Monthly Archives: September 2015

“Questions Eliminated…” and “Revolutionary Practice”

[I’ve been working through the texts in Ms. 2867, part of Economie, looking for material to include in the forthcoming edition of The Philosophy of Progress, and I’ve been finding all sorts of interesting things. The following section comes immediately after the “New Propositions Demonstrated in the Practice Of Revolutions,” so we should perhaps understand by “this organization” the program laid out at the end of that section: “To set aside the notion of substance and Cause, and move onto the terrain of Phenomena and Law, or of the Group.” While the translation here has a fair number of gaps in it (which can hopefully be filled by some more work with the manuscript-images), I think the gist of Proudhon’s argument is clear: a large number, and perhaps the vast majority, of our present concerns are, he seems to suggest, products of our failure to adequately understand the world and to set our relations on a foundation based in that understanding. That did not, of course, prevent Proudhon from dedicated another 10-15 years to the pursuit of almost all of these questions, since we remain far off from that prerequisite.]

Questions eliminated by this organization.

  1. Government or Anarchy.—Words.
  2. Monarchy or Republic.—Words.
  3. Unitary Democracy or Federalism.—Words.
  4. Direct or Indirect Government.—Words.
  5. Dictatorship or Constitution.—Words.
  6. Separation or Confusion of Powers.—Both are impossible.
  7. Revolution from above or from below.—Both at once.
  8. Universal or limited suffrage.—Nonsense.
  9. [   ] of two, or several degrees.—Nonsense.
  10. Supremacy of the legislative or executive.—Nonsense.
  11. One, two or three [legislative] chambers.—Senseless [question.]
  12. Centralization or Decentralization.—Words.
  13. Radical and moderate Republicans.—Absurd.
  14. Formalists or [effectifs].—[M…]
  15. Montagnards and Girondins.—Absurdity.
  16. Revolutionary Power and Regular Power.—They are identical.
  17. Transitory or perpetual.—It is progress, [   ].
  18. Capacity or incapacity of the people.—One is always capable of possessing.
  19. Socialism or Politics.—Words.
  20. Association and individualism.—Ad libitum.
  21. Community and Property.—Ad libitum.
  22. Interest or Gratuity.—Ad libitum.
  23. Liberty and Order.—They are identical.
  24. Absolute or limited liberty.—There is reciprocity everywhere.
  25. Progressive or proportional taxation.—The first is
  26. Incompatibilities.—No more [   ]!
  27. Organization [   ] by the citizen or by the State.—The citizen is the State.
  28. Agrarian or non-agrarian law.—It is the [   ].
  29. Inheritance and wills.—No more abuse.
  30. Competition.—No more abuse.
  31. Unemployment, drudgery, hours of labor.—Senseless.
  32. Conservation and resistance.—Senseless.
  33. Paleo-Christian or Neo-Christian.—[   ].
  34. Gallican or Ultramontane.—Senseless.
  35. Removability or immutability.—[   ]
  36. Conservation or revolution.—They are the same thing.
  37. Movement and resistance.—Unintelligible.
  38. [   ], absolute dictatorial, oligarchic, [   ], parliamentary or constitutional power.—[left blank by Proudhon]
  39. Status quo, happy medium, etc.—Words.
  40. Equality or inequality of conditions..—The condition of each is equal to their product, and they produce as much as they can and wish to.
  41. The Prince and the Sovereign.—They are the same thing: the People.
  42. The Nation, the law, the king.—Absurd.
  43. The Country and the State?—Absurd.

[In margin: The true religion is the always greater liberty of the man and citizen, in conformity with social and popular law.]

Revolutionary Practice.

The basic thought of this work can be reduced to three points:

1.—The formation of a patrimony for the people, non-transferable and inalienable.

2.—The People, in effective possession of Power, as they are of Labor, Property and Wealth.

3.—The Representative of the Country is neither a man, nor an assembly, nor even a city; it is each commune of France, in the territory it occupies and each citizen in the sphere of their prerogatives.

From which it results that if on a given spot the Homeland and Liberty are in danger, the duty and right to fix it belongs ipso facto to the city in question, which can take any measure and call for its neighbors.

