For some, the verdict of history is of little consequence. Marxists in particular seem unconcerned that every mainstream Marxist movement and revolution has become authoritarian, at its worse dictatorial, at its best bureaucratic. Rather than socialism, state-capitalism has been created time and time again. Whether it is nationalisation within the bourgeois State or turning a whole economy over to the bureaucracy, the anarchist vision of a self-managed socialist society and economy has never happened via the Marxist route in spite of the latter’s oft-repeated claim of a common goal.
Some, however, have not this dent their enthusiasm. Hal Draper is often pointed to as defending “real” Marxism, as Alan Johnson put it: “Democratic Marxism: The Legacy of Hal Draper” (Mark Cowling and Paul Reynolds (eds.), Marxism, the Millennium and Beyond [New York: Palgrave, 2000]). Considered a scholar of note amongst many Marxists, libertarians are less impressed for Draper’s dislike – hatred – of anarchism is quickly seen from his writings. Indeed, it is not hard to conclude that his life-work sought what most people would consider the impossible – namely, portraying a movement with a legacy of centralised, bureaucratic and authoritarian structures as genuinely democratic while painting another with a legacy of federal, participatory and self-managed organisations as secretly aiming for tyranny.
Thus Johnson suggests that Hal Draper “looked at” the “elitism and authoritarianism” of those Marx attacked, including “Proudhon (‘all this democracy disgusts me’).” (202) This echoes David McNally’s pamphlet Socialism from Below: The History of an Idea (ISO, 1984), which likewise proclaimed that Proudhon “violently opposed democracy. ‘All this democracy disgusts me’, he wrote.” Both repeat Draper himself, who in his 1966 pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism included a chapter entitled “The Myth of Anarchist ‘Libertarianism’” in which we find Proudhon's “violent opposition” to “any and every idea of the right to vote, universal suffrage, popular sovereignty, and the very idea of constitutions. (‘All this democracy disgusts me ... What would I not give to sail into this mob with my clenched fists!’).”
Draper makes many claims against Proudhon and Bakunin (Kropotkin is thankfully excluded from his tender mercies), so many it would be difficult to address them all. Some are valid, like those on Proudhon’s disgusting sexism, others are exaggerated, such as those on his anti-Semitism, and others incomplete or misrepresentative. Many, however, are simply false. Here we discuss the claims on democracy by means of the quote happily repeated by his apostles.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Draper made it difficult to confirm his claim. Under “A Few References,” he helpfully proclaims “[f]or Proudhon, see the chapter in J.S. Schapiro’s Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism, and Proudhon’s Carnets.” The latter run into multiple volumes and hundreds of pages. Schapiro is somewhat easier as he does appear to reference his quotes and claims in his attempt to paint the Frenchman as a proto-fascist. Thus we find on page 350:
“Proudhon's contempt and hatred of democracy overflowed all decent bounds, and he descended to a degree of disgusting vilification, reached only by the fascists of our day. ‘All this democracy disgusts me,’ he wrote. ‘It wishes to be scratched where vermin causes itching, but it does not at all wish to be combed or to be deloused. What would I not give to sail into this mob with my clenched fists!’” (Correspondance XI: 197)
Suffice to say, his account is distinctly flawed – at best, it is selective; at worse, knowingly false. Refuting Schapiro’s work could be done by presenting the multitude of pro-democracy quotes and arguments by Proudhon which he studiously ignores but it is sufficient to look at this single quote – the one repeated in part by Draper, McNally and Johnson – to see his dishonesty.
As it stands, Proudhon did not write the quote provided for Schapiro combines three separate sentences into one passage without indicating any missing text nor that they appear on different pages (197 and 198). Context is likewise removed, along with the awkward fact that Proudhon is referring to different things on the two pages.
