PROJECT: Proudhon’s Essays in Popular Philosophy

This is a text drafted in March, 2016 and circulated among a small group of folks specifically interested in Proudhon studies—where it didn’t garner enough interest to prompt much follow-up. But the question of a translation of Proudhon’s Justice has come up again, in less specialized circles, and it seems useful to revisit this document, whether or not anything ultimately comes of the discussion.


I am, I will admit, something of an intellectual pack rat, and it is that as much as anything that has not only led me to be an archivist and historian, but has made me specifically a chronicler of forgotten predecessors, lost causes and marginal enterprises. If pressed, I can happily give what I imagine is a robust and suitably anarchic defense for my preoccupations: the marginal practically forces us to seek contexts and explore alternate explanations, while our interactions with texts considered mainstream (even within the mainstream of a marginal field such as anarchist studies) can often be constrained by what we think we know about them, and their contexts, beforehand. In my work on Proudhon, who has arguably been excluded from a great deal of close examination by his positioning within and by the mainstream of anarchist thought, it has at times been necessary to reposition him on the margins in order to render his work approachable and interesting. That is, in fact, much of the strategy at work in my proposed introductory volume, P.-J. Proudhon: Between Science and Vengeance.

A project like the Proudhon Library is, of course, ultimately about yet another repositioning, restoring Proudhon to a more prominent position within a tradition that has never quite been able to rid itself of him, but the early stages of that campaign have had to be a bit indirect. However, the occasion for a more direct approach seems not too far off, so perhaps it is not too early to start thinking about what it would look like to publish a more mainstream edition of Proudhon.

When I found myself working on the Bakunin Library project, I had to confront these questions in a slightly different context. Bakunin has preserved a much better reputation among anarchists, but his work is still not particularly well known. Limited English translation and the uneven quality of the existing translations means that most readers only know parts of Bakunin’s work and some of what they think they know is probably wrong. Many of the best known texts—texts often well-woven into the fabric of the English-language anarchist tradition—are sections from larger texts or have circulated in edited forms. When it became time to organize an edition suited to modern needs, the solution was actually fairly straightforward: previous scholarship had identified and presented a body of work with already demonstrated connections to the anarchist tradition, however imperfectly, and it was simply a matter of completing and correcting it. While it seems clear to me that those corrections and completions ought to lead to some reevaluations of Bakunin and his significance, and while there are some occasions for me to ply my usual trade of emphasizing the previously excluded, there is already a significant readership out there with arms that will not have to be twisted too hard when it is a question of more and better Bakunin.

Where the tradition probably works in favor of a Bakunin Library, it arguably works against a Proudhon Library. Even if we are enthusiastic about it, Proudhon’s body of work is daunting. Benjamin R. Tucker’s abortive attempt at the original Proudhon Library is perhaps testimony to the difficulties. I can attest to them myself, having made an equally unsuccessful start at translating Justice in the Revolution and in the Church back in 2009. It’s not just the volume of Proudhon’s work—50+ volumes worth—or the range of subject matters and vocabularies involved, nor even his tendency to mix polemic, historical analysis and theoretical exposition in a single work. All of that ultimately adds to the interest of the works. Proudhon’s French is not particularly difficult and if his prose can be a bit tedious at times, at others it is a real pleasure. But Proudhon’s thought was restless and always developing, not just within individual works, but across them. Looking back at the translation work I did in 2009, I can congratulate myself for having most often discerned the basic meaning of the texts, but years of subsequent study have impressed upon me the extent to which that is often just the tip of the iceberg with Proudhon.

If we emphasize the continuities and ongoing development in Proudhon’s work, we are only following his lead. His notebooks and manuscripts are full of accounts of how the various works fit together, often under unexpected organizing principles (as when his work through 1846 appears as the chapters of a study on the problem of certainty.) We know that some of the published works that we know were ultimately only more-or-less freestanding elements of much larger works, which were themselves often left unfinished. It is more and more clear, I think, that if we are to really understand Proudhon’s thought, we have to find the means to engage with those larger bodies of work.

We are progressing in that direction. Edwards’ Selected Writings contains a really fascinating and quite inclusive collection of key passages, but without the context of the complete works, it has been hard to evaluate where in Proudhon’s infamously antinomic arguments any given passage fits. McKay’s Property is Theft! featured complete texts or lengthier excerpts, but was consequently unable to really do the later works the justice they deserve. My translation of a few shorter, transition texts like Philosophy of Progress, and interpretive projects by various modern Proudhon scholars, have hopefully paved the way for a more successful engagement with the larger bodies of work, but there’s really no escaping the need to finally translate some one of those larger bodies.

And once we have decided to at least consider moving forward, the choice of works seems fairly straightforward. There is an extensive collection of publications, unpublished manuscripts and notebook entries dating from the publication of The System of Economic Contradictions until the mid-1850s, in which Proudhon attempted to lay out the practical consequences and possible application of his early, critical works. The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century is the best known, but perhaps not the best of those works. Edward Castleton has made some headway sorting through the various pieces of the puzzle and has assembled a pair of virtual manuscripts that ought to be of considerable interest to scholars. But the work from this period lacks the finished character and broad concerns of later work, and is perhaps not the material to present as exemplary of Proudhon’s thought. The various texts, both published and unpublished, that Proudhon associated with his work on Poland are generally more finished in character, and they range in subject matter from international relations to property theory to federative organization. But it’s difficult for even a group of works as interesting as those to compete with the “Essays in Popular (or “Practical”) Philosophy” (Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, War and Peace and The Theory of Taxation) that Proudhon published between 1858 and 1861. There we have really the only instance where Proudhon was able to bring one of his grand plans for publication to fruition.

It would be no small task, including at least six volumes from the 19th century Oeuvres Complètes and potentially extending further. For example, La Pornocratie was originally conceived as an expansion of Justice and the manuscript begins with the header “Nouvelles de la Révolution,” identifying the book as something like a very long footnote to the 1860 edition. A really complete edition might also include La Justice poursuivie par l’Église, the volume dealing with the legal battles surrounding Justice. It also seems unlikely that we would want to leave the 2 (or 3) volumes on love and marriage unanswered, so perhaps a natural addition to the edition would be some or all of the feminist responses to Proudhon. At the same time, any serious edition of Justice would have to account for the differences between the original and revised editions, and an expanded edition would probably want to do the same for the responses. And then there are unpublished manuscripts and notebook entries to be consulted and perhaps translated for publication.

We might then end up with at least these volumes to consider:

1858 – De la Justice (1st Ed.)

1858 – La Justice poursuivie par l’Église,

1858 – Idées anti-proudhoniennes (1st Ed.)

1860 – De la Justice (Rev. Ed.)

1860 – La Femme Affranchie [probably during the republication of the revised “Justice,” which first appeared as 12 separate volumes.]

1860 – La Pornocratie [composed, presumably ready to publish after the 10th and 11th volumes of “Justice,” then published in 1875]

1861 – La Guerre et la Paix

1861 – Idées anti-proudhoniennes (2nd Ed.) [Expanded edition begins with a (bad) critique of “La Guerre et la Paix.”]

If it is really a question of assembling an edition that can stand as a useful introduction to Proudhon mature works, perhaps we’re looking at a dozen volumes—or perhaps we should take advantage of the scope of Proudhon’s explorations in this period to assemble something even more definitive.

A maximalist approach might take its cues from the initial publication of the revised and expanded Justice, which appeared in 12 installments and contemplate a further expansion.

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