The most incredible confusion is that between the government and the State. I am an anarchist, as Proudhon was, for like him I want to abolish government, the principle of authority in the State, in order to replace it by an responsible and controllable administration of the public interests; but I do not want, with Bakunin, to abolish the State. The word State comes from stare, to hold, to persist; the State is thus the organized collectivity. Just as the commune is the local collectivity, the State is the national collectivity which has lasted, lasts and will last as long as the nation itself. Even if society ever succeeds in realizing the ideal of the universal Republic, that Republic will still be composed of distinct States, in solidarity with one another, but each living its own life.— Frédéric Tufferd, "Unity in Socialism" (1887)
Although it is something of a commonplace that Proudhon expected some form of “state” to persist within anarchism, and to take its place in a complex balancing of forces with individual absolutisms, property, etc., statements like Tufferd’s are still a bit startling, in part because we have seldom tried to take the theory from works like The Theory of Property and explore what these vague notions of “countervailing forces” would amount to in practice. To do so, of course, requires confronting a number of other key elements in Proudhon’s social theory which threaten to complicate matters rather dramatically.
We know that Proudhon held two different perspectives on “the state,” and that they seem radically different—even opposed. In the debates of 1849, with Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux, Proudhon made his famous analysis of “the state” in “Resistance the Revolution” and some connected essays (best known in English through the section published separately as “The State.”) In that analysis he identifies “the state” with the manifestation of “the governmental principle,” and opposes both to the “social revolution.”
Given those assumptions, his critique of “the state” follows naturally:
The State is the external constitution of the social power.
The constitution supposes, in principle, that society is a creature of the mind, destitute of spontaneity, providence, unity, needing for its action to be fictitiously represented by one or more elected or hereditary commissioners: an hypothesis the falsity of which the economic development of society and the organization of universal suffrage agree in demonstrating.
The constitution of the State supposes further, as to its object, that antagonism or a state of war is the essential and irrevocable condition of humanity, a condition which necessitates, between the weak and the strong, the intervention of a coercive power to put an end to their struggles by universal oppression We maintain that, in this respect, the mission of the State is ended; that, by the division of labor, industrial solidarity, the desire for well-being, and the equal distribution of capital and taxation, liberty and justice obtain surer guarantees than any that ever were afforded them by religion and the State.
As for utilitarian transformation of the State, we consider it as a utopia contradicted at once by governmental tradition, and the revolutionary tendency, and the spirit of the henceforth admitted economic reforms. In any case, we say that to liberty alone it would belong to reorganize power, which is equivalent at present to the complete exclusion of power.
As a result, either no social revolution, or no more government; such is our solution of the political problem.
But ten years later, as he writes the works of his mature period, Proudhon seems to have changed his position completely, and his discussions of “justice in the revolution” and the dynamics of an anarchist society include a role for state, and even a defense of its “rights.”
This has been taken as an indication that Proudhon abandoned anarchism, that the emphasis on “federalism” in his later works marked some sort of retreat from his early, radical conclusions about government. This interpretation closely parallels the reading of Proudhon’s work on property which opposes Proudhon’s later embrace of individual property to his early claim that “property is theft,” and takes the former as evidence of backsliding. Both interpretations are, I would argue, completely wrong, but there are undoubtedly clues in the development of his thoughts on property—which has been much more extensively documented—which give us clues about how to understand the shift in his thoughts about “the state.”
Proudhon connected the two analyses in “Resistance to the Revolution:” “The Revolution of February raised two leading questions: one economic, the question of labor and property; the other political, the question of government or the State.” The first question, he claims, has been answered by “free credit” and the proposal for a “single tax on capital.”
“The economic problem, then, may be considered solved.
It is far from being the same with the political problem,—that is, with the disposal to be made in the future, of government and the State. On this point the question is not even stated;…”
If Proudhon’s own development is any indication, he was probably speaking more truly when, in 1846 in The System of Economic Contradictions, he made a similar pronouncement about property:
“The problem of property is, after that of human destiny, the greatest that reason can propose, and the last that it will be able to resolve. Indeed, the theological problem, the enigma of religion, has been explicated; the philosophical problem, which treats the value and legitimacy of knowledge, is resolved: there remains the social problem, which simply joins these two, and the solution of which, as everyone believes, comes essentially from property.”
