Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The father of anarchism

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, considered by some to be the father of anarchism, was born 210 years ago today. He came from humble, rural origins, was largely self-taught, but nevertheless became one of the ideology’s most influential theorists. Intriguingly, although he kept a diary for the last 20 years of his life, it has never been edited or published, and only a few extracts are available in English - thanks to a biography by the Canadian writer George Woodcock.

Proudhon was born in Besançon, France, on 15 January 1809, the son of a poor tavern keeper. He lacked any early schooling, and was set to work as a cowherd, and in the tavern. Later, funds were found to send him to Besançon school for a while, when they ran out he was apprenticed to a printer. A thirst for learning, though, led him on to self-study at the local library, not least Latin. He went to work at the Gauthier press, becoming a proofreader. As such, his interest in politics was sparked by meeting the utopian socialist Charles Fourier, also from 
Besançon, whose book was being prepared for publication. Similarly, he also became friends with Gustave Fallot, a scholar from Montebéliard.

In 1830, Proudhon became certified as a journeyman compositor, but work was hard to come by. He spent a while in Paris, at the behest of Fallot, where he mingled with Fallot’s learned friends. When a cholera epidemic hit the capital, he returned to Besançon. After a printing venture failed, he decided to pursue a scholarly career, and subsequently won a bursary from the Academy of Besançon allowing him to return to study in Paris. In 1840, he published his first work Qu’est-ce que la propriété? (What Is Property?). In 1943, he moved to Lyon to work for a water transport company, and there became involved with a secret society of weavers called The Mutualists. He adopted some of their views on how associations of workers could bring about change, and later adopted the term Mutualism for his own form anarchism. In 1846, he published his most important work: Système des contradictions économiques ou philosophie de la misère (The System of Economic Contradictions, or The Philosophy of Poverty), in which he opposed some of the ideas of Karl Marx.

In early 1848, Proudhon travelled to Paris, where he edited anarchist periodicals and participated in the February uprising. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly of the Second Republic in June that year, but confined himself mainly to opposing the emergence of authoritarian tendencies. He tried to set up a people’s bank, but was imprisoned in 1849 for criticising the president, Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III). The terms of his imprisonment were light, and he still managed to marry, have a first child, continue editing his papers, and even author two more books: Confessions d’un révolutionnaire (1849) and Idée générale de la révolution au XIXe siècle (1851).

Proudhon was released in 1852, but found his professional life hampered by the imperial police. His three volume De la justice dans la Révolution et dans l’église was seized, and he fled to Belgium. He was sentenced to prison in absentia, and remained in exile until 1862. Returning to Paris, he was again gaining influence among Paris craftsmen, and was among the founders of First International (or International Workingmen’s Association) aiming to unite a wide range of left-wing groups. He died in 1865. Wikipedia provides this summary assessment: ‘He was the first person to declare himself an anarchist, using that term and is widely regarded as one of the ideology’s most influential theorists. Proudhon is even considered by many to be the “father of anarchism” ’. Further biographical information is also available at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Anarchy Archives, Encyclopedia of Marxism or Spartacus Educational.

Proudhon was a committed diarist. He left behind 11 manuscript diaries covering the years from 1843 to 1964. They have never been edited or published (apart from a few extracts in the French periodical La Grande Revue in 1908). However, the Canadian writer and ‘anarchist thinker’, George Woodcock, used the diaries extensively in his 1956 work Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: a biography (Black Rose Books). This ran to a second and third edition (1987); the latter is freely available to view at Libcom.org (‘a resource for all people who wish to fight to improve their lives, their communities and their working conditions’ - i.e. anarchist communism).

Woodcock embedded the diary extracts into his prose, and so mostly they are undated. I’ve chosen the following extracts from the biography to provide examples of Proudhon’s diaries (which I’ve italicised).

