Proudhon and Marx on exploitation

The latest text from “Property is theft!” is Proudhon’s 1848 “Toast to the Revolution.”

Before discussing this and the issue of exploitation, I should note that “Property is Theft!” is now listed on Amazon (US and UK). Not that I would recommend you purchase it from there, as this is not supporting the libertarian movement. I would urge you to buy it from the publishers, AK Press (US or UK), or from a radical bookshop – if at all possible. This work has been translated, introduced and edited by volunteers and, speaking personally, I think our labour should not be used to make profits for capitalists. And, besides, supporting co-operatives was something Proudhon was very keen on.

“Toast to the Revolution” was originally given at a banquet that aimed to reunite all the remaining socialist representatives in the National Assembly. Held on October 17, 1848, it was boycotted by representatives of the Mountain (although Pierre Leroux did attend). This was ostensibly because Proudhon abstained rather than voted against one (of two) new ministers of clearly monarchist sympathies. This was because the person in question had prevented legal proceedings against him when “What is Property?” was published in 1840. Proudhon gave the speech in front of two thousand people and went down well. It was subsequently published in Proudhon’s new journal, “Le Peuple.”

As K. Steven Vincent noted, this “was an important speech, for in it he clearly delineated the differences between his own socialist republicanism” and the “Jacobin republicanism” of the Mountain. (“Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism”, p. 186) He stressed the need for social revolution, of not restricting change to the political dimension only. This dramatic change in social relationships would be achieved without violence, by means of new forms of socio-economic organisation as part of a “permanent revolution” (which pre-dates Marx's use of the term by two years).

This piece is from a period, after the February Revolution of 1848, when Proudhon wrote many of his best articles (a libertarian account of this revolution really needs to be done, plus a complete translation of Proudhon’s “Confessions of a Revolutionary”). Being focused on writing for a newspaper, Proudhon obviously got in touch with his inner-succinctness. Such pieces as his November Election Manifesto, his polemics with Jacobin Socialism, “The Malthusians” all express the best of his writing – something that can be forgotten in some of his books (for example, “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques” is full of asides and digressions, some of which are more illuminating and worthwhile than others).

The speech ends with a passionate call for popular (working-class) self-activity and self-liberation:

“But the revolutionary power, the power of conservation and of progress, is no longer today in the hands of the government; it is not in the National Assembly: it is in you. The people alone, acting upon themselves without intermediary, can achieve the economic Revolution begun in February. The people alone can save civilisation and advance humanity!”

Proudhon argues that the flag of the revolution is “Association” and that while currently “labour is at the discretion of capital” it was “time for capital to recognise the predominance of labour, for the tool to put itself at the disposition of the worker.” Thus February revolution “proclaimed the right to work, the predominance of labour over capital.” As I noted in a previous blog, Marx later argued along the same lines (“but behind the right to work stands the power over capital; behind the power over capital, the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class”).

These similarities in analysis (although Marx always comes after Proudhon) may come as a surprise to those whose only awareness of Proudhon has been gathered from Marx’s many dismissive comments. While Proudhon ignored Marx after receiving and annotating his copy of “The Philosophy of Poverty”, Marx compulsively commented upon the French thinker. Unsurprisingly, these comments are often misrepresentative of Proudhon’s ideas (as is much of “The Philosophy of Poverty”, as I’ve indicated). At some stage, hopefully someone will translate all of “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques” and produce a volume which also contains “The Philosophy of Poverty” as well as Proudhon’s marginal notes from his copy. I’ve seen a French book which does that in the Anarchist bookshop in Paris, an English language version would be of interest to scholars.

Until that is done, we will need to work with what we have. Shawn Wilbur has recently translated the final section of Chapter XI (“Eighth Epoch — Property”) of “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques.” The translation is a bit rough, but it contains some very pertinent material on property (“property, religion of force, is at the same time the religion of servitude”), economics (“political economy . . . is the theory of theft”) and exploitation. I’m working to make it less rough in preparation to adding it to the supplemental material on the “Property is Theft!” site, but I thought it wise to use the material to discuss (yet again!) the similarities between Marx and Proudhon in their analysis of capitalist exploitation. Suffice to say, this chapter presents more evidence to show that it was Proudhon, not Marx, who first unlocked how exploitation happened in capitalism, namely in production as a consequence of workers selling their labour (liberty) to a boss.

