Posts by Shawn P. Wilbur

Change of address

The Great Destroying and Rebuilding is well underway! The New Labyrinth is emerging!

Actually, I'm sure that the details of all of this are more more exciting for me that for anyone else, as I'm getting a chance to fix a bunch of problems and transform my archive into something that actually resembles an archive, but there should be plenty of benefits for everyone who uses any of the sites. In general, I have attempted to maintain specialized collections where there seems to be some purpose or demand, while making it much easier to navigate between them. So it's time to shut the doors here and move on.

From now on, all of my sites can be reached from a single address:

That's pretty much all you need to know. Once in the new network of sites, the navigation tabs are fairly standard:
  • LABYRINTH takes you to the center of things and the general history/announcements BLOG.
  • LIBRARY takes you to the Omeka catalog.
  • WIKI lets you view the recently relocated Libertarian Labyrinth wiki without leaving the Wordpress interface, and WIKI (Direct) takes you straight to the wiki site.
  • TRANSLATIONS goes to the Index of Working Translations.
  • PROUDHON will take you to the Proudhon Library site, where there's a new blog for my most proudhonological efforts, plus a forum and access to the Proudhon Library wiki. Local navigation this is a little different, because of the forums and a separate PL WIKI, but all the familiar links ought to be there as well. Hint: some navigation menus pull down. 
  • BAKUNIN, as you might guess, links to an improved Bakunin Library site. 
  • ATERCRACY links to The Great Atercratic Revolution
A few tabs lead out of the network, to sites that will eventually be incorporated:
  • FRONDEUSE links the the La Frondeuse/Black and Red Feminist History site
  • BEER links to my neglected beer-review blog, Well-Aged & Slightly Bitter, with Just a Touch of Funk.
  • OSSAPY links to The High Hills of Ossapy, an even more neglected archive of material on the history of New Hampshire's White Mountains. 
  • And something will possibly soon point at a new merger of material from Splendors of the Combined Order and Possible and Impossible Worlds. All of these Blogger collections will eventually find a home in the new configuration, but perhaps primarily as index pages or collection in the Library, with the posts appearing on the main Libertarian Labyrinth blog.
Meanwhile, back in the main network
  • ALL leads to an aggregator of posts, pages and files from all the site. 
  • And CONTR'UN leads to the new home of this blog. 
That's right. Twice now, I've declared this particular project over and done with. And yet, after a lot of thinking, and shuffling, and pondering, and installing and uninstalling software, and thinking, and shuffling, and, rethinking, and... you get the picture... I've decided that the Contr'un project still has an place in my future work. There are important parts of the project that would be a little lost on the Proudhon blog and a little distracting on the general history blog. What I've done with the new site is to archive everything from this blog and several other related projects there. As for the content of the blog, expect a continuation of the material on the anarchic encounter, anarchist identity and such, with perhaps more Fourier in the mix in the near future.

However, since I hope that the new arrangement will be fairly intuitive, the main thing to remember is just one address:

I'll see you there.

New wiki address

A technical bump in the road means the transition from the old Libertarian Labyrinth wiki to the new won't be quite as smooth as I had hoped, but the new site is now online at

Rebuilding the Labyrinth

Over the almost twenty years (!) since the first version of the Libertarian Labyrinth archive went online, the various elements of my decentralized archive have become truly labyrinthine, with bits and pieces spread over blogs and wikis, as well as the newish Omeka library. There was always a sort of exploratory method to my madness. I've never been entirely convinced that people surfing the web really pay that much attention to central portals and front pages, and I've also been curious to separate out certain elements of my work to see how they fared on their own. I have always suspected that my particular range of interests contains something to turn off nearly every sort of browser, and have been, until recently, a bit ill-prepared to clarify all the connections. But there are some obvious drawbacks to the particular kind of decentralized archive I've been building, and they have become more obvious as my overall project becomes clearer and more explicit. It still probably doesn't make sense to dump everything that I'm writing or translating into a single blog, but the time has probably come to at least bring the various projects and connections into a more explicit, browseable network. 

The Omeka-based Libertarian Labyrinth Library is, and will continue to be, the heart of the archive. I've been gradually changing my workflow so that most things are posted there, and from now on my goal is that everything, including blog posts, will be archived there as soon as it goes online. And I'm looking at establishing a separate Twitter account for the Library, for anyone who needs to know every little thing that is happening in the labyrinth. 

