In some ways, of course, I think that the first approach is at a severe disadvantage. There are simply too many indications in Proudhon’s work that he considered himself engaged in a constant work-in-progress, and, at least in the English-speaking world, most of us are still exploring, trying to determine the extent of his projects—and it’s a dangerous business to start trimming limbs when you don’t really quite know what sort of tree you’re looking at.
If you’re not simply starting out with the assumption that the important things in Proudhon’s work were the ones that were useful to Bakunin and Kropotkin, some general characteristics of that work become obvious fairly quickly—mostly because they pose such constant and difficult problems for the reader. Proudhon was engaged in a range of types of analysis, with pretty much all of them dependent on some sort of dialectical play between antagonistic, contradictory, or antinomic elements. In the discussions of property, we encounter a couple of different versions of the quasi-historical/developmental narrative, in which Proudhon posits “community” and “property” (1840)—or “property” and “communism” (1846), or “fief” and “allodium” (1861/5)—as “stages” in the development of resource-management norms. We find him opposing “possession” and “property” as principles, respectively, of “fact” and “right,” while, in the midst of the same work, also describing them as, respectively, consistent with and against “right.” We find him opposing individual and collective forms of property (broadly speaking), while treating any form of organized collectivity worthy of the name as also an individual, describing individuals as always already “groups” or “series,” and ultimately making it clear that the property that is “theft” for the human individual would also be theft for the most inclusive collectivity. Property takes its place amidst the play of centralizing and decentralizing institutions. It is “theft,” “impossible,” and “liberty.” And, of course, it is one of the elements of that “synthesis of community and property” that Proudhon believed would produce liberty. There is, for the most part, a complex and gradually developing consistency in all this, but there’s nothing easy about following all the threads, particularly as they tend to lead in various directions from any given point in Proudhon’s study.
The difficulties of mapping Proudhon’s overall project have necessitated a lot of real or apparent repetition in my own writings on the subject, and a lot of isolated articulations of selected elements, with, I hope, some general progress in showing how the various parts of the analysis fit together. But a lot of the headway that I have made has been achieved by bringing Proudhon’s work into dialogue with the works of a variety of other figures—Max Stirner, John Locke, Pierre Leroux, and all those other figures I summoned down to the river’s edge in the thought-experiment in mock-dramatic form that I hope will be useful as a starting place for gathering various the various partial analyses together. The result was arguably a useful increase in localized clarity, where particular aspects of the various analyses were concerned, but probably also a fairly daunting increase in the complexity of the project as a whole. I certainly haven’t been immune to a certain drowning feeling, as the quest for clarity has multiplied questions just as fast as answers.
The light at the end of the long tunnel, for me, has been a strong sense that, behind the daunting and fascinating complexities of Proudhon’s various analyses, there were some basic principles or at least a basic dynamic which, if once identified, might substantially simplify the rest of the work, allowing us to more easily connect the various sorts of analysis in Proudhon’s writings with one another, and with the work of those other theorists that have entered into the game. (Or it is the proverbial oncoming train.)
For some time, I have been focused on that formula for liberty, “the synthesis of community and property,” and the developmental account—in the “third form of society” section of What is Property?—where Proudhon introduced it. Following Proudhon, I’ve been able to say a lot about “property,” and comparatively little about “community,” and have been trying to clarify the various sorts of “property” enough to determine just what this elusive other pole of the dialectic of liberty really is. There are influences in Proudhon that make it easy to believe that, in the most abstract sense, the more general antinomy lurking behind oppositions like centralizing/decentralizing, property/community, law/fact, etc., might be related to the “circulus” of Pierre Leroux or the focus on the free flow of the passions in Charles Fourier. But the question of influence is complicated in Proudhon’s work. In the memoirs on property, alongside his partisan attacks on Leroux and the followers of Fourier, we find these two rather surprising endorsements.
The disciples of Fourier have long seemed to me the most advanced of all modern socialists, and almost the only ones worthy of the name. If they had understood the nature of their task, spoken to the people, awakened their sympathies, and kept silence when they did not understand; if they had made less extravagant pretensions, and had shown more respect for public intelligence, — perhaps the reform would now, thanks to them, be in progress.—What is Property?
