George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 1962, Postscript 1975.
5 The Man of Paradox
'My conscience is mine, my justice is mine, and my freedom is a sovereign freedom,' said Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. No individualist -- not even Stirner -- was more lonely in the extremity of his thought than this self-taught philosopher who became angry at the suggestion that he had constructed any system of ideas, who passionately avoided the encouragement of any party or sect to support his views, and who proudly displayed the fluctuations and contradictions of his thought as evidence of its vitality. 'Such men,' said his friend Alexander Herzen, 'stand much too firmly on their own feet to be dominated by anything or to allow themselves to be caught in any net.'
But Proudhon was a connoisseur of paradox, an aficionado of antinomial thinking, and among all the oppositions he delighted to display in his thought none is more striking than that which made this arch-individualist at the same time a mystagogue of the people. Proudhon, of course, has not been the only Frenchman to stand lonely in his pride and to claim nevertheless that he speaks for his people and for history. We have only to consider the statements of De Gaulle in our own generation to recognize a curious affinity between the nationalist General-President and the printer from the Jura who became the first of the anarchists. Where De Gaulle identifies himself with France, Proudhon identifies himself with the Revolution and the People ('a collective ... an infallible and divine being', as he calls it when he is not dismissing it as an ignorant rabble). 'I regard myself,' he declared proudly in 1848, 'as the most complete expression of the Revolution.' And during the same period he confided to the secrecy of his diary: 'The representative of the people -- that am I. For I alone am right.'
The double picture of Proudhon that often comes to us from the contradictions within his writings is no misleading clue either to his significance in the history of 'social and political
thought or to the nature of his contribution to that thought. For Proudhon, who valued individual freedom so much that he distrusted the very word 'association', became the direct ancestor of the organized anarchist movement, which gave his beliefs collective expression and force, and the actual master of some of the men who created it. From him the French workers who helped to found the International, and many leaders of the Commune of 1871, and most of the syndicalist militants of the French trade unions between 1890 and 1910, were all to take the greater part of their ideas; as Elie Halevy once remarked, he -- and not Marx -- was 'the real inspirer of French socialism', or, at least, of French socialism as it existed up to the 1930s. He was not the only lonely social philosopher to become the forerunner of mass movements that would rise after his death -- Marx, of course, was another -- but he was almost certainly the only avowed individualist to whom this has happened.
But Proudhon's post-mortem influence sprang in fact from a sociological strain in his thought which distinguished him sharply from Stirner. If we define Stirner as an egoistic individualist, we must regard Proudhon as a social individualist. To Stirner the individual is all, and society his enemy. To Proudhon the individual is both the starting-point and the ultimate goal of our endeavours, but society provides the matrix -- the serial order as he would call it -- within which each man's personality must find its function and fulfilment. In one of his earlier works, De la creation de l'ordre dans l'humanite (1843), he emphasizes that individual men cannot live on their own, and that there is no such thing in nature as an isolated being. All things, and all men, exist within appropriate relationships, or serial groups, and so society, and all its true organs down to the family, is part of the natural and universal order. The relationship between man and society is thus a delicate equilibrium, and society must not become a monolithic totality in which individual differences are melted and merged into uniformity. Yet at the same time it can never be merely a collection of individuals. Out of it emerges a collective force and a collective character which are distinct from those of its members. This idea of the emergent collective
force or consciousness brings Proudhon into the central stream of anarchism considered as a doctrine which sees individual freedom rooted deeply in the natural processes out of which society itself evolves.
Proudhon, of course, was more than an anarchist theoretician. His vigorous prose aroused the admiration of Baudelaire and Flaubert, drew grudging praise from Victor Hugo -- who disliked him personally -- and led his most critical biographer, Arthur Desjardins, to admit in the end that 'this plebeian sculpts his phrases with a profound art, the art of the great classicists. He, no less than Moliere, should have belonged to the Academie Francaise.' The complexity of Proudhon's personality and outlook tempted the great critic Sainte-Beuve to write his first biography, and turned the painter Gustave Courbet into his enthusiastic and lifelong disciple. His provocative discussions of social and philosophical problems projected his influence far beyond the circle of anarchist thought or the boundaries of France; it can be seen in the whole Russian narodnik tradition, it inspired the Spanish federalist leader Pi y Margall and the Italian nationalist hero Carlo Pisacane, and it led Tolstoy not merely to borrow the title of his greatest novel from Proudhon's La Guerre et la paix, but also to incorporate in War and Peace many Proudhonian views on the nature of war and history. The breadth of his thought, the vigour of his writing, and the penetrative influence he wielded out of his solitude combine to make Proudhon one of the great nineteenth-century Europeans, whose importance has rarely been fully appreciated in English-speaking countries. In sheer greatness of texture only Tolstoy among the anarchists exceeds him.
Perhaps the reason for Proudhon's relative neglect in England and North America is the peculiarly Gallic nature of his genius, which makes even his writing difficult to translate in such a way that more than a suggestion of its strength and style are retained. For this convinced internationalist, this hater of states and frontiers, was also a passionate regionalist, a true patriot who loved his land and its traditions and was never happy in exile even among people who, like the Belgians, spoke his own tongue. He could reject the French state, like all other
states, as a 'fictitious being, without intelligence, without passion, without morality', but with equal sincerity he could apostrophize France itself in the most lyrical of terms:
O my land, my French land, the land of those who sing the eternal revolution! Land of liberty, for despite your bondages, in no place on earth, either in Europe or in America, is the mind, which is the entire man, so free as on your soil! Land that I love with all that accumulated love which a growing son has for his mother. . . .
Yet he could say also -- and here his sincerity is perhaps deepest of all -- 'if I were forced to choose between the two I should be man enough to sacrifice my country to justice'.
Justice, indeed, was Proudhon's ruling passion, the subject of his greatest book, De la justice dans la revolution et dans l'eglise; in that word was expressed and contained all he strove to attain, all he hoped for man and for society.
Justice is the central star which governs society, the pole around which the political world revolves, the principle and regulator of all transactions. Nothing takes place between men save in the name of right, nothing without the invocation of justice.
The idea of an immanent justice is as central to Proudhon's anarchism as that of an immutable system of reason is to Godwin's. But when we seek for the sources of this passion which made Proudhon not only a seeker after justice but also that very different thing, a just man, we have to turn again to his French origins. For it is as impossible to imagine Proudhon out of the French revolutionary tradition as it is to think of Godwin detached from the heritage of English Dissent or Stirner from the atmosphere of German romantic philosophy. Again we see how the common preoccupations of the age produced similar results from different beginnings.
By birth Proudhon was a man of the people. His father was a small craftsman -- a cooper and later a most unsuccessful brewer and tavernkeeper -- and his mother was a cook, but both were of Franc-Comtois peasant stock. Proudhon was able to boast of his 'rustic blood' and in later years to recollect with idyllic delight the hard times when the family would go back to the land and he would run as a nine-year-old cowherd over the limestone crags of the Jura. Forty years afterward, as a
man of the cities, he wrote with moving simplicity on
frugal merits of a peasant life enjoyed in freedom.
In my father's house we breakfasted on maize porridge; at midday we ate potatoes; in the evening bacon soup, and that every day of the week. And despite the economists who praise the English diet, we, with that vegetarian feeding, were fat and strong. Do you know why? Because we breathed the air of our fields and lived from the produce of our own cultivation.
The ideal of the free peasant life was to become a shaping element in Proudhon's social and political thought. But, though he had the industry that might have made a good farmer, circumstances prepared a different destiny for him. He was born in 1809, and in childhood lived through the distress that afflicted eastern France at the end of the Napoleonic wars. Later he went on a scholarship to the College in Besancon; despite the humiliation of being a poor boy in sabots among merchants' sons, he developed a taste for learning, but had to abandon his education uncompleted because his father's passion for litigation had plunged the family into destitution.
