Proudhon and elections

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Two postings this time, on the theme of elections. As is well known, Proudhon both argued against standing candidates and for abstaining in elections (during the Second Empire) and, in 1848, he stood for Parliament twice, with success in a by-election. The postings cover both these periods with this blog also discussing Proudhon, Marx and the Paris Commune (again!).

First off, is Proudhon’s second election manifesto of 1848, the one associated with Presidential election campaign. Initially, Proudhon argued for a boycott of the election (being opposed to having a President because it smacked of monarchy) but turned to supporting Raspail’s candidacy instead (and according to Marx, as noted previously, this was authentic proletarian position to take!).

This manifesto was included in Guerin’s essential “No Gods, No Masters” anthology and it is easy to see why. It is a succinct summary of Proudhon’s ideas. It covers most of his themes, such as free credit, workers’ self-management, socio-economic federalism and others. It is a much better work than his first manifesto (Revolutionary Program: To The Voters Of The Seine Region), which has been translated at the “Collective Reason” project (this is an important project which should be supported and they are also working on Bakunin, if Proudhon is not to your tastes).

The manifesto itself covers certain ideas which have become mainstays of revolutionary politics, both libertarian and Marxist (well, for the latter, once the Mutualists in the Paris Commune raise it and Marx praised it in 1871, as discussed in a previous posting). Thus we see Proudhon proclaiming the need for both workers’ self-management, economic federalism but also the merging of executive and legislative functions in the hands of mandated and recallable delegates. While the Proudhonian influences in the Paris Commune are discussed in the introduction, it is useful to compare Proudhon’s manifesto from 1848 with Marx’s reporting from 1871.

Proudhon, 1848:

“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 . . . We want property, but property restored to its proper limits, that is to say, free disposition of the fruits of labour, property MINUS USURY!”

Marx, 1871:

“the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the few . . . It wanted to make individual property a truth by transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour.”

Proudhon, 1848:

“because of the formation of a class of capitalists or proprietors, another class of workers, and a third of talents . . . the worker has wound up enslaved . . . socialism thus consists of reducing the aristocratic formula of capital-labour-talent into the simpler formula of LABOUR! . . . to make every citizen simultaneously, equally and to the same extent capitalist, worker and expert or artist . . . the organic origin of the proletariat . . . is located in the division of society into two classes: one that works and does not own; the other that owns but does not work.”

Marx, 1871:

“With labour emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labour ceases to be a class attribute . . . present society with its two poles of capital and wages-slavery.”

Proudhon, 1848:

“It is up to the National Assembly, through organisation of its committees, to exercise executive power, just the way it exercises legislative power through its joint deliberations and votes.”

Marx, 1871:

“The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.”

Proudhon, 1848:

“Besides universal suffrage and as a consequence of universal suffrage, we want implementation of the binding mandate [mandat impératif]. Politicians balk at it! Which means that in their eyes, the people, in electing representatives, do not appoint mandatories but rather abjure their sovereignty!... That is assuredly not socialism: it is not even democracy.”

Marx, 1871:

“The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms . . . In a rough sketch of national organization . . . it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet . . . . and . . . each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents.”

The one missing item between the 1848 manifesto and the Commune was, of course, the vision of a federative political structure but this aided by Proudhon in the years subsequent to the Second Republic. It is also worthwhile noting that, with regards to the binding mandate, Proudhon thought that this involved recall. In his March 1848 pamphlet “Democracy” (the second he wrote in response to the February revolution and most of which will be in “Property is Theft!”), Proudhon went into this in more detail (a previous translation can be found here):

“In the end, we are all electors; we can choose the most worthy.

“We can do more; we can follow them step-by-step in their legislative acts and their votes; we will make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we will suggest our will to them, and when we are discontented, we will recall and dismiss them.

“The choice of abilities, imperative mandate and permanent revocability are the most immediate and incontestable consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.”

All of which suggests that Marx’s comment that “But this is communism, ‘impossible’ communism!” in relation to the Paris Commune was, well, spin. It was, fundamentally, mutualism, libertarian socialism. As such, it is somewhat amusing to see Marxists praise the Paris Commune to the hilt while, at the same time, denouncing Proudhon. To be fair, this is often a product of ignorance as few Marxists bother to read anarchist writers and so fail to realise when they praise the Commune they are praising ideas popularised long before it by Proudhon.

