Proudhon’s critics

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Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]

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As I’ve mentioned, I’m working on assembling—and in some cases, translating—responses to Proudhon’s work, with particular emphasis on those responses that really help to contextualize and illuminate that work. In some cases that means tackling head-on some of the thorniest problems posed by Proudhon’s method, the sheer bulk of his output, and, of course, his various failures as a consistent libertarian. The trajectories of my various Proudhon-related projects seem fairly obvious—to me at least. The thing I started with “The Gift Economy of Property” isn’t finished until the more-or-less phenomenological account of property I’ve been working on is supplemented by a roughly material account, exploring “communism” and the circulus as a complement to my current explorations of egoism and individuality. And part of doing that next stage right almost certainly involves a more extended encounter with the work of Pierre Leroux and a no-doubt-perilous side-trip into the vagaries of mid-19th-century French anti-semitism. Similarly, “Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule” has yet to pass from the militant to industrial era, and there is no question of stopping there, with “harmony” still gleaming provocatively in the distance. But before our rusty pistols can be transformed into anything more suitable to the work of harmony, there’s a lot of very public cleaning and scraping, and exposure of the working (and the obviously defective) parts of the systems we inherited from Proudhon. And there’s no doing that without dealing with Proudhon at his least harmonian, in his encounters with the feminists of his time. Doing justice to “The Anarchism of Approximations,” at this much more advanced stage of the work, involves some pretty deep philosophical delving, but, honestly, that seems pretty breezy in comparison to these other tasks.

If I’m not exactly rushing into these next couple of writing projects, it’s mostly a matter of trying to get it right. They’re not the sort of things one would dare to get too far wrong, and certainly not the kind you want to have to do over. (And I keep imagining I see nervous angels—but fewer all the time…)

Take the problem of Proudhon’s anti-feminism. It’s easy to criticize his high-handed treatment of his female critics, but it’s a whole lot harder accurately placing it in the context of the rest of his work, and comparing it, from a contemporary pro-feminist position, to the thought of his critics.

We know that Proudhon took equality, reciprocity and justice as his most important keywords, and that he was developing a theory of “right” which quite explicitly did not privilege the strong over the weak, which should, in fact, have been capable of recognizing any number of mutually incommensurable “strengths,” each with its own attendant “right” (with “right” meaning essentially something like “weight and standing in the balances of justice.”) We also know that he was working on a descriptive, historical account of the development of justice and right—a work that started in the later chapters of his first memoir on property—which traced the development of those notions from the “age of heroes,” where they were manifested precisely in “force and fraud” through progressive evolutions. And, of course, we don’t have much doubt that Proudhon had some basic prejudices about the capabilities of women. Putting those pieces together is no easy task. Proudhon’s treatment of “droit”—which indicates, at various times, either the line of development implied by any organized collectivity, the dominant means of justifying (that is, balancing) the claims of various collectivities in a given era, or the various forms of legal right (etc.?)—just complicates the problems, but, I think, it complicates it in ways that are ultimately at least potentially useful. It’s probably a general rule that the more ambitious the theoretical formulation, the more—and more disastrous—possibilities of it going badly wrong along the way. And the more anarchistic the nature of the project—the more resistant it is to the application of any particular, fixed criterion or criteria—the higher the stakes. Proudhon’s theory of rights and forces, individualities and collectivities, had at least its share of logical ways to go wrong—and his own individual prejudices, although they did not prevent him from envisioning a general system in which difference and equality would not be at odds, side-tracked him long before he recognized the implications of that system for “the woman question.” And, of course, he was called out for it, and continues to be called out for it.

Unfortunately, some of the criticisms pose as many problems—even some of the same problems—as Proudhon’s most outrageously sexist writings.

Take Joseph Déjacque’s “The Human Being—Male and Female.” It’s pretty satisfying, as well-deserved thrashings go—but it’s not itself exactly a feminist critique of Proudhon’s obnoxious anti-feminism. Quite the contrary, it’s very much a masculinist attack—all phallus, phallus, whose got the phallus? Déjacque stepped in in the first place because he wasn’t sure that Jenny d’Héricourt was up to the challenge of her male attacker. And, while he certainly spent some time criticizing Proudhon’s ideas, the essay is structured around a series of attacks on his identity. Déjacque’s rhetorical strategy is all built around identifying Proudhon with any number of other typical figures—when he doesn’t just sink to making cracks about Proudhon’s supposed lack of sexual experience. As much fun as Proudhon getting his comeuppance may be, it’s not a great practical advance.

Of course, we know that Jenny d’Héricourt didn’t need a defender. She went toe to toe with Proudhon quite successfully, thank you very much. Of course, according to Juliette Adam, one of Proudhon’s other critics, d’Héricourt’s feminism was mixed with some pretty serious ageism. She supposedly belittled the pretensions of the younger woman to be able to understand Proudhon, let alone critique him. Arguably, Adam didn’t understand at least some of Proudhon’s work very well. Her Anti-Proudhonian Ideas was prefaced by a study of Proudhon’s War and Peace which seems to miss the point pretty badly—but perhaps the problem is that she really wanted to show that Proudhon’s ideas about women were simply a symptom of a more pervasive problem in all of his work. By trying to demolish all his work, she potentially compromises the more compelling criticisms that she makes. And so on…

There are a lot of understandable indignation in all of this, and some good indications of how not to combine theory and practice in the defense of the rights of all, male or female. But there’s not a lot of help in grasping the elements in his work that might have led Proudhon to a different, pro-feminist position (as Jeanne Deroin was so certain that reasoning on the matter would) and moving forward with them ourselves.

Understanding the complexities and challenges is, of course, a necessary first step…


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