Proudhon and "collective force"

Welcome to the new home of Property is Theft! and its blog. Due to technical issues, I have had to move to this new – but very retro – environment. All the extracts from the book have been moved over now, along with most of its blog entries (some for long past events have not been transferred). At some stage, I will need to investigate more technologically advanced rendering means but for the time being it is basic html files. In this posting I will discuss Proudhon’s theory of “collective force” and its key role in his critique of capitalism and his vision of socialism.

First, two new texts from Property is Theft!:

Both are newspaper articles written during the 1848 Revolution, during which Proudhon’s journalism became increasingly influential and he was elected to the Constituent Assembly. His papers were regularly suppressed and he was finally stripped of his parliamentary immunity and imprisoned in 1849 for his attacks on the President Louis Napoleon – he argued that the President wanted to become Emperor, which, as the events of 1851-2 showed, was correct. He spent the time writing, producing four books (as summarised by K. Steven Vincent).

Second, during the migration I noticed that the Supplementary Material section of the website was a bit bare. So here are a few more articles:

The first is Proudhon’s application to the funding which supported him when he was working on what became What is Property? This allowed him to return to education having he had to leave school to work to bring in money for his family. As he notes in his application:

Born and raised in the heart of the working classes, still belonging to it in my heart and affections, and especially through the sufferings and wishes, my greatest joy, if I garner your votes, would be, do not doubt it, Gentlemen, to be able to work from now on without rest, by science and philosophy, with all the energy of my will and all the powers of my mind, at the moral and intellectual improvement of those whom I am happy to call my brothers and companions; to be able to spread among them the seeds of a doctrine that I regard as the law of the moral world; and, while awaiting the success of my efforts, directed by your prudence, to already find myself, in some way, as their representative to you.

The second is an article from the polemic between Proudhon and two leading French state socialists, Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux. These are important texts as they show both Proudhon’s critique of the State and his ideas on socialism. They include two articles on “Resistance to the Revolution”, then two letters to Pierre Leroux and then eight articles entitled “Regarding Louis Blanc - The Present Utility and Future Possibility of the State”. The Rivière edition of his Oeuvres completes includes all these polemical articles in its edition of Idée générale de la Révolution au dix-neuvième siècle while Property is Theft! includes three of them:

Interestingly, Kropotkin referenced it in Modern Science and Anarchy (1913), stating that “[m]any admirable pages can be found there on the State and Anarchy which it would be very useful to reproduce for a wide audience”. He actually quotes from one of the articles (“Louis Blanc having opposed the MASTER STATE to the SERVANT STATE, Proudhon replied with these lines which we could say were written yesterday”), which is a rarity in itself. (Peter Kropotkin, Modern Science and Anarchy [Chico/Edinburgh: AK Press, 2018], 205, 227) If memory serves, Proudhon is the only anarchist thinker who Kropotkin quotes - he paraphrases a sentence from De la Capacité Politique des Classes Ouvrières (1865) in two different works (one of which is The Great French Revolution): “There is no middle term: the commune will be sovereign or a subsidiary, all or nothing.” (Property is Theft!, 769). So it is good to see another article from this polemic available to the English-reading world.

Finally, there is a chapter from The Federative Principle. This was translated for my four volume A Libertarian Reader anthology which is, apparently, being worked on by publisher (Active). Hopefully I will hear something about this sooner rather than later.

Now, on to Proudhon and “collective force”.

I have been working on a reply to Schapiro’s claims that Proudhon was a fascist and this will appear in the next issue of Black Flag: Anarchist Review (due out on July 19). While working on it, I quoted Alan Ritter on Proudhon and Louis-Napoleon as he gets this right (mostly). Which lead me to think of the drawbacks of quoting “authorities” as, all to often, if they get certain things right, get others wrong. Ritter is a case in point as can be seen by his comments on “collective force”:

Proudhon […] stresses the need to strengthen the workers' bargaining position. This recommendation is the main point of one of his more obscure doctrines: his theory of collective force.

Unless this doctrine is seen as part of Proudhon's theory of bargaining, it is rather puzzling. He first mentioned it in an account, in Propriete, of the erection of the Luxor obelisque. Collective force is described as "that immense force which results from workers' union and harmony, from the convergence and simultaneousness of their efforts. . . . Two hundred grenadiers placed the Luxor obelisque on its base in a few hours; do you really think a single man could have succeeded in two hundred days ?"19 Having made this claim for the workers, Proudhon could be expected to urge a higher remuneration for their labor; but he does not. The argument, both in Propriete and elsewhere, is left hanging; it contributes to Proudhon's critique of existing conditions and even helps explain it, but does not directly support any of his proposals for change.

