An Anarchist's Guide to War

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's most controversial book has finally been fully translated into English.


War and Peace: On the Principle and Constitution of the Right of Peoples, by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, edited by Alex Prichard and translated by Paul Sharkey, AK Press, 625 pages, $30

While Pierre-Joseph Proudhon produced dozens of books on a wide range of topics from 1839 until his death in 1865, the French autodidact is generally remembered as the first public figure to seriously declare "I am an anarchist" and for his equally provocative declaration that "property is theft." (He also wrote that "property is liberty," launching debates about his views that would long outlive him.) Proudhon was seldom far from conflict and controversy, at times paying a considerable price for his bold assertions. After he joined the provisional government following the French Revolution of 1848, his conflicts with soon-to-be emperor Louis Napoleon led to years of prison and exile.

Writing before an anarchist movement existed, Proudhon spent years addressing any audience he thought might listen and any subject that seemed to offer opportunities to develop his ideas. In 1861—a year after issuing the second edition of his masterwork, Justice in the Revolution and in the Church—he gave us War and Peace.

Much of the response, even from previously friendly quarters, was negative, and Proudhon felt deeply misunderstood. The work did find its champions, including the anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Sacco and Vanzetti fame), who while awaiting execution produced a partial translation in order to practice his English. According to some accounts, Leo Tolstoy borrowed the title for his famous novel. But others had little patience for Proudhon's provocations. What Proudhon presented as a critique of militarism would be treated by ungenerous and impatient readers as a celebration of brutality and, by later critics, even as an anticipation of fascism.

The publication of a complete English translation of War and Peace allows us to move beyond the rumors that have accumulated around it and decide on our own what sort of book it is. Very little about that task is simple. Editor Alex Prichard describes the book as "a rich, profound, and captivating text" but also "an uncomfortable read," noting that "its full significance for contemporary thinkers, as well as for students of Proudhon's thought, is only slowly coming into view."

Given the text's complexity, its potential relevance to a number of scholarly communities, and the very small number of Proudhon's works in English translation, the editorial challenge was to give the work an adequate introduction without closing in advance any of the varied paths that further exploration might follow. Prichard chose to frame the work with a brief introduction and extensive textual notes, guiding readers with a gentle hand.

The introduction addresses a range of contexts and concerns, both historical and contemporary, without any pretense of being definitive. The material it includes is interesting and varied. One well-chosen passage from Proudhon's letters provides a road map sufficient to guide most readers through the twists and turns of Proudhon's text. A discussion of connections between the ideas of Proudhon and Michel Foucault suggests a range of similar explorations that might be made.

Paul Sharkey's translation attempts, with considerable success, to find a middle ground between Proudhon's convoluted style and the demands of modern sensibilities. It is similarly gentle in its handling of important keywords.

The text itself is very dense, although quite readable. Some of what is "uncomfortable" comes from attitudes about race and gender that have not aged well. But there is also a pervasive sense that, despite all of the text's talk about morality, Proudhon's professed anti-absolutism and philosophical pragmatism may have carried him to forms of analysis that border on amoralism. Another potential source of discomfort: Proudhon gradually introduces definitions he developed in Justice in the Revolution and in the Church, shifting the sense of terms like right, law, moral, and justice in sometimes radical ways.

The book presents itself as a study of "the idea of war" and of principles immanent to war. It aims to vindicate the "right of force" but nevertheless ends with the declaration that "HUMANITY RENOUNCES WAR." Proudhon describes the transformations necessary for the triumph of peace, but it is a peace bearing no resemblance to the peace of Proudhon's own time, which he dismissed as "NOTHINGNESS." Proudhon says "war, like religion, and the same as justice and labour, poetry and art, has been a manifestation of the universal conscience." He predicts that "peace will be a manifestation of universal conscience too."

Proudhon's "phenomenology of war" argues that people equate the "judgments" of war with justice. He emphasizes the images of heroes and battle that dominate literature and the popular imagination, and he notes the ways warfare becomes the metaphor by which we understand various kinds of conflict. Proudhon then compares this popular conception of war with intellectuals' growing tendency to treat war and justice as opposed.

After showing, at least to his own satisfaction, that the justice those intellectuals champion depends on a right of force that they deny, Proudhon proposes a gamut of rights, including a right of force, rights of peoples, political rights, civil or domestic rights, economic rights, and philosophical rights. The culmination of this series is "the RIGHT OF FREEDOM, whereby humanity, moulded by war, by politics, by its institutions, by labour and commerce, by the sciences and the arts, is no longer governed by anything other than sheer freedom, obedient to the logic of reason alone."

This theory of rights marks something of a turning point. Having established the glory of war in principle, Proudhon describes in detail how "the forms of war" fall horribly short. He turns to economic analysis, identifying economic instability as the driving force behind "pauperism" and "militarism," which in turn drive nations to war. The study ends by predicting "the transformation of war." In the past, Proudhon writes, war has inspired various forms of human excellence. But in the future, he says, that function will be performed by a range of nonviolent industrial activities.

Even Proudhon's friends found War and Peace a difficult book to love, and I suspect that has something to do with the unfamiliarity of the subject matter. Let me propose one more set of concerns to look for, particularly for English-language readers who know Proudhon mainly in his role as anarchist.

While there are anti-authoritarian elements throughout the text, the passage most likely to ring bells is the one I quoted above, where Proudhon describes the "right of freedom." Compare that description to this passage from his 1848 essay on "Democracy," parts of which will undoubtedly be familiar to those who know the work of Proudhon's libertarian admirer Benjamin Tucker:

"The ideal republic is an organization that leaves all opinions and all activities free. In this republic, every citizen, by doing what he wishes and only what he wishes, participates directly in legislation and in government, as he participates in the production and the circulation of wealth….The ideal republic is a positive anarchy. It is neither liberty subordinated to order, as in a constitutional monarchy, nor liberty imprisoned in order. It is liberty free from all its shackles, superstitions, prejudices, sophistries, usury, authority; it is reciprocal liberty and not limited liberty; liberty not the daughter but the mother of order."

At stake in both of these passages is the droit de la liberté—a right of liberty or freedom—identified as a fundamental part of a future social order. In War and Peace, Proudhon presents the "right of liberty" as characteristic of a humanity that "renounces war."

Prichard is probably right that this is a text that will be slow in giving up all of its secrets. A full understanding arguably will depend on material still untranslated or, in some cases, unpublished in the original language. But passages like these allow us to begin exploring how the transformation of war into an active sort of peace and the abandonment of militarism might be connected to Proudhon's project of abandoning statism and reorganizing society according to the principles of anarchy.

In our present societies, where anarchy is more likely to be equated with a kind of social war, that connection is as provocative as anything Proudhon ever wrote. But perhaps that is the problem. If Proudhon's predictions regarding peace remain unfulfilled, perhaps it is because we have scorned anarchic means.