Proudhon on Federalism and Slavery

First off, sorry for the large gap since the last Proudhon update. I’ve been busy on numerous things, not least my new Kropotkin anthology Direct Action Against Capital. The best that can be said is that the Proudhon blog suffered equally along with replying to emails and writing articles. No excuse, other than I’m just human with a lot of responsibilities and things to do. However, I plan to be a bit more focused this year and I am starting with Proudhon.

This update consists of two parts. First, the extracts of The Federative Principle from Property is Theft! (or to give it its full title: The Federative Principle and the Necessity of Reconstituting the Party of the Revolution). Second, chapter IX from Part Three of The Federative Principle which one of the translators (Ian Harvey) who worked on Property is Theft! was kind enough to translate after the book was finished. I’m annoyed that I did not get this done for inclusion in Property is Theft!, for it clarifies Proudhon’s position on the American Civil War as well as on race.

In terms of the texts from Property is Theft!, it consists of chapters from Part One of the work (in a new translation) plus the book’s conclusion (newly translated for the first time). Part One has been translated before (along with the first chapter of Part Two of the book). This old translation is on-line: The Principle of Federation and the Need to Reconstitute the Party of Revolution Suffice to say, this previous translation is by no means perfect (not least in getting the title wrong, “The Principle of Federation” is Part One of the book!).

This work is important in that it makes explicit what was implicit in previous works – federalism. This was the social aspect of the economic association he had previously advocated and feeds into his previous arguments for decentralisation, as contained in (for example) 1851’s General Idea of the Revolution:

“Unless democracy is a fraud, and the sovereignty of the People a joke, it must be admitted that each citizen in the sphere of his industry, each municipal, district or provincial council within its own territory, is the only natural and legitimate representative of the Sovereign, and that therefore each locality should act directly and by itself in administering the interests which it includes, and should exercise full sovereignty in relation to them.” (Property is Theft!, 595)

“In place of laws, we will put contracts.— No more laws voted by a majority, nor even unanimously; each citizen, each commune or corporation [i.e., industrial association], makes its own.” (Property is Theft!, 591)

I should note that there is no mention of mandates and recall in the translated parts of the The Federative Principle, probably because Proudhon had advocated those during the 1848 revolution and saw no need to repeat himself:

“In the end, we are all voters; we can choose the most worthy.

“We can do more; we can follow them step-by-step in their legislative acts and their votes; we will make them transmit our arguments and our documents; we will suggest our will to them, and when we are discontented, we will recall and dismiss them.

“The choice of talents, the imperative mandate [mandate impertif], and permanent revocability are the most immediate and incontestable consequences of the electoral principle. It is the inevitable program of all democracy.” (Property is Theft!, 273)

So this book clarifies Proudhon’s ideas on social organisation and introduces a key idea of anarchism, namely the necessity of federalism (he mentioned federalism in 1858’s Justice in the Revolution and in the Church (Property is Theft!, 677-8)). The Federative Principle goes into more detail about the socio-economic federal social organisation that can be found in the likes of Bakunin and Kropotkin. Thus we find the latter arguing for a system “of independent Communes for the territorial organisation, and of federations of Trade Unions for the organisation of men in accordance with their different functions” (and so workers would become “the managers of production”) as the “concrete conception of society regenerated by a social revolution.” (“Modern Science and Anarchism”, Environment and Evolution [Montreal/New York: Black Rose, 1995], 78-9)

This is reflected in The Federative Principle, with Proudhon arguing that “the federative principle… has for its first consequence the administrative independence of the assembled localities; for its second consequence the separation of power in each sovereign State; [and] for its third consequence the agricultural-industrial federation.” The later was required “to shield the citizens of the contracting State from bankocratic and capitalist exploitation as much from the inside as from the outside.” This would end “economic serfdom or wage-labour, in a word, the inequality of conditions and fortunes” by “a combination of work to allow each worker to evolve from a mere labourer to a skilled worker or even an artist, and from a wage-earner to their own master.”(Property is Theft!, 712-3)

