Anarchy, Understood in All its Senses—II

[Contr’un, December 17, 2014]

[Continued from Part I.]

“The first term of the series being thus Absolutism, the final, fateful term is Anarchy, understood in all the senses.”–Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution

 In 1840, Proudhon declared that he was an anarchist, and he gave the beginnings of a description of the anarchy that he proposed:

Anarchy, the absence of a master or sovereign, such is the form of government that we approach every day, which the deep-rooted habit of taking the man for rule and his will for law makes us regard as the height of disorder and the expression of chaos.

 It is a description with at least three important elements. First, we have the definition of anarchy as the absence of a ruler, what Proudhon would described elsewhere as non-government or self-government. This is the idea that has most directly informed the various schools of anarchism, as the advocacy of anarchy gradually became a social movement and developed explicit ideologies. And it was certainly the starting place for Proudhon’s own explorations. Although he was writing at a time when there was no anarchist movement, and may have never used the term anarchism, there are certainly places in his writings where his explorations of what it means to be in favor of anarchy look very familiar. In particular, his critique of the State during the Second French Republic and his subsequent analysis of the Empire of Louis Napoleon are obvious precursors of anarchist anti-statism. But, as I have already noted in a variety of contexts, Proudhon’s engagement with the notion of anarchy led him in various other directions, ultimately complicating the familiar parts of the work.

The second element, the confident claim that anarchy is “the form of government that we approach every day,” already takes us into territory that may be unfamiliar. When we think of an anarchist analysis of current events and institutions, we probably think of something like this statement by Proudhon:

Our own principle…is the negation of every dogma; our first datum, nothing. To deny, always to deny: that is our method of construction in philosophy. It is by following that negative method that we have been led to pose as principles, atheism in religion, anarchism in politics, and non-property in political economy.

 And so our impulse is to deny the validity of virtually everything we find around us. No anarchist tendency is more pronounced than the tendency to vie among ourselves to see who can most relentlessly ferret out the last possible remaining bits of the present system in any proposed alternatives. But if you start from the belief that we are daily approaching anarchy, even under present conditions, then the process of negation probably needs to be considerably more discriminating. In Proudhon’s work we actually find a general sense that virtually all popular beliefs and institutions are fundamentally correct, even progressive, from some point of view (in their aims, for example, if not in their application), and that the primary reason why virtually all of them have such disastrous results for the vast majority of us stems from our failure to understand a very basic, ongoing struggle between absolutism and progress, and the effect this misunderstood conflict has on the development and persistence of archic and anarchic ideas and institutions. So what Proudhon actually denied, over and over again, was primarily what he called the absolute, which he understood as both key to the preference for authoritarian institutions and instrumental in their inevitable failures. Once he had, as he put it, “eliminated the absolute” in concepts and institutions, those elements could then return to his toolkit. This is, for example, the method by which “property” and “the State” began as the targets of Proudhon’s most concentrated critique, and then become critical elements of his social science.

Proudhon used the most extravagant sort of language to describe the results of this “elimination of the absolute:”

…to eliminate the absolute is to make the reason of things appear; and as that reason of things makes up, for us, the very reality of things, it results in the last analysis that to eliminate the absolute is to give reality to things, it is, for the man who seeks utility in them, to create them.

 What he might say to us now is that we have become very good at exposing the fundamentally mythic or ideological aspects of the world around us, but not so adept at revealing that “reason of things,” with the result that we have been ineffective at “giving reality” to our relations.

Is there is a challenge worth responding to in that aspect of Proudhon’s thought about anarchy? This is the first of a number of questions that we will collect as we work through the rest of his treatment of the concept. And, to be clear, this time around it is not simply a question of a provocative reference to “anarchy, understood in all the senses” in a single work, but the product of a very thorough scouring of the majority of Proudhon’s published works for every instance where anarchy, anarchists or the anarchic in social relations is discussed. That will take us rather far afield before we can pull the various threads together.