A new portal at will link to all the elements of the larger labyrinth, and probably host an aggregator of blog-feeds fairly soon as well. If you just want to remember one URL, that will be the one to pick, although the goal is to make navigation between most of the labyrinth fairly seamless. 

Networking the various blogs will mean moving most of them (and perhaps eventually all of them) off the Blogger platform. I started that process last year, but last years was... complicated... and things only went so far. I was too busy reinventing my understanding of things like anarchy and anarchism to spend much time tinkering with website. This year, however, I'm pushing to get a number of archiving and publishing projects really off the ground, and my little network of blogs hasn't been sufficient to the tasks. So, in preparation for the upcoming reading of What if Property? I put together the Proudhon Library blog and forum and figured, after a long day and night cobbling together a useable mass of Wordpress plugins and linking that site to my other WP blogs, that there was no point in stopping there. The Bakunin Library blog has moved (and I'll try to update and install the translation-index page later today) and La Frondeuse, Splendors of the Combined Order and Possible and Impossible Worlds will follow soon, though perhaps not exactly in their present form. Some other blogs (Travelling in Liberty, From the Libertarian Library and Working Translations) will be archived in the Library and their indexes both archived and attached to the Libertarian Labyrinth blog. Those few who follow my horribly-neglected beer review and White Mountains blogs don't have anything to worry about for a while at least. They won't move for now and the neglect will probably continue, although perhaps not at the same levels.

The "neo-Proudhonian" writing I've been doing at Contr'un and will largely move to the Proudhon Library site. I'll leave this site up, and do my best to update changed links as other things shift, but at some point in the near future I'll be making the leap. I've got some summary and transition posts I would like to make, so we'll just see how things go. Part of the process of wrapping things up here will be dusting off, completing and/or correcting some of the historical material here, so expect those posts to start appearing over on the Libertarian Labyrinth blog. For a while, I'll note here when new stuff is happening elsewhere. 

That leaves the wikis and an odd assortment of online documents, like the files of Liberty, tucked away on various servers. The odd assortments are all destined to become part of the Library, and I'll update indexes like the Liberty Index as the moves get made. It turns out that there is a fairly efficient bridge for integrating the wikis with the blogs, so, for example, much of the Proudhon Library wiki can now be browsed without leaving the Proudhon Library blog. Certain things break crossing the software bridge and certain features aren't accessible, so I'll be making some adjustments in the way that I organize the wikis (and direct links to the wikis will be available.) The biggest change will be a clean installation of the main Libertarian Labyrinth Wiki (which will let me fix some long-standing problems with the original installation) which will let me integrate that material with the linked blogs fairly seamlessly. The fate of the Collective Reason site is uncertain. I'm integrating some material from it into the other wiki collections, and it may or may not stick around as a sandbox for the few of us who use it. In any event, the most useful, and largely unused portions of it will get another shot in a new context. And I'm sure my love-hate relationship with Mediwiki will continue, but as long as my interests include large-scale bibliographical projects, there will probably always be one or two wikis in the mix. 

Moving the main wiki is the thing most likely to cause problems (mostly broken links) for others. But I don't really see a way around it. Some of the decisions I made when I originally set up the main wiki don't look as clever as they originally did, given other developments, and the software gremlins have done their work over years, upgrades and attacks. I'll be working at this slowly but surely, probably completing the metadata work I've been doing in the process. 

What's the bottom line? Since the vast major of readers here probably use the archives infrequently, the disruption will be minimal, and as they make the shift over to the New Labyrinth the number of resources that will be just a few clicks away at any time will vastly increase. And the same will be true for me, making it much easier to continue to develop the archive and the commentary on it.

Property? It’s just a phase…

[This response by Proudhon to the Academy of Besançon fills in a bit of the story told in the introduction to What is Property? I've been tracking down some of these bits and pieces in order to establish more of the context for that work, as we get ready to do a group reading of the text. This letter has at least one unintentionally funny bit, when Proudhon explains that this property stuff is just a passing interest.]

