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Part of the project here has to be presenting a picture of Proudhon that is a more useful alternative to those we have inherited. I have been arguing that there is a Proudhon who is not the failed precursor we so often think of, but who is instead a pioneer who still remains in some very important ways out in from of us, waiting for us to catch up. So what is the defining character of that Proudhon’s thought? I still can’t think of a more exemplary text for addressing that question than The Philosophy of Progress. In the past, I’ve indicated his central concerns fairly broadly, but let me repeat two short passages from that work, in order to zero in on a very important dynamic. First, there is the “if I could live a thousand years” passage, which constantly comes back to me as a sort of challenge, as I try to engage with Proudhon’s thought as a living, ongoing project:
If, then, I could once put my finger on the opposition that I make between these two ideas, and explain what I mean by Progress and what I consider Absolute, I would have given you the principle, secret and key to all my polemics. You would possess the logical link between all of my ideas, and you could, with that notion alone, serving for you as an infallible criterion with regard to me, not only estimate the ensemble of my publications, but forecast and signal in advance the propositions that sooner or later I must affirm or deny, the doctrines of which I will have to make myself the defender or adversary. You would be able, I say, to evaluate and judge all my theses by what I have said and by what I do not know. You would know me, intus et in cute, such as I am, such as I have been all my life, and such as I would find myself in a thousand years, if I could live a thousand years: the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be finished. And at whatever moment in my career you would come to know me, whatever conclusion you could come to regarding me, you would always have either to absolve me in the name of Progress, or to condemn me in the name of the Absolute.
And then there is this:
“What could a few lapses, a few false steps, detract from the rectitude of my faith, the goodness of my cause?… You will please me, sir, to learn for yourself what road I have traveled, and how many times I have fallen along the way. Far from blushing at so many spills, I would be tempted to boast of them, and to measure my valor by the number of my contusions.”
This is, in many ways, Proudhon at his best. And one of the things that we know about Proudhon is that he was not always at his best. But Proudhon himself seems to have known that, and provided us with a challenging view of what he himself thought was constant in his thought.
The first passage contains everything we need to identify Proudhon as, on the one hand, a thinker with fixed commitments (opposition to the absolute, commitment to progress) and, on the other, a thinker whose thought is always changing and will never be complete, even if he could live a thousand years. The second passage simply reminds us that if your thought is constantly evolving, even for a dozen years, let alone a thousand, you’re going to spend a good deal of time being at least partially wrong.
In terms of our critical encounters with Proudhon in the present, we need to be clear whether we are engaging with those commitments that he considered essentially eternal or whether we are dealing with evolutions in their application to particular problems. We can then judge Proudhon on the consistency with which he applied his own principles, and we can differ. But the way that we overtake Proudhon’s thought is not by pointing to another of his hard-earned contusions, but by traveling, and falling, and picking ourselves up again (and again), and showing ourselves finally capable of advancing that project (opposition to the absolute, commitment to progress) across the lost time and forward beyond what we might expect a long-lived Proudhon to have accomplished.
If we really want bragging rights over the grand old man, it seems that our challenge is clear: Think about all that Proudhon accomplished between 1839 and the beginning of 1865. Consider the potential of the project he set in motion. Now think of the nearly 150 years that have passed since his death, and the almost complete neglect of his project. What would it take for us to make good on the promise of that restless, experimental, determined, anarchist thought, even just to pick up it where Proudhon left it in 1865, let alone to realize the promise of the years lost?