The text is from Denis William Brogan (1934), Proudhon, London: H. Hamilton.
By D.W. Brogan
The Revolutionary Leader
PROUDHON had grown more and more discontented with his job; it kept him away from Paris, in Lyons and travelling round the provinces. Even at the best of times he was not easy to get on with. 'I felt,' he wrote to Bergmann, 'something that was unsuitable and, above all, in the way they carried it on'; so, in October, 1847, he settled in Paris, hoping to make a place for himself, to start a newspaper, The People, which 'will be the first act of the economic revolution, the plan of campaign of work against capital....I hope the editing will be as original as the position is exceptional.' He made his preparations, badly shaken by the death of his mother,'worn out, like my father, by age, difficulties, toil, weariness....I cannot accustom myself to the idea that nobody cares about me, that my old mother is gone.' the temperature of the political battle was rising; but Proudhon looked on the parliamentary battle with scorn. 'The best thing that could happen for the French people, would be the throwing of a hundred members of the opposition into the Seine with millstones round their necks.....They are worth a hundred times less than the conservatives, for they are hypocrites into the bargain.' But this was not the solution that was found; for, on February 24, the bourgeois monarchy fell, with less resistance and far less dignity than had the elder line of the Bourbons. The sceptical observer of politics had taken part in the overthrow. Proudhon had gone out when the fighting was taking place and had been called on by Flocon, one of the leaders of the revolt, to serve the revolution with his trade. He had set up the manifesto: 'Citizens, Louis-Philippe is having you murdered as did Charles X; send him to rejoin revolution triumph; and he was filled with contempt both for the government which had collapsed so feebly and for the leaders of the revolt who were being carried to power on a wave of popular feeling. The workers were all right, gay, brave, joking, honest. But, on the morning after the victory, when all Paris had lost its head with enthusiasm, Proudhon kept his. The revolution had no plan. 'It must be given a direction and already I see it perishing in a flood of speeches.' However, 'I should prefer to believe that my point of view is false, rather than accuse everybody else of folly.' Proudhon was no a model of prudence and , when he was engaged in conflict, he often lost all sense of proportion, but to have written this diagnosis of the Revolution of February 24, on February 25, was an astonishing feat of penetration for it was Proudhon who was right - and the naive enthusiasts who were wrong.
The early illusions were natural enough; the bourgeois monarch had gone, with hardly a show of resistance, why should the bourgeoisie itself not be as easily displaced? As for the society which should be built on the ruins of the old order, were there not plenty of acute critics and bold constructors to be pressed into service? Was there not Louis Blanc? Were there not the Fourierists and the Saint -Simonists, and Cabetians? Was there not Proudhon who had promised to provide a solution of the contradictions of the old system? Some of the workers remembered Proudhon; they called on him and pressed him into service on February 26; two days after the fall of the monarchy. They offered to provide paper and a printer. Proudhon consented; he was to have his journal at last and he was launched on the dangerous career of a party leader; he had now both to preach his doctrine and get it accepted. He stood as a candidate for the Doubs (Franche-Comté) and for Paris. He appealed to Louis Blanc, who represented socialism in the Provisional Government, in an effort to find common ground. Despite his avowed intentions of conciliating masters and workers, he was not elected - and Louis Blanc snubbed him. He had for the moment, to preach his doctrine through pamphlets and through his newspaper, The Representative of the People. What did he preach?
The essential doctrine in Proudhon is the identification of Justice with equality and the coercion of economic life into accord with Justice. The necessity and possibility of equality was taken as obviously true; all economic reasoning had to end with equality. So, for the theory of value, Proudhon substitutes a theory of the just price. If the orthodox economists say that value is not fixed, but is a relation between supply and demand, they are condemned out of their own mouths, for what meaning can 'value' have if it is not certain? Room is left for the 'higgling of the market', but, for Proudhon, this is no metaphor; he really means the higgling of the market, the chaffering in the village square between the man selling a cow and the man selling fodder. The just price is revealed by this higgling; the two parties discover, by higgling, what is the real price of a cow and of fodder in terms of each other; it will lie between the highest demand and the lowest offer in each case, but the range of variation is small, for value is based on the cost of production. It is doubtful if Proudhon appreciated all the ambiguities hidden under his 'cost of production', but he saw some of them. The cost of production is that of the average producer, a price fixed by the practice of the trade. How that customary price is to be fixed without 'market-anarchy' we are not clearly told. A healthy society is that in which all production is organized on a basis of mutuality, when producers agree to be consumers of the goods produced by each other. When that occurs, all prices will be 'constituted'; the present anarchy, in which all goods are priced in money will be ended; and the monopoly of money, and of credit, which is the stronghold of counter-revolutionary capitalism, will fall.
