Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (1949).



"When the contradictions of 'communaute' and democracy," Proudhon wrote in a letter of 1844, "once revealed, have shared the fate of the Utopias of Saint-Simon and Fourier, then socialism, rising to the level of a science -- this socialism which is neither more nor less than political economy -- will seize hold of society and drive it with irresistible force towards its next destination. . . . Socialism has not yet attained to self-consciousness; to-day it calls itself communism." The first sentence reminds one in many respects of the later formulations of Marx. Three months before the letter was written Marx had met Proudhon, who was ten years his senior, in Paris, immediately to conduct night-long conversations with him.

Little as Proudhon wished to go back to the "utopian" systems and deeply as he was opposed to their principles, he nevertheless continued the line of development that began with them. He continued this line by drawing it afresh, only on a higher plane where everything anterior to it was taken for granted. All the same he had a profound fear of himself adding a new system to the old. "System," he wrote in 1849, "I have no system, I will have none and I expressly repudiate the suggestion. The system of humanity, whatever it be, will only be known when humanity is at an end. . . . My business is to find out the way humanity is going and, if I can, prepare it." The real Proudhon is very far removed from the man Marx attacks in his polemic and earlier in a letter to a Russian friend, from the man for whom, as the letter says, "categories and abstractions are the primary facts", "the motive forces which make history" and which it is sufficient to alter for alterations to follow in real life. This "hegelizing" of Proudhon misfires. No man has questioned more honestly and more pungently than Proudhon the social reality of his time and sought its secret. "The economic categories," declared Marx in his [25] poleimic, "arc only theoretical expressions for the social relationships of production," whereas Proudhon, he says, saw in these relationships only the embodiments! of principles; but the fixed social relationships are produced by human beings just as are cloth, linen, etc. Proudhon rightly remarks in the margin of his copy of the polemic: "That is exactly what I'm saying. Society creates the laws and the raw material of its expedience." In one of his later, and most mature, writings -- Du Principe Federatif (11863) -- he pronounces the same judgment from another angle, when he says of reason that it leads the movement of history towards freedom butt only on condition that it takes the nature of the forces concerned into account and respects their laws.

Proudhon's fear of "systems" has its roots in his fundamental relationship to social reality. He observes society in all its contrasts and contradictions and will not rest until he has understood and expressed them. Proudhon was a man who had the strength and courage to steep himself in contradiction and bear the strain of it. He did not remain in it in quite the way that Unamuno thinks, who compares him in this respect to Pascal; he did, however, remain in it for so long as was necesssary for him to grasp it in all its cruelty, to resolve "the conflict of elements, the clash of contrasts" fully in his thought. And sometimes it was too long, judg;ed by the shortness of human life. When Unamuno says of Pascal that his logic was not dialectics but polemics, this is true also of Proudhon to a certain extent; but when he goes on to say that Pascal did not seek any synthesis between thesis and antithesis, it is not in reality true of Proudhon. He sought no synthesis in the Hegelian sense, no negation of negation; he sought, as; he says in a letter of 18444, "des resolutions synthetiques de toutes les contradictions", and what he actually means is that he was seeking the way, the way out of contradiction recognized in all its pitilessness, out of the social "antinomies" (as he says, transferring the term from Kant's theory of cognition to the sphere of sociolcogy). For him, thesis and antithesis were categories not embodying themselves in different historical epochs, but co-existimg; he took over only the formalism of Hegel, but of Hegel the historian almost nothiing. Despite his excursions into history Proudihon was not an historical thinker; his thought was social-critical, and that was both hiis strength and his limitation. To grasp the (contradiction which could, in any given social [26] reality, in fact be grasped was, for him, the intellectual prerequisite for the discovery of "the way". That is why he puts tendencies and counter-tendencies side by side and refuses to elevate either of them into an Absolute. "All ideas," he writes in the Philosophy of Progress (1851), "are false, i.e. contradictory and irrational, when you grant them an exclusive and absolute meaning, or when you let yourself be swept away by this meaning"; all tendencies towards exclusiveness, towards immobility, tend towards degeneration. And just as no spiritual factors may be regarded as reigning with absolute necessity, neither may material ones be so regarded. Proudhon believes neither in blind providence from below, which contrives the salvation of mankind out of technical and material changes, nor in a free-ranging human intellect, which contrives systems of absolute validity and enjoins them on mankind. He sees humanity's real way in the deliverance from false faiths in absolutism, from the dominion of fatality. "Man no longer wishes to be mechanized. He strives towards 'defataliza-tion'." Hence the "universal antipathy to all Utopias whose essence is political organization and a social credo", by which Proudhon -- in 1858 -- means Owen, Fourier and the Saint-Simonist Enfantin, and also Auguste Comte.

