Proudhon The Discredit Of Socialism

Pierre Joseph Proudhon

The Revolution Of 1848 and The Discredit Of Socialism


Socialists of all shades of opinion, who from 1830 to 1840 had been advocating radical reforms, were given a unique opportunity of putting their theories to the test during the Revolution of 1848. During the four months (February to June) which preceded the terrible ruin of the socialist Republic by the bourgeoisie, projects of all kinds which for many years had been discussed in books and news­papers appeared to be on the point of bearing fruit. For a number of weeks nothing seemed impossible. 'The right to work,' 'organiza­tion of labour,' and 'association,' instead of being so many formulae, were by a mere stroke of the magic wand to be translated into realities.

Enthusiasts were not wanting to attempt this task of transformation, but, alas! only to find every scheme tumble into ruins. Every formula, when put to the test, was found to be void. The malevolence of some people, the impatience of others, the awkwardness and haste of the promoters even, made the experiments odious and ridiculous. Public opinion was at last thoroughly wearied and all the reformers were indiscriminately condemned.

The year 1848 is accordingly a memorable one in the history of social ideas. The idealistic socialism of Louis Blanc, of Fourier, and of Saint-Simon was definitely discredited. Bourgeois writers thought that it was utterly destroyed. Reybaud, who contributed the article on Socialism to the Dictionnaire d'£conomie politique (edited by Coquelin and Guillaumin) in 1852, writes as follows: "To speak of socialism nowadays is to deliver a funeral oration. It has exhausted itself. The vein is worked out. Should the human mind in its vertigo ever take it up again it will be in a different form and under the influence of other illusions."

It fared scarcely better at the hands of subsequent socialists. Marx referred to all his predecessors under the rather misleading title of Utopians, and against their fantastic dreams he set up the 'scientific socialism' of Das Kapital. Between the two epochs lies a distinct cleavage, marked by the Revolution of 1848. We must briefly see how this was brought about, and rapidly review the more important experi­ments that were made.

First of all there is 'the right to work.' Fourier's formula, which was developed by Considerant and adopted by Louis Blanc and other democrats, became extremely popular during the reign of Louis Phillipe. Proudhon speaks of it as the only true formula of the Feb­ruary Revolution. " Give me the right to work," he declares, " and I will give you the right of property." The same idea has been revived in our own day, after the long period of post-war unemployment, but with a new formula: 'full employment' is now proposed as the funda­mental objective of economic policy.

Workmen thought that the first duty of the Provisional Government was to give effect to this formula. On February 25 a small group of Parisian workmen came to the Hotel de Ville to urge their claims, and the Government hastened to recognize them. The decree drawn up by Louis Blanc was as follows: "The Provisional Government of the French Republic undertakes to guarantee the existence of every worker by means of his labour. It further undertakes to give work to all its citizens." The following day another decree announced the immediate establishment of national workshops with a view to putting the new principle into practice. All that was necessary to gain admis­sion was to have one's name inscribed in one of the Parisian municipal offices.

Louis Blanc in his book of 1841 had demanded the establishment of ' social' workshops. Public opinion, misled by the similarity of names, and encouraged to persist in its error by the enemies of socialism, thought that the national workshops were the creation of Louis Blanc. Nothing could be more incorrect. The 'social' workshops, as we know, were to engage in co-operative production, whereas the national workshops were to provide employment for idlers. Similar institutions
had been established during every crisis between 1790 and 1830, generally under the name of" charity works." Moreover, it was Marie, the Minister of Public Works, and not Louis Blanc, who organized them. Far from providing work as the socialists had hoped, the Government soon realized that the workshops afforded an admirableopportunity for binding the workmen together into brigades whichmight act as a check upon the socialistic tendencies of the Luxembourg Commission, then presided over by Louis Blanc. The workshops were placed under the management of Emile Thomas, the engineer,
who was an avowed opponent of the scheme. In his Histoire des Ateliers nationaux, written in 1849, he tells us how they were controlled by him in accordance with the wishes of the anti-socialist majority of the Provisional Government.

