Notes on Proudhon and the family

To say anything that is not simply superficial about Proudhon’s infamous anti-feminism requires us to look closely at the content and development of arguments scattered through his works. As part of that process, I’m gathering material from exchanges scattered across various social media platforms that has addressed the question in one way or another. Together with the translations from Sylvain Maréchal, whose theory of patriarchal government seems destined to be some kind of foil for Proudhon’s thought, I hope this notes will form the basis of a more systematic study.

Q. “Toward a General Theory of Archy” quotes a passage from Proudhon’s “Little Political Catcheism”, where he suggests that the patriarchal family was how the appropriation of collective force first began. So if this is true, how did Proudhon justify his misogyny, and what did it look like?

A. First of all, I think it’s something of a misstep to equate Proudhon’s antifeminism with misogyny. Proudhon had a very different sense of women’s capacities than we are likely to have, but what is interesting about his work is that he did not reason from differences in capacity to social inequality. Clinging to some pretty cranky science when it came to gender, he still managed to argue for a kind of equality. In this, he wasn’t actually too far removed from many of the feminists around him, who often also had fairly strong, more or less essentialist, ideas about the differences between the sexes.

Proudhon was arguably much more sophisticated than we generally give him credit for, when it came to questions where differences in capacity—or present capacity—seemed to pose problems for social equality. In his discussions of the life-cycles of nations, he largely seems to avoid the sort of biological essentialism so common in discussions of “national character,” focusing instead on the forces of political geography. He was “materialist” enough, in the sense Marx might have recognized, to not simply reason from social equality to some potential form of equal capacity, as if all potentials are given equal opportunities to express themselves. So, for example, when we find troubling remarks about slavery, we ultimately have to address both propositions involving social principle and interpretations of existing conditions. (That’s probably also the way to address the antisemitic comments in the Carnets, although the contextual material is scant enough that it’s hard to confidently make any particularly strong reading.)

The question raised by the “Little Political Catechism” is whether to interpret the account of the emergence of exploitation—”…the father is naturally invested with the ownership and direction of the force issuing from the family group…”—as just a historical account or as suggesting that at the level of the family this particular arrangement remains “natural.” We know from the material on marriage in Justice that the “organ of justice,” the basic unit of society (in the strong sense Proudhon so often gives that term), is the couple, a male-female dyad that embodies justice in the balance between equal-but-different elements. We might then suspect that the father’s “natural” role as proprietor is precisely a role, involving relations with the world outside the family, and perhaps balanced by the mother’s role as ménagère (housewife), who arranges the family’s internal affairs.

I think we have to address the fact that, elsewhere, Proudhon associates the family with communauté. In Theory of Property, for example:

“Community is not unjust in itself. Its principle is that of the family itself, the principle of fraternity. It is the spirit of the patriarchy, of the tribe, of the clan, of all these elementary groups born from the soil that they cultivate, and of which the vastest States are only developments.”

That might lead us, recalling Proudhon’s formula of “the synthesis of community and property,” to expect a balancing element. And, sure enough, the next paragraph seems to give it to us:

“The undivided possession and exploitation of the soil, is rational, just, fruitful, necessary even, as long as the [association] does not exceed the limits of a close kinship, — mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, children, step-sons and step-daughters, domestics, uncles and aunts; — it is as solid as the family itself. At the same time that it constitutes a community for all the members of the family, it can be, and nearly always is, with regard to strangers, either a property, or a fief. This double character, joined to the exploitation by the family, is what give the institution the greatest morality and the greatest strength. An effect of opposites, that the social genius is pleased to unite, while the individualist reason most often only knows how to put them in discord!”

“Exploitation” is, in this context, a synonym for cultivation, but what I’ve translated here as “association” is, in French, specifically a société exploitante—usually an agricultural company, but here perhaps just a productive society. So we are probably looking for reasons to think that exploitation at the scale of the family takes on a significantly different character than exploitation in the context of other forms of association.

And it appears, although I hadn’t put the pieces together before, that Chapter III of Theory of Property gives us a fairly clear account of the difference. Filial deference has its limits. At some point, young men and women form associations of their own, with the same dynamic: outward-facing propertarian tendencies and inward-facing tendencies to community. These dyads can then be the building blocks of larger associations and federations, but it is precisely because of their limited scope and balanced dynamic that they retain an anarchistic character.

My very rough draft translation of The Theory of Property is available online. And the Sylvain Maréchal translations I have been posting might be an interesting context for the argument Proudhon makes in Chapter III. And the other relevant piece is probably the “Catechism of Marriage” from Justice, where Proudhon describes why the “conjugal couple” is the “organ of justice.”

