From Proudhon’s “Political Capacity of the Working Classes”

The Political Capacity of the Working Classes was the last work prepared for publication by Proudhon prior to his death. It was written in large part as a response to the workers responsible for the “Manifesto of the Sixty,” and contains one of the most programmatic of his treatments of mutualism, as well as his last treatment of the question of electoral change. I’m working on a translation of the work, and here are two sections from that work, both by Gustave Chaudey, one of the group of friends who prepared Proudhon’s manuscripts for posthumous publication. The Preface explains the circumstances of the work’s publication, and the first half of the Conclusion summarizes the work. As I did with the translation of The Theory of Property, I will probably post some of the sections that seem of more immediate interest first.


Some years before his death, I received from Proudhon the task of making, on this work left by him in proofs, and to which he attached a particular importance, the work of minute revision that he did with the editors of each of his publications. I need not say that I have acquitted myself of that task with all the care demanded of me by the memory of his friendship and my respect for his talent. Each line of this book has been compared, by M. Dentu and myself, with the manuscript text and the corrections indicated on the placards by Proudhon himself. The reader will have before their eyes only material from the text of the author himself, with the exception of the Conclusion, which he wanted, according to his custom, to write only at the last moment, after having composed on printed sheets all of his book. That was to form, in his intentions, twelve or fifteen pages, which doubtless would not have been the least eloquent of the work. These pages, alas! I have had to write them, and I don’t know how to say how embarrassed I am to tell it to the reader. I have been expressly charged with it by Proudhon, which did not cease until his last instant to be preoccupied with his work, and have received from him to that effect, in a final conversation of several hours, recommendations of which I took notes under his gaze, and to which I have scrupulously conformed. I hope the public will indulge me for a collaboration so sadly imposed on my friendship, and which I more than anyone sense the insufficiency.
Gustave CHAUDEY.
May 1865. 
From this book, the product of such profound study and such a powerful meditation, on the most arduous matters of economic and political science, there emerge, after an attentive reading, a few simple ideas that we ought, according to the desire of the author, to summarize here.
For a people to make its action felt efficaciously in politics, it is not enough that it be invested with universal suffrage and that it exercise its right to vote; it must have consciousness of its situation and its strength, and it must vote with full awareness of the facts.
The emancipation of the working class will begin only the day when they have a clear notion of their own interests.
According to Proudhon, the working classes have only made their true entry in the political scene in the last elections, with the Manifesto of the Sixty. It is only then that, in a language of their own, they have attempted to express their own ideas.
But they have not been able to find the political line that could lead them to the most efficacious manifestation of these ideas.
The working classes have interests distinct from the bourgeoisie. They must have a politics distinct from the bourgeois politics.
Universal suffrage is a truth, a reality, only if lends itself to a regular manifestation of that diversity of political interests.
Political legality is that, exactly that; it is nothing else. It can consist only in that balance, that weighting, that just proportion to be established, by means of the electoral organism, among all the forces that must coexist, without being confused, in society.
In France, in the present state of things, with the complications of the electoral system, lacking the guarantees that best insure serious preparation for the election, in the absence of a truly independent press, in the presence of the doctrine that makes it a duty to the government to not abandon universal suffrage to its spontaneity, the working classes are not in a position to give a positive expression to their ideas or their interests.
They can manifest their ideas and their interests only negatively.
They can be taken into consideration only by refusing their direct participation in a politics which does not permit them to clearly produce their pretentions.
If they should vote, in order to prove that they value their right of suffrage, their vote must be by itself the expression of that dissent, of that will to remain at a distance.
The protestant does not go to the mass of the Catholics.
The catholic does not go to the sermon of the protestants.
The free thinker does not go to the sermon or to the mass.
The worker voter, for the same reason, must not go to the Church of bourgeois politics.
That was the important meaning of the blank vote, which was not understood in 1863, but which certainly will be one day, as soon as the working classes will come to take good account of their situation.
What is that situation? What must it be?
It is that of the people who, having need of great reforms in the economic order, must desire that their intervention in politics furnishes them the means to obtain these reforms.
The best politics, for the working classes, will be that which best leads them to that end.
If it happens that the worker politics disturbed the combinations of the capitalist politics, it must be because the workers know to accept the capitalists as adversaries. There is nothing in that that is not natural, inevitable, necessary. Politics is not a matter of sentiment. This is, at base, this must only be the struggle resolved, the legal struggle of interests. In sum then, such would be the economic idea of the working classes, such would be their political idea.
Politics is nothing, if it does not aim to resolve all the great economic questions; the accession of the working classes to the right of political suffrage is nothing, if it’s result is not to given them the legal means to improve their social condition.
The workers will propose their idea; the capitalists will combat it. both are right on some points, and wrong on others. The discussion, the polemics of the press, and electoral tactics will do the rest, and the public reason will settle the debate.
