PROJECT: Proudhon’s Essays in Popular Philosophy

The centerpiece of Proudhon’s mature work is almost certainly the 1860 second edition, in six volumes, of his longest published work: Of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church. First published in 1858, with the subtitle “New Principles of Practical Philosophy,” it was substantially revised and expanded for the new edition, which was presented as a series of “essais d’une philosophie populaire” — and we should probably allow the French term essai its full range of possible meanings: essay, but also trial, attempt, etc., to capture the experimental element in Proudhon’s work. The twelve studies in the work on Justice were then followed by three “essais de philosophie pratique” — the two volumes of War and Peace and the Theory of Taxation — which continued the numbering of the previous studies. A major addition in the new edition was a series of “notes and clarifications, as well as “News of the Revolution,” appended to each study. In the Collected Works, these additions alone amounted to two of the six volumes. It appears that Proudhon had some notion of extending the series beyond the fifteen volumes, as we find some of the same headings attached to some of the later manuscript writings. De la Pornocratie, for example, carries the “News of the Revolution” heading and is clearly a long appendix to the studies on “Love and Marriage” in Of Justice.

These studies in popular and practical philosophy make up roughly the first half of the sustained study that occupied Proudhon through the last five years of his life, with the second half being made up of his study of Poland and political geography, which produced a range of works, some of which still remain unpublished even in French. For those concerned with what Proudhon himself called his positive or constructive period, the anarchistic philosophy and sociology they contain arguably contain the fundamentals of his lifelong project — but readers in English have had to settle for snippets of that work. Various translators have chipped away at bits of that problem, but it is obviously a big job, with a lot of technical questions to be answered along the way. My own early efforts ran aground on the fact that, despite considerably research on Proudhon’s work, I was still uncertain about how best to render some of the key terms.

With a translation of War and Peace due for publication soon, there is perhaps a bit more urgency associated with the project of translating the twelve studies that precede it in Proudhon’s work, so I’ve decided to make the preparation of at least a draft translation part of my own preparation for engaging with that forthcoming work. I am in a position where I feel a lot more confident about the contexts for the volumes on justice, having spent considerable time exploring the works that immediately precede and follow it, and the tools available for beginning the translation process have improved dramatically since my last attempt. It was only a matter of a couple of days’ work to produce a machine translation of the 1858 edition, from a French text available on Wikisource, and I have added that text to the pile of partial translations that I have produced or others have supplied me. Producing a formatted text version of the 1860 edition, while comparing the two editions, has been my next project, which I have been approaching on a section-by-section basis. Taking the time to transform the 1858 machine translations into a reasonable facsimile of the 1860 text has added some time to the slow-reading process, but it has also forced me to really understand everything that I am reading.

I actually took the time to assemble machine translations of thousands of pages of currently untranslated or partially translated works by Proudhon, once it was clear that there was no particular need for me to avoid their use. I will admit that I prefer the process of transforming the French text myself, line by line, but it is rather different to think of six volumes of translation as in need of revision, rather than in need of translation, particularly when those volumes have been in need of translation for a long time now.

With a bit of luck and perseverance, I’ll be steadily adding to the draft translations available here — and then, at some point down the road, I can shift gears again to tackle the process of even closer reading, even finer corrections, etc. That means that I should be in a position to share a fairly steady stream of new material with readers — but the revised process also means that I hope readers will use the draft translations and French texts alike with particular care. I will try to make links available to the original texts, in easily accessible collections like the Internet Archive, so that those who need to be absolutely certain of some point can double-check what they find here.

For this project, I am using the twelve individual volumes in which the 1860 edition was first issued as my references. In those volumes, the notes and additional material were included with the relevant studies, while they were collected in separate volumes when the collected works were issued after Proudhon’s death. I’ll be working on this project alongside some other related ones, so I may find reasons to skip around a bit or to spend time with some of the related texts before finishing with Of Justice. My own study will be suspended, in a sense, between the two editions, so I’m going to have to play it by ear with regard to when I closely examine works published between the two editions.

