It is a commonplace that we should not look for a "system" in Proudhon. It is true that we shouldn't look for a description of an anarchist society "after the revolution." Proudhon considered full-blown anarchy an abstraction. What he proposed were a series of transitional programs, more or less well adapted to conditions at the times he was writing. There are no utopias in Proudhon, and what is most systematic in his work has to do primarily with how we view the conditions around us: look for the Revolution immanent in all our activities and institutions, and then add our individual strength to the current. Rather than thinking of revolutionaries as a visionary vanguard, there are indications the Proudhon considered Revolution a matter of that "collective force" that also gave power to industry, that was allied to progress. Individuals, even radical ones, might be sluggards in comparison with the forces building in their own societies. The "Toast to the Revolution" suggests this: there is no Revolution without our active participation, but it is our tardiness, our failure to perceive the potential advances around us, that makes revolutionary change this steeplechase affair. Trot along, rear back, leap—the "great equitations of principles, these enormous shifts in mores."
That is probably both more and less radical than we generally have considered our role. And, honestly, we are all much more comfortable with opposition to a "world" we reject more or less tout court, and with speculations about final states, than we are with transitional programs and possibly interminable revolutionary processes. Be that as it may, we need to read Proudhon according to his own lights, before we can either accept or reject him. And his vision, from What Is Property? through to The Theory of Property and The Political Capacity of the Working Classes, is all messy transitions, mixtures, balancing acts, antinomies.
And, as I suggested at the start of this, none of his "contradictions" are much more important, or much harder to wrap our heads around, than his vision of "centralization" (by which he really means widespread federation) growing out of the most radical individualization of interests. Consider this passage from 1848's "Revolutionary Program:"
And, now, another section of the same piece:
I am, as you are well aware, citizens, the man who wrote these words: Property is theft!
I do not come to retract them, heaven forbid! I persist in regarding this provocative definition as the greatest truth of the century. I have no desire to insult your convictions either: all that I ask, is to say to you how I—partisan of the family and the household, and adversary of communism that I am—understand that the negation of property is necessary for the abolition of misery, for the emancipation of the proletariat. It is by its fruits that one must judge a doctrine: judge then my theory by my practice.
When I say, Property is theft! I do not propose a principle; I do nothing but express one conclusion. You will understand the enormous difference presently.However, if the definition of property which I state is only the conclusion, or rather the general formula of the economic system, what is the principle of that system, what is its practice, and what are its forms?
My principle, which will appear astonishing to you, citizens, my principle is yours; it is property itself.
I have no other symbol, no other principle than those of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: Liberty, equality, security, property.
Like the Declaration of Rights, I define liberty as the right to do anything that does not harm others.
Again, like the Declaration of Rights, I define property, provisionally, as the right to dispose freely of one's income, the fruits of one's labor and industry.
Here is the entirety of my system: liberty of conscience, liberty of the press, liberty of labor, free trade, liberty in education, free competition, free disposition of the fruits of labor and industry, liberty ad infinitum, absolute liberty, liberty for all and always.
It is 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, the system of the Débats, of the Presse, of the Constitutionnel, of the Siècle, of the Nationale, of the Rèforme, of the Gazette; in the end it is your system, voters.
Simple as unity, vast as infinity, this system serves for itself and for others as a criterion. In a word it is understood and compels adhesion; nobody wants a system in which liberty is the least bit undermined. One word identifies and wards off all errors: what could be easier than to say what is or is not liberty?
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.
Who does not see that the mutualist organization of exchange, of circulation, of credit, of buying and selling, the abolition of taxes and tolls of every nature which place burdens on production and bans on goods, irresistibly push the producers, each following his specialty, towards a centralization analogous with that of the State, but in which no one obeys, no one is dependent, and everyone is free and sovereign? [my translations—shawn.]Well now! Proudhon goes on to say that there is nothing inevitable about this free organization. It is quite possible to screw things up, to end up with "communism," which he, like Warren, associates with a premature assumption of common interests (not necessarily a fault of our contemporary communist comrades) or "agro-industrial dictatorship"—or any number of other new feudalisms or authoritarian governments. The key to avoiding those pitfalls is the heart of mutualism—reciprocity, the Golden Rule. Opposition to authority in the form of the Absolute, a certain skepticism or papillon restlessness of thought, helps too.