Chapter I: Of the Economic Science

Chapter I: Of the Economic Science


I affirm the REALITY of an economic science.


But I hasten to say that I do not regard as a science the incoherent ensemble of theories to which the name political economy has been officially given for almost a hundred years, and which, in spite of the etymology of the name, is after all but the code, or immemorial routine, of property. These theories offer us only the rudiments, or first section, of economic science; and that is why, like property, they are all contradictory of each other, and half the time inapplicable. The proof of this assertion, which is, in one sense, a denial of political economy as handed down to us by Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, and J.-B. Say, and as we have known it for half a century, will be especially developed in this treatise.

The inadequacy of political economy has at all times impressed thoughtful minds, who, too fond of their dreams for practical investigation, and confining themselves to the estimation of apparent results, have constituted from the beginning a party of opposition to the statu quo, and have devoted themselves to a persevering and systematic ridicule of civilisation and its customs. Property, on the other hand, the basis of all social institutions, has never lacked zealous defenders, who, proud to be called practical, have exchanged blow for blow with the traducers of political economy, and have laboured with a courageous and often skilful hand to strengthen the edifice which general prejudice and individual liberty have erected in concert. The controversy between conservatives and reformers, still pending, finds its counterpart, in the history of philosophy, in the quarrel between realists and nominalists;[2] it is almost useless to add that, on both sides, right and wrong are equal, and that the rivalry, narrowness, and intolerance of opinions have been the sole cause of the misunderstanding.

Thus two powers are contending for the government of the world, and cursing each other with the fervour of two hostile religions: political economy, or tradition; and socialism, or utopia.


Political economy tends toward the glorification of selfishness; socialism favours the exaltation of communism.

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; the socialists, with regard to facts to be accomplished.

The first affirm that that which ought to be is; the second, that that which ought to be is not. Consequently, while the first are defenders of religion, authority, and the other principles contemporary with, and conservative of, property, — although their criticism, based solely on reason, deals frequent blows at their own prejudices, — the second reject authority and faith, and appeal exclusively to science, — although a certain religiosity, utterly illiberal, and an unscientific disdain for facts, are always the most obvious characteristics of their doctrines.

For the rest, neither party ever ceases to accuse the other of incapacity and sterility.

The socialists ask their opponents to account for the inequality of conditions, for those commercial debaucheries in which monopoly and competition, in monstrous union, perpetually give birth to luxury and misery; they reproach economic theories, always modelled after the past, with leaving the future hopeless; in short, they point to the regime of property as a horrible hallucination, against which humanity has protested and struggled for four thousand years.

The economists, on their side, defy socialists to produce a system in which property, competition, and political organisation can be dispensed with; they prove, with documents in hand, that all reformatory projects have ever been nothing but rhapsodies of fragments borrowed from the very system that socialism sneers at, — plagiarisms, in a word, of political economy, outside of which socialism is incapable of conceiving and formulating an idea.


Thus society finds itself, at its origin, divided into two great parties: the one traditional and essentially hierarchical, which, according to the object it is considering, calls itself by turns royalty or democracy, philosophy or religion, in short, property; the other socialism, which, coming to life at every crisis of civilisation, proclaims itself pre-eminently anarchical and atheistic; that is, rebellious against all authority, human and divine.


What is there, then, in political economy that is necessary and true; whither does it tend; what are its powers; what are its wishes? It is this which I propose to determine in this work. What is the value of socialism? The same investigation will answer this question also.


The question now most disputed is unquestionably that of the organisation of labour.

As John the Baptist preached in the desert, Repent ye so the socialists go about proclaiming everywhere this novelty old as the world, Organise labour, though never able to tell what, in their opinion, this organisation should be. However that may be, the economists have seen that this socialistic clamour was damaging their theories: it was, indeed, a rebuke to them for ignoring that which they ought first to recognise, — labour. They have replied, therefore, to the attack of their adversaries, first 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. Then, as this argument served only to make them the laughing-stock of their antagonists, they assumed the offensive; and, showing that the socialists understood nothing at all themselves of this organisation that they held up as a scarecrow, they ended by saying that it was but a new socialistic chimera, a word without sense, — an absurdity. The latest writings of the economists are full of these pitiless conclusions.