But they were mistaken in their calculations. Those who thought that the national workshops could be used for their own political ends were soon undeceived. The Revolution greatly increased the number of idlers, already fairly considerable as the result of the economic crisis of 1847. Moreover, the opening of the workshops brought the work­men from the provinces into Paris. Instead of the estimated 10,000, 21,000 had been enrolled by the end of March, and by the end of April there were 99,400. They were paid two francs a day while at work, and a franc when there was no work for them. In a very short time it became impossible to find employment for so many. The majority of them, whatever their trade, were employed upon useless earthworks, and even these soon proved inadequate. Discontent soon became rife among this army of unfortunate workers, humiliated by the nature of the ridiculous labour upon which they were employed, and scarcely satisfied with the moderate salary which they received. The wages paid, however, were more than enough for the kind of work that was being done. The workshops became centres of political agita­tion, and the Government, thoroughly alarmed, and acting under pressure from the National Assembly, was constrained to abandon them.

Suddenly, on June 21, a summons was executed upon all men between seventeen and twenty-five enrolled in the shops, ordering them to join the army or to leave for the country, where more digging awaited them. The exasperated workmen rose in revolt. Rioting broke out on June 23, but it was crushed in three days. Hundreds of the workers died in the struggle, and the country was terrorized into reaction.

That simple logic which is always so characteristic of political parties held the principle of 'the right to work' responsible for this disastrous experience, and it was definitely condemned. This is quite clear from the constitutional debates in the National Assembly. The constitu­tional plan laid down by Armand Marrast on June 19, a few days before the riots, recognized 'the right to work.' "The Constitution," says Article 2, "guarantees to every citizen liberty, equality, security, instruction, work, property, and public assistance." But in the new plan of August 29—after the experience of June—the article disap­peared. The right to relief only was recognized. In the discussion on the article an amendment re-establishing 'the right to work' was proposed by Mathieu de la Drome. A memorable debate followed, in which Thiers, Lamartine, and Tocqueville opposed the amendment, while the Radical Republicans Ledru-Rollin, Cremieux, and Mathieu de la Drome defended it.1 The socialists had become extinct. Louis Blanc was in exile, Considerant ill, while Proudhon was afraid of startling his opponents and of compromising his friends. Besides, the Assembly had already made up its mind. The amendment was defeated, and Article 8 of the preamble to the Constitution of 1848 runs as follows: "The Republic by means of friendly assistance should provide for its necessitous citizens, either by giving them work as far as it can, or by directly assisting those who are unable to work and have no one to help them."

During the reign of the July Monarchy ' the organization of labour' was another phrase which divided the honours with ' the right to work.' With the spread of the Revolution came a similar menacing demand for its realization. By a strange coincidence the author of this formula was also a member of the Provisional Government. And so when on February 28, three days after the recognition of ' the right to work,' the workers came in a body and claimed the creation of a Minister of Progress, the organization of labour, and the abolition of all exploita­tion, Louis Blanc immediately seized the opportunity to urge his un­willing colleagues to accede to their demands. He himself had pressed the Government to take the initiative in social reform, and now that the Revolution had made him a member of the Government how could he escape his responsibility? After some difficulty his colleagues succeeded in persuading him to accept the alternative of a Govern­ment commission on labour, of which he was to be president. The commission was entrusted with the task of drawing up the proposed reforms, which were afterwards to be submitted to the National Assembly. To mark the contrast between the old and the new regime the commission carried on its deliberations in the Palais du Luxem­bourg, where the Chambre des Pairs formerly sat.

The Luxembourg commission was composed of representatives elected by workmen and masters, three for each industry. The repre­sentatives met in a general assembly to discuss the reports prepared by a permanent committee of ten workers and an equal number of masters, to which Louis Blanc had added a few Liberal economists and socialists, such as Le Play, Dupont-White, Wolowski, Considerant, Pecqueur, and Vidal. Proudhon was also invited, but refused to join. As a matter of fact, only the workers took part in the sittings.

