Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule

Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]

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Thus one remains in perplexity and uncertainty, equally attracted and repulsed by two opposite attractors. Yes, the sympathies of our era are equally lively, equally energetic, whether it is a question of liberty or equality, of individuality or association. The faith in society is complete, but the faith in individuality is equally complete. From this results an equal impulse towards these two desired ends and an equal increase of the exclusive exaggeration of one or the other, an equal horror of either individualism or of socialism.

That disposition, moreover, is not new. It already existed in the Revolution. The most progressive men felt it. Take the Declaration of Rights of Robespierre: you will find formulated there, in the most energetic and absolute manner, the principle of society, with a view to the equality of all; but, two lines higher, you will find, also formulated in the most energetic and absolute manner, the principle of the individuality of each. And nothing which would unite, which harmonizes these two principles, placed thus both on the altar; nothing which reconciles these two equally infinite and limitless rights, these two adversaries which threaten, these two absolute and sovereign powers which both [together] rise to heaven and which each [separately] overrun the whole earth. These two principles once named, you cannot prevent yourself from recognizing them, for you sense their legitimacy in your heart; but you sense at the same time that, both born from justice, they will make a dreadful war. So Robespierre and the Convention were only able to proclaim them both, and as a result the Revolution has been the bloody theater of their struggle: the two pistols charged one against the other have fired.

We are still at the same point, with two pistols charged and [pointed] in opposite directions. Our soul is the prey of two powers that are equal and, in appearance, contrary. Our perplexity will only cease when social science will manage to harmonize these two principles, when our two tendencies will be satisfied. Then an immense contentment will take the place of that anguish.—PIERRE LEROUX, “INDIVIDUALISM AND SOCIALISM.” (1834)

We have understood finally that the opposition of two absolutes—one of which, alone, would be unpardonably reprehensive, and both of which, together, would be rejected, if they worked separately—is the very cornerstone of social economy and public right: but it falls to us to govern it and to make it act according to the laws of logic.—PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON, THE THEORY OF PROPERTY. (1864)


In 1834, when Pierre Leroux wrote “Individualism and Socialism,” the immediate occasion was “the massacres on the Rue Transnonain,” a particularly brutal and senseless slaughter of civilians by soldiers during a brief insurrection against the July Monarchy in Paris. After a soldier was killed by sniper fire in the street, members of the guard killed nearly all the inhabitants of No. 14 Rue Transnonain, in a room-to-room spree.

“Madame d’Aubigny: At five o’clock the soldiers came from the Rue de Montmorency; after a sustained fire they got possession of the barricade.

“A short time after another party of voltigeurs came down the Rue Transnonain, preceded by sappers; they endeavoured, but in vain, to break open the door of our house, which is unusually solid.

“‘It is the line!’ exclaimed the people in the house; ‘Ah, there are our liberators! We are saved!’

“M. Guitard, my husband, and myself went downstairs, in all haste, to open the door. Being quicker than the two gentlemen, I ran before them to the porter’s lodge, pulled the rope, and the door opened. The soldiers rushed into the passage, and, turning half round to the right, shot my husband and M. Guitard, at the moment they had reached the last step of the staircase. They fell amidst a shower of balls. The explosion was so great that the windows of the lodge, which I had not had time to shut before the soldiers ran in, were all broken to pieces. A giddiness seized me for a moment, and when I came to myself, it was to see the lifeless body of my husband stretched near that of M. Guitard, whose head was nearly separated from the neck by the numerous shots he had received. Quick as lightning the soldiers, headed by an officer, ran up to the second floor. A folding door soon gave way before them; a second door, one with glass windows, presented itself; they knocked at it furiously, and it was immediately opened by an old man, M. Breffort, senior. ‘We are,’ he said to the officer, ‘peaceable people here; we have no arms of any sort. Do not assassinate us.’ The words had scarcely passed his lips ere he fell, pierced with three bayonet wounds. He uttered a cry: ‘You old ragamuffin,’ exclaimed the officer, ‘if you don’t hold your tongue, I’ll finish you.’ Annette Besson rushed from an adjacent room to assist him. A soldier turned round, plunged his bayonet into her neck just beneath the jaw, and then, firing his musket at her, blew her head to pieces, the fragments sticking against ‘he opposite wall. A young man, Henry Larivière, was following her. He was fired upon so close that the powder set his clothes in flames; the ball was buried deep in his lungs. As he was falling, mortally wounded, a bayonet stroke cut open his forehead deeply, and exposed the skull; twenty other wounds were added to dispatch him. The room was already a mere pool of blood; M. Breffort, senior, notwithstanding his wounds, had managed to crawl to an alcove; he was pursued by soldiers, when Madame Bonneville came forward, and covering him with her body, her feet in the blood on the floor, her hands raised to Heaven, exclaimed: ‘All my family are stretched at my feet, there remains only myself to kill, only myself” And five bayonet wounds cut open her hands. On the fourth floor, the soldiers who had just killed M. Lepere and M. Robiquet, said to their wives: ‘My poor souls you are sadly to be pitied, as well as your husbands. But we are ordered to do this, we are compelled to obey, though it makes us as wretched as you can be.’—from LOUIS BLANC, THE HISTORY OF TEN YEARS, pp. 279-280.

