In 1840, two short expressions, a mere seven words, transformed socialist politics forever. One put a name to a tendency within the working class movement: “I am an Anarchist.” The other presented a critique and a protest against inequality which still rings: “Property is Theft!”
With “What is Property?” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon became one of the leading socialist thinkers of the nineteenth century and the libertarian movement was born, that form of socialism based on “the denial of Government and of Property” and which did “not want the government of man by man any more than the exploitation of man by man.”
Proudhon’s ideas played a key role in the development of revolutionary anarchism in the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA). Their application in the Paris Commune of 1871 was praised by Marx (although he did not mention the obvious source). Michael Bakunin proclaimed that “Proudhon is the master of us all” while for Peter Kropotkin he laid “the foundations of Anarchism.” It is easy to see why, for Proudhon was the first to discuss most of the ideas we associate with anarchism: the critique of property and capitalism; critique of the state; socio-economic federalism; free association; socialisation of the means of life; decentralisation; the abolition of wage-labour by self-management; and so on.
Proudhon subjected the state to withering criticism. While recognising that the state had exploitative and oppressive interests of its own, he clearly saw its role as an instrument of class rule: “Laws! We know what they are, and what they are worth! Spider webs for the rich and powerful, steel chains for the weak and poor, fishing nets in the hands of the Government.” The state protected the class system:
“In a society based on . . . inequality of conditions, government, whatever it is, feudal, theocratic, bourgeois, imperial, is . . . a system of insurance for the class which exploits and owns against that which is exploited and owns nothing.”
For Proudhon, the state was “the EXTERNAL constitution of the social power” by which the people delegate “its power and sovereignty” and so “does not govern itself.” Others “are charged with governing it, with managing its affairs.” Anarchists “deny government and the State, because we affirm that which the founders of States have never believed in, the personality and autonomy of the masses.” Ultimately, “the only way to organise democratic government is to abolish government.”
For Proudhon democracy could not be limited to a nation as one unit periodically picking its rulers. Its real meaning was much deeper: “politicians, whatever their colours, are insurmountably repelled by anarchy which they construe as disorder: as if democracy could be achieved other than by distribution of authority and as if the true meaning of the word ‘democracy’ was not dismissal of government.”
Given this, Proudhon did not think seizing political power could transform society. This was confirmed when he was elected to the French National Assembly in 1848: “As soon as I set foot in the parliamentary Sinai, I ceased to be in touch with the masses; because I was absorbed by my legislative work, I entirely lost sight of the current events . . . One must have lived in that isolator which is called a National Assembly to realise how the men who are most completely ignorant of the state of the country are almost always those who represent it.” There was “ignorance of daily facts” and “fear of the people” (“the sickness of all those who belong to authority”) for “the people, for those in power, are the enemy.”
Thus, rather than having some idealistic opposition to the state, Proudhon viewed it as an instrument of class rule which could not be captured for social reform. The state “finds itself inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat . . . The problem before the labouring classes . . . consists, not in capturing, but in subduing both power and monopoly.”
Proudhon’s analysis of property was seminal. The distinction he made between use rights and property rights, possession and property, laid the ground for subsequent socialist theory as well as his analysis of exploitation and his vision of socialism.
Property allowed the owner to exploit its user (“property is theft”) as well as creating oppressive social relationships between them (“property is despotism”). These are interrelated, as it is the relations of oppression that property creates which allows exploitation to happen and the appropriation of our common heritage by the few gives the rest little alternative but to agree to such domination and let the owner appropriate the fruits of their labour.
Proudhon’s genius and the power of his critique was that he took all the defences of, and apologies for, property and showed that, logically, they could be used to attack that institution. By treating them as absolute and universal as its apologists treated property itself, he showed that they undermined property. This meant that “those who do not possess today are proprietors by the same title as those who do possess; but instead of inferring therefrom that property should be shared by all, I demand, in the name of general security, its entire abolition.”
Property “violates equality by the rights of exclusion and increase, and freedom by despotism.” It has “perfect identity with robbery” and the worker “has sold and surrendered his liberty” to the proprietor. Anarchy was “the absence of a master, of a sovereign” while “proprietor” was “synonymous” with “sovereign” for he “imposes his will as law, and suffers neither contradiction nor control.” Thus “property is despotism” as “each proprietor is sovereign lord within the sphere of his property.” Freedom and property were incompatible:
“Thus, property, which should make us free, makes us prisoners. What am I saying? It degrades us, by making us servants and tyrants to one another.
