Margins and Problems: Enter the Anarchist

Constructing Anarchisms

Part II—Anarchist History: Margins and Problems (An Idiosyncratic Survey)
General Resources:
II—Anarchist History: Margins & Problems:
I—Constructing an Anarchism:

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The 1840s opened with a bang, with Proudhon’s declaration: je suis anarchiste. When we’re examining the conditions of possibility for various possible anarchisms, the emergence of anarchist as a role or identity, a means of self-identification, is undoubtedly a moment that will be hard to top. We have seen the various contexts in which libertarian analyses had already emerged—and the degree to which they were emerging from analyses of the mechanisms of government and authority, whether it was a question of the deconstructive reading of someone like Thomas Skidmore or the alleged mental lapse of P. W. Grayson. Something anarchistic was apparently in the air, but it was a decisive step to give it a name—and what a name!—and also to claim that name as a position within the field of social systems.

The arguments and analyses in What is Property? would have repercussions in a variety of spheres, eventually informing the explicit anarchism that we have inherited, and the 1840s have to be considered a busy decade for individuals and movements that we usually count as part of the anarchist past. At the same time, our decade-by-decade exploration forces us to recognize that, while Proudhon’s 1840 provocation was of lasting significance, it took a while for the challenge involved to be taken up—perhaps even by Proudhon himself. At the same time, that busyness was often of a sort that is hard to characterize in the terms we usually use to discuss the anarchist past and its contexts. As a result, the opening decade of explicit anarchist development remains both something of an enigma and a potentially rich field for new explorations.

Possible Proudhons

My synthetic work has naturally placed Proudhon at the center of the story I’ve been telling, simply because his body of work seems to provide the most substantial core around which to assemble an anarchist synthesis. But the neo-Proudhonian anarchism featured there is really another “possible anarchism,” involving an modern extrapolation from works written in the 1850s and 1860s. And while there are certainly glimpses of Proudhon’s mature work even in 1840 and What is Property?—the Proudhon of the 1840s was also significantly different in his projects and emphases.

He said so himself:

For three years … I have worked on my complete transformation.

From 1839 to 1852, I have had what is called my critical period, taking this word in the lofty sense it is given in Germany. As a man must not repeat himself and I strive essentially not to outlive my usefulness, I am assembling the material for new studies and I ready myself to soon begin a new period I shall call, if you like, my positive period or period of construction. — Proudhon, Correspondance, vol. 6, (Paris: Lacroix, 1875): 285–286.

Proudhon’s own account of his development can, as we will see, be contested. His critical period was also the period in which he proposed his most famous practical reforms—but perhaps it will be enough to make a distinction between the kinds of constructions we find in the two periods.

For those who don’t know the details of Proudhon’s life, J.-A. Langlois brief account (which originally appeared as an introduction to the Correspondance) is a useful resource. Langlois lingers over Proudhon’s philosophical beginnings, which, according to Proudhon’s own testimony, were intended to be his life’s work. In a letter to the members of the Academy of Besançon, which had provided him with the scholarship necessary to pursue his early studies, he explained the relation of What is Property? to that ongoing work.

Gentlemen, the publication of that work was commanded of me by the order of my philosophical studies. This is what the future will demonstrate to you. One last Memoir remains for me to compose on the question of Property; that work accomplished, I would pursue, without turning aside from my path, my studies in philology, metaphysics and moral science.

Gentlemen, I belong to no party, to no coterie; I am without advocates, without partners, without associates. I make no sect, and I would reject the role of tribune, were it ever offered to me, for the simple reason that I do not wish to enslave myself!

His potentially scandalous work on property was, he suggested, just a phase in a course of philosophical studies, like his early work on the nature of language and his observations in The Celebration of Sunday. And we are left free to imagine a Proudhon who came to anarchist conclusions, while on route to some other goal, and moved on, leaving the world another puzzling and provocative work, like those of Burke and Grayson.

The members of the Academy were not, in the end, reassured, nor were the authorities, and Proudhon ended up facing a series of legal difficulties, escaping serious consequences only because his work was deemed too abstruse to be politically dangerous. The third memoir on property completed, Proudhon turned to a work of social philosophy, De la création de l’ordre dans l’humanité, which reads in places like a kind of antagonistic pastiche or détournement of the works of Charles Fourier. And then came The System of Economic Contradictions—a work of political economy, but a very philosophical one, informed, for better or worse, by a second-hand dose of that German criticism—followed by the famous conflict with Karl Marx, which, again, seems to have been driven by Proudhon’s unwillingness to tie himself to a party. The Revolution of 1848 shook up Proudhon’s plans, first drawing him into politics and then resulting in his imprisonment.