Sadly, though, many anarchists fail to realise this too as Proudhon is not that well known in the English-speaking world. Partly, this is because of a lack of translated material (which should be changing now with this anthology and the work of people like Shawn Wilbur translating material). Partly, though, it is because of the various distortions inflicted upon Proudhon by Marx and Marxists and which many anarchists are aware of more than Proudhon’s own ideas. Hopefully the anthology’s discussion of Marx and Proudhon, plus our footnoting of “System of Economic Contradictions” comparing what Proudhon said and what Marx said he said, will show that much of the “conventional wisdom” on Proudhon is simply wrong. And, finally, part of the problem is that Proudhon was wrong a few key issues (sexism and racism, most obviously) and his reformism does not appeal to revolutionary anarchism. And in response to that, yes, we should criticise Proudhon for where he got it wrong but we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

I should note that the version in “Property is Theft!” is not the same as in “No Gods, No Masters.” This is the full translation, with the missing bits freshly translated. Most of it is the same, but a few bits have been changed to bring in more in line with the original French version. This meant fixing a few bits and pieces, for example “le salariat” is now rendered as “wage-labour” rather than “wage-slavery” to make it consistent with the other translations in the book. One economic term had to be changed, as the reference to fiat money was missed in “No Gods, No Masters.” Finally, one paragraph was translated as follows:

“Nor do we want government of man by his fellow-man any more: have those who are so quick to seize upon the socialist formula given it any thought?”

It should have been:

“We do not want the government of man by man any more than the exploitation of man by man: have those who are so quick to seize upon the socialist formula given it any thought?”

This reflects a common theme of Proudhon’s, first raised in “What is Property?”, namely opposition to both state and capitalism, both government and exploitation. He did not think libertarian principles stopped at the doors of the workplace, nor did subsequent anarchists like Bakunin or Kropotkin. As such, attempts by the authoritarian right and left to suggest anarchism is limited to critiquing and opposing the state are misguided, misleading, of dubious logic and historically ignorant. However, as there is undoubtedly a political agenda in such attempts to limit anarchism and deny its legacy such attempts are unsurprising.

There are other obvious links to Proudhon’s seminal 1840 book. In the manifesto he argues that “under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership” and that “[u]nder the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labour, so cannot become a cause of inequality.” However, there would be “free disposition of the fruits of labour.” This obviously repeats the conclusions of 1840 that “all production being necessarily collective, the labourer is entitled to a share of the products and profits commensurate with his labour,” that “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor” and that as the land is “a common thing.” His 1848 call for “democratically organised workers’ associations” reflects his 1840 comment that workplace leaders “must be chosen from the labourers by the labourers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions of eligibility.”

So what we have, in essence, is a market socialist vision of independent workers and co-operatives using socialised land and means of production but distributing the means of producing by means of the market. It is interesting that he denounces nationalisation as “still wage-labour” so showing the basic anarchist position that replacing the boss with the state is not socialism but state-capitalism. Proudhon also links his ideas of the organisation of credit with those on the organisation of labour, showing (certain commentators on his ideas not withstanding) that he supported both and that each were interwoven.

It should also be stressed that Proudhon’s roots his ideas in working-class self-activity. He rejects the idea that a few leaders or politicians (“whose only wish is to command the people”) could create socialism, arguing repeatedly that socialism would be the product of working people freeing themselves by their own efforts and creating their own organisations. He raised this opposition to socialism from above two years previously in “System of Economic Contradictions” (chapter VII: “your favourite maxim is that the welfare of the people must be achieved in spite of the people). Or as he put it in 1849’s “Confessions of a Revolutionary”:

“In this distinction of from above and from below, there is a great deal of bluster but little truth. M. de Girardin, explaining his thoughts in this way, believes himself to have expressed an idea which is as new as it is profound; but he has simply reproduced the eternal illusion of the Demagogues who, believing, with the help of power, that they are advancing their revolutions, are in fact merely serving to undermine them . . . From above . . . evidently signifies power; from below signifies the people. On the one hand we have the actions of government; on the other, the initiative of the masses . . . revolution from above is . . . inevitably revolution according to the whims of the Prince, the arbitrary judgement of a minister, the fumblings of an Assembly or the violence of a club: it is a revolution of dictatorship and despotism . . . Revolution on the initiative of the masses is a revolution by the concerted action of the citizens, by the experience of the workers, by the progress and diffusion of enlightenment, revolution by the means of liberty . . . a revolution from below, from true democracy . . .

“[State] Socialism gave in fully to the illusion of radicalism . . . Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, Cabet, Louis Blanc, all believers in the organisation of labour by the State, by Capital, by whatever authority, appealed . . . to revolution from above. Instead of teaching the people how to organise themselves, by calling on their experience and their reasoning, they demanded Power. So in what way do they differentiate themselves from despots? They are also utopians, like all despots: as one despot steps down, another fills his shoes!

“The conclusion is that government can never be revolutionary quite simply because it is government. Society alone, the masses armed with their intelligence, can create revolution; society alone is able to deploy all its spontaneity, to analyse and explain the mystery of its destiny and its origin, to change its faith and its philosophy, because it alone is capable of fighting against its originator and to bear its fruit. Governments are God’s scourge, established to discipline the world: do you really expect them to destroy themselves, to create freedom, to make revolution?”

