Proudhon and Marx on methodology

Well, I’ve finished my article “Proudhon and the Myth of Labour Notes” and have submitted it to Anarchist Studies. They are interested and have sent it out for peer-review (that must be a short list – how many Proudhon experts are there?). I would put it on-line as usual but I get the impression that I have to wait until Anarchist Studies publish it (or reject it) to do so. Saying that, a slightly different version of my last Kropotkin article is in the latest edition. I also asked about my reply (“Proudhon, Property and Possession”) to a recent article on Proudhon and I may have to make reference to it in my labour notes article.

I’ve suggested a new book (Industrial Democracy: Writings by and on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) to AK Press in addition to my reply to Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy. I’ll see what they say. The only drawback is that Shawn Wilbur is publishing some of the articles I had lined up in books with PM Press. Still, I’m not complaining – the more Proudhon out there the better and Shawn has done so much for anarchism and anarchist history that any book from him should be eagerly anticipated.

In terms of Marx, well, it just gets worse. The origin 1847 edition of The Poverty of Philosophy is on-line now and it is interesting to note that Marx does not reference many of his quotes by Proudhon. He does reference the first quote used on the second page:

‘M. Proudhon’s work is not just a treatise on political economy, an ordinary book; it is a bible. “Mysteries,” “Secrets Wrested from the Bosom of God,” “Revelations” – it lacks nothing. But as prophets are discussed nowadays more conscientiously than profane writers, the reader must resign himself to going with us through the arid and gloomy eruditions of “Genesis,” in order to ascend later, with M. Proudhon, into the ethereal and fertile realm of super-socialism. (See Proudhon, Philosophy of Poverty, Prologue, p. III, line 20.)’

Except when you look at that page and line you discover that Proudhon makes no reference to “super-socialism” at all:

“This mysterious faculty, wholly intuitive, and, so to speak, super-social, scarcely or not at all perceptible in persons, but which hovers over humanity like an inspiring genius, is the primordial fact of all psychology.” . (Système I: 3)

That the term “super-socialism” (supra-socialisme) is an invention of Marx which Proudhon never used in System of Economic Contradictions (or anywhere else) did not stop Engels later proclaiming that “Master Proudhon called it [his theory] super-socialism”. (Marx-Engels Collected Works23: 335). Of course, Engels parroting Marx on Proudhon became the standard for Marxists from then on. Shame that it is parroting an invention…

So not off to the best of starts. But it gets worse. Marx invents a quote and tempers with others. Thus we read Marx proclaiming:

“Certainly,” cries M. Proudhon, “there is one; it is arbitrary. The price which results from this struggle between supply and demand, between utility and estimation will not be the expression of eternal justice.” (13)

How amusing, mocking Proudhon wittering on about “eternal justice”… except, Proudhon did not write this. It is an invention by Marx.  Now this gives the editors of the Marx-Engels Collected Works a bit of a problem as they sought to reference all of the quotes Marx provides. Their solution? Admit that Marx made up a quote? No, they simply changed the text by removing the quotation marks! Also, as I have mentioned before, Proudhon uses the term twice in the two volumes so hardly a key aspect of his ideas even if we assume Marx gets its usage correct (which is a big ask – just look at Marx’s nonsense on Proudhon’s use of the term “Providence”).

Next we come to page 34 and Marx quotes two paragraphs of Proudhon:

“Say and the economists after him have observed that labour being itself subject to valuation, being a commodity like any other commodity, it is moving in a vicious circle to treat it as the principle and the determining cause of value. In so doing, these economists, if they will allow me to say so, show a prodigious carelessness. Labour is said to have value not as a commodity itself, but in view of the values which it is supposed potentially to contain. The value of labour is a figurative expression, an anticipation of the cause for the effect. It is a fiction of the same stamp as the productivity of capital. Labour produces, capital has value... By a sort of ellipsis one speaks of the value of labour.... Labour like liberty ... is a thing vague and indeterminate by nature, but defined qualitatively by its object, that is to say, it becomes a reality by the product.

“But is there any need to dwell on this? The moment the economist (read M. Proudhon) changes the name of things, vera rerum vocabula (the true name of things), he is implicitly confessing his impotence and proclaiming himself not privy to the cause.” (Proudhon, Vol. I, p. 188)

Two things. The first paragraph does not come from the same page nor even the same chapter as the second. Marx combines without indicating two quotes from two different chapters separated by over 120 pages (Système I: 61, 188) and, just for good measure, changes without indicating the second quote. Proudhon actually wrote:

“But what need of insisting? From the moment that the communist changes the name of things, vera rerum vocabala, he tacitly admits his powerlessness, and puts himself out of the question.” (Système I: 188)

The question is, if when the communist changes the name of things and he tacitly admits his powerlessness so putting himself out of the question, what does it mean when the communist changes the word itself? While this may better suit Marx’s purpose in mocking Proudhon, it is hardly honest polemic to do so – still, perhaps changing one word in a quote can be considered a step forward compared to making up a quote!

