No guide to revolution
Mike Macnair reviews: Iain McKay (ed) Property is theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon anthology AK Press, 2011, pp822, £25
The end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st has seen something of a revival of anarchism and anarchist-influenced forms of leftism. There has, of course, also been a revival of anarchism of the right - ‘anarcho-capitalism’ and its weaker variant, small-state libertarianism. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is one of the ‘founding fathers’ of left anarchism, though his political ideas were somewhat closer to the ‘small is beautiful’ (Schumacher) approach of modern left greens than to the direct-actionism of Mikhail Bakunin, which has been more influential on modern anarchism.
Proudhon is chiefly remembered for the slogan, ‘Property is theft’, which appears in his early work What is property? (1840). His voluminous writings are mainly not available in English, and some that are can be found only in old translations not easily accessible in print. In this volume Iain McKay and his translator collaborators do not exactly attempt to fill this gap, which would be an enormous project. Rather, they provide us with a very substantial sample of Proudhon’s writings, with a expansive introduction by McKay (pp1-82).
Proudhon (1809-1865) was an older contemporary of Marx and Engels. He is commonly characterised as a working class autodidact, and McKay refers to him as “a self-educated son of a peasant family” (p1). This is somewhat misleading. Proudhon’s parents, after working in a brewery, attempted to set up their own pub and micro-brewery, which went bust, and the family then lived on his maternal grandparents’ farm. If Pierre-Joseph was on the ‘unfortunate side’ of the family, his much older cousin was on the ‘fortunate side’. Jean-Baptiste-Victor Proudhon (1758-1838) was professor of law at Dijon and author of several standard textbooks on property law. The family relationship was significant enough that Jean-Baptiste-Victor’s son (also Jean-Baptiste) was embroiled in Pierre-Joseph’s financial affairs in the late 1830s.1
With the assistance of a scholarship, the family had enough money to send Pierre-Joseph to secondary school for seven years (education was neither free nor compulsory in France until the 1880s), though a worsening of the family’s financial position forced him to leave in 1827 without taking the baccalauréat. He then went to work as an apprentice printer, initially as a proof-reader, and progressed through journeyman status in the early 1830s (and working as foreman) to master printer in a partnership firm, Lambert & Cie (1836), though he clearly had aspirations from 1831 at the latest to become a ‘man of letters’. However, the firm went bust in 1838 and Lambert committed suicide, leaving Proudhon a debt of around 8,000 francs (around €18,000 in today’s money).
Proudhon now took and passed the baccalauréat and applied for, and won, a scholarship from the Besançon Academy to study in Paris for three years under the supervision of the philosopher, Joseph Droz. In Paris he certainly attended lectures and read very extensively, with a significant emphasis on legal studies, together with philosophy; as late as 1843 he was contemplating submitting a doctoral dissertation in law.2
However, the result of his studies was not a degree and professional or academic employment. In 1840 he published What is property? - as a submission to a prize essay competition organised by his sponsors, the Besançon Academy. Far from winning the prize, the result was threats of the loss of his scholarship, and of prosecution for sedition.
A prosecution was initially averted because Proudhon received support from the political economist, Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui. This support is understandable, since in spite of the rhetorical force of ‘Property is theft’ and Proudhon’s self-identification as an “anarchist” (p133), the positive element of Proudhon’s argument in What is property? is close to Ricardo’s objections to private ground rent - the bulk of the book being a negative critique of legal writers’ claims that rent-yielding property is a natural right (in modern language a ‘human right’).
In 1840-41 he worked for six months as a research assistant for the judge, Félix Turbat, on a law book which never appeared. In 1841 he published the ‘second memoir’ of What is property? in the form of an open letter to Blanqui defending the original book against criticisms, and in January 1842 the ‘third memoir’, a response to Fourierist criticisms. Proudhon’s continued defence of his arguments now finally called forth a prosecution in Besançon for ‘crimes against public security’: he was acquitted by the jury on the (perhaps spurious) ground that the books were too technical in character to amount to sedition.3
After the prosecution, and the termination of his scholarship by lapse of time, Proudhon sought a job in local government - unsurprisingly, without success. He then took a job as a paralegal or ‘law manager’ working for the transport firm, Gauthier & Cie, which he held until 1847, while continuing to write and publish, and still looking for openings as a journalist. From late 1847 he was seeking to launch a newspaper - a project which succeeded after the outbreak of the revolution of February 1848.4 From then on he was a notorious revolutionary journalist, a member of the constituent assembly from June 1848, jailed for three years in 1849-52 for defaming the president (Louis Bonaparte), and from his release living somehow, more or less, by his pen.