The trade he chose was printing, and so he entered the ranks of those craftsmen from whom anarchism has traditionally drawn many of its most dedicated recruits. Among those working men he found a sense of comradeship which he had never encountered in the snobbish atmosphere of the College, and he took a pride in mastering his trade. 'I still remember with delight,' he said long after he had left the printing shop, 'the great day when my composing stick became for me the symbol and instrument of my freedom.'
There were other ways in which the printing shop was a congenial place for a youth with a great capacity for self-education. Besancon was a centre of theology, and as he proofread the effusive apologetics of the local clergy, Proudhon found himself slowly converted to atheism by the ineptitude of their defence of Christianity. But he also absorbed much genuine religious scholarship, taught himself Hebrew in his spare time, and encountered one of the men who later helped to shape his social theories -- the eccentric socialist and fellow Bisontin, Charles Fourier. Proudhon supervised the printing of
Fourier's masterpiece, Le Nouveau Monde industriel et societaire, that extraordinary amalgam of sound social reasoning and fantasy, and, he recollected later, 'for six weeks I was the captive of this bizarre genius'. Finally, Proudhon's apprenticeship came to an end, and, after a period of wandering as a journeyman printer, he was rash enough to set up his own business in Besancon. It declined into slow failure; one of Proudhon's partners committed suicide in desperation, and he was left with a debt which for the remaining three decades of his life he struggled unsuccessfully to repay.
But hard work and poverty were not the whole of Proudhon's existence even at this period. While he struggled with his printing press he wrote his first published work; it was an Essai de grammaire generale, a rather naive philological brochure which gained him some repute among the intellectuals of the Franche-Comte" and earned him the Suard pension, awarded every three years by the Besancon Academy to a young scholar of outstanding promise. In his submission to the academicians he made a celebrated dedication, an oath to his fellows in poverty which sounded the note for the rest of his life:
Born and brought up in the working class, still belonging to it, today and forever, by heart, by nature, by habit, and above all by the community of interests and wishes, the greatest joy of the candidate, if he gains your votes, will be to have attracted in his person your just solicitude for that interesting portion of society, to have been judged worthy of being its first representative before you, and to be able to work henceforward without relaxation, through philosophy and science, and with all the energy of his will and the powers of his mind, for the complete liberation of his brothers and companions.
Soon he began to express these sentiments in a more explicit and disturbing manner. His pension took him to Paris, and there, observing the discontent among the Parisian workers and already moving on the edge of socialist and revolutionary groups, he began to formulate the ideas that had already taken shape dimly in his mind. They first appeared in a form as unexpected as Godwin's An Account of the Seminary. The Besancon Academy offered a prize for an essay on the Celebration of Sunday. Proudhon competed, but, as Sainte-Beuve
justly remarked, what he presented was a thesis in which the subject had become 'hardly more than a pretext for introducing his system of ideas, still obscure and half-concealed'.
In De la celebration du dimanche Proudhon does indeed express his approval of the institution of a day of rest, and devotes much of his essay to an idyllic description of the peaceful rural life; it reads like the nostalgic dream of a man who already feels himself an exile from such innocent pleasures. But the real point of his essay appears when he discusses Moses, the institutor of such a beneficial custom, not merely as a religious leader, but also as the father of social reform. He examines the teachings of the patriarch, and by disputing the translation of the Eighth Commandment, which he interprets as meaning, not 'Thou shalt not steal', 'but 'Thou shalt not lay anything aside for thyself', he mounts a clear attack on the institution of property, and supports it with a categorical assertion that 'equality of conditions is ... the aim of society'. Finally, he declares that 'property is the last of the false gods'. He attacks 'cumulative proprietors' and the 'exploiters of proletariat', and ends on the challenging note of an imaginary dialogue in which the poor cry out in defiance: 'Proprietors, defend yourselves!' Already, Proudhon had evolved the social attitude he would maintain throughout his life, and had laid down in rough outline the main elements of his thought: his egalitarianism, his theory of the evil of accumulated property, his sense of a natural, immanent justice.
If Proudhon used the oblique approach in De la celebration du dimanche, he turned to the direct attack two years later in the work that brought him into the harsh and sudden light of notoriety. As the first book of a self-educated man, What Is Property? was in every way remarkable, full of fire and paradox, and containing so many original insights, that Karl Marx, afterward Proudhon's bitterest enemy, called it a 'penetrating work' when he discussed it in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, and later, in The Holy Family, described it as 'the first decisive, vigorous, and scientific examination' of property.
What Is Property? begins with a paragraph of Proudhonian challenge that has ensnared many an impatient reader into a wrong judgement of the book's intent:
If I were asked to answer the question: 'What is slavery?' and I should answer in one word, 'Murder!', my meaning would be understood at once. No further argument would be needed to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death, and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: 'What is property?' may I not likewise answer, 'Theft?'
'Property is Theft!' was to become one of the great political catchwords of the nineteenth century and to hang like a symbolic albatross on the popular image of Proudhon. But Proudhon, as he made clear even in this first work, did not mean literally what he said. His boldness of expression was intended as a form of shocking emphasis, and what he wished to be understood by property was, as he later explained, 'the sum of its abuses'. He was denouncing the property of the man who uses it to exploit the labour of others without any effort of his own. For 'possession', the right of a man to effective control over his dwelling and the land and tools he needed to work and live, Proudhon had only approval; in fact, he regarded it as a necessary keystone of liberty, and his main criticism of the communists was that they wished to destroy it.
These aspects of his theory of property became clearer in later works, but even in What is Property? a distinction between kinds of property is evident. The man who works has. an absolute right over what he produces, but not over the means of production. 'The right to products is exclusive -- jus in re; the right to means is common -- jus ad rem.' This is so, not merely because raw materials are provided by nature, but also because of the heritage of installations and techniques which is the real source of human wealth and because of the collaboration that makes each man's contribution so much more effective than if he worked in solitude.
Now this reproductive leaven -- this eternal germ of life, this preparation of the land and manufacture of implements for production -- constitutes the debt of the capitalist to the producer, which he never pays; and it is this fraudulent denial which causes the poverty of the labourer, the luxury of idleness, and the inequality of conditions. This it is, above all things, which has been fitly named the exploitation of man by man.
Hence, property is incompatible with justice, since in practice it brings about the exclusion of the majority of producers from their equal rights to the fruits of social work.
But if property in the means of production destroys equality, and offends justice, we must consider an alternative, not merely to property itself, but also to the social organization that is based upon it. Will it be communism, Proudhon asks, thinking of the Utopian systems of Cabet, Owen, and similar thinkers? But communism fails to recognize that, though man is a social being and seeks equality, he also loves independence. Property, in fact, springs from man's desire to free himself from the slavery of communism, which is the primitive form of association. But property, in its turn, goes to the extreme, and violates equality by the rights of exclusion and increase, and supports the acquisition of power by the privileged minority. In other words, it leads to unjust authority, and this brings us to the question of legitimate authority, if such exists.
Here Proudhon makes his historic proclamation of anarchist faith, which I have already quoted in the opening pages of this book. He goes on to explain it by tracing the genesis of authority in the tendency of social animals and primitive man always to seek a leader. As man develops reasoning powers, he turns them almost immediately upon authority, and so emerge protest, disobedience, and finally rebellion. Rebellion is canalized by the appearance of political science and the realization that the laws by which society functions are not matters for the opinion of rulers, but exist in the nature of things. At this point the idea of anarchy, the government which is no government, appears.
Communism denies independence, property destroys equality, but in 'anarchy' or 'liberty' Proudhon -- at this time under the influence of Hegelian ideas imperfectly transmitted through articles in French reviews -- finds a synthesis that eliminates the deficiencies of both, leading to a society where equality, justice, independence, and the recognition of individual merits can all flourish in a world of products bound together by a system of free contacts.
