Proudhon and "the organisation of credit"

I know it has been a while since I posted to the Property is Theft! blog, for which I can only apologise. Suffice to say, I have been busy – including working on other Proudhon related material which has appeared elsewhere. I was particularly keen to mark the anniversary Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy and show how he distorted Proudhon’s work. It is useful to summarise the material as some of it is I would humbly suggest important:

The first two are based on my attempt to reply to Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy point by point, a very big and still uncompleted work! Still, I would like to do a sequel to Property is Theft! which would be a collection of works by and on Proudhon, including some of the above. I’ve also translated the conclusion of System of Economic Contradictions, although I need to revise it. Ideally, I would like to see the whole thing translated with a proper introduction show how Marx distorted it – including inventing quotes, selective quoting, false attribution, and others. If you read Proudhon’s original, Marx’s “reply” is not a work anyone should be proud of. Yet, I still see Marxists smugly proclaim Marx refuted him!

I should also note that Kropotkin discusses Proudhon in Modern Science and Anarchy (AK Press, 2018), going so far as quote him on the State. Also, I have produced a new complete translation of Joseph Déjacque’s 1857 open letter to Proudhon: “On the Male and Female Human-Being”. Finally, Shawn Wilbur has been busy translating and some very important work is now available at Proudhon Library translations. So I have added two letters to the on-line book:

The reason I have decided to blog is due to an awful “review essay” in the new issue of Anarchist Studies (26: 1) which basically proclaimed Proudhon a Nazi. I wrote the reply below, but unfortunately the editors are saying there is no space. The key point to make is that the review essay asserts many Marxist myths, not least that Proudhon had no idea that exploitation does not happen in production and that he was only opposed to finance capital. Not true – as I have indicated in the introduction to Property in Theft! and at more length in the articles linked to above (and below!).

The reply was written quickly and I am sure it could be better. Still, it is useful to note the apparent “fixation” on credit which many claim to detect in Proudhon is very much only part of the story. This is because the “organisation of credit” is viewed as the means, the “organisation of labour” was the end. Proudhon makes this very point in his letter to Blanc:

“Your plan to organise national workshops contains an authentic idea, one that I endorse, for all my criticisms. […] all the workshops are owned by the nation, even though they remain and must always remain free. […] By virtue of its over-arching mandate, the Exchange Bank is the organisation of labour’s greatest asset. […] it should then be my honour to put before you a project relating both to the course to be followed and to the new form of society to be defined and created among the workers.”

For Proudhon like any libertarian socialist, labour has to organise itself. You cannot predetermine the actual forms of a free society, they need to grow organically based on real needs and interests. All you can do is present the principles – democratic workers associations, federalism, etc. – and a means of achieving it. For Proudhon, the means was the organisation of credit and this would allow workers co-operatives to form.

This can also be seen from his comments to Professor Chevalier, where he stresses he has no “system.” This letter is also of note for his comments on how economists have created an economics for the property-owning class and that the economy cannot be viewed like a household economy, a basic proposition of Keynes.

Now, you can say this was an optimistic strategy, that capitalism cannot be reformed away so easily, but it is a strategy based on an awareness that exploitation occurred in production by means of wage-labour and that it had to be abolished by means of association. Proudhon was very clear that the exchange of equivalents was not possible when workers have “sold their arms and parted with their liberty.” (System of Economic Contradictions) Indeed, no one who has actually read What is Property? could claim otherwise…

So the premise of the claims made in the “review essay” are demonstrably false – easily so, in fact. As for the racism, this is well-known – but would come as a surprise to the readers of his most famous works. It really is a case of – as the reviewer admits – “occasional hostile remarks.” I’m sure that out of the 26 volumes of Proudhon’s Oeuvres Complètes, 8 volumes of posthumously published writings and the 14 volumes of correspondence, plus the hundreds of pages of his notebooks. I could produce a pamphlet’s worth of anti-Jewish quotes from those thousands and thousands of pages... but that would be a tiny percentage of the total.

Unsurprisingly, I have better things to do. After all, what is more important – a single anti-Semitic remake made in passing or the many pages on workers’ associations in Manuel du Spéculateur à la Bourse? I think sensible readers would agree it is the latter:

“Can the ownership and management of companies, instead of remaining individual as it has always usually been, perhaps gradually become collective to the point of providing the working classes, on the one hand, with a decisive guarantee of emancipation, and on the other hand, providing civilised nations with a revolution in the relationship between labour and capital, definitively replacing the interests of the State with justice in the political order? […] Workers’ Associations are the locus of a new principle and model of production that must replace present-day 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 one another and thereby contribute to a common product from which they share the profit […] 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 civilisation”

So much for a “fixation” on credit! And the reviewer implies that they have read this work…

Still, it does seem strange that these haters of Nazis turn around and proclaim that Nazis accounts of Proudhon are honest and accurate! We are talking about Nazis here, so their objectively can be questioned. However, given that the Nazis were competing with the Social Democrats and Communists for votes, it is not surprising that they would rummage about in the left to associate their “revolution” with previous thinkers known in radical working class circles. What is surprising is that leftists should take this appropriation seriously, but there you go…

Proudhon was long dead before elements of the French right decided to try and claim him – ignoring how the right during his lifetime hated him. The same with the Nazis for I’m sure some did point to Proudhon, but then we can expect them to be selective in what they take. Why? Because they are Nazis... I don’t consider them to be objective seekers after the truth, for some reason.

