Sylvia Pankhurst on Proudhon

One hundred years ago (1923) saw the English translation of Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution in the Ninetieth Century by Freedom Press. The following year saw the leading British council communist Sylvia Pankhurst wrote a two part review of it for her paper The Workers’ Dreadnaught:

Here we reproduce and discuss these articles. They are a rare example of a good, if slightly flawed, discussion of mutualist ideas by a libertarian communist, showing the areas of overlap between the two ideas as well as differences and areas of potential confusion which need clarification.

First, three new selection from Property is Theft! have been posted:

Second, we must note the appearance of many new translations by Shawn Wilbur. Of particular note are these (in various stages of revision):

The translation of Solution of the Social Problem is complete –extracts are provided in Property is Theft!. Obviously having the Third Memoir on Property (Warning to Proprietors) is excellent news – and the need for its publication in one volume with a (revised translation of) What is Property? and Letter to Blanqui is clear. But then a complete and revised System of Economic Contradictions and General Idea of the Revolution would be nice too, along with new translations a complete edition of Confessions of a Revolutionary. We can hope!

A few comments on the new postings which are somewhat relevant to the main focus of this blog, which is on council communist Sylvia Pankhurst’s review of the then newly published English translation of Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century.

First, there is Proudhon’s critique of (bourgeois) democracy which raised the need for mandates and recall in order to make democracy more than a sham in Chapter II of Solution to the Social Question:

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.

This applied in the Paris Commune, praised by Marx and Lenin (although soon ended by the latter once in power) and still championed by council communists (and anarchists) today. It is funny to see Leninists dismiss Proudhon as “petty bourgeois” while paying lip-service to the imperative mandate and recall as key aspects of proletarian democracy.

This text, incidentally, ends with “it is the liberty that is the MOTHER, not the daughter, of order”, a slightly tweaked version which Tucker put on the masthead of Liberty and is one of Proudhon’s better-known sayings.

Second, there is repeated call in the article Opening Session of the National Assembly for a workers’ committee:

“That a provisional committee be set up to orchestrate exchange, credit and commerce between workers;

“That said committee liaise with similar committees set up in the main cities of France.

“That, under the aegis of these committees, a body representative of the proletariat be formed in Paris, imperium in imperio, in opposition to the bourgeoisie’s representation.

“That a new society be founded in the heart of the old society.”

While nothing appears to have come of this demand, the call for a workers’ committee is significant. As Daniel Guérin summarised, “in the midst of the 1848 Revolution”, Proudhon “sketched out a minimum libertarian program: progressive reduction in the power of the State, parallel development of the power of the people from below, through what he called clubs” which today we “would call councils.” (Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, 152-3).

More discussion of the events of 1848 can be found in The 1848 Revolutions: An Anarchist Perspective.

This was part of his libertarian socialism for he recognised that the National Assembly “can only turn into something and do the work of the revolution insofar as it will be so invited, provoked or compelled by some power outside of itself that seizes the initiative and sets things rolling.” Social change can only come “from below” (the term he used elsewhere) for “the organisation of labour must not emanate from the powers-that-be; it ought to be SPONTANEOUS. In other words, labour must organise itself. Hence the need to build alternative working-class institutions to pressurise and resist the State while undermining the capitalist economy. Whether such a strategy is enough in and of itself is, of course, a point of disagreement between reformist mutualists like Proudhon revolutionary anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin – and other libertarian socialists like council communists.

Now, we turn to Slyvia Pankhurst and her discussion of Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution.

Socialism is, as Proudhon indicated, has its various schools of thought. The main two are the authoritarian and the libertarian, or “socialism from above” and “socialism from below”. Within each school, there are various sub-schools and these are often based on two different views on strategy, namely whether it is reformist or revolutionary.

Anarchism is, of course, the main theory within “socialism from below” while Marxism straddles both authoritarian and libertarian schools depending on which particular form of it is being discussed. Most of it is authoritarian (Social Democracy and its pseudo-revolutionary offspring Bolshevism, not to mention that’s various sects – Bordigism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, etc.). However, there is a libertarian Marxism and this is expressed in various tendencies – council communism, situationism and autonomism.

Pankhurst between 1917 and 1924, Pankhurst was a leading member of the British council communism – so well-known she is mentioned by Lenin in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (“’Left-wing’ Communism in Great Britain”). Originally a militant suffragette (the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst), she was committed to organising working-class women in the East-End of London, so joining the demand for women’s suffrage to wider socio-economic issues. She refused to support the war (unlike her mother and the wider suffragette movements) and supported the Russian Revolution, becoming an anti-parliamentarian communist. She helped found the British Communist Party but became increasing critical of the Bolsheviks – both in terms of their policies for the Communist International and within Russia. Eventually, she broke with Moscow like the German and Dutch council communists, rejecting the party dictatorship and state capitalism of the Bolsheviks in favour of communism organised from the bottom-up by workers’ councils (soviets). By the late 1920s, her focus had turned to anti-fascism.

Given this, it comes as no real surprise that Kropotkin’s “The Wages System” was serialised in the Workers’ Dreadnaught in early 1922 as well as his “Revolutionary Studies” (renamed “Revolutionary Essays”) in 1921-2, amongst others. This republication of works by a leading anarchist-communist in what is usually considered a council communist paper is significant and shows at least links in terms of theory between the two movements in Britain. It should be noted that Pankhurst’s partner was Silvio Corio, an Italian anarchist who worked for Freedom as a printer as well as being on the editorial board of The Workers’ Dreadnought.

