Category Archives: Anarchy in all its senses

Anarchist Beginnings

With the anthology, Anarchist Beginnings: Declarations and Professions of Faith, 1840-1920, well on its way to completion and the connected study, A Good Word: Anarchy in All its Senses, starting to take a more definite shape, it seems like a good time to collect the various related texts and get back to the project of building the larger library of introductory texts around which the ANARCHISMS pamphlet series was originally based.

Anarchist Beginnings is the newest collection in the Libertarian Labyrinth archive, and you should find lots of interesting texts there relating to the most fundamental questions regarding anarchy and anarchism. Enjoy!

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Joseph Déjacque and the First Emergence of “Anarchism”

One of this week’s tasks was to finally go back and take a closer look at  how Joseph Déjacque used the language of anarchy in his writings. I finally assembled a couple of text files of all the articles from Le Libertaire and worked through the required keyword searches. That process led me to focus on some pieces that I admit I had never read, or read closely, before and produce some new translations. I think the results are interesting and pose some new interpretive challenges.

Déjacque is notable for using the conventional anarchist vocabulary much more than most of his contemporaries, but I have been particularly interested in his use of the term anarchisme. I have made much in recent years of the lag between the emergence of anarchy as a keyword in 1840 and the eventual adoption of anarchism by various anti-authoritarian currents in the late 1870s, but there have always been potential problems with that account, chief among them the first emergence of anarchism as a keyword during Proudhon’s lifetime. It seems certain that some of that part of the story is still to be told. We find an entry for anarchisme in the 1853 Dictionnaire universel, with a reference to Proudhon (“Voir l’Anarchie de P.-J. Proudhon, l’éminent publiciste chef de cette école.”) But there are no references to self-proclaimed anarchists using the term and the dictionary provides very little clarification about the beliefs of Proudhon and his “school.” In a period when so many isms were coined, the term would perhaps have seemed obvious to a lexicographer, even if it had not really seen much use. My own searches have still revealed no clearly anarchist uses of the term prior to its appearance in Le Libertaire on August 18, 1859, in the third part of Déjacque’s “La question politique,”

This section, “Le Catholicisme. — Le Socialisme,” is a fine example of Déjacque in ranting mode. He has, for example, just identified himself as a “revolutionary Satan,” with “an infernal snicker for an amen,” when he first deploys the now-famous keyword:

The time is coming. Jesuitism and Anarchism, the extremes will meet. But it is by marching to meet one another, by clashing mortally like bulls who compete for a heifer. Which of the two will take possession of Humanity? — The old are the old and the young are the young: To the old the Past, to the young the Future!!…

So, there you have it: anarchism may well have emerged first into the world “like a bull who competes for a heifer.” More importantly, of course, anarchism emerges as one of two fundamental forces in a Manichean struggle for the possession of Humanity. And that is the tone for the rest of the essay:

If, on their side, the Jesuits have the belfry of Saint-Barthélemy, we, anarchists, have the tocsin of revolutions. To arms! in the two camps. To arms! and let the idea cross with the idea and the iron with iron! — To arms! We fight for oppression, they say. — To arms! We, we fight for deliverance! And do not forget that those we have to combat are those who have said: “Kill, always kill…” Only, this time, it is not “God” but Humanity that will recognize its own!!

But you, bourgeois and protestants, what will become of you in this colossal brawl? There is no place for you, poor vagabonds, between the two enemy camps, that of anarchic Liberty and catholic Authority. You will be crushed, like caterpillars, beneath the feet of the terrible principles in battle. Men of the happy medium, you no longer have a reason to exist. Political constitutionalism, like religious constitutionalism; all the schisms, all the mixed heresies; the bastard reforms, part liberal, part religious; the protestant superstition and the representative superstition; everything apart from the extremes; everything that is a corruption of radical Good or radical Evil; everything that is not exclusively one or exclusively the other, pure-bred libertarian or pure-bred authoritarian; everything, finally, that has been brought into the world by a coupling of which nature disapproves, is destined for death without posterity, like the mule, that sterile product of the donkey and the horse. Your last hour has sounded, bourgeois and protestants, mules incapable of reproduction. Whether it is Jesuitism or Anarchism that triumphs, that is it for you, your elimination is assured. For neither cannot tolerate you any more than the other. — Jesuitism does not want intermediaries between it, — the sacred consumer, the holy and blessed and privileged caste, — and the immense mass of the taxable and exploitable people, the profane beast of burden, the servile and gigantic producer. Every other profession of faith but its own is a hanging offense. Anarchism, it wants no more parasites: it denies God in the heavens and on the earth; it leaves no pretext for the existence of religious or governmental superstitions; no vestige of a chance to the exploiters of all sorts; it is the envoy of equality and solidarity among men. — It is death, death for you, see it well, — whether by Authority or by Liberty. You can no longer find salvation except in metamorphosis, in transformation. — With the Anarchists, you must deny God, deny religion, deny government, deny property, deny the family, affirm the right to work, the right to love, the right to individual autonomy, to social fraternity, to all the rights of the human being; make yourselves socialists, finally. Or, with the Jesuits, you must affirm God, the Father-Master; divine right; the seigniorial rights of the clergy, the rights of jambage and aubaine pour the reverend catechizers; pay the tithe, furnish the corvée, be beaten and… content ; deny progress; deny the sciences, deny the arts and letters; cast Voltaire and the curé Meslier, Luther and Calvin in the fire; make an auto-da-fé of all the liberal writings, of all the reformist books; and, at the least leaning towards independence, you expect to have your bones ground by torture or you flesh toasted on the pyres; finally make yourselves good catholics,… — It is all one or all the other. There is no middle ground: choose…

And admit that it is you, Bourgeois and Protestants, who have made this situation for yourselves!… Ah! How you have earned your punishment!

Who restored the Pope to his temporal throne in 1815, if not you, bourgeois protestants of England? Who restored him again in 48? Who exiled and put to death the socialists in June and in December? You again, voltairean bourgeois of France.

And what will be your recompense, bourgeois and protestants of England? — To be eliminated by those you wanted to restore!… And you, bourgeois and voltaireans of France? — To be exiled and put to death by those you wanted to eliminate!!… And do not hope to flee to America or elsewhere: — either Catholicism or Anarchism will pursue you there. There is no longer a stone on the globe where you could safely rest your head. Like Adam and Eve at the end of the terrestrial Paradise, you will be reduced for your sins to wandering naked and cursed in a vale of tears!

