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The Cynosure

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The text is from Denis William Brogan (1934), Proudhon, London: H. Hamilton.


By D.W. Brogan



While Proudhon was formulating his doctrine of anarchy, he was watching the political situation with impatience and with hope. He was lucky to be imprisoned when the conflict between the assembly and the president was coming to a head. He had not to choose between a reactionary parliament and a probably reactionary dictator. Proudhon made no point of political orthodoxy. He had always been sceptical of universal suffrage, and if the sight of millions of Frenchmen putting their destinies in the hands of Louis Napoleon disgusted him, it did not surprise him. He had not thought France ready for revolution in 1848; now it was obvious she was not; but having had to 'jump out of the first-floor window instead of coming downstairs one at a time', Proudhon was willing to make the best of a bad job. He saw clearly the dilemma in which the President found himself. On the one hand, Louis Napoleon had appealed to the conservative elements as the saviour of society; on the other, he had dissolved the assembly which had limited the right to vote, and was supposed to be preparing a monarchist restoration. All governments were alike to Proudhon, dangerous institutions, but the new one need not be any worse than the last. Let Louis Napoleon give proof that he was with the Revolution and his ambition, his broken oath, and the blood of December would be forgiven him. That proof above all, lay in his religious policy. Proudhon was now a most determined anti-clerical. In 1847 he had replied to the ritual question asked of him when he was admitted as a Freemason. 'What does man owe to God?' by the startling answer 'War'; but not until the combination of the Church with the conservatives in 1848, did he resolve on war to the death against the clerical party. There were, in the Prince-President's circle, men as rigorously anti-clerical as Proudhon; notably Prince Napoleon. Through common friends, Proudhon kept in touch with the prince; he even visited him from time to time at the Palais Royal, to the horror of the exiles in London and Brussels, to whom the crime of the coup d'etat was inexpiable. Proudhon refused to leave France; he refused, for instance, to take refuge in Sardinia. 'Who the devil,' he asked, 'expects enlightenment From Cagliari?' He refused a more tempting offer, for Albert Brisbane, the populariser of Fourier's doctrines in America, friend of all new ideas, and father of Mr. Hearst's chief leaderwriter, wanted to bring Proudhon to New York. He was free in his denunciations of the allies of December 2, the 'sabre and the holy-water sprinkler'; but he believed he could make a bargain with the new rulers of France. He would devote himself exclusively to science 'with its axioms, its determinations, its method, its own certainty, a science which is neither mathematics nor jurisprudence, nor anything that is called science at present .... After economic science a Philosophy of History... and, later, a General Philosophy .... All this can be done in France, in spite of despotism.' Proudhon hoped, above all, to get permission to start a journal in which he could assail the clericals and induce the new regime to move to the left, but he was too notorious and not tactful enough to be worth conciliating. His hopes were dashed again and again; he was told that the Jesuits were behind the refusal of permission; but he came to realise, slowly, that his days as a journalist were over. He had his living to make, and he was full of literary projects, among them being a History of Democracy, which remained a fragment. In the meantime, he put together a potboiler called The Manual of the Stock Exchange Speculator. Proudhon usually had the highest opinion of his books while he was writing them, but grew disillusioned after they were published; but he reversed this history in the case of the Manual. Most of it was the work of Duchene, the former manager of The People, but, as the book sold well, Proudhon put his own name on the title-page of the third edition. The Manual is chiefly devoted to describing various companies then quoted on the Paris Bourse and has a limited interest to-day, but Proudhon was incapable of writing, or even of revising anything and not marking it with his personality. The Manual is a very characteristic work. Proudhoh displays his scepticism about railways; his dislike of Saint-Simonisto who are both capitalists and Jews; his belief in the immense possibilities of mutuality and of the reform of credit; his hostility to the possibilities of monopoly working through railway rebates, and a rather pathetically optimistic belief in the future of co-operative societies of production as a step towards a reformed society. His Railway Reform was a vigorous assault on the imperial policy of creating vested interests in the railways by giving concessions. By leaving the railways too much freedom in fixing their charges, they are permitted to ruin water transport and then to plunder the defenseless public. He believed, however, that the growth of railways would lead to a decentralisation of industry and the decay of the great towns - a prediction in the spirit of his most distinguished disciple, Kropotkin. In any case when the railways had completed their destuctive work, the old methods of transport would come into their own!

