Authority, Liberty and the Federative Principle

Initial Thoughts

Proudhon’s Du principe fédératif et de la nécessité de reconstituer le parti de la révolution occupies an interesting place among his works. It has been, prior to my translation of Théorie de la propriété, the only extended portion of Proudhon’s final major project, the study of Poland, available in English. And my sense is that it has been considered one of the “good” late works, like De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières, rather than one of the potentially “bad” works, like the work on property—while also being, of course, the work most often cited in support of the claim that Proudhon abandoned anarchist ideas.

Personally, I find it is a text to which I have been returning more often lately, as well as one that has come up increasingly in the questions that I get in various online forums. And I have developed a strong and growing sense that I still have a good deal of work to do before I can really place it clearly in the context of Proudhon’s larger body of work.

So I want to take the time now to establish what sorts of questions I might expect to answer as I begin to work through Proudhon’s writings again this year.

Perhaps the most troubling element in the work is the apparent naturalization of authority. We make a point of noting that Proudhon came to consider anarchy—or at least a particular a priori conception of it—a “perpetual desideratum,” and, perhaps as a result, tend to treat the fundamental, antinomic relation of authority and liberty that he asserts as simply a kind of retreat from more radical concerns.

But the situation is arguably quite a bit more complicated than that.

We know perfectly well, for example, that Proudhon had recourse to similar sorts of antinomic or dialectical claims all through his writings—and that by 1858 he had come to think of these oppositions as in some sense beyond resolution. So, in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, we find him describing the human individual as a “free absolute” (absolu libre), with the freedom in question involving self-consciousness:

The human being is the resultant of determined forces, which can nevertheless say “I” and reflect on its condition; brought into contact and conflict with other similarly constituted “absolutes,” spaces of greater freedom for all can be constructed through the reflective neutralization of what might be otherwise largely blind forces.

Here we have a dynamic involving absolutism—an individual tendency that we might consider natural and more or less ubiquitous—and liberty—a social, resultant quality emerging from the fact that all of the various individual forces are not uniform in character, intensity, trajectory, etc., which manifests itself within the human individual and then, on a larger scale, in the context of social interactions. In any given moment, and on a variety of scales, we might say that it is absolutism that initiates—seizes the initiative, drives forward without waiting for permission—until it is met, tempered, conditioned by the play of contending forces that Proudhon identifies with liberty, coming to consciousness of itself and its conditions in order to complete its work.

And that dynamic has a good deal in common with the one we find in Du principe fédératif, with the most significant difference being that absolutism and authority do not seem to be the same thing. Indeed, the difference puts us on familiar ground, as the conflation of mere forcefulness and the alleged right to use force is a familiar weapon in the anti-anarchist arsenal, which we find in works like Engels’ “On Authority.”

So one question we obviously need to answer is whether or not the dynamic described in Proudhon’s Justice is in some way inadequate. Are there reasons to think that it only addresses a sort of abstract anarchy, which is not just a perpetual desideratum, but a trap?

Answering that question would involve tracing the development of Proudhon’s thought from the beginnings of his “mature” work through to the end—a task that, in turn demands we place the work on federation a bit more clearly in that body of work. But it would also involve judging the influences of various, sometimes conflicting tendencies in that thought.

Taking up the second problem first, we might ask if there are elements present already in 1858 that might lead to the slide from absolutism to authority. We might, for example, look at a passage like this:

You will notice first of all that these two principles, authority and liberty, which are at the root of all the trouble, appear in history in logical and temporal sequence. Authority, like the family, the father, genitor, appears first; it has the initiative, it is affirmation. Liberty is reflective and comes later: it criticizes, protests, concludes. This sequence arises from the definition of terms and from the nature of things, and all history bears witness to it. It cannot be inverted, there is nothing arbitrary about it.

And we might ask ourselves if at least part of what we are seeing is an expression of Proudhon’s cranky and conflicted notions about biology and gender. Perhaps we are not as far as we would like to be from the patriarchal government of a Sylvain Maréchal and what all history presumably bears witness to starts with the bon père de famille and his nagging wife, who completes what the male initiates in a certain interpretation of the reproductive process.

This would take us in some strange directions, I think—though none strange enough to really stick out in the context of Proudhon’s writings on gender, where our sense of the equality or inequality of men and women can be subjected to the most extreme sorts of tensions. We are, after all, headed toward an analysis in which authority demands only faithful obedience and liberty is specifically associated with free reason. To give that opposition a simple set of gender identifications would perhaps produce amusing results—and I will admit that I have played with the possibilities in my imagination more than is probably merited—but I don’t think we end up with anything that Proudhon would have stood behind if pressed. What’s more, I suspect that placing initiative and completion in different kinds of bodies runs counter to the general theory of bodies in Proudhon’s work. Every individual is a group and the vitality of every individual—a vitality that Proudhon sometimes explicitly equated to their freedom—comes from both ongoing initiative and the conflict that arises when initiatives clash. Every human individual is a free absolute, as that internal conflict gives rise, given their particular arrangement, not just to vitality, but also to reflection. And then the basic “organ” of society, which Proudhon associated with a heteronormative couple, emerges from the association free absolutes, who are significantly different in makeup, but still equal in the context of the association. They balance and thus become the organ of justice in society, presenting a model for a wide range of similar associations among significantly different equals—a range extending even to associations like that of what I have called the “citizen-state” to the various human citizens.

