Chapter VI: Posing of the Political Problem: Principle of the Solution

Chapter VI: Posing of the Political Problem: Principle of the Solution

If the reader has followed with some diligence the previous exposition, human society must appear to him like a fantastic creation, full of surprises and mysteries. We shall briefly recall the different terms:

a) Political order rests on two related, opposed and irreducible principles: Authority and Liberty.

b) Two contrary regimes in parallel are deduced from these two principles: the authoritarian or absolutist regime, and the liberal regime.[1]

c) The forms of these two regimes also differ amongst themselves, incompatible and irreconcilable in their natures; we have defined them in two words: Indivisibility and Separation.

d) Now, reason points out all theory must go according to its principle, all existence according to its law: logic is the requirement of life and of thought. But it is exactly the opposite that expresses itself in politics: neither authority nor liberty can constitute itself apart, give rise to a system that would exclusively be proper to each one; far from it; they are condemned in their respective institutions to borrow from each other in a perpetual and mutual way.[2]

e) The consequence is that loyalty to principles exists only as an ideal in politics, practice having to be subject to all sorts of compromises, the government limits itself, in the final analysis, despite the best will and all the virtue of the world, to an equivocal hybrid creation to a crowding of regimes [une promiscuité de régimes] that strict logic renounces, and in front of which good faith recoils. Not a single government escapes this contradiction.

f) Conclusion: the arbitrary inevitably entering into politics, corruption soon becomes the soul of power and society is trained, without rest nor mercy, on the endless slope of revolutions.

That is where the world is. It is neither the consequence of satanical spite nor of a failing of our nature, nor of a providential condemnation, nor a passing fancy of fortune nor of fate stopping: that is how things are. It is down to us to get the most we can out of this odd situation.

Let us consider that for over eight thousand years — historical records go no further — all types of government, all social and political combinations have been successively tried, abandoned, resumed, modified, travestied, exhausted, and that failure has continuously rewarded the reformers’ zeal and misled the people’s hope. Always the flag of liberty was used to shelter despotism, always the privileged classes have surrounded themselves with, in the very interest of their privileges, egalitarian and liberal institutions; always parties have lied about their program, and always indifference replaced faith, corruption of the civic spirit, states have perished by the development of the ideas on which they were founded. The most vigorous and the most intelligent races wore themselves out in this work: history is full of accounts of their struggles. Sometimes a series of triumphs created illusions in the strength of the State, making one believe the constitution to be excellent, the government wise, when neither existed. But with peace arising, the vices of the system emerged for all to see and the people were simply having a rest in civil war from the fatigue of external war. Thus humanity went from revolution to revolution: the most famous nations, the ones that have lasted longest, have supported themselves in no other way. Among all known governments there is not a single one that, if it were condemned to subsist by its own virtue, would live as long as a man could. Strange fact, heads of States and their ministers are of all men those who believe least that the system they represent would last; until science comes, it is the masses’ faith that supports governments. The Greeks and Romans, who bequeathed us their institutions with their examples, having reached the most interesting time of their evolution, bury themselves in their despair; and modern society seems to have reached in its turn to a time of anxiety. Do not trust agitators who shout the words Liberty, Equality, Nationality: they know nothing; they are dead men who claim they can resurrect the dead. The public listens to them for a while, as it would to buffoons and charlatans; then it moves on, devoid of reason and with a sorry conscience.

A sure sign that our dissolution is near and that a new era is going to open is that the confusion of language and ideas has reached the point that anybody can declare himself as much as he likes to be republican, monarchist, democrat, bourgeois, conservative, distributionist, liberal and all of these at once, without the fear that someone will prove him to be lying or mistaken. The princes and barons of the First Empire had experimented with sans-culottism. The bourgeoisie of 1814, gorged with the nation’s goods, the only thing that it had understood from the institutions of ’89 was [that they were] liberal, even revolutionary; 1830 remade it conservative; 1849 made it reactionary, catholic and more than ever monarchist. The February republicans are currently serving Victor-Emmanuel’s monarchy[3] whilst the June socialists declared themselves[4] unitarist [unitaires]. Some of Ledru-Rollin’s former friends join the Empire [considering it] as the veritable revolutionary expression and the most paternal form of government; others, it is true, call them traitors, but fly into rage against federalism. It is systematic mess, organised confusion, continuous apostasy, universal treason.

We must know if society can get to something regular, equitable and permanent, that satisfies reason and conscience or if we are condemned for eternity to this Ixion wheel.[5] Is the problem insoluble?…Could you be a bit more patient, reader; and if I do not get you out of this mess in a short while, you will have the right to say that logic is wrong, progress is an illusion and liberty an utopia. Would you please reason with me for a few more minutes, although in such a matter, to reason is to expose yourself to self-deception and to waste your efforts as well as your reason.

1. First, you will notice that both principles, Authority and Liberty, origin of all evil, show themselves in history in a chronological and logical succession. Authority, like family, like the father, genitor, is the first to appear; it has initiative, it is assertion. Questioning Liberty [La Liberté raisonneuse] comes afterwards: it is criticism, protest, determination. The fact of this succession results from the very definition of ideas and the nature of things and the whole of history testifies to it. There, no inversion is possible, nor the least trace of the arbitrary.