  Proudhon's hopes of founding a review were now vanishing and he had public and private motives to resent his enforced silence, for he had no regular income and he thought his market-value as a journalist was high. In any case, the Emperor was going over to the counter-revolution embodied in the Church. Proudhon almost despaired of the French, during the Crimean War he was ready to believe any bad news and sceptical about good news. The rapid progress of the industrial system in France under the Second Empire and the growth of speculation deceived this frivolous people into thinking it was well off. The national debt kept rising and the moral tone of the nation kept falling.

  Bad temper and genuine indignation found a vent in the publication of Proudhon's greatest and most characteristic book. Of Justice in the Revolution and the Church was ostensibly provoked by a clerical journalist, Eugéne de Mirecourt, who had publish a brief sketch of Proudhon. Proudhon had a horror of any intrusion into his private life, and he flattered himself that he never introduced any personal animus or scandal into his own writing. Mirecourt, indeed, could not find any serious flaws in Proudhon's morals, but, in any case, it was nobody's business if the revolutionary was a model husband and father. When Proudhon learned that it was to Cardinal Mathieu, the Archbishop of Besançon, that Mirecourt owed some of his information and that the Cardinal had attributed Proudhon's opinions to poverty and pride, his rage boiled over. A fellow-citizen of Franche-Comté had so far forgotten the obligations of that bond as to make Proudhon the victim of a Parisian scribbler! A reply to the Cardinal was begun, a reply which grew from a pamphlet into a book of over two thousand pages in which Proudhon repeated almost all he had said, but with a fervour and an eloquence that he had never equalled before. The main theme of the book is declared in the title, Of Justice in the Revolution and the Church. It is not merely a reply to Mirecourt or to the Cardinal; it is a declaration of war against the Church, a demonstration of the fundamental incompatibility of the teaching of the Church and the teaching of the Revolution.

  What is the nature of this incompatibility? It lies in the place given to God in Catholic theology. Proudhon does not deny the existence of God; but he is hostile to any idea of God which makes human action depend on His action or which puts off to the next world the remedy for the injustices of this. The central achievement of the Revolution was that it brought down Justice from the sky to the earth. Where Christian teaching had stressed charity, an idea involving more or less than Justice, the Revolution asserts that Justice is the greatest need of man -and that it is attainable. To look to God for aid in its achievement is to corrupt the essential truth that all men hunger after Justice before all other earthly goods; that Justice is immanent, not transcendental. Christianity obscures this truth. It has many merits; it is the only possible alternative to the rule of Justice; but whatever its services in the past, since the Revolution abolished government by divine right, all authorities depending on divine right, the Church, and even the state, substituting the divine right of the people for the divine right of the king, are condemned. They are a barrier in the way of progress, the realisation of Justice on earth, Justice revealed in mutual respect, in economic equality, and in the political equality that will follow from it.

  Most writers would not take two thousand pages to assert these dogmas, and to illustrate them, but in the course of his argument, Proudhon is not hampered by relevance. He is able to attack communism, both in the form of early Christian communities and in that of the Fourierist phalanstery. The closest reasoning of Bentham may make him a great economist, but what avails that if he contemn Justice? But he is not content with attacking opinions; he forgets his own sound principles and assails persons. His outrageous assault on the memory of Heine shows him at his worst; and his ostentatious refusal to indulge in mere anti-clerical scandal mongering did not last long. The wickedness of bishops who listen too readily to charges made against the morals of their clergy is stressed in one place- and the truth of those charges asserted in another. The Cardinal is asked to be grateful that Proudhon does not dwell on 'that bishop recently dead who became father to a whole company of national guards; nor on that parish priest who, to the sight and knowledge of his parishioners, had ten children by three women'. This moderation was not as well received as Proudhon professed to expect and, when he was asked for his authority, he had to write furiously to a friend that 'the two cases were told me by a naval officer, or admiral, who was a witness of them in Spanish America or in Brazil, I don't know which .... This is called calumny.' As Proudhon had taken great pains to put his scandals on 'this side of the Atlantic', the charge of calumny was not ill-founded; and it is easy to imagine the fury with which any similar trick, played by Mirecourt, would have been received!