I must here declare freely — in order that I may not be suspected of secret connivance, which is foreign to my nature — that M. Leroux has my full sympathy. Not that I am a believer in his quasi-Pythagorean philosophy (upon this subject I should have more than one observation to submit to him, provided a veteran covered with stripes would not despise the remarks of a conscript); not that I feel bound to this author by any special consideration for his opposition to property. In my opinion, M. Leroux could, and even ought to, state his position more explicitly and logically. But I like, I admire, in M. Leroux, the antagonist of our philosophical demigods, the demolisher of usurped reputations, the pitiless critic of every thing that is respected because of its antiquity. Such is the reason for my high esteem of M. Leroux; such would be the principle of the only literary association which, in this century of coteries, I should care to form. We need men who, like M. Leroux, call in question social principles, — not to diffuse doubt concerning them, but to make them doubly sure; men who excite the mind by bold negations, and make the conscience tremble by doctrines of annihilation.—Letter to M. Blanqui on Property
And Proudhon undoubtedly did, despite some denials, incorporate a good deal of the basic thought of Fourier and Leroux into his own work. The Creation of Order in Humanity is a fascinating reworking of material from The Theory of the Four Movements, but there’s no question where the reworked elements originated, as there is not much question where the emphasis on serial analysis, the opposition to simplism, etc., come from. The borrowings from Pierre Leroux are more likely to escape many readers, but mostly because Leroux’s work is now almost unknown. We know that Proudhon sincerely rejected the more “utopian” elements of both thinkers, but the question is whether he absorbed any of their shared fascination with natural circulation and passional flows.
The difficulty is that, in most of his writing on property, Proudhon critiqued laws and speculated about historical development. When he was talking about property—and its opposite pole—he avoided the sort of abstract, general discussion that would help us connect to the sort of theory we find in Fourier and Leroux. But if we look at his writings on liberty, on progress, and on the Revolution, we begin to see some fairly persistent patterns, in which the transient and the stable are opposed. And then we run across the discussion of property and theft in The Celebration of Sunday, and perhaps we have our connection to the examination of property.
What I intend to do is to make rather a big deal about that definition of theft that Proudhon proposed in the Celebration: “to divert, to put or turn aside.” And perhaps I will make a bit too big a deal of it, from a strictly proudhonological perspective. One way or another, I can’t really make the defense here. I’m drawing on lots of material which is unavailable to most of my readers, and to some extent simply drawing on my developing intuitions about the “big picture” in Proudhon’s thought. What I can do, however, is to remind skeptics that, for Proudhon, “the problem of property [was], after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve.” So if we find, as it seems we do, that it was precisely in the realm of property that Proudhon’s ideas seem to have been tardiest to come together, if it was in that investigation that he left threads dangling for the entire length of his career, perhaps we should not be surprised—at which point I don’t think we can be faulted for applying the fairly consistent products of his other investigations to that thorny question.
What if the larger antinomy in Proudhon’s work, the dynamic that linked his various more focused analyses, was essentially a dialectical play between “turning or putting aside” and “not turning and putting aside,” with the first identified with “property” and the other with an alternative, or series of alternatives, which remains elusive, but which, as “community,” Proudhon early on associated with the “spontaneous movement” of “sociability”? And what if we drag that antinomy out onto the largest sort of stage, treating its opposed terms as abstract tendencies to, on the one hand, circulation and dissemination, and, on the other, concentration and persistence? This opposition of the fluid and the firm immediately calls to mind any number of familiar cultural binaries, many of them quite clearly gendered—and we would be kidding ourselves if we thought we were going to avoid some demanding work on the question of gender and property before we’re done with Proudhon. It might also call to mind the two “gifts” on which I have proposed as a basis for a mutualist notion of self-ownership, in the context of the “gift economy of property.” For those who have tangled with Proudhon’s treatment of individualities and collectivities as two faces of serial organization, other bells might ring. Does the notion of the Revolution as both conservative and progressive perhaps answer to much the same guiding dynamic? And the idea that mutualism is necessarily an “anarchism of approximations”?
This is ultimately the intuition on the basis of which I have developed the neo-Proudhonian analysis of property that I’ve been advancing, in the course of which I have tended to deploy the most uncompromisingly asocial interpretation of Stirner’s egoism—understood as a philosophy for the unique as “the only one”—alongside and against the sense of a Pierre Leroux or Joseph Dejacque that we are all in this together, inseparably connected in a universal circulus. I’ve been content to resort to that qualifier, neo-, while I’ve explored Proudhon’s thought more thoroughly, but perhaps I have really been rather orthodox in my own inventions.