Allen Ritter, The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1969

The Realistic Basis of Proudhon's Political Theory

Proudhon's realism is inspired by dissatisfaction with his Utopian predecessors. Like Marx, who admired and followed him here, Proudhon subscribes to the Utopians' radical ideals but condemns their disregard of repugnant facts. The Utopians wanted to reconstruct the world; in this they were perfectly right. Their error was "to perpetuate the religious dream by rushing off into a fantastic future instead of grasping the reality that crushes it."1

The lesson Proudhon draws from the mistake of his predecessors forms the basic precept of his realism: "It is not enough to criticize and deny the legitimacy of certain facts, it is also necessary to discover their cause."2 An assessment of the limits placed on renovation by existing conditions is the first important task of social theory. To accomplish this task, Proudhon tries to uncover the individual and social forces that inevitably limit change. By defining and accepting these limits, he hopes to appraise without illusion the chances of improving the world.

But realism requires more than defining and accepting limits. Theorists who start out to explain the world all too often end by thinking it unchangeable. Proudhon attacks the laissez-faire economists for drawing precisely this conclusion; by mistakenly seeing "in each fait accompli an injunction against all possibility of change" they do nothing less than canonize the actual.3 Hence a realist's second task is to prove the possibility of change, thus to preclude the inference that the existing order is, and must be, permanent. Proudhon tries to accomplish this task through study of the past. His hope is that scrutiny of historical forces will bear on his critical and reformative venture by revealing that potentialities for improvement are immanent in existing conditions.

Human Nature and the Limits of Oppression

One way Proudhon attempts to protect his theory from Utopian thinking is by identifying those fixed traits of character that unavoidably limit action and choice. He insists that "man has a constant, unchangeable nature"4 and. that its study can help avert fantastic proposals and unfounded criticisms. Marx sharply rebuked him for taking this position: "M. Proudhon is unaware that the whole of history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature."5 What may have troubled Marx was the suspicion that theories like Proudhon's, by assigning fixed traits to human nature, help support the oppressive status quo. Certainly there have been writers, such as Hobbes, who used the alleged facts of human nature to help justify permanent repression. It is also true that the phrase, you can't change human nature, is an old favorite of conservatives.6 Whether Proudhon's psychology really makes him conservative can be decided only by finding out precisely which mental traits he thinks are fixed.

One attribute of human nature regarded by Proudhon as a cause of unavoidable social constraint is psychological egoism, the propensity of a man to aim for nothing but his own satisfaction. Even in his early writings Proudhon sometimes calls man incurably egoistic, but it is in Justice that he tries most seriously to support this claim.7 Defenders of psychological egoism are hard put to explain instances of apparent altruism. People sometimes do things that not only cannot satisfy them but are even detrimental to their personal welfare.

In order to overcome this objection Proudhon deals with an example. Suppose, he says, a friend secretly entrusts me with a considerable sum and dies immediately thereafter. His family is rich, worthless, and only distantly related to him. Moreover, I have reason to believe that he planned to make me his legatee. Nonetheless, I return the money to his relatives. It is obviously difficult to account for my behavior from the viewpoint of psychological egoism. Desires for self-satisfaction appear overwhelmingly on the side of keeping the money; only unselfish motives seem to favor returning it. Yet Proudhon argues that my motives for returning it are selfish. "I reflect . . . that established law in no way sanctions my greed, that an unexpected event could expose my secret, that then I would be dishonored, that it would be more than a little difficult to explain such a windfall."8 It follows that if selfish desires are my motive for returning the money in this case, where unselfish motives seem so much more plausible, then these same selfish desires will also be decisive in more ordinary situations, where they are stronger, and unselfish motives are less pronounced.

This is all Proudhon says to show the truth of psychological egoism. It is not much of a proof; indeed, it is hardly an argument. It is only a repetition of the old view, systematized by Hobbes and made popular in France by la Rochefoucauld, that when I satisfy another person I always do so in order to satisfy myself in some way. This old view is difficult to defend. Of course we feel satisfied whenever we attain some goal, generous or selfish. But this fact does not mean that we act in order to obtain self-satisfaction. We all know of cases where we are not aware of acting from selfish motives. The advocate of psychological egoism would have to postulate unconscious motivation to make his theory fit such instances. This postulate cannot be proved; and since there is no good reason to accept it, psychological egoism must be accounted false.9

But to dismiss Proudhon's egoism as factually unwarranted would be to miss its point. His psychology is political, not empirical. It charts the limits of critical and reformative possibility, not the truth about the human mind. For this purpose, as Hume saw, factual accuracy is a disadvantage.10 Political arrangements designed to operate with men of even moderately generous disposition will be vulnerable to threats from the few inordinately selfish men. It is therefore wise to criticize existing institutions, and propose new ones, on the counterfactual assumption that all men are egoists. This assumption helps Proudhon confine his criticism within realistic limits by ruling out denunciation of both selfishness and of some restraints upon it. It also helps him avoid extravagance in the reformative part of his theory by barring proposals that rely on benevolence to improve the world.

Proudhon sees egoistic hedonism as another fixed trait of human nature that necessitates restraint. Egoistic hedonism is the disposition to get more satisfaction from actions that benefit oneself than from those beneficial to others. Even if men were simple egoists, they would not be egoistic hedonists unless they found that actions directed toward their own benefit, rather than that of others, produced the greatest self-satisfaction.

