“Ma Théorie fédérative est déjà un fragment enlevé à mon travail polonais; la Propriété sera le second…”
“My Federative Theory is already a fragment lifted from my Polish work; the [Theory of] Property will be the second…” (Letter to Grandclément, Nov. 17, 1863)
One of the nearly miraculous effects of the recent manuscript digitization projects at the International Institute of Social History and the Ville de Besançon has been a sudden and dramatic change in the kinds of questions we can wrestle with, with real hope of success, without international travel or expensive duplication of materials. For me, it has really altered my research program and shifted my translation priorities. Honestly, what it has done is throw my routine into a very pleasant chaos. I might not make that million word mark after all, if only because working with manuscript material is much slower going, but several projects have already become much more interesting as a result of taking the time to wade into these newly accessible archives.
The most dramatic shift has probably taken place in my longstanding love-hate relationship with Proudhon’s The Theory of Property. Wrestling with that work has probably been the single most important factor in my development as a Proudhon scholar, and as a scholar with something arguably a bit different, and potentially important, to say about both Proudhon and anarchism. But the marginal nature of the work in the informal anarchist canon—where it has largely been shunted off into the sections reserved for forgeries or betrayals of the cause—had naturally meant that everything built from an engagement with it has been at least a bit suspect. The individual antidote for that is always to know you are right, but that’s hard, when the manuscripts are unavailable and the correspondence is still hard to search through. I’ve had to slowly build up a sense that published text was coherent, and then gradually dig out the contexts, without much help from the literature of the tradition, of course, or much encouragement from the movement, for which the very existence of the work mostly serves as just another strike against poor old Proudhon.
It turns out that many of the materials necessary to substantially adjust the reputation of The Theory of Property were available even before these recent digitization projects, but perhaps the context in which it was easiest to put them together wasn’t. The heart of the matter seems to be the relationship of The Theory of Property to a lengthy, unfinished work by Proudhon, Pologne. The work on Poland apparently occupied Proudhon off and on through much of the last years of his life. The manuscript consists of 1448 pages, not including, as far as I have been able to tell, any of the 291 pages identified as “Chapitre VII. Garantisme.—Théorie de la propriété.” If we take Proudhon’s comments about the place of The Federative Principle seriously, then we have even more to add to the project. In the same letters, it appears that The Literary Majorats may also be a “long footnote” to the work as well.
We’ve had a hard time dealing with Proudhon’s work in the 1860s, at last in the English-speaking world. Part of the problem, of course, is that we haven’t done much justice to his work in the 1850s, but I think we have at least had a vague sense that Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, all six volumes of it, was lurking out there, waiting to be accounted for, and a few scholars have placed Justice in the more-or-less central place that it seems to deserve. (Jesse Cohn stands out for me in this regard.) For me, despite a lot of wrestling with Justice, The Philosophy of Progress has been the gateway into the “constructive” work of the 1850s, and it has gradually become the pivot around which I’ve built a couple of interpretive narratives. In the first, it marks the shift between primarily critical and primarily constructive periods (as I’ve discussed in “Self-Government and the Citizen-State.) In the second, which I’m still working through, it is the occasion of Proudhon finally beginning answer the question about “the criterion of certainty” that he claims led him to his more familiar work. We might read the work on Justice, which begins with the identification of that criterion with the idea of justice itself, as a kind of resolution of Proudhon’s early, philosophical and theological concerns. Despite its occasionally glaring inconsistencies, as in the study on “Love and Marriage,” the work manages to be a pretty triumphant answer to the question that he was chiding himself for still pursuing in 1841.
The 1860s look, at the very least, less triumphant, and we don’t seem to have any very coherent account of what Proudhon was up to in the last five years of his life. It is actually common, though I think incorrect, to treat the best-known of the late works, The Federative Principle, as marking a shift away from anarchism. And the rest of the works from that period have been hard to come to grips with:
- War and Peace (1861) — Despite Alex Prichard’s work, this two-volume work is still little known, and it simply remains very demanding. There is a lot of complicated treatment of the topic of war to be waded through in order to extract Proudhon’s fundamentally peaceful message. The work has been treated as proto-fascist and, to complicate matters, we can find some selective influences in those currents.
- The Theory of Taxation (1861) — Marx treated the work as the final sign that Proudhon was just a “bourgeois,” and anarchists have naturally been slow to warm to a work on taxation. The fact that it contains Proudhon’s clearest explanation of what I’ve called the “citizen-state” is, alas, a circumstance with limited attraction for those who see any discussion of any kind of “state” as a step backward. Like War and Peace, it is a work that looks a lot better if you know and understant the work of the 1850s.