“Do you know what it is to be a wage-worker? To work under a master, watchful of his prejudices even more than of his orders . . . Not to have any thought of your own, to study without ceasing the thought of others, to know no stimulus except your daily bread, and the fear of losing your job!”
“Whoever labours becomes a proprietor . . . And when I say proprietor, I do not mean simply (as do our hypocritical economists) proprietor of his allowance, his salary, his wages, – I mean proprietor of the value he creates, and by which the master alone profits . . . The labourer retains, even after he has received his wages, a natural right in the thing he has produced.”
Property meant “another shall perform the labour” while the proprietor “receives the product.” The boss also appropriated the additional value produced by collective effort (what Proudhon termed “collective force”). Thus 100 workers co-operating in a workplace produced more than 100 working alone and this excess was kept, like their product, by the employer who also appropriated their surplus-labour:
“the labourer . . . create[s], on top of his subsistence, a capital always greater. Under the regime of property, the surplus of labour, essentially collective, passes entirely, like the revenue, to the proprietor . . . the labourer, whose share of the collective product is constantly confiscated by the entrepreneur, is always on his uppers, while the capitalist is always in profit . . . political economy, that upholds and advocates that regime, is the theory of theft.”
Little wonder Rudolf Rocker argued that we find “the theory of surplus value, that grand ‘scientific discovery’ of which our Marxists are so proud of, in the writings of Proudhon.”
Given an analysis of property that showed that it produced exploitation (“theft”) and oppression (“despotism”), the question of how to end it arises. There are two options: either abolish collective labour and return to small-scale production or find a new form of economic organisation.
The notion that Proudhon advocated the first solution is as false as it is common. He favoured the second solution: “it is necessary to destroy . . . the predominance of capital over labour, to change the relations between employer and worker, to solve. . . the antinomy of division and that of machinery; it is necessary to ORGANISE LABOUR.” As “all labour must leave a surplus, all wages [must] be equal to product.” To achieve this the workplace must be democratic for “[b]y virtue of the principle of collective force, labourers are the equals and associates of their leaders” and to ensure “that association may be real, he who participates in it must do so” as “an active factor” with “a deliberative voice in the council” with everything “regulated in accordance with equality.” This requires free access and so all workers “straightway enjoy the rights and prerogatives of associates and even managers” when they join a workplace.
Co-operatives ended the exploitation and oppression of wage-labour as “all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members” and “the collective force, which is a product of the community, ceases to be a source of profit to a small number of managers and speculators: It becomes the property of all the workers.” Thus “industrial democracy” would replace the “hierarchical organisation” of capitalism. He denounced “the radical vice of political economy” of “affirming as a definitive state a transitory condition” the division of society into classes and looked forward to “the abolition of capitalism and of wage-labour.”
Significantly, this support for workers’ self-management was raised at the same time he proclaimed himself an anarchist. As “every industry needs . . . leaders, instructors, superintendents” they “must be chosen from the labourers by the labourers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions of eligibility” for “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.”
While Proudhon urged a “revolution from below”, he also rejected violence and insurrection. While later anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin embraced the class struggle, including strikes, unions and revolts, Proudhon opposed such means and preferred peaceful reform. However, they shared a common vision of change from below by working class self-activity:
“Workers, labourers, men of the people, whoever you may be, the initiative of reform is yours. It is you who will accomplish that synthesis of social composition which will be the masterpiece of creation, and you alone can accomplish it.”
He urged workers to create new forms of economic organisation and to pressurise the state from outside. During the 1848 revolution he “propose[d] that a provisional committee be set up to orchestrate exchange, credit and commerce amongst the workers” and this would “liaise with similar committees” elsewhere in France. This would be “a body representative of the proletariat . . ., a state within the state, in opposition to the bourgeois representatives.” He urged that “a new society be founded in the heart of the old society” by the working class for “the government can do nothing for you. But you can do everything for yourselves.” The proletariat “must emancipate itself without the help of the government.”
Given the nature of the state as a centralised, top-down structure organised to maintain class society, joining the government to achieve socialism was, for Proudhon, contradictory and unlikely to work:
“But experience testifies and philosophy demonstrates . . . that any revolution, to be effective, must be spontaneous and emanate, not from the heads of the authorities but from the bowels of the people: that government is reactionary rather than revolutionary: that it could not have any expertise in revolutions, given that society, to which that secret is alone revealed, does not show itself through legislative decree but rather through the spontaneity of its manifestations: that, ultimately, the only connection between government and labour is that labour, in organising itself, has the abrogation of government as its mission.”