Besançon, August 3, 1840


Gentlemen, I have learned through the confidences of some of my friends that the publication of my Memoir on Propriété, and especially the preface addressed to the Academy of Besançon, which appears at the beginning of that Memoir, have roused your displeasure, not to mention you indignation, against me. That is the motive that enlists me to explain to you here, in few words and in all their simplicity, my conduct and my intentions.
First of all, what has been taken for a dedication is only a simple report, which my condition as the Suard pensionnaireand the obligation imposed on me to make known each year the progress of my studies seemed to me to explain sufficiently. I knew that a dedication is a certification of patronage of the person or the body to which one has dedicated it, so that it must be agreed to or even planned between the parties involved; I did not wish to free myself from that rule of decorum. On the other hand, a report is necessarily determined in form and content by the work on which one reports; that, Gentlemen, is what explains the silence that I have kept with regard to you, concerning the work, and concerning the address that precedes it.
As for the book itself, I would not argue here the cause that I have embraced; I had no desire to place myself before you as an adversary, no than as an accused; my conviction, what I am saying? my certainty concerning the truths that I have elaborated is invincible, and I respect your opinion to much, Gentlemen, to ever combat it directly. But, if I advance some unheard of paradoxes concerning Property, that basis of our present political state, does it follow that I am an implacable revolutionary, a secret conspirator, an enemy of society? No, Gentlemen; in admitting my doctrines without reservation, all that you could conclude from it, and all that I conclude myself, is that there exists a natural, inalienable right of possession and labor, for the enjoyment of which the proletarian must be prepared, just like the black of the colonies, before receiving the liberty of which no one today contests the right, must be prepared for liberty. That education of the proletarian is the mission confided today to all the men powerful in intelligence and fortune, under pain of being sooner or later crushed under an deluge of those barbarians to whom we are accustomed to give the name of proletarians.
Should I respond to another sort of accusation? Some have seen in my conduct toward my academic tutor, to whom I have never made any communication, a sort of ingratitude.
My conduct with regard to Mr. Droz has been dictate to me by a sentiment of decorum; could I enter with that venerable writer into some conferences on moral science and political economy, when those conferences must have, in my opinion, the result of calling into doubt the value of the moral and economic writings of Mr. Droz? Should I put myself in a state of argumentativeness and, so to speak, permanent disobedience with him? No one loves and admires the talent of Mr. Droz more than me; no one can ever demonstrate a more profound veneration for his character. Now, these sentiments were precisely so many reasons that that forbade a polemic that would have been awkward and too perilous for me.
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! I have only you, Gentlemen. I only have hope in you. I await favor and a solid reputation only from you. I know that you propose to condemn what you call my opinions, and to reject all solidarity with my ideas. I will nonetheless persist in believing that the time will come when you will give me as much praise as I have caused you irritation. Your first emotion will pass, the distress born among you by the bold expression of a still unperceived physical and economic truth will ease, and with time and reflection, I am sure, you will arrive at the enlightened consciousness of your own sentiments, which you do not known, which you combat and I defend.

I am, Gentlemen, with the most perfect confidence in your understanding and in your justice, your very humble and devoted pensionnaire.

P.-J. Proudhon
[Working Translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

Advice for Travelers on the Trail of the Anarchic Encounter

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I too have made a sort of transition from critical to constructive concerns, and when one of these half-mad, exploratory jaunts off into the wide-flung realms of intellectual history and theory gets to be a little overwhelming there is a sort of home port to return to. For a long time, the logical working conclusion after pretty much every step in my research was something like: "Okay, but I think there's a bit more to it than that." And it was on with the steady unraveling of received wisdom. Questions multiplied, existing explanations showed a strong tendency to come up short of facts, logic or both, and I didn't have a lot to cling to besides a handful of provocative catch-phrases and general intuitions. Now, I think time and subsequent research has been surprisingly kind to my catch-phrases and intuitions, and over the last year or so I've been able to really begin to build an account of Proudhon's work, of anarchy and of anarchism around the notion of an anarchic encounter between equal uniques. So now when it's time to stop and assess the progress of the work, the logical question is almost always some variation on "Okay, but what happens in the encounter?" 

And I recommend that as a strategy to readers, for whom I have no doubt my dashing back and forth across Proudhon's works and a range of contexts may come across as baroque or simply prolix. There's always a short-cut back to relative sanity and clarity. Just ask yourself: "How does this relate to the anarchic encounter?"

The truth is that I'm trying to make the work as lean and straightforward as possible, given the complexities of the material in question. But it seems like I often have to come at the same questions from a number of different directions before I can make the connections necessary to both untangle them from the received narrative about Proudhon and anarchism and pick out the key elements of Proudhon's philosophy and sociology, despite their shifting names, and finally grasp how they might be applied in a contemporary context. When I sat down yesterday to reread the last three posts, I had a sort of sinking feeling that perhaps I hadn't said much that hadn't already been said in the post "How does property become capitalist?" But I suppose if anarchists stopped talking when they thought they were saying something that had already been said, our propaganda would become considerably less voluminous. And, really, I think that in my case the growing clarity about Proudhon's project, particularly in the 1860s, means that each time we look at the central problems from a slightly different angle, we move one step closer to being able to apply Proudhon's anarchism without constant reference to the enormous body of works we've been exploring. So...