Also, I must quote the words of a Marx scholar on his mocking Proudhon for his analysis in the first quote provided:

“Marx made some disparaging remarks about this passage [...] even though Proudhon here anticipated an idea that Marx was to develop as one of the key elements in the concept of labour power, viz. that as a commodity, labour produces nothing and it exists independently of and prior to the exercise of its potential to produce value as active labour.” (Alan Oakley, Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: intellectual sources and evolution, 1844 to 1860 1: 118)

As my article “Proudhon and the Myth of Labour Notes” shows, Marx in 1847 had no theory of how exploitation happens in production – unlike Proudhon. He spends the next ten years struggling to get to Proudhon’s understanding of the issue – and in the process goes from asserting by an appeal to (Ricardo’s) authority that Adam Smith (and so Proudhon) make an “error” to proclaiming Smith’s “great merit” on the issue of labour commanded and labour embodied within ten years. I won’t go into details here as I want to concrete on methodology – maybe one for a latter blog.

Next is page 67, the section on money in which Marx eschews page references completely. He quotes Proudhon as follows:

“Money is born of sovereign consecration: the sovereigns take possession of gold and silver and affix their seal to them.”

Proudhon does not write this. Indeed, Marx quotes him correctly a few paragraphs previously (on pages 65-6):

“In the patriarchal period, gold and silver were still bartered and exchanged in ingots but even then they showed a visible tendency to become dominant and received a marked degree of preference. Little by little the sovereigns took possession of them and affixed their seal to them: and of this sovereign consecration was born money, that is, the commodity par excellence” (Système I: 69)

As the Frenchman does not say what Marx wants him to say, he twists Proudhon’s words to set him up for mockery. As in so many cases before, Marx’s contempt for the reader is striking – he seems to assume that they will neither consult Proudhon’s book nor bother to remember what Marx had proclaimed even a few paragraphs before.

And what is the point Marx is trying to make by this invention? Well, precisely the one Proudhon himself makes and can be seen when Marx writes:

“Truly, one must be destitute of all historical knowledge not to know that it is the sovereigns who in all ages have been subject to economic conditions, but they have never dictated laws to them. Legislation, whether political or civil, never does more than proclaim, express in words, the will of economic relations.”

This explains why Marx distorts Proudhon’s argument by misquoting him. Proudhon clearly indicates that gold and silver being used as money predates the sovereigns taking possession of them and, as such, the sovereigns are reflecting economic conditions and relations. Or, as Marx put it in 1867, the “business of coining, like the establishing of a standard measure of prices, is an attribute proper to the State.” (Capital I: 221-2)

And talking of later revisionism by Marx, in 1847 he asserts “it is slapping history in the face to want to begin by the division of labour in general, in order to get subsequently to a specific instrument of production, machinery.” A decade later it was a case that “machinery, by and large, arose [...] through the division of labour, which gradually transforms the workers’ operations into more and more mechanical ones, so that at a certain point a mechanism can step into their places.” (The Grundrisse, 704) In 1867 Capital repeated Proudhon’s schema of division of labour leading to machinery in chapters 14 (“The Division of Labour and Manufacture”) and 15 (“Machinery and Large-Scale Industry”) and so the “form of co-operation which is based on division of labour assumes its classical shape in manufacture” while the “workshop, the product of division of labour in manufacture, produced in its turn – machines.” (Capital I: 455, 490-1)

Then there is Marx accusing Proudhon of holding views he explicitly rejected. For example, Proudhon’s views on machinery and the state. With regards the former, Marx’s comments on “the providential and philanthropic aim that M. Proudhon discovers in the invention and first application of machinery” by highlighting the use of machinery by capitalists against workers and fails to mention that Proudhon himself had drawn attention to this. (Système I: 150-2) For the latter, Marx proclaims that “according to” Proudhon taxation “was established with a view to equality, and to relieve the proletariat” and fails to note Proudhon concluded that taxation “is a new source of pauperism” which “aggravates the subversive effects of the preceding antinomies – division of labour, machinery, competition, monopoly. It attacks the worker in his liberty and in his conscience, in his body and in his soul, by parasitism, vexations, the frauds which it prompts, and the punishments which follow them.” Moreover: “To conduct this offensive and defensive war against the proletariat a public force was indispensable: the executive power grew out of the necessities of civil legislation, administration, and justice.” (Système I: 331, 356)

A key area of later conversion by Marx to Proudhon’s position is in methodology. As well as my comments here, I would recommend you read René Berthier’s Proudhon and German philosophy (pdf). Marx’s attack on Proudhon’s methodology is contained in first section of Chapter 2: “The Metaphysics of Political Economy”.  What is interesting, as Berthier indicates, is that Marx mocks Proudhon for his use of abstraction and model building in 1847 only, by 1859, to reverse himself completely and embrace what he formally denounced.

