Notes on the Development of Proudhon’s Thought

These notes will obviously be of most use to those who have followed previous discussions of the individual texts, but it represents what seems to be a fairly promising attempt to deal with the shifting terms of Proudhon’s analysis from 1839 until his death and, as such, may be useful to others, if only as a bit more concrete suggestion that such a resolution is possible. Its early stages have been worked out on social media and it consists of:

Two Twitter Threads…


I’m back to wrestling with Proudhon’s Federative Principle. It’s a weird text, with anarchist and governmentalist thought all mixed together. I wonder if that’s because it was something like a conclusion published before the work (“Pologne”) was itself complete. I know that “Theory of Property” and “Theory of Taxation” have a similar character, as do most of the other bits drawn from the study on Poland. I guess I’m not clear if that’s also the case for “War and Peace.”

Anyway, the heart of the work is the dialectic between initiative (“authority”) and reflection (“liberty”), which should remind us of the dynamic between “the fundamental laws of the universe:” universal antagonism and reciprocity (“mutual penetration of antagonistic elements.”)

And, let’s face it, all of the familiar keywords there seem to have been given a decidedly Proudhonian twist.

Now, if we assume some degree of continuity in Proudhon’s project—which I think we should, despite some shifts in language and focus—we probably also have to tie these two later oppositions to the “synthesis of community and property” from 1840.

In context, The Federative Principle seems designed to answer the question of what would be better for Poland and Italy than unity. And as a proposal for better government, it has little interest for me. As an application of principles that might also be applied to anarchy, however, it has quite a bit more.

The 1848 dynamic starts with “universal antagonism,” but then follows with the recognition that the antagonistic elements are not discrete, proper individuals, but are instead already connected by some form of “interpenetration.” So the balancing of interests involved in justice is “social,” in at least a certain sense, even when it is simply a matter of individual reflection on the entirety—and the complexity—of our personal interests. If we assume that the “fundamental laws” of 1848 remain valid for Proudhon in the 1860s, then “initiation” / “authority” seems to be an expression of “antagonism,” while “reflection” / “liberty” is related to that peculiar sense of “reciprocity.”

Connecting “liberty” to “reflection” already seems provocative, but there is precedent in Proudhon’s work (in the study on liberty in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church.) And, once we recognize that fact, perhaps the additional connection to “mutual interpenetration” is one we should have anticipated, with collective force key to things.

But if “The Federative Principle” and “Theory of Property” are closely connected, then we also have to address a connection between “liberty” and “property”—and then perhaps make sense of the “liberty” that was a “synthesis of community and property” in 1840. (Dizzy yet?)

For Proudhon, the human individual was a “free absolute,” which we should probably understand in the context of the “fundamental laws” as both “antagonistic” in its “absolute” character and “free” specifically because it is capable of “reflection” (capable of saying “I,” etc.)

At this point, of course, we have to decide if we’re going to drag in the opposition from Philosophy of Progress—opposition to “the absolute” (in the sense of fixity or pretentious to fixity) and support for “progress” (in the sense of constant change.)

There are a lot of useful pieces here and they go together surprisingly well, but I don’t think anyone should be surprised if the various “proudhonized” terms don’t lend themselves to simple, low-context citation. Let’s first try to address the various terms individually and then try to tie them together.

Absolute/absolutism: Proudhon was an anti-absolutist in the sense that he saw movement and development everywhere. Individual unities are absolute in terms of tendency, but tendency already implies development, where absolutist appeals to authority generally invoke some sort of fixity.

The human individual as “free absolute” still develops according to an irresistible internal “law,” but, being a unity of forces, is shaped by their conflict in ways that create a capacity for reflection.

The collective force generated by the interaction of the constituent elements of the human unity is its health and its liberty—so we might expect that increasing the complexity and intensity of our internal interactions might increase both.

There are important connections to the thought of Stirner and Fourier that should be explored when we try to make a more elaborate sketch of this anarchic, potentially anarchistic human unity. I started that work in the “Rambles” and will continue it sometime soon.

What we can say now is that the human unity as “free absolute” depends on both the absolutism-of-tendency of its various elements and the capacity to reflect—to delay reaction—that emerges from their interaction. But absolutism in the form of fixity would be death.

Liberty: This is the most protean of the terms we’re examining—which ought to be a caution for those attached to the notion that “property is liberty.” It is tied to reflection in the sense that it involves a capacity to defer response, to temporarily step out the flow of things.