This economic federalism was required because “industries are sisters; they are parts of the same body; one cannot suffer without the others suffering because of it. I wish that they federate then, not to absorb one another and merge, but to mutually guarantee the conditions of prosperity that are common to them all and on which none can claim a monopoly. By forming such a pact, they will not infringe their liberty.” Interestingly, Proudhon talks of “political-economic guaranteeism” as “the highest expression of federalism.” (Property is Theft!, 713. 718)

Guaranteeism was a word suggested by utopian socialist Charles Fourier and he used it to describe the sixth stage of “the Ladder of the First Age of the Social World”, a stage of “semi-association” after “civilisation” (large industry) before “Sociantism, simple association” and which ends with “Harmonism, composite association.” This was “societary competition, solidarity and subordination of the commercial body to the interests of the producers, manufacturers, farmers and proprietors” as opposed to the free competition of civilisation. (The Theory of the Four Movements [Cambridge University Press, 1996], 223) Given that Proudhon was well aware of Fourier and his ideas, his use of the term cannot be by accident.

However, as can be seen from The Federative Principle and his other works, Proudhon took this further by arguing for the end of wage-labour by means of workers associations. Thus, for Proudhon, this system was an economic federation of co-operatives and independent workers and farmers to ensure mutual assurance or aid between them. The ending of wage-labour or the proletariat is, as we will see, a key part of his analysis of the American Civil War.

The importance of contract (or free agreement) cannot be underestimated. If federalism is required for meaningful self-government, it is even more so for a functioning economy – focused bilateral agreements between workplaces is the only means by which the appropriate information to make informed decisions which meet people’s needs. Simply put, the advocates of centralism on the left simply do not comprehend that it, by necessity, produces hierarchy and bureaucracy. Information needs to be identified, gathered, interpreted, processed and presented. If this is not done by means of contracts then it will have to be done by somebody other than those directly involved and as they will be doing it for all workplaces and communes, the difficulties involved swamp those trying to do it (see section I of An Anarchist FAQ).

Suffice to say, I will not discuss the problems of central planning here or the false assumption of market socialists that such bi-lateral agreements can only be done via the market and prices. All I will do is note that history has shown how wrong Marx’s two sentences (yes, just a two sentence alternative to Proudhon!) on central planning were in The Poverty of Philosophy – they were a classic example of the fallacy of composition (what works for two people may not work for millions). Sadly, too many on the left still have illusions in detailed planning (whether obviously centralised or allegedly decentralised, as in Parecon).

As Proudhon notes, this position does not imply a lack of large-scale projects or industry it just means that they must be organised on an appropriate level and running of them devolved, likewise, to appropriate groups (i.e., a federation would initiate a plan for a “national” rail network but would turn the building and running of it over to workers’ associations). In short, federalism allows a rational co-ordination of projects based on objective needs rather than the crude lumping together of issues into the hands of a few people in the centre who don’t know the issues involved.

So while predominantly focused on political (perhaps social would be better?) forms of organisation, this work does not ignore economic issues. Thus Chapter XI discusses economic federalism and introduces another change in terminology – the “universal association” of the 1840s is now called the “agricultural-industrial federation.” However, the basic idea is the same and Proudhon acknowledges this by stating that “[a]ll my economic ideas, elaborated for twenty-five years, can be summarised in these three words: Agricultural-Industrial Federation” (Property is Theft!, 714) The links to his 1848 election manifesto’s universal association are clear enough:

“under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership... We do not want expropriation by the State of the mines, canals and railways: it is still monarchical, still wage-labour. We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organised workers’ associations... We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade, the pioneering core of that vast federation of companies and societies woven into the common cloth of the democratic and social Republic.” (“Election Manifesto of Le Peuple, Property is Theft!, 377-8)

The idea of an “universal association” can be found in What is Property?, Letter to M. Blanqui on Property and System of Economic Contradictions as can the advocacy of workers associations to replace wage-labour. As I discuss in my introduction to Property is Theft!, workers associations place a key (if often overlooked) part in Proudhon’s ideas and unsurprisingly the conclusion of The Federative Principle raises the importance of workers’ association:

“Finally, workers’ association will remain a utopia as long as government does not understand that it must not perform public services itself or convert them into corporations but entrust them by term lease at a fixed rate to companies of united and responsible workers.” (Property is Theft!, 718)

I should note that a slight error crept in here as “corporations”, while a correct (modern) translation, is better rendered “private stock companies” as “corporation” at the time referred to Mediaeval Guilds as well as workers’ associations. Proudhon used the term both negatively and positively, usually the latter (particularly after 1850). See the Glossary for more detail. Suffice to say, that was my mistake as editor in not making this text consistent with the rest.

