Another look at Proudhon (and an invitation to experiment)

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It is a well-known fact of anarchist history (a term that we’ll be giving some special attention in the coming months) that even the founding figures of the anarchist tradition did not often identify themselves as anarchists until sometime fairly late in the 19th century. Over the weekend, I had a chance to spend some time examining just when, and under what circumstances, that self-identification became more common. There seems to have been a fairly serious shift in the 1870s and 1880s, with a fairly rapid convergence of anti-authoritarians of various tendencies on the “anarchist” label in the years between 1875 and 1885, with the watershed somewhere around 1881. Here are some of my notes:

In 1878, the “Bulletin de la Fédération Jurassienne” was still explicitly treating “anarchiste” as a word borrowed from its enemies, but by 1881, Kropotkin was telling the story of how the anarchist-communists came to reappropriate the term as if it was a fait accompli. Benjamin Tucker’s publications follow a similar arc: in 1877-8, the “Radical Review” is not explicitly anarchist, but in 1881 “Liberty” embraces the term.

I haven’t been able to track down how early Johann Most embraced the term, but it seems to have been within the same timeframe.

Outside anarchist circles, it seems that the popular press in the US was still using “anarchist” to talk about southern senators about as often as real political radicals well into the 1870s. My sense from a long night of browsing digitized papers in various databases is that the process by which internal and external definitions converged involved the coverage of a series of political attentats and trials: Max Hödel in 1878, the Narodnaya Volya assassination attempts and the Most trial in 1880-1881, and Haymarket in 1886.

Doing the research for the “Anarchisms” anthology, I noticed that Elisée Reclus’ “Anarchy: By an Anarchist” (1884) marks the beginning of a pretty steady flood of similar statements.

The fact that 1881 also marked the founding of the “Black International” is probably not a coincidence.

Having even a rough date—and it remains to be seen just how rough the date is—makes it easier to come to terms with the consequences of what we’ve always sort of known, that prior to a certain point in our history “anarchist” and “anarchism” were words that we tended to mistrust, for a variety of reasons, many of them having to do with what has become a traditional mistrust of our origins. And let’s face it: a lot of that boils down to a mistrust of Proudhon and his thought. Collectivists may at times have claimed they were the “true mutualists,” but they didn’t want to be mistaken for “Proudhonists,” a label that remains one of the more durable insults among radicals. When communists wanted to emphasize their distance from the collectivists, they in a sense affirmed—and sometimes continue to affirm—that “true mutualism” claim, in negative form. In the process, accounts developed of “the development of anarchism” that, in a number of important senses, were themselves the invention and legitimation of something new, borrowing the name from Proudhon while relegating his thought to a sort of pre-history. As what Kropotkin called “modern anarchism” emerged, so did a rather ahistorical hegemonic master narrative that transformed decades of struggle into an evolution, with anarchist communism at its summit, which had the effect of painting contemporary rivals as belonging to an inferior stage of development (now another time-honored sectarian strategy.) The analysis of that post-watershed period of canon development demands a full exploration of its own, in the context of which a lot of familiar material, from Kropotkin’s Britannica essay to Tucker’s translations and the work of Nettlau, may need to be reexamined. But that is not the only reexamination we might consider undertaking in this context.

If we accept the notion of a watershed, on one side of which we find numerous anti-authoritarian factions and labels, among which “anarchist” occupies a special place, in order of appearance, but not necessarily a privileged one, in terms of individuals’ preferences and loyalties, and on the other side of which we find a convergence of labels, together with a continuing struggle over systems and ideologies, then we are left to determine if there is something in the original use of “anarchist” that provides some common element in the later period, or whether some more complex transformation has taken place.

I doubt that anyone will be surprised that I suspect that the latter is the case.