So metamorphose yourselves, transform yourselves, bourgeois voltaireans and bourgeois protestants. From conservative parasites become revolutionary workers: “revolutions are conservations.” Remember the time, no far gone, when you were the avant-garde of Progress; when, — in the sciences and in the realm of letters, in the parliaments and in the public square, — you marched to conquer liberty. And if your disposition is no longer to occupy the first rank, know that there is still a place for the best of you in the rearguard. Do not wait to be forced by the Revolution to submit to it; for to your judaical support at the last hour, the Revolution could respond, as to all the Powers too slow to submit to it, all the deposed Powers: it is too late!!!

And we, the Proletariat, we the anarchists, we the revolutionary flesh and idea, will be let ourselves be butchered or bound in chains without defending ourselves? — Isn’t it the tool that makes the bayonet? And what we have made, could we not break?… So let us rise up! And, in passing, in order to achieve it, on the guts of the emperors, it’s proconsuls, let us prove to Catholic Rome that the Proletarians of today are the equals of the Barbarians of the past!!

Hurrah!! For the liberation of men and women!!!

Hurrah!! For Liberty, — individual and social liberty!!!

There are some obvious references to Proudhon here. “Revolutions are conservations” is a nod to the “Toast to the Revolution,” where Proudhon said:

Whoever talks about revolution necessarily talks about progress, but just as necessarily about conservation. From this it follows that the revolution is always at work in history and that, strictly speaking, there are not several revolutions, but only one permanent revolution.

But it is a rather partial nod, I think. There are moments, in similar contexts, when Proudhon drew stark battle lines similar to those we see here. “La question politique” starts with a discussion of Louis Napoleon’s imperial ambitions and end up, by the sort of circuitous route we expect from Déjacque, at the oppositions of “catholicism — socialism” and “jesuitism — anarchism.” Proudhon’s responses to Louis Napoleon include some of his most stark oppositions: the choice “anarchy or Caesarism” in the conclusion of The Social Revolution Demonstrated by the Coup d’Etat and the choice of “archy or anarchy, no middle ground” in the posthumously published Napoleon III. These, however, are theoretical lines drawn in the sand, marking clearly distinct tendencies, but not, I think we have to admit, armies in some final showdown between “radical Good” and “radical Evil.”

The other obvious nod here is to Ernest Coeurderoy, who published Hurrah!!! or Revolution by the Cossacks in 1854. According to the program of that work, the first part of a projected trilogy, the birth of a new world of freedom would begin only with the destruction of Europe by Cossack invasion. I suppose we might think of it as an early accelerationist text, with the accelerating events being precisely the sweeping away of the very possibility of any middle ground.

There is a good deal else here that would deserve comment, from the invocation of “good versus evil” to the reference to “judaical” adherence to the revolutionary cause. References to sterile couplings as those “of which nature disapproves” can be added to our list of indications that perhaps Déjacque was not as clear an alternative to Proudhon where sex, gender and sexuality were concerned. We’ve yet to really do justice to Déjacque’s thought, but it’s probably useful not to wander too far afield right now.

In the next issue of Le Libertaire (No. 17, September 30, 1859), the term anarchism appears again, in much the same context:

So, men of small liberties or great, you the lukewarm and the hot, rally, all of you, to Liberty, to complete, unlimited liberty, for apart from it there is no salvation: Liberty or death!… Rally to the only true principle. Together let us oppose radicalism to radicalism, anarchism to jesuitism, so that what the cross-bearers and sword-bearers, the bravos of the autocratic and theocratic Authority provoke as a Riot (which they strive to drown in blood and drag around in irons) responds to them by growing to the level of the circumstances, by declaring Revolution!!! — So much for the general question.

In the essay on “Ideas” (Le Libertaire 18, October 26, 1859), there is a bit more explanation of the idea itself:

If the ideas of the Past, uprooted ideas, still give, alas! their dead leaves, the ideas of the Future, living ideas deep-rooted in the Present, give their green buds. The fibers of Anarchism, finally feeling the atmosphere heat up around them, breaking the nets that hold them captive. They rise from their torpor, they overrun the reawakening branches of Humanity and vigorously unwind there their progressive spiral, spreading their growing veins on the brows of new generations. The ideas of twenty years ago, of even ten years ago, seem like the ideas of another century, so much has the movement of revolutionary thought, of public opinion, advanced. It is not only the form of the Royalty of the Divinity tat are attacked today, but Authority in its principle; it is Divinity and Royalty in itself and in all its metempsychoses: Duality, Paternity, Delegation, Capital; Religion, Family, Government, Property. The insurrection of ideas against the monarch of the heavens or the monarchs of the earth is no longer political; it is social! It is now no longer a revolution of paradise or palace that is necessary, it is a radical revolution, the substitution of full and complete Liberty for full and complete Authority. It says: Down with the idlers, down with the parasites; down with all who produced without consuming. Down with the heavenly master, exploiter of worlds! Down with the terrestrial masters, the exploiters of men! — What is the universal God? Everything. — What must he be? Nothing. — What is universal matter? Nothing. — What must it be? Everything. — And, fraternal insurgents, the ideas proclaim universal autonomy, the autonomy of each, the government of worlds and men by themselves, Life being Movement, Movement being the producer of Progress, and Progress being solidary and infinite in its attractions.

The term then appears again, after a hiatus of several issues, in the last two numbers of Le Libertaire. In the third section of “The Organization of Labor,” it is once again a question of a clash between anarchy and authority, but there has been a fascinating change in Déjacque’s presentation of that conflict. Back in No. 15, he had begun an essay on “Direct and Universal Legislation,” which begins with the caution:

As libertarian or anarchist as we may be, we must still live in our own century and deal with contemporary populations. We can catch a glimpse of the great and free human society [cité], the city of the future, but we can reach it only by passing over the bodies of several generations.

