P.-J. Proudhon, Economy (Ms. 2863) — selected translations

At some point, this page will become a place for a more systematic engagement with this particular set of Proudhon’s manuscripts, but there are methodological insights that I feel the need to address, even if just through some very quick and partial translations.

Ms. 2863 (Economy)

Paris, March 16

DILEMMA: Red or White

A captain of the line assures me—the papers friendly to the government will say tomorrow if the information is exact—that on the occasion of the next elections, the order has been given to prevent, by all possible means, the gentlemen of the military from attending the electoral gatherings. Any disobedience in this regard will be punished by eight days in jail.

The government is right. It is consistent with itself. It follows, imperturbably, like Mr. Cabet, its straight line. For sixty years, the French people, leading the rest of the world behind it, has descended the path of the Revolution; Mr. Louis Bonaparte has sworn to make us turn back up the path of the Revolution. That is why Mr. Louis Bonaparte has been made President of the Republic:—ask the legitimists; ask the doctrinaires or the Jesuits.

Now, whoever desires the ends desires the means; to make the army vote as a municipal guard and forbid it from political discussions: such is, with regard to the army, the means that the government proposes to use. And I repeat that the government, from its own point of view, has it right. Follow this reasoning, I beg you: it is as demonstrative as the history.

The Revolution of 89, by abolishing the old despotism and feudalism, led us to the Constitutional Monarchy.

The Constitutional Monarchy, after thirty years of parliamentary evolutions, led to the Republic.

The Republic established universal suffrage.

Universal suffrage make the soldiers eligible voters, make them, in fact, with the other citizens, arbiters of peace and war, judges of the politics of the government, inspector of the acts and opinions of their leaders—all things incompatible with the spirit of hierarchy and the feudal discipline of the army.

So there is an incompatibility between the current regime of the army, which costs us 400 million per year, and the exercise of political rights. And to conclude, either no republic or no army: that is the dilemma.

But what is true today of the army is true of all the rest. It is everywhere the same antagonism, the same incompatibilities. The government has seen it very well; by its propositions, its nominations, its communications, each day it reproduces the same alternative; and if we do not understand it, it is because we do not wish to hear it.

Red or White, it says to us,
Republican or Cossack,
Socialist or Jesuit,
Voltaire or de Maistre,
The Revolution or the Holy Alliance,
Labor or Capital,
Association or Statute Labor,
Free Credit or Usury,
The Bank of the People or Malthus,
The citizen army or the praetorian army.

There is no middle ground: it is necessary to choose. The question is precisely the same for the bourgeois, the peasant, the soldier, the philosopher and the statesman, for France and for Europe. Every other party is committed to the happy medium, to hypocrisy. Now, the experiment of the happy medium has been made, and the world does not want it. So it is a question of knowing if the people will be red or white, if the army will be for Christ or for Belial. We are happy to agree with the government, if not with regard to the goal, at least regarding the logic; and we support its dilemma with all our strength.

The government is white; we are red. It no longer wants the tricolor; neither do we. That is clear.

The Revolution of February was made by the red flag, which become from then on the symbol of the right to work and the beacon of Humanity. The tricolored flag has only ever been, despite all its glory, the flag of the happy medium, the flag of the doctrinaires. In 1804, not daring to restore the monarchy, it created an emperor. Forced in 1815 to hide itself, it returned in 1830 to give us Louis-Philippe; after February, Mr. de Lamartine took it for the lightning-rod of socialism; and it is thanks to this that we had had, in a democratic Republic, along with the exclusion of the right to work, the presidency of a Bonaparte. Since then, the tricolored flag has no longer been anything but the flag of reaction and calumny. Moreover, it showed this very well in June when it bathed with so much delight in the blood of the workers. And we wrote from the mouth of March 1848, as if we could have foreseen those odious days.

“Red is the color of justice and sovereignty. And since all men love and seek the red, is not red the symbol of human fraternity?… Deny the red flag, dye the purple, but that is to eliminate the social question, the right to work. Every time that the people, defeated by suffering, has wanted to express, outside of that juridical legality that murders it, its wishes and complaints, it has marched under a red banner. The red flag, it is true, has still not made the tour of the world, like its fortunate rival, the tricolor. Justice has spoken very well; Mr. de Lamartine has not gone farther than the camp of Mars. It is so terrible, Justice, that one could not hide it too much. Poor red flag! Everyone abandons you! Well! I embrace you. I clutch you to my breast. Cheers to fraternity! The red flag is the sign of a revolution that will be the last. The red flag! It is the shroud of Christ, the federal standard of the human race.”

