem to be present in the simplest analyses of the keywords that Proudhon associated with mutualism: reciprocity, guarantism, transaction, etc. It is likely that the early historical uses of the terms, nearly all of which seem to have been available both to Proudhon and to the New England mutualists after 1848, are not reducible to any single sense and that the same is true, to an even greater extent, to all of the later uses. I do think, however, that it should be possible to eventually organize those various senses in a series having the same kind of relationship to a schematic mutualism that the varied senses of anarchism can be said to have to the schematic anarchism proposed. Time, I suppose, will tell. But we won’t work any of this out if we imagine that Proudhon is speaking our language.

Eliminating the absolute

The chapter in the Study of Ideas that I should be translating right now is the second one dedicated to the question of “the elimination of the absolute” and the relations established in that project between the individual “free absolute” and the collective reason. I had started to write up some thoughts on parts of that dynamic, which, on reflection, may serve to obscure as much as they clarify, so I think I’ll just mark the problem here as one of the most important yet to solve if we are to understand Proudhon’s project — and I’ll return to it another day.

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