Friday, January 21, 2011

The heart of Proudhon's thought

A slightly belated "Happy 202nd Birthday!" to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It looks like the AK Press anthology will be out in February, and I have hopes of having the second issue of The Mutualist, "Owning Up," and Proudhon's Third Memoir on Property finished up by the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair. I wish I thought that all those releases were likely to advance the debate about mutualism much beyond its current state—but I'm seriously concerned that more translations means more material to take out of context, and an intensification of the tug-of-war over Proudhon's place in the anarchist tradition.

I don't think my own understanding of the matter can be much in doubt by now: Proudhon's mutualism was not a precursor, from which any of the later schools evolved—at least if by "evolved" we mean some sort of development that took the early system seriously in its entirety. Instead, it was an ambitious project from which nearly all of the subsequent schools of anarchism have borrowed something, but from which they have also subtracted some elements that Proudhon would have considered essential. But can't we pick and choose? Sure. There's nothing about anarchism that means anything has to be drawn from Proudhon's thought—or anyone else's, for that matter. But if you're going to play the game of trying to link Proudhon's thought to more contemporary schools—whether you're a social anarchist, a market anarchist, or a two-gun mutualist—you have to engage with the texts in a way which does not remove passages cited from necessary contexts.

For Proudhon, was property "theft"? Yes, from as early as 1840 and on until the end of his life. Was property "impossible"? Yes, and for the same period. Was property "liberty"? Yes, at least from 1846 until the end of his life—and arguably from 1840 as well. For Proudhon was property any of these various things in isolation? Possibly—in the sense that the arguments for "theft" and those for "impossibility" are not necessarily dependent on one another—but it's probably most accurate to think of those two analyses as aspects of a single critique of property according to its origins and logics. There's certainly no point in choosing between them, unless you find one of the arguments simply uncompelling. When it's a question of choosing between "theft" and "liberty," things are a little more complicated. Arguably, if you follow the logic of What is Property? all the way through, "theft" and "liberty" are already tied up in a dialectic bundle a handful of pages after Proudhon declared himself an anarchist. (See this old post for the basic argument for continuity from 1840 to 1865.) Certainly, by 1846, the suggestion that liberty is a "synthesis of property and community" has given place to an explicit "contradiction" inherent in property, with "theft" and "liberty" as the horns of the dilemma. "La propriété, c'est le vol; la propriété, c'est la liberté : ces deux propositions sont également démontrées et subsistent l'une à côté de l'autre dans le Système des Contradictions," he said in 1849 in his Confessions of a Revolutionary. "Property is theft; property is liberty: these two propositions are equally demonstrated and subsist beside one another..." And from that point on, nothing changes except that the contradictions become more irreducible, and eventually Proudhon turns his analysis to the aims of property—at which point he does a sort of amazing thing, taking the weakest aspect of his 1840 analysis, the treatment of property as "the sum of its abuses," and finding in it the element that brings his whole analysis together. It is because property is "theft"—because it is absolutist in character—that it can be a force for liberty in the "new theory" of The Theory of Property.

Again, anyone is free to borrow elements from Proudhon's writings for their own project. But to claim derivation or evolution from Proudhon's thought—or to claim that one has surpassed or superceded that thought—the bar is considerably higher. For that, you need to show that you have understood that thought in some basic way. With Proudhon, that means taking into account the various sorts of serial and/or dialectical approaches he used, all through his career. It means not trying to affirm only one element of a antinomic pair, when Proudhon explicitly affirmed both-in-the-antinomy. And it means respecting what he himself said about his methods and commitments.

It's been almost two years since I first posted a translation of Proudhon's Philosophy of Progress, and I've recently returned to it, cleaning up the translation for a New Proudhon Library hardcover edition. Unfortunately, it was one of the items that did not make the cut for the forthcoming anthology, and all I can do is point again to the key passages in it dealing with Proudhon's basic philosophy and method (in a slightly improved translation.) These passages really do indicate the very heart of Proudhon's project, the logic that guided him through all the various projects and analyses that he undertook. And they are challenging passages—which demand a great deal more of us than the common mis/understandings of Proudhon's thought even begin to take in. More importantly, they demand something different from us that just an affirmation or rejection of this or that idea or institution.

