Reading “The Third Social Form” — I

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We have a lot of issues on our plate, but for now let’s stick to the reading of the passage from What is Property?

The first thing that strikes me, looking again at this section, is just how rich this early text is with indications and anticipations of Proudhon’s later work. Then I’m struck by how opaque some of those bits can be, given the state of his development in 1840. I would have to work back through the rest of the text to see just how much of this set of conclusions are actually set up in the previous arguments, but my sense is that one of the reasons that this material has not seen a lot of more serious analysis is that there is quite a bit in it that is novel, so that we have comparatively little in What is Property? itself to help us interpret it. That leaves us attempting to make sense of it on the basis of the received wisdom about Proudhon’s project or simply attempting to rely on isolated pieces of what seems to be a fairly complex analysis.

The other obviously striking aspect is the relatively modest role played by “anarchy” in this exposition of Liberty as “the third form of society.” Proudhon has established a historical narrative, within which two dominant forms of social organization, Community and Property, have fought for dominance. He then proposes a third form, Liberty, which he describes as a “synthesis” of the two previous forms. Then, in a move that I will admit I have never noticed before, he describes the method by which this “synthesis” will take place, and it is actually analytic: Each of the prior forms tends toward two fundamental classes of relations, while ignoring two others. We will analyze the two prior forms, identifying the elements that tend toward the various sorts of relations, and then we will combine the elements—and not the prior social forms—into something freed from the simplist blind-spots of those prior forms. When we examine those four principles (“equality, law, independence, and proportionality“), we find that they are compatible, as long as each is confined to its appropriate sphere. In the analytic process, we will “eliminate the foreign elements” contained in the prior forms—a process we might associated with the later “elimination of the absolute,” by which relations and institutions are stripped of their fundamentally *archic* elements—and what remains will be various aspects of Liberty, “the natural form of human society.”

Having defined Liberty as combining these four aspects, Proudhon turns things around to show how Liberty implies a set of four roughly equivalent terms: equality, anarchy, infinite variety, and proportionality. Infinite variety corresponds roughly to independence (although with an interesting, positive spin), and anarchy is introduced in this way:

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not accept the government of the will, but only the authority of law, that is to say of necessity.

That is fairly close to the earlier definition of anarchy as rule by reason alone (although it seems to set individual reason and will at odds in ways that might be worth pursuing), and emphasizes that anarchism should be anti-governmentalist, not simply as a dogma, but because it is the application of social science to the problem of governance. It also fits well with the passage from The Theory of Property, where Proudhon declares that “Humanity proceeds by approximations,” and then lists some of them:

  1. The approximation of the equality of faculties through education, the division of labor, and the development of aptitudes;
  2. The approximation of the equality of fortunes through industrial and commercial freedom.
  3. The approximation of the equality of taxes;
  4. The approximation of the equality of property;
  5. The approximation of an-archy;
  6. The approximation of non-religion, or non-mysticism;
  7. Indefinite progress in the science, law, liberty, honor, justice.

We probably won’t go too far wrong to take the seventh point as a sort of summary of the rest, but, in any event, we find that approximating anarchy (the “perpetual desideratum” of The Federative Principle) appears as one among several sorts of progress.

So what can we conclude about Proudhon, his project, and its relation to anarchism as we know it? It is clear that when Proudhon said “I am an anarchist” he meant it, but it seems equally clear that what he meant was not exactly what most of us mean when we say the same thing. To be an anarchist, for Proudhon, appears  in 1840 to have just been one aspect of being committed to the progress of liberty. That opens room for speculation about the relationship between Proudhon’s anarchism and the “modern anarchism” of Kropotkin, but also between Proudhon’s anarchism and the anarchism of Déjacque. When Déjacque tells Proudhon to be “an entire anarchist and not a quarter anarchist, an eighth anarchist, or one-sixteenth anarchist,” for reasons that have to do with economics and the role of women, at least part of what has happened is an expansion of the scope of anarchism in Déjacque’s hands. That expanded anarchism is more familiar to most of us, and many of us have had occasion to strongly oppose definitions of anarchism that would limit it to a particular sphere of progress-towards-liberty. But when we’re trying to compare Proudhon’s project to our own, as opposed to simply comparing what we call “anarchism,” we find Proudhon once again on our side, I think. We just don’t quite know what to call the larger project that includes anarchism among its various elements. Proudhon isn’t the equivalent of our mere anti-statists, attempting to limit what we would think of as anarchism to opposition to government, or to particular government forms. As clumsy as a few of his gropings towards liberty might have been, his project was intended to be as all-inclusively anti-authoritarian as our own, but “anarchist” was not the way he identified himself in relation to that larger project.

That leaves at least two questions to pursue:

  • Is there a natural alternative identification for Proudhon’s project, corresponding to the way we use “anarchist”?
  • What were the consequences for Proudhon of not identifying as an anarchist in the same way that we do?

I’ll try to address those questions in the next couple of posts.


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