By rejecting government and the non-working proprietor, by advocating economic equality and free contractual relationships
between independent workers, What Is Property? contains the basic elements from which all later libertarian and decentralist doctrines have been built. But it contains them in an undeveloped form. Throughout his book Proudhon seems to discuss property in a society of peasants and small craftsmen, and pays little attention to industries that cannot be carried on by single 'possessors'. He is, in fact, arguing from the world he knew -- the city of Besancon, still untouched by the railways, a place of artisan workshops in a land of mountain farmers. Very soon, when he moved to industrial Lyons after the final collapse of his printing business, Proudhon was to widen considerably his view of nineteenth-century social and economic problems.
Before he left Besancon, where he had returned in 1841 after the expiry of the Suard pension, he wrote two other memoirs on property in reply to critics of the first. These add little to his basic contentions, though a significant new note of militancy appears in the second, entitled Avertissement aux proprietaires. In true anarchist manner Proudhon here declares that the workers alone can renovate society.
Workers, labourers, men of the people, whoever you may be, the initiative of reform is yours. It is you who will accomplish that synthesis of social composition which will be the masterpiece of creation, and you alone can accomplish it. . . . And you, men of power, angry magistrates, cowardly proprietors, have you at last understood me? . . . Do not provoke the outbreaks of our despair, for even if your soldiers and policemen succeed in suppressing us, you will not be able to stand up before our last resource. It is neither regicide, nor assassination, nor poisoning, nor arson, nor refusal to work, nor emigration, nor insurrection, nor suicide; it is something more terrible than all that, and more efficacious, something which is seen but cannot be spoken of.
In a letter to Ackermann, the Alsatian poet, Proudhon confided that what he meant by this final threat was a revival of something like the German Fehmgericht, the secret popular tribunals which dealt summarily with petty tyrants in the Middle Ages. But to his readers the threat remained all the more sensational because of its vagueness. It was sensational enough, indeed, to induce Louis-Philippe's government to take
swift action, and Proudhon was indicted for various crime, against public security. He was fortunate; a jury of his fellow townsmen decided that his ideas were very hard for them to follow, and conscientiously refused to convict the writer for a book they did not understand.
In Lyons Proudhon became managing clerk -- and apparently a very efficient one -- to a water-transport firm run by an old schoolfellow, Antoine Gauthier. His work kept him closely in touch with the commercial life of this growing centre of the French industrial revolution, and he used his spare time to broaden his knowledge of the rebellious tendencies among the French workers during the years of ferment that preceded the Revolution of 1848. Lyons was an ideal city for such a study. Throughout the nineteenth century its factory workers were extremely receptive to revolutionary doctrines. When Proudhon arrived in 1843 the followers of Cabet, Fourier, and Saint-Simon were all very active in the city, and a certain romantic colour was given to its radical life by the presence of the Peruvian feminist-socialist Flora Tristan, who claimed to be descended from Montezuma and who in fact became the grandmother of the painter Gauguin. The largest group among the textile workers was the secret society of the Mutualists, led by veteran insurrectionaries who had taken part in the risings of 1831 and 1834. It was with this group that Proudhon established his closest ties; the fact that they consisted entirely of manual workers, with no admixture of middle-class intellectuals, appealed to his own sense of identification with the poorest class, and he seems to have seen in their activities a vindication of his idea that out of the people could arise the movement to reform society. Moreover, the Mutualists -- whose very name Proudhon later adopted to describe his own teachings of the reorganization of society by means of free contractual association -- appear to have shared his view of the primacy of economic change, in contradiction to the Jacobin emphasis on political revolution, which was later adopted by the authoritarian socialists.
Proudhon's association with the Lyons Mutualists was the only occasion on which he actually became involved in an underground organization. His letters and diaries suggest that
he established close contacts with workers' groups not only in Lyons but also in 'the neighbouring towns and villages for fifty miles around', and saw himself as a man of standing among them and a mediator between the various socialist sects.
At this time a great deal of attention was being given in Lyons to the idea of a widespread association of workers; Flora Tristan wrote a book on the subject, and it recurs constantly in Proudhon's journals during the mid-1840s. These references anticipate in a significant way the attitude of the French Proudhonian delegates to the First International in the 1860s and look forward also to the later anarcho-syndicalist view of a social change achieved through economic or industrial action. 'The social revolution,' he notes, 'is seriously, compromised if it comes through a political revolution.' And he adds that 'the new socialist movement will begin by ... the war of the workshops'. Unlike Marx, he hopes that this war may be carried on without violent revolution, 'invading all through the force of principle'. Like Winstanley and Godwin, he relies on the power of reason and example, and even envisages the proprietors being dispossessed 'at their solicitation and without indemnity'. About the actual nature of the workers' associations, which he also calls 'progressive societies', he is vague, but he appears to see them partly as educational, intended to give the proletariat a true consciousness of the economic realities that underlie the social situation, and partly as functional, actual cells of the new order, organized on a 'collective and limited liability' basis, for the purpose of regulating a mutualist exchange of goods and services, a network that will embrace all the industrial centres. The possibilities of the idea fill him with the kind of irrational optimism that was still possible in the sociological terra incognita that nineteenth-century radicals were exploring. With an over-confidence characteristic of the time as well as the man, he estimated those already ripe for association in the Lyons region at a hundred thousand. 'By 1860,' he added, 'the globe will be overrun in every direction by the association.'
But at this period it was not merely in Lyons that Proudhon found stimulating contacts. His work gave him many opportunities to visit Paris, where he made the acquaintance of men
who were to play important parts in his own life and also in the future of European socialism and anarchism. The Russians Alexander Herzen and Michael Bakunin became his close friends in 1844, and remained so until the end of his life, both of them falling under the influence of his personality and his ideas. He also encountered, in an ambiance of metaphysical discussion, many of the German Left Hegelians who had exiled themselves to Paris. They included Arnold Ruge and Karl Grün, both of whom helped to introduce his works to Germaa readers, and also Karl Marx. The meeting between Marx and Proudhon was historically important because it showed the first signs of the irreconcilable conflict between authoritarian socialism and anarchism that was to reach its climax twenty-five years later in the heart of the First International.
I have already remarked on Marx's first favourable reaction to Proudhon's work. Their early meetings appear to have consolidated a good impression, largely because Proudhon was the only one among the leading French socialists of the time willing to pay serious attention to Marx and his fellow Left Hegelians. Marx clearly regarded him as a possible convert to his own schemes for an international revolutionary organization, but evidently did not take into account the fact that Proudhon was not in the least interested in an association for political propaganda of the kind planned by the German socialists, but envisaged instead an association for the encouragement of economic action and cooperation.
How far their various aims were discussed in Paris over the winter of 1844-5 is unrecorded. What we do know is that after Marx was expelled from France to Belgium in 1845 he stiU regarded Proudhon as a possible collaborator, and on 5 May 1846 wrote a letter asking for his cooperation in the establishment of a 'sustained correspondence' among socialists of various countries to discuss matters of common interest:
In that manner, differences of opinion can be brought to light; one can achieve an exchange of ideas and an impartial criticism. It will to a step forward for the socialist movement in its 'literary' expression, a step toward shaking off the limitations of 'nationality'. And at the moment of action it is certainly of great importance for each of us to be informed on the state of affairs abroad as well as at home.
Proudhon reacted cautiously. He expressed his willingness to participate in the correspondence Marx suggested, but made a series of reservations which already reveal the important differences that were to divide him more and more deeply from authoritarian socialism.
First, although my ideas in the matter of organization and realization are at this moment more or less settled, at least as regards principles, I believe it is my duty, as it is the duty of all socialists, to maintain for some time yet the critical or dubitive form; in short, I make profession in public of an almost absolute economic anti-dogmatism.
I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing to light all opinions; let us give the world the example of a learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if necessary, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter into your association. Otherwise -- no!