Not that his 1847 attack was honest. Far from it. Marx somehow forgets to quote Proudhon’s many, many comments on the need to generate abstractions and categories from a study of empirical reality. Here he is commenting on Hegel:

“And we see that this Titan of philosophy [Hegel] attempts to reverse the eternal dualism by dualism itself; to establish identity on contradiction; to draw the being from nothing, and, with the aid of this sole logic, to explain, prophesy – what should I say? – to create nature and man! No other, before him, had penetrated so deeply the innermost laws of being; none had illuminated with so lively a light the mysteries of reason. He succeeded in giving a formula which, if it is not all of science, nor even all logic, is at least the key to science and logic. But we have glimpsed quite quickly that even its author had only been able to construct that logic by constantly mixing in experience and taking from it his materials. All his formulas followed observation, but never preceded it, and since, according to the system of the identity of thought and being, there was no longer anything to await from philosophy, the circle was closed, and it was demonstrated once and for all that science without experience is impossible; that if the self and the non-self are correlates, necessary to one another, inconceivable without one another, they are not identical; that their identity, as well as their reduction in an elusive absolute, is only a view of our intelligence, a postulate of reason, useful in certain cases for reasoning, but without the least reality; finally that the theory of contraries, of an incomparable power in order to control our opinions, to discover our errors and to determine the essential character of the true, is not however the unique form of nature, the sole revelation of experience, and consequently the sole law of the mind.” (Système II: 220-1)

Proudhon continually links the need to base any model on empirical reality. Yet he also rejects empiricism because he is aware that what constitutes a “fact” and what it means is based on the person doing the observing and so inevitably reflects their interests, social position, ideology, etc. As he suggested, “facts are not matter […] but visible manifestations of invisible ideas” and so “the value of facts is measured by the idea which they represent.” Rejecting pure empiricism, he also states “it is impossible to accuse us of spiritualism, idealism or mysticism” for the idea “does not exist, as long as it is not reflected” in facts. And so “in the operation of the mind analysis and synthesis are essentially inseparable” and “theory becomes legitimate only on condition of following experience foot by foot”. He stresses that “that every theory not having the sanction of experience – that is, of constancy and concatenation in its representations – thereby lacks a scientific character.” (Système I: 134, 136, 424) So a legitimate theory reflects and explains reality.

This is the method he uses – building a model rooted in generalising from an analysis of reality but which – because it is a model and so the product of human mental activity – must never be confused with reality itself. We must do this otherwise we are just describing – as best we can based on the current conventional wisdom – the history of the world and presenting a jumble of all the facts of which the author is aware.

Yet this history of the world is precisely what Marx argues is needed:

“Is it surprising that everything, in the final abstraction – for we have here an abstraction, and not an analysis – presents itself as a logical category? Is it surprising that, if you let drop little by little all that constitutes the individuality of a house, leaving out first of all the materials of which it is composed, then the form that distinguishes it, you end up with nothing but a body; that, if you leave out of account the limits of this body; you soon have nothing but a space – that if, finally, you leave out of the account the dimensions of this space, there is absolutely nothing left but pure quantity, the logical category? If we abstract thus from every subject all the alleged accidents, animate or inanimate, men or things, we are right in saying that in the final abstraction, the only substance left is the logical category.“

So in order to discuss anything we need to discuss everything that has ever happened in relation to it. How you could even begin to start on such a project is hard to fathom due to the inherent difficulties involved. How could you develop a theory of value of price using such a methodology? You would have to include “all the alleged accidents” in price formation – which means not only the market conditions for this commodity but for all commodities not only now but in the past. This would be, to say the least, difficult to achieve.