Some readers may, however, be surprised at the extent to which I am willing to entertain—and even welcome—the speculation, so often used against Proudhon and those strongly influenced by him, that Proudhon was in fact not an “anarchist” in the sense most common on our side of the late 19th century watershed. Never fear, I have no intention of giving any ground on the importance of Proudhon’s thought to 21st century anarchism, and it seems clear that at least some of the narratives by which mutualist thought has been relegated to the real of proto-anarchisms and infantile disorders are pretty badly formed. The problem, from my perspective, is that the sort of struggle we have engaged in to combat those badly formed narratives does not lead us out of our present uncertainties, or outright confusions, with any of the speed that we probably require. So there may be no better strategy than to confront the relationship between Proudhon and (modern) anarchism head-on, by asking ourselves:

  1. What would be the effect on our understanding of Proudhon of lifting him out of the context of “anarchist history”?
  2. What would be the effect on our understanding of “anarchist history” to lift Proudhon out of it?

To start to answer the first question, I want to propose a simple experiment. I’ve retranslated a portion of What is Property? from scratch, attempting to produce as literal a translation of the French as possible, without engaging in any of the on-the-fly editorial clarifications that are so common, but that we know can also become extremely problematic (as in the case of the translations of “anarchie” in The General Idea of the Revolution.) This is the first half of the section on “the third form of society,” the conclusion of the work, where Proudhon seems to be describing his goals. I invite readers to read carefully through the section, setting aside—to as great an extent as possible—everything they know or think they know about Proudhon and concentrating on the concepts that he was using, the relationships that he was building between them, and any emphases that seem to be present. Then, based on this section alone, readers might want to ask themselves how best to characterize the social philosophy expressed. We all, of course, know the keywords that have been traditionally associated with the philosophy, but the question is whether the association seems correct, or most correct, given the specific language and development present in the passage.

I will naturally present my own reading of the material, but I think it will prove a really useful exercise for most readers to go through the process for themselves before I go on.



§ 3. Determination of the third social form. Conclusion

Therefore, no government, no public economy, no administration is possible with property for a basis.

Community seeks equality and law. Property, born of the autonomy of reason and the feeling of individual worth, wants, above all things, independence and proportionality.

But community, taking uniformity for law, and leveling for equality, becomes tyrannical and unjust. Property, through its despotism and its invasions, soon shows itself oppressive and unsociable.

What property and community seek is good; what both produce is bad. And why? Because both are exclusive, and are unaware, each from its own side, of two elements of society. Community rejects independence and proportionality; property does not satisfy equality and law.

Now, if we imagine a society based on these four principles—equality, law, independence, and proportionality—we find:

1) That equality, consisting solely of the equality of conditions, that is to say of means, not in the equality of well-being, which with equal means must be the work of the laborer, does not in any way violate justice and equity;

2) That law, resulting from the science of facts, and consequently relying on necessity itself, never offends independence;

3) That the respective independence of individuals, or the autonomy of private reason, deriving from the difference of talents and capacities, can exist without danger within the limits of law;

4) That proportionality, only being allowed within the sphere of intelligence and sentiment, not in that of physical things, can be observed without violating justice or social equality.

This third form of society, the synthesis of community and property, we will call LIBERTY.[1] Thus, in order to determine liberty, we do not join community and property indiscriminately, which would be an absurd eclecticism. We seek, by an analytic method, what each contains that is true, in conformity with the wishes of nature and the laws of sociability, and we eliminate the foreign elements that they contain; and the result gives an expression suitable to the natural form of human society, in short, to liberty.

Liberty is equality, because liberty only exists in the social state, and apart from equality there is not society.

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not accept the government of the will, but only the authority of law, that is to say of necessity.

Liberty is infinite variety, because it respects all wills, within the limits of law.

Liberty is proportionality, because it leaves complete latitude to the ambition for merit[2] and the rivalry for glory.

Now we can say, after the example of Mr. Cousin: “Our principle is true; it is good and social; let us not fear to deduce all its consequences.”

Sociability in man, becoming justice through reflection, and equity through the intermeshing [engrènement] of capacities, having liberty for its formula, is the true foundation of morals, the principle and rule of all our actions. It is this universal cause [mobile] that philosophy seeks, that religion fortifies, selfishness supplants and that pure reason never replaced. Duty and right arise in us from need, which, according to whether we consider it in relation to external beings, is right, or, in relation to ourselves, duty.

