“But then came Proudhon: the son of a peasant, and, by his works and instinct, a hundred times more revolutionary than all the doctrinaire and bourgeois Socialists, he equipped himself with a critical point of view, as ruthless as it was profound and penetrating, in order to destroy all their systems. Opposing liberty to authority, he boldly proclaimed himself an Anarchist by way of setting forth his ideas in contradistinction to those of the State Socialists.” Michael BakuninIn 1840, two short expressions, a mere seven words, transformed socialist politics forever. One, only four words long, put a name to a tendency within the working class movement: “I am an Anarchist.” The other, only three words long, presented a critique and a protest against inequality which still rings: “Property is Theft!”
Their author, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), was a self-educated son of a peasant family and his work, What Is Property?, ensured he became one of the leading socialist thinkers of the nineteenth century. From his works and activity, the libertarian  movement was born: that form of socialism based on “the denial of Government and of Property.” It would be no exaggeration to state that if you do not consider property as “theft” and “despotism” and oppose it along with the state then you are not a libertarian. As George Woodcock summarised:
“What is Property? embraces the core of nineteenth century anarchism... all the rest of later anarchism is there, spoken or implied: the conception of a free society united by association, of workers controlling the means of production. Later Proudhon was to elaborate other aspects: the working class political struggle as a thing of its own, federalism and decentralism as a means of re-shaping society, the commune and the industrial association as the important units of human intercourse, the end of frontiers and nations. But What is Property?... remains the foundation on which the whole edifice of nineteenth century anarchist theory was to be constructed.”
Michael Bakunin, who considered the “illustrious and heroic socialist” as a friend, proclaimed that “Proudhon is the master of us all.” For Peter Kropotkin, the leading theoretician of communist-anarchism of his day, Proudhon laid “the foundations of Anarchism” and became a socialist after reading his work. Benjamin Tucker, America’s foremost individualist anarchist thinker, considered Proudhon as both “the father of the Anarchistic school of socialism” and “the Anarchist par excellence.” Alexander Herzen, leading populist thinker and father of Russian socialism, praised Proudhon’s “powerful and vigorous thought” and stated his “works constitute a revolution in the history not only of socialism but also French logic.” Leo Tolstoy greatly admired and was heavily influenced by Proudhon, considering his “property is theft” as “an absolute truth” which would “survive as long as humanity.” For leading anarcho-syndicalist thinker Rudolf Rocker, Proudhon was “one of the most intellectually gifted and certainly the most many-sided writer of whom modern socialism can boast.”
Historian Robert Tomes notes that Proudhon was “the greatest intellectual influence on French socialism” whose “ideas had durable influence on the working-class elite” while Julian P. W. Archer considered him “the pre-eminent socialist of mid-nineteenth century France.” Sharif Gemie recounts that for many workers in France “Proudhon was the living symbol of working class self-emancipation.” His ideas “anticipated all those later movements in France which, like the revolutionary syndicalists during the late nineteenth century and the students of 1968, demanded l’autogestion ouvrière. Their joint demand was that the economy be controlled neither by private enterprise nor by the state (whether democratic or totalitarian), but by the producers.” Even Friedrich Engels had to admit that Proudhon had “a preponderating place among the French Socialists of his epoch.”
The aim of this anthology is to show why Proudhon influenced so many radicals and revolutionaries, why Proudhon should be read today. His work marks the beginning of anarchism as a named socio-economic theory and the libertarian ideas Proudhon championed (such as anti-statism, anti-capitalism, self-management, possession, socialisation, communal-economic federalism, decentralisation, and so forth) are as important today as they were in the 19th century.
Anarchism did not spring ready-made from Proudhon’s head in 1840. Nor, for that matter, did Proudhon’s own ideas! This is to be expected: he was breaking new ground in terms of theory, creating the foundations upon which other anarchists would build.
His ideas developed and evolved as he thought through the implications of his previous insights. Certain ideas mentioned in passing in earlier works (such as workers’ self-management) come to the fore later, while others (such as federalism) are discussed years after What Is Property?. His ideas also reflected, developed and changed with the social and political context (most notably, the 1848 revolution and its aftermath). However, “contrary to persistent legend, Proudhon was not the egregious eccentric who continually contradicted himself... Proudhon had a consistent vision of society and its need... which revolves around his desire to instil a federal arrangement of workers’ associations and to instil a public regard for republican virtue.”
Regardless of the attempts by both the propertarian right and the authoritarian left to reduce it simply to opposition to the state, anarchism has always presented a critique of state and property as well as other forms of oppression. All are interrelated and cannot be separated without making a mockery of libertarian analysis and history:
“Capital... in the political field is analogous to government... The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them... What capital does to labour, and the State to liberty, the Church does to the spirit. This trinity of absolutism is as baneful in practice as it is in philosophy. The most effective means for oppressing the people would be simultaneously to enslave its body, its will and its reason.”
Proudhon’s two key economic ideas are free credit and workers associations. To quote economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s excellent summary:
“Scholars have regularly assigned Proudhon a position of importance in the history of socialism, syndicalism and anarchism but not in the history of economic theory. It is a distinction without merit. Two ideas of influence can be found in the modern residue of Proudhon’s theories. One is the belief, perhaps the instinct, that there is a certain moral superiority in the institution of the co-operative. Or the worker-owned plant. When farmers unite to supply themselves with fertilisers, oil or other farm supplies, and consumers to provide themselves with groceries, the ideas of Proudhon are heard in praise. So also when steel workers come together to take over and run a senescent mill... And Proudhon is one among many parents of the continuing faith in monetary magic – of the belief that great reforms can be accomplished by hitherto undiscovered designs for financial or monetary innovation or manipulation.”
In terms of politics, his vision was one of federations of self-governing communities. He repeatedly stressed the importance of decentralisation and autonomy to ensure effective liberty for the people. “Among these liberties,” Proudhon argued, “one of the most important is that of the commune.” A country “by its federations, by municipal and provincial independence... attested its local liberties, corollary and complement of the liberty of the citizen. Without the liberty of the commune, the individual is only half free, the feudal yoke is only half broken, public right is equivocal, public integrity is comprised.”
This socio-economic vision he called “mutualism,” a term Proudhon did not invent. The workers organisations in Lyon, where Proudhon stayed in 1843, were described as mutuellisme and mutuelliste in the 1830s. There is “close similarity between the associational ideal of Proudhon... and the program of the Lyon Mutualists” and it is “likely that Proudhon was able to articulate his positive program more coherently because of the example of the silk workers of Lyon. The socialist ideal that he championed was already being realised, to a certain extent, by such workers.”
In short, Proudhon “was working actively to replace capitalist statism with an anti-state socialism in which workers manage their own affairs without exploitation or subordination by a ‘revolution from below.’”
Proudhon’s analysis of property was seminal. The distinction he made between use rights and property rights, possession and property, laid the ground for both libertarian and Marxist communist perspectives. It also underlay his analysis of exploitation and his vision of a libertarian society. Even Marx admitted its power:
“Proudhon makes a critical investigation – the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation – of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionises political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”
Proudhon’s critique rested on two key concepts. Firstly, property allowed the owner to exploit its user (“property is theft”). Secondly, that property created authoritarian and oppressive social relationships between the two (“property is despotism”). These are interrelated, as it is the relations of oppression that property creates which allows exploitation to happen and the appropriation of our common heritage by the few gives the rest little alternative but to agree to such domination and let the owner appropriate the fruits of their labour.
Proudhon’s genius and the power of his critique was that he took all the defences of, and apologies for, property and showed that, logically, they could be used to attack that institution. By treating them as absolute and universal as its apologists treated property itself, he showed that they undermined property rather than supported it.
To claims that property was a natural right, he explained that the essence of such rights was their universality and that private property ensured that this right could not be extended to all. To those who argued that property was required to secure liberty, Proudhon rightly objected that “if the liberty of man is sacred, it is equally sacred in all individuals; that, if it needs property for its objective action, that is, for its life, the appropriation of material is equally necessary for all.” To claims that labour created property, he noted that most people have no property to labour on and the product of such labour was owned by capitalists and landlords rather than the workers who created it. As for occupancy, he argued that most owners do not occupy all the property they own while those who do use and occupy it do not own it.
Proudhon showed that the defenders of property had to choose between self-interest and principle, between hypocrisy and logic. If it is right for the initial appropriation of resources to be made (by whatever preferred rationale) then, by that very same reason, it is right for others in the same and subsequent generations to abolish private property in favour of a system which respects the liberty of all rather than a few (“If the right of life is equal, the right of labour is equal, and so is the right of occupancy.”) This means that “those who do not possess today are proprietors by the same title as those who do possess; but instead of inferring therefrom that property should be shared by all, I demand, in the name of general security, its entire abolition.”
For Proudhon, the notion that workers are free when capitalism forces them to seek employment was demonstrably false. He was well aware that in such circumstances property “violates equality by the rights of exclusion and increase, and freedom by despotism.” It has “perfect identity with robbery” and the worker “has sold and surrendered his liberty” to the proprietor. Anarchy was “the absence of a master, of a sovereign” while proprietor was “synonymous” with “sovereign” for he “imposes his will as law, and suffers neither contradiction nor control.” Thus “property is despotism” as “each proprietor is sovereign lord within the sphere of his property” and so freedom and property were incompatible:
“The civilised labourer who bakes a loaf that he may eat a slice of bread, who builds a palace that he may sleep in a stable, who weaves rich fabrics that he may dress in rags, who produces every thing that he may dispense with every thing, — is not free. His employer, not becoming his associate in the exchange of salaries or services which takes place between them, is his enemy.”
Hence the pressing need, if we really seek liberty for all, to abolish property and the authoritarian social relationships it generates. With wage-workers and tenants, property is “the right to use [something] by his neighbour’s labour” and so resulted in “the exploitation of man by man” for to “live as a proprietor, or to consume without producing, it is necessary, then, to live upon the labour of another.”
