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The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
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  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
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The text is from Denis William Brogan (1934), Proudhon, London: H. Hamilton.


By D.W. Brogan



If there are real inconsistencies in Proudhon's work- and there are not a few- there are more apparent ones. His temper was too hot; he wrote too much under the influence of immediate events; and these events gave his prophetic powers the lie too often; for him to escape having to curse what he had blessed and to bless what he had cursed. He judged events, and men, by their fitness to aid in the work of the Revolution and his judgment of what would aid the Revolution was too easily affected by irrelevant circumstances of personal importance. He was, in short, a man, not a thinking machine. But he was fundamentally very consistent, although he concealed his consistency under verbal extravagances. He grew, it is true, more conservative as he grew older, less scornful of bourgeois virtues once he had become a bourgeois himself, and more inclined to scepticism of the virtues of a populace which paid so little attention to the advice he gave it. Then his refusal to understand what his opponents meant sometimes had surprising results. To read in War and Peace that even 'if production is doubled, population will not be long in being doubled in its turn, which means there is no change' -and to reflect that this pessimism comes from a writer who used the name of Malthus as a term of abuse, is to suspect inconsistencies. But Proudhon had never been really very far away from Malthus; it was the inequality of working the law of population in the present society, not its truth, that he had attacked.

  The most common cause of his apparent variations was his spirit of contradiction. He may not have been the Mephistopheles which Mazzini called him, but he was certainly a denier. What was usually a temperamental reluctance to agree with the truths or falsehoods in common circulation, was erected by Proudhon into a system of dialectic; he pushed, he asserted, a thesis to its ultimate conclusion, then rebuilt on a sound foundation what he had destroyed. Thus he annihilated property and then gave it a real life in the form of mutuality. Sometimes this explanation covers the facts, sometimes it does not. Any assertion was likely to provoke Proudhon to contradiction and to violent contradiction at that, but, at heart, he was moderate, conservative in almost all matters, sceptical of fundamental improvments in human life and willing to take half a loaf, or even less, as an instalment of justice. Out of his pros and cons it is possible to construct any number of systems - and impossible to explain the whole of human institutions and social history. Proudhon is a quarry, not one of the rival symmetrical buildings for the future residence of mankind that are declared to have been built by Marx; and, consequently, Proudhon, other difficulties apart, could not compete with Marx as a founder of a school. Indeed, he resembled such preachers of genius as Cobbett and Péguy, (in substance as well as in form), rather than systern-makers like Marx. Proudhon's influence was considerable, but it was the influence of his spirit rather than of any consistent body of doctrine that made him important in the history of revolutionary Europe in the years following his death.

  There is one possible exception to this view of Proudhon's importance. He was, as Kropotkin said 'the father of anarchy'. The anarchists at least preserved his memory and circulated his writings; as was fitting, for anarchy, as a positive doctrine of free order, was formulated by him.

  The immediate connection between Proudhon and anarchy as a movement was furnished by Bakunin, who was lavish in praise of his master and developed some of the Proudhonian theses with a rigour which was foreign to the essentially compromising spirit of their author. In the First International, the cleavage between the anarchists and the Marxists seemed to carry an old quarrel beyond the grave and, dead, Proudhon's name was powerful enough to serve as a rallying cry for the enemies of the authoritarian doctrines of Marx. On this rock, indeed, the International split; and there seemed for a time to be a chance that the socialist movement would remain sundered by the doctrinal differences of the communist and anarchist schools. The Commune of Paris was, in verbal form, a Proudhonian rising. His ideas were powerful in giving to the patriotic and social indignation of the Parisian workers, a federalist form; and the commemoration of the martyrs of the 'Wall of the Federalists' is a tribute to one side of Proudhon's teaching. On the other hand, the orthodox Marxian criticism of the tactics of the Communards is severe on the part played by Proudhon's disciples; their lower middle class superstitions about right and legality, it is asserted, ruined whatever chance of success the revolt had.