If we focus for the moment on Proudhon's federalist-mutualist-guarantist theory of the practical application of reciprocity, with the understanding that reciprocity is itself more than just an ethical norm, what happens in the encounter?

Let me just leave that there for the moment...

Note on the disposition of products and the role of principles

“[I]f property is a truth, this can only be on one condition: that the principles of Immanent Justice, Individual Sovereignty and Federation are accepted.” (Theory of Property) I get very little feedback on the theoretical posts here, so it’s hard t…

Continue reading at Contr'un …

The Fundamental Laws of the Universe(!) and the Anarchism of Approximation

What would it take to flesh out the federative theory of property hinted at in the last post? What exactly does it mean to say that "property can be understood as an instance of federation"? We're starting from a provocative reading of bits and pieces from Proudhon's later works, and leaning hard, for the moment, on a portion of the title of The Theory of Property that didn't make it out of the manuscript, and we're going to have to go beyond anything explicitly laid out in Proudhon's work. Still, I don't think the extrapolation I'm about to make should strike anyone who has been following the work here as particularly extreme—particularly given the extremities to which we'll see Proudhon go along the way. 

So let's start with the idea of federation. Proudhon's The Federative Principle may have been, as he claimed, a rapid sketch, but it was obviously an important one. In it, we find one of those professions of principle of which Proudhon was so fond:
All my economic ideas, developed over the last twenty-five years, can be defined in three words: agro-industrial federation; all my political views may be reduced to a parallel formula: political federation or decentralization; and since I do not make my ideas the instruments of a party or of personal ambition, all my hopes for the present and future are contained in a third term, a corollary of the first two: progressive federation.
There's not a lot of room left for ambiguity there. The central place of federation in his thought is clear, and if we recall his other claim:
"...transported into the political sphere, what we have previously called mutualism or guarantism takes the name of federalism. In a simple synonymy the revolution, political and economic, is given to us whole..."
we know that mutualism and guarantism essentially occupy the same place. 

As a concept, this mutualism-guarantism-federation is perhaps a little tough to grasp. The synonymy doesn't really seem all that simple. But that not-so-simple synonymy turns out to be a problem with several layers, as we start to look again at the individual synonyms. If we look at the explanation of "the mutualist system" in The Political Capacity of the Working Classes we find a fairly representative example of Proudhon's treatment of mutuality:
The French word mutuel, mutualité, mutuation, which has for synonyms réciproque, réciprocité, comes from the Latin mutuum, which means [a consumer] loan, and in a broader sense, exchange. We know that in the consumer loan the object loaned is consumed by the borrower, who gives the equivalent, either of the same nature or in any other form. Suppose that the lender becomes a borrower on his side, you would have a mutual service, and consequently an exchange: such is the logical link has given the same name to two different operations. Nothing is more elementary than this notion
Mutualism is thus a system of credit, in some sense, but as we look around a bit more it appears that we can't just leap from this family of mutual ideas to, say, the Bank of the People or some understanding of credit that we've brought along with us. In fact, when we go back to the 1848 article on the "Organization of Credit and Circulation," where it quite literally is a question of introducing the first version of the Bank of the People, we find Proudhon grounding his practical proposal in an exploration of the "fundamental laws of the universe," one of which is reciprocity, mutuality's synonym:
We need, however, no great effort of reflection in order to understand that justice, union, accord, harmony, and even fraternity, necessarily suppose two terms and that unless we are to fall in to the absurd system of absolute identity, which is to say absolute nothingness, contradiction is the fundamental law, not only of society, but of the universe!
Such is also the first law that I proclaim, in agreement with religion and philosophy: it is Contradiction. Universal Antagonism.
But, just as life supposes contradiction, contradiction in its turn calls for justice: from this the second of creation and humanity, the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements, RECIPROCITY.
RECIPROCITY, in all creation, is the principle of existence. In the social order, Reciprocity is the principle of social reality, the formula of justice. Its basis is the eternal antagonism of ideas, opinions, passions, capacities, temperaments, and interests. It is even the condition of love.
RECIPROCITY is expressed in the precept: Do unto others what you would have others do unto you; a precept that political economy has translated in its famous formula: Products exchange for products.
Now the evil that devours us comes from the fact that the law of reciprocity is unknown, or violated. The remedy is entirely in the promulgation of that law. The organization of our mutual and reciprocal relations is the entirety of social science. 
This is really pure Proudhon, writing like the best socialist philosophers of his era, swooping from one scale of concerns to another, and back again, so quickly and nimbly that you might miss it if you're not expecting the maneuver. And these are the moments that, from my perspective at least, give us our clearest glimpses of just how much is going on in Proudhon's thought. So, on the way to a practical proposal about credit, we get the first two "fundamental laws of the universe:" universal antagonism and mutual penetration of the antagonistic elements. 