How valid is Marx’s point? Well, let us read Engels’ sycophantic review of Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“Marx was and is the only one who could undertake the work of extracting from the Hegelian logic the nucleus containing Hegel’s real discoveries in this field, and of establishing the dialectical method, divested of its idealist wrappings, in the simple form in which it becomes the only correct mode of conceptual evolution. […]

“Even after the determination of the method, the critique of economics could still be arranged in two ways – historically or logically. Since in the course of history, as in its literary reflection, the evolution proceeds by and large from the simplest to the more complex relations, the historical development of political economy constituted a natural clue, which the critique could take as a point of departure, and then the economic categories would appear on the whole in the same order as in the logical exposition. This form seems to have the advantage of greater lucidity, for it traces the actual development, but in fact it would thus become, at most, more popular. History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line, and as this would have to be followed throughout, it would mean not only that a considerable amount of material of slight importance would have to be included, but also that the train of thought would frequently have to be interrupted; it would, moreover, be impossible to write the history of economy without that of bourgeois society, and the task would thus become immense, because of the absence of all preliminary studies. The logical method of approach was therefore the only suitable one. This, however, is indeed nothing but the historical method, only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences. The point where this history begins must also be the starting point of the train of thought, and its further progress will be simply the reflection, in abstract and theoretically consistent form, of the historical course. Though the reflection is corrected, it is corrected in accordance with laws provided by the actual historical course, since each factor can be examined at the stage of development where it reaches its full maturity, its classical form.” (Appendix, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 225)

Engels of course does not discuss how this methodology fits in with Marx’s proclamation in 1847 that “the moment we cease to pursue the historical movement of production relations, of which the categories are but the theoretical expression, the moment we want to see in these categories no more than ideas, spontaneous thoughts, independent of real relations, we are forced to attribute the origin of these thoughts to the movement of pure reason.” He does not because it cannot – it is a clear rejection of Marx’s 1847 position.

Marx in 1847 was seriously suggesting that in order to discuss an economic category it is necessary to discuss its history in all its details. This is nonsense as Marx would latter conclude. As one Marxist notes:

“To avoid limiting the cognitive process to a mere repetition of the stages of what had happened in history, it was necessary to use a process of abstraction, and therefore categories that allowed for the interpretation of society in all its complexity. […] For Marx [in 1857], it was not necessary to reconstruct the historical genesis of every economic relationship in order to understand society and then give an adequate description of it.” (Marcello Musto, “History, production and method in the 1857 ‘Introduction’”, Foundations of the critique of political economy 150 years later, 21-2)

Musto (who’s flawed book on the First International I reviewed recently) is worth quoting at length as he shows well how Marx’s rejection of his preferred methodology in The Poverty of Philosophy dates from 1857:

“Marx here tackles differently the thorny question of the order to be assigned to the economic categories. He had already addressed it in The Poverty of Philosophy, where, in opposition to Proudhon’s wish to follow not ‘history in accordance with the order of events, but in accordance with the succession of ideas’, he had criticized the idea of ‘constructing the world by the movement of thought’. Thus in 1847, in his polemic with the logical-dialectical method employed by Proudhon and Hegel, Marx had preferred a rigorously historical sequence. But ten years later, in the ‘Introduction’ [to the Grundrisse], his position changed: he rejected the criterion of chronological succession for the scientific categories, in favour of a logical method with historical-empirical checks. […] setting out the categories in a precise logical order and the working of real history do not coincide with each other – and moreover, as Marx wrote in the manuscripts for the third volume of Capital, ‘all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’.

“Marx, then, arrived at his own synthesis by diverging from the empiricism of the early economists, which yielded a dissolution of concrete elements into abstract definitions; from the method of the classical economists, which reduced thought about reality to reality itself; from philosophical idealism – including, in Marx’s view, Hegel’s philosophy – which he accused of giving thought the capacity to produce the concrete […] and, finally, from his own conviction in The Poverty of Philosophy that he was essentially following ‘the march of history’” (Marcello Musto, “History, production and method in the 1857 ‘Introduction’”, Foundations of the critique of political economy 150 years later, 20-1)

How very true – Marx “arrived at his own synthesis” by “diverging” from “his own conviction in The Poverty of Philosophy that he was essentially following ‘the march of history’”! But, of course, the use of Hegel and categories had nothing whatsoever in common with Proudhon’s identical use of both…

So if Marx’s basic complaint in 1847 is that Proudhon did not write the book Marx thought he should – namely a detailed chronological history of capitalism which discussed all its aspects simultaneously – then we must note that the Marx of 1847 would have concluded the same about Capital. Still, this will not stop Marxists proclaiming that Marx was right in both 1847 and 1867 – even if both positions are mutually contradictory (muttering the word “dialectic” won’t cut it, sorry)