In 1849, Proudhon’s thoughts about these economic questions were ultimately doomed to further transition. The “free credit” projects were still playing themselves out, although Proudhon had already distanced himself both physically and organizationally from them. His thinking on taxation would also develop substantially.
Arguably, Proudhon did not change his ideas dramatically in the later writings, but he did change the way he talked about almost all of his major concerns. In the case of his analysis of “the state,” his apparent reversal occurred because, as Tufferd claimed, he uncoupled the notion of “the state” from that of “government,” and the governmental principle.
But why did he do that? There are a number of reasons why Proudhon’s developing thought might have led him in that direction:
1) The debate with Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux was perhaps not Proudhon’s, or French socialism’s, finest hour. When Blanc reprinted his contributions, he made a point of saying that he had removed some remarks of a purely personal nature—and the work certainly benefited from it. The exchange is an example of three very intelligent, talented writers on something very close to their worst behavior. The exchange between Proudhon and Leroux is particularly strange, as even Proudhon insists that they agree on most of the important issues. The period between the Revolution of February 1848 and the coup d’état of 1851 was one where Proudhon was focused more narrowly on the practical questions facing the presumably revolutionary government, and on his political rivalries. And, ultimately, he was not prevailing in his attempts to steer policy. The project of starting the Bank of the People had been interrupted by new legal attacks on him, and had been succeeded by the Mutuality of Laborers, with which he was ultimately unwilling to ally himself. His tax proposal was not accepted. And his battles with fellow socialists were attracting more ridicule than anything else, as works like The Feuding Brothers demonstrate. It must have been a frustrating period for Proudhon, and perhaps he sensed, as it is hard not to sense reading the controversies of that period now, that he was not entirely on the right track. There are certainly still significant, interesting tensions in the theoretical work he did do in that period, including some of his most provocative moments, but they seem to be largely exploratory. It will only be after the coup d’état that he begins to really move beyond the confident claims that this or that critically important question is now closed, to embrace the more nuanced, progressive elements of his analysis.
2) Embracing the notion of “progress” is key to the development of Proudhon’s thought. Once he has determined to his own satisfaction that change is a constant, there can no longer be a question of closing any of the important questions—which we can certainly say in retrospect were not closed by his attempted interventions in the 1840s, and probably couldn’t have been.
3) But the embrace of progress also influences his choice of keywords and the way that he treats concepts. In his early work on “property,” he had differed with Pierre Leroux over Leroux’s decision to use the same word, “property,” to designate both the abusive present forms and possible future forms which would be in accordance with justice. He was rather insistent on the matter, choosing to define “property” in his own work as “a right of use and abuse,” but really only wishing to address, as he made clear in the preface to the second edition of What is Property?, “the sum of [property’s] abuses.” That was a dangerous move, since it is not so impressive a claim to say that “the abuse of property is theft.” And we know that Proudhon fairly rapidly shifted ground. The shift is made explicit in The Philosophy of Progress, published in 1853:
I will retain, with the common folk, these three words: religion, government, property, for reasons of which I am not the master, which partake of the general theory of Progress, and for that reason seem to me decisive: first, it is not my place to create new words for new things and I am forced to speak the language of everyone; second, there is no progress without tradition, and the new order having for its immediate antecedents religion, government and property, it is convenient, for the very guarantee of that evolution, to preserve for the new institutions their patronymic names, in the phases of civilization, because there are never well-defined lines, and to want to accomplish the revolution by a jump, that would be beyond our means.
4) Finally, this new clarity about the nature of social evolution was accompanied by a more sophisticated notion of how “collective force,” which was so important in his analysis of “property,” manifests itself in the form of collective beings—or rather how all beings worthy of the title are always already collectivities, organized according to a law of unity and development. That notion led him to reconsider the status of “the state,” apart from its connection to the principle of government, and to rank some sort of non-governmental state alongside families, workshops, and other collective beings which must somehow be accounted for in his sociology.
The consequences of positing this “organized collectivity” (to use Tufferd’s phrase) as a being, with its own organization, interests and reason, operating alongside human beings and other collective beings (when not itself subordinated to other interests by governmentalism) require careful elaboration, and threaten to take us some very strange and interesting places.
That will be the task in the second part of this analysis.