Seen in the context of his theory of bargaining, however, the doctrine of collective force becomes more comprehensible; it appears as an argument for strengthening the workers' bargaining position in order to protect them from exploitation. By calling attention to their collective force, Proudhon hopes to increase their power and make them less dependent on their employers. (The Political Thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969], 128-9)

If you read Proudhon, the notion of collective force is hardly one of “his more obscure doctrines” and, moreover, it does “directly support” other aspects of “his proposals for change.” Which makes my ponder the merits of referencing Ritter on other matters. Still, I suppose if a writer gets something right it and you reference it, it does not mean other claims by them are correct or accurate (even Schapiro gets the occasional thing right, like Proudhon’s advocacy of “bills of exchange” rather than “labour notes”).

So here I will show how Proudhon’s theory of “collective force” is the foundation of both his critique of capitalism (how wage-labour causes exploitation) and his vision of libertarian socialism (why wage-labour must be replaced by associated labour). This will involve quoting from many of his books, primarily those focused on economics (as the glossary of Property is Theft! indicates, “collective force” is used by Proudhon as the basis of other things but here I concentrate on the economic aspects of it).

This is from What is Property? in which he first raised the notion:

A force of one thousand men working twenty days has been paid the same wages that one would be paid for working fifty-five years; but this force of one thousand has done in twenty days what a single man could not have accomplished, though he had laboured for a million centuries. Is the exchange an equitable one? Once more, no; when you have paid all the individual forces, the collective force still remains to be paid.

Consequently, there remains always a right of collective property which you have not acquired, and which you enjoy unjustly.

Admit that twenty days’ wages suffice to feed, lodge, and clothe this multitude for twenty days: thrown out of employment at the end of that time, what will become of them, if, as fast as they create, they abandon their creations to the proprietors who will soon discharge them? While the proprietor, firm in his position (thanks to the aid of all the workers), dwells in security, and fears no lack of labour or bread, the worker’s only dependence is upon the benevolence of this same proprietor, to whom he has sold and surrendered his liberty. If, then, the proprietor, shielding himself behind his comfort and his rights, refuses to employ the worker, how can the worker live? He has ploughed an excellent field, and cannot sow it; he has built an elegant and commodious house, and cannot live in it; he has produced all, and can enjoy nothing.

Labour leads us to equality. Every step that we take brings us nearer to it; and if workers had equal strength, diligence, and industry, clearly their fortunes would be equal also. Indeed, if, as is pretended, — and as we have admitted, — the worker is proprietor of the value which he creates, it follows:

1. That the worker should acquire at the expense of the idle proprietor;

2. That all production being necessarily collective, the worker is entitled to a share of the products and profits commensurate with his labour;

3. That all accumulated capital being social property, no one can be its exclusive proprietor.

These inferences are unavoidable; these alone would suffice to revolutionise our whole economic system, and change our institutions and our laws. (Chapter III)

Collective force is also used to support the socialisation of property:

All human labour being the result of collective force, all property becomes, in consequence, collective and unitary. To speak more exactly, labour destroys property. (Chapter V)

It should also be noted that Proudhon also advocates in this book association and workplace democracy:

But every industry needs — they will add — leaders, instructors, superintendents, &c. Will these be engaged in the general task? No; since their task is to lead, instruct, and superintend. But they must be chosen from the workers by the workers themselves, and must fulfil the conditions of eligibility. It is the same with all public functions, whether of administration or instruction. (Chapter III)

In other words, how workers collectively produce more than working individually explains both exploitation (the employers keeps this extra product) and how to end it (collectively worked property must be collectively owned and managed).

The following year (in Letter to Blanqui, the second memoir on property) saw the following:

For this value or wealth, produced by the activity of all, is by the very fact of its creation collective wealth, the use of which, like that of the land, may be divided, but which as property remains undivided. And why this undivided ownership? Because the society which creates is itself indivisible, — a permanent unit, incapable of reduction to fractions. And it is this unity of society which makes the land common property, and which, as M. Considérant says, renders its use imprescriptible in the case of every individual. Suppose, indeed, that at a given time the soil should be equally divided; the very next moment this division, if it allowed the right of property, would become illegitimate. Should there be the slightest irregularity in the method of transfer, men, members of society, imprescriptible possessors of the land, might be deprived at one blow of property, possession, and the means of production. In short, property in capital is indivisible, and consequently inalienable, not necessarily when the capital is uncreated, but when it is common or collective.