Q. In the “Catechism of Marriage,” there’s this passage:

Q. — Do men and women differ from one another?

A. — In principle, there is no difference between men and women but a simple diminution in the faculties. Man is stronger, and woman weaker. In fact, that decrease of energy creates for the woman, in the moral and physical realms, a qualitative distinction which allows us to give this definition to the two: Man represents the power of that of which woman represents the ideal, and reciprocally, woman represents the ideal of that of which man represents the power. Before the Absolute, man and woman are two equivalent persons, because the strength and the beauty of which they are the incarnations are equivalents.

Is this what you mean by equal-but-different elements? Later on, political and social equality are explicitly brought up, and it seems like Proudhon dismisses them.

A. We have to account for several elements in Proudhon’s theory. Men and women are, he believes, fundamentally different, which means that they will be active in different spheres. But they are still “equivalents” and, when they are associated and balanced, they form “a higher being, whose androgynous duality becomes an organ of Justice,” without which “society would be impossible.”

If our standard of social equality is necessarily a sort of generic humanism, in which all individuals are expected to express their capacities in all spheres, then this notion of gendered spheres looks like a step in the wrong direction—whether we are talking about Proudhon or some of the feminists of his time, who shared at least parts of the vision. But the more consistently anarchistic response might be to uncouple social equality from participation in “political” and “social” spheres that have been defined largely according to the expectations of non-anarchist societies. Anarchists with good reputations as feminists have sneered at the demand that everyone participate in political suffrage and its practices, feeling that real emancipation was to be found in other directions. We can recognize that Proudhon was almost certainly very wrong about the relationship between human capacity and gender, but that still leaves a variety of questions to answer before we’re done talking about his understanding of “equality.”

I suspect that the simplest way to move beyond the problems Proudhon created for himself, without losing what is useful in this analysis (which obviously runs across a number of the later works) is to treat the specific claims about gendered roles and tendencies much as Proudhon treated Fourier’s specific claims about the passions. We can imagine a very different taxonomy of the passions and still make good use of Fourier’s analysis of their general dynamic. Likewise, we can imagine that any close association of unique individuals has some of the qualities of the “organ of justice,” separating it from the family, from heteronormative nonsense, from Proudhon’s particular pseudoscientific attachments, etc. The example of the conjugal couple, however disconnected from material reality, is also familiar enough so that we can use it as an illustration of the basic building block assumed by the work on larger-scale association.

[Passage from Third Memoir]

Dans une note, où je faisais allusion à certaines théories érotiques, aussi dégoûtantes que ridicules, je disais:

« La différence des sexes élève entre l’homme et la femme une séparation de même nature que celle que la différence des races met entre les animaux. Aussi, loin d’applaudir à ce que l’on appelle aujourd’hui émancipation de la femme, inclineraisje plutôt, s’il fallait en venir à cette extrémité, à mettre la femme en réclusion. »

Là-dessus l’anonyme s’écrie:

« Plaçons en face de cette monstruosité philosophique et sociale, qui ne permet aucun commentaire, la réflexion de Fourier: On peut juger de la civilisation d’un peuple par le degré d’influence dont jouissent les femmes. »

Il est certain que si l’égalité pouvait être convaincue du crime de lèse-galanterie, ce serait fait d’elle et de ses partisans. Mais, grâce à Dieu, l’accusation n’est pas sans réplique; et si dans mes attractions sexuelles (style phalanstérien) je ne suis pas tout à fait le même culte que l’anonyme, il ne faut pas en conclure que je méconnaisse la divinité de la plus belle moitié du genre humain. Inesse feminis aliquid divinum, dit Tacite.