- Literary Majorats (1862) — Some sections of this work opposing intellectual property have actually be translated, but it remains largely unknown. The truth is that most of our positions on these questions are pretty well solidified.
- The Political Capacity of the Working Classes (1865) — This is the work that anarchists have shown the most interest in, largely because it was addressed to the workers who would make up the core of the Parisian group in the First International, and because it was the work that Proudhon labored away at on his deathbed. It is a fascinating work, and one with a clear influence in the international working-class movement. Unfortunately, the tale we’ve told about the International paints the workers most closely associated with it as losers, when they aren’t dismissed as traitors.
- The Theory of Property (1865) — Finally, Proudhon’s final work on property has been the subject of hot debate from before its publication right up to the present. For those who want to paint his outside of the mainstream of anarchist thought, or who want to draw strong distinctions between the “property is theft” of 1840 and a “pro-property” position in his last years, the reputation of this work has been useful, however little that reputation corresponded to its contents. Despite years of translation and analysis, I still have people telling me the same unsubstantiated stories about the work: that it was a pieced-together work, abandoned by Proudhon and cobbled together by his followers; that it represented more evidence of Proudhon’s abandonment of anarchism; or, alternately, that it really doesn’t contain anything that challenges the position of 1840. I feel like my work to date has pretty well dealt with most of the usual responses to the work, demonstrating the continuity of Proudhon’s work on property, his consistent pursuit of anarchism, etc. But I would be lying if I said that I was very comfortable with the work. After all, my own work on the “gift economy of property” has really been an attempt to push beyond what I’ve understood as an instructive, but not always appealing set of arguments in The Theory of Property.
What the work I’ve been doing lately has suggested to me is that, while establishing the connections between The Theory of Property and Proudhon’s earlier works is obviously important and useful, Proudhon himself really saw the work as part of a larger, ongoing work, which occupied him in the 1860s. The unpublished work, Pologne, is obviously something we have to engage with in order to understand Proudhon’s final large-scale project, but we can start by changing our strategy with regard to the late works that we know. Instead of picking and choosing which of the late works we engage, sometimes pitting one work against another, it seems likely that the only way to do justice to those works is to consider them as Proudhon seems to have understood them—as pieces of a larger whole.
Perhaps we need to consider splitting the “constructive” period of Proudhon’s career at least one more time. We might characterized his progression something like this:
- In an initial, largely critical period, Proudhon began by seeking the criterion of certainty and found himself waging a multi-front war against absolutism. The familiar critiques of property and governmentalism were among the results.
- In a first phase of constructive labors, Proudhon found his solution to the question of the criterion of certainty in the idea of an imminent justice, and elaborated how the play of justice operates in contexts ranging from metaphysics to international politics. The elimination of the absolute and the opposition to external constitution of relations are central concerns. There is a lot of history and political economy in this period, but we might say that philosophical concerns are really driving the analysis. Even a work like The General Idea of the Revolution, with all its practical proposals, is still really largely about an idea.
- In a second phase of constructive labors, Proudhon shifted his attention to the practical playing-out of the principle of justice. We have probably been right to see that the emphasis on the federative principle marked a transition, but incorrect in identifying it. Having eliminated external constitution (governmentalism, archy) as a model for social organization, there remains the question of how internal constitution (self-government, anarchy) will work. But Proudhon points us to the principle that will unify his labors:
“…transported into the political sphere, what we have previously called mutualism or guarantism takes the name of federalism. In a simple synonymy the revolution, political and economic, is given to us whole…”
The principle has multiple names—the familiar mutualism and federalism, and the less familiar guarantism. The last term is, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, a borrowing from Fourier, intended to designate the messy, very approximate stage prior to Harmony. Proudhon, of course, is too consistently progressive a thinker, to certain that “humanity proceeds by approximation,” to have much hope for a period of realized Harmony. The quote with which I began the post, as well as some others I have recently noted, ought to inspire some corrections in our thinking about Proudhon’s late works. First, the traditional elevation of The Federative Principle over The Theory of Property probably can’t hold up. Proudhon’s letters suggest that, with regard to their status as finished works, we’ve had things turned completely around. At the same time, the title from the manuscript suggests an equation between “Guarantism” and “The Theory of Property” that shouldn’t surprise us at all, and which quite appropriately subordinates whatever Proudhon has to say about property in that work to a principle we know to think of as a synonym of mutualism or federation.
That opens a new set of messy questions, including how property can be understood as an instance of federations, but perhaps we’ve tackled enough for now.
[Originally posted at Contr’un, April 22, 2014]