If you're interested in Proudhon, and in the early forms of anarchist thought, give these passages a careful read. If you've read them before, another look probably wouldn't hurt. Pay particular attention to the passages where Proudhon talks about what is "true" and "false." And the next time someone makes a claim about Proudhon or his particular form of mutualism, ask yourself if it takes into account these very basic elements of Proudhon's approach.

from Proudhon's "The Philosophy of Progress"

Nothing persists, said the ancient sages: everything changes, everything flows, everything becomes; consequently, everything remains and everything is connected; by further consequence the entire universe is opposition, balance, equilibrium. There is nothing, neither outside nor inside, apart from that eternal dance; and the rhythm that commands it, pure form of existences, the supreme idea to which any reality can respond, is the highest conception that reason can attain.

How then are things connected and engendered? How are beings produced and how do they disappear? How is society and nature transformed? This is the sole object of science.

The notion of Progress, carried into all spheres of consciousness and understanding, become the base of practical and speculative reason, must renew the entire system of human knowledge, purge the mind of its last prejudices, replace the constitutions and catechisms in social relations, teach to man all that he can legitimately know, do, hope and fear: the value of his ideas, the definition of his rights, the rule of his actions, the purpose of his existence...

The theory of Progress is the railway of liberty.


Progress, once more, is the affirmation of universal movement, consequently the negation every immutable form and formula, of every doctrine of eternity, permanence, impeccability, etc., applied to any being whatever; it is the negation of every permanent order, even that of the universe, and of every subject or object, empirical or transcendental, which does not change.

The Absolute, or absolutism, is, on the contrary, the affirmation of all that Progress denies, the negation of all that it affirms. It is the study, in nature, society, religion, politics, morals, etc., of the eternal, the immutable, the perfect, the definitive, the unconvertible, the undivided; it is, to use a phrase made famous in our parliamentary debates, in all and everywhere, the status quo.


From that double and contradictory definition of progress and the absolute is first deduced, as a corollary, a proposition quite strange to our minds, which have been shaped for so long by absolutism: it is that 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.


For me, the response is simple. 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.

Thus, whether you take for the dominant law of the Republic, either property, like the Romans, or communism, like Lycurgus, or centralization, like Richelieu, or universal suffrage, like Rousseau,—whatever principle you choose, since in your thought it takes precedence over all the others,—your system is erroneous. There is a fatal tendency to absorption, to purification, exclusion, stasis, leading to ruin. There is not a revolution in human history that could not be easily explained by this.

On the contrary, if you admit in principle that every realization, in society and in nature, results from the combination of opposed elements and their movement, your course is plotted: every proposition which aims, either to advance an overdue idea, or to procure a more intimate combination, a superior agreement, is advantageous for you, and is true. It is in-progress.


Such is then, in my opinion, the rule of our conduct and our judgments: there are degrees to existence, to truth and to the good, and the utmost is nothing other than the march of being, the agreement between the largest number of terms, while pure unity and stasis is equivalent to nothingness; it is that every idea, every doctrine that secretly aspires to prepotency and immutability, which aims to eternalize itself, which flatters itself that it gives the last formula of liberty and reason, which consequently conceals, in the folds of its dialectic, exclusion and intolerance; which claims to be true in itself, unalloyed, absolute, eternal, in the manner of a religion, and without consideration for any other; that idea, which denies the movement of mind and the classification of things, is false and fatal, and more, it is incapable of being constituted in reality. This is why the Christian church, founded on an allegedly divine and immutable order, has never been able to establish itself in the strictness of its principle; why the monarchic charters, always leaving too much latitude to innovation and liberty, are always insufficient; why, on the contrary, the Constitution of 1848, in spite of the drawbacks with which it abounds, is still the best and truest of all the political constitutions. While the others obstinately posit themselves in the Absolute, only the Constitution of 1848 has proclaimed its own revision, its perpetual reformability.

With this understood, and the notion of Progress or universal movement introduced into the understanding, admitted into the republic of ideas, facing its antagonist the Absolute, everything changes in appearance for the philosopher. The world of mind, like that of nature, seems turned on its head: logic and metaphysics, religion, politics, economics, jurisprudence, morals, and art all appear with a new physiognomy, revolutionized from top to bottom. What the mind had previously believed true becomes false; that which it had rejected as false becomes true. The influence of the new notion making itself felt by all, and more each day, there soon results a confusion that seems inextricable to superficial observers, and like the symptom of a general folly. In the interregnum which separates the new regime of Progress from the old regime of the Absolute, and during the period while intelligences pass from one to the other, consciousness hesitates and stumbles between its traditions and its aspirations; and as few people know how to distinguish the double passion that they obey, to separate what they affirm or deny in accordance with their belief in the Absolute from that which they deny or affirm in accordance with their support for Progress, there results for society, from that effervescence of all the fundamental notions, a pell-mell of opinions and interest, a battle of parties, where civilization would soon be ruined, if light did not manage to make itself seen in the void.