The Federative Principle, however, adds to the debate on whether Proudhon shifted from an anarchist to a liberal socialist position in the 1850s. Thus the book talks of states and governments and yet, at the same time, argues that “the federative system is the opposite of administrative and governmental hierarchy or centralisation.” (698) It appears that by 1863 Proudhon was happy to use the words “state” and “government” for his vision of a federal system – although this adds some confusion as how do you differentiate between this new form of social organisation with the current or previous ones marked by hierarchy, centralisation and minority rule? As Daniel Guérin suggests:

“The anarchists [after Proudhon] soon saw... that it was rather dangerous for them to use the same word as the authoritarians while giving it a quite different meaning. They felt that a new concept called for a new word and that the use of the old term could be dangerously ambiguous; so they ceased to give the name ‘State’ to the social collective of the future” (Anarchism, 60–1)

You also have to factor in that Proudhon, for all his talk of social revolution, was a reformist. This meant that he saw a long transition period before a libertarian society would exist and, as such, his talk of states and governments could be referring to the political reforms he considered necessary get these into a position to slowly disappear. Thus federalism could be seen as both a necessary transformation for existing states as well as the basis of the non-state social organisations of a free society. As one was expected to flow naturally into the other (once the appropriate economic reforms were implemented) then it may be unsurprising that Proudhon is less that exact in his choice of words. Suffice to say, this adds a level of ambiguity which subsequent anarchists were aware of and tried to avoid (particularly for revolutionary anarchists who argued that neither the state nor capitalism could be reformed away).

In addition, the work is a bit vague at times - but for two goods reasons. First, Proudhon is seeking to explain the principle of federation rather than its application. As such, you would expect much on general issues and less on actual examples. Second, rejecting the visions of the Utopian Socialists from 1840 onwards he would hardly present a detailed plan for the future. How federation, like workers association, would be applied depends on what the people doing it want and their objective circumstances. As such, while he could sketch the principles and basic outline of both social federation and workers associations being more precise ran the risk of putting society into an ideological straight-jacket (see my “Laying the Foundations: Proudhon’s Contribution to Anarchist Economics” in The Accumulation of Freedom [AK Press, 2012] for more on his economic vision). I would suggest he managed to get it right, avoiding the extremes of the utopian socialists and their detailed plans as well as the few unexplored lines of Marx ( as I discuss elsewhere, we need to avoid both). The notion that Proudhon was a utopian is simply wrong: his scheme for a Bank of the People (which is being raised, on and off, during this economic crisis) was suggested precisely to ensure that workers associations would develop based on objective requirements by the workers themselves rather than the wishful thinking of an enlightened few.

In addition, this shift in terminology may reflect the backlash by the peasantry after 1848 and its significant impact on Proudhon’s ideas. It also applied to use of the term “property” where, in the 1840s, he clearly advocated its abolition. That this leads to confusion should go without saying (and I discuss it in the introduction to Property is Theft!). Suffice to say, this work had significant impact on the French workers movement and the Communards of 1871 referred to themselves as Federals (one of the many awkward facts Marx somehow managed to not mention as I note in my introduction). As one academic notes:

“Though Lefebvre is a Marxist and Robert Aron is associated with the personalist movement, they are in agreement on one point at least: the Commune was federalist in concept and the very notion of the communal organization of society is directly attributable to Proudhon.” (Ralph Nelson, “The Federal Idea in French Political Thought”, Politics 5:3, 45)

However, I wish to discuss the new chapter which is not in Property is Theft!. This is the final chapter of Part Three of The Federative Principle entitled “Slavery and the Proletariat.” This chapter is particularly important as it destroys the notion, first suggested by American Liberal J. Salwyn Schapiro, that Proudhon was a “Harbinger of Fascism.” (“Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Harbinger of Fascism”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Jul., 1945), 714-737). This article is mostly forgotten (and rightly so), but Schapiro’s claims have some currency in the Leninist circles thanks to Hal Draper utilising Schapiro’s work to proclaim “The Myth of Anarchist Libertarianism” in his pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism. From there, it became part of the myths of the Leninism and repeated by the likes of David McNally in his pamphlet Socialism from Below.

