Distributaries: Proudhonism and the International

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back: II. — Distributaries (1865–1886)

Project Page:
MAPPINGS: Notes for an Introduction
SOURCES: The First Leg of the Journey
    CONFLUENCES: The Final Leg of the Journey

      If we wanted to characterize the shift that followed Proudhon’s death in the most general terms, we might say that Proudhon was almost immediately replaced by Proudhonism—and then we would have to observe that Proudhonism was the most protean of things, taking nearly every imaginable form, depending on who invoked it, except perhaps that of a straightforward continuation of Proudhon’s own work.

      I think I’ve pretty well established that an important part of the histories of both anarchism and mutualism was the extent to which certain pioneering figures and certain early expressions were not just appropriated for new purposes, but were incorporated—in substantially distorted forms—into the foundations of late-19th century ideologies that might, in hindsight, have benefited more from free and complete engagement. Both Proudhon and Bakunin suffered some degree of this treatment—a fact that has become clearer the deeper I’ve delved into their work and one that was shaped my own approach into, at least in part, an attempt to compensate. For the moment, what is important to remember is that a very substantial portion of the period covered by this entire study—more than a quarter of of the rough century to be examined—has been incorporated into the later tradition in this way, making some degree of rectification a necessary part of our task. But we begin that work simply by sketching out the various ways in which Proudhonism—Proudhon’s work in parceled-out form or as seen through the eyes of rivals—manifested itself in the years before anarchism really became a widely used keyword.

      So we’ll start with the effort to publish the Oeuvres Completes and the arrangement of the posthumous works, including the debates surrounding the agencement of the manuscripts. An interesting result of the year-by-year approach is that we will actually keep returning to those efforts in each volume, as new publications and translations continue to appear in steadily changing contexts. But obviously the period from 1965—the year of Proudhon’s death and the publication of De la Capacité politique des classes ouvrières—to 1875—and the publication of the Correspondance de P.-J. Proudhon—will require particular attention.

      A close examination of De la Capacité politique des classes ouvrières will naturally lead to a study of the French workers whose manifesto inspired some of Proudhon’s that work—workers instrumental in the establishment of the First International. E. E. Fribourg’s “Proudhonist” history, L’Association Internationale des Travailleurs, will get special attention, as we try to establish more clearly the nature and role of Proudhonism in the International, but it will also be necessary to spend some time examining the process by which De la Capacité politique des classes ouvrières came to be published and spend some time with the related manuscript writings, some of which remain as poorly explored as anything Proudhon wrote.

      Turning to Théorie de la propriété, perhaps the other best-known work among the posthumous writings, there will be an opportunity to talk more about the debates over the presentation of Proudhon’s work—including the “Disagreement on the Posthumous Works of Proudhon,” which surrounded the publication of the final work on property—and a chance to get to know the various figures named as Proudhon’s literary executors.

      Among those fIgures, J.-A. Langlois will certainly feature prominently—and, when we reach the year 1867, we will naturally take the time to closely examine L’homme et la révolution : huit études dédiées à P.-J. Proudhon, his attempt to extend and clarify Proudhon’s work. It’s a serious, substantial, 2-volume work, which has managed to almost entirely escape anarchist commentary—or much of any commentary at all.

      Examining a work like L’homme et la révolution allows us to speculate a bit on what Proudhonism might have looked like if it had evolved as a theory in a manner similar to Marxism. And we can reflect on the lack of other opportunities for this kind of speculation.

      And those reflections will naturally lead us to the rest of Proudhon’s self-proclaimed disciples—individuals and works even more obscure than Langlois and L’homme et la révolution. In some cases, we can expect these encounters to provide cautionary examples of how the embrace of isolated bits of Proudhon’s project could lead in unfortunate directions. But, again, these mutuellistes isolés (as Nettlau called them in his Bibliographie) provide us with a series of possible alternate paths for the proto-anarchism of the earliest period, so examining them will be an important part of establishing the range of possibilities at the time of the emergence of “modern anarchism.”

      The Proudhonism in the International was largely displaced by anti-authoritarian collectivism, which we’ll introduce separately. And Claude Pelletier, who might be counted among the mutuellistes isolés, will also get a separate introduction.

      It’s worth noting that quite a number of the more-or-less Proudhonian figures we will be examining either changed camps (like César de Paepe, who moved from mutualism to collectivism and then to state socialism), pursued political paths that had little to do with anarchist ideas (while perhaps still retaining a connection to Proudhon) or died in the period of the International and the Commune. And we’ll have to account for the role played in some of the later developments by generational change.

      We’ll also have to come to some conclusions about just what Proudhonism was, what roles it played and which factions were best served by it. This account will obviously parallel the history of mutualism in many, though perhaps not all, regards.

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