Notes on Anarchy and Hegemony in the Realm of Definitions

The notes that follow are preliminary, as I try to bring together a number of considerations regarding vocabulary, definition, theoretical clarity and such. They begin with some questions raised about the translation of Proudhon’s work, pass through a discussion of Proudhon’s own approach to the definition of key terms — which I hope will be useful as we begin reading and discussion of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church — and end with some general thoughts about anarchists’ engagement with the question of definition in the present.


I encountered a common Proudhon “quotation” recently on social media:

The notion of anarchy … means that once industrial functions have taken over from political functions, then business transactions and exchange alone produce the social order.

It’s one of those questionable quotations that I have suspected was a bit of a paraphrase, even without the ellipsis, but also one that I’ve never taken the time to explore. The phrase “business transactions” stuck out to me as unlikely for Proudhon and perhaps a bit awkward in French, but this particular translation has been widely repeated, so I decided to track down the source.

Here is what I found.

The text is from Du Principe fédératif, but clearly not the Richard Vernon translation — although there is some slight paraphrasing there are well (see the original and my new translation at the end of the post.) Here is that translation:

As a variety of the liberal regime I have mentioned anarchy — the government of each by himself, self-government. Since the phrase anarchic government involves a kind of contradiction, the thing seems impossible and the idea absurd. However, there is nothing to find fault with here but language; politically, the idea of anarchy is quite as rational and concrete as any other. What it means is that political functions have been reduced to industrial functions, and that social order arises from nothing but transactions and exchanges. Each may then say that he is the absolute ruler of himself, the polar opposite of monarchical absolutism.

It looks like the “full” translation from which the oft-repeated section has been taken first appeared in the ninth volume of Copleston’s A History of Philosophy (1946):

The notion of anarchy in politics is just as rational and positive as any other. It means that once industrial functions have taken over from political functions, then business transactions and exchange alone produce the social order.

We shouldn’t be at all surprised that it has been cited widely, given the status of Copleston’s History. What is a little unexpected is that “clarification,” by which the French “des transactions et des échanges” — rendered as “transactions and exchanges” by Vernon — becomes “business transactions and exchange.” Now, the notion of transaction is complicated enough that some clarification is hardly out of line. The term in both French and English derives from Latin (transigĕre), where the sense seems to be one of passing, driving or leading through. To trans-act is then, in a sense not so far from common usage, to work through and bring something, often a negotiation of some sort, to a conclusion. But there doesn’t seem to be anything in the word itself or its origins that justifies the specification of a “business transaction.” The French transiger is just as commonly translated as compromise or make concessions.

The French échange, like the English exchange, is not simply limited to transactions d’affaires or business transactions, but can also mean discussion or interaction. For that matter, affaires and business, also have a wide range of meanings: matter, concerns, worries, as well as trade. And so on…

When we return to Proudhon’s text to look for more contextual clues, we have to remind ourselves that it is under the condition of “political functions being reduced to industrial functions” that “the social order would result from the sole fact of transactions and exchanges.” So we have to examine the notion of the industrial, taking us back to industry, which, at this point, we shouldn’t be particular surprised to find has a similarly wide range of senses, relating to activity, skill, diligence, etc.

And so on…


Maybe that seems like an excessive dive into the realm of etymology, just to respond to a questionable translation. It is, of course, precisely the sort of thing Proudhon loved to do — and perhaps, with readings of his major works on the horizon, there is some advantage is exploring what he was up to

Proudhon is, I think, often underrated as a writer. There seems to be a tendency to try to treat his works as treatises, with keywords carefully defined and consistently applied, or to treat them as failed treatises, when the reality is almost always stranger and more interesting.

Reading the recent translation of War and Peace underlined the strangeness for me, as the various possible meanings of Proudhon’s key terms jostled for attention in the work. In Justice, as I’ve mentioned in my translator’s notes, many of the distinctions I would otherwise be trying to maintain most carefully simply cannot be safely made, as senses appropriate to the Revolution and and those reflective of the Church coexist in constructions that tend to frustrate our desire to see things exclusively in one way or the other.