Proudhon teaches that no historical principle can be adequately summed up in any system of ideas; every such principle needs interpretation and may be interpreted well or ill, and the interpretations influence, directly or indirectly, the historical fate of the principle. It must, however, be noted as an additional complication that in no age is any one principle all-powerful. "All principles," writes Proudhon in his posthumous work Casarism and Christianity, "are contemporaneous in history as they are in reason." It is only that they have different strengths in relation to one another at different epochs. At a time when a principle is struggling for hegemony it is important that it should enter man's consciousness and work on his will in its true essence and not in a distorted form. The "social age" announced with the French Revolution -- an age preceded at the outset, naturally, by a period of transition, the "era of Constitutions", just as the Augustan epoch preceded the Christian: both of them working a renewal, but not a renewal that goes to the heart of existence -- this social age is characterized by the predominance of the economic principle over those of religion and government. This principle it is [27] that "in the name of socialism is stirring up a new revolution in Europe which, once it has brought about a federative Republic of all the civilized states, will organize the unity and solidarity of the human species over the whole face of the earth". It is important to-day to understand the economic principle in its true nature so as to guard against fatal conflicts between it and a travesty of it which usurps its ideas.

As I have said Proudhon did not merely continue the evolutionary line of "utopian" socialism, he began it again from the beginning, but in such a way that everything anterior to him appeared completely remodelled. More especially he did not set out at the point where Saint-Simon stopped; rather he posed Saint-Simon's demand for an economy based on and conditioned by its groupings, in an altogether new and more comprehensive way that goes much deeper into social reality. Saint-Simon started from the reform of the State, Proudhon from the transformation of society. A genuine reconstruction of society can only begin with a radical alteration of the relationship between the social and the political order. It can no longer be a matter of substituting one political regime for another, but of the emergence, in place of a political regime grafted upon society, of a regime expressive of society itself. "The prime cause of all the disorders that visit society," says Proudhon, "of the oppression of the citizens and the decay of nations, lies in the single and hierarchical centralization of authority.. . . We need to make an end of this monstrous parasitism as soon as possible." We are not told why and since when this need has become so pressing, but we can easily remedy this when we realize two things. First: so long as society was richly structured, so long as it was built up of manifold communities and communal units, all strong in vitality, the State was a wall narrowing one's outlook and restricting one's steps, but within this wall a spontaneous communal life could flourish and grow. But to the extent that the structure grew impoverished the wall became a prison. Second: such a structurally poor society awoke to self-consciousness, to consciousness of its existence as a society in contrast to the State, at the time of the French Revolution, and now it can only expect a structural renewal by limiting all not-social organizations to those functions which cannot be accomplished by society itself, -- while on the other hand the proper management of affairs grows out of the functioning society and creates its own [28] organs. "The limitation of the State's task is a matter of life and death for freedom, both collective and individual." It is obvious that Proudhon's basic thought is not individualistic. What he opposes to the State is not the individual as such but the individual in organic connection with his group, the group being a voluntary association of individuals. "Since the Reformation and especially since the French Revolution a new spirit has dawned on the world. Freedom has opposed itself to the State, and since the idea of freedom has become universal people have realized that it is not a concern of the individual merely, but rather that it must exist in the group also." In the early writings of Proudhon a sort of individualism still predominates, but already he knows that "through monopoly mankind has taken possession of the globe, and through association it will become its real master". In the course of development, however, individualism beat an increasingly rapid retreat (despite the toleration of individual peasant property) before an attitude in which the problematical relationship between personality and totality was balanced by the largely autonomous group -- the local community or commune -- living on the strength of its own interior relationships. Although the structural point of view as such is never expressly stated in Proudhon we notice that he comes nearer and nearer to it: his anti-centralism turns more and more to "communalism" and federalism (which indeed, as he says in a letter of 1863, had been boiling in his veins for thirty years), that is, it becomes increasingly structural. Advanced centralization should, he writes in i860, vanish "once it is replaced by federal institutions and communal customs". What is remarkable here is the connection between the new arrangements to be created -- the "institutions", and the community -- forms to be retained -- the "customs".