Proudhon's position on the truth of egoistic hedonism vacillated during the course of his career. In Propriete he thought egoistic hedonism inaccurate, if not completely false. Man is there called "the most sociable of animals," by which Proudhon means that he usually prefers to benefit others rather than himself, when he cannot do both.11 In the Contradictions this doctrine of predominant generosity is replaced by a contrary doctrine that is no more plausible. Men not only prefer their own benefit to that of others; they favor disastrous kinds of self-satisfaction, such as immediate sensuous gratification and the pleasures of gratuitous malice.12 As it does so often, Justice gives Proudhon's definitive view on this matter. There man is described as "both a pugnacious animal and a sociable one."13 His desire to benefit others is relatively weak and "will not hold out for long against egoism's ferocity."14 Men usually act to benefit themselves, not others, when they cannot do both. "The principle of self-interest alone rules the world, barely checked by fear of the gods and dread of punishment."15

Proudhon defends this slightly mitigated egoistic hedonism no better than he does simple egoism. Here too, he takes his stand dogmatically, revealing once more the limits of his psychological vision. But here again this defect, far from impeding his subsequent theorizing, actually supports it. The assumption that men are egoistic hedonists as well as egoists averts some Utopian criticisms and proposals that could otherwise be made. Most notably, the assumption rules out schemes of reform based on enlightened self-interest, for they assume the possibility of inducing people to benefit others in order to satisfy themselves.

The final trait used by Proudhon to explain the necessity of restraint is the weakness of conscience. He grants, and indeed insists, that man has a conscience, that he judges some actions morally good and others evil.16 But he is far more concerned to show that such judgments do not greatly affect man's conduct. No doubt, in his early writings there are statements to the effect that virtue is knowledge, that people who know what is right automatically behave accordingly.17 Traces of this view persist in his later works.18 But the fact remains that as Proudhon's thought matured he became increasingly skeptical about the efficacy of conscience. Justice stresses what he had previously tended to overlook, that man is "able to resist ... his conscience."19 Moreover, such resistance is not a mere possibility; people frequently do in fact fail to practice what they preach. "This is the spectacle offered daily by improbity."20

Proudhon's explanation for the weakness of conscience rests on his other psychological assumptions. As an egoist, man's most powerful motive is the desire for self-satisfaction and personal profit. Yet conscience often urges a different course. When that happens, selfish motives almost always win. "The will, determined by consideration of the strongest interest, silences conscience."21

This thesis puts further restrictions on criticism and reform. By taking the frailty of conscience for granted, the thesis excludes the disapproval of people for not living up to their principles. More important, it rules out any scheme for improving matters that relies solely on moral argument. Since virtue is not its own reward, the reformative enterprise cannot be confined to the changing of ethical convictions, as it was for the Utopians, but must also find a way to secure compliance with them.

Does Proudhon's analysis of human nature have the conservative effect, perhaps feared by Marx, of justifying submission to an oppressive status quo? Certainly it makes some constraint inescapable and to this extent is decidedly conservative. But the repressive implications of Proudhonian psychology are limited. It mentions only three traits that entail unavoidable restraints; a really conservative view of human nature would claim others. Moreover, even the three mentioned alter their manifestations. "Our malice," for instance, "changes form and style over time: the medieval lord plundered travellers on the highway and then offered them hospitality in his castle; the mercantile feudalist, less brutal, exploits the proletarian and builds poorhouses for him."22 Though this statement offers no reason to suppose that limits on egoism can ever be abolished completely, it does imply that the existing controls on it need not be permanent. Thus Proudhon's psychology succeeds in sobering critical and reformative endeavor without requiring perpetual submission to established forms of restraint.

Society's Invisible Restraints

Proudhon's sociology reinforces his view of human nature by uncovering social forces that place unescapable limits on thought and action. In his published writings, and even in his letters, sociological propositions are rare and incomplete. We are told repeatedly that "the stimulus of society" affects men's behavior and ideas, but learn little about the scope and limits of this stimulus, or why and how it occurs.23 The hints of a theory of social psychology in Proudhon's published work whet our curiosity without satisfying it.

Fortunately, the "Cours" does much to clarify Proudhon's views. There we find that each social milieu affects character in a different way. "There are just as many clusters of ideals or interests, industrial or political units, workers' groups, teaching communities, etc., as there are real persons, i.e., wholes being completed, individuals being formed."24 Moreover, since each man belongs to a variety of social milieux, he acquires a number of diverse character traits. "The honest Parisian is unrecognizable when dressed in his national guard uniform and surrounded by his comrades; and someone known for his gentle ways and his tolerant opinions, who becomes a judge or juror, will astonish you with his pitiless rigidity."25 Here, in vivid outline, is a theory of social character. Proudhon sees that man is a role player who behaves and thinks differently each time he steps into a different milieu.

Proudhon also has an accurate explanation for role playing. Each member of a social group wins the approval of the others by conforming to the group's norms. Since it is "from the consideration of his fellows or from their contempt that the subject derives either contentment or discomfort," whenever a person enters a social milieu, he tries to make his conduct conform with its members' expectations.26 The gentle father becomes a bellicose soldier in order to win self-satisfaction by enhancing his reputation among his military comrades and superiors.

But status seeking is not the only cause of role playing. Men usually go beyond conforming to the expectations of others in order to win approval, and do so because they think they should. Expectations do more than "penetrate the intellect," thus inducing calculated conformity; they also "penetrate the conscience for which they immediately become a superior authority, which, expressly or tacitly, with or without the legislator's declaration, are soon transformed into usages, [and] constitute morality and customs."27 Here Proudhon grasps another important social fact. Men often behave as others expect because they accept such expectations and incorporate them into their own frame of mind. Solthers may act ferociously not simply because they think praise from others is contingent on doing so, but also because they come to accept ferocity as a military virtue and would disapprove of themselves if they failed to display it. The practice of living up to expectations often leads to acceptance of the expectations as morally valid. Hence social control takes two equally important forms. Besides influencing behavior and choice externally, through rewards and punishments, it also affects them internally, by molding personal conviction into a replica of prevailing norms.28

By defining the limits placed by society on thought and action, Proudhon moved closer to excluding wishful modes of thought from his theory. He was thereby enabled to see that proposals to release men entirely from social restraints cannot be implemented and that wholesale criticism is just as futile as objection to the restraint imposed by the force of gravity.

But Proudhon does not move from acknowledging society's repressive force to affirming the unavoidability of submission to convention. He is careful to point out that the scope of society's unavoidable control is limited. It is true that people are compelled to become aware of their associates' expectations,29 but this awareness is not compelling. They need not internalize social values, for "conscience grants men a right to judge that is prior to society's conventional existence."30 Whether they accept others' norms or not, they need not follow them, since they are always free to disobey their consciences.