This essay, which ran simultaneously with the material already cited, was then continued by “The Organization of Labor,” which began with a reiteration of the defense of that “direct and universal legislation” as a transition to anarchy, followed by some reassuring words to those who fear the possible outcomes of this course of action:

I have said in the preceding articles, the universal and direct vote (not to be confused with universal and direct suffrage, which is about men and not things), the vote on measures of public necessity by each and all is, still in our days, for the individual as for the commune, as for the nation, the instrument of social revolution; it is the logical and inevitable transition from authority to an-archy. The review of the thing being voted on being permanent, and the element of progress spreading more and more each day in the masses by the exercise of the vote and the discussion that accompanies it, by the rise of insights and the generalization of acquired knowledge, it naturally follows that we will distance ourself more and more each day from authority, in order to approach more closely each day to an-archy. Woe to the proletariat if, on these triumphant barricades, it does not know how to seize this lever of emancipation, the legislative scepter, and establish itself in a universel and provisional government. Woe to it, if it allows a new partial power to be established, a new representative dictatorship on the ruins of the one that it has overturned, though that power or dictatorship might be the most well-intentioned. The people can only progress on the revolutionary path if they are invested with a revolutionary function; every man and every woman, every infinitesimal fraction of the people must come into immediate possession of their equal part of universal sovereignty and fully enjoy their right to participate directly in the use of the common weal. Doubtless, in a milieu as corrupt and as ignorant as our own, it would be necessary to submit, to a certain degree, to the heavy pressure of a great number of the blind; but it would be necessary to submit to that pressure only conditionally, while making a constant effort to project light where darkness still reigns, and to destroy, by a philosophical propaganda, authoritarian prejudices, political and religious superstitions. If we who call ourselves anarchist-revolutionaries are really conscious of the truth of our principle, we should not fear, with this transitional system, which clings to the past through legal arbitrariness and to the future through the fraternitarian, egalitarian and libertarian exercise of our moral and intellectual faculties, to be led back to absolutism; all the odds, on the contrary, are for anarchism. It is not in the destiny of the human being to march backwards, when Progress, spreads its wings to launch it forward.

This is perhaps not a clean break with the climactic conflict narrative, as the opposing sides still seem quite distinct, but it is hard not to think of this transitional program as a bit of a mule. That it is eventually doomed seems overshadowed by the assertion that it is essential in its specific role as “logical and inevitable” transition.

This is probably where we should review the essay on “Scandal” (Le Libertaire No. 4, August 2, 1858), in which Déjacque declared that there are two different approaches to promoting social change, both of which “are good and useful, depending on the sorts of listeners we encounter along our way.” The key passage is probably this:

Two manners of acting present themselves to those who want to become propagators of new ideas. One is calm, scientific discussion, without renouncing anything of principles, to report them, and comment on them with a fine courtesy and firm restraint. This process consists of injecting truth drop by drop into minds that are already prepared, elite intelligences, still beset by error, but animated by good will. Missionaries of Liberty, preachers with smiling faces and caressing voices, (but not hypocrites,) with the honey of their words they pour conviction into the hearts of those who listen to them; they initiate into the knowledge of truth those who have a feeling for it. The other is bitter argument, although scientific as well, but which, standing firm in the principles as in a coat of mail, arms itself with Scandal as with an axe, to strike redoubled blows on the skulls of the prejudiced, and force them to move under their thick covering. For those, there are no words blistering enough, no expressions cutting enough to shatter all these ignorances of hardened steel, that that dark and weighty armor that blinds and deafens the dull masses of the people. All is good to them–the sharp sting and the boiling oil—in order to make these apathetic minds tremble to their heart of hearts, under their tortoise shells, and to make resonate, by tearing at them, these fibers which do not ring out. Aggressive circulators, wandering damned and damnators, they march, bloodthirsty and bleeding, sarcasm on the lips, the idea before them, torch in the hand, across hatreds and hisses, to the accomplishment of their fateful task; they convert as the spirit of hell converts: by bite and fire.

Ultimately, however, it will probably take a closer examination of the arguments in the more “scientific” essays to determine if Déjacque’s general position shifted. What we probably can say safely right now is that he associated anarchism with both parts of the project.

The final appearance of anarchism is in the final issue of Le Libertaire, in the first section of an essay “On Religion” that remained unfinished when the paper ceased publication. The essay begins:

What is Religion? What must it be?

What is Religion today? It is the immutable synthesis of all errors, ancient and modern, the affirmation of absolutist arbitrariness, the negation of attractional anarchism, it is the principle and consecration of every inertism in humanity and universality, the petrification of the past, its permanent  immobilization.

What must it be? The evolving synthesis of all the contemporary truths; perpetual observation and unification; the progressive organization of all the recognized sciences,  gravitating from the present to the future, from the known to the unknown, from the finite to the infinite; the negation of arbitrary absolutism and the affirmation of attractional anarchism; the principle and consecration of every movement in humanity and universality, the pulverization of the past and its rising regeneration in the future, it’s permanent revolution.

Perhaps here we have some partial resolution of the questions just raised, if “attractional anarchism” is a principle of movement, a universal tendency that explains and “consecrates” that “permanent revolution” that we cannot help associating with Proudhon. But I’m inclined to think that at this stage, so early in the evolution of this part of the anarchist vocabulary, we are likely to find, even after we dig much more deeply into the remainder of Déjacque’s works, that not all of the pieces fit neatly together.

But perhaps that should be no surprise, as it is unclear that the second emergence of anarchism was ever any more successful in reconciling all the tensions that emerged along with it.

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Libertarian socialist historiography

bakunincardRecently, I’ve been looking at some very interesting work by René Berthier and Gaston Leval, some of it relating to the familiar question of just how anarchists have used the language of anarchy (anarchist, anarchist, etc.) Berthier (whose various works on Bakunin and Proudhon I have been finding very useful) has written a nice little essay on “L’usage du mot « anarchie » chez Bakounine” (The Use of the Word ‘Anarchy’ by Bakunin), which covers some of the same ground as my work on “Anarchy in All its Senses,” but in the works of Bakunin, rather than Proudhon. Leval was contributed a more general essay, “Socialiste libertaire! Pourquoi?” (Libertarian Socialist! Why?) on his reasons for preferring that label, socialiste libertaire (libertarian socialist), over anarchist, and documenting a number of other figures associated with the anarchist tradition who shared that preference, at least at some stages of their careers.

Berthier finds that Bakunin uses the term anarchy in much the same way as Proudhon, seldom using it to designate (as he puts it) “a political doctrine” and frequently using it to indicate disorder. He observes a number of occasions in Bakunin’s work where the positive connotations of the terms obviously depend on the fact that disorder in the existing society creates opportunities for change, not necessarily on any positive aspects of anarchy itself—but also documents a number of instances where something like the “political doctrine” he is seeking may really be in play.

Leval traces some of the same history, showing that even anarchist authors often associated the term anarchy with disorder, and invoking a series of prominent figures (Rudolf Rocker, Francisco Ferrer, Tarrida del Marmol, Gustav Landauer, etc.) who at one time or another preferred identification as some form of socialist to the anarchist label. It’s an interesting account, despite some passages that look like they are reaching a bit for ideological points: Leval claims, for example, that it was Jules Guesde, Paul Brousse, and Benoît Malon who were must insistent on the anarchist label during the First International, and then attempts some connection between their “verbal extremism” and their subsequent “founding” of “the authoritarian socialist party.” For Leval, the biggest problem with the language of anarchy seems to be that too many people have adopted it, and that it does not indicated clearly enough a investment in the issues he considers central.

