The Reunification of “Pologne”

I needed a break from some other ongoing projects, and decided to take some time to transcribe more of the “Pologne” (Poland) manuscripts. The work turned out to be interesting enough—and the break from other tasks pleasant enough—that I have actually finished transcribing the bulk of the manuscript that would have made up the (announced, but never published) posthumous volume Géographie politique et nationalité (Political Geography and Nationality.) I have one long and not terribly legible footnote to work through, and then lots of miscellaneous manuscript pages to examine, but majority of the text—just under 60,000 words—is ready for proofreading, correction and translation.

It’s a fascinating text, not least because—aside from one chapter published in French by Federico Ferretti and Edward Castleton—it has remained so little-known. I translated the table of contents almost three years ago, along with the transition that would have linked the six chapters of the work to the long seventh chapter (“Garantisme.—Théorie de la propriété.“), which became the basis for Théorie de la propriété (Theory of Property) as it was published in the Oeuvres Posthumes. You can get a taste of it from two sections—”The Polish Question” and “History conceived as a legal inquiry“—that I have translated from Chapter I. And more sections should be available soon.

In particular, this text puts The Theory of Property in a rather different context and makes some of what has seemed hard to fathom about the work much clearer. Proudhon’s Poland intended to be a work of social science, examining the conditions of “the birth and death” (and, in some versions of the title page, the “resurrection” ) of nations, with the example of Poland—and the question of Polish reunification—present throughout as a means of illustrating the theory. Take a look at the chapters in Poland, Part I: Principles:

  1. — History and Nationality.
  2. — The State.
  3. — Political Geography.
  4. — Political Ethnography.
  5. — Political Organogeny.
  6. — Social Metamorphosis.
  7. — Guarantism. — Theory of Property.

The account begins with some general remarks on the project of history and the notion of nationality, then explores the those conditions of the birth, death and possible resurrection of nations through a variety of lenses, presenting a general account of the conditions of “social metamorphosis,” before turning to the final, more programmatic chapter on guarantism, with its “new theory” of property. This would then have been followed by a History of Poland (also announced, but not published in the Posthumous Works), within which the principles established in the first part would presumably be demonstrated.

If The Theory of Property is the conclusion of at least the theoretical development of Poland, then we get a clearer sense of why the larger work—with its international scale, its discussions of race theory, servitude and slavery, the purpose of historical inquiry, etc.—often figured, for Proudhon, simply as “my new work on Property.” He wrote, for example, to Grandclément:

Here is where my book on Poland is, that is to say my new work on Property. I do not have to tell you that property is a veritable ocean to me—an ocean to drink—that its history alone would demand the sacrifice of a lifetime, and that I do not feel sufficiently Benedictine to bury myself thus under one single question. I am in a hurry to know, to comprehend a certain quantity of certain ideas, and, when the erudition does not advance as quickly as I would like, I hardly trouble myself for appealing to a divinatory faculty. — That is what happened to me, for example, with The Federative Principle, of which I just abruptly sketched the theory, or, if you will permit me this ambitious word, the philosophy, in 100 or 200 pages, leaving to others the chore of elaborating the whole system in minute details. That federalism, which boiled for thirty years in my veins, has finally exploded at the combined attacks of the Belgian and French press; the public judges now. What I would permit myself to say to you about it, to you, my master in matters of property, is that I regard that sketch as a fragment detached from the theory of Property itself, a theory that would have already seen the day, if for six months I had not been halted by the tribulations caused me by the Franco-Belgian and Italian Jacobinism, and by the necessity of responding to it. But nothing is lost; I regard even that improvised publication, like the Majorats littéraires, of which I will publish a second and better edition, as a fortunate prelude to my work on Property…. (February 28, 1863)

So we have Poland, originally broken down into two part (Principles, History of Poland), then into three (Political Geography and Nationality, Theory of Property, History of Poland), but we also have a series of published works and unpublished fragments associated with or drawn from the same research. In another letter to Grandclément, Nov. 17, 1863, Proudhon wrote, “My Federative Theory is already a fragment lifted from my Polish work; the [Theory of] Property will be the second…” So we can add The Principle of Federation to the list of related works, along with The Literary Majorats, but also, based on their content,  at least “La Bohème et l’Empire,” France et RhinSi les traités de 1815 ont cessé d’exister? and the works on Italian unity. And once we start adding texts based on shared concerns, very little can be excluded. When we recall that federation and guarantism are connected to mutualism through a “simple synonymy,” we have our connections to works like The Political Capacity of the Working Classes.

And perhaps we should just think of Poland and its related texts as simply the final, sprawling volume of the Essays in Popular (or Practical) Philosophy (the revised edition of Justice, War and Peace and Theory of Taxation) that immediately preceded them.

My present thinking is that most of Proudhon’s work from roughly 1859 on should probably be considered as so closely connected that we should treat each bit of it very carefully until we’ve had a chance to really come to terms with the larger picture. The finished-but-unpublished Comment les affaires vont en France, et pourquoi nous aurons la guerre, si nous l’avons : à propos des nouveaux projets de traités entre les compagnies de chemin de fer et l’Etat (roughly How Business Goes in France, and Why We Will Have War, If We Have It: Regarding New Agreement Proposed between the Railway Companies and the State) is an interesting example of Proudhon beginning to try to talk about his various concerns all at once, with all of the awkwardness one might expect from such an early attempt. The title alone, I think, gives us a kind of snapshot of what we’re getting into with the mature work.

