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The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
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  Anarchist History
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  Education and Anarchy
  Anarchist Poets
The text is from Denis William Brogan (1934), Proudhon, London: H. Hamilton.


By D.W. Brogan



PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON was born on the 15th of January, 1809, and thus grew up in the shadow of two great events, the French and the industrial revolutions; both of these he felt profoundly; the first of them he understood. He was born in Battant, a suburb of Besancon, the capital of the Free County of Burgundy, and his intense local patriotism remained a living force in his life and thought to the day of his death. His 'little country', Franche-Comte', had only been part of France for one hundred and fifty years when Proudhon was born; Besancon was a real local capital, and some of the seeds of Proudhon's federalism, of his dislike of Paris, and of centralisation, were sown in those early years. He was a citizen of no mean city, a child of no mere department; and, whether he was defending the intellectual independence of the County of Burgundy against the pretensions of the Duchy of Burgundy, or looking forward with delight to the reconstitution of the thirty submerged nationalities which he believed existed in France, he was fighting, not merely for a general principle,but for the memories and loyalties of his youth.

  More important still was his parentage. 'My ancestors on both sides were free peasants, exempt from feudal servitude from time immemorial'; there remained to Proudhon all his life a family pride as great as that of a Guerinantes; be was born of no proletarian or servile stock. Had not his maternal grandfather, the old soldier, withstood before the revolution die local tyrannical squire, and was not his mother 'noted for her virtues and for her republican ideas'? 'This is real nobility of race. I myself am a noble.' His father's family, the Proudhons, was noted for obstinacy; one branch had risen in the world, had entered the middle classes and produced an eminent lawyer, but the poorer connections were far from playing the role of poor relations; they had their share of the pride, that was to be so marked in their most famous kinsman. Proudhon's father was a cooper and, for a time, a brewer. He was, doubtless, an honest and industrious man, but unsuccessful in his business. Later, Proudhon attributed his father's financial disasters to his incorrigible habit of selling his beer at the 'just price', that is, at the cost of production, instead of imitating the rest of the brewers who sold at a profit. Not only that, the elder Proudhon was careful about the character of his customers, and so lost money by refusing to let women enter his shop. Others were not so scrupulous, and 'having grown rich by prostitution ... married their children off to the best people, while my father's children have found nobody'. The lesson learned here was never forgotten; there was a morally right way of doing business; there was a morally wrong way of doing business; but in modern society the right way led straight to bankruptcy, the wrong way to wealth and honour. Society must be made safe for honesty and a world be created in which the children of an honest man like Claude-Francois Proudhon should not be embittered by having their father's honesty in hunger and humiliation.

  Although Proudhon considered himself a nativeof Besancon, the suburb where he was born, preserved, as M. Daniel Halevy tells us, a rural character. 'Many market-gardeners, peasants, wine-growers, found it convenient to lodge there, not far from the city-folk. Thus they could make their living without changing their way of life, keeping faithfully, in the shadow of the town, to their rural customs and their rural speech.' This, again, was of great importance to Proudhon, for he learned to know and sympathise with the peasants, to feel with the peasants in his heart, to share their land-hunger; their rigid views of right-living; their deep conservatism; all combined with their passion for equality; their class-consciousness; and their savage resolution to be each master of his own fields and his own household.

  Not only did Proudhon know the peasant life; he lived it. Until he was twelve, he was constantly engaged in farm-work, especially in herding cattle, and late in life, he declared that there, in the grass, looking at the sky, he learned un-Christian lessons of trust in nature, and distrust of 'that absurd spiritualism which is at the basis of Christian life and education'. When he had become a famous antagonist or the Church, both he and his enemies were inclined to exaggerate the heresies of his childhood; and one pious antagonist declared that prayer found no echo in the Proudhon household. It was never safe to assume anything about Proudhon, and he was indignant at this charge, for he was, in fact, brought up in matter-of-fact orthodoxy by his parents. They were good Catholics of the old French peasant school and so was their son. He believed in God and the saints; he also believed in nymphs and fairies.

   Proudhon owed his chance of formal education to the Abbe Sirebon, the parish priest, next, to his father's employer, but, above all, to his mother, Catherine, who was the mainstay of the poor household. The Proudhons were going down in the world. Claude-Francois was no longer his own master, the future was dark but the boy was to be given his chance. The entry to the local college (high school) was the greatest event of Proudhon's youth; more important than the siege of Besancon, than his father failure, than the birth of a younger brother. He now learned of delights as keen as any he had known as a herd-boy; he displayed the prodigious industry that was to remain with him all his life and an appetite for learning that startled his teachers. But he studied under great difficulties; his family was desperately poor, and he had to borrow school books from more fortunate boys, he had no hat; he wore wooden shoes; and he learned the truth of the local proverb, 'Poverty is no crime; it is worse.'

