September 30, 2021
From The Anarchist Library

Which theories do we call sociological theories? Those that share this
premise: from the meeting of individual units there results an original
reality, something greater than and different to their mere sum.

Arguably no thinker has made greater use of this premise than Proudhon.
Properly sociological theories are truly the centre of his system. It is
worth identifying them in order to better understand his attitude, which
is so often difficult to classify in relation to different philosophical

Until now, this approach does not appear to have attracted commentators,
who no doubt saw, to a greater or lesser extent, the great difficulties
that it presents. One antithesis in particular has stood in their way:
the classic opposition between the premise of sociology and the
affirmation of individualism. Is it not commonly believed that the
latter implies an “atomist” or at least “nominalist” social philosophy,
the idea that the only realities to be taken into account are the
distinct individuals? Who most strongly affirmed the superior value of
the individual? Was it not Proudhon, the father of anarchy himself? Let
us recall in any case his diatribes against communism, inspired by the
desire to defend “the free, active, reasoning, unsubmissive personality
of man. Proudhon wants equality, but on the condition that
it is the natural product of liberty. “O Liberty, charm of my existence!
Without you work is torture and life is prolonged death.”
He himself recalls that he remains a man of liberty and individuality
above all. Louis Blanc accused him of pushing this belief
to the point of frenzy, and therefore of placing himself “completely
outside the movement of this century”. Conversely,
Proudhon accused Louis Blanc of “contradicting the manifest tendencies
of civilisation”: its wish is not to subordinate the private person to
the public person, but on the contrary for every human soul to become “a
pattern of humanity as a whole”. With such intense
personalist feelings, how can social realism in any form be logically

Whether or not the two tendencies are logically compatible, one thing is
sure in the meantime: they coexist in Proudhon’s work. Just as fiercely
as he affirms the value of the individual, Proudhon insists on the
reality of the social being. The arguments he uses to demonstrate this
are, in his eyes, among his greatest intellectual accomplishments. In
his Theory of Property, when he assesses the sixteen
“very positive” demonstrations he leaves to the world despite being
called a “demolisher”, does he not cite in the first line a theory of
collective force, a “metaphysics of the group”, to which he relates his
theory of nationalities and his theory of the division of powers? He
hoped to clarify these theories in a book he promised many times; but he
had already sketched its broad outlines on more than one occasion. The
fourth and seventh studies of Justice in the Revolution and in the
devote a large amount of space to the notions of collective
power and reason. The System of Economic Contradictions indicates the
needs and powers specific to Prometheus; that is, to society considered
as a unique being. But above all, as early as his first
memoir on property, Proudhon exploits the distinction between the
collective force and the sum of the individual forces; he would go so
far as to declare that this distinction is the cornerstone of his
thought. What this means is that the sociological concern is present
throughout his work from start to finish.

In order to conveniently summarise and classify the theories put
forward, and recalling how Proudhon passes from each term to the next,
we will discuss collective force, collective being, and collective
in turn.

The collective force is greater than the sum of the individual forces.
When such forces combine, a surplus of energy emerges that is not the
product of any of the individual forces, but of their association. A
very simple thought experiment suffices to demonstrate this. Two hundred
grenadiers, under the direction of an engineer, stood the obelisk of
Luxor upon its base in a few hours: should we suppose that
one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days? Here
is a ditch to be dug: a hundred workers, divided into squads to spread
the work – diggers, loaders, carriers and fillers – spend one day on the
task. A single worker in charge of all these tasks would spend much
longer than one hundred days! This is proof that the union and harmony
of labourers, the convergence and simultaneousness of their efforts, are
creators of value.

This observation was one of Proudhon’s key arguments in his attack
against property in the first period of his life. He would denounce the
individual appropriation of the fruits of common labour as a particular
kind of theft. You might argue that the capitalist reaps his profits
legitimately: has he not paid the daily wages of the workers he
employs? Say he has paid as many times one day’s wage as he has
employed workers each day: it is not the same thing. The
employer monopolises the value that results from the cooperation of
workers, “different in quality from the forces that compose it and
superior to their sum”, at no cost. Say’s axiom, “every product is worth
what it costs”, is therefore violated here. Between
masters and workers, an “accounting error” is revealed.
Generalising this, we would realise that since all production is
necessarily collective, all accumulated capital is social property: it
is impossible, as Proudhon liked to say, for anyone to have exclusive
ownership of it.

Here we recognise similar arguments to those used by Karl Marx in the
first part of Capital. In order to oppose the private nature of
appropriation in the capitalist regime with the social character of
production, he too shows the “collective Briareus” at work: when this
Briareus applies itself to building a house, do its hundred hands not
move the stones much faster than the hands of isolated workers going up
and down the scaffolding? When “simple” cooperation becomes “complex”,
hard work is broken down, and the movement of machines involves and
coordinates the actions of more and more people, it becomes increasingly
apparent that the value created is not the work of, and therefore should
not belong to, any particular person: it emerges from

Should we say that Karl Marx borrowed the core of this argument from
Proudhon? We know how much the young Marx in Paris admired the brilliant
typesetter, who seemed to give the “conscious” proletariat life and
voice. In particular, we recall the esteem the writer of
The Holy Family had for What is Property?, which he compared to
SiĂ©yĂšs’ What is the Third Estate? in marking a watershed moment in the
history of classes. It would be little wonder if the distinction between
collective and individual force passed from this famous memoir to
Capital. But it must be admitted that this distinction could have
reached Marx’s mind by other paths. “Quantitative changes, when they
reach a certain degree, lead to qualitative changes”: this was one of
Hegel’s favourite principles. Was it not this principle that drew the
attention of his socialist disciples to the new facts that arise when a
certain number of individual units are grouped together? The way Engels
explains these facts in Anti-DĂŒhring suggests this is the
case. No doubt what occurred in Marx’s brain, as had
happened so many times, was a synthesis of the two traditions, German
and French.

The fact remains that Proudhon was the first to introduce this theory of
collective force: he was the first to clearly note, along
with the economic principle linked to the phenomenon he observed, the
different sociological consequences that derive from it. One of the men
of whom Proudhon willingly proclaims himself a disciple is Adam Smith.
It was first through political economy – the science that right away
offered “the highest degree of positivism”, the key to history, the
theory of order, the creator’s last word – that the young prophet of
The Creation of Order in Humanity wanted to renew
philosophy. It is in The Wealth of Nations that he
claims to have found the seed of his theory of collective force. Man is
the working animal par excellence. “This one word, Work, therefore
contains a whole order of knowledge.” Adam Smith recognised this, not
only showing that work in general is the source of all exchange value,
but that the division of labour in particular is the source of all
progress in production. But the collective force is nothing but a
consequence of the division of labour, a precondition of fruitful
cooperation and “commutations”. Germain Garnier had
pointed this out in passing; all Proudhon had to do was develop this
remark in order to draw out all the “organic applications” of Smith’s
theory. On this point and on many others, it can be shown that the
socialist doctrines are first and foremost the bold heirs of orthodox
political economy.

In the way in which Proudhon used his legacy we can recognise, besides
Smith’s influence, that of another master, whom Proudhon admits less
willingly but whose inventions were nevertheless always present in his
thought: his fellow Franc-Comtois, Charles Fourier. Just as Marx
remained unwillingly influenced by Hegelianism, Proudhon remained
unwillingly influenced by Fourierism. The vocabulary of The New
Industrial World
– administrations, pivots, households, etc. – would
appear until his final works. But above all, for a long time the concept
of series would remain his obsession and his supreme hope. It is this
concept that he relies on in The Creation of Order to renew logic and
bring order to the chaos of science. He would not fail to combine it
with the concept of the division of labour, which he borrowed from
economic science. When we say series, we are referring to specified
groupings and coordinated units, among other things. But are specified
groupings of coordinated units not precisely the natural fruits of the
division of labour? This is why Proudhon wrote that the
division of labour was the series revealing itself before our eyes,
“embodying itself in society”. The concept of series thus conforms to
that of work in two aspects: that of nature and that of society. Human
work can be defined as an effort to superimpose artificial series on
natural series in bodies, or to replace natural series with artificial
series: it changes the relations between elements, thus
creating new forms. But in order to achieve this transformation of the
world, it is still necessary for people to organise their activities
themselves according to certain relations. They thus form social series
which are substrates of the collective force.