The incident is now perhaps best remembered because of Daumier’s depiction of it, but for many years, until more horrifying massacres displaced it, it occupied a very important place in the catalog of crimes by authority against the people.

Leroux’s response to the events was interesting. The horror of the crime was not that it is in any way unprecedented. For from it—history has witnessed no shortage of massacres. Human beings have murdered one another for any number of reasons, not least because they believed it was the will of some god or gods, or of some god’s earthly representative. Such killing is criminal, but, Leroux suggests, it may at least retain a certain “grandeur.”

Our century is, it seems, quite vile, and we have degenerated even from the crimes of our fathers. To kill in the manner of Charles IX or Torquemada, in the name of faith, in the name of the Church, because one believes that God desires it, because one has a fanatic spirit, exalted by the fear of hell and the hope of paradise, this is still to have in one’s crime some grandeur and some generosity. But to be afraid, and by dint of cowardice, to become cruel; to be full of solicitude for material goods that after all death will carry away from you, and to become ferocious from avarice; to have no belief in eternal things, no certainty of the difference between the just and the unjust, and, in absolute doubt, to cling to one’s lucre with an intensity rivaling the most heated fanaticism, and to gain from these petty sentiments energy sufficient to equal in a day the bloodiest days of our religious wars—this is what we have seen and what was never seen before.

Crime, murderous crime, may even be “generous,” by Leroux’s reading—at least by comparison to the sort of petty, senseless murder which took place in the Rue Transnonain. “[W]e are ordered to do this, we are compelled to obey, though it makes us as wretched as you…” And what is it that is behind the “pitiless orders” that the soldiers are compelled to follow? “Business is bad, and it is the innovators, it is said, that stand in its way: war then against the innovators.” The rationale for slaughter is “neither an idea nor a principle,” but simply “material interests.” This is a “base” motivation—Leroux makes his opinion in this regard quite clear. Like so many other radicals of his time, he was a strong believer in progress, not just in the perfectibility of humanity, but of a strong impulse, knit within the very fabric of human history, towards ever-increasing perfection. William B. Greene would describe that impulse in terms of a “Blazing Star,” always shining in the distance, and always calling attentive human beings on to increasingly ideal projects and states. Proudhon would come to think of “the Revolution” as embodying it, not as an inevitability, but as a sort of immanent justice, with a tendency to shake up human affairs when it was ignored or thwarted. For progressives and perfectionists, the apparent senselessness or “baseness” of their age was potentially a rebuke. Strong critics of the absolutisms of the past, they were still drawn strongly to ideas and principles, and to the belief that, ultimately, there was some order to “universal history,” even if the responsibility for making that order real fell more and more squarely on human, rather than divine, shoulders.

It’s no great surprise, then, that a radical of Leroux’s type would end up seeing in the apparent disarray and exhaustion of his era, not just the end or the failure of something, but an indication of progress-to-come. If everything now revolves around “the shops,” if we make war and sacrifices for the sake of the day’s profits, it is because all of society’s forces are focused on a problem of overwhelming importance—“if the social question presents itself in our time primarily as a question of material wealth, it is because the human sciences are very close to finding the solution.”