We have Proudhon’s own testimony that most concepts are really indefinable notions, which always demand the recognition of a series of meanings and a story to situate them in a given context. And, once we recognize it, this active polysemy is obviously not without its specifically anarchistic attractions. At the same time, it just as obviously poses difficulties.

The attempted “clarification” of transactions to “business transactions” struck me when I saw it recently because it opens the door to some range of transactions that wouldn’t be “business transactions” — something in line with the etymological cues and probably with Proudhon’s general approach — before shutting the door again firmly. This seems alternately more and less generous than I would expect a modern reading of Proudhon to be. I recall my own first interpretation of the language of transaction in Proudhon — in the essay, “What, Finally, is the Republic?” as it appeared in Napoleon III — was initially less generous, although, in the long run, it provided an opportunity to begin to learn more about his use of language. At this point in my exploration of Proudhon’s thought, I find it hard to interpret transaction in any but the broadest sense, driven in that direction by closer and closer readings of the relevant passages. (For those unconvinced, I think a careful reading of the linked essay should at least prove provocative.) But there is no escaping the fact that transaction is a term that is hard to separate from a systemic context that anarchists would generally like to overturn, revolutionize, if not simply abolish. In part, it was the detour through French — as minor as the detour from transaction to transaction necessarily is — that opened up possibilities for me.

I feel confident that the opening to a range of senses is the right interpretive choice with Proudhon and that, in his work, transaction has the sense of mutual concession or compromise as often as it relates to “business transactions.” And I am inclined to think that an openness to Proudhon’s sort of indefinability is generally a good tool to have in the anarchist toolkit. I have to note, however, that his serial approach to meaning never prevented Proudhon from making the strongest sorts of statements, nor do I think that it should have.


Consider Proudhon’s most famous declaration:

“Property is theft.”

Or one that I have often cited, from “What, Finally, is the Republic?”

Archy or anarchy then, no middle ground.”

Or consider a statement of anarchist beliefs sure to raise howls from some anarchists on a more-or-less daily basis in forums like r/Anarchy101:

Anarchists are opposed to all forms of hierarchy.

There are various kinds of objections that can be raised to each of these statements.

In the first case, the most common retort is that theft presupposes property, so no serious critique of the latter can depend on theft former. The objection can, of course, be addressed by various appeals to context. We know that Proudhon, in The Celebration of Sunday, had already presented an account of property in which that concept presupposed theft — or at least a putting aside marked by the word for theft in the Bible. We can also point to the ways in which the critique plays out in What is Property? There, it becomes clear that Proudhon wants to emphasize the incoherence of existing property theory, which is so great that it leads the proponents of property to embrace what they ought, by their own standards, to recognize as its violation — as theft. If some other critics observe that Proudhon also said that “property is liberty,” we can point them to the passages in Theory of Property where he makes it clear that there is no contradiction between the two claims and elaborates the specific conditions under which property-theft can be a tool for liberty.

Provided we are prepared to place that first claim back in its original contexts, it seems to stand — and we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that very few statements are made independent of some particular set of contexts. So we may stumble for a moment over uses of the language of property in his works that seem contradictory or anomalous, but generally greater attention to contexts will resolve the difficulties — and we find ourselves dealing with a series of meanings, paired with a series of stories, as we might expect.

The second case is perhaps a bit more complicated. We know that Proudhon used the term anarchy in quite a variety of ways, even making the provocative statement in The General Idea of the Revolution that readers could define the term in any way they desired. But perhaps his confidence that the range of possible meanings would not escape the often important statements he made regarding the notion reflects something about anarchy itself.

We can certainly say that, in the realm of abstractions, we wouldn’t expect there to be any middle ground between archy and an-archy. Either there is archy present or we are without archy — and that seems to pretty well exhaust the possibilities, even if it isn’t always obvious how we would map this insight onto relations in the real world. The question then is whether or not anarchy always marks a significant enough break with some status quo to justify the claim that there can be no confusion between the absence and presence of archy in practice.

I would be inclined to say yes, but those more-or-less daily debates among anarchists suggest that, once we start to try to designate any particular form of archy, the answer is, in practice, often going to be no.

Let’s look again at that third claim:

Anarchists are opposed to all forms of hierarchy.