I’m afraid that I am not ultimately very hopeful that any amount of attention to labels and keywords is going to solve any of the problems we have communicating our ideas to others. It is an open question whether libertarian socialist has proven any clearer, in the years since 1956, than anarchist. I also have very little investment—and some purely negative reaction—to the focus on “a political doctrine,” which seems to drive both examinations of the history. Indeed, looking at the similarities between Proudhon’s and Bakunin’s use of the language of anarchy, it strikes me that someone not looking to break with that terminology might be inclined to linger a little longer with the question of what—other than a political doctrine—that obviously complex term might be indicating. To put it more directly: It seems to me that a self-identified libertarian socialist may have fewer reasons to grapple with, or avoid grappling with, the problem of “anarchy in all its senses” than someone who identifies as an anarchist. Without no identification with the terminology, neither anxiety nor curiosity is likely to drive us to plumb the depths of the difficulties.

But there is another side to this issue. After all, the question of “anarchy in all its senses” has hidden in plain sight for a long time. It seems to have been obscured in the English translation of The General Idea of the Revolution precisely because it seemed to create confusion about a political doctrine—when the text itself suggested that a search for something else was required. But many of the questions raised during the “Era of Anarchy” work arise from the fact that we tend to see “anarchism” in periods where perhaps we should distinguish other sorts of activity in support of anarchy.

The question of the relationship between Bakunin’s career and anarchy and anarchism is obviously something that I’ve been forced to wrestle with as the Bakunin Library comes together, and it was partially as a means of buying a bit of time that I chose to construct the collection along lines already established by Max Nettlau and James Guillaume, as a “collectivist” edition. But one of the things that I have discovered, as I’ve grappled with the literature on Bakunin—which always threatens to outstrip my language skills—is that much of the most useful commentary on Bakunin as an anarchist has come from scholars like Berthier, for whom the question of anarchism emerges specifically as a kind of distraction that must be addressed.

My own (anti-)political, philosophical and historiographical commitments mean that I can, at times, only follow the logic of that libertarian socialist scholarship so far. Anarchy is obviously an important piece of the particular puzzle I am assembling. But I am finding it a very useful foil as I am attempting to clarify my own anarchist account.

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Anarchy, Understood in All its Senses—II

[Continued from Part I.]

“The first term of the series being thus Absolutism, the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses.”–Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution


In 1840, Proudhon declared that he was an anarchist, and he gave the beginnings of a description of the anarchy that he proposed:


Anarchy, the absence of a master or sovereign, such is the form of government that we approach every day, which the deep-rooted habit of taking the man for rule and his will for law makes us regard as the height of disorder and the expression of chaos.


It is a description with at least three important elements. First, we have the definition of anarchy as the absence of a ruler, what Proudhon would described elsewhere as non-government or self-government. This is the idea that has most directly informed the various schools of anarchism, as the advocacy of anarchy gradually became a social movement and developed explicit ideologies. And it was certainly the starting place for Proudhon’s own explorations. Although he was writing at a time when there was no anarchist movement, and may have never used the term anarchism, there are certainly places in his writings where his explorations of what it means to be in favor of anarchy look very familiar. In particular, his critique of the State during the Second French Republic and his subsequent analysis of the Empire of Louis Napoleon are obvious precursors of anarchist anti-statism. But, as I have already noted in a variety of contexts, Proudhon’s engagement with the notion of anarchy led him in various other directions, ultimately complicating the familiar parts of the work.

The second element, the confident claim that anarchy is “the form of government that we approach every day,” already takes us into territory that may be unfamiliar. When we think of an anarchist analysis of current events and institutions, we probably think of something like this statement by Proudhon:


Our own principle…is the negation of every dogma; our first datum, nothing. To deny, always to deny: that is our method of construction in philosophy. It is by following that negative method that we have been led to pose as principles, atheism in religion, anarchism in politics, and non-property in political economy.


And so our impulse is to deny the validity of virtually everything we find around us. No anarchist tendency is more pronounced than the tendency to vie among ourselves to see who can most relentlessly ferret out the last possible remaining bits of the present system in any proposed alternatives. But if you start from the belief that we are daily approaching anarchy, even under present conditions, then the process of negation probably needs to be considerably more discriminating. In Proudhon’s work we actually find a general sense that virtually all popular beliefs and institutions are fundamentally correct, even progressive, from some point of view (in their aims, for example, if not in their application), and that the primary reason why virtually all of them have such disastrous results for the vast majority of us stems from our failure to understand a very basic, ongoing struggle between absolutism and progress, and the effect this misunderstood conflict has on the development and persistence of archic and anarchic ideas and institutions. So what Proudhon actually denied, over and over again, was primarily what he called the absolute, which he understood as both key to the preference for authoritarian institutions and instrumental in their inevitable failures. Once he had, as he put it, “eliminated the absolute” in concepts and institutions, those elements could then return to his toolkit. This is, for example, the method by which “property” and “the State” began as the targets of Proudhon’s most concentrated critique, and then become critical elements of his social science.

Proudhon used the most extravagant sort of language to describe the results of this “elimination of the absolute:”


to eliminate the absolute is to make the reason of things appear; and as that reason of things makes up, for us, the very reality of things, it results in the last analysis that to eliminate the absolute is to give reality to things, it is, for the man who seeks utility in them, to create them.


What he might say to us now is that we have become very good at exposing the fundamentally mythic or ideological aspects of the world around us, but not so adept at revealing that “reason of things,” with the result that we have been ineffective at “giving reality” to our relations.

Is there is a challenge worth responding to in that aspect of Proudhon’s thought about anarchy? This is the first of a number of questions that we will collect as we work through the rest of his treatment of the concept. And, to be clear, this time around it is not simply a question of a provocative reference to “anarchy, understood in all the senses” in a single work, but the product of a very thorough scouring of the majority of Proudhon’s published works for every instance where anarchy, anarchists or the anarchic in social relations is discussed. That will take us rather far afield before we can pull the various threads together.

First, however, there is a third element to at least note in Proudhon’s 1840 explanation of anarchy. Recall the full context of his original declaration:


What form of government should we prefer? — “Why, how can you ask such a question?” one of my younger readers will doubtless respond. “You are a republican.” — “A republican! Yes; but that word clarifies nothing. Res publica; that is, the commonweal. Now, whoever is interested in the commonweal, under any form of government whatsoever, may call himself a republican. The kings are also republicans.” — “Well! you are a democrat?” — “No”” — “What! You would have a monarchy.” — “No.” — “A constitutionalist?” — “God forbid!” — “So you are an aristocrat?” — “Not at all.” — “You want a mixed government?” — “Even less.” — “What are you, then?” — “I am an anarchist.”