In 1851, Proudhon’s Philosophy of Progress began with a similar denunciation of French society: “France has exhausted the principles that once sustained it. Its conscience is vacant, just like its reason.” It ended by asserting the primacy of revolutionary progress against all forms of absolutism, and it pointed to the extreme disarray of the present as evidence of a potential reorganization in progress. Despite some heated debates and significant differences between them, Proudhon and Leroux shared a good deal, with regard to their philosophies of history. Their relationship was nothing if not complex. Proudhon spoke highly of Leroux, even in the midst of their conflicts, using language which one suspects he would not have been unhappy to have had addressed to himself:

We need men who, like M. Leroux, call in question social principles,— not to diffuse doubt concerning them, but to make them doubly sure; men who excite the mind by bold negations, and make the conscience tremble by doctrines of annihilation. (WHAT IS PROPERTY? p. 401.)

Proudhon undoubtedly also learned a great deal from Leroux, although he made those lessons his own, incorporating them into a body of work in many ways superior to Leroux’s. Once the heat had died down in the debates of 1848-49, and particularly after the coup d’état, there were fewer reasons, either personal or practical, for Proudhon to distance himself from political rivals, fewer open debates, and with both men in exile for much of the remainder of Proudhon’s life, fewer opportunities for conflict. While he was never one to give too much credit to his influences, it seems fairly clear that his mature work benefited from a broader range of them.

It is possible that Leroux’s influence may have been pressed on him as well. We know very little about his relations to the other anarchists of his time, but we know that Leroux’s thought had a decisive influence on both the American mutualist William B. Greene and the libertarian communist Joseph Déjacque. And we know that Greene and Proudhon were at least acquainted. Greene had forged his own variety of mutualism by joining the work of Proudhon and Leroux. While he was among the most prominent advocates of Proudhon’s system of “mutual banking” and free credit, he had obviously followed the French debates on the subject with some care, and seems to have taken Leroux’s side when it came to the question of joining the mutual bank to producer and consumer cooperatives. Greene was known for his tendency to speak his mind, even when it drew ridicule from his peers in New England. If he did indeed converse with Proudhon, would he have remained silent on those questions? They were certainly potential sore points: it is quite possible that the insistence by others on a “triad” of reforms was among the factors that led Proudhon to entirely separate from the project of the Bank of the People, when his erstwhile partners attempted to revive it as the “Laborers’ Mutuality.” At this point, we can only speculate. In any event, the later works certainly seem more open to the idea of supplementing credit reforms with other sorts of association.

But the relationship is really more complicated than the example of Greene, or even Déjacque, suggests. From our vantage point in the present, Leroux appears not just as an influence on various anarchists, but as himself a worker in the field of libertarian radicalism—and perhaps a fairly unique one. Leroux is famous, or infamous, for the notions of the circulus,—a sort of proto-ecological answer to Malthus, emphasizing the re-cycling character of natural system,—the triad,—an adaptation of Trinitarian thought to social science,—and the twin doctrines of life and humanity—which emphasized the interdependence of individuals and characterized all living beings as both objective and subjective, acting as agents and as a social environment (and source of social subsistence, even nutrition!) for other agents. The third set of notions was adopted in one form or another by Greene, Déjacque, and Proudhon, and enjoyed a short vogue in New England radical circles, thanks to Orestes Brownson. Its origins were in Christianity, and in Saint-Simonian neo-Christianity. The first tied Leroux to the early anarchist, or proto-anarchist, William Godwin, in the battle against Malthus. And the second, while it also had theological origins, was at the same time a response to the thought of another proto-anarchist figure, Étienne de La Boétie.

De La Boétie’s youthful anti-authoritarian tract, De la Servitude Volontaire (known in English as The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, Slaves to Duty, or Slaves by Choice), was subtitled “Le Contr’un.” One translation attempts to render the phrase as “The Anti-Dictator,” which gets the gist of things, if it lacks the elegance of the original. “Contr’un” is apparently a rare construction, and it’s an enormously suggestive one in many ways. It’s tempting to survey all the ways in which one might be “against one” or the “counter-one,” from Proudhon’s theory of offsetting absolutisms to Derrida’s play with the intertwined notions of “(no more one/more than one) voice.” For our immediate purposes, however, it is enough to know that Leroux took this notion of the “contr’un” very seriously, making it one of the key elements of his 1846 “Discourse on the Doctrine of Humanity.” Given his other preoccupations, it will perhaps come as no surprise that he believed the counter-one could be found in another number, in the three of the triad.