  In addition to philosophy, economics, morals and scandals, Proudhon demonstrates his literary principles in Justice. They are not always consistent. Béranger is ranked above Pindar, David, Horace. At another time he is merely one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century; at another he is very mediocre. Most of the leading contemporary French writers are relegated to inferior places because of their preoccupation with art, instead of with teaching. Didactic poetry is the only poetry worth writing or reading, so the future of Victor Hugo depends on his abandoning La Légende des Siècles for more pamphlets. The erotic novels of George Sand naturally come off badly; English literature has long been dead; French is now dead; but, not only in prose but in poetry, French is the best of languages and literatures. That he had no qualifications for passing on the merits of German or English literature did not modify Proudhon's confidence.

  Not only does Proudhon wander; some of his old faults of pointless logical jargon recur: 'x being the average value of genius in the human being, possibly there will be found exceptional individuals whose genius equals x x 2; there are no geniuses equalling x x 3.' 'If, in strength, man is to woman as 3 to 2; woman, in beauty, is in turn to man as 3 to 2. Neither the argument for natural equality, the suspicions of any special claim for talent nor the firmly rooted belief that equality between men does not involve equality between the sexes, are really helped by the intrusion of crude mathematical proportions in fields of judgrnent unfitted for them. More mathematics in his economics and less in his aesthetics and morals would have improved Proudhon's books!

  If Proudhon's rivals reproached him with terrifying the middle classes by his association with the abolition of property, Proudhon was equally angry with those who gave ground for the belief that socialism and free love went together. For one thing, he had a low estimate of the importance of sexual love. It was one of the detestable fruits of the 'romantic scrofula' that love was made essential to marriage. Marriage had higher aims than the gratification of love or lust. Proudhon was very proud of his own chastity, a form of pride singular enough in the literary and reforming circles of that day. His own sexual passions do not seem to have been strong, and he had no sympathy with those whose passions were stronger. He could do without love as he could do without tobacco, and the slaves of either of these bad habits had only to imitate him to their profit. On this subject he was never tired of preaching, preaching at its best worthy of Massillon, at its not infrequent worst, rather recalling the powerful articles of Mr. James Douglas. This enthusiasm for morality made Proudhon the victim of a celebrated hoax, for he was led to send a letter of advice to a female circus rider who was repenting an ill-spent life. The advice, if rigorous, was good, but in the Paris of that time the joke was thought even better-except by Proudhon, who was furious at the trick played on him.

  In nothing was Proudhon's position more determinedly maintained than in his attacks on feminism. His passion for equality was limited. If there were races which could not be raised to the level of Frenchmen - let them disappear, but he did not want woman to disappear or to claim political or social equality with man. The outside world only reached a woman, in a properly constituted society, through her husband or father. She was always in tutelage, for she was in body and mind inferior to man. No doubt she had high qualities of her own which man could not imitate, but she reached them through man. In Paris corrupt through and through, where woman novelists were allowed to sap the foundations of morality and prostitutes flaunted the spoil that their keepers had stolen on the Stock Exchange, these healthy truths were neglected, but the traditional peasant view of woman's place was unflinchingly asserted by Proudhon and practised by him at home. He did not want of his wife, or daughters, intellectual equality; he even thought religion a good thing in its place for a sex incapable of rising to the high conception af immanent Justice and of taking a place in the life of society in their own right.

  This sexual conservatism did not save Proudhon from prosecution, for the drift of imperial policy from right to left had been interrupted by the attempt to murder the emperor made by Orsini. In the reaction that followed, Proudhon was a victim. Justice had had a great success; it was seized and its author prosecuted for 'attacks on public and religious morals... defence of crimes... attacks against the respect due to law... incitement of citizens to mutual hate and scorn . . . publication of false news.' He fought back by ingenious petitions to the Senate, but was condemned to three years imprisonment and 4,ooo francs fine. His publisher got one month - and it proved a lesson to him. Appeals were useless, and Proudhon had to flee to Belgium, where he learned the hard lessons of life as an exile.