Proudhon's immediate object was to persuade the workers - and the government - that it was easy to bring about this state of affairs, to give the revolution a real social content. What is needed is cheap, or rather , free credit. It is impossible to understand Proudhon's views on this question without knowing what he believed about money. Money (gold and silver) were the only commodities whose value was constituted; this gave their possessors an unfair advantage over the producers of unconstituted values. It is doubtful how far Proudhon realised that gold and silver had a variable price like all other goods. He talks of a happy time if gold and silver were as plentiful as iron and copper and so no more valuable, but it is doubtful if he saw the implications of this remark. A price level was not interpreted by him as an aspect of the price of money. Marx had asked him if he really believed that everything could be dear at the same time and it seems probable that he did! Gold and goods could both be dear. In form, at any rate, Proudhon was a fanatical deflationist. He believed that there was some social gain in an absolutely uniform and symmetrical reduction of prices. All his life he thought of low prices, not as a sign of abundance, but as a good in themselves; the Restoration became a golden age in retrospect, because prices had been so low. 'Real wages' is a conception which is seldom traceable in Proudhon's work. The first measure he advocated, was a rigorous deflation of all costs, not to meet world competition, not to shift a burden from one class to another, but simply to make the meagre supply of money go further. There was to be a general reduction of interest charges, the bank-rate, salaries and wages. Proudhon thought this programme quite practicable, and in some forms of it, he argued that no one would lose, that the total result would be to have everybody where they started - except that all goods would be cheaper. When he advocated this, in his debate with Thiers, the latter asked, naturally enough, what was the good of going to all that trouble? In fact, of course, as Thiers pointed out, Proudhon's schemes would not result in a uniform reduction, but in a reduction of the returns from one kind of property, that based on fixed-interest charges: it was fixed interest, not property as such, that Proudhon, at this moment of his career, regarded as theft. Marx, Bastiat, Thiers, Walras, all in vain pointed out that interest was only an aspect of property; that it was inseparable from property. Proudhon was adamant, interest was wrong because only labour could create wealth; the owner of capital did no work when he lent it, so that any interest on it was stolen from the borrower of the capital.
There are two classes of writers on credit, those who believe that a bird in the hand is always worth a bird plus something in the bush; and those who regard this supposed axiom as a superstition. Proudhon belonged to the second class. For him, lending was no hardship, you only lent something for which you had no immediate use and you got it back intact after the period agreed upon. Where, then, was the privation for which Bastiat and the other preachers of orthodoxy said you had to be compensated? At times, pressed in formal controversy, Proudhon hesitated and allowed various charges to be made for loans, but interest as such was wrong. It was one of the errors of the Church that having once grasped the moral and economic truth that interest was wrong, she had wavered and tried to make distinctions between banking and usury; there was no distinction, all interest for the use of money or goods was usury. In Proudhon's money market, only demand counted; usury would stop. That lending might stop too; and that a credit structure, based on loans which were no privation to the lender, might be rather inadequate for the needs of society did not occur to him, for the time element was disregarded. He seems, at moments, to regard the importance attached to immediate possession as a counter-revolutionary superstition and when he reflects that what prevents a farmer who, over thirty years, pays the total value of his farm in rent, from thereby becoming its owner, is the insistence of the proprietor of the land on money down, his indignation is at least as much directed at the stupidity, as at the cupidity of the landlord! To declare that all rent should be deemed part purchase and that the rent of money could thus be avoided seemed simple enough. It was this illusion that property could be left intact and prevented from having its fruits that infuriated Marx, who could find nothing worse to say of Proudhon, as an economic controversialist, than that even Bastiat was too much for him.