Of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church:

  • Popular Philosophy: Program (not in 1858) (1860)
  • Preliminary Discourse — (French) (English)
  • First Study: Position of the Problem of Justice — (French) (English) (1858)
  • Second Study: Persons — (French) (English)
  • Third Study: Goods — (French) (English)
  • Fourth Study: The State — (French) (English)
  • Fifth Study: Education — (French) (English)
  • Sixth Study: Labor — (French) (English)
  • Seventh Study: Ideas — (French) (English)
  • Eighth Study: Consciousness and Liberty — (French) (English)
  • Ninth Study: Progress and Decadence — (French) (English)
  • Tenth Study: Love and Marriage — (French) (English)
  • Eleventh Study: Love and Marriage (continued) — (French) (English)
  • Twelfth Study: Moral Sanction — (French) (English)

Essays in Practical Philosophy:

  • War and Peace, Volume 1
  • War and Peace, Volume 2
  • Theory of Taxation

News of the Revolution:

  • The Pornocracy


  • How Business Goes in France… (FR)


  • Juliette Lambert, Anti-Proudhonian Ideas
  • Jenny P. d’Hericourt, Woman Emancipated
  • Colins, Of Justice in Science, Beyond the Church and the Revolution




Argument. — Pyrrhonism, having struck ideas, attacks morals. The problem of philosophical certainty thus leads us back to the problem of rights and duties, or the moral problem, so that the solution to the one would provide the key to the other. However, the moral question can only be resolved by the Revolution or by the Church, the first being an organ of purely juridical thought, the second an organ of religious thought. Any ethics inevitably falls into one system or the other. However, thanks to the opinion that attributes the principle of justice and morality to superhuman considerations, the question of rights has never been completely detached from the question of faith; a bit of religion was always mixed in with the cause of freedom, a little freedom was always introduced into the religious system; and the Revolution could never overthrow the Church, nor the Church prevent the triumph of the Revolution. It seems therefore that the way to have done with this, to save the Revolution along with human conscience and certainty, would be to change hypotheses, first by abandoning any thought of reconciliation between two manifestly incompatible powers; secondly, and most importantly, by posing the question of rights outside of any theodicy. Thus, there are two options: either it is the Church which shall possess the true science of morals, and with it, the reason of humanity and things, and consequently the Revolution should be rejected as immoral; or the contrary shall take place. Such is the crucial question that we have proposed to investigate in these studies.


Argument. — For society to be possible, a principle of regularization of human relationships, something like what we call Justice, is needed. But this principle, in order to act effectively, cannot be reduced to a notion of pure intellect; it must be a power, a reality. The universal consensus is in accord with this premise, but it is divided over the conclusion, resulting in two systems: one, that of transcendence, consists in placing outside of man, either a God, or a constituted authority, the Church or the State, the subject or author of the law; the other, that of the Revolution, places the juridical subject within the conscience, and makes it identical to man himself.


Argument. — This study, together with those following, aims to prove that, in any religious hypothesis whatsoever, Justice, having its reality outside of man, is reduced for man to a pure concept of the intellect, without action on the conscience; that moreover, by this removal of his faculty of judgment, an ablation which is the essence of any religion, humanity finds itself constituted in a state of natural degradation and invincible immorality, from which religion is thereafter powerless to remove it. The famous dogma of original sin, common to the whole church and all theodicy; corruption of morals due to the same religion. – Based on this experience, the Revolution explains by what optical illusion of the intellect man projects what is within himself outside of himself, and makes of his own Justice an idol that is no longer himself; how, in the infancy of societies, this hypothesis could serve for the education of consciences; how subsequently, after having been the auxiliary of the conscience, religion has become a tyrant over it. Reductio ad absurdum of the Christian system and all its analogues: there is no salvation for Justice, society, man, outside of the Revolution.


Argument. — The hypothesis religious and ecclesiastical constitution, what they are, making the Justice and an external power greater than humanity, the right command, the duty One topic, the result, in social practice, a completely arbitrary, “not only about the people, declared unworthy by nature and without rights, but about the goods, whose distribution along the system, belongs to God and the Church, that is to say at random and arbitrary. Famous theory of favoritism or of grace; profound immorality that follows. The Church’s interest in maintaining the faith in poverty and denied equal property as equal people, even denying any kind of rational economy, leads to the religious community tried to generalize it to the Middle Ages and it strives to restore today. Unlawful interference of the clergy in the business, increasing illegitimacy of ecclesiastical property; risk for families and free labor. — With regard to the absolute lack of distributive justice, inherent in any society incorporated on a mystical idea, the Revolution laid the foundations of the new economy by a simple conversion of reciprocity of respect or personal, in reciprocal service or law real. Theory of equality; overview of the economic equilibrium.