It is good to see a council communist engage with Proudhon in a reasonably fair and serious manner. Undoubtedly, mistakes are made like confusing Proudhon’s “decrees” to explain his ideas with a belief in action by Parliament to achieve (he was well aware that the State could only be pressured from outwith for reform or to acknowledge what has been achieved by the people itself).

Such errors are to be expected for there was not a huge number of translations of Proudhon in English before John Beverly Robinson’s 1923 translation of General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century which Pankhurst is reviewing – Tucker’s translations were basically it (all of which are in Property is Theft! – mostly as extracts). The full translation is available in the Anarchist Liberty and we have posted the extracts included in Property is Theft!. The latter are based on the Robinson’s translation but revised to be more consistent with the original French and the other translations included in the anthology. So, for example, “corporation” is used rather than “industrial union” (more on that below), “commune” for “town”, “wage-labour” for “wages system” (more on that below as well) and so on.

So it was a significant contribution to our understand of Proudhon in the English-speaking world and it is therefore not that surprising that Pankhurst reviewed it. There does seem to be an element of surprise in her account because actually reading Proudhon will cause anyone “familiar” with him via Marx and Engels to be surprised – for Proudhon’s actual ideas are very different from the distortions popularised by Marxists, starting with Marx and Engels.

As would be expected, Pankhurst agrees with many of Proudhon’s ideas while rejecting others. This unsurprisingly reflects what the individualist and social wings of anarchism championed in his legacy. So she approved of “his denunciation of the tyranny of majority rule and of the centralised bureaucracy advocated by the State Socialists is unanswerable” and rightly noted that “the industrial Communism of the future must avoid the evils he justly condemns if it is to provide a satisfactory social basis.” However, as a communist she did not appreciate his support for a market (socialist) economy but confuses the matter by writing we “differ emphatically from his desire to retain private ownership and petty trading banks, etc., on a basis of petty capitalism.”

Capitalism is marked by wage-labour, not markets as such (which predated capitalism by centuries) and so “petty capitalism” is a misleading description if the bulk of the population are peasant-farmers and artisans while large-scale industry is run by workers’ associations. This is recognised to some degree for, after all, she acknowledges the work’s “scathing account of capitalist production in his time is given by Proudhon in words which are still brilliantly apt” and spends some time on his views on association which she admits “is a much more complete, logical and workmanlike plan for organising industry on a community basis than most of the Reformists who pose as intellectual Socialists are capable of today.” Interestingly, this reflects Daniel Guérin’s interest in Proudhon decades later, in Anarchism: From Theory to Practice in which he also praises and summarises this plan (and provides some extra context).

She suggests that Proudhon’s vision is “vitiated its adherence to the wage system and production for sale and profit.” The latter is correct, the former less so. It depends on what is meant by “the wage system” as the term is used in two ways – one meaning distribution by buying and selling and one meaning an owner hiring workers, controlling their labour and keeping the product created. Both are covered by the French word salariat – and salariat was opposed by Proudhon and Kropotkin with some overlap but with differences.

So what is the difference between the “wages system” and “wage labour”. Libertarian communists generally use the term interchangeably for they advocate both workers' management of production and the abolition of the market (or, more widely, payment by results of labour). Mutualists advocate workers' management of production but also markets for what is produced. So while there would be no bosses, there would be buying and selling as Pankhurst recognised. It does not help that the 1923 translation translates salariat as “wages system” rather than “wage labour” (although that does help indicate the overlap here in mutualist and communist ideas), which the extracts in Property is Theft! use as this is more consistent with what is being aimed at – Proudhon was not against the buying and selling of the products of labour and against the buying and selling of labour. Still, “wages system” is better than Tucker’s translation decision (“wages”) in volume 1 of System of Economic Contradictions which obscures Proudhon’s critique of capitalism.

In short, Kropotkin opposed the “wages system” by arguing that workers should not be hired-hands and distribution should be according to need (and so no money) while Proudhon opposed “wage labour” by arguing that workers should not be hired hands and distribution should be according to the income gained by selling the product of their labour (and so money – not “labour notes” and such like). At this time, most Marxists (social-democrats) were advocating distribution by “labour notes” paid by the State to its employees – with Lenin in 1917 reflecting this as the transitional economy (although keeping money and not bothering “labour notes”). So not so much abolishing wage-labour but rather universalising it:

All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state. . . . All citizens become employees and workers of a single countrywide state “syndicate.” . . . All that is required is that they should work equally, do their proper share of work, and get equal pay . . . The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labour and pay. (Lenin, “The State and Revolution,” The Lenin Anthology, 383)

Which confirmed Kropotkin’s comments from 1913:

Most statist-socialists are occupied today with the conquering of a share of power in the current State – the bourgeois State – and do not even trouble themselves to clarify what they mean by a socialist State which would nevertheless not be the State as sole-capitalist and All employees of the State. When we tell them that this is what they want, they get annoyed; but they do not explain what other form of [social] organisation they intend to establish. (Modern Science and Anarchy, 220)

Although, of course, Lenin argued that Marxism meant seizing power in a new State (and so ignored a lot of what Marx and Engels said on that subject) but in terms of economic vision, he was very much an orthodox Social Democrat even in 1917 (and after – as can be seen by the Bolshevik onslaught on workers’ control as chronicled by Maurice Brinton and others). The outcome was what Kropotkin and Proudhon feared – namely a continuation of wage-labour but with the bureaucrat being the boss instead of the capitalist – and the alternative is still as valid and needed:

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 operating under State supervision, in conditions laid down by the State, and under their own responsibility. 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. (Proudhon, Election Manifesto of Le Peuple, Property is Theft!, 377-8)

This limited role of the State reflects Proudhon’s reformism and, in part, the hopes generated by the 1848 Revolution and the new (Second) Republic. Subsequent events disabused him of these and (as he noted in Confessions of a Revolutionary) reinforced his earlier position of 1846 that the State was an instrument of the capitalist class which could not be seized and used by the working class.

