Anarchism and the right

First off, a couple of new posts. The first is an interview I conducted with Mark Leier for Black Flag (issue no. 229). Mark recently published a very good biography of Bakunin (Bakunin: The Creative Passion) which I thoroughly recommend. As an anarchist, he manages to avoid the major problem inflicting books by academics on anarchism – he gets it. By that I mean he understands why people become anarchists and why anarchism is about. I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, but I hope anarchists will know what I mean. The second is a review of an SWP book on the rise of Fascism in Italy. This is a much edited version of my “The irresistible correctness of Anarchism” and it appears in the new Black Flag (issue 230) – details of which can be found in my last blog.

Now, with that shameless plug out of the way, I’ll make a few comments on anarchism and right. This was provoked by two things.

Firstly, there is a section of my introduction to the Proudhon Reader which I’m working on about attempts to link Proudhon to the right. The introduction is a bit long and this may be chopped (and, perhaps, the Hal Draper section as well). As it is an important issue, it should be better known – so you can point to it when some Draper reading Leninist pontificates on Proudhon as being a proto-Nazi or when a propertarian witters on about him being a supporter of capitalism…

Secondly, there is the wider issue of the insanity on the American Right just now on Obama, “socialised” medicine and such like. That a major corporation is supporting these PR-company funded “protests” is all that needs to be said. That this right-wing populism is contradictory does without question – and, perhaps, even dangerous to those in the elite who ferment it as anger against bail-outs fuelled by disgruntlement at a worsening socio-economic condition can easily turn to the rich as such rather than vague “the liberal elite” bogey-man beloved by the right.

Anyways, a good analysis can be found here: Populism: It's all the right-wing rage these days. And Chomksy makes some good points (as usual): Worker Occupations And The Future Of Radical Labor

Needless to say, the term “libertarian” is banded about with regards to some of these protests. I’ve covered the history of that particular appropriation elsewhere, but it raises the issue of why such oxymorons as “anarcho-capitalism” and “national-anarchism” are invented (for state socialists reading this and feeling superior, may I point to National-Socialism, National-Bolshevism and National-Communism?).

What makes anarchism, as a label, attractive to some on the right?

Well, first off, our opposition to Marxism and state socialism – as the right seem to consider Marx as evil incarnate, I suppose it makes sense to view its foremost opponents in a good light. Particularly if you ignore all that awkward anti-capitalist stuff anarchists write! Also, Proudhon was in favour of patriarchy and had some racist moments (usually anti-Semitic). In the latter, he was joined by Bakunin. However, for some reason, the racism of Marx and Engels does not enamour them with the right. And the declarations of equality between races and people Proudhon and Bakunin made also does not seem to register (nor for the likes of Leninist Hal Draper).

Then there is the anarchist recognition that socialism, equality, needs to be based on freedom. If you assume that freedom and equality need each other along with all that socialism and equality talk, then it can appear by means of selective quoting that anarchism is individualistic. Moreover, if you are against the welfare state you can appropriate our anti-statism (if you ignore all that awkward stuff about getting rid of capitalism and the state being the means by which the elite rule).

But that is all based on out-of-context quoting and the mistaken idea that anarchism is purely anti-state (rather than anti-hierarchy). Perhaps it also flows from what differentiations the left from the right.

It is not freedom, as the left can witter on about that as much as the right (assuming it is the correct form of “freedom”, everyone is in favour of it!). And, of course, in a clash between freedom and tradition or freedom and property, it is always freedom which gets jettisoned by the right.

Nor is it “property” as such, given that socialists aim to ensure access to the goods things in life for all rather than see them monopolised by the few. Proudhon’s advocacy of possession is not that different from Marx’s comments in the Communist Manifesto on how people under communism could appropriate what they needed but not turn that appropriation into a means of exploiting others.

So what is it? I would say it is equality.

Whether it is authoritarian or propertarian (the so-called “libertarian” right), the one defining feature of the right is hatred of equality and the belief in the superior few. Hitler, for example, praised the capitalists as being a true elite in terms Ayn Rand or von Mises would have approved of. Rothbard confused equal with identical and wrote dismissively of the masses in favour of an elite. It never seemed to cross their mind that, one, people are shaped negatively by hierarchy and so the features they attack “the masses” for are a product of the elites they support and the hierarchical relationships that implies. And, two, that liberty outwith equality is pretty formal, at least for the many. So the beloved assumption of classical liberalism that liberty and equality are in conflict ignores this (and conflates equal with identical).