Let us note that while Proudhon generalised the economists’ observations
in this way, he would not go so far as to adopt the assertion that many,
including the socialist reformers of his time, contented themselves
with: “The association is creative.” To him, such phrases seemed vague
and laden with mysticism. On this point, he clearly separates himself
from Fourier, as well as from Pierre Leroux and Louis Blanc. In The
General Idea of the Revolution in the 19
, he fiercely criticises the social
principle. This is because he sees it both as a synthesis
of confused ideas and as a threat to individual freedom. “Association,
presented as a universal institution, the principle, means and end of
the Revolution, appears to me to hide a secret intention of exploitation
and despotism.” In fact, association in itself has no organic or
productive virtue: it would be foolish indeed to subdue individual
initiative and leave the field wide open to this problematic and
suspicious power. But carefully consider the mechanism of the division
of labour. Here, the workers remain autonomous, and each of them deploys
all their energy: however, from their concerted energies,
we see the birth of a surplus of power whose benefits are to be shared
among them equally. Why look further for the secret of the effects of
collectivity? On the strength of this economistic analysis, Proudhon
mocks the sociocrats’ attempts to explain the superior return that
labour yields when it is organised in association. They invoke imitative
competition, mutual stimulation, pleasure arising from grouping by
natural affinities, etc. From these psycho-sociological explanations,
Marx would perhaps retain or rediscover something: Proudhon does not
want to keep anything from it. The forces shown at work here are not, in
his view, industrial forces. All of these fanciful theories are nothing
but the “mystical and apocalyptic” expression of facts discovered in
industrial practice. Read Adam Smith again, and you will
have the key to your puzzles; you will suddenly be brought back from
mysticism to positivism.

But if Proudhon wants us to stick to the analyses introduced by the
economists in order to explain the genesis of this collective force, he
at least extends the field of application of this force well beyond the
circle of political economy proper. It is not only in a workshop, but in
an army, an orchestra, or an academy that he sees the constitution of
“the synthetic power […] unique to the group, superior in quality and
energy to the sum of the elementary forces of which it is composed”.
Elsewhere he observes that what he says about the division of labour in
industry can be repeated about the division of powers in politics. It is
therefore not only by its sensory effects that the force indicated by G.
Garnier is revealed. It is capable of producing something other than a
surplus of monetary wealth. The intellectual world, like the material
world, is subject to its law. In the very realm of intangible things, it
remains queen.

In expanding the theory of the division of labour in this way, Proudhon,
one imagines, would naturally encounter the clichés that the philosophy
of solidarity has reintroduced nowadays.

Of Proudhon, we can repeat what we said about Bastiat.
However concerned he may have been for individuality, he was in a
certain sense a solidarist avant la lettre. “There is not a man, then,
but lives upon the products of several thousand different industries;
not a labourer but receives from society at large the things which he
consumes […] All industries are united by mutual
relations in a single group; all productions do reciprocal service as
means and end […] Now, this undisputed and indisputable fact of the
general participation in every species of product makes all individual
productions common; so that every product, coming from the hands of the
producer, is mortgaged in advance by society.” Elsewhere:
“As long as we live, we work for as many masters as we have co-workers,
we have as many creditors as partners.” But let us note that Proudhon
does not just recall the interdependence of individuals. What
distinguishes his solidarist argument from that of someone like Bastiat
is specifically the idea that whenever a group is formed, a new force
emerges. People are not just debtors to each other: they are creditors
to each other, and therefore contributors to a kind of common mass of
wealth constituted by the very association of their activities. From
this point of view, the proof of solidarity appears as a corollary of
the theory of collective force: as valid a proof, let us
say, in the intellectual order as in the material order. And that is
why, in the world of ideas as in the world of things, he was able to
present the individual, even the genius, as a debtor. “The finest genius
is, by the laws of his existence and development, the most dependent
upon the society which creates him: who would dare to make a god of the
glorious child?” Proudhon insisted on this conclusion
with a wicked pleasure: he, the “poor industrialist” bursting onto the
literary scene, would find it a pertinent argument against the pride of
the men of letters, the “intellectuals” as we would say today, who do
not shirk from demanding privileged wages and indefinite ownership of
their works. In 1841, in his letter to Blanqui, he
praises Mr. Wolowski for having declared himself, in his course at the
Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, to be against the perpetual and
absolute ownership of works of genius for the benefit of authors’ heirs.
The exchangeable value of a book is due even more to social reality than
to the talent displayed in it. “Society has a right of collective
production over every creation of the mind.” When he demonstrates these
formulas, Proudhon says, Mr. Wolowski is merely generalising the
principle of collective force that Proudhon had established in his first
memoir. Later, when he himself attacked the Literary Majorats,
Proudhon would attend to developing all the consequences of these

“It is a fact that when an idea’s time has come, it
sprouts everywhere at the same time, like a seed, such that the merit of
the discovery, compared to the immensity of human production, is reduced
to almost nothing. Here is a field of wheat: can you tell me which ear
came out of the earth first, and do you claim that the others that came
after owe their birth only to its initiative? Such is more or less the
role of these creators, to whom we would have the human race pay a

To guarantee ownership of their works to their heirs would not only be
to declare things venal which are not venal by nature; it would be to
surrender public assets over which society has eminent rights, “to
violate the law of collectivity”.

Thus, the collective force gives rise to reserves of wealth, both
intellectual and material, which the passing individuals tap into. But
is it enough to say this? The collective force does not only accumulate
things; it constitutes beings, living a life of their own. For Proudhon
there is not only a solidarism, but a social realism.

His expressions abound in it, whichever book we look at any period in
his intellectual development. In The System of Economic
: “In the eyes of anyone who has reflected
upon the laws of labour and exchange, the reality, I almost said the
personality, of the collective man is as certain as the reality and the
personality of the individual man.” In his articles in Voix du peuple,
he told those who seem to regard the collective being merely as a
creation of the mind: “[S]ociety is a person, understand! just as
humanity as a whole is a person”. In The General Idea of the Revolution
in the 19
th Century: “[T]here
can be no question of touching Society itself, which we must regard as a
superior being, endowed with independent life”. In Justice: “This is
how the hypothesis [which Proudhon would personally try to demonstrate]
is formed of a social, real, positive and true being.” In
Pornocracy: “Collectivities are not pure fictions of
our understanding; they are realities as real as the individuals, monads
or molecules of which they are composed.”

Should these phrases written by the “father of anarchy” surprise us? Our
surprise will soon diminish, in any case, if we recall the theory of
being and knowledge that the author settled on. It is not because he has
stopped being a relativist, but on the contrary because he is a
relativist to the very end, that Proudhon can make society real in this
way. Because he affirms that reason only grasps relations, he is able to
lend as much existence to collectivity as to individuality.

Already in The Creation of Order, explaining the role reserved for the
kind of critique of the sciences that he calls metaphysical, he hints at
the consequences of the principle that order alone, in nature, is
accessible to us: we can perceive laws or relations, never substances or
causes. But it was above all in 1851, when to answer Mr. Romain-Cornut
he looked back at all his works and the movement of his thought, that he
brought this principle to the fore. In the face of the absolute which
he denies in all and everywhere, his originality is, he declares, to
affirm in all and everywhere progress. But this affirmation implies
another. What Proudhon hunts down in the notion of the absolute is not
just the notion of immobility, but of simplicity, which some would make
the supreme reality. But the search for simple elements is most
unsatisfactory of all. They escape us as we think we are getting closer
to them. In truth, we never catch simple beings: all
that exists is grouped
. Every truth is a relation. Every being is a
group. The notion of group here seems to take the place of the very
notion of series in Proudhon’s mind, or at least, in his eyes, the
series becomes increasingly defined by the group. He insists on the
necessarily synthetic nature of being. To traditional
ontology, he opposes a truly sociological philosophy.