There are good reasons to mark much of that critical period as formative or transitional for Proudhon and to consider his engagement with and rejection of parliamentary reform as part of the development of his anarchist thought. There may also be good reasons to think of the critical practice Proudhon envisioned as going a bit beyond what we might ordinarily associate with kritik. We can look for clues to his agenda in his response to Marx:

Perhaps you still retain the opinion that no reform is at present possible without a coup de main, without what was formerly called a revolution and is really nothing but a shock. That opinion, which I understand, which I excuse, and would willingly discuss, having myself shared it for a long time, my most recent studies have made me abandon completely. I believe we have no need of it in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination. In other words, through Political Economy to turn the theory of Property against Property in such a way as to engender what you German socialists call community and what I will limit myself for the moment to calling liberty or equality. But I believe that I know the means of solving this problem with only a short delay; I would therefore prefer to burn Property by a slow fire, rather than give it new strength by making a St Bartholomew’s night of the proprietors…

The Solution of the Social Problem

“Solution du problème social” was the title shared by several of Proudhon’s works and the explicit project of some others. It became the title of a collection in the Œuvres Complètes, collecting some of those works, which has been partially translated as Proudhon’s Solution of the Social Problem. Some important manuscripts remain unpublished, although Edward Castleton’s collection, La propriété vaincue et d’autres écrits inédits, 1840-1850, should finally close that gap in our understanding of Proudhon’s early work.

It’s a bold title, but also a common one in the period we’re examining. There must be at least a dozen similarly titled work in the 19th century, including one by Joseph Charlier, which features in the early literature of universal basic income schemes. What is difficult to account for in Proudhon’s use of it is that the vast majority of his work does not seem to suggest that society’s problems will be so simply solved. The suggestion of a more or less utopian blueprint for social change certainly seems at odds with some well-known elements of Proudhon’s project, particularly after the 1852 shift from “critical” to “constructive” projects.

I’ve now spent a couple of weeks trying to sort through just where to go with and from that sense of elements being “at odds,” trying to make the best next steps from the realization that the 1840s are, in the context of our survey, “both something of an enigma and a potentially rich field for new explorations.” And I’m reminded of a realization from an earlier stage of the project:

When I began this survey, my greatest concerns were related to the obvious outliers, but it strikes me now that it has really been easier to look at a Paul Brown or P. W. Grayson and see a different sort of anarchism than it is to look at a single decade from the career of a figure like Proudhon and be really certain that I’m not dragging in all sorts of things from the outside.

After all, the main demands made on me as a scholar and student of Proudhon have quite consistently been to summarize his life’s work, making connections and smoothing over the (sometimes ponderous) steps in his own development. I find myself racing a bit madly back and forth between 1839 and 1865, trying to account for the twists and turns of his thought, while paying close attention to his own remarks on method, his periodic summaries and “professions of faith,” etc. And that’s the mode I’m naturally thrown into by this question of “critical” and “constructive” periods—a context in which I have previously observed considerably more continuity than Proudhon’s talk about a “complete transformation” would suggest. But when Proudhon makes that sort of claim and gives us a date for the watershed, I suppose we have to at least do our best to take him seriously—even if the terms of the transformation seem confusing at the outset. 

1852 was the year of Proudhon’s release from prison and the year in which he published The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat of December 2. 1853 saw the publication of The Philosophy of Progress, Proudhon’s summary of his philosophical ideas. So, if we are to take Proudhon’s published work as reflective of his “complete transformation,” we have to see the publication of 1852 as the last of a type and that of the following year as the first of a new type. If we pass over certain works that Proudhon produced to pay the bills, then the major works seem to break down as follows:

1839-1840: The Celebration of Sunday and What is Property? — two works addressed to the members of the Academy of Besançon, addressing the condition of the working classes and its amelioration, following a program of social-scientific analysis.

1841: Letter to M. Blanqui, Professor of Political Economy and Warning to the Proprietors or Letter to M. Considerant — two addition memoirs on the problem of property, addressed to a sympathetic scholar and a rival within socialist circles.

1842: Arguments Presented to the Public Prosecutor on the Right of Property — an address, delivered in part in Proudhon’s courtroom defense of his most recent work.

1843: The Creation of Order in Humanity — a work of social-scientific theory, very much in the style of Charles Fourier’s work.

1846: The System of Economic Contradictions or Philosophy of Poverty — another work of social-scientific theory, this time couched in some of the terms of German criticism.