I have also some observations to make on this phrase of your letter: at the moment of action. Perhaps you retain the opinion that no reform is at present possible without a coup-de-main, without what was formerly called a revolution and is really nothing but a shock. That opinion, which I understand, which I excuse and would willingly discuss, having myself shared it for a long time, my most recent studies have made me completely abandon. I believe we have no need of it in order to succeed; and that consequently we should not put forward revolutionary action as a means of social reform, because that pretended means would simply be an appeal to force, to arbitrariness, in brief, a contradiction. I myself put the problem in this way: to bring about the return to society, by an economic combination, of the wealth which was withdrawn from society by another economic combination.
With this letter, which clearly opposes the anarchist ideal of economic action to the Marxist emphasis on political action, all direct contact between Marx and Proudhon came to an end. Marx did not reply, and he is said to have been disappointed by Proudhon's attitude. However, it was more than disappointment
that he showed in his next public reference to Proudhon which occurred after the latter published in the autumn of 1846 his System of Economic Contradictions: or, The Philosophy of Poverty. Marx chose this occasion for a complete reversal of his past attitude to Proudhon by publishing The Poverty Philosophy; this was a pretended critique of Proudhon's book which degenerated into a tissue of abusive misrepresentations showing a complete failure to understand the originality and plasticity of thought underlying the apparent disorder of Proudhon's arguments. The dialogue between the two authors showed not merely a complete divergence of theoretical outlook, but also -- and perhaps this was more important -- an irreconcilable opposition of personalities.
In Economic Contradictions Proudhon was in fact using what in his letter to Marx he had called 'the critical or dubitive form'. It is true that the title page bore the epigraph Destruam et Aedificabo, but Proudhon destroyed to greater effect than he built up, and by the end of the book he more or less admitted that the constructive side of his approach to society would have to be discussed later. He was concerned basically with illuminating the way in which, in society as it exists, all good possibilities turn to evil conclusions.
The essential contradiction of our ideas, being realized by work and expressed in society with a gigantic power, makes all things happen in the reverse way to that in which they should, and gives society the aspect of a tapestry seen the wrong way round, or a hide turned inside out. . . . The non-producer should obey, and by a bitter irony it is the non-producer who commands. Credit, according to the etymology of its name and its theoretical definition, should be the provider of work; in practice it oppresses and kills it. Property, in the spirit of its finest prerogative, is the making available of the earth, and in the exercise of the same prerogative it becomes the denial of the earth.
In the same way communism, which takes fraternity for its principle, ends by destroying it and establishing monopoly. In fact, unbalanced monopoly is the end which all solutions attempted up to the present have reached. Here one perceives that Proudhon is really seeking a kind of equilibrium in which economic contradictions will not be eliminated -- for they cannot
be -- but brought into a dynamic equation. This dynamic equation he finds in mutualism, a concept that includes such farniliar Proudhonian elements as the dissolution of government, the equalization of property, and the freedom of credit.
Economic Contradictions; in particular, he shocked the respectable with an anti-religious declaration as scandalous in its way as 'Property is Theft!' He examined the idea of Providence, and came to the conclusion that, far from the state of the world confirming the existence of a benevolent deity, it leads one irresistibly to the conclusion embodied in the aphorism: 'God is Evil.' Man, Proudhon urges, becomes what he is by opposing himself to all in the universe that is non-human; but this non-human all is -- in the view of the theologians at least -- governed by God. If God exists, then, he must be in opposition to man, and since the only good we can know is human good, God must, by Proudhonian logic, be evil.
I affirm that God, if there is a God, bears no resemblance to the effigies which the philosophers and the priests have made of him; that he neither thinks nor acts according to the law of analysis, foresight and progress, which is the distinctive characteristic of man; that on the contrary, he seems to follow an inverse and retrograde path; that intelligence, liberty, personality, are constituted otherwise in God than in us; and that this originality of nature ... makes of God a being who is essentially anti-civilized, anti-liberal, anti-human.
If this is true, then the conquest of tyranny and poverty and falsehood lies in opposition to God. 'We reach knowledge in spite of him. Every step forward is a victory in which we overcome the Divine.'
Here Proudhon presents as emphatically as any other of the later anarchists a rebellion against the idea of a ruling God which is the unavoidable corollary of the fight against earthly government. However, the rejection of a transcendental deity, and the accompanying anticlericalism, do not preclude an attitude in some ways religious. And Proudhon was never a true atheist. He disliked the atheist's absolute dogmatism as much as that of the priest, and regarded the idea of God -- even if it had been created by man himself -- as existing and therefore to be opposed. God and Man in fact represented for
Proudhon the ultimate contradiction, the Manichean poles of his cosmos in whose struggle lay the secret of social salvation. In his diary for 1846 there appear two significant notes. The first says: 'God and man, neither is more than the other; they are two incomplete realities, which have no fullness of existence.' The second adds: 'God is necessary to reason but rejected by reason.' Proudhon was not a denier of the idea of God; he was its adversary. And here it is worth emphasizing the persistence of the idea of conflict in Proudhon's thoughts; he lived for the struggle more than for the victory, and in this most of the anarchists have resembled him. At most he sees a possible truce between the contradictory forces in the universe and in society; but stress and tension are inevitable and desirable. It would therefore be most unwise in judging a work like Economic Contradictions to forget that Proudhon was a deliberately anti-systematic thinker who distrusted static conclusions and final answers. The dynamic society was always his ideal, the society kept in movement by perpetual change and kept alive by perpetual criticism.
A great leap in the process of perpetual change came when the Orleanist monarchy was overthrown in the February Revolution of 1848. By this time Proudhon had left his post in Lyons to follow a free-lance writing career in Paris. His reputation among the radical working men of the capital was already so high that in January 1848 Engels wrote to Marx complaining of the 'Proudhonistery' rampant among the members of the Communist League in Paris, while in the months of 1847 he was negotiating with a group of sympathizers to take over the direction of a journal that would continue the tradition of the short-lived Le Peuple, edited briefly by a journalist named Ribeyrolles who, like Proudhon, had moved on the edge of socialist circles without becoming closely involved in any particular sect.
Proudhon had foreseen the February Revolution; he had also realized that it would be dominated by sentimental liberals and Jacobins with few thoughts for the radical reconstruction of society. During the days of the insurrection he was stimulated by the example of the rebels and took part in the bloodless storming of the Tuileries, helped to build barricades,
composed placards for the revolutionary junta in a commandeered printing shop. But when he returned to his hotel room and began to write down his impressions for the benefit of friends outside the capital, he came to the conclusion that, as he put it, 'they have made a revolution without ideas'. Victory had come from the weakness of the monarchy rather than the strength of the Revolution. 'It is necessary to give a direction to the movement and already I see it lost beneath the waves of discussion.'
He set himself to provide the ideas which seemed so lacking, and in doing so he initiated the process by which, over the next two decades, anarchism ceased to be a merely theoretical trend, detached from immediate events, and turned instead toward propaganda and action aiming at social change within a foreseeable future. His activities during the revolutionary year of 1848 and the reactionary year of 1849 were centred mainly on three ventures: the series of periodicals beginning with the first issue of Le Representant du peuple on 7 February 1848; the attempt to create a People's Bank and a system of mutualist exchange; and the sole disillusioning affray which he made into parliamentary activity when a by-election in June 1848 took him into the Constituent Assembly.
'What is the Producer? Nothing ... What should he be? Everything!' It was with this banner heading that Le Representant du peuple started its course as the first regularly published anarchist periodical.1 Proudhon maintained and even flaunted his independence of party and clique, and took his stand as an independent critic whose aim was to show the true ends of the revolution and the errors of the revolutionaries. He was supported by a small but devoted group of associates, many of them printing workers like himself, and in this respect Le Representant du peuple set something of a precedent, for the most enduring type of anarchist organization has in fact been the small functional group devoted to a specific task of propaganda, often that of publication.