This is not the profile of a worker, artisan or peasant autodidact in any usual sense. It is the profile of a formally educated man from the poorer part of a middle class family, whose education was interrupted first by financial problems (1827) and then by the combination of new financial problems with politics and prosecution (1841-42).
Proudhon certainly self-identified as a proletarian, and he had stronger grounds for doing so than many ex-student lefts. He was certainly a leader of a section of the workers’ movement in 1848 and partially influenced leaders of the revival of this movement in the 1860s, and (posthumously) influenced some of the leaders and policies of the Paris Commune in 1870. But to identify him as “a self-educated son of a peasant family” (McKay) or “one of those rarities, a proletarian ideologue” (Hoffmann) is to give him spurious proletarian credentials: he was, in substance, an intellectual, albeit one who had to work for a living, other than by writing, for most of the 1830s and part of the 1840s. My point here is not in any sense to damn Proudhon; merely to get rid of ‘workerist’ arguments to sanctify him.
It is perhaps slightly tedious to list the contents of McKay’s selection from Proudhon’s works, but also hopefully helpful for reference in what follows. From the 1840s, down to Proudhon’s 1849 imprisonment, come: most of What is property? (the ‘first memoir’); some extracts from the ‘second memoir’ or letter to Blanqui; extracts from most of the chapters of volume 1 and of less of volume 2 of the System of economic contradictions, or philosophy of poverty (1846), against which Marx wrote the Poverty of philosophy (1847)5; a selection of Proudhon’s pamphlets and journalism from 1848, and documents from the ‘People’s Bank’ he attempted to found in early 1849.
From 1849 on, starting with work Proudhon published from prison, come: extracts from Confessions of a revolutionary (1849) on the 1848 revolution; a set of short polemics with the ‘Jacobin socialist’, Louis Blanc, from 1849; extracts from Interest and principal, a polemic with the political economist, Claude Frédéric Bastiat, in the form of open letters (1850); extracts from The general idea of the revolution in the 19th century (1851); small extracts from The stock exchange speculator’s manual, a satirical work which ran to several editions (1853, from the edition of 1857); extracts from Justice in the revolution and the church (1858).
From the 1860s come chapters 6, 8, 10 and 11 of The federative principle (1863); and the introduction, from the second part chapters 4, 8, 13, 15, and from the third part chapter 4 (conclusion) of The political capacity of the working classes (1865).
Besides these substantial elements are a number of short letters taken as illustrative of Proudhon’s views, and a letter to Marx included (I think) as evidence of Marx’s sectarianism and Proudhon’s rejection of violent revolution. In appendices are the ‘conclusions’ of the posthumously published draft The theory of property (in an appendix because McKay, no doubt correctly, judges that Proudhon abandoned work on the draft well before his death), and a selection of documents from the Paris Commune.
What is missing from this list (beyond, obviously, a good deal of ephemera)? What is the motivation for their omission? McKay does not explain these choices, so we are left to infer them. The Elements of general grammar (1837) Proudhon later repudiated. The essay On the celebration of Sunday (1839) could legitimately be omitted as prior to Proudhon’s self-identification as an anarchist in What is property?, though Proudhon’s biographers see it as an important step towards his later ideas. The creation of order among humanity (1843) “has been judged almost universally as one of Proudhon’s worst [books]” (Vincent).
The social revolution demonstrated by the coup d’état of December 2 (1852) had the peculiar character of urging Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III), after his coup against the republic, to place himself at the head of the social revolution.6 Peculiar, but nonetheless significant: Proudhon was an opponent of political democracy as such, on the basis that it led logically to the president elected by universal suffrage as a dictator - witness the election of Louis Bonaparte. The philosophy of progress (1853), on the philosophy of history, is characterised by Hoffmann as “not one of Proudhon’s better books” and its arguments are said to be better restated in Justice in the revolution and the church.
