The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century is one of the classics of anarchist literature.
It contains a critique of existing society and its institutions, a vision of a free society based on equality and justice, and a detailed strategy for revolutionary change. Despite its ambivalent position regarding government initiated reforms, it set the tone for subsequent anarchist propaganda as anarchism began to emerge as a significant force on the revolutionary left.
His parents were poor and republican, but due to the determination of his mother and a modest bursary he was able to attend school for a time, where he regularly won the class prize despite being too poor to afford his own books. Eventually he was forced to quit school in order to support himself and his family.
He became a printer.
Religious tracts formed the bulk of the material he worked with, and they had the unintended effect of eroding his religious belief. But it was his next work that was to gain for him lasting notoriety and a reputation as one of the leading socialist theorists of his day. An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government was a forceful critique of private property and government.
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Had Proudhon limited himself to a critique of private property he would have secured for himself a lasting reputation. But he went further. Besides declaring that property is theft, he proclaimed himself an anarchist. Proudhon was the first person to adopt the label with enthusiasm.
Despite these apparently radical pronouncements against property and government, Proudhon rejected neither property nor government completely. What Proudhon really objected to with respect to private property was the earning of income from the labour of others through such means as rent, interest and wage labour. After paying employees their wages, the capitalist retains the remaining profit without contributing any productive labour himself. Associated together, the workers create a productive capacity greater than the sum of their individual powers, but it is the capitalist who reaps the benefit.
The workers acquiesce in their own exploitation because their only alternatives are starvation and misery.
GENERAL IDEA of the REVOLUTION in the NINETEENTH CENTURY — Proudhon
To this basic scheme he was later to add proposals for free credit and a system of mutual guarantees of service and markets, for example. Proudhon himself moved away from his early espousal of scientific socialism. As we shall see, in place of a scientific academy regulating society, he came to adopt voluntary contract as the primary means of economic and political coordination.
Proudhon saw individual contracts, freely entered into between parties of roughly equal bargaining power, as the surest safeguard of liberty. But What Is Property? At this time Proudhon lacked any real strategy for revolutionary change. He looked to the government to enact measures which would render property powerless, but believed that once this was achieved government itself would become unnecessary.
He rather naively believed that the state could be used as a means to its own end, a view still present in General Idea of the Revolution.
The book was not well received. Max Stirner, who was soon to publish his classic work of anarchist individualism and nihilistic egoism, Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum The Ego and its Own , objected to its moralism. He spent much of his time during that decade in Paris, where he met a number of prominent revolutionaries, including Marx and Bakunin. Marx later claimed the dubious distinction of having infected Proudhon with Hegelianism. While working in Lyon he became acquainted with a group of revolutionary workers who called themselves the Mutualists.
The Lyon workers emphasized the need for the workers themselves to take control of their destiny by associating together into a network of cooperative organizations.
These ideas must have struck a responsive chord in Proudhon. Although he had advocated the association of labour since the early s, it was only after his contacts with the Lyon workers that he sketched out a plan in any detail. Each association would be controlled by a council elected by its members. The association would provide sickness and pension benefits to its members, who would share in the profits of the association in proportion to their labour.
Each worker would receive a polytechnic education, and jobs would be rotated to avoid a stupefying division of labour. Economic transactions between associations and individuals would be based on the principle of equivalent exchange. Similar proposals are contained in the General Idea of the Revolution.
The Workers, organized among themselves, without the assistance of the capitalist, and marching by Work to the conquest of the world, will at no time need a brusque uprising, but will become all, by invading all, through the force of principle.
Proudhon believed that the associations would emerge victorious because they were both morally and economically superior to capitalist enterprises. He argued that the existing economic system inevitably produces exploitation and misery due to its own internal contradictions.
Such contradictions cannot be resolved by mere piecemeal reform, but only through the creation of a higher synthesis — mutualism. It is in General Idea of the Revolution that Proudhon presents his most detailed picture of this mutualist alternative.
Proudhon intended to reply, but was soon occupied with more important things — the Revolution in France. A provisional government was formed which declared itself in favour of the Republic. Shortly thereafter it proclaimed universal male suffrage. Immediately following the overthrow of the monarchist regime, a group of armed workers approached Proudhon to resume an earlier project to publish a socialist newspaper.
What should he be? His first major response to the February Revolution was a series of articles later published as The Solution of the Social Problem. Proudhon defended his idea of spontaneous order arising through free interaction. Proudhon feared that universal suffrage, without far-reaching social reforms, would merely serve as a device for legitimizing the status quo.