The bank-rate declared by the Bank of France seemed to Proudhon, not an example of the general power of capital, but a result of the legal monopoly given the bank. Let the state order the reduction of the bank-rate and of all fixed charges to one percent or half percent and the usurers would be defeated. Who, he asked, would borrow at five percent if they could get money at a half percent if they could get money at a half percent, this being a charge made merely to cover book-keeping expenses? Who would lend at that price when by buying property, instead of titles to money, they could evade this legislation, was a question he did not answer! If he did not answer the question who would lend money, he did answer the question, how would credit be provided? By mutuality. The monopoly of capital could be broken if all producers ignored the monetary system and exchanged the goods at just prices, guaranteed by mutual confidence. As time was unimportant, the knowledge that, at some time in the future, you would get a bag of flour in return for the immediate delivery of three pairs of shoes, was all that you could want. If all classes of producers were united in these mutual agreements, money would be unnecessary and the entries on the books of the bank would take their place. Book-keeping without money, that was the panacea.
He demanded, therefore, that the government should decree that 'since direct exchange without money and without interest, is both part of natural right and of public utility', interest should be cut down and free credit established. Failure to realise both the desirability and practicability of this reform, was a sign of wickedness, or of stupidity, or of both. Most left-wing leaders fell under this ban. Some were communists and so enemies of liberty and the family; others were absorbed in mere politics, in universal suffrage and other devices for rendering harmless what was necessarily harmful, the authoritarian state. In pursuit of these chimeras, they needlessly alienated the middle classes who could be shown that they had as much interest in the abolition of the credit monopoly as any worker. In the hectic atmosphere of die spring and summer of 1848, when the old order seemed to be collapsing everywhere, Proudhon, like many others, acquired a following. At a by-election in June, he was elected to the assembly from Paris with a very handsome majority. He now had to play the part of the statesman, and his conduct in the next few months alienated him from most of his political allies, and so drove him further towards his natural goal, anarchy.
By the time Proudhon entered the assembly the revolution was obviously ebbing. The crushing of the revolt of the workers in the days of June showed that bourgeois society was stronger than had seemed possible in March. The countryside had sent an immense conservative majority to the assembly, and reaction grew stronger every day. Proudhon, despite some rash words, was against trying to remedy this state of affairs by armed revolt, but he was himself a scarecrow to right-thinking people. A play was put on called Property is Theft, and Proudhon was daily abused as a monster, inspired by the Devil. His newspaper was suppressed again and again, and Proudhon was a liability to the left-wing parties who were now trying to save something out of the wreck. When Proudhon, on July 31, declared his policy to the assembly, that body voted that 'the preposition of Citizen Proudhon is an odious attack on the principles of public morals'. There were only two disentient votes, that of Proudhou himself and of Greppo. The rift with the left-wing leaders continued to grow. Proudhou refused to vote against the reactionary ministry of which his old protector, Vivien, was a member. He fought a duel with Félix Pyat, and would have had to fight others had he not refused to be bound by the conventions of French politics. He was a leader of the extreme left section which broke up party unity in the presidential election by running Raspail against Ledru-Rollin. Out of seven million votes cast, Raspail got thirty thousand. The unknown Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Proudbon had tried to indoctrinate, was elected, and Proudhon poured out abuse on the new head of France whom many critics felt he had done much to elect. The assembly was not slow to take its chance to reprove sedition in the person of the enemy of society, and it allowed Proudhon to be tried for his attacks on the head of the state. He was sentenced to three years' imprisonment and three thousand francs fine. He had just started his 'Bank of the People', but the chance of trying out his theories was lost. He escaped to Belgium, but was rash enough to return to Paris, was denounced, and sent to prison.