  The studies were almost entirely mathematics and Latin. He was a poor mathematician (and that is worth remembering), but he was an excellent Latinist. He mastered the language and shone in it and, until his death, language fascinated him. He won prizes and one of them was Fenelon's Demonstration of the Existence of God. He read it, and it shook his faith. 'After that,' he said, 'I was a metaphysician' -a belief which M. Daniel Halevy notes, was an illusion.

  His school life was difficult, and its difficulties nourished his sombre pride; be was religious, but be saw, or thought he saw, that his zeal was ill-rewarded, that the Church was a respecter of persons. When he was sixteen he abandoned the practice of his religion, although be was to return to it again. The family fortunes grew worse and worse. On the day he was to receive a prize, there was no one of his family present, and the presiding official had to take the place of the missing kinsfolk. He went home to find his father in consternation, his mother in tears; a lawsuit had ended in a decision against his father. 'That evening we supped on bread and water.' The strain on the family resources of keeping Pierre Joseph at school was unbearable. "At eighteen," said his father, "I earned my keep and I hadn't had so long an apprenticeship"-"I thought he was right."' What trade to adopt was now the question? If he could have got access to the land, he might have become a farmer, but the want of capital barred that road. 'Perhaps it was only the want of a good organisation of rural credit that kept me from remaining all my life a peasant and a conservative.' Another lesson, the exclusion of the poor from property and independence, was now learned.

   The trade chosen was printing, and he never forgot the lessons he learned in his apprenticeship. He was proud to have a trade and believed that it was a sure shield against want, that he was now independent of everybody. He also became convinced that the competent artisan received a more fruitful training than the bookworm; and he was always irritated by the claims of an intellectual elite to lead the workers for their own good. His conviction of the necessity, and the possibility, of equality was given a secure basis in his mind by his memories of the printer's chapel. He learned the force of trade practice, of the way in which a customary code can keep the sluggards up to the mark and prevent the strong from racing ahead too fast. He learned a trade morality, and the need for and the possibility of mutual loyalty. He never lost the conviction that he knew the minds, the needs, the natures of the workers, and of the peasants, as no academics, fortified with formal doctrine, could know them. The workers never became for him a homogeneous class of which any thousand were worth any other thousand; their salvation must come from within. Any leadership from the outside, no matter what were its claims to superior knowledge or disinterestedness, was simply another form of tyranny. There were more modes of exploitation than those created by formal property relations.

  Besides learning his trade he fell in love, violently, as he was never to fall in love again, and he returned to his religion with a passionate enthusiasm. The work of the printing-shop was largely concerned with theology; Proudhou read widely in the fathers of the Church as well as more in modern writers. He thought of himself as an apologist for the faith, for if he was already suspicious of the political side of Catholicism, his faith in the theory, if not in the practice, of the Church was still warm. Already he was perplexed by the problem of inequality, of worldly injustice. Was the Church right, was there no remedy for these evils in this world, or was it possible to organise society on new lines, to harmonise the desires and passions of men? Was man the maimed creature, marked by original sin as the Church described him, or was the escape from his prison house in his own hands once he found the key? He was tempted by the heresy of Socinianism, by the denial of original sin. He was unwittingly on his way out of the Church and on to another faith.

