Frederick R. Burton, “Spencer and Proudhon” (1892)

Spencer and Proudhon.

To the Editor of Liberty:

About a year ago I enjoyed the highly esteemed privilege of a conversation with Mr. Herbert Spencer. That the distinguished philosopher did the lion’s share of the talking was natural and satisfactory. It was evident that he had prepared himself in some measure for the meeting, for he discoursed fluently on three or four topics without so much as a pause for questions. I was pleased to discover from this slight personal contact what I had gathered from so much study of his writings as I had made—i.e., that he was at heart an individualist, warmly jealous of the individual’s welfare and hostile to (supposably) all forms of tyranny. It was not difficult, therefore, when his discourse had spent itself somewhat, to draw out explicit expressions upon special points that interested me more than others. It was gratifying, for instance, to learn that Mr. Spencer was keenly alive to the socialistic tendencies of contemporary legislation the world over; that he predicted that complete State Socialism would stamp the next great era in the world’s history; and that State Socialism would surely collapse under its own weight of insupportable-tyranny.

This was all intensely interesting to me, but I have no intention of expatiating on it here. The general conversation may serve as a fitting prelude to what came at last, and which I will report as accurately as possible and without comment.

Up to this point Mr. Spencer had said nothing that conflicted in the least with the doctrines of Proudhon—that is, as I understood them. In my ignorance it seemed to me that these two great philosophers would prove to be in substantial accord throughout, in spite, perhaps, of divergences in detail; and that if there was any apparent conflict between their respective systems, such conflict must be due to misapprehension on the part of one or the other thinker as to what his comtemporary had set forth. In order to test this point, I ventured to ask Mr. Spencer how he rated Proudhon. There was an expression of surprise, I may almost say contempt, upon the Englishman’s strong features, as he answered emphatically:

“I have never read Proudhon.”

I was taken completely aback at this, so much so that I rushed in with perhaps a fatuity that an angel would not emulate, and expressed my own astonishment at the situation. Never mind what I said; Mr. Spencer’s next remark was:

“Why should anybody suppose that I would read Proudhon?”

My reply was substantially as follows:

“There are a good many of us in America who have become greatly interested in Proudhon’s views. All of us who have studied him have without exception, I think, kept pretty well informed as to your philosophy; and I must say that this comparative study, however cursory it may have been, has shown us that in very many fundamental matters you and Proudhon are in agreement. Further than this, we find in your works some of our strongest arguments for our support of Proudhon.”

It was Mr. Spencer’s turn to be taken aback.

“I am utterly astounded,” he exclaimed, “that anybody in the world could find a line in my writings that should seem to lend any color of credit to Proudhon’s doctrines. I cannot imagine what I can have said that could be so interpreted.”

I insinuated as gently as possible that perhaps a little comparative study would disclose the extraordinary similarities.

“No.” said Mr. Spencer emphatically. “I have never had anything to do with Proudhon, and I never shall. The only thing of his I ever read was his enunciation that ‘property is robbery,’ and that was quite enough for me. I can never tolerate any philosophy that fails to recognize the right of property.”

I was tempted to pursue the matter further, not, of course, in the way of argument, but to suggest the one vital thought induced by Mr. Spencer’s attitude-that it was disappointing to find a great philosopher so unphilosophical in his methods that he would reject a complete system upon a single utterance without even taking the pains to verify the utterance or understand its terms, to say nothing of investigating the chain of reasoning at the back of so impressive a statement; but for obvious reasons I held my peace. I may add that I have not quite recovered from my astonishment, and I sometimes wonder if Mr. Spencer has.

FREDERICK R. BURTON.


Frederick R. Burton, “Spencer and Proudhon,” Liberty 8 no. 37 (April 30, 1892): 1.

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