Proudhon (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, December 1848)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written December 1848

Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 8, p. 129;
Written at the beginning of December 1848;
First published, in German, in: Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe,1935.
Collection(s): Neue Rheinische Zeitung

Paris. Yesterday we spoke of the Montagnards and the socialists, of the candidatures of Ledru-Rollin and of Raspail, of the Réforme and the Peuple of Citizen Proudhon. We promised to return to Proudhon.

Who is Citizen Proudhon?

Citizen Proudhon is a peasant from the Franche-Comté who has done a variety of jobs and engaged in a variety of studies. He first drew public attention to himself by a pamphlet published in 1842: What Is Property? The reply was: “Property is theft.”

The surprising repartee startled the French. The Government of Louis Philippe, the austere Guizot, who has no sense of humour, was narrow-minded enough to take Proudhon to court. But in vain. In the case of such a piquant paradox any French jury can be relied on for acquittal. And so it came to pass. The Government disgraced itself and Proudhon became a famous man.

As to the book itself, it corresponded throughout to the above résumé. Every chapter was summed up in a curious paradox in a manner which is new to the French.

For the rest, it contained partly legal and moral, partly economic and moral treatises, each of which sought to prove that property amounts to a contradiction. As to the legal points, these can be admitted, inasmuch as nothing is easier than to prove that the whole of jurisprudence amounts to nothing but contradictions. As to the economic treatises, they contain little that is new, and what is new in them is based on wrong calculations. The rule of three is everywhere most disgracefully mishandled.

The French, however, were unable to cope with the book. For the jurists it was too economistic, for the economists too legalistic and for both too moralistic. Après tout, c'est un ouvrage remarquable, they said finally.

But Proudhon was hankering after greater triumphs. After various long-forgotten minor writings, there appeared at last in 1846 his Philosophie de la misère, in two enormous tomes. In this work, which was to establish his fame for ever, Proudhon applied a badly mishandled Hegelian philosophical method to a curiously misunderstood political economy and sought by all kinds of transcendental leaps to found a new socialist system of a free association of workers. This system was so new that in England, under the name of Equitable Labour Exchange Bazaars or Offices, [1] it had already gone bankrupt ten times ten years earlier in ten different towns.

This ponderous, pseudo-learned, bulky work, in which eventually not only all previous economists but all previous socialists too were told the rudest things, made absolutely no impression on the easy-going French. This way of speaking and reasoning was new to them and much less to their taste than the curious paradoxes of Proudhon’s earlier work. Similar paradoxes were not lacking here either, it is true (as when Proudhon declared himself quite seriously a “personal enemy of Jehovah”) , but they were, so to speak, buried under the allegedly dialectical lumber. The French again said: C'est un ouvrage remarquable, and put it aside. In Germany, the work was of course received with great reverence.

Marx at the time issued a pamphlet in reply, which was as witty as it was thorough (Misère de la philosophic. Réponse à la Philosophie de la misère de M. Proudhon. Par Karl Marx, Bruxelles et Paris, 1847), and which in thought and language is a thousand times more French than Proudhon’s pretentious monstrosity.

As to the real content of Proudhon’s two works in criticism of the existing social relationships, one can, after reading them both, say with a clear conscience that it amounts to zero.

As to his proposals for social reforms, they have, as already mentioned, the advantage of having been brilliantly proved in England a long time ago by multiple bankruptcy.

That was Proudhon before the revolution. While he was still engaged in efforts to bring out a daily newspaper, Le Représentant du Peuple, without capital but by means of a calculation unequalled ill its contempt for the rule of three, the Paris workers be-stirred themselves, chased out Louis Philippe and founded the Republic.

Proudhon first became a “citizen” by virtue of the Republic; afterwards by virtue of the Paris workers’ vote, given on the strength of his honest socialist name, he became a representative of the people.

So the revolution flung Citizen Proudhon out of theory into practice, out of his sulking corner into the forum. How did this obstinate, high-handed, self-taught man, who treats all previous authorities — jurists, scholars, economists and socialists — with equal contempt, who declares all previous history to be drivel and introduced himself, so to speak, as the new Messiah; how did he behave now that he himself was to help make history?

We must say to his credit that he began by taking his seat on the extreme Left, among the same socialists, and voting with the same socialists whom he so deeply despised and had so vehemently attacked as ignorant, arrogant dolts.

It is put about, of course, that in the party meetings of the Mountain he renewed his old violent attacks on his former opponents with fresh vehemence, that he declared them one and all to be ignoramuses and phrase-mongers who did not understand the ABC of what they were talking about.

We readily believe it. We even readily believe that the economic paradoxes which Proudhon uttered with all the dry passion and confidence of a doctrinaire caused no small embarrassment to Messieurs les Montagnards. Very few among them are theoreticians of economics and they rely more or less on little Louis Blanc; and little Louis Blanc, though a much more significant brain than the infallible Proudhon, is all the same too intuitive a nature to be able to cope with his learned economic pretensions, odd transcendence and seemingly mathematical logic. Moreover, Louis Blanc soon had to flee, and his flock, helpless in the field of economics, remained unprotected, exposed to the merciless claws of the wolf Proudhon.

We need hardly repeat that in spite of all these triumphs Proudhon is still an extremely weak economist. Only his weakness does not happen to lie within the grasp of the mass of French socialists.

Proudhon won the greatest triumph of his life on the rostrum of the National Assembly. On one occasion, I do not remember which, he took the floor and angered the bourgeois of the Assembly for an hour and a half with an endless string of truly Proudhonist paradoxes, each crazier than the other, but all calculated to shock the listeners most rudely in their dearest and most sacred feelings. And all this was delivered with his dry academic indifference, in a toneless, academic Franche-Comté dialect, in the driest, most imperturbable style in the world — the effect, the St. Vitus’s dance of the enraged bourgeois, was not at all bad.[2]

But this was the highlight of Proudhon’s public activity. In the meantime he continued to belabour the workers, both through the Représentant du Peuple — which, after bitter experiences with the rule of three, had gradually materialised and soon was transformed into the Peuple pure and simple — as well as in the clubs, in favour of his theory of happiness for all. He was not without success. On ne le comprend pas, the workers said, mais c'est un homme remarquable [you can’t understand him, but he is a remarkable man].

  1. Equitable Labour Exchange Bazaars or Offices (the name is given in English in the German original) were founded by the workers’ co-operative societies in various towns of England in 1832. This movement was headed by Robert Owen, who founded such a bazaar in London. The products of labour at these bazaars were exchanged for a kind of paper “money” issued as labour “tickets”, a working hour being the unit. These bazaars were an attempt by the utopians to organise exchange without money in the conditions of capitalist commodity production and soon proved to be a failure
  2. Concerning this speech of Proudhon’s in the French National (Constituent) Assembly on July 31, 1848, see the article “Proudhon’s Speech against Thiers” published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.