In sum, while social restraint is a universal and unavoidable fact, it is not an iron law. Resistance to any of its impediments is always possible in principle, though, owing to men's desire for prestige, unlikely to occur in practice. Only efforts to escape society's influence entirely cannot succeed. Proudhon's sociology thus has the same effect on his critical and reformative endeavor as his psychology. It sharpens awareness of the intractability of social restraint without reaching the conservative conclusion that all of it is inevitable.

A New View of History: From Savagery to Despair

History for Proudhon serves as an antidote to complacency and resignation by showing that oppression need no longer be accepted in its established form. In his hands the European past becomes the evolvement of repressive social and psychological forces to a point where they can be escaped.

The beginning of his story is the state of desires and moral beliefs in the absence of social influence. Under such conditions, he says, "the prevailing rule is the greatest good, what is called the felicity maxim."31 In other words, men are ethical as well as psychological egoists; they not only do, but also think they ought to maximize their self-satisfaction, especially their enjoyment of prestige.

Why does Proudhon choose this asocial and egoistic condition as his starting point? Certainly not because he thinks history really begins this way. "It is only abstractly" that man "can be considered in a state of isolation and with no law but egoism."32 Proudhon knows perfectly well that man's condition was social from the start, and that he never was an ethical egoist. Perhaps his claims to the contrary are best interpreted as experimental hypotheses. Proudhon may assume that if he can show the possibility of liberation for men who start without social ties and with a selfish morality, he will also have proved liberation possible under more conducive initial conditions.

When men who feel entitled to everything that satisfies them try to reach their goals, they face a serious problem. Each expects the others to cater to his wants and defer to him but is unwilling to acquiesce to them. Therefore, whenever he tries to win service and consideration, "he collides with another man, his equal, who disputes with him for possession of the world and for the approbation of other men, who competes with him, who contradicts him, and, being an independent and sovereign power, opposes him with his veto."33 Thus, at history's hypothetical starting point, everyone's attempts at goal attainment are unsuccessful.

Such a situation is reminiscent of Hobbes' state of nature: men with a narrowly self-regarding morality keep one another from reaching their objectives. But that Proudhon's point of departure is basically different from Hobbes' is shown by the way the dilemma is overcome. According to Hobbes, as Proudhon says, man is "drawn to a social and juridicial state by a simple calculation of interests." In Proudhon's view, however, man departs from the state of war not as a result of some rational estimate, but because the experience of conflict and frustration leads to an alteration in his moral outlook.34

What happens, Proudhon says, is that as men vie with one another for prestige and subservience, their morality undergoes a gradual change. They come to think that those who are strongest and hence most successful in winning deference or submission ought to win it, and stop seeking it if they are unable to acquire any. Few parts of Proudhon's theory are more obscure than his explanation for this change. He tells us that primitive man "esteems nothing but bodily strength," presumably because it is only by using it that he can win the esteem and submission he wants and feels entitled to. But why should he approve of bodily strength when it is wielded by his rivals in order to oppress him? Proudhon does not say. Yet he insists that the egoistic morality prevalent at the start of history is soon replaced by what he calls the right of force, the view that "the extent of force determines that of merit, and consequently that of right."35 What is still more surprising is his claim that this belief is accepted not only by the successful, but "penetrates even the slave's conscience."30

Proudhon's major concern, however, is not so much the cause of this change in ethical outlook as its consequences. Once people have accepted the right of force, social relations undergo a total change. The free-for-all battle characteristic of history's starting point is replaced by a harmonious hierarchy of wealth, power, and prestige at the top of which stand the strong. The hierarchy is stable and harmonious because all of its members have internalized the expectations of those at the top. Each lives up to his own principles and augments his own satisfaction by deferring and submitting to the strong in proportion to the disparity between his strength and theirs. The only kind of oppression that occurs in this primitive hierarchic community is imposed by the unquestioned force of custom, which is unperceived by the community's members. "Among primitive peoples . . . ideas were self-justifying; no one felt a need to certify them in any other way."37

But though spontaneous consensus at first makes society perfectly harmonious, it is too weak to prevent instability. So long as each member of society follows expectations, the structure will remain stable. But should anyone fail to conform, the whole system will be jeopardized. Deviant behavior is especially likely to occur at the hierarchy's two extremes. Those at the top, who arrived there owing to their superior strength, convert their personal privileges into an hereditary right. "The idea that force engenders force, that the strong are born strong, produces the institution of hereditary nobility."38 Once such a caste has been established, the right of force is sure to be abused. Descendants of the original aristocrats will not all be the strongest members of their respective generations and so, according to the prevailing rule, should not enjoy special privileges. Even if they do happen to be the strongest, their protected social position will tempt them to exploit "the plebs much beyond what is permitted by the right of force," by demanding more submission and deference from the weak than is warranted by disparities of strength.39 Those at the bottom of the hierarchy, disillusioned by the immorality of their betters, and cruelly oppressed by them, will no longer incorporate the right of force into their own frame of mind. "A slave is still a man. To refuse him all dignity, all morality ... is to provoke his vengeance."40

Once the right of force loses the support of custom and tradition, social harmony is jeopardized. Growing conflict threatens society with a reversion to antagonistic free-for-all. But new forms of control arise, which are more effective than custom, that reinforce the crumbling social consensus and prevent this regression. These new controls are the religion and government of classical antiquity.

Under the sway of pagan religion, the right of force is reaffirmed at all social levels, as "force is glorified, consecrated, [and] deified in the form of human images."41 Paganism also strengthens the allegiance of the inferior to the established order. To begin with, it distracts the inferior from their grievances by absorbing them in religious devotions.42 Next, it placates them by placing divinely sanctioned limits on the right of the strong to dominate them.43 But since these limits prevent only the most outrageous abuses, religion must resign the inferior to their lot. "Why am I poor and oppressed, while others like me, who may even be worth less, command and enjoy themselves? It is fate that has so established things, it assigns each of us our part.... Who would dare protest against its decrees?"44 Yet even the preaching of resignation is insufficient. Religion's ultimate weapon is intimidation. By means of its "dogmas, its mysteries, its sacraments, its discipline, its terror, its promises," it frightens the socially inferior into staying in their place.45

The first effects of government, according to Proudhon, are similar to those of religion. It too is a "coercive force" that prevents conflict "between the weak and the strong."46 But initially government contributes much less to stability than does religion. It is no more than a minor prop.