We probably have to acknowledge that there are plenty of elements in play that will not all be satisfactorily explained by even the most careful elaboration of Proudhon’s work. I’m inclined, for example, to treat this invocation of the father and genitor in Du principe fédératif as something of a tic, indicating something to be looked at more closely, but not really answering our question. One of the things we have to consider, of course, is that Proudhon was distracted by his mistaken understanding of biology and compromised his later theory as a result. But there seems to be another explanation that we need to examine closely.

This second approach requires that we place Du principe fédératif in the larger context of Proudhon’s work, in order to see if there is some subsequent development of ideas that explains the apparent slide from absolutism to authority. We know that the work was drawn from the large and still largely unpublished study of Poland and one of the contents listings included in those manuscripts encourages us to place the question of “Universal Federation” somewhere pretty close to the conclusion of the theoretical sections of that work—at the end of the material on Guarantism (published as Théorie de la propriété), which was itself the concluding chapter of the work announced, but never published as Géographie politique et Nationalité.

That would certainly seem in line with the characterization by Proudhon of the importance of federation in his mature work:

All my economic ideas, developed over the last twenty-five years, can be defined in three words: agro-industrial federation; all my political views may be reduced to a parallel formula: political federation or decentralization; and since I do not make my ideas the instruments of a party or of personal ambition, all my hopes for the present and future are contained in a third term, a corollary of the first two: progressive federation.

But it would also map out quite a lot of relevant, but not necessarily unfamiliar ground to cover between Justice and the final elements of Pologne, including La Guerre et la Paix and Théorie de l’impôt, which round out the “Essays in Popular / Practical Philosophy.” We can anticipate explorations in political ethnography and organogeny, as well as an examination of the dynamics of social metamorphosis and a reexamination of the work on property as a study in guarantism, before settling down to look at the federative principle in this new light.

Fortunately, we have some practice in this sort of thing. While our previous examinations of the “New Theory” of property have largely ignored the same contexts, that material was presented to us in a way that allowed us to see that, while the practical conclusions regarding property changed in later works, it was through a development—not the repudiation or even significant alteration—of previous works on the subject. So we might expect that the shift in focus from absolutism as a fundamental tendency to authority as a naturalized principle emerges from some similar development.

And we’re not going to trace all of that potential development right now, but we can point to elements already uncovered that suggest some of its details. There is, for example, the connecting passage omitted from the published Théorie de la propriété, which includes the following:

One of our maxims is that the citizen must be made in the image of the state, that the man given by nature must be repeated on the model of Society, the true and living Word. It is only in this way that the individual will acquire that of which nature has only given him a shadow, liberty and autonomy, become the personification of right, and be able to separate themselves from the magistracy and the government.

This seems to be exactly the sort of development we’re looking for, as the formulation about “the man given by nature” in Justice is adapted to the new analysis in Pologne. And we would expect the elaboration of this maxim to answer a number of questions like rather open by the published portions of the work. Given what we know about the development of the analysis of property, it’s not hard, I think, to at least anticipate some of the dynamics we’ll encounter in this theory of the “citizen made in the image of the state.”

And perhaps those two preliminary explorations put us in a pretty good situation as we start to work through Proudhon’s entire body of work, marking out a number of important points along the way that we will be anticipating as we advance. Still, there is always, with Proudhon, the anticipation of some new progress—and here is another place where the work done on his property theory allows us to look perhaps even a little bit farther down the road, perhaps even beyond the works that he completed.

We know that, beyond the “New Theory,” Proudhon had begun to explore a more thoroughly mutualist theory of property, grounded in mutual guarantees, rather than just based on the opposition of forces. And the resistance to simply reducing federation to the balancing of more or less authoritarian institutions—which was, for me, the starting place of this particular inquiry—should perhaps encourage us to look for the extent to which a similar mutualism might become the basis of organization on the federative principle.

The difficulties in imagining that more thoroughly mutualist form of federation are considerable, given the rest of Proudhon’s analysis, but the fact that online self-reflective social agents—free absolutes—can take part in the necessary negotiations and agreements is probably both the largest obstacle and the source of greatest hope that the problem might eventually be solved.

[I’ll return to this text and these questions as occasions arise.]

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


  1. I must admit to liking Du principe fédératif, although some of Parts II and III replies to various people I’ve not heard of can get a bit tedious. I’ve translated a few chapters from it for “A Libertarian Reader”, although I will probably post these on the “Property is Theft!” webpage sometime this year.

    The chapter on “Slavery and the Proletariat” is fascinating and debunks the notion that Proudhon supported slavery or was a racist against blacks, as Schapiro claimed — his argument recognises that the Northern States were sought to replace slavery with wage-slavery (i.e., turning the slaves into proletarians) and he spends a lot of time arguing against Lincoln’s suggestion that the slaves should be deported from America to Africa.

    • It’s a fascinating book, but probably one that makes more sense once it has had its original contexts restored—including the fact that Proudhon apparently had his next moves at least partially planned.

Comments are closed.