His life as an active politician was at an end; and he had the leisure to think out his system and digest the experience of the past year. He had also a new tie to take the place left vacant by his mother, for he had married a poor seamstress, Euphrasie Piégard, 'with premeditation, without passion, to be a father of a family, to have a complete life, and to have by me, in the vortex into which I have cast myself, an image of maternal simplicity and modesty'. His wife was a fit companion for an agitator; ill-educated, but an excellent manager and resolute in all difficulties. He married outside the Church, a great triumph for him, for his wife's father was a royalist of the extreme right. The inconveniences of such a connection were to be made evident when his father-in-law was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for a royalist conspiracy after a trial, of which the most interesting document was a petition to the Pretender, the Comte de Chambord, written by Proudhon; himself ! It was, said Proudhon, a hoax, but by that time (1853), he had enough enemies to rub it in to him that there are follies which look like crimes. For the moment, marriage calmed him. His wife lived opposite the prison, Sainte-Pélagie, and in November, 1850, Proudhon was delighted by the birth of daughter.
For the greater part of his prison life, he was very leniently treated, by British standards, allowed daily visits from his wife, and allowed to go out of prison. He wrote for his paper, now a weekly called The People, and even managed to get tried and acquitted for another violent piece of journalism. As the reaction got stronger, and as the resistance of the left took the criminally foolish form of the insurrection of June, 1849, Proudhon's prison liberties were restricted. He was, for a period, sent to Doullens and to Bourges, where he met most of the other left-wing leaders and was characteristically scornful of them. 'The one thing I dislike more than persecutors,' he was reported to say, 'are martyrs.' He had himself been a victim of June, for the National Guard, now the storm-troopers of reaction, had destroyed his printing plant. The futile appeals to more rebellion which came from the exiles infuriated him and, when the dying Republic was snuffed out by the President's coup d' etat of December 2, 1851, Proudhon's dislike of the victors was considerably tempered by his scorn of the vanquished. By sweeping away the debris of democracy, the dictator was leaving the way clear for the prophet of the true revolutionary doctrine - anarchy.
Proudhon's place in the history of anarchy is secure; there were moments of inconsistency; moments of wavering when he looked to the state and even to mere politics for deliverance, but, as he announced in the First Memoir, 'I am an anarchist' -and he remained one. Anarchy was in the air; many reformers besides Proudhon were anxious to carry out the Saint-Simonist programme and to substitute 'the administration of things for the administration of men'. By anarchy, Proudhon meant the absence of a master and of subjects. He was always sceptical of mere differences in political form. He was a republican by temperament; his devotion to the revolution as the dawn of equality made it hard for him to tolerate such a glaring exception to equality as hereditary monarchy; but he never attached a sufficient importance to the sacred word 'republic' to qualify as quite orthodox among the writers and politicians of the left. What he wanted of a government was that it should commit suicide gracefully, giving way to the free anarchical society without trying to make the birth of the new order difficult. If the House of Orleans would put itself at the disposal of the Revolution, Proudhon would put up with the anomaly of hereditary political power. He was willing, later, to make the same bargain with the House of Bonaparte, and he saw nothing to choose between a monarchical and a democratic tyranny. Indeed, he was a blasphemer of revolutionary orthodoxy; at times a defender of the memory of the Bourbons, even of Charles X, a praiser of the Charter of 1814, and an assailant of the Jacobins whose divine right of the majority was as outrageous in theory and far more dangerous in fact than the divine right of 'Henry V'. When personally infuriated he was willing to believe any nonsense about Napoleon III, ready to credit his imminent deposition at the hands of palace conspirators, but never willing to put his differences with the imperial government on the ground of political illegitimacy. Universal suffrage was a delusion; but a government professing to be based on it should not be allowed to tamper with its working, yet the obsession of 'the Jacobins' with mere politics, the attempt to get the state into their own hands, was a deception of the people, for if property was theft, the state was tyranny, be it empire or republic. The ideal to be aimed at in matters of government is not 'direct legislation or direct government or simplified government, but no more government'. As early as 1840, Proudhon had declared that most of the functions of government will disappear, and those which remain will take on a scientific character, a science of which the data are statistics (for the belief in book-keeping was present before the