Letter to Antoine Gauthier

Translator: James Bar Bowen

Paris, 2nd May 1841

My dear old friend[1],

Your criticisms of me are well deserved, as I really ought to know what the process of printing a book entails; but a writer always thinks he has done all that is required when he finishes writing and that the printing presses should be able to work as quickly as his thoughts. Gutenberg’s art has yet to reach that point. The printing of my little Mémoire took five weeks or more which was long enough to annoy me in the first place. At last it is completed, and now I am at the mercy of the critics. On all sides, they declare that I am immoderate: the wind blows and the sky turns black; bad times are on the way. Whatever happens, I must add that I have nothing to fear from the Authorities, which is the most important thing; as for the dogs of the Court and others, I have known them for years and I am ready for them. I am reckless and foolhardy as much as any man of the world; but when it comes to printing, you assume that I have enough good sense not to publish anything which is not well considered, even in my crazier moments. The radical reformers fulminate against me because of a few bad jokes that I have addressed to them; what do you think they’ll say next year, for God’s sake, when I have killed off their pet obsession! But let the storm come and let us consider, O gentle observer, the hurricane’s progress. I have always thought that this will blow over; a wise man always takes a second look before attacking a man who is well equipped to fight back, particularly if he has already hit hard and hit true. You can be the judge of that.

However, my dear friend, my oldest comrade, if the fuss of factions, if a conspiracy of scribbling journalists manages to demonetise me in the eyes of this enormous beast that we call the public, have I not already been compensated by being held up in the estimation of those honest, independent men whose opinions are not easily swayed, and in the affections of my friends? This is one thing about which I take the greatest pleasure: perhaps no man has quite as many true friends as I, and I count among them such essentially upright, moral, remarkable men of talent and ability. Given my natural ways and my slightly rustic tastes, you know how easy it is for me to console myself with the troubles of literature and of the writer’s craft. When I put my pen down, it is as if I become someone else: I become once more a lazy, fun-loving fellow, a wanderer of the streets, frequenting the café and tavern, looking for a good time. Was I not created specifically to whip into shape that pack of curs who only know how to savage their own sheep while merely howling at the wolves? Invulnerable with regard to self-love, since I have no time for their flattery, and beyond reproach in my private life, what have I to fear from them? I am still only on my second act, and I didn’t start writing just to take it all back later. This play will be a long one, and there are many who have yet to feel the lash of my goad.

It is always a great pleasure for me to correspond with you because I rarely receive letters quite so frank, quite so lively, quite so piquant as yours. As I read them, I recognise that healthy Franche-Comté regional style that our academics, in their ignorance and stupidity, work so hard to eliminate and corrupt. In fact, you are very similar to me. Like you, I first felt my indignation rising when I saw the hypocrisy, the baseness, the lies, the ignorance and the charlatanism of this world; and I wanted this bilious anger to feature in my writing style. I wanted, above all, to be rooted in my place of birth: loyal and honest, reasonable, biting, caustic, able to laugh and mock, lacking any sympathy for the minus habentes[2] who are so easily taken in by what we say. I know that I am often criticised for indulging in too much posturing and polemicising but, with a bit of reflection, one can see that it is just a tactic, a means, like any other, of making my ideas known. And what is more, there is such a preponderance of half-baked thinking, of laziness, of style over substance among the current batch of critics that it is necessary to have a chef who is willing to throw a dash of vinegar or lemon juice into the mix. As for the rest, I would expect them to do to me as I do to them: I expect nothing less. For every blow that I have struck, I haven’t even been scratched back. I find that boring.

You ask me to explain my method of reconstituting society. With just a few words in reply, I will try to give you a few accurate ideas on the subject.

Since you have read my book, you must understand that it is not just a matter of imagining, of combining in our heads a system which we can subsequently present to the world; this is not how one changes the world. Only society can ameliorate itself; that is to say, it is necessary to study human nature in all its forms — in laws, in religion, dress, political economy — and then, by means of metaphysical operations, to extract from this mass of information that which is true; to eliminate that which is corrupt, false or incomplete; and then, from the elements which remain, to form general guiding principles which can serve as rules. This work will take centuries to complete.