  The crushing of the Commune drove anarchist propaganda underground; and, when it was able to come out into the open again, the field had been occupied by the orthodox socialists. To the French anarchists, Marxian leaden like Guesde and Lafargue were deceiving the workers, leading them into the old political paths where they had been led and betrayed by the men of 1848. Despite energetic leaders, the anarchist agitation, moving far from the ideas of the later Proudhun, failed to win a permanent place for itself. There was some truth in the Marxist criticism of the followers of Proudhun in the First International that they were mostly workers in the Paris luxury trades, parasites - as their enemies insisted- on the capitalist society they professed to wish to destroy. Indeed, Proudhun was never closely in touch with the new industrial proletariat. Apart from vague syndicalist solutions, he had little to say to the worker who was not a possible peasant proprietor or possible master of his own workshop. He did not like, and did not understand, large-scale industry; and he had, by his hostility to strikes, left the workers in such industries helpless until the far-distant date when the present system should have been replaced. Naturally enough, the men who were in revolt against the wrongs of the system of industry, which was daily strengthening its hold on society, could hardly be expected to wait on the ultimate deliverance of the Proudhonian revolution, and went over to Marxian socialism or to a more active anarchy, to 'propaganda by the deed'. In his youth, Proudhon himself had dreamed of a wild justice exercised by a select and virtuous minority who should punish the innumerable unpunished crimes of the present social order but although his temper occasionally boiled up, he became more sceptical of the merits of this private punishment, and he devoted a part of, Justice to confuting the defenders of tyrannicide. It was not enough that the tyrant should deserve death; the assassin himself should, morally, be above reproach, and in a corrupt society, where are such men to be found? Where in sixteenth-century Italy would you find a man worthy to slay a Borgia? Moreover, tyrannicide is as likely to find its victims among the worthy as among the unworthy. William the Silent and Henri Quatre were victims not of bad men, but of good men, of saints indeed! So high a standard of political morality was incompatible with a good deal of later anarchist activity, with murders and robberies committed by men who were less than perfect, by men who were scornful of bourgeois morality; and it is unfair to both sides to make Proudhon the inspirer of Vaillant or Ravachol.

  The eclipse of Proudhon seemed complete by the end of the nineteenth century, except in an anarchist movement of decreasing practical importance. The orthodox French socialists were inclined to remember Proudhon's indiscipline in the crisis of 1848, and spokesmen for Marxian doctrines were patronising, if not hostile, to the untamed genius who had misled the French workers for so many years.

  It was a new generation that restored Proudhon to his pride of place. The inevitable revolution was less imminent in 1890 than in 1880. Ten years had been given the old order by a zealot in 1880; the ten years had elapsed; the revolution was now far off -and revolutionary zeal had cooled off. Socialists sent to parliament as a means of propaganda, were beginning to demonstrate the psychological truth later to be formulated by Robert de Jouvenel. 'There is more in common between two members of parliament, one of whom is a revolutionary, than between two revolutionaries, one of whom is a member of parliament.' Millerand, who had used Proudhonian arguments against the Bank of France, came to represent the cornpromising necessities of parliamentary politics. In his speech at Saint-Mandé in 1896, he repeated the side-tracking of the Revolution against which Proudhon had protested in 1848; when he entered the cabinet to 'defend the republic', the parallel with the 'Jacobins' of fifty years before was evident. The republic was saved, socialist discipline improved, and politics and party unity, twin evils against which Proudhon had protested, seemed enthroned. But events fought for Proudhonian ideas. The old order was not dying easily. The concentration of property in a few hands had not gone far enough to create, automatically, a unified working-class, ready to expropriate the expropriators. The Dreyfus case had shown that there was life in the old liberal doctrines of the rights of man; that the principles of the French Revolution were still thought to be worth fighting about.

  The idea of a working-class, conscious of its mission, not tied to any academic orthodoxy, but creating its own weapons of combat and spontaneously producing its own leaders, suspicious of state socialism and of party creeds, found its vehicle in the syndicalist movement and its prophet in Georges Sorel.

