Proudhon’s Sexism and Racism

A two new extracts are now on line, both from an important discussion by Proudhon about the state, what it is and why anarchists are against it. They are part of the polemic he undertook with the state socialists Louis Blanc and Pierre Leroux at the end of 1849 and beginning of 1850. The previously posted letter to Leroux is part of that debate.

The first is In Connection with Louis Blanc, which is newly translated for Property is Theft!. It re-iterates the anarchist case that opposition to capitalism requires opposition to the state (and vice versa). The capitalist principle and the state principle being two sides of the same (authoritarian) coin. Anarchists, needless to say, have continued to argue this. As well as this core principle of anti-capitalism and anti-statism, the article is also notable for its reformism and desire to interest all in social reform. That last illusion was finally laid to rest in his final work, The Political Capacity of the Working Classes.

The second is Resistance to the Revolution, translated by Benjamin Tucker as "The State: Its Nature, Object and Destiny" in Liberty (January 28 and February 11, 1888). Shawn Wilbur can be thanked for making it available for current radicals. This relates to the anarchist analysis of the state and the key point that not all forms of social organisation are state-like. As I’ve argued in An Anarchist FAQ (in sections H.2.1 and H.3.7, the state has evolved certain features as a result of its role in society. Creating a social organisation without these features (namely, top-down, centralised and based on delegated power) is a goal of anarchism and it makes very little sense to call an utterly different form of organisation the same name as something which has exclusively been an instrument of minority class rule.

The limitation in this becomes obvious when you read Leninists proclaim the need for a “workers’ state” and then immediately add that this “new” state is unlike any state that has ever existed. Well, in that case why call it a state? Suffice to say, the “new” Leninist state is centralised, top-down and power is delegated to the party leadership – and, unsurprisingly the creators of this “new” state quickly saw the utility in using it to ignore the majority and impose their ideas on society… that is, use the "new" state in the same way the "old" state was. Proudhon's fears about state socialism were vindicated...

Both help clarify what anarchism is and its critique of statist forms of socialism. That Proudhon re-stressed that his libertarian politics involved a critique of state and capitalism shows how baseless claims that anarchism is just "anti-state" are (whether from the authoritarian left or from the propertarian right). Moreover, Proudhon’s article on the state is extremely important, I think, because it discusses these issues clearly and, for him, quite succinctly. I was not going to post this extract from the book for some time, but I’ve changed my mind. This is because I’ve been informed by Andrew Flood that my recent Proudhon material have attracted some debate about his sexism/anti-Semitism on the Anarchist Writers Face Book account (which I don't have an account for). So I thought I would get it over with and address the issue now.

My first reaction was, to be honest, to wonder if people have not got anything better to talk about. I mean, Proudhon is dead, he has been dead for some time and his personal bigotries died with him. And that is the point. His personal bigotries were precisely that, they were not at the core of his ideas – in fact, in direct opposition to them – nor are they what makes Proudhon important to libertarians today. We are not “Proudhonists”: we are anarchists and can easily see when an individual anarchist failed to live up to his stated ideals and point this out!

Addressing the issue of his anti-Semitism first, this really has been blown out of all proportion. There are is nearly 300,000 words by Proudhon in the new anthology – and precisely one anti-Semitic remark. It is in the article on the state I have just posted. Should this repulsive, and passing, comment mean that this important text be ignored? Of course not, so I footnoted the remark and indicated that it was deplorable that Proudhon let his personal bigotries surface in a political discussion.

Looking further, if we include the full text of such key works as What is Property?, System of Economic Contradictions and General Idea of the Revolution and The Principle of Federation the number of passing racist remarks doubles to two! So, what, over half a million words and two (passing) sentences which are anti-Semitic. If I count all the places I’ve seen Proudhon make an anti-Semitic remark I think the number rises to around 6. As such, it is hard not to agree with Robert Graham that “anti-Semitism formed no part of Proudhon’s revolutionary programme.” (“Introduction”, General Idea of the Revolution, p. xxxvi).

Clearly, Proudhon’s racism has been somewhat over-egged by some! Namely, need I say, Marxists (with that numpty Hal Draper leading the pack). In addition, as the Introduction notes, Proudhon also expressed his internationalism and support for equality:

“There will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Man, of whatever race or colour he may be, is an inhabitant of the universe; citizenship is everywhere an acquired right.” (General Idea of the Revolution, p. 283)

Unsurprisingly, the introduction limits discussing the racism to a footnote – it is there, of course, in Proudhon’s work but it is extremely small part of his ideas and works.