Nevertheless, it is certain that the phrase organisation of labour contains as clear and rational a meaning as these that follow: organisation of the workshop, organisation of the army, organisation of police, organisation of charity, organisation of war. In this respect, the argument of the economists is deplorably irrational. No less certain is it that the organisation of labour cannot be a utopia and chimera; for at the moment that labour, the supreme condition of civilisation, begins to exist, it follows that it is already submitted to an organisation, such as it is, which satisfies the economists, but which the socialists think detestable.

There remains, then, relatively to the proposal to organise labour formulated by socialism, this objection, — that labour is organised. Now, this is utterly untenable, since it is notorious that in labour, supply, demand, division, quantity, proportion, price, and security, nothing, absolutely nothing is regulated; on the contrary, everything is given up to the caprices of free-will; that is, to chance.

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 socialism is right in asserting that, in its present form, the organisation is inadequate and transitory; and the whole mission of science is continually to ascertain, in view of the results obtained and the phenomena in course of development, what innovations can be immediately effected.

Socialism and political economy, then, while waging a burlesque war, pursue in reality the same idea, — the organisation of labour.

But both are guilty of disloyalty to science and of mutual calumny, when on the one hand political economy, mistaking for science its scraps of theory, denies the possibility of further progress; and when socialism, abandoning tradition, aims at re-establishing society on undiscoverable bases.


Another question, no less disputed than the preceding one, is that of usury, or lending at interest.

Usury, or in other words the price of use, is the emolument, of whatever nature, which the proprietor derives from the loan of his property. Quidquid sorti accrescit usura est, say the theologians. Usury, the foundation of credit, was one of the first of the means which social spontaneity employed in its work of organisation, and whose analysis discloses the profound laws of civilisation. The ancient philosophers and the Fathers of the Church, who must be regarded here as the representatives of socialism in the early centuries of the Christian era, by a singular fallacy, — which arose however from the paucity of economic knowledge in their day, — allowed farm-rent and condemned interest on money, because, as they believed, money was unproductive. They distinguished consequently between the loan of things which are consumed by use — among which they included money — and the loan of things which, without being consumed, yield a product to the user.

The economists had no difficulty in showing, by generalising the idea of rent, that in the economy of society the action of capital, or its productivity, was the same whether it was consumed in wages or retained the character of an instrument; that, consequently, it was necessary either to prohibit the rent of land or to allow interest on money, since both were by the same title payment for privilege, indemnity for loan. It required more than fifteen centuries to get this idea accepted, and to reassure the consciences that had been terrified by the anathemas pronounced by Catholicism against usury. But finally the weight of evidence and the general desire favoured the usurers: they won the battle against socialism; and from this legitimation of usury society gained some immense and unquestionable advantages. Under these circumstances socialism, which had tried to generalise the law enacted by Moses for the Israelites alone, Non foeneraberis proximo tuo, sed alieno, was beaten by an idea which it had accepted from the economic routine, — namely, farm-rent, — elevated into the theory of the productivity of capital.

But the economists in their turn were less fortunate, when they were afterwards called upon to justify farm-rent in itself, and to establish this theory of the product of capital. It may be said that, on this point, they have lost all the advantage they had at first gained against socialism.

Undoubtedly — and I am the first to recognise it — the rent of land, like that of money and all personal and real property, is a spontaneous and universal fact, which has its source in the depths of our nature, and which soon becomes, by its natural development, one of the most potent means of organisation. I shall prove even that interest on capital is but the materialisation of the aphorism, All labour should leave a surplus. But in the face of this theory, or rather this fiction, of the productivity of capital, arises another thesis no less certain, which in these latter days has struck the ablest economists: it is that all value is born of labour, and is composed essentially of wages; in other words, that no wealth has its origin in privilege, or acquires any value except through work; and that, consequently, labour alone is the source of revenue among men. How, then, reconcile the theory of farm-rent or productivity of capital — a theory confirmed by universal custom, which conservative political economy is forced to accept but cannot justify — with this other theory which shows that value is normally composed of wages, and which inevitably ends, as we shall demonstrate, in an equality in society between net product and raw product?