We've tended to see and remember that Proudhon thought reciprocity resembled the Golden Rule, and I've spent some time working out the most robust version of that principle that I can, but it's been harder to incorporate all the other things that Proudhon said about reciprocity into our account of mutualism. What we have generally treated as an ethical principle is also, and perhaps primarily, an observation about how the world works, an observation about ontology. I think some reluctance to tackle the fundamental laws of the universe may be considered simply prudent. But those who have been reading along can perhaps see that I've been trying to pull these various threads together for quite some time, and that for roughly a year now I've had a sort of "Note to self" stuck up at the top of the page here. 

The first law of the universe is Contradiction, Universal Antagonism, and we know it because everything important to us about being in the world seems to rely on something other than, and opposed to, "the absurd system of absolute identity." So now we need to talk about identity (which will, necessarily, carry us back into the vicinity of property.) And, again, we have to recognize that we are not just, and perhaps not even primarily, talking about ethical precepts now. Identity leads us to antagonism because all of the ways that we identify identity seems to depend on something other than simple internal uniformity. Absolute identity is an illusion of authority, and the alternative is a sort of contr'un, which is always to some degree at war with itself (as a simple unity.) We can recall some of the ways that we have marked this non-simple character, in relation to human selves:
  • Proudhon: "Every individual is a group."
  • Whitman: "I am large, I contain multitudes."
The second law is Reciprocity, Mutuality, which we understand is related to credit and exchange, and answers somehow to the provocative formula of "the mutual penetration of antagonistic elements," all without ceasing to also resemble or invoke the Golden Rule. Identity exists between Universal Antagonism and Imminent Justice. (We might say: between War and Peace and Justice in the Revolution and in the Church.) If things are, on the one hand, always coming apart more than our sense of them as unique things easily accounts for, it appears that they are, on the other hand, always more mixed up together than we tend to think. There are comments in The Philosophy of Progress about the impossibility of separating the self and the non-self that undoubtedly speak to this general insight, but there is also the the whole theory of the collective force and collective beings.

The more you chase the references around in Proudhon's work, the more the metaphors of love and war, science and commerce seem to all get mixed up together. But that's often a good sign in his work, suggesting you're closing in on something central. A full explication of all the textual concerns would be demanding, but the general idea isn't terribly difficult. As Whitman said, we are "not contain'd between [our] hat and boots." The business of possessing an individual identity involves us in a sort of constant borrowing and lending, which involves some overlapping, some interpenetrating which is at least antagonistic to the simpler ideas of identity. That naturally means it will have some consequences for any simple notions of property as well.

And this is really a point in the elaboration of Proudhon's thought that we've reached quite a number of times. When we bring in Proudhon theory of collective individuals, with his judgment that we must always encounter other individuals as at least potentially our equals, and then add in his theory of rights:
RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in all its faculties, attributes and prerogatives. There are thus as many special rights as humans can raise different claims, owing to the diversity of their faculties and of their exercise. As a consequence, the genealogy of human rights will follow that of the human faculties and their manifestations. 

we end up with a cast of political characters that would be complicated under any circumstances, but which we must account for in ways that acknowledge all sorts of overlap and interpenetration—but without, in the process, retaining or introducing any sort of hierarchy. 

In the next post, I want to retrace some of the same ground, while talking about the disposition of the products of labor, and we'll be able to explore some specific applications of Proudhon's theory, but for now I want to make sure we spend enough time with this notion of mutualism-guarantism-federation to be sure we're really applying the right principle.

