I’m aware that readers who have followed the argument this far are likely to be resistant to the interpretation I’m presenting, and for a number of reasons. I’m entirely sympathetic, since the most likely resistances are likely to be ones which I faced myself as I worked through Proudhon’s thought.
1) Anti-statism is generally considered an essential part of anarchism—so essential, in fact, that some anarchists consider anti-statism nearly the entirety of anarchism. This is particularly the case among market anarchists, but social anarchists generally have some investment in the Bakunin-style opposition to the state. At the same time, a perception of Proudhon’s thought on the subject has been established on the basis of the portion of “Resistance to the Revolution” that was translated (multiple times, by William B. Greene and Benjamin R. Tucker) as “The State.” To suggest that anarchist theory ought to find a place for a state in its schemes, even “after the revolution,” certainly goes against much of the grain of anarchist thought—so there should presumably be very good reasons for pursuing this other analysis.
2) The whole question emerges in the context of a mutualist renaissance which doesn’t just come with a few potentially topsy-turvy new ideas, but with a radical rereading of anarchism’s early history, which has arguably been neglected by the tradition. As a movement, we’ve tended to boil Proudhon’s thought down to some slogans, a few dubious generalizations, and a selection of his worst missteps—more than fifty volumes of works reduced down to something that could be scrawled on a cocktail napkin. Now, however, we’ve seen a lot of new translation and analysis, not just of Proudhon but of a number of early figures who complicate the origin story of anarchism. Even if all this new material does not threaten any of our closely-held notions about what anarchism is all about, it’s still a lot of new, challenging material.
3) And it is not easy material to take in. There’s not much doubt that one of the reasons that some of the early forms of anarchism did not have more impact was that they were more closely connected in their forms and assumptions to the “utopian” socialisms that predated them than to the forms which survived the battles in the First International and the major cultural transitions of the mid-19th century. But the “utopian” label was ultimately a weapon wielded by Marx’s faction in the battle to define what would count as “social science” and could be recognized as revolutionary theory, and some of those old socialists may now look quite a bit more contemporary. There is, for example, a great deal of Fourier in Deleuze, and we might be inclined to summarize a lot of Derrida’s work with the phrase “property is theft.” But the fact that there are presentist reasons to take a good look at anarchist theory which has been neglected, doesn’t make that theory any simpler—and the need to address the debts to “utopian” socialist thought only increases the amount of material we need to deal with.
Ultimately, though, my own experience is that none of these reasons to proceed carefully comes anywhere close to being a reason not to proceed. On the contrary, a careful reading of Proudhon’s theory seems to lead us towards a radical sociology that is not only more consistent than the napkin’s-worth of Proudhon we’ve inherited, but is also arguably both more powerful than virtually any of the theory provided by the “classical” anarchists and more consistently anarchistic.
Let’s return to the similarities between the development of Proudhon’s thought on property and that of his theory of the state. The general trajectory of Proudhon’s property theory is as follows:
1839—Proudhon makes a few statements about the true meaning of the commandment against theft, which suggest that any system of “private” property might be built on theft (“putting aside”), rather than theft being an abuse of property.
1840—He makes the bold claims that “property is theft” and “property is impossible” in What is Property? But he also proposes an anarchist form of liberty which he defines in terms of a “synthesis of community and property.” He makes a distinction between “simple possession” (a “matter of fact”) and “simple property” (a right of “use and abuse”), but is not entirely consistent in his definitions. Then, an introduction to the second edition of the book, he defines “property” in terms of “the sum of its abuses,” threatening the strength of his critique. Two more memoirs on property follow.
1842—In a response given in court, where he was defending the publication of his memoirs, he proposes to eliminate or neutralize property by universalizing the “theft” that it represents.
1846—In his System of Economic Contradictions, property is given an antinomic character, within which both positive and negative characteristics battle, and he describes property as a problem second only to “human destiny” in importance, and one not likely to be solved soon.
This is the point at which Proudhon declared the problem of religion solved, and it’s worth noting here what Proudhon thought that solution was—particularly because it bears a close resemblance to his analysis of the state.
Proudhon’s claim is that what humans have sought in the form of gods is, in fact, their own collective capacities, which they did not recognize in the collective being which they confronted, and that this failure to understand the nature of their own powers allowed those powers to be harnessed against them by individuals claiming divine right and inspiration. As in the critique of the state, it is a question of the external manifestation of social power being understood as necessarily performing a governmental function, and thus existing above individual human beings.
1848—Pursuing his theory of property through the revolutionary period and into his brief involvement with the Provisional Government, Proudhon wrote a series of analyses of property and its relations to labor and credit, and his conclusions, often tied to particular occasions and arguments, cover a tremendous amount of ground. In “The Revolutionary Program,” for example, he made a series of rather startling declarations:
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, partisan of the family and of the household, adversary of communism, I 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 the citizens than that accidents resulting from chance. . .