Such is the situation that France finds itself in, not only since the revolution of February, but since that of 1789, a situation for which I blame, up to a certain point, the philosophers, the publicists, all those who, having a mission to instruct the people and form opinion, have not seen, or have not wanted to see, that the idea of Progress being from now on universally accepted,—having acquired rights from the bourgeoisie, not only in the schools, but even in the temples,—and raised finally to the category of reason, the old representations of things, natural as well as social, are corrupted, and that it is necessary to construct anew, by means of that new lamp of the understanding, science and the laws.

Dimsit lucem à tenebris! Separation of positive ideas, constructed on the notion of Progress, from the more or less utopian theories that suggest the Absolute: such is, sir, the general thought which guides me. Such is my principle, my idea itself, that which forms the basis and makes the connections in all my judgments. It will be easy for me to show how, in all my controversies, I have thought to obey it: you will say if I have been faithful.


Movement exists: this is my fundamental axiom. To say how I acquired the notion of movement would be to say how I think, how I am. It is a question to which I have the right not to respond. Movement is the primitive fact that is revealed at once by experience and reason. I see movement and I sense it; I see it outside of me, and I sense it in me. If I see it outside of me, it is because I sense it in me, and vice versa. The idea of movement is thus given at once by the senses and the understanding; by the senses, since in order to have the idea of movement it is necessary to have seen it; by the understanding, since movement itself, though sensible, is nothing real, and since all that the senses reveal in movement is that the same body which just a moment ago was in a certain place is at the next instant in another.

In order that I may have an idea of movement, it is necessary that a special faculty, what I call the senses, and another faculty that I call the understanding, agree in my CONSCIOUSNESS to furnish it to me: this is all that I can say about the mode of that acquisition. In other words, I discover movement outside because I sense it inside; and I sense it because I see it: at base the two faculties are only one; the inside and the outside are two faces of a single activity; it is impossible for me to go further.

The idea of movement obtained, all the others are deduced from it, intuitions as well as conceptions. It is a wrong, in my opinions, that among the philosophers, some, such as Locke and Condillac, have claimed to account for all ideas with the aid of the senses; others, such as Plato and Descartes, deny the intervention of the senses, and explain everything by innateness; the most reasonable finally, with Kant at their head, make a distinction between ideas, and explain some by the relation of the senses, and the others by the activity of the understanding. For me, all our ideas, whether intuitions or conceptions, come from the same source, the simultaneous, conjoint, adequate, and at base identical action of the senses and the understanding.

Thus, every intuition or sensible idea is the apperception of a composition, and is itself a composition: now, every composition, whether it exists in nature or it results from an operation of the mind, is the product of a movement. If we were not ourselves a motive power and, at the same time, a receptivity, we would not see objects, because we would be incapable of examining them, of restoring diversity to their unity, as Kant said.

Every conception, on the contrary, indicates an analysis of movement, which is itself still a movement, which I demonstrate in the following manner:

Every movement supposes a direction, A → B. That proposition is furnished, a priori, by the very notion of movement. The idea of direction, inherent in the idea of movement, being acquired, the imagination takes hold of it and divides it into two terms: A, the side from which movement comes, and B, the side where it goes. These two terms given, the imagination summarizes them in these two others, point of departure and point of arrival, otherwise, principle and aim. Now, the idea of a principle or aim is only a fiction or conception of the imagination, an illusion of the senses. A thorough study shows that there is not, nor could there be, a principle or aim, nor beginning or end, to the perpetual movement which constitutes the universe. These two ideas, purely speculative on our part, indicate in things nothing more than relations. To accord any reality to these notions is to make for oneself a willful illusion.