Proudhon’s aim “was to rescue the working masses from capitalist exploitation.” However, his analysis of exploitation has been misunderstood and, in the case of Marxists, distorted. J.E. King’s summary is sadly typical:
“Marx’s main priority was to confront those ‘utopian’ socialists (especially... Proudhon in France) who saw inequality of exchange as the only source of exploitation, and believed that the establishment of equal exchange in isolation from changes in production relations was sufficient in itself to eliminate all sources of income other than the performance of labour... [Marx proved that] exploitation in production was sufficient to explain the existence of non-wage incomes.”
Yet anyone familiar with Proudhon’s ideas would know that he was well aware that exploitation occurred at the point of production. Like Marx, but long before him, Proudhon argued that workers produced more value than they received in wages:
“Whoever labours becomes a proprietor... And when I say proprietor, I do not mean simply (as do our hypocritical economists) proprietor of his allowance, his salary, his wages, – I mean proprietor of the value he creates, and by which the master alone profits... The labourer retains, even after he has received his wages, a natural right in the thing he has produced.”
Property meant “another shall perform the labour while [the proprietor] receives the product.” Thus the “free worker produces ten; for me, thinks the proprietor, he will produce twelve” and thus to “satisfy property, the labourer must first produce beyond his needs.” This is why “property is theft!” Proudhon linked rising inequality to the hierarchical relationship of the capitalist workplace:
“I have shown the contractor, at the birth of industry, negotiating on equal terms with his comrades, who have since become his workmen. It is plain, in fact, that this original equality was bound to disappear through the advantageous position of the master and the dependence of the wage-workers.”
Thus unequal exchange did not explain exploitation, rather the hierarchical relationship produced by wage-labour does. This can be seen from another key aspect of Proudhon’s analysis, what he termed “collective force.” This was “[o]ne of the reasons Proudhon gave for rejecting ‘property’ [and] was to become an important motif of subsequent socialist thought”, namely that “collective endeavours produced an additional value” which was “unjustly appropriated by the proprietaire.” To quote Proudhon:
“It is an economic power of which I was, I believe, the first to accentuate the importance, in my first memoir upon Property [in 1840]. A hundred men, uniting or combining their forces, produce, in certain cases, not a hundred times, but two hundred, three hundred, a thousand times as much. This is what I have called collective force. I even drew from this an argument... that it is not sufficient to pay merely the wages of a given number of workmen, in order to acquire their product legitimately; that they must be paid twice, thrice or ten times their wages, or an equivalent service rendered to each one of them.”
Proudhon’s “position that property is theft locates a fundamental antagonism between producers and owners at the heart of modern society. If the direct producers are the sole source of social value which the owners of capital are expropriating, then exploitation must be the root cause of... inequality.” He “located the ‘power to produce without working’ at the heart of the system’s exploitation and difficulties very early, anticipating what Marx and Engels were later to call the appropriation of surplus value.”
So even a basic awareness of Proudhon’s ideas would be sufficient to recognise as nonsense Marxist claims that he thought exploitation “did not occur in the labour process” and so “must come from outside of the commercial or capitalist relations, through force and fraud” or that Marx “had a very different analysis which located exploitation at the very heart of the capitalist production process.” Proudhon thought exploitation was inherent in wage-labour and occurred at the point of production. Unsurprisingly, he sought a solution there.
Given an analysis of property that showed that it produced exploitation (“theft”) and oppression (“despotism”), the question of how to end it arises. There are two options: Either abolish collective labour and return to small-scale production or find a new form of economic organisation which ensures that collective labour is neither exploited nor oppressed.
The notion that Proudhon advocated the first solution, a return to pre-capitalist forms of economy, is sadly all too common. Beginning with Marx, this notion has been vigorously propagated by Marxists with Engels in 1891 proclaiming Proudhon “the socialist of the small peasant or master craftsman.” The reality is different:
“On this issue, it is necessary to emphasise that, contrary to the general image given in the secondary literature, Proudhon was not hostile to large industry. Clearly, he objected to many aspects of what these large enterprises had introduced into society... But he was not opposed in principle to large-scale production. What he desired was to humanise such production, to socialise it so that the worker would not be the mere appendage to a machine. Such a humanisation of large industries would result, according to Proudhon, from the introduction of strong workers’ associations. These associations would enable the workers to determine jointly by election how the enterprise was to be directed and operated on a day-to-day basis.”
To quote Proudhon: “Large industry and high culture come to us by big monopoly and big property: it is necessary in the future to make them rise from the association.” He did not ignore the economic conditions around him, including industrialisation, and noted in 1851, of a population of 36 million, 24 million were peasants and 6 million were artisans. The remaining 6 million included wage-workers for whom “workmen’s associations” would be essential as “a protest against the wage system,” the “denial of the rule of capitalists” and for “the management of large instruments of labour.” Rather than seeking to turn back the clock, Proudhon was simply reflecting and incorporating the aspirations of all workers in his society – an extremely sensible position to take.
This support for workers’ self-management of production was raised in 1840 at the same time Proudhon proclaimed himself an anarchist. As “every industry needs... leaders, instructors, superintendents” they “must be chosen from the labourers by the labourers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions of eligibility” for “all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.”
In subsequent works Proudhon expanded upon this core libertarian position of “the complete emancipation of the workers... the abolition of the wage worker” by self-management (“In democratising us,” he argued, “revolution has launched us on the path of industrial democracy”). Co-operatives ended the exploitation and oppression of wage-labour as “every individual employed in the association” has “an undivided share in the property of the company,” “all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members” and “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: It becomes the property of all the workers.”
“Mutuality, reciprocity exists,” Proudhon stressed, “when all the workers in an industry, instead of working for an entrepreneur who pays them and keeps their products, work for one another and thus collaborate in the making of a common product whose profits they share amongst themselves. Extend the principle of reciprocity as uniting the work of every group, to the Workers’ Societies as units, and you have created a form of civilisation which from all points of view – political, economic and aesthetic – is radically different from all earlier civilisations.” In short: “All associated and all free”
Thus “the means of production should be publicly owned, production itself should be organised by workers companies.” As Daniel Guérin summarised:
“Proudhon and Bakunin were ‘collectivists,’ which is to say they declared themselves without equivocation in favour of the common exploitation, not by the State but by associated workers of the large-scale means of production and of the public services. Proudhon has been quite wrongly presented as an exclusive enthusiast of private property.”
It is important to stress that Proudhon’s ideas on association as part of the solution of the social question were not invented by him. Rather, he generalised and developed what working class people were already doing. As Proudhon put it in 1848, “the proof” of his mutualist ideas lay in the “current practice, revolutionary practice” of “those labour associations... which have spontaneously... been formed in Paris and Lyon.” These hopes were well justified as the “evidence is strong that both worker participation in management and profit sharing tend to enhance productivity and that worker-run enterprises often are more productive than their capitalist counterparts.”
Finally, a few words on why this fundamental position of Proudhon is not better known, indeed (at best) ignored or (at worse) denied by some commentators on his ideas. This is because state socialists like Louis Blanc advocated forms of association which Proudhon rejected as just as oppressive and exploitative as capitalism: what Proudhon termed “the principle of Association.” Blanc came “under attack by Proudhon for eliminating all competition, and for fostering state centralisation of initiative and direction at the expense of local and corporative powers and intermediate associations. But the term association could also refer to the mutualist associations that Proudhon favoured, that is, those initiated and controlled from below.” If Blanc advocated Association, Proudhon supported associations. This is an important distinction lost on some.
While Proudhon’s views of workers associations are often overlooked, the same cannot be said of his views on credit. For some reform of credit was all he advocated! However, for Proudhon, the socialisation and democratisation of credit was seen as one of the key means of reforming capitalism out of existence and of producing a self-employed society of artisans, farmers and co-operatives.
The People’s Bank “embodies the financial and economic aspects of modern democracy, that is, the sovereignty of the People, and of the republican motto, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Like the desired workplace associations, it also had a democratic nature with a “committee of thirty representatives” seeing “to the management of the Bank” and “chosen by the General Meeting” made up of “nominees of the general body of associates” (“elected according to industrial categories and in proportion to the number... there are in each category.”)
Proudhon rightly mocked the notion that interest was a payment for abstinence noting, in his exchange with the laissez-faire economist Frédéric Bastiat, that the capitalist lends “because he has no use for it himself, being sufficiently provided with capital without it.” There is no sacrifice and so “it is society's duty to procure Gratuitous Credit for all; that, failing to do this, it will not be a society, but a conspiracy of Capitalists against Workers, a compact for purposes of robbery and murder.” The obvious correctness of this analysis is reflected in Keynes’ admission that interest “rewards no genuine sacrifice, any more than does the rent of land. The owner of capital can obtain interest because capital is scarce, just as the owner of land can obtain rent because land is scarce. But whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital.”
As is clear from his exchange with Bastiat, Proudhon took care to base his arguments not on abstract ideology but on the actual practices he saw around him. He was well aware that banks issued credit and so increased the money supply in response to market demand. As such, he was an early exponent of the endogenous theory of the money supply. His argument against metallic money was rooted in the fact that this legacy of the past ensured that interest remained as the supply of money, while dynamic due to credit creation, was ultimately limited by the available gold and silver deposits monopolised by capitalist banks.
In other words, Proudhon was pointing out that a money economy, one with an extensive banking and credit system, operates in a fundamentally different way than the barter economy assumed by most economics (then and now). He recognised that income from property violated the axiom that products exchanged for products. As interest rates within capitalism did not reflect any real cost and credit creation by banks violated any notion that they reflected savings, these facts suggested that interest could be eliminated as it was already an arbitrary value.
