Engels on The Housing Question and Proudhon

Sorry for the lack of blogging – as indicated in my last blog on Proudhon and labour-notes, I have been busy on a critique of Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy which includes the marginal notes made in Proudhon’s copy. Below is an extract from the work currently in progress – an appendix Engels’ The Housing Question where Marx’s colleague – like Marx – practices his powers of invention against the Frenchman.

I’m finding it interesting, if a challenge. Proudhon covers a lot – and assumes a lot of familiarity with the intellectual discussions of his time – so I need to brush up on Ricardian economics, French bourgeois economists, Proudhon’s own arguments and, of course, the need to compare what Marx wrote to what Proudhon did (as I did in Property is Theft! and its extracts of System of Economic Contradictions) and comparing the Marx of 1847 with later-Marx (amusingly, the latter usually contradicts the former)

Suffice to say, Marx’s work is shoddy – he is not above inventing and modifying quotes for his purposes. It is not a work of honest polemic or debate. Fun fact time – Proudhon uses the expression “eternal justice” once in his two volumes, Marx four times – once in a quote which he attributes to Proudhon (“cries M. Proudhon”) but which he seems to have made-up.

Needless to say, explaining how Marx and Engels distorts Proudhon’s ideas does not equate to agreeing with them completely – although certain of them are still pretty valid and he is a far more important thinker than reading “the gruesome twosome” would lead you to think.

So I’m learning a lot – not least how dishonest Marx could be. The Poverty of Philosophy really does his legacy no favours at all – it does come across as the work of a precocious middle-class philosophy student rather than the work of a serious thinker.

I say student deliberately because we have all come across that type – the son (it is usually a son) of a middle-class family who thinks he understands working class life better than working class people (Leninist sects have them in plenty – since Lenin wrote a whole book explaining why us proles cannot reach socialist consciousness with them!). So we have Marx lecturing Proudhon thusly: “In labour as a commodity, which is a grim reality, he sees nothing but a grammatical ellipsis.” Ignoring – as Marx did – the awkward fact that Proudhon’s book discusses in some detail the grim reality of wage-labour (for example: “It degrades us, by making us servants and tyrants to one another.”) Marx is lecturing about something he never experienced himself to someone who had to leave school to become the employee of a printing firm!

Talking of wage-labour, I’ve managed to do something I’ve been meaning to do so some time – gather together the various aspects of System of Economic Contradictions theory of exploitation in one place (an earlier attempt can be found in Laying the Foundations). This is the summary version from the introduction while a longer version will be put in the section on “Surplus-Labour” in the main body of the critique (I’ll be tracking down the exact page numbers latter from the 1846 edition of Proudhon’s book – so please forgive the XXXXs!):

Proudhon’s analysis of capitalism showed how wage-labour was the root of exploitation. The capitalist firm “with its hierarchical organisation” means that workers had “have sold their arms and parted with their liberty” to a boss. (Système I: XXXX, XXXX) This results in having to “work under a master” where “[w]hat you have to do does not concern you” and “you do not control it”. (Système II: XXXX) The capitalist also controls “the distribution of your products” and so while “the result of the cooperation of numerous workers” produces a “collective power” this goes to the boss “gratuitously” for “he has paid nothing for that immense power which results from the union of workers” but rather “has paid as many times one day's wage as he has employed workers – which is not at all the same thing.” The axiom that “[e]very product is worth what it costs” is therefore “violated” (Système I: XXXX) and the “worker, whose share of the collective product is constantly confiscated by the entrepreneur, is always on his uppers, while the capitalist is always in profit” and so “political economy, that upholds and advocates that regime, is the theory of theft”. (Système II: XXXX) In short:

“From this hierarchical distribution of persons and incomes it follows that […] [i]n a nation the net product is equal to the gross product, is no longer true, since, in consequence of monopoly, the selling price is much higher than the cost price. […] This, then, is the reason why wealth and poverty are correlative, inseparable, not only in idea, but in fact; this is the reason why they exist concurrently […] the wage-receiver […] finds that, though promised […] hundred, he has really been given but seventy-five.” (Système I: XXXX)

His analysis of wage-labour and how exploitation occurred in production feeds directly into Proudhon’s arguments for workers’ associations and socialisation. As “all labour must leave a surplus, all wages [must] be equal to product” and “[b]y virtue of the principle of collective force, workers are the equals and associates of their leaders.” The workplace of the future would be based on free access (“should allow access to all who might present themselves”) and self-management (“to straightway enjoy the rights and prerogatives of associates and even managers”). (Système I: XXXX, XXXX, XXXX, XXXX)

Given all this, it is ironic to read Engels proclaim in his best ex-cathedra tone that “how the capitalist can enrich himself by the labour of his workers” did “occupy” Proudhon “but [he had] introduced absolutely no clearness into the matter”. (Marx-Engels Collected Works 23: 336) As becomes clear from comparing System to Poverty, the former is the superior work for it has a production rooted theory of exploitation and a better form of presentation (as can be seen from Marx utilising its rather than Poverty’s for Capital – a subject for another blog in due course). In short, Marx’s theory of exploitation looks remarkably Proudhonian…

Marx in 1847, in contrast to Proudhon, seems to think markets, commodity production, is the root of all evils for “relative value, measured by labour time, is inevitably the formula of the present enslavement of the worker” and “[i]ndividual exchange corresponds also to a definite mode of production which itself corresponds to class antagonism. There is thus no individual exchange without the antagonism of classes.” So the actual relations of production unique to capitalism – wage-labour – are ignored in favour of ahistoric chattering on commodity production.



 Engels and Proudhon Opps.

 Engels and Proudhon

Opps. I've noticed that this blog has been truncated and so the promised discussion of Engels "On the Housing Question" (and some other text) is missing. This text and new material can be found here:

Engels on The Housing Question and Proudhon (again)

Sorry about that -- I will be more careful checking my posts in future.


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