Thus property which had to be worked collectively – that is, subject to collective force – that to be collectively owned. He repeats this analysis in 1846 in System of Economic Contradictions:

In any exploitation, no matter of what sort, the entrepreneur cannot legitimately claim, in addition to his own personal labour, anything but the IDEA: as for the EXECUTION, the result of the co-operation of numerous workers, that is an effect of collective power, with which the authors, as free in their action as the chief, can produce nothing which should go to him gratuitously. 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. (Chapter VI)

As he puts it in that works Conclusion:

Adam Smith, who had a kind of intuition on almost all the great problems of social economy, after having recognised labour as the principle of value and described the magical effects of the law of division, observes that, notwithstanding the increase of the produce resulting from this division, the wages of the worker do not increase; that often, on the contrary, they diminish, the gains of collective force not going to the worker, but to the master.

As workers have no access to the means of production, they “have sold their arms and parted with their liberty’” to those who own them. This produces an authoritarian workplace:

With machinery and the workshop, divine right – that is, the principle of authority – makes its entrance into political economy. Capital, Mastership […] such are, in economic language, the various names of […] Power, Authority, Sovereignty […] the workshop with its hierarchical organisation, and machinery […] serv[es] exclusively the interests of the least numerous, the least industrious, and the wealthiest class. (Chapter IV)


To fall from the proletariat into property! From slavery into tyranny […] to free yourself from wage-labour, it is necessary to become a capitalist, to become a tyrant! […] 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 [jaloux] of his prejudices even more than of his orders […[ 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. (Chapter XI)

Thus capitalism is marked by oppression and exploitation in the workplace. And, again, this analysis leads to a positive position – that work had to be collectively managed:

By virtue of the principle of collective force, workers are the equals and associates of their leaders. (Système des contradictions économiques ou Philosophie de la misère [Paris: Guillaumin, 1846] I: 377)

If “association” was the favoured term in the memoirs on property, in this work Proudhon had no qualms using the expression the “organisation of labour” which was associated with Jacobin-socialist Louis Blanc (who had written the Organisation of Labour in 1839). The alternatives were “[e]ither competition, — that is, monopoly and what follows; or exploitation by the State [...] or else [...] a solution based upon equality, — in other words, the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property.” (Chapter XI) Workers needed to have access to the means of production:

The remedy for competition [in the option of the economists] is to make competition universal. But, in order that competition may be universal, it is necessary to procure for all the means of competing; it is necessary to destroy or modify the predominance of capital over labour, to change the relations between employer and worker, to solve, in a word, the antinomy of division and that of machinery; it is necessary to ORGANISE LABOUR: can you give this solution? (Chapter V)

Yet while embracing the aim of the “organisation of labour”, he opposed the vision advocated by Louis Blanc (for example, its abolition of all forms of market and competition as well as centralised, hierarchical nature). Blanc aimed to use the State to create Social Workshops which would end competition by driving capitalist firms out of business. Proudhon, however, rejected the notion that the “organisation of labour” (socialism) could be laid down in advance and instead argued that labour had to organise itself:

As a critic, having had to proceed to the search for social laws by the negation of property, I belong to the socialist protest: in this respect I have nothing to disavow of my first assertions, and I am, thank God, true to my background. As a man of achievement and progress, I repudiate with all my might socialism, empty of ideas, powerless, immoral, capable only of producing dupes and crooks […] and here is, in a few words, my profession of faith and my criterion on all past, present and future organisational utopias:

Whoever calls upon power and capital to organise labour is lying,

Because the organisation of labour must be the downfall of capital and power. (Système des contradictions économiques II: 396)

In this work, Proudhon focused on analysing and critiquing capitalism and so only occassionally sketched the outlines of what a mutualist socialist system would be like, explicitly noting that he would “reserve this subject [‘the organisation of labour’] for the time when, the theory of economic contradictions being finished, we shall have found in their general equation the programme of association, which we shall then publish in contrast with the practice and conceptions of our predecessors.” (Système des contradictions économiques I: 176) Significiantly, though, he argued that association (workplace democracy) had to replace wage-labour:

In order that association may be real, he who participates in it must do so, not as a gambler, but as an active factor; he must have a deliberative voice in the council; his name must be expressed or implied in the title of the society; everything regarding him, in short, should be regulated in accordance with equality. But these conditions are precisely those of the organisation of labour (Chapter IV)

In short, in 1846, as in 1840, collective force explains both what is wrong with capitalism (how exploitation occurs in a system apparently marked by free contracts) and indicates what will replace it: “to unfold the system of economic contradictions is to lay the foundations of universal association; to show how the products of collective labour come out of society is to explain how it will be possible to make them return to it; to exhibit the genesis of the problems of production and distribution is to prepare the way for their solution.” (Chapter III)

The 1848 Revolution forced Proudhon to think about how to create mutualism and he raised “organisation of credit” as the means of creating the “organisation of labour”. Both associative labour and credit are advocated in the Election Manifesto of Le Peuple. In 1851, he re-iterated the link between “collective force” and associated labour in General Idea of the Revolution:

It is otherwise with certain industries, which require the combined employment of a large number of workers, a vast array of machines and hands, and, to make use of a technical expression, a great division of labour, and in consequence a high concentration of power. In such cases, worker is necessarily subordinate to worker, man dependent on man. The producer is no longer, as in the fields, a sovereign and free father of a family; it is a collectivity. Railroads, mines, factories, are examples.

In such cases, it is one of two things; either the worker, necessarily a piece-worker, will be simply the employee of the proprietor-capitalist-entrepreneur; or he will participate in the chances of loss or gain of the establishment, he will have a voice in the council, in a word, he will become an associate.

In the first case the worker is subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience and poverty. In the second case he resumes his dignity as a man and citizen, he may aspire to comfort, he forms a part of the producing organisation, of which he was before but the slave; as, in the town, he forms a part of the sovereign power, of which he was before but the subject.

Thus we need not hesitate, for we have no choice. In cases in which production requires great division of labour, and a considerable collective force, it is necessary to form an ASSOCIATION among the workers in this industry; because without that, they would remain related as subordinates and superiors, and there would ensue two industrial castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society. (Chapter VI)

So, again, collective force is used as the basis for association. He goes on to use it, again, to argue for collective ownership:

It is in such cases, perfectly defined, that association, due to the immorality, tyranny and theft suffered, seems to me absolutely necessary and right. The industry to be carried on, the work to be accomplished, are the common and undivided property of all those who take part therein: the granting of franchises for mines and railroads to companies of stockholders, who plunder the bodies and souls of the wage-workers, is a betrayal of power, a violation of the rights of the public, an outrage upon human dignity and personality.

So his analysis of how the exploitation of labour occurs under capitalism – within production – is used to inform his vision of libertarian socialism. Thus collective force exposes the evils of wage-labour and points beyond it:

In the same way the wage-worker of the great industries had been crushed into a condition worse than that of the slave by the loss of the advantage of collective force. But by the recognition of his right to the profit from this force, of which he is the producer, he resumes his dignity, he regains comfort; the great industries, terrible engines of aristocracy and pauperism, become, in their turn, one of the principal organs of liberty and public prosperity.

The following year sees him first use the term “industrial democracy” in La Révolution sociale démontrée par le coup d’État du 2 décembre, arguing (amongst other things) that for “representative government” was “a necessary transition to industrial democracy” and “industrial freedom and political freedom are interdependent; that any restriction on the latter is an obstacle for the former”. (La Révolution sociale démontrée par le coup d’État du 2 décembre”, Oeuvres complètes [Paris: Rivière, 1936] IX: 258, 274) Soon after, “industrial democracy” and the “industrial republic” appear in Stock Exchange Speculator’s Manual. This was initially published anonymously (due to the Bonapartist regime’s views on Proudhon and his ideas) and argues for workers’ associations:

Workers’ Associations are the locus of a new principle and model of production that must replace present-day corporations […] The principle that prevailed there […] is participation, that is, the MUTUALITY of services supplementing the force of division and the force of collectivity.

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 one another and thereby contribute to a common product from which they share the profit.

However, extend the principle of mutuality that unites the workers of each group 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, that can no longer return to feudalism or imperialism, with all possible guarantees of freedom, fair advertising, an impenetrable system of insurance against theft, fraud, misappropriation, parasitism, nepotism, monopoly, speculation, exorbitant rent, living expenses, transportation and credit; against overproduction, stagnation, gluts, unemployment, disease, and poverty, with no need for charity because it will provide us instead, everywhere and always, with our RIGHT.