Thus the sort of reversal of argument made by those accused of social
realism may have already been used by Proudhon. You might argue that
society, unlike an individual, does not have an independent existence.
But remember that the individual is itself already a multiplicity, a
colony, a society. Why would you refuse the reality that you grant to
this primary composite to the other, secondary composite?
It should be added that Proudhon saw very clearly how this sociological
conception of the world may be used to safeguard the originality of
beings by preventing the uniform “reduction” of the superior to the
inferior. If we recall that the group is more than the sum of its
elements, then the sudden appearance of new things in the Universe will
no longer seem disconcerting to us. In particular, if humans are capable
of deviation, it is precisely because they are composites of composites.
All the powers of nature are gathered in them, but from their very
gathering together a higher power arises, through which they become
“above nature”. “It is this force of collectivity that man refers to
when he speaks of his soul.” “It is with the aid of these notions of
collective force, of group, of series that I rise to the intelligence
and certainty of my free will.”

Proudhon would make great use of this philosophy to solve the social
problems, whether economic or political, that he meets on his way, as we
can see as early as The Philosophy of Poverty. If he aims to solve the
antinomies that political economy crashes into by means of a truly
social economy, it is precisely by relying on the theory of the
collective being, an organic and synthetic unit.

Picture society as a huge Prometheus gradually dominating nature, in
turn farmer, winemaker, baker, weaver, organising his work according to
his needs, multiplying his needs in proportion to his work. This
hypothesis will finally allow you to understand the nature of general
wealth, whereby all values produced by private industries combine in
proportion. As long as you stay at the point of view,
familiar to classical economics, of individuals seeking to win out over
each other, you see the opposition of use value and exchange value. With
each person trying to increase values for their own benefit, all
contribute to diminishing them. It is a world both of perpetual
fluctuations and of fundamental contradictions. Conversely, take the
point of view of the group: useful value and exchangeable value absorb
each other and disappear, “leaving in their place a compound possessed,
but in a superior degree, of all their positive properties”. Value is
ultimately constituted. It appears that production and consumption are
in harmony and that society has only one interest: to increase the
number of products that can indeed, according to Say, be exchanged for
products, “to align values” such that all labour leaves the worker a
surplus, and that every worker can at least buy back the value of their

But for this ideal to be realised, values must in fact be measured by
labour. We must not see the idle owners taking a disproportionate share
of trade like a kind of toll, or the producers condemned to poverty
wages. When the producers’ purchasing power, and therefore consumption,
is reduced to the smallest share, the entire system of production is
threatened. This means that harmony presupposes equity. The theory of
the proportionality of values, itself deduced from the theory of the
social being, leads to the theory of equality.

It may be doubted whether Proudhon’s arguments here achieve perfect
clarity. What at least begins to appear clearly is the dual tendency
that marks the originality of his project: both realist and egalitarian,
it presents the phenomena of production, consumption and circulation as
the manifestations of the activity of a unique being; it goes so far as
to personify society, but with the sole goal of establishing equity in
exchanges between individuals.

The same tendencies come to the fore in his explanation of the genesis
and nature of social power. Proudhon, like de Maistre and de Bonald,
protests against philosophers who see the State as nothing more than an
artificial being, the product of a convention between individuals. On
this point, religious mysticism was closer to the truth. It at least
maintained this feeling among peoples that a State is not a thing that
we manufacture. In fact, social power does not come from
deliberation between individuals; it arises from groups coming together.
In families or businesses, when the elementary associations – different
in nature and object, each formed to perform a specific function and
create a specific product – enter into relations, the collective forces
that emerge from these associations somehow concentrate into a new
power, which rules over their shared life. The quality of the power in
question varies, its authority rising or falling according to the number
and variation of these “forming groups”. This proves that it is nothing
more than their shared emanation.

But if this is the case, it is abundantly clear that the profit from the
social power, as of any collective force more generally, must return to
all of those who have contributed to it in proportion to their
contribution. But is this the story that history tells us? Too often we
see the force constituted in this way being “alienated”
for the benefit of a dynasty, race or caste. Too often religion ratifies
these abuses of power instead of opposing them. It covers these kinds of
manipulations with its cloak of illusion. But from the moment the origin
of the State is revealed, diversions and monopolisations become
“impossible”. Here again, the theory of collective reality, properly
understood, puts humanity back on the path of justice.

If these are his tendencies, we can imagine how Proudhon’s social
realism would move either towards or away from what is called
“organicism”. Proudhon also uses biological metaphors on different
occasions for different purposes. He first uses them to criticise the
solutions offered by his predecessors. He calls these solutions utopian
because they are too mechanistic. Referring to a phalansterian theory,
he says: “A deplorable error, but a natural one in a system in which
society is seen as a machine rather than as a living being. Society is
reformed only by always growing and developing, and this fact, the most
striking in history, is the condemnation of all the hypotheses that
proceed by overthrowing the forms and replacing the system.” Let us not
touch what lives: would Proudhon in turn have approved this phrase, at
least at a certain time? In any case, the idea of spontaneous growth
inherent in societies allows him to oppose the systems of the time with
a continuist philosophy of history. But even more so, it is a
pluralistic view of things that he proposes by comparing societies with
organisms. Should Proudhon be classed as a “polytheist” alongside Louis
MĂ©nard? He would at least increasingly worship multiple forces,
irreducible to each other, whose relative independence seems to him to
be the very condition of life.

The simplistic reformers remind him of doctors who would say: “With its
diverse elements – bone, muscles, tendons, nerves, viscera, arterial and
venous blood, gastric and pancreatic fluids, chyle, lachrymal and
synovial humours, gas, liquids and solids – the body is ungovernable.
Let us reduce it to a single, solid, resilient matter, bone for example;
hygiene and therapy will become child’s play.” But neither society nor
the human body becomes ossified. In its complication, always in motion,
he discovers “a thought, an intimate collective life that develops
outside the laws of geometry and mechanics; that is loath to assimilate
to the rapid, uniform, infallible movement of a crystallisation; of
which the ordinary, syllogistic, fatalist, unitary logic is incapable of
taking account, but which is explained marvellously with the aid of a
broader philosophy, admitting in one system the plurality of principles,
the struggle of elements, the opposition of contraries and the synthesis
of all the indefinables and absolutes.”

But although he uses organ-related analogies to draw our attention to
the spontaneity of movements and the multiplicity of social elements,
Proudhon is not unaware of their dangers. In particular, he seems to
sense that they might provide arguments against the desire for
egalitarian justice which is the core of his soul. How many times since
Hegel have we not repeated that societies, by the very fact that they
are organisms, require a strict hierarchy, and not just adherence to the
traditional distribution of tasks, but respect for the privileges and
prerogatives of the ruling classes! Proudhon strives to destroy these
arguments in advance when he recalls that “[a]s an organism, society,
the moral being par excellence, fundamentally differs so much from
living beings, in whom the subordination of organs is the very law of
existence”. It loathes “any idea of hierarchy”. Rather
than the subordination of organs, the social system involves the
balancing of forces, services and products. It thus appears as a general
equation, a set of weighing scales. Scales would definitively take the
place of organisms in Proudhon’s imagination. When he wants to specify
his conception, which is always egalitarian in tendency, he more often
uses the vocabulary of the physical and mathematical sciences than that
of the biological sciences.

As history unfolds and consciousness gains ground, does the latter not
become less and less suited to reality? As governments
become democratic, it seems increasingly illusory to derive morality
from physiology; comparing the State to all known animals is therefore
be to no avail: “Here, physiology counts for nothing; the
State figures as the product, not of organic nature, of the flesh, but
of intelligible nature, that is, the mind.”

In fact, naturalist tendencies do not succeed in dominating in
Proudhon’s philosophy. More than once, no doubt to react against the
spiritualism of the academic philosophers whose courses he had attended,
he hints at a desire to erase the distinctions between forms of being.
He tries to reunite humanity with animality and sends societies back to
the school of life. At times he seems to believe that nature,
methodically consulted, would lend a superior authority to the
egalitarian dreams that obsess him: it would at least provide him with
as many justifying analogies as it does to the followers of aristocratic
doctrines. But, without losing the hope of demonstrating
that justice’s system of laws is ultimately the same as the world’s
system of laws, he realises that societies will never
grasp these laws more directly than by looking within and analysing the
content of this consciousness which constitutes one of their
originalities. They are “spiritual collectivities”. And
it is because the mind gives itself free rein that the social reign
must be superimposed on others.

