Nicola Chiaromonte – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
The Anarchist Library
Title: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Subtitle: an uncomfortable thinker
Notes: Published in Politics, January 1946
Source: Retrieved August 24, 2022 from https://libcom.org
Said Fouché: “Give me a scrap of paper with a man’s signature, and I will have him executed”. This may be a basic principle of State Police procedure, but in intellectual affairs it is simply no good.
By quotations carefully extracted from their context, Mr. Schapiro [J. Salwyn Schapiro, “P. J. Proudhon, Harbinger of Fascism”, The American Historical Review, July 1945] attempts to prove that Proudhon was: 1) “a harbinger of Fascist ideas… (who) sounded the Fascist note of a revolutionary repudiation of democracy and socialism… the intellectual spokesman of the French middle- class” ; 2) a supporter of dictatorship in general, and of Louis Napoleon in particular; 3) an antisemite; 4) an enemy of the American Negroes; 5) an advocate of war; 6) an enemy of the Common Man; 7) an antifeminist.
The first charge is proved by Mr. Schapiro in the following way: Proudhon was a petty-bourgeois and a harbinger of Fascism because he did not believe in the Marxist notion of “class struggle”, or in that of a violent revolution crowned by the victory of the proletariat, while he saw that in modern times a violent revolution could only mean dictatorship and the triumph of some kind of middle class. But Marx and the socialists, adds Mr. Schapiro, were wrong anyway, insofar as they did not fully understand the nature and the historical role of the middle class, while Proudhon’s “inharmonious” insights have been borne out by contemporary events.
From all this, one thing is strikingly evident, namely that while Mr. Schapiro does not himself believe in the validity of Marxist notions, he uses them to define Proudhon and to show that he was, if not so wrong after all, then bad. This gives his argument a peculiar twist. Because from a marxist point of view it may be correct to say that Proudhon was a petty bourgeois, a traitor and a Fascist, since he did not believe in class warfare, in the dictatorship of the proletariat, and such things. But if one thinks that marxist notions are wrong anyway (and on such a fundamental point as the historical role of the various classes), then we are entitled to ask that he judge Proudhon on some other clearly defined grounds, and on the basis of what Proudhon actually meant.
It is my contention that Proudhon’s arguments (bad or good, that’s another story) are stated with perfect clarity in his work for anybody who is willing to make the necessary effort to understand them. If I had to restate them in a few words, I would say that Proudhon’s fundamental concern was to discover in the actual workings of human society a truth that would not be a “class” truth, so that the triumph of social justice would be a triumph of Reason, not of violence, a creation of society itself, not in any way an imposition from above, whatever name the “above” might have— God, State coercion or Class Dictatorship. This truth he called Justice, and he meant both the “idea” and the concrete reality of Justice present, in a positive or in a negative way, in every social situation. This idea inspires his whole work, and Proudhon gave it an unsystematic but very impressive treatment in the two thousand pages of De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l’Eglise. These two thousand pages are completely neglected by Mr. Schapiro, who on the other hand makes an abundant use of excerpts from Proudhon’s correspondence treating them as if they were meant to be theoretical formulas, and not personal opinions personally and privately expressed.
From Mr. Schapiro’s essay, furthermore, one would learn that Proudhon was an anarchist, but nothing at all about the substance and essential meaning of Proudhon’s relentless fight against what he called le principe gouvernemental. It becomes then far too easy for Mr. Schapiro to hang Proudhon in effigy for being a supporter of dictatorship on the basis of his attitude toward Louis Napoleon. That such an accusation could be uttered at all is so preposterous that it would be unbelievable if we did not have so many examples today of how completely intellectual prejudice (and the obdurate will to talk formulas instead of sense) can twist the judgement of respectable people.
To understand Proudhon’s attitude toward Louis Napoleon nothing is needed but to read what he wrote on the subject keeping in mind what really happened in that tragic year, 1848. There was, among other things, the rage, the despair, the utter contempt for socialist and democratic politicians, in a man who, as early as 1840, had seen defeat, dictatorship, and also war, coming because of the immense stupidity of demagogues who (drunk with visions of 1793 and barricades) were ready to send the workers to be slaughtered for the sake of empty phrases and petty ministerial changes. Which was what they did in June, 1848.
Not to speak of the fact that the famous pamphlet La Révolution démontrée par le Coup d’Etat was so much of a bonapartist pamphlet that its author was forbidden to publish anything on political matters after that; and not to mention the other well-known fact that Proudhon was in jail for three years and in exile for seven years because of his strenuous fight against bonapartism, I would maintain that his attitude toward Louis Napoleon was fundamentally clear, and also intelligent and very honest. He saw with perfect lucidity (as Mr. Schapiro himself grants) that the combination of a government machine of which only the authoritarians understood the nature, and of a mass of people left in a state of chaotic disillusionment and bewilderment, would unavoidably spell dictatorship, Empire, and eventually war. For Proudhon, it was by no means a question of middle class against proletariat. In fact, he stressed over and over again how the inertia (or “passive support” ) of the disgusted workers had been an essential factor in the success of the Coup d’Etat, while the “liberal” middle class disliked intensely the idea of losing the political franchises which they themselves, through the hands of their sons and husbands and fathers, had helped to destroy in the persons of the Parisian workers. Moreover, what Proudhon meant when he said that Louis Napoleon could be “the Revolution or nothing” was not to express faith in a man whom he had opposed with all his strength and for whom he had no respect whatsoever, but rather to proclaim his conviction that, Napoleon or no Napoleon, the Revolution could not be stopped, and that the ridiculous Cesar had no choice but to go willingly in its direction or to be dragged along by historical necessity.