The Incomplete Proudhon (draft)

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[This is a first draft of a first section of a strategy document for the consideration of other Proudhon scholars and students of anarchist studies. It is every bit as preliminary as that sounds, but everything has to start somewhere. With the Bakunin Library and Proudhon Library projects both moving steadily towards publication, a good deal of what I have been doing behind the scenes lately has been this kind of assessment of available resources and strategizing about how best to present relatively large bodies of work in print. For those who have not read the draft outline for Proudhon: Between Science and Vengeance, that document may add some useful context to this one.]


These are arguably good days for the study of anarchist history and theory, but some old and relatively fundamental problems remain, including the place of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the anarchist tradition. Neither effectively integrated nor convincingly dismissed, Proudhon’s extensive body of work remains largely unknown, a fact that poses real difficulties for the field, whether we think of him as a foil or a foundation for the anarchist movement (or movements) that emerged in the late 19th century. Certainly, Proudhon Studies has had its own good days of late, with exciting developments on a variety of fronts, but there is arguably still a lot of work to be done before we can safely treat Proudhon as something other than unfinished business.

The scope of the task of “completing” Proudhon for English scholars and readers, together with that of dislodging the “incomplete” Proudhon from his established place in the tradition, means that it is unlikely that our business will really be finished by any heroic attempt by a few scholars, however dedicated and well-supported. But if those of us currently involved in Proudhon Studies will ultimately have to rely on reinforcements, we can certainly prepare the ground for them and coordinate our own efforts more effectively than we have previously. These notes, the first of several exploratory pieces, are an attempt to kick-start that process a bit.

In this first installment, I want to survey some of the ways in which our picture of Proudhon remains incomplete.


The digitizations of manuscripts, and their availability on the Ville de Besançon site and Gallica, has radically transformed what Proudhon scholars can do, even without institutional support. We already had ready online access to all of the published texts in the public-domain era. That leaves the published Carnets as the only published texts unavailable online (unless there is something in the volume of philological writings not available in manuscript.)

To my knowledge, the only major writings not available in either book form or digital scan are the later Carnets (long-since announced, but still not available) and some articles contributed to periodicals. The periodicals that Proudhon was involved with also remain difficult to access, which has contributed to a loss of contextual material.

We also know that our access to the Correspondence and some of the articles in the Mélanges volumes is imperfect, given censorship constraints and editorial choices. The mass of correspondence now available through the Besançon site, together with the letters published outside Langlois’ edition, should help us to restore the Correspondence. The digitizations of many of the letters addressed to Proudhon offers other important research opportunities.

With regard to the texts critiquing Proudhon’s work during his lifetime and those produced by his collaborators and early followers, the situation is not quite as promising. I’ve been trying to link texts as they become available on my “Responses to Proudhon” page, but that’s a continuing labor.


We’re obviously still in the early stages of assembling the Proudhon Library that Benjamin R. Tucker proposed so many years ago. But we are fortunate that, apart from a few instances, we have inherited some well-executed translations. While works like What is Property? and The General Idea of the Revolution need a bit of revision and scholarly introduction, those will not be arduous labors. And the existing translations provide us with at least the beginnings of the sort of shared lexicon that could guide subsequent work. There are texts that are probably waiting for their translators. I can’t imagine, for example, doing justice to the works on canals and railroads. But my sense is that we can probably do useful work now, inventorying texts, suggesting possible future volumes, documenting terminological issues, etc. that can provide some continuity within the library, despite piecemeal production. [I’ll tackle some of these questions in another set of notes.]


Obviously, the appearance of Iain McKay’s anthology, Property is Theft!, was an important step forward. Where Edward’s Selected Writings gave a provocative, but relatively decontextualized mass of thoughts, the new anthology gives us substantial chunks of Proudhon’s arguments. But Proudhon’s mature works are still underrepresented in translation and neither anthology could take advantage of the significant digitizations efforts that have taken place since its publication. My proposed introduction to the Proudhon Library, Between Science and Vengeance, can’t do much more than split the difference between the previous volumes, attempting to better contextualize it’s fragments and fugitive pieces with various helps. There is still plenty of room for introductory material.

[to be continued…]


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