These days, of course, Leninists seek to pay lip-service to workers’ control (and so hide their actual track-record on it) and usually postulate a transition period marked by a market economy based on nationalised large-scale industry (sometimes with “workers’ control” but always remember to look at the details!) with small business left in the hands of its owners (see the Scottish Socialist Party) which has more than a passing similarity to Proudhon’s mutualism. This will not stop them dismissing his ideas out of hand and denouncing them (and him) as “petty-bourgeois”, “reactionary”, “backward looking” and so on for good measure.

This brings us to Proudhon’s use of the term “corporation” (translated in the 1923 edition as “industrial union”) and which traditionally referred to the craft associations of pre-Revolution France (a “guild”, in other words). So “industrial union” does reflect what is meant but has a syndicalist sound somewhat at odds with Proudhon’s views on trade unions. Given that Guild Socialism had been influential in Britain before the First World War (and in Cole’s version, it was distinctly Proudhonian), the use of “Guild” may not have been as “backward looking” as feared or as would appear today. However, Guild Socialism seems to be predominantly a British movement (with some European advocates) and as the translator was American it may not have been the obvious choice.

It should also be noted that Proudhon’s use of the term reflected the nineteenth century French labour movement which used it, likewise, to refer to the associations which would replace wage-labour (see William H. Sewell, Work and Revolution in France: The language of labor from the old regime to 1848 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980]). Indeed, James Guillaume (Bakunin’s compatriot) used the term in his Ideas on Social Organization which summarised the views of the collectivists in the International. Perhaps needless to say, just as it should not be viewed as backward looking, it should be not confused with capitalist corporations or corporatism (as in Italian fascism).

The social context when Proudhon was writing is acknowledged by Pankhurst and that does explain certain aspects of the book’s ideas (particularly in relation to peasant and artisan property – these were the predominant forms at the time and for many decades later). The General Idea of the Revolution was one of three books published (a fourth was written) while Proudhon was in prison (ostensibly for slandering the President – correctly predicting he was planning to proclaim himself Emperor – but really to silence a left-wing critic of the government) and it reflects the defeat of the revolution of 1848. The book is dedicated to the “bourgeoisie” and seems to be an attempt to convince them to embrace rather than hinder social change by summarising his ideas on it – on the face of it, an optimistic perspective (to be generous) but by then there did not seem to be any other alternative for someone like Proudhon who was a reformist and rejected revolution in the sense of insurrection. Some of the terminology used (in contrast to earlier works) also reflects the peasant backlash to the radical ideas raised during the February Revolution (a backlash which Louis-Napoleon utilised in 1851 and 1852).

Pankhurst, it should be noted, had broken with Leninism in part because it was not transitioning towards but rather backwards to capitalism. With the introduction of the NEP with its encouragement of wage-labour rather than just market exchange of products of labour by the workers themselves, the non-socialist nature of Bolshevik Russia became obvious to all who wanted to see. Given that the economy of Russia was closer to that of 1851 France than 1923 Britain, the question of whether communism or mutualism was more feasible there is subject to a debate – although one thing is sure, Bolshevik visions of socialism were not feasible then (nor now!) and made a bad economic situation much worse as well as creating a new class out of the bureaucracy it had increased in numbers and power.

It should be noted that Pankhurst’s suggestion that Proudhon’s “desire to preserve individual enterprise and to avoid collective interference was so strong that he advocated the retention of production for sale” is incomplete. Yes, he rejected the idea that the state should – or even could! – organise production and decree what is produced, how it is produced and when it is produced as that was hardly an improvement on the current system in which workers were turned into servants of the owning class. He wanted the workers themselves to organise production and thought this best achieved by means of “production for sale” (market socialism). However, he also thought that justice was guaranteed when workers received the product of their labour and, again, this can only be achieved in the market when products exchange for products (and not when labour rather than its product is sold and bought – something Tucker, for example, did not grasp at all). So Proudhon’s embrace of “production for sale” had a wider base than Pankhurst suggests and not all of it was driven by fear of “interference”.

All of which shows that no book is self-contained and reflects the socio-economic context as well as the previous writings of the author. In terms of the latter, it should be noted that while Proudhon had used the term “organisation of labour” in System of Economic Contradictions, during the 1848 Revolution he started to use “the organisation of credit” but as noted elsewhere, later was seen as the means to achieve the former. In General Idea, the terms Corporations, Workers’ Companies or Workers’ Associations were used but the meaning was the same – workers’ control of production. In the Federative Principle, he called it “the agricultural-industrial federation” but, again, it was the same idea – federations of self-managed workers’ associations.

Pankhurst’s mention of the double-contract is of note, as it is a key concept in Proudhon’s ideas which played its role in the discussions within the International Workers’ Associations as seen by the famous Resolution on Collective Ownership passed in September 1868. The contemporary English-translation does not mention the double-contract and so hides the intellectual background of the discussion, so allowing the turning of a debate between socialists influenced by Proudhon into a triumph of Marx’s ideas against the French mutualists. In reality, all sides of the debate (amongst those who could be bothered to turn up, i.e., not Marx) supported collective ownership of industry (to be run by workers’ associations in the view of both mutualists and collectivists), the clash was related to collective ownership of land – with the “mutualists” opposing it due to fear of a peasant-backlash as in the 1848 Revolution. Suffice to say, there is plenty of support for collective ownership of land to be found in Proudhon’s writings – as was noted by the collectivists at the time.