Leroux never claimed to be an anarchist, and there is no particular reason to claim him for the tradition at this point. He probably falls fairly comfortably into the category of “mutualist,” which has always had connotations broader than, say, “Proudhonian” and which, in its most general form, has always, I think, leaned towards anarchism, but has never been precisely identical with it. (Even Proudhon considered the “approximation of an-archy” just one of the projects of mutualism.) What we probably can do, with some real present benefit, is to examine Leroux’s thought a little more closely, specifically in the context of other early anarchists, acknowledging his unusually direct connections to figures like Godwin and de la Boétie, as well as his equally direct influence on early mutualism and libertarian communism. In particular, we can look more closely at the moment where he made the other terminological contributions for which he is remembered—the invention of the terms “individualisme” and “socialisme.”


It is clear that, in all of this writing, it is necessary to understand by socialism, socialism as we define it in this work itself, which is as the exaggeration of the idea of association, or of society. For a number of years, we have been accustomed to call socialists all the thinkers who occupy themselves with social reforms, all those who critique and reprove individualism, all those who speak, in different terms, of social providence, and of the solidarity which unites together not only the members of a State, but the entire Human Species; and, by this title, ourselves, who have always battled absolute socialism, we are today designated as socialist. We are undoubtedly socialist, but in this sense: we are socialist, if you mean by socialism the Doctrine which will sacrifice none of the terms of the formula: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Unity, but which reconciles them all. (1847.) — I can only repeat here, with regard to the use of the word Socialism in all of this extract, what I said previously (pages 121 and 160 of this Volume). When I invented the term Socialism in order to oppose it to the term Individualism, I did not expect that, ten years later, that term would be used to express, in a general fashion, religious Democracy. What I attacked under that name, were the false systems advanced by the alleged disciples of Saint-Simon and by the alleged disciples of Rousseau led astray following Robespierre and Babœuf, without speaking of those who amalgamated at once Saint-Simon and Robespierre with de Maistre and Bonald. I refer the reader to the Histoire du Socialisme (which they will find in one of the following volumes of this edition), contenting myself to protest against those who have taken occasion from this to find me in contradiction with myself.—PIERRE LEROUX, “INDIVIDUALISM AND SOCIALISM.” (Note from 1850 COLLECTED WORKS.)

The debates over who coined what term are of largely antiquarian interest. We know that by 1843, some form of the word “socialism” already existed in English, in Owenite circles. But we also know that Leroux’s claim is not too far off the mark, in any language. And we do not seem to have any earlier treatment of the two terms—socialism and individualism—together.

Individualism and Socialism—these are the two rival solutions to the problem of “material interests,” and once they have been loosed on the field, their opposition threatens to become practically the whole of politics. Leroux identifies them in order to reject them both—at least individually. When Proudhon adopted roughly the same dynamic, the terms were “property” and “community,” but little else changed. Both look forward to a moment when the two tendencies will be “harmonized” or “synthesized.” Later, both would adopt a more dynamic sort of solution. Greene, tackling the problem in a different context and at a slightly later date, was able to name his third term more directly: “socialism” becomes, for him, the third, relational term, completing a triad with individualistic “capitalism” and “communism.” In some ways, of course, all of this is simply reinventing the wheel, since the three terms all seem to correspond to Fourier’s three “distributive passions:” centralizing Composite, decentralizing Cabalist, and alternating Papillion. And the target of the dynamic is the error Fourierists called simplism, “the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that real progress is null or negative.”

Leroux opens the debate between individualism and socialism in order to be done with it, to focus attention on a broader, more complete dynamic, which he sees as the key to solving the problem of “material interests.” But he is not prepared to offer much more than a statement of the problem, and the vaguest sketch of the solution. His analysis of individualism and socialism leads him to an affirmation of relation:

We are all responsible to one another. We are united by an invisible link, it is true, but that link is more clear and more evident to the intelligence than matter is to the eyes of the body.

