Letter to Socialist Standard on Proudhon

Well, I expected bad reviews from Marxists for Property is Theft! but I admit to being surprised by how poor the one from Socialist Standard (the Socialist Party of Great Britain’s paper). I mean, it is like the reviewer did not even bother reading it… I’ve sent a letter which I’ve added to the end of this blog. I expect I will be writing more like that one.

Obviously space considerations mean that I had to concentrate on the key issues but the contempt starts from the first sentence (describing What is Property? as “a pamphlet”!) The second sentence fairs just as bad, proclaiming that property is theft “wasn’t as radical it might seem since what he was criticising was the private ownership of land.” As I indicate in my letter, this simply is not true. Ironically, Proudhon noted how one of his critics (a defender of capitalism) “pretends to think that the opponents of property refer only to property in land, while they merely take it as a term of comparison.” (Property is Theft!, 147). So some things never change… even Marx did not try that one! Even worse, though, given that my introduction discusses Proudhon’s position on workers associations and social ownership.

I should note, though, that Proudhon’s “property is theft” is extremely radical as it points to two features of capitalism. First, that our common heritage is appropriated by the few. Second, that because of this workers “have sold their arms and parted with their liberty” and are exploited by their employer. (212) As Proudhon put it in 1849: “The exploitation of man by man, someone once said, is theft.” (400) But if you read my book you will discover that this is discussed in my introduction…

Ironically, our reviewer proclaims that while JS Mill “also criticised” private property in land and proposed “land nationalisation” Proudhon “didn’t even go that far; he advocated access for everyone to an equal amount of land.” Which is a strange way of putting it, given Proudhon argued, as quoted in my letter, that “under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership” (377) And in a country where most working people were peasant farmers, I’m not sure how you could socialise the land without utilising individual possession – unless you favour forced collectivisation, of course. And has our Marxist forgotten that, according to Marx, “the expropriation of the mass of the people from the soil forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production”? (Capital, vol. 1, p. 934) Still, asserting incorrect things about Proudhon and his ideas on property is pretty typical for Marxists ( as seen by Marx and Engels)

Then there is the “a free marketer” notion, which completely ignores Proudhon’s well known negative comments against the unrestricted competition so beloved by the propertarian right. Yes, he was in favour of markets and competition (unlike, say, Louis Blanc) but he was well aware of their negative impact (just as he was aware of the negative impact of state socialist monopoly). Thus we find him arguing: “Therefore there can be no question here of destroying competition, as impossible as to destroy liberty; the problem is to find its equilibrium, I would willingly say its police.” (203) As he argued in 1846:

“Thus it is that, competition being one of the periods in the constitution of value, one of the elements of the social synthesis, it is true to say at the same time that it is indestructible in its principle, and that nevertheless in its present form it should be abolished, denied. If, then, there is anyone here who is in opposition to history, it is you . . . Competition kills competition, as we said at the outset . . . the more competition develops, the more it tends to reduce the number of competitors… If some socialists fail to recognise the useful side of competition, you on your side make no mention of its pernicious effects… The remedy for competition, in your opinion, is to make competition universal. But, in order that competition may be universal, it is necessary to procure for all the means of competing; it is necessary to destroy or modify the predominance of capital over labour, to change the relations between employer and worker, to solve, in a word, the antinomy of division and that of machinery; it is necessary to ORGANISE LABOUR: can you give this solution?” (200-1)

That hardly sounds like a “free marketeer”! But what is that? Our reviewer proclaims that Proudhon “has been called [by whom?] an ‘anarcho-capitalist’ but this would be going too far as he was opposed to capitalism.” So we have a non-capitalist free marketeer, which is “opposed to capitalism” but not socialist – in spite of Proudhon’s arguments for socialising the means of production. More is explained, in that Proudhon’s “opposition to capitalism… was in the name of self-employed artisans who capitalism was reducing to working for wages for an employer.” Like, it should be said, the rest of the socialist movement at the time…

Not identifying what “free marketeer” is, or who would be considered one, makes it hard to refute such claims of course. I should mention that my introduction debunks previous Marxist attempts to proclaim Proudhon a neo-liberal. I can only assume the reference to “anarcho-capitalist” is just an attempt to annoy any genuine anarchists reading the review.