  He settled down in Brussels in 1858, full of rage at his plight, although candid friends pointed out that he had his own violence of language to thank for it; it was folly to imagine that the imperial government would let pass so good a chance of conciliating the Church by sacrificing a pamphleteer who was as troublesome a friend as an enemy. The first troubles of the exile were financial. Garnier had learned his lesson. He would publish no more polemical works for Proudhon; literature, yes, but politics and economics, no! Proudhon had calculated on the profits of his books to free him from the constant money worries that he had endured since he had left Lyons. Now he was cut off from his market. He could write more freely in Belgium than in France, but he could not reach the French public, or turn his writings into a means of livelihood. He suffered from constant catarrh, which he blamed on the Belgian climate; he objected to the high price of wine and to his forced addiction to beer. Moreover, he made enemies in Belgium. He preached against centralisation, thus annoying the politicians of Brussels; he, the great anti-clerical, poured scorn on the Belgian liberals, saying he preferred the Catholic party; and, if in France he was always attacking the naive pride of his countrymen, he made it clear to his Belgian hosts that France was still at the head of civilization. Events were moving fast in France - and in the direction that Proudhon had advocated. The Emperor decided, in 1859, to make war on Austria to free Italy. It was a swerve to the left, to the party of the Revolution and it was so regarded by observers on both sides. The left rejoiced; the right grew more and more suspicious, for any upset of the status quo in Italy could only harm the Pope. Proudhon refused to believe in the war; he refused to believe in French victories; he refused to rejoice in them; and the world was soon treated to the spectacle of the great revolutionary praising the work of the Congress of Vienna; casting cold water on the idea of Italian nationality; regretting the triumphs of Garibaldi; abusing Mazzini; burning all the idols of the democratic party in Europe. He asked, in the spirit of a modern French royalist, what was the gain for France in creating another great power on her southern frontier and abandoning the great political asset of being the hereditary protector of the Pope? He added to his crimes by asserting that Austria and Russia were truly progressive countries and by attacking Poland. At that time, an ill-informed and sentimental sympathy for Poland was as much the mark of a good radical as ill-informed and sentimental hostility to Poland was the mark of a good modern radical - until 1933. Poland, said Proudhon, was an aristocratic republic, which died of her own vices; it should not be revived at the expense of the future freedom of Russia. Russia, under an enlightened Tsar, is capable of progress; Catholic Poland is not. The scandal caused was immense; here was a lost leader indeed, but worse was to come when the apostle of Justice preached the right of force in the last of his great treatises, War and Peace.

  The argument of this lengthy essay on international law is simple enough. The great good of human society is equilibrium as a consequence of the rule of justice, but force has its rights, which have to be allowed for before a just equilibrium can be reached. Moreover, in war man develops his personality and learns indispensable lessons of social organisation: there are passages to the glory of war which would be in place in a speech by Herr yon Papen, and Proudhon, who had attacked his fellow-radicals for their jingoism, appeared as a defender of war when, at long last, the French left parties were turning pacifist! It is true that the age of war is asserted to be over, that 'war, for every attentive mind, has held its last assize from '92 to 1815 . The constitutional system, expression of the politics of interest, corollary of the famous treaties of 1815, have given it notice to quit... Cursed then be the nation which, forgetting herself, shall ask from war what only science, work and liberty can give.' But the conclusions of the book are not altogether in accordance with its spirit. In his enthusiasm for the ordeal by battle, Proudhon becomes a victim of what Mr. J. B. S. Haldane has called 'Bayardism'. He objects to strategy and deceit in war. The object of battle is to discover which of the two parties to a dispute is the stronger. If, by a stratagem or trick the less strong side wins, the whole object of war is nullified, since what matters is the relative strength and a victory of the weaker side over the stronger is a deplorable falsification of judgment.

  War and Peace is a natural pendant of Justice; it is an attempt to discover how, in fact, rights have been created in the past. That much of what we take to to be our national rights has been created by war; that force has fights as well as possession; are truths that sentimental democrats sometimes neglect, but, as usual, Proudhon was better in criticism than in construction, and his picture of honourable war giving place in the new society to equally honourable forms of peaceful competition, is decidedly Utopian.

  His exile came to an end in a most characteristic way. Having refused to take advantage of an imperial amnesty, Proudhon was living in Brussels in a dignified exile, when an article which he had written seemed to advocate the annexation of Belgium to France. The Freemasons, according to Proudhon, were at the bottom of the agitation which made Belgium too hot to hold him, for he opposed the evacuation of Rome by the French garrison. Whatever the cause, he hurriedly took refuge in France on December 17, 1862; his wanderings were over and his doctrine, in the main, complete.