There is no need to critique Marx’s position in 1847 for he later rejected it in favour of Proudhon’s use of generalisation and abstraction. In terms of “the historical movement of production relations”, Marx later admitted the following passage from the unpublished introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“It would seem to be the proper thing to start with the real and concrete elements, with the actual preconditions, e.g., to start in the sphere of economy with population, which forms the basis and the subject of the whole social process of production. Closer consideration shows, however, that this is wrong […] it would be a very vague notion of a complex whole and through closer definition one would arrive analytically at increasingly simple concepts; from imaginary concrete terms one would move to more and more tenuous abstractions until one reached the most simple definitions. From there it would be necessary to make the journey again in the opposite direction until one arrived once more at the concept […] not [as] a vague notion of a whole, but a totality comprising many determinations and relations. The first course is the historical one taken by political economy at its inception. […] economic systems were [later] evolved which from simple concepts, such as labour, division of labour, demand, exchange-value, advanced to categories like State, international exchange and world market. The latter is obviously the correct scientific method. The concrete concept is concrete because it is a synthesis of many definitions, thus representing the unity of diverse aspects. It appears therefore in reasoning as a summing-up, a result, and not as the starting point, although it is the real point of origin, and thus also the point of origin of perception and imagination. The first procedure attenuates meaningful images to abstract definitions, the second leads from abstract definitions by way of reasoning to the reproduction of the concrete situation.” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 205-6)

So the “correct scientific method” is to start with “simple concepts” (such as, to use Proudhon’s chapter headings, “Value” and “Division of Labour”) to “advanced categories like State, international exchange” (both of which are discussed by Proudhon in appropriately entitled chapters) and not the “historical” method which Marx urges us to pursue in 1847.

Moreover, “the category […] provides important criteria for the arrangement of the material” and it “would be inexpedient and wrong therefore to present the economic categories successively in the order in which they have played the dominant role in history. On the contrary, their order of succession is determined by their mutual relation in modern bourgeois society and this is quite the reverse of what appears to be natural to them or in accordance with the sequence of historical development.” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 212, 213) As Proudhon put it in 1846 and as Marx quoted in 1847:

“We are not giving a history according to the order in time, but according to the sequence of ideas. Economic phases or categories are in their manifestation sometimes contemporary, sometimes inverted.... Economic theories have nonetheless their logical sequence and their serial relation in the understanding: it is this order that we flatter ourselves to have discovered.” (Système I: 146)

This is a method of presentation and Proudhon does not, as Marx proclaims, think that in reality this was how it happened. He was well aware of the interconnectedness of the categories he was discussing:

“In practice, all these things are inseparable and simultaneous; but in the theory they are distinct and consecutive; and property is no more monopoly than the machine is the division of labour, even though monopoly is almost always and almost necessarily accompanied by property, as division almost always and almost necessarily supposes the use of machines.” (Système II: 250-1)

So much for Marx’s claim that “M. Proudhon considers economic relations as so many social phases, engendering one another, resulting one from the other like the antithesis from the thesis, and realizing in their logical sequence the impersonal reason of humanity.”

Marx makes great play on Proudhon’s idealism and he presents the notion that the Frenchman thinks that the idea of, say, division of labour came before its appearance in the world:

‘We shall concede that economic relations, viewed as immutable laws, eternal principles, ideal categories, existed before active and energetic men did;  we shall concede further that these laws, principles and categories had, since the beginning of time, slumbered “in the impersonal reason of humanity.”’

Let us step back and consider what Marx is claiming here. Marx is claiming that Proudhon thinks that economic relations are immutable – unchanging ideas – and existed before people did. In other words, that value, division of labour, machines, capitalists and wage-workers, competition all existed as categories – in their present form, moreover – before humans existed to exchange, labour, build machines, sell their labour, etc. Ignoring the question of why Marx thought his readers would believe this nonsense, it is useful to consider how did Marx arrive at such an obviously stupid assertion. Let us follow his chain of reasoning (if it can be called that).

First, Proudhon analyses the capitalist economy and builds a series of categories. Second, a category is a generalisation, an abstraction – and so an idea. Third, Proudhon is quoted as “not giving a history according to the order in time, but according to the sequence of ideas. Economic phases or categories are in their manifestation sometimes contemporary, sometimes inverted”. (Système I: 145) Fourth, Marx concludes that when Proudhon writes of categories manifesting themselves the Frenchman means that the ideas manifest themselves.

It is easy to see how Marx is misled – or seeks to mislead his reader – for when Proudhon writes that the categories “are in their manifestation sometimes contemporary, sometimes inverted” he is not talking about the abstractions used to build his model or ideals but rather the actual facts upon which his abstractions are based. Marx’s feigns to think that Proudhon is suggesting that ideas are manifesting or appearing rather than the facts themselves are – from which we then produce abstractions/categories in response to these empirical facts. Proudhon is at pains to stress that his model and its abstractions are rooted in observation, experience.