Just how powerfully Proudhon felt the amorphous character of present-day society we may learn best, perhaps, from his attitude to the question of universal suffrage. "Universal suffrage," he says in his essay The Solution of the Social Problem (1848), "is a kind of atomism by means of which the legislator, seeing that he cannot let the people speak in their essential oneness, invites the citizens to express their opinions per head, viritim, just as the Epicurean philosopher explained thought, will and understanding by combinations of atoms." As Proudhon said in his speech to the National Assembly in [29] 1848, universal suffrage needs an "organizing principle". This principle can only rest on the organization of society in groups. "The retention of natural groups," writes Proudhon in 1863, "is of the greatest importance for the exercise of electoral power; it is the essential condition of the vote. Without it there is no originality, no frankness, no clear and unequivocal meaning in the voices. . . . The destruction of natural groups in elections would mean the moral destruction of nationality itself, the negation of the thought of the Revolution." The amorphous basis of elections "aims at nothing less than to abolish political life in towns, communes and departments, and through this destruction of all municipal and regional autonomy to arrest the development of universal suffrage". In such circumstances the body of the nation is but an agglomeration of molecules, "a heap of dust animated from without by a subordinating, centralist idea. In our search for unity, unity itself has been sacrificed". Only as an expression of associated groups will universal suffrage, which is now "the strangling of public conscience, the suicide of the people's sovereignty", become an intelligent, moral and revolutionary force. Provided, of course, that "the various spheres of service are balanced and privilege abolished".

Proudhon by no means fails to recognize that "the real problem to be solved for federalism is not political, but economic". "In order to make the confederation indestructible," he says, "economic right must be declared the foundation of federative right and of all political order." The reform of economic right must follow from the answer to two questions which the workers' Societies have to face: whether labour can be self-financing as regards its undertakings as capital is now, and whether the ownership and control of the undertakings can be collective. "The whole future of the workers,'' writes Proudhon in a curious book, The Stockjobber's Handbook (1853), "depends on the answer to these questions. If the answer is in the affirmative a new world will open out before humanity; if in the negative, then let the proletariat take warning! Let them commend themselves to God and the Church -- there is no hope for them this side of the grave." Proudhon's sketch of the affirmative answer is "Mutualism" in its mature form. "Mutuality, reciprocity exists," he writes, "when all the workers in an industry, instead of working for an entrepreneur who pays them and keeps their products, work for [30] one another and thus collaborate in the making of a common product whose profits they share amongst themselves. Extend the principle of reciprocity as uniting the work of every group, to the Workers' Societies as units, and you have created a form of civilization which from all points of view -- political, economic and aesthetic -- is radically different from all earlier civilizations." This is Proudhon's solution to the problem, and he formulates it as follows: "All associated and all free." But in order that this may be so the association must not become a system imposed from above; rather must people associate in Workers' Societies (in the sense of "foci of production") only in so far as -- Proudhon writes in 1864 -- "the demands of production, the cheapness of the product, the needs of consumption and the security of the producers themselves require it". By associating in this manner the workers are only following "la raison des choses" itself, and consequently they "can preserve their freedom in the very heart of the society". Thinking like this it was inevitable that Proudhon should turn in 1848 against the State-financed "social workshops" demanded by Louis Blanc (as later by Lassalle). He sees in them only a new form of centralization. It would mean, he says, a number of large associations "in which labour would be regimented and ultimately enslaved through a State policy of brotherhood, just as it is on the point of being enslaved now through the State policy of capitalism. What would freedom, universal happiness, civilization have gained? Nothing. We would merely have exchanged our chains and the social idea would have made no step forward; we would still be under the same arbitrary power, not to say under the same economic fatalism". Here Proudhon is expressing the view which we find twenty years later in theoretical form in Gierke's great work. "Only free association," says Gierke, "can create communities in which economic freedom persists. For those organisms which spring from individual initiative and from the creative powers of their members enhance the life of each individual member simultaneously with the newly established life of the whole."