So powerful are the joint effects of religious and political authority that society's precarious consensus is revived. Men of all ranks again internalize the expectations of those at the top and accept the principle of the right of force. "Once that formula, such as it is, has been disentangled from naive primitive ideas, and has been embodied in a constitution, in a legal code and in articles of religious faith, . . . the mind embraces it with the full force of its conscience and its good faith."47 What Proudhon thinks he is describing here is the virtue of republican Rome, whose citizen, he says, "believes in this kind of justice with all his soul."48

While the members of Roman society accepted the right of force, its hierarchy remained stable. But "as a result of political, economic and social change," consensus, though propped up by religion and government, nonetheless disintegrated.49 In the first place, inequality of wealth gradually increased. "The vast majority of the Empire's inhabitants were propertyless, tenants of the State, urban proletarians, slaves."50 As they grew poorer, they became less inclined to accept beliefs that only contributed to their misery. They lived in "a state of revolt and hatred."51 Consensus disintegrated horizontally, on territorial lines, as well as vertically, on those of class. As the Empire expanded, the incorporated alien peoples grew less and less willing to accept Roman dominance.52 Finally, even those at the top of the hierarchy and at the center of the Empire, for reasons not specified, ceased believing in their own principles. Perhaps awareness that their values were no longer accepted by their inferiors encouraged doubt of their validity.

Pagan religion proved unable to prevent this disintegration, because it put inadequate limits on the rights of the strong. While inequality was moderate and the Empire's boundaries narrow, paganism contributed to their acceptance. But when these increased, it could no longer check "the odious exaggeration of personality." Hence during the Empire's decline, paganism justified the elite's thirst for oppressive privileges and so helped erode consensus.53

When pagan religion could no longer manage social conflict, government had to do the job alone. But without the aid of religion, political regulation was very difficult. In the past, pagan myths had won unanimous acceptance for the law of the land, so that government had only to administer supplementary external sanctions for rules. Now people cared nothing for the law. "Man comes to consider laws and institutions as fetters imposed by force and necessity, but without roots in his conscience."54 No longer able to rely on internalized acceptance of the law, "the government, compelled to use more and more force, turns toward despotism." Such a move is self-defeating. "Because of its violence, it loses the support society once gave it," and so must inflict continually harsher penalties.55

At this point men are indifferent or hostile to established institutions. They no longer share compatible expectations, desires, or values. One might suppose that people in such a frame of mind would obstruct one another's action so much that the established hierarchy would collapse. But for reasons not fully explained, this does not happen. The result of men's feelings of indifference and hostility is not revolt and conflict, but isolation and resignation. Persons of all ranks are overcome by what Proudhon calls a despairing consciousness, exemplified by Stoicism and Epicureanism, which prompts them to withdraw from contact with others and submit to laws of which they disapprove. "Each understands that he needs the others and that society cannot subsist without rules."56 Hence all remain law-abiding and cooperative enough to prevent social chaos.

But though the despairing consciousness wards off immediate collapse, it also makes ultimate collapse more probable, by encouraging selfishness and accelerating the trend toward inequality. "Behind a peaceful exterior, society is in a state of war; it is being consumed by its own flames."57 It is only because Christianity replaces paganism as the dominant religion that Roman society does not disintegrate.

Christianity, to Proudhon, is an improvement on paganism because it is better able to keep the privileged from abusing their rights. This it accomplishes with the dogma of original sin, which proclaims that "man, as the author of evil, cannot by himself have any rights."58 Since no one is entitled to rights, those in high positions have none to abuse. But by the same token, those in low positions would seem to have no justification for submitting to their betters. The Church gets around this difficulty with the dogma of grace, according to which a Christian must endure "mortification and discipline. ... It is only at this price that he can hope for . . . remission of his sins and answers to his prayers."59 Though no one is entitled to rights, anyone possessing some is presumed to have received them by divine decree. "The inferior respects in the superior not a man but an officer of God."60

Under Christianity's stabilizing influence, men reacquire compatible values and resume following prevalent expectations. The main difference between dominant social attitudes at this period and in antiquity is that piety is more highly esteemed. "The value of a man is no longer measured by his social and positive qualities, but by the rigor of his penance and the intensity of his expiation."61 Inferiors therefore serve and defer to their betters because the latter are pious, and because they show their own devoutness by doing so. The major difference in politics between Christian and pagan times is a similar growth in religious influence. Formerly magistrates were superior to priests in power and prestige, now "it is the priest who has precedence over the magistrate."62 The conversion of secular government into theocracy is accompanied by a change in social institutions. Monasteries and charities are founded, encouraging acts of devotion and altruism.63 These changes are only matters of degree. Proudhon stresses the similarities far more than the differences in the institutions of the pagan and Christian eras. In both periods, they mold desires, values, and expectations in a way that stabilizes an inegalitarian society.

For Proudhon, Christianity's fall, like its rise, resembles paganism's. He sees Christian society as suffering from the same upsurge of inequality that had plagued the ancient world. Charities enriched priests; monasteries bred monkish parasites; the feudal system evolved so as to grant the nobility more and more power, wealth, and prestige.64 Theocracy, which like the Roman Republic was established "in good faith to serve as a protector of rights," was led like the Empire "to set rights aside" in order to maintain the growing hierarchy.65 Behind the trappings of divine right, the modern state grew increasingly despotic and arbitrary.

