Proudhon’s Influence After 1848

Proudhon’s Influence After 1848

It is extremely difficult to follow the influence of Proudhon's thought after 1848.

Karl Marx, who was almost unknown in 1848, became by the publication of his Kapital in 1867 practically the sole representative of theoretical socialism. Marx's Misere de la Philosophie,1 published in 1847 is a bitter criticism of the Contradictions economiques, and shows how violently he was opposed to Proudhon's ideas. To the champion of collectivism the advocate of peasant proprietorship is scarcely comprehensible; the theorist of class war can hardly be expected to sympathize with the advocate of class fusion, the revolutionary with the pacificist. The success of Marx's ideas after 1867 cast all previous social systems into the shade. Proudhon, he thought, was a mere petit bourgeois. When the celebrated International Working Men's Associa­tion was being founded in London in 1864 the Parisian workmen who took part in it seemed to be entirely under the influence of Proudhon. At the first International Congress, held at Geneva in 1866, a memorial was presented which bore clear indications of Proudhon's influence, and its recommendations were adopted. At the following Congress, in 1867, Proudhon's ideas met with a more determined resistance, and by the time of the Congress of Brussels (1868), and that of Basle (1869), Marx's influence had become predominant.

One might even doubt whether the Proudhonian ideas defended by the Parisian workmen in 1866 were really those of the Proudhon of 1848. They seemed much more akin to the thesis of his last work, La Capacite politique des Classes ouvrieres, published in 1865. This book was itself written under the inspiration of a working men's movement which had arisen in Paris after 1862 as the result of a manifesto signed by sixty Parisian workmen. This manifesto had been submitted to Proudhon as the best-known representative of French socialism. The attitude of the French workmen at the opening of the "Inter­national," then, was the effect of a revival of Proudhonism as the out­come of the publication of this new volume rather than a persistence of the ideas of 1848.

The revival was of short duration. Since then, however, the Marxian ideas have been submitted to very thorough criticism, and many twentieth-century French writers have displayed an entirely new in­terest in Proudhon's ideas. These writers, chief among whom is Georges Sorel combine a great admiration for Marx with a no less real respect for Proudhon. The fact is that Proudhon, though commonly considered a socialist, is above all else an individualist. We shall meet him again in our chapter on the Anarchists. The fault he finds with liberalism is that it could never bring liberty and equality to every one. The all-powerful State remains for him the supreme danger in modern com­munities. In his Theorie nouvelle de la propriete he returns at the end of his life to his earlier ideas, and regards property as "the greatest revolutionary effort in existence that can put up an opposition to power." "The State," he writes,though constituted in the most rational and the most liberal fashion and animated by the purest intentions, is none the less a mighty power, capable of wiping out everything around it if it is not given some counterweight. What is this counterweight to be? Where shall we find a power capable of counterbalancing this formidable might of the State? There is no other except property. Take the sum total of all the forces of property and you have a might equal to that of the State.

Thus it is that "property, in its origin and nature a vicious and anti­social principle, is yet destined to become by its very universality and the co-operation of other institutions the pivot and mainspring of the entire social system."

This social system is really nothing but generalized liberalism in which the exchange of services will no longer be vitiated by the monopolies and privileges that existing liberalism has neither prevented nor opposed. This new liberalism, freed from the defects of the older liberalism, is the system of 'mutualism,' in which each will receive a value exactly equal to what he gives in exchange. Proudhon thus remains the most impassioned and the most eloquent exponent of the ideas of the French Revolution, whose principles he extends to the whole of social life and not merely to the realm of politics. It is for this reason that his prestige as a writer has continued to grow during the last twenty years, so that writers belonging to parties to which he was always hostile claim kinship with him. In this respect he remains the most marked opponent of that State socialism which, as we shall see in a later chapter, has at length won over almost every country during the last half-century, and that finds its completest embodiment in German National Socialism and Russian socialism.