Proudhon on “libertarians” in 1858


I’ve been working my way through those sections of Proudhon’s Justice in the Revolution and in the Church which I didn’t have to consult carefully while writing the chapter on the State, as the next step towards organizing the Proudhon book. There have been a few moments when I’ve kicked myself for not going back and looking at sections, and more than a few where passages I read through in 2008-9 look very different to me now. There are two studies which I’ve never even begun to really do justice, but, so far, the most interesting surprise has come from a rereading of the First Study, on “The Position of the Problem of Justice,” which I’ve felt pretty comfortable with.

In that study, Proudhon attempted to show that two prominent tendencies, which he frequently identified as “communism” and “individualism,” cannot lead to an adequate theory of justice. In the argument he was covering some of the same ground that Pierre Leroux had covered in his essay on “Individualism and Socialism.” He was also returning to a version of his own opposition of “community and property,” from What is Property? and moving beyond the “synthesis” proposed in that work to a theory of liberty and immanent justice that would incorporate the notion of the antinomies.

It’s a key moment in the development of his thought, but what struck me this time through was a shift in his vocabulary that I had not previously noticed. For what appears to be the first and last time in the writings I have been able to search, Proudhon spoke of les libertaires—the libertarians. This was in 1858, the same year that Joseph Déjacque launched his newspaper, Le Libertaire, in New York. But while Déjacque was using the term in what would become its standard form for many years, to designate anarchists, Proudhon seems to have anticipated the libertarians of the 20th century, using the term to designate the proponents of laissez faire, and free markets in which all interests would be harmonized to the extent that they were truly understood, provided the “interference of authority” was prevented.

It’s a peculiar, and rather prescient, moment. It should not, of course, surprise, given Proudhon’s back-handed acknowledgment of some kind of “market anarchy,” but the term libertaire is not one that we associate with Proudhon. I had, in fact, pretty well convinced myself that he had not used the term. (I notice that a friend and colleague, whose working translation of the study I had access to, had highlighted the term where it first appeared.) But to find that he had indeed, however briefly, used the term, and in very much the sense used by the modern proponents of laissez faire, while, of course, consigning those he designated by the term among those who cannot construct an adequate theory of justice, adds another interesting wrinkle to the intellectual history, as well as to the present-day wrangling over labels.

Here’s the section:

VI. — The mind goes from one extreme to the other. Advised by the failure of Communism, we are driven to the hypothesis of an unlimited freedom. The partisans of that opinion maintain that there, at base, no fundamental opposition between interests; that men all being of the same nature, all having need of one another, their interests are identical, and therefore easy to grant; that only ignorance of economic laws has caused this antagonism, which will disappear the day when, more enlightened with regard to our relations, we will return to liberty and nature. In short, we conclude that if there is disharmony between men, it comes above all from the interference of authority in things which are not within its competence, from the mania to regulate and legislate; that there is nothing to do but let liberty do its work, enlightened by science, and that all will infallibly return to order. Such is the theory of the modern economists, partisans of free trade, of laissez faire, laissez passer, of every man for himself, etc.

As we see, this is not yet to resolve the difficulty; it is to deny that it exists. – We have only to make your Justice, say the libertarians, since we do not admit the reality of the antagonism. Justice and utility are synonymous for us. It is enough that the so-called opposing interests are understood for them to be respected: virtue, in the social man, just as in the recluse, being only selfishness properly understood.

This theory, which makes social organization consist solely of the development of individual liberty, would perhaps be true, and we could say that the science of rights and the science of interests are merely one and the same science, if, the science of interests, or economic science, having been created, the application did not encounter any difficulty. This theory would be true, I say, if the interests could be fixed and rigorously defined once and for all; if, having been equal from the beginning, and later, in their development, having advanced at an equal pace, they had obeyed a constant law; if, in their increasing inequality, we did not encounter so much chance and the arbitrariness; if, despite so many shocking anomalies, the slightest project of regularization did not raise sharp protests on behalf of affluent individuals; if we could already foresee the end of the inequality, and consequently of the antagonism; if, by their essentially mobile and evolving nature, the interests did not continuously create obstacles, creating new and worsening inequalities between them; if they did not tend, despite everything, to invade, to supplant one another; if the mission of the legislator were not precisely, in the end, to consecrate by his laws, as it emerges, this science of the interests, of their relations, of their balance, and of their solidarity: a science which would be the highest expression of right if we could ever believe it to be complete, but a science which, coming always after and not before the difficulties, forced to impose its decisions through public authority, can very well serve as an instrument and auxiliary of order, but could not be taken for the very principle of order.

By these considerations, the theory of liberty, or enlightened self-interest, irreproachable on the assumption of an accomplished economic science and a demonstrated identity of interests, is reduced to question-begging. It believes realized things which cannot ever be realized; things whose ceaseless, approximate, partial, variable realization constitutes the interminable work of the human race. So, while the communist utopia still has its practitioners, the utopia of the libertarians could not receive the least beginning of execution.

VII. — The communist hypothesis and the individualist hypothesis being thus both set aside, the first as destructive of individuality, the second as chimerical, there remains one last part to take, on which, in any case, the multitude of the peoples and the majority of legislators agree: It is that of Justice.

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


  1. To use the phrasing of a certain ancap hero:

    The marxists wanted liberal ends by conservative means

    The libertarians want liberal ends by liberal means

    The anarchist finds those means have no meaning to him.

    Btw, you had a blog entry where you decided not to use the term ‘mutualist’ as a descriptor, but the link is dead. Are you planning on uploading it?

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