Proudhon and Marx on Exploitation

Here is an exclusive extract from the introduction to the Proudhon Anthology I’m working on (and we do need more translators, if you want to contribute!). It is on Proudhon’s theory of exploitation and how Marx, basically, appropriated it …

Also, the translations are progressing. Got a chapter of Confessions of a Revolutionary and it contained a wonderfully witty insult. Made me laugh out loud so I thought I would share:

"Harking back to his first profession, one minister, Monsieur Léon Faucher, was polite enough to answer back: his insertions in Le Moniteur, remarked upon by the republican press, triggered a tidal wave of anger and pity. By himself, this liverish creature, whom Heaven has made even uglier than his caricature and who suffers from a singular obsession with actually being worse than his reputation, did more damage to the authorities he represented than all the democrat and socialist diatribes."

Proudhon already had a go at Faucher in System of Economical Contradictions and my research on him for the necessary footnote shows that Proudhon may well have had a point:

Léonard Joseph Léon Faucher (1803-54) was a French politician and economist. He helped to organise the Bordeaux association for free-trade propaganda. After the revolution of 1848 he entered the Constituent Assembly for the department of Marne. In the Assembly he opposed many Republican measures (such as the limiting the hours of work, the creation of the national relief works in Paris, the abolition of the death penalty, amongst others). Under the presidency of Louis Napoleon he became minister of public works, and then minister of the interior. He was compelled to resign office in May 1849 but by 1851 he was again minister of the interior, until Napoleon declared his intention of resorting to universal suffrage.

The translated chapter has the more well-known quote:

"Capital, whose mirror-image in the political sphere is Government, has a synonym in the religious context, to wit, Catholicism. The economic notion of capital, the political notion of government or authority, the theological notion of the Church, these three notions are identical and completely interchangeable: an attack upon one is an attack upon the others, as all the philosophers today know fine well. What capital does to labour and the State to freedom, the Church in turn does to understanding. This trinity of absolutism is deadly, in its practice as well as in its philosophy. In order to oppress the people effectively, they must be clapped in irons in their bodies, their will and their reason . . . Now we had merely to highlight this triple form of social slavery, this conspiracy of altar, throne and strong-box, for it to be readily understood."

All good stuff… I have to admit this Proudhon Reader is a source of great enjoyment. I now know much more about the history of Switzerland, for example – not to mention French history… (and talking of Switzerland and Proudhon, it would be remiss of me not to point to Shawn Wilbar’s translation of James Guillaume’s Federalism (Solidarité, No. 2, April 1871). The article discusses the Paris Commune and shows that Guillaume was aware of Proudhon’s arguments (and terminology) in The Principle of Federation (the translation of parts of which is progressing nicely)

A few links. Steve Keen links to a useful article by Ross Gittens called Self-righting markets and other shibboleths. Good critique of equilibrium and the notion that there are natural tendencies to it ( Proudhon was pointing out in 1846 that markets can easily over-, and under-, produce goods thanks to the self-interested actions of atomised economic agents). Although Gittens does write "the political philosophy of libertarianism", meaning the propertarian right! So points off for that, but I guess shows that we anarchists and genuine libertarians need to redouble our efforts to reclaim our good name! Knowing the actual history of the use of the term libertarian would be a good starting point: 150 years of libertarian...

Stephen Colbert really does rock. Here he is attacking attempts by corporations to change the law so that they fund political parties directly, just like the individuals they are... Let Freedom Ka-Ching ... Really, this is dangerous:

Corporate America just keeps at it, eh? Another good article is by Glen Greenwald, on the protests by the right. While, of course, funded by corporations and astro-truffed, many of the protesters are hardly wealthy. They are actively compaining to make their lives worse. Which is an impressive piece of propaganda by the corporate PR machine. It is called Who are the undeserving "others" benefiting from expanded government actions? I particularly liked the quote from a commenter on the "peasant" mentality in America -- I've made the same comment on people here in Britain, with the serf-like bowing to the wealthy and bosses and the demonisation of those workers who DO stand-up for themselves...

