Proudhon seminar: Onward!

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Plan of Attack

As I said, I would like to start my discussion of the material with Chapter 5, Part II, Section 3. I intend to deal with that final section in two posts, taking them in reverse order:

1) Proudhon’s ten point program (below)
2) The nature of “liberty”

I’ll follow that with some discussion of Chapter One, Proudhon’s discussion of method, probably on Thursday.

By that time, I hope to have done a little more work on the 1839 “Sunday” text, so we can get a little clearer idea of the philosophical framework Proudhon had already established. That may (or may not) give some clues about how to approach some of the problems Kevin and I have started kicking around.

One thing I can already say about Proudhon in 1840: “equality” was a real keyword for him.

Proudhon’s Destination

In 1873 or so, Ezra Heywood asked William B. Greene, an early translator and acquaintance of Proudhon, to explain the “property is robbery” phrase. In the pages of “The Word,” Greene provided a translation of the first three and last three pages of “What Is Property?,” together with a brief sketch of Proudhon as he had known him and some interpretation of the nature of mutualist institutions. I want to follow Greene’s lead to the extent of starting with those last three pages, which contain a sort of “ten point program” which Proudhon felt would follow directly from the abolition of “property.”

Here’s the text:

I have accomplished my task; property is conquered, never again to arise. Wherever this work is read and discussed, there will be deposited the germ of death to property; there, sooner or later, privilege and servitude will disappear, and the despotism of will will give place to the reign of reason. What sophisms, indeed, what prejudices (however obstinate) can stand before the simplicity of the following propositions:–

I. Individual POSSESSION is the condition of social life; five thousand years of property demonstrate it. PROPERTY is the suicide of society. Possession is a right; property is against right. Suppress property while maintaining possession, and, by this simple modification of the principle, you will revolutionize law, government, economy, and institutions; you will drive evil from the face of the earth.

II. All having an equal right of occupancy, possession varies with the number of possessors; property cannot establish itself.

III. The effect of labor being the same for all, property is lost in the common prosperity.

IV. All human labor being the result of collective force, all property becomes, in consequence, collective and unitary. To speak more exactly, labor destroys property.

V. Every capacity for labor being, like every instrument of labor, an accumulated capital, and a collective property, inequality of wages and fortunes (on the ground of inequality of capacities) is, therefore, injustice and robbery.

VI. The necessary conditions of commerce are the liberty of the contracting parties and the equivalence of the products exchanged. Now, value being expressed by the amount of time and outlay which each product costs, and liberty being inviolable, the wages of laborers (like their rights and duties) should be equal.

VII. Products are bought only by products. Now, the condition of all exchange being equivalence of products, profit is impossible and unjust. Observe this elementary principle of economy, and pauperism, luxury, oppression, vice, crime, and hunger will disappear from our midst.

VIII. Men are associated by the physical and mathematical law of production, before they are voluntarily associated by choice. Therefore, equality of conditions is demanded by justice; that is, by strict social law: esteem, friendship, gratitude, admiration, all fall within the domain of EQUITABLE or PROPORTIONAL law only.

IX. Free association, liberty–whose sole function is to maintain equality in the means of production and equivalence in exchanges–is the only possible, the only just, the only true form of society.

X. Politics is the science of liberty. The government of man by man (under whatever name it be disguised) is oppression. Society finds its highest perfection in the union of order with anarchy.

The old civilization has run its race; a new sun is rising, and will soon renew the face of the earth. Let the present generation perish, let the old prevaricators die in the desert! the holy earth shall not cover their bones. Young man, exasperated by the corruption of the age, and absorbed in your zeal for justice!–if your country is dear to you, and if you have the interests of humanity at heart, have the courage to espouse the cause of liberty! Cast off your old selfishness, and plunge into the rising flood of popular equality! There your regenerate soul will acquire new life and vigor; your enervated genius will recover unconquerable energy; and your heart, perhaps already withered, will be rejuvenated! Every thing will wear a different look to your illuminated vision; new sentiments will engender new ideas within you; religion, morality, poetry, art, language will appear before you in nobler and fairer forms; and thenceforth, sure of your faith, and thoughtfully enthusiastic, you will hail the dawn of universal regeneration!

And you, sad victims of an odious law!–you, whom a jesting world despoils and outrages!–you, whose labor has always been fruitless, and whose rest has been without hope,–take courage! your tears are numbered! The fathers have sown in affliction, the children shall reap in rejoicings!

O God of liberty! God of equality! Thou who didst place in my heart the sentiment of justice, before my reason could comprehend it, hear my ardent prayer! Thou hast dictated all that I have written; Thou hast shaped my thought; Thou hast directed my studies; Thou hast weaned my mind from curiosity and my heart from attachment, that I might publish Thy truth to the master and the slave. I have spoken with what force and talent Thou hast given me: it is Thine to finish the work. Thou knowest whether I seek my welfare or Thy glory, O God of liberty! Ah! perish my memory, and let humanity be free! Let me see from my obscurity the people at last instructed; let noble teachers enlighten them; let generous spirits guide them! Abridge, if possible, the time of our trial; stifle pride and avarice in equality; annihilate this love of glory which enslaves us; teach these poor children that in the bosom of liberty there are neither heroes nor great men! Inspire the powerful man, the rich man, him whose name my lips shall never pronounce in Thy presence, with a horror of his crimes; let him be the first to apply for admission to the redeemed society; let the promptness of his repentance be the ground of his forgiveness! Then, great and small, wise and foolish, rich and poor, will unite in an ineffable fraternity; and, singing in unison a new hymn, will rebuild Thy altar, O God of liberty and equality!

Much of this remained in Proudhon’s program for his entire career. Perhaps at some point we can look a bit at “The Political Capacity of the Working Class” to see some of the survivals. Some particular concepts, like “society” and “the collective force,” require careful handling. Proudhon’s definitions are sometimes largely implicit. In “WIP?” the idea of “society,” and what it implies (equality, of a sort, to begin with), is extremely important. The notion of “collective force,” essentially that association in production yields more than the sum of individual productions, pretty quickly becomes, for Proudhon, the basis of a theory of “collective persons,” “collective reason,” etc., which has considerable explanatory power, but which also complicates the notion of “individuality” a great deal. For now, assume Proudhon’s definitions are a bit idiosyncratic, and you’ll be safer.

I expect we’ll have occasion to wrestle particularly with:

* “the right of possession”
* equality of wages
* the nature of the “collective force”
* “association” and/as “law”

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.