Our reviewer than states that Proudhon’s “proposed solution was that these should unite in ‘associations’ (basically, cooperatives) which should exchange their products at their labour-time values.” While Marx, and others, have stated that Proudhon wished to use labour-time notes I’ve not seen him explicitly write that. He was keen to see prices relate to the time and energy required to produce a good, but he did not say that goods should be priced in so many hours and minutes of labour. However, the basic notion is correct – there “is mutuality, in fact, when in an industry, all the workers, instead of working for an owner who pays them and keeps their product, work for one another and thereby contribute to a common product from which they share the profit.” (616)

Thus the aim was transform the relations within production so that “the ownership and management of companies, instead of remaining individual as it has always usually been, perhaps gradually become collective to the point of providing the working classes, on the one hand, with a decisive guarantee of emancipation, and on the other hand, providing civilised nations with a revolution in the relationship between labour and capital.” (613)

Our reviewer also noted Proudhon “proposed a Bank of Exchange which would issue labour-money against products as well as providing interest-free loans to workers’ cooperatives it judged viable” and that I put “a positive spin on this” by relating this to market socialism! But our reviewer does not think market socialism is socialism, although he does not explain why (unlike my introduction). Still, it “gets worse” as Proudhon “was a gradualist as well as a currency crank”! As if I did not discuss his reformism and indicate why subsequent anarchists rejected it! Although the irony of the SPGB (who are still waiting for 51% of the vote in order to introduce communism) calling Proudhon a gradualist should be noted. Nor would it be remiss to note that the SPGB reject Social Democracy because it became gradualist – by following Marx’s recommendation of using political action and reforms to win support!

Our reviewer notes that “Marx eventually realised that Proudhon, for all his insight that under the wages system the producers were exploited, was on the wrong track.” Which skilfully ignores the obvious debt Marx has to Proudhon – but then Marx himself was keen to denounce Proudhon while appropriating his insights as his own! As an added irony, our reviewer uncritically points to Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy as “the first public exposition of his views on economic matters.” As I show in an appendix in Property is Theft!, Marx’s book is intellectually dishonest.

He is right that“[l] arge extracts from Proudhon’s book [System of Economic Contradictions] are included in this anthology.” This had to be done, given that few people have read Proudhon’s two volumes and so often thing Marx’s critique is an accurate account of it. Sadly, he fails to mention that lengthy extracts from a key chapter from volume two (Chapter XI – The Eight Epoch: Property) have been newly translated into English. That is to be expected, as he completely fails to mention that most of the book contains material never before available to English-language readers – still, makes people less likely to read it, eh?

I also footnote the extracts from volume one of System of Economic Contradictions in order to enlighten the reader to what Proudhon wrote and what Marx claimed he wrote. I assume our reviewer is referring to those when he mentions my “sometimes tendentious footnotes.” Looking up tendentious I discovered it meant “marked by a tendency in favour of a particular point of view: biased” or “characterised by a deliberate tendency or aim; esp., advancing a definite point of view.”

Apparently it is “biased” to point out that Marx, for example, quotes Proudhon and then inserted a passage from a different chapter of the book, changing a word (“communist” to “economist”) in the process, without indicating! Or that Marx proclaims that Proudhon “borrows from the economists the necessity of eternal relations” about a book in which explicitly states the opposite, namely that “the radical vice of political economy” consists “in affirming as a definitive state a transitory condition.” (174)

Shame that our reviewer fails to explain why mentioning that sort of thing is “characterised by a deliberate tendency or aim” while not mentioning it is the work of an objective scientist…

Still, I feel that our reviewer – being a Marxist – cannot understand the aim of this book. He proclaims that I am “on to a loser here. There is no way that Proudhon can be presented as a serious exponent either of the way capitalism works or even of the history of economic thought, certainly not when compared with Marx.” Yet I explicitly reject the notion of replacing Marx by Proudhon:

“Be that as it may, and regardless of the misrepresentations that Marx inflicted on Proudhon, it is also fair to say that he developed many of the themes he appropriated from Proudhon… he distorted Proudhon’s ideas and claimed many of his insights as his own. To set the record straight is not a call for Marx to be rejected in favour of Proudhon, it is a call for an honest appraisal of both.” (65)

As becomes clear from reading Proudhon, and as I indicate in my letter, many insights associated with Marx can be first found in Proudhon. This applies to both the critique of capitalism but also to political ideas as well, not least Marx’s praise for the Paris Commune. To deny that seem petty in the extreme but it fits in well with someone whose ideology is named after a person…

Our reviewer states that today “most anarchists accept Marx’s analysis of capitalism if not his politics.” Quite – and most of them don’t know that Marx took a great many of his concepts from Proudhon. And, sad to say, most of them think that Marx’s attacks on Proudhon accurately reflect the Frenchman’s ideas! That is one of the many reasons why I started work on Property is Theft! I still have a long way to go, obviously…

Our reviewer admits that “[s]ome anarchists might find this 800-page anthology useful” – hopefully, particularly as it includes many new translations of important works (such as those relating to the 1848 revolution). Our reviewer fails to mention that, but why indicate a reason to read a book you haven’t read yourself? As my letter indicates, anyone interested in the evolution of 19th century socialism (both anarchist and Marxist) this book will be informative. They will discover a great deal of standard socialist principles were first expounded by Proudhon – I was amazed by how much of what I took to be Bakunin’s contributions to anarchism were just paraphrasing Proudhon’s ideas.

