Contr’un Revisited: [commentary coming soon]
It’s always fun to be able to add a new name to the list of historical mutualists, and particularly so when the new name comes with articulate writings. Frédéric Tufferd (or Teufferd) is one of those names I have encountered in the lists of French political exiles in the U. S., and as one of the editors of the Bulletin de l’Union républicaine de langue française and Le Socialiste (organs of the French internationalists in the the U. S.), and an associate of Claude Pelletier, Jules Leroux, etc. I hadn’t had a chance to read any of his work until recently, when I stumbled on “Unity in Socialism” by accident in an 1887 volume of La Société Nouvelle. I think the essay is a very clear and useful example of one strand of proudhonian thought. Central to the argument is a distinction between wages, remuneration of labor, and what Tufferd calls, in French, “aubaines.” An aubaine is quite literally a “windfall,” and it is the word which Benjamin R. Tucker rendered as “increase” in his translations of Proudhon. So the “right of increase” which Proudhon opposed is a “right to windfall profits,” but the three forms of aubaine identified by Tufferd—land-rent, interest, and profit—are also recognizable as the three forms of “usury” commonly identified in other mutualist writings. I have left aubaine untranslated in this working translation, in part because I think we need to clarify exactly what is at stake, and what we oppose, in the notion of a “right of increase,” beyond commonplaces about what we do and do not “believe in” when it comes to economic practices. I have also left the French term rente untranslated. Tufferd is referring to economic rent, and proposing a fairly straightforward “single tax,” but rente essentially refers to the same sort of “windfall,” arising this time from nature rather than property.
When I first read the essay, I was particularly interested in the distinction which Tufferd makes between abolishing government—the “principle of authority”—and abolishing the state, which he sees as “the organized collectivity.” He appeals to Proudhon in this assertion, and contrasts his position with that of Bakunin. Certainly, this argument is perfectly consistent with Proudhon’s general theory. As for the disagreement with Bakunin, it’s one more thing to add to my list of topics for close reading as the Bakunin Library project progresses.
We begin to talk of union, to understand that the ridiculous disputes which have divided the socialists thus far, to the great joy of the bourgeois, should come to an end, if we want socialism to become something more than a powerless dream. But how will we bring about union among the different socialist schools? Obviously, by establishing socialism on a demonstrable basis, and no longer on a few unproven principles, about which we can dispute endlessly without ever agreeing. Ask the astronomers if the earth is round and if it orbits around the sun, and all will be in agreement; ask them if there are inhabitants in the moon, and their opinions will be divided. In the first case, the astronomers know; in the second, they can only rely on analogies of which nothing proves the reality.
If I say that a man who lets himself fall from the sixth floor will be killed when he hits the pavement, everyone, materialists or spiritualists, atheists or deists, anarchists or collectivists, will agree with me, for they all recognize that this is a necessary consequence of the law of gravity. But if I add that this man, after his death, will begin again a new existence here or elsewhere, some will say yes, others no, and those who have the largest dose of good sense will say to me: You know nothing of it, any more than I do.
When I say that as long as there are men who, without producing, take the lion’s share for themselves, the workers will be reduced to the bare minimum, I do not have to debate about God and the state, socialism or anarchy; it is enough to prove that all wealth comes from labor, and that the sum of social wealth equals that of labor accomplished; because any deduction which is not represented by any labor diminishes proportionally the portion of the laborer.
If we only mean by the word “God” the angry, vengeful and jealous Jehovah of Moses, heaven’s despot, symbol and support of the despots of the earth, every sensible man needs no reasoning to be convinced that such a God is impossible. But the word “God” also means the directing force of the universe, the principle of movement and life. What is this principle? We know nothing about it; it is the great unknown, and that is all. Will we then take the unknown for the basis of socialism?
I do not know what God is, and consequently neither affirm nor deny its existence. Nor do I known what is matter and what is spirit. Is matter a reality or a simple illusion of the senses? I don’t know. Bakunin thought of matter, not as inert, but as endowed with movement and life; but where is the proof of that assertion? All that I know is that there are in nature some sensible manifestations produced by forces that the senses cannot perceive, but that the intelligence conceives. What are these forces, and where do they come from? What is movement, and what is life? I do not know. Thus I can be neither materialist, nor spiritualist, nor atheist, nor deist. On these questions I doubt and I seek; and if I express an opinion, I am careful not to make it the basis of social reform. It is long since Proudhon said: “We know nothing of substances and causes; we only know relations.”