Suffice to say, belief in equality is pretty strong in Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin and anarchism in general. Yes, Proudhon does have a go at “the masses” once in a while but that does not undermine his desire for working class self-emancipation nor hope for equality. His support for patriarchy is a major self-contradiction. Yes, Bakunin was racist at times but that was, like Proudhon (and Marx and Engels!), the person failing to reach the high standards of their stated aspirations. Which is something we all do, at some time or another – but it takes more than a few personal failings to make someone right-wing…

But, ultimately, I guess that why a few on the right want to associate themselves with anarchism will remain a moot-point. I suppose it may be a case of piggy-backing onto a bigger movement and seeking association with that to boost awareness of their ideology. Perhaps it is just selective reading of the material (and the likes of Proudhon, as seen before, have been subject to much of that!). Perhaps it is just down to the peculiarities of a few individuals. Suffice to say, anarchists have been at the forefront of fighting fascism and capitalism and there we remain…

So after much rambling, no real conclusion other than the fact that there can be no “right-wing” anarchism and that while, in America, there is a tendency by liberals and the media to proclaim the right-wing populists as being “anti-government” they are, in fact, “anti-this-government”! Not a peep from them when the Bush Junta was active and increasing state power and centralising power even more in the Imperial Presidency. But mention health-care reform and we are on the road to the Third Reich…

Ah, but then there is the whole new right-wing attempt to re-write history (and some are rewriting the Bible to remove “Liberal Bias”!). Namely, the notion that fascism was “left-wing.” While this most recently has been associated with Jonah Goldberg's “Liberal Fascism” (see David Neiwert’s “Conservatives and fascism” and “Liberal Fascism: The response” for good articles on Goldberg), its roots probably lie more in von Hayek’s 1940s “The Road to Serfdom” and is now percolating into the mainstream via the right-wing noise-machine.

Not that von Hayek’s thesis was convincing, given that his mentor von Mises praised fascism in the 1920s (it “cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilisation. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live eternally in history”). Or the praise and support the right-wing heaped on Mussolini, Hitler and Franco (before they started to step on their toes and areas of interest). Can we forget the then and now conservative Daily Mail’s “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” headline of 8 July 1934? Or the pro-establishment support for Italian fascism the likes of Carlo Tresca had to fight in the 1920s and 1930s America? Of course not.

However, just because something is obvious nonsense will it mean that it will not gain ground (look what happened to “libertarian” in America as an example). The right are trying to reframe the debate and it is important to resist it. So here is the material on refuting Proudhon was “of the right” (the references may be a bit cryptic!)  – and talking of him, I should point to this review of a book on the occupied factories in Argentina. This quote has a distinctly Proudhonian feel to it: “We always said the factory isn't ours. We are using it, but it belongs to the community.”

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

Proudhon and the Right

As with many influential thinkers, post-death many seek to appropriate Proudhon for their own reasons or, for political enemies, to associate him with ideologies that they happen to dislike. Some on the right seek to impose the label rightist on the Frenchman and sometimes they are joined by enemies of anarchism on the left.

Suffice to say, sections of the right (for whatever reason best known to themselves) have repeatedly attempted to appropriate left-wing terms, events and people to its cause. The list is long (including oxymorons like “National Bolshevism”, “National Socialism”, “Anarcho-Capitalism”) and all are false. That Proudhon was singled out by French right-wingers does not mean much in terms of his ideas, after all “in the late 1930s and during the war, fascist groups too tried to claim the heritage by honouring the Communards as ‘victims of the Republic’ and nationalist rebels.”[1]

While Proudhon may not have been consistently libertarian in all aspects of his thoughts (his sexism and racism, most obviously), these were in contradiction to his expressed ideals. The notion that Proudhon was of the right simply cannot be sustained by looking at his ideas as a whole. That these attempts are nonsense can be seen from the fact that his biggest influence was on the libertarian socialist tradition.

Sadly, it is necessary to refute such claims for although such positions are, rightly, ignored by those who know Proudhon’s ideas they get repeated by a few.

Proudhon as Conservative

Due to certain elements of his thought (such as his defence of traditional marriage and patriarchy) and his attacks on both state socialism and statist democracy, some on the right tried to appropriate Proudhon for reaction after his death.

As Alan Ritter notes, “[s]uch pronouncements [by conservatives] could hardly be convincing, since they deliberately ignored Proudhon’s ideas.” Subsequent attempts by the right, notably by those around Cercle Proudhon (founded in France in 1911) did at least try to relate their claims to Proudhon’s work. However, such material was far too selective in its approach and so the “thesis of reactionaries . . . does not withstand examination” as it “totally neglects some of his most clearly stated teachings, such as condemnation of tradition and the Church.” It “also twists the meaning of those of Proudhon’s teachings it does consider.”[2]

Benjamin Tucker spoke for all libertarians when he argued that Cercle Proudhon purposely misrepresented Proudhon’s views:

“Every great writer who has criticised democracy and who, being in his grave, cannot enter protest, is listed as a royalist, a nationalist, and an anti-Dreyfusard. Chief among these helpless victims is the foremost of all Anarchists, to whom these impudent young rascals constantly refer as notre grand Proudhon . . . Of course democracy is an easy mark for this new party, and it finds its chief delight in pounding the philosopher of democracy, Rousseau. Now, nobody ever pounded Rousseau as effectively as Proudhon did, and in that fact the Cercle Proudhon finds its excuse. But it is not to be inferred that, because Proudhon destroyed Rousseau’s theory of the social contract, he did not believe in the advisability of a social contract, or would uphold a monarchy in exacting an oath of allegiance. On the contrary, after demonstrating the falsity of Rousseau’s claim that existing society is founded on contract, he proceeded to find fault with existing society for the very reason that it is not so founded, and endeavoured to substitute for existing society, or to develop out of it, or to dissolve it in, a society having voluntary contract for its base. All this, however, is carefully concealed by the Cercle Proudhon. It freely quotes and prints Proudhon’s attacks on Rousseau, but utterly ignores the affirmative statements of its stolen hero . . . If, in face of it, it should be decided that Proudhon is their property, we might well say . . . : La propriété, c’est le vol. With it in hand, the Anarchists answer to Charles Maurras and all his followers: No, the author of Idée Générale de la Révolution au Dix-neuvième Siècle is not your great Proudhon; he is OURS.”[3]

Suffice to say, during his lifetime no one in the French Conservative right tried to associate themselves with Proudhon.[4]

Proudhon as “Harbinger of Fascism”

Next to proclaim Proudhon as a member of the right was American Liberal J. Salwyn Schapiro for whom he was a “Harbinger of Fascism.”[5] This article is mostly forgotten (and rightly so), but Schapiro’s claims have some currency in the Leninist left thanks to Hal Draper utilising it to proclaim “The Myth of Anarchist Libertarianism” in his misleading pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism.

What is Schapiro’s thesis? That there are “sinister overtones that haunt” Proudhon’s work and he “was a prophet of future discontents . . . The true significance of his writings can be seen only in the light of the political and social movement of our day known as fascism.” In summary: “It is the thesis of this article that the great French polemist, Proudhon, was a harbinger of fascist ideas. Otherwise his views would be as bewildering to us as they were to his contemporaries.” (p. 717, p. 733, pp. 733-4)

Schapiro’s article is the worse kind of anachronism, seeking to (re-)define Proudhon in terms of an ideology that did not come into existence until 70 years after his death. A movement, in fact, which would never have appeared if Proudhon’s mutualism had been successful as its erosion of the state and capitalism would have removed the soil upon which fascism grew. Even Schapiro had to admit to some difficulties in his case, such as the awkward fact that Proudhon’s “teachings [were] misunderstood as anarchy by his disciples” (p. 737) and that there was “no hint of the totalitarian corporative state in Proudhon’s writings.” [6] (p. 736)

There are many reasons why Schapiro’s perspective on Proudhon failed to convince most people. Even a cursorily look at his article shows its weakness. Rather than examine all of Proudhon’s work, he concentrates on his correspondence and two of his lesser known works. That, in itself, suggests that Schapiro is cherry-picking material. By ignoring Proudhon’s key contributions to the socialist movement and which secured his place in libertarian history he cannot but produce a distorted picture.

First, it must be acknowledged that Schapiro was right to note that Proudhon was not a consistent egalitarian and so not a consistent libertarian. Proudhon’s sexism and racism are most obvious examples of this. Anarchists have argued the same. His ideas reflected his background and while he broke with many of the assumptions and prejudices of his age, he did succeed with all of them. However, to go from this to proclaim that Proudhon was a proto-fascist is an argument that “rests on a weak foundation. Fascists seek dictatorship, which Proudhon hated. Fascists spurn individual freedom, which to Proudhon was the greatest good. These differences between Proudhon and the fascists make the resemblances in their thought too superficial to serve as proof that their objectives are the same.” [7] Second, and far more important, what texts and letters Schapiro does utilise he twists considerably and are usually quoted completely out of context. Often he fails to quote Proudhon, instead summarising what he claims Proudhon thinks. Unsurprisingly, these “summaries” are usually misleading.

The main basis of his thesis is “La Révolution sociale demontrée par le Coup d’Etat du 2 decembre”, written by Proudhon after the 1851 coup by Louis Napoleon in which he dissolved the National Assembly. Schapiro is at pains to suggest this work shows Proudhon’s fascist side, as, it is claimed, “Proudhon hailed the overthrow of the Second Republic as a great step of progress and extolled Louis Napoleon as the hope of revolutionary France.” (p. 716) Proudhon, as representative of the petit-bourgeoisie, “supported the coup d’etat of Louis Napoleon” as well as “dictatorial government” (p. 736) All this is nonsense.