(As an aside, it should be stressed that Proudhon was the first socialist to argue the importance of social change “from below” against reform “from above”, which means that Draper and McNally smear Proudhon while appropriating his terminology. So it is important to stress that it was Proudhon, not Marx, who argued for socialism “from below” – as Lenin stressed: “Limitation, in principle, of revolutionary action to pressure from below and renunciation of pressure also from above is anarchism.” (Collected Works 8: 481) So there is a double irony in these Leninists proclaiming themselves the long advocates of “socialism from below” – see section H.3.3 of An Anarchist FAQ).

What is Schapiro’s thesis? That there are “sinister overtones that haunt” Proudhon’s work and in “the powerful polemist of the mid-nineteenth century it is now possible to discern a harbinger of the great world evil of fascism.”  He “was a prophet of future discontents . . . The true significance of his writings can be seen only in the light of the political and social movement of our day known as fascism.” In summary: “It is the thesis of this article that the great French polemist, Proudhon, was a harbinger of fascist ideas. Otherwise his views would be as bewildering to us as they were to his contemporaries.” (717, 737, 733, 733-4)

Schapiro’s article is the worse kind of anachronism, seeking to (re-)define Proudhon in terms of an ideology that did not come into existence until 70 years after his death. A movement, in fact, which would never have appeared if Proudhon’s mutualism had been successful as the erosion of the state and capitalism Proudhon wanted would have removed the soil upon which fascism grew.

Even Schapiro had to admit to some difficulties in his case, such as the awkward fact that Proudhon’s “teachings [were] misunderstood as anarchy by his disciples” (737) and that there was “no hint of the totalitarian corporative state in Proudhon’s writings” as the “economic condition of France, in his day, was such that a totalitarian state of the fascist type was inconceivable” (736) Thus, apparently, Proudhon conceived of something (a fascist state) which was “inconceivable”!

That in itself should show the weakness of his arguments and, unsurprisingly, there are many reasons why Schapiro’s perspective on Proudhon failed to convince most people – particularly those who are familiar with his writings! As one reviewer suggested, Proudhon “wrote in a period and with a purpose so remote from those of fascism that . . .  to seek pre-fascist overtones in them loses and distorts their essential meaning . . . It does violence to their meaning to see in them the early rumbling of a political order, like fascism, against the threat of which they were really thundering.” (David Easton, The American Political Science Review 43: 5, 1063)

Even a cursorily look at Schapiro’s article shows its weakness. Rather than examine the whole of Proudhon’s work, he concentrates on his correspondence and two of his lesser known works (1852’s La Révolution sociale demontrée par le Coup d’Etat du 2 decembre and 1861’s La Guerre et la Paix). That suggests that Schapiro is cherry-picking material to support his thesis rather than developing a thesis on the basis of the evidence. By ignoring Proudhon’s key contributions to the socialist movement and which secured his place in libertarian history he cannot but produce a distorted picture of his ideas.

First, it must be acknowledged that Schapiro was right to note that Proudhon was not a consistent egalitarian and so not a consistent libertarian. Proudhon’s sexism and racism are most obvious examples of this. Anarchists, needless to say, have argued the same. His ideas reflected his background and century and while he broke with many of the assumptions and prejudices of his age, he did not succeed with all of them. However, to go from this to proclaim that Proudhon was a proto-fascist is an argument that simply cannot be supported.

Second, and far more important, what texts and letters Schapiro does utilise he twists considerably. He selectively quoted Proudhon, twisting whatever pulled from Proudhon’s work to make them fit his thesis. The quotations, when used, are usually quoted completely out of context. Often simply fails to quote Proudhon, instead summarising what he claims Proudhon thinks. Unsurprisingly, as these “summaries” are usually false.

Here I will focus on La Guerre et la Paix and will leave the misuse of La Révolution sociale demontrée par le Coup d’Etat du 2 decembre to the next update. As the biographical sketch indicates, his portrayal of La Guerre et la Paix turns a work intended to understand and end war (by means of radical economic reform) into one which simply glorified it is particularly cynical. Here, I will discuss his use of this work to bolster his case that Proudhon was a racist.