These sentences come from a private letter written on 18 September 1861 which starts by bemoaning how others on the left were attacking him as “a false democrat, a false friend of progress, a false republican” due to his critical position on Polish independence (see below for the full letter). Unlike most of the rest of the French left (“the democracy,” to use the term of the period), Proudhon opposed the creation of a Polish state. His reason is summarised in his letter:
“What is worse is that M. Élias Regnault […] not responding to any of the impossibilities of reconstitution which I indicated, none the less persists in demanding the reestablishment of Poland, on the pretext that nobilitarian [nobiliaire], Catholic, aristocratic Poland, divided into castes, has a life of its own, and that it has the right to live this life regardless!”
In other words, Proudhon is indicating that an independent Poland, as demanded by “the democracy” in France, would not be a democracy but rather a regime ruled by a nobility living on the backs of the peasantry (Schapiro notes Proudhon’s opposition to Polish independence but does not explain the reasoning for this). He then starts the next paragraph with these much repeated words:
“All this democracy disgusts me.”
Once this context is provided, it becomes clear that Proudhon is using his justly famous talent for irony against those on the left who violate their own stated democratic principles by supporting the creation of a feudal regime – if this is democracy, Proudhon was saying, then it disgusts him. This becomes clear from the rest of his paragraph:
“All this democracy disgusts me. Reason serves no purpose with it, nor principles, nor facts. It does not matter to it that it contradicts itself with every step. It has its hobby-horses, its tics and its fancies; it wants to be scratched where the maggots itch, but it will not hear of comb nor scrubbing; it resembles that beggar saint who, gnawed alive by maggots, put them back into his wounds when they escaped.” (bold indicates words quoted by Schapiro)
Schapiro removes without indicating most of this paragraph, including the key words that “it [the democracy] contradicts itself with every step.” He thus completely obscures Proudhon’s point, namely that these French democrats are contradicting their own claimed principles by supporting the creation of an aristocratic and caste-divided regime.
So, by selective quoting, Proudhon’s arguments for democracy – in which he wishes the democrats would be consistently in favour of democracy – are turned into their opposite.
The final sentence quoted by Schapiro appears on the next page. Rather than discussing democracy, Proudhon is referring to something else:
“Certain patriots have formed a small conspiracy to stop the sale of my pamphlets. On this matter, it has been said that I was a secret agent of the Empire; tomorrow, when they read my theory of taxation crowned by a council of State, they will say that I am a conservative, a proprietor, an Orleanist, a bourgeois!.... Fortunately, all that outcry will not make me change my mind. But what can you expect from a so-called progressive democracy, which is more fanatical, upon each appearance of an ideal, than the Inquisition?
“Sometimes I really want to fall upon this bunch of sods [cette tourbe] with fists flying; what do you think? Is it not time to avenge common sense, and to pull the republican idea from the jaws of this hydra, which terrifies writers and honest people! Come on, TWITS, YOU are a disgrace to the human mind! It is because of you that France today lags behind other nations!” (bold indicates words quoted by Schapiro)
So Schapiro’s “this mob” is not referring to the people exercising their democratic rights but rather a group opposed to Proudhon’s ideas. Mob may be an acceptable translation of “tourbe” but not in this context, with its hoped for connotations of democracy being dismissed as “mob rule.” Rather, here it means not “the people” but “this bunch of contemptible people”– a “hydra” from whose “jaws” Proudhon sought to “pull the republican idea from”!
Schapiro again quotes out of context to turn a paragraph in which Proudhon clearly displays his support for democracy into its opposite.
Schapiro in his preface writes an “exhaustive examination of [Proudhon’s] writings convinced the author, reluctantly to be sure, that Proudhon was a harbinger of fascism in its essential outlook and its sinister implications.” (ix)
In reality, it is his selective quoting which is exhausting.