Schapiro proclaims that Proudhon “welcomed the constitution of the Second Empire that established the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon.” (p. 727) The Second Empire was proclaimed (by a plebiscite in favour of it) in December, 1852, after Proudhon’s book was published and by Autumn 1852 “he had become convinced that the president was choosing the path of reaction, and was advancing the interests not of the workers, but of the traditional financial and social elites.” [8] Nor did he support the coup, rather calling it “the crime” [9] and made it clear in his 1852 work that  “[t]he coup d’état is accomplished. I do not accept it, without doubt, but I say that, France, having entered willingly or by force on this path, it is necessary it does not leave it with a retrograde movement, but in a direction correctly understood as forward.”[10]

Proudhon was responding to an event he not only opposed, but predicted, [11] trying to make the best of a bad situation. He saw his book “as the only practical course to pursue, given that the coup d’état had already occurred and had little chance of being reversed.” [12] And that is the problem: the coup had popular support.

This is one of the many pertinent facts Schapiro fails to mention. Louis-Napoleon was the democratically elected President of the Republic and he dissolved a National Assembly which had restricted universal suffrage. He re-established universal suffrage and used a plebiscite on the 20th of December to confirm his actions as well the extension of his mandate for 10 years (his transformation into Emperor a year later was similarly overwhelmingly approved by a plebiscite). [13]

Sadly Schapiro failed to discuss what the correct democratic position on such events would be. Does he respect the referendum results? Or does he reject the wishes of the majority? If the former, does authoritarian rule become acceptable if ratified by the masses? If the later, surely that is undemocratic? While Proudhon grappled with such issues, Schapiro remained silent. He did find time to damn Proudhon’s negative comments against “the masses” which supported the coup as elitist while also damning him for respecting the overwhelming referendum result and urging Napoleon to use his mandate for socio-economic reform! Clearly, Proudhon could not win! So, for Schapiro, both opposing and fatalistically accepting the results of a referendum which destroys a democracy makes you anti-democratic…

While opposing the coup and the new regime, Proudhon was well aware that Napoleon had massive public support and that resistance was futile. This was what drove his book, to try and get Napoleon to use the obvious mandate from the referendum supporting his coup to further reform.[14] As he put it, Napoleon’s “mandate is to procure either revolution or counter-revolution.”[15] In effect, Proudhon tried to convince Napoleon’s regime to commit suicide by implementing political, economic and social reforms that would, eventually, produce a libertarian society. Just as he had in 1851 called upon the bourgeoisie to pursue the path of peaceful social transformation and liquidate itself by so doing. In both cases, the arguments were provoked by a desire to make the best of a bad situation and to avoid more violence.

Proudhon did not make the decision to write his book lightly. As Alan Ritter notes, he debated whether to publish his work, considering collaboration as “intrinsically evil” and at one stage rejected it “on grounds of principle.” The finished work “shows that Proudhon’s qualms were not confined to his preliminary jottings” and he “went out of his way to prevent unfavourable consequences from collaboration by strictly limiting the conditions under which it could occur. Hence, despite the caricatures, Proudhon was no sycophantic admirer of the Prince President, willing to go to any lengths to curry favour. On the contrary, the dictator would have to go to extraordinarily far in Proudhon’s direction to enlist his support. He would have to reform the constitution by making it more democratic” and “carry out social ands economic, as well as political reform.” If this was not done, then “mutualist collaboration is to be denied” and “the book, strictly interpreted, does rule out collaboration. So exacting are the conditions set for collaboration that they could not possibly be met.” [16] 

Ultimately, Proudhon long-standing fears about Napoleon were confirmed. The new regime sided with the ruling elite: “Where does the 2nd of December come from? From the Revolution. What does it represent? the counter-revolution” [17] Whether Proudhon was wise to urge Napoleon to use his mandate for reform, even with the numerous conditions he specified, is a moot-point. Two things are true. First, it allowed Proudhon’s many enemies to distort his ideas. Second, Schapiro’s account of the work and what motivated it is simply false. Suffice to say, Proudhon’s doomed attempt to sway Napoleon did not last long and he turned to his position of unremitting hostility to the regime.

The next key work for Schapiro is Proudhon’s 1861 book “La Guerre et la Paix.” Here he distorts its argument and turns a book seeking to end war once and for all into a glorification of eternal conflict! This is, in part, made easier by Proudhon’s presentation of his arguments, when he discusses the good and bad sides of something before drawing his conclusions. This laid him open to distortions by Marx in 1846 when he utilised it in System of Economical Contradictions. Applying it again in 1861 gave his many critics amble opportunity to distort his ideas. His exposition of the good side of war was blown out of proportion and made to look like the its sole purpose while his expounding on war’s bad side and the book’s connections with his overall social theory were ignored.