That is liberty! That is equality! That is order!
Nothing would be more false than to conceive of order as the suppression of all questions, of all discussion, of all antagonism.
In the last elections, the workers entered the lists with a program issuing from themselves. What did they say? What did they demand?
They said that the interests of labor, in the present economic order, are far from being treated as favorably as the interests of capital.
They demanded that this unfavorable situation of labor with regard to capital be relieved.
They demand that in all the relations of civil or commercial life, in all transactions, in all contracts, the laborer should be, with regard to those with whom he contracts, on a footing of perfect equality.
They demand, whether it is a question of buying, a question of selling, a question of borrowing, a question of giving or taking a lease on a house or field, or of stipulating a labor contract, making a trade, or undertaking an industry, or forming a company, that the laborer be the benefit of the same legal advantages as the capitalist.
They demand that all the great enterprises of public utility, that all the great economic institutions are conceived and established in favor of labor as much as capital.
Advantage for advantage, utility for utility, service for service, product for product, equitable assessment of the services exchanged, without any privilege of situation, without any recognized precedence, without any legislative favor to the profit of one of the parties and the detriment of the other; that is, according to the worker, what labor has in interest in demanding, what it demands, what it wants to obtain, and what it will obtain! That is truth, right, and justice!
And that is what is called mutuality!
It is in that idea of mutuality, so simple and so strong, of which we have made, in the second part of this work, some striking applications to the vital questions of political economy, that is found, according to Proudhon, all the future of the people, all the futures of the workers.
It is there that we find the development of the principles of 89.
It is there that we find the true politics of the working classes.
Any politics that is not the implementation ofthis idea is not, should not be theirs. Theyonly take in interest in it, if it isto seek all legal opportunities to separate themselves from itand to oppose their protest to it.
Proudhon did not conceal any of the numerous obstacles that this worker’s politics must encounter.
Those obstacles are very considerable in the political order.
Proudhon made them the subject of the third part of this book. He set out there everything that, politically, is incompatible with the ideas and tendencies of the working classes.
According to him, there is nothing to await, for them, from legislative action, as long as their efforts are hindered by the system of centralization that dominates all the political and administrative institutions in France.
The system of centralization is an obstacle to liberty in its very principle.
Nothing is possible, nothing if feasible by the initiative, by spontaneity, by the independent action of individuals and collectivities, as long as they are in the presence of that colossal force with which the State is invested by centralization.
The centralizing or unitary State can undertake anything, direct everything, regulate everything, prevent anything, do anything, without encountering effectual resistance.
The force of action of the individuals and groups, fragmented in the electoral districts, in the limit remits of the municipal and departmental councils, is dominated, crushed, in all its manifestations, by that enormous power that places, on every question, in every affair, the forces of the entire nation against the isolated individual or group.
The relation, true between all the interests, between all the ideas, is artificially modified, artificially disturbed by the intervention of the State.
As soon as the State opts for one of theideas, for one of the interests in a struggle, it provides it with an artificialstrength, which gives that idea or interest an importance out of proportion with its natural strength.
If the State involves itself in the support of religion, it crushes philosophy, without that being the effect of the proper power of religion.
If it sustains philosophy, it crushes religion, without that being the effect of the proper power of philosophy.
The same thing occurs if it takes the part of free trade against protection, or of protection against free trade.
The same thing, if it is inclined to the side of the bosses against the workers, or the side of the workers against the bosses.
What necessitates, in politics, that idea of mutuality that is the economic program of the working classes, is that, in the political order as well, all things, all ideas, all interests can be reduced to equality, to the common right, to justice, to balancing, to the free play of forces, to the free manifestation of ambitions, to the free activity of individuals and groups, in a word, to autonomy.
Centralization must be reduced, groups and individuals must regain in their public liberties everything that is excessive in the presentations of the State, all the power of which it has made an exorbitant delegation to the Government and Administration.
It is at this price, and only at this price, that liberty will be established in France, rationally and firmly.
We can get an idea of it by the countless guarantees that individual and collectives liberties find in the Swiss and American institutions, without the true unitybeing compromised, and by the most proper combinations, on the contrary, to realize it, since they derive them from a contract, from a free convention between the parties, and not from constraint or absorption.
What we call in particular the pact of guarantee between States, is nothing but one of the most brilliant applications of the idea of mutuality, which, in political, becomes the idea of federation.
The working classes could not reflect too much on this important subject.
Independent of the obstacles that the working classes find in the political order, in the system of centralization, which is the very antithesis of the idea of mutuality, they find a considerable number within themselves, in their intellectual and moral aptitudes.
And it is here that, by his own request, we have to give the thought of Proudhon some development….
[Working translations by Shawn P. Wilbur]
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.