But liberty and reflection are tied to reciprocity in that sense of interconnectedness with others. Presumably one of the reasons that the human unity can reflect is because it extends “beyond hat and boots” (to borrow Whitman’s phrase.)

So if “property is liberty” in this context, it can only be because what is proper to the human unity is not, in fact, exclusive to it. We might also say with equal justification that “community is liberty,” provided we make the clarification that it is a question of specific connections, not absolute community.

At this point, all of the terms are becoming a bit protean—and there is ultimately a loose synonymy among Proudhon’s key terms that has to be accounted for. “Property,” modified in the ways necessary to be “liberty” in this specific sense, is “community,” similarly modified. But the rough equation of “property” and “reciprocity,” while ultimately a valid, useful bit of interpretation, obviously isn’t the thing at work in the most familiar texts. That “equation” is more easily addressed in terms of the property-community synthesis proposed in 1840.

We should note here a similarity between the dynamic we’re exploring and one I noted in individualist writings, where one stands apart (steals away?) in order to experience connection and comes together with others in order to experience a more exclusive sort of uniqueness.

Let’s pile on some obvious equations we have left out thus far. “Property is theft,” to go with “property is liberty,” and, in a transitive movement sanctioned by Proudhon in Theory of Property, “liberty is theft” (which may not seem so unlikely at this point in the analysis.)

For Proudhon, property was theft first in 1839. In Celebration of Sunday he argued that the biblical commandment was against “putting aside,” making most forms of appropriation vulnerable to the charge of theft.

The human unity presumably exists as it exists, as a free absolute, through some dialectical play between the instances of “separating ourselves,” asserting individual property, and the reconnections with community that seem to emerge from at least a certain kind of separation.

If we want to loop all the way back now to The Federative Principle, then we need to connect authority-as-initiative to some of the various terms that might be placed in dynamic opposition with reflection-as-liberty. Antagonism? Community? Absolutism?

In The Federative Principle, the problem seems to be that social unities have to be allowed their “initiative.” Collective reason has to be given its space. But social collectivities, while real, are not “free,” being absolutes without the capacity for direct reflection.

Tufferd claimed that Proudhon’s “State” was simply “what persists.” Anarchists could not be anti-State in that sense without denying fundamental aspects of human existence, as our interpenetrations are as much intergenerational as simply interpersonal.

We have our own “determinisms” (as Armand often puts it), but our reflective capacities are not alien to that determined development. The capacity for liberty is a product of our individual organization. If our initiations have a natural antagonistic tendency, all the more reason not to bolster them with the pretense of “rights” or with privilege.

But “rights” could also be proudhonized: “RIGHT… is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise.” So perhaps the “authority” in The Federative Principle is another sort of recognition of human dignity, this time in its social form. If the State is, as Proudhon put it, “a kind of citizen” and the equal of the other citizens, perhaps the recognition doesn’t commit us to much. But I’m not sure that modern anarchists have anything to gain from emulating Proudhon’s attempt to recuperate all of these governmentalist terms. So, again, I’m more interested in considering “initiative” as a constant than “authority” or “right”—and I think we can safely choose.

“Property” may be a slightly different case, precisely because Proudhon seems intent on using it without recuperating it. Indeed, he arguably emphasizes the “unpardonably reprehensible” aspects of it more than necessary and more than those of other potentially harmful institutions. We know that his own ambitions, expressed at the end of “Theory of Property,” were modest: “A small, rented house, a garden to use…” Possession was an “each under their own vine and fig tree” affair, ultimately abandoned as an insufficient shield in more combative contexts. But since that context is not exactly anarchistic, perhaps we can reconstruct his reasoning along slightly different lines. I’ll take that question up a little later in a new thread.


Let’s start our neo-Proudhonian reconstruction with the task of recognizing “human dignity.” If “possession” had ever reached the level of a system, it would arguably have been by reducing “property” to a matter of simple mutual recognition.

Everyone has a place in the theater. “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid…” And if social relations remained simple enough, a general awareness of our interconnectedness and an unwillingness to rule or be ruled might suffice.

We can imagine a near-anarchy not far from the pastoral simplicity and patriarchal government of Sylvain Maréchal, stripped of the golden age mythology and endowed with a somewhat more egalitarian approach to the family, but still simple and apparently fragile.

But that wasn’t the path that Proudhon took. Whatever his inclinations might have been, he was committed to understanding the society around him and had little time for utopias of any sort. So he focused on the collective force generated by complex relations.