Mais d’abord, qu’y a-t-il d’anti-philosophique à prétendre que dans l’échelle des êtres organisés, le sexe forme la première différence, le premier degré de classification; qu’ensuite et successivement viennent la variété, la race, l’espèce, le genre, l’ordre, etc.? D’où il suit que les rapports de fréquentation et d’amour entre l’homme et la femme, et généralement entre tout mâle et toute femelle, sont d’une nature particulière, distincts de ceux qui existent entre deux individus parfaitement homologues, et n’ont presque rien de commun avec ce que nous appelons amitié et fraternité. C’est mieux ou c’est moins, ce sera ce qu’on voudra; pour le moment, je me borne à soutenir que c’est autre chose. Voilà dans quel sens j’ai dit que l’homme et la femme n’allaient pas de compagnie, qu’entre eux il n’y avait pas véritablement société. Cela signifie que la femme, par nature et par destination, n’est ni associée, ni citoyenne, ni fonctionnaire publique; qu’elle forme avec l’homme, avec cet époux dont elle est le complément animique et physiologique, un tout en deux personnes, et, en retournant le mot de la Genèse, qu’elle et lui sont une seule âme en deux corps différents. Cette doctrine, dont les tendances sont diamétralement opposées à celles de la Vénus fouriériste, n’aura pas sans doute, monsieur le rédacteur, l’avantage de vous plaire; aussi je ne pousserai pas plus loin mes inductions. Ce n’est pas en quelques lignes, d’ailleurs, que se traitent de semblables sujets. Que diriez-vous, en effet, si j’allais affirmer, aussi gratuitement que vous affirmez vous-même la permutation des amours, la fécondité à volonté, le polytypage matrimonial et tant d’autres belles choses; si j’affirmais, dis-je, que la femme a été donnée à l’homme, que l’androgyne primitif a été divisé afin que le citoyen, au sein même de la société, pût vivre solitaire? Nos panthéistes, qui aiment comme ils raisonnent, à tort et à travers, sans discernement, ne me le pardonneraient pas.

Quant à ce que j’ai ajouté, que j’aimerais mieux voir la femme en réclusion qu’émancipée d’une certaine manière, le cas est bien plus délicat; mais il fallait être fouriériste endurci pour ne pas l’entendre. Plutôt prisonnière que courtisane! telle est mon opinion sur l’avenir de la femme, et ma réponse à toutes les théories d’amour libre. Je sais que vous autres phalanstériens regardez en singulière pitié cet exclusivisme conjugal; je sais même que Fourier, qu’on n’accuse pourtant pas d’avoir eu des goûts socratiques, a étendu fort au delà des barrières accoutumées les relations amoureuses, et que ses spéculations sur l’analogie l’avaient conduit à sanctifier jusqu’aux conjonctions unisexuelles; et si vous osez dire que je calomnie, je produirai des preuves et des témoignages. Je n’ignore pas enfin que sous l’influence de quelques idées communistes et saint-simoniennes, dont je suis loin d’accuser d’ailleurs tous les disciples de Saint-Simon et tous les partisans de la communauté, une vapeur de mauvais lieu s’est glissée dans la littérature et a commencé de monter à la tête des jeunes gens et des femmes. Quoi qu’il en soit, si le sentiment que je professe n’est plus aujourd’hui général, ce dont je ne puis répondre, ce sentiment est le mien; j’espère même que plus d’une femme m’en saura gré; car, malgré certain proverbe tombé de la bouche de l’Arétin, et en dépit d’illustres exemples, je ne crois pas que les femmes soient déjà toutes ce que toutes, au dire de ce proverbe, aspirent à devenir. Et si vous prétendez que je me trompe, monsieur le rédacteur, si vous continuez à ameuter contre moi le ban et l’arrière-ban de vos redoutables bayadères, je demande des juges; qu’on me traduise devant une cour d’amour; là, je déduirai mes raisons, et m’expliquerai juridiquement.

I think that this just clarifies the dynamic we’ve been looking at—although part of the clarification almost certainly points to an inconsistency on Proudhon’s part. To posit the human individual as an “androgynous duality” is, in its way, good Fourierism (“every individual is a group”) of a sort Proudhon was happy to embrace. But what we get here seems to be an exception to the “fundamental law” of “universal antagonism.” Despite being “the organ of justice,” the male-female duality seems to be depicted here as much closer to a simple unity than anything else we could point to in Proudhon’s understanding of the world—and, as such, it perhaps lacks the basic quality of internal struggle or negotiation that is the source of collective force, but also the mechanism of justice.

It would be worth attempting to figure out if Proudhon maintained this view intact from the early 40s to the late 50s and early 60s. It’s hard not to attribute this odd exception to “the fundamental laws of the universe” to a misreading of Fourier (“community of women” stuff), some sexual squeamishness (certainly evidenced elsewhere in his writing) and perhaps an ambivalent relationship to “masculine” force. The androgynous conception of justice is both very close in form and quite distant in details from a lot of the socialist thought around him. The interesting question is why he was apparently inconsistent on the question of gender, while aggressively—and often very clearly—pointing out the inconsistencies in other areas of those other socialists.

In part, it’s a question of whether there is anything here that seems dramatically different from the fuller argument laid out after 1858.

In the note in What is Property? we are told that “The rights of woman and her relations with man are yet to be determined. Matrimonial legislation, like civil legislation, is a matter for the future to settle.”