It was the independence of Le Representant du peuple,
reinforced by Proudhon's astringent style, that made his paper an
Of all the newspapers [commented the Comtesse d'Agoult in her History of 1848], the only one that was produced with a quite extraordinary originality and talent was Le Representant du Peuple. From the depth of his retreat he [Proudhon] agitated public opinion more strongly, more deeply than was done by the men who mingled
most with the multitudes. . . . His unexpected and striking manner of speaking . . . excited the curiosity of the public to the highest degree.
One of the constant themes of Proudhon's articles during 1848 was that 'the proletariat must emancipate itself without the help of the government'. He coupled this with a denunciation of the myth of universal suffrage as a panacea for all social ills, and pointed out that political democracy without economic changes could easily result in retrogression rather than progress. Nowadays, when we have learned a great deal about the mass appeal of right-wing movements of the fascist type, such a contention does not seem extraordinary, but in April 1848, in the high tide of revolutionary optimism, Proudhon was almost alone in anticipating the situation that would follow within a year when democracy would be submerged by the election of Louis Napoleon as Prince-President by the very means of universal suffrage which the Republic had set up for its own defence.
This insight makes all the more puzzling Proudhon's own willingness to be elected to the Constituent Assembly. He had already put forward his candidature in April and failed to win election by a small margin; in June he was elected by 77,000 votes with the support, among others, of the poet Charles Baudelaire, who then edited a small newspaper called La Tribune nationale. It has been suggested that Proudhon's aim in seeking election was the hope that as a legislator he might win some kind of official support for the People's Bank; he had already solicited in vain the help of the socialist minister Louis Blanc. However that may be, his experience was almost immediately disillusioning. He conscientiously carried out his task as a legislator, attending from morning till night at the various committees and bureaux even when the Assembly itself was not in session. But he found that this work had the effect of
isolating him from the currents of real life. 'As soon as I set foot in the parliamentary Sinai,' he recollected a year later in Les Confessions d'un revolutionaire, 'I ceased to be in touch wjth the masses; because I was absorbed by my legislative work, I entirely lost sight of the current of events.' It was soon clear to Proudhon that, with his anarchistic theories, he was completely out of place in the Assembly. Certainly the experience hardened his distrust of political methods, and helped to create the anti-parliamentarianism that marked his last years and was inherited by the anarchist movement in general.
At the same time, it must be said that he did not remain long in the ignorance he lamented, and that his position within the Assembly soon became as much that of angry independence as it was already in the world of journalism. When the barricades were raised by the discontented workers in the latter part of June 1848, Proudhon at first suspected, like his colleagues, the work of Bonapartist agitators wishing to undermine the Republic. But he set out to find the truth for himself, and took advantage of his representative's insignia to visit the areas where the fighting was in progress. The conclusion he reached was that the uprising had been fundamentally socialist in nature, that 'its first and determining cause is the social question, the social crisis, work, ideas'. He realized that a new element had entered into revolutionary history with this first uprising of the working class as distinct from the bourgeois revolutionaries, and he understood now that, in their different ways, he and the men who fought at the June barricades had gone beyond the mere political revolutionism of the Jacobins and were seeking solutions to the economic injustices evident in the society of their time.
Once he realized this, Proudhon did not hesitate to defend the insurrectionaries. As the repression continued, and the firing squads were replaced by the tribunals with their innumerable sentences of transportation, he felt the need to express his sympathy with the victims; he did so with characteristic emphasis in Le Representant du peuple of 6 July:
Four months of unemployment were suddenly converted into a casus belli, into an insurrection against the government of the
Republic; there is the whole truth of these funereal days. . . . The French worker asks for work, you offer him alms, and he rebels, he shoots at you. . . . I glory in belonging to that proud race, inaccessible to dishonour!
Paris was now under an emergency dictatorship administered by Cavaignac, the general who had suppressed the June revolt, and such a bold statement immediately drew his attention to Proudhon. Two days later, Le Representant du peuple was suspended for an article in which, with a view to easing the worsening economic crisis, Proudhon suggested that at the next quarter day, the government should decree a third reduction in all payments falling due. To make matters worse in the eyes of Cavaignac, he came near to inciting mutiny by a direct call to the National Guard to 'ask for work, credit and bread from your pretended protectors'.
Proudhon was not the man to remain muzzled while there remained any means of making his voice heard. With the newspaper silenced, he made the Constituent Assembly his forum. He presented there a specific motion that creditors should be asked to surrender a third of what was owed them over the past three years, half to be returned to tenants, debtors, etc., to re-establish their positions, and the rest to go to the state as a fund to restore the standard of living which had existed before the Revolution. It was in fact, though not in form, a proposal for interlocking taxation and subsidy of a kind familiar enough in our own time, but the members of the Finance Committee before whom it came for examination were hostile to it, partly because even in its present form they regarded it as an attack on property, and partly because they suspected that in Proudhon's mind the suggestion had wider implications than were immediately apparent.
These implications became evident when Proudhon publicly defended his proposal in the Assembly on 31 July. For all his eloquence in print, he was no orator, and his speech was as the British Ambassador remarked, 'irremediably dull' and very badly delivered. Yet it contained enough provocative material to raise the anger of those colleagues who had gone there with the idea of merely laughing at his extravagances. He defined his aim as the reduction of property to possession
the abolition of revenues, and he went on to say that the
'liquidation of the old society' would be 'stormy or amicable,
according to the passions and the good or bad faith of the
parties'. He put forward his proposal as a first step, remarking
that the propietors should be called upon 'to contribute, for
their part, to tne revolutionary work, proprietors being responsible for the consequences of their refusals'.
When his colleagues shouted for an explanation, Proudhon proceeded to make another of his historic definitions. 'It means that in the case of refusal we ourselves shall proceed to the liquidation without you.' When his hearers shouted again, 'Whom do you mean by you?' he replied: 'When I used these two pronouns, you and we, it is evident that I was identifying myself with the proletariat, and you with the bourgeois class.' 'It is the social war!' shouted the angry conservatives. They were not content with rejecting Proudhon's proposition. They also brought in a special resolution declaring that it 'is an odious attack on the principles of public morality, that it violates property, that it encourages scandal, it makes appeal to the most odious passions'. 691 votes were cast for the resolution and 2 -- including Proudhon's -- against.
Proudhon now stood in virtual isolation among the February revolutionaries. He had not merely acknowledged the existence of a struggle between classes, but he had also for the first time suggested that in such a struggle the anarchists must take sides with the workers as a class and not merely as a vague entity called 'the people'. It is significant that when Le Representant du peuple appeared again on 31 August, the heading on the front page had been enlarged by the words: 'What is the capitalist? Everything! What should he be? Nothing!'
Proudhon's speech to the National Assembly made his name anathema to the upper classes, but it increased his reputation greatly among the workers, and the circulation of his paper increased to 40,000 copies, a phenomenal figure for the relatively small Paris of the 1840s. But the authorities did not aJow him to exploit his success undisturbed; a few days after its reappearance Le Representant du peuple was finally suppressed. Proudhon and his friends had foreseen the possibility.
They immediately collected funds for a new paper, and in
middle of November Le Peuple began to appear.
Meanwhile, Proudhon was maturing his plans for the People's Bank. This was to be an institution for fostering the exchange of products among workers, based on labour cheques, and for providing credit with a nominal interest rate to cover the cost of administration. Proudhon believed it possible to create by these means a network of independent craftsmen and peasants and of associations of workers who would contract out of the capitalist system and eventually achieve what Proudhon always hoped -- despite the frequent violence of his expression -- would be a peaceful transformation of society.