He ridiculed the claims of proponents of representative democracy that an assembly of elected representatives could fairly represent the widely diverging and often conflicting interests of the people as a whole. He thought it self-evidently absurd that questions of right could be decided by a majority vote.
In place of representative democracy, Proudhon advocated a form of direct democracy organized around his proposed Bank of Exchange.
The Bank was to issue exchange notes to its members representing the value of the goods produced by them. By limiting its function to ensuring equivalent exchange, the Bank would merely facilitate the pursuit of individual ends, instead of imposing a particular ideological vision in the name of the people.
It would create the context for the free interplay of economic forces without the poverty and exploitation that characterize laissez-faire capitalism, or so Proudhon believed.
In his proposals for a Bank of Exchange, Proudhon was attempting to elaborate the institutional structure of a free and egalitarian society, a project which he continued in General Idea of the Revolution. In the same month he stood as a candidate in the elections for the Constituent Assembly, after having denounced representative democracy only a few weeks earlier.
He took his defeat, and the poor showing of the other socialist candidates, as further evidence of the counter-revolutionary nature of universal suffrage.
Undeterred by this initial failure, Proudhon ran in the complementary elections held at the beginning of June. This time he was successful, and as Robert L. In his electoral programme, Proudhon expanded his organizational scheme for the Bank of Exchange into a functional theory of government.
Proudhon continued to advocate that the Bank of France be transformed into a Bank of Exchange. He proposed various reforms of the legal system but was in favour of retaining the death penalty.
In place of conscription he suggested one or two years of militia service for each citizen. He championed the patriarchal family and disapproved of divorce. He again distinguished between property and possession; he wanted all property other than personal possessions and instruments of work to be redistributed on an egalitarian basis. As this brief summary demonstrates, Proudhon was elected on the basis of a democratic and socialist political platform which contained both radical and conservative elements — radical on economic and political issues even if it was not an anarchist programme , conservative on broader social issues the family.
It was a programme which could not but appeal to radical working men disenchanted with the policies of the Republican government. That disenchantment was about to explode into bloody insurrection.
Although Proudhon had been very critical of the workshops, which he regarded as a kind of welfare state-socialism, he opposed their abolition in the absence of alternative measures for the workers dependent on them. The workers themselves responded to the abolition by rising up against the government.
Barricades were erected in the working-class areas of Paris where armed workers battled troops loyal to the government. Over 1, people were killed, and thousands more imprisoned. Proudhon was caught unawares by the uprising, isolated as a representative of the people in the National Assembly. At first he thought it was some kind of provocation, but after visiting the strife-torn areas of Paris he became convinced that the workers had been inspired by broader social ideals.
He condemned the government for the savagery of its repression, which resulted from its own fear of the people. He publicly identified himself with the workers and blamed the Assembly for inciting the rebellion through its own ill-will and indifference.
He published a manifesto demanding immediate economic relief for the working class and appealed directly to the National Guard for support. As a result, his paper was temporarily suppressed.
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He put his economic proposals before the National Assembly, which passed a special motion of censure condemning both Proudhon and his proposals. During the debate Proudhon was accused of fomenting social warfare. He was supported by only one representative, a socialist worker from Lyon.
The General Idea of Proudhon’s Revolution
It was an act of true courage. Proudhon voted against the new constitution approved by the Assembly in November , not only on the anarchist ground that it was a constitution, but also because it gave far too much power to the president. Proudhon believed that with such sweeping powers the presidency would become nothing more than a democratically elected form of personal dictatorship.
Subsequent events were to prove him right. His actions were approved by an overwhelming majority in a national referendum. At the time Proudhon was in prison for having attacked Bonaparte as the personification of reaction.
In the face of an all but triumphant reaction, Proudhon had increasingly come to moderate his political stance. He came to the support of the constitution he had earlier voted against, seeing it as one of the last safeguards against dictatorship. He favoured parliamentarianism over direct action, opposing insurrection as inconsistent with support for the constitution. He forged an electoral alliance with other members of the left and preached reconciliation of classes.
He made compromise after compromise, all to no avail as the juggernaut of reaction proceeded to crush any gains made by the workers in the February Revolution. Unable to obtain the sponsorship of the government, Proudhon sought the necessary funds through voluntary subscription, a method which at least had the advantage of being more consistent with his self-avowed anarchism.
Seriously under capitalized, the Bank was liquidated by Proudhon after his conviction for sedition in March , ostensibly to prevent it from falling into the hands of the authorities. Proudhon began serving his three-year prison sentence in June , after having been betrayed to the police by an informer.