These trends had the same consequence as they had in antiquity. The first glimmerings of the Enlightenment mark the start of a period of despair, as men begin criticizing principles and practices that seem to justify and exacerbate oppression.66 But Christianity is a stronger social cement than paganism; its dogmas are more firmly internalized. It therefore maintains hierarchy far more successfully than its predecessor. Even the French revolutionaries, who like the Church fathers aimed to overthrow the status quo, were content with surface changes in the political setup and unlike their forebears, failed to challenge the system's religious keystone. At the outset the Revolution did attack the Church, but at its height, under Robespierre, it declined again into hierarchy and religion.67 The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 were just as unsuccessful; they were even more purely political and actually worsened conditions by aggravating governmental instability.

Because the Revolution aborted, the despairing consciousness grew stronger. According to Proudhon, in his day as in late Roman times, men of all ranks, while no longer accepting conventional morality, nevertheless continued outwardly to conform so far as necessary to prevent chaos and permit pursuit of private, self-regarding activities. He composed a number of jeremiads describing the contemporary version of despair. In these strange outpourings, which mix lament with denunciation, the most typical manifestations of despairing consciousness, analogous, Proudhon implies, to Stoicism and Epicureanism in antiquity, turn out to be romantic aestheticism and the obsessive quest for wealth pursued by those who follow the accepted meaning of Guizot's "enrichissez-vous."68

Proudhon's bracketing of the mutually hostile aesthetes and philistines is certainly paradoxical, but from his perspective it is logical, since both groups share the attitude of withdrawal from the world he is anxious to emphasize. Romanticism, "which naturally expresses the desolation of a soul caught between an unrestorable past and an impenetrable future," is clearly withdrawn when it espouses art for art's sake, for then it expressly denies the importance of public life.69 Romanticism is no less so, Proudhon maintains, when it takes a more activist line. The romantic prophet or reformer does indeed concern himself with his social milieu, but not as with something worth political attention. Instead, he treats it as an aesthetic object to be beautified for his own gratification, or at most, for that of his coterie.70 As for the philistines, they, with their cash nexus mentality, are even less concerned with social conditions. Though they withdraw to seek profit instead of beauty, their attitude, like that of the romantics, amounts to refusal to face the world's real problems.71

History and the Prospects for Liberation

Although Proudhon's study of history is supposed to prove that liberation of the individual has at last become a possibility, his narrative seems to offer extremely meager hope for such a prospect. It is a story of perpetual constraint, having only cyclical variations, which ends, as it begins, with the imminent threat of even greater oppression. As Proudhon himself admitted, mankind has experienced nothing but "reactions and declines; it passes more or less lengthy periods in a continual going and coming."72 Between what might be considered the two high points of Proudhonian history -- Republican Rome and the early Christian era -- there is really nothing to choose. "Here as then it is still the principle of authority that dominates."73 If man is as oppressed today as at the dawn of history, what reason is there to think that the current period of despair will result in anything better than another epoch of internalized repression? One of Proudhon's answers to thus question is based on an examination of history's pattern. He tries to show that the same occurrences which men found oppressive in their own lifetimes had unintended eventual consequences of which they were unaware but which form a trend favorable to liberation.

It we compare the desires, values, and expectations of primal man with those of our contemporaries, Proudhon notes, we cannot help seeing that they have changed appreciably. The first men were scarcely aware of their behavior's consequences and acted without deliberation, like sleepwalkers.74 Primal man was lazy, unwilling to work if he could avoid it. Most important, he was the sort of egoist who both desired and felt entitled to satisfy all his wants, especially his craving for the esteem of others. Proudhon's contemporaries, like ours for that matter, do not, as a rule, have these traits. They act deliberately, are not especially lazy, and do not feel entitled to universal deference and subservience. They have become foresighted and industrious, have acquired at least a rudimentary sense of fair play and impartiality, and have moderated their demands for esteem and submission. These changes in character indicate that men are now more apt for coercionless social life than before, and show that the chance for liberation has increased.

This conclusion is borne out by the pattern of development undergone by the major institutions: hierarchy, government, and religion. In the beginning all three helped bring about changes in man's character. Inequality of wealth extirpated laziness: "If the property owner had tired of appropriating, the proletarian would soon have tired of producing, and savagery, hideous poverty, would have been at the door."75 Government produced changes in morality "by means of its tribunals and its armies," which "gave to the sense of right, so weak among the first men, the only sanction intelligible to fierce characters."76 Religion, especially Christianity, helped most in this transformation, just as it was the major source of oppression. If man was to shed his selfishness, "his intractable personality had to be tamed by the discipline of terror; and since that discipline could be produced only in religious form, it was necessary to replace a religion of pride [paganism], with a religion of humility."77

This process of character alteration is not easily reversed. Hence the closer repressive institutions came to achieving it, the more superfluous, and even detrimental, they became. A time ultimately arrived, put by Proudhon somewhere in the immediate past, when their contribution to this process was complete.78 At that point, they still stabilized society, but no longer in any sense improved it.79 The status of established institutions at this stage is succinctly described in an unpublished note about government: "Government was progressive when it defended a society against savages. There are no more savages: there are only workers whom the government continues to treat like savages."80

The pattern of institutional development thus points to the same conclusion as that of character development. In the course of history, repressive institutions gradually completed their task of "educating conscience and reason."81 Having completed it, their discipline has become less beneficial, while the danger of escaping it has also been reduced. Liberation has thus finally become a realistic goal.

Proudhon has another kind of argument for the possibility of liberation, besides those based on consideration of history's pattern. This is an argument about the basic cause of historical oppression. It begins by distinguishing the episodes in the historical process during which oppression was intensified. This happened, Proudhon thinks, whenever men became critical of established institutions but, due to despair, at first left them alone and then made changes that only stabilized them. Such events figure repeatedly in his narrative -- in his portrayal of the late Roman period, the Enlightenment, and his own time.

It is his contention that the same explanation accounts for all three of these episodes, and hence for oppression itself. What happens each time is that the disparity between ideal and reality causes men to lose their commitment to both. They see the increasing divergence between existing institutions and the principles that inspire them. The sense of scandal produced by awareness of this gap leads to rejection of the actual as unfaithful to the ideal and repudiation of the ideal as inapplicable to reality.82 Men lose their enthusiasm for the status quo without acquiring any compensating reformist zeal. Lacking resolve either to change or accept the world, they lapse into a state of despair whose outcome can only be intensified oppression.