experience of it); but, if the basis of anarchy is present in What is Property?, it is in the books written after the death of the illusions of 1848 that the doctrine is set forth in most detail and with most enthusiasm. A state, Proudhon had finally learned, could only be an evil whether it was ruled by Ledru-Rollin or by Louis Napoleon. Government was always for the governors, never for the governed. No democratic machinery could alter the fact that those who detained power were masters and those who had to obey, servants. All sophisms of the general will, all social contracts in the manner of Rousseau which attempted to explain away the necessary surrender of liberty involved in any powerful state, were enemies of the rights of every man to rule 'himself, not in fiction, but in fact. Not only was the state an evil, it was not a necessary evil. 'The social constitution,' he wrote in The Confessions of a Revolutionary, 'is bound up with human nature, liberal, necessary ... its development consists above all in weakening and getting rid of the political constitution which is essentially artificial, restrictive and transitory.' How was the state to be replaced and society given its constitution? By the magic power of contract. No lawyer, not even Sir Henry Maine, had a more lyrical conception of the glories of contract than had Proudhon. Mutual contracts were to solve the problem of exchange and of credit," they were also to solve the problem of political organisation. The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century is a hymn to contract. 'The idea of contract excludes that of government. . . . What characterises the contract, the mutual convention, is that in virtue of this convention man's liberty and wellbeing increase, whilst by the institution of an authority, both necessarily diminish.' The object of social science is 'to find a form of bargin which, bringing to unity the divergence of interests, identifying the private and the general good, effacing the inequality of nature by that of education, resolves all political and economic contradictions; where each individual is equally and synonymously producer and consumer; citizen and prince; administrator and administered; where his liberty always increases, without any need ever to alienate any part of it; where his wellbeing grows indefinitely, without his experiencing, from society or from his fellow-citizens, any injury either in his property or his work or in his income or in his connections of interest or affection with his kind'.
How was this paradise to be reached? Not by the aid of government, that was Louis Blanc's error. A government cannot be paternal if it is limited, for, asks Proudhon, 'what father ever thought of a bargain with his family.... The authority whose seat is in the family is a mystical principle, anterior and superior to the will of the people concerned', but society has no such basis for its authority. On the other hand, an unlimited authority in the state is inequality, tyranny....'The rule of contracts substituted for the rule of laws would constitute ... the real sovereignty of the people, the REPUBLIC.' Proudhon was conscious that his faith in contract was not universally shared. 'You imagine that it is impossible to fulfil these conditions. The social contract, when you consider the frightful number of relations it ought to regulate ... seem something like squaring the circle or perpetual motion. That is why, worn out with the fight, you relapse into despotism and force. . . Realise, however, that if the social contract can be concluded between two producers -and who doubts that, in this simple form, there is a solution? - it can equally be concluded between millions since the undertaking is the same, and the number of signatures - while they make it more and more effective - do not add an article [to the agreement]. Your alleged inability is non-existent then; it is ridiculous and makes you inexcusable.'
Given the practicability of a society so organised, it must be understood that the contractual basis of society does not create rights and obligations not set out in the bond. All this talk about 'association' is dangerous, for it implies that there is a common will in the associates, that the body they create has a life of its own outside the narrow objects for which it has been created. But such theories are conducive to tyranny. A society for production creates no bond between its members outside those indispensable for the economic activity of the society. The absolute independence of each member must be observed. No social food is worth the price of liberty. Naturally, such a doctrine made its author suspicious of trade unions, and strikes he abhorred from the beginning to the end of his life.
As was usual with Proudhon, he destroyed before he built up. Even in the comparatively early expositions (The General Idea of the Revolution: The Confessions of a Revolutionary), written under the shadow of the disasters of 1848-49, Proudhon recognises that the state will not disappear at once, although, for obvious reasons, he is convinced that if other state institutions may have a little life in them, the judicial system must be immiediately abolished for the state has no right to punish, although a man may ask to be punished.
