Pierre Ansart – Proudhon throughout History
The Anarchist Library
Title: Proudhon throughout History
Notes: Translated from the French by Shaun Murdock.
Source: Retrieved on 21st April 2022 from www.persee.fr
Proudhon remains a strangely irritating author, as if his work were still somehow present and threatening. Before the collapse of the communist regimes, the various resurgences of Proudhonism at different times in this long history have given rise to nostalgia as much as intellectual and political rediscoveries, while official communist ideology interpreted this phenomenon more darkly. At the present time, research is being carried out that explores Proudhon’s idea that the free play of economic forces and social contradictions is not a viable long-term response and will only satisfy the governing and possessing classes.
The history of Proudhonism is oddly marked by approvals and condemnations, enthusiastic readings and indignant refutations. While so many nineteenth-century political thinkers are referenced by scholars without arousing particular passions, Proudhon remains a strangely irritating author, as if his work were still somehow present and threatening. While historians and scholars carefully try to assess his place in history, his name continues to elicit strong emotional reactions, both positive and negative. And even in scholarly research, we cannot fail to notice approving and disapproving attitudes, as if he still needed to be defended or attacked. Before the collapse of the communist regimes, the various resurgences of Proudhonism at different times in this long history have given rise to nostalgia as much as intellectual and political rediscoveries, while official communist ideology interpreted this phenomenon more darkly. How can we explain the particularly emotional character of this history of Proudhonism and what does this signify?
This intensity of emotion towards Proudhon’s theories is not recent, and we may say that it was expressed throughout the writer’s life. As early as 1840, the First Memoir on property was received with keen interest among the working classes where his opening phrase (“Property is theft”) quickly became a familiar slogan. But it also provoked anger from the members of the Suard Academy, and then, when his Second Memoir was published, concern from the justice system. The System of Economic Contradictions attracted admiring and approving readers but sparked the wrath of Marx. In 1848, Proudhon was regarded as a prominent defender of the popular classes, and the results of his election to the National Assembly in June show that he was not trusted only among the artisans. But the events of June that shattered popular hopes also harmed trust in the people’s spokesman, and in 1850 the moderates, who had once participated in the February Revolution, turned against Proudhon whom they saw as a disturbing annoyance. After having been followed and discussed, he quickly became known as “l’homme-terreur”. The story of enthusiasm and anger does not end there: Proudhon, welcomed without hesitation by the citizens of Brussels in 1858, had to flee the city four years later following a violent protest against him. In 1861, his book War and Peace provoked indignation and, furthermore, a complete misunderstanding. The following year, his opposition to Italian unity attracted very little approval and almost universal animosity.
Marx’s subsequent attitude exemplifies the fury of these reactions, although it may be interpreted in different ways. We know that Marx initially expressed extreme admiration for the First Memoir, and that he regarded Proudhon as an authentic representative of the revolutionary movement, before pillorying him and giving him the infamous epithet “petty bourgeois”. But the story of these contradictory emotions did not end in 1847: the fervent admiration expressed in The Civil War in France is also a tribute to Proudhon, since in it Marx praises precisely the communalism and federalism that Proudhon had systematically theorised nearly a decade earlier.
Among these impassioned returns to Proudhonism, we must also include the dramatic period of the Paris Commune. Whereas the twenty years of the Second Empire gave no indication that a federalist movement was possible, the insurrection of March 1871 was driven by popular enthusiasm, where a historic return to Proudhon’s federalist hopes and his pluralistic conception of a new social order could clearly be discerned.
After 1880, two great impassioned returns to Proudhon could be contrasted: one positive, that of anarcho-syndicalism; the other negative, that of communist ideology which would make Proudhonism the symbol of evil. Of course, anarcho-syndicalism’s return to Proudhon is based on political explanations and supporting arguments, but it also charged with feeling and emotion. Georges Sorel, Gaétan Pirou, Célestin Bouglé, Georges Dolléans and others treat the rediscovery of Proudhonism as a “resurrection” and as the revival of someone once forgotten. A revival not made without horrified cries, as Eduard Bernstein testified in 1900 in the French edition of his work Evolutionary Socialism in which he writes in the preface: “Hence that horrified exclamation by a few Marxists to me. He is resurrecting Proudhon!”