This claim is really just a transformation of the second. If anarchists seek anarchy, and we simply compare the no-archy of an-archy and the some-archy of hierarchy, then there would seem to be no middle ground, no space for anarchists to occupy that did not involve the rejection of hierarchy. But this is precisely where we see resistance of various sorts.

Perhaps the key concern is definition — and the key defense of a certain kind of “anarchist hierarchy” something like a theory of indefinability, sometimes expressed in terms of the defense of an anarchy in the realm of definition. It is observed that hierarchy does not always relate to its traditional referents (the ranks of angels, relations of command and subordination, etc.) and examples like the “number hierarchy” and Maslow’s “hierarchy of human needs” are invoked.

In some ways the objection just seem based on a tacit theory of language-use that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually maintains: as if every time we used a word it either had to express all of its possible senses or the statement made would be false. That’s just not the way that we use language or navigate meaning. The additional claim, which we sometimes hear, that anarchists use the term hierarchy in a specialized sense, doesn’t seem to be any more formidable as an objection. “Our” definition seems to be in line with the stodgiest representations of popular usage, while perhaps Maslow’s use, for example, is more than a bit idiosyncratic.

But the objections are persistent, which presumably indicates a problem that we need to address.

Boundaries are consistently blurred. Hard distinctions are challenged. Anarchy is treated as a kind of non-governmental government, when it is not rejected as something other than an appropriately anarchistic goal. The only thing that really sticks with us about authority seems to be that maybe cobblers have it. We tend to make total destroy with the anarchist lexicon and if you kick about it too much, not only do you lose punk points, but chances are pretty good that someone is going to call you “dogmatic” and question your devotion to the beautiful idea

I suppose that escalated quickly, but probably not a lot more quickly than they are escalating somewhere on the internet even as we speak. The question is whether there is anything to be done about this particular aspect of the anarchist status quo — particular when it seems at least something like an expression of the more-or-less anarchistic theory of definition we’ve been dancing around in Proudhon’s works.


We started with a case of “clarification” in translation, which in reality seems like a kind of limitation, a narrowing of the field of meaning in one of Proudhon’s texts. We then noted that, for Proudhon, the indefinability of key terms — including many of the terms that anarchists might most like to clarify for our shared use — was itself a kind of principle.

For those about to embark on an exploration of Proudhon’s Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, let me underline here the importance of allowing those key terms enough space to contain multiple meanings. No other strategy is likely to serve you well in the encounter with the work.

But is there an anarchistic approach to definition? Are we committed to recognize and honor indefinability wherever we encounter it?

I think that in this case the answer is a bit complicated.

There is an element of anarchy in meaning-making, whether we like it or not, but it is not the only element. Language develops through use, which is documented and provides various kinds of feedback for future use. Words often provide evidence of their origins through etymological cues. The kinds of words that we are likely to argue about are likely to be the ones that manifest both a wider diversity of senses and a stronger tendency to circle certain core associations.

Anarchy is perhaps a very good example of this kind of word, as I tried to demonstrate in my writings on “a schematic anarchism.” Between the indications of the etymological roots and the diverse historical senses that the term has been given, there seems to remain something of a sweet spot —

Anarchy is what happens in the absence of the very things we are led to believe will always be present.

— which remains a general point of reference, around which we can organize contrasts, comparisons, analyses of development, etc. And I suspect that the same is true for most of the keywords that pose particular problems.

In the case of hierarchy, the path of development from the ranks of the angels through social stratification to causal preconditions and instances of taxonomic branching isn’t all that complex, with most of the expansions being attributable to either secularization or naturalization. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to distinguish between a steadily increasing range of social relations, which involve command and subordination in pretty unambiguous forms, from what are fairly clearly extensions by analogy, which bring very little in the way of clarity to their new contexts. These are, for the most part, routine distinctions, unlikely to take more than a sentence or two to lay out completely.

There’s undoubtedly a labor still to be accomplished among anarchists, seeking out those “sweet spots” in the midst of the various definitions and beginning to build the mechanisms for comparison — and perhaps there is another focusing labor to be done before we’re ready to even begin that work. In the meantime, however, I still don’t think there’s any reason for us to continue to wrestle so constantly and with so little success against these problems of vocabulary.