Then he proceeded to claim that this sort of laissez faire will lead to a sort of anarchic “centralization:”
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?
And we can see that this idea of a state unconnected to the governmental principle was already part of his theoretical repertoire, well before the major shifts in his approach, and that his ideas on both property and the state seem to have gone through significant oscillations during the revolutionary period. It is in this period that he finally describes property as “liberty,” while still maintaining that it is also “theft.”
1853—This year marked his decision to allow concepts like “religion, government, and property” their “patronymic names.” In practice, he did not often use the terms “property” and “government” in ways that differ too dramatically from his earlier uses. In the case of property, it was enough to begin to talk about it both in terms of its logics and its social aims. He doesn’t seem to have had much interest in making a similar argument about government, although there are a few nods in that direction, but he did once and for all detach the notion of the state from any necessary connection to the governmental principle.
Let’s stop again and think about the moves Proudhon is making. Although he claimed in 1849 that the problems of property were solved, but those of government were hardly touched, it appears that the problem of government—the misrecognition of the collective force embodied in the state as a kind of secular god—was really the problem for which he had at least the solid beginnings of an answer, while property continued to pose significant problems for him.
We can speculate on why these two analyses played out differently. I’ve noted on a number of occasions that Proudhon did not ground his theory of property particular well in a theory of the subject and its ownness (of the sort that we might find in Locke or Stirner, who, despite significant differences, both start from the self in order to talk about appropriation.) Proudhon seems to have taken something of that sort for granted, and even to have assumed some sorts of rights which were closely connected to possession. By 1861, in War and Peace, Proudhon had an interesting theory of rights elaborated:
Right, in general, is the recognition of human dignity is 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.
And subsequent elaboration would suggest that we might, in justice, require ourselves to recognize these rights at scale both larger and smaller than that of the unified individual human being. We have at least hints that perhaps the who range of scales, from the infinitesimal to the universal (so familiar from the writings of Fourier and Dejacque), might come into play. Given this, and the claim that rights are simply raised along with potential claims, some of the apparent inconsistencies of the early writings (like the uncertainty whether “possession” is a matter of mere fact or also one of possessory right) seem to be provided with solutions (as Proudhon’s growing tendency to associate property in all its forms with absolutism, and his rethinking of the “right of abuse” salvage his 1840 arguments from the undercutting he gave them in the preface.)
A key difference between the arguments regarding property and those regarding the state is it probably never occurred to Proudhon to question the reality of the human being or its possession of at least some rights, while it is quite likely that he may have dreamt of simply denying or eradicating the state. That, after all, has become the standard anarchist position, to characterize the state as artificial or illegitimate or even imaginary in some key aspects, and to proceed in terms of simply suppressing any form of state.
1858—By the time Proudhon had published Justice in the Revolution and in the Church he had committed himself to a theory of beings according to which all beings recognizable as individuals were also recognizable as organized groups.
“[T]he beings to which we accord individuality do not enjoy it by any title other than that of the collective beings: they are always groups formed according to a law of relation and in which force, proportional to the arrangement at least as much as to the mass, is the principle of unity.”
That notion that human individuals and collectivities, including the state, are accorded individuality by the same title makes it very hard simply sidestep the question of the reality of the state as a manifestation of collective force—an individual. Another great realization of 1858, that “the antinomy does not resolve itself,” undoubtedly took the wind out of some of the bolder proclamations of Proudhon’s earlier works—or represented the failure of those claims to manifest themselves. And to these we should also add some elaboration of the theory of federation which would become one of Proudhon’s primary concerns in the final phase of his career: “this federation, where the city is equal to the province, the province equal to the empire, the empire equal to the continent, where all groups are politically equal…” The leveling of the playing field is the consequence of denying the governmental principle, which, unlike the manifestation of collective force in the state, seems to be primarily an artefact of our inability to recognize our own strength when it confronts us in collective form.
1861—We can stop our timeline here, not because Proudhon was finished, but because his elaboration of the various forms of rights in War and Peace, and the “New Theory” of property which he had apparently completed by then, ultimately brought the analyses of property and the state together, as countervailing forces which would work together to create spaces within which liberty—and free beings of various scales—could emerge and develop.
At this point, there has been a fairly radical transformation of Proudhon’s analysis, but no great reversals in his thought—except for his recognition of the non-governmental state as an individual actor which must be accounted for. But what would it mean to account for the state in relations of mutuality? What are the implications of this leveling of the field? And what does adopting all of this rather peculiar theory gain us?
That’s still the work of one more section, where we can look at the possible role of the state within anarchism—but also speculate about other potential collective beings, such as “the market.”