In Proudhon’s eyes, the main characteristic of this reign is that it is
an “industrial reign”. We know the major role that the author of
Justice grants to technology. In any case, from The Creation of
he comments on Franklin’s thought: “Man is a tool-making
animal.” He writes that labour is the plastic force of
society, the typical idea that determines the various phases of its
growth; that the “progress of Society is measured by the development of
industry and the perfection of instruments.” In this respect, as has
been rightly noted, he emerges as one of the precursors
of historical materialism. Is this not first of all, as Marx himself
points out, a philosophy of technology, an attempt to explain
everything, in the development of societies, by the improvement of the
means of production? But while Marx draws from this theory the
conclusion that ideas are merely insignificant shadows and reflections,
veritable epiphenomena, Proudhon continues to place ideas at the centre
of society and to show the collective mind at work in history. To
establish this mind’s laws of development, measure its progress,
identify its tendencies, express its wishes: this is precisely the
primordial task that he had assigned to what we call sociology. And that
is why, having recalled how he understands collective force and
collective being, it is important that we emphasise the way in which he
conceives of collective reason.

From his first works, this notion is undoubtedly present in
Proudhon’s mind. In Warning to the Proprietors, does
he not define society as an unconscious collective mind that, with
admirable certainty, follows laws that the scholar’s eye finds hard to
discern? But as his experience broadens, he pays more attention to this
impersonal reason which lives in human society. He increasingly
recognises its authority; he would go so far as to oppose its oracles to
the problematic conclusions of personal reason. In Justice he already
indicates why collective reason has synthetic ideas that are very
different from, and often opposite to, those of the individual self. But
it is in one of his final writings, Theory of Property, that he draws
the greatest effect from this antithesis. We know that
here, in order to establish it as an insurmountable barrier to the
encroachments of the State, he tries to justify not only the right to
possession which not even his first memoir challenged, but the right
to absolute property, the jus utendi et ab utendi according to the
ancient quiritary formula: an indefensible right, Proudhon acknowledges,
for anyone only wants to judge it according to the norms of individual
reason. But this method, so often applied as it has been by jurists, is
imprudence itself: the maxims of general reason that end up imposing
themselves on individual reason are often the opposite of those that the
latter gives us. There are opposites that the social genius is pleased
to unite, “while the individualist reason most often only knows how to
put them in discord”. The “inspirations of that immanent
reason which directs human collectivities” naturally surpass the self’s
conceptions. If Proudhon went one step further, he would bring us back
to Joseph de Maistre. Does he not seem to think that the more
incomprehensible or inadmissible an institution appears to individual
reason – as is precisely the case with quiritary property – the more
likely it is that, in accordance with the requirements of a higher
reason, it is thereby “providential”?

We can at least see clearly how this antithesis justifies the method
that Proudhon advocates, his distrust of a priori constructions, his
trust in the lessons of history. Since collective reason does not use
the same yardstick as individual reason, it is clear that the latter
cannot deduct from its funds the products of the former. Here,
Proudhon’s precepts foreshadow those of the sociologists who remind us
of the need to study social institutions from the outside, as things, in
facts. According to him, the knowledge of social laws, by the very fact
that it corresponds to the theory of collective ideas, could never be
anything but an empirical knowledge.

But conversely, because they also reflect the ideas of a collective
reason, the empirical knowledge of historical facts may reveal an
eternal order. Humanity as a whole, humanity as a social being, can
neither deceive nor be deceived: it is infallible. This
is the first postulate of Proudhon’s philosophy of history. How, if it
were otherwise, could there be any truth? Collective reason is nothing
other than absolute reason revealing itself in history.
From this point of view, society and God are merging: the thought of one
merely becomes aware of the will of the other.

However, we must not rush to identify these two terms with each other in
all respects. Between society and God, the way in which eternal truths
are revealed forces us to maintain an infinite distance. There is a
system of ideas, greater than time, that determine the conditions for
social balance. Proudhon especially displays this
conviction in the first period of his life, but it seems to be present
in his thought until the end and accounts for his intellectual attitude.
And for this reason it may be argued that Proudhon does not escape
Platonism either. It is even his Platonism that explains the particular
colour of his anarchism. If he objects so strongly to government
arbitrariness, it is because he believes that a “scientific”
organisation of humanity is possible: “scientific” meaning in accordance
with this aforementioned idea of justice of which he constantly
dreams. And, because the idea itself is only discovered
by collective reason, we end up with this paradox whereby Proudhon’s
anarchism is justified first of all by its confidence in the discoveries
of collective reason.

But these discoveries themselves are only made gradually, after a long
series of efforts, trials and errors, hopes of all kinds – a long and
arduous road for humanity. It rises up to the truth by falling. It only
achieves balance after centuries of oscillations. Revelation by pain, by
war, by evil, which provides Proudhon with precisely the means to turn
humanity back against God. Why has God not given humans these eternal
truths, of which His intelligence is the link? Why does He let the
tables of justice be spelled out for them so laboriously? He could have
given them the synthetic intelligence to perceive the conditions for
balance intuitively. Instead, He condemns them to a slow dialectic that
progresses by way of successively resolved antinomies. This is why
antithesis between God and humanity persists. This is why humanity has
the right, or rather the duty, to consider God as a sworn enemy. This is
why we must be not atheists but antitheists.

This explains the original position that Proudhon would take on this
question of the relation between society and divinity. He begins by
finding a common path with what he calls humanism, a term that applies
in his thought, it seems, to the doctrines of both Feuerbach and Auguste
Comte. But at some point he sets himself clearly apart from it.

The author of Economic Contradictions would undoubtedly agree that
“[h]umanity in its ensemble is the reality sought by the social genius
under the mystical name of God”. Like Feuerbach, he denounces the
“projections” by which humanity ascribes to the absolute, in divinity,
the qualities that it holds close to its heart. He does not fail to add
that the idea of God is above all social. “[I]t is much more a
collective act of faith than an individual conception”. It is from the
collective self, taken as the upper pole of creation, that humanity
extends the idea of the individual creator. In their
gods, societies worship emanations of their own spontaneity. From this
point of view, theocracy appears as “a symbolism of the social
force.” And Proudhon would arrive at this formula, which
could serve as a motto for more than one contemporary work: “What the
theologian pursues, without knowing it, in the dogma that he teaches, is
not the mysteries of the infinite: it is the laws of our collective and
individual spontaneity.” But are these explanations
sufficient reasons either to deny God or divinise society? Proudhon does
not think so. And it is here that he makes his reservations about this
humanism, which he sees both as the last form of atheism and as an
attempt to launch a new religion. Even if our conception of God is
anthropomorphic, or more precisely sociomorphic, this cannot directly
prove that God does not exist. On the contrary, one may continue to
need, from various points of view, the hypothesis of God. In the
meantime, one thing is certain: that by the very fact of elevating human
attributes to infinity in order to define God, we open up an
unbridgeable gap between God and man. Human attributes raised to
infinity are no longer applicable to humanity. It essence is
imperfection, and that is why perpetual struggle is its lot. So let us
not elevate humanity to God, as this would denigrate both. Both terms
can only be understood by their antithesis.

And one could undoubtedly try to explain this very antithesis by the
nature of social reality, which dominates the individual. Proudhon
anticipates this kind of explanation: “Will it be said that the
opposition between man and the divine being is illusory, and that it
arises from the opposition that exists between the individual man and
the essence of humanity as a whole?” But then it must be granted that
humanity as a collective being does not undergo this process of trial
and error of which by definition the divine being is spared. This is
precisely what Proudhon denies. Collective reason tends towards eternal
balance, but does so humanly, gradually discovering it by way of a slow
progress which is the necessary preface of order. And that is why,
ultimately, it cannot be identified with the divine intelligence.