Communist centralism thus appeared to Proudhon as a variant of absolutism elaborated to a monstrous and ruthless degree of perfection. This "dictatorial, authoritarian, doctrinaire system starts from the axiom that the individual is subordinate, in the very nature of things, to the collectivity; from it alone does right and life come to him; the citizen belongs [31] to the State as the child to his family, he is in its power and possession, and he owes it submission and obedience in all things". Just as we can understand from this standpoint that Marx (in a passage intended for the polemic but not actually incorporated in it) said of Proudhon that he was "incapable of comprehending the revolutionary movement", so it is from this standpoint also that we can understand why Proudhon, in an entry in his diary, described Marx as "the tapeworm of socialism". In the communist system common ownership is to bring about the end of all property, personal as well as parochial and communal; universal association is to absorb all special associations, and collective freedom is to devour all corporative, regional and private freedoms. Proudhon defines the political system of centralist communism, in 1864, in words which are worth pondering: "A compact democracy having the appearance of being founded on the dictatorship of the masses, but in which the masses have no more power than is necessary to ensure a general serfdom in accordance with the following precepts and principles borrowed from the old absolutism: indivisibility of public power, all-consuming centralization, systematic destruction of all individual, corporative and regional thought (regarded as disruptive), inquisitorial police." Proudhon thinks that we are not far removed from pure centralist communism in politics and economics, but he is persuaded that "after a final crisis and at the summons of new principles a movement will begin in the reverse direction".

The book in which these words occur -- The Political Capacity of the Working Classes -- was completed only shortly before Proudhon's death. He attributed especial importance to it as setting forth the "idea of a new democracy" and wrote it, as he says, under the inspiration of the "Manifesto of the Sixty" -- the electoral declaration (1861) of a group of workers whose ideas for the most part came very near to Proudhon's own. This manifesto was the fourth in the series of four socialist "Manifestos"; the first being the Manifeste des Egaux of Babeuf, the second that of the Fourierist Considerant, the third the "Communist Manifesto" -- and it was the first to emerge from the proletariat itself. In his declaration, in which Proudhon hails the "awakening of socialism" in France and the "unveiling of corporate consciousness" in the working-class, he demands inter alia the setting up of a chambre syndicale, but not one which, as some people had proposed in a "strange confusion of [32] thought" (here Saint-Simon's idea turns up again), was to be composed of workers and work-givers; "what we demand is a Chamber composed exclusively of workers elected by the free vote of all -- a Chamber of Labour". This demand bears clear witness of the development of the new social thinking from Saint-Simon to Proudhon.

By advancing from the idea of social reconstruction to the idea of structural renewal, Proudhon took the decisive step. The "industrial constitution" of Saint-Simon does not signify a new structure, but "federalism" does.

Proudhon naturally distinguishes two modes of structure, which interpenetrate: the economic structure as a federation of work-groups, which he calls "agrarian-industrial federation", and the political structure, which rests on the decentralization of power, the division of authority, the guarantee of the maximum degree of autonomy to the communes and regional associations, and the widest possible replacement of bureaucracy by a looser and more direct control of affairs arising from the natural group. Proudhon's "Constitutional Science" can be summed up in three propositions. It is necessary --

  1. To form moderately sized and moderately autonomous groups and to unite them by an act of federation;
  2. To organize the government in each federated State according to the law of the division of organs. That is to say: inside the Public Authority to divide everything that can be divided, to define everything that can be defined, to allocate among different organs and functionaries everything that has been so divided and defined, to leave nothing undivided, and to surround the Public Authority with all the conditions of publicity and control;
  3. Instead of allowing the federated States or the provincial and municipal authorities to merge into a central authority, to limit the competence of the latter to the simple tasks of general initiative, mutual assurance and supervision.