  He had been an indefatigable writer during his exile and had had the triumph of winning a prize offered by the Swiss Canton of Vaud for the best essay on taxation. That the free Swiss, that a state should thus honour the exile, delighted him, and illustrated again the folly of the French. According to Proudhon taxation is simply the share each citizeny has to pay of the cost of providing state services. The state, like any individual or corporation, ought to sell its services at cost price. Of these services some citizens will use a bigger share than others, the rich will get more than the poor, so ought to pay more. But, although an income tax seems just at first sight, it is added to the cost of goods, and so is spread over the community, like an ordinary tax on consumption. He attacks a progressive income tax as tyrannical and futile, for all taxes become indirect taxes on consumption, the 'result is zero'. A tax on land values, even if the state took only a third of the revenue from this source, would pay all legitimate expenses of government. In a well-organised state, government services should not be more than a tenth of the gross revenue of the community, but until that happy deflation of the state is achieved, most taxes should be left alone for most reforms are fictitious! There can be no real justice in taxation in a society which permits economic inequality, there is the root of the matter. There are, of course, obvious improvements to be made in detail; the duties on wines should be reduced, but those on tobacco kept, (Proudhon was fond of wine and a non-smoker); houses should be taxed, so as to break up the great towns. It was, indeed, an eminently conservative essay; apart from its hostility to state action and its hints of equality as a remedy, there is nothing in it to alarm the most timid.

  One other work of this last period showed Proudhon's resolute independence, for living by his pen, he attacked the claims for perpetual or lengthy copyright made by his fellow-authors, with a zeal more natural, as Émile Faguet says, in a publisher than in an author. Literary Entails is, if not of first-class importance as a contribution to the theory of property in ideas, at least worthy of Proudhon's spirit. Indeed, he repeatedly gave proofs of disinterestedness of a more immediately practical type than his assault on copyright. With the ending of his journalistic career, his means of livelihood became very limited. He thought of going back to business, but that project came to nothing. He worked for a projected railroad, but the concession went by favour, and Proudhon refused compensation for his lost time. His own health and that of his wife and children was not good, and serious privation, if not actual starvation, came very close. He hoped to be able to give his two surviving daughters dots, but, should they have to fend for themselves, they would have the benefit of a severe training; they were to expect everything from work, nothing from favour. When they were still children of about ten, he saw signs in them of 'dissipation, vanity and impertinence'-vices to be stamped out and when well-meaning friends sent them too handsome Christmas presents they were rebuked for spoiling them! But Proudhon was equally severe on himself, and was hurt by gifts of wine from admirers, gifts he insisted on paying for and, if he underestimated the risks run by lenders, he may have forgotten that not all men had his horror of debt or his zeal in repaying money only borrowed under the pressure of dire necessity!

  In his final years, Proudhon again attempted to lead the workers of Paris into the true revolutionary path. Having made embittered enemies in the past by his willingness to co-operate with the empire, he now led the movement for rigid abstention from political life as long as the imperial administration falsified the working of universal suffrage. He wished the party of the Revolution to protest against the system by abstaining from voting or by casting blank ballot papers. The election of deputies was a tacit approval of the imperial régime and, as candidates had to take an oath to the Emperor, the crime either of perjury or of treason to the revolutionary cause, was made inevitable. To active politidans, anxious to maintain a united front against the government party, Proudhon was as big a nuisance as he had been in 1848 for he never wrote better than he did in his protest of the Non-Furing Democrats, and in his advocacy of a declaration of political independence by the working-classes, the Manifesto of the Sixty, a claim for working-class representation, a denial of the representative character of the bourgeois radicals. He left, in his last completed work, The Political Capacity of the Working-Classes, an exposition of the same theme. The Revolution had torn the worker out of a stratified society; it had placed him opposite the bourgeoisie. What does this class of wage earners bring to the problems of state? It brings a solution of the problem of justice and equality; the magic formula of mutuality will solve the economic problem, not communism: federalism will solve the political problem, not the fantasies of the professional democrats with their parliaments and armies of voters.

  But if the working-class is called to a consciousness of its mission, it is preached at as well as praised. Its fondness for strikes is vigorously attacked, and so are the outrageous claims of the trade unions to interfere with workshop management! An alliance with the bourgeoisie is advocated; and the workers are reminded that they have been too busy with their own wrongs to understand the sorrows of the middle classes. Only a working-class whose moral character frees them from mere passion can live up to its mission.

  The last formal message of the great contradictor was thus harmony, but Proudhon did not live to see the book through the press. He died on January 19, 1865. The imperial government, anxious to frighten the Church, permitted Proudhon's funeral to be made a great anti-clerical demonstration, but sent the publisher and printer of his posthumous Annotated Gospels to prison, a contradiction worthy of Proudhon himself.

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