But if our science of substances and causes is null and void, there is one thing that we know: it is that the laws of nature are immutable. An astronomer can predict the eclipses which will take place in the future and calculate those that have taken place in the past. The magnet attracts, and will always attract, iron. Hydrogen will always combine with oxygen to form water. On the laws of nature that we know, our science is complete, absolute. For every phenomenon of which we understand the laws, we can infer the past and predict the future; and when we know the economic laws of society, we can calculate the social phenomena with the same certainty as the astronomer who calculates the course of the stars. Thus, let us study the economic laws which direct social evolution, if we want to put an end to disputes and divergences of opinion. Do we see the astronomers argue about the movement of the planets or chemists argue about the formation of salts. Would we dream of putting the theorems of geometry or the proportions of the logarithms in doubt? Let us cease then taking the unknown for our basis, and start from the facts to discover the laws, and from the laws determine the future organization of society.
The most incredible confusion is that between the government and the State. I am an anarchist, as Proudhon was, for like him I want to abolish government, the principle of authority in the State, in order to replace it by an responsible and controllable administration of the public interests; but I do not want, with Bakunin, to abolish the State. The word State comes from stare, to hold, to persist; the State is thus the organized collectivity. Just as the commune is the local collectivity, the State is the national collectivity which has lasted, lasts, and will last as long as the nation itself. Even if society ever succeeds in realizing the ideal of the universal Republic, that Republic will still be composed of distinct States, in solidarity with one another, but each living its own life.
As long as the socialists quarrel over God, nature and the State, there will be no more harmony among them that there could be between the zealot who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ and the free-thinker who denies it. The astronomer, the physicist, and the chemist do not have to quarrel about God and matter; they only concern themselves with determining the laws of the phenomena that they study. It is time that the socialists imitate them and concern themselves with determining the laws of social phenomena.
I do not propose to determine these laws here; that would be impossible in a journal article. May aim is less to answer the questions than to indicate the way. Thus I will content myself with sketching the social problem from the point of view of wages and aubaine.
All wealth comes from labor. Natural goods are useful only after labor has collected, modified, and prepared them. Even wild fruits rot on the vine without any utility, if labor does not gather them. To labor is to modify the natural materials in order to render them proper for the satisfaction of our needs. Labor creates nothing, it only accomplishes a change of form (art), or a change of place (transportation), or a distribution (commerce). The one who measures fabric works as much as those who transport or make it; for the production does not stop when the product is finished, it is only finished when it is delivered to the consumer. Doubtless commerce hardly knows how to do anything today but defraud and deceive; but it is not for that any less a necessary part of social labor. We do more work witha harvesting machine with a sickle, but when we do not have the machine, we must use the sickle. Similarly, as long as we have not reorganized commerce, we must make it serve us such as it is.
If all wealth comes from labor, there can only be two means of living: either at the expense of one’s own labor, by wages; or at the expense of the labor of others, by aubaine.
I designate as wages every remuneration for a useful labor delivered in the marketplace, however it is collected. To receive a wage, it is not necessary for the worker to have a boss. Those who work on their own behalf receive their wages by selling their products; and the merchants receive their own by a profit on sales. I do not have to concern myself here with badly distributed wages; I have only to indicate the fact that everyone who delivers a useful labor in the marketplace has a right to a wage which allows them to take from the market an equivalent labor of their choice.
I designate as aubaine every collection of income which takes some value from the market without replacing it by a useful labor of equal value; for then it can only be made on the labor of others.
There are three sorts of aubaines: rent, interest, and profit. The rent is made up of the income (rente) from the soil and the interest from buildings and other immovable properties.
The more fertile a plot of land is, the higher the rentefrom it is. It is, however, not the labor of the proprietor which has created the fertility of the soil.
The better situated a plot of land is, the higher the rente from it is. The high rents in Paris do not come from the price of the houses, for a house costs no more to build in Paris than in Pontoise; they come from the location. It is their situation which makes is so that for each square meter of land, one can do more business and employ more labor than one could on as many acres in the country. It is not, however, the labor of the proprietor which has made the roads, canals, railways and towns.
Thus, the income is only an aubaine, and in the majority of cases the rent of immovable property is nothing else. It costs to construct, repair, and maintain a house; thus it is fair to pay a rent sufficient to reimburse these costs; but to whom? To the proprietor? Are there many proprietors who have themselves built the houses that they rent to us, or who have paid for the construction by their own labor? Isn’t it almost always money from the aubaines which has paid for the building? Each has a right to demand payment for all the increase in values that they labor has added to the soil; but no one has the right to appropriate the labor of others.