Such comments, of course, show how baseless attempts by Leninists (Hal Draper, notably) to rebrand Marxism as “socialism from below” are. In terms of “from below” and its libertarian imagery, anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin had been utilising it for over a century before Draper (and, via him, the likes of the SWP and ISO) started to. At times it seems that we anarchists are fated to see our best words and expressions appropriated by ideologues at odds with our ideals (most obviously libertarian being appropriated by propertarians). Still, we can and must protest at such attempts…

Of course, from a revolutionary anarchist position there is much to object to in the manifesto but we must remember that this is an election manifesto and reformist in nature. Hence the role of the state supervising the workers associations must be viewed as a transitional position. While recognising the exploitative nature of capitalism, the manifesto also stresses the peacefulness of his means and the need for everyone to work for social transformation. This dualism, the recognition that classes exist and the desire to end them plus seeking to reform capitalism away and not alienating the very class he seeks to abolish, occurs throughout his writings. Needless to say, the Proudhon defends the patriarchal family although he is also at pains to stress that hierarchy was to limited to the family and was not for society (“the model of civil society is the fraternal association”). As other anarchists noted, this is somewhat in contradiction to his core libertarian principles and so argued that the family should be a “fraternal association” as well.

Still, there in spite of its limitations there is much of interest in the manifesto (as can be said of Proudhon’s work as a whole!). I was originally just going to have an edited version of the “No Gods, No Masters” version but I think that is a very good summary of Proudhon’s ideas that it should be available in full – it would make a good little pamphlet, in my opinion. Much of what is discussed finds parallels with subsequent revolutionary anarchist theory and, of course, Proudhon’s ideas of the “agro-industrial federation” named as such in 1863’s “The Federative Principle.” These links with subsequent revolutionary forms of anarchism are clear enough and worth stressing, particularly as they give an insight into the evolution of anarchism in the 19th century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Daniel Guerin quotes from this in his classic introductory book Anarchism:

“We, the workers, associated or about to be associated,” wrote Proudhon in the style of a manifesto, “do not need the State .... Exploitation by the State always means rulers and wage slaves. We want the government of man by man no more than the exploitation of man by man. Socialism is the opposite of governmentalism .... We want these associations to be . . . the first components of a vast federation of associations and groups united in the common bond of the democratic and social republic.”

It should be mentioned that when Proudhon wrote this manifesto, he was an elected representative of the people. The second posting is Proudhon’s famous (and lengthy) letter discussing absentionism when asked by workers his opinions on the Manifesto of the Sixty which called for workers to stand as candidates in elections under the Second Empire. This letter position is the typical anarchist position on elections, namely abstentionism and outside pressure (Proudhon’s 1849 comments on “legal resistance” are pertinent here – and the full chapter will be posted here, eventially). Which raises the questions of why, in 1848, did Proudhon stand for election and why he later stressed abstentionism. The first question was addressed by Proudhon at the end of the biographical Chapter XI (“Who am I?”) of Confessions of a Revolutionary:

“When I think of everything that I have said, written and published over these past ten years regarding the State’s role in society, bringing the authorities to heel and government’s disqualification from revolution, I am tempted to believe that my election in June 1848 was the result of some incomprehension on the part of the people. Those ideas have been in my head ever since my earliest deliberations: they are coeval with my conversion to socialism. Study and experience have expanded upon them: they have guided me constantly in my writings and actions: they have inspired all of the actions for which I shall answer: curious that after the reassurance they offer and which is the best that an innovator has to offer, I may have appeared momentarily to the society which I take for my judge and the authorities with whom I want no truck, as a formidable agitator.”

Suffice to say, the revolution of 1848 infused him with hope for peaceful change and he sought to take advantage of it. He did consider himself as a republican, a person seeking to make the promise of 1789 a reality by social reforms to match (and extend) political reforms. Indeed, the failure of the republican experiment and the unwillingness of the people to defend it (and the popular support Napoleon’s coup of 1851) made him extremely bitter (a bitterness which provoked a stream of abuse against “the people” which his enemies happily quote out of context). This hope made him temporary forget his comments from 1846:

“Thus power, the instrument of collective might, created in society to serve as a mediator between labour and privilege, finds itself inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat. No political reform can solve this contradiction, since, by the confession of the politicians themselves, such a reform would end only in increasing the energy and extending the sphere of power, and since power would know no way of touching the prerogatives of monopoly without overturning the hierarchy and dissolving society. The problem before the labouring classes, then, consists, not in capturing, but in subduing both power and monopoly, – that is, in generating from the bowels of the people, from the depths of labour, a greater authority, a more potent fact, which shall envelop capital and the State and subjugate them. Every proposition of reform which does not satisfy this condition is simply one scourge more, a rod doing sentry duty, virgem vigilantem, as a prophet said, which threatens the proletariat.”