In such a situation what is the mandate of science?

Certainly not to halt in an arbitrary, inconceivable, and impossible juste milieu; it is to generalise further, and discover a third principle, a fact, a superior law, which shall explain the fiction of capital and the myth of property, and reconcile them with the theory which makes labour the origin of all wealth. This is what socialism, if it wishes to proceed logically, must undertake. [...]


For example, what is profit? That which remains for the manager after he has paid all the expenses. Now, the expenses consist of the labour performed and the materials consumed; or, in fine, wages. What, then, is the wages of a worker? The least that can be given him; that is, we do not know. What should be the price of the merchandise put upon the market by the manager? The highest that he can obtain; that is, again, we do not know. Political economy prohibits the supposition that the prices of merchandise and labour can be fixed, although it admits that they can be estimated; and that for the reason, say the economists, that estimation is essentially an arbitrary operation, which never can lead to sure and certain conclusions. How, then, shall we find the relation between two unknowns which, according to political economy, cannot be determined? Thus political economy proposes insolvable problems; and yet we shall soon see that it must propose them, and that our century must solve them. That is why I said that the Academy of Moral Sciences, in offering for competition the question of the relation of profits and wages, spoke unconsciously, spoke prophetically.

But it will be said, Is it not true that, if labour is in great demand and workers are scarce, wages will rise, while profits on the other hand will decrease; that if, in the press of competition, there is an excess of production, there will be a stoppage and forced sales, consequently no profit for the manager and a danger of idleness for the worker; that then the latter will offer his labour at a reduced price; that, if a machine is invented, it will first extinguish the fires of its rivals; then, a monopoly established, and the worker made dependent on the employer, profits and wages will be inversely proportional? Cannot all these causes, and others besides, be studied, ascertained, counterbalanced, etc.?

Oh, monographs, histories! — we have been saturated with them since the days of Adam Smith and J.-B. Say, and they are scarcely more than variations of these authors’ words. But it is not thus that the question should be understood, although the Academy has given it no other meaning. The relation of profits end wages should be considered in an absolute sense, and not from the inconclusive point of view of the accidents of commerce and the division of interests: two things which must ultimately receive their interpretation. Let me explain myself.

Considering producer and consumer as a single individual, whose recompense is naturally equal to his product; then dividing this product into two parts, one which rewards the producer for his outlay, another which represents his profit, according to the axiom that all labour should leave a surplus, we have to determine the relation of one of these parts to the other. This done, it will be easy to deduce the ratio of the fortunes of these two classes of men, employers and employees, as well as account for all commercial oscillations. This will be a series of corollaries to add to the demonstration.

Now, that such a relation may exist and be estimated, there must necessarily be a law, internal or external, which governs wages and prices; and since, in the present state of things, wages and prices vary and oscillate continually, we must ask what are the general facts, the causes, which make value vary and oscillate, and within what limits this oscillation takes place.

But this very question is contrary to the accepted principles; for whoever says oscillation necessarily supposes a mean direction toward which value’s centre of gravity continually tends; and when the Academy asks that we determine the oscillations of profit and wages, it asks thereby that we determine value. Now that is precisely what the gentlemen of the Academy deny: they are unwilling to admit that, if value is variable, it is for that very reason determinable; that variability is the sign and condition of determinability. They pretend that value, ever varying, can never be determined. This is like maintaining that, given the number of oscillations of a pendulum per second, their amplitude, and the latitude and elevation of the spot where the experiment is performed, the length of the pendulum cannot be determined because the pendulum is in motion. Such is political economy’s first article of faith.

