Pierre-Joseph PROUDHON His revolutionary life, mind and works by Edward S. Hyams eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

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PROUDHON WAS BORN in the same year, 1809, as Charles Darwin, at about the moment when the reaction against the French Revolution, led by the old imperial monarchies and the British aristocratic oligarchy, began to triumph. That triumph was short-lived but at the time it was clear to only a very few men that Europe was facing a century of revolution.

It was in the half-century following Proudhon’s birth that a number of men of talent and two men of genius, Proudhon and Karl Marx, sought to give form and practical applicability to the social, political and economic philosophy to become known as socialism. Thus Auguste Blanqui, who when not fighting the monarchy and the bourgeoisie, was in prison working out the principles of communist trade unionism and was the father of the French Socialist Party, was only four years Proudhon’s senior; Alexander Herzen, the great publicist of socialism in Russia, was born in 1812, as was Louis Blanc who developed revolutionary socialism out of the idealistic proto-socialism of Saint-Simon. Michael Bakunin, the Russian anarchist and Marx’s most troublesome enemy, was born in 1814; Marx in 1818 when his master, Hegel, was not yet fifty; and Engels in 1820. Lassalle, founder and master of the formidable German Workers’ Party, was born in 1825.

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These men and others of like mind and heart, were not the inventors of socialism, a word coined about 1820 and first used in print in the London Co-operative Society’s magazine in 1827. They read and digested the works of some or all the proto-socialists and, the French using their native wit, the Germans the discipline of philosophy, sought to discover the laws of political economy considered as a science in the belief that by their means it would be possible to establish a just, egalitarian and prosperous society from which both poverty and privilege would have been eliminated. The task they set themselves had a negative and a positive side: first to analyse and criticize the existing society so as to justify and lead to its destruction by revolution; and then to discover the laws of social-political-economic evolution so as to lay down guide-lines for the new ‘socialist’ society.

They believed that the institution of private property in land and the means of production is unjust and responsible for degrading poverty, and that its abolition is a pre-condition for the establishment of a social justice reflecting, in its turn, ‘immanent’ justice. It was possible to so believe until Darwin, Proudhon’s exact contemporary, drew attention to the facts of life.

This idea was given very early expression in such rhymes as ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?’ It was first given literary expression in Western Europe in More’s Utopia. As for the folk criticism of property, I have wondered whether it reflected the memory of the time when there was, indeed, no property in land; and the knowledge that the only possible original title to real estate was occupation defended by brute force. More, like any other man of education who could nevertheless free his mind from cant, knew that communism (not Soviet state capitalism, rather the phalanstery or cenobitic form of socialism) was inherent in the primitive Christian Church; And all that believed were together and held all things in common (Acts 2:44). At all events the society discovered by Ralph, More’s hero, in Utopia, and of which his creator approved, was communist.

In the 18th century there were a number of writings in English and French, later drowned in the flood of Marxist exegesis, which advanced ideas we should now call socialist. First (1755) came Morelly’s Code de la Nature which argues that only a communist society based economically on social ownership could give social and political expression to immanent justice and so achieve a just society: the book inspired Gracchus Babeuf’s ultra-left Society of Equals during the French Revolution and needless to say the burgesses, no more tolerant of disrespect for property rights than of aristocratic privilege, sent Babeuf and his associates to the guillotine. Ideas similar to those of Morelly were put forward by Jean Meslier in his Testament (1764) and by Mably in De la Législation (1778), while Thomas Spence (Mode of Administering the Landed Estate of the Nation 1775) and William Ogilvie (The Right of Property in Land) both foreran Proudhon in seeking the origin of property right in land, finding it in theft by armed force, condemning it as therefore unjust, and proposing that the land of England should return to the people of England, to be held in common.

Among the English proto-socialist philosophers William Godwin was outstanding. In 1793 he published his Enquiry Concerning Political justice which contained two very important social discoveries: that the pre-condition for the establishment of social justice is economic equality, and that the pre-condition for economic equality is not only the abolition of the institution of private property — Spence and Ogilvie had already reached that conclusion — but the abolition of the state. He called the state ‘That brute engine which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind’, because it necessarily institutionalizes social injustice. The state was to be replaced by co-operation in the economic field, and in the political field, by direct democracy decentralized down to the parish level. Had Proudhon ever read Godwin — he read Greek, Latin and Hebrew but neither English nor German — he would have discovered that the Englishman had forestalled him; but as far as I can determine, he never so much as heard of Godwin and the only Englishman among his masters was Adam Smith.