Schapiro follows this dishonest path, utterly failing to mention Proudhon’s negative comments on war (“Almost every page of La Guerre et la paix contains a glorification of war as an ideal and as an institution”) and its conclusions (“In the view of Proudhon war was not a social evil that would be eradicated in the course of human progress.” ). Proudhon was “a glorifier of war for its own sake” and his work nothing more than “a hymn to war, intoned in a more passionate key than anything produced by the fascists of our time.” (p. 730, p. 729)

As Robert L. Hoffman notes, the book “begins with lyrical praise of war . . . but ends by condemning war without reservation . . . some may not have read the reversal in the second part  . . . where the praise of war at the beginning serves to set the stage for his conclusion that war is obsolete.” Given this, it is “difficult to see how his purpose and overall conception could have been mistaken by any who read the whole book with care.”[18] “Though his aim was explicitly to show how civilisation progressed from war to peace,” argued Jack Hayward, “his extended initial praise for war . . . made his subsequent glorification of peace an anticlimax.” [19] George Woodcock agreed, noting that the basic argument of the book was that war had become “unreformable; the time has come for it to be superseded and for the urges that underlie it to be transformed in a positive direction” Indeed “the anti-militarist who has not grown so impatient as to put aside the book finds the author swinging suddenly to his side.” Proudhon’s aim was to show that “war is a social phenomenon whose nature must be understood before one can talk of bringing it to an end.” He also linked war to the economic structure to society and so, “in modern times, war is the consequence of the capitalist regime, which produces economic chaos.” The only “way to remedy this situation is to renew the economic equilibrium between the members of society.” [20]

Thus we find the book arguing, contra-Schapiro, that the end of militarism is the mission of the nineteenth century, under pain of indefinite decadence.” [21] In fact, the final words of the work are: “Humanity alone is large, it is infallible. However, I believe I have the capacity to say on its behalf: Humanity does not want any more war.” This was possible because “the Revolution made the public conscience the only interpreter of right, the only judge of temporal and the only sovereign, which constitutes the true democracy and marked the end of priesthood and militarism.” [22] For Proudhon, modern war “can never be anything other than war fought in the name of exploitation and property” and once “a just economic system has been established between both nations and individuals, war has no further function on earth.” This task was not aided by war: “What we must do now is organise economic forces. What use would war and its bloody tribunal be in helping to solve this new problem?”[23] Proudhon was clear that what “is wanted today is THE PEACE. The world understands and desires no other.” However, if “peace will become a serious reality beyond the reach of any attack” then more is required than political agreements. It requires economic reform: “The workers alone are capable of putting an end to war by creating economic equilibrium. This presupposes a radical revolution in ideas and morals.” [24] Proudhon’s aim was to explain why war happens in order to transcend it and so “to be done with war, it is not enough to declaim against it like the pacifists.” [25] In summary:

“If injustice was the cause of war, it followed that conflict could not be eliminated until society was reorganised along egalitarian lines. Proudhon had wanted to prove that the reign of political economy would be the reign of peace, finding it difficult to believe that people really thought he was defending militarism.” [26]

Clearly, Schapiro’s comment that Proudhon’s “advocacy of personal dictatorship and his laudation of militarism can hardly be equalled in the reactionary writings of his or of our day” (p. 732) is totally at odds with reality. What of his other charges?

These amount to a hysterical claim that Proudhon “unleashed a furious, almost obscene, assault on . . . popular sovereignty, natural rights, constitutions, parliaments, universal manhood suffrage, and majority rule.” (p. 723) That it was Proudhon’s “hatred of socialism” which “drove him to advocate anarchy as its very opposite. What he really saw in anarchy was not a solution of social problems but an antidote to socialism.” (p. 732) “Proudhon’s opposition to democracy arose from his contempt of the common man.” (p. 724) His “contempt and hatred of democracy overflowed all decent bounds, and he descended to a degree of disgusting vilification, reached only by the fascists of our day.” (p. 724)

It would be churlish to point out that Proudhon consistently and repeatedly called himself a socialist. It would also be churlish to point to Proudhon’s repeated call for workers associations are effective evidence to refute Schapiro’s assertion that Proudhon’s “anticapitalism was not the same as that of the socialists who attacked capitalism primarily as a system of production. He launched his attack on capitalism as a system of exchange.” (p. 722) It should be stressed that Proudhon was only opposed to centralised forms of democracy and was in favour of a decentralised democratic regime. As he put it in 1849: “I am a republican and I have proved it . . . I am a democrat and my repeated explanations of what I mean by anarchy testify to this fact.” Twelve years later, he stressed that he remained “what I will always be . . . a republican, a democrat even, and a socialist into the bargain.” [27] His mutualist society was fundamentally democratic:

“We have, then, not an abstract sovereignty of the people, as in the Constitution of 1793 and subsequent constitutions, or as in Rousseau’s Social Contract, but an effective sovereignty of the working, reigning, governing masses . . .