“Oh! I understand you; you speak satirically. This is for the benefit of the government.” — “Not at all. You have just heard my serious and carefully considered profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am, in the strongest sense of the term, an anarchist. Listen to me.”


We have the repeated denial of governmental forms, the repeated elimination of archic forms. This was the sort of thing that gave Proudhon a reputation as just a “destroyer,” but we also have a “serious and carefully considered profession of faith” that presents being an anarchist “in the strongest sense of the term” and being “a firm friend of order” as compatible, if also in some sort of acknowledged tension. And this connection of anarchy and order would remain one of the most persistent questions in anarchist theory for a long time.

I have written in the past about the phrase “anarchy is order,” so often attributed to Proudhon. It is probably worth repeating some of that discussion, as it takes us straight to the heart of some of the difficulties in understanding Proudhon. The phrase is easy to find in the work of Anselme Bellegarrigue, for whom the equation of order and anarchy, like that of government and civil war, was fundamental. However, Bellegarrigue’s vision was arguably a lot simpler than Proudhon’s, and his use of the terminology a great deal more direct. Let’s briefly trace the path of Proudhon’s early reflections on anarchy.

1839.—In The Celebration of Sunday, Proudhon presents his basic concern, understood at this stage primarily as a “state of social equality:”


The question of the equality of conditions and fortunes has already been raised, but as a theory without principles: we must take it up again and go into it in all its truth. Preached in the name of God, and consecrated by the voice of the priest, it would spread like lightning: one would believe in the coming of the son of man. For it will be with that doctrine as with so many others: first it will be booed and loathed, then it will be taken into consideration, and discussion will be established; then it will be recognized as just at base, but ill-timed; then finally, despite all the oppositions, it will triumph. But straight away a problem will present itself: To find a state of social equality which would be neither community, nor despotism, nor allotment, nor anarchy, but liberty in order and independence in unity. And this first problem being resolved, there remains a second: to indicate the best method of transition. That is the whole problem of humanity.


The general form of the state proposed, “liberty in order and independence in unity,” should look familiar to readers of Proudhon’s work, even if the arrangement of the terms is not the one to which we are most accustomed. From the beginning, we see Proudhon wrestling with the balance between centralizing and decentralizing, as well as authoritarian and anti-authoritarian tendencies. A year later, in What is Property?, Proudhon would be concerned with achieving liberty by balancing equality, anarchy, infinite variety, and proportionality (the elements of the social regimes of community and property.) And that would certainly not be the last time that Proudhon shuffled these concepts around between the sides of some reciprocal or mutualistic balance.

It’s worth noting here that balance would assume an increasingly important role in Proudhon’s thought, and that some of the theoretical maneuvers that may seem most suspect to modern readers were characteristic of a number of French thinkers with whom Proudhon was connected. Like most of the early anarchists, Proudhon had a complex relationship with what we are accustomed to think of as “utopian socialism,” and figures like Charles Fourier and Pierre Leroux provided him with roughly equal parts of inspiration and cautionary example. He rejected their rigid systems and taxonomies, but was deeply influenced by the more fluid aspects of their thought. Fourier’s serial method was an early focus for Proudhon, and we see elements of it persist in his theory. We also see Proudhon use the notion of simplism to criticize the one-sidedness of certain kinds of thought. As the Fourierist Hippolyte Renaud put it:


One of the inherent characteristics of Civilization is simplism. Simplism is the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that the real progress is null or negative.


As Proudhon would later clarify, drawing from Fourier the notion that every individual is composed of a series or group, the fault is really the assumption that anything has merely one side, that unity can be simple. The problem with our ontology, he said in the early 1850s, is this:


The notion of the one, at once empirical and intellectual, condition of all reality and existence, has been confused with that of the simple, which results from the series or algebraic expression of movement, and, like cause and effect, principle and aim, beginning and end, is only a conception of the mind, and represents nothing real and true.


This approach would define a central aspect of his social science, which rejected claims about essence and focused exclusively on relations, including relations internal to what we think of as “the one.”

That notion of the one already had an important place in the discussion of the most libertarian currents of French radicalism, thanks to the interest in Étienne de La Boétie’s work, Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un. A number of Proudhon’s peers wrote commentary on the text, including Pierre Leroux, for whom the counter-one was a three, or triad, and the key to liberty was a balanced of conflicting tendencies, whether internally within the human individual or politically within society. Proudhon would reject the importance of the triad, but maintain the principle of counterbalancing forces. Leroux’s contributions to Proudhon’s context also included his coining of the terms individualisme and socialisme in French in 1834. What is most interesting in this context is that the terms were initially coined to designate extreme tendencies that radicals should learn to balance, rather than being driven to extremes by their anxieties. Leroux’s specific treatment of the terms did not survive more than about a decade, after which point he was forced to follow the evolving usage and call himself a socialist, but Proudhon certainly knew Leroux’s work in the earlier period, and there is a great deal about his treatment of concepts like community and property that suggest an influence or at least parallel development. (The case for direct influence seems strong, but we have equally likely cases, such as Jules Leroux’s use of the phrase “property is theft” in 1838, where Proudhon seems to have been unaware of the precedent.)

Among the other borrowings from the “utopians” was Fourier’s concept of guarantism, which was originally a period of conscious balancing of interests and institutions prior to the era of Harmony and became for Proudhon a process of counterbalancing tendencies, and a synonym for mutualism.

But Proudhon had a fair amount of grappling yet to do with these concepts before his own approach became particularly clear….

1840.—What is Property? launched Proudhon’s career as a public figure, largely on the strength of his declaration that he was an anarchist, and the equally provocative claim that “property is theft.” It’s a really remarkable book in many ways, packed full of intriguing anticipations of Proudhon’s mature work and riddled with thorny problems and apparent contradictions. We might expect all that from a work in which Proudhon was still struggling to gain conscious command of what was already a complex analysis.

Somewhat ironically, one of the most significant difficulties posed by Proudhon’s best know work is that it was the one work in which anarchy and property appear as concepts relatively untroubled by those internal contradictions that drove so much of Proudhon’s analysis. Throughout the First Memoir, anarchy appears in its sense of non-government. But the concept makes a surprisingly small number of appearances in this inaugural work—so few, in fact, that we can include virtually all of them. Following the material already cited, and the bulk of Proudhon’s critique of property, the concept returned in the fifth chapter, the “Psychological Exposition of the Idea of Justice and Determination of the Principle of Government and Right.”


in a given society, the authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the stage of intellectual development which that society has reached; and the probable duration of that authority can be calculated from the more or less general desire for a true government,—that is, for a scientific government. And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism. Property and royalty have been crumbling to pieces ever since the world began. As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.