  He was now a proof-reader and, through his corrections of a Latin Lives of the Saints, he made the acquaintance and won the friendship of its young editor, Gustave Fallot, destined to be the first great personal influence in Proudhon's life. Fallot was, or hoped to be, a philologist; he infected Proudhon with his enthusiasm, an enthusiasm which, with Proudhon, took the form of learning Hebrew. This study left permanent marks on his mind. He retained to his death what was, for a Frenchman, an astonishing familiarity with the Bible. It was a weapon of fact, of argument, of rhetorical appeal, and he ranked it with Adam Smith and Hegel among the three sources of his ideas. Not only the Bible, but philology attracted him. It is hard to realize now the prestige of philological studies in that age; new vistas were opened up by it, vistas not only in the history of language, but in the general history of mankind. It was a clue to the nature of things which, if strenuously held to, would lead its owner into the heart of the labyrinth where lay the secret of human misery to be remedied by the application of the true laws of man's nature, laws which language could illuminate. This illusion, that linguistic knowledge was the key to all or to most problems, never wholly left Proudhon. It, as much as any borrowed dialectic, was his method of research and of argument. On the whole, this belief did him harm. It is worth saying once that the Hebrew text of the commandment does not say 'Thou shalt not steal', but 'Thou shalt not put aside', but Lo thignob recurs too often, not as an illustration, but as an argument. Again and again arguments are interrupted or eloquence is allowed to cool off, while the etymology of a word is pursued through bold and often erroneous guesses. It is not of first-class importance to know (or to think you know) that all the world is wrong in believing that religio at bottom means binding , when it really means bending. In any case, even if philology had been as powerful and adequate a weapon as Proudhon thought, he was unfitted to use it. He knew a good deal of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, but be knew nothing of language, or nothing to the point. He pained friends, who knew better, by his bold guesses. He had neither the scholar's equipment nor temperament. Words had the meanings Proudhon wanted them to have, and if modern philology gave him no support, so much the worse for it! It is in vain that his patient friend, Professor Bergmann, tries to tame him; the bee keeps buzzing in the bonnet. He had valid reasons for disliking Renan's methods, but, in any case, the professional superiority of Renan in philological equipment would have made Proudhon suspicious of his rival author of a Life of Jesus.

  Another key to knowledge of society was now put into his hands, for a fellow-citizen of Franche-Comte, just becoming famous, had his book printed at Besancon. The book was The New Industrial World of Charles Fourier, and it helped to open the world of economic speculation to the young proof-corrector. Later in life Proudhon, as was his wont, was less and less willing to admit his debt to Fourier, especially as he got to be on worse and worse terms with Fourier's disciples, but the influence was great. It is most obvious in the first edition of the Creation of Order in Humanity, where the system of series is made to do all sorts of wonders, but this was chiefly a matter of words. But Fourier's scepticism of the state his view that the social revolution could be brought about within the existing society by setting an example of a more efficient economy (the Phalanstery) has point of affinity with the later anarchical doctrines of Proudhon, although the effect of the example given in Proudbon's system is moral, not economic. Proudhon admitted six weeks of infatuation with Fourier, but the influence lasted longer than that. Proudhon came to scorn all 'Utopias' as Marx did; the optimism of Saint-Simon, of Cabet, and of the Foutierists infuriated him; all these promises of increased wealth to be generally distributed by ingenious manipulations, by improved productive methods, were deceit in his eyes, for the best that could be hoped for was decent poverty for everyone, instead of wealth for some and wretchedness for the rest. It is a source of his strength that the satisfactions he promises his disciples are moral rather than material, but if he abandoned the path opened by Fourier, he was for long enough in the debt of his fellow-countryman, and in his own later years he thought more kindly of the speculator whom he had been used to attack.

  While this interior revolution was under way, an exterior revolution broke out. The 'three glorious days of July' (1830) overthrew the restored Bourbons and made it evident to the world that the revolutionary spirit was again on the march. That revolutionary spirit filled the mind and still more the heart of Proudhon. He never wavered in his belief that the French Revolution was a turning point in human history. That Revolution might be, for Marx, merely a triumph of the new capitalist over the old feudal order, but for Proudhon it was the beginning of the reign of Justice, or, at any rate, it made possible the institution of the reign of Justice. What the content of Justice was, in Proudbon's system, will be described later, but Proudhon never regretted for a moment the Revolution. He could be bitter about its betrayal by leaders who were heroes of the revolutionary legend, but whom he condemned for misunderstanding the great moment of deliverance, but none of his sneers at democracy and, still more, at democrats, can make of him (despite the ingenious special pleading of M. Louis Dimier) a 'master of the counter-revolution'. Nowhere more clearly than in Proudhon, can one feel the unshakable devotion of the French peasant and worker to the memory of those days 'when Death was on thy drums, Democracy, and, with one rush of slaves, the world was free'. Is a man, a book, a project, counter-revolutionary? It is thereby condemned. Does a law or an idea seem to attempt to damn up the revolutionary flood; it is futile. The future is, must be with the Revolution: the old obedience to traditional authority, in politics and in religion, has received a mortal wound. Any society based on these ideas is bleeding to death; it may be bandaged up for a time, but the bleeding cannot be stopped, As much as Marx, Proudhon believed and preached the inevitable victory of his cause, the making of the world safe for the idea of Justice brought into it by the French Revolution. It is the theme of his greatest book, Justice in the Revolution and the Church. It shapes all his economic arguments, so that Walras is startled to find an economic doctrine refuted as being against the spirit of the Revolution. The Re- volution, though side-tracked and betrayed, is ever on the march. Crises like 1830 and 1848 are bred by the instability of all institutions which do not frankly take as their base the revolutionary idea of Justice, that is to say, equality. There are now no authorities of tradition or of divine right; all such authorities died in 1789; although their rotting corpses may yet cumber the ground.