And I should stress that racist remarks can be found in Marx and Engels, not to mention Bakunin as well. In terms of the Russian, as Mark Leier put it, “Bakunin's anti-Semitism has been greatly misunderstood. At virtually every talk I've given on Bakunin, I'm asked about it. Where it exists, it is repellent, but it takes up about 5 pages of the thousands of pages he wrote, was written in the heat of his battles with Marx, where Bakunin was slandered viciously, and needs to be understood in the context of the 19th century.” Much the same can be said of Proudhon.

And it should be stressed that Marx and Engels were hardly free of racial prejudices or 19th century assumptions either. I’ve taken the liberty of including “Frederick Engels, Harbinger of Fascism?” in this blog. This was a section dropped from the first (far too long) draft of the Introduction when I was discussing Hal Draper’s distortions of Proudhon (the person I think is most responsible, along with Schapiro, for the completely distorted idea some, particularly Marxists, hold of Proudhon – I'll be posting supplemental material on those two in due course).

I should note that I’m not suggesting that Engels was a proto-Nazi (as Draper seriously does with Proudhon). I am noting that Engels and Marx both publically expressed repellent ideas – such as ethnic cleansing of unhistoric peoples (which is really the only one way to “wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names”). Is that sort of comment acceptable to Marxists? Assuming they know of it, of course, which seems unlikely – for while Marxists make much play of Proudhon’s and Bakunin’s personal failings but Marx and Engels always seem to get a free pass…

As for the sexism, that is more problematic simply because his defence of patriarchy and marriage is consistent and repeated. This is discussed in the introduction – and is denounced as inconsistent with libertarian principles. Ultimately, while Proudhon clearly considered his repeated defence of traditional marriage and patriarchy a key part of his ideas, in fact they are not. Anarchists have critiqued marriage using the same tools Proudhon applied to the state and property. This started with Joseph Déjacque, continued with Bakunin and Kropotkin and remains the case to this day.

So, as with his racism, his sexism should be no reason not to read Proudhon, discuss (and critique) his ideas and indicate their key part in the evolution of anarchism and the wider socialist movement. Rousseau was a sexist prat like Proudhon, so should we stop discussing his ideas too? It would be like those Leninists who dismiss the Kronstadt revolt (in part) because they have some superficial evidence that two sailors expressed anti-Semitic remarks! Seriously. And it is also interesting to note that Marx, as far as I am aware, ever attacked Proudhon for his views on marriage (unlike the assertion by, say, David McNally). I cannot say I have read everything by Marx on Proudhon, but I cannot remember him making any comment (one way or the other) on his sexism. That implies a somewhat hypocritical position, given Marx’s stated support for sexual equality (which does not seem to have made any real impact on his personal behaviour).

Suffice to say, there is plenty to critique Proudhon over – anarchists have done so and will continue to, just as with Bakunin, Kropotkin, and so on. To concentrate on his personal bigotries seems weak – particularly as they are a fraction of his ideas (and in the case of his racism, a tiny fraction at that). In the case of Marxists it seems somewhat counter-productive as Marx and Engels were hardly without their personal bigotries (as “Frederick Engels, Harbinger of Fascism?” shows).

In short, Proudhon’s personal bigotries should not stop us reading him, discussing his ideas, seeing their impact on anarchism and, just as importantly, critiquing the limitations and failings of his ideas. Not to do so ensures that the only people who will mention him will be those seeking to attack anarchism and we will not have the resources available to show that such attacks are selective and miss the very real contributions he made to all forms of socialist ideas.

Frederick Engels, Harbinger of Fascism?

The weakness of Hal Draper’s approach is all too obvious. After all, it is extremely easy to find equally racist remarks from both Marx and Engels towards numerous peoples but reprehensible as these are, no one suggests that Marxism should be abandoned as a result. Equally, many of their opinions reflected the assumptions of their time and, like Proudhon, they often failed to rise above them.

It can be suggested that Engels was a proto-Nazi, for example. Engels publicly proclaimed the Polish Jews” to be the “meanest of all races”, marked by “its lust for profit” [1] and his racial slurs and homophobia in his personal letters would not be out of place in any neo-Nazi publication or meeting. Then there was Engels’ Hitlerite (to use Hal Draper’s word[2]) enthusiasm for the eastward spread of German industry and culture, dislike for Slavs and desire to see “an annihilating fight and ruthless terror”[3] inflicted upon them. It is doubtful that Hitler would have disagreed with his suggestion that “hatred of Russia was and still is the primary revolutionary passion among Germans . . .  and that only by the most determined use of terror against these Slav peoples can we . . . safeguard the revolution”[4] Hitler’s conquest of Eastern Europe could be considered as implementing Engels’ 1849 public support (in Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung) for ethic cleansing and genocide against “non-historic” peoples (“wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names”), such as Slavs (“The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.”[5]).

