P.-J. Proudhon, Economy (Ms. 2866) — selected translations


Psychology of the Collective Being, Its Faculties.
Its Ideas. Its Judgments. Its Laws. Origins of Right.






In all orders of ideas, we will see that the notions that direct the collective reason are not the same as those that direct individuals; that, unbeknownst to us, we have, so to speak, two minds and two languages, a mind for interest, speculation and individual [propre] justice, and a mind for general interest, synthetic philosophy and universal justice, quite different from the first; — a language for our individual ideas and a language for our general relations. Each of us, being an integral part of the collective man, thereby becomes capable of understanding the collective man, of representing it and of reproducing its ideas and its acts: it is only because of this that we are sociable, capable of common impressions and resolutions.


Let’s summarize.

In the first book, we began by noting the movement of society, and we assigned to this movement two immediate causes: the incessant displacement of interests and the perpetual oscillation of our ideas.

Before studying the laws of this motion, it was first necessary to recognize it in itself. That is what we have done.

The displacement of interests and the oscillation of ideas recognized, the movement of society put beyond doubt, we asked ourselves what was the subject of these evolutions, whether it should be considered as an essence, a determined and individualized reality, or whether should we see in it, with the old logicians, only an incoherent multitude, fluctuating, without will, without soul?

This search has led us to recognize a new truth about the reality and, as it were, the individuality of nations and of Humanity itself.

Hitherto man, the culmination of creation, had remained alone and out of line in the Universe; he formed the top of the ladder; he was without a term of comparison superior or equal to him; this solitude of classification repugnant to his understanding had not been the least of the causes that precipitated him into mystical hypotheses and superstitious beliefs. The imagination of man had peopled the unknown spaces, the mysterious Heaven, with intelligences of every grade, from the dead Soul to God; from the hamadryad to Destiny.

The ontological analysis, the first glance cast on nature, the history of Humanity, after having shown us that all being was resolved into a group, revealed to us in any collectivity or group formed by thinking natures and organically joined together, the presence of a higher nature that dominates ours from same height from which the animal itself dominates the raw body.

This result obtained, we had to study more closely this new, unknown nature, this revolutionary subject, which is none other than an example of the absolute, a realization of God. It was then that we again noted, by facts, and without any metaphysics, that in this collective Essence that Antiquity affirmed, with a thousand variants, under the name of God, the two manifestations of the Spirit, latent spirit in the brute body, plants and animals, free spirit in man, are no longer distinguishable; that there, freedom and necessity, providence and fatality, are synonymous terms; then, by a logical and practical consequence of this fusion, synthesis or identity, that the notions that, in individual Reason, are naturally opposed and distinct, are synonymous, counterparts, identical where synthesized in the People. Thus the forms of general reason are not the same as those of individual reason; these two Reasons differ from each other, not only in extent, but also in quality; the first is not the sum of all the others; it is its resultant, and as resultant, it constitutes a Reason, an essence, a new reality. That is not all. Just as in Bodies, plants, animals, the whole, the group, the organism, being finally distinct from each part, although forming a separate reality, is nothing other than the assembly of the parts through secret relations; — in the same way also, in the collective man, being, although distinct from each individual, and from the sum of individuals, is nothing other than the organization of these individuals, according to proper and special laws.

General reason and individual reason are therefore linked together; subject to a reciprocal action that it is now easy to define: the first, busy grouping, identifying, synthesizing, constantly the oppositions of the [second]. And the latter, in its turn occupied in decomposing, elaborating the absolute notions of the former. There are therefore, in the ideas of a people, notions of two kinds, diametrically opposed tendencies, and if the language, if the vocabulary is not double like the understanding, we must attribute the cause alone to the predominance that the individual Reason has obtained up to now over the collective Reason. The characteristic of individual reason is to split notions, and thereby to decompose the synthetic and collective idea: — hence the instability of our analytical conceptions, the displacement of interests, the position of political and economic problems, the corruption of institutions and, finally, the necessity of Revolutions. The characteristic of general Reason is to posit as identical and one what individual Reason perceives as double and antagonistic: hence these spontaneous manifestations, these providential intuitions, these summary judgments of the People, this silent and deep work of the masses, in a sense contrary to received opinions, of which the philosophers have never been able to say anything other than that it was the Will of God. Such has hitherto been for History the Deus ex Machina which came, by an impenetrable judgment, to break the course of things and change the direction of minds. We know what this God and this Providence is. We already see how the violation of an entire legal state, of an entire legal tradition, can enter into the general plan of the humanitarian order, become a work of justice and be part of our highest destiny. We can finally give ourselves a satisfactory account of the fatality of revolutions.

From whatever point primitive society started, whatever way it was inaugurated, by cannibalism or by association — by monarchy or by democracy — and there is reason to believe that the human species being spread from the beginning over all the points of the globe, the beginnings of the Universal Society have been as diverse as the climates and the races; — whatever, in a word, the setting in motion of the universal Association, it is clear that this primitive Society being nothing other than a resultant of antagonistic interests and analytical ideas, the oscillation was to take place, demonstrate itself there immediately, and that a series of revolutions became inevitable. It is to become master of this machine, it is to govern itself, it is to do with knowledge without trouble and without hesitation, something it has always accomplished only with pain and anxiety, that humanity aspires. Individuals want to group freely, faithful to their interests, while submitting to public order, defending the homeland and following progress: — It is their right and their duty. It is not in vain that nature has given them the reason that enlightens them, however opposed it may most often be to the reason of the masses. Nature, by giving us this analytical, deductive and progressive Reason, has thereby declared to us that the fate of each individual is placed under his own and personal responsibility; that it was up to the individual to provide for himself, by the exercise of his own strength, not by help or intervention. The greater his independence, the more powerful his personality, the better he contributed to the formation of the collective Being and the better it served the general interests.

But history warns us at the same time, through painful experience, that our individual right has its correlative in a social right, superior to all our legal abstractions, to all our industrial combinations — social right — which the legislators have all anticipated, without being able to define it; it tells us that it imposes itself on us all as the most indomitable of necessities, the most absolute of powers; — it invites us, therefore, all of us, to direct and moderate our efforts in view of this sovereign necessity, just as the plowman directs and moderates his work according to the nature of the soil, the season and the climate.

It is therefore necessary that the law, always and essentially protective of individual interests, of freedom of opinion, of commerce and of industry, be conceived with revolutionary foresight: without this, the law lies to the interests that it wishes to create and defend; and come the revolution, it will no longer be the regular and peaceful passage from one idea to another; it will only be the most hideous of bankruptcies, a bankruptcy of faith and public morality.


The People is the Being-Idea resulting from the relations of agglomerated individuals: its reality is just as certain as that of the raw and organized bodies, which we see, touch, smell, and hear; the beings, in fact, are only groups, and the People is also itself a group, which we began to characterize by saying that in it the free spirit and the latent spirit were not differentiated, which was the principle of the different Constitution of Reason in the collective man and in the individual man.

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