War and peace (1861) would be hard to abridge, since it is a pacifist book which begins with extensive praise of the historical progressive role of war before reaching the conclusion that it is obsolete.7 But this is again possibly significant for understanding the place of complex forms of rhetoric, and of argument from history, in Proudhon’s writing. Federation and unity in Italy (1862) and New observations on Italian unity (1865), arguments against Italian unification, are ‘represented’ by the more abstract (and less offensive) Federative principle.
The choices of how to abridge the texts are also political. McKay in his introduction tells us: “This is not to say that Proudhon was without flaws, for he had many. He was not consistently libertarian in his ideas, tactics and language. His personal bigotries are disgusting, and few modern anarchists would tolerate them” (pp35-36). A footnote (p36) expands upon this: “Namely, racism and sexism. While he did place his defence of the patriarchal family at the core of his ideas, they are in direct contradiction to his own libertarian and egalitarian ideas.” It goes on to argue that the violent anti-Semitism expressed in Proudhon’s private notebooks only appears in public works in “rare ... asides”. It is presumably on this basis that arguments of this sort as a result do not appear in the extracts.
As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, this is probably a correct judgment. Proudhon fairly clearly did, like the contemporary and later Catholic anti-Semites, view interest and financial operations as more parasitic than (some) other forms of profit. He did not, however, project or agitate for an anti-Semitic Catholic or nationalist political movement.
In relation to patriarchalism, McKay’s judgment is more problematic. I will return to this point later, but for now it is enough to say that Proudhon’s patriarchalism is not merely ‘of his time’. Contrast Marx’s and Engels’s vigorous assertion in the Communist manifesto in 1848 of communism’s connection to the emancipation of women: “The bourgeois sees his wife as a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women. He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”
One ‘technical’ point can be made on the selection of texts. What is property? (the ‘first memoir’) was translated by Benjamin Tucker in 1876, and this translation has been frequently reprinted and is widely available second-hand; McKay and his collaborators make only marginal changes to it. The book is also available in a new translation in a cheap Cambridge University Press edition (1994). It is arguable that it would have made sense for this collection to save 50 pages by omitting it and use the space to add in some way to the material included.
What might have gone in instead is some reduced level of abridgment. Proudhon’s rhetorical constructions and inversions make it hard enough to follow the logic of his arguments in complete texts; it is hard to be confident that McKay’s ellipses in the texts have not left out something essential to the argument.
Nonetheless, overall McKay and his translator collaborators have done a significant service to the Anglophone left. Much more of Proudhon’s writing is made readily accessible, and enough for the reader to form a general assessment of his ideas which is not completely dependent on the biographers, historians of anarchism, and so on.
Proudhon’s ideas developed substantially, but the core which remained with him to the end of his life is already present in What is property? He rejected as unjust all claims to live on the basis of the labour of others. Justice required equality in exchange. Hence rent, interest and profit were unjust. He rejected communism on the same ground: that it involved the idler living at the expense of the hard worker, and as inconsistent with individual liberty; though he insisted that “every capacity for labour being, like every instrument of labour, an accumulated capital, and a collective property, inequality of wages and fortunes (on the ground of inequality of capacities) is, therefore, injustice and theft” (p137).
In What is property? he stigmatises property (ownership) as unjust, but insists, in contrast, that “possession is a right; property is against right” (p137). This was an unfortunate contrast. It was already Roman law that a member of the citizen class could possess things through his slaves or his tenants; medieval law that a lord could possess through his villeins; and, in Proudhon’s own time and our own, that an employer possesses through his employees. In any of these periods, the small proprietor possesses through his wife and children. The legal concept of possession is no less contaminated by the general order of social inequality than that of ownership.
What is property? is primarily a legal-moral argument, though Proudhon makes casual reference to the political economists and to dialectics (the thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula). After the book came out, he grappled more fully both with the political economists and with Hegel (via translations and summaries provided by German left-Hegelian émigrés in Paris, including the young Marx). The result was the System of economic contradictions, or philosophy of poverty.