Still, I know I have a long way to go in getting Proudhon – the most significant French socialist of the period – seriously in anarchist circles. It seems that while some anarchists are able to recognise the contributions as well as the weaknesses and limitations of, say, Marx they are unable to do the same for someone like Proudhon. Our reviewer states that those anarchists (like my good self!) “who are communists will discover, as they plough through his rambling writings, that Proudhon was a life-long and bitter opponent of ‘communism’” – as if my introduction did not discuss this and why the likes of Kropotkin rejected Proudhon’s position. This did not stop Kropotkin recognising the importance of Proudhon’s other ideas!

And as I note in my letter, what Proudhon attacked as “communism” was not what most modern communists would understand by the term. I quote Kropotkin on this in my introduction: “before and in 1848, the theory [of communism] was put forward in such a shape as to fully account for Proudhon’s distrust as to its effect upon liberty. The old idea of Communism was the idea of monastic communities under the severe rule of elders or of men of science for directing priests. The last vestiges of liberty and of individual energy would be destroyed, if humanity ever had to go through such a communism.” Compared to attacks on “communism” (or more usually, the highly regulated and hierarchical “community” of Utopian Socialism), his discussions of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” are few and far between (General Idea of the Revolution most obviously, but also in System of Economic Contradictions). Still, rather than throw your hands up in horror at the sight of a non-communist socialist it would be better, surely, to prove him wrong? Something impossible to do in a review, of course, but Marx did not even attempt -- he did not even try, unlike Kropotkin, to explain why communism was better than payment by labour.

As I said, we can acknowledge Marx's contributions to socialism without being expected to support all his political and economic ideas. We can do the same for Proudhon -- and Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, and so on. As I wrote in my introduction:

“Anarchists, though, 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 (for all his faults) should be 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, defined what anarchism is.” (51)

So I hope that anarchists (and non-anarchists!) will make the effort to read Property is Theft! and see his contributions to socialist thought. Yes, he can be “rambling” at times but when he gets it right, he is a joy to read. To dismiss him as “an anti-socialist” is simply nonsense – and shows that you really should read the book you are claiming to review…

Which raises the question of whether Marx was also “an anti-socialist” when he argued for labour-notes in Critique of the Gotha Programme? Like Proudhon, he is advocating payment according to deed rather than need. And what of the Marx of The Communist Manifesto? That talks of taxation and gradual nationalisation, even labour armies. No mention of workers associations there -- unlike Proudhon, who had raised workers self-management of production back in 1840 before raising it during the 1848 revolution (and so building on his comments in 1846's System of Economic Contradictions). If anything is “anti-socialist” it is the vision of socialist transition in the Manifest not Proudhon and his consistent support for the elimination of wage-labour by workers self-management of production. He was, unlike Marx (and Louis Blanc, Lenin, etc.), well aware that making people wage-labourers of the state was not an improvement over capitalism.

To be honest, I had expected better of the SPGB - they have some notion of what genuine communism is and they are genuine Marxists (as I discuss in section H.3.10, Lenin distorted the politics of Marx and Engels -- along with anarchism -- in State and Revolution and the SPGB quite rightly point this out). They are also regularly misrepresented by others, so I would have thought they would not be so keen to do so to others... Shame, I guess they follow Marx in distorting anarchism as well as in using voting (“political action”) to achieve socialism... I had hoped that this would not be the case.

And on one final Proudhon related thing, I got the new Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (no. 56) today in the post. It has the usual wide selection of material of interest to revolutionary anarchists, plus two reviews by me of Proudhon's works -- What is Property? and System of Economic Contradictions. Those should be of interest to those wondering why they should bother with Proudhon -- I hope!

And before including my letter to Socialist Standard, since we talking of Marxists I must note that I am still debating “Marxism and Anarchism” with the AWL (a Trotskyist sect) this Saturday (9th of July) – details can be found here. Maybe see yous there…

And, finally, I should point to my recent review of an excellent book on The International Anarchist Congress Amsterdam (1907). This is an important book on an important event and my review concentrates on the most important debate -- that between Errico Malatesta (my favourite dead anarchist) and the French syndicalist Pierre Monatte. Unsurprisingly, I argue that Malatesta has been proven right.