  Against the current superstitions, Sorel declared war. He attacked the 'unlimited confidence in the economic capacities of the state'. 'The democrats allow themselves to be trapped by dialectic . . . academic manipulations of abstractions inspire them with an extreme confidence because such exercises serve to deceive the people which does not understand what it is being led to applaud.' The Marxian class war was asserted to be an intellectual construction and its preachers thought themselves free from any obligation to explain further what they meant by it in a given situation.

  Sorel was an enthusiastic and influential advertiser of Proudhon, but he was himself, in his intuitionslist philosophy, opposed to the formal rationalism of Proudhon. But in his insistence on the value of ideas worked out, for the workers by the workers, he is in the spirit of The Political Capacity of the Working-Classes. Proudhon would, probably, have been less indifferent to the 'mythical' character of the general strike; less willing to let the workers test their will-power without a cool examination of the forces they would have to combat, not all of them forces which could be altered by a mere effort of willing- however hard! But in the insistence of Sorel and his disciples on effort; on the refusal to await the inevitable working of history; in the insistence on the role of the will in society; the apostles of syadicalism were in the line of descent from Proudhon.

  Other theses of Proudhon gained, from the necessities of the time, a more respectful hearing than had seemed likely when the first Marxian wave swept over France. The insight into the feelings of the French peasant, which was one of Proudhon's chief assets, was justified by the increasing scepticism with which mere industrial socialism was preached to peasants, who were not in the least anxious to destroy property, as long as they had a chance of acquiring some themselves. Proudhon had declared that no one who knew the French peasant would think of trying to communise him and, indeed, there is hardly any less tractable human raw material for orthodox communism than a French peasant hoping to become a kulak. As a preacher of 'socialism for peasants', Proudhon became respectable in French socialist circles and his violent hostility to collectivism was forgotten or watered down. The war, the Russian Revolution and the establishing of Party orthodoxy of the kind Proudhon detested, have again eclipsed Proudhon. It is true that, in a gallant attempt to lind a common ground, French Socialist orators appeal to the doctrines of Proudhon, but as they also appeal to the doctrines of Saint-Simon and are reluctant to abandon their claims on Marx, the value of this praise is not great. Needless to say, the regular communists in France pay not even lip service to the great heretic whose economic doctrine is the 'New Economic Policy' made permanent and whose hostility to revolutions, run from a safe distance by professional leaders, would certainly not be diminished by the assertion that there was an infallible party in Moscow on the job, in the place of his old enemies, the London exiles! Proudhon had, if not a sceptical, a suspicious mind, and that would have been enough to disqualify as a good party member.

  Proudhon was, indeed, too various a writer to be a good founder of a school, Syndicalist, anarchhts, royalists, have all been able to find support for their views somewhere in Proudhon. None of these schools can claim the whole of Proudhon and, as far as he has a spiritual heir, it is Mr. Belloc whose 'distributism' expresses peffectly the essential economic doctrine of Proudhon. To spread property in fairly even doses, over most of the community; to regard equality in separate property rights, not in common property rights, as the goal to be aimed at; and to be sceptical about the forms of production which are not easily reduced to individual equal property holdings are Proudhonian remedies for social evils, as they are those of Mr. Belloc and the violent anti-clericalism of Proudhon's later life must not blind us to the degree in which he represented French tradition. He said indeed, that there was not enough religion in France to make the country Protestant, but he had in fact little or no sympathy with the Reformation. In his views of the family, of the place of woman, of sexual morals and of the rationality of the universe, he might have agreed with his clerical enemies - if only they would have agreed to put immanent Justice in the place of God and the Revolution in the place of the Bible and the Church!

