The Importance of Proudhon

Anarchists can be touchy about any sort of authority, so we are frequently at pains to say that we are not followers of any particular leader or historical figure. That’s good. Among other things, the historical figures we’re most likely to follow were almost all pretty clear about how undesirable that would be. And there’s something a little disconcerting about anarchists when they do invest perhaps a bit too much of their identity in an identification with some one of those anarchist figure, whether historical or current.
At the same time, there’s very little liberty that comes without struggle, and very little progress that does not come from at least some engagement with tradition. So we can’t always just ignore the men and women who came before us in the anarchist traditions, as we try to make anarchism our own. For mutualists, who are trying to make practical tools for the present day from a tradition that suffered pretty severe interruptions over the last 150 years, the case is a little more complicated. It’s not like the basic values of mutualism are “in the air” around us. Indeed, despite the tremendous and surprising resurgence of mutualism in recent years, there are still lots of folks who would at least like to think of our school of anarchism as a kind of anachronism, clearly superseded by their own approaches. And some days we don’t do our cause any favors, juggling heirloom concepts we perhaps don’t understand as well as we might in public, a bit drunk at times on the attention (however often negative) that mutualism gets these days. The thing is that there are plenty of potential antagonists out there for contemporary mutualists, but it may be that the most pressing fight we face is with ourselves and our key influences.
For the “free-market anti-capitalists,” there is a pressing need to show how the low-overhead revolution can work in practice. For the neo-Proudhonians and “two gun” mutualists, there is that same practical challenge, plus the battle to wrest all that is useful from our own tradition, while eliminating or rectifying what is not, and updating the whole mess for a world in pretty rapid change around us.

If the second course is yours, then there is no getting around Proudhon. He will be both your chief ally and your most formidable adversary. When he died, he left a body of work extending over more than fifty volumes, most of which has not been translated into English and much of which was never really engaged by the anarchist movement. I’m not sure that there is another individual body of theory and analysis in the anarchist tradition that contains as much valuable material as Proudhon’s—or one which contains as many pitfalls to be avoided. Now, you may be able to get away with wrestling with Proudhon second-hand, through my own analyses over at Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule, or through some of the competing interpretations, but I’m not sure I can recommend that strategy. There’s really no quicker way to make classical mutualism your own than that to wrestle it away from the grand old man himself—but he doesn’t make it easy.

So we will talk about Proudhon—or you can just read along as wrestle with some of the fine nuances of his approach. But if we descend from time to time into the realm of Proudhonology on this blog, it will be because it is the most direct route to some key aspect of mutualist philosophy or social science. I promise.