Anarchy,—the absence of a master, of a sovereign,—such is the form of government to which we are every day approximating, and which our accustomed habit of taking man for our rule, and his will for law, leads us to regard as the height of disorder and the expression of chaos. The story is told, that a citizen of Paris in the seventeenth century having heard it said that in Venice there was no king, the good man could not recover from his astonishment, and nearly died from laughter at the mere mention of so ridiculous a thing. So strong is our prejudice. As long as we live, we want a chief or chiefs; and at this very moment I hold in my hand a brochure, whose author—a zealous communist—dreams, like a second Marat, of the dictatorship. The most advanced among us are those who wish the greatest possible number of sovereigns,—their most ardent wish is for the royalty of the National Guard. Soon, undoubtedly, some one, jealous of the citizen militia, will say, “Everybody is king.” But, when he has spoken, I will say, in my turn, “Nobody is king; we are, whether we will or no, associated.” Every question of domestic politics must be decided by regional statistics; every question of foreign politics is amatter of international statistics. The science of government rightly belongs to one of the sections of the Academy of Sciences, whose permanent secretary is necessarily prime minister; and, since every citizen may address a memoir to the Academy, every citizen is a legislator. But, as the opinion of no one is of any value until its truth has been proven, no one can substitute his will for reason,—nobody is king.


It’s worth noting here that, while the discussion of property is primarily economic and legal, the discussion of anarchy is political. “Anarchy, in all its senses” would extend well beyond the political realm, and arguably already had, under other names, in What is Property? But it’s also worth nothing that anarchy was arguably not the central political keyword in the First Memoir. Instead:


Politics is the science of liberty: the government of man by man, under whatever name it is disguised, is oppression; the highest perfection of society is found in the union of order and anarchy.


And in the long discussion of liberty (“the synthesis of community and property”) at the end of the text, anarchy takes its place among the aspects of that liberty:


Liberty is equality, because liberty only exists in the social state, and apart from equality there is no society.

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not accept the government of will, but only the authority of law, which is to say of necessity.

Liberty is infinite variety, because it respects all wills, within the limits of the law.

Liberty is proportionality because it leaves every latitude the ambition for advantage and competition for glory.


This is a fairly perfect bookend to the discussion of the “approximations” by which humanity progresses, in The Theory of Property, where the “approximation of an-archy” is one of seven aspects of that progress.



If we were to characterize Proudhon’s first work as a self-proclaimed anarchist without the 175 years of subsequent context, it’s hard to say just how central the notion of anarchy would be to our analysis, in comparison with a range of other concepts that were obviously also important to the author. It seems clear that Proudhon was an anarchist in a somewhat different way than any of those who followed in his footsteps, which should not surprise us at all. Without an anarchist movement, a formulated ideology of anarchism, or even the benefit of his own subsequent theoretical development, it could hardly have been otherwise. But it is also clear that anarchy was initially more narrowly defined for Proudhon than it has been for many anarchists. Sooner or later, we have to tackle the problem that Proudhon’s overall project—whatever we want to call, or whatever he may have called it—did not extend far enough in certain directions, failing to adequately oppose the rule of the father, for example, but before we can adequately make the determination of how far his critique did extend we have to make sure that we are not being distracted by semantic issues and anachronistic concerns. Staying “in the moment” with Proudhon’s critique is difficult, but also seems to be necessary, particularly as Proudhon was already wrestling with terminological issues himself. “Anarchy, in all its senses” would have been a meaningless phrase in 1840, but that was not the case for long.



1841.—In his Second Memoir, Proudhon underlined his decision to distinguish property and possession, with a reference to the strategy of Pierre Leroux:


Thus, according to Mr. Leroux, there is property and property: the one good, the other bad. Now, as it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name “property” for the former, we must call the latter robbery, rapine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name “property” for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession, or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an odious synonymy.


However, while property had not yet recovered its full range of ambiguities, anarchy appeared in the work only in its negative sense, specifically as a result of the reign of property:


The times that paved the way for the advent of feudalism and the reappearance of large proprietors were times of carnage and the most frightful anarchy. Never before had murder and violence made such havoc with the human race.


Something new has been introduced to the analysis of 1840, although some of it may well have been implied by parts of the final chapter of What is Property? By 1846, and The System of Economic Contradictions, it would be clear that the history Proudhon was sketching of the first forms of sociability had additional dimensions, and could be understood in terms of the conflict between “communist inertia and proprietary anarchy.” And the coupling of property and anarchy would put Proudhon’s two early declarations—“I am an anarchist” and “property is theft”—into a tension that we won’t be able to avoid dealing with as we move forward.


[to be continued…]

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Anarchy, understood in all its senses

“The first term of the series being thus Absolutism,  the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses.”–Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution

In order to start to address the question posed in the last post, about what Proudhon meant when he said “I am an anarchist,” we need to grapple a bit with the thorny question of how consistently he used his various keywords. One of the traditional methods of dealing with the complexities of Proudhon’s arguments, including those terminological issues, has been to wave our hands and recall that he was a “man of contradictions,” as if contradiction wasn’t very explicitly a part of his theoretical apparatus, about which he had a lot of fairly specific things to say. I think we can come to considerably clearer terms with Proudhon’s method. He left us quite a few explicit guides.In “Self-Government and the Citizen-State,” I made extensive use a distinction Proudhon made in his correspondence between critical and constructive periods. Let’s explicitly add that distinction to the “toolkit” here, and explore some of the ways that it relates to some other concerns regarding the interpretation of Proudhon’s work.