The two laws respecting identity give us a subject always in the midst of an antinomic play between various sorts of contradiction and various sorts of justice. And we should probably understand justice as a temporary reconciliation, taking the form of a balancing between interests between which we have no more defensible criterion of choice. With anarchy generalized, external constitution rejected, we have to work things out without recourse to any outside referee, whether that's a state or a notion of what is "natural." We naturally bring lots of experience—and we each bring unique portions of experience—to the encounter, and we equally naturally will not disregard the lessons of that experience, but there is always at least some degree of sheer incommensurability when we're dealing with experience. That means, of course, that our balances will have no externally constituted scales, no predetermined standards of weights and measures. It is, after all, anarchy that we're talking about. Presumably we knew what we might be getting into when we started down this road. But let's let it all sink in. No external criteria means that it is all on us to work things out when there is conflict, and, if Proudhon is to be believed, conflict is the first of the fundamental laws of the universe. So there isn't much room for passivity, at the same time there isn't much chance of absolute certainty. 

Being a subject already seems hard, and rising to the occasion of being an anarchist actor, worthy of the under such uncertain circumstances, that much harder. There is a reason that I started all of this exploration with the notion that a Proudhonian anarchism would necessarily be an "anarchism of approximation." Things get harder when we add in the fact that we apparently have to negotiate approximations of justice with all sorts of actors that are radically different from us: other species, states, ecosystems, etc., etc., etc. And it isn't going to be lost on us that many of those other actors are not what Proudhon called "free absolutes," beings capable of reflection, or that, whatever their capabilities, most of them do not seem to be capable of negotiation. 

From the perspective of the individual human actor, it might begin to look like there was an imbalance developing between rights and responsibilities—an emerging injustice. In federation, human individuals will have to find balance with collectivities of various scales, some of which they will also be "part of" (in the sense of contributing to their collective force) and some of which they will not. Guarantism will involve the development, not just of institutions, but of balances between individuals and institutions, again at a variety of scales. Identity and property theory will always have to deal with an open balance of debits and credits in all the places where we overlap, and the multiplication of individualities means a multiplication of potentially overlapping property claims, always at a variety of scales. I have yet to find anywhere in Proudhon's work where he elaborates how his sense that something like "contract" and "negotiation" applies to our interactions will all sorts of things that can't seem to negotiate and enter into contracts gets put into action. Given the puzzle we're working through at the moment, however, I think we might suspect that had he explicitly expanded his analysis into, say, ecological matters, we probably would have found yet another "synonym" or analogous set of metaphors. But maybe the strongest argument for not simply balking at the difficulties is that the bulk of Proudhon's work—the critiques of absolutism and governmentalism, and then the elaboration of the theories of justice and conflict—don't leave us an awful lot of obvious alternatives to at least exploring a bit farther. Having complicated the question of identity, and thus pushing us towards notions of property that may be individual, but will have a hard time being anything but approximately exclusive, there isn't any very stable ground left to retreat to, without simply chucking an awful lot of what makes up our rationale for anarchism. 

There are, I think, lots of ways to expand the scope of human liberty beyond the status quo which do not involve quite so great a leap into the unknown. 

The question (which we will no doubt return to again and again) is whether anything of them are really worth calling anarchism...

Proudhon’s "Pologne" and the federative project of the 1860s

"Ma Théorie fédérative est déjà un fragment enlevé à mon travail polonais; la Propriété sera le second..."
"My Federative Theory is already a fragment lifted from my Polish work; the [Theory of] Property will be the second..." (Letter to Grandclément, Nov. 17, 1863)
One of the nearly miraculous effects of the recent manuscript digitization projects at the International Institute of Social History and the Ville de Besançon has been a sudden and dramatic change in the kinds of questions we can wrestle with, with real hope of success, without international travel or expensive duplication of materials. For me, it has really altered my research program and shifted my translation priorities. Honestly, what it has done is throw my routine into a very pleasant chaos. I might not make that million word mark after all, if only because working with manuscript material is much slower going, but several projects have already become much more interesting as a result of taking the time to wade into these newly accessible archives. 

The most dramatic shift has probably taken place in my longstanding love-hate relationship with Proudhon's The Theory of Property. Wrestling with that work has probably been the single most important factor in my development as a Proudhon scholar, and as a scholar with something arguably a bit different, and potentially important, to say about both Proudhon and anarchism. But the marginal nature of the work in the informal anarchist canon—where it has largely been shunted off into the sections reserved for forgeries or betrayals of the cause—had naturally meant that everything built from an engagement with it has been at least a bit suspect. The individual antidote for that is always to know you are right, but that's hard, when the manuscripts are unavailable and the correspondence is still hard to search through. I've had to slowly build up a sense that published text was coherent, and then gradually dig out the contexts, without much help from the literature of the tradition, of course, or much encouragement from the movement, for which the very existence of the work mostly serves as just another strike against poor old Proudhon.