In short, Proudhon does not state or imply that because he builds an abstract model based on categories that he thinks the model is reality or produces reality by some mysterious process. He simply states that his model helps us make sense of a complex reality. Leszek Kolakowski states what should be obvious:

“Despite Marx’s scornful criticism, it is not the case that Proudhon regarded actual social conditions and economic forces as the embodiment of abstract philosophical categories antecedent to social reality. On the contrary, he is at pains to state that the intellectual organisation of social reality in abstract categories is secondary to reality.” (Main currents of Marxism: its rise, growth, and dissolution 1. The Founders, 205)

Sadly Kolakowski did not speculate why Marx felt the need to suggest that Proudhon did hold that particularly stupid notion… although, as with the quote tampering and invention, it is pretty obvious (Proudhon’s influence in working class circles had to be destroyed and all and any methods were fair game)

Which leaves us with what Marx thought was the correct methodology. Rejecting the building of an abstract model rooted in generalising categories from empirical study, he presents historical materialism – the suggestion that in order to discuss capitalism we must not only discuss all its aspects at the same time but also the history of each of them. No wonder he could not finish his promised book on economics – not until he rejected that methodology in favour of Proudhon’s! Thus Marx proclaims in 1847:

“Economists explain how production takes place in the above-mentioned relations, but what they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is, the historical movement which gave them birth. M. Proudhon, taking these relations for principles, categories, abstract thoughts, has merely to put into order these thoughts, which are to be found alphabetically arranged at the end of every treatise on political economy. The economists’ material is the active, energetic life of man; M. Proudhon’s material is the dogmas of the economists.”

So by utilising the works of economists, whom Marx admits study the “life of man”, Proudhon proclaims “the dogmas of the economists”? What nonsense. Proudhon utilises the “material” of the economists to show the poverty of bourgeois reality, its economics and its economists by contrasting their claims against both reality of capitalism and each other, by noting their contradictions and the contradictions they inadvertently expose in capitalism. In short, the same reasons Marx quotes from the economists in Capital.

This is the core of Marx’s complaint against Proudhon – the Frenchman did not write a history of capitalism, a history of its categories and relations. That this is a near to impossible task Marx inflicts on Proudhon should be obvious but not to him. The burden that this method inflicts on the writer is immense and so perhaps it is unsurprising that while Marx had been trying to write a book on capitalism since the mid-1840s he would not – until he embraced Proudhon’s method of using categories to organise it

Marx finally realises in 1857 that this is the correct methodology a decade after mocking Proudhon for using it. Let us quote Marx on his breakthrough that allowed him to be “at last ready to set to work after 15 years of study”:

“The work I am presently concerned with is a Critique of Economic Categories or, IF YOU LIKE, a critical exposé of the system of the bourgeois economy. It is at once an exposé and, by the same token, a critique of the system […] The whole is divided into 6 books: 1. On Capital […] 2. On Landed Property. 3. On Wage Labour. 4. On the State. 5. International Trade. 6. World Market.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works 40: 270-1)

It should be pointless to note that Marx’s books cover many of the same categories Proudhon addressed in chapters of System of Economic Contradictions. This use of categories is also reflected in volume 1 of Capital – the direct outcome of this “breakthrough”.

Yet in 1847 Marx is proclaiming that Proudhon was at fault for utilising the works of economists, the categories they have drawn from studying “the active energetic life of man”! Instead, presumably Proudhon should have consulted the work of historians to document “the historical movement” – in short, discuss everything at once plus its history.

Yet can we trust bourgeois historians to provide the facts of “the historical movement”? Probably not, so we would have to do original research ourselves on both current society and its history. Presumably we would find to organise a social revolution in between our studies in archaeology history, economics, etc. – presumably all funded by our wealthy bourgeois parents or the surplus-value exploited by your capitalist friend from his wage-slaves so we don’t also need to work for a living like Proudhon had to.

And this is one of the most annoying aspects of Marx’s diatribe – the arrogance of an ex-student bourgeois proclaiming himself the voice of the wage-worker against someone who actually was a wage-worker!

Hence the sheer audacity of Marx’s comment that “[i]n labour as a commodity, which is a grim reality, [Proudhon] sees nothing but a grammatical ellipsis”. To make such a claim ignores two things. First, the substantial critique of wage-labour contained in Proudhon’s book which argues that under capitalism “mechanical progress […] would have no other effect than to […] make the chains of serfdom heavier […] and deepen the abyss which separates the class that commands and enjoys from the class that obeys and suffers.” (Système, I: 170) Second, unlike the bourgeois ex-student Marx, Proudhon had to leave school and become a wage-worker in a print company to support his family and he was an employee when he was writing System of Economic Contradictions. So as well as describing the reality of wage-labour and analysing how it arose and resulted in exploitation, Proudhon was – unlike Marx – actually experiencing its “grim reality”. As Marx once recognised:

“Not only does Proudhon write in the interest of the proletarians, he is himself a proletarian, an ouvrier. His work is a scientific manifesto of the French proletariat” (Marx-Engels Collected Works 4: 41)

Being working class does not make you right, of course, as I pointed out to the Weekly Worker when it tried to rewrite history to proclaim the printer Proudhon a non-worker. I have my differences with Proudhon on many issues but I recognise his critique of wage-labour and his desire to end it (even if, as a libertarian communist, I disagree with his market socialism, his retaining of competition and commodity production). Marx’s smug comments suggest an elitism which has infected Marxist organisations ever since – and expressed in The Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s vangardism (see section H.5 of An Anarchist FAQ). And, of course, there is the irony that Marx later came to the same conclusions as Proudhon over the so-called “grammatical ellipsis” of 1847…

Finally, Marx proclaims that:

“Thus the ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express.  They are historical and transitory products.”

Marx later admitted that “it is true that the categories of bourgeois economy are valid for all other social formations” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 211). He continues:

“The categories which express its relations, and an understanding of its structure, therefore, provide an insight into the structure and the relations of production of all formerly existing social formations the ruins and component elements of which were used in the creation of bourgeois society.” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 210-1)

Moreover, Proudhon had already stressed in 1846 the “transitory” nature of capitalism and its various aspects:

“The question now most disputed is unquestionably that of the organisation of labour […] the socialists go about proclaiming everywhere this novelty old as the world, Organise labour […] the economists […] have replied […] by maintaining that labour is organised, that there is no other organisation of labour than liberty to produce and exchange, either on one’s own personal account, or in association with others – in which case the course to be pursued has been prescribed by the civil and commercial codes […]

“As for us, guided by the idea that we have formed of social science, we shall affirm, against the socialists and against the economists, not that labour must be organised, nor that it is organised but that it is being organised.

“Labour, we say, is being organised: that is, the process of organisation has been going on from the beginning of the world, and will continue till the end. Political economy teaches us the primary elements of this organisation; but […] in its present form, the organisation is inadequate and transitory; and the whole mission of science is continually to ascertain […] what innovations can be immediately effected. […] political economy, mistaking for science its scraps of theory, denies the possibility of further progress” (Système I: 12-14)

Indeed, regardless of what Marx liked to suggest, Proudhon was well aware that economists argued for eternal social relations and noted how wrong they were:

“The error of Malthus, the radical vice of political economy, consists, in general terms, in affirming as a definitive state a transitory condition – namely, the division of society into patricians and proletarians; and, particularly, in saying that in an organised, and consequently interdependent, society, there may be some who possess, labour, and consume, while others have neither possession, nor labour, nor bread.” (Système I: 26)

So while, say, the division of labour has existed in numerous societies it does not imply that its bourgeois form will be any more eternal or permanent than those which preceded it. Similarly, while Proudhon links the rise of wage-labour with the workshop and machinery he does not think that these are eternally and permanently fixed – quite the reverse, as he argues that workers’ associations can run production and so end the hierarchical organisation within production it creates and the contradictions it spawns:

“property in the sense of monopoly is done away with, but not in the sense of the producer’s right to use the means of production as he wishes – a right which is the condition of personal freedom and individual sovereignty […] he [Proudhon] did not contemplate a return from mechanized industry to craftsmanship [regardless of what asserted!]. He was concerned rather with what he called ‘industrial democracy’, i.e., that the workers should retain control over the means of production. Productive units must be the collective property of all those employed in them, and the whole of society would consist of a federation of producers, both industrial and agricultural. This, among other things, would resolve the contradiction inherent in machinery, which on the one hand was a triumph of the human spirit over matter, but on the other hand spelt unemployment, low wages, overproduction, and the ruin of the working class. This plan would also resolve the contradiction in the division of labour, which was an instrument of progress yet which degraded human beings into mere parts of themselves.” (Kolakowski, 207-8)

So, to quote Proudhon from 1846, “all appropriated wealth must become collective wealth, as the capital taken from society returns to society” for “[m]onopoly is inflated to world-wide proportions, but a monopoly which encompasses the world cannot remain exclusive; it must republicanise itself or be destroyed” – monopoly being defined as “[a]ny exclusive exploitation, any appropriation either of land, or of industrial capital, or a manufacturing process”. As I have indicated before many times, Mutualism – defined by Proudhon as “the synthesis of the two ideas of property and of community”– is based on social ownership of the means of production (i.e., free access so resulting in the abolition of wage-labour) with workers’ control of production (i.e., the users of workplaces and land determining how to use them, what to produce, when and in what qualities for specific customers). (Système II: 168, 528, 12, 528)