Schapiro, rightly, raises Proudhon’s anti-Semitism. Strangely, given that he seeks to present Proudhon as a Nazi, he indicates only two anti-Semitic out-bursts from his public works. That in itself should confirm the weakness of his position. That Proudhon anti-Semitic remarks were rare can be seen in Property is Theft! which is over 300,000 words long and there is one anti-Semitic remark in it, a passing reference to a Jewish stereotype. In all the many hundreds of thousands of his words available in English, there are around a dozen anti-Semitic comments and all in passing. Little wonder Graham Purchase noted that “anti-Semitism formed no part of Proudhon’s revolutionary programme.” (“Introduction”, General Idea of the Revolution [London: Pluto Press, 1989], xxxvi) So, yes, he was bigoted against Jews but this was not a core aspect of his ideas – unlike the Nazis.

Schapiro uses Proudhon’s anti-Semitism to lay the ground for his assertion that Proudhon exposed “racialism” and “its division of mankind into creative and sterile races” which “led Proudhon to regard the Negro as the lowest in the racial hierarchy.” (729) Significantly Schapiro makes no attempt to prove this claim by anything as trivial as evidence. His sole attempt to do so was as follows:

“During the American Civil War he favoured the South, which, he insisted, was not entirely wrong in maintaining slavery. The Negroes, according to Proudhon, were an inferior race, an example of the existence of inequality among the races of mankind. Not those who desired to emancipate them were the true friends of the Negroes but those ‘who wish to keep them in servitude, yea to exploit them, but nevertheless to assure them of a livelihood, to raise their standard gradually through labour, and to increase their numbers through marriage.” (729)

Schapiro fails to note that War and Peace was not written during the American Civil War. It was finished and presented to the publishers on the 28th of October 1860 and finally appeared in print on the 21st of May 1861. The American Civil War started on April 12th, 1861 and North made abolition of slavery a war goal in 1862 (the following year saw President Abraham Lincoln free the slaves in the southern states through the Emancipation Proclamation). So Proudhon’s comment in War and Peace was not related to the American Civil War although, of course, it reflected the tensions of the period and the possibility of war. In order to discuss Proudhon’s ideas on race during the Civil War as Schapiro claims he is doing we need to turn to 1863’s The Federative Principle, a work which he ignores – for good reason, as we will see.

What of the work he does quote from, War and Peace? Nowhere does Proudhon proclaim “the Negro as the lowest in the racial hierarchy” and while he notes “the existence of inequality among the races of mankind” he does not mention a “division of mankind into creative and sterile races.” This inequality of races is reflecting what Proudhon considers as marking his world but this does not mean, as Schapiro is keen to suggest, that he was happy with it. This can be seen, ironically, from Proudhon’s talk of “inferior” and “superior” races as he clearly does not consider this as unchangeable and so argues that “a superior race” has to “raise” the so-called “inferior” races “up to our level.” Which means that “superior” and “inferior” was not considered as intrinsic (if it were then this levelling of races would be impossible) but rather a product of history – and just as economic inequalities could be ended, so could the racial ones. He was also very clear on who he was arguing against, namely those who “consider making them perish in the desolation of the proletariat.” (Oeuvres Complètes [Lacroix edition] 14: 223) We will return to this point as it is an important part of Proudhon’s argument.

There is much about Proudhon’s arguments that are patronising and plain wrong. Sadly, it very much reflected the period and many on the left expressed similar viewpoints. Engels, for example, talked about how the Slavs should be grateful to the Germans for bothering to civilise them while Marx in the early 1850s argued that slavery in Jamaica had been marked by “freshly imported BARBARIANS” in contrast to the United States where “the present generation of Negroes” was “a native product, more or less Yankeefied” and “hence capable of being emancipated.” (Collected Works 39: 346) Their comments on the progressive role of imperialism in replacing traditional societies by capitalist social relationships are also relevant in this context.