Interesting, though, that for the last 30 years Britain has had neo-liberal governments, imposing a right-wing agenda. You would think that the legions of Tory voters would be happy, yet they are at the front of complaining how bad things… and who do they blame? Those below them (the “undeserving poor”), those who rebel (“the unions”) and others (“immigrants”, foreigners in general). So, perhaps people should be careful what they wish for…

I've said before how the UK has transformed from the 1970s (rebellious workers) to the 2000s (serfs grateful to be exploited), thanks to the rise of propertarian ideology and a strong dose of economic mismanagement helped along with its nonsensical economic theories and deep recessions and mass unemployement they produced. We are well along the road to private-serfdom...

Then there is a TV news slot on the Billionaries for Wealthcare..., who bravely are protesting the right-wing protests against health-care reform (and whatever else they can cram in!):

Lastly, WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society has a special issue (Volume 12 Issue 3, September 2009) on anarchism and syndicalism. The pdfs are on-line in pdf format and are available here (although I do not know for how long). A quick look suggests they are some important and interesting articles. Sadly the one on the Chicago anarchists is premised on "the formed a synthesis of anarchism and marxism" nonsense I'm criticised before on this very blog. Significantly, the article fails to compare the Chicago Idea with Bakunin's arguments for revolutionary unionism (nor, for that matter, with Marx's support for "political action" -- which is strange, if you are arguing that the Chicago comrades "synthesised" the ideas of anarchism (Bakunin)! Unsurprising, perhaps, as even a quick look would soon result in the conclusion that the Chicago anarchists were pretty much following Bakunin's ideas, and rejecting Marx's...

Oh, and I should note that I added a few comments to my last two blog postings, both related to health-care and expanding somewhat on the arguments or clarifying something (I've indicated my additions).


Anyways, here is the extract. It is not 100% finished yet (a couple of page numbers need to be found). Also, my article on the Paris Commune should also be consulted as the arguments were first expressed there.


Until I blog again, be seeing you!

Proudhon and Marx on Exploitation

Proudhon’s ideas on exploitation have been systematically misunderstood and, in the case of Marxists, distorted. J.E. King’s summary can be considered sadly typical of this:

“Marx’s main priority was to confront those ‘utopian’ socialists (especially Gray and Bray in England, and Proudhon in France) who saw inequality of exchange as the only source of exploitation, and believed that the establishment of equal exchange in isolation from changes in production relations was sufficient in itself to eliminate all sources of income other than the performance of labour.”

Thus Marx proved that “exploitation in production was sufficient to explain the existence of non-wage incomes.”[1] Showing his utter ignorance of the matter, Leninist Donny Gluckstein asserts that “Karl Marx, who studied Proudhon’s work carefully, had a very different analysis which located exploitation at the very heart of the capitalist production process.”[2]

In reality, anyone familiar with Proudhon’s ideas would know that he was well aware that exploitation occurred at the point of production. Like Marx, but long before him, Proudhon argued that workers produced more value than received in wages. As he put it in 1840:

“Whoever labours becomes a proprietor – this is an inevitable deduction from the principles of political economy and jurisprudence. 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 his 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 was produced.[3]

Thus property “is the right to enjoy and dispose at will of another’s goods - the fruit of an other’s industry and labour”[4] Which showed that he was well aware that workers’ produced more than the wages their received in return (“property is theft!”). Thus mutualism aimed to ensure that the difference between product and workers’ income was abolished: Equality of the product and the wages, such is here the exact translation of the law of reciprocity, such is the principle which since the Revolution is supposed to govern work.”[5] Thus capitalism is marked by workers “working for an entrepreneur who pays them and keeps their products.”[6]