When we are dealing with specific texts, we can let the contexts guide us. There is nothing, for example, in “God and the State” that should give us a moment’s anxiety about our anti-authoritarianism. When Bakunin indulges in his strange references to “our church,” we don’t imagine that we are obliged to become religious. Treating “the authority of the bootmaker” with some attention to the state of the text in which the notion appears should almost immediately highlight the relative insignificance of the phrase.

That attention to context also means, of course, recognizing the ways in which 19th-century theorists like Proudhon and Bakunin consciously expanded the breadth of meaning for terms associated with capitalism, governmentalism, Christianity, etc., attempting to wrest a radical vocabulary away from the institutions they opposed. Often, as in the case of transaction, that was relatively simple, involving nothing more than leaving space for the full range of existing meanings. At other times, it involved etymologically-informed unpacking of familiar terms, as when Proudhon oriented his discussion of moralism around mores, downplaying the element of the absolute. And, of course, that rejection of absolutism in the realm of definition could inspire the sort of polysemy we find in some of Proudhon’s text, as well as the kind of subversive rhetoric — property is theft, etc. — for which he was known.

With the meanings of key terms recognized as plural and organized by series, certain kinds of bold distinctions become difficult to draw, certain assertions hard to defend, but some of those commonly singled out for concern — such as the opposition of anarchy and archy, and arguably its transformation into the opposition of anarchy and hierarchy — remain possible with just a bit of clarification.

But, finally, where no “sweet spot” uniting the various senses of a given term can be found, we’re still not without access to a kind of principle for anarchistic definitions.

One of our reasons for considering the range of possible definitions for a term like transaction is our rejection of the notion that those transactions that might be most familiar to us now, as members of capitalist societies, are any more exemplary than any other form. Well beyond the simple protests of the “markets not capitalism” variety, we can imagine commerce that lacks a cash nexus, economics that returns to its focus in the maintenance of the home, etc. But resistance to the naturalization of capitalist, governmentalist and authoritarian concepts will not always take the form of proliferating meanings for a given term. Sometimes, in fact, it will require an almost entirely contrary strategy, as when we are faced with the spread of terms like authority, hierarchy, democracy, etc. to such a wide range of varied relations that there seems to be nothing left outside their scope. This is another form of naturalization, supporting the hegemony of the systems anarchists oppose from a different direction.

If anarchism remains a radical project, in the sense that it aims to change social relations at their roots, then some basic distinction between the status quo and those fundamentally changed relations has to remain. The words we use to mark that basic distinction are perhaps not vitally important, but there don’t seem to be any candidates that bring us as close, as immediately, to the heart of the matter than anarchy and archy. Assuming that we take those terms as markers of the most basic, abstract, schematic distinction to which we feel we have to cling, we’re essentially forced to judge the rest of our definitions — taken singly or serially — against the opposition they entail. And when the drift of terms originally associated with absolutism, government, rule, authority, etc. seems to obscure that basic opposition, that seems to be the time to push back against what is essentially the universal naturalization of the values and relations we oppose.

From “The Federative Principle,” Part I, Chapter II

Comme variété du régime libéral, j’ai signalé l’anarchie ou gouvernement de chacun par soi-même, en anglais, self-government. L’expression de gouvernement anarchique impliquant une sorte de contradiction, la chose semble impossible et l’idée absurde. Il n’y a pourtant à reprendre ici que la langue : la notion d’anarchie, en politique, est tout aussi rationnelle et positive qu’aucune autre. Elle consiste en ce que, les fonctions politiques étant ramenées aux fonctions industrielles, l’ordre social résulterait du seul fait des transactions et des échanges. Chacun alors pourrait se dire autocrate de lui-même, ce qui est l’extrême inverse de l’absolutisme monarchique.

As a variety of the liberal regime, I have indicated anarchy or the government of each by themselves, in English, self-government. The expression anarchic government implying a sort of contradiction, the thing seems impossible and the idea absurd. However, we only need to take up the language here: the notion of anarchy, in politics, is just as rational and positive as any other. It consists in the fact that, political functions being reduced to industrial functions, the social order would result from the sole fact of transactions and exchanges. Everyone could then call themselves an autocrat over themselves, which is the extreme opposite of monarchical absolutism.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2690 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.