Marx argues that “the worker bows to the command, direction and the supervision of the capitalist . . . the capitalist forces the workers to extend the duration of the labour process as far as possible beyond the limits of the labour-time needed to reproduce the amount paid in wages, since it is just this excess labour that supplies him with the surplus-value.” (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 1010-1) In a footnote he decides it wise to lambast Proudhon, quoting from “System of Economic Contradictions”:

“It is an axiom generally admitted by the economists that all labour should leave an excess. I regard this proposition as universally and absolutely true; it is a corollary of the law of proportionality, which may be regarded as an epitome of the whole science of economy. But – I beg pardon of the economists -the principle that all labour should leave an excess has no meaning in their theory, and is not susceptible of demonstration.”

Marx then states:

“I have shown [in “The Poverty of Philosophy”] that M. Proudhon has not the slightest idea what this ‘excédent du travail’ is, namely the surplus product in which the surplus labour or unpaid labour of the worker becomes manifest. Since he finds that all labour in fact produces such an ‘excédent’ in capitalist production he attempts to explain this fact by reference to some mysterious natural attribute of labour.” (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 1011-2)

There are a few issues with this. Proudhon does not use the term “excédent du travail” in the extract Marx quotes (nor in the chapter in question), but he does do so in volume 2 of “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques” in his discussion of property. The term and analysis it suggested obviously stuck in Marx’s mind:

“I have proven, in dealing with value, that every labour must leave a surplus; so that in supposing the consumption of the labourer to be always the same, his labour should create, on top of his subsistence, a capital always greater. Under the regime of property, the surplus of labour [excédent du travail], essentially collective, passes entirely, like the revenue, to the proprietor: now, between that disguised appropriation and the fraudulent usurpation of a communal good, where is the difference?

“The consequence of that usurpation is that the labourer, whose share of the collective product is constantly confiscated by the entrepreneur, is always on his uppers, while the capitalist is always in profit . . . and that political economy, that upholds and advocates that regime, is the theory of theft, as property, the respect of which maintains a similar state of things, is the religion of force.” (vol. 2, pp. 246-7)

So, according to Proudhon, the capitalist keeps “the surplus of labour” and confiscates “the collective product” and, as a result, the proprietor “is always in profit.” What, according to Marx, is the real secret of capitalist exploitation? Well, “property turns out to be the right, on the part of the capitalist, to appropriate the unpaid labour of others or its product” and so “the value of the labour-power . . . is less than the value created by its use during that time” and that “the product belongs to the capitalist and not to the worker.” (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 730-1) Yes, totally different…

Proudhon had raised this analysis in 1840:

“Whoever labours becomes a proprietor – this is an inevitable deduction from the principles of political economy and jurisprudence. 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 was produced.” (“What is Property?”, pp. 123-4)

Proudhon is clearly arguing that workers produced more products/value than they received in wages (“property is theft!”) and that this is achieved by the capitalist appropriating the surplus labour (and so product) of the worker. Moreover, Proudhon was well aware (to use Marx’s words) that “the worker bows to the command, direction and the supervision of the capitalist”:

“Thus, property, which should make us free, makes us prisoners. What am I saying? It degrades us, by making us servants and tyrants to one another.

“Do you know what it is to be a wage-worker? To work under a master, watchful of his prejudices even more than of his orders; whose dignity consists above all in demanding, sic volo, sic jubeo [Thus I wish. Thus I command], and never explaining; often you have a low opinion of him, and you mock him! Not to have any thought of your own, to study without ceasing the thought of others, to know no stimulus except your daily bread, and the fear of losing your job!

“The wage-worker is a man to whom the proprietor who hires his services gives this speech: What you have to do does not concern you at all: you do not control it, you do not answer for it. Every observation is forbidden to you; there is no profit for you to hope for except from your wage, no risk to run, no blame to fear.” (“Systéme des Contradictions Économiques”,Vol. 2, pp. 230-1)

In short, “millions of men have sold their arms and parted with their liberty without knowing the import of the contract” (Vol. 1, p. 243) Or, as he put it six years previously, 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. Thus “property is despotism.” (What is Property?, p. 251, p. 130, p. 259)