In the passage you cite, I would render a key passage a little differently: “Hence, it follow that the relations of courtship and love between a man and a woman—and generally between every male and every female—are of a peculiar [particulière] nature, distinct from those which exist between two perfectly homologous individuals…” And here Proudhon refuses to judge whether the relationship between men and women is better or worse, more or less than a social relationship, but simply maintains that it is distinct. He seems to be defending and clarifying the note, which had been taken as an attack on women by the “anonyme” (Henri Dameth.) Proudhon is, he says, not “unaware of the divine nature of the most beautiful half of the human genus,” but he has some trouble granting that “divine nature” much scope of operation beyond the role of ménagère and “ideal.”

The thing that seems clear is that Proudhon runs aground, to one extent or another, when he treats the gendered dichotomy of active/real male and passive/ideal female for a material reality. And we know that he based that move on some pretty cranky pseudo-science. That move preserves a sort of equality between men and women, but then denies it any sphere of activity beyond the narrowest domestic realm (where it’s purpose is perhaps not entirely clear.) So, on the one hand, women occupy an absolutely essential role in the constitution of society, but, on the other, it is not actually a social role—so that women are obviously deserving of a very fundamental sort of respect, but it is all a bit distanced from most aspects of our shared lives.

What remains to be determined is whether there is anything in Proudhon’s larger system that is not ultimately better and more clearly served by taking a basic human dyad composed of truly social equals—an individual with enough internal activity to produce collective force and be the site for a meaningful sort of justice.

[On the difference between anti-feminism and misogyny:] We want to be able to distinguish approaches that are based on false facts or are theoretically faulty from those that are based in hate or fear. And then we want to be able to entertain a variety of practical responses to theory. What we get in Proudhon is a theory based in part on dubious science, but also an anti-feminist theory that is hardly distinguishable in a lot of way from the theories of the feminists he was in conflict with. By the time we’ve traced the content of Proudhon’s account—where women, after all, play an “equivalent” (his word) and indispensable role in establishing the basis for society and justice—and compared the details with those around him who identified or have been identified as feminist, the comparisons get fairly complicated. Some of the places where, say, Jeanne Deroin would have found Proudhon lacking (supporting women’s participations in politics) wouldn’t have appealed much to Emma Goldman (who had an odd notion of “woman-nature” herself, even if it was not essentialist in the same way as Proudhon’s or Deroin’s conception of womanhood.) And so on…

[From the notes on a group reading of What is Property?] There remain three logical consequences highlighted by Proudhon, which we should also address.

The first concerns the relationship between justice and equity, and Proudhon informs us that “the duty of justice, being imposed upon us before that of équité, must always take precedence over it.” In other words, in that business of adding and “superadding” elements, each stage is a foundation for the next. We might even say that elevating esteem over justice might take us back toward the first form of sociability, which Proudhon associated with love, leaving us responding to a kind of “magnetism,” but not involving us in a relation of reciprocity.

The second concerns the limits of sociability.

Equité, justice, and society, can exist only between individuals of the same species. They form no part of the relations of different races to each other, — for instance, of the wolf to the goat, of the goat to man, of man to God, much less of God to man.

Most of this claim is easy to understand. “Between man and beast there is no society,” Proudhon informs us, “though there may be affection.” So we may grant a certain recognition of similarity between humans and animals, or between humans and a god, but no reciprocal recognition and, thus, no possibility of justice. But Proudhon adds a footnote about relations between men and women that is perhaps a little harder to understand:

Between woman and man there may exist love, passion, ties of custom, and the like; but there is no real society. Man and woman are not companions. The difference of the sexes places a barrier between them, like that placed between animals by a difference of race. Consequently, far from advocating what is now called the emancipation of woman, I should incline, rather, if there were no other alternative, to exclude her from society.

It’s easy to just attribute this bit to Proudhon’s infamous anti-feminism—and that anti-feminism was something of a constant in his work. But things are considerably more complicated than that, if only because his ideas about men, women and justice at least seem to have undergone a rather dramatic transformation by the time he wrote Justice in the late 1850s. There, in passages like the “Catechism of Marriage,” he treats men and women—at least when joined in the conjugal couple—as much closer than mere companions, describing them as a kind of androgyne composite and identifying that composite being as the fundamental organ of human justice. We have too little detail here to know quite how the early vision differed from the later idea, as well as too many potential inconsistencies to be sure we could entirely clarify things if we had more details. And perhaps some of the change is simply the difference between the views of a young, unmarried man and an older, married one. But it is likely that at least exploring the possible developments between 1840 and 1858 is one way to clarify both Proudhon’s theory of justice and the relationship between it and his anti-feminism.