All of which shows the importance of understanding the theoretical and social context of debates – not knowing Proudhon’s ideas results in misunderstanding later developments (and, as a result, exaggerating the influence of Marx and downplaying the agency of the working-class members of the International). Yes, this has been mentioned before and will undoubtedly be again until that context is as firmly established as the Marxist one which ignores (or is unaware of) all this.

A few final comments.

First, on the translator. John Beverly Robinson (1853-1923) was an American Individualist Anarchist (formerly a Georgist – a follower to Henry George) who had written numerous articles and pamphlets. He was on the “egoist” wing of the American movement but did write on economic matters. As discussed in the introduction to Property is Theft!, what Individualist Anarchists took from Proudhon varied. Some, like Tucker, did not take up his critique of wage-labour and support for workers’ associations (and so cannot say how labour would receive its full product, as desired) but others did. Robinson seems to be one of the latter:

But that is the effect of “property”. That is meant to be the effect of “property”. It is intended to separate people into two groups, one composed of those who “own” everything in sight; the other of those who work for them. And it ends by making wage-slaves of the workers, and idlers of the owners”.

Some fine morning, after property in things, as well as property in land, has been abolished, a party of factory workers comes along. No, we don’t mean to go to work today, they say, we are going to build a factory for ourselves, and have all the product, without paying any dividend or any interest to anybody. Your stockholders can come and work in their factory if they choose. If they leave it too long unused, they will be deemed to have abandoned it, and we, or anybody, can take possession of it and run it. (Rebuilding the World: An Outline of the Principles of Anarchism)

Second, on Proudhon’s patriarchal views. Given her background as a militant suffragette, it may be considered surprising that Pankhurst makes no mention of Proudhon’s sexism. However, this is not too surprising given that his misogyny rarely appeared in his most famous books and it does not appear in the General Idea – indeed, Proudhon argues (unlike in later writings which saw women relegated to the role of housewife) that women would be members of productive associations and have the same rights as male members.

As noted by many, this marks a clear contradiction in Proudhon’s ideas – if democracy is needed in the workplace to destroy hierarchical (master-servant) relations then why should the home be an exception? As André Léo put it:

These so-called lovers of liberty, if they cannot all take part in the direction of the State, at least they need a little kingdom for their personal use, each at home. When divine right was powdered, it was so that each male (Proudhonian style) could have a piece of it. Order in the family seems impossible to them without hierarchy. — Well, then, and in the state? (Women and Mores)

Proudhon, then, is inconsistent and not able to raise above his cultural background as he could in other areas. This is not to excuse him as many others were able to do that and he was rightly subject to extensive criticism at the time (see “Feminist Responses to Proudhon” and Joseph Déj́acque), but simply to suggest that as is so often the case, the best of Proudhon contradicts – refutes, usually – the worst.

This is mentioned simply because Proudhon’s sexism is raised by Marxists to discredit anarchism via guilt by association – something which is as risible as it is selective, given that they tend not to mention the likes of leading British Marxist Ernest Belfort Bax who was a “men’s rights” advocate and anti-feminist. Simply put, Proudhon was not a consistent anarchist in this regard (and in some others) but it is misleading to stress the bits subsequent anarchists rejected to demonise anarchism.

Assuming of course the claim made against Proudhon is accurate which is all to often not the case (see Marx and Schapiro for example).

Now, at long last, Pankhurst on Proudhon and its interesting – if flawed – communist and mutualist dialogue. May it produce new ones.

The Views of Proudhon [I]

Sylvia Pankhurst

Workers’ Dreadnought, 5th April 1924

The Freedom Press is to be congratulated upon the re-publication of P. J. Proudhon’s General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century[1], originally published in 1851.

Proudhon’s exposition of capitalist society as he saw it at that time is remarkably true and vivid, and we cannot fail to read it with interest and appreciation, though we must differ from him strongly in a great part of his conclusions. We differ emphatically from his desire to retain private ownership and petty trading banks, etc., on a basis of petty capitalism. On the other hand, his denunciation of the tyranny of majority rule and of the centralised bureaucracy advocated by the State Socialists is unanswerable, and the industrial Communism of the future must avoid the evils he justly condemns if it is to provide a satisfactory social basis. Proudhon’s ironical advice to the reactionaries, it they desire to retain their power, is interesting. He says to them:

“It will be necessary, if you expect your work to stand:

(1) To declare the state of siege general, absolute, and for an unlimited time;

(2) To decree the deportation beyond the seas of a hundred thousand individuals;

(3) To double the effective strength of the army, and to keep it constantly on a war footing;

(4) To increase the garrisons and the police, to arm all the fortresses, to build in each district a strong castle, to interest the military in the reaction by making the army an endowed and ennobled caste, which can partly recruit itself;

(5) To rearrange the people in corporations of arts and crafts, no one accessible to any other; to suppress free competition; to create in commerce, industry, agriculture, property, finance, a privileged class which will Join hands with the aristocracy of the army and the Church.