Four years after Godwin’s statement of the Anarchist case came Tom Paine’s Agrarian justice. Of the same author’s illegally published Rights of Man, for which Paine was forced to take refuge in France, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, master of the most powerful aristocratic oligarchy in the world, had this to say: ‘Tom Paine is quite in the right, but what am I to do? As things are, if I were to encourage his opinions we should have a bloody revolution’. This admission of Paine’s case demon-strates an important truth: morally, the socialist idea is unassailable and no honest man who clears his mind of cant can deny it. From the beginning, therefore, its opponents — those who were capable of reflection — have been thrown back on an argument one may perhaps call Darwinian: human nature being what it is, a particular manifestation of Nature at large, and there being no justice in nature, socialism is morally right but in practice inexpedient. Feudalism and capitalism might be unjust but they were dans le vrai; socialism might be just, but it was impossible because ‘unnatural’. Not until Proudhon, in a critique of the economist Rossi, did any man of the revolutionary side reject the argument of the left based on morality and humanity. It was not a question of socialism having to justify itself by dragging in the moral or humane argument. Socialism — and libertarian not state socialism at that — was the only scientifically valid and viable system, virtually synonymous with sound political economy. The trouble with property (ie capitalism) was not that it was wicked; it was — as he demonstrated — impossible. Marx, long after reading Proudhon’s What is Property?, came to the same conclusions.

The opponents of socialist aspirations and systems thought and felt that socialism was sentimental. That is the judgement which inspires such ‘bourgeois’ folk-wisdom as the saying that while a man who is not a socialist before thirty has no heart, the man who is a socialist after thirty has no head. They confused justice with law, believed, as they were entitled to believe, that what was lawful was just. It took a Godwin or a Proudhon to perceive and point out that since law is the defence of property and since property is theft, the law is injustice institutionalized.

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was the leader of the new thinking among the next generation in Britain after Godwin and Paine. He was a self-made mill owner who had started work at nine after receiving a primary education. He had read John Hall’s book Effects of Civilization on the Peoples of European States which may well have been the first to indict capitalism as the exploiter of the workers who produced the wealth of society, only to be robbed of it by the extortion of profit, interest and rent (another Englishman who foreran Proudhon, Hall proposed to begin the process of setting things right by nationalizing land). His reading, his experience as a wage-earner, and his experience as an employer of labour on a large scale, had led him to two conclusions of his own: that organized religion is the root of all evil; and that character is formed by environment, at that time another original and dangerous notion. Give a man a decent wage and working conditions, and he would be a good and valuable citizen; deny him those things, and he would be prone to vice and crime. At least two pre-Freudian philosophers would have agreed with him: the American, Emerson and the Frenchman Fourier.

Owen advocated the establishment of industrial co-operatives as the ultimate solution to the social and economic problem. This solution was later known as Syndicalism, though Owen is not looked on as a Syndicalist forebear. He introduced into his own New Lanark mills, where he employed over 2000 workers, reforms far in advance of his time. He cut the working day to ten and a half hours, refused to employ children under ten, opened shops for his workers where goods ofquality were sold at cost price, opened infant schools where the beating of children was forbidden; and when an American embargo on the sale of cotton to Britain closed his mills, he continued to pay his workers. Later, helped financially by Jeremy Bentham the Utilitarian, and some like-minded associates who had been impressed by Owen’s pamphlet A New View of Society, he reorganized his business to channel profits into improvement of workers’ conditions and into workers’ education. His model mills and workers’ villages became world famous.

From those beginnings Owen went on to establish a communist co-operative in Glasgow. In 1824 he went to America, bought a village and 20,000 acres of land in Indiana, and there started another commune, of European immigrants. It failed because a high proportion of the members did not give the commune a fair day’s work. Owen consoled himself with the conclusion that his theory about the influence of environment on character was correct: these poor people had been morally ruined by oppression, exploitation and grinding poverty in the lands of their birth, and no longer had the character to carry through an enterprise.

I don’t know if Owen had read Montesquieu who had long since (1748) pointed out that a democracy depends for its survival on the ‘virtue’ of its citizens.

Owen was largely responsible for getting the first Factory Act on to the statute book, with the help of aristocratic Tories who saw in the working-class a possible ally against the rising power of the industrial and commercial burgesses. And he inspired the London Co-operative Society in whose magazine the new social economic theories were first defined: ‘Those who think that capital should be common are the communists and socialists.’

It was in the Saint-Simonien newspaper Le Globe that similar ideas were being put forward at the same time in France. The comte Claude de Saint-Simon, born 1760, proposed, in a number of works beginning with Letters from a Resident of Geneva to his Contemporaries (1802), and written and published over a period of twenty years, to reorganize society by getting rid of capitalism and substituting a planned economy managed scientifically but in the spirit of Christian moral law by an intellectual elite open to working-class talent. The change was not brought about by revolution, that is by force, but by persuasion and propaganda.