But is this collective reason really a reason; that is, does it imply a
consciousness? So far, we hardly see this consciousness at work. The
philosopher examines humanity’s deeds and gestures, compares the
“manifestations of collective spontaneity”; he follows the series of
institutions whose very ruins make up the terraces of order. He thus
becomes capable of inferring the principles that govern the general
movement. But it is only in his personal intelligence that these
principles become conscious. Should we therefore grant that, always and
everywhere, their action is exerted on societies without them realising,
as if by night? Humanity, Proudhon says somewhere, is like the ropemaker
who walks backwards towards the end of their journey. Will it never turn
back around? Does a moment not come when society, ceasing to be
“unconscious”, creates bodies for reflection that we could use to
understand its thought, finally turned back on itself?

The first answer that comes to mind is that these bodies have existed
for a long time; they are the States. The very action they want to
exercise forces them to become aware of the principles that govern the
spontaneous movement of societies. In the State and through the State,
society becomes conscious, and in this sense the State is truly the
throne of God. It was Hegel’s solution, and it was also, mutatis
, Louis Blanc’s solution. But it could not in any way be
Proudhon’s solution.

His hatred of statism in all its forms is one of his most powerful
feelings. It would be to no avail to assure him that with the happy
tipping point of democracy, humanity will finally pass from the politics
of the master-State to that of the servant-State. Would government
forces now apply themselves to guaranteeing individual rights? But
wherever there is governmental force, Proudhon sees a source of
inevitable abuse. Whether democratic or monarchical, a State always
involves a delegation of powers, thereby enabling corruption. The State
is the “external constitution of the social power”; it
is organised to allow “alienations” of that very power. For too long the
people’s imagination has helped it. This idealism, which Proudhon
denounces as one of the worst enemies of the morality of human dignity,
has surrounded governments like a halo. This prestige may have been
useful at some time in history, but soon became the most dangerous of
all. It is high time that these “political myths” were destroyed forever
by carrying out a “purification of ideas”. Instead of encouraging
society to find its centre of consciousness in the State, it must
understand that it is itself a social product: not a fire, but smoke.

Essentially, Proudhon accuses those who continue to revere the State as
the necessary centre of consciousness of society of lacking sociological
faith. Still led astray by biological metaphors, they seem to believe at
all costs that this great body needs a head, and that it can only think
by delegation. According to this hypothesis, it is impossible for the
collective power, “which belongs essentially to the masses, to express
itself and act directly, without the mediation of bodies established
deliberately and, so to speak, ad hoc. It seems, we say – and this is
the explanation of the constitution of the State in all its varieties
and forms – that the collective being, society, existing only in the
mind, cannot make itself felt save through monarchical incarnation,
aristocratic usurpation, or democratic mandate; consequently, that all
it is forbidden any specific and personal manifestation.” It is
precisely against this scepticism that Proudhon erects his theory. For
him, although he is, as he said, a Pyrrhonian in politics, the other
side of his Pyrrhonism is his faith in the intellectual capacities of
the people themselves. “We deny government and the State, because we
affirm what the founders of States have never believed in: the
personality and autonomy of the masses.” If he speaks out
vehemently against those who diverted the 1848 Revolution by wanting to
lead it, it is precisely because they were allowed to gain more from
this “disease of opinion” that Aristotle studied under the name of
politics: it prevented them from being in communion with the people.
They did not believe in it: they did not understand it; they did not
know how to ask it.

“Let everyone, in these difficult days, turn to the people’s side; let
everyone study its sovereign thought, which is that of no party, of no
school, and which can nevertheless be seen in all schools and in all
parties: it will be able to define itself and answer all our questions,
provided we know how to ask it. To ask the people! This is the secret
of the future! To ask the people: this is the whole science of

But again, how should we go about getting an answer from the people? “No
more than God do the people have eyes to see, ears to hear, a mouth to
speak.” They speak only through the mouths of individuals. So what
option do we have but to ask individuals to express their opinions by a
vote? We will count those voices. And we will have the right to assume
that the opinion shared by the greatest number of them corresponds to
the collective thought. This is the solution envisioned by democracy.
But this solution, too, is in Proudhon’s eyes only a trick. He proves to
be just as stern to believers in universal suffrage as to those with
faith in the State.

It is not only the majoritarian system, or the representative system,
that he despises. Of course, to him it seems unfair that
half of the citizens plus one should impose law on the other half:
“Democracy is ostracism.” It seems inevitable to him, moreover, that the
representatives will abuse the power entrusted to them: “Democracy is a
disguised aristocracy.” But even if we introduced direct rule, the
government of the people by the people, the results would not be any
better. Establishing voting by head, viritim, is enough to prevent a
collective thought from expressing itself. Universal suffrage is an axe
to divide the people. “[The] testimony of discord, it can only produce
discord.” “How can you believe that an expression of opinion at once
particular and general, collective and individual, in a word, synthetic,
can be obtained by balloting, which is the official expression of

On reading these texts, we might think that in Proudhon’s eyes, in order
for the people to think, they must be in some way undivided, that the
individualities must dissolve into a higher unity. Indeed, Proudhon
often uses the unitary language of the Revolution to explain his theory.
“God forbid that the people could ever be wrong or lie. I say the people
one and indivisible, not the multitude which is only plurality without
unity.” At the beginning of a chapter of Economic
, he describes lyrically, in the kind of
vision that he dedicates to Lamartine, the quasi-disappearance of the
individual in social communion: “[F]rom this intimate trade, we had the
exquisite feeling of a unanimous will. In this ecstasy of an instant, in
this absolute communion which, without erasing the characters, raised
them by love towards the ideal, we felt what society can, must, be: and
the mystery of immortal life was revealed to us.” And if we go back to
The Celebration of Sunday, we find a full defence of
the kind of “fusion of intelligences and hearts” that Moses dreamed of
for his young nation. He wanted it to be “not an agglomeration of
individuals, but a truly fraternal society”. Here, do we not find the
lineaments of a theory of Volksgeist, analogous to that which served
as a bedrock of legal and economic nationalism in Germany?

It would nevertheless be completely wrong to believe that as Proudhon’s
thought develops, it would join with that of Savigny, for example. On
the contrary, the distance between Volksgeist and “collective reason”
would only increase. It is all the more clear, as his feeling takes
shape, that he abhors any reabsorption whatsoever of individuality. He
refuses to rely on the obscure powers of unanimous feelings. In
particular, he does not grant that the last word of political wisdom is
to give in to the spontaneous movements that arise from the kind of
fusion of hearts achieved in national unity. We know Proudhon’s
resistance to those who invoked the principle of nationality as a sure
guide to foreign policy: he stubbornly refused to lament the
partitioning of Poland and advocate the establishment of Italian unity.
To justify this attitude which scandalised so many people, he wanted to
define the notion of nationalities once and for all. He
did not manage to complete his project in time. We can at least see
quite clearly, through the discussions outlined in various places in his
works, the direction in which the tendencies of his mind led him. He
protests against those who would make nationality a “physiological and
geographical thing”; he tries to prove that it is at its core, and in
fact is increasingly becoming, a “legal and moral thing”. Unlike de
Maistre, far from seeing the written constitutions, by which people try
to determine the conditions of government, as unnatural and therefore
unsustainable products, he is pleased that since 1815 the era of
constitutions has been open. It represents a win for the
regime of liberty over the regime of authority. It heralds the moment
when all associations will rest on voluntary pacts.

The ardour and vehemence of his imprecations against Rousseau has often
been noted. But it should be underlined that what he reproaches him for
is not the artificialism for which de Bonald criticised him; it is for
not having envisaged a society emerging from a convention. It is for
having only legislated for the strictly political forms of association,
and also for considering only a single contract, undefined in its
conditions, unrealisable in practice. Far from eliminating the idea of
contract from his philosophy, Proudhon retains it and gives it a central
place. His ambition is to bring this idea down into reality itself. He
would thus be led to replace the single contract, which is only an
abdication of the masses in the hands of an arbitrator, with a number of
truly synallagmatic contracts. It is through positive contracts, duly
countersigned by the parties, that the conditions for cooperation should
be settled. And it is undoubtedly so that these
multiple contracts can become the rule that Proudhon is led to prefer
federalist organisations to unitary organisations.

