Letter to Milliet

Translator: Martin Walker

Passy, 2nd November 1862

My dear former colleague,[1]

I have received your two letters, the first dated some months ago, the second of the 29th October, which M. Dentu[2] was so kind as to forward to me.

I had put the first aside in order to reply at a convenient time on the subject of both family matters, in which respect it is superfluous to remark that we are in complete agreement, and of the background of my ideas, with which you are only acquainted in a very erroneous and imperfect way. What has happened to me recently shows you that the agitation of my life is still far from settling down; this will suffice as an excuse for my over-long delay. So I will immediately come to your last letter.

I see from your congratulations that my last brochure on Italian unity was unexpected by you; accustomed as you are to conservative thinking and consequently to encountering the democratic crowds along your way, you were far from supposing that a man situated on the extremist frontiers of revolutionary thought would suddenly declare his opposition to the idea of Mazzini and the political tendencies of Le Siècle, La Presse and others.[3] You would have been of a completely different opinion regarding my person if you had followed the development of my thought for twenty years and if you had grasped the overall structure and coherence of it. Apart from the political, strategic and religious questions which prohibit the French emperor from acceding to the wishes of the Italians, there are for me considerations of political economy, international law, progress and liberty which are unsuspected by our ignorant democracy but have been the objects of my study for twenty-five years now.

So much for the most recent question. The situation is the same with all the others; and some day you will be astounded, after all you have heard said and assumed yourself about my opinions, to learn that I am one of the greatest proponents of order, one of the most moderate progressives and one of the least utopian and most practical reformers in existence. All the mystery of my publications consists in my view that we must on no account flinch from any of the conclusions of critical thought, wherever they may lead us, if we wish to make advances in the science of social affairs, for if a part of the truth may sometimes horrify us the whole truth will reassure and delight us. If I may cite one example of this method: I would like to point out to you that if I began in 1840 with anarchy, which was the logical conclusion of my critique of the governmental idea, then I finished with federation, the necessary basis of right among the European peoples and, later, of the organisation of all States. In all of this it is easy to see that logic, right and liberty have been the dominant factors; thus, as public order rests directly on the liberty and the conscience of the citizen, anarchy, being the absence of all constraints — of police, authority, magistracy, regulations, etc — is found to be the correlative of the highest social virtue and following from that the ideal of human government. We are not there yet, no doubt, and centuries will pass before this ideal is attained; but our LAW is to march in this direction, to approach this goal unceasingly; once again, it is for this reason that I support the principle of federation. My thought has been reproached for agreeing with that of the Empire and the episcopacy; but this congruence is of a purely material nature, totally circumstantial — and in any case, far from complaining about it I congratulate myself on it. I am not of the hypocrite sort who will strike out at people who, guided by principles diametrically opposed to mine, accidentally turn up on my terrain. I regard it as more tasteful, more wisely done and politically saner to offer them a hospitable hand.

In a few days you will read the response I am preparing to the jeremiads of the press, as you suggest and as Dentu came to exhort me to do. You will see there that the babble of so-called democratic opinion leaves me just as cold today as it did in 1848. I know where I’m going, while my unfortunate co-religionists are clueless. To say democracy is to say coterie and intrigue; this is true at all times, today more than ever. To break up those coteries and unmask the intrigues is the hardest task of a sincere democrat.

I write to you amongst the chaos of moving house; my two daughters, one twelve years old and the other nine, are ill; their mother is exhausted and I am distracted. No books, my papers are stuffed into trunks; I eat on a stool; on my right is the heating engineer, on my left the carpenter. This house moving has now been going on for a month. It would be enough to bewilder a more resilient man than me.

My dear old colleague, no more than you have I forgotten our life in the printer’s workshop thirty-two or even thirty-five years ago; and when I think back to that distant time I cannot help thinking that if the origins of our present social dissolution already existed, at least the contagion was still far from having caused such ravages, and that yesterday’s generation was better than today’s. We lived more simply, more morally; there was less ambitious speculation and parasitism; in general, existence was easier, healthier and better. With one hundred francs a month, which was what I ended up earning in 1834, I was able to offer my family an affluent existence, while today I need three or four times as much! ...How can one not regret [the passing of] such a comfortable age and life-style? If all the signs did not show me that society has entered into a crisis of regeneration, which will be long and perhaps terrible, I would believe in the irrevocable decadence and imminent end of civilisation. But we will come out of it, one must believe that, precisely because our contemporaries are more dissolute and less intelligent than we were. The movement of history is accomplished in oscillations, and it depends on us to mitigate their severity. Let us work on self-improvement and right-thinking; let us endeavour to be frugal and avoid idleness. By doing that we will mitigate the trials we must undergo and be reborn superior to our fathers.

I am writing to you, dear Monsieur Milliet, my old printing shop boss, in all friendship and untrammelled openness of heart. Treat me in the same way and do not let these friendly confidences, not meant for publication, wander into your journal’s copy. I am sick of publicity; what I need is the fortifying joys of intimate friendship. We will talk journalism and politics another time; for today I wish only to shake your hand.

Yours with all my heart.


End Notes

[1] Étienne Milliet, editor of the Journal de l’Ain, was a co-worker of Proudhon’s from his earlier days as an employee of the Gauthier printing press. (Editor)

[2] One of the publishers of Proudhon’s books. (Editor)

[3] Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) was a leader of the Italian national-liberation movement, an advocate of Italy’s unification. Le Siècle and La Presse were rival moderate and conservative newspapers. (Editor)