But, though it was incorporated on 31 January 1849, and quickly gathered 27,000 members, the Bank never came into operation, owing to the hazards of Proudhon's journalistic career. In January Le Peuple carried two articles, one signed by Proudhon himself, denouncing Louis-Napoleon, who had been elected President in December, of being the instrument and personification of reaction and of conspiring to enslave the people. When charges of sedition were brought against Proudhon, the Assembly enthusiastically waived his parliamentary immunity by a large majority, and he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment and a fine of three thousand francs. He appealed against the conviction and immediately fled, disguised in blue spectacles and a large muffler; over the Belgian frontier he assumed the name of Dupuis and tried to pass himself off as a vacationing magistrate. For a couple of weeks he wandered disconsolately through the country, and then returned secretly to Paris, where he liquidated the People's Bank for fear it should fall into the wrong hands, and continued to edit Le Peuple from hiding. Eventually he was seen by a police informer and arrested as he strolled on a June evening in the Place de Lafayette.
The three years of Proudhon's imprisonment in Sainte- Pelagie, in the Conciergerie, and in the fortress of Doullens were, ironically, some of the best years of his life. French political prisoners in that happy age underwent a mild confinement. Proudhon was well-housed and well-fed; he could write, study, and receive his friends; he was even allowed, for the
greater part of his term, to go out of prison once a week to
look after his affairs. During this period he wrote three books,
of which were among his best, continued to edit his successive
newspapers, and was even able to marry and start the
propagation of a family. The restriction of movement was
largely counterbalanced by the lack of distraction, and there is
no doubt that during these years Proudhon's life gained in
richness and productivity. In fact, when it was all ended and he
was about to depart from Sainte-Pelagie in the summer of 1852, he wrote with satisfaction:
What have I lost? If I made the balance with exactitude, I would say, nothing. I know ten times more than I knew three years ago, and I know it ten times better; I know positively what I have gained, and truly I do not know what I have lost.
What Proudhon did lose -- and the rest of his life he regretted it -- was his vocation as a journalist. Le Peuple came to an end in the collapse of the insurrection against Louis-Napoleon on 13 lune 1849. Proudhon did not support the insurrection, which he realized was ill-timed and ill-planned, but the friends he had left in charge of Le Peuple were led by their enthusiasm to take an active part, and as a result the paper was suspended and its premises were wrecked by the National Guard.
But Proudhon was not willing without an effort to abandon his journalism, and on 30 September, his third paper, La Voix du peuple, began its career, generously financed by his friend and admirer Alexander Herzen. La Voix du peuple was even more popular than its predecessors, for imprisonment seemed merely to have given a new gloss to Proudhon's reputation; on the days when he wrote special articles, between fifty and sixty thousand copies would sell, so quickly that, according to Herzen, 'often on the following day copies were being sold for a franc instead of a sou'.
The career of La Voix du peuple was as stormy as those of its forerunners. It was constantly being suspended and fined, while Proudhon himself was prosecuted for an article in which he accurately prophesied Louis-Napoleon's coup d'etat a year before it happened; he escaped a greatly lengthened term of imprisonment only on technical grounds. La Voix du peuple was finally suppressed in May 1850. By this time Herzen's fund
was almost gone, and no other willing benefactor could be found. Nevertheless, Proudhon soon began to publish a fourth paper, again called Le Peuple, which, for lack of money, appeared only irregularly. He tried to restrain his flights of indignation, but this did not prevent the first issue from being seized as it came off the press, and Le Peuple was finally destroyed by a new stamp duty on all political literature which reduced circulation sharply and left the paper with no resources to meet a last fine of 6,000 francs, imposed on 14 October 1850 for alleged 'provocation to civil war'. In this way, after more than two years, the first sustained experimeriment in anarchist journalism came to an end.
Proudhon regretted his forced withdrawal from journalism, but he did not allow it to prevent him from putting forward his ideas, and the time saved from periodicals he used for writing books. Of the three which he wrote during his, imprisonment two at least remain important in anarchist history.
Les Confessions d'un revolutionnaire, which appeared in 1850, analyses the events of 1848 from an anarchistic point of view, and comes to the conclusion that the revolutionary tradition will not be fulfilled until the true principle of the Revolution is accepted -- 'no more government of man by man, by means of the accumulation of capital'. Les Confessions d'un revolutionnaire is in fact most interesting for its unorthodox view of a particular historical event, for its sharp analysis of the various political trends of the time, and for the autobiographical passages which, despite the title, are brought in merely to reinforce Proudhon's theoretical arguments.
The General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century, which followed in July 1851, is considerably less brilliant in style than Les Confessions, but it is more important as a stage in the progress of anarchist thought, for here, more than in any other of his works, Proudhon presents the positive examination of society which he had promised five years before as a constructive supplement to Economic Contradictions.
The General Idea of the Revolution begins with a study of the revolutionary process, which Proudhon presents as a necessary phenomenon, a development that can be avoided no more than such natural events as death and birth and growth.
A revolution is a force against which no power, divine or human, can prevail, and whose nature it is to grow by the very resistance it encounters. . . . The more you repress it, the more you increase its rebound and render its action irresistible, so that it is precisely the same for the triumph of an idea whether it is persecuted, harassed, beaten down from the start, or whether it grows and develops unobstructed. Like the Nemesis of the ancients, whom neither prayers nor threats could move, the revolution advances, with sombre and predestined tread, over the flowers strewn by its friends, through the blood of its defenders, over the bodies of its enemies.
Such a view of revolution fits into the anarchist conception of society as part of the world of nature, governed by the necessary forces which represent the realm of destiny within whose boundaries man has to work and achieve his freedom. Later, adopting Darwinian formulas, Kropotkin would express the idea more scientifically, presenting revolutions as leaps or mutations in an evolutionary process, but the general conception did not change.
Shifting focus to his own age, Proudhon argues that a revolution is necessary in the nineteenth century because the French Revolution of 1789 only half accomplished its task. The men who carried it out were concerned with political changes only, and paid no attention to the economic changes demanded by the death of feudalism.
The Republic should have established Society; it thought only of establishing Government. . . . Therefore, while the problem propounded in '89 seemed to be officially solved, fundamentally there was a change only in governmental metaphysics, in what Napoleon called ideology. . . . In place of this governmental, feudal and military rule, imitated from that of former kings, the new edifice of industrial institutions must be built
That edifice can be built, Proudhon contends, by means of Association, but he is careful to point out that by this he does not mean a rigid or Utopian organization. Association, considered as an end in itself, is dangerous to freedom, but considered as a means to a greater end, the liberation of individual men, it can be beneficial. There is already an anticipation of the syndicalist attitude in Proudhon's statement that the associations should be valued only in so far as they tend to establish 'the social republic'.
The importance of their work lies not in their petty union interests, but in their denial of the rule of capitalists, usurers, and governments, which the first revolution left undisturbed. Afterwards, when they have conquered the political lie . . . the groups of workers should take over the great departments of industry which are their natural inheritance.
The great task of the associations will be to oppose to the idea of government the idea of contract.
The idea of contract excludes that of government. . . . Between contracting parties there is necessarily a real personal interest for each; a man bargains with the aim of securing his liberty and his revenue at the same time. Between governing and governed, on the other hand, no matter how the system of representation or delegation of the governmental function is arranged, there is necessarily an alienation of part of the liberty and means of the citizen.
It is in the generalization of this principle of contract, in the turning of society into a network of voluntary understandings between free individuals, that Proudhon sees the new order of economic as distinct from political organization. When that order is achieved, there will no longer be any need for government and, returning to his old serialist doctrine, Proudhon concludes that the end of the series beginning in authority is anarchy.
But he does not leave the argument in these general terms. Instead, he presents the nearest thing we have to a Proudhonian Utopia, a sketch of the arrangements of society as they take shape when the idea of contract has triumphed. Already the elements of decentralization and federalism and direct workers' control which characterize later anarchist and syndicalist visions are there. One sees a clear progression from the Godwinian Utopia, brought about by the experience of those fifty years at the beginning of which Godwin lived in a mostly agrarian society and at the end of which Proudhon lived in a world that was becoming steadily industrial. This is the sketch of the free society as Proudhon presents it to us.