While these are Proudhon’s tendencies, it is clear that he cannot in any
case ask for the silence of personal reasons in order for the public
reason to be heard. On the contrary: each should freely
express their idea and clearly convey their claims. It is the clash of
ideas that casts the light. From the antagonism of claims, rules emerge
that rest on the relations between things. “The impersonality of the
public reason presupposes as a principle the greatest contradiction; as
an organ, the greatest possible multiplicity.” Here, Proudhon finds one
of his dearest ideas: the idea of balance, by which forces are set
against one another in order to discover the conditions for their
balance. Each human self is an insatiable ambition that tend towards the
absolute. To correct this “exorbitance”, there is nothing better than
putting man before man, balancing the self with another self. The
individual absolutisms thereby become neutralised; there is a sort of
“airing of ideas”. Truths appear which determine just relations, and
whose system is the framework of public reason. “When two or several men
have to come to a conclusion about a question through contradiction,
either of the natural order or, and for a greater reason, of the human
order, what results from the reciprocal and respective elimination that
they are led to make of their subjectivity, i.e. the absolute that the
self affirms and represents, is a common manner of seeing, which no
longer resembles, either in content or in form, what it would have been
without this debate, their individual way of thinking. This manner of
seeing, into which only pure relations enter, without mixtures of
metaphysical and absolutist elements, constitutes the collective reason
or public reason.” There is therefore no need to conceive it as a
separate metaphysical entity, a previous and superior
Logos: it is “the result of all the particular reasons
or ideas, whose inequalities, arising from the conception of the
absolute and its egoistic affirmation, compensate for each other by
their mutual criticism and cancel each other out”.

Here again, we might ask if Proudhon is as far from Rousseau as he
believes himself to be. Rousseau also views the general will as
something other than the sum of the particular wills. For the former to
be constituted, he wants “the pluses and minuses to destroy each
other”. And he sees this reciprocal neutralisation as the
guarantee of equality. The fact remains that, more so than Rousseau,
Proudhon insists on the need for prior debate. Daily discussion is in
his view the indispensable “usher” of justice. “In order to ensure
peace, keep social energies in perpetual struggle” is the paradoxical
solution he settles on: for the collective self to arise, the individual
selves must be set against each other. Above all, Proudhon firmly
refuses to allow individuals, having decided one fine day to create the
State, to surrender in its hands and pride themselves on now being the
humble slaves of their creation. We know that he aims not for the
apotheosis of the State, but rather its dissolution: what he hopes for
from the regime of partial, truly synallagmatic and commutative
contracts, through which individuals freely debate the terms of their
exchanges, is precisely that it enables an order without masters,
without functionaries, without government.

The idea that clearly comes to the surface here is the idea of economic
society as opposed to political society; it is the idea of civil
. When Proudhon calls for universal debate to precede the
establishment of commutative contracts, the ideal he wants to serve is
undoubtedly that of freedom of thought against the theocratic tradition,
but even more so that of equity of exchanges against any statist
intervention. Those selves who confront their claims are above all, in
his eyes, mercantilists; and the truth that collective reason must
derive from their confronted claims is the value of things, measured by
the labour embodied in them. In short, it is above all the life of
commerce that Proudhon considers when he develops his theory of the
relationship of individual thought to impersonal thought. “Translate
these words, contract, commutative justice, which are the language
of the law, into the language of business, and you have Commerce, that
is to say, in its highest significance, the act by which man and man
declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to
govern each other.”

The tradition that Proudhon joins with here is a very different
tradition from that of Rousseau and the political contract theorists: it
is that of the economists of the late 18th century, which
provided Saint-Simon with the elements of his central antithesis. In
both the feudal regime and the industrial regime, Saint-Simon clearly
opposes, to the government of persons, the administration of things. On
this point, Proudhon’s thought simply welds to Saint-Simon’s. He clearly
indicates this himself: “Commutative justice, the reign of contracts,
in other words the economic or industrial reign: these are the
different synonyms of the idea whose advent will abolish the old systems
of distributive justice, of the reign of laws, in more concrete
terms of the feudal, governmental or military regime. The future of
humanity lies in this substitution”.

In Hegel, too, the influence of the concepts elaborated by the
economists had been felt: in Philosophy of Right and Philosophy of
, between the family and the State there is the “bĂŒrgerliche
” in which the “system of needs” is realised. And it is
undoubtedly from there that it passed into Marx’s philosophy, providing
its substructure to the whole social world. But for Hegel, the order
constituted by the system of needs is in no way an order capable of
being self-sufficient. Rather, the philosopher sees in it, by the very
fact that individuals take their particular interests as ends, a kind of
return to atomism. At its core, associations born from commerce seem to
him least associative of all: they cannot serve as a support for the
collective spirit. And this is why the bĂŒrgerliche Gesellschaft must
be by surpassed by the State, which alone allows the social essence to
reach consciousness of itself. On this point, the Proudhonian tendency
is the exact opposite of the Hegelian tendency. For the author of
General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th
, civil society is the milieu in which he wants to dissolve,
submerge the State. “What we put in place of the public force is the
collective force.” In elliptical terms, he thus indicates that the
“economic organisation” where this collective force takes hold must
reabsorb the governmental power.

Where a free agro-industrial federation has been established, what need
will there be for legislators, prefects, public prosecutors, customs
officers, police officers? When agreement is reached through the
proliferation of equitable contracts, the coercive apparatus will no
longer need to function. “Contractual solidarity” (a phrase that would
appear much later) renders authoritarian centralisation
useless. Proudhon is therefore far from seeing the world
of trade as a dispersive atomism. He is far from believing that when
individuals are face to face, debating the conditions of their
exchanges, the collective mind lacks support. On the contrary, it is
this very debate that brings its verdict. Let free people contract
equally: it is then that justice, the supreme interest of society,
manifests itself; in other words, it is then that the collective reason

We now understand how Proudhon could write that political economy is the
depository of the secret thoughts of society. His sociology is neither
statist, nor democratic, nor nationalist; it is a sociology of an
economist, of an “accountant”, of a “mutualist”, at the same time
liberal and egalitarian. It lends force, life, even intelligence to
society; but it is arranged in such a way that this force, this life and
this intelligence presuppose the worker-traders’ equal freedom rather
than crushing it.

Egalitarian and liberal as well as federalist, we can sense the specific
attitude that Proudhon would adopt towards the specific groups existing
or arising within nations themselves. To be sure, he grants these groups
great recognition. And it is on this point that his politics is most
clearly opposed to Rousseau’s. “War on particular societies” was the
motto of the author of The Social Contract. On the contrary, for the
author of The Federative Principle, they constitute the true “pivots
of democracy”. Nevertheless, in order for them to provide all the
services legitimately expected, their organisation must be subject to
certain conditions: those that enable the collective reason to be
revealed through debate between individuals.

We recently discovered Proudhon to be the authentic ancestor of the
syndicalist philosophy that, by correcting the political deviations of
socialism, strives to disassociate itself from democracy. The vocabulary
of Proudhonian sociology has been used to define, between individualist
anarchy and statist socialism, the positions of revolutionary
syndicalism. And it is very true that the commentary that
Proudhon hastily wrote on his deathbed for the Manifesto of the Sixty
reads in places like a hymn to “class consciousness”. The working class
has won its “political capacity” precisely because its members have
finally become aware of the special situation of the collectivity that
they compose. They look within to identify the original idea that
responds to this situation. They have now understood that they must
think among themselves. Their collective self arises from opposition to
one another. Proudhon no doubt foresaw the role that the workers’
associations, the “workers’ groups”, could play as organs of this self.
A centre of education as well as of production, in his eyes the workers’
association is first of all its centre of consciousness. It is therefore
possible to argue that if he had known them, he would have applauded the
actions of the unions seeking to discover the thought of producers by
bringing them together. However, we must not to be too hasty on this
point either. We would have a very narrow idea of Proudhon’s sociology
if we were to believe, for example, that according to him the working
group is the single organ of justice, and above all that in his eyes it
would suffice, for social progress to be achieved, to rouse the
non-owners against the owners in some way and drag them along by some
irresistible collective emotion.