(6) To expurgate or burn nine-tenths of the books in the libraries, books of science, philosophy, and history, and to do away with every vestige of the intellectual movement for four centuries; to commit the direction of studies and the archives of civilisation to the Jesuits exclusively;

(7) To increase the taxes two hundred million dollars, and issue new loans in order to cover these expenses; and to erect a special and inalienable privilege for the support of the new nobility, as well as of the churches, seminaries, and convents.”

In his seventh point Proudhon shows that he understood the importance to reaction of creating a strong state, and the reaction in all Europe has certainly done what he suggested in this respect.

Proudhon’s fifth point is still more striking. The privileged trading class, which would join hands with the aristocracy of the army and the church, has long been an immense factor in our midst. The Stock Exchange and the big business enterprises are now as much the profession of the aristocrat as the Church and the army, though it was not so in Proudhon’s day.

Remarkable, too, is his advice to the reaction “to arrange the people in corporations of arts and crafts, no one accessible to any other.”

The craft unions which display so conspicuous a lack of solidarity the one with the other and break up the unity of the working class, are here visualised for us.

Analysing the Revolution of 1789, Proudhon justly says:

“The feudal order having been abolished on the night of the 4th of August, and the principles of liberty and civil equality pro-claimed, the consequence was that in future society must be organised, not for politics and war, but for work. What in fact was the feudal organisation?’ It was one entirely military. What is work? The negation of fighting. To abolish feudalism, then, meant to commit ourselves to a perpetual peace, not only foreign but domestic. By this single act all the old politics between State and State, all the systems of European equilibrium, were abrogated; the same equality, the same independence, which the Revolution promised to bring about among individuals must exist between nation and nation, province and province, city and city…

“It was evident that the problem of the Revolution lay in erecting everywhere the reign of equality and industry.”

Proudhon points out that after the French Revolution there was a considerable impetus in agriculture and industry which in all countries, and especially in our own, was on the eve of new developments. He argues that it was in the field of political economy that the efforts of the Revolution should have been exerted, but this was not understood by those who secured the leadership:

“All their ideas were of politics only. The counter-revolutionary forces aiding, the revolutionary party, forced for the moment to place itself on the defensive and to organise itself for war, the nation was again delivered into the hands of warriors and lawyers.”

All this emphasises for us the need that in the coming social changes that the industrial workers shall be organised at the point of production; able to take charge of the essential services so that they may not fall into the hands of parasitic exploiters.

Proudhon continues:

“One might say that nobility, clergy, and monarchy had disappeared only to make way for another governing set of Anglomaniac constitutionaries, classic republicans, militaristic democrats, all infatuated with the Romans and Spartans, and, above all, very much so with themselves. On the other hand, caring but very little for the real needs of the country; which, understanding nothing of what was going on, permitted itself to be half destroyed at their leisure, and finally attached itself to the fortune of a soldier. . . . The revolutionaries failed in their mission after the fall of the Bastille, as they have failed since the abdication, of Louis Philippe, and for the same reasons: the total lack of economic ideas, their prejudice in favour of government, and the distrust of the lower classes which they harboured . . .

“ . . . it necessarily followed that the new society, scarcely conceived, should remain in embryo; that, instead of developing according to economic lairs, it should languish in constitutionalism; that its life should be a perpetual contradiction, that, in place of the ordinary condition, which is characteristic of it, it should exhibit everywhere systematic corruption and legal inefficiency; finally, that the power which is the expression of this society, reproducing with the most scrupulous fidelity the antimony of its principles, should find itself continually in the position of fighting with the people, and the people in continual need of attacking power.”

Analysing the “chaos of economic forces“ that grew up after the Revolution, Proudhon says:

“I call certain principles of action economic forces, such as the division of labour, competition, collective force, exchange, Credit, property, etc., which are to labour and to wealth what the destruction of classes, the representative system, monarchical heredity, administrative centralisation, the judicial hierarchy, etc., are to the State.”

The characterisation is acute, but as we shall presently observe, Proudhon did not see that see what was required to produce an equalitarian society was to sweep away all of these save the division of labour on a basis not of profit making, but of mutual service to secure abundance for all and congenial life and occupation for every individual.

A scathing account of capitalist production in his time is given by Proudhon in words which are still brilliantly apt, though the justification for them has been intensified.

On the division of labour he says:

“Without division of labour the use of machines would not have gone beyond the most ancient and most common utensils. . . . The French Revolution itself, lacking an out-let, would have been but a sterile revolt; it would have accomplished nothing. But, on the other hand, by division of labour, the product of labour mounts to tenfold, a hundredfold, political economy rises to the height of philosophy, the intellectual level of nations is continually raised. . . .

“. . . This economic force was left to all the overturns caused by chance and by interest. The division of labour, becoming always more minute, and remaining without counterpoise, the workman has been given over to a more and more degrading subjection to machinery. That is the effect of the division of labour when it is applied as practised in our days, not only to make industry incomparably more productive, but at the same time to deprive the worker in mind and body of all the wealth which he creates for the capitalist and the speculator.”

Proudhon writes as one who sees the factory system growing up, and is able to compare it with the home craftsmanship it is displacing. He quotes also M. de Tocqueville:

“In proportion to the more complete application of the principle of the division of labour, the workman becomes weaker, more limited, and more dependent.”

J. B. Say is also quoted:

“It may be said that the division of labour is a skilful mode of employing the power of man; that it adds prodigiously to the pro-ducts of society; but that it subtracts something from the capacity of each man taken individually.”