Another French proto-socialist who influenced Proudhon directly (‘For six weeks I was the captive of this bizarre genius.’ Proudhon, then an apprentice-compositor, was proof-reading the man’s book), was Charles Francois Fourier who, in his Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et Sociétaire proposed setting up phalansteries, that is communes, of free co-operators. These would steadily spread to absorb the entire economic life of the nation. Fourier believed that crime and vice were symptoms of mental sickness caused by the repression of strong passions. In ordinary mental health man would be attuned to the ‘Universal harmony’ which, according to Fourier, governed the universe (our old friend, discredited by Darwin, ‘immanent justice’) and that state of health could be ensured only if men lived together in co-operative communes.

Pierre Leroux, editor of Le Globe, the Saint-Simonien newspaper, went further than his master towards socialism. It was he who coined the slogan, ‘From each according to his capacity; to each according to his work’, and who first identified the opposing social classes as ‘Bourgeoisie’ and ‘Proletariat’ He advocated abolition of inheritance (a proposition rejected by Proudhon on the grounds that it would concentrate property in the hands of the tyrant state), and management of the economy and of the state by workers’ co-operatives. Under his influence the silk-weavers of Lyon in the 1830s formed a trade union, which was illegal, and demanded a living wage. When it was refused the weavers rose in revolt. The revolt was put down by the army — there are glimpses of this incipient social war in Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen.


These and other proto-socialist or proto-communist ideas were the raw material out of which Proudhon, Marx, Engels, Bakunin and their contemporaries formed their socialist-economic systems. Two of these systems were to emerge triumphant: Marxism, which has conquered half the world; and trade unionism, as powerful in the other half, and especially in the English-speaking parts of it, as was the Church in mediaeval Europe.

Now both these systems, while they have greatly advanced the cause of the working-class, and increased the workers’ share of the wealth which they produce, have failed to realize the equally important non-material aspect of the socialist vision. They have come nowhere near to realizing the aim of making society a free association of free men voluntarily cooperating in the management of the economy and the necessary political and social organs. They have betrayed the old socialist vision, trade unionism because of its respect for law, and Marxism because of its worship of the state.

Marxism has given us societies in which the state has become the instrument of a bureaucratic tyranny. This is precisely what Proudhon said would happen if Marx’s ideas were given practical force and expression. (Lenin, in his last writings, also foresaw and repeatedly warned the peoples of the Soviet Union against the danger of this tragedy.) The tyrant bureaucracy may be more or less benevolent towards all but the dissidents among the people it rules, and may manage the people’s business more or less conscientiously. The price is liberty. Moreover, like all tyrants, the Marxist bureaucracy feels itself threatened, develops a bad case of paranoia, becomes militaristic, and channels so great a proportion of the surplus value of the people’s labour into military and police defence of its empire that the people are scarcely any better off than they were when that surplus was going into capitalist pockets. The people owe the improvement in their conditions more to the advance of industrial technology than to the bureaucracy’s respect for social justice.

In the Western world the combination of part state-capitalism, part corporation-capitalism, liberalized by socialist philosophy, and trade unionism, is tending swiftly towards a rather similar petrification. The joint managers of Western societies, government—capital—trade unions, begin to look and to behave more and more like a Marxist bureaucracy and are far too strong, in the long run, to be held in check by the old parliaments, or the Congress. In any case, these last are ‘penetrated’ by the managers and progressively weakened.

The control of the means of production, distribution and exchange by the workers is not accomplished by putting them into the hands of the state: from the pure socialist point of view, nationalization of agriculture and industry is a fraud; or at very best a step, called by Lenin state capitalism, in the direction of socialism. The moral flaw in Marxism derives from the fact that Marx inherited his master Hegel’s conviction that the state is a being superior not only to each individual but to the sum of all the individuals composing a society. This conviction, a direct and unavoidable consequence of a strict application of the Hegelian dialectic to politics, has inevitably made the Marxist state into a devouring monster. The self, the person, the citizen is Thesis; society — all the others, Antithesis: they are reconciled and absorbed in Synthesis — the state. But the state must be managed, the managers are the bureaucrats and technocrats. One man has already contrived to make himself Arch-Bureaucrat and in his corruption by power into a tyrant as irrational, as heartless and, finally, as cruel as any in the history of mankind, he serves as an Awful Warning. For the bureaucracy, whether it have one head or many, at once servant and master of the deified state, cannot but proclaim later if not sooner, L’Etat c’est moi.

In the East as well as the West, men who trouble to think about our condition at all, and who are unwilling to learn to love either Big Brother or Big Business, seek an alternative society. The search has led to absurd aberrations but that does not invalidate it. It might be as well, therefore, to take a fresh look at the life, times and thought of the most brilliant persistent and courageous exponent of libertarian, as opposed to state, socialism. If we are open to argument at all and have not lazily and wearily closed our minds, we are influenced, when listening to that argument, by two forces: the quality and power of the argument itself; and the personality and character of the man advancing it. Captivated myself not only by what he thought and did, but by the man he was, I believe that if the struggle to establish a just society is to continue, then Proudhon, who died in 1865, has a future.