In 1846 Proudhon repeats his analysis from Chapter III of “What is Property?” on the “collective force” which is generated by the wage-worker but appropriated by the capitalist: “Now, the question is to ascertain whether the amount of individual wages paid by the entrepreneur is equivalent to the collective effect of which I speak: for, were it otherwise, Say’s axiom, Every product is worth what it costs, would be violated.” (vol. 1, p. 242) He argues it is not:

“The capitalist, they say, has paid the labourers their daily wages at a rate agreed upon; consequently he owes them nothing. To be accurate, it must be said that he has paid as many times one day’s wage as he has employed labourers, – which is not at all the same thing. For he has paid nothing for that immense power which results from the union of labourers and the convergence and harmony of their efforts; that saving of expense, secured by their formation into a workshop; that multiplication of product, foreseen, it is true, by the capitalist, but realised by free forces. Two hundred grenadiers, working under the direction of an engineer, stood the obelisk upon its base in a few hours; do you think that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days? Nevertheless, on the books of the capitalist, the amount of wages is the same in both cases, because he allots to himself the benefit of the collective power. Now, of two things one: either this is usurpation on his part, or it is error.” (vol. 1, pp. 242-3)

Marx, of course, ignored this aspect of Proudhon’s ideas, although he found space to turn one of Proudhon’s many taunts against bourgeois economists into its exact opposite (namely, that Proudhon believed that workers get paid an equal amount to what they produce):

“It is beyond doubt that M. Proudhon confounds the two measures, the measure by the labour-time necessary to the production of a commodity, and the measure by the value of labour. ‘The labour of every man,’ says he, ‘will purchase the labour which it embodies.’ Thus according to him, a certain quantity of labour embodied in a product equals in value the remuneration of the worker, that is to say, the value of labour.” (“The Poverty of Philosophy”, p. 59)

In reality, Proudhon clearly argued that a workers’ wages did not equal their product under capitalism – as Marx must have been well aware for Proudhon argues this in both “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques and, much earlier, in “What is Property?”! Marx, it must also be re-iterated, repeated the anarchist’s analysis of the role of “collective force” in Capital in essentially the same fashion but, of course, without acknowledgement. Thus a capitalist buys the labour-power of 100 men and “can set the 100 men to work. He pays them the value of 100 independent labour-powers, but does not pay them for the combined labour power of the 100.” (Capital, Vol. 1, p. 451) Sadly, from “The Poverty of Philosophy” onwards Marx seemed to have forgotten what he had acknowledged in The Holy Family:

“Proudhon was the first to draw attention to the fact that the sum of the wages of the individual workers, even if each individual labour be paid for completely, does not pay for the collective power objectified in its product, that therefore the worker is not paid as a part of the collective labour power.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 4, p. 52)

Needless to say, Marx’s selective and misleading quoting of Proudhon in “The Poverty of Philosophy” has passed into the Marxist cannon with, for example, Donny Gluckstein proclaiming in his (sadly all too typical) discussion of Proudhon’s ideas: “It followed that, since the selling of labour was itself a form of commercial operation [for Proudhon], when employees went to work for the bosses they were not being exploited because ‘any man’s labour can buy the value it represents.’” This is, needless to say, the exact opposite of what Proudhon actually argued. Gluckstein, also perhaps needless to say, quotes Marx quoting Proudhon… It is doubtful that more than a few Marxists other than Marx has ever read Proudhon, never mind the “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques” which they feel so confident in dismissing out of hand.

What of the charge that Proudhon explains exploitation “by reference to some mysterious natural attribute of labour”? Marx, in explaining how exploitation happens under capitalism, asserts that the capitalist “must be lucky enough to find in the sphere of circulation, on the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value . . . the capacity for labour, in other words labour-power.” (Capital, vol. 1, p. 270) So Proudhon is mocked for raising a “mysterious natural attribute of labour” while Marx postulates a “peculiar property” of labour! On such important differences polemics can be spun… Moreover, as Marx admits:

“Capital did not invent surplus labour. Wherever a part of society possesses the monopoly of the means of production, the worker, free or unfree, must add to the labour-time necessary for his own maintenance an extra quantity of labour time in order to produce the means of subsistence for the owner of the means of production” (Capital, vol.1, p. 344)

So “surplus labour” has existed in all class societies. Needless to say, Proudhon was well aware that to “live as a proprietor, or to consume without producing, it is necessary, then, to live upon the labour of another.” (What is Property?, p. 293)

What about non-class societies? The labour of the direct producer has always been used to provide for the young, old, sick and so on. If labour only produced enough to maintain the worker, it would be difficult to see how the human species could have survived. Ironically, Marx makes this point in “The Critique of the Gotha Programme” to argue against the notion what the worker gets the paid the full product of their labour in socialism. Yet without implicit agreement with Proudhon’s “mysterious natural attribute of labour” there would be nothing to ensure that these needs are met under socialism.