1848: Solution of the Social Problem, various works of popular journalism and some proposals to the provisional government, where Proudhon served for a time after the 1848  revolution.

1849: The Confessions of a Revolutionary, with additional journalistic articles.

1850: Interest and Principal — his debate with Frédéric Bastiat.

1851: The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century — an early summary drawn from his readings in political economy, addressed “à la Bourgeoisie.”

1852: The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat of December 2 — a work addressed, rather defiantly, to Louis Napoleon, who had just made himself emperor of France and who had been the cause of Proudhon’s imprisonment.

The post-1852 works—whether published or unpublished—can be treated, without too much injustice, as a connected body of work. The Philosophy of Progress and the unpublished How Business Goes in France were something like first drafts of the two editions of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, which was then continued in War and Peace and Theory of Taxation, published under the general title of “Essays in Popular (or “Practical”) Philosophy.” And much of the rest of Proudhon’s production in the 1860s was drawn from his study of Poland and political geography.

The question, then, becomes what common characteristics the early works share, which we might identify as “critical” and might see as absent in the later works. And perhaps there are some payoffs here from the work that we have already done.

We’ve framed the larger transition from which Proudhon’s thought emerged in these terms:

While the avant-la-lettre philosophical anarchism we have been examining still imagines social harmony as emerging from adherence to a particular kind of law (though not human legislation), maintaining a particular sort of hierarchy between human individuals and a law-giving nature—uniting anarchy and natural order, while placing human government on the side of artificethe next anarchism we will recognize, Proudhon’s anti-absolutism, would quite simply lack any source for blueprints, making social harmony something that must be constructed, negotiated and renegotiated among diverse, associated individuals.

And perhaps what unites all of those early works is that they take the form of an appeal to some particular segment of society to understand and assume a role that has been drawn up for them by the unfolding of historical events. While there are obviously important elements of Proudhon’s own sociology present in those works, they seem to be there in order to illuminate some fundamental shift in the thinking of each audience addressed, which they would have to make it order to fully understand their existing position and interests. He recognized early on that the natural order involved a good deal in the way of contradiction, but in the context of a kind of dialectical unfolding, by which contradictions were steadily resolved, only to spawn new antinomic relations. He never completed his entry into the literature on universal history, but we see in his writings from the 1840s that, for him, “the Revolution” was really just the flow of events. We’re a long ways from the Great Chain of Being, but it is still possible to imagine that society would change if key players would just get with the program—if I can put it that way—which they might be expected to do because, while human nature may no longer be seen in the simple terms we have associated with our philosophical anarchism, there is still some sort of rational order of society, which perhaps even the emperor might be expected to recognize, if approached correctly.

By 1852, however, Proudhon had perhaps run through most of the appeals he might have addressed to his peers—without much to show for it.

Let’s look ahead to 1858 and the work on Justice. In another of those passages where Proudhon marked his watershed moments, he noted his break with hegelian dialectic (as he understood it) and set the scene for the resultant anarchy of the later works. The driving insight is this:

…the antinomy does not resolve itself, but [instead] indicates an oscillation or antagonism susceptible only to equilibrium.

Whatever else that idea implies, we can almost certainly say that, once he accepted it, the question of a “solution of the social problem” necessarily became much more complicated.

I’ve spent another week considering this question of Proudhon’s critical / constructive watershed and its relation of his thought to the philosophical anarchism already proposed as a precursor. I’ve taken a lot of long walks, translated some lovely, bittersweet poetry and tried to come to the clearest terms I can with what I do and don’t know about this key decade.

We’ve acknowledged that part of the task in this survey is defamiliarization, but the truth is that very few of our existing anarchist histories that can contain the flood of the anarchist or potentially anarchist past, once you open up the floodgates even a bit. Part of the fun of this kind of approach is the process of learning from those existing histories failing spectacularly, catastrophically from of the past, but sometimes the feeling of water rapidly rising is, I will admit, a bit much.

If we set aside the anticipations of more mature work, what is most recognizable as (proto-)anarchism in Proudhon’s critical works? The two scandalous phrases—”property is theft,” “I am an anarchist”—and the mutual credit proposals seem to exhaust the elements modern anarchists are very likely to know. But how are we to categorize these anarchistic tendencies?

This is the question I’ve really been struggling with.