On the one hand, the project of coming to terms with Proudhon’s mature work, more or less en bloc, is a daunting one. On the other, the same research that suggests the necessity of that project already gives us some guidance. It is almost certainly the elements of that “simple synonymy,” mutualism—federalism—guarantism, that are at the heart of Proudhon’s project. And we do have at least two key texts available in English translation: Richard Vernon’s partial translation of The Principle of Federation and my working translation of The Theory of Property. In both cases, however, there has been a tendency to treat the texts as deviations from Proudhon’s anarchist thought and then—with a hand-wave at his reputation as a fundamentally contradictory character—to pick and choose what seems to suit us from his work, as if the contradictions were not ultimately such a great problem after all. But it’s hard for that sort of approach not to simply discredit itself in opportunism and its own contradictions. And, after all, if we know even the most basic things about Proudhon, we ought to know that contradiction was the subject of much of his work, so if we are to make judgments about its coherence we need to make sure that we have accounted for the contradictions that he was highlighting before we attribute any failures of consistency to him.

Still, with the knowledge that we have of Poland, its key concerns and its connections to more familiar works, perhaps even our opportunism is likely to lead us back towards the project of reconciling what appear to be tensions and contradictions in Proudhon’s mature thought. After all, it is the work that has generally been spared most of the anarchist criticism—The Political Capacity of the Working Classes, Proudhon’s death-bed labor, addressed to the workers of Paris and ultimately influential in the International—that presents us with the “simple synonymy” around which any consistent understanding of the texts is likely to be built. Perhaps a natural next step in approaching the theoretical sections of Poland is to complete the translation of the second part of The Political Capacity, where the synonymy is explored in the long discussion of mutualism. That, fortunately, is a work that is well under way, although, looking at my in-progress translations, it is clear that the work will gain in clarity from what I have learned about the other late works.

But the other obvious approach is to finally complete the work on The Theory of Property, which I have left in a rather unfinished state, precisely because there was so much about the text that obviously needed context to clarify. Three years ago, after the manuscripts became available through the Besançon site, I did the basic work of comparing the manuscript pages with the published text, and found that most of the fears about excessive editorial intervention were unfounded. At that time, I also started the job of identifying the manuscripts sources of each section of published text and noting any editorial changes. It was at that time that I transcribed and translated the transition that would have appeared in Part One of Pologne, and got my first glimpse at the connections between the works.

Now, obviously, with the first six chapters transcribed and translation begun, that work can and must move forward. But if we are working from the published version of The Theory of Property back toward Proudhon’s larger project, there are obviously going to be complications. Let’s survey once again the potential works we have to deal with:

  • The study of Poland, which obviously sprawled and resulted in a number of books, whether published, unpublished or merely proposed, as well as a large number of manuscript fragments not clearly intended for any of the individual works that emerged;
  • Pologne, the large two-part study, as we find it proposed in the manuscripts, with the chapter on property intact;
  • Pologne and Théorie de la Propriété, divided, as we find them in the manuscripts; and
  • Théorie de la Propriété, as it was eventually published, with the understanding that it would be supplemented by Géographie politique et nationalité and Histoire de Pologne.

Translating the published work has undoubtedly been the simplest step, but what it gives us is a work of collaboration, however careful and well-intentioned, between Proudhon, J.-A. Langlois and Georges Duchêne. This would not be so remarkable, since at least Duchêne contributed to a number of works generally attributed to Proudhon alone, except that in this case it was Proudhon’s collaborators who had the final say—and, of course, because, under these circumstances, the practice of attributing the collaboration to Proudhon alone and presenting it in the first person as his individual expression raised protests. (See the “Disagreement Regarding the Posthumous Publication of Unpublished Works by P.-J. Proudhon” for details on both the process and the protests.) So it will at least be of interest to identify those places where Proudhon’s manuscript writings were altered or rearranged. There may even be a few places where we too might protest the editorial choices, although, in general, the work of Langlois and Duchêne strikes me as remarkable in its careful conservation of the manuscript material. And when the comparison of the manuscript and the published work is complete, we will have, as a sort of bonus, a certain amount of unpublished manuscript material to examine, which might supplement a well-annotated edition of The Theory of Property.

But we already know that among the unincorporated manuscript material we can find the transition linking “Ch. VII. Guarantism. — Theory of Property” to the rest of Poland, Part One: Principles. And when we examine the manuscripts we have a continuous, consecutively-paged text that flows from the end of Chapter VI, through the transitional passage, right into what became Chapter II of the published Theory of Property and then all the way, passing by a few additions made by the editors, to the end of Chapter VIII. And when we consult the summary for Chapter VII of the Principles, we find that this text seems to follow the original plan, lacking only a final section, “Un mot aux Polonais,” which, so far, has not surfaced among the manuscripts. So a next logical step is to assemble this intermediate text, which we might call Principles of Nationality and Property,” in order to restore the final chapter to its place in the larger work. And, at the same time, we might restore some of the longer manuscript fragments, which were incorporated piecemeal into The Theory of Property, to their original state, reconstructing the flow of Proudhon’s thought.

These two steps are actually natural complements to one another, and I’ve already started to do the preliminary work necessary to accomplish both of them fairly thoroughly. My work with the Bakunin manuscripts has given me a lot more occasion to consider the characteristics of fragments and variants as sources of understanding, and I’m not sure that I will feel comfortable with The Theory of Property until I’ve had a chance to reconstruct it in at least a couple of forms, as a step towards reconstructions of larger samples of Proudhon’s mature work.

This is obviously an ambitious, long-term project. I already have a strong sense of how I might want to publish the material originally destined for The Theory of Property and Political Geography and Nationality, but I’m not in any hurry to set things in stone. More than anything, I think a thorough exploration of The Theory of Property is the simplest way to move from what I know—or think I know—about Proudhon’s final works toward a more complete and useful understanding.

Expect research updates, unpublished manuscript fragment, bits and pieces of translation, etc. whenever other work allows me to push forward with this project.

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