This can be seen when Marx addressed the issue of what happens when workers do own and so control their means of production. He discusses when “the workers are themselves in possession of their respective means of production and exchange their commodities with one another. These commodities would not be products of capital.” These workers “have created . . . new values, i.e., the working day added to the means of production. This would comprise their wages plus surplus-value, the surplus labour over and above their necessary requirements, though the result of this would belong to themselves.” Discussing usury and an economic based on simple-commodity production (i.e., one where an artisan or farmer had “the ownership title to his conditions of labour” and sell the product of their labour), Marx talks of the usurer “extracting his victim’s surplus labour” and how usurers’ capital can result in a situation where it “appropriates all the surplus labour of the direct producer” (“without altering the mode of production” as capital “does not directly subordinate labour.”) (Capital, vol. 3, p. 276, p. 730)

So surplus-labour can arise when “a part of society” does not possess “the monopoly of the means of production”!

Rest assured, though, in spite of all this labour producing a surplus throughout history and in class and non-class systems “in no case would his surplus product arise from some innate, occult quality of human labour”! (Capital, vol. 1, p. 651) This assertion, of course, followed on from the usual dismissive comment against Proudhon. At other times, though, Marx was more forthcoming: “A level of productivity of agricultural labour which goes beyond the individual needs of the worker is the basis of all society.” (Capital, vol. 3, p. 921) Still, working people could not apparently produce a surplus by their labour without help: “before he [an individual] spends it [leisure time] in surplus labour for others compulsion is necessary.” (Capital, vol. 1, p. 651) Presumably, the “for others” does not include the young, old, sick, etc., but refers exclusively to a ruling elite (which raises interesting questions relating to Marx’s theory that the state, coercion, comes after the rise of class society…)

Marx was simply trying to score points against Proudhon while both ignoring his actual arguments and implicitly (and sometimes not so implicitly) invoking the very ideas of Proudhon which he mocked elsewhere!

So if, as Marx suggested, “two characteristic phenomena” of capitalism is that the worker “works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labour belongs” and “the product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the worker, its immediate producer” (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 291-2) then this had been recognised by Proudhon 27 years previously. This can be seen from Engels in 1868 asserting the following:

“Political economy up to now has taught us that labour is the source of all wealth and the measure of all values, so that two objects whose production has cost the same labour time possess the same value and must also be exchanged for each other . . . At the same time, however, it teaches that there exists a kind of stored-up labour, which it calls capital; that this capital . . . raises the productivity of living labour . . . and in return claims a certain compensation which is termed profit . . . How is this contradiction to be solved? How can there remain a profit for the capitalist if the worker receives in compensation the full value of the labour he adds to his product? Yet this ought to be the case, since only equal values are exchanged. On the other hand, how can equal values be exchanged, how can the worker receive the full value of his product, if, as is admitted by many economists, this product is divided between him and the capitalist? Political economy up till now has been helpless in the face of this contradiction . . . Even the previous socialist critics of political economy have not been able to do more than to emphasise the contradiction; no one resolved it, until now at last Marx has traced the process by which this profit arises right to its birthplace and has thereby made everything clear.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 20, pp. 231-2)

Compare this to Proudhon’s similar claim in 1846:

“I shall prove even that interest on capital is but the materialisation of the aphorism, All labour should leave an excess. But in the face of this theory, or rather this fiction, of the productivity of capital, arises another thesis no less certain, which in these latter days has struck the ablest economists: it is that all value is born of labour, and is composed essentially of wages . . . consequently, labour alone is the source of revenue among men. How, then, reconcile the theory of farm-rent or productivity of capital . . . with this other theory which shows that value is normally composed of wages . . .