Compare this to Marx who argued that “property turns out to be the right, on the part of the capitalist, to appropriate the unpaid labour of others or its product, and the impossibility, on the part of the worker, of appropriating his own product.” This means that “the value of the labour-power . . . is less than the value created by its use during that time” in production subject to the boss and that “the product belongs to the capitalist and not to the worker.”[7]

Moreover, Proudhon linked rising inequality it to the hierarchical relationship created in the capitalist workplace. This can be seen when the Frenchman speculates on how inequality between equal contracting parties could arise:

“I have shown the contractor, at the birth of industry, negotiating on equal terms with his comrades, who have since become his workmen. It is plain, in fact, that this original equality was bound to disappear through the advantageous position of the master and the dependence of the wage-workers.”[8]

Thus equal exchange does not explain exploitation, rather the hierarchical relationships produced by wage-labour do. This can be seen from another key aspect of Proudhon’s analysis of exploitation in production, what the Frenchman termed “collective force.” As K. Steven Wright notes, this was “[o] ne of the reasons Proudhon gave for rejecting ‘property’ [and] was to become an important motif of subsequent socialist thought.” Thus “collective endeavours produced an additional value” which was “unjustly appropriated by the proprietaire. [9] To quote Proudhon:

“It is an economic power of which I was, I believe, the first to accentuate the importance, in my first memoir upon Property [in 1840]. A hundred men, uniting or combining their forces, produce, in certain cases, not a hundred times, but two hundred, three hundred, a thousand times as much. This is what I have called collective force. I even drew from this an argument, which, like so many others, remains unanswered, against certain forms of appropriation: that it is not sufficient to pay merely the wages of a given number of workmen, in order to acquire their product legitimately; that they must be paid twice, thrice or ten times their wages, or an equivalent service rendered to each one of them.”[10]

Thus capitalist exploits their workers by only paying workers individually while keeping the product of their collective efforts.[11] Significantly, Marx repeated the anarchist’s analysis of the role of “collective force” in Capital in essentially the same fashion but, of course, without acknowledgement.[12] Marx discussed how a capitalist buys the labour-power of 100 men and “can set the 100 men to work. He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but does not pay them for the combined labour power of the 100.” [13]

Thus Proudhon’s analysis is a theory of surplus value, as recognised by more informed Marxists, as such John Ehrenberg who correctly notes that Proudhon “position that property is theft locates a fundamental antagonism between producers and owners at the heart of modern society. If the direct producers are the sole source of social value which the owners of capital are expropriating, then exploitation must be the root cause of . . . inequality.” Thus Proudhon “located the ‘power to produce without working’ at the heart of the system’s exploitation and difficulties very early, anticipating what Marx and Engels were later to call the appropriation of surplus value.”[14]

So even a basic awareness of Proudhon’s ideas would be sufficient to recognise that the Marxist claim, summarised by Gluckstein, that he thought exploitation “did not occur in the labour process” and so it “must come from outside of the commercial or capitalist relations, through force and fraud” is total nonsense.[15]

This is not to suggest that Proudhon did not think that exploitation also occurred outside the workplace. Far from it! His analysis of interest, for example, showed that it did, and could, occur when workers’ were not toiling for their bosses. In this, as with so much, Marx followed Proudhon’s lead. For Marx, like Proudhon, usury can exist in non-capitalist economies.[16] However, to suggest that Proudhon, any more than Marx, thought that exploitation did not happened in production is to make a travesty of his thought. That Marxists do so is unsurprising, as to acknowledge Proudhon’s analysis would be to admit that Marx’s contribution to socialist economic analysis is not as unique as usually suggested.

In summary then, under wage-labour labour is exploited and this was a key, but not the only, way property was theft. Under capitalism, exploitation occurred for Proudhon at the point of production and, unsurprisingly, he sought a solution there, a topic we now turn to.


