Letter to Professor Chevalier

Translator: Paul Sharkey

Paris, 14th April 1848

To Monsieur Michel Chevalier, Professor of Political Economy


In your third letter on the organisation of labour, as published in yesterday’s edition of [Journal des] Débats, you mention me in the same breath as Monsieur Pecqueur as head of a strange sect of communists whom you dub egalitarian communists and heirs to Babeuf: Thereby dismissing me as you do Monsieur Louis Blanc, the official labour organisation entrepreneur, and you curtly pronounce my system as being every bit as powerless as Monsieur Louis Blanc’s in the eradication of pauperism, which is the great issue of our times.

So that I, who have so rebutted communism as to spare us the need ever again to concern ourselves with it in the future, find myself lumped in with your sweeping condemnation of the communists.

I, whose thinking bears no relation to that of Monsieur Louis Blanc and who has not once put in an appearance at the Luxembourg [Commission], find myself entombed by you in the very same grave as Monsieur Louis Blanc.

And, finally, I, who have thus far published naught but criticisms: criticisms of political economy, criticisms of socialism, communism, Fourierism, Saint-Simonianism; criticism of monarchy, democracy, property, etc., etc., must now listen to a damning verdict passed upon my system, when no such system has ever seen the light of day!

The day before yesterday Le Constitutionnel was labelling me a communist; recently the Revue des Deux Mondes was also depicting me as a communist; everybody — except those who read me — has me marked as a communist, on which basis, no opportunity is ever missed to denounce my system as false and unfeasible and inimical to freedom, subversive of society and of the family, and a number of other more or less displeasing characterisations.

I have allowed such ugliness to have the run of it out of the straightforward fear that my corrections might be construed as complaints, and if I have now determined to address myself to you, it is because I hold that it serves the general interest that I should break my silence. It would be too convenient to respond to the criticisms that have been levelled at society’s institutions these past twenty years by tossing the label communist around, and the enemies of the February revolution would all too soon have done with the proletariat.

So, if you please, let us drop Monsieur Louis Blanc and his utopia. Monsieur Louis Blanc is by no means the incarnation of a new social system. This, if I am not mistaken, is how the matter ought to be tackled by every well-meaning writer.

The people, and it was they that made the February revolution, are neither Saint-Simonian, Fourierist, communist, nor Babouvist: nor even Jacobin or Girondin.

But the people has a perfect grasp on these two things: on the one hand, that politics is nothing; on the other, that political economy, as taught by Messieurs Say, Rossi, Blanqui, Wolowski, Chevalier, etc., is merely the economics of the propertied, the application of which to society inevitably and organically engenders misery.

I reckon that I have done more than anybody to establish this view. What holds economically true for the ordinary individual become false the moment one tries to extend it to society; that proposition encapsulates all my criticisms. This, for instance, is why net product and gross product, which in private industry are different things, are one and the same when it comes to the nation; why a fall in pay that spells impoverishment for the worker who suffers it becomes an increase in wealth when it applies to everyone;[1] how, from the collective point of view, the same holds true for all of the theorems of the old political economy which, let me say it again, is nothing more than household economics. Now what is that the people asks for today? The people asks, and this is the issue raised by 24 February, that, whilst respecting the freedom of the individual, in whatever guise it may show itself, we should reshape a political economy (public or social, whatever takes your fancy) that is not a lie; for attempting to explain the practices of selfishness to society is tantamount to lying to the people and to justice. The facts are there to prove that.

And what do the socialists do to satisfy this craving of the people?

Due to an error of the same sort as the economist’s, they would extend to the whole of society the principle of fraternity which exists within the family, plus the principle of solidarity, which lies at the root of the civil and commercial companies defined by the Code. Hence the phalansterian utopia and the many others with which you are as conversant as I am.

Now, fraternity and solidarity within the body of society have no more in common with the domestic fraternity and solidarity of so-called collective societies than, in the people’s view, the laws governing loans, production and commerce have in common with the rules of private credit, private production and private consumption.

In a work that appeared more than eighteen months ago, I have expanded upon this underlying opposition. Had the economists seen fit to register my observations, they would have been able to prevent the events of February and the social revolution might have been carried through without disaster. And had socialism, and Monsieur Louis Blanc in particular, been capable of taking the good advice offered which ran counter to their dreams, we would not, today, have the depressing spectacle the Luxembourg [Commission] offers us. But, in critiquing every opinion, I should have expected that no one would heed me; so I ask but one thing: spare me the calumny. As I see it, therefore, economists and socialists alike are chasing after an unattainable goal: the former by applying the rules of private economics to society; the latter by applying private fraternity to it. And still we have individualism, still subjectivity and contradiction.

This is something that I have been repeating without cease for the past eight years. Moreover, I have been measured in my assertions: I have not published any system, and nobody can say whether I am or am not capable of curing poverty.

However, desirous to give some notion of what the solution to the social question ought to be, as I see things, I have just published a draft for the organisation of labour and credit and so I take the liberty of addressing myself to you.

Either I am sorely mistaken or you will not discover within it any trace of communism or of Babouvism and you will see there a political economy built on different foundations than those of J-B Say and Ricardo.

Since, and it was you yourself, Monsieur who said this, since the day has come when all systems are up for discussion, you force my hand and it would be only fair of you to scrutinise this little morsel of mine. The people has gone too far to back down; it is absolutely necessary to establish one of new principles: the right of the capitalist and the workers; in short, the social question is in need of sorting out. Otherwise, expect all the horrors of civil war and all the wretchedness of agrarian law.

Sir, I genuinely regret the destitution by which you have been stricken and which has, I fear, found you unduly sensitive for a man of such lofty intellect. I might not have recommended this act of pointless rigour, especially as, being primarily an economist, you are a sceptic in matters of government. Had you candidly thrown in your lot with the Revolution, you, with those talents of yours, might have been of service to the people even whilst setting your face against innovation.

I deplore the fact that petty resentments have propelled you into the enemy camp.

I am relying upon your being accommodating enough to have this present text inserted in the most imminent edition of Débats and would ask you to accept assurances of my perfect esteem.


End Note

[1] Proudhon subscribed to the (false) position that wages and prices were directly proportional, meaning that a cut in wages would lead to a cut in prices. He is, therefore, arguing that while a cut in wages would be bad for the workers in question, society would benefit from the lower prices. (Editor)