Argument. — Immorality in the political order is a consequence of immorality in the economic order. By virtue of its dogma, the Church not only accepts this new immorality, which it attributes to Destiny; it confirms it, it consecrates it, by its theories of providential reign and predestination. The fatal instability of States, on which the Church prevails as a testimony to its own eternity; the failed attempt at theocracy; the systematic destruction of morality by the substitution of raison d’État for Justice; the convulsions of society. — In place of this political nihilism, the Revolution proposes its positive and realist theory of social power, impersonal, invisible, anonymous, a resultant of the commutative action of economic forces and of industrial groups, that is, liberty itself.


Argument. — Whether religion is a product of a mystical intuition or a metaphysical speculation, and whether the Church that serves as its expression is organized for aristocracy or for communism, since this religion posits the principle of right apart from the human subject, education must also necessarily be outside of humanity, and ends in a system of depravity. Thus, the soul, not cultivated as a living germ that has its law in itself and only asks to develop freely but treated as a uniform, obscure and bad nature that is to be given its path, its movement, and its quality by an extrinsic action, man becomes, by way of the education given him by the Church, a hypocrite, since his conscience is not within himself; a stranger to himself, since his end is outside himself; a stranger to society, which, by way of its State reason, sometimes makes him a serf, sometimes privileges him, but in all cases deprives him of the reason of things and respect for persons; a stranger, finally, to the earth on which he stands like an exile, and which has nothing in common with him. And since the inevitable result of such an education, by depriving him of all of his own justice, of all freedom of spirit, of any regard for his kind, of any communion with nature, is to render existence unhappy, death will be all the more miserable to the extent that the devotion of the subject to its faith will have been greater. – Contrary theories of free conscience, egalitarian teaching, the possession of nature, and a good death.


Argument. — Labor, in its repugnant and painful aspect, creates for man a fatality that constantly tends to throw him back into bondage, which the economic balance, political organization, and education are meant, on the contrary, to stop. There is only one means to overcome this calamity that threatens Justice and undermines civilization: it is to make work passionate, which can only be accomplished on one condition: namely, that every worker makes of his person, during the course of his career, a representative [représentant] of the totality of industrial development. Hence it follows that the problem of passional labor [travail passionel], in other words, of emancipated labor [travail affranchi], is the same as that of the origin of knowledge and the formation of ideas, that the apprenticeship of trades presents itself as a branch of public education. But here, as everywhere, theology is signaled by its anti-practical genius; following it, Church and State have decreed, by the dignity of the spirit, the human bondage to pain. Antipathy of spiritualist philosophy to labor; impotence of charity. – The Revolution, in solving the problem, destroys the revelation in its cause and renders impossible any social hierarchy.


Argument. — Since the beginning of civilization, humans have conceived of the truth and law of things as being of an essence superior to individual enlightenment, which the intimate sense and the practice of life denounced at every moment as troubled and contradictory. Private authority, too, was at all times suspect, and one sought the general reason or certainty sometimes in revelations and oracles, sometimes in the spontaneous or reflected consent of peoples, then in metaphysical meditations, finally, and in desperation, in observation and experience. Everything was a law of this research: the opposition of interests, the lie of formulas, the endless variations of the legislator, the even more variable interpretation of the judge, the uncertainties of the philosophers, the continually resurgent contradiction between institutions, on the one hand, and everyday experience on the other. After ignorance of the laws of Justice economic, political and industrial, ignorance of the conditions for the general reason is the biggest cause of demoralization that afflicts the human race. Insufficiency of the guarantees proposed: the corruption of science and the public reason by ecclesiastical authority; universal skepticism, the pact of falsehood, tyranny of the absolute. – The Revolution brings light to these shadows: after determining the positive object and limits of metaphysics, it proclaims the reality of the collective reason, its specific distinction from the individual reason, and, on the ruins of probabilist immorality, founds the indestructible edifice of the public faith.