The apparent necessity of the state is due to economic inequality, because of the absence of justice. When all men have bound themselves to mutual justice, the need for the coercive apparatus of the state will vanish. Even in the present system, the claims of the state are exaggerated. France has to endure an immense army, hordes of officials, a splendid court, all necessitating an overwhelming burden of taxation, because Frenchmen are vain; because they want their country to make a great impression in the world. They are the victims of any skilful jingo. What good does it do them? They are worse off than the Swiss, who have no such illusions.Their vast and expnsive army ought to be replaced by a militia which would be competent for defence, but not for tyranny.
In any case, there is not one French nation; there are thirty submerged nationalities in France, and, in a rationally organised society, these 'nations' would be the natural unitsof government. The deadly centralisation beloved of tyrants, Bonapartes and Jacobins, with their fetish of 'indivisible France' would be destroyed, to the benefit of all concerned, even of Paris. As long as Paris has concentrated within her walls, the government, the financial and educational institutions of the country; as long as the whole of France is taxed to adorn the capital with splendid buildings; so long it will be impossible to permit Paris to have any active political life of her own.
The solution to this, as to other governmental problems, was federalism. This was the answer to the contradictions Proudhon thought he had shown to exist in the political sphere, the clash between government, even 'democratic' government and liberty. The smaller the unit, the greater degree of freedom in government. The great industrial units should rule themselves and a federalism, based on the free cooperation of the communes and provinces, would solve the purely governmental problems. The commune (the parish or town) should rule itself, provide for its own justice and its own educational needs. The intrusion of the central government into these fields should cease. The commune should even provide and control its own church. The great day of the Revolution was the day of the Federation, before Jacobin absolutism had diverted the Revolution from the true path.
This enthusiasm for federalism affected Proudhon's judgment of current events in odd ways. He bitterly regretted the annexation of Savoy to France. What fools the Saveyards were to let themselves be tricked by their clergy into voting for annexation to France when they might have become a free Swiss Canton! In any case, how disgusting was the spectacle of Victor Emmanuel abandoning the land of his ancestors! Italian unity is only a hoax for is not the destruction of Tuscan nationality a great disaster? The real greatness of Italy is only possible in a federal state. So we find Proudhen defending the projected Italian confederation against the blind admirers of Mazzini and lamenting the defeat of the armies of King Francis of Naples! The spectacle of the great revolutionary fostering the same sacred flame as Cardinal Antonelli and 'King Bomba's Lazzaroni' was startling enough, but Proudhon even asserted that the Lombard peasants were quite indifferent whether their oppressors were Italians or Austrians. Indeed, Austria, by moving in the path of federalism, was making her place in the forefront of civilisation secure, while Italy was going back!
Real unity, he was to write at the end of his life, 'was in inverse proportion to size; so, in every collectivity, organic power loses in intensity what it gains in extension and reciprocally.... Apply this law to politics; a state is essentially one, indivisible, inviolable: the bigger her population and area grow, the further force of cohesion and the unity of the government will decrease .... Let branches be formed, let colonies be formed... these will form a federal bond with the mother state - or even will have no connection at all.' Small states or communes, directly ruled by freemen, who were economically equal, each master of his trade or of his farm - and of his family, that was Proudhon's ideal community; a community like the Battant of his youth, but not under the guns of the citadel of Besancon nor at the disposal of a prefect sent from Paris! In a federal organisation for each country and for Europe as a whole, Proudhon, at the end of his life, asserted that he had found the solution of the political problem he had posed in 1840. He had destroyed - he now built up. 'I began by anarchy, the conclusion of my criticism of the idea of government, to finish by federation, as the necessary base of European public law and, later on, of the organisation of all states. On all this question, it is easy to see that logic, right and liberty are dominant; so that public order basing itself directly on the liberty and conscience of the citizen, anarchy, the absence of all restraint, of all police, authority, judges, legal rules, etc., is discovered to be the correlative of the highest social virtue and the ideal of human government. No doubt we are far away from it, and it will take centuries before we reach this ideal; but our LAW is to advance in that direction.'
Go to Chapter 4
Return to Anarchy Archives
Return to Table of Contents