First, however, there is a third element to at least note in Proudhon’s 1840 explanation of anarchy. Recall the full context of his original declaration:

What form of government should we prefer? — “Why, how can you ask such a question?” one of my younger readers will doubtless respond. “You are a republican.” — “A republican! Yes; but that word clarifies nothing. Res publica; that is, the commonweal. Now, whoever is interested in the commonweal, under any form of government whatsoever, may call himself a republican. The kings are also republicans.” — “Well! you are a democrat?” — “No”” — “What! You would have a monarchy.” — “No.” — “A constitutionalist?” — “God forbid!” — “So you are an aristocrat?” — “Not at all.” — “You want a mixed government?” — “Even less.” — “What are you, then?” — “I am an anarchist.”

“Oh! I understand you; you speak satirically. This is for the benefit of the government.” — “Not at all. You have just heard my serious and carefully considered profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am, in the strongest sense of the term, an anarchist. Listen to me.”

 We have the repeated denial of governmental forms, the repeated elimination of archic forms. This was the sort of thing that gave Proudhon a reputation as just a “destroyer,” but we also have a “serious and carefully considered profession of faith” that presents being an anarchist “in the strongest sense of the term” and being “a firm friend of order” as compatible, if also in some sort of acknowledged tension. And this connection of anarchy and order would remain one of the most persistent questions in anarchist theory for a long time.

I have written in the past about the phrase “anarchy is order,” so often attributed to Proudhon. It is probably worth repeating some of that discussion, as it takes us straight to the heart of some of the difficulties in understanding Proudhon. The phrase is easy to find in the work of Anselme Bellegarrigue, for whom the equation of order and anarchy, like that of government and civil war, was fundamental. However, Bellegarrigue’s vision was arguably a lot simpler than Proudhon’s, and his use of the terminology a great deal more direct. Let’s briefly trace the path of Proudhon’s early reflections on anarchy.

1839.—In The Celebration of Sunday, Proudhon presents his basic concern, understood at this stage primarily as a “state of social equality:”

The question of the equality of conditions and fortunes has already been raised, but as a theory without principles: we must take it up again and go into it in all its truth. Preached in the name of God, and consecrated by the voice of the priest, it would spread like lightning: one would believe in the coming of the son of man. For it will be with that doctrine as with so many others: first it will be booed and loathed, then it will be taken into consideration, and discussion will be established; then it will be recognized as just at base, but ill-timed; then finally, despite all the oppositions, it will triumph. But straight away a problem will present itself: To find a state of social equality which would be neither community, nor despotism, nor allotment, nor anarchy, but liberty in order and independence in unity. And this first problem being resolved, there remains a second: to indicate the best method of transition. That is the whole problem of humanity.

 The general form of the state proposed, “liberty in order and independence in unity,” should look familiar to readers of Proudhon’s work, even if the arrangement of the terms is not the one to which we are most accustomed. From the beginning, we see Proudhon wrestling with the balance between centralizing and decentralizing, as well as authoritarian and anti-authoritarian tendencies. A year later, in What is Property?, Proudhon would be concerned with achieving liberty by balancing equality, anarchy, infinite variety, and proportionality (the elements of the social regimes of community and property.) And that would certainly not be the last time that Proudhon shuffled these concepts around between the sides of some reciprocal or mutualistic balance.

It’s worth noting here that balance would assume an increasingly important role in Proudhon’s thought, and that some of the theoretical maneuvers that may seem most suspect to modern readers were characteristic of a number of French thinkers with whom Proudhon was connected. Like most of the early anarchists, Proudhon had a complex relationship with what we are accustomed to think of as “utopian socialism,” and figures like Charles Fourier and Pierre Leroux provided him with roughly equal parts of inspiration and cautionary example. He rejected their rigid systems and taxonomies, but was deeply influenced by the more fluid aspects of their thought. Fourier’s serial method was an early focus for Proudhon, and we see elements of it persist in his theory. We also see Proudhon use the notion of simplism to criticize the one-sidedness of certain kinds of thought. As the Fourierist Hippolyte Renaud put it:

One of the inherent characteristics of Civilization is simplism. Simplism is the fault of viewing a complex question from only one side, of advancing on one side by retreating on the other, so that the real progress is null or negative.