But he can’t move far past the intuitive rejection of social simplism—a double rejection, coupled with a double affirmation. He has the outline of the triad, which he will come to see as the “true contr’un,” the key to a libertarian politics which should not simply fall prey to the internecine warfare between visions of freedom, and his general project is launched, but he has also named these two principles, in a more definite fashion that has been done before—and this conjuration is no small matter.

These two principles once named, you cannot prevent yourself from recognizing them, for you sense their legitimacy in your heart; but you sense at the same time that, both born from justice, they will make a dreadful war.

As we know, in the intervening years, individualism and socialism have “made a dreadful war.” And the libertarian movement which Leroux inherited and influenced has been split every bit as decisively as the cultures surrounding it, by that warfare. In some ways, we have made very little progress from the situation described by Leroux and Proudhon: the exhaustion of ideas, the wars in the service of commercial profit, the complicity of competing visions of liberty in the continuing misery and slaughter—all of these are familiar to us. What is perhaps least familiar to us is the notion that there is an alternative, the possibility of a “synthesis of community and property” (as Proudhon put it) in a liberty which would extend to all, and would harmonize and socialize the conflict of interests without sacrificing individuality. Where that notion has appeared, in those intervening years, it has often been called mutualism. But mutualism, too, has often proclaimed its philosophy, without being able to push very far towards its realization.

If the goal of mutualism, Proudhon’s “third form of society” or some timelier approximation, is our goal, then it’s up to us to trace its history back to the roots, strengthening and clarifying where we can. If mutualism is to be more than just an indistinct third option, a constant compromise, then it is necessary to take up the tradition precisely where it is most strongly “charged”—and most potentially dangerous. What better place to start, then, than Leroux’s description of those “two pistols charged one against the other”?


The passage, quoted at the beginning of the essay, is striking. Individualism and socialism first appear as “two opposite attractors,” equally attractive and repellant,” but as a magnet might attract or repulse. “Liberty and Society,” Leroux claims elsewhere in the essay, “are the two equal poles of social science.” The individual, all individuals, remains “in perplexity and uncertainty,” held in a complex field of forces, which pushes and pulls us in every direction at once. Drawing on Leroux’s work on the nature of “life,” we can conclude that our magnetic uncertainty is as much related to ourselves as to our attractors. Indeed, the “objective and subjective” nature of life makes such a distinction difficult at best. We, too, are “charged,” and bear at the very heart of our nature as living beings “two opposite attractors.” We, too, are a sort of magnet.

Leroux moves quickly through his exposition: the disposition of charges and forces moves things quickly to crisis. Uncertainty leads to increased tension, as forces attempt to align in one direction or another. This leads rapidly to “horror.” And it is fear, after all, that leads to the “base” violence of the Rue Transnonain, and all the violent uncertainty of the present age.

It has all happened before, Leroux assures us, citing the example of the French Revolution. And suddenly the charged poles are charged pistols—and they have been fired, putting an end to the promise of the Revolution.

And “we are still at the same point”—Leroux and his contemporaries, but also, it seems, ourselves in the present—but that “same point” seems to get richer and more highly charged every time Leroux returns to it. “We are still at the same point, with two pistols charged and pointed in opposite directions.” When the pistols appeared, in the midst of the discussion of magnetic uncertainty, they were in the hands of Robespierre and the Convention. Now “we” possess them, “pointed in opposite directions.”

Is that “we” a matter of opposed individuals? One stands with the pistol of individualism, and another with the pistol of socialism, while we reenact the standoff of the last revolution? Or is it somehow our general condition that we, each individually, bear both pistols, “pointed in opposite directions,” in order to fend off multiple foes? “Our soul is the prey of two powers,” Leroux says, but that hardly resolves things—particularly when examined in the light of Leroux’s other works. In that light, there is probably no choosing between interpretations. The individual is already social, already “prey” to two absolutist tendencies, even in conditions of relative isolation. We carry the potential for “dreadful war” in our “soul,” as we recognize the legitimacy of the antagonists in our heart, just as soon as they are named. And all of this seems entirely natural, as soon as human beings begin to seriously pursue their liberty.