“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.” (“Election Manifesto of Le Peuple”, Property is Theft!, 377-8)

As Proudhon put it in 1851, workers’ associations “furnish the solution of two important problems of social economy, that of collective force, and that of the division of labour” as “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” and “becomes the property of all the workers” while “the division of labour can no longer be a cause of degradation for the worker”. Association would also end the situation where the worker’s “permanent condition is one of obedience and poverty” because of society being divided into “two industrial castes of masters and wage-workers.” (“General Idea of the Revolution”, Property is Theft!, 586, 583) I note the link between Proudhon’s theory of exploitation and his advocacy of workers’ associations in “Proudhon and the Myth of Labour Notes” and have done so elsewhere (see, for example, “Laying the Foundations: Proudhon’s Contribution to Anarchist Economics”)

Proudhon constantly notes how the economists take their dogmas as eternal notions and mocks them for it. Thus “political economy, mistaking for science its scraps of theory, denies the possibility of further progress” and that it “is but an impertinent rhapsody, so long as it affirms as absolutely valid the facts collected by Adam Smith and J. B. Say.” The economists, “saving a few violations of their principles, for which they deem it their duty to blame governments, are optimists with regard to accomplished facts” and “affirm that that which ought to be is”. They are “defenders of religion, authority, and the other principles contemporary with, and conservative of, property”. The “wrong of the economists has been in regarding every accomplished fact as an injunction against any proposal of reform.” (Système I: 14-5, 5-6, 89)

Marx’s notion that Proudhon viewed things as “fixed, immutable, eternal categories” is simply an invention. While his categories may exist before, during and after capitalism it does not mean that they are “fixed, immutable, eternal” at all. Quite the reverse:

“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 any one here who is in opposition to history, it is you.” (Système I: 205)

“What the economists ought to say is that machinery, like the division of labour, in the present system of social economy is at once a source of wealth and a permanent and fatal cause of misery.” (Système I: 149)

“Is it, then, impossible that, in the present condition of society, the workshop with its hierarchical organisation, and machinery, instead of serving exclusively the interests of the least numerous, the least industrious, and the wealthiest class, should be employed for the benefit of all?” (Système I: 166)

Thus while Proudhon thought mutualism would have competition, he indicated that these would not take the same form as under capitalism. Similarly, while mutualism would have division of labour, machinery and workshops this did not imply that they are exactly the same as under capitalism. This is to be expected if the workshop’s current “hierarchical organisation” which enriched the few at the expense of the many is replaced by the organisation of labour (workers’ self-management).

In short, the only person who thought categories “fixed, immutable, eternal” were bourgeois economists – and, it would appear, Karl Marx who seemed to consider them so unchangeable that they had to be abolished by central planning (although, for example, labour would have to be divided in some way if the existence of planning was to make any sense).

So Proudhon was building an abstract model of capitalism based on analysing various aspects of the system (categories) in an order which he thought helped made it understandable. Thus the model is incrementally added to, making it more realistic, and its presentation based on a narrative that suggested each category presented was spawned by the last one discussed. It is a model to help us understand capitalism, its dynamic and what tendencies within it point to socialism. It was not reality. Marx knew this and quotes Proudhon stating it:

“In the absolute reason all these ideas... are equally simple, and general.... In fact, we attain knowledge only by a sort of scaffolding of our ideas. But truth in itself is independent of these dialectical symbols and freed from the combinations of our minds.” (Proudhon, Vol. II, p. 97)

Marx then writes:

“Here all of a sudden, by a kind of switch-over of which we now know the secret, the metaphysics of political economy has become an illusion!” “

Marx quotes Proudhon explaining the method underlying his whole book – namely producing abstract theories to explain observations of real events – and proclaims that he contradicts himself! Classic…

Given all this, you can understand the exasperated tone of Proudhon’s marginal notes in his copy of Marx’s book. Equally, you have to share that exasperation to read Marx later proclaiming (with a straight face!) that the “salient points of our conception were first outlined in an academic, although polemical, form” in a “book which was aimed at Proudhon”. (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 22).  I think that most people would agree that inventing and tampering with quotes while systematically misrepresenting someone’s position hardly counts as “academic”. And “polemical” is not applicable either as, surely, we aspire to honest polemics rather than building straw-men to thrash to the ground?

The extra irony is, of course, by this stage Marx was agreeing with Proudhon on most of the things he was attacking him for in 1847 (such as methodology, theory of exploitation, the relationship between division of labour and machinery, etc., etc., etc.).

I could go on as Marx’s book is a joke (it can only be considered good by someone who has never read Proudhon – that is, almost all Marxists!) but I have other things to do.

Until I blog again, be seeing you…


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