In place of laws, we will put contracts; no more laws voted by the majority or even unanimously. Each citizen, each town, each industrial union will make its own laws. In place of political powers we will put economic forces. . . . In place of standing armies, we will
industrial associations. In place of police we will put identity of interests. In place of political centralization, we will put economic centralization.
Law courts will be replaced by arbitration, national bureaucracies will be replaced by decentralized direct administration, and large industrial or transport undertakings will be managed by associations of workers; education will be controlled by parents and teachers, and academic training will be replaced by integrated education with 'instruction . . . inseparable from apprenticeship, and scientific education . . . inseparable from professional education'. In this way, Proudhon contends, a social unity will be attained, compared with which the so-called order of governmental societies will appear for what it is -- 'nothing but chaos, serving as a basis for endless tyranny'.
The General Idea of the Revolution can be regarded as the central work of Proudhon's career. Here the constructive hints of his earlier books are brought together into the semblance of a system, and here too are sketched the principal ideas his later works develop. Like all of Proudhon's books -- and like the writing of most other anarchists -- it is strongest on the attack. In contrast with his sharp critical insight into the errors of authoritarian revolutionary doctrines, there is a rather fuzzy optimism about Proudhon's faith in the power of reason and in man's propensity to detect and choose his own good. It is true that his main point -- that the cure for social ills cannot be found on a political level and must be sought in the economic roots of society -- has been reinforced historically by the consistent failure of politically dominated societies to establish social and economic justice. But even Proudhon's anarchist descendants soon ceased to claim that the solution could be quite so simple a matter of contractual arrangement as he suggests in his more hopeful flights.
Release from prison, which for most men means an enlargement of life, brought Proudhon into a world of unexpected frustrations. Within the walls of Sainte-Pelagie, in a select company of rebels, he had not realized how much the atmosphere of France had changed since the establishment of the Empire. He emerged to find himself marked by the extremity of his ideas. He even found it hard to earn a living; his name
frightened away publishers, editors, employers, even prospective landlords. And when a Belgian publisher eventually brought out an innocuous pamphlet called Philosophie du progres (in which Proudhon developed his idea of a universe in incessant metamorphosis'), the police forbade its importation into France.
But the hard years seemed to be drawing to an end in 1858, when Proudhon succeeded in persuading a Paris publisher to bring out his most massive and his greatest work, De la justice dans la revolution et dans l'eglise. De la justice had begun a reply to a scandalous personal attack by a dubious Catholic apologist who wrote under the name Eugene de Mirecourt, but it grew into a vast treatise comparing transcendental justice, the justice of the Church, with immanent justice, the true justice that finds its lodging in the human conscience and is the real moving force of the Revolution.
De la justice is an extraordinary book, full of magnificent prose and curious learning, of original speculation and fascinatingly fresh passages of childhood recollections. If The General Idea of the Revolution provides the best summary of Proudhon's social proposals, De la justice is the best compendium of his individuality, a book rich in knowledge, in argument, above all in idiosyncrasy, full of apparent contradiction, but in the end projecting an image of personality that no biographer of Proudhon has been able to rival. Yet so far as the history of anarchist thought is concerned it remains a secondary book, since what it actually does is to take the social ideas Proudhon had already discussed and rearrange them in a larger philosophic frame. For immanent Justice, transmuted into terms of human action, is nothing else than Equality, and Equality -- as Proudhon had already argued -- is to be attained by the practice of mutualistic association and the economic reorganization of society.
De la justice, as the first work of importance to appear under Proudhon's signature since 1852, aroused a lively interest; six thousand copies were sold almost immediately, but less than a week after publication all the unsold copies were seized, and Proudhon was brought before the courts charged with a formidable series of offences against public morality, against
religion, and against the state. For the second time he was unlucky in his judges, and received a sentence of three years' inprisonment and a fine of three thousand francs. Once again he appealed and, proudly proclaiming his reluctance to escape, departed for Belgium without delay.
This time he assumed the name Durfort and posed as a professor of mathematics. However, a reassuring interview with the Brussels police led him to use his own name again and establish his family in Belgium. He settled down to write La querre et la paix, a provocative work on the sublimation of warlike impulses into creative social urges. He also became aware of a reawakening of interest in his ideas among Russian intellectuals and French working men. Tolstoy called, and a Russian officer brought greetings from Tomsk, where Bakunin was in exile; deputations of workers arrived from Rouen and Paris to ask his advice on their activities. His friends even began to talk of the appearance of a Proudhonian party. Proudhon, however, cautiously denied any such development, and a letter he wrote to Alfred Darimon echoes curiously back to Godwin in its emphasis on discussion and philosophic investigation in opposition to partisan activity; the anarchist frame of mind, even in the absence of an evident historical link, is surprisingly repetitive in its manifestations.
As for our concluding from this isolated fact the existence of a Proudhonian party, since you use the term, I believe that would be exposing ourselves to a great illusion [he protested]. The people can be of a Blanquist, Mazzinian, or Garibaldian party, that is to say of a party where one believes, where one conspires, where one fights; they are never of a party where one reasons and thinks. I have cause to believe, it is true, that since the coup d'etat the public which from time to time shows me its goodwill has increased rather than diminished; there is hardly a week that does not give me proofs of this. But that elite of readers does not form a party; they are people who ask me for books, for ideas, for discussion, for philosophic mvestigation, and who, for the most part, would abandon me tomorrow with contempt if I spoke to them of creating a party and forming themselves, under my initiative, into a secret society
In fact, Proudhon exaggerated the detachment of his position at this time. Far from being a mere man of theory, during the
final period of his life he became more and more involved in social issues, and in his last four years he wrote at substantial length on such topical questions as literary copyright, realism in art as exemplified in Courbet's painting, federalism, abstention from voting, and, above all, the ability of the working class to conduct its own affairs.
There was a certain reciprocity in the situation; if Proudhon became more anxious than at any time since 1848 to take part in current events, it was largely because the world had become more interested in Proudhon. In the early 1860s the political atmosphere in France began to change rapidly; for the first time since 1848 the workers were showing their discontent, while Napoleon III, sensing the growing insecurity of his regime, tried to gain a wider basis of popular support by means of concessions to them. Open association again became possible, and the craft workers took advantage of the relaxation of controls to establish trade unions and producers' cooperatives. They remembered also how Proudhon almost alone among the leading socialists had taken the defence of the insurgents in June 1848, and the very isolation in which he had lived since the beginning of the Empire increased his prestige. Thus, whether Proudhon wished it or not, a movement based on his ideas of association and mutual credit began to emerge. But, though there were Proudhonians, and enough of them to dominate the French working-class movement by the middle of the 1860s, there was never a Proudhonian party. Until the rise of Marxism more than twenty years later, French socialism was to remain non-partisan in the strict sense, and here the influence of Proudhon was decisive.
Yet, although during his Belgian exile Proudhon became aware of his growing popularity among the French workers, it was not until he returned to France in the autumn of 1862 that the problems of working-class action began to dominate his mind. During the last months of his exile he was more concerned with the question of nationalism, which had been given a renewed topicality by Italy's rapid progress toward unification.
Nationalism was perhaps the most dynamic heritage of the French Revolution, and in this sense 1848 had carried on the tradition of 1789; national aims were equated with democratic
aspirations, and in the eyes of most revolutionaries, whether Jacobins or socialists, the liberation of fatherlands was as important as the liberation of individuals or classes. Between 1848 and the Commune, Garibaldi and Mazzini became the great heroes of European democracy; even Bakunin, before his final anarchist phase, was a kind of Slav nationalist.
