Reading Proudhon Today

It’s funny watching people make such bold claims about Proudhon’s thought, while I’m over here piling up the hundreds of pages of unpublished manuscript scans I need to try to make sense of in order to answer just some of the fundamental questions remaining about his method.

There is a lot of interesting material in Proudhon’s unpublished manuscripts, not all of which is vital to understanding his project, but there are two sets of texts in particular that any serious student should at least be aware of—if only to know what we don’t know.

The theoretical texts drawn from his study of Poland extend the analysis in “Justice” into the realm of political geography and establish the context for Theory of Property, which itself is probably necessary as context for The Federative Principle.

“The Political Capacity of the Working Classes” arguably needs to be restored to that context, alongside some final, fragmentary writings on democracy. The context restored, anarchy and the federative principle can probably be reconciled.

The other gap to be accounted for is the Economy manuscripts, which predate the mature works (Justice, War and Peace, Poland, etc.) and provide critical insights into Proudhon’s method, along with extensive elaborations of the theories of collective force and collective reason.

This is arguably the more important gap. Proudhon’s unorthodox and anarchic philosophy of language shapes his mature work in important ways. Ms. 2863 provides us with both the principles at work and some key examples, such as Proudhon’s appropriation of the concept of “god.”

Then Ms. 2866 and 2867 provide us with extensive accounts of the theories of collective reason and collective force, clarifying both the nature of collective beings and the relationship between them and individual human actors.

Perhaps just as importantly, Economie as a whole provides a much clearer picture of how Proudhon applied this idiosyncratic toolkit to practical questions—and it’s all a bit weird, but weird in specific ways with consequences for his project.

For mutualists who want to connect back to the Proudhonian roots, collective force and collective reason are what Proudhon provided in response to the rejection by Leroux (etc.) of the one-sidedness of individualism and socialism/collectivism.

When anarchism emerged, essentially structured internally around a conflict between those extremes, “mutualism” began its strange second career as a reminder that the earliest anarchism (avant la lettre) remained as a largely undigested source of the “modern” movement.

I think it’s fair to say that our rediscovery of mutualism 20-25 years ago, in contexts perhaps much more like the 1840s than the 1880s, did indeed amount, through no great fault or virtue of our own, to a renaissance—and one that is still ongoing.

For some of us, that is going to mean a fairly significant shift in the ways we work to develop the anarchist and mutualist traditions. A certain kind of struggle over isolated quotes and keywords is pretty definitively dismissed by what we now know about Proudhon’s method.

The more central Proudhon’s project is to our understanding of the anarchist tradition, the more dramatic the adjustments are likely to be. The silver lining is that the “new” developments to account for are themselves rather anarchic in character and effects.

I like to think, however, that—again, more by chance than by genius—the account of mutualism I’ve developed is a narrative that needn’t marginalize any of the developing mutualist tendencies—except those that want to impose an ahistorical uniformity on the tradition.

To recognize that mutualism—like anarchist tendencies in general—has always presented something of a series is a natural step forward for those rediscovering Proudhon, but may also serve as a more reassuring way for others to think about the inescapable diversity of anarchists.

I’m not sure that it is necessarily true, as Proudhon thought, that “revolutions” are instances of “conservation,” but I feel pretty confident that there is no fundamental conflict between radical revisions of our understanding of anarchist traditions and the maintenance of those traditions, precisely as living traditions. The lesson of the last decade or so for me seems to have been that nothing short of revolutionary reevalution really does anarchism as a living tradition any justice.

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