On Terminology

In terms of the language he used, Proudhon was by no means consistent. Thus we have the strange sight of the first self-proclaimed anarchist often using “anarchy” in the sense of chaos. Then there is the use of the terms property and the state, both of which Proudhon used to describe aspects of the current system which he opposed and the desired future he hoped for.

After 1850, Proudhon started to increasingly use the term “property” to describe the possession he desired. This climaxed in the posthumously published Theory of Property[1] in which he apparently proclaimed his whole-hearted support for “property.” Proudhon’s enemies seized on this but a close reading, as Woodcock demonstrates, finds no such thing:

Much has been made of this essay in an attempt to show that it represents a retreat from Proudhon’s original radicalism. Fundamentally, it does not... What Proudhon does is to change his definition of property... he is thinking, not of the usurial property he condemned in his earlier works, but of the property that guarantees the independence of the peasant and artisan... Because of his changes in definition, Proudhon appears more conservative, but the alterations are not radical, since he continues to uphold the basic right of the producer to control his land or his workshop.[2]

This can easily been seen when Proudhon re-iterated his opposition to ownership of land:

I quite agree that the man who first ploughed up the land should receive compensation for his labour. What I cannot accept, regarding land, is that the work put in gives a right to ownership of what has been worked on.[3]

Workers associations continued to play a key role in his theory (with workplaces becoming “little republics of workingmen”[4]). The only difference, as Stewart Edwards notes, was that “Proudhon came to consider that liberty could be guaranteed only if property ownership was not subject to any limitation save that of size.”[5] Proudhon stressed that property “must be spread and consolidated... more equally.” This was because he was still aware of its oppressive nature, arguing that it was “an absolutism within an absolutism,” and “by nature autocratic.” Its “politics could be summed up in a single word,” namely “exploitation.” “Simple justice,” he stressed, “requires that equal division of land shall not only operate at the outset. If there is to be no abuse, it must be maintained from generation to generation.”[6]

Resources were seen as being divided equally throughout a free society, which would be without concentrations and inequalities of wealth and the economic power, exploitation and oppression that they produced. The Proudhon of the 1860s was not so different from the firebrand radical of 1840. This can be seen when he wrote that his works of the 1840s contained “the mutualist and federative theory of property” in his last book, The Political Capacity of the Working Classes.[7]

Then there is his use of the term “state” and “government” to describe both the current centralised and top-down regime he opposed as well as the decentralised, bottom-up federation of the social organisation of the future. While these terms were used as synonyms for “social organisation” their use can only bred confusion so raising the possibility that he moved from libertarian to liberal socialism.

Thus we find him discussing States within a confederation while maintaining that “the federal system is the contrary of hierarchy or administrative and governmental centralisation” and that “a confederation is not exactly a state... What is called federal authority, finally, is no longer a government; it is an agency created... for the joint execution of certain functions.”[8] His aim was “to found an order of things wherein the principle of the sovereignty of the people, of man and of the citizen, would be implemented to the letter” and “where every member” of a society, “retaining his independence and continuing to act as sovereign, would be self-governing.” Social organisation “would concern itself solely with collective matters; where as a consequence, there would be certain common matters but no centralisation.” He suggests that “under the democratic constitution... the political and the economic are... one and the same system... based upon a single principle, mutuality... and form this vast humanitarian organism of which nothing previously could give the idea”: “is this not the system of the old society turned upside down… ?” he asks.[9] If so, then why suggest that this new “humanitarian organism” is made up of states as well as communes and confederations?