Let us first recall that for Proudhon, whatever privilege he may grant
to labour, which he honours as the revealer of the most precious truths,
it is not only in the industrial company that the collective reason
speaks, but also in the scholarly or artistic company; in the academies,
schools, municipalities; in the national assembly, in the club, in the
jury, in “every meeting of men, in a word, formed for the discussion of
ideas and the inquiry into questions of right”.

And then, as this phrase itself warns us, these groups, whatever they
may be, cannot hear the conclusions of the collective reason unless they
have first given voice to the individual reasons. From this point of
view, sentimental unanimity is not something to hope for; it is
something to fear. Above all, the collectivity questioned must not “vote
as one man in the name of a particular feeling that has become common.”
The collectivity would thus become as unfriendly to Proudhon as to
Rousseau himself. Multiplicity, opposition, even contradiction of
opinions: let us remember that these are, for our philosopher, within
particular societies and elsewhere, the preconditions for the
impersonality of the conclusions. This means that in drawing Proudhon’s
thought to syndicalism, it would be too much to turn it back against
individualism. It also means that he did not in any way share the faith
of “the new school” in class instinct. This instinct, once stimulated
to the right degree, would supposedly cause the working class to march
as one against the bourgeoisie. But at no point does Proudhon take
pleasure from this prospect. He indignantly denounces any
attempt to “excite working-class democracy to scorn and hatred for the
terrible and elusive colleagues of the middle class.” He refuses to give
the working class a kind of “power of extortion” that would allow it to
stop worrying about winning the majority over to its idea peacefully and
legally. Not content with blaming strikes, he goes so far as to oppose
the workers being given a right of coalition that would destroy
competition, precisely by invoking against E. Ollivier the sort of force
inherent to collectivities. Proudhon does not dream of
setting class interests against one another: he dreams of balancing the
rights of individuals. The idea that he wants to be discovered by
workers, reflecting in their autonomous groups, is not an exclusively
working-class idea, but a human, universal, rational idea: that of
justice in exchange – service for service, product for product – which
will equalise people by ensuring their independence. In other words,
whether they are made up of workers’ companies or otherwise, what
Proudhon expects of particular societies is not, it seems, that they
prepare so many specific collective souls: it is that by offering
favourable environments for the confrontation of individual reasons,
they each favour the uncovering of this impersonal reason that speaks of

However, among these societies, there some whose role deserve to be
specified separately, those formed spontaneously, prior to the State,
even prior to the economic association: families. Throughout his career
as a thinker, Proudhon, as a son, husband, and model father, appreciated
the value of the domestic group. If there is one religion he keeps, it
is that of the home. Saint-Simonians and Fourierists easily arouse his
anger, even his disgust: more than their mysticism or illuminism, their
shared indecency alarms him. In the chapter on duties of the family, he
is as intransigent as Auguste Comte. Both are anti-feminists: they fear
opening up the slightest breach in the family unit.

In truth, Proudhon cannot praise unreservedly the influence that the
domestic grouping has historically wielded. Is it not responsible for
the authoritarian form of the political grouping? The latter is merely
the long shadow cast by the former. Like de Bonald, Proudhon observes
this fact. But his ideal is the inverse of that of theocrats; far from
rejoicing, he complains about this sort of relic. And the reason he
criticises the governmental socialism of Louis Blanc, for example, is
precisely that its doctrine is nothing more than a clumsy application of
the domestic economy to society. Before Spencer, Proudhon
mocks the anti-individualists of this school as incapable of conceiving
of anything other than a household economy. The society whose progress
must be supported is economic society, born of the workshop, which
individualises people. As for political society, born of
the family, which aims to merge people into one other, we must hope for
and hasten its dissolution. Domestic in origin, the order that the State
establishes is authoritarian in its means, communist in its tendencies;
but true, definitive order must be both egalitarian and liberal. It is
supported by innumerable pillars erected by the wills in agreement: fair

But through a detour, to this order which is anti-family in tendency,
the family finds itself rendering the most distinguished services. For
collective reason to finally discover the conditions of balance, which
are also the rules of justice, would be a great deal, but it would not
be everything. For the conscious idea to become active, the contribution
of feeling appears necessary. As his reflections as a moralist deepen,
Proudhon becomes more aware of this: though so critical of “idealism”,
which he sees as the great deviant of moral life, he comes to recognise
that justice itself needs the reinforcement brought by nurturing
feelings methodically.

Certainly, idealism cannot discover the rational law of equal exchange,
but once it has been discovered it can help it overcome any resistance
it encounters. It presupposes among all individuals the will to respect
and to ensure respect for the dignity of people, both their own and that
of others. But does experience not prove that when we appeal to this
sense of dignity, the individual thinks of themselves first and
foremost? To combat the selfish instinct, which so easily takes the
shape of right, would it not be useful for justice to form its own
organ? By its action, hearts would inclined to this social goodwill
without which balance itself could not be established. This organ is
precisely the couple, the androgyne where the selves complement each
other and, at the same time as, their absolutisms correct each other.
“For the production of justice, we need a premotion, a grace, say
theologians: we need love.” From this point of view, we discover that
the woman in marriage – the wife, the mother – is the most precious
auxiliary of right itself. “Man holds onto society by woman, neither
more nor less than the child holds onto the mother by the umbilical
cord.” The family spirit paves the way for the civic
spirit. This small group, which the citizen must support, in turn
supports them, contains them, exalts their honour, restrains their
pride. Being single implies being unsociable, “uncontrollable”,
“unreachable”. If family ties, so strong but yet so soft, were to break
down, we would then see “with indomitable violence, the contradiction
between the individual and the society” break out.
Society persists through the subordination of all human forces and
faculties, individual and collective, to justice. The family naturally
prepares this subordination. Domestic discipline is the best school we
can imagine for contractual solidarity. The ideal that collective reason
reveals from the confrontation of individual reasons cannot become a
reality unless the feelings of individuals have first received social
guidance within families, groups especially favourable to moral
education. Ultimately, once again, the fruits of reflection presuppose
the fruits of spontaneity.

These brief summaries provide a glimpse of the complexity of what may be
called the sociology of Proudhon, in which one can sense a wide variety
of intersecting influences. Proudhon as a sociologist sometimes reminds
us of A. Smith, sometimes de Bonald, occasionally Rousseau, most often
Saint-Simon. But in the series of systems that pave the way for
sociological investigations, his sociology occupies a unique place,
undoubtedly determined by the very nature of the tendencies that he
wants to satisfy above all.

Proudhon remains faithful to the passion for equality that his first
life experiences instilled in the depths of his heart, but he is a
liberal egalitarian. He reacts against so many utopias which he saw
built and which all more or less tended to turn people into machines. He
is, it seems, even more afraid of the abuse of authority than of the
excess of inequality. To save civilisation, he relies solely on the
virtue of equitable contracts. Individuals will finally decide to
measure the value of the products they exchange by the amount of labour
they have incorporated into it.

This solution has only one flaw: it presupposes among the contracting
parties the firm commitment to be just, the resolve not to abuse a
privileged situation, the desire for equality. The whole edifice built
by the powerful accountant’s imagination that lived inside Proudhon is
ruined in advance if the individual favours themselves over others, and
does not effectively recognise their equal dignity. More than once
Proudhon sensed this. And it is no doubt because he sensed it that he
does not remain an individualist pure and simple. He seeks an authority
to provide a basis for the precept he needs. He tries to prove that his
desire for equality is necessitated by the very nature of the collective
being, by its progress, by the consciousness that it gains of the
conditions for its balance. To discipline individual reasons, the
so-called father of anarchism appeals to the prestige of collective

But in thus lending life and reason to the collectivity, he takes great
care not to make it oppress and absorb individuals. He finds a way to
justify his defiance of the State through the manner in which society is
realised. It is economic society that he personifies; that is, precisely
the society that presupposes exchange, commerce, contract, all the free
play of individual activities. Similarly, it is not from the elimination
of personal reasons, but from their antagonistic affirmation that he
derives the system of impersonal reason. It is only when it comes to
putting active feelings at the service of this reason that Proudhon, no
doubt informed by his own experience, sees the value of the fusion of
souls. He thus praises the miracle of the family. But it should be noted
that in no way does he want citizens, composed of families, to work
towards establishing a public order conceived in their image. He wants
to leave them face to face, confronting their claims, measuring their
rights, united solely by the rational bond of equal exchange. In this
sense, if we want to refer to the doctrines that claim to respect and
enforce the equal freedom of all individuals as individualistic, we are
right to continue saying that Proudhon’s dominant tendency remains
individualistic. His originality lies in putting to work, to the glory
of the individualistic ideas thus understood, the very sociological
spirit that for a long time seemed only to discredit them.