“In this the working masses are truly, positively and effectively sovereign. Indeed, how could it be otherwise if they are in charge of the whole economic system including labour, capital, credit, property and wealth?” [28]

Thus “universal suffrage provides us, on a reduced scale, or better still, in an embryonic state, with the complete system of future society. If it is reduced to the people nominating a few hundred deputies who have no initiative . . . social sovereignty becomes a mere fiction and the Revolution is strangled at birth.” As Proudhon put it, “my brand of democracy is not the same as that of the democrats”[29] and he rejected that form of centralised statist democracy which results in the people effectively voting for a ruler every 4 years (“The destruction of natural groups in electoral transactions will be the moral destruction of the nation, the ruin of universal suffrage, the negation of the thought of the Revolution.”[30])

Henri de Lubac just stated the obvious: “His invectives against democracy were not those of a counter-revolutionary. They were aimed at what he himself called ‘the false democracy’ . . . The attacked an apparently liberal ‘pseudo-democracy’ which ‘was not economic and social’ . . . ‘a Jacobinical democracy’” Proudhon “did not want to destroy, but complete, the work of 1789” and while “he had a grudge against the ‘old democracy’, the democracy of Robespierre and Marat” he repeatedly contrasted it “with a ‘young democracy’, which was a ‘social democracy.’”[31]

So although Proudhon criticised both centralised democracy and state socialism, he still considered himself a democrat and socialist: “We are also democracy and socialism; we may at times laugh at both the names and the personnel, but what those words cover and what those people stand for belong to us also; we must be careful of them!”[32]

What of the claim that he viewed the “masses” in contempt? Context is important here. As Woodcock notes, after “the plebiscite confirming Louis Napoleon in power” his “faith in the people . . . fell . . . to its lowest level . . . no epithet was too severe for the classes in whom he had seen the great hope of humanity.” [33] This period saw him use such terms as the “vile multitude” and “the rabble”[34] We can only wonder what Schapiro would have written if Proudhon had proclaimed the wisdom of the masses in supporting Napoleon! In such circumstances, it seems far more democratic to bemoan the foolishness of the masses than suggest that coup of December 10th and the Second Empire were legitimate because the overwhelming majority of voters supported both.

Ultimately, Schapiro seems to forget that being a democrat does not mean you automatically genuflect before the majority regardless of the decisions that majority makes. Nor does it blind you that working class people are shaped in a negative way by the oppression and exploitation we are subjected to and that can, and does, express itself in less that liberal ways. It does not mean that Proudhon rejected the ability of the masses to govern themselves, simply that they can, and do, make serious mistakes and that certain political forms (such as centralised democracy) confound these errors and make them more likely. Ultimately, while masses had a tendency to support autocratic demagogues at times (like Louis Napoleon!), for Proudhon the “army of liberty and progress will always be formed by the people, by virtue of their subjection and poverty. Labour is republican by nature and would be contradictory if it were otherwise.” [35]

Then there is the question of racism. Given that Schapiro seeks to present Proudhon as a proto-Nazi, he indicates only two anti-Semitic out-bursts from his public works. That, in itself, should confirm the weakness of Schapiro’s position. As historian Sharif Gemie summarises, “racism was never the basis of Proudhon’s political thinking”[36] while Graham Purchase correctly notes that “anti-semitism formed no part of Proudhon’s revolutionary programme.”[37] As Proudhon put it in one of his most widely read works:

“There will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Man, of whatever race or colour he may be, is an inhabitant of the universe; citizenship is everywhere an acquired right.” [38]

It is hard to think of a Nazi proclaiming that, never mind the hope that “nationalities will increasingly disappear under the impact of economic organisation, the decentralisation of States, intermarriage between races and intercontinental communication.” For Proudhon: “Where man finds justice, there is his fatherland” [39]

This is not to suggest that Proudhon’s personal bigotry does not appear in his public work – it occasionally does. However, what becomes obvious from reading his works is that any such outbursts are both rare and asides. Unlike Nazism, they are not at the core of his politics. To equate the extremely infrequent passing racist (usually anti-Semitic) remark or caricature with the systematic racism of the Nazis is simply incredulous. Particularly when Proudhon repeatedly proclaimed in his works his support for equality between races.

Ultimately as vile, reprehensible, and deserving of condemnation as they are, the racist and sexist remarks made by Proudhon should not be grounds for dismissing his entire work (or, for that matter, the entirety of anarchist theory!). Particularly as, firstly, most of them surfaced long after his death with the publication of his private correspondence and notebooks and, secondly, they are in direct contradiction to his own libertarian principles (which included, it must be stressed, public statements in favour of equality between all races).

It would take too long to refute all of Schapiro’s other attacks on Proudhon, except to note that they repeat his usual technique of selective quoting. Suffice to say “to argue that Proudhon was a proto-fascist suggests that one has never looked seriously at Proudhon’s writings.”[40]

Proudhon as free-market capitalist

What of the free-market right? Attempts have been made to suggest that Proudhon was a precursor of the propertarians (the so-called “libertarians” of the right).

