The poverty of Proudhon’s anarchism

May 9, 2013

The title of the book may have been undiplomatic, but Marx was able to offer a clear contrast of his political strategy with that of Joseph Pierre Proudhon.

"So when Proudhon wrote his book The Philosophy of Poverty. I responded with The Poverty of Philosophy. I thought that was clever. Jenny thought it was insulting. Maybe she was right."
-- Marx in Soho, by Howard Zinn

AFTER THE German Ideology, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels turned their backs on philosophers and threw themselves into political organizing in the spring of 1846.

Marx had been kicked out of Paris the previous year, settling in Brussels with his family, soon to be joined by Engels. They hatched plans to start a Communist Correspondence Committee, aimed at establishing ties between radicals among English Chartists, German exiles and Parisian workers. Their timing was superb, as Europe experienced a rising tide of social conflict beginning in 1846.

Late in 1845, Engels reported on a 1,000-strong workers' meeting billed as "The Festival of Nations" in London. Representing the left wing of the Chartist working-class reform movement, George Julian Harney proclaims "that the principles of equality will have a glorious resurrection, I cannot doubt; indeed, the resurrection they have already had, [is] not merely in the shape of Republicanism, but Communism..." (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1975, p. 11)

Columnist: Todd Chretien

Todd Chretien is a long-time Bay Area activist. He contributes frequently to the International Socialist Review and to Socialist Worker on the topics of U.S. and Latin American politics and the ideas of the Marxist tradition.

Engels interpreted these speeches as signs that working-class demands for economic reforms and electoral democracy (the poor were not allowed to vote in any European country) were developing quickly into communist consciousness. As he writes:

No special arrangement had been made to attract a particular kind of audience; there was nothing to indicate that anything would be expressed other than what the London Chartists understood by democracy. We can therefore certainly assume that the majority of the meeting represented the mass of London Chartist proletarians fairly well. And this meeting accepted communist principles, the word communism itself, with unanimous enthusiasm... Am I right when I say that democracy nowadays is communism? (CW, Vol. 6, p. 14)

Engels certainly was justified in pointing to the potential for international solidarity on display at this meeting. However, his assertion that "no special arrangements" had been made is more than a little disingenuous as both he and Marx had been intimately involved with its planning. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable fact that 1,000 workers cheered avowedly revolutionary and communist speeches in the heart of global capital.

How are we to assess Engels' claim that "democracy nowadays is communism?" On the one hand, I think this can safely be understood as the over-exuberance of a 25-year-old revolutionary. Anyone who has ever overestimated the number of people they expected to turn out to a protest or march can relate.

On the other hand, Marx and Engels, to put it bluntly, telescoped the process by which the complexities of nationalism, the division between skilled and unskilled, and other social realities would have to be taken up and challenged. The two tended to draw a straight line between almost any sort of working-class protest and communism. If this optimism was naïve and typical of freshly minted revolutionaries, Marx and Engels soon confronted a battleground littered with older and more popular radical ideas. They faced the question of winning a hearing.

Engels Organizing in Paris

Back in 1844, Marx and Engels had hoped to build an alliance with popular French anarchist Joseph Pierre Proudhon and had defended some of his economic ideas in their book The Holy Family.

However, it soon became clear that sharp differences existed. In the summer of 1846, Engels went in person to Paris to win German-speaking immigrants away from Proudhon's version of anarchism as he had spelled out in his best-known work, The Philosophy of Poverty. For his part, Marx believed Proudhon's ideas were such an obstacle to the communist cause that he responded with a short book, in French, titled The Poverty of Philosophy.

If Engels made progress in winning over a handful of German activists to his basic views of class struggle and the need for the abolition of private property and a "democratic revolution by force," he did so in his own words only by "dint of a little patience and some terrorism" in competition with Proudhon's advocates. In truth, Marx and Engels' influence among the radical French workers was nearly nonexistent. (CW, Vol. 38, pp. 80-82)

Why was Proudhon so popular?

First, the ugly. Proudhon openly supported patriarchal family forms and held stridently anti-Semitic views, writing, for example, "The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated. By steel or by fire or by expulsion the Jew must disappear."

These certainly are despicable views, but they are not what made Proudhon popular, nor are they the views he most openly popularized. Instead, he became known as a critic of private property and an advocate of workers cooperatives and credit unions. He championed the ideal of independent journeymen (of whom there were still many in France), working for themselves and receiving the full value of their products, freed from parasitic middlemen.

