From Proudhon’s study on the State (“Justice,” 1858)

[These passages are taken from the Fourth Study, on “The State,” in Proudhon’s Justice in the Revolution and in the Church.]

V. — I will not make my readers wait for the solution. As you have just seen, I reduce all of political science to a single question, that of Stability.
Why is it that from ancient times until the present, the constitution of the states has been so fragile, that all the publicists, without exception, have declared them essentially instable? How are we to bestow stability and duration on them?
It is from this specific side that I tackled the political problem; it is on this terrain, still unexplored, that I pose the question.
And this is my response:
What we must consider above all in government is not the origin (divine right, popular right or right of conquest); nor is it the form (democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, simple or mixed government); it I not even the organization (division of powers, representative or parliamentary system, centralization, federalism, etc.): all these things are the material of government. what we must consider is the spirit that animates it, its thought, its soul, its Idea.
It is by their idea that governments live or die. So let the idea become true, and the state, however blameworthy its origin, however defective it appears in its organization, correcting itself according to its secret thought, will be sheltered from all outside attack, as from all internal corruption. It will radiate its thought around it, and constantly increase in scope, depth and strength. On the contrary, let the idea remain false, then legitimacy, popularity, organization, military power cannot maintain it: it must fall.
Now, as the idea, avowed or not, of the governments, has thus far been a prejudice radically opposed to Justice, a false political hypothesis; as from another side the succession of states in history is an ascending march towards Justice, we can, from this double point of view of theory and history, classify them all according to three different ideas, which we will examine one after the other:
1. The idea of Necessity, which is that of pagan antiquity;
2. The idea of Providence, which is that of the Church:
These two ideas, antitheses of one another, are the opposite extremes of an antinomy which ecompasses the world religious age;
3. The idea of Justice, which is that of the Revolution and which constitutes, in opposition to religious government, human government.
Thus, it is with government as with property, with the division of labor, and with all the economic forces: taken by themselves, and not considering the more or less legal thought which determines them, it is a stranger to right, indifferent to every moral idea; it is an instrument of force. As long as government has not welcomed Justice, it remains established on the idea of fatality and providence, it tends to inorganism, it oscillates from catastrophe to catastrophe. The problem is thus, after having prepared the economic terrain, to apply Justice to government, by freeing it from inevitability and arbitrariness. Such is the object of the Revolution.
Government according to Justice. — Actuality of power; collective force; constitution of the Republic.
XLIV. — What makes the life of a state, we said at the outset, what determines its stability or its caducity, is its idea. If that idea expresses a relation of justice, the state will be, internally, sheltered from all dissolution; from the outside, no power will be able to prevail against it. If, on the contrary, the idea that rules the stat is false and iniquitous, even though universal prejudice is on its side, the state, in contradiction with itself, will perish sooner or later.
It seems that after that, the law of equality being demonstrated, we do not have to concern ourselves with government any longer. Let government rule itself according to the law of equality, and, whatever its form, from the moment that it only exists for Justice, it is assured of living; its constitution becomes a secondary thing, that one can abandon without inconvenience to the popular fancy or local tradition.
However, such a conclusion would only be true within certain limits: that is to say that, the balance of services, products and fortunes being accomplished, one can entrust to Justice the care of securing the state, and to give the definitive form to government. Apart from that, one would make a grave error, if one supposed that, economic equilibrium established, the government can preserve the organization that it was previously given according to its idea of inequality. The indifference of the economic science, in matters of government, does not go so far.
The idea of government given, the form follows: those two terms are linked with one another, as the organization of the animal is to its destiny. We know what the form of states has been up to the present, after the idea of the exploitation of man by man: despotic centralization, feudal hierarchy, patricians with followers, military democracy, mercantile oligarchy, finally constitutional monarchy. What is the proper form of republican government, organized by and for equality? That is a question from which it is impossible for us to shrink. Justice, without that, would lie to itself; it would not be Justice, having less creative force than its contrary, iniquity.