  It is as a representative of the French peasant and worker that Proudhon is of first-rate importance. His passion for equality; his suspicion of any bonds imposed on the individual, even in the flattering form of a doctrine of fraternity or of association; his ingrained suspicion of superior people, whether their superiority is based on wealth, birth, or dogmatic infallibity; his willingness to sacrifice immediate material gains for ideal satisfactions; his devotion to principles rather than palpable 'reforms' as the motive of his political action; all are commonplaces of French life. In his suspicion of authorities of all kinds; in his conviction that they are almost always wrong; in his realisation that if the state (or the party) is made powerful, its power will be used for the rulers always - and often against the ruled; Proudhon is a good radical and the radical is the typical Frenchman. In his fondness for violent extremes of language, covering what is often moderate or even timid thought, Proudhon is again a typical French radical. He is willing to compromise, in fact if not in words; he even offers at the end of his great polemic against the Church, to make a bargain with it! But on one subject he was never ready to compromise; he would never abandon his belief that Justice was not only the first of goods, but was attainable. He would have scorned the moral pessimism of the practical politician or of his apologists, with their belief that since the rich are sure to plunder the community, the best the political agents of the poor can do for their clients is to get a meagre share of the spoil. Such a doctrine may keep alive the party machine; it may invite the ingenious apologetic of 'Alain'; but it would not be good enough for Proudhon. He would have had Lazarus starve rather than let him be bought off by crumbs from the rich man's table. Such scepticism he detested. 'When doubt, secretly awakened in the souls of men, strikes Justice: when man comes to regard laws and institutiom as bonds imposed by force or necessity, but without roots in his conscience; when in presence of social defects, incredulity shakes religion, then society is done for; it is on the way to decadence and can only recover by a revolution. No one says to himself that there are mistakes in the established order, inadequacy in recopised rights, that the ideas behind the laws must be rectified, the formulas corrected, that men must set themselves bravely in search of truth and Justice, enduring the while, with resignation and devotion, the effect of evil institutions.... No one has faith any longer in the legislator or in men; men say to themselves, as did Brutus, that human nature is corrupt, that Justice is but a word, since experience has shown her to be inequal, contradictory and there is no security that she will become better. Men see in the state henceforward, simply an arbitrary coustitution, which profits only the ambitious and the cunning; men see in religion only a conjuring trick, an instrument of despotism. Every man keeps to himself, the good virtuously, the bad, and the men of no faith, selfishly .... Society has passed insensibly from Justice to despair.'

  Nearly seventy years have passed since Proudhon foresaw the modern dilemma as a moral dilemma, as a crisis in faith. He set up the banner of Justice as one to which all men of good will should rally; as a standard by which faiths, religious and political, should be tested. It is an unfashionable banner and the faith Proudhon preached seems to have even fewer adherents in our time than it had in his. It may be that his truth was fiction; that the surrender of a belief in ethical values transcending the economic structure and the class struggle and the surrender of liberty into the hands of individuals or parties, remotely responsible, if at all, to the multitudes that they rule, are inevitable phenomena of historical development. But in the making of the brave new worlds of Russia and Italy, sacrifices of truths (or of illusions) have been made that Prouahon would have thought ill-compensated for by punctual trains or abundant tractors. What value this nostalgia for the illusions of '89 may have is a matter of opinion, but no one who is sure he can separate Justice and Revolution, Justice and Society, will find much of value in Proudhon.


The chief source for the life of Proudhon is his Correspondence published in fourteen volumes after his death; more recent publications have added to this mass of letters and others, still unpublished, are known to exist. Proudhon's works were published after his death and in 1923 a new and admirable edition was begun under the editorship of MM. Bogglé and Moysset. This edition, very fully annotated, is indispensable, but it is as yet only half-finished. Some of Proudhon's works have been translated into English under anarchist auspices: the first two, Memoirs on Property in 1876 and The System of Economic Contradictions in 1888, by Benjamin Tucker. The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century was translated by John Beverley Robinson in 1923. The chief works of Proudhon are:

First Memoir on Property
Letter to M. Blanqui
Warning to Proprietors
The Creation of Order
The System of Economic Contradictions
The Confessions of a Revolutionary
The General Idea of the Revolution
The Manual of the Stock Exchange Speculator
Of justice in the Revolution and the Church
War and Peace
The Federative Principle
The Political Capacity of the Working-Classes


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