I have long emphasized the importance of the shift in Proudhon’s use of keywords, marked explicitly in The Philosophy of Progress, when he opts to “preserve for new institutions their patronymic names.” Early on, Proudhon had mocked Pierre Leroux for believing that “there is property and property,—the one good, the other bad” and insisted that “it is proper to call different things by different names.” Hence the “property” vs. “possession” distinction. But he was, at the same time, already beginning to insist on a progressive account of some of his most important keywords—justice chief among them—which showed them progressing through radically different stages. Justice, for example, started its journey to more humane forms from beginnings in force and fraud. Harmonizing his choice and use of terms with his emphasis on progress was a critical moment in Proudhon’s development, and also, of course, a real stumbling block in understanding that development if we do not take careful account of it. It doesn’t explain everything, as sometimes it seems Proudhon was simply inconsistent in his choice of words, or tailored his expression to particular audiences, but it does give us another tool to attempt to resolve what may seem like real contradictions in his work (as opposed to productive or provocative antinomies.)The explicit change in approach to keywords occurs roughly at the watershed between critical and constructive periods. And it is probably simplest to think of that period in the early 1850s precisely as a kind of watershed, where the predominance of approaches shifted from criticism to construction. Prior to it, we are more likely to see Proudhon’s critical project at center stage, and afterwards, we are more likely to see some of his experimental constructions. The work has a tendency, if you will, to flow in one direction or the other, despite a mixture of emphases at most points in Proudhon’s career.

The Philosophy of Progress also provides us with two accounts of truth, which we might distinguish as critical and constructive.  In the first, “the truth in all things, the real, the positive, the practicable, is what changes, or at least is susceptible to progression, conciliation, transformation; while the false, the fictive, the impossible, the abstract, is everything that presents itself as fixed, entire, complete, unalterable, unfailing, not susceptible to modification, conversion, augmentation or diminution, resistant as a consequence to all superior combination, to all synthesis.” In the second, “All ideas are false, that is to say contradictory and irrational, if one takes them in an exclusive and absolute sense, or if one allows oneself to be carried away by that sense; all are true, susceptible to realization and use, if one takes them together with others, or in evolution.” Together, they correspond to the two phases of the program that Proudhon presented in the “Study on Ideas” in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church:

I intend to suppress none of the things of which I have made such a resolute critique. I flatter myself that I do only two things: that is, first, to teach you put each thing in its place, after having purged it of the absolute and balanced it with other things; then, to show you that the things that you know, and that you have such fear of losing, are not the only ones that exist, and that there are considerably more of which you still must take account.

Given these explicit indications of Proudhon’s method, and context, we should have a pretty good chance of navigating through his texts successfully.  We should be on the lookout for any reading which seems to commit us to simplism, which does not seem to have a complementary critique or construction lurking somewhere nearby. We might be inclined to anticipate that most keywords will have absolutist forms to be critiqued and balanced forms to take their place in various experiments and approximations. And that is at least part of what we find—but things get fairly complex fairly quickly, since, beyond all of the individuals that are always also groups, and the fact that constructive concepts only acquire truth in combinations, it appears that there really are few, if any exceptions to this rule we have proposed. Even absolutism seems to come in absolutist and balanced forms, forcing us away from any very simple reading of Proudhon’s “opposition to the absolute.” Even anarchy seems to appear in a variety of senses, some of which are perhaps also absolutist, and all of which we are presumably to understand, together, as the “final, fatal term” of an evolutionary series away from at least absolute absolutism. It will be useful to revisit the discussions of property and possession in this context in the near future, but for now let’s at least begin to deal with the problem that’s already on the table.

I’ve started a project—really a formalization of a process I’ve been using for some time now—assembling collections of all the passages in Proudhon’s collected writings and correspondence where he uses particular keywords. At the moment, I’m working through all of the appearances of the words anarchie, anarchiste, and anarchique, and their plural forms, and finding some very interesting things, not the least of which is that Proudhon most often used those terms to designate “economic” or “mercantile anarchy,” which he associated with the goals of the economists, laissez faire, decentralization, and insolidarity. He also, of course, used the word anarchy to designate self-government, an English term he opposed to all of the authoritarian, governmental alternatives which would establish the rule of human beings over human beings. There is also the anarchy that, at least by 1863 and The Federative Principle, he came to think of as a “perpetual desideratum,” an ideal form which human approximations would never quite achieve. That has created problems for those concerned with knowing whether or not Proudhon should still be considered “an anarchist.” Putting these various notions of anarchy together, or deciding that they belong apart, is a project that may occupy us for a while.

I want to approach these questions by first giving Proudhon the benefit of the doubt. He was the guy we credit with first claiming the term, so let’s be fairly careful before we decide we can detach him from it. And, of course, this toolkit we’re assembling from Proudhon’s works is a fairly complicated rig. Ultimately, in order to use Proudhon’s work, we have to choose which of the various presentations of that work we’re going to begin with, and I want to propose, for our purposes here, to take the works of 1851-1861, roughly as I’ve described them in “Self-Government and the Citizen-State,” as that starting-place. What choosing those works, rather than, say, What is Property? or The System of Economic Contradictions, or perhaps just The General Idea of the Revolution by itself, gives us is precisely the toolkit of explicit writings on philosophy and method, much of which appeared in the period from 1853 to 1858, and enough of the slope on either side of our “watershed” to feel confident we’re not missing the general development of things. I am actually fairly confident that the approach from that 1853-8 period is relatively consistent with both earlier and later works, but that’s an assumption that is widely contested, with many interpreters differentiating the clear “property is theft” period from any of the more complicated formulations and/or considering the later work on federation as no longer anarchist.

Anyway, if we begin in this period where Proudhon had begun to talk explicitly about his philosophy and method, some questions naturally present themselves. For example, what sort of definition of “anarchy” would meet the criteria for truth that he laid out in 1853? Are the difficulties of formulating a true idea greater if the notion in question is anarchism or being an anarchist? Under what circumstances could an ideology be true, given these criteria? I think that it is fairly uncontroversial to believe that Proudhon, who thought of himself as “the man whose thought always advances, whose program will never be completed,” might have had an evolving notion of what it meant to be an anarchist, but my sense is that the real problems of interpretation arise from the fact that there are so obviously several ideas in play.

So we have to ask ourselves whether the various, apparently different, meanings of “anarchy” can be accounted for as alternately critical and constructive, or absolutist and non-absolutist? Or do some of them perhaps arise in contexts where Proudhon had not clarified his method enough for us to easily apply those definitions? I want to take time in another post to really work through the developing theories of property and possession in these terms, but I think we can point to a number of possible kinds of relationships between concepts which might have parallels in the treatment of “anarchy, understood in all its senses.” For example, in The Theory of Property, we find discussions of property in its absolutist form, retaining the “right of increase” and the rest of its mystique, and unbalanced by any effective countervailing force. We also find discussions of a property which has lost its authority and many of its attendant “rights,” as a result of the critique of absolutism, and we find that property balanced by a “State” which has also been stripped of its authority. Alongside these, we find a somewhat negative treatment of possession, now understood as equivalent to fief, but the issue seems to be that it is now an approximation that Proudhon has moved beyond:

But is that the last word of civilization, and of right as well? I do not think so; one can conceive something more; the sovereignty of man is not entirely satisfied; liberty and mobility are not great enough.