The mutual credit proposals—the “solution of the social problem”—belongs to an experimental tendency, along with the movement in favor of Josiah Warren’s equitable commerce (formally presented in in the various editions of Equitable Commerce (1846-1852), Practical Details in Equitable Commerce (1852) and Stephen Pearl Andrews’ The Science of Society (1854), William Batchelder Greene’s writings on mutual banking (particularly during the Massachusetts agitation of 1848-1851) and the proposals for “mutualist townships” by Albert Brisbane and J. K. Ingalls (1849-1850), but also a wide range of settlement schemes, technological innovations and movements based on counter-institutional organization proposed and supported by more or less libertarian radicals. For now, let’s identify a kind of anarchist experimentalism (including important parts of what would be identified as anarchist mutualism), which differed from the schemes of natural government, but still perhaps clinging to some notion of a natural order, to which, through experiment, social relations might be made to conform.

I want to address the work of Josiah Warren in a separate post, but we can start by recognizing a key difference between his anarchistic individualism and the philosophy of his New Harmony comrade, Paul Brown. Warren’s strongest claim to the anarchist label—a concern for us, even though he personally hated labels—has to be his insistence on individuality. We can imagine a version of the cost principle that assumes all individuals experience similar amounts of “toil and trouble” in the performance of similar tasks—and such a system would seem compatible with the sort of philosophy and psychology we find in Brown’s work—but Warren took some pains to clarify the very subjective nature of cost. Proposing “principles for the harmonious adjustment and regulation of the pecuniary, intellectual, and moral intercourse of mankind,” he sounds a bit like Fourier—and we should probably recognize harmonian tendencies that unite what have been otherwise very different proposals, with the emphasis on harmony arising naturally from a recognition of human differences that require recognition.

Warren’s work appears to be a break with the philosophical anarchism we have proposed, but not perhaps a clean break. But what would constitute a clean break? I don’t really want to fall back on the familiar distinctions between “utopian” and “scientific” traditions, since it has been used primarily as a rhetorical weapon in disputes between Marxists and others. The division within socialism that that distinction has attempted to describe might be at least as accurately described as a conflict over the shape of social science, with practical experiments often ironically treated as somehow less rooted in the material world than abstract theorizing. Another familiar distinction—science vs. technology or engineering—might serve us better, provided we’re prepared to see elements of both on both sides of the polemical divide. And, looking ahead, we know that we are going to have to find some way of addressing the anarchist emphasis on experimentation, as well as the perhaps remarkably long list of appeals to natural order that we find across the spectrum of anarchisms. But I think we also have to recognize that even a very full and clear accounting of these distinctions might simply provide us with a nuanced account of the anarchism we have inherited as philosophical anarchism—perhaps a philosophical anarchism at times straining to break free and become something else, but often simply one uncertain of which proposed “solution of the social problem” will really do the work of harmonizing society with natural order.

There are, no doubt, those for whom this reduction of anarchism as such to a complex philosophical anarchism would be a story with a happy ending. Taking it as a sort of rationale for synthesis, I can even do quite a bit of the work to make an account of that sort hang together. Indeed, I’ve done some of that work already, in contexts where the important distinctions seemed different than they do on this pass through the material.

That’s why, it seems to me, it is of vital importance to work our way back and forth through the material—provided we want to take on the task of synthesis.

What seems missing from an account in which philosophical anarchism becomes the vehicle for synthesis is the anarchy—the je suis anarchiste—and the presence of the anarchist as both exemplar and champion of the unique and the en-dehors. We could perhaps reduce the history of anarchism to a struggle between the most libertarian varieties of liberalism and republicanism—and some anarchists do, I suppose—but probably not without the loss of something vital and central to at least some of us who call ourselves anarchists.

So perhaps, along side Proudhon the semi-utopian tinkerer, the next figure we have to account for at this stage is simply Proudhon the anarchist, a figure who remains both difficult to dismiss and equally difficult to fully assimilate in the majority of our anarchist histories. Then, treating that figure as a very particular sort of type, we can begin to come to terms with a range of possible anarchisms that are personal, arising from some fairly direct encounter between an individual and the idea of anarchy. Some of these personal anarchisms will be, in the context of more general developments, the kind of eccentric anarchisms we considered back in “Questions of Nature and Artifice,” but some—and Proudhon obviously falls into this category—will simply have emerged before there were any established criteria by which we could judge their potential eccentricity.

We’re building a toolkit that will find its most important uses later, as we examine subsequent decades. In the meantime, we do have to say a few more things about the 1840s. I’m hoping I can now pick up the pace again, but before we begin with the 1850s, I want to at least say a bit more about anarchist experimentalism, spend some time with Stirner and introduce another pair of “possible historians,” in order to talk about the possibility of a mid-19th century anarchistic feminism. Those who want to get started with that last topic might take the time to read Flora Tristan’s posthumously published work, The Emancipation of Woman, or, The Testament of the Pariah.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2569 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.