Proudhon, women, and the “organ of justice”


Back in March, 2010, at the end of the essay “Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule,” I promised to delve deeper into the question of Proudhon’s writing on women and the family—a promise I’m in the midst of fulfilling in a series of essays destined for the second issue of The Mutualist—and in July of this year I posted a working translation of Proudhon’s “Catechism of Marriage”—a provocative act which apparently provoked nobody, judging from the resounding near-silence. (One friend did say “worse than I expected.”)

There’s no question that, in many ways, the “Catechism” is pretty awful, in part because it seems so anomalous alongside Proudhon’s constant insistence on a justice based in equality. But my inclination is to treat Proudhon’s contradictions with Proudhon’s tools, to see if a closer examination of contradiction really does lead us to some means of progressing beyond. And with the “Catechism,” it seems to me that there are at least four sorts of questions raised, only two of which we’ve tended to deal with very directly in our talk about Proudhon and women. We might ask ourselves:

  1. What, precisely, were Proudhon’s ideas, and how were they wrong? In answer, we have probably settled much too easily on words like “misogyny,” when Proudhon thought he was engaged in a defense of women. But whatever his general feelings about women, he seems to have had his facts badly wrong, generally misunderstanding women’s capacities.
  2. How adequate have the responses to Proudhon’s writings on women been? Proudhon certainly inspired a series of clever and impassioned responses, but we would be kidding ourselves if we ignored the fact that they were certainly not all fair, or even free from sexism or other forms of discrimination. The feminism that existed for Proudhon to oppose was not necessarily of a sort that would appeal much to modern readers, and in some ways Proudhon was at least as close to the ideas of the feminists with whom he fought as his ideas are to those of contemporary critics. As more and more of the material in those debates becomes available, the complexity of the issues, and the personal and institutional connections between the participants, become clearer, and the whole affair becomes considerably more interesting—if not precisely in the ways we might have expected.
  3. What led Proudhon to his ideas on women and the family, and what were the connections of those ideas to the rest of his work? There is a strangely libidinous current that run through Proudhon’s work, charging his writings on property, for example, with sexualized imagery which sometimes seems to run counter to his explicit writing on issues regarding the gender, family and sexuality. And there is undoubtedly a tension introduced by his partial appropriation of Fourier’s thought. So there is no doubt a very interesting analysis to be done of the role of passion and jouissance in his writings. But perhaps the most important of the questions we might ask is one which I am not certain has been asked at all:
  4. What insights essential to mutualism was Proudhon unable to adequately articulate because of the problems with his treatment of the “woman question”? The “Catechism” begins with the claim that marriage is the “organ of justice:

    Every power of nature, every faculty of life, every affection of the soul, every category of the intelligence, needs an organ, in order to manifest itself and act. The sentiment of Justice can be no exception to that law. But Justice, which rules all the other faculties and surpasses liberty itself, not being able to have its organ in the individual, would remain for man a notion without efficacy, and society would be impossible, if nature had not provided the juridical organism by making each individual half of a higher being, whose androgynous duality becomes an organ of Justice.

    And then he goes on to talk about why this is the case, why the two individuals in the “androgynous duality” must be different, and what the consequences of all of this are. But we know that Proudhon was constructing this potentially important element of mutualist theory with deeply flawed materials. So what, if not the married couple, is the “organ of justice”? Is it perhaps still the case that justice, perhaps the central keyword of mutualism, doesn’t not manifest itself (as Jenny d’Hericourt suggested in her response to Proudhon) in the individual, but that the extra-individual “organ” has some other, perhaps more general form?

That last question is the one I want to take up in the second issue of The Mutualist, as I pursue the possibility that the basic unit of analysis for mutualist treatments of justice, property, etc., cannot simply be the individual, and that all of the complications of the divide between self and non-self, which we have seen in the writings of Proudhon, Pierre Leroux, Whitman, Dejacque, and even Stirner, demand a little more complex analysis of mutualism’s basic building blocks and assumptions—a more complex analysis that we may not get to if we simply stop when confronted with Proudhon’s antifeminist failings.

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

1 Comment

  1. So un-provocative was your posting of the Catechism that I have no recollection of your posting it, despite being a regular reader. So I tracked it down. It’s actually less bad than I expected, but that’s because the Proudhon quotes on women that I’ve read (from Justice? fromPornocracy? not sure) seemed much more crudely misogynistic.

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