By exposing the cause of historical oppression Proudhon thinks he has laid a basis for escaping it. "Now that we know what makes society move . . . , it is permissible to foresee that liberty, duly averted, will no longer be entranced by the idols of egoism."83 We can finally become the masters of history, provided we no longer lapse into despair when faced with a gap between the ideal and the actual. (If instead we perfect our ideals in the light of reality and improve the actual so that it conforms to our revised ideals, we will at last be able to move down the road toward liberation.)

To this argument there is an obvious rejoinder. All that it seems to see as needed to escape oppression is an understanding of its historical cause. Such a view is unconvincing, since there are surely other, more formidable bars to liberation than simple ignorance. This objection can be overcome with an inference from Proudhon's other argument for the contemporary feasibility of liberation, based on consideration of history's pattern. It is reasonable to infer from this argument that unless history had advanced sufficiently, understanding of the historical cause of oppression would be unavailing. For in that case, neither character nor institutions would have evolved enough to make liberation either safe or desirable. Viewed in this light, Proudhon's two arguments for the possibility of liberation reinforce one another. The argument drawn from the pattern of history puts a late terminus a quo on the period when the one based on the cause of oppression is applicable, and strengthens its force within that period. This is precisely what Proudhon wants to do, since his aim is to show that liberation is possible now, not that it could have occurred at any time, if only someone had been clever enough to discover the historical cause of oppression.

The Validity of Proudhonian History

No more than other histories can Proudhon's be judged solely by its truth. Even if all the statements in his narrative were true, it still might not be valid. For the true statements it contained might fail to shed light upon the past.84 Hence Proudhon's history must be judged by two different tests. Its particular statements must prove true, and its combination of statements must prove plausible and suggestive. When tested in these ways, his reading of the past has at least as many strengths as weaknesses, especially when compared with contemporary alternatives.

Perhaps none of its factual contentions is more doubtful than its claim that uncivilized man was lazy. Proudhon seems to have said this because he believed that indolence prevailed among extant primitive peoples.85 But this is not true, and there is no reason to think the first men were lazy. We should perhaps not be too harsh with Proudhon for his belief in primal indolence. This thesis has been axiomatic in Western social thought, at least since the late eighteenth century. From Malthus to Freud a long series of writers have assumed that primal man was lazy.86

Though there may be other patently false statements in Proudhon's history, there are even more dubious ones, for instance, his claim that the Enlightenment was an epoch of despair, during which people lost their allegiance to both ideals and reality. Though there is surely some evidence for this contention, much also counts against it. Questions about the validity of Proudhon's account are clearly raised by its affirmation of this and other statements of doubtful truth.

Inclusion of such dubious assertions does not in itself disqualify his account. Factual uncertainty is a characteristic of many statements about the past, especially general ones. Provided that Proudhon had considered the historical evidence adverse to his contentions, if only to refute it, his title to include them would have been clear. Unfortunately, he does not always do so. Sometimes he engages in special pleading by stressing the facts that confirm his remarks while ignoring unfavorable ones.

One of these dubious assertions calls for special consideration, because of its importance for his account and the questionable way it is supported. This is his statement that hierarchy and government once performed advantageous functions but no longer afford any benefits other than the maintenance of order. Evidence against this dictum is not hard to find. No matter how much harm they do, government and hierarchy still contribute something positive to well-being.

Proudhon's answer to this objection is unsatisfactory.87 What he says is that although hierarchy and government may indeed have positive advantages, a time has come when these advantages can be produced by non-political means. The trouble with this argument is that it is circular. Its purpose is to confirm the proposition that liberation from government and hierarchy has become possible by showing that these oppressive institutions no longer make positive contributions. Yet it purports to prove that they no longer contribute positively by showing that liberation from them has become possible. The argument uses its own conclusion as a basic premise and thus reduces itself to a mere tissue of assumptions.

Perhaps most of the statements in Proudhon's history emerge from this examination sufficiently unscathed to be deemed not false. Can his historical perspective as a whole also withstand criticism? The test here, it will be remembered, is not truth, but plausibility and suggestiveness.

One recurring denial of the suggestiveness of Proudhon's account points to its neglect of economic development as a historical force, and a force which, as Marx showed, has liberating effects. Proudhon seems to pay close attention to economics in La Guerre et la paix. He even asserts that poverty is the cause of both war and revolution.88 His position has led some commentators to claim him as an economic determinist.89 Unfortunately, this interpretation overlooks his continual insistence that poverty, far from being a causal ultimate, is itself determined by non-economic forces. "It is neither capital nor commerce that governs the world, despite what we hear."90 Poverty "is an essentially psychological fact: its source lies, on the one hand, in the idealism of our desires, and on the other, in our exaggerated sense of our own dignity and our slighting that of others."91 Here Proudhon traces the cause of his alleged economic determinant back to the same forces that animate his narrative. By doing so, he betrays a historical vision that does ignore the role of economic development. To the extent that this neglect impoverishes his interpretation of history, it counts against its validity.

Whatever the defects of this oversight, Proudhon's outlook has some compensating merits, especially when compared with nineteenth-century alternatives. Most of its strengths stem from the limited purpose it was meant to serve. Proudhon, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not wish to write a speculative philosophy of history, designed to uncover the pattern, goal, and "meaning" of the entire past. His mistrust of philosophical history helped him avoid some common implausibilities, as is made clear by the difference between his view of history and that of its leading philosopher, Hegel.

Hegel's wish to understand the past as a whole leads him to claim that the pattern of historical change can be known a priori, rather than by induction from the facts.92 Proudhon, on the other hand, has a more modest view of the method for understanding the past. The a priori "in no case can become the direct object of our study." Historical writing must "consist exclusively of descriptions of phenomena and formulations of laws."93 To say that the past reflects an a priori pattern is to exaggerate man's inability to control events and to make the prospects for liberation seem dimmer than they are in fact.