Honest souls, who only see in the red flag the sign of vengeance, and for whom a bunch of peasants will suffice to make you afraid: do you want to abolish the scaffold once and for all? Plant a red flag atop it.

The red flag is the sign of the democratic reality, just as the white flag is the sign of the sign of feudal suzerainty. The tricolor is that of the politics of the seesaw and the presidency. Napoleon and Louise-Philippe, illegitimate monarchs, would adopt it. The reactionaries no longer want to, and you know why. No truck, they say, with the republican principle. And we respond, we socialists, no truck with the feudal principle!

As at all the times that the throne and altar have been united against liberty, the white flag is the banner of Catholicism in France as well as the monarchy: the red flag, on the contrary, is the symbol of the democratic and social philosophy. The Jansenists and Gallicans, false royalists and false Christians, ground around the tricolored flag.

That is why, from one side, the whites demand that the Church be richly endowed, and work with all their strength to render it its goods and its tithes; from the other, the reds want the clergy, like the laborers, subject to the law of free commerce and, as a consequence, only those who have need of the priest’s services will pay him. The tricolors, who neither want to render the goods of the clergy nor abolish the parasitism of the Church, resist both; they have invented the budget of the cults and the salary of the priests, in order to declaim at once against the Socialist and against the Pope.

We do not want the Church to be salaried, say the whites. We do not want it to be endowed, respond the reds. And all shout at the same time: Down with the tricolors!

In the past, the magistracy was like property, hereditary and venal. Justice was given at a price in cash: that was the white justice. The judge lived on his spices, as the bailiff lives on his exploits. Under the general designation of Parliaments, the people of the courts and tribunals formed one caste. What we call the ministerial offices are a remnant of that old institution.

After 89, the venality of the offices should have been entirely abolished, and justice elective and free. This was the generalization of the just, the red justice. Instead of that, we have the salaried, tenured magistracy, a judicial order marching in connivance with the executive power. Part of the officers have, in addition, preserved their venal privileges. That is the system of the Héberts, the Dupins, the Lehons; the tricolored justice.

It is with the army as with justice, as with the Church, and with the government.

In the past, the grades higher than noncommissioned officer were reserved for the nobles, inaccessible to the commoners. Discipline by baton blows…

[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]



An Attempt at the Establishment of a New Science.

Book One.—Principles.

Notions and their nomenclature, axioms, method: object and determination of the science.

Chapter One.—Of the material of political economy and of its notions.

Every science tends to free itself from empiricism, and to establish itself on the basis of notions.

For that, a first necessity is to define and clarify its terms, to posit its axioms, to make its method known, to determine its object and to mark its limits.

Some definitions, some axioms, a method, an object, a circumscription: such are the conditions necessary for science, without which it loses itself in the indefinite and thus ceases to be a science.

Thus established and armed, a science is a system of justice, which the mind supports with objects, ideas, [. ] defined in advance. These judgments are at first immediate or [. ], and called for that reason axioms; then dressed up with an expression or formula, increasingly complex but always reducible to the axiom, which are theorems; finally, generalized and maximized, they take their title of aphorisms or laws.

It is in this way that the mathematical sciences have proceeded, sciences thus far regarded as model and perfect, which which do not perhaps deserve to possess that honor exclusively.

Now it seems that Economy, of whatever whatever sort, according to its authors, lacks the first and most essential condition of a science: it does not have, and we will demonstrate that it cannot have definitions.

It is this lack of definitions that establishes, as we will see, that Economy has been unable thus far to posit axioms, to demonstrate a method, to indicate its limits, and make known its object, that is to say to respond to that question, without which it cannot rank among the sciences: What is your name? Who are you?

There are, however, and there can be no doubt of it, a mass of words and [ ] that serve to indicate economic facts, phenomena of Economy; a portion of human language is dedicated to that use. How then do we make use of terms that reject every definition? — What is the value of undefined ideas? What are facts, incapable of [being given] a definition, and consequently an exact classification? Aren’t such things outside of knowledge, inaccessible to reason, like the mysteries of christianity, and isn’t indefinability, finally, the condition, the stamp, of unintelligibility?

The question that is posed from the very beginning, regarding the very conditions for an economic science, is thus one of the most curious that the human mind can tackle.

Do indefinable ideas exist in thought? Are such ideas possible?…

We first have to clarify what we mean by indefinable ideas or objects.

I call indefinable every idea, object or relations for which we can give two or more different definitions.

Every object of which the notion, whatever it may be, is always too small or too large, I call indefinable.

Every object whose definition can consequently be a story [histoire], I call indefinable.