It turns out that many of the materials necessary to substantially adjust the reputation of The Theory of Property were available even before these recent digitization projects, but perhaps the context in which it was easiest to put them together wasn't. The heart of the matter seems to be the relationship of The Theory of Property to a lengthy, unfinished work by Proudhon, Pologne. The work on Poland apparently occupied Proudhon off and on through much of the last years of his life. The manuscript consists of 1448 pages, not including, as far as I have been able to tell, any of the 291 pages identified as "Chapitre VII. Garantisme.—Théorie de la propriété." If we take Proudhon's comments about the place of The Federative Principle seriously, then we have even more to add to the project. In the same letters, it appears that The Literary Majorats may also be a "long footnote" to the work as well.

We've had a hard time dealing with Proudhon's work in the 1860s, at last in the English-speaking world. Part of the problem, of course, is that we haven't done much justice to his work in the 1850s, but I think we have at least had a vague sense that Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, all six volumes of it, was lurking out there, waiting to be accounted for, and a few scholars have placed Justice in the more-or-less central place that it seems to deserve. (Jesse Cohn stands out for me in this regard.) For me, despite a lot of wrestling with Justice, The Philosophy of Progress has been the gateway into the "constructive" work of the 1850s, and it has gradually become the pivot around which I've built a couple of interpretive narratives. In the first, it marks the shift between primarily critical and primarily constructive periods (as I've discussed in "Self-Government and the Citizen-State.) In the second, which I'm still working through, it is the occasion of Proudhon finally beginning answer the question about "the criterion of certainty" that he claims led him to his more familiar work. We might read the work on Justice, which begins with the identification of that criterion with the idea of justice itself, as a kind of resolution of Proudhon's early, philosophical and theological concerns. Despite its occasionally glaring inconsistencies, as in the study on "Love and Marriage," the work manages to be a pretty triumphant answer to the question that he was chiding himself for still pursuing in 1841.

The 1860s look, at the very least, less triumphant, and we don't seem to have any very coherent account of what Proudhon was up to in the last five years of his life. It is actually common, though I think incorrect, to treat the best-known of the late works, The Federative Principle, as marking a shift away from anarchism. And the rest of the works from that period have been hard to come to grips with:
  • War and Peace (1861) — Despite Alex Prichard's work, this two-volume work is still little known, and it simply remains very demanding. There is a lot of complicated treatment of the topic of war to be waded through in order to extract Proudhon's fundamentally peaceful message. The work has been treated as proto-fascist and, to complicate matters, we can find some selective influences in those currents.
  • The Theory of Taxation (1861) — Marx treated the work as the final sign that Proudhon was just a "bourgeois," and anarchists have naturally been slow to warm to a work on taxation. The fact that it contains Proudhon's clearest explanation of what I've called the "citizen-state" is, alas, a circumstance with limited attraction for those who see any discussion of any kind of "state" as a step backward. Like War and Peace, it is a work that looks a lot better if you know and understant the work of the 1850s.
  • Literary Majorats (1862) — Some sections of this work opposing intellectual property have actually be translated, but it remains largely unknown. The truth is that most of our positions on these questions are pretty well solidified.
  • The Political Capacity of the Working Classes (1865) — This is the work that anarchists have shown the most interest in, largely because it was addressed to the workers who would make up the core of the Parisian group in the First International, and because it was the work that Proudhon labored away at on his deathbed. It is a fascinating work, and one with a clear influence in the international working-class movement. Unfortunately, the tale we've told about the International paints the workers most closely associated with it as losers, when they aren't dismissed as traitors.
  • The Theory of Property (1865) — Finally, Proudhon's final work on property has been the subject of hot debate from before its publication right up to the present. For those who want to paint his outside of the mainstream of anarchist thought, or who want to draw strong distinctions between the "property is theft" of 1840 and a "pro-property" position in his last years, the reputation of this work has been useful, however little that reputation corresponded to its contents. Despite years of translation and analysis, I still have people telling me the same unsubstantiated stories about the work: that it was a pieced-together work, abandoned by Proudhon and cobbled together by his followers; that it represented more evidence of Proudhon's abandonment of anarchism; or, alternately, that it really doesn't contain anything that challenges the position of 1840. I feel like my work to date has pretty well dealt with most of the usual responses to the work, demonstrating the continuity of Proudhon's work on property, his consistent pursuit of anarchism, etc. But I would be lying if I said that I was very comfortable with the work. After all, my own work on the "gift economy of property" has really been an attempt to push beyond what I've understood as an instructive, but not always appealing set of arguments in The Theory of Property.
 What the work I've been doing lately has suggested to me is that, while establishing the connections between The Theory of Property and Proudhon's earlier works is obviously important and useful, Proudhon himself really saw the work as part of a larger, ongoing work, which occupied him in the 1860s. The unpublished work, Pologne, is obviously something we have to engage with in order to understand Proudhon's final large-scale project, but we can start by changing our strategy with regard to the late works that we know. Instead of picking and choosing which of the late works we engage, sometimes pitting one work against another, it seems likely that the only way to do justice to those works is to consider them as Proudhon seems to have understood them—as pieces of a larger whole.