The availability of cheap credit would, Proudhon hoped, lead to the end of landlordism and capitalism. Artisans would not be crushed by interest payments and so be able to survive on the market, proletarians would be able to buy their own workplaces and peasants would be able buy their land. To aid this process he also recommended that the state decree that all rent should be turned into part-payment for the property used and workers’ associations run public works.
While these notions are generally dismissed as utopian, the reality is somewhat different. As Proudhon’s ideas were shaped by the society he lived in, one where the bulk of the working class were artisans and peasants, the notion of free credit provided by mutual banks as the means of securing working class people access to the means of production was perfectly feasible. Today, economies world-wide manage to work without having money tied to specie. Proudhon’s desire “to abolish the royalty of gold” was no mere utopian dream – capitalism itself has done so.
Perhaps this correspondence between Proudhon’s ideas on money and modern practice is not so surprising. Keynes’ desire for “the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital” has distinctly Proudhonian elements to it while he praised Proudhon’s follower Silvio Gesell. Sadly, only the economist Dudley Dillard’s essay “Keynes and Proudhon” addresses any overlap between the two thinkers and even this is incomplete (it fails to discuss Proudhon’s ideas on co-operatives and falsely suggests that his critique of capitalism was limited to finance capital). Another area of overlap was their shared concern over reducing uncertainty in the market and stabilising the economy (by the state, in the case of Keynes, by mutualist associations for Proudhon). Both, needless to say, under-estimated the power of rentier interests as well as their willingness to wither away…
This abolition of gold-backed money has not lead to the other reforms Proudhon had hoped for. This is unsurprising, as this policy has been implemented to keep capitalism going and not as a wider reform strategy as expounded by the Frenchman. So while the banks may issue credit and central banks accommodate it with non-specie money, they are still capitalist enterprises working within a capitalist environment – they have not been turned into a People’s Bank. Interest was not abolished nor was there a social movement, as in the 19th century, aiming to create workers’ associations. Nationalisation, not socialisation, was the preferred social reform of the post-World War II years.
The notion that a mutual bank should fund investment is also hardly utopian. The stock market is not the means by which capital is actually raised within capitalism and is largely of symbolic value (the overwhelming bulk of transactions are in shares of existing firms). Small and medium sized firms are hardly inefficient because they lack equity shares. Moreover, there is good reason to think that the stock market hinders economic efficiency by generating a perverse set of incentives and “the signals emitted by the stock market are either irrelevant or harmful to real economic activity.” As “the stock market itself counts little or nothing as a source of finance,” shareholders “have no useful role.” Moreover, if the experience of capitalism is anything to go by, mutual banks will also reduce the business cycle for those countries in which banks provide more outside finance than markets have “greater growth in and stability of investment over time than the market-centred ones.”
All of which confirms Proudhon’s arguments for mutual credit and attacks on rentiers. There is no need for capital markets in a system based on mutual banks and networks of co-operatives. New investments would be financed partly from internal funds (i.e., retained income) and partly from external loans from mutual banks.
The standard argument against mutual credit is that it would simply generate inflation. This misunderstands the nature of money and inflation in a capitalist economy. The notion that inflation is caused simply by there being too much money chasing too few goods and that the state simply needs to stop printing money to control it was proven completely false by the Monetarist experiments of Thatcher and Reagan. Not only could the state not control the money supply, changes in it were not reflected in subsequent changes in inflation.
In a real capitalist economy credit is offered based on an analysis of whether the bank thinks it will get it back. In a mutualist economy, credit will likewise be extended to those whom the bank thinks will increase the amount of goods and services available. The People’s Bank would not just print money and hand it out in the streets, it would ration credit and aim to fund investment in the real economy. This would create money and lead to debt but it adds to the goods and services in the economy as well as the capacity to service that debt. Moreover, the reduction of interest to zero would ensure more people repaid their loans as servicing debt would be easier.
Finally, John Ehrenberg’s assertion that 1848 saw a “subtle and important shift” in Proudhon’s ideas is simply untenable. He asserts that whereas Proudhon “formerly placed primary importance on the organisation of work, he was now thinking of the organisation of credit and exchange; where he had previously made an attempt to articulate the needs of the proletariat, he was now demanding help for the petty bourgeois.” Yet “the organisation of credit” in Proudhon’s eyes did not exclude “the organisation of labour.” If anything, Proudhon’s arguments for workers associations and against wage-labour became more, not less, pronounced! Proudhon started to discuss “the organisation of credit” more because it reflected a shift from goals to means, from critique to practical attempts to solve the social question in the revolution of 1848.
Proudhon’s letter to Louis Blanc in April 1848 suggested that “the Exchange Bank is the organisation of labour’s greatest asset” and allowed “the new form of society to be defined and created among the workers.” Another, written two days later, reiterated this point: “To organise credit and circulation is to increase production, to determine the new shapes of industrial society.” His second election manifesto of 1848 argued that workers “have organised credit among themselves” and “labour associations” have grasped “spontaneously” that the “organisation of credit and organisation of labour amount to one and the same.” By organising both, the workers “would soon have wrested alienated capital back again, through their organisation and competition.” This was reiterated in a letter to socialist Pierre Leroux in December 1849, with credit being seen as the means to form workers’ associations.
Moreover, the necessity to differentiate his ideas from other socialists who advocated “the organisation of labour” (such as Louis Blanc) must also have played its part in Proudhon’s use of “the organisation of credit.” Given his opposition to centralised state-based systems of labour organisation it made little sense to use the same expression to describe his vision of a self-managed and decentralised socialism.
Proudhon subjected the state to withering criticism. For some, this has become the defining aspect of his theories (not to mention anarchism in general). This false. This opposition to the state flowed naturally from the critique of property and so anarchist anti-statism cannot be abstracted from its anti-capitalism. While recognising that the state and its bureaucracy had exploitative and oppressive interests of its own, he analysed its role as an instrument of class rule:
“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.”
He repeatedly pointed to its function of “protecting the nobility and upper class against the lower classes.” This analysis was consistent throughout his political career. In 1846 he had argued that the state “finds itself inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat.”
So what was the state? For Proudhon, the state was a body above society, it was “the EXTERNAL constitution of the social power” by which the people delegate “its power and sovereignty” and so “does not govern itself; now one individual, now several, by a title either elective or hereditary, are charged with governing it, with managing its affairs, with negotiating and compromising in its name.” Anarchists “deny government and the State, because we affirm that which the founders of States have never believed in, the personality and autonomy of the masses.” Ultimately, “the only way to organise democratic government is to abolish government.”
His attacks on “Direct Legislation” and “Direct Government” in General Idea of the Revolution refer to using elections and referenda in a centralised state on a national scale rather than decentralised communal self-government. For Proudhon democracy could not be limited to a nation as one unit periodically picking its rulers (“nothing resembles a monarchy more than a république unitaire”). Its real meaning was much deeper: “politicians, whatever their colours, are insurmountably repelled by anarchy which they construe as disorder: as if democracy could be achieved other than by distribution of authority and as if the true meaning of the word ‘democracy’ was not dismissal of government.”
Given this analysis, it becomes unsurprising that Proudhon did not seek political power to reform society. This was confirmed when, for a period, he was elected to the National Assembly in 1848: “As soon as I set foot in the parliamentary Sinai, I ceased to be in touch with the masses; because I was absorbed by my legislative work, I entirely lost sight of the current events... One must have lived in that isolator which is called a National Assembly to realise how the men who are most completely ignorant of the state of the country are almost always those who represent it.” There was “ignorance of daily facts” and “fear of the people” (“the sickness of all those who belong to authority”) for “the people, for those in power, are the enemy.”
Real change must come from “outside the sphere of parliamentarism, as sterile as it is absorbing.” Unsurprisingly, then, the “social revolution is seriously compromised if it comes through a political revolution” and “to be in politics was to wash one’s hands in shit.”
Thus, rather than having some idealistic opposition to the state, Proudhon viewed it as an instrument of class rule which could not be captured for social reform. As David Berry suggests, “repeated evidence of the willingness of supposedly progressive republican bourgeoisie to resort to violent repression of the working classes had led Proudhon, like many of his class and generation, to lose faith in politics and the state and to put the emphasis on working-class autonomy and on the question of socio-economic organisation. For Proudhon and the mutualists, the lessons of the workers’ uprising of 1830 and 1848 were that the powers of the state were merely another aspect of the powers of capital, and both were to be resisted equally strongly.”
Like other libertarians, Proudhon was extremely critical of state socialist schemes which he opposed just as much as he did capitalism: “The entire animus of his opposition to what he termed ‘community’ was to avoid the central ownership of property and the central control of economic and social decision-making.”
He particularly attacked the ideas of Jacobin socialist Louis Blanc whose Organisation of Work argued that social ills resulted from competition and they could be solved by eliminating it. “The Government”, argued Blanc, “should be regarded as the supreme director of production, and invested with great strength to accomplish its task.” The government would “raise a loan” to create social workplaces, “provide” them “with Statues” which “would have the force and form of laws” and “regulate the hierarchy of workers” (after the first year “the hierarchy would be appointed on the elective principle” by the workers in the associations). Capitalists would “receive interest for their capital” while workers would keep the remaining income. They would “destroy competition” by “availing itself of competition” as their higher efficiency would force capitalist firms to become social workplaces.
Proudhon objected to this scheme on many levels. Blanc appealed “to the state for its silent partnership; that is, he gets down on his knees before the capitalists and recognises the sovereignty of monopoly.” As it was run by the state, the system of workshops would hardly be libertarian as “hierarchy would result from the elective principle... as in constitutional politics... Who will make the law? The government.” This was because of the perspective of state socialists:
“As you cannot conceive of society without hierarchy, you have made yourselves the apostles of authority; worshippers of power, you think only of strengthening it and muzzling liberty; your favourite maxim is that the welfare of the people must be achieved in spite of the people; instead of proceeding to social reform by the extermination of power and politics, you insist on a reconstruction of power and politics.”