From that double concept, of commencement or principle, and of aim or end, all the others are deduced. Space and time are two ways of conceiving the interval which separates the two terms assumed from movement, point of departure and point of arrival, principle and aim, beginning and end. Considered in themselves, time and space, notions equally objective or subjective, but essentially analytic, are, because of the analysis which gave rise to them, nothing, less than nothing; they have value only according to the sum of movement or of existence that they are supposed to contain, so that, according to the proportion of movement or existence that it contains, a point can be worth an infinity, and an instant eternity. I treat the idea of cause in the same way: it is still a product of analysis, which, after having made us suppose in movement a principle and a goal, leads us to conclude by supposing further, by a new illusion of empiricism, that the first is the generator of the second, much as in the father we see the author or the cause of his children. But it is always only a relation illegitimately transformed into reality: there is not, in the universe, a first, second, or last cause; there is only one single current of existences. Movement is: that is all. What we call cause or force is only, like that which we call principle, author or motor, a face of movement, the face A; while the effect, the product, the motive, the aim or the end, is face B. In the ensemble of existences, that distinction has no more place: the sum of causes is identical and adequate to the sum of effects, which is the very negation of both. Movement or, as the theologians say, creation, is the natural state of the universe.


From the moment that I conceive of movement as the essence of nature and of mind, it follows first that reasoning, or the art of classifying ideas, is a certain evolution, a history, or, as I have sometimes called it, a series. From this it follows that the syllogism, for example, the king of arguments of the ancient school, has only a hypothetical, conventional and relative value: it is a truncated series, proper only to produce the most innocent babble about the world, by those who do not do not know how to return it to its fullness, by bringing about its full reconstruction.

What I say about the syllogism must be said about the Baconian induction, the dilemma, and all the ancient dialectic.


The condition of all existence, after movement, is unquestionably unity; but what is the nature of that unity? If we should consult the theory of Progress, it responds that the unity of all being is essentially synthetic, that it is a unity of composition. Thus the idea of movement, primordial idea of all intelligence, is synthetic, since, as we have just seen, it resolves itself analytically into two terms, which we have represented by this figure, A → B. Similarly, and for greater reason, all the ideas, intuitions or images that we receive from objects are synthetic in their unity: they are combinations of movements, varied and complicated to infinity, but convergent and single in their collectivity.

That 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.

It is from this simplism that all of the alleged science of being, ontology, has been deduced.


With the idea of movement or progress, all these systems, founded on the categories of substance, causality, subject, object, spirit, matter, etc., fall, or rather explain themselves away, never to reappear again. The notion of being can no longer be sought in an invisible something, whether spirit, body, atom, monad, or what-have-you. It ceases to be simplistic and become synthetic: it is no longer the conception, the fiction of an indivisible, unmodifiable, intransmutable (etc.) je ne sais quoi: intelligence, which first posits a synthesis, before attacking it by analysis, admits nothing of that sort a priori. It knows what substance and force are, in themselves; it does not take its elements for realities, since, by the law of the constitution of the mind, the reality disappears, while it seeks to resolve it into its elements. All that reason knows and affirms is that the being, as well as the idea, is a GROUP.

Just as in logic the idea of movement or progress translates into that other, the series, so, in ontology, it has as a synonym the group. Everything that exists is grouped; everything that forms a group is one. Consequently, it is perceptible, and, consequently, it is. The more numerous and varied the elements and relations which combine in the formation of the group, the more centralizing power will be found there, and the more reality the being will obtain. Apart from the group there are only abstractions and phantoms. The living man is a group, like the plant or the crystal, but of a higher degree than those others; he is more living, more feeling, and more thinking to the degree that his organs, secondary groups, are in a more perfect agreement with one another, and form a more extensive combination. I no longer consider that self, what I call my soul, as a monad, governing, from the sublimity of its so-called spiritual nature, other monads, injuriously considered material: these school distinctions seem senseless to me. I do not occupy myself with that caput mortuum of beings, solid, liquid, gas or fluid, that the doctors pompously call SUBSTANCE; I do not even know, as much as I am inclined to suppose it, if there is some thing which responds to the word substance. Pure substance, reduced to its simplest expression, absolutely amorphous, and which one could quite happily call the pantogene, since all things come from it, if I cannot exactly say that it is nothing, appears to my reason as if it was not; it is equal to NOTHING. It is the mathematical point, which has no length, no size, no depth, and which nonetheless gives birth to all geometric figures. I consider in each being only its composition, its unity, its properties, its faculties, so that I restore all to a single reason,—variable, susceptible to infinite elevation,—the group.


Julia Riber Pitt said...

Thank you for this Shawn. Interesting read.

c.t.mummey said...

digging the antimonies. looking forward to the proudhon collection...and dreading it!