Proudhon also quotes those lines from “System of Economic Contradictions” after chronicling the reaction against social reform by the bourgeois politicians, adding these words “are the prophecy of the events that we have seen take place in 1848 and 1849.” So his experience as a politician confirmed the wisdom of those words – and the experience of Marxist social democracy, the German Greens and a host of other radicals utilising elections have borne them out (as they have Bakunin’s predictions on this issue). As he put in “Confessions of a Revolutionary”:

“Elected . . . as a representative of the people, I entered the national assembly with the shyness of the child and the ardour of a neophyte. Always in attendance from nine o’clock in the morning at the office and committee meetings, I only left the assembly at night, exhausted with fatigue and disgust. Since I first set foot on this parliamentary Sinai, I ceased to be in contact with the masses: by absorbing myself in my legislative work, I had completely lost view of current affairs. I knew nothing about the national workshop situation, government policy or the intrigues going on within the assembly. One has to experience this isolation called a national assembly to understand how the men who are the most completely ignorant of the state of a country are nearly always those who represent it . . . Most of my colleagues on the left and the extreme left were in the same state of mental perplexity and ignorance of daily reality. We only talked about the national workshops with a kind of dread: because the fear of the people is the evil of all those who belong to authority: for power, the people are the enemy.”

In Confessions he spends some time explaining how the state is simply unsuitable as a means of social transformation, a position subsequent anarchists have expanded upon (and the experience of the Russian Revolution confirmed). Socialism, as anarchists have long re-iterated, can only be created from below, by the actions of the masses themselves and attempts to avoid this conclusion have always ended in failure. I should also note that the 1846 analysis of the state was reiterated by Proudhon in the 1850s:

“In a society based on the principle of inequality of conditions, government, whatever it is, feudal, theocratic, bourgeois, imperial, is reduced, in last analysis, to a system of insurance for the class which exploits and owns against that which is exploited and owns nothing.” (Manuel Du Spéculateur à la Bourse (4th edition, 1857), p. 138)

(As an aside, I should note that this quote is not, unfortunately, in the extracts from that strange work in “Property is Theft!” although it is in the introduction, via Woodcock’s excellent biography of Proudhon.)

All of which places Marxist claims that anarchists lack “class analysis” or fail to understand that the state is an instrument of class rule in stark context. It also iterates that Marx’s claim (as repeated by Marxists ever since) that Proudhon’s opposition to electioneering was driven by idealism and a horror of violating ideals is simply wrong. The 1864 letter is also notable for his denouncing of the opposition’s proclaiming themselves not to be socialists and that universal suffrage under the Empire simply was not democratic enough. These positions may come as a surprise to those who consider Proudhon as being against socialism or somehow anti-democratic. In reality, as discussed in the introduction, Proudhon repeatedly called himself a socialist and stressed how monarchical (anti-democratic) a centralised republic was (“nothing resembles a monarchy more than a république unitaire”).

This letter is also the first supplemental material, i.e., translations which are not in “Property is Theft!” This was one of the things planned to go into the anthology, mostly because it had already been translated and I had no idea at the start how much of the wish-list would be done by the dead-line. I also organised all the bits and pieces from “No Gods, No Masters” into their appropriate chapters. As it turned out, thanks to the hard work of numerous volunteers the anthology got an abundance of new material and so both the letter and extracts were dropped. After all, it is in “No Gods, No Masters” and so readily available (and, to be honest, if you are interested in anarchism or Proudhon you would either have this classic anthology or quickly buy it once you knew about it!).

Over the coming months I will be adding to this supplemental material, including whatever new Proudhon translations I become aware of as well as sections dropped from the final introduction due to space considerations (so expect sections on numpties like Hal Draper and J. Salwyn Schapiro whose bizarre and downright false interpretations of Proudhon’s ideas have done so much harm in certain circles). This will also include, when I get round to posting the appropriate works, any extracts from “No Gods, No Masters” which I organised but, in the end, did not include in the anthology.

Suffice to say, I hope that the 1848 election manifesto shows why Proudhon is important and why anarchists today can benefit from a greater awareness of his ideas. After all, he was the first to champion a lot of what we take for granted in revolutionary circles and it helps us gain a better insight into modern ideas, I would argue, if we have a better notion of where they came from and how they have evolved over the years. This is not to suggest that we “return to Proudhon” as so many Marxists over the years have proclaimed with Marx (usually after the predictable, and predicted, consequences of certain tactics and ideas panned out) but, rather, to see how Proudhon contributed to the commonwealth of ideas which is anarchism, what is still of value in his legacy and, hopefully, use it to enrich and develop our activity and ideas in the here and now. We gain little by smugly ignoring the past for, after all, those who do so tend to repeat it…


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