Though McKay accuses Marx of having in The poverty of philosophy misread Proudhon, McKay’s objections to Marx’s critique are largely extremely secondary. The System of economic contradictions is a deeply incoherent book, precisely because of its methodology. Firstly, it remains within the frame of the internal critique of defences of rent-bearing property in What is property?, merely adding a spurious historical development which leads to a future without rent-bearing property.
Secondly, as Marx argued, the dialectical development it offers from concept to concept is neither properly dialectical (even in the Hegelian sense) nor concretely historical. It begins not with the hunter-gatherer band (or the peasant form of ‘primitive communism’, which was the image of early society in contemporaries, including Marx and Engels), but with political-economist ‘Robinsonades’ of the isolated producer or producer family; the division of social labour, of which private property (including Proudhon’s ‘possession’) is a part, is simultaneously presupposed and not presupposed, and not grasped as a historical development.
The book does, however, introduce Proudhon’s fundamental idea for the future, ‘mutualism’, from the Roman contract of mutuum, or loan of consumables or money without interest (p255). The plausibility of this idea is partly dependent on an aspect of the book in which Proudhon follows the political economists and in particular Jean-Baptiste Say: goods, he says, exchange for other goods; money is a secondary phenomenon. In Proudhon, this secondary phenomenon - in particular commodity money, gold and silver - is intimately connected with monopoly and the negative features of market society. Credit grows out of money; but a better organisation of credit could overcome the problems of money.
Proudhon’s solution in its two-sided character is elaborated in 1848 in the two-part Solution of the social problem and Organisation of credit and circulation. The first part is a polemic against political democracy as involved in the solution to the social problem. The second is a proposal for the creation of a mutualist bank which would borrow and lend without interest, on the security of actual and expected products, purely by discounting bills of exchange. (Proudhon does not seem to see that discounting bills of exchange is, in fact, a way of receiving a form of interest on money lent, since the bills remain enforceable at face value after discounting.)
The broad support for Proudhon’s newspaper enabled the actual formation of the Banque du Peuple as a mutualist bank in January 1849. It did not get off the ground, either because the project was unsound or because of Proudhon’s prosecution and jailing in the following month. Napoleon III adopted a very diluted form of the idea that small businesses and artisans could benefit from easier access to credit in the Crédit Mobilier in 1852, which rapidly evolved towards an ordinary bank (and one much affected by scandals). A similar attempt to provide credit for the poor by lending on movables had been made in the Charitable Corporation in early 18th century England (it did little business till the 1720s, then was made the vehicle for a large-scale financial scam, and collapsed in the early 1730s).
This aspect of Proudhon’s argument was criticised (in the first place in relation to one of his followers) by Marx in the ‘Chapter on money’ in the notebooks published as the Grundrisse, and in a substantially reworked form in the first part of Capital, volume 1. McKay reads Marx’s critique of Proudhon as ending with The poverty of philosophy, and therefore does not address these arguments. He claims that Proudhon’s arguments for free credit can be understood as a precursor to Keynes, or perhaps to the ‘post-Keynesian’ theory of endogenous money (pp13-18). And he suggests that the approach is confirmed by the relative success of the Mondragon group of cooperatives, which includes risk-pooling and a credit union (pp31-32).
There are two problems posed by this sort of large-scale cooperative project. The first is the continued control of the spinal core of the global division of labour - international trade and finance - by capital. For example, to survive, Mondragon has been driven towards becoming a multinational, with questions posed as to the nature of its Chinese subsidiaries and their relation to the core cooperative project.8 The second is the problem of practical democratic control of management (most obvious in the British Co-op).
For Proudhon, however, relations of justice between individuals (or rather patresfamilias), and hence their underlying autonomy, reflected in the right of withdrawal from the cooperative association, are counterposed to the subordination of managers, etc, by political democracy. This is systematically reflected in his arguments in the journalistic polemics of 1848-49 and in the General idea of the revolution. It is the requirement of equality in exchange and the right of withdrawal (and hence the necessity to create conditions in which peasant and artisan production can flourish) which provide the only real controls he offers against managerial power.
In the late work, Proudhon does develop a political model on the basis of mutualism. It is that of contractual federalism, discussed in The federative principle.9 Switzerland, and the ‘states’ rights’ interpretation of the US constitution, are offered as partial models. Hence (together with opposition to Napoleon III’s aggressive wars) Proudhon’s opposition to the movement for Italian unification.