Proudhon questioned whether any regime based on “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” could avoid conflict due to individuals and society disagreeing over what these were. This would result in either oppression (“What difference is there then between fraternity and the wage system?”) or the society’s “end from lack of associates.” He was also doubtful that state monopolies could efficiently allocate resources. Ultimately, the problem was that reform by means of the state violated basic socialist principles:
“M. Blanc is never tired of appealing to authority, and socialism loudly declares itself anarchistic; M. Blanc places power above society, and socialism tends to subordinate it to society; M. Blanc makes social life descend from above, and socialism maintains that it springs up and grows from below; M. Blanc runs after politics, and socialism is in quest of science. No more hypocrisy, let me say to M. Blanc: you desire neither Catholicism nor monarchy nor nobility, but you must have a God, a religion, a dictatorship, a censorship, a hierarchy, distinctions, and ranks. For my part, I deny your God, your authority, your sovereignty, your judicial State, and all your representative mystifications.”
Proudhon continually stressed that state control of the means of production was a danger to the liberty of the worker and simply the continuation of capitalism with the state as the new boss. He rejected the call of “certain utopians” that “the Government seize trade, industry and agriculture, to add them to its attributes and to make the French nation a nation of wage-workers.” Nationalisation would simply be “more wage slavery.”
The net result of state socialism would be “a compact democracy, seemingly rooted in dictatorship of the masses, but wherein the masses merely have the opportunity to consolidate universal slavery in accordance with formulas and guide-lines borrowed from the former absolutism”: “Indivisibility of power”; “Voracious centralisation”; “Systematic demolition of all individual, corporative and local thought, these being deemed sources of discord”; and “Inquisitorial policing.”
Proudhon’s fears on the inefficiency of state socialism and that it would be little more than state capitalist tyranny became all too real under Leninism. His prediction that reformist socialism would simply postpone the abolition of exploitation indefinitely while paying capitalists interest and dividends was also proven all too correct (as can be seen with the British Labour Party’s post-war nationalisations).
Proudhon’s polemics against state socialists have often been taken to suggest that he considered his mutualism as non-socialist (this is often generalised into anarchism as well, with a contrast often being made between it and the wider socialist movement). Occasionally (most notably in System of Economic Contradictions) Proudhon used the term “socialism” to solely describe the state socialist schemes he opposed. Usually, however, he described himself as a socialist and publicly embraced the Red Flag at the start of the 1848 revolution, considering it “the federal standard of humanity, the symbol of universal fraternity” signifying the “Abolition of the proletariat and of servitude” and “Equality of political rights: universal suffrage.”
Socialism, for Proudhon, was “the final term, the complete expression of the Republic.” So although he criticised both centralised democracy and state socialism, he still considered himself a democrat and socialist: “We are also democracy and socialism; we may at times laugh at both the names and the personnel, but what those words cover and what those people stand for belong to us also; we must be careful of them!” Proudhon stated the obvious: “Modern Socialism was not founded as a sect or church; it has seen a number of different schools.” Like Bakunin and Kropotkin, he argued against state socialism and called for a decentralised, self-managed, federal, bottom-up socialism: anarchism.
While Proudhon repeatedly called himself a revolutionary and urged a “revolution from below”, he also rejected violence and insurrection. While later anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin embraced the class struggle, including strikes, unions and revolts, Proudhon opposed such means and preferred peaceful reform: “through Political Economy we must turn the theory of Property against Property in such a way as to create... liberty.”
Unsurprisingly, as he considered the state as being dominated by capital, the “problem before the labouring classes... 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.” For, “to combat and reduce power, to put it in its proper place in society, it is of no use to change the holders of power or introduce some variation into its workings: an agricultural and industrial combination must be found by means of which power, today the ruler of society, shall become its slave.”
The 1848 revolution gave Proudhon the chance to implement this strategy. On May 4th he “propose[d] that a provisional committee be set up to orchestrate exchange, credit and commerce amongst the workers” and this would “liaise with similar committees” elsewhere in France. This would be “a body representative of the proletariat..., a state within the state, in opposition to the bourgeois representatives.” He urged that “a new society be founded in the centre of the old society” by the working class for “the government can do nothing for you. But you can do everything for yourselves”
Proudhon also pointed to the clubs, directly democratic neighbourhood associations grouped around political tendencies, seeing them “as the beginning for a true popular democracy, sensitive to the needs of the people.” As Peter Henry Aman describes it, a “newspaper close to the club movement, Proudhon’s Le Représentant du Peuple, suggested a division of labour between clubs and National Assembly... By shedding light on social questions, the daily club discussions would prepare the National Assembly’s legislative debates as ‘the indispensable corollary.’ This flattering vision of a dual power, with clubs representing ‘the poorest and most numerous parts of the population,’ apparently proved seductive.” In 1849 Proudhon argued that clubs “had to be organised. The organisation of popular societies was the fulcrum of democracy, the corner-stone of the republican order.” These were “the one institution that democratic authorities should have respected, and not just respected but also fostered and organised.” As Daniel Guérin summarised, “in the midst of the 1848 Revolution”, Proudhon “sketched out a minimum libertarian program: progressive reduction in the power of the State, parallel development of the power of the people from below, through what he called clubs” which today we “would call councils.”
These organisations would be the means of exercising popular pressure and influence onto the state to force it into implementing appropriate reforms for government “can only turn into something and do the work of the revolution insofar as it will be so invited, provoked or compelled by some power outside of itself that seizes the initiative and sets things rolling.” This would be combined with the creation of organisations for mutual credit and production in order to create the framework by which capitalism and the state would disappear. Proudhon “believed fervently... in the salvation of working men, by their own efforts, through economic and social action alone” and “advocated, and to a considerable extent inspired, the undercutting of this terrain [of the state] from without by means of autonomous working-class associations.” He hoped that the “proletariat, gradually dejacobinised” would seek “its share not only of direct suffrage in the affairs of society but of direct action.”
Over a decade later Proudhon noted that in 1848 he had “called upon the state to intervene in establishing” various “major public utilities” but “once the state had completed its task of creation” then these should not be left in its hands. Rather than “fatten certain contractors,” the state should create “a new kind of property” by “granting the privilege of running” public utilities “to responsible companies, not of capitalists, but of workmen.” Municipalities and their federations would take the initiative in setting up public works but actual control would rest with workers’ co-operatives for “it becomes necessary for the workers to form themselves into democratic societies, with equal conditions for all members, on pain of a relapse into feudalism.” As he summarised in his notebooks:
“the abolition of the State is the last term of a series, which consists of an incessant diminution, by political and administrative simplification the number of public functionaries and to put into the care of responsible workers societies the works and services confided to the state.”
Thus “the most decisive result of the Revolution is, after having organised labour and property, to do away with political centralisation, in a word, with the State.”
This may, for some, appear as a contradiction in Proudhon’s ideas for, as an anarchist, he was against the state. This would be a superficial analysis as it confuses short-term reforms and long-term social transformation. Moreover, anarchism is not purely anti-state. It is also anti-capitalist and so advocating capitalist banking or the privatisation of utilities and industries would be anti-anarchist. Proudhon was not advocating nationalisation (or state socialism). He simply considered limited state action to create the correct environment to allow co-operatives to flourish and to run public services and utilities as being more consistent with libertarian goals than supporting wage-labour by turning more parts of the economy over to the capitalist class.
In the grim days of the Second Empire, when the hopes and self-activity of 1848 appeared to be crushed, Proudhon suggested encouraging investors to fund co-operatives rather than capitalist companies, seeking to encourage the industrial democracy he wished to replace the industrial feudalism of capitalism by means of the institutions of capitalism itself. In return for funds, the capitalists would receive dividends until such time as the initial loan was repaid and then the company would revert into a proper co-operative (i.e., one owned as well as operated by its workers). So the optimism produced by February revolution that drove his more obviously anarchist works that climaxed in 1851’s General Idea of the Revolution gave way more cautious reforms. Significantly, in the 1860s, “Proudhon’s renewed interest in socialism was precipitated... by the renewed activity of workers themselves.”
So, in general, Proudhon placed his hopes for introducing socialism in alternative institutions created by working class people themselves and “insisted that the revolution could only come from below, through the action of the workers themselves.” Joining the government to achieve that goal was, for Proudhon, contradictory and unlikely to work. The state was a centralised, top-down structure and so unable to take into account the real needs of society:
“experience testifies and philosophy demonstrates... that any revolution, to be effective, must be spontaneous and emanate, not from the heads of the authorities but from the bowels of the people: that government is reactionary rather than revolutionary: that it could not have any expertise in revolutions, given that society, to which that secret is alone revealed, does not show itself through legislative decree but rather through the spontaneity of its manifestations: that, ultimately, the only connection between government and labour is that labour, in organising itself, has the abrogation of government as its mission.”
This suggested a bottom-up approach, socialism from below rather than a socialism imposed by the state:
“The Revolution from above is the intervention of power in everything; it is the absolutist initiative of the State, the pure governmentalism of... Louis Blanc. The Revolution from above is the negation of collective activity, of popular spontaneity... What serious and lasting Revolution was not made from below, by the people? How did the Revolution of 1789 come about? How was that of February made? The Revolution from above has never been other than the oppression of the wills of those below.”
Ultimately: “No authority is compatible with the principle of mutuality, but no authority can help bring about reform. For all authority is antithetical to equality and justice.”
Proudhon’s overarching perspective was to avoid violence and so as well as encouraging working class self-activity he also sought to persuade the capitalist class that social reform, as well as benefiting the working class, would also benefit them in terms of a general improved standard of living and freedom and so they had no reason to oppose it. The bourgeoisie were not convinced and after the experience of the Second Republic his calls upon them ceased. Instead, he completely directed his hopes for reform towards the activities of working class people themselves, in their ability to act for themselves and build just and free associations and federations. This perspective was hardly new, though. As he put it in 1842’s Warning to Proprietors:
“Workers, labourers, men of the people, whoever you may be, the initiative of reform is yours. It is you who will accomplish that synthesis of social composition which will be the masterpiece of creation, and you alone can accomplish it.”
