The Utopian Socialists: Proudhon

The Utopian Socialists

Proudhon: "Scholastic Anarchist"


Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) is usually considered a French socialist, although he was equally as vehement in his criticism of the socialism he knew as in his criticism of capitalism. The two most distinguishing features of his thought include a desire to remove all authority and an almost medieval con­cern for economic justice in exchange. These two characteristics have been combined in our designation of Proudhon as a "scholastic anarchist."

Proudhon's Criticism of Authority

Proudhon was above all a libertarian. In 1840 he published an attack on private property that gained for its author both notoriety and charges of conspiracy against the state.3 Proudhon's work was entitled What Is Property? and his answer was: Property is theft! He defended his position accordingly:

If I were asked the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argu­ment would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why then to this other question: What is property? may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first (cited in Manuel and Manuel, p. 363).

Despite his invectives against property, Proudhon did not wish to eliminate private property, for he was not opposed to ownership per se. Rather, he was opposed to the attributes of property: unearned income in the form of rent, interest, or profit. Proudhon, like Saint-Simon, felt strongly that all men should work. He himself had no choice. His whole life was spent in abject pov­erty.

In another major work, Proudhon complained that the French Revolution of 1789 had lost its direction and concentrated merely on reforming the political hierarchy, when it should have swept it away. Political powers always tend toward centralization, he argued, and thence toward tyranny. Proudhon had a passion for liberty—he wanted liberty to be absolute, everywhere, and for­ever. This passion was nevertheless rooted in a strong desire for social order.

In places, Proudhon sounds almost Saint-Simonian, although he generally deprecated Saint-Simon's ideas. On anarchy, for example, Proudhon wrote:

To live without government, to abolish all authority, absolutely and unreservedly, to set up pure anarchy seems to [some] ridiculous and inconceivable, a plot against the Republic and against the nation. What will these people who talk of abolishing gov­ernment put in place of it? they ask.

We have no trouble in answering. It is industrial organization that we will put in place of government___In place of laws, we will put contracts— In place of polit­ical powers, we will put economic forces. In place of the ancient classes of nobles, burghers, and peasants, or of business men and working men, we will put the gen­eral titles and special departments of industry. Agriculture, Manufacture, Com­merce, etc. In place of public force, we will put collective force. In place of standing armies, we will put industrial associations. In place of police, we will put identity of interests. In place of political centralization, we will put economic centralization.

Do you see now how there can be order without functionaries, a profound and wholly intellectual unity? (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Cen­tury, cited in Manuel and Manuel, p. 371).
Also like Saint-Simon, Proudhon placed his faith in a higher order of social unity than that provided by the existing social structure. Truth and reality are essentially historical, he declared, and progress is inevitable. Science, rather than authority, holds the key to the future, and it, rather than self-interest, is alone capable of establishing social harmony. In the General Idea of the Rev­olution in the Nineteenth Century, Proudhon wrote:

What no monarchy, not even that of Roman emperors, has been able to accomplish; what Christianity, that epitome of the ancient faiths, has been unable to produce, the universal Republic, the economic Revolution, will accomplish, cannot fail to accom­plish. It is indeed with political economy as with the other sciences: it is inevitably the same throughout the world: it does not depend upon the fancies of men or na­tion: it yields to the caprice of none___Truth alone is equal everywhere: science is

the unity of mankind. If then science, and no longer religion or authority, is taken in every land as the rule of society, the sovereign arbiter of interests, government be­coming void, all the legislation of the universe will be in harmony (cited in Manuel and Manuel, pp. 374-375).

The classical economists, too, had proclaimed the cosmopolitan nature of political economy and opposed excessive government intervention in the eco­nomic world. Proudhon was very attracted to this doctrine because it offered a kind of protection of individual freedom, which he was seeking. Unlike the so­cialists he knew, Proudhon wished to preserve economic forces and economic institutions. At the same time, however, he wished to suppress existing con­flict between these forces.

Thus property should not be eliminated, according to Proudhon, but univer­salized—everyone should have property, and this would be the greatest guar­antee of liberty. He saw no role for the state in dividing up property, however. Instead, Proudhon thought this would be achieved through a process of ratio­nalization, or enlightenment. His thought was always evolutionary rather than revolutionary.