The commission, although it possessed no executive power, might have been of some service. But Louis Blanc, as he himself confessed, regarded it as "a golden opportunity where socialism had at its dis­posal a tribunal from which it could address the whole of Europe."1 He still kept up his role of orator and writer, and devoted most of the sittings to an eloquent appeal for the theories already outlined in his 'organization of labour.'2 Vidal and Pecqueur undertook the task of elaborating the more definite proposals. In a lengthy report which appeared in the Moniteur3 they outlined a plan of State Socialism, with workshops and agricultural colonies, with State depots and bazaars as places of sale. Money in the form of warrants was to be borrowed on the security of goods, and a State system of insurance—excepting life policies—was to be established. Finally, the Bank of France was to be transformed into a State bank. This was to extend the operation of credit, and to reduce the rate of discount simply to insurance against risk. Vidal and not Pecqueur is obviously the author of the report, for it contains some of the projects that had already appeared in his book De la Repartition des Richesses. And it is easy to see here the origin of those demands for nationalization that are common to all socialist parties since the First World War and that they have succeeded in. putting into practice throughout Europe after the Second World War.

None of the projects was even discussed by the National Assembly. The only positive piece of work accomplished by Louis Blanc's com­mission was done under pressure from the workmen. This was the famous decree of March 2, abolishing piece-work and reducing the working day to ten hours in Paris and eleven hours in the provinces. This decree, though it was never put into operation, marks the first rudiments of French labour legislation. Louis Blanc was forced to grant it because the working-class element on the commission refused to take part in its proceedings until they were satisfied on this point.

The commission must also be credited with several successful attempts at conciliation.

Not only did the commission fail to do anything permanent, but its degeneracy into a mere political club thoroughly alarmed the public. It became involved in elections, and even intervened in street riots. It finally took a part in the demonstration of May 15, which, under pretext of demanding intervention in favour of Poland, resulted in an invasion of the National Assembly by the mob. Louis Blanc had already retired. Since the reunion of the National Assembly the Government had been replaced by an executive commission, and Blanc, no longer a supporter of the Government, sent in his resigna­tion on May 13. After that the commission was at an end, and, like the national workshops, it all resulted in nothing save a general dis­credit of socialist opinion.

There still remained the 'working men's associations.' Every socialist writer of the early nineteenth century was agreed on this principle of association. Every reformer, with the exception of Proudhon, who always pursued a path of his own, regarded it as the one method of emancipation. It was quite natural that it should be put to the test.

In its declaration of February 26 the Provisional Government stated that besides securing the right to work, the workers must combine together before they could secure the full benefit of their labour. The moment Louis Blanc attained to power he sought to guide the energies of the commission in this direction. The 'Association' was to be of the nature of a co-operative productive society, supported by the State. Under the influence of Buchez, an old Saint-Simonian, a Republican Catholic and the founder of the newspaper called L'Atelier, there had been formed in 1834 an association of jewellers and gold­smiths. But it was a solitary exception.

Louis Blanc was more fortunate. He successively founded associa­tions of tailors, of saddlers, of spinners and lace-makers, and he secured Government orders for tunics, saddles, and epaulettes for them. Other associations followed, and by July 5 the National Assembly was suffi­ciently interested in these experiments to vote the sum of three millions to their credit. A good portion of this sum passed into the hands of mixed associations of masters and men formed with the sole purpose of benefiting by the Government's liberality. The workmen's associa­tions pure and simple, however, received more than a million, and there was not a sou of it left by 1849.

The first co-operative movement inspired by the ideas of Louis Blanc was of short duration. The National Assembly took good care to place the new societies under Ministerial control by appointing a Conseil d'Encouragement, nominated by the Ministry to fix the conditions under which loans should be granted.

The Conseil hastened to publish model regulations which left the associations little scope for internal organiza­tion. So stringent were the rules that several of them were immediately jeopardized, and every society which failed to conform to one of the three models outlined in Article 19 of the Commercial Code was obliged to dissolve. This meant every society which was not nominally a collective society or a joint stock or a limited liability company. By 1855, according to the testimony of Reybaud, there remained only nine out of those subsidized in 1848. Consumers' co-operative societies, that is, the societies which aimed at securing cheap commodities, established at Paris, Lille, Nantes, and Grenoble, were also dis­solved.
And so all these experiments—the only ones that had not already brought reformers into discredit—were destined to fail in their turn. Their extinction was due partly to political causes, partly to their founders, who had not yet been trained in the difficult task of building up such associations.

The social experiments of 1848 one after another foundered, bring­ing a distrust of theories in their train. There still remained one other experiment connected with Proudhon's name—that of free credit. But it also was destined to fail like the rest.