For “revolutionary power... is no longer in the government or the National Assembly, it is in you. Only the people, acting directly, without intermediaries, can bring about the economic revolution.” It was Proudhon “who first drew to the attention of the wider public of Europe the fact that socialism would henceforward become identified, not with the plans of utopian dreamers, but with the concrete and daily struggles of the working class.” It is this vision which was taken up and expanded upon by subsequent generations of libertarians.
As he refused to suggest that socialists should take state power themselves but, instead, organise outside political structures to create a socialist society Proudhon’s various schemes of social change, while reformist, were ultimately anarchistic in nature. This became clear in his final work, The Political Capacity of the Working Classes, where he advocated a radical separation of the working class from bourgeois institutions, urging that they should organise themselves autonomously and reject all participation in bourgeois politics. Such an alliance between the proletariat, artisans and peasantry (the plural working classes of the title) would replace the bourgeois regime with a mutualist one as the workers became increasingly conscious of themselves as a class and of their growing political capacity. This perspective “is nothing less than the dispute which would later split Marxists from anarchists, and... socialists from syndicalists.”
In place of capitalism and the state, Proudhon suggested a socio-economic federal system, a decentralised federation of self-managed associations.
This federation’s delegates would be mandated and subject to recall by their electors: “we can follow [our deputies] step by step in their legislative acts and their votes; we shall make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we shall indicate our will to them, and when we are discontented, we will revoke them... the mandatory instruction [mandat imperatif], permanent revocability, are the most immediate, undeniable, consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.” Moreover, the “legislative power is not distinguished from the executive power.”
This system would be based on free association and would reject the “unity that tends to absorb the sovereignty of the villages, cantons, and provinces, into a central authority. Leave to each its sentiments, its affections, its beliefs, its languages and its customs” “The first effect of centralisation,” Proudhon stressed, “is to bring about the disappearance, in the diverse localities of the country, of all types of indigenous character; while one imagines that by this means to exalt the political life among the masses, one in fact destroys it... The fusion that is to say the annihilation, of particular nationalities where citizens live and distinguish themselves, into an abstract nationality where one can neither breathe nor recognise oneself: there is unity.”
He based his federalism on functional groups, in both society and economy. As his discussion of “collective force” in “Petit Catéchisme Politique” shows, Proudhon was no individualist. He was well aware that groups were greater than the sum of their parts and viewed federalism as the best means of allowing this potential to be generated and expressed. Only that could ensure a meaningful democracy (what anarchists call self-management) rather than the current system of centralised, statist, democracy in which people elect their rulers every 4 years. Thus “universal suffrage provides us,… in an embryonic state, with the complete system of future society. If it is reduced to the people nominating a few hundred deputies who have no initiative... social sovereignty becomes a mere fiction and the Revolution is strangled at birth.” By contrast, his mutualist society was fundamentally democratic:
“We have, then, not an abstract sovereignty of the people, as in the Constitution of 1793 and subsequent constitutions, or as in Rousseau’s Social Contract, but an effective sovereignty of the working, reigning, governing masses... how could it be otherwise if they are in charge of the whole economic system including labour, capital, credit, property and wealth?”
Initially, Proudhon focused on economic federalism. In his Programme révolutionnaire of early 1848 he “had spoken of organising society into democratically controlled groups of workers and professionals. These would form a congress which would determine how to deal with those issues of a national scope beyond the competency of any one category.” However, three years later, in General Idea of the Revolution, he placed communes at the heart of his agricultural reforms as well as for public works. After 1852 he became more explicit, adding a geographical federalism to economic federalism. The two cannot be considered in isolation:
“Proudhon placed socioeconomic relations on as high a level (or higher) than political ones. Proudhon’s... federalism... was to apply to all public dimensions of society. A just society required the autonomy of workshops and of communes: advancement on one level alone had little chance of success. Without political federalism, he warned, economic federalism would be politically impotent... Workers’ associations would be ineffective in a political environment which encouraged meddling by the central administration. Conversely, without economic mutualism, political federalism would remain impotent and precarious... and would degenerate back into centralism. In short, it was necessary that federalism be both professional and regional, both social and political.”
There were three alternatives: capitalism (“monopoly and what follows”), state socialism (“exploitation by the State”) or “a solution based on equality, – in other words, the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.” Rejecting the first two, Proudhon favoured socialisation, genuine common-ownership and free access of the means of production and land. The “land is indispensable to our existence, consequently a common thing, consequently insusceptible of appropriation” and “all capital, whether material or mental, being the result of collective labour, is, in consequence, collective property” Self-managed workers’ associations would run industry. In short:
“Under the law of association, transmission of wealth does not apply to the instruments of labour, so cannot become a cause of inequality... We are socialists... 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, joined together in the common bond of the democratic and social Republic.”
Against property, Proudhon argued for possession. This meant free access to the resources required to live and the inability to bar access to resources you claimed to own but did not use. Those who used a resource (land, tools, dwelling, workplace) should control both it and the product of their labour. Such possession allowed people to live and prosper and was the cornerstone of liberty. Whether on the land or in industry, Proudhon’s aim was to create a society of “possessors without masters.”
Only self-governing producers associations could be the basis for a society in which concentration of political, economic and social power can be avoided and individual freedom protected: “Because the right to live and to develop oneself fully is equal for all, inequality of conditions is an obstacle to the exercise of this right.”
So “political right had to be buttressed by economic right” for if society became “divided into two classes, one of landlords, capitalists, and entrepreneurs, the other of wage-earning proletarians” then “the political order will still be unstable.” To avoid this outcome an “agro-industrial federation” was required which would “provide reciprocal security in commerce and industry” and “protect the citizens... from capitalist and financial exploitation.” In this way, the agro-industrial federation “will tend to foster increasing equality... through mutualism in credit and insurance... guaranteeing the right to work and to education, and an organisation of work which allows each labourer to become a skilled worker and an artist, each wage-earner to become his own master.” Mutualism recognises that “industries are sisters” and so “should therefore federate, not in order to be absorbed and confused together, but in order to guarantee mutually the conditions of common prosperity, upon which no one has exclusive claim.”
The empirical evidence for economic federalism is supportive of it. In negative terms, it is clear that isolated co-operatives dependent on funding from capitalist banks find it hard to survive and grow. In positive terms, it is no co-incidence that the Mondragon co-operative complex in the Basque region of Spain has a credit union and mutual support networks between its co-operatives and is by far the most successful co-operative system in the world. Other successful clusters of co-operation within capitalism also have support networks. Clear evidence for Proudhon’s argument that all industries are related and need to support each other.
Proudhon was an early advocate of what is now termed market socialism – an economy of competing co-operatives and self-employed workers. Some incorrectly argue that market socialism is not socialist. Donny Gluckstein, for instance, suggests with casual abandon that Proudhon’s ideas are “easily recognisable as the precursor of neo-liberal economics today” but “were located in a different context and so took a far more radical form when adopted by the male artisan class.”
Such claims are premised on a basic misunderstanding, namely that markets equate to capitalism. Yet this hides the key defining feature of capitalism: wage-labour. Thus capitalism is uniquely marked by wage-labour, not markets (which pre-date it by centuries) and so it is possible to support markets while being a socialist. In a mutualist society, based on workers’ self-management and socialisation, wage-labour would not exist. Rather workers would be seeking out democratic associations to join and, once a member, have the same rights and duties as others within it. In short, as K. Steven Vincent argues, “Proudhon consistently advanced a program of industrial democracy which would return control and direction of the economy to the workers. And he envisaged such a socialist program to be possible only within the framework of a society which encouraged just social relationships and which structured itself on federal lines.”
It is also fair to ponder when has an advocate of neo-liberal economics ever argued that the idol of laissez-faire capitalism, the law of supply and demand, was a “deceitful law... suitable only for assuring the victory of the strong over the weak, of those who own property over those who own nothing”? Or denounced capitalist firms because they result in the worker being “subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience” and so people are related as “subordinates and superiors” with “two... castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society” and urged co-operatives to replace them? Or suggested that we “shall never have real workingmen’s associations until the government learns that public services should neither be operated by itself or handed over to private stock companies; but should be leased on contract to organised and responsible companies of workers”? Nor would an ideologue of laissez-faire capitalism be happy with an agro-industrial federation nor would they advocate regulation of markets:
“The advocates of mutualism are as familiar as anyone with the laws of supply and demand and they will be careful not to infringe them. Detailed and frequently reviewed statistics, precise information about needs and living standards, an honest breakdown of cost prices... the fixing after amicable discussion of a maximum and minimum profit margin, taking into account the risks involved, the organising of regulating societies; these things, roughly speaking, constitute all the measures by which they hope to regulate the market.”
Finally, what neo-liberal would proclaim: “What is the capitalist? Everything! What should he be? Nothing!”? Or that “I belong to the Party of Work against the party of Capital”?
In fact, Proudhon had nothing but contempt for the neo-liberals of his time and they for him. He recognised the class basis of mainstream economic ideology: “Political economy, as taught by MM. Say, Rossi, Blanqui, Wolovski, Chevalier, etc., is only the economy of the property-owners, and its application to society inevitably and organically gives birth to misery.” In short: “The enemies of society are Economists.” Claims that Proudhon was a propertarian or a supporter of neo-liberalism simply misunderstand both capitalism and Proudhon’s ideas.