“In such a situation what is the mandate of science? . . . it is to . . . discover a third principle, a fact, a superior law, which shall explain the fiction of capital and the myth of property, and reconcile them with the theory which makes labour the origin of all wealth. This is what socialism, if it wishes to proceed logically, must undertake.” (vol. 1, pp. 47-8)

Proudhon, as noted above, explained this by arguing that the capitalist keeps the surplus-labour and collective product of the workers employed by him. How does Engels explain Marx’s analysis? The capitalist “finds on the commodity market under present social conditions a commodity which has the peculiar property that its use is a source of new value, is a creation of new value, and this commodity is labour-power . . . This surplus-labour of the worker, over and above the time necessary to replace his wages, is the source of surplus-value, of profit, of the steadily growing increase of capital.” (pp. 232-3) Engels then proclaims:

“Here we have the solution of all those contradictions. The origin of surplus-value (of which the capitalists' profit forms an important part) is now quite clear and natural. The value of the labour-power is paid for, but this value is far smaller than that which the capitalist manages to extract from the labour-power, and it is precisely the difference, the unpaid labour, that constitutes the share of the capitalist, or more accurately, of the capitalist class.” (p. 233)

Quite, although this solution was first argued by Proudhon in 1840 and continued in 1846. Engels, like Marx, notes that “[i]t would, however, be absurd to assume that unpaid labour arose only under present conditions where production is carried on by capitalists on the one hand and wage-workers on the other. On the contrary, the oppressed class at all times has had to perform unpaid labour.” (p. 234) Not that Engels is invoking some “mysterious natural attribute of labour” to explain all this, just a “peculiar property” of labour…

Engels summarises that Marx argues that the worker “has to go on working” beyond that required to pay his wages “and during that time he produces surplus-value for the capitalist . . . That part of the labour is called surplus-labour.” (p. 234) Or, to use Proudhon’s words, “the surplus of labour, essentially collective, passes entirely, like the revenue, to the proprietor.” Or, six years before, the “free worker produces ten; for me, thinks the proprietor, he will produce twelve” and so to “satisfy property, the labourer must first produce beyond his needs.” Property, in other words, “is the right to enjoy and dispose at will of another’s goods - the fruit of another’s industry and labour” (“What is Property?”, pp. 184-5, p. 171)

Marx was keen, of course, to stress how his solution to how exploitation happens in capitalism was utterly different than Proudhon’s. Marxists continue to do so, as do others. Thus we find Marx suggesting:

“The thoughtless conception that the cost-price of a commodity constitutes its actual value, and that surplus-value springs from selling the product above its value, so that commodities would be sold at their value if their selling price were to equal their cost-price — i.e., equal to the price of the means of production consumed in them, plus wages — has been trumpeted forth by Proudhon with his customary quasi-scientific quackery as a newly discovered secret of socialism. In fact, this reduction of the values of commodities to their cost prices forms the foundation of his People's Bank.” (Capital, vol. 3, p. 130)

Except Proudhon argued no such thing. He was well aware that labour created a surplus and so the “cost-price” of a commodity would, in a mutualist society (where “the two functions of Wage-Labourer . . . and of Proprietor-Capitalist-Entrepreneur . . . become equal and inseparable in the person of every worker”) include the unpaid labour appropriated by the capitalist. Under mutualism the worker “alone profits by his products” for “exchanging without reserve product for product and value for value” he “is amply recompensed by the surplus which his labour leaves him” (‘Oeuvres Complètes,’ vol. XIX , p. 305) In short, Proudhon recognised that the “cost” of a product includes the unpaid labour appropriated by the boss – after all, the worker did work during those hours! This can be seen from Marx’s own explanation of his point:

“We have already shown that the various components of commodity value can be represented in proportional parts of the product itself . . . If for example the value of 20 lbs. of yarn is 30 shillings, made up of 24s. means of production, 3s. labour-power, and 3s. surplus-value, this surplus-value can be represented as one-tenth of the product, or 2 lbs. of yarn. If these 20 lbs. of yarn are now sold at their cost-price, for 27s., the buyer receives 2 lbs. of yarn for nothing, or the commodity is sold at one-tenth below its value.” (pp. 130-1)

Proudhon was aware that exploitation happened under capitalism because the capitalist owns the labour and product of the worker. Thus “a labourer, without property, without capital, without work, is hired by [the capitalist], who gives him employment and takes his product” and so the workers each “produced during the year ten, and have consumed only nine.” (‘Oeuvres Complètes,’ vol. XIX , p. 295, p. 296) So workers wages fail to equal the price of the goods they produce under the command of the capitalist, who keeps those goods and the revenue they generate.