That led him to rethink political questions in terms of “the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives,” with the manifestation of that dignity occurring at a range of scales—not quite the Fourierist gamut of “infinitesimal to infinite,” perhaps, but not too distant from it either.

Not every social or political grouping identified had a real basis in the division and association of individual capacities, but social unities were indeed real for Proudhon and had their “rights,” based on their status as manifestations of human capacities.

Important things happen across these other scales and durations. As societies become more complex, it is likely that many of the most important elements—the most hegemonic elements—are developed and maintained in some isolation from direct person-to-person interactions.

So we have these “unity-collectivities,” social beings at scales and with lifespans very different than individual human beings or more direct, intimate human groupings. And we have forms of “collective reason” performed by them in more or less “emergent” fashion.

Crowds produce more than just the proverbial “madness.” For example, Proudhon seems to have identified “the Revolution” with developments in the realm of collective force and collective reason, which human reason and human actions would often trail or resist.

At these scales, things develop according to their “determinisms,” with adjustments made according to logics derived from the qualities of the social beings in question. But these beings seem to differ from individual human beings in their lack of direct capacity for reflection.

Perhaps such an analysis would ultimately lead us back to a an account similar to the one we find in The Federative Principle. We have developments in the realm of the social that seem to run on ahead of our more individual recognition and engagement with them. But they can really only run on in directions already determined by prior events. So perhaps there is no complete escape from governmentalist language and the analysis of governmental forms.

If the course is to be changed or the process to be adapted to the needs and desires of human individuals, then, given Proudhon’s general scheme, we would expect that what is needed is the introduction of a reflective element, which ultimately has to emerge from “free absolutes.”

To make social beings engage in a balancing reflection, if necessarily “at second hand,” we would expect that not just individual reflection, but reflective social interactions among individuals would be necessary. However, contrary to those focused on “getting things done,” that might be largely a matter of deferral and interruption, in an attempt to give social beings some of the same capacity to be uncertain, to waffle and dither, to have mixed impulses and to try to serve them all, etc. that we find in ourselves. That is all, after all, part of what goes into human reflection.

…and a Follow-up

[Doing this kind of work on Twitter forces a certain kind of simplicity on it, which was useful in the early steps, but I’m starting to feel the constraints of the character limit, so I’ll finish up here on the blog.]

There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, but what the preliminary analysis suggests to me is that we might usefully take up the late distinction between initiative and reflection as fundamental elements and then at least begin a summary or synthesis by mapping the other elements, to what ever degree is possible, onto those two. Removed from the specifically governmentalist context of The Federative Principle, what appears there as a defense of the “right” of “the State” to its acts of “initiation” may perhaps be treated as little more than a recognition of “human dignity” at more-than-individual scales and as manifested by social collectivities. If so, then the “authority” of this “State”—presumably a kind of “citizen-state,” equal in its “rights” to other citizens—is of the “authority of the bootmaker” variety and is derived from its particular role in the expression of human capacities. (And, let’s note in passing, Proudhon at least potentially introduces some of the same kind of confusion about *force* and *authority* that we find in works by Engels, etc.) Attempting, once again, to avoid the governmentalist language of The Federative Principle, we might return to works like “Toast to the Revolution,” where Proudhon explored the “laws” of revolutions, the logics by which their “great equitations of principles” and “enormous shifts in mores” play out, in order to get a sense of how collective reason both indicates the natural developments of existing determinisms and pushes us toward them. Perhaps all we need to see in the “initiative” of social beings is their capacity for doing “the next thing,” the thing implied by the forces and contradictions at work in the present, for good or ill, whether or not we are prepared to play along.

All of the discussion of federation in government would then be simply one practical exploration of how these social beings, who are, in Proudhon’s terms, absolutes, but not reflective free absolutes like individual human beings, might gain a second-hand capacity to reflect. The same is arguably true of the “New Theory” in Theory of Property, where the project of making absolutist “property” a counterbalancing force to the absolutism of “the State” might also be seen as an experiment in a more general sort of federation. There is a general sense that decentralization increases the capacity to defer action and to engage in reflection and deliberation.