Perhaps this has all taken a strangely martial turn, given mutualism’s generally peaceful reputation. Isn’t the core of mutualism the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you?” Yes, indeed. But there’s nothing simple about fulfilling the Golden Rule. The principle is not, for instance, Do unto others as if they were you. If I serve you Postum for coffee, or bake you a chocolate cake on your birthday, because, Hey, I like Postum!—and chocolate’s my favorite!—I haven’t acted according to a mutual or reciprocal principle. Instead, I have acted according to a rather narrow sort of egoism. If the terms are reversed, I certainly don’t want to be treated as just another instance of a type defined by someone else. Respect for the individuality of each actually seems to require a move into the realm of the general, recourse to a rule of individuality—a rule which ultimately tells us that there isn’t going to be any simple rule of thumb for how to fulfill the Golden Rule. If I assume that the way that I would like to be treated is as an individual—but as the specific individual that I am—then presumably I should treat the other as an individual (according to a fairly simple, general rule)—but also as an-other individual (and here all simple, general rules begin to break down.)

The individual-collective dynamic is a sort of antinomy, already pretty familiar to students of Proudhon and mutualism. No theory of the individual or society is going to be complete without constant recourse to the ways in which one influences the other. Leroux, Greene and Proudhon all embraced this particular antinomy as a key sociological insight, and Proudhon, taking cues from Leroux, gradually built his social science around the notion that not only are individuals and collectivities intimately connected, but collectivities may be themselves understood as individuals—let’s say individualities for the moment—to the extent that they manifest a single law of organization.

There is ultimately more—much more—that needs to be said about the social theories that the early mutualists, and libertarian communists like Déjacque, elaborated, the ways in which peopling the world with collectivities and individualities at every imaginable scale—from the infinitesimal to the universal—did or did not contribute to a robust anarchist critique of hierarchy and a sustainable model for a free society. For now, it is important to simply note that in Proudhon’s theory—undoubtedly, the most fully and clearly developed of the bunch—he was moving towards a vision in which our all personal individualities, and whatever social individualities emerged from their free interactions, would be allowed their fullest development, bounded only by the principle of reciprocity—the Golden Rule.

Liberty then, nothing more, nothing less. Laissez faire, laissez passer, in the broadest and most literal sense; consequently property, as it rises legitimately from this freedom, is my principle. No other solidarity between citizens than that which rises accidentally from force majeur: for all that which relates to free acts, and manifestations of reflective thought, complete and absolute insolidarity.


Who does not see that the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign?—P.-J. Proudhon, “The Revolutionary Program” (1848).

This is the “communist ends by individualist means” that we find in his early work. In his later works, Proudhon acknowledged that even the state should be acknowledged as an individuality, along with all the human individuals, workshops, voluntary associations, and the like—but that all these individualities must be understood as equals. The state-individuality, to take the most contentious example, has its role, its law of development, and its “rights,” but they do not take trump the role or “rights” (scare-quoted here since the question of “rights” is itself contentious in this context) by virtue of belonging to a collectivity—since every individual is assumed to be a collectivity, a group, organized according to a unique law—nor by virtue of the size or scale of the individuality, nor by virtue of the participation of the constituent individuals in collective-individuality.

There are obviously some serious issues to wrestle with here. On the one hand, the approach radically levels the political playing field. If we were aiming for a democracy, it would be a one organizing principle = one vote sort of affair. … The radical leveling means that the mutual principle—“actors recognize enough of themselves in one another to build a basic relation of mutuality…or they do without…society”—ought to be applicable to essentially all relations, as long as we’re willing to allow some diversity in the means by which different sorts of individualities can “recognize” one another. Proudhon was hardly naïve about those sorts of differences. And, again, our current focus is on person-to-person mutuality. But what we’ve already suggested is that at least some of the radical difficulties of recognition between individualities of different scales or natures are just the writ-large versions of a problem we encounter in much more familiar settings.

In attempting to work within the antinomy, we encounter an aporia. If our rule is to treat the other as an other, as a unique individual (and not just another instance of some type we can assume we exemplify), then our rule isn’t enough. Our understanding of common human traits or shared circumstances may well be the thing that is least useful in addressing the other as individuality.