The life of a society finds fulfilment in the combination of persons into groups, of groups into associations. "Just as a number of people by their common exertions give rise to a collective strength which is superior in quality and intensity to the sum of their respective strengths, so a number of workgroups associated in a relationship of mutual exchange will [33] generate a potency of a higher order," which can be regarded specifically as "the social potential". Mutualism -- the building up of an economy on reciprocity of service, and federation -- the building up of a political order on the brotherhood of groups -- are only two aspects of the same structure. "Through the grouping of individual strengths and the interdependence of the groups the whole nation will become a body." And a real brotherhood of man can be constituted from the various peoples, as a federation of federations.

Proudhon treated the problem of decentralization more particularly in his Theory of Taxation (1861). He says that he is not unaware of the fact that political centralization offers many advantages, but it is too costly. People regard it as obvious not merely because it flatters their collective vanity but also because "in nations as in children reason seeks unity in all things, simplicity, uniformity, identity and hierarchy as well as size and mass", and this is why centralization -- the type of all the ancient kingdoms -- became an effective method of discipline. "People like simple ideas and are right to like them. Unfortunately the simplicity they seek is only to be found in elementary things; and the world, society and man are made up of insoluble problems, contrary principles and conflicting forces. Organism means complication, and multiplicity means contradiction, opposition, independence. The centralist system is all very well as regards size, simplicity and construction; it lacks but one thing -- the individual no longer belongs to himself in such a system, he cannot feel his worth, his life, and no account is taken of him at all." But the conception of and demand for a public system in which the individual can belong to himself, feel his worth and his life, a system that takes account of him as an individual, does not just float about in the boundless realm of abstraction -- it is bound to the facts and tendencies of our social reality. In the modern constitutional State "the various groups need no direction in a great many of their activities; they are quite capable of governing themselves with no other inspiration than conscience and reason". In any State organized in accordance with the principles of modern law there occurs a progressive diminution of directive action -- a decentralization. And a corresponding development can be discerned on the economic side. The development of technics in our age (Proudhon had already drawn attention to this in 1855 in his book on the reform of [34] the railways, but it was only long after his death, with the mechanization of communications and the prospective electrification of production, that the matter became topical) tends to make the concentration of population in the big cities unnecessary; "the dispersion of the masses and their redistribution is beginning". The political centre of gravity must gradually shift from the cities to "the new agricultural and industrial groupings".

But Proudhon is by no means of the opinion that the process of decentralization is prospering and maturing in all fields. On the contrary: in the field of politics he sees in the conscious will of man a counter-movement of the gravest import. "A fever of centralization," he writes in 1861, "is sweeping over the world; one would say that men were weary of the vestiges of freedom that yet remain to them and were only longing to be rid of them. ... Is it the need for authority that is everywhere making itself felt, a disgust with independence, or only an incapacity for self-government?" Only the creative, restructuring powers that reign in the depths of man can avail against this "fever", this grave sickness of the human spirit. The expression of these powers is "the idea" of which Proudhon says at the end of a political treatise in 1863 that it "exists and is in circulation", but that, if it is to be realized, it must "issue from the bowels of the situation".

At that time, when his insight was at its height, Proudhon was far from assuming that this situation was imminent. We know from some of his letters of i860 how he pictured the immediate future. "We should no longer deceive ourselves," he wrote. "Europe is sick of thought and order; it is entering into the era of brute force and contempt of principles." And in the same letter: "Then the great war of the six great powers will begin." A few months later: "Carnage will come and the enfeeblement that will follow these blood-baths will be terrible. We shall not live to see the work of the new age, we shall fight in the darkness; we must prepare ourselves to endure this life without too much sadness, by doing our duty. Let us help one another, call to one another in the gloom, and practise justice wherever opportunity offers." And finally: "To-day civilization is in the grip of a crisis for which one can only find a single analogy in history -- that is the crisis which brought the coming of Christianity. All the traditions are worn out, all the creeds abolished; but the new programme is not yet ready, by which I [35] mean that it has not yet entered the consciousness of the masses. Hence what I call the dissolution. This is the cruellest moment in the life of societies. ... I am under no illusions and do not expect to wake up one morning to see the resurrection of freedom in our country, as if by a stroke of magic.. . . No, no; decay, and decay for a period whose end I cannot fix and which will last for not less than one or two generations -- is our lot. . . . I shall witness the evil only, I shall die in the midst of the darkness." But the thing is "to do our duty". In the same year he had written to the historian Michelet: "It will only be possible to escape by a complete revolution in our ideas and our hearts. We are working for the revolution, you and I; that will be our honour before posterity, if they remember us." And eight years previously he had replied thus to a friend who had suggested emigration to America: "It is here, I tell you, here under the sabre of Napoleon, under the rod of the Jesuits and the spy-glass of the secret service, that we have to work for the emancipation of mankind. There is no sky more propitious for us, no earth more fruitful."