C. Bouglé.

[1] Qu’est-ce que la PropriĂ©tĂ© ? (1841 edition),
p. 281.

[2] Les Majorats littéraires, p. 46, note.

[3] SystĂšme des Contradictions Ă©conomiques, II,
p. 237. (Citations are from the complete works edition, unless
otherwise indicated.)

[4] Questions d’aujourd’hui et de demain
[Questions for Today and Tomorrow], 3rd series, p. 162

[5] Articles in Voix du Peuple, in MĂ©langes,
III. p. 22.

[6] pp. 215–6.

[7] Ch. II, § 3.

[8] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Correspondance, I, p.
238, Lettre Ă  M. Blanqui (1841 edition), p. 118.

[9] Qu’est-ce que la PropriĂ©tĂ© ? p. 121. Cf.
Contradictions Ă©conomiques, I, p. 243.

[10] La CrĂ©ation de l’ordre dans l’humanitĂ©, p.

[11] Qu’est-ce que la PropriĂ©tĂ© ? p. 124.
Proudhon goes so far as to say in the conclusion (p. 311): “All
human labour being the result of collective force, all property
becomes, in consequence, collective and unitary. To speak more
exactly, labour destroys property.”

[12] Contradictions Ă©conomiques, I, p. 242.

[13] Cr. de l’ordre, p. 245. Cf. IdĂ©e gĂ©nĂ©rale
de la révolution au XIXe siÚcle
, p. 81.

[14] We have analysed Karl Marx’s theory more
extensively here (November 1908): Marxisme et Sociologie [Marxism
and Sociology]).

[15] Aus dem literarischen Nachlass von Karl
Marx, Fr. Engels u, F. Lassalle
, II, p. 127 et seqq.

[16] See our article cited above, p. 724.

[17] One could find more than one hint of this
theory in working-class newspapers. See no. 1 of Association,
international bulletin of cooperative societies (cited by Proudhon,
Capacité politique des classes ouvriÚres, p. 52), and Rive
, cited by Albert Thomas in Histoire socialiste, t. X, p.

[18] Cr. de l’ordre, p. 236.

[19] Justice, 7th Study, p. 154, in a note in
response to Renouvier.

[20] Cr. de l’ordre, p. 269.

[21] Ibid., p. 265.

[22] p. 77 et seqq.

[23] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Idee generale de la
, p. 98;

[24] Justice, 4th Study, p. 112.

[25] See Mr. C. Gide’s lecture: La Morale de
Bastiat, dans les Études sur la philosophie morale au XIXe siùcle

[Bastiat’s Morality in Studies in Moral Philosophy in the 19th

[26] Qu’est-ce que la PropriĂ©tĂ© ? p. 157.

[27] Avertissement aux Propriétaires, p. 46.

[28] Cr. de l’ordre, p. 286.

[29] Lettre Ă  M. Blanqui, p. 171.

[30] p. 120.

[31] Majorats, p. 94–95.

[32] I, p. 92.

[33] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: MĂ©langes, III, p. 12.

[34] p. 75.

[35] p. 117.

[36] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Philosophie du ProgrĂšs,
p. 36.

[37] Philosophie du ProgrĂšs, p. 36, cf.
Justice, 12th Study, p. 102.

[38] Justice, IV, p. 112.

[39] Ibid., VII, p. 99, 102; XII, p. 102.

[40] Contrad. Ă©con., I, p. 82, 92.

[41] Contrad. Ă©con., p. 75.

[42] Ibid., p. 84.

[43] p. 82, 100. In Volume II, p. 330, Proudhon
writes: “The division of labour acts on the collective being like
harmful industries on those who carry them out: by providing it
with abundance it poisons it, and after having invited it to life,
plunges it back into death.” The example clearly shows Proudhon’s
attempt to adopt the point of view of the collective being’s
interests. With regard to the individual being’s interests,
Proudhon focuses his critique of the division of labour on other

[44] Justice, IV, p. 112, 117.

[45] Ibid., p. 119, 122.

[46] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Avertissement aux
, p. 62.

[47] Théorie de la Propriété, p. 213, 229.

[48] Justice, VII, p. 127.

[49] Du Principe fédératif, p. 267.

[50] Ibid., p. 15.

[51] Cr. de l’ordre, p. 193.

[52] Justice, XII, p. 105.

[53] Ibid, VIII, p. 140.

[54] p. 242 et seqq.

[55] E. Droz, P.-J. Proudhon, p. 88.

[56] p. 37, 71.

[57] VIII, p. 118.

[58] Th. de la Propriété, p. 207, 99, 77.

[59] Contrad. Ă©c., I, p. 5.

[60] Ibid., p. 21.

[61] Ibid., p. 327.

[62] Proudhon clearly expressed this dogmatism as
early as his first memoirs. Cf. Lettre à Blanqui, p. 146 : “Now,
while the short-sighted spectator begins to despair of humanity,
and, distracted and cursing that of which he is ignorant, plunges
into scepticism and fatalism, the true observer, certain of the
spirit which governs the world, seeks to comprehend and fathom

[63] Contradictions Ă©con., II, p. 398: “All
human science consists in finding in this confusion the abstract
system of eternal thought.” Cf. I, p. 370: “Progressive reason
resulting from the projection of eternal ideas upon the movable and
inclined plane of time […]”.

[64] Qu’est-ce que la PropriĂ©tĂ© ?, p. 302; IdĂ©e
générale de la révolution
, p. 103,

MĂ©langes, III, p. 75.

[65] Contradictions Ă©conomiques, I, p. 360 et

[66] Contrad., Ă©con., I, p. 2, 5.

[67] Justice, IV, p. 133.

[68] Confessions d’un rĂ©volutionnaire, p. 3.

[69] Contrad. Ă©con., I, p. 369.

[70] MĂ©langes, III, p. 11.

[71] Id., ibid., Cf. Louis Blanc, Questions
d’aujourd’hui et de demain
, III, p. 176.

[72] Idées révolutionnaires, p. 182.

[73] Solution du ProblĂšme social, p. 17.

[74] Ibid., p. 60 et seqq.

[75] Idée générale de la révolution, p. 153.

[76] Solution, p. 7.

[77] II, p. 183.

[78] p. 128.

[79] Principe fédératif, p. 106.

[80] Ibid., p. 267.

[81] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Idée générale de la
, p. 124.

[82] Principe fédératif, p. 47.

[83] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Justice, VII, p. 123.

[84] Justice, VII, p. 130.

[85] Contrat social (Dreyfus-Brisac edition), p.

[86] Justice, VII, p. 129 et seqq.

[87] Idée générale de la Révolution, p. 115.

[88] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Idée générale, p. 115.

[89] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: V. Berth, Les aspects
nouveaux du socialisme
(final part).

[90] Translator’s note: The following citation
appears as a footnote but the in-text citation is missing and it is
unclear precisely where it should appear: Became Capacité
politique des classes ouvriĂšres

[91] Justice, VII, p. 133.

[92] Capacité politique, p. 338.

[93] Ibid., p. 336.

[94] MĂ©langes, III, p. 40, 44.

[95] Cr. de l’ordre, p. 134.

[96] Justice, p. 92.

[97] Pornocratie, p. 64.