 As Proudhon would later clarify, drawing from Fourier the notion that every individual is composed of a series or group, the fault is really the assumption that anything has merely one side, that unity can be simple. The problem with our ontology, he said in the early 1850s, is this:

The 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.

This approach would define a central aspect of his social science, which rejected claims about essence and focused exclusively on relations, including relations internal to what we think of as “the one.”

That notion of the one already had an important place in the discussion of the most libertarian currents of French radicalism, thanks to the interest in Étienne de La Boétie’s work, Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un. A number of Proudhon’s peers wrote commentary on the text, including Pierre Leroux, for whom the counter-one was a three, or triad, and the key to liberty was a balanced of conflicting tendencies, whether internally within the human individual or politically within society. Proudhon would reject the importance of the triad, but maintain the principle of counterbalancing forces. Leroux’s contributions to Proudhon’s context also included his coining of the terms individualisme and socialisme in French in 1834. What is most interesting in this context is that the terms were initially coined to designate extreme tendencies that radicals should learn to balance, rather than being driven to extremes by their anxieties. Leroux’s specific treatment of the terms did not survive more than about a decade, after which point he was forced to follow the evolving usage and call himself a socialist, but Proudhon certainly knew Leroux’s work in the earlier period, and there is a great deal about his treatment of concepts like community and property that suggest an influence or at least parallel development. (The case for direct influence seems strong, but we have equally likely cases, such as Jules Leroux’s use of the phrase “property is theft” in 1838, where Proudhon seems to have been unaware of the precedent.)

Among the other borrowings from the “utopians” was Fourier’s concept of guarantism, which was originally a period of conscious balancing of interests and institutions prior to the era of Harmony and became for Proudhon a process of counterbalancing tendencies, and a synonym for mutualism.

But Proudhon had a fair amount of grappling yet to do with these concepts before his own approach became particularly clear….

1840.—What is Property? launched Proudhon’s career as a public figure, largely on the strength of his declaration that he was an anarchist, and the equally provocative claim that “property is theft.” It’s a really remarkable book in many ways, packed full of intriguing anticipations of Proudhon’s mature work and riddled with thorny problems and apparent contradictions. We might expect all that from a work in which Proudhon was still struggling to gain conscious command of what was already a complex analysis.

Somewhat ironically, one of the most significant difficulties posed by Proudhon’s best know work is that it was the one work in which anarchy and property appear as concepts relatively untroubled by those internal contradictions that drove so much of Proudhon’s analysis. Throughout the First Memoir, anarchy appears in its sense of non-government. But the concept makes a surprisingly small number of appearances in this inaugural work—so few, in fact, that we can include virtually all of them. Following the material already cited, and the bulk of Proudhon’s critique of property, the concept returned in the fifth chapter, the “Psychological Exposition of the Idea of Justice and Determination of the Principle of Government and Right.”

in a given society, the authority of man over man is inversely proportional to the stage of intellectual development which that society has reached; and the probable duration of that authority can be calculated from the more or less general desire for a true government,—that is, for a scientific government. And just as the right of force and the right of artifice retreat before the steady advance of justice, and must finally be extinguished in equality, so the sovereignty of the will yields to the sovereignty of the reason, and must at last be lost in scientific socialism. Property and royalty have been crumbling to pieces ever since the world began. As man seeks justice in equality, so society seeks order in anarchy.

Anarchy,—the absence of a master, of a sovereign,—such is the form of government to which we are every day approximating, and which our accustomed habit of taking man for our rule, and his will for law, leads us to regard as the height of disorder and the expression of chaos. The story is told, that a citizen of Paris in the seventeenth century having heard it said that in Venice there was no king, the good man could not recover from his astonishment, and nearly died from laughter at the mere mention of so ridiculous a thing. So strong is our prejudice. As long as we live, we want a chief or chiefs; and at this very moment I hold in my hand a brochure, whose author—a zealous communist—dreams, like a second Marat, of the dictatorship. The most advanced among us are those who wish the greatest possible number of sovereigns,—their most ardent wish is for the royalty of the National Guard. Soon, undoubtedly, some one, jealous of the citizen militia, will say, “Everybody is king.” But, when he has spoken, I will say, in my turn, “Nobody is king; we are, whether we will or no, associated.” Every question of domestic politics must be decided by regional statistics; every question of foreign politics is amatter of international statistics. The science of government rightly belongs to one of the sections of the Academy of Sciences, whose permanent secretary is necessarily prime minister; and, since every citizen may address a memoir to the Academy, every citizen is a legislator. But, as the opinion of no one is of any value until its truth has been proven, no one can substitute his will for reason,—nobody is king.

