Sources: Seeking the Source

Our Lost Continent and the Journey Back:
I. — Sources (1837–1865)

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

      My mind’s made up and has been for some time. For the purposes of this particular study, as a point of departure for this particular journey, I have chosen 1840 and Proudhon’s What is Property? More specifically, I have chosen the composition of one phrase, in the original French, as not simply the first, but perhaps the most important moment in “the anarchist tradition”—with that tradition defined in terms that will undoubtedly seem broad and inclusive to nearly everyone.

      Je suis anarchiste.

      This is what I call “the anarchist declaration,” a phrase that, once uttered, established a genre and a sort of repeated rite of passage for all who would attempt to follow in Proudhon’s footsteps, whether their goal in doing so was to really follow him, exceed his journey along at least a similar path or simply take hold of the phrase in order to make it do a different kind of work. It appears twice in rapid succession in the fifth chapter of Proudhon’s book, once in as simple form as one might hope for—although the time will come soon to wrestle with its inescapable complexities—and once as an emphatic reaffirmation: “quoique très ami de l’ordre, je suis, dans toute la force du terme, anarchiste.”

      So if we are narrowing down the precise point at which I am inviting readers and fellow students of “the anarchist tradition” and “the anarchist idea” to join me for a journey, it is quite specifically a question of the final sections of What is Property? and Proudhon’s “Psychological Exposition of the Idea of the Just and the Unjust, and Determination of the Principle of Government and of Right.” Among other things, this marks a difference in my thinking about the two famous phrases found in the work. Taking Proudhon as “the father of anarchism,” it would have been easy to focus on the claim that “La propriété, c’est le vol!” But that phrase is nowhere near as compelling as a beginning. After all, Proudhon himself had made a version of the argument in 1939, in The Celebration of Sunday. Jules Leroux had made as similar argument in 1938—in a publication Proudhon might well have read. And critics have wasted a tremendous amount of energy stacking up other instances that might suggest Proudhon had borrowed that signature phrase without benefit of attribution. It might also have made sense to go back to the beginnings of Proudhon’s own studies, were it not the case that he himself made clear just how far afield—in a variety of direction—those studies had taken him in the first three decades of his life.

      In the “Letter to M. Blanqui,” faced with the charge that he has been a Fourierist, Proudhon gave a remarkable account of his early intellectual wanderings:

      Examining myself, therefore, upon this charge of Fourierism, and endeavoring to refresh my memory, I find that, having been connected with the Fourierists in my studies and my friendships, it is possible that, without knowing it, I have been one of Fourier’s partisans. Jérôme Lalande placed Napoleon and Jesus Christ in his catalogue of atheists. The Fourierists resemble this astronomer: if a man happens to find fault with the existing civilization, and to admit the truth of a few of their criticisms, they straightway enlist him, willy-nilly, in their school. Nevertheless, I do not deny that I have been a Fourierist; for, since they say it, of course it may be so. But, sir, that of which my ex-associates are ignorant, and which doubtless will astonish you, is that I have been many other things, — in religion, by turns a Protestant, a Papist, an Arian and Semi-Arian, a Manichean, a Gnostic, an Adamite even and a Pre-Adamite, a Sceptic, a Pelagian, a Socinian, an Anti-Trinitarian, and a Neo-Christian; in philosophy and politics, an Idealist, a Pantheist, a Platonist, a Cartesian, an Eclectic (that is, a sort of juste-milieu), a Monarchist, an Aristocrat, a Constitutionalist, a follower of Babeuf, and a Communist. I have wandered through a whole encyclopaedia of systems. Do you think it surprising, sir, that, among them all, I was for a short time a Fourierist?

      Having spent some time attempting to decipher one of the earliest extant manuscripts, an 1836 essay title “Ecole du mouvement moral,” what is most immediately clear is that this is not yet the Proudhon familiar to us from event the study on the Sunday celebration. Perhaps a more careful engagement would reveal important facts about that later Proudhon, but the manuscript itself presents very little that seems ready to serve as a point of departure.

      There are various obvious influences on Proudhon and his work, Charles Fourier and Pierre Leroux chief among them, that seem relevant enough that some “looking back” seems inevitable somewhere along the line. Similarly, some figures like Sylvain Maréchal both resemble and differ from Proudhon in ways that it will be necessary to explore eventually. But there is nothing that really suggests that, for example, Maréchal’s scheme for patriarchal government is any kind of first or early step on the particular path we are going to follow.

      It might also be possible, I suppose, to set the starting point even later in Proudhon’s career. There are, after all, significant developments yet to come, a decade or more after 1840. But, again, it is a question of what starts us down the particular road by which we can explore “the anarchist tradition,” conceived broadly. And Proudhon’s very complicated relationship to that tradition means that some of the milestones in his own career might simply not fall along many of the paths we might trace.

      So if we are to start with Proudhon—and if we are to start at a point that really feels like the start of something—then close proximity to that first iteration of the “anarchist declaration” seems like a promising spot. But perhaps, as we are teasing out the details of our watery metaphor, we want to say that the very source of all this, the trickle from the warming edge of our confluence of glaciers, “the farthest point of the river stream from its estuary or its confluence with another river or stream,” really is at least a little ways up the slope from the “point of declaration,” if only to remind us that events like that don’t just happen out of the blue. They don’t generate the sort of force that still attaches to the phrase je suis anarchiste without building up a bit of a bit of mass and momentum.

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