Nowhere does he mention Proudhon’s support for workers’ associations or that he seemed to have coined the phrase “industrial democracy.” Nowhere does he note Proudhon’s critique of “democracy” is rooted in an awareness that the liberal democracy Schapiro appears to champion is bourgeois democracy and, as such, simply not that democratic. Nowhere does he mention Proudhon’s advocacy of election, mandates and recall, his demand that power be decentralised and decentred into the hands of the working class in what he termed a “labour democracy” in 1864:
“Thus, no longer do we have the abstraction of people’s sovereignty as in the ’93 Constitution and the others that followed it, and in Rousseau’s Social Contract. Instead it becomes an effective sovereignty of the labouring masses which rule and govern […] I declare here and now that the labouring masses are actually, positively and effectively sovereign: how could they not be when the economic organism — labour, capital, property and assets — belongs to them entirely” (Property is Theft!, 760-1)
There are, in short, many forms of democracy. Some are Jacobin – centralised, top-down and inherently bourgeois. Others are libertarian – federalist, bottom-up and inherently working class. Schapiro seemed unaware of the difference. The bourgeoisie like to portray opposition to its form of democracy – which is little more than electing masters – as being anti-democratic. Marxists like Draper mimic both this portrayal and this form of centralised quasi-democracy, even if they drape it with a red flag.
Schapiro seems to have a thesis in need of bolstering, so he was far from “reluctantly” cherry-picking from Proudhon’s voluminous works – presumably secure in the knowledge that few English-language scholars would be familiar enough with the originals to protest nor have the time to track down, verify and contextualise every one of his many claims. More, the American anarchist movement was small and easily ignored, particularly in academic circles.
Schapiro’s thesis may appear plausible to those with little or no awareness of Proudhon’s ideas, particularly given that he was far from a consistent libertarian (most obviously, his defence of patriarchy and his occasional public expressions of anti-Semitism) and his (unfounded) reputation of being “contradictory.” Likewise, his ideas developed over his lifetime and how he presented aspects of his ideas changed as circumstances changed (mostly obviously, in response to the failure to the 1848 Revolution). Moreover, libertarian socialist ideas can initially appear confusing given their challenge to the dominant assumptions within society. All this aided Schapiro in his task.
Moreover, refuting Schapiro’s claims – with multiple false, cherry-picked, incomplete claims on nearly every page – is time consuming: look what is required to debunk a single quote provided by him as evidence. Other claims are just as resource intensive to debunk, if not more so (for example, see “Proudhon on Race and the Civil War: Neither Washington nor Richmond,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 60 [Summer 2013]). Little wonder his work has never been fully challenged.
Given how Draper systematically addressed every perceived slight against Marx in exhausting detail (at least to his own satisfaction, if not others), his use of Schapiro’s work seems hypocritical. At best, he made no attempt to verify the account he recommended and embraced a work which chimed with his own prejudices. At worse, Draper checked and like Schapiro knowingly distorted Proudhon’s ideas.
Either way, Draper is responsible for spreading a distortion across the left – a distortion mindlessly repeated to this day. In this he follows his heroes Marx (see “The Poverty of (Marx’s) Philosophy,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 70 [Summer 2017]) and Engels, whose distortions are likewise repeated as if they were the considered conclusions of disinterested seekers of the truth.
Proudhon, to be sure, was a flawed individual with some very repulsive views on a few subjects – like all of us, he was a child of his time (and his bigotries, whether we like it or not, were all too reflective of the French working class of the time, his class). He had his periods of pessimism, his moments of hope. At times he fell below what we would expect, at others far above. In this he is like any other thinker, Marx included.
So let him be criticised for what he actually argued rather than practice invention. While we hope Marxists will rise to this challenge, we will not hold our breath.
Finally, we anarchists are not “Proudhonians” nor “Bakuninists” nor “Kropotkinites” and so do not hero-worship our comrades past. We criticise them when they are not consistent libertarians or when they are wrong. Proudhon, for all his flaws, defined much of what anarchism is, laid its foundations if you like, yet rather than attack these core elements of his theory, the likes of Draper concentrate of those few aspects (if actually accurate) which later anarchists reject or are (more often than not) simply false to paint a radically false picture of Proudhon and by implication anarchism as such.
Let them critique anarchism, not a straw man of their own liking – perhaps then we can start to build a socialist movement fit for the 21st century, one which learns from the past rather than repeating it. And let us simply reply to those who reference Schapiro or Draper with the words “You are not even wrong” – and move on to more fruitful tasks.