There is, of course, no question of attempting to dispense with generalization. It is, after all, our pursuit of a general rule which brings us to the brink of this new and particularly thorny set of problems. There is a common tendency to treat any road that leads us to an aporia as the wrong road, no matter how rational and rigorous the process that led us there. The desire for a priori ethical rules that can simply be applied, once we know the details of the case, is perfectly understandable, but the notion that any alternative to this sort of ethical technology is pure dispersion and despair, ethical relativism, quietism or defeatism—or even “anti-principled, in-your-face consequentialism”—may well be one of those effects of fear that Leroux warned against, pushing us towards one extreme or the other.

It would be easy here to rail a bit about how adherence to the principle of reciprocity, understood in this aporetic way, is transformed, in the minds of opponents, into “relativism” or “nihilism,” and countered with such unlovely beasts as the purely consequentialist defense of this or that “principle.” But, frustrating as this sort of thing is, it’s not the sort of thing that a mutualist can get too high-and-mighty about. Mutualism’s own history is replete with examples of how to fall short of the Golden Rule, provided by the very figures who have most powerfully advanced its doctrine. For now, we’ll concentrate on those internal examples of how giving in to logical simplism can have disastrous consequences—with particular attention to Proudhon.

First, however, let’s make sure we have the problem well defined: Mutualism, as understood by the figures we are examining, consisted of very little besides a commitment to the principle of mutuality—the Golden Rule—and a sense—presumably based in social science—that the individual and society were inextricably bound together, and that individuality and collectivity were neither logical nor social opposites, but instead characteristics of all beings, manifesting themselves at different scales. In Proudhon’s hands, this all led to the potential of a radically leveled social and political playing field, with all individuals—or all those that he could recognize as full and social individuals—interacting on essentially equal terms. The uncertainties and complexities of such a system make no real argument against it, from a mutualist point of view. With no exact means of knowing how to treat the other as an other like ourselves, and with the Golden Rule as guide, the only ethical option is obviously to “aim high,” to exceed the letter of the law, to exceed tit-for-tat, etc. Proudhon was skeptical about the exchange of values anyway, seeing “equal exchange” as largely a matter of convention, “approximation”—and such approximations are always open for improvement. As for complexity, Proudhon saw it as a key component of (positive) liberty. It might not be too much to say that it was precisely in the instances of incommensurability, uncertainty, interminable experiment and approximation, that Proudhon saw the openings—and the mechanism—for progress and perfection.

This is a sort of thought that tends to escape easy summary, and mutualists have not always been as clear as they might be. (I can only appeal to the difficulties myself.) For the progressive or perfectionist, a fair amount of ambivalence is perhaps unavoidable, and a certain messiness in exposition almost inevitable. All the evils and disarray of the present call for strong condemnation; but they may also signal, by their very intensity and vileness, at least the possibility of real change. Once again, it’s not simply that social disorganization marks the collapse of an old system. The progressive faith requires a fundamental belief in the reality of collective action and collective reason—a belief which can never be uncritical or quietist, and which indeed can probably never be critical enough, since the individual must engage the collective with their individual reason; a belief that must constantly be tested with social science and historical study, and which has no very specific content or context without that study; but a belief that leads the progressive or perfectionist to at least always entertain the possibility that human institutions are sound in their aims, however flawed they may be in their implementation.

Such an approach is full of pitfalls, of course. We can see that in the uneven and opportunistic ways in which its practitioners have applied it. Proudhon, even while completing his critique of property and the state, as he found them, turned to an engagement with their ends, and the best-developed elements of his writings map out the twists and turns of that engagement. In the end, in The Theory of Property, Proudhon embraced both property and the state, but only in a particular sort of opposition, and he acknowledged explicitly that it “it falls to us to govern [that opposition] and to make it act according to the laws of logic.” Proudhon picked up both pistols—and it is up to us, ultimately, to decide if that was the best that can be done, or whether perhaps, in embracing the aims of the institutions, he gave too much credit to their existing forms.