If the rente does not belong to the proprietor, does it belong to the tenant or leaseholder? No, for it is not the fruit of the labor of either. And yet, whatever social order we suppose, the rente will exist, for there will always be parcels of land which, with equal labor, will yield more than others.
To whom, then, does the rente belong? To society, obviously, for the advantages of fertility come from the free gifts of nature, and those of situation result from social development. Let the rente ceased to be paid to the proprietor, and be paid to the state, in the place of taxes, and justice will be realized. Conditions will be equal, for each will pay in proportion to the advantages of the land that they occupy, and the rente will profit everyone, since it will remunerate all the works of public utility. As for the rent of immovable property, it will be reduced to the rate necessary to pour reimburse costs, plus an insurance premium in anticipation of accidents. When each pays rent only to the commune and the state, a fifth of the present rents will amply suffice for all public expenses.
Interest, whether it is taken as interest on loans, dividends on stocks or government bonds, is only an aubaine. How will we make it disappear? Obviously, by replacing private credit, which is expensive, by public credit, which will be free. Instead of granting the Bank of France to a company which will pocket the profits, we could make it a national bank which discounts and credits without interest, with its notes, on good security. Then its notes will no longer be a promise of reimbursement on gold on demand, guaranteed by bullion; they would be bills or exchange guaranteed by public fortune.
As for profit, to abolish it, it would be necessary to make industry and commerce no longer individual speculations, but social agencies for production and distribution. When the bank credits its interests, it could credit the workers organizations in order to open workshops and stores, on the condition that they produce and sell at cost-price, without profits other than those necessary to cover wages, general costs and insurance premiums. It is claimed that only individual are prosperous, — the monopolies of the companies are certainly not the proof of it, — but if they can do better than the workers’ organizations, they will persist; if they cannot, they will become bankrupt, and industry will gradually pass into the hands of the workers.
But if we can leave time and competition to reorganize commerce and industry on social bases, this is not the case with the large monopolies, which it is urgent to make disappear as soon as possible. There is no doubt that the post carries our letters more cheaply than it would if it was the monopoly of one company, and for good reason that the state does not seek to make a fortune and has no dividends to pay to anyone. Now that the telegraphs belong to the state in England, telegrams cost much less, and for the same reason. Let us give notice to all the stockholders, and it will be the same with the other monopolies.
This is social reform sketched in broad strokes and deduced, no longer from vague and indeterminate notions, but from social phenomena that everyone can easily verify. Let the socialists go down this road, and they will soon cease to argue.
Another cause of disputes is the means of action. But they depend on times, places, and circumstances, and what is impossible today may perhaps be possible tomorrow. It is not up to us whether the revolution is accomplished violently or peacefully; that will depend on events that we can neither predict nor control, and on the will of our legislators and rulers. Let those legislators and ruler consent to the most urgent reforms and we will bear with the rest. The people do not revolt for the pleasure of smashing streetlights; when the rebel it is because their condition has become intolerable and because they feel the need of escaping it at any price. It is up to our masters to decide if the revolution will be violent or peaceful; as for us socialists, let us first study which reforms will resolve the problem of misery and bring about liberty, equality, solidarity, and justice for all. The circumstances will suggest the means of action. If some socialists want to employ means that we think must fail, we are free to not assist them; but must we impede them, and thus do ourselves the work of the masters?
The aubaine is the cause of poverty, and yet our rulers constantly strive to increase the aubaines. Companies issue more shares than they have real capital; governments contract new loans each year, always swelling in this way the ranks of the parasitic army of state-rentiers; government positions and sinecures are multiplied everywhere; the leprosy of parasitism invades everything, and as a necessary, inevitable result, poverty becomes misery, and misery become famine. The terrible cry of 1789—For bread! For bread!—still resounds on all sides. Perhaps there is still time to avoid the cataclysm, but we must make haste! It is no longer only bankruptcy, hideous bankruptcy which threatens us, it is famine and despair.
To decrease the aubaines will be to increase wages by that much; to suppress them would be to render wages equal to product, while leaving to the state a vast revenue, the rente. Every reform which diminishes the aubaines is useful. War to the aubaines!
Source: La Société Nouvelle, 3rdyear, v. 2 (1887) 223-228.
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur; revised February 26, 2013.]