Historian Bernard Moss discounts Proudhon’s socialism (although he “sought an associationist alternative to capitalism” and “to end the exploitation” of the “labouring classes”) because his “regulating principles were more libertarian than socialist.” Thus Proudhon was “a founder of libertarian anarchism” [41] Sharif Gemie suggests that “Proudhon proposed a version of market capitalism, in which independent families would be loosely federated to each other. Rather than thinking in terms of workers’ co-operatives, Proudhon understood ‘association’ as the creation of banking and credit facilities for small farmers and workshop owners.” [42] Francis Wheen, in his biography of Marx, calls Proudhon a “libertarian anarchist.”[43]

We can safely assume that by “libertarian”, the likes of Moss and Wheen are using it in the American sense of advocates of laissez-faire capitalism and so tolerating the stealing of that term from the left by the right. [44] Such claims, terminological issues aside, are premised on a basic misunderstanding, namely that markets equate to capitalism and so a support for markets equates to a support for capitalism. Yet this hides the key defining feature of capitalism, namely wage-labour. Thus capitalism is uniquely marked by wage-labour, not markets (which pre-date it by centuries). Thus it is possible for Proudhon to support markets while being, at the same time, a socialist.

Unsurprisingly, then, we find Proudhon acknowledged as a socialist by other socialist thinkers. Thus we find Marx writing of “the socialism of Proudhon”[45] while for Engels there was “the Proudhon school of Socialism.”[46] Bakunin talked about Proudhon’s “socialism, based on individual and collective liberty and upon the spontaneous action of free associations.”[47] For Kropotkin, Proudhon “laid anew the foundations of Anarchism” (“Socialism without government”).[48]

While it could be argued that the likes of Wheen are not socialists and, as such, could be excused for confusing capitalism with markets the same cannot be extended to Marxists who should, presumably, know better. Yet we find Donny Gluckstein asserting with casual abandon that Proudhon’s ideas are “easily recognisable as the precursor of neo-liberal economics today. But Proudhon’s ideas were located in a different context and so took a far more radical form when adopted by the male artisan class.”[49] Not only does this ignore Marx’s own focus on wage-labour as the unique identifier for capitalism, it also ignores the reality of neo-liberalism.

Since when did neo-liberalism refrain from using the state to impose its reforms and skew the market in favour of the capitalist class? When has the capitalist state ever left working class people alone when they act for themselves? When has an advocate of neo-liberal economics ever argued that that idol of laissez-faire capitalism, the law of supply and demand, was a “deceitful law . . . suitable only for assuring the victory of the strong over the weak, of those who own property over those who own nothing”?[50] Or denounced capitalist firms because they result in the worker being “subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience” and so people are related as “subordinates and superiors” with “two . . . castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society” and urged co-operatives to replace them?[51] Or suggested that we “shall never have real workingman’s associations until the government learns that public services should neither be operated by itself or handed over to private stock companies; but should be leased on contract to organised and responsible companies of workers”?[52] Nor would an ideologue for laissez-faire capitalism be happy with an agro-industrial federation nor would they advocate regulation of markets:

“The advocates of mutualism are as familiar as anyone with the laws of supply and demand and they will be careful not to infringe them. Detailed and frequently reviewed statistics, precise information about needs and living standards, an honest breakdown of cost prices . . . the fixing after amicable discussion of a maximum and minimum profit margin, taking into account the risks involved, the organising of regulating societies; these things, roughly speaking, constitute all the measures by which they hope to regulate the market.” [53]

And what neo-liberal journal would have “What is the capitalist? Everything! What should he be? Nothing!” as its banner motto?[54]

Unsurprisingly, Proudhon had nothing but contempt for the neo-liberals of his time and they for him.[55] He recognised the class basis of mainstream economic ideology: “Political economy, as taught by MM. Say, Rossi, Blanqui, Wolovski, Chevalier, etc., is only the economy of the property-owners, and its application to society inevitably and organically gives birth to misery.”[56] As such, claims that Proudhon was a propertarian or a supporter of neo-liberalism simply misunderstand both capitalism and Proudhon’s ideas. In reality, he proposed a version of market socialism based on workers’ co-operatives and their federation.[57] We will leave the last word to Proudhon: “The enemies of society are Economists.”[58]


[1] Tomes, p. 197

[2] Ritter, p. 7, pp. 9-10

[3] “Proudhon and Royalism”, The New Freewoman, October 1st, 1913

[4] Maurice Agulhon reports a typical example of this antipathy: “a conservative provincial newspaper for a time considered it amusing to introduce its accounts of violence or larceny with headlines such as ‘Monsieur Proudhon’s lessons do not fall upon deaf ears’ or ‘Another Proudhonian highwayman!’” (The Republican Experiment, 1848-52 (Cambridge University Press, 1983) p. 98)

[5] “Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Harbinger of Fascism”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Jul., 1945), pp. 714-737. All quotes in this section, unless otherwise indicated, are from this article.