[Clarifications from the same exchange on What is Property?] The difficulty is that we can be fairly certain that there is some inconsistency in Proudhon’s thought on the topic, so we have to be careful what kinds of contradictions we take as likely to be exculpatory and which we simply take as screw-ups on his part. On the one hand, Proudhon often portrays the difference between men and women as a quantitative difference is strength, in which case equity ought to be as possible as it is between men of differing capacities. On the other, the theory of the conjugal couple as the “organ of justice” suggests at least the possibility of more significant and specifically gendered differences. So some careful untangling of the various arguments is necessary. [I’ve started collecting my notes for the purpose.]

We do have a clarification in the Third Memoir that seems to already contain at least part of the androgynous dyad theory of the later works:

Mais d’abord, qu’y a-t-il d’anti-philosophique à prétendre que dans l’échelle des êtres organisés, le sexe forme la première différence, le premier degré de classification; qu’ensuite et successivement viennent la variété, la race, l’espèce, le genre, l’ordre, etc.? D’où il suit que les rapports de fréquentation et d’amour entre l’homme et la femme, et généralement entre tout mâle et toute femelle, sont d’une nature particulière, distincts de ceux qui existent entre deux individus parfaitement homologues, et n’ont presque rien de commun avec ce que nous appelons amitié et fraternité. C’est mieux ou c’est moins, ce sera ce qu’on voudra; pour le moment, je me borne à soutenir que c’est autre chose. Voilà dans quel sens j’ai dit que l’homme et la femme n’allaient pas de compagnie, qu’entre eux il n’y avait pas véritablement société. Cela signifie que la femme, par nature et par destination, n’est ni associée, ni citoyenne, ni fonctionnaire publique; qu’elle forme avec l’homme, avec cet époux dont elle est le complément animique et physiologique, un tout en deux personnes, et, en retournant le mot de la Genèse, qu’elle et lui sont une seule âme en deux corps différents. Cette doctrine, dont les tendances sont diamétralement opposées à celles de la Vénus fouriériste, n’aura pas sans doute, monsieur le rédacteur, l’avantage de vous plaire; aussi je ne pousserai pas plus loin mes inductions. Ce n’est pas en quelques lignes, d’ailleurs, que se traitent de semblables sujets. Que diriez-vous, en effet, si j’allais affirmer, aussi gratuitement que vous affirmez vous-même la permutation des amours, la fécondité à volonté, le polytypage matrimonial et tant d’autres belles choses; si j’affirmais, dis-je, que la femme a été donnée à l’homme, que l’androgyne primitif a été divisé afin que le citoyen, au sein même de la société, pût vivre solitaire? Nos panthéistes, qui aiment comme ils raisonnent, à tort et à travers, sans discernement, ne me le pardonneraient pas.

I think there is some very interesting stuff there, in part because it asks us to juggle a number of different analyses at the same time. But we are going to have to address the question of “degrees of justice,” which is raised various places in Proudhon’s work, and we can only do part of that work in the context of What is Property?

But what hanging on to the possibility of a real division between the sexes does for us in this other context, where the questions is speciesism, is to make it clear that more than one kind of very significant relation is possible. The particular mode of society described here doesn’t even exhaust the possibilities among human beings. Proudhon’s distinction between things and persons is clumsy and unfortunate in a variety of ways, but he’s clear enough that, in the case of animals, the divide is between species, while between men and women it is a matter of sexual difference. We know that men and women do come together to create a collectivity that is not “society” (in the sense he is using here and which, in the clarification, seems to mean “civil society” specifically, rather than the more general sense he has given the term elsewhere) but is presumably vital to human existence in some other way. Society and the family are significantly different in some way—and I think we have to say that the theory of 1840 is simply not complete enough for us to quite say how. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that, having acknowledged some kind of relation between different types at a level “below” that of the species, we might also discover on at a level “at” or “above” it (“dans l’échelle des êtres organisés.”) As the importance of collective beings increases in the later works, the possibilities for beings organized on ecological principles, rather than on familial or social/societal terms, seems to open up.

I think, however, that the problems for religious anarchism are different. We can imagine relations with really incommensurable others. Stirner gives us a good start at imagining human relations in general in those terms. So the step to some kind of economy of mutual utilization across species is perhaps not such a big one. But both Proudhon and Stirner are of the school that sees “God” as largely an externalization and personification of collective force on a large scale—God ultimately created in our own image. A “God” conceived in terms of its capacities is almost inevitably going to be a mystification of other capacities. An unknowable mystery-God might indeed find some place in the symbolic system of an anarchistic society, but I wonder if the various experiments in that direction don’t point to fairly significant problems.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2293 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.