Proudhon hoped these reforms and institutions could grow up within capitalism and eventually replace it by a sort of decentralized reform process. If you have come across the concept of "changing the world without taking power," popularized by the authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, aspects of Proudhon's thinking will sound familiar to you.

Marx, of course, disagreed sharply with these notions and proceeded to dismantle them on three fronts: economic analysis, theoretical methodology and political practice. If the book was not a large commercial success, it did help Engels win some sympathy among immigrant German workers in Paris and, crucially, a layer of French worker activists and intellectuals grouped around La Reforme newspaper.

Proudhon's Economics

We saw in The German Ideology how Marx was at great pains to describe the history of economic development in the increasingly complex division of labor that eventually gave rise to industrial capitalism. Marx begins his critique by arguing that Proudhon gives no sense of how labor and technology change over time, castigating him for the faulty view that:

each day's labor is worth as much as another day's labor; that is to say, if the quantities are equal, one man's labor is worth as much as another man's labor: there is no qualitative difference. With the same quantity of labor, one man's product can be given in exchange for another man's product. All men are wage workers getting equal pay for equal labor time. Perfect equality rules exchanges. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 124)

On the face of it, Proudhon's analysis seems to point toward a sort of natural equality existing between all workers. There is a way in which this may be a valid moral statement, but Marx points out that it is simply not true under capitalist production in an economic sense. Instead, Marx points out:

It is important to emphasize the point that what determines value is not the time taken to produce a thing, but the minimum time it could possibly be produced in, and this minimum is ascertained by competition. Suppose for a moment that there is no more competition and consequently no longer any means to ascertain the minimum of labor necessary for the production of a commodity; what will happen? It will suffice to spend six hours work on the production of an object, in order to have the right, according to M. Proudhon, to demand in exchange six times as much as he who has taken only one hour to produce the same object. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 136)

In other words, if I take a whole six-hour day to make one shirt, sewing it by hand, while you, using a sewing machine, can make six very similar shirts in that same time, when we go to market, no one in their right mind would pay me six times as much for my shirt as they will pay you for yours. That is, the conditions of production and how they change by time and place are governed by competition and technology, making labor unequal at an individual level.

Since Proudhon does not see this, he believes that an egalitarian society can be built upon the premise of equal exchanges between independent producers: whatever I make in six hours I can exchange with you for whatever you make in six hours. This would lead to intractable problems if it were ever tried in practice (in fact, it would only be a new form of inequality).

Instead, Marx proposes to look at the question from a social, instead of individual, point of view:

In large-scale industry, Peter is not free to fix for himself the time of his labor, for Peter's labor is nothing without the cooperation of all the Peters and all the Pauls who make up the workshop...What is today the result of capital and the competition of workers among themselves will be tomorrow, if you sever the relation between labor and capital [that is, if you abolish bourgeois class rule], an actual agreement based upon the relation between the sum of productive forces and the sum of existing needs. (CW, Vol. 6, p. 143, my emphasis)

Here, Marx is arguing that Proudhon's focus on equal exchange between independent producers is a utopia, and that a socialist economy could only operate on the basis of the sum total of production--and, by implication, a democratic discussion, an agreement, among all workers, no matter their particular insertion into the division of labor, as to how to direct the total social product. This is the only way that workers in vastly different jobs (teachers, custodians, factory workers, truckers, nurses, etc.) could begin to democratically plan an economy.

It is worth pointing out that Marx is still trying to figure out for himself exactly how capitalism extracts surplus value and, consequently, profits from the labor process. At this point, he does not have anything like the fully developed concepts he will use in his later economic writings and is still primarily concerned with pointing out the shortcomings of other theorists.

Repeating Hegel's Mistakes

Marx argues that Proudhon adopted some of the worst habits in the Hegelian tradition. Insofar as this is a critique of the specifics of Proudhon's analysis, I don't think this is exactly an enduring point. However, as Marx here lays out one of his clearest critiques of Hegel's method, it's worth a brief look.