Argument. — Whatever the doctrine and constitution of a church, if this church accepts the reality and efficacity of consciousness, in other words, the principle of immanent Justice, it loses its raison d’être and ceases to exist; if it recognizes, apart from divine commandment, a difference between right and wrong, it ceases to exist; if it has the intelligence of and respect for freedom, again, it ceases to exist. The Church therefore denies the sufficiency of consciousness and the reality of Justice; it denies the justification of humanity itself, which denies the subjective distinction between good and evil, and it accuses freedom, which it does not understand, of being the enemy of God. From this, in the first place, comes the moral pyrrhonism which, under the pretext of divine sanction, is the foundation of all theology; from this, then, comes that system of authority and discipline by which the Church undertook to compel weak and fallen natures to goodness; from this, finally, when religious faith falters, comes the corruption and spirit of tyranny that captured the whole nation in which criticism, having read religion, left morality without foundations. How then raise the company slumped? Will that by the Justice, whose concept, apart from theology, barely exists, and that so long concern about the divine ability to feel, or freedom, which mystery is even more impenetrable, and formally deny that the philosophers? The ancient nations have succumbed to the problem, and we are in danger of succumbing in our turn. – Here again the Revolution raises itself up: it demonstrates, contrary to theological pyrrhonism, the reality and effectiveness of the moral sense; against the sophistry of the reason of Church and reason of State, the certainty of the distinction between good and evil; against the fatalism of the philosophers and the mythology of revelation, the nature and function of freedom.


Argument. — Had it been possible for mankind to remain faithful to the religious thought that inaugurates its existence in spite of the accumulation of its discoveries, the progress of its industry, the evolution of its politics, it would have lived in a state of uninterrupted decadence; scrofulous as a child, it would have been born to rot; its destiny, hideously perverted, would have been but a long decomposition. There is, in this, a threefold cause: 1. Man, by virtue of his religion, incredulous at himself, has faith in the Divinity, which distorts him and soon arrests the movement of justice; 2. By virtue of the same religion, he follows the ideal rather than right, and loses himself in idolatry and immorality; 3. Society, also by the effect of this cult, conceives a false idea of its destiny, which it equates with that of inferior existences; such that, as its thoughts have turned toward death, its institutions and his tendency inexorably push it towards it. And history shows that this, or very close to it, has indeed been the life of humanity: this life is not exactly continuous, it consists of a series of collective existences placed end to end, handing down the torch of civilization from one to the next, but all ending miserably, as if they had received only enough vital force to extend their agony for longer or shorter periods.

The Revolution, in teaching us to deduce from the theory of Justice and Freedom the theory of Progress, puts an end to such despair. It shows, by logic and fact, that if the virtue proper to the soul, if the joy of conscience, following the burst of genius, have suffered a long eclipse under the influence of religious sorrow, this eclipse is coming to an end, and the greatest success, a superior felicity, awaits us.


Argument. — Everything in marriage reveals an institution which has as its goal to subordinate love to justice, in accordance with the theory of perfectibility, and to make this passion, essentially idealistic, the most powerful auxiliary of consciousness starting on the the most energetic means of Progress. How is it that Religion, in sanctifying marriage, has not been able to preserve its dignity, to the point that the institution has continued to decline. both in the internal forum and in the external forum; that Christian marriage has remained inferior to pagan marriage, and that the Church has always confused legitimate union with concubinary union? How is it that by dint of deifying love, the mysticism of theologians, as well as the speculation of philosophers, drives it to the most infamous corruption?


Argument. — All religions have misunderstood the character of woman: first, they have insulted her; then they exalted her beyond measure, and promised her a destiny equal, if not superior, to that of man. What does this contradiction signify? It is that Religion, taking for itself the mission of sex, which is to bring man to Justice by the attraction of Beauty, no longer knew what to do with woman; that, considering her outside her destiny, she must find in her an impure and objectless being, to whom henceforth she had only to propose celestial nuptials and the glory of the other life.