Like Saint-Simon, though in far greater detail and with far more precision, Proudhon brought the problem of a structural renewal of society to the fore without treating it as such. And just as Saint-Simon failed to face the question of the social units which would serve as the cells of a new society, so Proudhon left it open in all essentials, though he came much closer to it. But in the first case there were contemporaries, and in the second followers, who made this very problem the principal object of their research and planning.

That Proudhon did not study it more intensively has its chief reason in his suspicions of "association" as a State-prescribed uniform panacea for all the ills of society, in the sense proposed by Louis Blanc: "social workshops" in industry as well as in agriculture, established, financed and controlled by the State. It must be noted that Louis Blanc's proposals -- if not in intention, at least in character -- are socially structural; from the "solidarity of all workers in the same shop" he goes on to the "solidarity of shops in the same industry" and thence to the "solidarity of different industries". Also, he sees the agricultural commune as being built up on the basis of combined production and consumption. "To meet the needs of all," he says in his Organization of Labour (1839), "it is necessary to pool the products of the work of all," this is the form in which [36] he sees the immediate possibility of a "more radical and more complete" application of "the system of fraternal association". Proudhon's suspicions were directed, as said, against a new "raison d'Etat"; hence, against uniformity, against exclusiveness, against compulsion. The co-operative form seemed to him more applicable to industry than to agriculture, where he was concerned for the preservation of the peasantry (note that in all the permutations of his thinking he holds fast to one principle in this connection, that the land lawfully belongs to him who cultivates it) and, when applied to industry, only in those branches whose nature the co-operative form suited, and for certain definite functions. He refuses to equate a new ordering of society with uniformity; order means, for him, the just ordering of multiformity. Eduard Bernstein is quite right when he says that Proudhon denied to the essentially monopolist Co-operative what he conceded to the mutualist one. Proudhon had a profound fear of everything coming "from above", everything imposed on the people and decked out with privileges. In this connection he feared the proliferation of new collective egoisms, for these seemed to him more perilous than individual egoisms. He saw the danger that threatens every Producer Go-operative working for a free market: that it will be seized with the spirit of capitalism, the ruthless exploitation of opportunities and eventualities. His doubts were cogent. They were rooted in his basic view which made justice the criterion of true socialism. (According to him there are two ideas: freedom, and unity or order, and "one must make up one's mind to live with both of them by seeking a balance between them". The principle that permits this is called "justice".) But the structural form of the coming society announced by Proudhon, the form in which the balance of freedom and order is attained and which he calls federalism, required him not merely to concern himself -- as he did -- with the larger units to be federated (that is, the various nations, but the smaller ones also whose federative combination would in reality alone constitute the "nation". Proudhon did not fulfil this requirement. He could only have fulfilled it had he sought in it and from it the answer to his own doubts, which is to say, only if he had directed his best thought to the problem of how to promote and organize "association" in such a way that-the danger inherent in it would be, if not exorcized, at least appreciably diminished. Because he did not do this [37] sufficiently well -- important as was the step taken in this direction by his principle of mutualism -- we find here no adequate answer to our question: "What are the units which will federate in a new and genuine popular order?", or, more precisely: "How must the units be constituted so that they can federate into a genuine popular order, a new and just social structure?" Thus Proudhon's socialism lacks one essential. For we cannot but doubt whether existing social units, even where the old community-forms remain, can still, being what they are, combine in justice; also whether any new units will ever be capable of it unless this same combination 01 freedom and order governs and shapes their inception.