But Proudhon, despite his love of the French people and the French land, was never a true nationalist. His closest emotional loyalty was a regional one, to his native Franche-Comte, which he more than once remarked might be better off if it joined the Swiss Confederation. For him the unity of Frenchmen was not a political one, and in The General Idea of the Revolution he stated clearly his desire for the ending of national frontiers, with all the divisions they imply. He was one of the few men of 1848 to realize the reactionary aspects of nationalism, and a decade later he was even more distrustful of the uncritical support given by his fellow radicals to nationalist movements, and particularly to those in Poland and Italy. In La Guerre et la paix, whose main theme is that 'the end of militarism is the mission of the nineteenth century', he already touched on the question of nationalism, and as soon as the book was finished he began an epistolary campaign against the nationalists, which estranged him from his old friend Herzen, whom he reproached for lending himself 'to all these [nationalist] intrigues, which represent neither political liberty nor economic right nor social reform'.
It was the situation in Italy that led him to give closer consideration to the problems of nationalism. Mazzini, Garibaldi, and the majority of the Italian revolutionaries wished to construct a centralized state out of the liberation that seemed within their grasp; most members of the Left in France supported them. Proudhon, with a prophetic eye, saw that a strong Italian state might lead both to internal Caesarism and to disruption in international politics. On the other hand, Italy as it was -- split into many small political units -- seemed to him the ideal country for the application of his own solution of a federal union of autonomous regions with no central government to impede social progress and no nationalist ambitions to endanger European peace and unity.
The articles he wrote on this question aroused the hostility of Belgian patriots, who demonstrated noisily outside his house, with the result that he finally took advantage of a Bonapartist political amnesty to return to France. Once back in Paris, he set to work on a book that would summarize his views on nationalism and put forward the federalist alternative. Du principe federatif, which appeared in 1863, was one of his most chaotic works, written hastily at a time when his health was already failing; much of it was devoted to topical wrangles with nationalist critics, but basically his intention was to carry his idea of anarchy from the field of economic and industrial relations to world society in general. Federation, in fact, he saw as a stage on the way to final anarchy, which at this time he admitted might lie centuries ahead; at the basis of both he saw 'public order resting directly on the liberty and conscience of the citizen'. In his view the federal principle should operate from the simplest level of society. The organization of administration should begin locally and as near the direct control of the people as possible; individuals should start the process by federating into communes and associations. Above that primary level the confederal organization would become less an organ of administration than of coordination between local units. Thus the nation would be replaced by a geographical confederation of regions, and Europe would become a confederation of confederations, in which the interest of the smallest province would have as much expression as that of the largest, and in which all affairs would be settled by mutual agreement, contract, and arbitration. In terms of the evolution of anarchist ideas, Du principe federatif is one of the most important of Proudhon's books, since it presents the first intensive libertarian development of the idea of federal organization as a practical alternative to political nationalism.
The rest of Proudhon's life was dominated by his awareness of the rising discontent of the French workers and by his desire to give that discontent an articulate expression. Already, when the Bonapartist government held elections in May 1863, he became the active centre of an abstentionist movement, and, if he did not yet go to the anarchist extremity of completely rejecting parliamentarianism and voting, he declared that
universal suffrage was 'nothing' unless it were 'a corollary of the federal principle'.
Not all the workers who followed Proudhon in his general federalist and mutualist ideas agreed with his counsel of abstention from parliamentary action. Three mutualist workers stood unsuccessfully as candidates in 1863, and the reasoning behind their action was shown in 1864 when the group who had sponsored them issued the famous Manifesto of the Sixty, one of the key documents of French socialism. Except for one schoolmaster, the signatories were all manual workers; two of them, Henri Tolain and Charles Limousin, were to become leaders of the Proudhonian faction in the First International.
The Manifesto argued that, despite the theoretical equality of all Frenchmen since 1789, the conditions of a capitalist world militate constantly against the workers. This situation is perpetuated by the existing parliamentary system, in which the deputies, instead of speaking for all their constituents, represent only interests in which they themselves are involved. Therefore it is necessary for the workers to be represented by men of their own class who will formulate 'with moderation, but with firmness, our hopes, desires, and rights'.
Though he disagreed with the Manifesto of the Sixty, Proudhon recognized its importance; he discussed it at great length with some of the signatories and also with working men who asked his opinion of it. To a group in Rouen he declared that some way must be found for the workers to be represented, but contended that this could not be done within society as it was constituted. Existing parties and political institutions were all designed to serve the propertied classes, and the workers must recognize this situation; unwillingly Proudhon granted the inevitability of the bitter social conflict that was to dominate France in the years after his death.
I say to you with all the energy and sadness of my heart: separate yourselves from those who have cut themselves off from you. . . . It is by separation that you will win; no representatives, no candidates.
The salvation of the workers, in other words, is the task of the workers themselves. The anarchists who followed Proudhon were to hold consistently to this point of view.
These discussions of the Manifesto of the Sixty became the pretext for Proudhon's last book, De la capacite politique des classes ouvrieres, on which he worked persistently through his last illness. 'Despite the gods, despite everything,' he cried 'I will have the last word'; he considered the book so important that he dictated the last passages on his deathbed to Gustave Chaudey. He was right in the sense that, more than any other of his books, De la capacite influenced the development of the labour movement in France and indirectly, through syndicalism, the development of anarchism throughout Europe and the Americas. It gave, moreover, the final touch to the anarchist vision he had spent his life formulating.
In this book Proudhon elaborates his own statement of 1848, that 'the proletariat must emancipate itself, by celebrating the entry of the workers as an independent force in the field of politics. 'To possess political capacity,' he declares, 'is to have the consciousness of oneself as a member of the collectivity, to affirm the idea that results from this consciousness, and to pursue its realization. Whoever unites these three conditions is capable.' He maintains that the Manifesto of the Sixty, despite its errors, shows the French proletariat beginning to fulfil these conditions. It is conscious that its life and needs make it a separate group with its own place in society and its own mission in social evolution. The idea emerging from this consciousness is that of mutuality, which, aiming at the organization of society on an egalitarian basis, gives the working class a progressive character. The realization comes through federalism. Federalism will guarantee the people true sovereignty, since power will rise from below and rest on 'natural groups' united in coordinating bodies to implement the general will. The sensitivity of this system will be assured by the immediate revocability of any delegation. The 'natural groups' will be identical with the working units of society, and so the political state will disappear and be replaced by a network of social and economic administration. Anarchy in its positive sense will be achieved.
Before this last testament was published Proudhon died, in January 1865; he had lived long enough to hear with joy the news of the founding of the First International, largely through
the initiative of his own followers. A great procession followed his funeral to the cemetery of Passy, in which veterans of '48 mingled with thousands of anonymous Paris working men -- the men who in a few years would be fighting in defence of the Commune. It was a symbolic meeting of two generations of revolutionaries, and it underlined Proudhon's peculiar importance as a transitional figure. He demonstrated in his life and his ideas the change in the libertarian attitude from the detached and idealistic point of view that Godwin represented to the close involvement in the social struggle that became most manifest in Bakunin and his successors. While Proudhon himself developed from the theorist of an agrarian world into the interpreter of an industrial society, the experiences of the working people in Latin countries were making them increasingly receptive to a doctrine that seemed to offer a way out of the disillusioning impasse of a political democracy governed by property owners. It was out of this rapprochement of the ideas of the revolutionary and the nascent wishes of a wide section of the working class that anarchism as a movement was finally to emerge in the late 1860s. Proudhon did not create the anarchist movement -- though he shares credit with Godwin for creating anarchism -- and he might have rejected many of its later manifestations, but without his preparatory work it could hardly have arisen under the captaincy of his most spectacular and most heretical disciple, Michael Bakunin.
1 The first anarchist periodical of any kind may well have been a sheet called El Porvenir, which Proudhon's Spanish disciple Ramon de la Sagra published briefly in Galicia in 1845.