This suggested a bottom-up approach, socialism from below rather than a socialism imposed by the state:
“From above . . . evidently signifies power; from below signifies the people. On the one hand we have the actions of government; on the other, the initiative of the masses . . . revolution from above is . . . inevitably revolution according to the whims of the Prince, the arbitrary judgement of a minister, the fumblings of an Assembly or the violence of a club: it is a revolution of dictatorship and despotism . . . Revolution on the initiative of the masses is a revolution by the concerted action of the citizens, by the experience of the workers, by the progress and diffusion of enlightenment, revolution by the means of liberty . . . a revolution from below, from true democracy”
For Proudhon, “revolutionary power . . . is no longer in the government or the National Assembly, it is in you. Only the people, acting directly, without intermediaries, can bring about the economic revolution.” It is this vision which was taken up and expanded upon by later libertarians.
In place of capitalism and the state, Proudhon desired libertarian socialism based on socio-economic federation of self-managed associations.
As in the Paris Commune, this federation’s delegates would be mandated and subject to recall by their electors: “we shall make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we shall indicate our will to them, and when we are discontented, we will revoke them . . . the mandat imperatif, permanent revocability, are the most immediate, undeniable, consequences of the electoral principle.” As in the Commune, the “legislative power is not distinguished from the executive power” and federalism ended the “unity that tends to absorb the sovereignty of the villages, cantons, and provinces, into a central authority. Leave to each its sentiments, its affections, its beliefs, its languages and its customs.” 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 . . . Indeed, how could it be otherwise if they are in charge of the whole economic system including labour, capital, credit, property and wealth?”
Rejecting state socialism, Proudhon proposed “a solution based on equality, – in other words, the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.” He favoured socialisation, genuine common-ownership and free access. The “land is indispensable to our existence, consequently a common thing, consequently insusceptible of appropriation” and “all capital . . . being the result of collective labour, is, in consequence, collective property.” Against property, Proudhon argued for a society of “possessors without masters” with self-managed workers’ associations running the economy:
“under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership . . . We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations . . . We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies woven into the common cloth of the democratic and social Republic.”
He later termed this the agro-industrial federation. Unsurprisingly, then, Bakunin talked about Proudhon’s “socialism, based on individual and collective liberty and upon the spontaneous action of free associations.” In opposition to various schemes of state socialism, Proudhon argued for a decentralised federal market socialism based on workers’ self-management of production and community self-government.
Proudhon’s ideas developed and evolved as he thought through the implications of his previous insights. They also reflected, developed and changed with the social and political context. He influenced the developing working class movement and was influenced by it. For example, he often called his libertarian socialism “mutualism,” a term invented not by him but by the workers in Lyon in the 1830s.
This did not stop with his death in 1865. The ideas Proudhon championed continued to evolve as working class people utilised them to understand and change the world. Mutualists were instrumental in forming the IWMA in 1864 and it was in that organisation that libertarian ideas evolved from reformist to revolutionary anarchism. The debates on collective ownership in the IWMA were primarily between socialists heavily influenced by Proudhon. All sides agreed on workers associations for industry, disagreeing on the issue of collectivising land.
By 1871, the transition from reformist mutualism to revolutionary collectivism as the predominant tendency within anarchism was near complete. Then came the Paris Commune. With its ideas on decentralised federations of communes and workers’ associations, the Commune applied Proudhon’s ideas on a grand scale and, in the process, inspired generations of socialists. Sadly, this revolt has been appropriated by Marxism thanks to Marx’s passionate defence of the revolt and his and Engels systematic downplaying of its obvious Proudhonian influences. As Bakunin suggested, Marx and Engels “proclaim[ing] that [the Commune’s] programme and purpose were their own” flew “in face of the simplest logic” and was “a truly farcical change of costume.”
Proudhon’s lasting legacy is his contribution to anarchism. It is little wonder that he has been termed “the father of anarchism” for while anarchism has evolved since Proudhon’s time it still bases itself on the themes first expounded in a systematic way by the Frenchman. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anarchism without Proudhon – even if a few anarchists may wish to.
Modern, revolutionary, anarchism developed within the IWMA and reflected the federalist and self-managed vision expounded by Proudhon. It rejected his reformism and transformed his call for a “revolution from below” into a literal support for a social revolution. With reformism rejected as insufficient, the revolutionary anarchists stressed the need for what would now be termed a syndicalist approach to social change. Rather than seeing workers’ co-operatives and the “organisation of credit” as the focus for social transformation, unions, strikes and other forms of collective working class direct action and organisation were seen as the means of both fighting capitalism and replacing it. Proudhon’s dual-power strategy from 1848 was applied it in the labour movement with the long term aim of smashing the state and replacing it with these organs of popular power. It also rejected Proudhon’s anti-communism in favour of going beyond abolishing wage-labour and advocating distribution according to need rather than deed as both more just and consistent (i.e., the extension of the critique of wage-labour into opposition to the wages-system). It also rejected Proudhon’s support for patriarchy in the family as inconsistent with the libertarian principles he advocated against capitalism and the state.