What IS quackery is for Marx to forget that in a co-operative the workers sell the product of their labour (Proudhon, I must note, confuses matters somewhat by often calling such labour income “wages”). So if the value of the yarn is 30 shillings and 20lbs are produced in 12 hours (6 paid and 6 unpaid under capitalism), a self-managed firm has two options. First, work 12 hours and produce the same amount of yarn and get paid the full 6 shillings of labour. The unpaid labour would now be paid to those who do it. Second, work only 6 hours and produce 2 lbs. less yarn and sell 18 lbs. for 27 shillings. The 1lb. of yarn would cost 1.5 shillings in both cases.

Either way, the yarn would be paid according to what it cost to produce. In the first case, the unpaid labour costs which the employer pockets are returned to those who did the work and so the cost-price reflects the labour involved. In the second, less yarn is produced with less labour, so the workers gain in leisure by working just 6 hours and receiving the full value of their 6 hours of labour.

Marx suggests that under self-management “the worker has still performed his surplus labour, but now for the buyer of the yarn instead of for the capitalist yarn producer.” This only makes sense if you assume that the workers have no claim on the 6 hours of unpaid labour appropriated by the boss. Yet Marx was aware of this, at least when he was not bashing Proudhon: “The surplus labour contained in the commodity costs the capitalist nothing, even though it costs the worker labour, every bit as much as the paid labour does.” (Capital, vol. 3, p. 131, p. 133)

Proudhon explicitly argued that the surplus labour appropriated by the capitalist stays in the workers hands. In short, that the unpaid labour used to create goods and appropriated by the boss was a “cost” as it reflected actual work done. This was why he was such a firm supporter of workers associations: “all workers must associate, inasmuch as collective force and division of labour exist everywhere, to however slight a degree.” Industrial democracy, in which “all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of the members, would ensure that “the collective force, which is a product of the community, ceases to be a source of profit to a small number of managers” and becomes “the property of all the workers.” (General Idea of the Revolution, p. 217, p. 222, p. 223) Or, again, from 1857:

“Workers’ associations are the home of a new principle and model of production that must replace current corporations . . . There is mutuality, in fact, when in an industry, all the workers, instead of working for an owner who pays them and keeps their product, work for each other and thereby contribute to a common product from which they share the profit . . . extend the principle of mutuality that unites the workers of each association to all the workers’ associations as a unit, and you will have created a form of civilisation that, from all points of view — political, economic, aesthetic — differs completely from previous civilisations” (Manuel Du Spéculateur à la Bourse (4th edition, 1857), pp. 481-2)

This advocating of workers’ self-management may come as a surprise for those who take Marx’s “The Poverty of Philosophy” as the definitive account of Proudhon’s ideas (and so free themselves from the necessity of actually reading him). A basic assumption of Marxism is that Proudhon ignored the “relations of production” (this is asserted by Marxists, like Tony Cliff, who then goes on to ignore the relations of production when trying to analysis Stalinism).

Marx and Engels also used “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques” to proclaim Proudhon a leading exponent of “Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism” in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 6, p. 513) They assert:

“By changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism, however, by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be affected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations” (p. 514)

So what are “the bourgeois relations of production”? The Manifesto states that “as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity.” In short, “the condition for capital is wage-labour.” Thus “Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism” cannot aim for the abolition of wage-labour yet this is what Proudhon did argue for.

Marx and Engels proclaimed that “[t]his form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems” and pointed to Proudhon’s work as an example. (p. 490, p. 496, p. 513) Yet, as becomes clear, “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques” is mostly a work of critique. It says very little about Proudhon’s vision of libertarian socialism, concentrating its fire on capitalism, political economy, Louis Blanc’s Jacobin Socialism and Utopian Communism (la Communauté, Community). As he angrily put in 1848 in a letter to an economist:

“And, finally, I, who have thus far published naught but criticisms: criticisms of political economy, criticisms of socialism, communism, Fourierism, Saint-Simonianism; criticism of monarchy, democracy, property, etc., etc., must now listen to a damning verdict passed upon my system, when no such system has ever seen the light of day!” (Correspondance, vol. II, pp. 321-2)

