I’ll be open and admit that I will probably never like Proudhon. We’re axiomatically different in too many ways, but that doesn’t mean that I have to believe everything he thinks is wrong.
In particular, the section that Michael Malice has excerpted for The Anarchist Handbook (Amazon affiliate link) contains a relatively pure expression of anarchist thought with few of his other theories coming into play.
As the third writer covered, he’s the first to write as an avowed anarchist (Godwin and Stirner not really quite fitting the category), and is also probably the easiest so far to understand without some background reading.
When I started this series, I mentioned that there was a divide between American and European anarchism, and we start seeing that in Proudhon.
Regardless of Stirner’s intentions when he espoused a union of egoists, Proudhon is probably the first of the collectivist anarchists that make up the left-anarchist traditions.
…but when mankind shall have arrived at years of discretion, parties and governments will disappear; thus liberty will grow out of authority, as we have seen Socialism result from absolutism.Proudhon
One of the distinguishing factors that sets Proudhon apart from Godwin and Stirner is the approach to hierarchies.
Godwin has almost no focus on hierarchy as such. While there is a focus on the idea of the social contract as laid out in the tradition of liberal thinkers, Godwin merely considers the mainstream interpretation of people being born under government and therefore subject to its authority (as in Locke’s writing, for instance) as an irrational deviation.
Stirner is less concerned with the rightness and wrongness of states themselves, but argues that they are entirely arbitrary. While he is against the perceived authority of the state (his statements about “might makes right” seem to me as more of an analysis than a prescription, contrary to some later thinkers’ use of the phrase) he does not assign a judgment of morality or rationality but says that this authority is only a ghost of the mind and not “real” as we might otherwise consider it to be.
Proudhon makes an argument against the state itself.
Unlike Stirner, who condemns most collectivism as nothing more than a “spook”, Proudhon overtly emphasizes the idea of a collective humanity.
This is one place where we can distinguish the anarchism that stems out of liberalism (e.g. “right anarchism” from anarchism that stems out of what we might call the left-wing tradition (e.g. Rousseau).
Proudhon seems to argue for what is essentially a single world order without a government, owing to some sense of moral perfection.
It’s probably not fair to brand Proudhon as a utopian from what I’ve seen in this passage, because he does not explicitly espouse something like a Hegelian-Marxian idea of dialectical history, but there are many places where he just sort of assumes that disorder is caused by social institutions without building a case for this.
Even though Proudhon never really espouses a new Eden or anything so overt (at least as far as I know), he makes it clear from his perspective that society would be better with no ordering hierarchies.
All men are born free and equal;—society is therefore by nature self-governing, i.e. ungovernable; and he who lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant; my declared enemy.Proudhon
Now, my critique of this would be three things:
Unlike some other thinkers, Proudhon has no given framework for handling society’s order: he says it exists because people are free (correct) and equal (requires clarification). This self-governance is unexplored, which probably gives rise to a legitimate (though cliched) question of “How would anarchy look?”
Of course, most thinkers only speculate on this, but Proudhon does not provide any day-to-day elements of its function (unlike, say, the Rothbardians, who have solutions for handling things down to the way crime can be defined, prevented, and addressed in a stateless social order).
The second is that equality must be defined in context. As someone who falls into the extreme school of von Kuehnelt-Leddihn of rejecting all equality except the equality imparted by the image of God in each person, I have difficulty even considering a broad statement of equality because there are so many different ways one can measure difference.
A prudent man is not equal to a fool. A wanton criminal is not equal to someone who respects others’ property. A worker is not equal to a layabout. Kin is not equal to stranger. It is only in the shadow of the Cross that this can be otherwise.
The third objection is this: by defining all men as starting from a position of freedom and equality, Proudhon leaves no room to determine the nature of the usurper and tyrant without acknowledging that freedom and equality are in flux.
Because of this fluctuation it is clear that society is not self-regulating in such a way that permits Proudhon’s ideas to come to fruition.
Never really having any affinity for the more left-leaning anarchists, I often find their logic confused, but Proudhon is interesting. Michael Malice chose a short passage to represent Proudhon, and I was definitely interested in more, but I also wonder if one reason for this was a natural consequence of Proudhon not getting anywhere.
With that said, Proudhon deserves some respect for the foundational work, as meandering as his thoughts seem to be, and his writing is much more approachable than Stirner’s.