Ultimately, I take the judgement of the likes of Daniel Guérin and Rudolf Rocker over that of a few members of the Nazi party.

Anyway, here is the letter, with footnotes embedded into the text. It is annoying discuss this, particularly as all it does is given notice of things which only neo-Nazis (specifically, the self-proclaimed “national anarchists” who are even less anarchists than the “anarcho”-capitalists!) and a few Marxists (who should know better but for whom attacking anarchism becomes a bit of an irrational compulsion). All in all, it was as convincing as J. Salwyn Shapiro’s earlier “harbinger of fascism” nonsense.

The editors are still saying there is no space in their journal for a reply. Given the seriousness of the claims made, this is extremely disappointing. I hope they change their minds. Still, it has made me revisit the Property is Theft! blog and sketch Proudhon’s ideas on co-operative credit and production.

Proudhon’s Anti-Semitism in context

Dominique F. Miething (“Antisemitism in the anarchist tradition,” Anarchist Studies 26: 1) makes strange reading. While attacking Proudhon, he seems unaware of his ideas and seems happy to repeat Marxist myths. Thus we have “Karl Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s defence of private property” when, in reality, Marx systematically distorts Proudhon’s ideas (Iain McKay, “The Poverty of (Marx’s) Philosophy,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 70 [Summer 2017]) and Proudhon advocated possession within the context of socialisation to ensure the abolition of wage-labour. (Iain McKay, “Proudhon, Property and Possession,” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review 66 [Winter 2016])

Proudhon’s arguments for the organisation of credit (misrepresented as “Proudhon’s fixation on the sphere of circulation when criticising the workings of capitalism”) is based on seeing this as the means by which the organisation of labour would be achieved, for labour cannot be organised but rather must organise itself. And the organisation of labour was needed because it is a myth that Proudhon “lacked an understanding that exploitation happens through the generation of surplus value in the sphere of production.” As I have shown, Marx mocked Proudhon in 1847 for arguing what later became Marx’s own theory of surplus value. (“Proudhon’s Constituted Value and the Myth of Labour Notes,” Anarchist Studies 25: 1 [Summer 2017])

However, the focus of the article is to paint Proudhon as an anti-Semite, a precursor of Nazism. We have the strange contradiction that Proudhon’s anti-Semitism is “omnipresent” along with “the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish sentiment in Proudhon’s thought” while, at the same time, “seemingly occasional hostile remarks.” It cannot be both. In fact, it is the latter.

My Proudhon anthology, Property is Theft!, has a single anti-Semitic remark out of over 700 pages. Including everything else I’ve read by and about him, the number increases to a round a dozen out of thousands of pages.

What of the very short list Miething provides by way of evidence? Let me go through some of the texts mentioned and indicate the number of times Proudhon mentions Jews (whether in an anti-Semitic way or not).

What is Property? (New York: Dover Books, 1970) it is twice in the First Memoir (page 264, one out of 288) and once in the Second Memoir, so on 2 pages out of 457. Neither is in relation to “the association of Jews with money, speculation and exploitation,” which is simply an invention (the Third Memoir, likewise, mentions Jews once and again not in that context). Les confessions d’un revolutionaire (1851) mentions Jews 12 times in 380 pages, and not in the context suggested. Manuel du Spéculateur à la Bourse (1857) mentions Jews twice in over 500 pages, once in an anti-Semitic way.

This, surely, falls under “occasional hostile remarks”? The other mentioned texts will, undoubtedly, show the same lack of frequency, omnipresence and pervasiveness, unless these words are being used in an unusual manner. For the same can be said of such key works as General Idea of the Revolution (once, in over 300 pages) and Du principe fédératif (thrice, in over 320 pages).

Yet we are encouraged to accept the notion that “If, however, all authority appears to him as being under secret Jewish control...”! But, then, we know who Proudhon thought controlled the State for it was “inevitably enchained to capital and directed against the proletariat.” (“System of Economic Contradictions,” Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Anthology, [Edinburgh/Oakland/Baltimore: AK Press, 2011], 226) If this “is a close analysis of those elements in anarchist theory that exhibit a distressing overlap with antisemitic tenets,” then there is still much work to do.

Does this mean that Proudhon was not anti-Semitic? Of course not, he was: as can be seen from his “occasional hostile remarks” and which should be rejected and denounced – like his anti-feminism – for being in contradiction to libertarian principles he usually espoused:

“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.” (“General Idea of the Revolution,” Property is Theft!, 597)

Did National Socialism tread “in the footsteps” of Proudhon when he wrote those words? Yet Miething talks of Proudhon’s “racist and xenophobe notion of citizenship.”

Proudhon’s ideas have been systematically distorted since Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy. Once we read he works, we easily see that while Marxists may seek to link “Proudhon’s approach to economic questions and National Socialist ideology,” the reality is different. Proudhon’s economic analysis cannot be reduced to a critique of interest or finance capital (Jewish or not), as Marxists like to assert.

Those on the left seeking to associate Proudhon with the far-right do precisely what they do, namely trawl through his work and turn passing comments into core ideas. The only people to benefit from this are, I would suggest, neo-Nazis.