Unsurprisingly, then, Bakunin wrote of Proudhon’s “socialism, based on individual and collective liberty and upon the spontaneous action of free associations.” Proudhon is placed firmly into the socialist tradition due to his support for workers associations and his belief that “socialism is... the elimination of misery, the abolition of capitalism and of wage-labour, the transformation of property, the decentralisation of government, the organisation of universal suffrage, the effective and direct sovereignty of the workers, the equilibrium of economic forces, the substitution of the contractual regime for the legal regime, etc.” In opposition to various schemes of state socialism and communism, Proudhon argued for a decentralised and federal market socialism based on workers’ self-management of production and community self-government.
As would be expected of the leading French socialist of his time, Proudhon’s impact continued long after his death in 1865. Most immediately was the growth of the International Working Men’s Association founded by his followers and the application of many of his ideas by the Paris Commune. His most important contribution to politics was laying the foundations for all the subsequent schools of anarchism.
Another key legacy is his consistent vision of socialism as being rooted in workers’ self-management. Dorothy W. Douglas correctly notes that “the co-operative movement... syndicalism... guild socialism... all bear traces of the kind of self-governing industrial life to which Proudhon looked forward.” This vision was expressed within the First International by both the mutualists and the collectivists around Bakunin. While later eclipsed by schemes of nationalisation, the bankruptcy of such “state capitalism” (to use Kropotkin’s term) has re-enforced the validity of Proudhon’s arguments. Indeed, as Daniel Guérin suggested, when Marxists advocate self-management they “have been reverting... unwittingly and in an unspoken way to the Proudhon school” for “anarchism, ever since Proudhon, has acted as the advocate of... self-management.” No other socialist thinker of his time so consistently advocated workers’ self-management of production or placed it at the core of his socialism.
This is not to say that Proudhon was without flaws, for he had many. He was not consistently libertarian in his ideas, tactics and language. His personal bigotries are disgusting and few modern anarchists would tolerate them. He made some bad decisions and occasionally ranted in his private notebooks (where the worst of his anti-Semitism was expressed). We could go on but to concentrate on these aspects of Proudhon’s thought would be to paint a selective, and so false, picture of his ideas and influence. Anarchists seek Proudhon’s legacy in those aspects of his ideas that are consistent with the goal of human liberation, not those when he did not rise to the ideals he so eloquently advocated. This is what we discuss here, the positive impact of a lifetime fighting for justice, equality and liberty.
The International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA) is usually associated with Marx. In fact, it was created by British trade unionists and “French mutualist workingmen, who in turn were direct followers of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon” (“Contrary to stubborn legend, Karl Marx was not one of its actual founders”). The negotiations that lead to its founding began in 1862 when the mutualists (including Henri-Louis Tolain and Eugene Varlin) visited the London International Exhibition.
Like Proudhon, his followers in the IWMA thought workers “should be striving for the abolition of salaried labour and capitalist enterprise” by means of co-operatives for the “manager/employer (patron) was a superfluous element in the production process who was able to deny the worker just compensation for his labour merely by possessing the capital that paid for the workshop, tools, and materials.” The French Internationalists were “strongly hostile to centralisation. They were federalists, intent on building up working-class organisations on a local basis and then federating the local federations. The free France they looked forward to was to be a country made up of locally autonomous communes, freely federated for common purposes which required action over larger areas... In this sense they were Anarchists.” Thus in 1866 the International officially adopted the Red Flag as its symbol, confirming Proudhon’s declaration that “the red flag represents the final revolution... The red flag is the federal standard of humanity!”
Given their role in setting up the International, the mutualists dominated the agenda in its first years. According to the standard, usually Marxist or Marxist-influenced, accounts of the International this initial domination by the mutualists was eclipsed by the rise of a collectivist current (usually identified with Marxism). This is not entirely true. Yes, the Basel Congress of 1869 saw the success of a collectivist motion which was opposed by Tolain and some of his fellow French Internationalists, but this was a debate on the specific issue of agricultural collectivisation rather than a rejection of mutualism as such:
“The endorsement of collectivism by the International at the Basel Congress might appear to be a rejection of the French position on co-operatives. Actually, it was not, for collectivism as it was defined by its proponents meant simply the end of private ownership of agricultural land. Lumped together with this was usually the demand for common ownership of mines and railways.”
Thus it was “not a debate over co-operative production in favour of some other model” but rather concerned its extension to agriculture. At the Geneva Congress of 1866 the French mutualists “persuaded the Congress to agree by unanimous vote that there was a higher goal – the suppression of ‘salaried status’ – which... could be done only through co-operatives.” At the Lausanne Congress of 1867, the mutualists around Tolain “acknowledged the necessity of public ownership of canals, roads, and mines” and there was “unanimous accord” on public ownership of “the means of transportation and exchange of goods.” This was Proudhon’s position as well. The proponents of collectivisation at the Lausanne Congress wanted to “extend Tolain’s ideas to all property.”
While the resolution on collectivisation “represents the final decisive defeat of the strict Proudhonist element which, centred in Paris, had dominated in France and had drawn the parameters of the debates at the International’s congresses in the beginning,” this did not automatically mean the end of Proudhonian influences in the International. After all, the main leader of the “collectivist” position was César De Paepe, a self-proclaimed Mutualist and follower of Proudhon. As such, the debate was fundamentally one between followers of Proudhon, not between mutualists and Marxists, and the 1869 resolution was consistent with Proudhon’s ideas. This can be seen from the fact that resolution itself was remarkably Proudhonian in nature, with it urging the collectivisation of roads, canals, railways, mines, quarries, collieries and forests, and these to be “ceded to ‘workers’ companies’ which would guarantee the ‘mutual rights’ of workers and would sell their goods or services at cost.” The land would “be turned over to ‘agricultural companies’ (i.e., agricultural workers) with the same guarantees as those required of the ‘workers’ companies’” De Paepe himself clarified the issue: “Collective property would belong to society as a whole, but would be conceded to associations of workers. The State would be no more than a federation of various groups of workers.”
Given that Proudhon had advocated workers’ companies to run publically owned industries as well as arguing the land was common property and be transferred to communes, the resolution was not the rejection of Proudhon’s ideas that many assume. In fact, it can be considered a logical fusion of his arguments on land ownership and workers’ associations. As Daniel Guérin notes, “in the congresses of the First International the libertarian idea of self-management prevailed over the statist concept.” Moreover, at Basel Congress of 1869 “Bakunin emerged as the main champion of collectivism.” As Kropotkin suggested:
“As to his economical conceptions, Bakunin described himself, in common with his Federalist comrades of the International (César De Paepe, James Guillaume, Schwitzguébel), a ‘collectivist anarchist’... a state of things in which all necessaries for production are owned in common by the labour groups and the free communes, while the ways of retribution of labour, communist or otherwise, would be settled by each group for itself.”
So the rise of the collectivists in the IWMA does not represent a defeat for Proudhon’s ideas. Rather, it reflected their development by debates between socialists heavily influenced by the anarchist. This is obscured by the fact that Proudhon’s ideas on workers’ associations are not well known today. Once this is understood, it is easy to see that it was in the IWMA that Proudhon’s mutualist ideas evolved into collectivist and then communist anarchism.
The main areas of change centred on means (reform versus revolution) and the need for strikes, unions and other forms of collective working class direct action and organisation rather than the goal of a federated, associated, self-managed socialist society. As G.D.H. Cole perceptively writes, Varlin “had at bottom a great deal more in common with Proudhon than with Marx” and had a “Syndicalist outlook.” Like Bakunin, Varlin argued that unions have “the enormous advantage of making people accustomed to group life and thus preparing them for a more extended social organisation. They accustom people not only to get along with one another and to understand one another, but also to organise themselves, to discuss, and to reason from a collective perspective.” Again, like Bakunin, Varlin argued that unions also “form the natural elements of the social edifice of the future; it is they who can be easily transformed into producers associations; it is they who can make the social ingredients and the organisation of production work.”
Thus, by 1868 “a transition from mutualism to ‘antistatist’ or ‘antiauthoritarian collectivism’ had began.” This is to be expected. Just as Proudhon developed his ideas in the face of changing circumstances and working class self-activity, so working class people influenced by his ideas developed and changed what they took from Proudhon in light of their own circumstances. However, the core ideas of anti-statism and anti-capitalism remained and so these changes must be viewed as a development of Proudhon’s ideas rather than something completely new or alien to them. Thus the revolutionary anarchism which grew within the IWMA had distinct similarities to that of Proudhon’s reformist kind, even if it diverges on some issues.
By 1871, the transition from reformist mutualism to revolutionary collectivism as the predominant tendency within anarchism was near complete. Then came the Paris Commune. With its ideas on decentralised federations of communes and workers’ associations, the Commune applied Proudhon’s ideas on a grand scale and, in the process, inspired generations of socialists. Sadly, this revolt, Proudhon’s greatest legacy, has been appropriated by Marxism thanks to Marx’s passionate defence of the revolt and his and Engels systematic downplaying of its obvious Proudhonian themes.
In reality, while many perspectives were raised in the revolt, what positive themes it expressed were taken from Proudhon as many Communards “were influenced by Proudhon’s advocacy of autonomous economic organisation and decentralised self-government.” Thus the Commune reflected “a distinctly French variant of socialism, strongly influenced by Proudhon and to a lesser extent by the Russian anarchist Bakunin, which advocated destroying oppressive state structures by devolving power to local democratic communities (federalism) and abolishing exploitation by decentralising economic control to workers’ co-operative associations – ‘Its apostles are workers, its Christ was Proudhon,’ proclaimed Courbet.”
So it is that we find the Paris section of the IWMA in 1870 arguing along very Proudhonian lines that “we must accomplish the Democratic and Social Revolution.” The aim was “the establishment of a new social order; the elimination of classes, the abolition of employers and of the proletariat, the establishment of universal co-operation based upon equality and justice.” Thus “it is necessary, citizens, to eliminate wage labour, the last form of servitude,” “implement the principles of justice in social relationships” and ensure the “distribution of what is produced by labour, based upon the principles of the value of the work and a mutualist organisation of services.” “Has it not always been evident”, they asked, “that the art of governing peoples has been the art of exploiting them?”