Hegel's belief in history's a priori pattern was by no means accepted by all philosophers, but his related opinion that the course of events has a praiseworthy end was more widely shared. In his early years Proudhon agreed that history has a morally desirable outcome. He even criticized Condorcet for denying that events would ever reach the praiseworthy goal he admitted they were tending toward.94 But Proudhon's early position was both implausible and in conflict with his libertarian ideal. For if history is a road down which men must travel, then they cannot be free to diverge from it. It is therefore not surprising that by the time he wrote Justice he had reversed his opinion on history's destination: "We are not advancing toward an ideal of perfection, toward a definitive condition. .. . Since humanity is being endlessly renewed and developed, . . . the ideal of Justice and beauty that we must realize is always changing."95

Hegel not only claimed that history had a praiseworthy and attainable goal, but also that the route to it, and the pace at which it was traveled, were set by laws. In his view one cannot skip over a particular stage of evolution "any more than one can skip over the earth." The "inner development of the idea" obeys fixed, unalterable rules.96 If men try to break them, the cunning of reason sees that events nonetheless take their prescribed course. Since Proudhon's main objection to Hegel's a priori teleology was that it leaves no place for human freedom, it is not surprising that he was especially hostile to Hegel's explicitly deterministic doctrines. No doubt, at the outset of his career, he tended to agree with Hegel. In the Contradictions he announced that "humanity, in its development, obeys an inflexible necessity."97 But this strict determinism is missing from Proudhon's mature thought. Justice still admits that unalterable laws partially control the course of events, but insists that voluntary action has even more influence.98

Hegel's determinism is especially distasteful to Proudhon, because it is concealed behind a pretense of freedom. According to Hegel universal history is the story of growing liberty. But the Hegelian conception of the process of change really leaves no room at all for freedom.

In spite of his libertarian pose, "everything for this German is organic evolution. . . . Development is always regulated by an inflexible reason" which "operates unknown to us, despite us, and, if need be, against us."99 Since any genuine movement toward liberation "consists not of mankind's inevitable evolution, but of an unlimited emancipation from all inevitability," Hegel's views on freedom are a fraud.100

Although Proudhon's outlook on the past is impervious to Hegel's general, speculative ideas about how and why events take place, it does have affinities with his more specific and empirical views on these matters, and in this area of overlap are found the most suggestive parts of Proudhon's historical vision.

Both writers stress the interaction of personal and publicly established standards in their models of change. The motor of history for both of them is the successive conflict and conciliation of subjective values and external norms.101 This focus of attention is extremely fertile, for it reconciles two seemingly incompatible ways of looking at the past. From this standpoint, history makes equal sense as a story of personal intentions and as the development of cultural trends, because each of these phenomena is viewed as dependent on the other.

Proudhon's history, like Hegel's, also emphasizes the importance of recognition. For both, men's desire for the good opinion of their neighbors is a crucial datum of history; for both, this desire has a similar outcome. As people vie for prestige they come into conflict. This experience of conflict leads slowly to a growth in empathy and impartiality as men come to realize that they can win esteem for themselves only if they are willing to grant esteem to others. The desire for prestige is thus shrewdly viewed by both writers as preeminently educative in the sense that its pursuit profoundly affects men's character, expectations, and beliefs.102

This assessment of Proudhon's interpretation of history shows it to be less defensible than its author thinks. But it also suggests that his view is less far-fetched than that of many of its rivals and that it contains several thought-provoking ideas. This may be a sufficient basis for concluding that it succeeds in plausibly explaining why the oppressive status quo need not be permanent.

If this conclusion is accepted, a new question immediately arises. Proudhon was not content to show that existing forms of oppression are impermanent; he also believed they should be abolished. Yet nothing in the explanatory part of his theory warrants this contention. Even proof far more positive than Proudhon's that liberation was possible would do nothing to support the proposition that it ought to occur. In order to prove this, an argument cast in moral terms is required. Proudhon had such an argument, which will be examined shortly. What must be said here is that his explanatory theory not only fails to support his commitment to total liberation, but actually undermines it. If Proudhon's psychological and sociological contentions are true, men must always be subject to restraints? But if some repression is unavoidable, then espousal of liberation, in any absolute sense, is futile. Thus, to the extent that Proudhon's awareness of the facts lays a realistic foundation for his ensuing attack on the existing world, it also sets up a barrier to a totally radical critique.


1 Cont., i, 134; cf. Avert., p. 220.

2 Ordre, 318.

3 Cont., i, 134; cf. Avert., p. 192. Gunnar Myrdal has exposed the conservative tendencies of classical economics in Value in Social Theory: A Selection of Essays on Methodology, ed. Paul Streeten (London, 1958), pp. 158-59. "As long as economics keeps its valuations implicit and hidden, the utilization of [its] concepts will tend to insert into scientific work a do-nothing bias."

4 Prop., p. 167.

5 Karl Marx, Misere de la philosophic, ed. Henri Mougin (Paris, 1961), p. 153.

6 But writers who are not conservative use this phrase too, as the case of Erich Fromm shows. Cf. Myrdal, p. 10.

7 For an early defense of psychological egoism see, inter alia, Com., i, 355.

8 Justice, i, 420-21. For an extended commentary on this passage see Ernest Seilliere, L'imperialisme democratique (Paris, 1907), in, 288-90.

9 It has been refuted many times. For a thorough demolition see C. D. Broad, "Egoism as a Theory of Human Motives" in Ethics and the History of Philosophy (London, 1952), pp. 218-31.

10 Theory of Politics, ed. F. M. Watkins (New York, 1951), pp. 157-58.

11 Prop., p. 304; cf. p. 318.

12 Com., 1, 354, 358, 365.

13 Justice, 1, 416.

14 Ibid., m, 519.

15 Ibid., 1, 308.

16 Ibid., in, 340.

17 E.g., Justice, 11, 263.

18 Ibid., in, 520.

17 Prop., pp. 320, 324, 339.

19 Ibid., in, 418.

21 Ibid., in, 520.

22 Cont., i, 362.

23 See, inter alia, Justice, i, 323, 325, 420-21; Prog., 67-68; Corr., vn, 370.

24 "Cours," 1-12 (4).