The starting point is autonomous individuals. They contractually confer limited powers on productive associations (cooperatives) engaged in those economic activities which cannot be operated on the family scale. They also contractually confer limited powers on local associations, like the commune (in its French sense as the most local government institution). The contract, as is usual in Proudhon, contains a requirement of equality in exchange for validity, and the right of withdrawal in the event of excess of power by the association. The productive associations and communes, in turn, may contractually confer limited powers on larger-scale bodies, like the Swiss federation. The same requirement of equality and the same right of withdrawal are present. Thus Proudhon asserts that the Catholic Sonderbund, defeated in 1847, had the right of withdrawal from the Swiss federation, and that in the US civil war the north’s military operations against the Confederacy could only be justified if the north intended to abolish slavery (which, at the date of publication, it did not) (pp698-99n).
The underlying contractual basis of Proudhon’s federalism carries with it an invisible underlying legal basis: that is, that the relations between the local communes and their central delegates necessarily fall to be decided by some judicial procedure. The alternative is (as Proudhon says of the Sonderbund): “In such a case the question is resolved by the right of war, which means that the most significant part, whose ruin would lead to the greatest damage, must defeat the weakest one” (p699n).
To allow a political process would negate the contractual character of the federal arrangement. To rely on a judicial process, however, makes the judiciary sovereign and arbitrary rulers of the sort Proudhon elsewhere objects to (as we can see in the modern USA).
If we are both to eliminate the sovereignty of judges and deny the legitimacy of political processes to bind individuals, the ‘right of war’ has implications much more extensive than the Swiss and US civil wars of 1847 and 1861-65: it implies a legal order based on the sanction of blood-feud, of the character of the early medieval Icelandic legal order discussed in WI Miller’s Bloodtaking and peacemaking (London 1990). ‘Practical anarchism’ may indeed have this character, as can be inferred from James Scott’s The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland southeast Asia (Yale 2009). The question is whether this is a price we should be willing to pay for getting rid of politics.
Justice - with the specific meaning of the principle of equality in exchange, and the rejection of anyone getting something for nothing - is the real core of Proudhon’s ideas. It is reflected in his rejection of rent, interest and profit as early as What is property?; in his project of mutualism - credit without interest; in his rejection of political democracy as illusory; in his approach to the nature of associations; and in his contractual concept of federalism. Justice in the revolution and the church places justice at the centre of all human thought and makes a social order based on justice the telos of history.
I said earlier that it was a mistake for McKay to sidestep Proudhon’s patriarchalism as “in direct contradiction to his own libertarian and egalitarian ideas”. The core of this problem is the foundational role of justice in Proudhon’s thought.
The underlying problem is a simple one. The relation between parents and children is not and cannot be a relation of justice in Proudhon’s sense. The child is for some years necessarily dependent on its parents - or, if orphaned, on other relatives or on the state. In this situation parents necessarily give the child something for nothing. While there may be an expectation that the child will look after its parents in old age, this cannot be an expectation of the sort of equality in exchange which is the foundation of Proudhon’s concept of justice. Leave aside the fact that the child may predecease the parents, or the parents die young enough not to become dependent on the child; this relation is one of gift and return gift, not of the sort of synallagmatic contract which Proudhon makes into the foundation of a just social order.
The problem is not unique to Proudhon’s conception of justice. In Kant’s conception, we must treat each other as ends, not as means; but the child biologically must treat its parents or other carers primarily as means to its own existence.
A corollary of this is that theories of justice pose intergenerational problems with which they cannot cope. One sort of solution holds that the present generation, who are in possession, have the right if they wish to destroy the world. A converse position (for example) which treats future generations as having rights, has the consequence that an intergenerational settlement is necessarily unfair to past generations, because our descendants reap the rewards of our sacrifices. These questions, which were rather abstract until recently, have acquired immediate political relevance as the number of humans in the world and the extent of our activity begin to press on the limits of the habitability of the biosphere.