It’s worth noting here that, while the discussion of property is primarily economic and legal, the discussion of anarchy is political. “Anarchy, in all its senses” would extend well beyond the political realm, and arguably already had, under other names, in What is Property? But it’s also worth nothing that anarchy was arguably not the central political keyword in the First Memoir. Instead:

Politics is the science of liberty: the government of man by man, under whatever name it is disguised, is oppression; the highest perfection of society is found in the union of order and anarchy.

And in the long discussion of liberty (“the synthesis of community and property”) at the end of the text, anarchy takes its place among the aspects of that liberty:

Liberty is equality, because liberty only exists in the social state, and apart from equality there is no society.

Liberty is anarchy, because it does not accept the government of will, but only the authority of law, which is to say of necessity.

Liberty is infinite variety, because it respects all wills, within the limits of the law.

Liberty is proportionality because it leaves every latitude the ambition for advantage and competition for glory.

This is a fairly perfect bookend to the discussion of the “approximations” by which humanity progresses, in The Theory of Property, where the “approximation of an-archy” is one of seven aspects of that progress.


If we were to characterize Proudhon’s first work as a self-proclaimed anarchist without the 175 years of subsequent context, it’s hard to say just how central the notion of anarchy would be to our analysis, in comparison with a range of other concepts that were obviously also important to the author. It seems clear that Proudhon was an anarchist in a somewhat different way than any of those who followed in his footsteps, which should not surprise us at all. Without an anarchist movement, a formulated ideology of anarchism, or even the benefit of his own subsequent theoretical development, it could hardly have been otherwise. But it is also clear that anarchy was initially more narrowly defined for Proudhon than it has been for many anarchists. Sooner or later, we have to tackle the problem that Proudhon’s overall project—whatever we want to call, or whatever he may have called it—did not extend far enough in certain directions, failing to adequately oppose the rule of the father, for example, but before we can adequately make the determination of how far his critique did extend we have to make sure that we are not being distracted by semantic issues and anachronistic concerns. Staying “in the moment” with Proudhon’s critique is difficult, but also seems to be necessary, particularly as Proudhon was already wrestling with terminological issues himself. “Anarchy, in all its senses” would have been a meaningless phrase in 1840, but that was not the case for long.


1841.—In his Second Memoir, Proudhon underlined his decision to distinguish property and possession, with a reference to the strategy of Pierre Leroux:

Thus, according to Mr. Leroux, there is property and property: the one good, the other bad. Now, as it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name “property” for the former, we must call the latter robbery, rapine, brigandage. If, on the contrary, we reserve the name “property” for the latter, we must designate the former by the term possession, or some other equivalent; otherwise we should be troubled with an odious synonymy.

However, while property had not yet recovered its full range of ambiguities, anarchy appeared in the work only in its negative sense, specifically as a result of the reign of property:

The times that paved the way for the advent of feudalism and the reappearance of large proprietors were times of carnage and the most frightful anarchy. Never before had murder and violence made such havoc with the human race.

Something new has been introduced to the analysis of 1840, although some of it may well have been implied by parts of the final chapter of What is Property? By 1846, and The System of Economic Contradictions, it would be clear that the history Proudhon was sketching of the first forms of sociability had additional dimensions, and could be understood in terms of the conflict between “communist inertia and proprietary anarchy.” And the coupling of property and anarchy would put Proudhon’s two early declarations—“I am an anarchist” and “property is theft”—into a tension that we won’t be able to avoid dealing with as we move forward.

[to be continued…]