The confusions that this would provoke are obvious and, unsurprisingly, later anarchists have been more consistent in what they described as a state. Not all forms of social organisation can be equated to the State and more appropriate words are needed to describe a fundamentally new form of socio-political institution.[10]

Moreover, Proudhon saw anarchy as a long term goal and advocated appropriate means to achieve it.[11] If we remember that Proudhon sometimes referred to anarchy as a form of government[12] we should not construe his extensive discussion of governments and governmental forms as a rejection of anarchist ideas. Even during his most anarchistic phase in 1849 he suggested that “as the negation of property implies that of authority, I immediately deduced from my definition this no less paradoxical corollary: that the authentic form of government is anarchy.”[13] It should also be remembered that in the 1850s and 1860s Proudhon was, bar a period of exile in Belgium, writing under the watchful eyes of the censors of the Second Empire and so, perhaps, toned down some of his language as a result. Similarly, the reactionary atmosphere of the period and lack of social protest may have played their part (as can be seen from the return to radicalism shown by The Political Capacity of the Working Classes written in response to the stirrings of the labour movement in the early 1860s).

Then there is “democracy”, a concept Proudhon eviscerated in his seminal 1848 article of the same name but later he was more than happy to proclaim that the “federative, mutualist republican sentiment” will “bring about the victory of Worker Democracy right around the world.”[14] A close reading shows that his main opposition to democracy in 1848 was that it was, paradoxically, not democratic enough as it referred to the Jacobin notion that the whole nation as one body should elect a government. However, within a decentralised system it was a case of providing “a little philosophy of universal suffrage, in which I show that this great principle of democracy is a corollary of the federal principle or nothing.”[15]

This changing terminology and ambiguous use of terms like government, state, property and so forth can cause problems when interpreting Proudhon. This is not to suggest that he is inconsistent or self-contradictory. In spite of changing from “possession” to “property” between 1840 and 1860 what Proudhon actually advocated was remarkably consistent.[16] This caveat should be borne in mind when reading Proudhon and these ambiguities in terminology should be taken into consideration when evaluating his ideas.

End Notes

[1] This was prepared by J.A. Langlois, his old friend and follower, and others from the notes Proudhon had been working on during the three last years of his life. Except for the first chapter, it was not completed by Proudhon.

[2] Woodcock, Proudhon, 239-40. Ironically, Proudhon recognised the confusion this would cause in 1841: “it is proper to call different things by different names, if we keep the name ‘property’ for [individual possession], we must call [the domain of property] robbery, repine, 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 unpleasant synonym.” (What is Property?, 373)

[3] Selected Writings, 129

[4] quoted in Douglas, 45

[5] Selected Writings, 33

[6] Selected Writings, 133, 141, 140, 134, 129

[7] De la Capacité Politique des Classes Ouvrières (Paris: Lacroix, 1868), 142

[8] Principle of Federation, 41, 40-1

[9] Graham (ed.), Vol. 1, 74-5

[10] “The anarchists soon saw... that it was rather dangerous for them to use the same word as the authoritarians while giving it a quite different meaning. They felt that a new concept called for a new word and that the use of the old term could be dangerously ambiguous; so they ceased to give the name ‘State’ to the social collective of the future.” (Guérin, Anarchism, 60-1). While, for some, this may appear to be purely a case of semantics, anarchists would reply that it just shows intellectual confusion to use the same name to describe things that are fundamentally organised in different ways and for different purposes. See section H.2.1 of AFAQ.

[11] As he put it in the 1860s, “centuries will pass before that ideal may be attained” but he wished to “grow unceasingly nearer to that end, and it is thus that I uphold the principle of federation.” (quoted in Woodcock, Proudhon, 249)

[12] Anarchy is one of “four forms of government”, government “of each by each” and the phrase “anarchic government” was not “impossible” nor “the idea absurd.” (Principle of Federation, 8-9, 11).

[13] No Gods, No Masters, 46

[14] Graham (ed.), Vol. 1, 77

[15] quoted in Woodcock, Proudhon, 251

[16] The peasants “desired to own the property they worked” and Proudhon was “quite content to call such ownership ‘proprietary.’” Before ownership limited to what was necessary to earn a living was termed “possession” while “property” was “reserved for onerous seigniorial types of ownership. Proudhon was now perfectly happy to consider possession a form of property. There was a change in terminology, but there was no change in position.” (Vincent, 195)