  The immediate effect of the revolution of 1830 was not to provide Proudbon with a philosophy, but to deprive him of his job, for the upheaval was bad for business, Proudhon learned that even being master of a trade did not (as it should have done) guarantee a living. Fallot did his best for the friend to whom he predicted that 'you will be a writer, a philosopher, you will be one of the lights of the age ... you cannot escape your destiny'. The destiny was still fugitive, however; a livelihood of any kind, as a teacher, as a printer, was the first necessity. Fallot had an idea. Why not apply for the Suard Scholarship? It was tenable for three years; it was the very thing that would enable Proudhon to complete his education. But Proudhon was far less ambitious for himself than his friend was for him. At last he succumbed to Fallot's pleadings, to the offer to share their resources in Paris. He set off for the capital on foot; Paris did not please him, neither the place nor the people; and Fallot fell ill. He recovered, but Proudhon would not be a drag on his friend any longer; there was no work to be had in the city, so he set out, on foot, for the South, with £2 in his pocket.

  He was, if not disappointed, for the moment at least, defeated; he was to be a worker, not a writer - and he was a worker without work. The times continued bad; the helplessness of the mere worker was taught to Proudhon. He arrived at Toulon with three and a half francs left; he found no work, but had he not a passport which promised help and protection? He applied to the mayor to give him work, and the mayor, one of the now triumphant bourgeoisie which the recent revolution had put into power, told him that he had misunderstood his passport; all he could claim was enough money to take him home. The official having failed, he appealed to the man; again he was repulsed. 'Very well 'I said between clenche teeth, 'I promise you to remember this interview.' And remember it he did, more than twenty years later when he told the story.

  There was nothing for it but to return to Besancon, where his family had just lost the third son, called up to the army, which the sons of the prosperous could escape by a money payment, and where Jean- Etienne was to die, another victim of society. For a brief moment Proudhon was editor of a new paper, an organ of 'advanced ideas'; but, in a day, he learned that the ideas must not be more advanced than those of the proprietor. The job was thrown up at once, and a lesson on the necessary compromises of party journalism taught - but not learned.

  He worked for a while in the country at Arbois, aiding in a lawsuit against a great proprietor and drinking deeply at the popular traditions of the Revolution; and then returned to Besancon to work for his old employers as a proof-reader. He had £6 a month; it was wealth! Among his jobs was the seeing through the press of a Latin Bible - and of a new edition of the theological dictionary of Bergier. To the latter he owed much of that command of theological learning that made many think he had studied for the priesthood. It reinforced his contempt for vagueness or for compromise; between Catholicism and Atheism, or, as he was to insist, 'anti-theism, there is nothing that a sober man can rest on. There must be certainty, and one side or the other must be chosen. He hated the Church and many of its servants, but he never ceased to respect it; it was the greatest, most respectable of errors, not to be assailed with the feeble and corrupt methods of Voltaire - for although Voltaire was on the right side, the Bible and the Church were not to be replaced by the lewd jesting of La Pucelle or the sentimental religiosity of Rousseau.

  Meantime, he attempted to escape from dependence, not by learning, but by his trade. He set up in partnership as a printer. It was a moment of hope and joy; a short moment, for his friend Fallot died, his great schemes unfinished, and he had left his fame to Proudhon as a charge - and, indeed, if Fallot is at all remembered to-day, it is as one who helped Proudhon! But Proudhon's ambitions were not purely those of a printer; he had something to say; perhaps it was, as M. Daniel Halevy suggests, a way of carrying on Fallot's work. In any case, Proudhon began his first book, an essay in philology, the science whose possibilities had dazzled him when Fallot first displayed them before his eyes. In form, the book was an appendix to a philological essay of Bergier, but in essence it was the search after eternal truth by the road of language; the science of language will lead man to the truth he is made to know. The essay fell entirely flat; it did not bear Proudhon's name and, in any case, no one noticed it. As a serious study in philology it was worthless; Proudhon, like Bergier, lived in a world where modem scientific philology was unknown. Later, Proudhon recognised this, and was as scornful of his first efforts as any critic could desire. For the moment the lost chance of fame was less important than the decline of the printing business. Proudhon was repeating his father's experience, an effort to secure independence by hard work and honest dealing was proving fruitless. The death of his brother, of Fallot, the failure of his writings, of his business, all embittered him. He had,dreamcd of private vengeance, of the enforcement of justice, or, at least, the avenging of wrong by a secret court of honest men, only there were so few honest men! A hundred men in France devoted to.justice would suffice, but out of 34,000,000 where to find the hundred? And meanwhile, the prison-gates were again closing round him. He had failed to escape by his learning; he had failed, it appeared, to escape by his trade; he must resign himself to a life as the servant of others. Why?