We need to eat and to sleep. We have a right to procure the things necessary for sleep and nutrition; it is a duty to use them when nature demands it.

We need to work to live. It is a right and a duty.

We have a need to love our wives and children. It is a duty to be their protector and to support them; it is a right to be loved by them in preference to all others. Conjugal fidelity is in accordance with justice; adultery is a crime of treason against society [lèse-société].

We need to exchange our products for other products. It is a right that the exchange be made for equivalents, and since we consume before producing, it would be a duty, if the thing depended on us, that our last product follow our last consumption. Suicide is a fraudulent bankruptcy.

We need to accomplish our tasks according to the insights of our reason. It is a right to maintain our free will; it is a duty to respect that of others.

We need to be appreciated by our fellows. It is a duty to be worthy of their praise; it is a right to be judged according to our works.

Liberty is not contrary to the rights of succession and testament: it is content to ensure that equality is not violated. Choose, it says to us, between two inheritances, but never accumulate. All the legislation concerning the transmissions, the substitutions, the adoptions, and, if I dare use this word, the coadjutoreries, is to be remade.

Liberty promotes emulation and does not destroy it: in [conditions of] social equality, emulation consists of acting under equal conditions; its reward is all in itself, and no one suffers from the victory.

Liberty applauds devotion and respects its votes [suffrages], but it can do without it. Justice is sufficient for social equilibrium; devotion is a supererogation. Happy, however, is the one who can say: I devote myself.[3]

Liberty is essentially organizing: in order to insure equality between men, and equilibrium between nations, it is necessary that agriculture and industry, the centers of instruction, commerce and warehousing, are distributed according to the geographical and climacteric[4] conditions of each country, the varieties of the products, the character and natural talents of the inhabitants, etc., in proportions so accurate, so skillful, so well matched, that nowhere is there ever present an excess nor a lack of population, consumption or product. That is the beginning of the science of public and private right, the true political economy. It is up to the legists, freed from now on from the false principle of property, to describe the new laws, and bring peace to the world. They do not lack science and genius; the point of application [point d’appui] has been given to them.

[1] Libertas, liberare, libratio, libra, liberty, to deliver, libration, balance (ledger), are all expressions that appear to have a common etymology. Liberty is the balance of rights and duties: to make a man free is to balance him with others, to put him at their level.

[2] The word mérite means “merit” or “worth,” but also, in some cases, “advantage.”—Translator.

[3] A stronger, but also possible translation would be “I sacrifice myself.”

[4] Proudhon wrote climatériques, but probably meant climatologiques, climatological, rather than crucial.—Translator.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]


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


  1. Regarding Reclus, “Anarchy: By An Anarchist” was from 1884, not 1844. However, in Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, I have this discussion of Reclus’ use of “anarchy” as early as 1851: Already during his student years, Reclus’ political ideas were quite radical. In a manuscript dating from this period, the twenty-one-year-old expresses views that already quite clearly defined the course of his future anarchism and its underlying basis. He judges the goal of history to be “complete and absolute liberty,” adding that such liberty will amount to nothing more than “colossal egoism” if it is not united with love.7 “For each individual man,” he asserts, “liberty is an end,” but in a larger sense “it is only a means toward love and universal brotherhood.”8 Reclus’ lifelong concern with a synthesis of the ideals of freedom and solidarity are thus already quite evident. Even at this early date the implications of his views were clear enough for him to state, in terms reminiscent of Proudhon, that “our destiny is to reach that state of ideal perfection in which nations will no longer need to be under the tutelage of a government or of another nation; it is the absence of government, it is anarchy, the highest expression of order.”9

    • Thanks for catching the typo in the date, and for the additional info. What you’re describing in Reclus sounds more than a bit like Proudhon’s embrace-with-conditions of “complete insolidarity” and “laissez faire” in the late 1840s.

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