The classical solution is to hold that intergenerational relations are outside the sphere of morality governed by justice. The moral subjects are then taken to be heads of families: a solution suggested by John Rawls in A theory of justice (Harvard 1971) to the problem of intergenerational justice. It has venerable antecedents. As far as ancient writers were concerned, the moral subjects were those capable of independent action because they owned slaves, while at least some early modern political theorists specified that only heads of households (ie, men who had wives, children and servants) were political subjects.10 The evolution of the market economy, which has drawn both youth and women into the labour market and hence into the public sphere, has rendered arguments of this type manifestly untenable: hence McKay’s discomfort with Proudhon’s ‘sexism’.
It is for these reasons that patriarchalism is essential to Proudhon’s theoretical construction. Justice cannot cope with family and intergenerational relations; and the only way to construct a moral and political theory founded on justice is to hive off these relations by making them into a separate sphere handled by women, under the authority of men, who in their character as patresfamilias are the only free, autonomous individuals.
Marx and Engels from 1846 onwards more or less constantly urged the organisation of the working class for political action independent of the capitalists. In the Communist manifesto they claimed that “the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class - to win the battle of democracy”. This approach informed their political choices and alliances all the way down to Engels’s death in 1895.
Bakunin thought that this was the fundamental flaw of their ideas: “All the German socialists believe that the political revolution must precede the social revolution. This is a fatal error.”11
Proudhon took the same standpoint as Bakunin, albeit with different conclusions. In 1848 he stood for election, and was elected, to the assembly. But after 1848 he increasingly insistently argued that for workers to stand in elections was a disastrous diversion. This was the eventual conclusion of The political capacity of the working classes. For Bakunin, the alternative was the mass strike and the revolution triggered by the ‘spark that lights the prairie fire’. For Proudhon, it was the gradual extension and development of the cooperative movement, and the spread of the moral catechism of justice (see Justice in the revolution and the church, pp654-683).
I am not concerned here with Bakuninism, which is more truly represented by the modern ‘Leninist’ far-left groups than by the anarchists. The problem with Proudhon is that neither the value of justice nor cooperation avoids the problem of political ordering.
The value of justice does not do so for the reasons just given: it resolves either into judicial tyranny or into the blood-feud regime, and it inherently involves patriarchalism in the family.
Cooperation does not do so because cooperatives below a certain level of size and complexity are prisoners of the capitalist order; those of a size and complexity sufficient to (partially) escape from or undermine the capitalist order immediately pose within themselves the same problems of political ordering as states and parties. This is, of course, the old story of the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’.
It is worth reading Proudhon, then. But not in any sense as a guide, as McKay suggests, to the “general idea of the revolution in the 21st century”.
1. Proudhon’s parents: RL Hoffmann Revolutionary justice London 1972, p20; J-B-V and J-B Proudhon: DR Kelley, BG Smith, ‘Introduction’ to P-J Proudhon What is property? Cambridge 1994, ppxiii, xxi-xxiii.
2. Proudhon’s career in the 1830s: KS Vincent Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the rise of French republican socialism Oxford 1984, pp23, 26-30, 47-54, and RL Hoffmann op cit pp21-22, 26-29; legal focus: visible in What is property? and DR Kelley and BG Smith op cit ppxviii-xix, xxv-xxvi.
3. KS Vincent op cit pp70-74.
4. KS Vincent op cit pp87-91, 167-68.
6. KS Vincent op cit pp200-08; RL Hoffmann op cit pp198-208.
7. RL Hoffmann op cit pp210-11.
8. A Errasti, B Baikaikoa, A Mendizabal, ‘Basque Mondragon multinationals in the middle kingdom’: www.ipedr.com/vol39/018-ICITE2012-B10003.pdf.
9. There is a fuller translation of the book by Richard Vernon at www.ditext.com/proudhon/federation/federation.html.
10. Rawls: pp128-29; moral subjects in antiquity slave-owners: various references in GEM De Ste Croix The class struggle in the ancient Greek world New York 1981, chapter 7; early modern theorists: CB Macpherson Possessive individualism Oxford 1964. Cf also C Pateman The sexual contract Stanford 1988 on the relationship of these questions to the status of women.
11. ‘A critique of the German Social Democratic programme’ (1870): www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/1870/letter-frenchman.htm.