As for socialism, it does not appear to have understood the question, or to be concerned about it. Among its many organs, some simply and merely put aside the problem by substituting division for distribution, — that is, by banishing number and measure from the social organism: others relieve themselves of the embarrassment by applying universal suffrage to the wages question. It is needless to say that these platitudes find dupes by thousands and hundreds of thousands.

The condemnation of political economy has been formulated by Malthus in this famous passage:

“A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders…”[3]

This then is the necessary, the fatal, conclusion of political economy, — a conclusion which I shall demonstrate by evidence hitherto unknown in this field of inquiry, — Death to him who does not possess!

In order better to grasp the thought of Malthus, let us translate it into philosophical propositions by stripping it of its rhetorical gloss:

“Individual liberty, and property, which is its expression, are economical data; equality and solidarity are not.

“Under this system, each one by himself, each one for himself: labour, like all merchandise, is subject to fluctuation: hence the risks of the proletariat.

“Whoever has neither income nor wages has no right to demand anything of others: his misfortune falls on his own head; in the game of fortune, luck has been against him.”

From the point of view of political economy these propositions are irrefutable; and Malthus, who has formulated them with such alarming exactness, is secure against all reproach. From the point of view of the conditions of social science, these same propositions are radically false, and even contradictory.

The error of Malthus, or rather of political economy, does not consist in saying that a man who has nothing to eat must die; or in maintaining that, under the system of individual appropriation, there is no course for him who has neither labour nor income but to withdraw from life by suicide, unless he prefers to be driven from it by starvation: such is, on the one hand, the law of our existence; such is, on the other, the consequence of property; and M. Rossi has taken altogether too much trouble to justify the good sense of Malthus on this point. I suspect, indeed, that M. Rossi, in making so lengthy and loving an apology for Malthus, intended to recommend political economy in the same way that his fellow-countryman Machiavelli, in his book entitled The Prince, recommended despotism to the admiration of the world. In pointing out misery as the necessary condition of industrial and commercial absolutism, M. Rossi seems to say to us: There is your law, your justice, your political economy; there is property.

But Gallic simplicity does not understand artifice; and it would have been better to have said to France, in her immaculate tongue: The error of Malthus, the radical vice of political economy, consists, in general terms, in affirming as a definitive state a transitory condition,[4] — namely, the division of society into patricians and proletarians;[5] and, particularly, in saying that in an organised, and consequently interdependent [solidaire], society, there may be some who possess, labour, and consume, while others have neither possession, nor labour, nor bread. Finally Malthus, or political economy, reasons erroneously when seeing in the faculty of indefinite reproduction — which the human race enjoys in neither greater nor less degree than all animal and vegetable species — a permanent danger of famine; whereas it is only necessary to show the necessity, and consequently the existence, of a law of equilibrium between population and production.

In short, the theory of Malthus — and herein lies the great merit of this writer, a merit which none of his colleagues has dreamed of attributing to him — is a reductio ad absurdum of all political economy.


End Notes

[2] A reference to a philosophical controversy that arose in the Middle Ages over the problem of universals (general categories or classes of things, as distinct from the individual examples or members of those classes). Realist philosophers held that universals exist in reality; the nominalists held that only individual, particular things exist in reality, and that universals are merely “names.” (Editor)

[3] Tucker supplies a slightly different version of this passage, having translated Proudhon’s quotation of Joseph Garnier’s French translation of Malthus back into English. This passage, which Malthus struck from subsequent editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population, appears in the 1803 edition. (Editor)

[4] Cf. Marx’s comment in The Poverty of Philosophy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995) that Proudhon “borrows from the economists the necessity of eternal relations.” (137) (Editor)

[5] This is a reference to Ancient Rome where the patricians were rich and powerful families who managed to secure power over plebeians. Subsequently “patrician” became a vaguer term used for aristocrats and elite bourgeoisie in many countries. (Editor)


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