  There was a last chance open to find an answer to this problem, the Suard Scholarship. It was about to be offered by the Academy of Besancon; he would be a candidate, and in the meantime he had a job as a proof-reader in Paris. This was a change from his last stay in the capital, a change for the better; but Fallot was dead and there was nothing in Paris to touch his heart, although he made a few new acquaintances, some of whom were in time to be friends.

  Meanwhile, the negotiations and the necessary tactical moves in the campaign for the scholarship were under way. Proudhon had won respect for his character, and admiration for his talent, in Besancon, but he was not always a help to his sponsors. One of the electors (and he was no bad judge) thought highly of Proudhon's ability, but declared 'that fellow is bound to be a troublesome customer' -and refused to vote for him. Not only was Proudhon a rather intimidating candidate, but he had odd views of what he would do with the scholarship if he gained it. The Academy wanted its nominee to go to Paris and study in order that he might rise in the world. Proudhon wanted to stay on in Besancon; he would study, indeed, but he did not want to abandon his trade (he was more and more involved in the illfortune of his partners) and he did not want to rise in the world, for such an ambition was incompatible with his new religion, that of equality. Despite his views he was chosen, being supported by 'all the most distinguished and influential members', notably by the Abbe Doney, who had been a disciple of Lammenais. Proudhon was still an amateur philologist, and he had sent in an essay for the Volney Prize, offered by the Institute of France. His Researches on the Crammatical Categories and on some Origins of the French Language got an honourable mention, and some of it appeared in a learned journal. This ended philology for Proudhon, but when he was famous, some enemies reprinted his Appendix to Bergier, to show that Proudhon was inconsistent or hypocritical, a malicious trick which infuriated him, and for which he blamed the Church.   Proudhon's project was ambitious enough. He proposed to write Researches on Revelation, or Philo- sophy serving as an Introduction to Universal History, a work designed to demonstrate that evangelical morality represented eternal truths lost to sight today. Evangelical truths soon lost their attraction for him, but the belief in eternal truths which he could demonstrate for the salvation of the world, remained a Proudhonian doctrine to the end.

  The letter of application was equally characteristic. In the first draft, it contained a profession of faith which alarmed his cautious sponsor, Perennes. 'Born and brought up in the working-class, belonging to it still, to-day, and for ever, by feelings, intellect and habits and, above all, by the community of interests and wishes' Proudhon promised, if chosen, to toil, 'by philosophy and science, with all the energy of his will and all the powers of his mind, towards complete emancipation of his brothers and fellows'. Such a programme, it was feared, would not appeal to the academicians, and the text was amended. The 'community of interests and of wishes' became 'the community of suffering and of wishes' and, more important, 'the complete emancipation' of the workers become their 'moral and intellectual betterment'. The campaign was over; he was chosen and he was inundated by congratulations; congratulations which infuriated him, for they showed that to the world he was a worker who was now given the chance of escaping from his class; that few or none saw him as he saw himself, a worker taking a chance to be trained to serve his class. He dared not declare his intentions; his scorn of worldly success; 'people would think me cracked'. Nevertheless, he was resolved to devote himself to the cause of the poor and helpless, though thereby he might be 'an abomination to the rich and powerful; those who hold the keys of science and of wealth might curse him, yet he would pursue the path of the reformer through persecution, calumny, sorrow and death itself'. It was not to have a knapsack with a marshal's baton in it, not to have a career open to his talents, that Proudhon sought the scholarship. He was resolved to be a La Tour d'Auvergne of his class; to remain in the ranks and fight with his brethren. It was a resolution that he never broke; all his life, despite all his faults of temper and of understanding, he fought for the good cause as he conceived it.

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