There are, it seems to me, a lot of ways for ideas to fall short of truth in Proudhon’s terms, and only approximate means, in combination with other aspiring true ideas, to approach it. Can anarchy, anarchism, anarchist, etc., be exempt from this general rule? If not, then the treatment of anarchy as a perpetual desideratum is probably no objection to treating the later Proudhon as an anarchist after all, at least by the terms he established in the period where we are focusing our attention. That would leave open the question of whether the early notion of anarchy as self-government could be understood in some other terms, consistent with the work of an early-period Proudhon who had a different idea of how ideas and ideologies might work.
My immediate thought is that there is at least some evidence in both The Celebration of Sunday and What is Property? that Proudhon always leaned towards a progressive account of truth-in-ideas.
If we can make sense of the various senses of “anarchy” with the help of Proudhon’s statements about philosophy and method, then we need to sort them out in those terms. It’s not, I think, too hard to accept that “self-government” might involve a series of progressive approximations, or to understand Proudhon’s “perpetual desideratum” in much the same sense as William Batchelder Greene’s “blazing star” or my own “ungovernable ideal.” It’s a little harder to know quite what to do with ideals in Proudhon’s thought. In the context of his treatment of metaphysics (in the opening sections of Justice in the Revolution and in the Church), we probably have to treat any “anarchist ideal” as an unavoidable but unscientific speculation about the in-itself of anarchy or a reflection of our sense that we are not there yet, but not ultimately the sort of engagement with relations that Proudhon was concerned with. We probably don’t have to take on all of Proudhon’s quasi-comtean positivism to see some value in emphasizing anarchy in the context of specific, individual interactions.
The most ideologically charged question that arises from sorting out these various anarchisms, which Proudhon apparently considered closely enough connected to sometimes gesture at them en masse, is undoubtedly the relation between anarchy as self-government and the economic anarchy which he sometimes quite explicitly connected to the concept of laisse faire and the goals of the free-market economists. Proudhon’s discussions of economic anarchy are fascinating, since they are largely negative, and perhaps even more so than his discussions of property, but, like the treatments of property, they periodically turn positive, and we see instances where laissez faire seems to be presented as a key element in mutualism. The parallels with the property theory suggest a very interesting set of possibilities. The transformation of property from theft to a potentially powerful tool of liberty occurred according to the critical itinerary we’ve already cited: first the absolutist elements of property were identified and critiqued, and its fundamental untruth established, and then those very same elements, now presumably rid at least of their aura of authority, were incorporated into a balanced (or justified, as balance and justice were one for Proudhon) approximation with the non-governmental citizen-State as the countervailing force. If there is a parallel treatment of anarchy, we’ll probably find it in Proudhon’s many statements about the close relation between property and liberty, and his opposition of government and economy. These have been the basis for the common claim that Proudhon advocated some kind of “market anarchism.” Now, the “system” that Proudhon summarized as always reducible to “an equation and a power of collectivity” may conform to some definitions of “market,” but I think the question of the relationship between the anarchism that he actually advocated, mutualism, and the anarchy of the market, may be substantially more complex and interesting than we have generally made it.
In the context of the present discussion, one of the most interesting passages of The General Idea of the Revolution is this:

“…the Government, whatever it may be, is very sick, and tending more and more toward Anarchy. My readers may give this word any meaning they choose.”

Given everything else he has said about the various forms of anarchy, it’s pretty hard to imagine this means Proudhon was indifferent to the differences between them. But it does appear that he considered anarchy as an appropriate label for a variety of tendencies associated with the decline of government. One of those tendencies was obviously “the system of ’89 and ’93; the system of Quesnay, of Turgot, of J.-B. Say; the system that is always professed, with more or less intelligence and good faith, by the various organs of the political parties,” which he invoked in the 1848 “Revolutionary Program,” and characterized as:
Liberty then, nothing more, nothing less. Laissez faire, laissez passer, in the broadest and most literal sense; consequently property, as it rises legitimately from this freedom, is my principle. No other solidarity between citizens than that which rises accidentally from force majeur: for all that which relates to free acts, and manifestations of reflective thought, complete and absolute insolidarity.
But is that “the last word of civilization, and of right as well”? Was Proudhon really saying that there was no difference between himself and the economists with whom he had certainly expressed no shortage of differences? The continuation of the argument, in which he first seems to describe market anarchy and then explains how it will result in something that sounds more than a bit like anarchist communism, is a little hard to parse, but it appears that, however anarchic market forces may be and however non-governmental the resulting economic centralization may be, something else is required to maintain what I think most of us mean when we think of the outcomes of anarchism, and that missing element seems to be justice, a balancing of the forces of property and community—and suddenly we find ourselves facing what seems to be just one more of a series of formulas involving the balancing or synthesis of very similar elements, spanning Proudhon’s entire career.So what are we to make of this economic anarchy, which seems to be an anti-governmental force, but does not seem to be quite what Proudhon is aiming for? It seems to me that we have located a prime candidate for the category of absolutist anarchies. A range of more provocative questions are then raised, including, just as a start:

  • Is there then a sort of anarchism that we might associate with this market anarchy, and, if so, is it perhaps a sort of absolutist anarchism? The answer, I think, from the Proudhonian perspective, will depend on the extent to which we think an aura of authority stills clings to notions like property and market.
  • Assuming that anarchy, in this more general sense, can be rid of its absolutism, and that it makes sense to call oneself an anarchist as a means of signaling a commitment to both non-governentalism and anti-absolutism, how would we construct the larger system within which that form of anarchism would steadily increase in truth?
  • What role can we expect all the complicated and complicating collective individuals that people the Proudhonian landscape to play in all of this? I began to speculate, for example, on how “the market” might take its place alongside the citizen-state, in the “Notes on Proudhon’s changing notion of the State,” and the “Notes on the Notes” that followed. I’ll undoubtedly have to come back to some of those speculations.

There is a lot more than could be said about the questions raised by Proudhon’s sometimes puzzling discussions of “anarchy,” and I want to keep coming back to clarify what I think he really meant, particularly as I get a chance to do additional research on some keywords that are only emerging as particularly interesting in this context. But I also want to spend some more time dealing with the methodological and philosophical issues.

I think an argument could pretty easily be made that what we see in Proudhon’s approach to question of method, metaphysics, etc., is something very much like his anarchism or federalism, applied to the realm of thought. Indeed, there seems to be a strong suggestion in at least some of what Proudhon wrote that something like mutualism is essential in virtually all sorts of human endeavor. That seems like a notion worth following up on.


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