Proudhon: Between Science and Vengeance (rough outline)

[The Proudhon Library publishing project will be entering its second phase in the next couple of years, with some conventionally published volumes. The first entries planned for the series have been revisions and expansion of the Corvus Editions volumes, but I’ve also been feeling the need for an introductory volume. Rather than compete with Iain McKay’s anthology, Property is Theft!, I’ve opted for a small volume that combines a simple reader’s guide with a selection of shorter material from Proudhon’s notebooks, correspondence and manuscripts. This is a very, very rough attempt to describe the volume, provided here in the hope of gaining some feedback.]




Shawn P. Wilbur, Editor

“I flatter myself that I do only two things: that is, first, to teach you put each thing in its place, after having purged it of the absolute and balanced it with other things; then, to show you that the things that you know, and that you have such fear of losing, are not the only ones that exist, and that there are considerably more of which you still must take account.” — Proudhon, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church

Proudhon’s place in the anarchist tradition has been surprisingly difficult to establish, with most accounts torn, often to the point of indecision, between declaring him “the father of anarchism” and relegating him to a fairly marginal role, if not excommunicating him entirely. His thought, to the extent that it figures at all, is often treated as some sort of compromise between more radical (or at least extreme) positions. But if we were honest with ourselves, we would probably have to acknowledge that very little of Proudhon’s thought figures in our understanding of anarchism and that his place has been established as much through the claims of his adversaries and competitors as through any real understanding of his own work. This has been particularly true in the English-speaking world, where only a small number of his many works have been translated.

There has been a recent revival in interest in Proudhon, with new scholarship and new translations appearing. But we have a long way to go to reclaim what might be useful to a 21st century anarchist movement, as well as a good deal of resistance to overcome. This volume is intended as a companion to the forthcoming Proudhon Library translations, but also as a simple corrective to much of what anarchists and non-anarchists alike have told ourselves about Proudhon and his thought.


In order to properly place Proudhon in relation to the anarchist tradition, we need to first establish his place apart from it, in a period when the declaration that “I am an anarchist” could appear truly unprecedented. We need to understand the context in which being an anarchist made him the most solitary sort of figure, separated by that identification from most of his peers and potential allies, and without any of the familiar ideological apparatus of anarchism to draw on. And then we need to understand the sometimes violent oscillations of his thought within that context. We been inclined to echo Déjacque’s charge that Proudhon was an “anarchiste juste-milieu,” an anarchist of the middle ground, stuck between some revolutionary position and mere liberalism, but when we look at his work—and at the private notebooks in particular—it appears that he was at least as inclined to swing to the extremes as he was to settle between them. This oscillation is, in fact, the sort of motion that Proudhon’s work leads us to expect from society.



Proudhon is best remembered for two provocative declarations: “I am an anarchist” and “property is theft.” The anarchist tradition has fully embraced the spirit of those provocations, however indifferent it has been at times to the rationale behind them. But when we place those declarations back into their original context, 35-40 years before anarchism was a movement–or even a word used with any frequency–even their spirit may look rather different, without being any less radical. This opening section attempts to give a basic context for the appearance of What is Property? in 1840, and then discuss the various possibilities opened by Proudhon’s early work, not all of which have found expression in either the anarchist movement or any of the other movement that have taken inspiration from his work.


One of the most difficult aspects of Proudhon’s work is its sheer volume. He produced more than fifty volumes worth of material, published and unpublished, in a period of roughly twenty-five years. In addition, he proposed or began work on a significant number of projects that never developed beyond the planning stages. Among the works left unfinished or barely commenced are some key pieces to the larger puzzle, without knowledge of which our understanding of Proudhon’s thought remains seriously incomplete. Those active years were also marked by trials, imprisonments and exiles, as Proudhon attempted to negotiate the changing conditions in France, before, during and after the 1848 revolution. The ambitious nature of his projects and the difficult circumstances under which he pursued them had effects on his published output and public declarations that are not always clear from the published work itself. This chronological narrative will attempt to provide a fairly complete account of Proudhon’s major works, whether finished or unfinished, and major life-events.


On several occasions, Proudhon attempted to condense his complex thought into the form of a “profession of faith.” These summaries appear throughout his active years and a survey of them provides useful insights into the development of his thought, as both his ideas and the terminology he used to expressed them changed to suit new contexts.


Proudhon’s use of terminology was complex, as anyone aware of the three declarations about property will undoubtedly be aware. But he was also very conscious of the choices involved, so an examination of his keywords, not only helps us understand his key ideas, but also his emerging strategy. This glossary will cover perhaps two dozen of the most important keywords in Proudhon’s work, with attention to changes in their use and their relation to other terms. Excerpts from his writings will be included. This section is intended both as a reference to be used with the other Proudhon Library volumes, but also as a kind of review of the general summary presented in this volume.


While Proudhon was distant in some ways from his contemporaries and from the anarchist tradition, he was certainly not alone and his direct influence was felt in the tradition in a variety of ways. This section will briefly introduce Proudhon’s collaborators, his main antagonists and a selection of the individuals who carried on a specifically Proudhonian tradition within the anarchist and labor movements, the mutual bank agitation, etc.


The short texts collected here have been selected with the aim of demonstrating the breadth of Proudhon’s interests, the general character of his ideas and the sometimes violent fervor of his private thoughts. It is assumed that they will generate at least as many questions as answers, but hoped that they will prepare readers to approach Proudhon’s longer and more carefully crafted works with a greater sense of the range of his interests and the general character of his concerns.


Proudhon’s work, even when restored to its full depth and breadth, certainly poses plenty of difficulties for modern readers and users. There are elements that reflect different eras of radical thought and elements that were never radical at all. The fact that there has been no real proudhonian school to attempt gradual development of his ideas means that we have a lot to do, but also that our engagements with the work are necessarily quite direct. We are fortunate that Proudhon laid out some criteria by which he believed his work could be judged, and his conclusions anticipated, even if he “could live a thousand years.” This conclusion will attempt to make the case for sufficient consistency in Proudhon’s work to apply that self-imposed standard and then suggest some applications of it.


Primary and selected secondary bibliographies, with listing of major French editions, digitized manuscripts, etc.

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