So Proudhon and the likes of Bakunin and Kropotkin had more in common than differences. Even a cursory glance at revolutionary anarchism shows the debt it has to Proudhon. Bakunin, unsurprisingly, considered his own ideas as “Proudhonism widely developed and pushed right to these, its final consequences.”
While Proudhon may not have been the first thinker to suggest a stateless and classless society, he was the first to call himself an anarchist and to influence a movement of that name. This is not to suggest that libertarian ideas and movements had not existed before Proudhon nor that anarchistic ideas did not develop spontaneously after 1840 but these were not a coherent, named, theory. Nor is it to suggest that anarchism has to be identical to Proudhon’s specific ideas and proposals, rather they have to be consistent with the main thrust of his ideas – in other words, anti-state and anti-capitalism.
Anarchists are not Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Kropotkinites, or whoever-ists. We reject the idea of calling ourselves after individuals. However, we can and do acknowledge the contributions of outstanding thinkers and activists, people who contribute to the commonwealth of ideas which is anarchism. Seen in this light, Proudhon should be (for all his faults) remembered as the person who laid the foundations of anarchism. His libertarian socialism, his critique of capitalism and the state, his federalism, advocacy of self-management and change from below, define what anarchism is.
Today, anarchists are continuing the task started in 1840: replacing capitalist statism with anti-state socialism.
The quotes in the above article come from the forthcoming Proudhon anthology “Property is Theft!” This book, the most comprehensive anthology of Proudhon’s work to date, will be published in December 2010 to mark the 170th anniversary of Proudhon’s classic “What is Property?”
Translated into English by Paul Sharkey for the first time for this anthology, this letter of the 14th of December 1849 to Saint-Simonian socialist Pierrer Leroux summarises Proudhon’s ideas on socialism, the organisation of labour and of credit, social reform, why opposing capitalism means opposing the state, and a host of other issues still debated within the radical movement.
My dear Pierre Leroux,
[. . .]
On the basis of a few snatches of text quarried from my books and utterly misconstrued, you have cast me as an adversary of your own devising – anti-democratic, anti-socialist, counter-revolutionary, Malthusian and atheistic. This is the imaginary creature to which you address your arguments, without in the least bothering if the man you depict thus to proletarians fits the description. Sometimes you credit me with saying things that I never said, or you credit me with conclusions diametrically opposed to my actual ones; at other times, you take the trouble to lecture me on what no one living in this century could honestly be ignorant of; all in order to banish me benignly from the democratic and social community.
Thus you take me to task for having made a distinction between the labour question and the question of the State, two questions which are, at bottom, identical and susceptible to one and the same solution.
If you were as eager to acknowledge the common ground between your thoughts and mine as you are to highlight where they differ, you wouldn’t have had any difficulty persuading yourself that, when it comes to the questions of labour and the State, as well as on a host of other matters, our two outlooks have no reason to feel jealous of each other. When I state, say, that the capitalist principle and the monarchist or governmental principle are one and the same principle; that the abolition of the exploitation of man by man and the abolition of the government of man by man are one and the same formula; when, taking up arms against communism and absolutism alike, those two kindred faces of the authority principle, I point out that, if the family was the building block of feudal society, the workshop is the building block of the new society; it must be as plain as day that I, like you, look upon the political question and the economic question as one and the same. What you upbraid me for not knowing on this score is your own sheer ignorance of my own thinking and, what is worse, it is a waste of time.
But does it follow from the fact that the labour question and the State question resolve each other and are, fundamentally, one and the same issue, that no distinction should be made between them and that each does not deserve its own resolution? Does it follow from these two questions being, in principle, identical, that we must arrive at a particular mode of organising the State rather than the State being subsumed by labour? Neither of those conclusions holds water. Social questions are like problems of geometry; they may be resolved in different ways, depending on how they are approached. It is even useful and vital that these differing solutions be devised so that, in adding further dimensions to theory, they may add to the sum of science.