Marx explains that the basic logical pattern of Hegel's method can be described as a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis--or affirmation, negation and negation of the negation. The strength of this method is to emphasize transformation and conflict in place of static and unchanging structures. Yet in order to set up these transformations, Hegel creates abstract categories which describe a thing or a society's essence, divorced from its concrete existence--a very old philosophical trick going all the way back to Plato. As Marx writes:

Just as by dint of abstraction, we have transformed everything into a logical category, so one has only to make an abstraction of every characteristic distinctive of different movements to attain movement in its abstract condition--purely formal movement, the purely logical formula of a movement. If one finds in logical categories the substance of all things, one imagines one has found in the logical formula of movement the absolute method, which not only explains all things, but also implies the movement of things. It is of this absolute method that Hegel speaks in these terms: "method is the absolute, unique, supreme, infinite force, which no object can resist; it is the tendency of reason to find itself again, to recognize itself in every object." (CW, Vol. 6, pp. 163-164, my italics)

You will remember Absolute Spirit from previous columns about Hegel. Here, Marx substitutes "reason" for the spirit force that makes everything go. Marx says that this is what Proudhon does with his economic analysis (Proudhon replaces Absolute Spirit with a tendency toward equality), and this danger is latent in any attempt to employ a dialectical method which does not pay sufficient attention to concrete reality.

That is, Hegel says that his own logic--how he thinks about things and the abstract categories he uses to help him think--is itself an "infinite force," which moves history; "no object can resist" it. Marx describes the implications for Proudhon following Hegel in this error, writing:

M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by man as linen, flax, etc.

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand mill gives you society with the feudal Lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist. The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with their material productivity, produce also principles, ideas and categories, in conformity with their social relations but these ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products. (CW, Vol. 6, pp. 165-166)

In other words, if Hegel reduces history to a set of abstract categories moved along by Spirit, Proudhon does the same with economic categories and then animates them with his notion of the tendency toward equality. Neither Hegel nor Proudhon pay close enough attention to the nitty-gritty content of those categories. Rather than using those categories to help organize concrete evidence and material in order to analyze it, they mistake the categories for the concrete reality.

Worse, according to Marx, rather than recognizing the transitory nature of economic categories and the ideas that grow up within them, Proudhon wants to freeze these developments at a certain stage--skilled production in small-scale workshops--rather than grasping the potential liberatory aspects of large-scale industrial cooperation and proletarian revolution.

Remember from The German Ideology Marx's emphasis on the necessity of having first achieved a sufficient level of productivity and technology before socialism is possible. Proudhon's desire to return to, or stop at, the stage of small-scale production is still very common today. I am all for shopping at your local farmers' market, but Marx would argue that this doesn't really address the problem of global capitalism.

Proudhon Against Strikes

All of this sets up Marx's central attack on Proudhon. Surprisingly for an anarchist, Proudhon believed that workers' strikes were futile and even counterproductive, writing that "it is impossible, I declare, for strikes followed by an increase in wages not to culminate in a general rise in prices: this is as certain as two and two make four."

This position flows from his belief that all products ought to exchange equally because they are created by labor that supposedly imparts equal value to them. Thus, one group of workers attaining a raise in their pay could only come at the expense of another group of workers by means of inflation.

Marx will have none of this. "We deny all these assertions, except that two and two make four." If Proudhon primarily saw exchange as taking place between independent small producers (not large corporations) with the main enemy being "middlemen," Marx emphasizes the divide between capitalists and workers: "The rise and fall of profits and wages express merely the proportion in which capitalists and workers share in the product of a day's work, without influencing in most instances the price of the product." (CW Vol 6, pp. 206-207)

Marx then reviews the history of strikes and union organization in England, noting that mainstream economists oppose union organization because it hinders profits. Surprisingly, this opinion was shared by many utopian socialists who, says Marx, "want the workers to leave the old society alone, the better to be able to enter the new society they have prepared for them with so much foresight."

By contrast, Marx argues that not only are strikes and union organization a positive development because in the struggle for "the maintenance of wages, this common interest which [workers] have against their boss unites them in a common thought of resistance," and "in this struggle--a veritable civil war--all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character." (CW, Vol. 6, pp. 210-211)

Jenny Marx may have been right that the title of Marx's book was insulting, but it at least offers a clear counter-position of Marx's political strategy versus that of Proudhon.

If Proudhon centered his hopes for social transformation on a relatively homogenous layer of independent producers who could peacefully create cooperatives and credit unions as an alternative to capitalism, Marx looked to struggles of the great mass of workers against their bosses.

There could be no individual or partial solution to exploitation under capitalism. The working class itself must develop revolutionary consciousness and overturn the totality of capitalist social relations, thereby appropriating the means of production collectively as a class, or capitalism will make a mockery of any partial attempts to reform it.

For the moment, The Poverty of Philosophy faced a generally skeptical audience and won only a small handful of followers for Marx and Engels. But it was a start.

Next time, I will examine Marx and Engels' attitude to a very popular version of radicalism in Germany called True Socialism in a short essay of about 15 pages called "The Circular Against Kriege."

Further Reading

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