The Revolution, after having remade the Platonic and Christian utopia of the social equality of the sexes, gives the theory of marriage, disciplines love, restores woman to her role, and says to her: QUEEN OF GRACE, RISE UP ON THE ALTAR.


Argument. — Religion, having no morality, has no moral sanction either; she does not even know what the word sanction means here. Far from encouraging the good and terrifying the wicked with its rewards and punishments, it can boast of having thereby rehabilitated sin and dishonored virtue. — Outline of the contrary effects of a good and a bad conscience, in the individual, the family, the city; in the public economy and government. Revolutionary theory of legal solidarity and sanctioning law; cause and cessation of regicide; constitution of philosophy; solution of the problem of certainty.


In publishing a new edition of the book Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, our main aim is to inaugurate, to the extent of our strength and wherever our voice may be heard, the moral and philosophical teaching intended, in our opinion, to replace or at least to supplement religious education.

When we saw the government of the Emperor Napoleon III, for eight years so devout, suddenly undertake, by a seesaw game that deceives no one, to tame both the Revolution and the Church, the old society and the new, giving the signal for the assault on Catholicism after having sacrificed liberty, and neglecting all principles, we thought we could defer no longer, and, while the pope and the bishops protest on their side, that the time has come for us to speak again.

Nobody will accuse us as a result, we hope, of allying ourselves with the Church against the Empire. You need only read us to see, alas, that any pact between the Church and us is impossible. When men who want the maintenance of liberty and right, respect for principles, fidelity to commitments, whatever their social aspirations, political or religious beliefs, all come together, vis-à-vis a government, not even in an affirmation, but in a common reprobation, can this government be allowed to accuse its adversaries of a coalition?

This meeting exists today; it is forced. The imperial government, at the same time that it suppresses liberty, ignores the rights of its nation and deceives the hopes of all parties, is lacking in all principles. Here the questions of dynasty, of republic, of Church, become secondary: the question is purely, exclusively moral.

Just as, then, in 1848 and 1851 we had united against a social peril, real or fanciful, we find ourselves inevitably united, in 1860, against a new social peril, much more serious, much more manifest. And this union is as legitimate, legal, as it is spontaneous; there is nothing insurrectionary about it, nothing personal. It tends only, apart from persons and titles, to put an end to the anomaly, in the midst of a democratic revolution, of an absolutist power, and to place society once again under its own law.

Let everyone here take the advice of their conscience: as for us, whose whole strength is in speaking, and who have contracted the habit of conspiring aloud, here is the course we propose to follow.

Instead of long works, of 5,000 and sometimes 1,800 printed pages, we will publish separately, at more or less close intervals, a series of Studies, each of 4 to 5 sheets, i.e. 150 to 200 pages, in large 18mo format, on all questions that may interest the citizen and man.

The twelve studies of which the first edition of the book on Justice was composed—revised, corrected, augmented—will form the first twelve numbers of this series.

The augmentations consist of: 1° Notes and Clarifications, quotations from authors, replies to objections, etc., serving to mark the movement of minds; 2° News of the Revolution, summaries of the political, economic and social facts, being used to note the movement of history.

In this way our publication will be theoretical and practical, always at the level of the circumstances, and yet always free from the circumstances.

For the rest, we recall what we have already said in our program: We are not founding a church; we are not, strictly speaking, a party. We do not bring to the world an established doctrine, in the manner of the revelators, the philosophers of the absolute and some contemporary reformers. We are not the representatives of any opinion, of any corporate or class interest. Our principle is as old as the world, as common as the people: it is Justice. We only believe that we are far from having seen all that this inexhaustible notion of Justice contains, and we undertake to give, at new expense, a commentary that others will continue after us and that will never have an end. Justice is for us the axis of society, the first and last reason of the universe. Thereby, dominating everything from the heights of right, our philosophy is purely critical: it only becomes dogmatic with regard to the things that conscience, assisted by the lights of science, declares to be just; it pronounces exclusion only with regard to those demonstrated to be unjust. Such affirmations and exclusions, subject moreover to the incessant control of public opinion, have nothing at all personal about them and cannot give scope to any selfishness. They would even appear excessive in their disinterestedness, if we had not decided to pursue, at all costs, iniquity, in the facts that realize it as well as in the theories that express it.

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