In short, Proudhon very much reflected the ideas of his time with regards to race and like many nineteenth century radicals considered Western Europe as a “superior” civilisation that other peoples/races (“inferior”) should follow. So, in and of itself, this reference does not prove what Schapiro wishes it to and it is significant that this is the only piece of evidence he musters for his case. Equally significant is the fact he fails to discuss Proudhon’s arguments in The Federative Principle which was (unlike War and Peace) written during the American Civil War.

Given that Proudhon wrote a whole chapter on the issue of slavery and race during the American Civil War you would think that Schapiro would have mentioned it. However, reading that chapter you can see why – it sheds considerably more light on Proudhon’s opinions on race than does War and Peace and shows that he was not the racist Schapiro seeks to present him as. Nor does he quote the conclusion of that book as it destroys his claims on Proudhon fascist militarism: “A federated people would be a people organised for peace; what would they do with armies?” (Property is Theft!, 719) A more accurate account of Proudhon’s position on the American Civil War is given by Ralph Nelson:

“But it would be naive to think that it is just the peculiar institution of slavery that Proudhon detests. He finds in the North also the principle of inequality and class distinction. If he is critical of both sides in the war, it is because the federative principle is incompatible with inequality, whether the agrarian variety of master and slave or the modern version of capital and labour . . .

“Proudhon didn’t really believe that the Union side would emancipate the Negro, but would fix on deportation as the solution to the problem. The union could be saved only by the liberation of the Negroes, granting them full citizenship, and by a determination to stop the growth of the proletariat. For what is gained for the former slaves, if emancipation means that they will become members of the proletariat? He notes that the situation in Russia after the emancipation of the serfs (1861) is analogous. Liberated serfs without land would be helpless. Economic guarantees must be developed alongside political ones. The corollaries of equality before the law are racial equality, equality of condition, and an approach toward equality of fortunes.” (41)

As Proudhon argued in Part One of The Federative Principle, “can a State with slaves belong to a confederation? It seems not, no more than an absolutist State: the enslaving of one part of the nation is the very negation of the federative principle.” Thus “a better application of the principles of the pact” would be “progressively raising the Black peoples’ condition to the level of the Whites.” However, the North “cares no more than the South about a true emancipation, which renders the difficulty insoluble even by war and threatens to destroy the confederation.” (698-9) Here we see the same “levelling” arguments from War and Peace. In Part Three he is more explicit and argued for full equality between blacks and whites:

“To save the Union, two things were necessary through common accord and energetic will: 1) free the blacks and give them civil rights, of which the northern states only granted half and the southern states did not want to grant at all; 2) energetically resist the growing [size of the] proletariat, which entered into no one’s perspective.” (Oeuvres Complètes [Lacroix edition] 8: 228)

“If Mr. Lincoln teaches his compatriots to overcome their revulsion, grants the blacks their civil rights and also declares a war on [what creates] the proletariat, the union will be saved.” (230)

“In a federal republic, the proletariat and slavery both seem unacceptable; the tendency must be to abolish them both… Instead of rejecting and humiliating those people [ex-slaves], must not all Anglo-Saxons, both northern and southern, receive them in harmony and hail them as fellow citizens and equals? However, the consequence of that measure would be to grant equal political rights to both the emancipated blacks and those kept in servitude until now.” (231)

It is hard to square this advocacy of equal right with Schapiro’s thesis and, unsurprisingly, he does not mention it. This is because it is hard to imagine a racialist or Nazi arguing that “with regard to black workers, that physiologists and ethnographers recognise them as part of the same species as whites; that religion declares them, along with the whites, the children of God and the church, redeemed by the blood of the same Christ and therefore spiritual brothers; that psychology sees no difference between the constitution of the Negro conscience and that of the white, no more than between the comprehension of one and the other.” This meant that blacks were “as free as the whites by nature and human dignity.” (232-3) Thus “the principle of equality before the law must have as corollaries: 1) the principle of equality of races, 2) the principle of equal conditions and 3) the principle of increasingly similar, although never completely equal, fortunes” (234)

Proudhon objected to the idea that emancipation simply mean turning slaves into wage-slaves – which was precisely what the North was suggesting, along with most (but not all) anti-slavery campaigners. Real emancipation, for Proudhon, could only occur if the freed slaves had access to the means of production – and this applied to wage-workers (the proletariat) as well. Echoing his comments on guaranteeism elsewhere in the book, he stressed the need to “attack [what creates] the white proletariat at its sources by providing possessions for the wage-workers and organising, alongside political guarantees, a system of economic guarantees.” (231)