‘Nothing is known about his first love beyond the references he himself makes, and these are inexplicit. “I know today,” he was to write in his diary for 1846, “what at twenty made my spirit so full, so loving, so enraptured: what made women seem to me so angelic, so divine; what in my dreams of love (wherein faith in God, in the immortal soul, in religious practice, mingled and combined with faith in infinite love) made my religion so precious to me. . . I was Christian because I was in love, in love because I was Christian - I mean religious.” ’

‘A second reason for doubting Marx’s influence lies in the marked difference between the methods advocated by the two men in connection with the idea of association. Proudhon was opposed to political action, and he hoped, unlike Marx, that the desirable changes in society could be brought about without violence. On the first point he remarks categorically in his diary for the spring of 1845: “The social revolution is seriously compromised if it comes through a political revolution.” On the second point he notes: “The workers, once they are organised and marching through work to the conquest of the world, should in no event make an uprising, but become all by invading all through the force of principle.” Again, he remarks: “No hatred, no hatred. Eliminate by principle.” And he adds a hope of being able “to dispossess the proprietors, at their solicitation and without indemnity.” The latter end he expects to achieve by the creation of economic associations for the exchange of products and for co-operative work, and the scene of the struggle he locates, not in the streets or the parliament house, but in the workshop. “The new socialist movement will begin by . . . the war of the workshop.” ’

‘A new interest which his increased prosperity allowed him to follow at this period was the stage, and many of the more interesting entries in the diary he began this year are concerned with the theatre. He regularly attended the Opera and the playhouses, and wrote perceptive and caustic comments on the performances. After hearing Rossini’s William Tell, for instance, he noted with discrimination: “Tragedy, comedy and music have independently reached a high point of perfection, but as they have not arrived there simultaneously, the performance cannot attain completeness.” And towards the great actress Rachel, whom he saw in Phedre, he reacted in shocked hostility. She seemed to him a personification of the romantic excesses which he regarded as the great disintegrating factor in French art and literature. “From the beginning to the end of the tragedy she acted like an old tart in love with a handsome boy, and in the grip of an attack of hysteria ... When Rachel moves you, it is by grating on your nerves, not by touching your feelings.” ’

‘Yet if he was never led into transports of love, there are enough indications to suggest that he was a more hopeful and a happier man for having met Euphrasie. A passage in his diary for July, 1847, indicates this in an oblique way. “A man marries a woman ten or twelve years younger than himself, in order that his youth may be prolonged all life long ... Up to 15 or 16 years, he has his father, mother and teacher, from 16 to 30 he is young, from 30 to 40 he is young again through his wife, after 40 he is so through his children. Thus youth exists always for man; it is a miracle of love and sympathy.” Euphrasie was fourteen years younger than Proudhon, and he was clearly hopeful of a renewal of mental vigour from his relationship with her.’

‘On the 23rd June he entered in his diary: “The Terror reigns in the capital, not a Terror like that of ’93, but the Terror of the civil and social war . . . What is happening here is what has always been seen: each new idea has its baptism; the first to propagate it - misunderstood and impatient, get themselves killed for too much philosophic independence.” ’

‘A much more disconcerting visitor was George Sand, who, in February, 1852, embarrassed Proudhon by calling on him and Marc Dufraisse. He was surprised to realise that this detested personification of feminist romanticism was not lacking in good qualities, and there is a certain compassion in the way he described her in his diary: “A long, cold, tired face; a woman of great good sense, great good heart and little passion, her speech curt, clear, positive and simple. G. Sand has burnt the candle at both ends, rather, I believe, from fancy than from sensuality or passion. . . . She is too mannish, too poised, too sedate. . . . Nothing in her, nothing, nothing of the feminine!” Yet these impressions seem to have been too fleeting to soften Proudhon’s hostile estimate of George Sand’s performance and influence, and in De la Justice a few years later he was to judge her work with extreme harshness.’

These entries - here as found in Woodcock’s biography - were all written in 1851.
‘3rd December. “Never has such an assault been committed on the good faith of a nation. . . . The insult is too sharp, the nation is lost if it gives in!
4th December. “I rise at 5.30 in the morning: I have had a feverish and inflammatory sleep, with intolerable beating of the arteries. . . If I were free, I would bury myself under the ruins of the Republic with her faithful citizens, or else I would go to live far from a land unworthy of liberty.”
5th December. “How right I was, in 1843, to cry out against that absurdity of universal suffrage. No, the masses are not and will not for a long time be capable of a good action for themselves.
10th December. “Through the defection of the working class, Paris has lost the battle.
14th December. “She [Mme Suchet confirms the news of the] shooting of citizens taken at the barricades. . . Thus, he is not content to defend himself; he has not even recoiled before massacre, before crime. France is under oppression. The insolence of the conquerors knows no bounds; indignation is growing.
15th December. “A sign of Parisian stupidity. Most people go about repeating, with B’s newspapers, that without the coup d’état, we should have had the revolution, that is to say, pillage, arson, murder, robbery. And they have under their eyes the atrocities, the nameless atrocities of the army!” ’

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