A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Reader

Next year, 2010, marks the 170th anniversary of Proudhon's What is Property? and so the naming of anarchism as a distinct socio-economic theory. I think that given the date, it would good to produce a collection of Proudhon's ideas to both mark that event and bring his ideas to a new generation of radicals.

As part of my work on An Anarchist FAQ (AFAQ), I've had to read quite a lot of material, anarchist and non-anarchist. Some was terrible ( Rothbard springs to mind, as does Trotsky). Some was good, some wonderful -- I've yet to read an anarchist thinker who I thought contributed nothing to our ideas. I've gained an appreciation of the diverse nature of anarchist ideas, how they reflected the times they lived in and how they evolved. And that social context and evolution is important, as what anarchism is now is so obviously dependent on previous thinkers that you cannot really understand what anarchist is without an appreciation of what came before.

Which brings me to Proudhon. As part of AFAQ I had to cover much of the fundamental ground of anarchism, why anarchists oppose capitalism and the state, our critique of private property, or ideas on social organisation and so forth. And as part of that I drew on Proudhon's ideas, particularly What is Property? and The General Idea of the Revolution. I was impressed with his analysis and writing (he most definitely had a way with words). From there I moved onto reading whatever I could of Proudhon in English, all of which had something of worth in it. Flawed, yes. Incomplete, yes. But he provided a solid basis on which anarchism was built -- in both the social and individualist wings I must note. Indeed, the wider socialist movement as Marx (although he tried his best to hide it) took many themes raised by Proudhon and developed them.

I would go as far as saying that if you do not consider property as "theft" and "despotism" then you are not an anarchist. In other words, anarchism as a specific socio-political theory dates from 1840, when Proudhon first proclaimed himself an anarchist. Do not get me wrong, libertarian ideas and movements, of course, existed before this (and Proudhon drew on them, such as the mutualist ideas of the French workers, particularly those in Lyon). However, these were not a coherent, named, theory (and, equally, anarchistic ideas developed spontaneously after 1840). This is not to suggest that anarchism has to be identical to Proudhon's specific ideas and proposals, rather that they have to be consistent with the main thrust of his ideas -- in other words, anti-state and anti-capitalism. Thus collectivist anarchism builds on Proudhon, as does communist-anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism. In terms of individualist anarchism, the same can be said. Equally obvious, neither of these later developments were identical to Proudhon's mutualism. Each stressed different aspects of his ideas, developed others, changed some. But the links and evolution, are obvious -- just as obvious as the influence of Proudhon's ideas in The Paris Commune.

And, somewhat unrelated but interesting, as I noted in my introduction to Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, the biological term "mutualism" and the Russian mutual aid tradition may have been inspired, in part, by Proudhon! Keynes, it should be noted praised Proudhon's follower Silvio Gesell in The General Theory (also see Dudley Dillard's essay "Keynes and Proudhon" [The Journal of Economic History, vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 63-76] -- although he fails to discuss Proudhon's ideas on producer co-operatives). Libertarian Marxist Paul Mattick noted Keynes debt to Proudhon, and although Keynes did not subscribe to Proudhon's desire to use free credit to fund "independent producers and workers' syndicates" as a means create an economic system "without exploitation" he did share the Frenchman's "attack upon the payment of interest" and wish to see the end of the rentier. [Marx and Keynes, p. 5 and p. 6]

I'm not alone in thinking that Proudhon was an important thinker. Bakunin considered his ideas as a logical development of the Frenchman's work. Kropotkin became a socialist after reading him. Tucker, as is well known, was a great fan (considering him the founder of the anarchistic school of socialism). Marx spent much time arguing with him, making good points along the way but also distorting some of his ideas (something which struck me when I read Proudhon's System of Economical Contradictions a few years back).

Any anthology would need to contain material which show why reading Proudhon would be worthwhile for modern socialists and radicals. One obvious area of interest would be how mutualism relates to "market socialism" (for example, David Schweickart) or how Proudhon relates to David Ellerman's ideas on the "democratic firm" (which had obvious similarities with Proudhon's aim to turn workplaces into "little republics of workingmen."). Interestingly, Geoffrey M. Hodgson (in Economics and Utopia) notes that Proudhon's ideas "could be described as an early form of 'market socialism'", in the sense of ""each co-operative association would be able to enter into contractual relations with others".He argues that "instead of Lange-type models, the term 'market socialism' is more appropriately to such systems. Market socialism, in this more appropriate and meaningful sense, involves producer co-operatives that are owned by the workers within them. Such co-operatives sell their products on markets, with genuine exchanges of property rights." Then he spoils it by asserting that "Proudhon described himself as an anarchist, not a socialist"! [p. 20, p. 37 and p. 20] In spite of him listing, as a reference, a book in which Proudhon proclaims that "I am a socialist" [Selected Writing of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 195]

This makes Hodgson unusual, as most market socialists fail to mention Proudhon. I was reading Socialism after Hayek by Theodore Burczak and I though his "post-Hayek" socialism sounded very much like Proudhon's "pre-Marx" socialism (i.e., mutualism). Although, I should note, that their orthodox Marxist opponents do not fail to mention the similarities (see David McNally's Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique or Bertell Ollman (ed.) Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists). To quote John Kenneth Galbraith:

"Scholars have regularly assigned Proudhon a position of importance in the history of socialism, syndicalism and anarchism but not in the history of economic theory. It is a distinction without merit. Two ideas of influence can be found in the modern residue of Proudhon’s theories. One is the belief, perhaps the instinct, that there is a certain moral superiority in the institution of the co-operative. Or the worker-owned plant. When farmers unite to supply themselves with fertilisers, oil or other farm supplies, and consumers to provide themselves with groceries, the ideas of Proudhon are heard in praise. So also when steel workers come together to take over and run a senescent mill . . . And Proudhon is one among many parents of the continuing faith in monetary magic . . . and early advocate in an enduring tradition." [A history of economics: the past as the present, p. 99]

So, in terms of his support for self-managed market socialism I think modern day radicals would be interested in Proudhon (I would suggest that the term "market anarchism" cannot be used, as it seems to have been appropriated by "anarcho"-capitalists seeking to rebrand their ideology -- particularly as they date that ideology, as Rothbard did with his private statism, back to Molinari, not Proudhon). I would also suggest that communist and syndicalist anarchists would gain from reading Proudhon (I know as a communist-anarchist I have!) even if we reject aspects of his ideas. His arguments for free association, decentralisation, federalism, self-management, use-rights along with his critique of the state and property (as exploitative, oppressive and hierarchical) are worth knowing and appreciating, particularly as so much of modern mainstream anarchism is built on it these foundations. Ultimately, by better knowing the foundations of our ideas we can build more securely...

Chronologically makes most sense, I think, as then you can see how Proudhon's ideas developed over time. If it is topically, then you are have something like the old "Selected Works" which is not that great. It shows how real events (like 1848) affected his ideas. But, ultimately, it would be a case of what we have and how it comes together before making a final decision. At the very least, the introduction would seek to clarify how Proudhon's ideas changed on specific topics. I would say that the aim should be a "Bakunin on Anarchism" kind of book rather than "The Political Philosophy of Bakunin"! And "Proudhon on Anarchism" has a certain ring to it.

I've sent the following proposal to AK Press, and they seem very interested in doing it. However, it is not confirmed yet -- it is at amber stage, so to speak. Hopefully, confirmation will arrive soon.

Proudhon Reader Proposal

2010 marks the 170th anniversary of anarchism as a named socio-political theory, namely the publication of Proudhon's "What is Property?" in 1840.

Given this and given that there is very little of Proudhon in print, I think it would make sense from AK Press to publish a selection of Proudhon's writings for publication in 2010. Particularly as Proudhon, for all his faults, laid the basis for Bakunin, Kropotkin and so on.

The book would, essentially, be a selection of extracts from books as well as articles, many of which will be appearing in book form (in English) for the first time. In addition, there would be an introduction on Proudhon and his ideas by myself. The book would be in chronological order.

Size of the book would be basically what we decide to include, and most of the translations are either by anarchists (and so outside copyright) or done such a long time ago as to be invalid. I think only "The Principle of Federation" may require permission as this was translated recently, but that would have to be looked into.

The book could be called "The Proudhon Reader" or "Proudhon on Anarchism" (which may be better). A potential list of contents would be as follows:

Proudhon on Anarchism


Extracts from "What is Property?"

Letter to Marx

Extracts from "System of Economical Contradictions"

Toast to the Revolution

THE STATE: Its Nature, Object, and Destiny (pdf)

The Malthusians

1848 Election Manifesto (from No Gods, No Masters)

Solution to the Social Problem (pdf)

Letters on Interest and Principal

Extracts from "The General Idea of the Revolution"

Extracts from "The Principal of Federation"

Letter on absentionism (from No Gods, No Masters)

I've raised the idea with Shawn Wilbur and he is as keen as me about it. He provided a list of possible material which needs to be looked at and translated (and indicated importance):

Avertissement aux propriétaires [semi-important, untranslated]

Célébration du dimanche [Worth a look, untranslated]

Création de l'ordre dans l'humanité [important, Jesse Cohn has partially translated]

Le Miserere [worth a look, untranslated]

Système des contradictions économiques. Philosophie de la misère. Tome II. [important, partially translated by various hands]

Solution du problème social [partially translated]

La Révolution sociale, démontrée par le coup d'état du 2 décembre [needs looking at, partially translated, but not in public domain]

Du Principe fédératif [important, partially translated, but not in public domain]

Confessions d'un révolutionnaire [important, untranslated]

La Guerre et la Paix [important, I've translated a few sections]

Théorie de l'impôt [important, untranslated]

Majorats littéraires [important, I'm translating it now]

Les démocrates assermentés [semi-important, non-voting stuff, I have a rough translation of much of it]

Mélanges [there are a couple of key essays, either translated or in-progress]

Philosophie du Progrès [important, translation will be done within the week!]

De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l'Église [vital, Jesse and I probably have rough translations of about 40% of the six volumes]

Théorie de la propriété, suivie d'un plan d'Exposition universelle [important, I've got several key chapter either done or mostly done. the "Plan" needs a look]

De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières [vital, I've got bits and pieces done]

Du principe de l'art et de sa destination social at Google Books [needs a look, untranslated]

If you are interested in getting involved, or wish to contribute translations or suggestions of which extracts or articles would be good to include, please contact me (at anarchistfaq@yahoo.co.uk).


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