This was because all forms of inequality were linked and emancipation would be limited if this were not recognised and addressed by social transformation:

“The federative principle here appears closely related to that of the social equality of races and the equilibrium of fortunes. The political problem, the economic problem and the problem of races are one and the same problem, and the same theory and jurisprudence can resolve that problem.” (232)

As in War and Peace, Proudhon links slavery with wage-labour and so North and South were “fighting only over the type of servitude” and so both must “be declared equally guilty blasphemers and betrayers of the federative principle and banned from all nations” (234) Rather than support the South, as some would have it, Proudhon’s position was influenced by the obvious fact of Southern slavery and so did not support either side – attacking the North for its hypocrisy and centralising tendencies and attacking the South for being its slavery. In effect: “Neither Washington Nor Richmond” (to paraphrase the SWP’s “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” slogan from the cold war era).

This argument that ending slavery by turning the slaves into wage-workers is not a real solution can also be seen in War and Peace and, as such, indicates little change in Proudhon’s ideas between 1860 and 1863. However, there are flaws in his position – in the words of Ralph Nelson:

“Proudhon suggests that nothing will have been gained if the blacks were freed only to become wage earners, as if the condition of the wage-earner were not closer to the realization of personal autonomy than the condition of a well-treated slave.” (43)

However, given his opposition to violence and war Proudhon had little choice. He could have argued for a slave revolt – but since he rejected insurrection by the working class in Western Europe, it was unlikely that he would recommend this libertarian position in America. Instead, he suggested reforms to avoid the possibility of war in War and Peace and the power of the good example of economic reform to abolish wage-labour by the (capitalist!) North in The Federative Principle. Neither was realistic nor particularly libertarian but it distortion of epic proportions to paint Proudhon as a Nazi as Schapiro did.

The problem with Proudhon is that for all his great insights and analysis, he also made some glaringly stupid comments and mistakes – but, then, so do most humans! He simply did not, for example, see the very obvious contradiction in his egalitarian and libertarian ideas and his defence of patriarchy – nor with his occasion racist comments. Simply put, he was often a “man of his times” and used language which in (the latter half of) the 20th and 21st centuries would simply not be tolerated. Thus the use of terms of “inferior” and “superior” in relation to races, terms which can be quoted out of context to give a radically false impression of his ideas – and this is precisely what Schapiro does.

In short, Schapiro presents a distortion of Proudhon’s ideas as regards slavery and race. He was right to point to Proudhon’s anti-feminism and defence of patriarchy as being lamentable aspects of his ideas. Yet as with his use of War and Peace, he distorts their meaning as they, also, do not indicate Proudhon being a “harbinger of fascism.” This is because he was expressing the traditional patriarchal views of most of his class, the French working class (both proletariat and peasantry), just as the fascists, likewise, expressed similar traditional views. Neither Proudhon nor fascists invented this reactionary position. As such, Schapiro simply conflates and confuses.

Proudhon rejected many of the assumptions of his times, yet he did not rise above all of them – which raises the question, if the likes of Bakunin could see the necessity of equality between the sexes then why not Proudhon? However, as can be seen from subsequent anarchists who pointed out the obvious contradictions in his position we can overcome the limitations of Proudhon the man by Proudhon the theorist.

This applies to his occasion racist or stupid remark. Schapiro simply distorted Proudhon’s ideas on race as can be seen from General Idea of the Revolution: “There will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Whatever a man’s race or colour, he is really a native of the universe; he has citizen’s rights everywhere.” (Property is Theft!, 597) Thus “nationalities will increasingly disappear under the impact of economic organisation, the decentralisation of States, intermarriage between races and intercontinental communication.” For Proudhon: “Where man finds justice, there is his fatherland” (quoted by Jack Hayward, After the French Revolution: Six Critics of Democracy and Nationalism [Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991], 213)

To conclude, as historian Sharif Gemie summarises, “racism was never the basis of Proudhon’s political thinking” (French Revolutions, 1815–1914: An Introduction [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999], 200-1)