2. Another observation (by no means any less important), it is that the authoritarian regime, paternal and monarchist, moves further away from its ideal as the family, tribe or city becomes more numerous and as the State grows in population and in territory: so that the more authority spreads, the more it becomes intolerable, hence the concessions that it is obliged to make to Liberty. Conversely, the regime of liberty comes near to its ideal and multiplies its chances of success as the State grows greater in population and in its area, [as] relationships multiply and science gains ground. Firstly, it is a constitution which is called for from all sides; later it will be decentralisation. Wait again and you will see emerge the idea of federation. So that we can say of Liberty and Authority what John the Baptist said of himself and Jesus: Illam oportet crescere, hanc autem minui.[6]

This double motion, one of regression, the other of progress, resolves itself in an unique phenomenon, also results from the definition of principles, their relative position and their roles: here again not a single ambiguity is possible, not the slightest place for the arbitrary. The fact is obviously objective and of mathematical certainty; it is what we will call a LAW.

3. The consequence of this law, which we can call necessary, is in itself necessary: it is that the principle of authority seeming to be the first, being used as the material or subject for the elaboration of Liberty, reason and right, is little by little subordinated to the juridical, rational and liberal principle; the head of State first immune, irresponsible, absolute, like the father in the family, becomes responsible to reason, first subject of law, finally a simple agent, instrument or servant of Liberty itself.

This third suggestion is as certain as the first two, safe from all ambiguity and contradiction and highly vouched for by history. In the perpetual struggle of both principles, the French Revolution, as well as the Reformation, looks like a crucial period. It marks the time when, in the political order, Liberty officially supplants Authority, just as the Reformation had marked the moment when, in religious order, free examination prevailed over faith. Since Luther, belief has everywhere become questioning [raisonneuse]; orthodoxy as well as heresy pretended to lead man to faith using reason, Saint Paul’s precept, rationabile sit obsequium vestrum, that your obedience be reasoned, has been widely commented upon and put into practice. Rome started to discuss like Geneva[7]; religion tends to show itself as science; submission to the Church surrounded itself with so many conditions and reservations that, except for the difference of articles of faith, there was no more difference between a Christian and a non-believer. They are not of the same opinion, that is all: besides, thought, reason, consciousness behave the same in both. Likewise, since the French Revolution, respect towards authority has weakened; deference to orders of the prince has become conditional; one expected reciprocities from the monarch, guarantees; the political constitution changed, the most fervent royalists, like the [King] John-Lackland barons, wanted to have deeds and MM. Berreyer, de Falloux, de Montalembert,[8] etc., can claim to be as liberal as our democrats. Chateaubriand, the Restoration bard, bragged of being a philosopher and a republican; it was by a pure act of his free will that he made himself an advocate of the altar and of the throne. We know what became of the violent Catholicism of Lamennais.[9]

Thus, while authority, from day to day more precarious, collapses, right becomes more precise, and liberty, always precarious, becomes nevertheless more real and stronger. Absolutism does its best to resist, but is on its way out; it seems that the REPUBLIC, always fought against, held in contempt, betrayed, banished, is getting nearer every day. What advantage are we going to take of this essential fact for the constitution of government?[10]

End Notes

[1] In Chapter II, Proudhon defines the “Regime of Authority” as monarchy/patriarchy (“Government of all by one”) and panarchy/communism (“Government of all by all”). The “Regime of Liberty” referred to democracy (“Government of all by each”) and an-archy/self-government (“Government of each by each”). (Editor)

[2] In Chapter I, Proudhon argues that all social organisations (or governments, to use his term) involve the balancing of authority by liberty, or vice versa. In Chapter V, he argues that all existing governments either involved the subordination of authority to liberty, or vice versa. (Editor)

[3] Victor Emmanuel II (Vittorio Emmanuele, 1820-78) became King of Italy in 1861. (Editor)

[4] A reference to the revolution of February 1848 and the workers revolt of June 1848 against the new Republican government. Thus “February” refers to the Liberal and Republican tendency within French politics and “June” to the radical, militant socialist tendency. (Editor)

[5] In Greek mythology, Ixion was king of the Lapiths. Brought to Olympus by Zeus, Ixion fell in love with Hera, Zeus’ wife, and as punishment Zeus ordered him bound to a fiery wheel that was always spinning across the heavens. (Editor)

[6] A slight misquotation of the Latin Bible (John 3:30): “illum oportet crescere me autem minui” (“He must increase: but I must decrease”). (Editor)

[7] Following the excommunication of Martin Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, Geneva became the unofficial capital of the Protestant movement. This was because leading Protestant writer John Calvin lived there. (Editor)

[8] Three distinguished Catholic political leaders who opposed Napoléon III. (Editor)

[9] Felicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) was a French priest who travelled from extreme right to extreme left. Initially arguing for a religious revival and active clerical organisation, by 1848 his plan for a Constitution was rejected as being too radical. That year saw him start the newspapers Le Peuple Constituant and La Révolution Démocratique et Sociale, both of which espoused radical socialist revolution as well as being named president of the Société de la Solidarité Républicaine. Lamennais’s political journey illustrates Proudhon’s argument that political positions could be highly flexible. (Editor)

[10] Use of the word “government” should not be automatically taken to mean that Proudhon had rejected anarchism. In chapter II, he had discussed anarchy as a form of government, even using the expression “gouvernement anarchique” (anarchic government). He seems to be somewhat confusingly using the words “government” and “state” for all forms of social organisation. (Editor)


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