Every object, changing its nature without ceasing to be itself, by the sole fact of the relations that it maintains with other objects, I call indefinable. — Every thing whose nature, or essence, is to not be like itself from one instant to another, I name indefinable.

I say that an object is indefinable when, in order to know it, we are obliged, instead of expressing or portraying it, to relate it, to show it, in a succession of forms and states, where it [. ] its identity without losing its being.

Thus, when I say of a thing that it is indefinable, I do not mean by that that it by nature vague, confused, obscure or uncertain, [that it is] not susceptible to description or to exposition, that it offers no purchase to speculation or reasoning. Things that are indefinable are not as a result mysterious or unintelligible: intelligibility, as we will see, is as great in the things of this sort as in those that are defined the most rigorously. The indefinability of which I speak is something other than flickering gleams of superstition, of intoxication, of mysticism or ignorance.

I apply the name indefinable to every idea, object or relation, which, mobile and changing by nature, always demands, in order to be perfectly understood, to be seen in several different , even opposed aspects, the series of which can be traced by the mind, but which one could not embrace in the same definition. —

[Marginal notes: A contrario, I call definable any object or idea that always remains identical and adequate to itself, always true to itself, sibi constat, of which one can say that it will never vary: such is, for example, the sphere; such are all the figures of geometry.

One is not more difficult to understand than the other: we can compare the former to a pendulum in motion and the latter to a pendulum at rest.

Finitude and mobility; movement and rest, two simple ideas, in categories of our understanding, that we must accustom ourselves to conceive in turns as the fundamental conditions of two categories of objects and beings.]

Thus the indefinability of the object does not imply its non-existence: and to the doubt that could be raised in that regard, if pyrrhonism hovers over a mass of essential notions in the human brain, relations necessary to humanity, realities inherent in our nature, comes that which, instead of recognizing the essential indefinability of these notions, of these realities, that we have wanted, in a manner contrary to reason, to define; that we have then argued about inevitably untrue definitions, so that every affirmation and every negation has become false and the mind has remained without result.

The first necessity, in order to arrive at the full and lucid knowledge of these objects, relations or ideas is then to recognize their indefinability: in that fundamental condition knowledge is no longer anything but a chaos of appearances, between which reason is powerless to grasp a link, a law or a system: doubt hovers over half of the impression of the mind, which inevitably throws reason into despair and the conscience into sin…

God. — The Being of Beings. Assuming there is a superior, final group, —

Each being has a God, which is the group formed of other beings similar to it, and of which it is a part.

The group is the Being of the Being, that is to say, its essence.

Thus the God of the Earth is the entire planetary system;

The God of the bee is the Hive;

The god of a molecule in a crystal is the crystal; —

Each series is God for each of the units that composes it.

The God for each of the members of the body is the Body itself: which Body, endowed with the common life, possesses a higher life!…

The God of man is Society: which is the man of man, the human essence, humanity. This essence is in germ, more or less developed in each of us; it certainly does not fully exist there.

Hence the theorem: Non Datur Deus en Oeconomia, nisi ipsa Oeconomia.

There is no God in God, who governs the counsels of God, who animates him, etc. : this is repugnant to him. But one cannot say that there is no God for man, non dater Deus inter homines, because they have their own group for a divinity.


Doctrine of chance, the last word of Economism, revealed by the antigovernmentalism of the School, which is not the Anarchy of Socialism…

In this new work, I have put aside the Hegelian terminology, and tried to give my book a more French turn of phrase.

The truth, both in substance and in form, is universal and cosmopolitan. It must be intelligible to all; and any demonstration that would rest on the particular forms of an idiom, must be rejected.

ECONOMY is the Science that deals with the development (formation, production, education) and balancing (valuation, attribution, organization, etc.) of the forces (wealth, Labor, workers) in SOCIETY (the family, the city, etc.)

… you still speak of the progressive nature of Science, …! … Which did not prevent you from combating the anarchists, from maintaining the necessity of the proletariat, and from rejecting the liberty of the family with Malthus, and maintaining the privilege of Capital.

The great principle is to balance [various antinomic terms], giving to each the maximum of authority and understanding possible; what I have expressed by the word “anarchy” or “Equality,” and which can be expressed as you wish.

All of Socialism affirms the collective force, under the names of Community, association, cooperation…

Authority, in itself, is therefore the double faculty that we have, by virtue of our intelligence, of 1° conceiving and expressing the laws of things; 2° discerning, in all circumstances of our life, the actions to which those laws urge us to prefer to conform.

“ENTREPRENEUR: The representative of the collective force: J. Garnier completely misunderstood this side of the question.”

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2625 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.