Given all this, I really do fail to understand how Ritter could make his assertion – the collective force is hardly “obscure” in which it describes (that collective work produces a force greater than the sum of its parts, a force which allows a greater product to be produced which the capitalist monopolises) and how it is the basis for his vision of socialism (collective work required collective control and ownership to end capitalist exploitation and oppression). As another commentator summarises, Proudhon “wanted to reorganise industrial enterprises so that the workers themselves would be the beneficiaries -- so that workers themselves would divide the ‘collective force’ (to use Proudhon’s phrase) which results from their productivity as a group.” (K. Steven Vincent, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism, 136)

Clearly, Proudhon's analysis of capitalism was based on recognising that the worker surrendered both labour (liberty!) and its product in exchange of a wage (and orders). As such, he recognised in 1840 what Marx noted in volume 1 of Capital in 1867:

The labour-process, turned into the process by which the capitalist consumes labour-power, exhibits two characteristic phenomena. First, the labourer works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labour belongs [...] Secondly, the product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the labourer, its immediate producer. [...] From the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labour-power, and therefore also its use, which is labour, belongs to the capitalist. (Part III: Chapter VII)

Just as exploitation occurred within production rather than exchange (or in the exchange of labour for wages) so Proudhon recognised that ending this required a transformation of production. Wage-labour needed to be replaced by associated-labour, by industrial democracy, for only this would ensure that workers control both their labour and its product (and as his polemics with Blanc show, he was well aware that replacing the boss with a bureaucrat did not change the situation of the workers or the social relationships they were subject to). In short, mutualism is a form of market socialism.

How something so unambiguous and clearly expressed cannot be seen suggests that Ritter – like so many – comes to Proudhon with an aim in mind rather than seeking to understand his ideas (and the social and theoretical context they were developed in).

To be fair to Ritter, he is hardly alone in ignoring Proudhon’s ideas on association. Indeed, some commentators point to his General idea of the Revolution as evidence of his opposition to association in spite of its arguments in favour of it! At best, they misunderstand an opposition to Association as a principle (i.e., association for association’s sake) and support for it when it is objectively needed or voluntarily desired. At worse, they seek to mislead – harsh words, but given the examples of Marx and Schapiro it just a fact that many commentators on Proudhon are dishonest.

Talking of Schapiro, collective force also refutes his assertion that unlike the socialists who “directed their attacks on the capitalistic system of production; hence they sought to substitute socialization for private ownership – the Utopians, through cooperative societies, and the Marxists, through government ownership”, Proudhon’s “anticapitalism was not the same as that of the socialists […] Not the system of production, but the system of exchange was the root of evil of capitalism.” Needless to say, he systematically ignores that Proudhon repeatedly called himself a socialist and supported workers’ associations. Moreover, Schapiro contradicts himself when discussing General Idea of the Revolution by, surprisingly, correctly summarising its analysis that “[b]y its perversion of the principle of the division of labour, capitalism made the worker more productive and more dependent at the same time. As a consequence, all the advantages under the new industrial system went to capital, not labour.” (J. Salwyn Schapiro, Liberalism and the Challenge of Fascism: Social Forces in England 1815-1870 [New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1949]. 342, 340) Presumably, Schapiro hoped his readers would forget this or consider it Proudhon’s rather than his contradiction. Suffice to say, Proudhon focused on capitalism’s system of production, analysing and denouncing the extreme division of labour, the hierarchies within the workplace and the exploitation and oppression it created. As these all took place in production, he advocated socialisation and associations to replace capitalism – a transformation which would be produced by means of “the system of exchange” but one not limited to it.

This, and much more, will be covered in the next issue of Black Flag.

For those interested, by far the best book on Proudhon is K. Steven Vincent’s Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the Rise of French Republican Socialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) followed by Robert L. Hoffman Revolutionary Justice: The Social and Political Theory of P-J Proudhon (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1969). Another good account is Jack Hayward’s chapter on Proudhon in After the French Revolution: Six Critics of Democracy and Nationalism (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991). Daniel Guérin is usually reliable (although he tends to be far too tolerant of Marx and his inventions).

Finally, I have went through the translation of Proudhon’s War and Peace organised by Alex Prichard. Interesting arguments and not what I expected in many ways. It should be published by AK Press later this year. Having this available in English will help debunk some of the nonsense spread about Proudhon. Once it is available, I will blog about it here.