25 Ibid., 1-12 (3).

26 Justice, i, 295.

27 "Cours," 1-14A (2).

28 If David Riesman is to be believed, Proudhon understood social constraint even better than his shrewd contemporaries Mill and Tocqueville. According to Riesman, they saw social conformity resulting only from "fear of what people might say -- conscious opportunism, that is," not from "the more automatic outcome of a character structure governed not only from the first, but throughout life, by signals from the outside," The Lonely Crowd, Anchor Book edition (New York, 1953), pp. 293-94.

29 Prog., p. 128.

30 Justice, iv, 487; cf. 1, 325.

31 Ibid., i, 298.

32 Ibid., 1, 323.



G.P., p. 54.

34 Ibid., p. 120. Proudhon's critique of Hobbes here follows Rousseau's.

35 Ibid., p. 89.

3e Justice, m, 60.

37 G.P., p. 126.

ôlbid., p. 185.

39 Ibid., p. 186.

40 Justice, in, 33.

41 G.P., p. 89.

42 Justice, 1, 365.

43 Ibid., m, 33, 47, 60.

44 Ibid., n, 171.

45 Ibid., 1, 366.

46 "Resistance a la Revolution," reprinted in I.G., p. 380; cf., Justice, 11, 172.

47 Justice, in, 529; cf., iv, 402.

48 Ibid., in, 558.

49 Ibid., m, 529.

50 Ibid., 11, 11.

51 Ibid., m, 461.

52 Ibid., in, 561-63.

53 Ibid., 1, 370.

5i Ibid., in, 530.

55 Ibid., 11, 177.

ôlbid., in, 532.

57 Ibid., in, 533.

58 Ibid., 1, 394.

59 Ibid., 1, 396.

60 Ibid., 1, 405. Proudhon interprets other relevant Christian tenets in the same way. The doctrine of providence is a milder and hence more effective version of paganism's fate, ibid., 11, 193. The Church's teachings about the charitable duties of lords to serfs are a watered down and thus more acceptable version of pagan pronouncements about masters' duties toward slaves, ibid., hi, 60.

61 Ibid., i, 399.

62 Ibid., 1, 396.

63 Ibid., 11, 16, 18; in, 55, 59.

64 Ibid., 11, 25, 54, 196, 222.

65 Ibid., 11, 179.

66 In earlier versions of Proudhon's history, the Enlightenment, and its predecessor in his eyes, the Reformation, receive a different and more elaborate treatment than in later accounts. They are then portrayed as important anticipations of the French Revolution. See "Toast a la Revolution," reprinted in Conf., p. 400, also Mel., 11, 22.

67 Conf., pp. 62, 88, 113; I.G., pp. 125-27, 178, 220-36; R.S., pp. 129-32; Justice, 11, 36. Proudhon admits that many immediate causes help explain why the Revolution propped up religious institutions. He mentions the military threat, the menace of the Enrages, and food shortages; I.G., p. 229; R.S., p. 131; Mel., 11, 29. But he also insists that the Revolution would easily have overcome these difficulties without resort to religion, if men had unequivocally given up their old ideals.

68 Con]., 360; Justice, 1, 250-55; in, 535; Corr., vn, 96.

69 Justice, iv, 452.

70 Ibid., in, 641-42.

71 Ibid., in, 14-46.

72 Ibid., in, 512.

73 Ibid., 11, 222; cf. 1, 410.

74 Ibid., in, 72.

76 Com., 11, 403; cf. R.S., p. 137; Carnets, x, 357.

76 AG., p. 374.

77 Justice, 1, 396.

7a I.G., p. 365.

79 Ibid., p. 226; Justice, 11, 267.

80 Carnets, vn, 219.

81 G.P., p. 345.

82 Justice, in, 537-38, 546. In Robert Merton's suggestive classification they are "retreatists," Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, 1957), pp. 153-55.

83 Justice, in, 540.

84 For defense of the point that truth is not the only test of value in history, see William Dray, Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964), pp. 27-35, and W. H. Walsh, Introduction to Philosophy of History (London, 1951), Ch. 5.

85 Cont., 1, 161.

86 Riesman, p. 300.

87 See for instance, "Resistance a la Revolution," reprinted in I.G., pp. 376-80.

88 G.P., pp. 358-60; cf. Cont., 11, 102.

89 See for instance, Henri Moysset's introduction to G.P., p. xxvii.

90 Carnets, v, 122. 91G.F.,347.

92 G.W.F. Hegel, Reason in History, trans. Robert S. Hartman (New York, 1953), p. 79.

93Justice, in, 171.

94 Pierre Haubtmann, "Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: sa vie et sa pensee" (unpublished thesis for the Doctorat d'Etat, Faculte des lettres et des sciences humaines de Paris, 1961), p. 282, annex

95 Justice, 1, 233.

96 Hegel, pp. 37-39.

97 Cont., 1, 385. Proudhon qualifies this statement by saying that men can act as they choose and that their choices influence the course of events, ibid., 1, 387. But he immediately takes back the libertarianism implicit in these qualifications. The same sorts of events occur whether or not men want them to, though their timing and form may differ. Moreover, any aberrations imposed on historical development by men's voluntary actions can be foreseen in advance. (Proudhon does not say by whom), ibid., 1, 388.

98 Justice, in, 151. It must be admitted, however, that notes of inevitabilism crop up in writings subsequent to Justice, e.g. G.P., p. 202.

89 Ibid., in, 501.

100 Ibid., iv, 431. It seems likely that Hegel's philosophy of history is less deterministic than Proudhon suggests. See the forceful arguments to this effect in Dray, Ch. 6. Yet even if this is the case, Proudhon's objections to Hegel are not misplaced. His own position still remains less deterministic than Hegel's.

101 For an analysis of Hegel stressing the importance of this interaction, see John Plamenatz, Man and Society (London, 1963), 11, 200.

102 Ibid., ii, 198.