[Slowly, but surely, I’m assembling the various feminist responses to Proudhon. The pages of L’Opinion des Femmes is rich with that sort of thing, since it was Jeanne Deroin’s primary forum at the time she proposed herself for political office, and drew fire from Proudhon and others. In the May, 1849 issue, the following essay, by Eugène Stourm, appeared. I think it’s an interesting mix of fairly accurate critique and misunderstanding. Certainly, the more details emerge, the more interesting the conflict looks. I think this project is going to be a lot of fun.]
God, Women, and Proudhon.
The enemies of socialism are tireless in their slanders. They exhaust against the new truth by which they sense that the world will be invaded all sorts of malicious ruses, but also all the contradictions of a mind at bay. It is thus, for example, that, after having presented socialism as the most infernal inspiration that has taken possession of the human brain, it is not rare to see the same adversary opposing to it as a flat refusal the impossibility of finding people pure enough, or perfect enough to be worthy and capable of realizing it. Each of the points of which socialism rests is the source of an accusation aiming to alienate the noblest souls and most generous hearts. It invites all the children of God, without exclusion, to the banquet of life, and those who want to sit down alone at that banquet, who push their unfortunate fellows from it, claim that the socialists are materialists, sensualists exclusively concerned with the needs of the body.
There is for socialism, in this situation that we have made of it, an absolute need to make the world understand that all these insinuations are the sophisms of selfishness, attacked in its essence and principle, et, and for this is it first necessary that socialism demonstrate clearly to all sincere minds that it deserves none of the reproaches addressed to it.
But, in order to achieve that socialism must establish, so to speak, its moral independence by not indenturing itself to any of its particular expressions, or to any of the men whom one could consider as the leaders of the schools; it must not hesitate, each time that the occasion presents itself, to distance itself from the more or less eccentric assertions that some thinker or another has taken it upon themselves to risk in the absolute development of their eccentricities. This work of purification made in the name of the common sense of humanity implies no ingratitude with regard to the men of genius to which socialism owes its brightest illuminations. Recognition does not entail servility of thought. There is one that has more reason that any particular socialist, and that is socialism itself, in its greatest generality. We say that boldly, because we believe that attitude of the most advanced minds necessary to their own progress, and is at the same time indispensable to the progressive constitution of the true social science. De plus, it is incontestable that whatever reproaches we could legitimately address to an individual could not justly be applied to socialism as a whole. Thus it is good not to hesitate to establish that salutary distinction that the old world has so much interest in not admitting.
That said, we are comfortable speaking about one of the most curious and most powerful minds of our era, of a man who has had the formidable privilege of announcing the world some truths, by exerting over it a sort of moral terror that his frame of mind has perhaps made him spread involuntarily. Proudhon glimpses all the elements of which truth is composed, in the form of an incessant antagonism, thesis and antithesis, which should finally be reconciled in a higher term, the synthesis; but, it must be admitted that, by his moral temperament, Proudhon is not the man of that last term. Where his genius excels, is in making apparent that sort of duel between the two aspects of a single idea; it is to highlight what he calls the antinomy in all the possible objects of human knowledge. Thus he appears like the spirit of destruction simply because he has a genius for analysis. Those who are aware of this psychological phenomenon, which certainly has, like every other, its providential purpose, are not frightened at all, but the minds who stick to appearance recoil in dread, as before the most horrible monstrosity. Proudhon is always the most skillful anatomist of the social body; no one has dissected it with more boldness, to penetrate the most invisible structure; in the midst of that disintegration, and as he only considers the various parts that he has separated one by one, it happens that he casts a light at time more proper to lead astray than to lead well; but his paradoxes always overexcite the intellectual faculties of those who attempt to rectify them. Proudhon is the thinker who thinks the most. When we are not in agreement with him on a point, we must, in order to respond to him seriously, take up anew his previous studies, and delve deeper into the principles that we believe we have must fully plumbed.
But that daring intelligence has, like every other, its domain which is proper to it and apart from which it not only no longer has ordinary superiority, but even the most common rectitude, the most vulgar good sense. Proudhon is very powerful in the exercise of pure reason, but there is more than just reason in us. There is not only one order of truths in our conception. There are truths of external and material observation which fall within the realm of the senses, logical and mathematical truths, conforming to the laws of our understanding, and, finally, there are truths of sentiment which have their source and certainty in the heart. Well, Proudhon understands neither the importance, nor the legitimacy of that last order of truths; he does not accept that the heart is the seat of its own lights, which complete the illumination of our life and self-consciousness. He relegates everything that comes from there to the sphere of illusion, and that philosophical exclusivism dramatically limits his competence on certain subjects, before which, however, he does not stop. Like at metaphysicians, at all times, he does not wish to be contained, and readily imagines that his specialty is universal being.
It is easy to see that universality does not depend on any individuality. God does not permit that absolute dictatorship to one of his children. There are always some gaps in his capacities which oblige other minds not to completely abdicate in his favor; when he tackles subjects which are not, so to speak, of his intellectual vocation, he falls beneath himself, and, at times, even below the average minds. That is, in our opinion, what has happened to Proudhon every time he has wanted to tackled questions that reason by itself does not suffice to treat well. We have two example to cite: the woman question, and the question of God. both can only be explored effectively when the insights of the heart are combined with the lights of reason. Reason is crushed by these complex problems; to account for the nature and destiny of woman, requires the most extreme sensitivity of heart. God appeared only to hearts ablaze with his love! When reason judges women, it is empiricism which notes what has been in this regard, without being able to discover what should be. Reason determining God, is reason idealizing itself in the notion of the absolute. It is really an idolatry of the intelligence; it is not God.
We do not have the time to justify the propositions that we have expressed here. We have only wanted to faire entendre that socialism, in its essential spirit, cannot, at least without putting itself in contradiction with itself, accept the ideas of Proudhon on women and God. To aspire to the unlimited, successive improvement of human sociability, and preserve the traditions, the prejudices of the old world on half the human race, is to commit a logical error which profits those who want the social order to rest eternally on material force. To give to his thought the least appearance of atheism or blasphemy against the highest good is to perpetuate the misunderstandings, to fortifier the calumnies of those who want to make believe that socialism is essentially irreligious, when it is, on the contrary, the only living religion of humanity in the present state of its development.
Socialism, based on the idea of right, cannot have the opinion about women of a society based on brutal facts; socialism, which is like a sort of new flowering of the conscience and heart of humanity, cannot have the ideas about God of a selfish world. Women and God will be transfigured in the human mind.
[Working Translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]