[1] “Value and Exploitation: Some Recent Debates”, pp. 157-187, Classical and Marxian Political Economy, p. 180. The Marxist notion that Proudhon thought that unequal exchange was the root of exploitation undoubtedly flows from Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy. Significantly, the only person Marx quotes using the term “unequal exchange” is the British Socialist Bray, not Proudhon.

[2] Donny Gluckstein, The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy (Bookmarks, 2006), p. 72. Gluckstein does, implicitly, acknowledge Proudhon’s real position by noting that big capitalists “could be excluded from commodity production through mutualism, or workers’ co-operatives.” (p. 75) If Proudhon really thought that exploitation did not occur within the workplace then why did he advocate co-operatives? Why did he consistently argue for the abolition of wage labour?

[3] What is Property?, pp. 123-4

[4] What is Property?, p. 171

[5] De La Justice dans La Révolution et dans L’Église, p. 309

[6]quoted by Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia, p. 29

[7]Capital, vol. 1, pp. 730-1

[8] System of Economical Contradictions, p. 202. Somewhat ironically, Marx mocks this abstraction used to explain how surplus value was produced in production, even quoting Proudhon that “equality must rapidly disappear through the advantageous position of the master and the dependence of the wage-worker”! (The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 146) Marx deliberately insinuated that Proudhon’s metaphorical account of history was what Proudhon really thought had happened.

[9] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon the Rise of French Republican Socialism p. 64, p. 65

[10] General Idea of the Revolution, pp. 81-2

[11] All of which shows how wrong it was for Alan Ritter to suggest that “the doctrine” of collective force was “rather puzzling” and “one of his more obscure doctrines.” Bizarrely, he places it “in the context of [Proudhon’s] theory of bargaining” after proclaiming that “Proudhon could be expected to urge a higher remuneration for their labour; but he does not” and suggesting “it does not directly support any of his proposals for change.” (The political thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, pp. 128-9) As will be seen, Proudhon explicitly argued that the workplace should be organised as an association so that the profits produced by the collective force be shared by those who actually produce it rather than being monopolised by management and owners. As such, it directly supports one of his key proposals, namely the association of labour. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that Ritter, like many commentators on Proudhon, completely overlooks his support for co-operatives.

[12] Engels in one of his many introductions to Capital notes that Marx quoted “passages from economic writers are quoted in order to indicate when, where and by whom a certain proposition was for the first time clearly enunciated.” (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 111) Clearly Marx could not bring himself to acknowledge that Proudhon had first formulated such a key aspects of his own critique of capitalism. In The Holy Family he was more forthcoming: “Proudhon was the first to draw attention to the fact that the sum of the wages of the individual workers, even if each individual labour be paid for completely, does not pay for the collective power objectified in its product, that therefore the worker is not paid as a part of the collective labour power.” (MECW, vol. 4, p. 52)

[13] Capital, Vol. 1, p. 451

[14] John Ehrenberg , Proudhon and His Age, p. 56, p. 55

[15] Gluckstein, p. 72

[16] As Marx argued, interest-bearing capital (“usurer’s capital”) belongs “to the antediluvian forms of capital which long precede the capitalist mode of production and are to be found in the most diverse socio-economic formations.” He pointed to “usury by lending money to small producers who posses their own conditions of labour, including artisans” and that this “does not change the mode of production, but clings on to it like a parasite and impoverishes it.” Thus interest in this non-capitalist mode of production (i.e., “where the producer is a non-capitalist producer, a small peasant, artisan, etc.”) means it “appropriates all the surplus labour of the direct producer, without altering the mode of production” which “impoverishes the mode of production.” Surplus labour, which would normally accrue to the direct producer, rather than surplus value (which only exists under wage-labour) ends up in the hands of the usurer. Usury “exploits a given mode of production but does not create it” and relates to “the mode of production from outside.” This interest can exist when money is “loaned to the immediate producers, which presupposes the non-existence of the capitalist mode of production.” (Capital, Vol. 3, p. 728, p. 729, p. 731, p. 735, p. 730, p. 745, p. 745)


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