As Paul Avrich suggested, the “influence of Proudhon – unquestionably greater than that of Marx – was reflected in the title of ‘Federals’ by which the Communards were known.” The Commune’s “social composition... was a mixture of workers and professionals, of tradesmen and artisans... its thrust was overwhelmingly decentralist and libertarian,” its ideal society was “a direct democracy of councils, clubs, and communes, an anti-authoritarian commonwealth in which workers, artisans, and peasants might live in peace and contentment, with full economic and political liberty organised from below.” “[I]n reality,” Thomas concedes, “the Commune owed precious little to Marxism and a great deal more, ironically enough, to the Proudhonists, who had proved themselves thorns in Marx’s side during the first four years of the International’s existence.”
This Proudhonian influence on the Paris Commune was expressed in two main ways: politically in the vision of a France of federated communes; economically in the vision of a socialist society based on workers’ associations.
Politically, Proudhon “had stressed the commune as the fundamental unit of democratic sovereignty” as well as their federation. All this was reflected in the Commune. Indeed, the “rough sketch of national organisation which the Commune had no time to develop” which Marx praised but did not quote was written by a follower of Proudhon and was “strongly federalist in tone, and it has a marked proudhonian flavour.”
Marx also praised the Communal Council being composed of delegates who would be “at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents” and the fact that it was a “working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time” This, he averred, was “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.” Yet this was not a novel “discovery” as Proudhon had consistently raised these ideas since the 1848 revolution:
“It is up to the National Assembly, through organisation of its committees, to exercise executive power, just the way it exercises legislative power... Besides universal suffrage and as a consequence of universal suffrage, we want implementation of the binding mandate. 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.”
During the Commune anarchist James Guillaume pointed out the obvious: “the Paris Revolution is federalist... in the sense given it years ago by the great socialist, Proudhon.” It is “above all the negation of the nation and the State.” It is hard not to concur with K.J. Kenafick:
“the programme [the Commune] set out is... the system of Federalism, which Bakunin had been advocating for years, and which had first been enunciated by Proudhon. The Proudhonists... exercised considerable influence in the Commune. This ‘political form’ was therefore not ‘at last’ discovered; it had been discovered years ago; and now it was proven to be correct by the very fact that in the crisis the Paris workers adopted it... as being the form most suitable to express working class aspirations.”
Economically, the same can be said. Echoing Proudhon’s calls for workers’ companies, the Communards considered that “the worker-directed workshop... very soon would become the universal mode of production.” A meeting of the Mechanics Union and the Association of Metal Workers argued that “our economic emancipation... can only be obtained through the formation of workers’ associations, which alone can transform our position from that of wage earners to that of associates.” They instructed their delegates to the Commune’s Commission on Labour Organisation to aim for the “abolition of the exploitation of man by man, the last vestige of slavery” by means of the “organisation of labour in mutual associations with collective and inalienable capital.” A group of foundry workers wrote that it was “exploitation that we seek to abolish through the right of workers to their work and to form federated producer co-operatives. Their formation would be a great step forward... towards... the federation of peoples.”
Marx praised the efforts made within the Paris Commune to create co-operatives, so “transforming the means of production, land and capital... into mere instruments of free and associated labour.” He argued “what else... would it be but... Communism?” Well, it could be mutualism and Proudhon’s vision of an agro-industrial federation. Had not Varlin, in March 1870, argued that co-operatives were “actively preparing the bases for the future society”? Had he not, like Proudhon, warned that “placing everything in the hands of a highly centralised, authoritarian state... would set up a hierarchic structure from top to bottom of the labour process”? Had he not, like Proudhon, suggested that “the only alternative is for workers themselves to have the free disposition and possession of the tools of production... through co-operative association”?
Engels in 1891 painted a picture of Proudhon being opposed to association (except for large-scale industry) and stated that “to combine all these associations in one great union” was “the direct opposite of the Proudhon doctrine” and so the Commune was its “grave”. Yet, as he most certainly was aware, Proudhon had publicly called for economic federation. In 1863, he termed it the “agro-industrial federation” and fifteen years earlier he had demanded an economy based on a “vast federation” of “democratically organised workers’ associations” so making true his 1846 statement that “to unfold the system of economical contradictions is to lay the foundations of universal association.”
Elsewhere, Engels argued that the “economic measures” of the Commune were driven not by “principles” but by “simple, practical needs.” This meant that “the confiscation of shut-down factories and workshops and handing them over to workers’ associations” had been “not at all in accordance with the spirit of Proudhonism but certainly in accordance with the spirit of German scientific socialism.” This seems unlikely, given Proudhon’s well known and long-standing advocacy of co-operatives as well as Marx’s comment in 1866 that in France the workers (“especially those in Paris”) “are, without realising it [!], strongly implicated in the garbage of the past” and that the “Parisian gentlemen had their heads stuffed full of the most vacuous Proudhonist clichés.” Given that the Communist Manifesto stressed state ownership and failed to mention co-operatives, the claim that the Commune had acted in its spirit seems a tad optimistic particularly as this decision “bore the mark of the French socialist tradition, which envisaged workers’ co-operative association, not state ownership, as the solution to ‘the social question.’”
The obvious influence of Proudhon in the Commune’s socio-economic vision has been obscured by Marxist revisionism. These links with Proudhon are hardly surprising as “men sympathetic to Proudhon’s ideas were conspicuously present” in the revolt. This is not to suggest that the Paris Commune unfolded precisely as Proudhon would have wished (Bakunin and Kropotkin analysed it and drew conclusions from its failings). However, it is clear that the Commune’s vision of a federated self-managed society and economy owes much to Proudhon’s tireless advocacy of such ideas. As Bakunin suggested, Marx and Engels “proclaim[ing] that [the Commune’s] programme and purpose were their own” flew “in face of the simplest logic” and was “a truly farcical change of costume.”
Proudhon’s lasting legacy is his contribution to anarchism. It is little wonder that he has been termed “the father of anarchism” for while anarchism has evolved since Proudhon’s time it still bases itself on the themes first expounded in a systematic way by the Frenchman. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anarchism without Proudhon.
While Proudhon may not have been the first thinker to suggest a stateless and classless society, he was the first to call himself an anarchist and to influence a movement of that name. This is not to suggest that libertarian ideas and movements had not existed before Proudhon nor that anarchistic ideas did not develop spontaneously after 1840 but these were not a coherent, named, articulate theory. While anarchism does not have to be identical to Proudhon’s specific ideas and proposals, it does have to be consistent with the main thrust of his ideas – in other words, anti-state and anti-capitalism. Thus collectivist anarchism built on Proudhon, as did communist-anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism and individualist anarchism. While none of these later developments were identical to Proudhon’s mutualism – each stressed different aspects of his ideas, developing some, changing others – the links and evolution remain clear.
Proudhon straddles both wings of the anarchist movement, social and individualist although the former took more of his vision of libertarian socialism. Perhaps this division was inevitable considering Proudhon’s ideas. He was, after all, an advocate of both competition and association, against both capitalism and communism, a reformist who talked constantly of revolution. Suffice to say, though, both wings considered themselves, as did Proudhon, part of the wider socialist movement and hoped to see the end of capitalism while disagreeing on how to do so and the exact nature of a free society. Whether Proudhon would have agreed with Tucker or Kropotkin is a moot point (probably not!) but he would have recognised elements of his ideas in both.
Proudhon’s ideas found a welcome home in North America where “his impact was greater than has been commonly supposed”, with his “views given wide publicity” in “the years preceding the Civil War.” This makes sense, given that (like France) the USA was going through the process of industrialisation and proletarianisation with the state intervening in the economy (as it always has) to foster capitalist property rights and social relationships. Radicals in America, facing the same transformation as Proudhon’s France, took up his ideas and propagated them.
While Joseph Warren had independently advocated certain ideas usually associated with Proudhon, the first study of Proudhon’s work was Charles A. Dana’s Proudhon and His “Bank of the People” in 1849 followed by William B. Greene’s translations from Proudhon’s Organisation du Crédit et de la Circulation et Solution du Problème Social his 1850 Mutual Banking. Greene was president of the Massachusetts Labour Union and was active in the French-speaking section of the IWMA in Boston although, unlike Proudhon, he “championed the cause of women’s rights.”
For Greene there was “no device of the political economists so infernal as the one which ranks labour as a commodity, varying in value according to supply and demand... To speak of labour as merchandise is treason; for such speech denies the true dignity of man... Where labour is merchandise in fact... there man is merchandise also, whether in England or South Carolina.” The alternative was the “triple formula of practical mutualism”: “the associated workshop” for production, the “protective union store” for consumption and “the Mutual Bank” for exchange. All three were required, for “the Associated Workshop cannot exist for a single day without the Mutual Bank and the Protective Union Store.” The “Associated Workshop ought to be an organisation of personal credit. For what is its aim and purpose? Is it not the emancipation of the labourer from all dependence upon capital and capitalists?”
Benjamin Tucker took up Greene’s work and translated substantial material by Proudhon into English including numerous articles, What is Property? and volume one of System of Economic Contradictions. In 1881, he proclaimed that his new journal, Liberty, was “brought into existence as a direct consequence of the teachings of Proudhon” and “lives principally to emphasise and spread them.” Proudhon’s maxim from the 1848 revolution that “Liberty, Not the Daughter but the Mother of Order” adorned its masthead. Like Proudhon, his aim was the “emancipation of the workingman from his present slavery to capital.”