From which results, finally, the political prerogative resulting from the revolutionary initiative of the People of Paris.

Those who do not want this and demand liberty, equality and fraternity, want an impossible thing.

[There is a 44th point, which follows the section on “Revolutionary Practice,” but Proudhon’s notes there are very fragmentary, and it will take some time to reconstruct the argument.]

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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New Propositions Demonstrated in the Practice Of Revolutions


1 — The interests established by society are mobile, subject to a constant and fundamentally unstable shifting.

2 — Fixity, permanence or perpetuity in the relations of interests is a chimera.

3 — That mobility of interests is the primary source of revolutions.

4 — An interest, however unjust it may be, can only be abolished on the condition of being replaced by another, which itself could appear every bit as unjust later.

5 — The human mind has a horror of the void; it does not accept pure negation, even if it is the negation of the greatest of crimes.

6 — Nations do nothing from pure love or pure justice; there is always a self-serving motive for every reform.

7 — The worship of truth for its own sake is pure nonsense in revolution.

8 — All religion, every political institution, all the economy of society are successive modifications of cannibalism.

9 — The ideas that govern society, with the interests, are mobile like those interests themselves, liable to increase and decrease, subject by nature to conflict and contradiction, perpetually changed.

10 — Consistency in ideas is the opposite of the social Mind; the immutability of symbols and professions of faith, in Society, is a chimera.

11 — That fundamental oscillation of ideas is the second cause of revolutions.

12 — An idea, however absurd it may be, can never be entirely abolished, except when it is replaced by another, which could appear as absurd later.

13 — The mobility of ideas and interests is not sufficient to explain Revolutions.

14 — Human Nature remains the same, with regard to worthiness and unworthiness;—well-being increases, the sum of knowledge is multiplied: the quantity of virtue remains the same.

15 — Evil, vice, selfishness and sadness are essential elements of humanity.

16 — The antagonism of powers creates all of our life: the status quo, bread, the absolute, happiness, sanctity, perfection is nothingness, death.

17 — The intimate knowledge of that truth is the principle of resistance to revolutions.

18 — The feeling of the beautiful and the sublime, the fascination with the absolute, is the cause that tips the balance and incites revolutions.

19 — The beautiful, the sublime, the absolute, the perfect, the true and the ideal are the infinite in thought.

20 — This feeling produces the marvelous in Humanity; it is the supreme cause, the ultima ratio of revolutions.

21 — The idea of God is not the conception of a Supreme Being, but of a Supreme Ideal.

22 — The supreme ideal is without reality: there is no God.

23 — A society cannot exist without a transcendent ideal: without religion, modern society is in danger of dying.

24 — Every ideal has a real and intelligible basis: every reality and every idea is susceptible to idealization.

25 — The mind inevitably tend to realize its ideal, in nature, in labor, in person, in government, in religion: that is why it decides to make a revolution.

26 — Society needing an ideal, and that ideal needing to belong to a real being, we must seek a supplement to the idea of God.

27 — Truth, as well as Justice, is essentially mobile and historical; there is nothing absolute or eternal about it.

28 — Only the laws of movement are absolutely and eternally true.

29 — The state of revolution is the normal state of societies.

30 — Every manifestation supposes a subject: thus, the series of revolutions leads us to suppose a revolutionary subject.

31 — Revolutions are the Transitions [Passages] of Humanity

32 — There have been some presentiments of that idea; the Peoples, the Poets, the Writers have had an intuition of it.

33 — The phenomena of revolution can only be explained and understood with the aid of this hypothesis

34 — The hypothesis of a revolutionary subject is as rational and more legitimate than that of God and that of Providence.

35 — A being is not a simple thing, but a group.

36 — All beings, living and unorganized, are groups.

37 — Everything that forms a group is a reality or has the power of realization.

38 — The old ontology went astray which it defined the Being as a simple substance.

39 — Simple substance, mind or matter, is a chimera.

40 — A man is an organized group, in which the mind arises from the organization.

41 — The People are an organized group: thus, the People are a real being, endowed with Life, Personality, Will, Intelligence and prescience.

42 — The definition of man by Bonald is the same, at base, as that of Cabanis:—a simple transposition of terms has made all the difference.