Yet tantalising comments on his positive vision do come through in his pre-1848 works. Hence the repeated positive references to “the organisation of labour” in “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques” comments like “a state of equality of fortunes, voluntary and free association, universal solidarity, material comfort and luxury, and public order without prisons, courts, police, or hangmen” (“Systéme des Contradictions Économiques”, vol. 1, p. 30); that “all men must become guaranteed and irremovable proprietors of the soil” (vol. 2, p. 246); “that in reality one pursues under the name of property, is no longer property; it is a new form of possession, without example in the past” (vol. 2, p. 241); “the day when society rises to the synthetic idea of possession and of value” (vol. 2, p. 249); and such like. We find Proudhon arguing for a third alternative to capitalism and state socialism:

“Either competition, – that is, monopoly and what follows; or exploitation by the State, – that is, dearness of labour and continuous impoverishment; or else, in short, a solution based upon equality, – in other words, the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.” (vol. 1, p. 203)

Not to mention that “it is necessary to destroy or modify the predominance of capital over labour, to change the relations between employer and workman, to solve, in a word, the antinomy of division and that of machinery; it is necessary to ORGANISE LABOUR” (vol. 1, p. 196)

Whether such passing comments constitute a “complete” system or not is best left to the reader. Suffice to say, Proudhon did not think so and developed such comments after the February Revolution into a fuller vision of a (modified) market-based libertarian-socialism based on workers’ association. However, enough existed in 1846 to see that Proudhon aimed for the abolition of wage-labour. In this he followed his call for industrial democracy from 1840, namely that “every industry needs . . . leaders, instructors, superintendents” and 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.” (“What is Property?”, p. 137, p. 130)

I would say that “Systéme des Contradictions Économiques”, while it has its moments, is not Proudhon’s best work. It is a very expansive work, seeking to cover a substantial amount of ground and, as such, fails to do justice to many of the themes he touches upon. As would be expected (he was always good for a quote), he proves many a startling turn of phrase.

For example, “the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences [proceeds] to ask, ‘What are the general facts which govern the relations of profits to wages and determine their oscillations?’ in other words, what are the most salient episodes and the most remarkable phases of the war between labour and capital?” (vol. 1, p. 105)

Or, that “property, religion of force, is at the same time the religion of servitude. Depending on whether it takes over at gunpoint, or whether it proceeds by exclusion and monopoly, it engenders two sorts of servitudes: the one, the ancient proletariat, result of the primitive fact of conquest or from the violent division of . . . humanity, into . . . patricians and plebeians; the other, the modern proletariat, the working class of the economists, caused by the development of the economic phases, which are all summed up, as one has seen, in the principle fact of the consecration of monopoly by domain, heredity and revenue.” (vol. 2, pp. 242-3)

As indicated in the appendix on Proudhon and Marx in the introduction and the footnotes to the extracts of Systéme des Contradictions Économiques in “Property is Theft!”, Marx’s critique of Proudhon cannot be taken at face value. I did suggest that few Marxists had read Proudhon, but some have. I’ll end with two, one of whom became an anarchist.

First is John Ehrenberg whose account of Proudhon’s ideas, although rooted in Marxist assumptions, is sympathetic and relatively accurate. He concludes that 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.” (“Proudhon and His Age”, p. 56, p. 55) As proven above, Ehrenberg is correct but unfortunately he did not discuss what this meant for Marxist claims for the originality of Marx in discovering how exploitation occurred in a system rooted in the exchange of equal values.

Second, is Daniel Guérin. In 1936, while a Trotskyist, he wrote “Fascism and Big Business”, a classic analysis of fascism and its links with the capitalist class. As part of his discussion, he mentions Proudhon and, as an orthodox Marxist, proclaims him a typical petit-bourgeois critic of capitalism. He states “[t]he anti-capitalism of the middle classes has as its chief target the organisation of credit. Throughout the nineteenth century, the petty-bourgeois theoreticians attacked not producing capitalism but idle capitalism – the lender, the banker . . . Fascism, in its turn, concentrates its attacks on ‘loan capitalism.’” (pp. 95-6) Comments like this are probably all too commonly accepted at face value by many on the left. While it is true that Proudhon advocated the “organisation of credit”, he saw this as the means to achieve the “organisation of labour.” As can be seen from the discussion above, Proudhon also attacked “producing” capitalism (the industrial capitalist, the entrepreneur) and aimed to abolish wage-labour by means of workers’ associations.