Then there is Engels’ opinion that the Slavs have been forced to attain the first stage of civilisation only by means of a foreign yoke, are not viable and will never be able to achieve any kind of independence” and that the conquered should be grateful to the Germans for “having given themselves the trouble of civilizing the stubborn Czechs and Slovenes, and introducing among them trade, industry, a tolerable degree of agriculture, and culture!” This German imperialism was, of course, progressive (how could it not be against “Slav barbarians”?[6]) and he complained that Bakunin questioned it: “But up to now it has never been disputed that this conquest was to the advantage of civilization.”[7] Not to mention his low opinion of Mexicans as “lazy”[8] who required paternalistic “tutelage.”[9] By strange co-incidence civilisation was the domain of “historic” peoples, who were usually of Germanic or Anglo-Saxon origin…

Then, finally, there are his repeated calls for a centralised state ruled over by the leaders of a party which represented a small fraction of the population. A regime he had no qualms about repeatedly proclaiming a “dictatorship”, in which “the victorious party . . . must maintain this rule by means of the terror its arms inspire.”[10] In this he followed his companion, Marx, whom we discover talking of “the stupidity of the masses” and that the majority of the French working class “cannot represent themselves, they must be represented” by someone who “must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited governmental power.”[11]

Other than prove that Engels had some repulsive ideas, all we have done is show that selective quoting can prove anything. Needless to say, any one bothering to comprehend the wholeness of Marx politics and look at the context of many of these quotes will discover a somewhat different Marx than the one suggested by the technique favoured by Draper against the anarchists. His intellectual bankruptcy should be obvious.

However, not much would be gained from such activity and it would impress few people.[12] Ultimately, can we judge the likes of Proudhon, Bakunin, Marx and Engels by anachronistic standards? They were people of their times and so it is unsurprising that certain of their opinions shock and disgust us. The question is, are these views at the core of their politics or do they reflect personal bigotries in contradiction with them? In all four cases, the answer is obvious: they are personal bigotries in contradiction to their ideas and, as such, can easily be ignored while being deplored.

Ultimately, though, this is what the likes of Draper fail to do and, as such, their attacks on Proudhon (usually generalised to all anarchists, as if Proudhon’s opposition to strikes or his sexism were remotely applicable to Bakunin, Kropotkin or Goldman!) fail to convince. Dismissing a theory based on the personal failings of those who advocate only convinces the superficial.


1. “Posen”, MECW, Vol. 9, p. 360

2. Draper asserted that Proudhon “advocated a pure-and-simple Hitlerite extermination of the Jews” as well as “a program of government persecution of Jews in mass pogroms as well as political extermination” so turning a disgusting, repulsive and never repeated comment in his private notebooks which was unknown for over 100 years into a key political policy of the Frenchman!  (Socialism from Below, p. 193) The intellectual dishonesty is clear. Needless to say, Draper made no comment on Engels very public and repeated calls for ethnic cleansing in the newspaper Marx edited.

3. Engels, Op. Cit., p 378. Although, of course, “not in the interests of Germany, but in the interests of the revolution!” It was just pure coincidence that these two interests just happened to co-incidence…

4. “Democratic Pan-Slavism”, MECW, vol. 8 p 378. Needless to say, the majority of German Social Democrats who supported their state in the First World War quoted both Marx and Engels on the necessity of resisting the Russians and so supporting the imperialist war.

5. “The Magyar Struggle”, MECW, Vol. 8, p. 238

6. Op. Cit., p. 238

7. “Democratic Pan-Slavism”, MECW, vol. 8, p. 367, p. 369

8. “Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? That the energetic Yankees” (Op. Cit., p. 365)

9. “In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it . . . It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in future be placed under the tutelage of the United States” (“The Movements of 1847”, MECW, vol. 6, p. 520)

10. The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 733. At the time the proletariat, as Marx admitted, was a minority of the population in all countries expect Britain. By advocating “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, Marx and Engels were implicitly demanding that the majority of peasants and artisans be excluded from social decision making (as Bakunin stressed). As the experience of Bolshevik Russia showed, this was an extremely flawed position to take.

11. The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 610, p. 608. It will be objected that these quotations are totally out of context – and that is correct. They are quoted out-of-context to expose Draper’s dishonest methodology. In the last quotation Marx is referring to the French peasantry and their support for Louis-Napoleon’s coup. Draper quotes Proudhon’s condemnation of the popular support for the new regime as evidence of his elitism while Marx’s dismissal of the peasantry’s ability to govern themselves is, apparently, perfectly acceptable…

12. Peter Fryer’s essay “Engels: A Man of His Time” in John Lea and Geoff Pilling (eds.), The condition of Britain: Essays on Frederick Engels (Pluto Press, 1996) and Tristram Hunt’s Frock-Coated Communist (Penguin Books, 2009) can be consulted on such matters for those interested in such matters.