The coming of machines, like, for instance, the linotype, which might require as much or more skill in the operator than the hand process, was not visualised by these writers, nor the solidarity of the factory workers. The terrible hardship which the coming of the machines meant to the workers of the time is indicated in the following passages:

“The more the value of the worker falls, and the demand for labour diminishes, the lower are wages and the greater is poverty. And it is not a few hundreds of men, but millions, who are the victims of this economic perturbation.

“In England, through the division of labour and the power of machinery, the number of workmen has been observed to diminish by a third, by a half, by three-quarters, by five-sixths; and the wages decreasing in like proportion fall from 3o pence a day to fivepence and threepence. Throughout entire provinces the proprietors have driven out useless mouths. Everywhere first women, then children have taken the place of men in manufacture. Consumption being unable to keep pace with production among an impoverished people, the latter is obliged to wait; and regular out-of-work periods are the result—of six weeks, three months, and six months of each year. Statistics of these periods of idleness of Parisian workmen have recently been published by one of them, Pierre Vincard; the details are heartrending. The smallness of the wages being in proportion to the time of idleness, the conclusion is reached that certain workmen who earn 20 cents a day must live on to, because they are idle for six months.”

Philanthropic conservatives, says Proudhon, charge the industrial system with being at fault, and desire to go back to the feudal farming period, but he declares that it is not industry which should be blamed but economic chaos.


Proudhon, lacking in certain respects the power to visualise the ultimate tendencies of economic forces which have possessed, regards competition as both right and necessary. Production for use as opposed to production for sale did not appeal to him as the ultimate solution of the evils which distressed him. He says:

Competition . . . is one of the most powerful factors of industry . . . one of the most valuable guarantees. Partly for the sake of it the first Revolution was brought about. The workmen’s unions, established at Paris some years since, have recently given it a new sanction by establishing among themselves piecework and abandoning, after their experience of it, the absurd idea of the equality of wages. Competition is, moreover, the law of the market, the spice of trade, the salt of labour. To suppress competition is to suppress liberty itself.”

Proudhon is called an anarchist; yet whilst his desire to preserve individual enterprise and to avoid collective interference was so strong that he advocated the retention of production for sale. Yet he desired such legal regulation of competition, and of other features of production for sale, as would have been impossible of application and enforcement save by a strong government machinery. He says:

“Competition, lacking legal forms and superior regulating intelligence, has been perverted in turn like the division of labour.”

Proudhon recognises that in practice competition has

“ended in building up a mercantile and land aristocracy, a thousand times more rapacious than the old aristocracy of the nobility. Through competition all the profits of production go to capital; the consumer, without suspecting the frauds of commerce, is fleeced by the speculator, and the condition of the workers is made more and more precarious.”


Proudhon, desirous of retaining production for sale, therefore of necessity desires to retain money and credit. Indeed he says:

“Of all economic forces the most vital, in a society reconstructed for industry by revolution, is credit.”


He complains that the legislature has not regulated credit, and wisely observes:

“The FINANCIAL power, far greater than the executive, legislative, and judicial, has never had the honour of mention in our various charters. Handed over by a decree of the Empire on 23rd of April, 1803, to a company of revenue farmers, it has remained until now in the condition of a hidden power; hardly anything can be found relating to it except a law of 1807, fixing the rate of interest at 5 per cent. . . . The Government, while sacrificing the country, did not spare itself; it treated itself as it treated others... .

“What has been the result of this in-credible negligence?

“In the first place, forestalling and usury being practised upon coin by preference, coin being at the same time the tool of industrial transactions and the rarest of merchandise, and consequently the safest and most profitable, dealing in money was rapidly concentrated in the hands of a few monopolists, whose fortress is the Bank.

“Thereupon the country and the State were made the vassals of a coalition of capitalists.

“Thanks to the tax imposed by this bankocracy upon all industrial and agricultural industry, property has already been mortgaged for two billion dollars, and the State for more than one billion.

“The interest paid by the nation for this double indebtedness, with costs, renewals, commissions, and discounts on loans included, amounts to at least 240 million dollars.

“This enormous sum of 240 millions does not yet express all that the producers have to pay to the financial exploitation. We should add from 140 to 160 millions for discounts, advances, delays in payments, dividends, obligations under private seal, court expenses, etc.

“Property fleeced by the Bank has been obliged to follow the same course in its relations with industry, to become a usurer in turn towards labour; thus farm rent and house rent have reached a prohibitive rate, which drives the cultivator from the field and the workman from his home.

“So much that to-day they whose labour has created everything cannot buy their own products, nor obtain furniture, nor own a habitation, nor even say : This house, this garden, this vine; this field are mine.

“On the contrary, it is an economic necessity in the present system of credit, and with the growing disorganisation of industrial forces, that the poor man, working harder and harder, should be always poorer, and the rich man, without working, always richer.”

That exposition of the capitalism of that time is true in the main essentials to-day. The evils of the bankocracy were perhaps more easily realised in those days of its rapid emergence and rise to power than at the present time, when all men are thoroughly accustomed to it.


Proudhon continues:

“If we may believe the estimate of a skilled economist, M. Chevé, out of the two billions of value produced every year, one and one-fifth billions are taken away by parasites; that is to say by finance, by predacious property, and by the budget and its satellites. The balance, perhaps four-fifths of a billion, remains for its producers. Another able economist, M. Chevalier, dividing the estimated product of the country by its 36 million inhabitants, has found that the income per head per day was an average of 13 cents; and as from this figure must be deducted enough to pay interest, rent, taxes, and the expenses which they involve. M. de Morogues, yet another learned economist, has concluded that for a large part of the population daily consumption was less than 5 cents. But since rents, the same as taxes, continually increase, while through economic organisation work and wages diminish, it follows that, according to the aforesaid economists, the material comfort of the working classes follows a decreasing progression, which may be represented by this series of numbers : 65, 6o, 55, 50, 45, 40, 35, 30, 25, 20, 15, 10, 5, 0, — 5, 10, —15, etc.”