43 — The family, the familial group, is a Complex Being, which has its Self, like the People and the Individual.

44 — The old ontology, in its materialist form, leads to this proposition: Matter does not exist.

45 — In its spiritualist form it leads to this other proposition: Mind does not exist.

46 — To set aside the notion of substance and Cause, and move onto the terrain of Phenomena and Law, or of the Group.

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]

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Equality and Justice

Let’s take a little extra time to emphasize the flatness of Proudhon’s system. Unity-collectivities at different scales overlap, but their relationships remain horizontal. The anarchistic “State” is, Proudhon tells us, “a kind of citizen” and the principle of political equality applies to all the citizens, no matter their kind. And the collective is a kind of individual almost everywhere we look in Proudhon’s work, and equality extends across widely different scales and between individuals of radically different makeup.

The recognition of equality becomes the foundation for justice—and Proudhon’s individualities at various scale crowd the world with potential equals, whose interests must be balanced in order to establish justice. And, indeed, equality, justice and balance are all just descriptions of particular aspects of a world without hierarchy and authority. They are really all just aspects of anarchy. But if we are to bring about anarchy, naturally we need to look closely at it from all sides.

When we are focused on equality, perhaps the most pressing question becomes what individualities can be recognized as equals. In the opening study in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, Proudhon suggested broad inclusion as a principle. As we look around the world, we recognize those individuals capable of looking back at us, but, he said, “the passive does not exclude the reciprocal,” suggesting that ethical recognition at least potentially has to extend farther, perhaps to “plants and rocks, which are, like the hairs and the bones of my body, parts of the great organism.” With a modern ecological sensibility, we can certainly begin to consider some of the unity-collectivities in non-human nature that might call for recognition, along with others on a scale that includes human beings along with other elements. But the breadth of Proudhon’s conclusion will, I think, still challenge many of us:

Instead of seeking the law of my philosophy in a relation between myself, which I consider as the summit of being, and that which is the most inferior in creation and that I repute to be non-thinking, I will seek that law in a relation between myself and another self that will not be me, between man and man. For I know that every man, my fellow, is the organic manifestation of a mind, is a self; I judge equally that animals, endowed with sensibility, instinct, even intelligence, although to a lesser degree, are also selves, of a lesser dignity, it is true, and placed at a lower degree on the scale, but created according to the same plan; and as I no more know of a demarcation marked between the animals and the plants, or between those and the minerals, I ask myself if the unorganized beings are not still minds which sleep, selves in the embryonic state, or at least the members of a self of which I ignore the life and operations?

If every being is thus supposed self and non-self, what can I do better, in this ontological ambiguity, than to take for the point of departure of my philosophy the relation, not of me to myself, in the manner of Fichte, as if I wanted to make the equation of my mind, simple, indivisible, incomprehensible being; but of myself to another that is my equal and is not me, which constitutes a dualism no longer metaphysical or antinomic, but a real duality, living and sovereign?

We know the instances where Proudhon struggled to be as just to women as he presumably would be to rocks or hair and bones, but even then his failure was more a matter of fact than principle. He struggled, as we still do in other contexts, to reconcile the absolute equality of his principle with his sense of greater or less capacity or “dignity.” As I understand the work of Joseph Déjacque, the figure usually proposed as an alternative to Proudhon on questions of gender, he also wrestled with reconciling anarchistic thinking with his sense of natural hierarchies, and was perhaps a little more certain about the “place” of men and women in the universal circulus than we would be entirely comfortable with. Between them, I suspect we might have the material for a more successful attempt—but I’m fairly certain we won’t succeed without some additional wrestling of our own.

From the side of justice, it is a question of what individualities can demand (in one way or another) to be included in the balancing of interests, and, again, Proudhon concluded that those claims could come from a wide range of sources. In War and Peace, he laid out a general theory of “rights:”

RIGHT, in general, is the recognition of human dignity in 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.

What we have here is a scheme in which “faculties, attributes and prerogatives” seem to be among the elements that call for recognition. And every right “exists only under the condition of reciprocity.”

Reciprocity, however, is something we will have to return to in more detail.

In the meantime, the post on “” addresses some of the issues we will have to makes sense of.

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