Pierre Joseph Proudhon 1848

Pierre Joseph Proudhon and The Socialism Of 1848

Proudhon comes next, though his place in the history of economic doctrines is not easily defined. Like all socialists, he begins with a criticism of the rights of property. The economists had carefully avoided discussing them, and political economy had become a mere resume of the results of private property. Proudhon regarded these rights as the very basis of the present social system and the real cause of every injustice. Accordingly he starts with a criticism of property in opposition to the economists who defended it.

But how can we reform the present system or replace it by a better? Herein lies the difficulty. Born twenty years earlier, Proudhon, like many others, would perhaps have invented a Utopia. But what was possible in 1820 was no longer so twenty years later. Public opinion was already satiated with schemes of reform. Owen, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Gabet, and Louis Blanc had each in his turn proposed a remedy. The fancy of reformers had roamed at will over the whole wide expanse of possible reforms. Proudhon was well acquainted with all these efforts, and had come to the conclusion that they were all equally useless. Hence he turns out to be a critic of the socialists as well as of the economists.

Proudhon attempts the correction of the vices of private property without becoming a party to what he calls the "crass stupidity of socialism." Every Utopian scheme is instinctively rejected. He cares nothing for those who view society as they do machinery and think that an ingenious trick is all that is needed to correct all anomalies and to reset the machine in motion. To him social life means perpetual pro­gress. He knows that time is required for the conciliation of those social forces that are warring against one another. He was engrossed with his attempt to find a solution for this difficult problem when the Revolution of 1848 broke out, and Proudhon, suddenly thrown into action, finds himself forced to express his ideas in a concrete form, such that all could understand. The critic has to try his hand at construction, and almost despite himself he outlines another Utopia in his Exchange Bank.

Other writers had sought a solution in the complete overthrow of the present methods of production and distribution. But Proudhon thought it lay in improved circulation. It was an ingenious idea, and it deserves mention in a history of economic doctrines because of the truth, mingled with error, which it contains, and because it has become the type of a series of similar projects. It is upon this conception that we wish to dilate here. Leaving aside his other ideas, which are no whit less interesting, we shall treat of Proudhon the philosopher, moralist, and political theorist only in so far as these have influenced Proudhon the economist.