Perhaps we need to consider splitting the "constructive" period of Proudhon's career at least one more time. We might characterized his progression something like this:
  1. In an initial, largely critical period, Proudhon began by seeking the criterion of certainty and found himself waging a multi-front war against absolutism. The familiar critiques of property and governmentalism were among the results.
  2. In a first phase of constructive labors, Proudhon found his solution to the question of the criterion of certainty in the idea of an imminent justice, and elaborated how the play of justice operates in contexts ranging from metaphysics to international politics. The elimination of the absolute and the opposition to external constitution of relations are central concerns. There is a lot of history and political economy in this period, but we might say that philosophical concerns are really driving the analysis. Even a work like The General Idea of the Revolution, with all its practical proposals, is still really largely about an idea.
  3. In a second phase of constructive labors, Proudhon shifted his attention to the practical playing-out of the principle of justice. We have probably been right to see that the emphasis on the federative principle marked a transition, but incorrect in identifying it. Having eliminated external constitution (governmentalism, archy) as a model for social organization, there remains the question of how internal constitution (self-government, anarchy) will work. But Proudhon points us to the principle that will unify his labors:
"...transported into the political sphere, what we have previously called mutualism or guarantism takes the name of federalism. In a simple synonymy the revolution, political and economic, is given to us whole..."
The principle has multiple names—the familiar mutualism and federalism, and the less familiar guarantism. The last term is, as I've mentioned elsewhere, a borrowing from Fourier, intended to designate the messy, very approximate stage prior to Harmony. Proudhon, of course, is too consistently progressive a thinker, to certain that "humanity proceeds by approximation," to have much hope for a period of realized Harmony. The quote with which I began the post, as well as some others I have recently noted, ought to inspire some corrections in our thinking about Proudhon's late works. First, the traditional elevation of The Federative Principle over The Theory of Property probably can't hold up. Proudhon's letters suggest that, with regard to their status as finished works, we've had things turned completely around. At the same time, the title from the manuscript suggests an equation between "Guarantism" and "The Theory of Property" that shouldn't surprise us at all, and which quite appropriately subordinates whatever Proudhon has to say about property in that work to a principle we know to think of as a synonym of mutualism or federation. 

That opens a new set of messy questions, including how property can be understood as an instance of federations, but perhaps we've tackled enough for now.

Flora Tristan, Messiah and Pariah

"God will doubtless pardon you, for you know not what you do, but we will not listen to you, for you know not what you say!"
I've just posted a fairly finished translation of Flora Tristan's posthumous work, The Emancipation of Woman, or, The Testament of the Pariah. It's a strange work, probably in part because it was finished by Alphonse Constant (better known as Eliphas Levi), at a time when Constant had moved on from the neo-Christianity of the Saint-Simonians, but had not yet embarked on his more famous career as an occultist. He writes in the text about his struggles to complete the work. But I suspect most of the strangeness of the text came from its primary author, Flora Tristan, who presents herself as at once a social pariah and a sort of spiritual-political messiah. The work, which is fundamentally a series of exhortations in favor of women's emancipation, works through its arguments in terms largely derived from various varieties of Christian heresy, often mixing the elements in rather startling ways. It is, for example, a work encouraging peaceful social change, written in a rather violent sort of prose. It is also often quite beautiful.

This is one of those texts that suggests whole universes of oppositional thought that are not easily accounted for in our schematic understandings of radical history. I would encourage readers to stick with it, taking pleasure in the really lovely moments scattered throughout the text, and not deciding too quickly how to respond to the very complicated, and not always coherent, play of the religious elements.

The Rise and Progress of the Great Atercratic Revolution

After wrestling a bit with how best to organize my dedicated anarchist history blog, Dispatches from the Revolution—Atercracy, I have settled on an unorthodox, but hopefully fun way of both wrestling with some of the technical difficulties and keeping the focus on good stories. Those interested in the historical tidbits should make follow developments over there.