Interestingly, in the 1950s Guérin did something unusual for a Marxist – he actually read Proudhon! After doing so, he became an anarchist and listed Proudhon alongside Bakunin as his two “outstanding anarchist thinkers.” (Anarchist Voices, p. 468) His two classic (and essential) contributions to anarchist literature, the anthology “No Gods, No Masters” and the introduction “Anarchism”, showed a keen appreciation for the contributions (and limitations) of Proudhon – specifically, but not limited to, Proudhon’s consistent advocacy of workers’ self-management and socio-economic association and federalism. As 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.” (“Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas”, vol. 2, Robert Graham (ed.), p. 280)

In conclusion, the evidence is clear that the “Marxist” explanation of exploitation within capitalism was first postulated by Proudhon in 1840 and expanded upon in 1846. For Proudhon, the worker sells their liberty to the capitalist who sets them to work in the expectation that their labour will produce more goods than their wages would purchase. This “surplus of labour” is appropriated by the boss as they appropriate both the goods the workers produce and the revenue their selling creates. Moreover, the capitalist also pockets the benefits of joint labour by paying workers individually rather than as a collective unit. Marx simply built upon these foundations, using the term “surplus-labour” to describe the same concept, while proclaiming his own originality and disparaging Proudhon at every turn.

Now, to state the obvious, I am NOT suggesting that Marx made no contribution to our understanding of capitalism (quite the reserve, as his analysis of capitalism enriched all schools of socialism). I am NOT suggesting that we dump Marx and embrace everything of Proudhon’s critique of capitalism (quite the reserve, as I’m Marx developed the insights of Proudhon, and others, as well as contributing his own). I am NOT saying that everything Proudhon wrote was correct and valid (far from it! His opposition to strikes, sexism, etc. cannot, should not, be used to dismiss his real contributions to socialism). I am NOT saying we embrace all of Proudhon vision of libertarian socialism (while, as I’ve sketched, revolutionary anarchism builds upon mutualism there are good reasons, as I’ve also indicated, why many anarchists went beyond it).

What I AM saying is that Proudhon, like Marx, contributed to our critique of capitalism and our ideas of what a free society would be like and how to get there. What I AM saying is that we give credit where credit is due. What I AM saying is that we can gain from looking at what people argued in the past to better understand the evolution of our ideas and practice and see what was valid, what has stood the test of time and what can be applied usefully today to enrich our theory and practice.

Simply put, it matters (for example) that Proudhon (and Bakunin) predicted aspects of the Paris Commune (such as mandating recallable delegates, fusion of executive and legislative powers, bottom-up federalism, workers associations). It matters that Marx belatedly embraced these ideas long after Proudhon (and Bakunin) raised them. It matters that anarchists were arguing for workers councils five decades before Lenin made it orthodoxy for most Marxists. It matters that Proudhon’s analysis of exploitation is identical to Marx’s and predates him. It matters that most Marxists are unaware of these awkward facts but still feel free to lecture anarchists on how Marxism advocates all these (as if anarchists did not and did so first!). And, finally, it matters that too many anarchists let Marxist stereotypes of Proudhon inform their opinion of his ideas and their impact in a way they are unlikely to tolerate if inflicted upon Bakunin or Kropotkin — particularly given the fundamental elements of anarchism Proudhon contributed (the critique of property, opposition to the state and capitalism, socio-economic federalism, self-management, the name “anarchist”, etc.)

Why? While the Marxist paradigm has repeatedly failed, elements of Marx’s work are valid for the project of human liberation and can be usefully added to libertarian socialist theory. In part because Marx was building on the foundations created by Proudhon and, in part, because his critique of capitalism is relatively independent of his vision of social change. Ultimately, that Marxists have been forced to incorporate aspects of our ideas into their ideology indicates that the anarchist paradigm contains more promise for human liberation than other forms of socialism.

In short, this is a call for giving credit where credit is due and for recognising the contributions of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx, etc., to our understanding of capitalism and the state. All can enrich libertarian socialism, to varying degrees, but part of this requires an understanding of the birth and evolution of key aspects of basic socialist analysis. And that means reading the likes of Proudhon, Bakunin, Marx, etc., rather than accepting at face value the pronouncements of others. If we do so then we cannot but gain valuable insights into the origins and evolution of our ideas but also be in a position to improve upon them as well as our practice.