To achieve this, Tucker looked to Proudhon as well as the radical ideas and movements of his own country. He took Proudhon’s reformism, his “occupancy and use” critique of land-ownership, elimination of interest by mutual banking, opposition to the state and defence of competition and markets. Somewhat ironically, while Tucker is often portrayed as being Proudhon’s disciple he ignored many of the French anarchist’s key ideas. Workers’ associations and co-operative production, the agro-industrial federation, communes and their federation find no echo in Tucker, nor did Proudhon’s opposition to wage-labour. Somewhat ironically it was Tucker’s arch-foe in the movement, the communist-anarchist Johann Most, who echoed the French anarchist on most issues.
Other individualist anarchists were closer to Proudhon’s concerns. Dyer Lum “drew from the French anarchist Proudhon... a radical critique of classical political economy and... a set of positive reforms in land tenure and banking... Proudhon paralleled the native labour reform tradition in several ways. Besides suggesting reforms in land and money, Proudhon urged producer cooperation.” As with Proudhon’s, a key element of “Lum’s anarchism was his mutualist economics, an analysis of ‘wage slavery’ and a set of reforms that would ‘abolish the wage system.’” Other individualist anarchists joined Lum in opposing wage-labour.
While individualist anarchism dominated the movement in America before and immediately after the Civil War, by the 1880s the displacement of reformist by revolutionary forms of anarchism which had occurred in Europe was repeated in America. While the repression after the Haymarket police riot in 1886 hindered this, “[b]y the turn of the century, the anarchist movement in America had become predominantly communist in orientation.” While individualist anarchism never totally disappeared, to this day it remains very much the minority trend in American anarchism.
Even a cursory glance at revolutionary anarchism shows the debt it has to Proudhon. Bakunin, unsurprisingly, considered his own ideas as “Proudhonism widely developed and pushed right to these, its final consequences.” Proudhon’s critique of property, state and capitalism, his analysis of exploitation being rooted in wage-labour, his advocacy of a decentralised and federal system of communes and workers’ associations, his support for workers’ self-management of production, his call for working class autonomy and self-activity as the means of transforming society from below, all these (and more) were taken up and developed by collectivist, communist and syndicalist anarchists.
Just as Proudhon had pointed to the directly democratic clubs of the 1848 Revolution and co-operatives as key institutions of a free society, so Bakunin viewed communes and unions in the same light while, in addition to these, Kropotkin pointed to the directly democratic “sections” of the Great French Revolution. As with Proudhon, the revolutionary anarchists argued that political and social change must occur at the same time. Like Proudhon, they saw the future free society as a dual federation of social and economic organisations. For Kropotkin “the form that the Social Revolution must take” was “the independent Commune” and their federations along with “a parallel triumph of the people in the economic field” based on “associations of men and women who would work on the land, in the factories, in the mines, and so on” and so become “themselves the managers of production.” For Bakunin, “socialism is federalist” and “true federalism, the political organisation of socialism, will be attained only” when “popular grass-roots institutions” like “communes, industrial and agricultural associations” are “organised in progressive stages from the bottom up.” The links with Proudhon’s ideas, particularly the agro-industrial federation, are all too clear.
Revolutionary anarchism bases itself on Proudhon’s distinction between property and possession. It shares his vision of an economy based on socialisation of the means of production, use rights and workers’ association. Kropotkin’s co-founder of the newspaper Freedom, Charlotte M. Wilson, made the link clear:
“Proudhon’s famous dictum, ‘Property is theft’, is the key to the equally famous enigma... ‘From each according to his capacities, to each according to his needs’... as long as land and capital are un-appropriated, the workers are free, and that, when these have a master, the workers also are slaves... Anarchism proposes, therefore, – 1. That usufruct of instruments of production – land included – should be free to all workers, or groups of workers. 2. That the workers should group themselves, and arrange their work as their reason and inclination prompt... 3. That the necessary connections between the various industries and branches of trade should be managed on the same voluntary principle.”
Revolutionary anarchism nevertheless differed from that of Proudhon in three areas.
First, its proponents rejected Proudhon’s support for patriarchy in the family as being inconsistent with the libertarian principles he advocated against capitalism and the state. This was an obvious self-contradiction, which anarchists have critiqued by means of the very principles Proudhon himself used to criticise the state and capitalism. Joseph Déjacque, for example, wrote a critique of Proudhon’s sexist views in 1857, urging him to renounce “this gender aristocracy that would bind us to the old regime.” André Léo, a feminist libertarian and future Communard, pointed out the obvious contradiction in 1869: “These so-called lovers of liberty, if they are unable to take part in the direction of the state, at least they will be able to have a little monarchy for their personal use, each in his own home... Order in the family without hierarchy seems impossible to them – well then, what about in the state?”
Second, they rejected Proudhon’s reformism and transformed his call for a “revolution from below” into a literal support for a social revolution (insurrections, general strikes and other activities which reflect the popular understanding of “revolution”). Bakunin, while “convinced that the co-operative will be the preponderant form of social organisation in the future” and could “hardly oppose” their creation under capitalism, argued that Proudhon’s hope for gradual change by means of mutual banking and the higher efficiency of workers’ co-operatives was unlikely to be realised as it did “not take into account the vast advantage that the bourgeoisie enjoys against the proletariat through its monopoly on wealth, science, and secular custom, as well as through the approval – overt or covert but always active – of States and through the whole organisation of modern society. The fight is too unequal for success reasonably to be expected.” Thus capitalism “does not fear the competition of workers’ associations – neither consumers’, producers’, nor mutual credit associations – for the simple reason that workers’ organisations, left to their own resources, will never be able to accumulate sufficiently strong aggregations of capital capable of waging an effective struggle against bourgeois capital.”
Having found reformism insufficient, the revolutionary anarchists stressed the need for what would now be termed a syndicalist approach to social change. Rather than seeing workers co-operatives and mutual banks as the focus for social transformation, unions came to be seen as the means of both fighting capitalism and replacing it. They took Proudhon’s dual-power strategy from 1848 and applied it in the labour movement with the long term aim of smashing the state and replacing it with these organs of popular power.
Third, they rejected Proudhon’s anti-communism and advocated distribution according to need rather than deed. That is, the extension of the critique of wage-labour into opposition to the wages-system.
The rationale behind this change was straightforward. As Kropotkin explained, “this system of remuneration for work done” was contradictory and unjust. Not only do deeds not correlate with needs (most obviously, children, the ill and elderly cannot be expected to work as much as others) it was also “evident that a society cannot be based on two absolutely opposed principles, two principles that contradict one another continually.” How can labour-money be advocated “when we admit that houses, fields, and factories will no longer be private property, and that they will belong to the commune or the nation?” Abolition of property in the means of production cannot co-exist with property in the products of labour created by their use. This suggested that, to be consistent, anarchists must pass from mutualism and collectivism to communism, distribution according to need rather than deed. Most anarchists then, and now, concurred.
Ultimately, though, Proudhon and the likes of Bakunin and Kropotkin had more in common than differences. His ideas were the foundation upon which revolutionary anarchism was built. Bakunin “reaped the harvest sown by Proudhon – the father of anarchism – filtering, enriching and surpassing it” and “Proudhon’s thought found a strong echo in revolutionary syndicalism.”
Finally, it should be noted that revolutionary anarchism developed independently from Proudhon’s mutualism in at least three cases. Joseph Déjacque drew libertarian communist conclusions from Proudhon’s work in the 1850s. Bakunin developed Proudhon’s ideas in a similar direction after 1864 while Eugene Varlin “seems to have moved independently towards his collectivist position.” So while Bakunin’s ideas were quickly adopted by working class militants familiar with Proudhon across Europe, even without him Proudhon’s legacy was evolving in the direction of revolutionary collectivism in the 1860s. Indeed, it could be argued that Bakunin and his ideas became so influential in the IWMA because he was part of a general development within Internationalist circles which he simply helped.
Proudhon’s influence was significant during the nineteenth century. Sadly, his ideas are not acknowledged as much as they should be given their impact and how they laid the basis for modern anarchism.
Anarchists, though, are not Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Kropotkinites, or whoever-ists. We reject the idea of calling ourselves after individuals. However, we can and do acknowledge the contributions of outstanding thinkers and activists, people who contribute to the commonwealth of ideas which is anarchism. Seen in this light, Proudhon (for all his faults) should be remembered as the person who laid the foundations of anarchism. His libertarian socialism, his critique of capitalism and the state, his federalism, advocacy of self-management and change from below, defined what anarchism is.
In terms of his critique of capitalism, most of it holds up well. Workers are still exploited at the point of production and this can only be stopped by abolishing wage-labour. Landlords are still parasites, interest still bleeds dry those subject to it. Capitalism has proven itself to be the efficient machine for increasing inequality by exploiting the many that Proudhon analysed. As far as his anti-statism goes, his analysis of the state as an instrument of minority class rule still rings true as does his insights that centralised structures result in rule by the few and are simply not reflexive of, nor accountable to, the public in any meaningful way. His denunciations of executive power and the unitaire State as a new form of royalty have been confirmed time and time again. His critique of State socialism, his prediction that it would be just another form of wage-labour with the state replacing the boss, has been more than confirmed, not to mention his fear that it would become little more than a dictatorship by a party rather than a genuine worker democracy.
While we should not slavishly copy Proudhon’s ideas, we can take what is useful and, like Bakunin, Kropotkin and others, develop them further in order to inspire social change in the 21st century. His vision of a decentralised, self-managed, federal socialist society and economy has obvious relevance today. Centralised political and economic systems have been tried and failed. His continued emphasis on working class autonomy and self-emancipation, of building the new world in the heart of the old, are core libertarian principles.
Proudhon wrote that “the twentieth century will open the age of federations, or else humanity will undergo another purgatory of a thousand years.” The 20th century, with its centralised states, neo-liberalism and nationalistic irrationalities, reached depths of destruction and misery suggested by purgatory. We can only hope that it is the 21st century that inaugurates the libertarian age Proudhon hoped for.