[6] Schapiro did not explain the former while the latter was because the “economic condition of France, in his day, was such that a totalitarian state of the fascist type was inconceivable.” (p. 736)

[7] Ritter, pp. 9-10

[8] Vincent, p. 206

[9] quoted by Ritter, p. 187

[10] quoted by Vincent, p. 201

[11] Proudhon had, from 1848 onwards, opposed both the creation of a Presidential position (which he viewed as a threat to liberty and essential Monarchical in nature) and Louis-Napoleon (as a power-seeker), predicting that the Presidency would destroy the republic. Schapiro fails to credit Proudhon’s foresight on both issues.

[12] Vincent, p. 201

[13] Marx did not question the validity of the plebiscites, arguing that “the Bonaparte who dispersed [the Assembly] is the chosen of peasantry.” (MER, pp. 607-8) See section H.3.9 of AFAQ for the confusions Marx gets into trying to squeeze the coup into his ideological framework.

[14] “the government of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte is condemned by the seven and a half million votes which absolved it, to do great things and, one way or another, to introduce all the reforms of socialism.” (quoted by Hymans, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, p. 205)

[15] quoted by Vincent, p. 205

[16] Ritter, pp. 187-8

[17] quoted by Vincent, p. 206

[18] Revolutionary Justice,pp. 210-1

[19] Hayward, p. 213

[20] Proudhon, p. 233, p. 234, 235, p. 234

[21] quoted by Woodcock,  p. 233

[22] La Guerre et la Paix (Oeuvres Complètes, vol. XIV), p. 330, p. 328

[23] Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (SW), p. 211, pp. 211-2

[24] SW, p. 214

[25] quoted by Ehrenberg, p. 145

[26] Ehrenberg, p. 145

[27] SW, p. 195, p. 201

[28] SW, pp. 116-7

[29] SW, p.  123, p. 200

[30] quoted by Vincent, p. 213

[31] The Un-Marxian Socialist, p. 28, p. 29

[32] quoted by de Lubac, pp. 29-30

[33] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, p. 184

[34] quoted by Woodcock, Proudhon, p. 184

[35] SW, p. 179

[36] Gemie, pp.200-1

[37] Graham, p. xxxvi

[38] General Idea, p. 283

[39] quoted by Hayward, p. 213

[40] Vincent, p. 234

[41] The American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 3 (June 1985), p. 697

[42] Gemie, p. 158

[43] Karl Marx (Fourth Estate, 1999), p. 61

[44] “The very label ‘libertarianism’ has been captured from the left by free-market liberalism.” (Steven Lukes, “Equality and Liberty: Must They Conflict?”, pp. 48-66, Political Theory Today (Polity Press, 1991), David Held (ed.), p. 53) So to use the term “libertarian anarchist” or “libertarian anarchism” shows a shocking ignorance of the history of the term “libertarian” (not to mention the history and ideas of anarchism!). To an anarchist eye, it is an unnecessary redundancy and like writing Proudhon was a “libertarian libertarian”!

[45] Capital, vol. 1, p. 161f

[46] MER, p. 625

[47] Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings (Jonathan Cape, 1973), p. 100

[48] “Modern Science”, pp. 26-7

[49] Gluckstein, p. 72

[50] quoted by Ritter, p. 121

[51] General Idea, pp. 215-216

[52] quoted by Douglas, p. 45

[53] SW, p. 70

[54] As added to Le Représentant du Peuple in August 1848 where it joined “What is the Producer? Nothing. What should he be? Everything!” (quoted by Woodcock, Proudhon, p. 123, p. 136)

[55] “The school of Say,” Proudhon argued, was “the chief focus of counter-revolution” and “has for ten years past seemed to exist only to protect and applaud the execrable work of the monopolists of money and necessities, deepening more and more the obscurity of a science [economics] naturally difficult and full of complications.” (General Idea, p. 225) All of which seems sadly too applicable today!

[56] quoted by de Lubac, p. 190fn

[57] There is a certain irony to see the then Thatcherite John Gray state, against “the socialist order” (equated, of course, to “central economic planning”), that the market (equated, of course, with capitalism) “may be considered the paradigm of a spontaneous social order and to illustrate Proudhon’s dictum, ‘Liberty is the mother of order.’” (Liberalism (Open University Press), 2nd edition, 1995, p. 68) Quoting a socialist to defend capitalism is a paradox Proudhon would have savoured! Gray, it should be noted, subsequently rejected neo-liberalism and gained some understanding of the actual state imposed creation of capitalism. (False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (Granta Books, 2002))

[58] Carnets, vol. 3, p. 209


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