The fact that the worker’s standard cannot be permanently depressed beneath his subsistence level and some other factors have, of course, modified this estimate of Proudhon. Nevertheless, the estimate he quotes of M. Chevé, giving 6-10ths of parasitism, would have to be increased to-day.

The solution offered by Proudhon is a great reduction of the price of credit; a solution, remember, which could only be maintained by a perpetual struggle with the capitalist waged by a strong and vigilant government, not subject to capitalist influences. The solution is actually impracticable.


In attacking the capitalist, Proudhon points out that the public debt of France rose from 12,661,532 dollars in 1814 to 54,200,000 dollars in 1851, and that the budget rose from 117,000,000 dollars in 1802 to 33,436,222 dollars in 1848. Between 1830 and 1848 the naval and military expenses cost 1,501,000,000 dollars, while those of public instruction were only 46,560,400.

Regarding taxation Proudhon justly observes:

“The capitalist pays nothing. . . .What one of the workers would not esteem himself lucky if he were granted 400 dollars income upon the sole condition that he should give up a quarter of it in redemption?“

And again:

“In fact, whenever the latter (the capitalist) is put down on the books of the assessor for any amount whatever, or pays the duties established by the fiscal authorities on objects of consumption, it is clear that, as his income is composed solely of the interest upon his capital, and not by the exchange of his products, his income remains free from taxation, inasmuch as it is only the producer pays.”

Having laid down the dictum that only the producer pays, Proudhon is illogical in his contention that a single tax on property draw the tax from capital without affect labour.

[With Proudhon’s views on the social contract versus majority rule, and on associated labour, we shall deal next week.]

The Views of Proudhon [II]

Sylvia Pankhurst

Workers’ Dreadnought, 12th April 1924

In a previous article we discussed some aspects of Proudhon’s views relative to the rising Capitalist system as he surveyed it in 1851. The solutions he proposed for the evils of the system he suggested should be brought about by Parliamentary measures. His programme was as follows:

1. The Bank of France was to be decreed not the property of the State, but an institution of public utility, and the company was to be dissolved.

Henceforth the capital of the bank was to be furnished by its customers and it should only serve the interests of its customers. Proudhon proposed that the interest should be ½ or ¼ per cent. only.

The National Debt was to be wiped out, if possible, by decreeing that, though interest on it would be paid as before, this would not really be interest, but would come off the principal, which would be reduced by every payment.

Private debts, loans, mortgages, etc., were to be repaid by annual payments of 5 per cent. if under a certain aura, and 10 per cent. if above that amount.

The rent of buildings was to be converted into purchase money; that is to say, whoever paid rent for twenty years was to own the building. Land was to be bought in the same manner.

The buildings were finally to pass under the control of the town, which should guarantee all citizens a domicile at cost price. The land should pass to the community and charge the owner who works it an economic rent according to its extent and value. Proudhon would have it arranged that the conditions of land cultivation should be equal to all, but in spite of his desire his system does not appear to insure that.

Proudhon visualises a society mainly composed of small agriculturalists. Two-thirds of the French population, he says, are interested in land owning, and “even this proportion must increase.” He regards agricultural labour as the most noble of occupations.

To him agriculture is essentially small agriculture; he declares that agricultural labour rejects the society form, and asserts: “Never have peasants been seen to form a society for the cultivation of their fields.” Large scale agriculture is indeed outside his purview, but he recognises the necessity of large scale industry, and in respect of it finds himself obliged to modify his individualism, saying:

“The degree of associative tendency among workers must be in relation to the economic relations which unite them, so that where these relations are appreciable or insignificant, no account need be taken of them; where they predominate and control, they must be regarded.”

We can all agree to that, but we shall find in examining the proposition that not only has division of labour enormously increased since Proudhon’s day, but that even in Proudhon’s time the economic relations of the various sections of the community were much more closely interlocked than in some passages of his book he seems disposed to imply.

Though he recognises no reason for co-operation of land workers in the carrying out of their work, Proudhon advocates the paying of economic rent to the community for services to be rendered by it, agricultural banks and the maintenance of a rural police force under the control of the County Councils – a necessary accompaniment of the private property system from which he refuses wholly to break away.

On the land Proudhon probably visualised no hired workers, but each farm worked by a single family of parents and children. The hard narrow life of unremitting toil imposed upon two adults who have everything to do for a house and farm and family of young children was apparently so normal in Proudhon’s eyes that he does not even refer to it. Whether the family may remain together as its children become adults and extends into a clan for associated labour is a question not mentioned by Proudhon, or whether if it does so a patriarchal tyranny or a mutual co-operation is to regulate the toil.

Recognising the co-operation of many workers as a growing necessity of industry, Proudhon discusses how this co-operation is to be achieved. He realises that either the worker must be a mere employee or he must become an associate having a voice in the Council. So far so good, but Proudhon desires the council of workmen to co-operate for the sale of their product. That is where, of course, we must differ from him. We sympathise with his desire for the autonomy of the workers, for their freedom to organise and originate in producing the product, but we regret his tenacious clinging to the production for profit principle. He says:

“A railway, a mine, a factory, a ship, are to the workers who use them what a hive is to the bees, at once their tool and their home, their country, their territory, their property.”