I also note (again, unsurprising given my previous article on Syndicalism, Anarchism and Marxism) this debate shows the anarchist roots of syndicalism even if Malatesta was critical of certain aspects of syndicalism. I should also note (given my AWL debate) that Monatte (unlike Malatesta) subscribed to the Bolshevik Myth for a few years. Sadly for the likes of the AWL, these days we libertarians are too aware of the reality of the Bolshevik regime so their hopes of attracting "the best of the anarchists" (like elitist individualist Victor Serge and unlike syndicalist Emma Goldman!) has little chance of success -- unlike in 1918... I must admit to wanting to see Malatesta's analysis of the Third International translated into English sometime -- it would be good to see the views of a member of the First International on it!

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

Letter to Socialist Standard

Dear Socialist Standard

I was under the impression that a reviewer should actually read the book that they claim to be reviewing. Apparently ALB (Socialist Standard, July 2011) does not think so – how else to explain his demonstrably wrong comments on my Proudhon anthology Property is Theft!?

ALB proclaims that Proudhon’s argument in What is Property? “wasn’t as radical it might seem since what he was criticising was the private ownership of land.” True, it states the land is a “common thing, consequently unsusceptible of appropriation” but it also proclaims that “all accumulated capital” is “social property” and so “no one can be its exclusive proprietor” and that “all property becomes… collective and undivided.” (Property is Theft!, 118, 105, 137) Positions he subsequently repeated: “under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership.” (377)

ALB’s use of “currency crank” shows that he simply does not understand Proudhon’s ideas, likewise when Proudhon is proclaimed “a free marketeer, bitterly opposed to ‘communism’ in the same terms and language as other free marketeers.” Strangely, I’ve yet to find a “free marketeer” who would acknowledge ALB’s admission of Proudhon’s “insight that under the wages system the producers were exploited” or argue for “the abolition of property” (254) as well as a federation of workers associations to end capitalist exploitation (712) and for “disciplining the market” (743). Still, ALB proclaims in his best ex cathedra tones that market socialism “is the economic equivalent of a square circle” which is something they would agree with…

The “communism” Proudhon was attacking was that of the Utopian Socialists and Louis Blanc – highly regulated, centralised systems in which liberty was not the prime aim. I was under the impression Marxists shared Proudhon’s opposition to that kind of “communism.” Anarchists who, like myself, are libertarian communists need not “plough through his rambling writings” to discover that Proudhon “was a life-long and bitter opponent of ‘communism’” as I discuss this in my introduction and explain why subsequent anarchists rejected his position. I also discuss that “he was a gradualist” and why later anarchists rejected this.

Similarly, ALB completely ignores Proudhon’s critique of statist democracy in favour of proclaiming he “was opposed to government, even a democratically-constituted one, making rules about the production and distribution of wealth.” As Property is Theft! shows, his actual position was that a democracy reduced to electing a few representatives in a centralised system would not be a genuine one. Instead, he advocated a decentralised federal self-managed system – precisely what the Paris Commune introduced and Marx praised in 1871. But the Paris Commune, like so much, does not warrant a mention by ALB.

Was Proudhon “on the wrong track”? Partly, as my introduction suggests. But did I suggest he was completely right? No: “While we should not slavishly copy Proudhon’s ideas, we can take what is useful and… develop them further in order to inspire social change in the 21st century.” (51) Marx did precisely that in terms of economic analysis and the Paris Commune.

Needless to say, Marx’s followers seem keen to deny that. Hence ALB’s statement that I am “on to a loser here” as Proudhon cannot be “compared with Marx” particularly as “most anarchists accept Marx’s analysis of capitalism.” Yet as I proved much of what passes as “Marxist” economic analysis was first expounded by Proudhon. Still, I can understand why ALB fails to mention that awkward fact…

ALB may proclaim Proudhon “an anti-socialist” but that will only convince those who think communism equals socialism. For those interested in the evolution of socialist ideas in the 19th century, Proudhon cannot be ignored nor dismissed give his contributions to both anarchism and Marxism. That is why Marx spent so much time attacking him, often dishonestly, while appropriating his ideas.

So I do find it appropriate that ALB uncritically mentions Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy given that his “review” follows it in distorting Proudhon’s ideas (as I show). It is sad to see Socialist Standard continuing that shameful legacy. Suffice to say, you can disagree with Proudhon’s ideas (as I do for some of them), but at least do so accurately. I had expected better.

Iain McKay



Hi there, the latest

Hi there,
the latest Socialist Standard has a reply from Iain, and an editor's reply to that...

And I have replied to that

And I have replied to that terrible reply, see my blog


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