Ixelles, 18 September 1861
Dear M. Bitzon,
Am I really not worthy of pity and compassion?
Now that all the cry-babies of nationalities have come down on me regarding Poland, of which not one has read the scandalous tale, nor knows what goes on behind the scenes! At the moment I am an usurping troublemaker, a scribe in the pay of the Holy Alliance!
In vain I show that by following the current course we bury the Polish people; that by the one which I indicate we lead it to liberty, equality and all that must follow. Nothing works; they began lamenting over Poland thirty years ago, they want to lament, and woe to those who do not lament! He is, they say of me, a false democrat, a false friend of progress, a false republican! Certainly, we are the Athenians of the nineteenth century, and of all the nations the one with the most spirit; but, when we meddle, we must admit that we are ten times more stupid than the others!
I sent a reply yesterday to M. Élias Regitault, which I recommend.
Élias Regitault, [who is] incidentally well educated, has just proven that on the two most important questions of diplomacy, the treaty of Westphalia and the treaties of 1814-15, he was in complete error. – On that, I do not think I have anything left to say.
What is worse is that M. Élias Regnault, placing himself on the same ground as M. de Montalembert, supports his cause by the same arguments, and, after having abandoned the principle of nationality, as futile; after having admitted the principle of European equilibrium (the supreme law of forces, by the way), not responding to any of the impossibilities of reconstitution which I indicated, none the less persists in demanding the reestablishment of Poland, on the pretext that nobilitarian [nobiliaire], Catholic, aristocratic Poland, divided into castes, has a life of its own, and that it has the right to live this life regardless!
All this democracy disgusts me. Reason serves no purpose with it, nor principles, nor facts. It does not matter to it that it contradicts itself with every step. It has its hobby-horses, its tics and its fancies; it wants to be scratched where the maggots itch, but it will not hear of comb nor scrubbing; it resembles that beggar saint who, gnawed alive by maggots, put them back into his wounds when they escaped.
Attacking a prejudice of the democracy is counter-revolution! What brutes!
It is much worse when I talk to them about the right of force, which is nothing else than the affirmation of a law of force, as there is a law of movement, a law of life, etc., and, consequently, the obligation of every moral being to abide by this law. I have an enormous correspondence, scores of newspapers and journals, where they show me that I am a man of paradoxes, that I do not know what I am saying, and that I abuse the patience of my readers!
Certain patriots have formed a small conspiracy to stop the sale of my pamphlets. On this matter, it has been said that I was a secret agent of the Empire; tomorrow, when they read my theory of taxation crowned by a council of State, they will say that I am a conservative, a proprietor, an Orleanist, a bourgeois!.... Fortunately, all that outcry will not make me change my mind. But what can you expect from a so-called progressive democracy, which is more fanatical, upon each appearance of an ideal, than the Inquisition?
Sometimes I really want to fall upon this bunch of sods [cette tourbe] with fists flying; what do you think? Is it not time to avenge common sense, and to pull the republican idea from the jaws of this hydra, which terrifies writers and honest people! Come on, TWITS, YOU are a disgrace to the human mind! It is because of you that France today lags behind other nations!
If you have the patience to wait a few days, I will send you, as well as M. Ballande, a copy of my book on Taxation, which should have appeared yesterday in Paris, [published] by Dentu; I do not have the official news yet.
I hope that this volume will bring back M. Lavertujon to me, in the expectation that I convince him of the truth of the principle of mutuality in matters of credit.
I am tardy with my letter to you, dear sir. Unfortunately, I cannot find your second-last one, so please consider this in response to both. I devour your letters, they amuse me, refresh me, encourage me, and then they get lost in the clutter of correspondence. So write to me, dear sir, when you wish to kill time; only do for me as the professor of philosophy did for his pupil M. Jourdain, proceed, I ask, as if I did not know English.
Also much obliged for your spiritualist communication; I will send him a little weekly newspaper of my acquaintance.