Yet the bees are producing for their community; they are by no means making a profit from each other.

The relationship he desires to establish between the industry and the community Proudhon sets forth as follows:

1. “Large scale industry may he likened to a new land, discovered, or suddenly created out of the air, by the social genius; to which society sends a colony to take possession of it to work it, for the advantage of all.

2. “This colony will be ruled by a double contract, that which gives it title, establishes its property, and fixes its rights and obligations towards the mother country, and the contract which unites the different members among themselves, and determines their rights and duties.

3.  “Towards Society, of which it is a creation and a dependence, this working company premises to furnish always the products and services which are asked of it. at a price as nearly as possible that of east, end to give the public the advantage of all desirable betterments and improvements.

4.  “To this end the working company adjures all combinations, submits itself to the law of competition, and holds its books and records at the disposition of Society, which, upon its part, reserves the power of dissolving the working company as the sanction of its right of control. •

5. “Toward the individuals and families whose labour is the subject of the association, the company makes the following rules:

“That every individual employed in the Association, whether man, woman, child. old man, head of department, assistant. head workman or apprentice. has an undivided share in the property of the company

6. “That he has a right to fill any position of any grade in the company, according to suitability or sex, age, skill, and length of employment.

7. “That his education, instruction end apprenticeship should therefore be so directed that, while permitting him to do his share of unpleasant and disagreeable tasks, they may also give variety of work and knowledge, and may assure him, from the period of maturity, an encyclopaedic aptitude and a sufficient income.

8. “That all positions are elective, and the by-laws subject to the approval of tur members.

9. “That pay is to be proportioned to the nature of the position, the importance of the talents and the extent of the responsibility.

10. “That each member shall participate in the gains and losses of the company in proportion to his services.

11. “That each member is free to leave the company on settling his account and paying what he may owe; and reciprocally, the. company may take in new members at any time.”

That is a much more complete, logical and workmanlike plan for organising industry on a community basis than most of the Reformists who pose as intellectual Socialists are capable of today. It is, however, vitiated its adherence to the wage system and production for sale and profit.

Let us regard the scheme again and alter some of its clauses. Let us delete from Clause 2 the words “that which establishes its-property.”

From Clause 3 delete from the words “at a price as nearly as possible that of cost” down to the end of the clause.

Clause 4 is by no means satisfactory, but let us delete the first part of it stating that the company “abjures all combinations and submits itself to the law of competition.”

From Clause 5 delete the words “share in the property of the company” and substitute “in organising the workshop and its products.”

From Clause 7 delete “and a sufficient income.”

Delete Clauses 9 and 10 in their entirety.

Delete Clause 11 and substitute that that worker may leave the workshop at will.

Transformed thus, the workshop plan is more in accordance with the Communist idea. Since, however, Communism aims at providing plenty for all, in drafting any industrial scheme it must include provision for harmonising the production of the various workshops in order that the total product may be in accordance with social needs. Many of us will feel that the power reserved to Society by Clause 4 to dissolve the working company is unnecessary and likely to cause trouble. We shall also probably dislike the notion of a fixed contract as proposed by Clause 2. We shall say that all that is required is a general contract to cooperate in supplying social needs.

Whilst advocating competition Proudhon felt the need for the State organisation of low prices, but apparently that was a transition measure.

Surveying the Greater Capitalism, we can see the impossibility of Proudhon’s dream of enchaining production for profit so that all might take part in it on a small and equal scale and neither great nor small fortunes result from it. Yet we can also see the truth of his condemnation of Parliamentary Government; of the sanction of Governments to rule by virtue of the majority vote, of legislation of State judgment and punishment and of State Church.

The ugliness and tyranny of the so-called democratic government which arose from the ashes of feudalism is apparent to all candid observers of the Capitalist system.

Proudhon’s proposal of the Social Contract is based on the theory of the self-respecting intelligent independence of every individual in the community. In the days when it was formulated the trend of opinion was streaming in the direction of State worship. The democratic State based on the majority vote seemed all that was required to ensure the freedom and well-being of all. Now that that fallacy has been exposed we can return with interest to Proudhon’s Social Contract. What is it?

It is simply that each individual shall freely and personally enter into each social obligation or association which he or she elects to undertake, whether it be the association of a community for the upkeep of the roads, or the association of a group of workers for the planting of a forest, the building of a town, the running of a factory, the working of a mine.

To that principle we can assent; it will be part of the basis of the autonomous workshop councils through which production will be carried on in the industrial society of the future.

Proudhon sums up his views in the follow-mg passage:

“1. The indefinite perfectibility of the individual and of the race; 2, The honourableness of work; 3, The equality of fortunes; 4, The identity of interests; 5, The end of antagonisms; 6, The universality of comfort; 7, The sovereignty of reason; 8, The absolute liberty of the man and the subject.”

Again he says:

“It is industrial organisation that we will put in place of contracts. No more laws voted by a majority, not even unanimously; each citizen, each town, each industrial union, makes its own laws.

“In place of political powers we will put economic forces.

“In place of the ancient classes of nobles, burghers and peasants, or of business men and working men, we will put the general titles and special departments of industry: Agriculture, manufacture, commerce, etc.

“In place of public force we will put collective force.

“In place of police we will put identity of interest.

“In place of political centralisation we will put economic centralisation.

“Do you see now how there can be order without functionaries, a profound and wholly intellectual unity?”

End Notes

[1] “General Idea of the Revolution” – Freedom Press.