That is not all. Thus far we have only considered in government a form of action: we have not asked ourselves if that form covered something real; if we must see there a combination of the human brain, or the manifestation of a positive nature. Now, the state having its idea, which is its conscience, and then its form, in other words its organism, which is its body, we are led necessarily to believe that this word, state, power, government, indicates a veritable being, since that which unites the two attributes of existence, idea and form, soul and body, cannot be reduced to a nonentity. What is the actuality of the state? What does it consist of? Where is it found? — I will explain.
XLV. — From the beginning of these studies, we have posed to ourselves the question: What is Justice?
And the result of our research has been to demonstrate that religion made of Justice a divine commandment, and philosophy [made it] a simple relation, a necessity of reason, Justice, according to both, was reduced for the conscience to an abstraction; that thus right lacked reality in the heart of hearts, all of reality was a pure prejudice, a voluntary submissiveness, in no way obligatory, to certain proprieties themselves deprived of foundation. In such a case, atheism was right to maintain that Justice is a word, and good and evil just words; that there is no other right that strength, and that all that theology and metaphysics delivers in that regard is pure fantasy, logomachy, superstition.
However, we see Justice draw humanity along, produce civilization by its development, raise up high the nations that observe it, and doom, on the contrary, those that forget it. How would we attribute such powerful, real effects to an idea without subject, to a chimera?
To account for history and save morality, to explain religion itself, it was thus to demonstrate that Justice is anything but a commandment and a relation; that it is still a positive faculty of the soul, a power of the same order as love, superior even to love, a reality, finally: and that is what we have set about in these Studies.
Another question.
After have recognized Justice in its essence and its reality, we asked ourselves, passing from persons to things: what is the law of production and distribution of wealth, in other words, what is the economy? Does there really exist, can there exist a science of that name, having for object a determinable reality, possessing some principles of its own, some definitions, and a method; or must we see in that would-be science only the acts of a mercantilism without principle and without law, some caprices of the imagination, some zigzags of the will, in which it would be illogical to seek a shadow of reason, and which only falls under the good pleasure of the government?
In this latter case, it is clear that political economy, summarizing itself in a word, liberty, save for the exceptions that the state imposes, is not by itself a science: it is a negation, and the conclusions of socialism are without foundation.
For us, on the contrary, economics is a science in the most rigorous sense of the word; science having for aim to study the order of phenomena which, although produced under the initiative of liberty, and infinitely variable, still obey some constant laws, whose certainty is equal to that of all the laws which rule the universe. Some forces and laws, that is what makes up the reality of economics: there is nothing else in physics itself. Thanks to this actuality of Justice and of economics, society is no longer an arbitrary phantasmagoria, a transient figure; it is a creation, a world.
Now I continue:
What is the power in society? What produces the government,and gives rise to the state? Does the political idea correspond, like the legal idea and the economic idea, to a reality sui gêneris, or is it still only a fiction, a word?
According to the Church and all the mythologies, the social power does not have its base in humanity: it is of divine constitution. According to the philosophers, who will try to determine its conditions, government would result from the abandonment that each citizen makes of a part of his liberty; it would be the product of a voluntary renunciation, a sort of joint stock company, nothing in itself.
Some men, in recent times, appear to have sensed the radical insufficiency of all these conceptions. “Without the individual,” they have said, “without liberty, government, society itself, is certainly nothing. But can one not also say that, society once formed, it is another thing than the individual, an organism which impose its laws on the latter?…” it is thus that is formed the hypothesis of social being, real, positive and true.
But that is only one hypothesis: who vouches for that reality to us? What does it consist of? Where to grasp it? How to analyze its parts? Here everything is still to be done, and if the Revolution does not inspire us, there is no longer anything for us but to confess our powerlessness: there is no government.
I reason thus about government as I reason about economics and Justice. The government is a thing in which, despite all the disappointments, humanity perseveres, and which neither violence, nor subterfuge, nor superstition, nor fear, suffice to explain. A priori, that the political institution expresses, not a convention or an act of faith, but a reality.
That will be the subject of the last section. [The “last section” is the “Little Political Catechism,” which appears in an English translation by Jesse Cohn in Property is Theft!]
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.