In “The Gift Economy of Property” and other writings, I have suggested some alternatives to Proudhon’s final approach to property—alternatives which are no less highly charged, but are perhaps less martial in their approach. I’m not certain that there is anything in that work, however, that clearly raises it to or above the level of The Theory of Property. But we can perhaps more clearly see the dangers of the progressive approach if we look at Proudhon’s response to potential changes in the institution of the family, and in gender roles. Proudhon was at once progressive and conservative when it came to most economic questions, and questions regarding institutional government. Even when he advocated the conservation of existing forms—or when he advocated a strengthening of private property, provided it was widely distributed—it was with the understanding that those forms would fulfill a substantially new function. When it was a question of changes to the family, he instead denied progress, at best bringing new justifications to bear for institutions which would ultimately pull against the general trajectory of his libertarian thought. With regard to women’s rights, his thought was worse than simply conservative. In “picking up the pistols” with regard to property, he sought to shelter individuals in such a way that liberty was preserved for all, and progressive change had a space within which to occur. When it came to women, his impulse was to shelter them from change. The defenses of the traditional family that he developed could just as easily have supported any number of non-traditional living arrangements. A strong case could be made—and was being made at the time—that the aims of the family could be at least as well addressed by other forms. The patriarchal rights that he ultimately defended were, like the private property rights of The Theory of Property, an intensification—Leroux might have said “exaggeration”—of existing rights, and we might suspect that they were driven by nothing other than “horror”—again the word is Leroux’s—of the polar alternative. Proudhon once again “picked up the pistols,” but because he turned against his own stated principles—affirmation of progress, opposition to the absolute, movement by an indefinite sequence of approximations—and, most seriously, quite simply denied women full participation in society, he could hardly do better than the soldiers in the Rue Transnonain. “[W]e are ordered to do this, we are compelled to obey, though it makes us as wretched as you…” Treating the traditional family and patriarchy as providential, Proudhon could hardly avoid discharging both pistols at women in general, jeopardizing his entire project in the process.

Proudhon’s particular failure was not intrinsic to his libertarianism or his social science. Leroux did not share it, nor did Greene. But they had their own failings. Every system has its attendant hazards, and, on one level, mutualism combines those of individualism with those of extreme collectivism—and when it is not in danger of slipping to extremes it has to be careful not to settle into some comfortable rut in the middle. Faith in collective reason has to be truly a matter of faith, as opposed to knowledge—and has to be treated as such. If a mutualist thought they knew that a given institution was correct in its aims—that it represented a manifestation of progress in the collective reason—they would be on shaky ground. And, as the historical record pretty clearly shows, radicals are not magically shielded from all the confusions of their era, no matter how critical they may manage to be. Leroux went through some truly peculiar gyrations in his work to explain the nature and extent of his own antisemitism; in the end, it isn’t clear if he entirely understood it himself. And he probably didn’t. His most extreme expressions are, from a more consistently logical and libertarian perspective, awkwardly grafted onto a critique of capitalism as obstruction of the circulus that is both perceptive, humorous, and well ahead of its time in its proto-ecological arguments. (If you were looking for the missing link between the physiocrats’ treatment of natural production and modern environmental science, this might be it.) But the seriousness of the failure is in some ways heightened—particularly for us, in an ideological environment that is very, very sensitive to such failures—by the promise of the thought surrounding it. Proudhon’s failure is colossal: it is in the very same works where he points most clearly to the possibility of a radical equality which does not efface individuality, and where he at least hints at a contr’un far more powerful than the triad, in the multiplication and association of free forces, that he excludes women from that potential promise land, denying them equality and the basic relations of society. Like Leroux, he twists and turns, but there is really no escaping the fact that he can recognize the role and rights of the (anarchist) state and the workshop, but not those of women. (Honestly…)

There, but for real care in our application of the one principle that drives mutualism, go we. The hard part of embracing continual progress is also embracing constant incompletion, approximation, non-innocence. Mutualism, by emphasizing complexity and attaching itself to institutions only provisionally and experimentally, makes tremendous demands—but they are essentially anarchistic demands. The trick is to really progress, but that, as Proudhon insisted, also involves a careful sort of conservation. We can’t settle solely for critique or celebration of the tradition as we have inherited it—to do so would perhaps be more comfortable, but it would also be a simplist betrayal of mutualism’s basic approach.

The alternatives should become clearer as we move to incorporate more of the mutualist tradition into the analysis

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2056 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.