This probably looks to be a hopeless task to you: but rest assured! In every reform there are two distinct features, which are often confused the one with the other: the transition and the perfection or completion.

The first is the only thing that today’s society can be expected to set in motion. And then what? How are we to carry out this transition? You will find the answer to this by combining a few passages of my second Mémoire: pp.10-11 deals with all forms of income and, in general, lowers the level of all revenues; p.16 deals with bank reforms; pp.28-29 looks at the issue of low-interest capital and reform of the bankers; pp.33-37, progressive abolition of customs duty; pp.179 attacks property by means of interest; pp.184 ditto, etc.

You understand that a system of progressive abolition of what I call increase [aubaine] (i.e. private incomes from property or renting, inflated salaries, competitive profiteering, etc.) would render the ownership of property effectively worthless since its harmfulness lies above all in the profits gleaned from interest.

At all times, this progressive abolition will only be a negation of harm, or perhaps, rather, a positive reorganisation. Nevertheless, my dear old friend, for this to be the case, I can propose the principles and the general laws, but I cannot fill in all the details on my own. That is a task which would occupy fifty Montesquieus. For my part, I will supply the axioms, I will give examples and I will supply a methodology; I will set the process in motion. It is up to everyone else to do the rest.

What I am saying is that no person on Earth is capable (as they do say of Saint-Simon and Fourier) of proposing a system which has all its pieces and details in place, meaning that all the rest of us have to do is implement it. That is the most damnable lie that can be put forward amongst men, and that is why I am so vehemently opposed to Fourierism. Social science is infinite; no single human can ever understand it all, in the same way that no one person can understand medicine, physics or mathematics. However, we can discover its principles, followed by its elements, then just one part of it, and it will grow from there on. In any case, what I am doing at the moment is determining the elements of political and legislative science.

For example, I wish to preserve the right of inheritance and I want equality. How is that going to work? This is where the question of organisation enters. This problem will be resolved in the third Mémoire along with many others. I am unable to recount all my ideas here, as I would need another twenty pages to do so.

Anyway, if politics and the law are science, you understand that the principles are likely to be extremely simple, comprehensible to the least intelligent; but that, in order to reach solutions to certain questions of detail or of a higher level of complexity, a series of reasoning processes and inductions will be necessary which are completely analogous to the calculations by which one determines the movement of the stars. In actual fact, the description of the process of resolving the problems of social science will be one of the more interesting aspects of my third Mémoire, and it will serve to better prove my own good faith and the emptiness of most political inventions.

In brief: abolish to the point of extinction all forms of private income, which will be the TRANSITION. The ORGANISATION will result from the principles of the division of labour and from the collective force, combined with the maintenance of the individuality of man and citizen.

This might all look like hieroglyphics to you now, but this is where the enigma becomes explained; this is where the mystery resides. You will watch me begin the process and you may well say to yourself: To achieve this goal, all that is required is men and the means of study.

You have forced me to be pedantic in an informal letter answering one simple question. When I correspond with you, am I putting myself in the role of teacher? One can never fully explain oneself regarding something complicated in just a page or two because there are always details requiring clarification in order to resolve issues. The most important thing today is to look closely at Property, reconsidering domestic policy regarding abolition and foreign policy regarding customs duties. It is all there; the rest will slot into place accordingly…

Yesterday I received a charming and flattering letter from M. [Jérôme-Adolphe] Blanqui which actually makes me feel quite proud. You understand that this teacher does not accept my doctrine in the terms that I have outlined it; but, aside from the words and the humility which is his natural demeanour, he is a man of considerable learning — indeed, he’s a wise man, well-loved by everybody, and the most able organiser that we have. From time to time I receive testimonies of good faith from eminent people who, without agreeing with me, say: “Keep up the good work!”

When I began this letter, I wanted to chat and banter with you; but my writer’s instincts always take over. And you’re partly to blame too! Why do you ask me such questions?

Farewell, then, my oldest fellow student, my comrade of the Rosa. I have no more time to write, but I see from your letter that the oldest ones are still the best.

Yours truly,


End Notes

[1] Proudhon had been an employee of MM. Gauthier Frères (publishers). (Translator)

[2] Latin for “absentminded”; here Proudhon means something like “ignorant fools” (Translator)