And as to the State, since, despite this multi-faceted character, the ultimate conclusion is that the question of its organisation is bound up with that of the organisation of labour, we may, we must, further conclude that a time will come when, labour having organised itself, in accordance with its own law, and having no further need of law-maker or sovereign, the workshop will banish government. As I argue and into which we shall look into, my dear philosopher, whenever, paying rather more heed to the other fellow’s ideas and being a little less sensitive about your own, you may deign to enter into a serious debate about one or other of these two things, about which you are forever prattling without actually saying anything: Association and the State.
The government question and the labour question being identical, you rightly remark that such identity is articulated in the following terms: The Question of the organisation of Society.
Now, read through chapter one of Contradictions Économiques and you will find it formally spelled out that it is incorrect to say that labour is organised or that it is not; that it is forever self-organising; that society is an ongoing striving for organisation; that such organisation is at one and the same time the principle, the life and the purpose of society. So, my dear Pierre Leroux, be so kind as to think me somewhat less of an ignoramus and above all less of a sophist than I may seem to your frightened imagination: it will lay to rest three quarters of our quarrel.
Yes, I tell you, the February Revolution (and I am sticking to my formula precisely on account of its concrete simplicity and its very materiality), the February Revolution has posed two questions; one political and the other economic. The first is the question of government and freedom; the second that of labour and capital. I defy you to express bigger issues in fewer words. So leave the Supreme Being to heaven and religion to conscience, to the household, a matter for the mother of the family and her offspring.
Let me add – and there is nothing in me to validate your entertaining doubts, the way you do, about my feelings on this score – that once those two major issues have been resolved, the republican catch-cry, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, is a reality. If this is what you refer to as God’s kingdom on earth, let me say to you, indeed, that I have no quarrel with that. It is a real comfort to me to find out at last that the kingdom of God is the kingdom of liberty, equality and fraternity. But could you not express yourself in everyday language?
You have me saying, and I really do not know where you could have found this, that ownership of the instruments of labour must forever stay vested in the individual and remain unorganised. These words are set in italics, as if you had lifted them from somewhere in my books. And then, on the back of this alleged quotation, you set about answering me that society, or the State that stands for it, has the right to buy back all property assets, that it has a duty to pursue such buy-backs and that it will do so.
But it does not follow at all from my speaking on the basis of socialism in order to reject the buy back of such assets as nonsensical, illegitimate and poisonous that I want to see individual ownership and non-organisation of the instruments of labour endure for all eternity. I have never penned nor uttered any such thing: and have argued the opposite a hundred times over. I make no distinction, as you do, between real ownership and phony ownership: from the lofty heights of righteousness and human destiny, I deny all kinds of proprietary domain. I deny it, precisely because I believe in an order wherein the instruments of labour will cease to be appropriated and instead become shared; where the whole earth will be depersonalised; where, all functions having become interdependent [solidaires], the unity and personhood of society will be articulated alongside the personality of the individual. True, were I not familiar with the candour of your soul, I should think, dear Pierre Leroux, that such misrepresentation of my meaning and my words were done on purpose.
But how is such solidarity of possession and labour to be achieved? How are we to make a reality of such personhood of society, which must result from the disappropriation, or de-personalising of things?
That plainly is the issue, the big question of the revolution.
Together with Louis Blanc, you make noises about association and buy back: but association, such as it must emerge from fresh reforms, is as much a mystery as religion, and all the attempts at association made by the workers before our very eyes and more or less modelling themselves on the forms of companies defined by our civil and commercial codes, can only be deemed transitory. In short, we know nothing about association. But, besides its requiring the acquiescence of all property-owners, by all the citizenry – which is an impossibility – buying back assets is a notion of mathematical nonsensicality. What is the State supposed to use to pay for assets? Why, assets. Buy back across-the-board adds up to universal expropriation without public usefulness and WITHOUT COMPENSATION. Yet your sense of caution, Pierre Leroux, has no misgivings about being compromised by fostering such claptrap!
There is a more straightforward, more effective and infinitely less onerous and less risky way of transferring ownership, achieving Liberty, Equality and Fraternity: And I have pointed that way out lots of times; it is to put paid to capital’s productivity by means of a democratic organisation of credit and a simplification of taxation.
Capital having been divested of its power of usury, economic solidarity is gradually brought into play, and with it, an equality of wealth.
Next comes the spontaneous, popular formation of groups, workshops or workers’ associations;
Finally, the last to be conjured and formed is the over-arching group, comprising the nation in its entirety, what you term the State because you invest it with a representativity beyond society [représentation extra-sociale] but which, to me, is the State no more.
That, dear philosopher, is how I see the Revolution going; this is how we should shift from Liberty to Equality and thence to Fraternity. Which is why I so forcefully insist upon the importance of economic reform, a reform that I have given this makeshift designation: Free credit.