Behind it all, there is a fairly simple scenario, I think, in which past events, and the deterministic forces produced by them, interact with “society,” understood as a social being or organized ensemble of social beings (which may be two ways of saying the same thing), with our attention being particularly turned to the ways in which the organization of society allows that interaction to be something other than just the simplest sort of deterministic driving. Where the scenario gets complicated, I suppose, is in the fact that it does involve multiple scales and durations, which coexist without being reducible to one another, and various sorts of unities—individual human beings, families, workgroups, nations, etc.—all of which express “human diginity” in some form and, thus, all of which have some claim to recognition within Proudhon’s conception of social relations. But at this stage, when we are simply trying to get our bearings in the context of Proudhon’s development, we can largely divide the phenomenon to be accounted for between those direct, unreflective expressions of existing determinisms and everything that might cause us, as potentially reflective human individuals, to engage in reflection and perhaps draw different conclusions about “the next thing” within non-governmental forms of association and mutual consultation.

This fairly simple scenario describes a dynamic that we might perhaps now use as the center of a more fully developed account of the development of Proudhon’s thought, accounting for the details of that development as they occurred, rather than just skipping around among them suggesting parallels. Such an account would almost certainly clarify some aspects of Proudhon’s work that tend to remain obscure for us, such as the fact that he seems to have remained, throughout most of his career, an anarchistic analyst of fundamentally archic systems, whose work is really of a significantly different genre than most subsequent anarchist writings, which, if it was to be thoroughly transformed into or recovered as a form of anarchism, would undoubtedly be a quite different form that most of those with which we are familiar.

An analysis of property, for example, that attempted to account for all of the developments between 1839 and 1865 might well focus on the question of “putting aside” in relation not just to material goods and resources, but also to the individual self, treating the self-separating assertion of “property in one’s person” in terms of Proudhon’s first version of property-theft. The Celebration of Sunday arguably deserves its place not just in our understanding of Proudhon’s own work, but also in a larger analysis of the way those close to Proudhon in various ways (Pierre Leroux, William Batchelder Greene) made use of biblical references to ground their works of political economy. It is quite possible that starting from the issue of self-separation might also allow us to lift much of the discussion of property, theft, liberty, etc. out of contexts rather heavily laden with ideological and moral baggage, so that we could focus on fundamental structures and dynamics, rather than lavishing so much energy and attention on the potential of each successive insight or twist to bolster familiar partisan positions. In the context of the partisan squabbles, it is easy to scoff at a serious treatment of claims like “liberty is theft,” even though the texts themselves arguably lead us where phrases like the aforementioned “stealing away” might have taken us rather directly.

With regard to anarchy, perhaps nothing would serve us better than to figure out precisely which conception of anarchy must remain “a perpetual desideratum.” That process probably starts by recognizing that The Federative Principle is a surprisingly anarchistic book about the actual function of governments and then connecting its insights—some of them perhaps powerfully anti-ideological—to the still equally enigmatic treatment of “anarchy in all of its senses” in The General Idea of the Revolution. I started to work through some of the basics in “Anarchy: Historical, Abstract and Resultant,” but, again, this is an instance in which the opportunity to review the uses of anarchy throughout Proudhon’s work, with the benefit of a clearer understanding of the uses made in The Federative Principle, might be tremendously fruitful. But that would mean beginning with an engagement will all that is provocative and still largely unexamined in that late work, like the claim that:

The forms of anarchy depend upon the will of each individual, within the limits of his rights, and are indifferently monarchical or democratic.

I’m not honestly certain if there is an interpretation of that phrase, even with careful attention to contexts, that quite makes sense—but simply doing the work of clarifying what Proudhon is doing in the text with the various parts of his apparatus (fundamental concepts, false ideas, basic forms, a priori conceptions, etc.) is probably a work worth undertaking.

I’ve suggested more than once in recent months that I think Proudhon late analyses muddy the waters for anarchists, conflating governmentalist concepts (authority, absolutism as an ideology, etc.), which we might simply abandon, and ideas about fundamental structures and tendencies (antagonism, absolutism as a product of determinism, etc.), which we perhaps need to address more directly. And while the connecting thread between his various analyses has remained elusive, that has seemed like an unfortunate circumstance. At the moment, however, I’m inclined to think that even just the rough sketch I’ve been able to make here of the relationships between the various phases of Proudhon’s analysis is enough to make a more complete engagement with the development of his thought a rather attractive prospect, whether the goal is ultimately to reconcile that thought and modern anarchism or whether it is simply a question of using the Proudhonian theory as a foil, with the ultimate goal of fully extricating anarchist thought from the connections and confusions that persist despite anarchists’ love/hate relationship with Proudhon.

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